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Shi’ites Festivals in Iran, an Overview
Encyclopedia Iranica

Shiʿite festivals mark important occasions in Shiʿite history as popularly understood, and are reckoned according to the Islamic lunar calendar. The festivals are noted for their often emotional expression of deep affection for the Shiʿite Imams and, occasionally, antipathy toward those understood as their enemies. Birth and death days of the Shiʿite Imams constitute the primary occasions for Shiʿite ritual observances (see ʿAZĀDĀRĪ). Eleven of the twelve Imams of the Twelver Shiʿites were martyred, and the anniversary of their martyrdom receives particular attention in the ritual calendar. Although many Shiʿite festivals mark tragic events in the lives of the Imams and the history of the Shiʿite community, joyous celebrations do also occur, (e.g. Ḡadīr Ḵomm, q.v.), and some somber observances incorporate more conventionally festive elements. Given the profound impact of this religious calendar and its deep moral, social and political effect, the present article can only serve as a brief introductory survey to various festivals and commemorative days as observed in the last few decades, leaving the detailed analysis of their historical and religious constituents to separate articles which describe important aspects of them in some depth. Imams and other holy figures of pivotal importance in the religious calendar are discussed under their individual entries (e.g., ʿALĪ b. ABĪ ṬĀLEB; ḤASAN; ḤOSAYN). The figural events at Karbalā (q.v.) and their dramatic reenactment in the taʿzīa processions in ʿĀšūrāʾ (q.v.) and a host of cultural and religious technical terms associated with them (e.g., ARBAʿĪN, DASTA, ḤOSAYNĪYA, RAWŻA-KᵛĀNĪ) are described in separate articles which examine their historical evolution in some detail. The entries on such pioneers of research on the taʿzīa as Aleksander Borejko Ćhodzko, Enrico Cerulli, and Sir Lewis Pelly also provide valuable bibliographic information on the history of scholarship on taʿzīa and related topics.

Although all Imams are revered, some figure more prominently than others in Shiʿite hagiography. The anniversary of the death and birth of all Imams are recorded on official calendars, but public holidays are set aside for events associated with only some. Persian calendars for 1357 Š./1978 and 1376 Š./1997, years before and after the Islamic Revolution, included official holidays commemorating events in the lives of the Prophet, and the first, second, third, sixth, eighth and twelfth Imams.

The Islamic calendar year begins with the month of Moḥarram, the first part of which is also the most important Shiʿite commemorative period: the entrapment of third Imam, Ḥosayn, and his small band of supporters by Omayyad forces on the field of Karbalā; the bloody battle that ensued; the martyrdom of Ḥosayn and most of his male supporters; and the capture and mistreatment of the survivors. Activities recalling these events, especially the martyrdom of Ḥosayn, make up the core of the commemorative calendar of Shiʿite Islam. The emblematic nature of events remembered and recited contribute to a figural view of history in which they foreshadow and, in a sense, explain and justify, the later sufferings inflicted on the community and the sacrifices borne by them, the Iran-Iraq war providing the most recent and poignant example. The sequence of events at Karbalā are recalled vividly in rawżas (q.v.), sermons which culminate in remembrance of the sufferings of Ḥosayn and his companions, and other holy figures, and in taʿzīa performances, dramatic reenactments of the same events (Beeman, pp. 363-370). Mourning activities reach their peak on Tāsūʿā, the ninth of Moḥarram, and ʿĀšūrā, the tenth of the month and anniversary of Ḥosayn’s martyrdom. On Tāsūʿā and ʿĀšūrā rawżas abound, and mourning processions are often held in tribal areas, villages, towns, and cities. Moḥarram observances have long been characteristic of Shiʿite religious expression and described in detail by foreign travelers and diplomats from the Safavid to the Qajar era (Massé I, pp. 130-38; Calmard 1983, pp. 214-22) as well as in Persian memoirs, particularly from the 19th and early 20th centuries (see, e.g., Mostawfī, Šar-e zendegānī, I, pp. 288-310). Religious life, then as now, was rich with rawżas, sofras (q.v., vowed ritual dinners), and visits to tombs of emāmzādas (q.v.; descendants of the Imams). While emāmzādas may be visited and sermons and ritual dinners may be sponsored at any time of year in fulfillment of vows, taʿzīa performances and religious processions are restricted to the ritual mourning season. Cities, towns, and devout individuals go into mourning for the two months of Moḥarram and Ṣafar. Lines from a famous elegy lamenting the events of Karbalā, composed in seven-verse strophes and hence called the haft-band, by the Safavid poet Moḥtašam Kāšānī, printed on long strips of black cloth, drape the streets of modern Persian cities and are emblematic of the continuity of this commemorative tradition (Browne, Lit. Hist. Persia IV, pp. 173-77). The devout also dress in black for the full two months, or at least until the passing of Arbaʿīn, the fortieth day after ʿĀšūrā. Joyful celebrations, such as weddings, are not usually held during the months of Moḥarram and Ṣafar. The first twelve days of Moḥarram and the last ten days of Ṣafar are particularly observed as periods of mourning.

