Muslim religious holidays and festivals have long been an essential component of Iranian cultural life. As one would expect in the Islamic Republic, in contrast to the more secular Pahlavi regime that preceded it, these religious occasions have effectively become important national holidays as well. Even if the non-Muslim minorities do not participate in them, they certainly respect them and adjust their own activities around them accordingly. These holidays can be divided into two main groups, one of a general Islamic character and one specific to Shi‘ite Islam. General Islamic holidays include Friday as a special day of prayer, the month of fasting during Ramazân, the celebration marking the end of the Ramazân fast ( ‘Id-e Fetr, 1–3 Shavvâl), the holiday marking the end of the time for the ritual pilgrimage to Mecca ( ‘Id-e Qorbân, 10 Zi‘l-Hejjeh), and days connected with the life of the Prophet Mohammad. The nature and observance of these holidays in Iran, though in many ways similar to other Muslim countries, do have some unique characteristics. For instance, in Iran, as elsewhere, the ‘Id-e Fetr is a joyous holiday, marked by almsgiving and feasts, but the celebration is quite restrained in comparison to the mood of jubilance, with musical performances and festivities, that prevails in south Asian and Arab countries. The ‘Id-e Qorbân, also known as ‘Id-ol-Azhâ in other Muslim countries, is a somewhat more somber occasion. It takes its name (“Holiday of Sacrifice”) from the custom of offering an animal (usually a sheep) for ritual slaughter on that day. Ideally, the meat should be distributed to feed the poor, but in practice many families take the opportunity to provision their own larders with it. The sacrifi ce is essentially a private and individual observance, but in earlier times in Iran it also had a public dimension. Many cities, towns, or government officials would offer a camel as a kind of communal sacrifice; the camel would be decorated with mirrors, fl owers, and other objects and led on a procession through the community before being killed. Meat and hair from the camel was regarded as having special or even magical properties. During the Pahlavi period, this colorful if violent practice was regarded as inconsistent with the image of the country the ruler wanted to project, and it was eventually outlawed and has not been revived. Friday is both a religious and secular holiday in Iran. While the day has a religious signifi cance, for working people it is a day of rest from work. The religious establishment attaches great significance to this day, organizing Friday collective prayers in mosques and/or public places. The strong public and congregational nature of the Friday noon prayer, which unlike the other fi ve daily prayers includes a sermon, has made it a particularly important—and politically sensitive—occasion throughout Islamic history. Today, most Muslim countries, including Iran, treat Friday as a holiday (much like Saturday and Sunday in the Jewish and Christian traditions). In the Islamic Republic, this has acquired an almost official and formal status, as it is expected that a major public religious figure will deliver the sermon (and often address pressing social and political issues) at the heavily attended prayer service at the mosque of the University of Tehran. Prior to the Revolution of 1979, fewer Friday prayers, limited in scope, were conducted in seminaries and selected mosques. After the revolution, the Friday prayers have been administered by the government, and the prayer leaders are appointed by an organization of Friday Prayer Leaders controlled by the Offi ce of the Leader of the Islamic Republic. Holidays associated with the life of the Prophet Mohammad, notably his birthday, are observed in many parts of the Muslim world, but they are subject to some controversy among conservative Muslims as they tend to be a vehicle for the expression of popular folk religion. In the case of Iran, the Islamic Republic has taken to promoting three such offi cial holidays: the birthday of the Prophet, the ordainment ( mab‘as ) of the Prophet (corresponding to what many Sunnis regard as his miraculous Night Journey from Mecca to Jerusalem to the Seven Heavens and back), and the death of the Prophet. The prominence now given these holidays seems intended to solidify Iran’s ties to other Muslim countries and to defuse criticism that Shi‘ism ignores the Prophet in favor of the Imams. Even so, the holidays are ambiguous since they are determined on the basis of Shi‘ite tradition (giving, for example, 17 Rabi‘-ol-Avval as the Prophet’s birthday instead of 12 Rabi‘-ol-Avval as in Sunni areas) and overlap with more established Shi‘ite holidays (the date of the Prophet’s birth is also the birth date of the Sixth Imam, Ja‘far Sâdeq, and the date of his death corresponds to that of his grandson Hasan, the Second Imam). Shi‘ite holidays, or more properly holy days, are of course also observed in more or less similar ways by Shi‘ite communities outside Iran, but the unique status of Iran as an offi cially Twelver Shi‘ite