Ta’ziyeh in Iran Part II)

By: Dr. Freydoon Arbabi
© Freydoon Arbabi

Freydoon Arbabi, professor emeritus of civil engineering - Michigan
Technological University
for some 20 years, and visiting faculty at UC-Berkeley and University of Waterloo in Canada, is a consulting structural engineer in the Bay Area. 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.  

Style of Ta’ziyeh 

Because ta’ziyeh audiences were intimately familiar with the story plot and convinced of the innocence of the protagonists, Imam Hossein and his entourage, and certain about the guilt of the antagonists, Shemr, Ibn-e Sa’d and Yazid. Thus, it is not possible to judge ta’ziyeh and ta’ziyeh writing by Western methods of theater critic. That is, ta’ziyeh has its own style which seems to work with its special audience. The writers of ta’ziyeh had many restrictions, not the least of which was their own belief in the righteousness of the Imam and the guilt of the villains of Karbala. That is these writers were openly biased. Therefore they de-emphasized the role of the antagonists and enhanced that of protagonists.

 Another aspect of this prejudice was the disdain with which the protagonists spoke to the antagonists, and also the antagonists spoke to each other, and even about themselves recognizing their own position of being in the wrong. In an article published at the Shiraz Arts Festival of 1967, M.J. Mahjub recounts an anecdote from a city in the Caucuses where a group of Shi’as was trying to organize a ta’ziyeh. However, they could not find anyone to play the role of the main antagonist, Shemr. Eventually a Russian laborer agrees to do it for a fee. His role is to stand near a tub of water, representing the Euphrates river, preventing Imam Hossein’s people from approaching the water. The children and other companions of the Imam try to approach the water, but the Russian keeps them away. However, when Imam Hossein himself, played by a dignified old man, approaches the water the Russian hesitates to intervene. The director of ta’ziyeh shouts that he should not allow him near the water. "Oh, let him drink," replies the Russian, "he is an old man." This incident not only does not appear funny to the audience, but is the more proof of cruelty of Shemr. Because, they think, even this unbelieving Russian had mercy on the Imam, while the real Shemr did not show any mercy at all at Karbala.

Costume and Prop

Intimate familiarity of the audience with the story plot, their belief in the infallibility and righteousness of the Imam, their conviction of the savage behavior of the villains, and the power of their imagination, renders the need for prop and costume, for setting the mood, redundant. Only symbolic pieces of prop and costume were therefore used in most ta‘ziyehs. Only the ta’ziyehs performed during the reign of Nasser-edin Shah at takiyeh Dowlat were somewhat of an extravagant affair with props, costumes, and decor, including tents and horses. In general the protagonists costumes were green, or black, the colors used by the descendents of the prophet. While the antagonists, especially Shemr and Ibn Sa’d wore red or at least hung a red cape over their street clothing.
  Incidentally, Takiyeh Dowlat has been the largest amphitheater ever built in Iran. It was constructed at the current location of Bank Melli - Bazar Branch in Tehran.


Ta’ziyehs were usually written in the form of poetry and were chanted in carefully selected Persian musical keys. Most of this poetry was very simple and no great work of art. It was mainly dialogue between the individuals enacting the story. It is noteworthy that the role of women was also played by men who chanted in a soprano voice emulating women’s voice. At the height of ta’ziyeh, when audiences included dignitaries and foreign delegations, Amir Kabir, the able prime minister of Nasser-edin Shah, commissioned Reza Esfahani, a well known poet of the period, to compose some ten ta’ziyehs. These were to be simple enough to be understandable by the masses while sufficiently sophisticated not to be boring to the educated public.

Music and Ta’ziyeh

Ta’ziyeh has been one of the means of preserving the classical Persian music (radif). Although no formal study of ta’ziyeh music has been undertaken, references have been made in some books, e.g. Musighi-ye Mazhabi-ye Iran, by Hassan Mashhun and Sargozashte Musighi-ye Iran, by Ruhollah Khaleghi and Yadashte Khod Raj’e be Musighi, by Abol-Hassan Saba.

