Ta’ziyeh in Iran(part 1)

By: Freydoon Arbabi
© Freydoon Arbabi

Dr. Freydoon Arbabi was professor of civil engineering at Michigan
Technological University for some 20 years, and visiting faculty at
UC-Berkeley and University of Waterloo in Canada. He recently moved to the
Bay Area where he works as a consultant. He is the author of a book,
Structural Analysis and Behavior, published by McGraw-Hill in 1991 and some
40 technical articles in professional journals. He has recently authored a
book, Classical Persian Music, Radif. Which describes the history and
characteristics of Persian music for non musicians. Information about this
book can be obtained by sending an email to farbabi@mtu.edu.  


Many Iranians of my generation, that is, those coming of age before the revolution, have witnessed a vanishing  form of religious theater known as ta’ziyeh. Although its root term, aza, means mourning, the word ta’ziyeh has come to signify a specific form of passion play, or religious theater. It is the commemoration of the martyrdom at Karbala, where the third Imam of Shi’a Muslims and his entourage of 72 got murdered in cold blood. Ta’ziyeh had reached its peak during the Qājar era, especially during the reign of Nasser-edin Shah. However it has been declining ever since to a vanishing point. Except for an occasional performance at a remote village, ta’ziyeh has all but disappeared.

The associated term aza darÌ  also refers to commemorating the Karbala event, by recounting  story of martyrdom, but without theatrical representations. These are solemn and tearful events designed to bring salvation to the believers by shedding tears for the martyred Imam. The two types of events ta’ziyeh and aza dari had been conducted in parallel or in consort. Whereas ta’ziyeh is all but forgotten, the latter has increased in frequency after the Iranian (Islamic) revolution. This is because aza dari does not employ shabih sazi or any image making, which is considered sacrilege by many religious scholars. The portraiture and sculpture of both men and animals are prohibited by Islam. It may be because fighting idolatry was Islam’s main aim. It should be mentioned, however, that at the height of ta’ziyeh a well known religious leader, Ayatollah Qassem Ghomi, testified (fatva) that there was nothing wrong with ta’ziyeh performances.

The jest of the Karbala event is as follows.  YazÌd is considered a usurper and Imam Hossein, who believes the caliphate is rightfully his, decides to advance his claim. He sets out for Kufeh in Iraq, upon invitation of his followers there. An army is sent by YazÌd to intercept and prevent him from reaching Kufeh. This army encounters Imam Hossein’s group in a plain called Karbala near Nineva the ancient Assyrian capital.  To break the Imam's resolve, his company is kept without water for 10 days. The adult men are killed and the women and children are taken prisoner and are brought to YazÌd’s headquarters in Damascus. 

Unlike the Greek and Indian cultures that developed advanced forms of theater, for some unknown reason theater did not take root in Iran before Islam. In modern times a form of popular theater, rou howzi,  usually comedy, was performed at weddings and circumcisions. Another type was naghali, which consisted of reciting the epic poems of Shahnameh at tea houses.

The purpose of this article is to review the origins and history of ta’ziyeh, its characteristics, and the role of Persian music in it. It is concluded with a sample ta’ziyeh, that of Qasem which seems to have all the elements of drama.



Commemoration of the Karbala events appears to have started during the Buyids (Ale Buyeh). Ale Buyeh have their root in Daylaman, Northern Iran. At the weak point of the Abbassid Caliphs they rose against them and ruled from Baghdad. They used aza dari as a means of exciting the Shi’a communities and organizing them against the Sunni rulers. The declaration of Shi’a as the official religion of Iran by the Safavids in the 16th century had a similar purpose of organizing the country against the Sunni Ottomans [1].

The form of ta’ziyeh, that is commemoration of a martyr in Iran, goes much farther back to the pre-historic era. Two prominent stories, Kin’e Siavash and Zarer, show similarities to that of ta’ziyeh. Siavash is sent by his father Kaykavus, king of Iran, to fight Afrasiab of Turan. When Afrasiab agrees to a peace treaty favorable to Iranians, Siavash sends word to his father suggesting cease fire. However, because of the intrigues of his step mother, who does not want him returned, Siavash  is ordered by Kaykavus to reject the peace treaty. Siavash is disillusioned and disheartened and seeks refuge in Afrasiab’s camp. However he is eventually killed by Bidarafsh, the wily brother of Afrasiab. The news of Siavsh’s murder makes the Iranians including their hero Rostam very sad. Rostam is said  to have stood in mourning for a week. Eventually Siavash’s murder is revenged, but a song commemorating his death is said to  have been sung until the Iran invasion of Mongols.

The term rozeh khani was first coined by Molla Hossein Va’ez Kashefi, who published a book in the 16th century, titled Rawzat al-Shohada, or the garden of the martyrs. Ta’ziyeh khani was a synonym. Later, during the Qajar era, the term ta’ziyeh was specifically used to refer to the enactment of the story of Karbala, as a religious theater.

Iran is the only place that ta’ziyeh, the theatrical form was performed. This may be partly due to the influence of the West during the Qajar era, and partly because Iranians were more lax about religion than most other Moslem countries. In pre-Islamic period also religious tolerance had its ups and downs. Kourosh, and Yazdgerd III were examples of tolerant leaders, while Darius and Anushirvan were examples of intolerance.

Ta’ziyeh was mainly conducted in halls called takiyeh. The best known and the most elaborate takiyeh in Tehran was that of Dowlat, an extravaganza building constructed during Nasser-edin Shah. It uses the same plan as Albert hall in London, that Nasser-edin Shah had brought back from his trip there. In fact Mostowfi, a writer of the period, states that Nasser-edin Shah’s aim was to use the hall for Western style theater. When the religious leaders objected it was used for ta’ziyeh. Many foreign travelers to Iran during this period have commented about ta’ziyeh. For example Edward Brown, professor of Eastern Literature at Cambridge University, and author of the authoritarian book “a Literary History of Persia”  in his book, “A year Among Persians’” describes a ta’zieyh that he saw in Iran.

Originally the term takiyeh was used by the sufis for the tomb of their leader. The actual tomb, ghabre khajeh (Pious man’s tomb), was constructed as a platform, raised a few feet in the middle of a hall. Such a platform can be seen at Menar Jonban, in Isfahan, which houses the tomb of a Sufi, Amu Abdollah[2]. The followers of the sufi leader visiting his tomb performed their rituals at takiyeh. The sufi centers built as assembly halls without any tombs were also called takyieh. They often included a raised platform called ghabre khajeh. Takiyehs used for ta’ziyeh also include a  Ghabre Khajeh. The reader may also recall that the raised platform in the middle of sangak bakeries in Iran are called ghabre khajeh.

Ta’ziyeh had also borrowed from Christian passion plays, or Cross Stations, such as those taking place in Guatemala today. The similarity can also be observed in religious ceremonies, or passion plays called sineh zany and zanjeer zany that take place today. The former groups beating their chests with their hands, and the latter their backs with a chain set.                                                                                                            

                                                                                                                 Continued, Next issue       




[1] A Ph.D. thesis published at University of Paris in 1975, tilted Le Cult de L’Imam Hossein by Jean Calmard, discusses ta’ziyeh in the pre-Safavid era.

[2] The writer has done a study of Menar Jonban and the reason for its shaking. He will present the results in a future article.