Iran has two calendars guiding its rituals. One is based on the cycle of the sun with the year always beginning on the spring equinox, 21 March, and the other is the moon-based Islamic calendar that moves annual events backwards in respect to the solar calendar. The Twelver Shi'a commemorative rituals on Ashura in Muharram and Arba'yin, the 40th-day-mourning of the death of Imam Huseyn, fall on different dates during the four seasons, sometimes making it awkward for people to perform the respective customary activities. On 21 March 2006, the commemoration of Arba'yin for Imam Huseyn, who had died 1,326 years earlier, fell on the first day of the Persian New Year, Nowruz, celebrating the start of 1385. This overlap pitched the mourning rituals for the most important Shi'a martyr against the most joyous, noisy, festive and busy Persian festivity, the rituals of death against celebrations of new life on the spring equinox, and ancient history against hopes for the future. The coincidence posed a challenge for people everywhere in Iran socially, logistically and emotionally, forcing them to reconcile the demands of new life and an old death, of making merry and of crying.
In 2006, the clash of the two cosmologies framing mourning and New Year celebrations was brought about by a hegemonic ideology that separated ‘proper’ ideas from ‘improper’ ones in a well-integrated religious system of Shi'a Muslims in Iran, which challenged people's identity and created both discontent and adaptation. The place where we observed these events is a small town in the province of Kohgiluye/Boir Ahmad, a tribal area in the mountains of south-west Iran. Like all ethnographic writing, this is a piece of historic ethnography in the sense that ethnographic observations reflect life-ways at the time when they were made and acquire permanence only through their documentation.
At that time, we happened to be in Sisakht, the large village in the southern province of Kohgiluye/Boir Ahmad, which we had visited and studied for 50 years, that is, between 1965 and 2015. We saw what people made of the conflict and how they coped with it. The following description and discussion address the local dynamics of the two well-established cosmological systems with different philosophical and ideological bases as they are caught in a hegemonic political ideology. This coincidence was a time of tension, when people expressed discontents more readily than at other, less stressful, times. Here, we look at the conflict in terms of socio-cultural processes. But we also must acknowledge the discontent it created amongst local people and how these people dealt with the ideologisation of established cultural and ritual practices.1
Sisakht is the most developed small town – of about 5,000 inhabitants in 2006 – in the southern Zagros Mountains. We have written about this place and its people at length elsewhere.2 For our present purposes, a short summary of the locale and its people will suffice. The area is infamous for the difficult terrain and the unruly, violent life-ways of its people. Local people identify as Lurs, speak Luri, and are largely organised in patrilineally structured tribes and sub-tribes, although the tribal leaders, the khans and kadkhodas, lost most of their political power after 1963, when the last paramount khan was assassinated at the behest of the government for insurrection. Before their demise, the tribal chiefs had steadily increased demands and pressures on their people, which left the transhumant agro-pastoral groups in poverty. Sisakht, which was founded in the 1880s in a small group's summer pasture that provided good water, fields and defence, prospered under their first chief's leadership and grew through immigration and high fertility rates. Although small, the group became famous in the area for its agricultural successes, the secular school the chief had organised, and the attempts to ‘make progress’ against the wishes of other khans, who were afraid that thereby their rule would be challenged. Sisakht has remained a leader in socio-cultural and educational progress in the area. It became the prosperous county seat of Denā County and was recently developing into a tourist place for mountaineers. In February 2021, though, an earthquake nearly levelled the town, and it remains to be seen to what extent it will recover in the dismal economic situation Iran now finds itself in.
The local people say they were Twelver Shi'ites as long as they can remember.3 Although most were illiterate until the 1960s, it seems that Quran instruction was available occasionally (for boys) and that there were ‘always’ some men who could perform scripture-based rituals such as reading the prayers for the dead. Yet, even before the Islamic Republic's missionaries encouraged people everywhere to mark Ashura and Arba'yin with elaborate rituals of mourning, people in Sisakht had staged scenes of the battlefield of Karbala, with a black-clad horse, men being ‘killed’, the Imam Huseyn being martyred, and women and children taken prisoner. We could not find out when such rituals had started there, far from centres of religious learning and off the path for the usual dissemination of religious activities from towns, bazars, religious schools, mullahs, mosques and sermons. There are, however, several villages in the province with popular shrines and populated mainly by seyeds – that is, by purported descendants of the Prophet's lineage. Some of these men and women as well as migrant dervishes dealt in amulets, Quran readings at funerals, and assorted religious knowledge amongst the largely poor, illiterate, pastoral/agricultural tribal people in their summer and winter pastures and in small settlements.