There has been an implicit prohibition of music in Islam, except for chanting the Quran. The reason for this is not quite clear. Nowhere in the Quran is there a direct statement prohibiting music. It is noteworthy that the question of legitimacy of music in Islam was raised again after the revolution in Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini had a few fatvas (judgments) in this regard the last of which, as part of an eight item fatva, was finally declaring Persian music legitimate.

The term gusheh used to refer to pieces of classical Persian (radif) music appears to come from ta’ziyeh as discussed above. Some radif pieces such as Rak-e Abdollah, which was sung by Abdollah, the nephew of Imam Hossein, during ta’ziyeh, have gotten their name from ta’ziyeh. 

Musical Instruments and Modes

The musical instruments used in ta’ziyeh are primarily those of the battle field in the middle ages, such as trumpets and drums. As ta’ziyehs became more sophisticated cymbals, horns, and clarinets were added. Gradually a carefully developed system was used taking advantage of the classical Persian music, with the variety of moods its pieces could invoke.  Music that had been frowned on in Iran since the Safavids era, found more interest under Nasser-edin Shah (1848-1896). He appointed Agha Aliakbar Farahani to the position of chief musician, and also established the position of Mir Aza, or director of religious music. The latter chose music for and organized the singing of ta’ziyeh performers. They used gushehs of classical Persian music with some subtlety so that the audience was unaware of it. A version of this music, now known as radif of Persian music, was passed down through Mirza Abdollah, Agha Alikbar’s son, and has been documented in recent years.

The seven dastgahs and five Avazes (sub-dastgahs) of radif music appear to have evolved sometime after the last golden era of Persian music, during the Abbassids regime. Excellent musicians and theoreticians of that era, Farabi, and Safi-edin Urmavi had laid the foundation of the Persian music based on a set of maghams, a specific series of note intervals, or modes. Since each mode produces a specific mood, musicians started to combine these modes to produce pleasant combinations that would not startle the audience or jarring their ears by abrupt changes of mode. Eventually the system of dastgahs was developed with a set of gushes or pieces. In a dastgah the transition from one gusheh to another takes place in such a subtle and smooth way that the audience is often unaware of the change.

 Mir Azas started using elements of radif music in ta’ziyeh. Young, valiant men, such Ali Akbar and Qassem, and Abbas sang in Chahargah before heading off for battle. Chahargah is a dastgah with an upbeat mood. It had traditionally been used in Zurkhanehs, or Persian Gymnasiums, to set the mood of the athletes and the audience during work out and before wrestling matches. For the more tender moments of lamentation dastgah Segah or Avaz Esfahan was used. The somber, dignified and serious mood of Imam Hossein was depicted by dastgah Nava, the reflective mode favored by the sufis. As an example in ta’ziyeh of Muslem (one of the characters at Karbala) Imam Hossein recites in Nava, while Muslem responds in Mahoor, another upbeat mode. It is interesting to note that these two dastgahs selected for the latter interaction, while different, are not drastically dissimilar as to make the transition from one to the other unpleasant. In fact Nava bears some similarity to Rak and Aragh, two gushehs of Mahoor.

In general each character of the entourage of Imam Hossein was assigned a dastgâh or a gusheh according to the degree of melancholy its role required. Abbas, the brother of Imam Hossein, who was killed while trying to fetch water from Euphrates river for the thirst starved family, sang in Chahargah. Hurr, the young Umayyad commander who was sent to fight Imam Hossein, but joined him, and was the first casualty of the war, sang in Aragh. Abdollah, the teenage nephew of Imam Hossein, sang in Rak. A version of Rak in dastgah Mâhoor is now called Rak-e Abdollah. Zaynab, the sister of Imam Hossein, sang in Gabri (of awaz Abu Ata) or in gushehs of Dashti. As mentioned earlier in ta’ziyeh the role of women was played by men, who sang in a high pitch in order to simulate women’s voice. It may be worth mentioning that azan, the piece chanted for calling Muslims to prayer is usually in ruhol-arwah, a gusheh of Bayâte Tork, although at times it is also sung in Bayate Kord.

  Continued, Next issue