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TAʽZIYAH , more fully known as taʿziyah-khvānī or shabīh-khvānī, is the Shīʿī passion play, performed mainly in Iran. The word itself is derived from the Arabic ʿazā˒, "mourning," and the taʿziyah performance marks the death of usayn, the grandson of the prophet Muammad and the third imam of the Shīʿah, who was brutally murdered, along with the male members of his family and a group of followers, while he was contesting his hereditary right to the caliphate. The horrors of this hot and bloody scene, which took place on the plain of Karbala near the Euphrates on ʿĀshūrā˒, the tenth day of the Muslim month of Muarram, in ah 61/680 ce, became the prototype of Shīʿī martyrdom.

Beginning in the middle of the tenth century, annual parades held in Baghdad during the month of Muarram vividly portrayed the fate of the martyrs, loudly lamented by attending crowds. When the Safavid monarch made Shiism the state religion of Iran in the sixteenth century, these demonstrations became highly elaborate, featuring men, on caparisoned horses and camels, acting the role of martyrs with bloody wounds and gruesome injuries. Floats were also constructed to depict the various events at Karbala, and the entire parade was accompanied by funerary music while bystanders wailed and beat their breasts. Contemporaneously, the lives, deeds, and sufferings of usayn and other Shīʿī martyrs were also treated in a book entitled Rawat al-shuhadā˒ (The Garden of the Martyrs), which in turn gave rise to readings called rawz̤ah-khvānī s, or "garden recitations" in Persian. It was from a combination of the Muarram parades and the rawz̤ah-khvānī that the taʿziyah drama emerged in the middle of the eighteenth century.

Nowadays, taʿziyah can be performed throughout the year, but originally it was staged only in the month of Muarram and the following month of afar. From the crossroads and public squares where they were first presented, taʿziyah performances soon moved to caravansaries and private houses, and then to a special type of theater called takīyah or usaynīyah. Over the next century and a half theaters of various sizes and constructions were built, reaching enormous proportions in the elaborate Takīyah Dawlat (State Theater) built by Nāir al-Dīn Shāh in the 1870s.

In all these performance areas or playhouses the main action takes place on a raised circular or square platform around which the audience is seated on the ground, but the movement of the actors in and around the audience preserves the traditional interaction of performers and spectators in the Muarram celebrations. Audience participation is so intense that men and women weep and mourn as though the historical scenes before them were taking place in the immediate present.

The protagonists, dressed predominantly in green, sing their parts, while the villains, who wear red, speak their lines. Symbolic stage properties, such as a bowl of water to represent a river, are improvised according to need, particularly in the villages, where costumes are few. The director/producer is omnipresent on the stage as prompter, property man, and regulator of the actors, musicians, and viewers. Villagers and townsmen participate when professional actors are scarce, but troupes of actors travel from place to place, with men playing the women's roles. Parts are often passed from father to son in family groups: acting is a hereditary trade.

The Islamic Revolution of 19781979 utilized the usayn paradigm and was carried out in accordance with the Shīʿī calendar. The stationary rituals such as taʿziyah and the rawz̤ah-khvānī served as political rallies at which the assembled people were stimulated by speakers who mixed the Karbala mourning slogans with political ones. The digressions and the comparisons of the plight of usayn with the contemporary political, moral, and social situation have long been a tradition at these rituals and can evoke in the audience a particular social and religious climate which can move the audience to political action.

Taʿziyah reached its peak in Iran in the second half of the nineteenth century. In the 1960s and 1970s, because of overt westernization and other social and political factors, the performances, which had been an urban creation, retreated to the rural areas. The fate of this original theater form in the world of Islam is now uncertain. The Shīʿah of the Caucasus (part of Iran until the early nineteenth century) and of Iraq and southern Lebanon know it on a more limited scale. Innovative Western theater directors and producers are now very much interested in the taʿziyah as a means of breaking down the barriers that divide the audience from the actors in Western theater.

On the Indian subcontinent the name taʿziyah is given to a symbolic miniature reproduction of usayn's tomb as well as of the tombs of other Shīʿī martyrs. These taʿziyah s are not literal facsimiles of any particular tomb but imaginary recreations. Usually made of bamboo and/or sticks covered with colorful paper and papier-mâché, these structures resemble Indian architecture more than the architecture of Western Asia, where the original tombs were built. The taʿziyah s are carried in processions (during the months of Muarram and afar) and are housed in imām-bārah s and private houses, including those of Sunnī Muslims. They may be small enough for two men to carry or immense structures carried by many people. At the conclusion of the procession some of the taʿziyah s may be buried in a local "Karbala ground." Other models, known as z̤arī s, are made of durable material, generally silver, and are not carried in processions or buried.

See Also

ʿĀshūrāʾ; Rāwz̤ah-khvānī.


Chelkowski, Peter, ed. Taʽziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran. New York, 1979.

Pelly, Lewis. The Miracle Play of Hasan and Husain (1879). Reprint, Farnborough, U.K., 1970.

Peter Chelkowski (1987)