From about 1950 to his death in 1996, Sisakht also had a resident akhund, a mullah.4 He was from a village outside the province, which had a reputation for the orthodox piety of its residents. The first chief of Sisakht had recruited him and had given him a daughter to be his wife. He lived in Sisakht with his family near the mosque the villagers had built, a mudbrick building with a flat roof just like other houses but a bit larger. Although few men ever prayed in the simple building or listened to the mullah's rare sermons, the mullah said he was a successful teacher of the basics of Islam.5
By the time we met them, people had developed a varied, rich theology with God as the powerful and wilful creator of everything. They understood their emphasis on working hard, doing good, discharging their responsibilities and trying to get ahead as fulfilling God's most important orders, which took precedence over the meticulous observation of elaborate rules and rituals.6 ‘God is just and generous’, they said. ‘When He judges us, He will take into account our hard work for making a living, which occasionally makes us neglect prayers and commit other omissions and infractions of his rules’. As far back as they can remember, people have observed the commemorative holy days of Ashura (the martyr's death of Huseyn), on the tenth of Muharram, and of Arba'yin, which is at the end of the mourning period. Outsiders who now try to teach local people the ‘true Islam’ of the Islamic Republic meet with behind-the-back resentment. As one old peasant said: ‘We have been good Muslims already at a time when these city people walked around naked and had Godless booze parties, and now they want to teach us religion!”
Over time, the presence of ‘official Islam’ has become more visible. By 2003, a large concrete-and-brick mosque with tile work and a minaret7 stood on the grounds of the old mosque and several razed houses, and a second mosque served the southern part of the expanding town. Three mullahs resided in town more or less permanently, assisted by others who came and went. All were from places outside the tribal area. Most local attendees at mosque rituals were men. ‘Women did not feel welcome’, they said. The few who attended sermons sat in the balcony, and the male worshippers accused them of not paying attention. They largely felt left out of this part of their religion.8
Mosques and mullahs aside, local people saw themselves as good Muslims trying to fulfil the basic demands of piety, humble gratitude and the God-pleasing conduct of their traditions as ethics and knowledge of scriptures suggest. They also performed rituals meant to manage and control extra-human powers (created by God) or to engage them for the management of agricultural and pastoral needs and for health. For example, people used various beads of agates, corals, ceramics and such to prevent or cure diseases, ward off the Evil Eye and keep malevolent djinn at bay, and they used formulaic prayers (du'a) for such purposes as preventing wolves from attacking sheep or a pest from destroying wheat. People visited certain springs, trees and people (called pir), expecting them to emanate benevolent power that would bestow grace on them. Over the past century, most of these places morphed into tombs of one or the other purported descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, mostly men. The post-revolutionary religious authorities disparage such undocumented claims, and raze these locations or turn them into picnic places to discourage pre-Islamic, Zoroastrian beliefs in the powers of trees, springs and deities.9
It is common knowledge in Sisakht that many of their useful rituals and the festive celebrations at the spring equinox have pre-Islamic origins. In principle, they see no difficulty in honouring both traditions, explaining that God makes trees grow and springs flow, and gives trees and waters and amulets and formulaic prayers their obvious and much-tested powers. God wants people to use their heads to figure out how to use all that He provides in order to live well. The syncretism is no theological problem in this form of Islam. There is no heterodoxy, no secrecy: all is integrated under the umbrella of God's Will, of his creative power and care for people. Quite logically, (rare) rituals that hurt others are part of religion, too: they are ‘sinful’. A ritual meant to make a man dislike his wife or co-wife, for example, is done in secret, a ‘bad’ deed God disapproves of.