country gives them a special signifi cance. These holidays are divided into two categories: marâsem-e shâdi (happy occasions) and marâsem-e ‘azâ (mournful occasions). On happy occasions, the idea is to celebrate a religious leader’s birth or an important event in his life; at the heart of marâsem-e ‘azâ is the concept of lamentation ( ‘azâdâri ), which can be regarded as a fundamental aspect of not only Shi‘ite but also Iranian culture. In many contexts, Iranian culture emphasizes politeness ( ta‘rof ) and concealment of one’s true feelings, but the unrestrained, even dramatic, outpouring of grief, weeping, and mourning—at a funeral, for example—is viewed very positively. In Shi‘ism, this has acquired a formal and ritual aspect that, it has been suggested, may have assimilated even more ancient and deeply imbedded cultural traditions going all the way back to lamentation cults in Mesopotamia and central Asia. In any case, the core idea of these mournful holidays is to remember the suffering and martyrdom endured by the family of the Prophet through the display of pity and sorrow for their fate. This grieving, and especially weeping, is believed to secure the sympathy, blessing, and intercession of the Imams for the faithful. This also has a cathartic value, establishing the believer’s solidarity with those victims of the evil at work in the world. According to Shi‘ite dogma, literally scores of Mohammad’s descendants and relatives suffered martyrdom at the hands of their enemies, so there is certainly no shortage of days that could be adopted for this purpose. In practice, the most important of such observances are those associated with the deaths of the Prophet’s daughter Fâtemeh, his son-in-law ‘Ali, Imam Ja‘far Sâdeq, Imam ‘Ali Rezâ (the only Imam whose tomb is in what is now Iran), and, above all, Imam Hosayn and the members of his family killed at the Battle of Karbalâ. The typical and traditional way of observing most of these days is through the practice of visiting shrines ( ziârat ) and listening, in private or public gatherings, to orations about the martyrs ( rowzeh-kh v âni ), both of which have been discussed in an earlier chapter. Sometimes, ritual dinners may also be held (the affl uent providing meals for the poor, for example). The most impressive by far of all these observances are those held over the first 10 days of Moharram in commemoration of those martyred at Karbalâ, culminating on the 9th (Tâsu‘â) and 10th (‘Âshurâ) of the month. There are many customs associated with these observances, and as with most Iranian festivities, they vary considerably from one locality to another. The most common and important, however, are the processions and passion plays held in connection with Tâsu‘â and ‘Âshurâ. In cities and towns of any size, the processions are organized and conducted by religious fraternities ( hay‘at s) or groups of men ( dasteh s). Men in the fraternities regularly practice the chants and rituals they will perform beginning on the first of Moharram and culminating in the ‘Âshurâ processions. They take great pride in these activities and not infrequently try to outdo other dasteh s in the fervor and dedication they bring to the task. In addition to chants, they typically practice some type of rhythmic self-fl agellation (usually with a fl ail made out of chains bundled together, but sometimes with knives or swords). Other members of the hay‘at s may make large, symbolic structures to carry in the procession, somewhat like fl oats in a parade. In some cases, these are known as plates ( tabaq s) and used to carry portraits of the Imams, replicas of their tombs, and so forth; others are huge wooden edifices (called naql ) draped with black banners and meant to symbolize Hosayn’s coffi n. Other participants may carry black flags or large iron hands (representing the hands of ‘Abbâs, Hosayn’s half-brother, which were chopped off after his death in battle). The processions are accompanied by chanting and religious music and may include other reminders of Karbalâ (such as a riderless horse commemorating the fallen Hosayn, or horses and camels carrying children, women, and men acting as the martyrs and captives taken away to Syria after the battle). Large crowds turn out to watch the processions and can display great emotion upon observing the spectacle. In cities where there is a shrine, public processions begin from the neighborhood and end at the shrine as the destination. There are two important observances related to the commemoration of Hosayn: one known as shâm-e gharibân , or the first night after the day of ‘Âshurâ, when Hosayn’s remaining family members had to wander in the dark desert in search of a home; and the other known as Arba‘in, held 40 days later on 20 Safar, commemorating the time when the decapitated head of Hosayn, which had been carried off to Damascus, was reunited with his body (for that reason, the day is also sometimes called sar-tan, “head-body,” in Persian). A ritual ziârat to Hosayn’s tomb in Karbalâ is regarded as the appropriate way to observe the day. On shâm-e gharibân , various