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Religion Library: Shia Islam


Written by: Anna Akasoy

The Muharram processions reveal an elaborate symbolism with small details reminding the participants of specific events. Symbols connected with weddings allude to Qasim ibn Hasan, a son of the second Imam who was engaged to Husayn's daughter Fatima Kubra. Alams (standards) are often dedicated to individual people such as the bifurcated sword, which refers to Ali, or a water skin, referring to Husayn's half-brother Abbas who died during the attempt to bring water from the Euphrates for his young nephews who were denied water on their deathbeds by the Umayyads. As part of the same symbolism, people give water during these processions. In Hyderabad, an alam dedicated to Qasim undergoes a "wedding ceremony" and is then treated as if it died, wrapped in a shroud, and buried. Participants want to demonstrate their conviction that if they had been in Karbala, they would not have abandoned Husayn and his family as the Kufans did.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 offers an unusual case of elaborate Shiite symbolism as part of official political culture. In the opposition against Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (1919-1980) Shiite symbolism became intertwined with socialist iconography. Thus, Ali Shariati (1933-1977), a sociologist of religion and intellectual revolutionary, compared Husayn and the Argentinean Marxist Che Guevara in his socialist interpretation of Islam. The messianic features of Marxism may have made these ideologies of the left particularly appealing in a Shiite context.

Political posters were a popular medium of political propaganda, in particular considering the level of illiteracy. In the absence of any previous indigenous tradition, these too often used the style of Socialist realism combined with elements of Iranian miniature painting and iconography (such as mythical figures from the Shahnameh, the famous epic of Iranian mythology and history composed by the Persian poet Ferdowsi in the 10th century). Graphic artists have produced impressive examples of political posters and murals during the war against Iraq with the aims of mobilizing the nation and commemorating the martyrs.

Another noteworthy example of Shiite symbolism is the mausoleum outside Tehran where the revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini is buried. The traditional architecture resembles that of shrines for Imams (for example, the golden dome), and the terminology used to describe the funeral presents further parallels. Khomeini was even referred to as imam, even though the apocalyptic expectations connected with the revolution were only implicit.

Study Questions:
1.     What is the Dhu l-fiqar and why is it important?
2.     How do descendants of Muhammad display their heritage?
3.     What connections have been made in modern times between Shiite political symbolism and other political traditions?


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