Modernity side-lines some of the pre-Islamic practices, such as the medicinal use of amulets and beads: physicians and their medicines are more powerful than beads. Indeed, some of the old rituals now sink into half-secrecy to prevent the person who makes the sacred objects from being called old-fashioned and superstitious. Djinn, the spirits mentioned in the Quran, have also receded, and with them the many small rituals used to keep them away, because they do not like the light and the noise of a modern town. But other rituals have stayed, and have even been elaborated, such as neo-traditional weddings, pilgrimages to saints’ tombs, and the celebration of Nowruz.
Soon after the Revolution (1978–1979) the government declared all music, dance and loud merriment to be morally dangerous and un-Islamic, and forbade them, including New Year festivities. But this millennia-old tradition is so well rooted in Persian cosmology and identity and so close to the pulse of life in Iran, that it proved resilient to suppression. Music and weddings went private and promoted corruption when guardians of morality were paid for turning a deaf ear and blind eye to the toned-down weddings behind the walls of courtyards, but the New Year visitations continued more or less openly, and were tacitly tolerated by the authorities.
The Persian New Year: Nowruz
Like elsewhere in Iran, in Boir Ahmad, too, preparations for New Year's Day start weeks earlier with the growing of grain sprouts to be put on a tablecloth (sofreh) as part of the display of haft sin objects. The ‘seven s’ (haft sin) items all start with the letter ‘s’, and are said to bring health and good fortune.10 People furthermore arrange for new clothes, prepare for lavish hospitality at home, go for visits to the cemetery, and make their homes clean. In an elaboration of normal house-cleaning, women ‘take the house apart’ with mutual assistance amongst relatives and a lot of merrymaking. For the picnic outing on the thirteenth day in the new year, women have to get food ready, everything from simple finger food and tea to ingredients for lavish cookouts and big pots of rice. All preparations imply substantial cost, labour (especially for women), but also a festive and anticipatory spirit. New Year celebrations are a family affair; women are essential.
On the first day of Farvardin, that is, on the twenty-first day of March, the greens and the haft sin arrangements are on display and the visiting starts. Visits follow a protocol of rank: those of lower social standing visit those of highest standing first. The village chief's house can expect the most visits, early in the day. (The former chiefs’ families had no more political power or economic might, but the high social rank was still in place.) Grown children visit their parents; sons-in-law visit the houses of their fathers-in-law; young relatives visit elderly relatives. Men and women are on the move throughout the village all day, and one must have a good sense for who will visit whom so as to be at home when a cousin shows up and not to embarrass relatives who do not expect you yet. Toward the end of the first day and on the following days, the hierarchy is turned upside down: higher-ranking people will visit lower-ranking ones. The mutual visitations at the New Year honour both, host and visitor, but the acknowledgement of relative status through visits is a fine art, and miscalculations may lead to intended and unintended snubs.
Proper honouring of relatives also includes dead relatives, especially those who died recently – they, too, like visitors. However, grave visitations at Nowruz were perfunctory – ‘we go up to the graveyard just to say hello’, said a neighbour. In contrast, the ‘normal’ ritual of mourning the dead at their graves and of ‘feeding’ them by offering sweets and fruits to other visitors in their names is done mostly by women every Thursday afternoon. Moreover, the spirit of New Year was one of joy and light-heartedness, not of mourning; of thinking of family and relatives, not of strangers; of a celebration of life and a good future, not of death and the past.
Traditionally, on the thirteenth day of the new year (sizda ve dar), families locked up their houses (or left somebody behind to guard against thieves) and gathered in the hills above the village for big picnics. Rugs and heavy pots with food, tea paraphernalia, firewood and all kinds of goodies were lugged up, preferably to a spot near a brook, and relatives enjoyed each other's company and a good time. By leaving the village, people said they escaped evil spirits that hovered above their houses on that day. By 2006, this belief had weakened, and the proper time for the outing had expanded to two weeks following the vernal equinox. Now, it preferably includes travel by car to a favourite picnic spot in the countryside. As there also is a near total shutdown of government offices and the bazar during this time, people use the vacation days to visit faraway relatives.
