Master thesis

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The Uses of Rituals &

Social Change in

Tehran, Iran.

by Ole Ramsing


Institute of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen, November 1995

Asta Olesen,

Ph.D, Associate Professor, Institute of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen,

Åke Norborg,

Ph.D, Associate Professor, Institute of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen






Rural Inhabitants 11

The Working class 12

The Middle Class 15

The Intelligentsia 16

The Upper Class 16

Motivations for the Revolution 17


Shi'ism 21

Islamic versus Pre-Islamic/Modernistic Identity 22



The Moharram Rituals as a Discourse 28

The Historical Background 29

Commemoration of Hosain 30

The Historical Development 31

Analyses 32

An Ethos of Sorrow 32

An Active and a Passive Mode 35

The Transformation of Mode 36

Religious or Political Sentiments/Dissent? 39

Different Research Strategies 40

Contemporary Interpretations and Uses of the Rituals 41

CASE STORY 1\: Moharram 44



CASE STORY 2\: Khâneqâh 54

CASE STORY 3\: The Haram in Qom 56

CASE STORY 4\: Behesht-e Zahrâ, the cemetery\: 60


Comment on Case 2, the Khâneqâh 63

Comments on Case 3, the Haram 69

Comments on Case 4, the Cemetery 71

Summing up of case 2, 3 & 4\: 76


CASE STORY 5\: Friday Prayer in Tehran 79

CASE STORY 6\: Mountain climbing & and visiting parks 81













fredag - bjerge --> reflekteres i intro. Overordnede rammer skal være klare. In this thesis I attempt to describe aspects of life in Iran as it might be understood through rituals and ritualized activ­ities. The background for the discussion is the Islamic Revol­ution in 1979 which changed the Iranian society pro­foundly, and these radical changes have also altered the meaning placed upon, as well as the uses of, various ritual activ­ities. It seems thus that religious sentiments have found new ways of expressions as well as have sentiments of opposition to the prevailing (Islamic) discourse. The change in content, use and meaning of rituals in connec­tion with this drastic societal change will be discus­sed.

My interest in the subject stems from my experi­ences of several rituals during an 11-month internship with UNICEF in Tehran from October 1992 to September 1993. During this time I was given accommodation with a "tradi­tional" and "religious" family, and had thus the opportunity to experi­ence the rituals very close­ly. I was most fascinated with the Moharram-rit­uals, but participated in many other events, holidays, and religious sanctioned rituals that year as well. What I hence aim to do is to describe life in Tehran by exploring various Islamic and non-Islamic rituals that I experi­enced while living with this family, and being among people. This thesis relys partly on my own empiri­cal obser­vations and partly on liter­ary sources. Speaking the language, which I had learnt prior to my stay, gave me an insight into the lives of the people I met, which was extremely valuable.

When I discuss "ritual" it is not to be understood in a narrow sense pertaining only to religious activities. I would rather, following Catherine Bell, like to speak about rituali­zation, which is defined as "a strategic way of acting" (Bell 1992; p.7). This has the advan­tage of getting off the definition hook. It is thus not necessary to impose categories on what is or is not a ritual. By using the term 'ritualiza­tion' attention is drawn to:

"...the way in which certain social actions stra­tegically distinguish themselves in relation to other actions. In a very preliminary sense, ritualization is a way of acting that is designed and orchestrated to distinguish and privilege what is being done in comparison to other, usually more quotidian, activ­ities. As such, setting some activ­ities off from others, for creating and privileging a qualitative distinction between the 'sacred' and the 'profane,' and for ascribing such distinctions to realities thought to transcend the powers of human actors." (ibid; p.74).

Accordingly, with this understanding of ritual I can speak about Moharram-rituals and Friday Sermons as well as mountain trekking under one heading, that of ritualized activities. It is my purpose to do so; to contem­plate both relig­ious and secular ritualized activities, the politi­cal use of these, their role for expressions of emo­tions, their role in the creation and mainten­ance of identity, as well as other factors con­cerning peoples concep­tion, under­standing and use of ritualized activ­ities.

One important aspect of the differences between ritualized activities and the other actions to which it is "strategically distin­guished," is the power and the authority that is involved. The above defin­ition of ritualization empha­sises the creation of dichotomies involved in the process of ritualization, and it is in the relationship between these poles that a struggle, a power struggle, about the right to define the prevailing discourse of society, takes place.

