Urban Life in Modern Persia and New Cultural Phenomena

  October 03, 2021   Read time 3 min
Urban Life in Modern Persia and New Cultural Phenomena
Much writing on the cultural life of communities and its religious dimensions deals with urban settings, reflecting the urban origin and concerns of many source materials.

Certainly, towns were centres for higher levels of education and specialist religious training and for the religious leadership dispensing legal and doctrinal judgments and patronage to followers. Major mosques, tekkiehs, madrasehs and huseineyehs were common features of the urban scene. Rural settlements tended not to have such institutions, and might not even have their own mosques, although there were many rural shrines and holy places. Contacts with religious specialists took the form of contacts with lesser ‘ulama, darvishes and others rather than everyday encounters typical of urban settlements. This strengthened informal, self-created elements of rural religious culture and their links to the distinctive concerns of rural people. This in turn contributed to their sense of the distinctive identity of their communities, and of contrasts between their own practices and beliefs and urban, or ‘official’, versions.

Religious elements in Iranian culture were also produced and sustained by non-specialist believers. Since even ‘orthodox’ Shi’a practices did not depend predominantly on a central institutional authority such as a papacy, localised authority and religious choice were important. Many religious traditions encourage the independent activity of believers, whether in the lives of individual ascetics or mystics (Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim) or by ‘lay’ provision of religious ritual, education and welfare (charity, pilgrimages, Methodist classes, Jewish Passover). Muslim traditions have their own historic features, notably a lack of sacraments like Christian baptism or communion in which priests act as irreplaceable intermediaries between God and the community of believers. Core religious duties such as prayer, fasting and pilgrimage are managed by Muslim believers themselves, and the authority of ‘ulama (important as it was and is) rested primarily on their role as interpreters and transmitters of texts, laws and traditions.

In Shi’a communities there were a number of key arenas in which believers played direct roles in religious culture and practices. Although the establishment of Twelver Shi’ism as the dominant form of Islam in Iran during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was led by rulers and ‘ulama, it also involved the development of popular, community-based religious traditions. Intense attachment to the persons of the Twelve Imams (especially ‘Ali and Husein) was expressed in rituals of pilgrimage to shrines associated with them and their kin, and in commemoration of the martyrdom of Husein. Although encouraged by Shi’a ‘ulama, they were shaped by ordinary believers, drawing on localised mystical, ecstatic, customary or millenarian traditions.

This placed religious self-expression and self-regulation at the core of Shi’a Muslim culture in Iran. The bases of Shi’a Muslim belief and practice were narratives of the events and leaders associated with the emergence of Shi’ism as a distinct tradition, and used by Iranian Shi’a in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to define their religious identity. These foundation narratives centre on ‘Ali, identified by Shi’a as the first Imam (divinely ordained leader) of the Muslim community, displaced by conspiracy and assassination, and Husein, his son and third Shi’a Imam, who upheld his claim to leadership and was killed in battle with opponents near Karbala. Mourning for these leader/martyrs became widespread popular practice, and was encouraged by religious and ruling establishments anxious to embed Shi’a Islam as the official faith. By the nineteenth century, an annual cycle of rituals associated with the lives and deaths of ‘Ali and Husein, culminating in the activities of Muharram, the month associated with Husein’s martyrdom, involved communities in rituals sponsored by guilds and notables, or organised at village and neighbourhood level. Processions, enactments of passion plays depicting Husein’s death, gatherings of women for mourning recitations, or of young men marching and beating themselves, made ordinary believers autonomous practitioners of the most spiritually and emotionally significant expressions of Shi’ism.