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An Introduction to Shi'i Islam

by Moojan Momen

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Chapter 11

The Popular Religion: Personal Shi'i practice and ethos

      In Chapter 10 Shi'i Islam was viewed from the aspect of the ulama. In this chapter we will try to give an impression of what the religion means to the Shi'i masses and how it affects their lives.

      In Sunni Islam it has tended to be the Sufi Shaykhs and their mysticism that have held sway over a large part of the population. Shi'is, however, look to the ulama for guidance in religious matters. And therefore Islam for the Shi'is is, even more than for Sunnis, a religion of rituals, obligations and prohibitions.

The Personal Religious Outlook

      Life for a devout Shi'i is perceived very much as having an account with God. This account is credited and debited during one's life. At death, for those with a sufficiently large positive balance in their account there is heaven; for those with a large negative balance there is hell; and for those in between there is the in-between world of barzakh (purgatory) where they are punished for their sins sufficiently to make them eventually worthy of heaven.

      In order to avoid debits to one's account, one must live one's life within the bounds of what is permitted (halal) but, in addition, one can credit one's account by living one's life as closely as possible to the ideal pattern laid down in the Sunna (pattern of words and deeds as conveyed in the Traditions) of the Prophet and the Imams. This involves performance of the various ritual observances which occur on a daily basis (e. g. the obligatory prayers), a weekly basis (e. g. the Friday prayer) or a yearly basis (e. g. the fast in Ramadan). All of these must be observed with a rigorous attention to detail, for the slightest error may result in a state of ritual impurity thus negating all benefit from the performance of the ritual.

      In addition to this, one's account can be credited by the performance of specific deeds which are not in themselves obligatory. These include such things as performing a visitation to a shrine or hosting a gathering for the recital of the sufferings of the Imams. Charitable deeds such as donating money for hospitals or helping someone who is in trouble will also credit one's account.

      Any meritorious action which will credit one's account is called a thawab and each action has its own scale of recompense, thus one can have big thawabs and little thawabs.

      On the debit side of one's account go failure to perform rituals when one is able to perform them; committing acts that are forbidden (haram); and failing to live up to one's social obligations.

      Every action performed by an individual may be classified into one of five categories. The result of this concentration on the externals of the religion is that in tight-knit social groups such as the Bazaar, one's piety and religious merit are judged by others not on the basis of one's beliefs (which are indeed seldom discussed) but on the basis of being observed to be performing the required rituals (i.e. orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy is the standard by which one is assessed).

      The ulama are of course necessary as a guide to the complex details of what is and what is not permissible. Although individual mullas may be regarded as charlatans or hypocrites, the ulama as a class are highly regarded both because of their guidance in traversing the snakes-and-ladders world of obligations and prohibitions and also because the local mulla is regarded as an intermediary between the ordinary Shi'i and the great mujtahids who are the maraji' at-taqlid. At the village level the mulla is often the only literate person and serves an important role in communications and in social and business transactions.

      There is a great deal of genuine popular esteem for the maraji' at-taqlid. This is partly because of their perceived piety and sanctity and partly because of their role as the deputies of the Hidden Imam, the latter being the focus of the eschatological and soteriological aspirations of the masses. This image of the marja' is carefully fostered by stories told of miracles attributed to them. These miracles are called by the term karamat (so as not to compare them to the miracles, mu'jizat, which are one of the proofs of the prophets and Imams).

      Whereas in Sunni Islam there is a direct relationship between the believer and God as revealed in the religion of Islam, in Shi'i Islam there is something of a triangular relationship. While for some things, such as the daily obligatory prayers, the individual is in direct relationship to God, in other matters he looks (usually through the mediation of the local mulla) to the marja' at-taqlid who is regarded as being in a more direct relationship with God. Indeed, in the minds of many of the less educated, the ulama and the marja' are intermediaries between them and God and the relationship is not so much triangular as hierarchical (see Chart 6 on p. 243).

      Another group who have a popularly perceived sanctity are the Sayyids (those who claim descent from Muhammad through 'Ali and Fatima). Marriage into such a family is considered a great honour and Sayyids are often asked to bless a marriage or a new-born child.

      The emphasis on the observation of the externals of the religion does not mean, however, that there is no room for individual piety. Apart from the obligatory prayer (salat) which is said in Arabic, one can say personal prayer (du'a) and communions with God (munajat) in one's own language, addressing God in relation to the events of one's daily life.