Arba'yin/Chehellom: The ‘Fortieth’ of Imam Huseyn
The commemoration of the fortieth day after the death of Imam Huseyn is one of the important mourning rituals for Shi'ites everywhere.11 As it is based on the lunar calendar, its solar calendar date falls on the same day only every 32 years. The rituals commemorating Imam Huseyn, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, surpass all others in significance, length, popularity and depth of mourning. Husayn ibn Ali ibn Abi Talib, the younger son of the Prophet's daughter Fatimah and the Prophet's paternal cousin Ali, was born in 626 CE and died on the battlefield of Karbala on the tenth of the month of Muharram in 61 AH (680 CE). In line with patrilineal descent, and as wished for by the Prophet, who included his daughter's sons in the inner circle of his family, the family attempted to continue the Prophet's political and spiritual leadership after his death but was challenged by a rival. The ensuing hostilities, injustices, battles, killings and war atrocities towards the Prophet's family members are a foundation for the lively cults of mourning in Shi'a communities. Of all fights, the Battle of Karbala, in which Huseyn and his infant son were killed together with scores of his followers, is the most significant.
In the recounting of these events, their historico-political aspects are played down and stories of the cruelty, injustice and betrayal of trust of the challenger to the mantle of leadership over Muhammad's successful and appealing religious doctrines and growing followership are all-important. The month of Muharram is one long period of sadness that is punctuated by the rituals of re-enactment and remembrance of the atrocities of the tenth day, Ashura. The customary mourning period for any dead person lasts 40 days, with a final mourning ritual, the Chehellom (‘the Fortieth’), at the end. The one for Imam Huseyn is called Arba'yin, ‘Forty’ in Arabic, or, in Persian, Chehellom-e Imam Huseyn, and is especially intense.
The rituals may include programmed crying and wailing in the mosque and in private homes, choreographed performances of black-clad flagellants in the streets, and mourning processions as well as wailing and other expressions of grief in graveyards. In Sisakht, over the years the observation of this day has varied greatly. Mourning activities depended more on the initiative of single organisers of events than on a routinised tradition. For example, in 1997 the mullah led a short procession through the village, with banners and chanting, while in 1998 there was no public event at all. At that time, the village was undergoing intense religious re-education led by religious dignitaries from outside the tribal area, who in their sermons placed more emphasis on the spirit of correctly remembering the darkest moments of Shi'a history than on local rituals of mourning.
Since that time, attendance at mourning events organised by government agencies has taken on a political dimension. What in the past was conceived as an individual and communal expression of compassion with one of the most beloved Shi'a saints, now many see as an event controlled by government agents who use people's (mostly men's) attendance as a measure of allegiance to the regime. The story of Karbala continues to move people like no other legend, and dead people in the village are mourned loudly and passionately. They are remembered in visits to their graves and in alms given to the poor in their names. But this world, people say, is for the living, and the incessant remembrance of pain, suffering and death makes people dispirited and depressed.
New Year Meets Arba'yin/Chehellom
The two rituals with their different calendars have operated side by side in Iran; they are separate and equally important. People deal with death and the afterlife on the one hand and with birth and life in the here and now on the other hand as facts of real life. The only conflict that has ever arisen between these two times has been when politeness and respect demanded the postponement of a wedding, for example, because of a death in the kin group. Such cases caused inconveniences, but the wedding was usually able to be rearranged and postponed. But feasts bound to the spring equinox cannot be postponed, and neither can celebrations based on the movement of the moon.
In 1970, the New Year fell on the thirteenth day of Muharram, the month of mourning, in the Islamic lunar calendar. Thus, the New Year started just three days after Ashura, when the death of Imam Huseyn is mourned in grand style. We were in Sisakht at that time. People performed the mourning rituals as usual, and three days later they visited each other in celebration of the New Year, also as usual, albeit a bit more quietly than in other years. The next day, a group of pious men again congregated for a mourning session in the mosque. The living and the dead were thus both honoured.12
At the coincidence in 2006, the Islamic government had made it abundantly clear that the observance of Arba'yin would preclude the celebration of Nowruz. Without exception, people in town were sad or angry. Authorities and officials were ill at ease because they knew of the resentment and because, being Iranian, most of them were fond of Nowruz too, and shared the ill feelings.
