The Nakhl Gardani ritual is carried out on the Day of Ashura in Iran. Photo: Wikipedia

To Shia Muslims scattered across the world, the first month of the Islamic calendar, Muharram, is a fateful time.

Whether they are young or old, Shiite adherents set in motion the preparations of the mourning ceremonies of Muharram at least a couple of months in advance, drape entire cities in black and gear up for commemorating the martyrdom of the third Shia Imam Hussein, a grandson of Prophet Muhammad, who was killed by the second Umayyad Caliph Yazid in the Battle of Karbala on October 10, 680.

The mourning rituals of Muharram are perhaps the most pronounced manifestations of the communal consciousness of Shiites, who currently make up around 15% of the global population of Muslims. Iran, Iraq and Lebanon are the epicenters of these rites, and there are also communities in Azerbaijan, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Bahrain and Turkey, as well as some European countries, that mourn what they deem to be a tragic loss.

The killing of the third Shia Imam, who is narrated to have been murdered under cruel circumstances, along with the massacre of the cherished members of his household and his companions, undergirded the Shia cult of martyrdom, giving birth to a historical resentment that might never recede from view and one that can be construed as the raison d’être of many principles of political Islam practiced in places like Iran today.

Many of those people who take part in observances of Muharram, and in particular the mourning of the Day of Ashura, might be totally in the dark about religion, the lives of Prophet Muhammad’s family and the events leading to the death of Imam Hussein. This includes young children who are persuaded by their parents to take part in processions and mourning rites.

However, engaging in remembrance of Muharram affords them the opportunity to profess a distinct identity and find meaning for their lives in a pluralist world in which values and virtues are subject to constantly evolution and arbitrary interpretations.

In the near past, practices associated with the Muharram observances in Iran and elsewhere were disproportionately sensationalized and extreme, immeasurably distorting the public image of Shia Muslims, framing them in violent terms before the eyes of the global public, including acts of flagellation and self-injury.

Shiite jurists banned these customs on account of the noticeable harms they were levying on the perceptions of Shia Islam.

Now, during the first 10 days of Muharram, huge crowds tune in at mosques and Islamic centers to listen to sermons by clerics and eulogy recitations by religious singers who recount the ballads of the Battle of Karbala in elaborate detail and encourage weeping over the plight of the third Shia Imam and his family and affiliates.

These are religious conventions that have their own devotees and opponents and it is up to all individuals to choose whether they wish to join such services or not.

Politicized mourning

What is deplorable is that in the recent years in Iran, Muharram ceremonies that are principally supposed to be dedicated to the exaltation of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, the tragedy of his murder and his role in sustaining Islam have been converted into venues for broadcasting political propaganda and instigating rifts in society that sometimes prove to be irreparable.

The Iranian authorities are certainly aware of the politicization of Muharram ceremonies in mosques, but they have not taken any action to address it, and this is a social epidemic that will further fragment an already divided country, stoke aggression among youth and chip away at the capital of social cohesion and tolerance just as it is desperately needed.

Clerics, eulogists, religious singers and preachers, who mostly lean toward the ultraconservatives and hardliners, are increasingly adding political overtones to their sermons and public lamentations, and exploiting the massive turnout at Muharram ceremonies to proliferate polarizing messages.

They delve directly into foreign-policy issues, including Iran’s nuclear dilemma, address and sometimes deride the country’s elected authorities, occasionally curse foreign leaders, and hurl invectives against pro-reform personalities and causes.

Mansour Arzi, a prominent eulogist and a disciple of the firebrand former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had on different occasions in the Muharram ceremonies of the preceding years launched diatribes against reformist figures and even brazenly wished death for the leaders of the Green Movement, Mirhossein Mouavi and Mehdi Karroubi, now in the ninth year of their house arrest.

In a highly controversial interview with state TV in 2016, Arzi said Imam Hussein used to swear, and that he had learned to stumble into profanity from his master, namely the third Shia Imam.

The same year, in a gathering held on the third day of Muharram, Arzi lashed out at the Iranian authorities for permitting a FIFA World Cup Qualifiers match between Iran and South Korea to be hosted in Tehran one night before the solemn day of Ashura.

He declared that the groundwork was laid for people to cheer during a nationally sensitive soccer game while Ashura was approaching: “They want to drag the youths on the eve of Tasua [ninth day of Muharram] so that they abandon the field of Karbala and come to the [playing field]. If you protest, they will gradually understand. They are looking for confrontation. If the Hezbollah is enraged, it will destroy them all.”

In 2018, during prayers he was reciting for the Day of Arafat, an Islamic holiday falling on the second day of Hajj pilgrimage, Masour Arzi predicted the death of President Hassan Rouhani, forecasting that he would be drowned in a pool.

The response by the Islamic Development Organization, the most powerful religious body in the country, was bizarre, stating that it could not admonish Arzi because he was not a member of the association of eulogists, with which this organization cooperates.

Alireza Panahian, an ultra-conservative cleric and an influential preacher, is one of the other figures who make use of the popularity of Muharram observances to put out partisan, contentious political views.

In a recent speech he made on the evening of Ashura at Imam Ali Officers’ University, Panahian addressed the audience emphatically, venturing, “Do you know what companionship means in political terms? It is what Abbas ibn Ali [Imam Hussein’s brother] did in following and obeying Imam Hussein.

“The president, parliament speaker, chief justice, members of parliament, ministers and provincial governors should do this to the Supreme Leader, otherwise they will go to hell.”

He also mocked the efforts by the late president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to promote social justice, accusing him of proselytizing liberalism. In the Iranian hardliners’ dictionary, “liberal” is an offensive term.

References of this kind are rife in the sermons and eulogies of clerics and religious singers, who sometimes receive gratuities of nearly 600 million rials (US$2,700) per night for speaking or performing at a mourning event.

Disparaging the Iran nuclear deal as the most significant foreign-policy achievement of President Rouhani, pillorying talks with the United States, calling the advocates of détente with the West traitors, denigrating foreign leaders and wishing death for the leaders of the 2009 protest movement, Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, have become a standard in the mourning ceremonies of Muharram.

And the attendees of these ceremonies, which at some larger mosques amount to hundreds, have arrived at a silent agreement that they mandate speeches and eulogies along the same lines.

Sadly, those entities that have the capital and resources to infuse moderation in these ceremonies and prevent preachers and eulogists from creating social splits through inflammatory rhetoric are indifferent to the vicissitude of religious rituals and their dangerous relapse into arenas for defamation, and the proponents of reform and progressivism are too underrepresented to enforce any change.

Muharram ceremonies are occasions that enable the faithful to reflect upon the legacy of Prophet Muhammad and his descendants, and be exposed to useful narratives about ethics and human virtues.

Abusing the observances of Muharram or any other religious occasion to score political points, slander individuals who cannot defend themselves or promote exclusionary ideologies will only allow radicalism to penetrate society and extremism to breed. This should be tackled by the government urgently.

Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist based in Iran. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow.