Tuesday, December 8, 2009

History of commemoration

The mourning and commemoration for Husayn ibn Ali originated in Arab Iraq, as this is where Husayn was martyred. However, they were held in Iran as early as the twelfth century, when both Sunnis and Shias participated in them. In the Safavid period, the annual mourning ceremonies for Imam Hosayn, combined with the ritual cursing of his enemies, acquired the status of a national institution. Expressions of grief such as sine-zani (beating the chest), zangir-zani (beating oneself with chains), and tage-zani or qama-zani (hitting oneself with swords or knives) emerged as common features of the proliferating mourning-processions (dasta-gardani). Mourning for the martyred Imam also took place in assemblies held in buildings erected especially for the purpose, known either as Hussainia or takia, as well as in mosques and private houses. At these assemblies, called either rawze-khani (the recitation of Rawzat al-Shuhada by Hosayn Waeze Kashefi (d. 910/1504-05)) or marsia-khani (the recitation of elegies), professional reciters and preachers would recount the deeds of the martyrs and curse their enemies, arousing the emotions of the mourners who responded by singing dirges at appropriate intervals in the narrative. Theatrical representations of the tragedy at Karbala (ta'zia)—possibly the most remarkable feature of the entire corpus of Muharram ritual—also made their appearance in the Safavid period.[1]

Commemoration of the tragedy at Karbala reached its apogee in the mid-nineteenth century. By then it had spread across a vast area, extending from the Middle East and the Caucasus eastwards to India, Indonesia, and Thailand, and it had even been established in Trinidad by Indian Muslim migrants. In Iran, the memory of Karbala came to permeate social and cultural life, with mourning assemblies and dramatic performances (not all shias agree with the re-enacting of the tragedy of Karbala however) being organized throughout the year, not only in Muharram. The occasion might be furnished by the death of a revered person or the need to fulfill a vow. Gatherings known as sofra (lit. tablecloth), in which the preparation and serving of food played a focal role, were exclusively feminine: the preachers as well as the mourners were all women, and the lives and tribulations of women such as Fatimah and Zaynab were the principal topic of commemoration. Gatherings of this type appear to have originated in the late nineteenth century.


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