dastehs and hay‘ats carry candles and proceed in the streets praying and singing lamentation songs. In all ritual activities associated with the commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Hosayn, children and young adults are major participants. These occasions provide an important social opportunity for young people to socialize and do team work with each other. The custom of having passion plays ( ta‘ziyeh ) during Moharram that recreate the story of the events at Karbalâ is a very original and distinctive feature of Iranian Shi‘ism. Like the ‘Ashura processions, the practice of ta‘ziyeh is based on the idea that imitating and representing the suffering of Hosayn, or expressing grief for it, establishes a reciprocal bond of affi nity with the family of the Prophet and wins forgiveness of sins. Ta‘ziyeh became very popular in the nineteenth century and was subsidized by the Qâjâr rulers, especially Nâser-od-Din Shah. During the Pahlavi period, public performance of ta‘ziyeh declined for two reasons. First, some of the religious leaders opposed it because it involved shabih-sâzi , or image making (Muslims generally do not approve of making portraits and especially not statues or sculptures, because of the association with idolatry). Second, the secularizing Pahlavi governments saw the practice as a low-class folk custom not worth promoting. However, the Iranian Revolution brought this traditional performance into a new light. Artists took note of ta‘ziyeh as an important native theatrical production. With efforts by the Islamic government in reviving native traditions, modern production of ta‘ziyeh in varied forms became the focus of theater and movie producers and reached the international scene. In 2002, the world famous Iranian filmmaker ‘Abbâs Kiârostami produced a new presentation of ta‘ziyeh, shown at several European film festivals. In early 2005, Nâser Taqvâ‘i made a short film about ta‘ziyeh, named Tamrin-e âkhar (“The Last Rehearsal”), on commission by the United Nation’s Educational, Scientifi c, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for offi cially recognizing ta‘ziyeh as a religious tradition and cultural heritage in the UNESCO World Heritage List. Unlike the lamentation processions, ta‘ziyeh are held at a fixed location, and the performers act out the story of Karbalâ—the events leading up to the battle, the battle itself, the slaughter of the family of the Prophet, and the plight of the widows, orphans, and captives after the battle. They may be somewhat improvisational, or they may follow a well-established script. Popular ta‘ziyeh productions may be quite simple in terms of costuming and scenery; those financed by the religious foundations or now by the government can be quite lavish. They all make heavy use of convention, such as having the villains dress in red, and those about to be martyred in white. Some are held in open squares or courtyards; others are performed at special theaters (community ones known as Hosayniehs or large, state-financed ones known as takiyeh s). In either case, there are no real boundaries to separate the stage and actors from the audience—all are participants in the drama. Although the ta‘ziyeh looks very much like a play, the audience is not there simply to observe and certainly not for entertainment; it is a ritualized mourning ceremony in which all participate, either through imitation in the case of the actors or lamentation on the part of the audience. The emotions unleashed by the ta‘ziyeh can be more intense than those of the processions, even to the point where the line between re-creation and reality is blurred—as has often been noted, this can result in real peril for the actor who has the unenviable task of playing Shemr, the merciless chief villain of the story who bars Hosayn and his thirsty followers from water and ultimately kills the Imam. As mentioned earlier, not all the Shi‘ite holidays are connected with mourning. The birthday of Imam ‘Ali (13 Rajab), the birthday of Imam Rezâ (11 Zi’l-Qa‘deh), and the birthday of the Twelfth Imam (15 Shabân) are all offi cial holidays and can be fairly festive occasions. The day on which Shi‘ites believe Mohammad made a speech at the Pool of Ghadir confi rming ‘Ali as his successor is also a major holiday ( ‘Id-e Ghadir, 18 Zi‘l-Hejjeh), although in practice it involves mostly offi cial receptions for members of the clergy. In earlier times, there was also a very raucous and colorful, almost carnivallike, holiday on 26 Zi‘l-Hejjeh (or alternatively, 9 Rabi‘ I) celebrating the murder of the caliph ‘Omar (regarded by Shi‘ites as a special enemy of ‘Ali; he was also the caliph under whom the Arabs conquered Iran, so there were national as well as religious reasons for hating him). The highlight of the day was making an effi gy of ‘Omar to be cursed, insulted, and finally burned. These rituals started with the establishment of Shi‘ism as the state religion during the Safavid period. As relations between Iran and Sunni countries have improved, the holiday is now regarded as inappropriate and is no longer observed.