One aspect of this power struggle is the project of cre­ating and maintaining an ident­ity. Rituals are to be regarded as very strong ident­ity markers, and the use of various rituals must then be compre­hended on the background of macro-political conditions which prevail at a particular time, against which people attempt to establish their identity. This has been the case before as well as after the revol­ution, and I believe that this is one of the most important functions of rituals in Tehran. Namely as an identity marker which can be seen as a comment that Tehranians make to a regime over which they have little control.

expandér begrebsapparat. Most scholarly works which contemplate rituals in Iran are focusing on the Moharram ritual-complex. These rituals are generally considered to be basic for an under­standing of the Iranian ethos and self-knowledge. This emphasis is under­stand­able. Firstly because these rituals are socially mobi­lizing, involv­ing large segments of society, and thus very visible. Reference to the myth behind the rituals are also used in everyday life throughout the year, and in this way the rituals have a very perva­sive character in Iranian life. For the same reason it is appropriate to call them the Kerbalâ-paradigm (Fischer 1980; p.13). Secondly, it is understandable because they can be said to satisfy the social scien­tists' tradi­tional need for some­thing 'out­standing', 'dif­ferent' and 'exotic' while they do indeed stand out for their ritual elaboration.

The under­standing of the Kerbalâ-paradigm is without discussion import­ant for an under­standing of the Iranian ethos, but the focus on the Moharram-rituals in the scientific inquiry has some repercussions. The unreal­is­tic prepon­derance of these rituals both in the scientific inquiry and (more so) in the mass media, causes the neglect of other, often con­trast­ing, but equally visible, ritualized activ­ities. These activ­ities are no less important for an understanding of life in Tehran today.

In this thesis I therefore attempt to broaden the existing discussion of ritualized activities' importance for an under­standing of social and cultural life in Tehran. More specifi­cally, I intro­duce a number of other ritualized activ­ities in the analysis of contempor­ary (relig­ious) life. These activities are presented in the form of five case-stories, which show differ­ent aspects of ritual life. By using a number of case stories, it is my hope to convey a more varied picture of Iran and Iran­ians, than is normally presented in the mass media. Additional­ly it is my inten­tion to broaden the pictures presented by the plentiful analyses of Moharram rituals by showing other, less 'exotic', but equally important, aspects of life.

As mentioned, the back­ground for this description and discussion of changes in the appre­hension of religious praxises is the 1979-revol­ution in Iran. It is the hypothesis that the meaning being placed upon various rituals, and the uses of these rituals, religious as well as secular, have changed together with the political set-up of the ruling regime. This is rather obvious, but I would like to show the dynamic of the rituals, and to ask the ques­tion: What happens when means of expression are given different meanings, when the "ownership" of these are changed? How are they, if at all, replaced or changed amid the new regime's appropriation of the religious discourse?

In order to do so, I will first give a historical overview of the setting, of Tehran. Tehran's development might be viewed as a conden­sa­tion of the development of the country as a whole, and an understanding of this is important in order to compre­hend the recent drastic events which have taken place in Iran. As a capital and a political and cultural centre Tehran is a rela­tively young city, especially in relation to Iran's history. In this century the city has undergone a rapid development, from being an unimportant city to becoming the capital of an inter­national strategic country with a population of sixty million. Chapter 1 describes these developments.

I shall then proceed in chapter 2 to give a description of the social strata and an overview of their development from the time of Rezâ Shâh Pahlavi. This chapter is closely related to the first, and emphasis is placed upon the degree to which the various classes were exposed to and affected by societal change. The chapter ends with a note on the Islamic Revol­ution in 1978/79. I shortly depict the events and various motiv­ations leading to the Revolution, since they are cardinal to our whole dis­cussion. It is namely on the background of this event that one might consider drastic social changes at all. A more general overview of Iran's history is to be found in the appendix "Main Features of the Iranian History."

This background chapter ends with a short discussion of identity in Iran (Iranian, Islamic, etc.). In this chapter I give a short description of Shi'ism, and a short account of the various identity currents that have been dominating in Iran's recent history.

In chapter­ 3, "The Explanative Power of Religion," I elabor­ate on the Kerbalâ-paradigm. First I sketch the histori­cal back­ground of it, secondly I explore different social scien­tists' analyses of these rituals, and thirdly I illustrate the way in which the paradigm has been and is used actively by revolution­aries during and after the Revol­ution. Final­ly, in the form of a case story, I present my own experience of the rituals. The paradigm is seen to be basic both to the Iranian culture as well as to most research carried out that relate to Iran. It is thus argued that a Moharram-discourse has been developed (writing about the fierceness of the lion, Said 1978, p.94).

Then follow five other case-stories, forming two chapters. The first of these chapters, Religious Sentiments, deals with what could be termed non-official religious practices. It is important to make this distinction while religion and government has merged after the Revolution. It contains descrip­tions of a Sufi-lodge (case 2), of a pilgrimage to a saint's shrine (case 3), and of a visit to the major cemetery in Tehran (case 4). The purpose of this chapter is to question and to set in perspective the Kerbalâ-paradigm discussed in the previous chapter by showing other aspects of religious life.

