Master thesis

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Islamic versus Pre-Islamic/Modernistic Identityo Der skal vist argumenteres for denne overskrift.

Within this century Iran­ians have been subje­cted to propaganda con­cern­ing Iranian identity from roughly two con­trary direc­tions. The first direction, under Rezâ Shâh, emphasised a pre-Islamic national identity, the second direc­tion, under the present regime, stresses the Islamic heritage. These two discourse of modernity (Westernization / gharbzadegi) and Islam have existed in dialectical tension in Iran since the colonial penetration. They have concurrently acted and reacted against strategies adopted, and policies formulated and implemented by the other. Through their respective religious, political, and intellectual rhetoric they have defined and redefined them­selves vis-à-vis the other, formulating meanings and con­straints within which they operated. During the twenti­eth century the discourse of modernity gradually became hegemonic, eventually forcing the Islamic discourse to become a 'counter-discourse.' After the 1979 Revolution the Islamic discourse regained its long-stand­ing earlier hegemony, but with a differ­ence. Responding to a new configuration of relations of power (and knowledge), this new Islamic discourse has passed through the prism of modernity and has emerged, like every­thing else in the society, trans­formed, restructured, and reconstructed (Haeri 1994; pp.102-103).20

The 'discourse of modernity', as Mrs. Haeri calls it, should maybe rather be called, para­phrasing Jalâl _l-e Ahmad (1962), a discourse of gharb­zade­gi, Westo­mania. The ultimate goal of this discourse was not as much modernity, as it was to create a country in the image of Europe. In the chapter "Popu­lar­ization of an Iranian Ident­ity" Vaziri shows how during Rezâ Khân (to become Rezâ Shâh Pahlavi in 1925) the strong­ly estab­lished state apparatus started to promote both Western modern­ization and national conscious­ness. This was especially achieved through education where much emphasis was laid on national Iranian symbols, that is pre-Islamic symbols, includ­ing a glorious past. It was backed by a racial theory, glorify­ing the Aryan race, separat­ing Iranians from Semites. Various poets, living in different places, speaking languages that many modern-day Iranian do not under­stand, were presented to those linguistic­ally heterogen­eous populations as outstanding examples of their common national culture (for example Ferdov­si, Ibn Sina (Avi­cenna), Sa'di, Hâfez, and Omar Khay­yam), and the Islamic heritage was subdued to this 'new' heritage (Vaziri 1993; p.196-97). He further states that:

"The ill-defined nature of Iranian identity (if not in its terri­torial sense, then in its his­tori­cal, racial, and cultural context) became evi­dent to the world when the revol­ution ending the Pahlavi era preferred to call itself Islamic instead of Iran­ian." (Vaziri 1993; p.198).

There is a general agreement that the creation of an Iranian nationalism was a process started last century (Cottam 1964, Mottahedeh 1985, Vaziri 1993Se Deutsch 1953, s.34 for en reference til note 9. )21. The nationalistic movement was orig­inally a movement intended to reform the old and crippled Qâjârs, but then it expanded to embrace govern­ment, schools and newspa­pers, new political doctrines, and creation of the constitu­tion. Of key-factors influencing the development of this movement can be mentioned: 1) a constant threat of Anglo-Russian expansionism, which had a profound impact on the political consciousness of the coun­try's sociopolitical leaders, 2) the establishment of a national assembly and a constitution in 1906, 3) import­ations of political notions such as vatan (Fatherland), and 4) nation­alist theories derived from Anglo-French sources, and Western schol­arship in general. The existence of a vernacular language, Farsi, is also to be counted as a positive factor. The modernization after European model was started by the Qâjâr crown-prince 'Abbâs Mirzâ (1788-1833). He had come to the realization that modern technology had made Europe superior, and that Iran must modernize should the country continue to exist. Iranian students were thus for the first time sent to Europe in 1811 and 1815, French and British advisers were employed, and the first printing-house was established in 1819. Also the found­ing of the Poly­technic College in Tehran in 1851, turned out to be important in forming the views of the coun­try's coming rulers. The school was staffed by Austrian and Prussian in­structors, and they all taught 'European' sciences in French. This acted as a catalyst for new ideas about government and democ­racy, and many of the former students of the Polytech­nic were active in pushing for the first Iranian Constitution (in 1905-06) (Mot­tahedeh 1985; pp.51,53). These ideas were primordial for the formation of the gharbzadegi-discourse which was dominant until the 1979-Revol­ution.