      It is, however, upon the Fourteen Pure Ones (Muhammad, Fatima and the Twelve Imams) that the religious fervour of the individual is concentrated. Not only can addressing them in prayer and visiting their shrines induce them to act as intercessors with God for the pardoning of sins, but, through the recital of the details of their lives and struggles (especially at gatherings commemorating their births and deaths), they become models for and guides to the daily existence of the individual. In particular it is the Holy Family (consisting of Muhammad as a grandfather figure, 'Ali and Fatima, their sons Hasan and Husayn, and to a lesser extent their daughter, Zaynab) which is looked to as the model family for all Shi'is to follow in their family inter-relationships. Fatima (and to a lesser extent Zaynab) has become the model of ideal womanhood, while 'Ali or Husayn serve that role for men.

      The Holy Family are connected with a large range of religious symbolism. Muhammad is, of course, the recipient of the revelation, the link with God; he is, however, so exalted as to be only approachable through one of the other members of the family; 'Ali represents the intellectual, esoteric side of religion (the way to obtain the true meaning of the revelation) and its legalistic aspect ('Ali had complete knowledge of the religious law and was the perfect judge); Fatima is the Mother-Creator figure, not very different from the image of Mary in Roman Catholicism, she is even referred to as 'virgin' (batul); Husayn represents atonement, his redemptive martyrdom gives to all the possibility of salvation; the Twelfth Imam is the focus of eschatological hopes of triumph over tyranny and injustice and final salvation. While the ulama look to the image of 'Ali, the image of the intellectual, esoteric yet legalistic attitude towards religion, it is undoubtedly Husayn and his representation of redemption through sacrifice and martyrdom that has caught the imagination and devotion of the Shi'i masses.

      The theme of martyrdom and patient suffering is one that is very strong in Shi'ism. This is perhaps not surprising in a sect that has for much of its existence been a persecuted minority. This theme is embodied in the lives of the Imams themselves who are each regarded as having suffered intense persecution, in some cases imprisonment and physical punishment and who are all popularly considered to have been martyred (except of course the Twelfth Imam, but see Chapter 3 regarding the historicity of this claim). The essence of this Shi'i attitude is summed up in the word mazlumiyyat which means the patient endurance of suffering caused by the tyrannical actions of those who have power over you. All the Imams are considered to have displayed this virtue and, at each of their anniversaries, their lives are recounted emphasising in particular the wrongs that they suffered at the hands of the Umayyad and 'Abbasid governments.

      There is thus a strange paradox in Shi'i Islam in that two apparently contradictory attitudes are both equally praised and commended. The Imams are praised for their patient endurance of suffering at the hands of those with political power; they are commended for their use of taqiyya (religious dissimulation) in the face of overwhelming odds. And yet the greatest Shi'i hero, the Imam Husayn, is praised and commended for not submitting to tyranny and rising up (qiyamat) and fighting even in the face of overwhelming odds and the certainty of martyrdom.

      This paradox has indeed given Shi'is religious justification for an extraordinary political versatility. Those who wish to lead the Shi'i masses can, if the opposition seems overwhelmingly superior or it is expedient to do so, enjoin upon the Shi'is the patient endurance (mazlumiyyat) of the Imams. And yet when the opportunity seems right, the Shi'i masses can be whipped up to the frenzy of revolution by appeal to the spirit of uprising (qiyam) of Husayn. In this state, as was seen in Iran in 1979, the Shi'is are prepared to go into the streets unarmed in eager anticipation of martyrdom. Indeed, it is this (rather than, as has been stated by many Western orientalists, any theoretical illegitimacy of temporal power during the Occultation of the Twelfth Imam) that is the source of the revolutionary fervour latent within Shi'i Islam. '

      One further feature of the Shi'i world-view, which is also a feature of many centuries of being a persecuted minority, is the need for a scapegoat. Although it is centuries since Shi'ism was made the official religion of Iran, this world-view is still strong among Iranian Shi'is. Thaiss has described it thus:

      The environment (in the broadest sense) to an Iranian Shi'a is seen as threatening a perception in which the directionality involved is from the environment toward the person, so that he is viewed as an effect, and various external factors as cause. A person in such a cultural situation would not likely hold himself accountable when things go wrong and would generally react by turning anger and hostility outward toward others — perceived Sunni oppressors, an arbitrary and unjust government, imperialists, agents of change and modernization, minority groups such as Jews, Bahá'í etc.2