By prohibiting the New Year celebration, the government had clearly pitched the two traditions against each other. People could not visit each other to wish each other well, to admire the haft sin arrangements, to honour each other. The authorities scheduled a mourning session in the mosque and a procession through the village led by flagellants. Many people boycotted them.13 Instead, they combined mourning for Imam Huseyn and visiting their dead relatives en masse. The graveyard was filled with people who gathered there, ostentatiously grieving for their own dead and, even louder, for the victims of two recent fatal car accidents. They even grieved for one of their dead former village chiefs, a senile old man whom hardly anybody had seen for years and who had died the year before. The arrival of his family caused an outpouring of wailing and a spectacle of grief that surprised everybody, including the mourners.
The resident mullahs had left for their own places for the holidays. A visiting mullah, a clueless stranger, cleverly followed the crowd to the cemetery. There, he gave a sermon that was drowned out by the wailing of women. A small band of flagellants also moved up the hill to the cemetery but there quickly disbanded and disappeared. Sitting between graves the women exchanged Nowruz sweets while visiting with each other and crying. They put trays with grain sprouts, flowers and other New Year items on their relatives’ graves, creating New Year displays on the tombs. Quite obviously, discouraged from honouring each other in the customary, finely calculated ritual visits, people were giving honours to their dead instead. They had obeyed the government yet had subverted the orders effectively, creating a stalemate for both the mourning for Huseyn and the New Year celebration.
In many homes, people had prepared the usual haft sin displays, but there was only a little, quiet visiting amongst relatives and neighbours. People were too upset, they said, to celebrate Nowruz as it should be celebrated, but clearly they did not see an advantage in provoking the authorities. In a neighbouring town with a large population of diverse political and cultural leanings, reportedly there were several mourning processions organised, but not only did several neighbourhoods boycott them, they openly carried out New Year visitations, and some young people also dared to light New Year bonfires in the mountains, a relatively new custom. These had been explicitly banned by the authorities. The rituals were taken to be highly visible signs of assertion of traditional Iranian culture that is perceived by the people to be under severe pressure in the Islamic Republic. In Sisakht, it was easier for people to observe the thirteenth day of the new year because it happened outside the village as an outing. So many villagers had cars in 2006, that for most who wanted to it was easy to leave the area for a good picnic elsewhere or for visits in a city.
The two opposite theologico-philosophical and ritual schemata of Muharram and Nowruz are equally authentic parts of Iranian culture. No matter where they originated, they entered the cultural and emotional repertoire of the people to the point of forming integral parts of people's identity as Iranian Muslims. As conceived by local people and by theologians today, there is no inner connection between the two world views. Governmental authorities and some orthodox supporters pitch them as either/or opposites. But as the world views express two complementary aspects of human life, death and rebirth, mourning and rejoicing, their antithetical content binds them together. As far as the people are concerned, a good Iranian is a good Muslim. One identity does not inhibit, let alone preclude, the other. Indeed, under normal circumstances of everyday life, rarely does one challenge the other.14
Yet, in this case, aided by a calendrical coincidence, the regime managed to replace a joyful, life-affirming old ritual with mourning. Thereby, it supplanted the national Iranian ethos that it regards as a rival ideology with a version of a Shi'a ethos that centres on dark moods, arguing that in times of revolution, war and distress it was callous to engage in frivolities. The ubiquitous shahid martyrs during and after the Iran–Iraq war aided this argument by eliciting sustained mourning throughout the country.15 Graveyards became such familiar places that since the Revolution processions during the month of mourning have moved not only through town, as they did earlier, but also to the graveyard. The regime thereby established a connection between the deaths of the Prophet's people and the deaths of relatives, and thus obliged people to participate in public Muharram activities. Many people resented this pressure. Flagellants, men who in 1965 moved the whole village with their enthusiastic performance of grief and empathy for the murdered family of the Prophet, by 2006 elicited caustic remarks and met with indifference or even hostility. They signify the government's antagonism towards a basic principle of Iranian philosophy, the one that sees God as a just and loving power wishing people to be happy and contented.