The Islamic discourse has after the 1979-Revolution again become the hegemonic discourse. The present regime has con­tinued the propa­ganda for an Iranian identity but changed the empha­sis to the Islamic past, which was naturally exaggerated in the time immediately after the Revolution. Today even the pre-Islamic past is mentioned as a source of pride and, importantly, as great tourist attractions. The regime in no way denounces national unity, but at the same time it acknow­l­edges ethnic plurality. In the school books of today an analogy is made to the family:

"The people of the Iranian provinces22 are, even though they are having differ­ent economic and agri­cultural activities, and different tradi­tions, dependent on each other and cooperate with each other, like the members of a family who lives in one house. The name of this big house is the coun­try (kesvhar) Iran, and the name of the family is the people (mellat) of Iran." (Ta'limât-e ejtemâ'i (Social Science), 4th Dabestân23, 1991, p.174-74).

Nouchine Yavari-D'Hellencourt's article (1988) on ethnic groups and ethnicity in Iranian school books might elaborate on this... When however members of the family want regional inde­pendence the patriarch must say no. This was the case in Kordestân, Sistân-Baluchi­stân, West Azerbaijan, and Khuze­stân immediately after the Revolution (Hiro 1987; pp.111-115)24.

The result of the tensions between these discourses is an "identity schizophrenia" (Vaziri 1993, Beeman 1983, Kamrava op.cit.), a schizophrenia that can be seen to have been a major reason for the Revol­ution. Going too fast in the cre­ation of an identity caused people to turn against the changes that were happening in their society, and to which they felt alienated25. Now, after the Revolu­tion, many Iranians feel alienated towards their Fatherland (vatan), Iran. This alien­ation can be contrib­uted to the existing cultural schizo­phrenia about being Iranian or Muslim or... Also differ­ences exist between people inside and outside of Iran as to their identity, which for example are evident in the sundry opposi­tion groups outside Iran, with very little cooperation among themselves. Vaziri suggests that a cultural peace within Iran might dissolve the existing animos­ities, also those created by obsolete scholar­ship and by stereotyping. By obsolete scholar­ship he is pointing to two domi­nant aspects concerning Western Orienta­lism, namely nation­alism and racism. Both are modern concep­tions and applying them to the past, as has been done, is an anachronism.

Uddyb. Ryk længere frem, eller bring det fra introduktionen hertil. One way of opposing the dominant paradigm in the society is, and has been, carefully to choose various rituals as ident­ity creat­ing devices. In connection with self-definition the most varied criteria in a historical epoch can seem to be the most import­ant, and they are outwardly becoming symbols of the identity (Hastrup & Ovesen 1980; p.192). It can furthermore be stated that:

"The goal of ritualiza­tion as a stra­tegic way of acting is the ritualization of social agents. Ritualization endows these agents with some degree of ritual mastery. This mastery is an internaliza­tion of schemes with which they are capable of reinterpret­ing reality in such a way as to afford perception and experiences of a redemptive hegemonic order... Whether ritual empowers or dis-­empowers one in some practical sense, it always suggests the ultimate coherence of a cosmos in which one takes a particu­lar place" (Bell 1992; pp.140-141).