In rural Shiʿite communities all villages observe the remembrance of Imam Ḥosayn in Moḥarram, but certain villages in different parts of the country are famous for their spectacular taʿzīas. Only on ʿĀšūrā and the 28th of Ṣafar, days marking the deaths of Imam Ḥosayn and the second Imam, Ḥasan, are communal rituals held in the Lorestān village described by Loeffler (p. 14, pp. 17-19). Among the Qermezī Qašqāʾī, Moḥarram observances culminate in a ritual termed šozenda (šab-e zenda), a night when people remain awake. Young men make and carry a standard made of a wooden cross dressed in Qašqāʾī women’s clothes in black and green; a bell affixed to the upright pole summons people to the ritual. Verses of lamentation are recited, young men step in rhythm in a circle around the standard, which is borne away in a procession made up of men engaged in chest-beating (sīnazanī, q.v.). In general, the observance consists of a night of chanting for the young, some restrictions on washing, and, occasionally, a ritual meal (Beck, pp. 156-58). The exact character of processions and other Moḥarram observances in any given year is influenced by contemporary political events. Moḥarram processions held in a village outside Shiraz in early 1979 were particularly vibrant and well-attended and combined with activity in support of the revolution (Hegland, pp. 37-40, photograph on p. 48).

In contrast to the simpler parades in rural areas, religious processions in cities tend to be very elaborate and highly organized. Members of religious brotherhoods (hayʾathā-ye mahabī) plan well in advance for their role in the procession. They organize dastas: groups of men who practice chants and chest-beating rhythms and do so in unison while marching in the procession. Dastas may feel themselves in competition, especially on the basis of neighborhood affiliation, and violence has occasionally erupted among the groups (see ḤAYDARĪ AND NEʿMATĪ; Perry; Mirjafari, pp. 153-54). This was particularly dangerous in the past when men carried daggers (qamas) with which they scored their heads in mourning for the Imam (Lorey, p. 304). The use of small bundles of chains attached to a handles for zanjīrzanī, self-flagellation with chains in rhythm, is more common and persists.

Religious processions in different locales are distinctive. In Shiraz, the hayʾats devote time to making elaborateabaqs (large festive platters) which are carried rather like floats in a parade. Some hayʾat members volunteer to carry the often very heavy structures in fulfillment of vows. Old-fashioned abaqs were sometimes tiered structures, layered like wedding cakes, with each layer holding decorations and lamps illuminated for the parade. abaqs carried in Shiraz in the 1970’s were often tall structures, perhaps six feet in height. The outside lines of the cage-like constructions were made of neon light tubes, especially colorful at night. Inside a platform held decorative objects—artificial flowers, lengths of colorful fabric, tulle, pictures of Imams, especially ʿAlī, Ḥosayn, or Imam Reżā, and perhaps a kerosene lamp or model of a tomb. The abaqs often featured prominently the photograph of a young hayʾat member who had died during the previous year. An implicit comparison was made between the young man and Imam Ḥosayn’s nephew Qāsem, with him at Karbalā, who had also died an untimely death. Each abaq was brightly decorated, representing the bridal chamber or ejla (q.v.), of Ḥażrat-e Qāssem, and recalled his marriage to Imam Ḥosayn’s daughter on the field of Karbalā. The marriage took place to fulfill a promise Imam Ḥosayn had made to his brother and father of the groom, Imam Ḥasan. Only after Qāsem married Ḥosayn’s eldest daughter was he permitted to defend his family on the field of Karbalā, where he was soon martyred (Betteridge, p. 79). Floats depicting personages and events from the Karbalā story have traditionally been carried on ʿĀšūrā in villages outside Yazd (Fischer, pp. 171, 262, 263).