The war created many dead young men. Old people are said to have finished their lives; their death is sad but expected. But for young people, death interrupts the joys of a long life. It is not ‘normal’. The young are pitied, not only mourned and missed like old people are. Even during the fun time of New Year rituals, these dead are remembered with tears; their ‘place is empty’ (jashun khali-e), and one sees them in one's mind. They ‘pull’ their relatives to the graves, as a grieving grandmother expressed it, and make visiting them on occasions like Nowruz an emotional necessity. Most likely, visits to cemeteries at New Year which started in earnest after the Revolution will stay as part of Nowruz obligations even without governmental pressure.
The people's discontent thus is not with mourning per se or with feeling obliged to remember death more frequently, nor is it with the government's insistence on mourning as a religiously appropriate state of mind befitting a good Muslim. The discontent is with the disturbance of a balance, of a coexistence of two traditions, each elaborating a different, deeply felt sentiment. With the shift to mourning, people perceive Shi'a theology as celebrating death: many ‘feasts’ on official calendars are commemorations of martyrs. People say that this shift towards death and the afterlife makes it easy for the government to ignore the needs and wants of the living.
Indeed, the shift in emphasis from one cosmology to the other turned mourning from being a religious/social private affair that concerned families and communities into a public and governmental religious ritual. As ‘Islam’ and government are linked now, people establish a shortcut: the government wants people to participate in religious rituals for the political purpose of creating allegiance and power. From there, it is only a small step for people to go from criticising the government for its inability to satisfy their economic needs and wants, to boycotting government-orchestrated religious activities that, earlier, people attended to show compassion for those they mourned.
In final analysis, the case of Nowruz versus Arba'yin is one that pitches culture against political power, local culture against political hegemony of the state, and an inclusive, integrative local culture against an exclusionary state ideology that uses concepts like ‘superstition’, ‘heathen’ and ‘wrong beliefs’ to denigrate local sensibilities and aesthetics. The national Iranian culture combines Islam with age-old cultural practices adjusted to the solar calendar and thereby to the agricultural cycle and to peasant life in ways that honours both but riles orthodox, puritan Muslims. The New Year celebrations, one of the ritual pillars in the national Iranian culture, thus have different connotations for local people and for government ideologues. For ordinary people, it implies values that shape Iranian identity but also the recognition of the peasants’ seasonal cycle of work and ‘nature’ in ways that are missing in the Islamic festivities. People identifying with a strictly scripture-based Islam will dismiss Nowruz because it has no basis in Islam and celebrates not a religious event but life, plenty and fertility, thus indirectly paying homage to women outside the Islamic frame. With the goal of religious uniformity, the hegemonic state ideology propagates a culture that devalues, discourages and prevents traditional cultural practices that are meaningful and emotionally satisfying to most people, including many ideologues and government personnel.
As long as both traditions manifested themselves on the cultural plane of ritual, people were able to handle them side by side. Thus, in 2006 some women in the cemetery came to the conclusion that it would have been entirely possible to mourn Huseyn in the morning and ‘do’ Nowruz in the afternoon, or else to stage a big mourning event on the evening before Arba'yin and then to proceed with the New Year rituals as scheduled. But the government had moved the affair from the cultural and practical to the political and ideological plane, where the logic of either/or propositions made compromise impossible. The only solution acceptable to the authorities was a political one that everybody perceived as hegemonic. In reaction, people have resorted to the low-keyed protests of the ‘weapons of the weak’ (Scott 1990) which, however, are largely ineffective as tools of political change.16 But as the ritual requirements of deep mourning for Imam Huseyn and the light-hearted celebrations of new life with family, food and fun17will not have to be reconciled again for a long time, they will not provoke another such crisis soon.
We thank Professor Christian Bromberger for the following information he kindly gave us in November 2021 pertaining to the Iranian government's stance towards New Year celebrations and its effort to reinterpret them so as to fit them into their religious frame: In 2006, official posters in Iran proposed a compromise for the benefit of the prince of martyrs with the text: Nowruz-e man bar Hoseyn ast’ (‘My Nowruz is for Hoseyn’). Moreover, the mullahs variously claim that Nowruz supposedly coincides with Gabriel's visit to the Prophet Muhammad, with the nomination of Ali by Muhammad as his legitimate successor, and even with the second coming of the Hidden Imam on the Day of Judgement.