Whatever the historical con­nections were, one can sense that today the prevalent religion of Iran has func­tion­ed as an ident­ity-creating device vis-a-vis the Sunni Muslims (and Sunni Arabs, especially after the Iraq-Iran War). There exists a wide­spread anti-Arab sentiment in Iran, however. This sentiment is frequently referred to the invasion of Iran by the second Caliph, 'Omar, and today these sentiments are discern­ible in the contem­porary litera­ture26. One can ask if this is a sign of a hidden anti-Islam feeling, or if it stems from the propa­ganda of the modern secularists glorifying extra-Islamic history (namely, ancient Iranian history) (Vaziri 1993; p.209), o På kalifatets tid var det systemerne, ikke etnicitet der var vigtig. Man har læst historien baglæ it was done in the Pahlavi era? As to the usefulness of the religion today as an identity creating device, it has a more doubtful function for the relig­ion. Of course no Iranian in exile (maybe with the exception of the Mojahed­din) will claim Shi'ism to be his first loyalty, and the same probably holds true for Iranians in Iran. The appropri­ation of the "right" religion by the present regime has led many Iranian Muslims to turn their back on the official religion27.

The next part will focus on what has happened with religious rituals in the face of the appropriation of them by the sitting regime. Focus will also be on other ritualized activ­ities, which as Bell stated above, can be seen as ways of dealing with and opposing of a hegemonic discourse.


Of all rituals, the most expressive ones, the ones playing the biggest role in Shi'i ideology, are the ones commemorating the death at Kerbalâ of Hosain and his 72 followers. This event is still commem­orated in Iran today with passion plays and pro­cessions of mourning. They are so very central and important for an under­standing of Shi'ism and Iran that an understanding of them is essential for an understanding of Iran today.

Mere politisk udvikling end tolkninger. Hvordan har det været brugt forskningsmæssigt.

Pol. + historisk forløb (brug Inge Mortensen). ---> Illustrer hvor centrale de er. Indtil 1978 var det noget andet man kiggede på.

Halliday viser skift (skrev slet ikke om religion). Den er fra 1979, men han skriver ikke om religion, men om noget andet. Diskuter det, hvorfor er det så centralt nu (Fordi regimet fortolker det!!!)? Hvad er min version. Den viser noget andet end de store sammenhængende analyser som først kom på mode efter revolutionen. This chapter consists of three parts. First I briefly outline what happened at the dusty plains near Kerbalâ more than 1350 years ago. Then I present different analyses of these events and relate them to the present and to my own material on Moharram. The commemoration of the events that took place in the desert at Kerbalâ on the 1st of Moharram to the tenth of the same month have been called by different names, for example "Muharram-Mys­teries" (Pelly 1879), "Passion" (Stroth­man: "Shia. Gibb & Kramers (eds.): Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1953), "Ker­balâ-Para­digm" (Fischer 1980) or '_shurâ rituals (Hegland 1983b), and they are central for all religious research on Iran.
The Moharram Rituals as a Discourse

In his famous book "Orientalism", Edward Said discusses some problems connected to what he calls a 'textual attitude' in Orientalism. As a subject is described and written about, expertise is attributed to it, and the authority of aca­demics, institutions, and govern­ments can surround it with greater prestige than its practical successes warrant. These texts can create not only knowledge, but also the very reality they appear to describe. This knowl­edge and reality does in time produce a tradition, and this tradition is by Foucault called discourse (Said 1978; pp.92-94), that is "a set of statements, verbal and nonverbal, bound by rules and characterized by regularities, that both constructs and is patterned by social and personal reality" (Abu-Lughod 1986; p.186). Discourses are closely linked to power. Foucault formulated that: "We must conceive dis­course as a violence that we do to things, or, at all events, as a practice we impose upon them" (Foucault 1972, p.229, cited in Fischer 1980, p.184).

Books, articles, television reporta­ges, etc, have been pro­duced on the Moharram rituals in such quantities (of course relative to the complete literature on Iran) that I feel one might speak of a discourse on Moharram. The literature on this event has proliferated, and the importance and salience of the subject has thus been amplified. Even by treating the event in this thesis, I may be giving too much importance to the subject. It is justified, however, with my intention to broaden the analytic categories which have been used in describing Iran. Thus I intend to question many of these analyses, and at the same time to point to aspects of life and religion in Tehran which is much less investigated. I suggest that the emphasis on relig­ion which is to be found in the literature after the Revolution and the lack of religion in the literature before the Revolution, is conspicuous28.
The Historical Background

After the death of the Prophet Mohammad the Muslim community disagreed on the leader­ship. This disagreement was the reason of the forma­tion of two factions within Islam, a division that is existing today as well as in the past. One group, the Sunni, claimed that leadership should be passed on in accord­ance with tradi­tion, i.e. Arabic tradi­tion, namely by election, the other group, the Shi'a, claimed that it was hereditary. The Shi'a thought Ali, the prophet's son-in-law, married to his only daughter Fâtemeh, to be the rightful leader (ca­liph). The Sunni, using a cunning (holding an election while the prophet was being buried), chose Abu Bakr to ca­liph. Ali was first elected as the fourth caliph, after Abu Bakr, 'Omar and 'Uth­man. At the Battle of Siffin against the Syrian Sunni Governor, Mo'a­wiya, the husband of 'A'isha, a widow of the prophet, Ali was stalemated and forced to arbitra­tion. His representative was out­witted, and Mo'a­wiya was declared caliph, something Ali did not concede. A group of Ali's supporters (the Kharijites) were so incensed that Ali had agreed to the arbitra­tion procedure that they decided to kill Ali, Mo'awiya, and the lieutenant of Mo'awiya, 'Amr ibn al-'As, in order to start anew and live according to the Koran. They were only successful in assassinating Ali who was killed in A.H. 41/661 A.D. while praying in a mosque in Kufa. Ali had two sons, Hasan and Hosain. Hasan, the oldest, was too weak to make a claim on the caliph­ate, and he therefore came to an understanding with Mo'awiya and was sent off with a handsome pension to live in Medina. When Mo'awiya died, the caliphate was to revert to the family of the Prophet. Mo'awiya did not honour this understand­ing. First he made his own son, Yazid, his successor, secondly he had Hasan poisoned. Hosain, Ali's youngest son, refused to swear alle­giance to Yazid, and he furthermore received messages from Kufa to come and lead a revolt against the tyranny of Yazid.

While on his way to Kufa, Hosain, his family and 72 men, were intercepted by forces loyal to Yazid, and forced to camp on the desert of Kerbalâ. This was on the first day of the Arabic lunar month of Moharram. All negotiations to secure Hosain's submission to Yazid failed, and on the tenth day of this siege Hosain and all his followers except for two men, were killed. The details of this battle of Kerbalâ, that started the first of Moharram and ended ten days later, forms the Kerbalâ-para­digm29.
Commemoration of Hosain

From that time on have remembrance and commemoration of the passion and death of Hosain occurred annually, during the first ten days of the Arabic lunar month Moharram. The commem­orations have contained three components. For the sake of clarity they can be described as 1) street pro­cessions (das­teh), 2) dramatic recita­tions from the book Rowzatu'l Shuhadâ (The Garden of the Martyrs) or from another maqtal-nâmeh (massacre-literature, which will be discussed later) called rowzeh-khâni, and 3) passion plays (ta'ziyeh). It must be remembered, however that the three practices are more or less interwinded.

The dasteh and rowzeh-khâni existed side by side for more than two cen­turies, both evolving into higher complex­ity. Then towards the end of the 18th century a new element devel­oped called Ta'ziyeh Khâni or simply Ta'ziyeh. The latter is often compared to theatre, and it is performed on stage, taki'eh30, by actors, often pro­fessional ones. The themes are the events which took place in connection to Kerbalâ. During differ­ent historical periods these plays have had more or less importance. Under the Qâjâr, for example, it enjoyed great kingly attention, so that the other Moharram-rituals were in the shadow of it, and it was a ritual where people participated irrespective of class. This is adver­sary to the Pahlavi period where "the 'two cultures' phenomena existed in Iran" (Keddie 1981, p.183), meaning that the upper-class was culturally and socially isolated from the lower classes.
The Historical Development