      This world-view is as much present among the ulama as among the ordinary people and usually it has been the ulama who, as the natural leaders of the community, have directed the people as to the identity of the scapegoat. While Shi'ism was a minority, the Sunni majority were, of course, the scapegoats and for a while under the Safavids they remained in this role. Later, when the threat from the Ottoman Empire receded, internal scapegoats were found, especially among those who challenged the authority of the ulama. At first it was the Akhbaris, then successively the Shaykhis, the Babis and then the Bahá'ís. From time to time, the government or the Jews have also been cast in this role. The motif was very strong in the period immediately before the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, with the Shah being openly identified with Mu'awiya, the enemy of the Imam Husayn. Since the Revolution, the Iraqi government, American imperialism and the international Zionist conspiracy have become the major external scapegoats, while the Bahá'ís have resumed their role as internal scapegoats.

The Pattern of Religious Life

      The pattern of life for the religiously devout is punctuated by the rituals of the religion. These rituals may be classified according to whether they occur on a daily, weekly, yearly or irregular basis. These rituals are described elsewhere in this book (see Chapter g) and are only briefly listed here to demonstrate their pattern of occurrence.

      The yearly cycle is punctuated by a large number of events of religious significance. Several of these, such as the month-long fast during Ramadan, the feast of Qurban (Sacrifice, commemorating Abraham's intended sacrifice of Ishmael) and the death of Muhammad are shared with the Sunnis. In addition, however, the births and deaths of each of the Imams are commemorated by festive gatherings or mourning ceremonies as appropriate. A full list may be found in Table 8.

      The most important of these commemorations is that of the martyrdom of the Imam Husayn. The commemorations of this are detailed later in this chapter. It is traditional to keep an all-night vigil of mourning for the three days that commemorate the interval between the stabbing and death of the Imam 'Ali (19 to 21 Ramadan).

      Of the religious events that occur sporadically in the life of an individual, the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj) is of course a high point and is undertaken by all who can afford it. However, all of the important events of life such as marriage, birth and death are commemorated by religious gatherings both in the home and in the mosque. Indeed, for the less devout these may be their only contact with religion.

Religious Gatherings

      It has been customary in Iran for the devout to gather together in informal groups, usually on a neighbourhood basis, for the purpose of religious instruction and the commemoration of the events of the religious calendar. These groups, which are called hay'ats, are not organised by the ulama and the gatherings usually rotate among the houses of the members of the group. A member of the ulama will, however, often be asked to attend either to preach or to assist in the study of the Qur'an.

      The most conservative and traditionally-devout section of Iranian society has always been the Bazaar. Many of the Bazaaris form hay'ats on the basis of their guilds (i.e. on the basis of occupation). Other hay'ats may be formed on the basis of ethnic affiliation (e. g. Turkish-speaking Adharbayjanis) or just on friendship. Women, too, may have their own hay'ats or participate in the neighbourhood ones.

      In the decades preceding the 1979 Revolution in Iran, some religious groupings took on a more political aspect and became foci of anti-government sentiment. In these groups, names such as Mu'awiya and Umayyad became code-names for the Shah and the government respectively and whole orations could be given in such a mutually understood code. Some of these groups such as the Fida'iyan and Mujahidin translated the rhetoric of Husayn's rising against a tyrannical government into action by forming themselves into terrorist groups.

      Apart from the gatherings of the hay'ats and other religious groups, individual Shi'is will frequently convene other religious gatherings, often in fulfilment of a vow taken to hold such a meeting in return for recovery from an illness or similar crisis.

      The commonest of these meetings is the rawda-khani recital of the sufferings and martyrdom of the Imam Husayn (or sometimes the other Imams also). The host for the gathering will send invitations to a number of friends and colleagues at work, will invite the rawda-khan (reciter of the rawda), and provide refreshments, usually in the form of tea and sweet-meats. The rawda-khan is considered a good one if he is able to raise the emotions of his audience to the point of weeping and lamentation. At some meetings, some men will start to beat themselves on the chest as the narration reaches its climax while others call out to Husayn and weep.

