Among the religious holidays commemorated by Shi’a Muslims, Ashura—the day of mourning for the Prophet’s grandson, Husayn ibn Ali, who was killed by the Umayyad caliph in 680 AD after refusing to swear his allegiance—has a singular role in Iran’s political tradition. For decades under the oppressive rule of the Shah, Iranian clerics marked the day by drawing parallels between Husayn’s position and their own. Following the 1979 revolution, the new Islamic Republic pivoted, using the ritual as a source of legitimacy. Once again, however, Iran’s anti-government protest movement has seized on the day’s theme of resistance to tyranny—and the Ashura commemorations have become a major arena for political and social unrest for the first time in 44 years.
Legitimacy and Dissent in Ashura
The Islamic Republic came to power in 1979 with the support of the masses, many of whom were highly religious and believed that the Shah had been antagonistic to religion. One month after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s return to the country, the Islamic Republic was created and the new regime did its best to incorporate state ideology into Shi’a religious holidays. Today, the clerical government of Iran is deeply involved in commemorations of Ashura, the Arbaeen pilgrimage, and recently the Ghadir feeding ceremony; by sponsoring and participating in these events, it hopes to prove its political and religious legitimacy.
Over four decades, the state’s involvement in these holidays has led to a gradual transformation of the social institution of religion into a political institution. By monopolizing power and characterizing domestic political opponents as “anti-revolutionary” and “irreligious”, the government aims to bolster its legitimacy in opposing dissent, thereby desensitizing the populace to acts of repression. During his time in power, Ayatollah Khomeini directly connected the commemoration of Ashura to the well-being of the Islamic Republic, saying, “If you want the revolution to be preserved, you must preserve the tradition [of mourning].”
Still, at its core, Ashura is a celebration of revolution—and this makes it a curious legitimizing ritual for a government that has lost the support of a significant portion of its people. In 2023, Ashura (which was commemorated in late July) was not only used to defend the legitimacy of the government, but also to attack it. Some Shi’a Muslims pointed to the symbol of Ashura’s message against tyranny by citing some of its messages, notably Imam Husayn’s famous saying, “Never to Humiliation!” Some connected the saying to the humiliations faced by women who had been beaten—and, in the case of Mahsa Amini, murdered—for refusing to wear headscarves and for other slights against the ruling regime.
In Yazd, a city known as “the place of life of believers”, the pious mourned both Husayn’s death and the country’s violent unrest with a poem: “Stop, O tyrant! God’s patience has run out. Stop, O tyrant! The soil of the earth is red from the spilled blood.” In the city of Dezful, the mourners, mocking the regime’s strictness on women’s hijab, chanted, “All their concern is the veil of women. They do not see the poverty of the people and the shame of the parents. They do not see the tears and sighs of the workers and the suffering of the widows…”
Religion Yes, Clerics No
To get a more realistic view, the protest actions of some mourners this year should be defined under the more general notion of “cynicism towards the regime” and “increasing distrust of the clergy”. For many years, Iranians of all backgrounds have developed a strong feeling of hatred and pessimism towards the clerical class due to the dire economic conditions and the political and financial mismanagement by the Islamic Republic. These frustrations have sometimes translated into random acts of violence. In April 2019, in the western city of Hamadan, a cleric was killed by a man with a weapon, and the killer confessed by publishing photos on Instagram. On April 5, 2022, at Mashhad’s Imam Reza Shrine, a man brought a knife and attacked three clerics, two of whom died.
Pessimism and mistrust of the clergy has caused some people to oppose their religious orders and guidance. Some people on social media have encouraged Ashura mourners to wear white clothes instead of the traditional black as an expression of defiance. Some protesters have taken this notion a step further; two women and a man were arrested in July after they took off their clothes in front of a holy place for mourning. Gholam Ali Jafarzadeh, a former member of parliament, wrote in a tweet that many mosques simply would not invite clerics to give a speech on Ashura this year. “People, especially the young among them, were leaving mosques in protest against clerics giving speeches,” he said.
Although the regime has tried to use the religious sentiments of Iranian society to consolidate and strengthen its rule over the past four decades, its endemic mismanagement—and its bloody reaction to last year’s protests—have caused a deep rift between many young Ashura mourners and the regime. In the city of Amol, the Niaki musical group of mourners wore white clothes instead of black mourning clothes on the Day of Ashura. Moreover, contrary to the custom, they went to the grave of one of the victims of the recent protests and sang the song, “Tulips have grown from the blood of the youth of the country,” a famous song protesting against the oppression of cruel rulers. Later, the leaders of the group were arrested and forced to express regret under police pressure.
Another problem of the regime is the changing nature of some new classes of mourners. Although these people may not be anti-revolutionary and may wish to keep an “Islamic Republic” in place, they are mostly young people with progressive ideas who believe that government interference in religion and control over social and religious institutions is a form of totalitarianism.
A number of these people can be found among the “eulogists,” the people who sing sad poems in rituals and encourage others to mourn and cry for the martyrdom of the Shia imams. They gradually became an independent class and are respected among the religious community. Although some eulogists are connected with the regime, some of them protest the political, social, and economic conditions of the country, which they consider to be the result of the government’s mismanagement.
These anti-clerical eulogists have introduced their ideas into the Ashura commemoration in a variety of ways, with varying degrees of success. Hamid Alimi, a popular eulogist, has criticized both Rouhani and Raisi for their poor economic performance. He planned to perform a religious program in the city of Isfahan, but the security forces prevented him from doing so—one indication that the regime, as well as the dissident mourners, was aware that Ashura 2023 had become a key battleground in the ongoing confrontation for the future of Iran.
To be sure, the protests within the Ashura mourning community do not appear to have significantly disrupted the ritual for most Iranian Shi’a, and many of the country’s most devout continue to believe in clerical rule. But the recent ripple of dissent across Ashura mourners—for the first time since 1979—has ominous consequences for the clerical government’s future. In a sense, the Iranian Revolution was supported by, and conducted on behalf of, religious Iranians, and the faithful have long been a key bastion of support for the regime during previous times of unrest. That a growing number are unwilling to follow its dictates suggests that, with the coming of a new generation, revolution is once again in the air.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.