The development of the rowzeh-khâni tells us about the politi­cal uses of this ritual through history. Thus the theme of the martyrdom of Emâm Hosain and the extolling of the virtues of the Emâm had clear political implica­tions during the seventh and eight centuries when Shia was having minority status in Iran. But once the Shia had become dominant in Iran under the Safa­vids, these popular recitations became the largely apoliti­cal ritual of manâqib-khâ­ni (recita­tion of eulogies of the Emâms). These recita­tions of the popular eulogies of the Emâms had a politi­cal aspect as the chief instrument of inter­sec­tarian rivalry and often led to clashes between the Shi'a and the followers of the Sunni madhhabs (pl. madhahib; schools of Islamic jurispru­dence). Furthermore these eulogies helped create groups of "Twelver Sunnis"31, and faci­li­tated the even­t­ual conversion of Iran to Twelver Shi'ism in 1501 by the Safavids. Especially one book came to be influen­tial in provid­ing the newly established Shia state with a martyrology, namely "Rowzat ol-Shuhadâ" ("The Martyrs' Garden") by a well-known literary figure of the fifteenth century, Hosaini Vâ'ez (d.910/1504). The book deals with the sufferings of the prophets and of the family of the Prophet of Islam, especially the martyrs of Kerbalâ. This genre of books, con­cerning the martyrdom of saints and rebellions by champions of religious beliefs unacceptable to the authorities, is called maqtal or maqtal-nâmeh (massacre-literature). Once the Shi'a had become dominant under the Safa­vids, Shi'ites would assemble on holi­days and Fridays, and someone with a good voice would take up a copy of the Rowzat ol-Shuhadâ and read while the assembly wept (Mahdjoub 1988, pp.73-75). These popular recita­tions has become known as rowzeh-khâni (readings from the book "The Mar­tyrs' Garden")32.vows and urban women essay might give some additional information to this part of the religion.It has somewhat become fashionable to watch this as show, as a performance in the 24Ttalâr-e Rudaki showed

The situation is thus that some very highly visible rituals take place annually. They have fascinated scien­tists, and the importance and the prevalence of these rituals has varied through different historical periods, as also the description of the development of rowzeh-khâni made clear.


In the following chapters I wish to present differ­ent analy­ses of the Moharram-rituals. Emphasis is not on the manifest parts of the rituals, while they mainly are symbols taken from the scenes at Kerbalâ, but more on the social and political implications of the rituals. Furthermore I wish to show how two present-day Islamic ideologists have contended an active, revolutionary use of them.

An Ethos of Sorrow

For over a millennium, the Shi'a community has kept the memory of the death of the grandson of the Prophet, rehearsing and interiorizing its tragic details in ever-growing emotional intensity. The cult which has grown around this event of early Islamic history has provided Islamic piety with a unique expression of the phenomenon of redemption through the suffer­ing and passion of a divine hero or holy martyr (Ayoub 1978; p.7). The ethos of sorrow is important for an understanding of Iran and more specifically for the Moharram-rituals. It is explicitly expressed during the rowzeh-khâni which is a recurrent event, taking place at regular intervals (maybe monthly). The way the rowzeh-khâni is expressed during the Moharram is but a climax of this recurrent event.

Firstly I would like to give a short description of a rowzeh-khâni as it took place in the house where I lived: The characteristics of the meeting is the same as is expressed during the month of Moharram, namely overt expres­sion of deep sorrow. The Rowzeh-Khân (reader of rowzeh) is often a hired mullah. For the female meetings a female rowzeh-khân is used. He/she is seated in a chair while the partici­pants are seated around him/her on the floor. During the session plenty of tea is consumed. Everybody seated, the rowzeh-khân will start reading from a maqtal-nâmeh. All par­ticipants know the story beforehand, but they express themselves as being deeply touched on hearing about the well known suffer­ings, and they will lament loudly. The rowzeh-khânis which my land­lady hosted would always end with a lunch. Quickly the tears would be dried away, and the talking and gossiping about everyday prob­lems would start33o Sidste halvdel af denne fodnote et andet, mere naturligt sted. .

