Death Rites and Rituals: A Contemporary Shii Perspective

Much can be learned from a culture and its belief systems from funerary rituals, burial locations, grave inscriptions, and associated material objects. Additionally, the existence of retail industries at the cemetery locations, taking advantage of pilgrim visitations and selling an array of both religious and non-religious products, reveal dynamic and evolving aspects of the culture. It is against this background that this session offers an array of Shii-related thematic subjects.

“A Death Never-ending: Theoretical Reflections on the Ritualized Recurrence of Imam Husain’s Becoming and Death in Shiʿism,” discusses memorials as an annually celebrated ritual.
“Sex and the Cemetery: Iranian Pilgrims, Shrine Visitation, and Consumer Piety in Damascus,” discusses how visitations to the cemetery of the Prophet’s wives' graves in Damascus are promoting an unusual economic activity in the form of retail businesses located directly adjacent to the cemetery.
“The Reviving of Muharram Processions in Mumbai, an Iranian Initiative” was added to the panel by the organizers of the conference.


by /

“Every land is Karbala, every day is `ashura.” This maxim, attributed to Imam Jaʿfar al-Sadiq provides a number of insights into the ongoing and never fully completed death of Imam Husain at the battle of Karbala in 680 CE. In Husain Va`ez Kashefi’s Rowzat al-Shohada, and in marsiya, salam, and nauha poems, the Shi`a are commanded to always remember Imam Husain and his loyal followers and family members. In the dramatic performance of the Iranian ta`ziyeh tradition through the ritualized, public, and collective performance of matam by men, the martyrdom of Imam Husain never remains a past and completed event. Shi`i devotional texts and a multitude of performative modes constitute a ritualized recurrence in which Imam Husain’s death is an act that took place in the past (recurrence), yet its remembrance (ritual) produces a never-ending becoming, of being in the present and a projection toward the eschatological future. The consummate martyr (shahid), Imam Husain’s death is limited to the corporeal: “And do not say of those who are slain in the way of Allah: ‘They are dead’. No, they are living, though you do not perceive it” (Qur’an 2:154). Roy Rappaport’s theory of recurrent ritual refers to performances that “lead back, so to speak, from whence they came. Cycles are familiar, and many liturgical orders, most obviously calendrical orders, take a ‘cyclical’ form” (1992). Kashefi speaks of the recurrent nature of Imam Husain’s becoming and death when he writes, “Nearly 847 years have passed between the martyrdom of Imam Husain and the writing of this book. Every time the month of Muharram is renewed, the letters reviving his suffering will be drawn upon the pages of the hearts of Muslims, and the devotees of the Prophet of humanity” (1979). The ta`ziyeh likewise is a recurrent, cyclical ritualized re-presentation of Imam Husain’s becoming a hero of faith and a living martyr. In the dramatic performance of the ta`ziyeh, Imam Husain is brought back to life—he is made immediate and real—and his death is re-presented and the wounds the martyr received on his body are re-inscribed on the bodies of Shi`i devotees as they perform matam on `ashura.

by /

‘Carnivalesque’ is perhaps the best, if not the only way to describe the scene: in front of the Prophet’s wives graves in Damascus, Shi‘i pilgrims can buy imitation Viagra, sex-enhancement crèmes, and massage oils. Sexual paraphernalia and sex toys are otherwise banned in Syria, and medical drugs such as these are usually only for sale at pharmacies. Yet, an array of sex-related items could be bought from make-shift vendors, right outside of the shrines of two of Prophet Muhammad’s wives until very recently.

Until the Syrian Uprising severely limited Iranian pilgrimage to Syrian sacred sites starting in 2011, thousands of Iranian religious tourists, along with Shi‘is from Lebanon, Iraq, and the eastern Arabian Gulf would come annually to visit the shrine-town of Sayyida Zaynab, the mausoleum of Ruqayya, as well as the Bab al-Saghir cemetery right outside of the southern wall of the Old City of Damascus. Bab al-Saghir is a historic cemetery, which houses the remains of two of the Prophet’s wives, Bilal al-Habashi, the first muezzin, several companions of the Prophet, the heads of those who fought on the side of Imam al-Hussein at the Battle of Karbala (in 680 CE), as well as the body of the first Umayyad Caliph, Mu’awiya ibn Abi Sufyan.

This paper will draw on Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the carnivalesque in order to examine the Shi‘i practices and discourses at play in and around the Bab al-Saghir cemetery. It argues that the visitation rituals and the consumer practices encouraged by the make-shift market at the doors of the cemetery are carnivalesque, because they emphasize ‘grotesque’ elements such as death, gender, sex, economic exchange, as well as the limits of religious power and authority. The paper compliments Paulo G. Pinto’s seminal article (“Pilgrimage, commodities, and religious objectification: the making of transnational Shi‘ism between Iran and Syria”) by emphasizing the role of the grotesque and how it both strengthens, but also undermines simplistic understandings of ‘communitas.’

by /

The Muharram ritual in Mumbai has been radically changed since the end of 19th century. The ritual was diffused in India, and practised by Sunnis and even Hindus in Mumbai during the 19th century. The Sunni community of Konkonis not only dominated the Muslim community, but also claimed authority over the Muharram procession in the 19th century. The Muharram observance as an inter-communal festival in Mumbai came to an end with the raising of Hindu Nationalist movement and breaking of the riot between Hindus and Muslims (1893). The violence between Muslims and Hindus during the month of Muharram became very frequent after the riot. Consequently, colonial authorities imposed tight regulations over Muharram in 1912. The reports published in Times of India in years indicate that the regulation (1912) indirectly stopped the procession, and the commemoration was limited to majlises in Shi’a-Muslim locations, mainly at those associated to Iranian community, known as Moguls in Mumbai. The community not only played a key role to keep the remembrance of Ashura alive, but also later they gradually revived the procession of Ashura during the mid of 20th century, as a Shi’i ritual. These initiatives became a core that has constituted the Muharram processions in Mumbai, today.
This paper reviews the contribution of the Iranian community to Shi’i culture in Mumbai since the 18th century based on archive materials, and some historical vaghf documents. The paper particularly studies the role of Iranians to revive the Muharram processions based on an ethnographic fieldwork in Mumbai in 2009 and 2010. The study not only considers the role of Ithna-ashari Shias, mainly migrated from Fars and later from Yazd, but also looks at the role of Agha-Khan I-III and their family members in the dynamic of Muharram rituals. Although the Iranian community became a very small community among Shi'a communities of Mumbai, it remains an influential community due to its role to revive processions and built the most of Shi'i places, such as Mogul Masjid, in Mumbai.