      Rawda-khani is held throughout the year but, in particular, in the month of Muharram during which the martyrdom of Husayn is commemorated. On 10 Muharram, the day of 'Ashura, when the martyrdom itself occurred, most of the people attend a rawda, either in a private house, or in a mosque, or in another building called a Husayniyya, which has been specially built or converted for such use. Another aspect of the Muharram commemorations are street processions. These processions often carry a simulated body or a replica sarcophagus (naqi) and are, in effect, ritualised funeral processions for the Imam Husayn. The procession goes through the streets and the bazaar chanting eulogies and threnodies to the martyred Imam while rows of men (dastas) beat themselves rhythmically with sticks, chains and swords until the blood flows from their backs or foreheads. This self-flagellation can be seen in all parts of the Shi'i world (see Figs. 46 9). In India the procession forms around a replica of the tomb of Husayn in Karbala and the ceremony ends with the burial of the replica tomb.

      A third feature of the Muharram commemorations is the ta'ziya. This is a highly stylised theatrical presentation of the Karbala tragedy. It evolved in Iran during the late Safavid and Qajar periods[3] and spread to Iraq and south Lebanon but does not appear to be popular in other Shi'i communities. It had almost died out in Iran in recent years but has been revived since the 1979 Revolution. It has been called the Shi'i equivalent of the Christian Passion Play.

      The following is an account of a ta'ziya as witnessed by J. M. Tancoigne at Tehran. Although this account relates to the 19th century, it remains a remarkably good portrayal of such events even to the present day:

But the most curious and extraordinary of all those we have hitherto seen, is the Tazies, or desolations, a kind of funeral games, instituted in memory of the martyrdom of the Imams, Hassan and Hussein, sons of Ali. It is very difficult to give an exact description of such a spectacle, even after having seen it; I shall, however, attempt to give you an idea of the scene. We were invited by the king to be present at their celebration, and being placed conveniently in the shade of a tent raised on one of the terraces of the palace, it enabled us to enjoy a good sight of the whole at one view.

      . . . The object of the Tazies is to remind the people of these memorable events and to preserve their hatred and resentment against the Sunnis. The festival commences on the first of Mouharrem, and lasts until the 11th of the same month.

      During those days of mourning, all the mosques are hung in black, the public squares and crossways are covered with large awnings, and at regular distances are placed stands, ornamented with vases of flowers, small bells, and arms of every kind. The Mollahs stationed in pulpits sing in a mournful voice sacred hymns and lamentations, and the whole auditory respond to them with tears and deep sighs. Men almost naked run through the city, striking their breasts rapidly; others piercing their arms and legs with knives, fastening padlocks in the flesh under their breasts, or making wide ashes in their heads, invoke their saints with frightful howlings, shouting out Hassan! Hussein!

      It is in the great court of the king's palace that the five last representations take place. They might be, in some respects, compared to those ancient spectacles, in which the miseries of the passion were acted. The vizirs pay the expenses of the first day, and the city of Teheran, which is divided into four districts, pays those of the remaining four.

      On a theatre erected opposite the king's kiosk, is to be seen the family of Hussein, represented by men in women's dresses. They are in great agitation, seem to have a foreboding of the dismal fate which that Iman must experience in the plain of Kerbela, and make the air resound with shrieks and dreadful moans. Horsemen soon arrive, load them with chains and carry them off. The two armies of the Iman Hussein and the caliph Yezid then appear in the square: the battle commences, Hussein soon falls from his horse covered with wounds, and Yezid orders his head to be cut off. At that moment the sobbings and lamentations of all the assembly are redoubled; the spectators strike their breasts, and tears stream from every eye!

      On the following days, the representation of this tragedy is continued, Yezid successively destroys Hassan[*] and the two children of Hussein, who had fallen into his power, and a general procession terminates the fifth day.

      The march was opened by a crowd of men of the lower orders, carrying flags surmounted with a hand of steel, and banners of Cachemire shawls, the richness of which formed a singular contrast with the poverty of their own dresses. Then came led horses magnificently caparisoned, their trappings shining with gold and jewels; litters ornamented with foliage and verdure; figures of dead bodies covered with blood, and pierced with daggers, round which aquatic birds moved. Naked and bleeding men marched behind, some of them had a large scimitar stuck into a false skull half open, fitted on their heads, or arrows which seemed to pierce through their breasts. They were followed by a long train of camels mounted by men dressed in black, as were the female mourners, and an infinity of persons of that sort, who threw ashes and chopped straw on their heads in token of mourning. A more pompous and imposing spectacle suddenly came to variegate these hideous scenes. There appeared two great mosques of gilt wood, carried by more than three hundred men: both were inlaid with mirrors, and surmounted with little minarets: children placed in the galleries sang sacred hymns, the soft harmony of which agreeably recompensed the spectators for the frightful shoutings they had heard just before. Several Mollahs, magnificently dressed prayed in the interior, at the tomb of the two Imams. The representation of the Kaaba, or house of Abraham, at Mecca, appeared immediately after the two mosques, and was not inferior to them in richness of ornament. It was followed by Hussein's war horse, pierced all over with arrows, and led at large by his faithful slave, naked and armed with a battleaxe. A great number of children with wings of painted pasteboard, figured as angels or genii, marched in the rear.