This means they accept the legally, divinely ordained spiritual and political leadership of a succession of twelve imams, considered infallible, sinless descendants of the Prophet Muhammad's closest family. Imam Huseyn was the third Imam. The last is believed to be in occultation and to appear again at the end of time, the Day of Judgement, to lead the faithful
‘Mullah’ is the common translation of akhund, a man trained at a school of theology. Mullahs are recognisable by wearing a special mantle and a turban, and are paid mostly by the faithful they serve at weddings and funerals with prayers and other officiating duties.
See the variegated theologies and life philosophies men in this village developed, all under the banner of Islam (Loeffler 1988).
The new mosque was planned and paid for by a man from Isfahan living in Sisakht, and reportedly by an expatriate Iranian woman living in Kuwait.
At about that time, religious institutions sent women trained in explaining scriptures to teach local women. They disseminated what people call the ‘government religion’, and were not a big success locally.
Organised and subsidised by governmental agencies, pilgrimages to famous shrines such as in Qom or Iraq become extremely popular as destinations for tourists and for people with problems that modern medicine and their own resources cannot solve. In 2006, we were told that the previous year about a million Iranian pilgrims had visited the Shi'a shrines in Iraq and Syria alone. The pilgrimage industry has grown ever more since then.
Locally, the traditional Nowruz display consisted simply of sprouts, a mirror, sweets, candles, a colored egg, a Quran, chickpeas and fruit; to these were added pieces from the urban haft sin proper: sprouts, sumac, garlic, apple, coins, vinegar, vinegar syrup, other goodies and plastic flowers for ‘beauty’. Haft sin displays have become competitive amongst relatives and neighbours.
In 1974, Nowruz and Arba'yin also fell on the same day, but we missed it. When, 30 years later, we asked what happened at that time, people said they could not remember, but if they had ignored Nowruz then, it would have been because of compassion for Imam Huseyn rather than because of a demand made by the mullahs.
Many people depended on the government for a livelihood in the form of salaries, contract projects or economic assistance for the poor, and were afraid to lose their income if they missed official public gatherings. Schoolchildren, too, were a captive audience. Dependency on the government for a livelihood has increased since then.
The condition has changed somewhat over the past 15 years, especially in urban areas, where people, tired of the government's heavy-handed attempts at forcing a puritan version of Islam, together with the Islamic political leadership's failures in economic, political and cultural advances, are forging their own religious identities outside of Shi'a traditions. See, for example, GAMAAN (2021).
For an excellent example of how discontent, ideologies, kin ties, women's agency, and rituals can combine to further a revolution, see Hegland (1983 and 2014), which describe this process for a large village in Iran just outside the tribal area.
Fazel, M. K. (1988), ‘The Politics of Passions: Growing Up Shia’, Iranian Studies 21, no. 3–4: 37–51, doi:10.1080/00210868808701716
GAMAAN (Iranian Thought Survey Study Group) (2021), ‘Iranian Attitudes toward Religion: A 2020 Survey Report’, Netherlands: GAMAAN, https://gamaan.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/GAMAAN-Iran-Religion-Survey-2020-English.pdf (accessed 25 January 2021).
Hegland, M. E. (1983), ‘Ritual and Revolution in Iran’, in Political Anthropology, Vol. 2, (ed.) J. A. Myron (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books), 75–100.
Loeffler, R. (2011), ‘The Ethos of Progress in a Village in Iran’, Anthropology of the Middle East 6, no. 2: 1–13, doi:10.3167/ame.2011.060202
Loeffler R. and K. Loeffler (2022), Our Toil and God's Blessing: The Culture of Progress in an Iranian Tribal Village (Bloomington, IN: Archway Publishing).
Wellman, R. (2017), ‘Sacralizing Kinship, Naturalizing the Nation: Blood and Food in Postrevolutionary Iran’, American Ethnologist 44, no. 3: 503–515, doi:10.1111/amet.12525