Yazd is famed for its naqls (q.v.), large wooden structures carried in the processions (Malcolm, pp. 134-5; see frontispiece and plate facing p. 76). Fischer describes naqls as large tear-shaped wooden structures, draped in black, mirrored, and requiring a hundred men to lift each of them. He comments further that each naql represents Ḥosayn’s coffin, and is carried at noon on ʿĀšūrā. Some small naqls are carried in processions from Yazd to nearby villages (Fischer, p. 171). Arbaʿīn, the fortieth day after the death of Imam Ḥosayn, occurs on 20 Ṣafar and is the occasion of particularly expressive outpourings of emotion. The twenty-eighth of Ṣafar marks both the anniversary of the death of the Prophet Moḥammad, according to the Shiʿites, and the death of the second Imam, Ḥasan. alwā (q.v.) is distributed in Mašhad on the anniversary of Imam Ḥasan’s death. These religiously important dates are often marked by ritual observances, such as rawżas in private homes and in osaynīyas.

The death and birth days of Fāṭema, daughter of the Prophet and the wife of ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭāleb, are commemorated on 13 Jomādā I and 20 Jomādā II. While not an occasion for a festival proper, these days are included in a three day period of observances known as emīya, a time of rawżas and sermons devoted to remembrance of the Prophet’s daughter.

Festive celebrations are held to mark the birth of the Twelfth Imam on 15 Šaʿbān. In Shiraz the celebration continues for three nights, although only the fifteenth is an official holiday. People go to great lengths to decorate their surroundings for the twelfth Imam’s birthday celebrations. In 1976 Shiraz was richly decorated with numerous victory arches (tāq-e norat), or booths, constructed for the occasion. The booths might be built in fulfillment of individual vows, or sponsored by local religious organizations. Some were small stands hung with carpets, some sections of the sidewalk were roofed with twisted crepe paper and hung with colored lights, in other areas walls were festooned with lengths of brightly colored cloth. In the more traditional southern neighborhoods of the city, some sidewalk areas were partitioned off and furnished for sermons inside the makeshift open-air rooms. A lavishly decorated victory arch usually served as the entry to the space.

While the month of Ramażān is devoted to fasting and religious contemplation, it is also significant for Shiʿites because it includes the anniversary of ʿAlī’s death. Two nights are observed: the nineteenth, on which ʿAlī was stabbed, and the twenty-first, when he died (Schimmel, p. 118). Mosques are crowded with people who stay up for each of the three nights of 19, 21, and 23 Ramażān, called šab-e aʿ, or the night of wakefulness. Laylat al-qadr, or the night of destination, is believed by all Moslems to occur within the latter part of the month of Ramażān when the angels descend upon the earth and prayers are answered. The last Friday of Ramażān is celebrated as jomʿat al-wedāʿ, “farewell Friday,” to bid good-bye to the fasting month.

The last month of the Islamic calendar, Ḏu’l-ḥejja, includes the important Shiʿite holiday of Ḡadīr-e Ḵomm (q.v.). Shiʿites celebrate Moḥammad’s public designation of ʿAlī as his successor on the 18th of the month, a public holiday in Persia (Massé I, pp. 137-39).

Special foods are associated with certain festivals. Āš-e Emām osayn, a thick soup (see ĀŠ) is traditionally cooked and distributed on ʿĀšūrā in Yazd (Fisher, p.171). Āš-e Abū Dardā named after a companion of the Prophet, Abu’l-Dardā ʿOwaymer b. Zayd Ḵazraji (Yāḥaqī, p. 65), is traditionally prepared in Mašhad on the last Wednesday of Ṣafar, the day on which Abū Dardā fell ill, and may be prepared to cure illness at any other time of year as well (Donaldson , p.124; Šakūrzāda, p. 13). The āš is distinctive for including a small male or female figurine made out of dough, which is thrown into a stream once the patient has eaten the āš to bear away the sickness (see ĀŠ ii.). On the birthday of the Twelfth Imam, Emām-e Zamān, a rice dish (šīrīn pilaw) is customarily served at homes in Shiraz. Even those who remain at home are able to participate in the festivals by preparing and eating seasonal foods, reciting appropriate prayers, and, for mourning observances, wearing somber colors dictated by the season.

It should be pointed out that Shiʿite festivals vary in detail in different countries (Schimmel, p. 120) and that in those, like Pakistan, in which the Shiʿites are in a minority, conflicts and tensions sometimes arise between them and the majority Sunni population at the time of the processions (Mujeeb, pp. 397-98). On the other hand, both Shiʿites and Sunnis participate in celebrating important Moslem festivals, most notably that of ʿĪd-e Feṭr at the end of Ramażān and ʿĪd-e Qorbān or ʿĪd al-Ażḥā on 10 Ḏu’l-ḥejja, with its own elaborate rituals including šotor-qorbānī or šotorkošān (see CAMEL v.).

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