      The procession was closed by two or three hundred of the common people in tatters, who struck their breasts, and drove two round pieces of wood with violence against each other, crying 'Hassan, Hossein! Ali!' lastly, by Mollahs each carrying a large torch of yellow wax in a candlestick. The latter stopped a moment under the windows of the kiosk, where the king was, and the Cheik ul Islam addressed, according to custom, praises to his majesty.

      We did not receive an invitation for the last day of the festival: the kin wishing to spare the legation from witnessing the assassination of a Greek ambassador, who Yezid caused to be put to death, for having interceded with him for the pardon of Hussein's brother. The Persians, from what motive I know not, produce this ambassador in the modern European dress.

      All these ceremonies are also repeated in the houses of the nobility. I give you only an imperfect idea of them, for it would be impossible for me to recollect the numerous peculiarities of the representation: yet I can assure you of the exactness of those I have related.[4]

      There appears to be a good deal of variation in different parts of the Shi'i world for the terms associated with mourning for the Imam Husayn. The terminology used above is that which is prevalent in Iran. The word ta'ziya in India denotes the model of Husayn's tomb carried in the processions (also called darih); in Iran, as noted above, it means the 'Passion Play'; in Lebanon it denotes the rawda gathering; while in southern Iraq and Bahrain it is the name given to the ceremonial processions (these latter are called jalus in India). The rawda in India is called a majlis and in southern Iraq a qiraya. The ta'ziya or 'Passion Play' is sometimes in Iran and usually in Iraq called a shabih; in Lebanon it is called shabih or tamthil al-Husayn. The building used for rawdas is called a Husayniyya in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, an Imambara in India and a Ma'tam in Bahrain (see Table 9).

      Although women also participate in rawda-khanis and may host such events exclusively for women, there is another type of religious meeting particular to women. This is called the sufra (literally tablecloth) and consists of an invitation by the hostess to a number of other women to join her for a meal which is usually preceded or followed by a discourse by a mulla (often female) on a religious theme. Sufras are often held in the name of one of the members of the Holy Family (who then becomes the theme Of the sermon for the mulla) and are often in fulfilment of a vow.

The Role and Position of Women

      The role and position of women is, throughout the Shi'i world, more a matter of cultural than religious determination. Although it is true that in most parts of the Middle East women play a subordinate role in the society, yet one can find examples, especially in tribal and village societies, where women work alongside men unveiled and with much greater social freedom.

      The most conservative and traditional sections of Shi'i society, supported by the majority of the ulama, view the role of women as being essentially to remain within the house as domestic supervisor, to provide their husbands with sexual pleasure, to bring up children and to keep away from men other than close relatives. Women are regarded as not worth any substantial education, too emotional to be trusted with any important decisions and liable, if unveiled, to lead men astray by arousing sexual desires. A woman is considered incapable of becoming a mujtahid and giving legal decisions.[5]

      It is true that a woman has substantial but strictly defined rights under Islamic law: the right to inherit, to possess property independently of her husband, to choose her husband, to work and to initiate divorce. Few women, however, are in practice able to exercise these rights effectively in a male-dominated religion. There is no mechanism whereby women can act in society independently of men. Thus only an independently wealthy woman, who can buy the services of a male agent, or a woman who is fortunate enough to obtain the full backing of the male members of her family has any hope of bringing a legal action against another person.

      Modern Shi'i writers have attacked the image of the Western, 'liberated' woman which has penetrated Shi'i society. They regard women in the West as being manipulated by society to become sex objects, consumers of cosmetics and other products of the Western economy. This degradation of women has led, they maintain, to promiscuity, adultery, divorce and the break-down of the family unit in the West. Thus they vigorously reject all movement towards importing any Western ideas of female emancipation. Any movement that had been made in that direction in Iran in the last few decades has been more than reversed since the 1979 Revolution.

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