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RAWZAH KHAWANI. One of the foremost characteristics of Shi`i Muslims is the veneration they express for the family of the Prophet and his martyred grandson, Imam Husayn. These expressions take various forms the most common of which are public mourning ceremonies such as the rawzah khvani (narrative accounts of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn), ta`ziyah (passion plays) and dastah (processions). The rawzah khvani, specifically, is the remembrance through recitations and chanting of the suffering and death of Imam Husayn and other Shi`i martyrs at the battle of Karbala on the tenth of Muharram (`Ashura’) in AH 61/680 CE, while fighting against the forces of Yazid whom the Shi’i consider an illegitimate, oppressive usurper of the caliphate.

These recitations are performed at various types of religious gatherings weekly throughout the year, especially on the anniversaries of the death dates of the Imams and other saintly figures such as Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet and wife of ‘Ali, the first Imam. The rituals of lamentation reach their pinnacle of significance during the months of Muharram and Safar when gatherings are held in mosques, husayniyahs, and in the courtyards of the bazaar and private homes to express grief over a death seen not only as a tragic event in itself but as an act of self-sacrifice on behalf of justice and truth.

The name rawzah khvdni is derived from the title of the Rawdat al-shuhadd’ (Garden of Martyrs), the most comprehensive Shi’i martyrology of its time (1502 CE), although its author, Husayn-i Va`iz Kashifi, was a Sunni Muslim. This work and similar later ones, such as Jawhari’s Tufan al-bukd (Tempest of Tears) or the Asrar al-shahadah (Mysteries of Martyrdom) by Tabataba’i are part of a literary genre known as maqtal, a development from a broader genre of eulogizing (manaqib) and elegizing (marathi) poetry. These and still more recent works form the basis of the material used by the reciters (rawzah khvdn) in preparing their narrations.

The rawzah, as it is popularly known in Iran, varies in length from about two hours to sessions lasting through the night. The usual format begins with the reading of verses of the Qur’an followed by a sermon given by a preacher (vd’iz) who offers comments and advice on moral, religious, and social issues and/or the recitation of religious poetry by a panegyrist (maddah) who eulogizes the family of the Prophet and the Imams. The eulogy leads into the rawzah khvani proper, at the conclusion of which is the chanting of dirges (nawhah). Narrators are paid for their services and informally ranked on the basis of their rhetorical skills and the degree to which they can evoke intense emotional responses from their audiences. The rawzah khvan recounts explicit details of the agony and torment suffered by Imam Husayn and his followers, all the while emphasizing their human compassion, kindness, and love for their families. This elicits profuse weeping, cries of lamentation, and not uncommonly (especially among the lower classes) ecstatically induced rhythmic chest beating.

Many of the rawzah are sponsored in thankfulness to God for the fulfillment of a vow and to ensure further blessings since sponsoring or participating in such an event accrues religious merit (savab). Weeping for Imam Husayn, in particular, is believed to ensure his intercession on the Day of Judgment. Tears shed for the Imam are also believed to have curative powers and some individuals collect tears in small bottles that are used to cure various afflictions.

Women also sponsor and participate in gatherings where a rawzah is performed, often by a professional woman narrator. The most popular such occasion is known as a sufrah (a ritual meal held to express gratitude for the fulfillment of a vow) especially that dedicated to `Abbas (also known by his epithet Abu al-Fazl) who was also martyred at Karbala. The rawzah associated with this event focuses in detail on ‘Abbas’s sufferings on the battlefield; participants weep and beat their breasts in sympathy with his tribulations. In return for their pity and empathic compassion ‘Abbas is believed to act as an intercessor and mediator in the granting of wishes or responses to prayers.

With greater literacy and religious understanding, many of the practices associated with the rawzah are undergoing reevaluation by the lay public, and many are criticizing them as un-Islamic and “ignorant” customs. Some of these attitudes reflect the political position taken by Reza Shah (r. 1921-1941) in his ban on what he felt were religious anachronisms incompatible with a modern nation-state; but such attitudes are also an aspect of a reformist Islam that seeks to purify the faith of folk beliefs and practices.

All rituals, however, are polysemic and have many broader social, economic, or political implications. Despite criticism of such practices by the majority of the `ulama’, the rawzah has served them well over the centuries with its ability to evoke and maintain intense emotional passions often used to arouse mass opposition to tyrannical governments, repression, and injustice. Abu Muslim, who led the movement to overthrow the Umayyad dynasty in the eighth century, encouraged his followers by recounting the injustices suffered by Husayn and the family of the Prophet. In the period preceding the Iranian Revolution of 1979, religious gatherings (hay’at-1 mazhabi) were organized daily within the quarters of the city by neighborhood groups and associations or by the guilds within the bazaar. Although they were intended to fulfill various religious goals, they almost always ended in a rawzah khvdni, the not so latent message of which was opposition to the government. In fact, the ubiquity of rawzah khvani, gatherings was instrumental in arousing the populace against the Shah, leading to his downfall and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The rawzah is thus a vitally important religious ritual embodying the very ethos of Shiism with its focus on tragedy, oppression, suffering, intercession and final redemption; themes which also lend themselves to multiple meanings. Comparable gatherings of lamentation and mourning are found in most Shi’i communities throughout the Muslim world. They have different names and differing sociopolitical functions depending on the local context. In Lebanon and Iraq, for example, it is known as a ta’ziyah majlis (literally “mourning gathering”) or dhikra; in Iraq women’s rawzah assemblies are referred to as qardyd; and among the Shi’is of India, Pakistan, and the Indo-Muslim diaspora it is known as majlis-i a’za or simply majlis.


Ayoub, Mahmoud M. Redemptive Suffering in Islam: A Study of the Devotional Aspects of `Ashura’ in Twelver Shi `ism. The Hague, 1978. Important study of the theological and folk beliefs associated with Imam Husayn’s martyrdom.

Chelkowski, Peter. “Popular Shi’i Mourning Rituals.” Al-Serat 12.1 (1986): 209-226. Excellent article by one of the leading authorities on popular ShIN ritual practices.

Mahdjoub, Mohammad-Dja’far. “The Evolution of Popular Eulogy of the Imams among the Shi’a.” In Authority and Political Culture in Shi’ism, edited by Said Amir Arjomand, pp. 54-79. Albany, N.Y., 1988.

Neubauer, Eckhard. “Muharram-Brauche im heutigen Persien.” Der Islam 49 (1972): 249-272. Excellent overview of Shi’i mourning rituals in contemporary Iran.

Qureshi, Regula B. “Islamic Music in an Indian Environment: The Shi’a Majles.” Journal of the Society for Ethnomusicology 25.1 (1981): 41-71.

Thaiss, Gustav. “Religious Symbolism and Social Change: The Drama of Hussein.” In Scholars, Saints, and Sufis, edited by Nikki R. Keddie, pp. 349-366. Berkeley, 1972. Study of the organization of religious gatherings, especially those of the guilds, in modern Tehran, and their role in facilitating the Iranian Revolution of 1979



Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/rawzah-khawani/

  • writerPosted On: July 11, 2017
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