The Martyrs of Karbala

Shi'i Symbols and Rituals in Modern Iran

Kamran Scot Aghaie

  • Published: July 2015
  • Subject Listing: Middle East Studies; History
  • Bibliographic information: 248 pp., 40 color illus., 6 x 9 in.
  • Territorial rights: World Rights
  • Contents

This innovative study examines patterns of change in Shi'i symbols and rituals over the past two centuries to reveal how modernization has influenced the societal, political, and religious culture of Iran. Shi'is, who support the Prophet Mohammad's progeny as his successors in opposition to the Sunni caliphate tradition, make up 10 to 15 percent of the world's Muslim population, roughly half of whom live in Iran. Throughout the early history of the Islamic Middle East, the Sunnis have been associated with the state and the ruling elite, while Shi'is have most often represented the political opposition and have had broad appeal among the masses. Moharram symbols and rituals commemorate the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE, in which the Prophet Mohammad's grandson Hoseyn and most of his family and supporters were massacred by the troops of the Umayyad caliph Yazid.

Moharram symbols and rituals are among the most pervasive and popular aspects of Iranian culture and society. This book traces patterns of continuity and change of Moharran symbols and rituals in three aspects of Iranian life: the importance of these rituals in promoting social bonds, status, identities, and ideals; ways in which the three major successive regimes (Qujars, Pahlavis, and the Islamic Republic), have either used these rituals to promote their legitimacy, or have suppressed them because they viewed them as a potential political threat; and the uses of Moharram symbolism by opposition groups interested in overthrowing the regime.

While the patterns of government patronage have been radically discontinuous over the past two centuries, the roles of these rituals in popular society and culture have been relatively continuous or have evolved independently of the state. The political uses of modern-day rituals and the enduring symbolism of the Karbala narratives continue today.
Kamran Scot Aghaie is assistant professor of Islamic and Iranian history at the University of Texas at Austin.

"Aghaie brings to the fore the complex interplay and interaction between ritualistic religious observations and pressing political action, and demonstrates how religion and politics have been mixed in Iran at least since the early 1500s."
-Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, University of Washington

"This is an erudite, highly textured, multivoiced study of perhaps the most essential aspect of Shi'ism."
-Yasser Tabbaa, Oberlin College

1. A Brief Historical Background of Shi'ism and Moharram
2. The Qajar Elites and Religious Patronage (1796-1925)
3. Qajar Society and Religious Culture: Tehran as a Case Study
4. The Pahlavi Regime and the Emergence of Secular Modernism (1925-1979)
5. Religious Rituals, Society, and Politics during the Pahlavi Period
6. Hoseyn, "The Prince of Martyrs"
7. Fatemeh, Zeynab, and Emerging Discourses on Gender
8. The Islamic Republic
9. Conclusion

"Overall, for fusing together cultural, social, and political history of the Moharram rituals and symbols, Aghaie's book is highly recommended to all those interested in modern Shi'i and Iranian history."
-American Historical Review

"For those concerned with the political currency of religious ritual and symbolism among the Shi'ites of Iran, take heed of Kamran Scot Aghaie's Martyrs of Karbala..An essential study for our leaders and general readers alike."
-Virginia Quarterly Review