In the next chapter, Religion Appropriated, I question the Moharram-discourse further by presenting two vignettes which are at each end of a private-public, secular-religious continuum. At one end is the complete official Friday Sermon (case 5), and at the other there is the complete secular leisure time activity of mountain trekking (case 6). Additionally there is in this chapter a descrip­tion and dis­cussion of the significance of another non-Islamic traditions, namely the New Year Festiv­ities.

As to the authenticity of the observations I would like to use Roy Mottahedeh's formulation that any consensus on the meaning of the Iranian past has been torn up by the deeply felt disagreement among Iranians over the meaning of the Iranian present. This is, among other things, due to the political and cultural revolution that Iran has passed through, a long and bitter war with its neighbour Iraq, the execution of many thousands, hundred of thousands who have died in battle, and hundred of thousands who have chosen to live in exile (Motta­hedeh 1985; p.9). It is thus impossible to convey a picture of Tehran that should be agreeable to everybody. It is also import­ant to bear in mind that speaking about Iran and Iranians is to be regarded as a short hand for a socially and culturally very multifarious complex of a country and her people. This is in fact more the case with Tehran, than with any other places in Iran, since this metropolis is a conglomerate of different ethnic groups that only recently have migrated to this city from all over Iran.

The methodological approach I have used in this study has been called case-study (Clammer 1984; p.79-80). This means that I do not operate with any geographical or sociological unit. Most of the religious related events and activities I observed were organized through neighbour­hood groups, which will most often be the most import­ant extra-family unit for the Tehran­ians, and through the religious study group (hay'at). Nevertheless, my focus is on phenomena, not on any social groups as such.

It is my hope that the thesis will throw some light on these phenom­ena from different angles than has been done previously, and thereby soften some of the prevailing stereotypes and misconceptions concerning Iran.


It is often stated by Iranians that Persian political expertise has been indis­pensable to all the conquerors of Iran, and that the need to rely on Persian bureau­crats resulted in the remarkable continu­ity of the Persian adminis­trative tradi­tion. Throughout centuries of domination by alien mas­ters, Persians preserved their identity by subjecting their not infrequently illiterate nomad rulers to the civiliz­ing influ­ence of Persian milieu. Most cities have thus long been centres of Persian language and civilization, which has often proved stronger in the long run than invading tribal cultures. Iran, it can be said, has always been more a city oriented society (unlike for example Afghanistan which is more of a confed­eration of tribal groups) (Tapper 1988; p.25), and it is thus of primary importance to understand the development of the city in order to compre­hend the (violent) changes that have taken place recently.

In the following I will give a detailed descrip­tion of the growth and development of Tehran. This is to make clear what kind of society we are dealing with. It is import­ant especially since the acceler­ated changes that took place, in the cities mainly, to a large degree were determining for the Revolution.

As one approach the Mehrâbâd International Airport in Tehran, one of the first things that strikes the visitor is the regular lay out of long, straight avenues, shining up in the dark night (flights from Europe always arrive in the night). This geo­metrical pattern of streets and avenues was superim­posed over the old and irregular alleys that had charac­terized the city since the days of Nâser-al-Din Shâh (Qâjâr king, b.1831, d.1896, reg,1848-96). This development was speeded up in the 1920s when Rezâ Shâh seized power. In the nine years period from 1930 to 1939 the population of the city increased with 67% (from 300.000 to half a million).

As the capital of Iran, Teh­ran is over 200 years old. _qâ Mohammad Khân2 named Tehran as his capital in 1785, at which time the population was less than 20.000. Until 1945, it remained a relatively small city with few occiden­tal charac­ter­istics. 200 years is not much on the scale of Iran's his­tory. It is first in this century, after the tribal power had been curbed by Rezâ Shâh, that Tehran started to gain importance.

From 1945 on, the city expanded rapidly towards the North. New districts mushroomed all over the desert between Tehran and Shemirân (today a district in Tehran proper) on the Alborz foothills. In the South, desert land together with the torrid climate, discouraged urban growth but several small-scaled industries, particularly brick kilns, emerged to produce goods and materials required for a rapidly growing city. This area suffered a heavy air pollution due to a multitude of industrial plants making it unhealthy for living.

Millions converged to Tehran from provincial cities and rural areas seeking jobs in the housing construction and the allied sectors in addition to the city's other lucrative businesses and industries.

The uncontrolled growth of the population made it imposs­ible for the city authorities to provide housing for all the migrants. Tehran was clearly attracting everyone as a panorama of existing contracts, a curious intermingling of East and West and a lively multifaceted big city with its own problems. Soon it became the centre of art and culture in addition to being a dynamic commercial centre with modern communication links to areas within the country as well as to the world at large. It provided all kinds of amenities and facilities equal to those of big cities elsewhere.

