Rituals and Worship

Rites and Ceremonies

The most distinctive Shiite rituals take place during the first ten days of the month Muharram and culminate on the tenth day (Ashura). The earliest evidence for this festival dates back to the Buyid period in the 10th and 11th centuries, even though one may recognize beginnings among the movement of the penitents (tawwabun) in the late 7th century who lamented the death of Husayn.

Depending on the community, the rituals take place in private houses, courtyards of mosques, community or special Muharram centers, in markets, and on the streets. The rituals take the forms of more or less formal lamentation sessions, where the events of Karbala are recalled, elegies are recited for the martyrs, and taziyah (passion plays) and processions (often accompanied by self-flagellation) are performed. During the collective lamentations a zakir recites stories and poems. Texts are often local traditions and authors are collective.

The presence of women depends on the setting. As during prayer in the mosque, women often participate in a separate area. Usually it is assumed that they do not practice self-flagellation themselves and refrain from observing these rituals if the men who expose the upper half of their bodies are not family members, although the latter expectation is often not fulfilled. The actors in taziyah plays are exclusively male, even those who play female characters.

These rituals are conducted in groups and to a rhythm. Objects displayed during these ten days include (black) banners with the name of Husayn (in the rituals celebrated in Hyderabad this happens on the eve of the first Muharram), taziyah (model shrines), and alams (standards). At other times of the year they are stored either in community centers, mosques, or private houses. Sometimes, horses take part in the procession (with or without a rider for Husayn) and participants carry empty coffins covered with white cloth with red spots to symbolize the martyrs' shrouds.

On the Indian subcontinent, the processions often involve a tomb for Husayn and end with its burial. There are also cases where entire models of Karbala with the main places, protagonists, and events marked are displayed in buildings where communal lamentations are held. The general aim of these rituals is to evoke extreme grief and a feeling of solidarity expressed in the willingness to sacrifice oneself—hypothetically in Karbala and in more practical or real forms in the present.

Among these rites, taziyah has caught most attention among observers, not least since apart from popular shadow plays it is the only form of drama in the pre-modern Islamic world. Taziyah developed in its most elaborate theatrical forms in the Qajar period when it included larger reenacted scenes and was adapted to other narrative material. During the prohibition of the shah, however, the tradition moved from urban to rural areas and consequently did not flourish as much as in the cities. Plays are performed in market places and village squares; actors are professionals or amateurs. Public performances have also taken place in the West, for example in 2002 in New York's Lincoln Center. The antagonism between villains and martyrs are underlined by different principles for the performance: While the former recite their texts, often with a shrieking and disagreeable tone, the latter sing in the classical Persian style. Gestures are often stylized.

While these festivals have been and still are mostly opportunities for Shiites to celebrate their community, sometimes Sunnis attend them as well, expressing grief for Husayn and even cursing the Umayyad caliph. Likewise, they hold the Imams and sayyids (descendants of Muhammad, in particular Ali) in high regard and at times even go on a pilgrimage to the graves. Visiting tombs (Arabic: ziyara) is a prominent aspect of Sufism and considered with suspicion by more orthodox Sunni opponents who identify this veneration of humans as a Shiite trait. In Hyderabad, India, the passion plays also attract Hindus who occasionally act as sponsors. Pinault cites in The Shiites an example of Shiites who integrate the protagonists of early Islamic history into Hindu mythology. Husayn is presented as following the "advice given by Krishna to Arjuna on the occasion of Mahabharata."

Sunnis often criticize these rituals as exaggerated practices, most importantly the self-flagellation, which is considered un-Islamic (because of the prohibition of self-harm) and uncivilized. Modern Shiite authorities such as Fadlallah, Khomeini, and Khamenei have also condemned the practice. Forms of self-flagellation extend from a mild and symbolic or strong beating of the chest with the bare hand to beating with the use of weapons such as razor blades, scourges or flails, or knives or short swords, the latter being limited to Ashura, the tenth day of Muharram. This criticism is shared by parts of the Shiite community. Further internal criticism is directed against the mainly young participants for a lack of spiritual engagement, for showing off extreme emotions and physical achievements and thus treating the rituals mainly as a social event. Likewise, recent trends in passion plays have been dismissed as being melodramatic or gruesome instead of inviting observers to spiritual reflection. In part such innovations have been inspired by Western movies.

Minority Shiite communities, such as the Alevis (a sect combining Shiite and Sufi elements) in Turkey, practice further rituals, such as the "ceremony of the union" (cem) where newlywed couples are welcomed into the community. While some symbols used during the ritual refer to the sacred narratives of all Shiites, the consumption of alcohol, generally forbidden in Islamic law, is reminiscent on this occasion among the Alevis of the antinomianism of medieval extreme Shiites.


Study Questions:
1.     What are the taziyah and why are they important?
2.     How does the Sunni community sometimes react to the Muharram rituals? Why?
3.     How has the contemporary celebration of the Muharram rituals changed over the years?

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