Sorrow has thus a salient position in the rituals. The rowzehs and ta'ziyehs are stories of suffering. Likewise are the dasteh­hâ explained to be demonstrations of grief. This pertains more to the passive mode of the rituals, but this mode is indeed the most common one (the two modes of the rituals are explained in the next chapter). Thus, in order to better understand the values attached to these activ­ities of mourning for Hosain, we must look at the meaning of sorrow.

Sadness and grief (gham o ghosseh) is a paradigmatic emotional tone in Iran. It is clearly expressed in for example the Moharr­am rituals. It is also seen in the way Iran­ians treat bad news, they are very careful not merely to blast out with the news, but undertake elaborate ruses to get to the point. Otherwise the inflicted can fall seriously ill (Good & Good 1988)34. After the Revol­ution the Islamic state in Iran man­dates a sad demean­our and express­ions of grief as a sign of religious and politi­cal com­mitment. Although this is a tradi­tional discourse, the estab­lishment of it as a para­mount ethos for the society, radically alters the meaning of reli­gious grieving for many and these transformations of meaning might have wide ramifica­tions for both politi­cal and psycho­logical experi­ence within Iranian culture.

Good and Good exemp­lifies with a description of the Moharram-rites. These rites are "rites of transcen­dence", following Kapferer's terminology (1979). Kapferer argues "that some rites - "rituals of transform­ation" - focus on transform­ing individuals who par­ticipate in the rituals or on transform­ing social contexts (like rites of passage). In other rituals - "rituals of tran­scendence" - individuals who participate in the mythic moment of the rite, are transformed only for the dur­ation of the ritual, then return to the social order with renewed awareness of the presence of the transcendent in everyday life and renewed resolve to lead exemplary lives (cit. in Good & Good; p.51). This corresponds to the aforementioned modes of the rituals, namely passive - rituals of transcen­dence, or active - rituals of transformation.Jeg tror denne forklaring kommer efter dette afsnit, derfor skal det omformuleres.

Good and Good then use Obeyesekere's (1985) outline of a theory of the "work of culture" in relation to emotions. It is "the process whereby painful motives and affects such as those occurring in depres­sion are transformed into publicly accepted sets of meanings and symbols", for example into an ontological problem in Buddhism or into a spirit attack. When exile-Iran­ians today claim that "all Iranians are depressed" it may reflect not only unhappiness with the current regime or expres­sions of loss by immigrants, but may indicate a deeper crisis in the work of culture in Iranian society resulting from the reinterpretation within the current theocratic state ideology of the rituals, social philosophy, and theology of Iranian Shi'ism. Grief as a response to an unjust society's cruel treatment of the just has been exploited by the current regime. Before the Revolution the regime was the target of the Moharram rituals. Now the "work" of reconciling idealized experiences of transcen­dence with compro­mised par­ticipation in social and political life, previously ac­com­plished through religious discourse, fails, since the current regime has appropriated the rituals.

Good & Good further suggests that this might in the future pose a fundamental crisis for Shi'ite institutions and ideology, since the order of justice has not yet been estab­lished. The symbolic paradigm requires agents of injustice and cruelty. Inwardly this has become the Mojaheddin, and outwardly USA, Saddam Hosain and Israel35.

The failure of the Revolution to provide a just society has led to the joke that before the Revolution one drank in public and prayed in priva­te, now people pray in public and drink in private. Good & Good suggests that this constitutes a major transform­ation of the Iranian paradigm of selfhood. Religious activity no longer belongs to the bâten, pure self, but to the anderun (they must mean birun, since anderun is the same as bâtin!), world of compromise and hypocri­sy. The pure interior with its profound vision of grief and the tragic, has become a core of cynicism. Thus the Kerbalâ-paradigm, they state, has lost its power of transcendence and of trans­for­mation which Kapferer speaks about. It lacks the potential to resolve either symboli­cal­ly or politically the injustices of contemporary Iranian life, leading to deep despair (Good & Good 1988).
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