Universities were opened attracting thousands of provin­cial students seeking advanced studies. Wealthy provincial families moved to Tehran to find better trade opportunities and to provide better education for their children.

In the past four decades, Tehran has been one of the fastest growing capitals of the world. Its population is now estimated to be over 10 million, about a sixth of the popula­tion of the whole country. It is a city to which the annual migration rate is enormously high and its inhabitants' demands are always more than the services it can provide. Evidence of such rapid growth is nearly everywhere. The air pollution became serious because of kerosene fumes, used to heat the houses in the freezing winters3. Today the roads are congested, and fumes from the cars is a major source of air pollution in Tehran. In the course of 30 years the city quintupled its original size.

The years 1953 up to the Revolution in 1979 were years of rapid expansion during which newly widened streets and high­ways, lined with modern and high-rise buildings, new quarters accom­panied a corresponding increase in population, brought Tehran in line with some of the large cities of Asia. It was Rezâ Shâh's ambition to make Tehran the "Paris of the East". In 1956, when the first official census was carried out, Tehran showed a population of 1,800,000 which in the following 10 years increased so that the census showed a population of 2,720,000 (1966) and 4,430,000 in 1976.

The establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran gave Tehran a further momentum to expand faster than ever before. This momentum was mainly due to eight years war between Iran and Iraq and its consequent change in patterns of population such as the mass movement of dwellers of war affected cities to Tehran. Another reason was the construction of cheap and popular buildings in Tehran which gave rural people an opportunity to to settle in Tehran. According to the census carried out in 1986, Tehran's population had reached 6,042,584 and the popula­tion should now (1995), as mentioned, have reached some 10 million.

With the enormous influx of people and the consequent severe shortage of houses, rents soared and land prices sky-rocketed. An average wage earner would thus never be able to buy or just rent a comfortable house. There was and is a lightening construction pace in the city itself and in the satellite townships around the city. Streets and alleys in the outskirts remained unpaved for long spells of time but people moved into the new houses as fast as the roofs were built.

This resulted in the city being gradually distin­guished into high and low income sectors characterized by typical Iranian brick type buildings in the South and modern stone and cement structures in the North. Even today the North is charac­terized by wealth, superfluousness, cleanliness, Westerniz­ation, whereas the South is characterized by poverty, lack of basic amenities, dirt, and revolutionary Islam. The Pakistani anthro­pologist Ahmed S. Akbar reflects on this division (Ahmed 1992). The North is like a symbol of the previous regime: Westernized, decadent (discos, night clubs, brothels, etc.), the Shâh's palace, Niâvarân, being at the core. Secluded, not accessible, the ultimate gathering and display of wealth. This is opposed to the South, the symbol of the new regime, the place for the Mostaza'fân (the deprived ones), dirty and grey, filled with heavy industry factories, crowded, poor. At the very far South is Khomeini's shrine (Haram-e Emâm-e Mottahar4, The Pure Emâm's shrine), situated in a flat terrain, open and unprotected. His grave reflects the ultimate simplicity, a bouquet of flowers and a Qorân lying on the green sheet covering the coffin.

This sharp, visible division between social classes, and world views, functioned as a sign for the dichotomies underly­ing Iranian society before the Revolution, namely inner/outer, Westomania/Iranian values etc., and they turned out to have decisive bearings in the mobiliz­ation of Iranians in what has become known as the Islamic Revolution of 19795.

The division between North and South is still marked today. The poor housing, unpaved roads, polluted air, and crow­ded streets and areas are still characteristics of the Southern parts of the city. The further South one goes, the more women wear châdors, as opposed to the lighter and more colourful headscarves-users in the North. It must in fairness be noted, nevertheless, that no slum, as such, exists6.

Tehran can thus be characterized as a fast expanding metrop­olis, both in terms of numbers, but also in terms of cultural diversity. All ethnic groups are to be found here (Kords, Lors, Bakhtiâris, Baluchis, Turks, Uzbeks, Arabs, Armenians, Assyrians, and others,) in addition to a large number of Afghan refugees. Mottahedeh jokingly describes Tehran as being one big montazh (assembling, used about assembling objects from all kinds of imported parts. Especially if assemblage requires a factory setting it is called montazh) (Mottahedeh 1985; pp.270-275). Despite the jokingly aspect of this description, it is a precise one.

From this diversity two groups have tradi­tionally been categorized, belonging to what has been described as either a tradi­tional or modern segment of society. The latter was adopting many trends of the West such as dress code and social behaviour which was in sharp con­trast/­opposition to the dress and behavioral codes of the more traditional segments. This dichotomy is of course a stereotype, but it has been basic and important in the rhetoric of all political groups. The "modern­ists" accused the "traditionalists" of being traditional and backward, they in turn accused the modernist of being xenophile and "West-struck".

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