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What does the funeral of Iranian President Reisi tell us about Shiite mourning culture?

Bulent Sahin Erdeger*

The funeral of Iranian President Ibrahim Reisi has been ongoing for days, with the body being transported from city to city, and elegies and laments being recited in special halls. In fact, everything is done in accordance with the funeral ceremonies of Shiite culture. This is because, fundamentally based on mourning, mourning is an essential element of daily life in Iran. Meddahs, who make crowds cry with the elegies they read, are the pop stars of this culture.

Bülent Şahin Erdeğer Bülent Şahin Erdeğer May 24, 2024 – 09:05 FacebookTwitterWhatsApp

Following the helicopter crash that claimed the lives of Iranian President Ibrahim Reisi and Foreign Minister Hussein Amir Abdullahian, their funerals turned into mass demonstrations. Similar scenes were seen recently at the funeral of Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Jerusalem Force. So what do funeral ceremonies mean in Shiite culture?

In Sunnism, which represents the mainstream among Islamic sects, the funeral culture aims to complete the burial processes as quickly as possible. Although the Sufi branches of Sunnism include rituals such as tomb visits, prayers, and Qur’an readings, these practices also aim to maintain simplicity and tranquility. Especially in the Hanbali and Maliki sects, there are no special ceremonies after burial procedures. Among the Ibadis, who live especially in North Africa and Oman, it is customary to bury the deceased quickly and quietly, with respect. Excessive crying, wailing, and lamentation after death are viewed negatively. Mourning does not become a ritual.

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Shiism: Death and Mourning Culture

In the Shia Jafari sect, unlike Sunnism and Ibadism, the funeral has taken on a social identity. The foundation of Shia theology is based on the martyrdoms of Imam Ali and 9 out of the 12 Imams, especially Imam Hussein, which form the basis of the death and mourning culture. According to Shia theology, Allah chose Muhammad not only for Prophethood but also for Imamat/earthly leadership. Although Muhammad’s role as Prophet ended, his lineage continued the Imamat/earthly leadership role. Thus, Allah chose Imam Ali and his descendants as Imams. According to Shia belief, Abu Bakr and Umar usurped this divine mandate of earthly authority.

For Shias, the lineage of Muhammad continues through Fatima. Most Shias believe that Fatima was also martyred by Umar. Imam Ali was martyred following an internal war and the arbitration incident triggered by the rebellion of Muawiya, the governor of Damascus. Subsequently, during the Umayyad rule, Imam Hussein and his soldiers were brutally slaughtered in Karbala, and 9 Imams from Hussein’s lineage, who form the backbone of Shia, were martyred by the Umayyads and Abbasids.

Thus, Twelver Shia Jafari Islam, starting from Imam Ali and centering on the Karbala massacre, has developed entirely around a culture of martyrdom, death, and mourning, embellished by the martyrdoms of its founding figures.

In Shia culture, therefore, the death anniversaries of the Imams and Fatima are commemorated throughout the year with mass mourning ceremonies, marches, theaters, and elegy meetings. These ceremonies are also accompanied by the Arbaeen ceremonies held on the 40th day after the burial.

These mourning anniversaries are supplemented by contemporary dates such as the death anniversary of Imam Khomeini. The most important element of the mourning culture is to keep the masses agitated and conscious of their Shia identity, hence the most significant figures who evoke mourning are the Meddahs. More famous than pop stars in Shia societies, Meddahs have the professional role of reading elegies and stirring the crowds, making them cry. In these ceremonies, actions such as striking the chest and drawing blood with blades as rituals of repeating the pain of Imam Hussein are performed.

Massive protests against Shah Reza Pahlavi that began after 1965 also started through these gatherings. These ceremonies turning into political protests by 1979 and the ensuing cycle of violence where security forces tried to suppress protesters leading to many deaths started a vicious cycle. Gatherings for the martyrs and those killed in the gatherings being shot at during the Arbaeen ceremonies of the dead also perpetuated this cycle. Intellectuals like Ali Shariati transformed martyrdom and mourning ceremonies into revolutionary rhetoric ideologically.

As a pioneer of the Revolution, Imam Khomeini transformed funeral and mourning ceremonies in Shia culture into a political weapon during that period. Mourning ceremonies allowed Khomeini to reach the masses and educate them ideologically with the “Velayat-e Faqih” ideology. Khomeini would write: “If a man withdrew to a corner of his room and kept reading the visitation prayers of Ashura and kept turning his rosary, by now nothing would have remained of Imam Hussein’s faith. This matter needs noise; for this, one must beat their chests. Do not let marches and demonstrations prevent you from arranging condolence and mourning programs; mourn and keep marching through the mourning programs!” (Ayatollah Khomeini – Ashura Uprising)

The transformation of traditional Shia funeral and mourning ceremonies into mass motivation in Ideological Shia Velayat-e Faqih did not end with the Revolution. As an ideological state apparatus, mourning ceremonies continued during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war for the soldiers, mostly children and youths, who gave their lives for their country. The identification established between the slain Iranian soldiers and the martyrs of Karbala also fermented a new “Islamic Iranian Nationalism” intertwined with the defense of the homeland.

Imam Khomeini’s 1989 funeral also reached a level of “social frenzy,” with followers attacking the corpse to tear pieces from Khomeini’s shroud, even causing the body to fall during the melee.

Funeral and death transcending a culture to become a ‘cult’, reinforced by the belief that the soul of the deceased does not leave the world but acts as an intermediary between the living and Allah. In both Sunni Sufi movements and in Shiism, there is the belief in “Tabarruk” where touching the bodies of martyrs and righteous individuals can partake in their sanctity. Therefore, mourners try to rub objects like prayer mats, clothes, and rosaries against the tomb or the objects used in the burial to participate in this sanctity. In addition to Sunni Sufism, in Shiism, the bodies are taken to the tombs of the 12 Imams for circumambulation before burial.

Iranian opponents are also a part of the Shia funeral culture. Just like before 1979, funeral ceremonies are turning into new protests. The best two examples of this were the December 2009 funeral of Ayatollah Ali Montazeri, considered the spiritual leader by the opposition, and the November 2022 funeral of Mahsa Amini, who died in custody. Both ceremonies became the start of a wave of political protests.

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The latest images of Shia funeral and mourning ceremonies that have reached the global public were witnessed at the funeral of Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force.

Scenes similar to those observed at Soleimani’s funeral were also reflected in the funerals of former Iranian President Ibrahim Reisi, former Iranian Foreign Minister Hussein Amir Abdullahian, and the Friday Imam of Tabriz, Muhammad Al-i Hashim.

The funerals also turned into massive political demonstrations before burial, transforming religious sentimentality and Shia mourning culture into political messages, becoming figures of defiance by the Iranian regime to the world.

*Bulent Sahin Erguder is an expert on History of Religions based in Turkey.

This article is originally published in Turkish in Serbestiyet.com and translated into English by Politurco.

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