Given the radically different views of Sunnism and Shi‘ism on matters of history and doctrine, it might be assumed that there would also be a vast and unbridgeable gap between them in terms of practices as well. In fact, they have a good deal in common. Shi‘ite law closely resembles some of the most conservative and traditional schools of Sunnite law, and variations in matters pertaining to the basic rituals are also very minor (though the differences are taken quite seriously). In the case of ritual prayer, for example, the Shi‘ites have a slightly different wording of the call to prayer, can combine some of the fi ve daily prayers rather than spreading them out more widely over the course of the day, and use a few different postures and phrases during the course of the prayer. The most serious dispute has been over a question related to the ritual purifi cation required to perform the prayer, the Sunni practice known as al-mash ‘ alâ’l-khoffayn, wiping the shoes in lieu of than washing the feet when renewing an ablution. This custom, which the Caliph ‘Omar had authorized, is emphatically rejected by Shi‘ites. Shi‘ites in general tend to be much stricter on matters of ritual purity than is the case with most Sunnites nowadays. For example, some types of physical contact with a non-Muslim or something a non-Muslim has used have traditionally been regarded as involving a ritual pollution, and this can create some embarrassing situations for non-Muslims in Iran in encounters with extremely strict and pious Shi‘ites (being barred from visiting mosques, being prohibited from using public water cups, having the dishes one has used smashed, and so on) . In terms of family law, there are some substantial differences between Sunnism and Shi‘ism that are relatively important in terms of their signifi – cance for Iranian customs and culture. In the laws of inheritance, for example, Shi‘ism takes a more restrictive view of the inheritance rights of agnates (the ‘asabeh , basically the uncles and male cousins in an extended family). This is usually explained as the result of the need to emphasize that Mohammad’s only legitimate heirs were ‘Ali and Fâtemeh. There is also an important difference in marriage law. Shi‘ism recognizes as valid what is called mot’eh (“enjoyment”) marriage. In this form of marriage, the key difference is that the contract specifi es the length of time the marriage will last, which could be anything from a few hours to many years. At the expiration date, the marriage is automatically dissolved and the woman receives the amount of money stipulated as a kind of dowry in the contract. It appears that this type of temporary marriage was generally accepted in the early Islamic period, but Sunni religious scholars gradually restricted and eventually abolished it. It is still recognized as legal, and even meritorious, in Shi‘ite law. It has been practiced extensively in Shi‘ite Iran, where both the contract and the woman who engages in such a marriage are usually called sigheh (“formula”). For example, it was not uncommon for a man who went on a trip and was away from home for an extended period of time to contract a temporary marriage; in places like Mashhad, a popular pilgrimage destination, a virtual industry of providing temporary marriages developed. Women who accepted such marriages, however, were often seen as somewhat disreputable and stigmatized socially; they were unlikely ever to have a regular marriage because of the strong preference for a virgin bride in such cases. In recent years, the practice of temporary marriage has become controversial. Its defenders see it as a perfectly valid and moral form of marriage that protects by legal contract the rights of all parties involved and that affords a means of livelihood to women who would otherwise be destitute. Its critics see it as a thinly disguised form of legalized prostitution that exploits women made vulnerable by social prejudices against those who have been divorced or are otherwise disadvantaged. It was one of the traditional customs that the secularizing and modernizing reformers of the Pahlavi era hoped to abolish. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979–80, however, its legitimacy in Shi‘ite Islam was reaffi rmed. Some clerics, such as Rafsanjâni, even went so far as to tout its advantages as a progressive means of dealing with contemporary gender problems by providing a legal framework that could accommodate things such as teenage dating or trial marriages (the contract could include clauses restricting conjugal rights or the like) and freer socialization (by establishing a token marriage between families so the females would not have to be veiled or secluded during visits with each other). Charitable organizations in the Islamic Republic have established agencies for promoting this type of marriage and have even developed Web sites to encourage and facilitate them. 6 Law and ritual, however important they may be to the clerics and their supporters, constitute only one small facet of Shi‘ism’s contribution to Iranian religious and cultural life. One could argue that the whole Iranian worldview is inextricably linked to its Shi‘ite religious orientation. At the same time, it is important to remember that the understanding of the religion varies greatly from one individual to another, that religious practices are often affected by factors such as class and social status, and that there is no really homogeneous or entirely consistent religious attitude. Peasants and herdsmen, for example, are much less likely to be concerned about the ritualistic aspects of the religion than merchants in the bazaar. Ordinary people often accept folk beliefs (such as the existence of malevolent spirits, jinn, or the effi cacy of religious amulets) that would be frowned on as mere superstition by clerics. 7 The characteristically Shi‘ite belief in free will and the sufferings of the Imams co-exist, in both the popular religion and to an extent the formal religion, with the notion that events are predestined and that somehow God rewards the good and punishes the evil in this world as well as the next. In just one small village, the anthropologist Reinhold Loeffl er found an “amazing variety” of religious views: “Islam can take the form of a bland legalism or a consuming devotion to the good of others; an ideology legitimizing established status and power or a critical theology challenging this very status and power; a devotive quietism or fervent zealotism; a dynamic political activism or self-absorbed mysticism; a virtuoso religiosity or humble trust in God’s compassion; a rigid fundamentalism or reformist modernism; a ritualism steeped in folklore and magic or a scriptural purism.” 8 It is not possible in the space available here to discuss in any exhaustive or systematic way the many aspects of this religious culture, nor to try to separate those which are particularly Iranian from those which are commonly found throughout the Middle East or Islamic world. There are, however, a number of important cultural practices, sometimes combined with ideas from popular or folk religion, that do set Shi‘ism as practiced in Iran apart from the usual forms of Sunnite Islam. At the top of the list would be the dramatic and impressive ceremonies of mourning during the first 10 days of the month of Moharram that commemorate the death of Imam Hosayn at Karbalâ. These will be discussed in detail in the chapter on festivals and holidays. Closely related to this aspect of what has often been called a cult of martyrdom and lamentation in Iranian Shi‘ism, however, is the phenomenon known as rowzeh-kh v âni. This refers to the recitation of stories about the sufferings of the Imams and other Shi‘ite personalities. Originally, most of these stories were taken from a book by a popular preacher, Hosayn Vâ’ez Kâshefi , entitled “Garden of the Martyrs” ( Rowzat-osh- shohadâ ); hence the term “garden-reading” ( rowzeh kh v âni ). The recitations are typically performed by members of the clergy who have a particular skill at the highly emotional oratory and prodigious display of weeping that should accompany the stories. The popularity of this practice has increased over the years, and it has developed to go beyond just readings from Kâshefi ’s book to a larger repertoire of topics. The recitations can also be given throughout the year, rather than just during Moharram, and in private gatherings as well as public venues. Many well-to-do traditional families have a monthly rowzeh in their homes during which women gather and several clerics come and recite the stories of Karbalâ and Hosayn’s suffering for a fee. At the end of each speech given in public prayers, whether in a mosque or a special place for that purpose (the takiyeh ), clerics devote some time to recitation of rowzeh. In recent years, it has not been uncommon for political and ethical themes to be worked into the recitations, and the performances of famous reciters may be recorded and distributed. In the past twenty years, by utilizing modern audio technology and musical instruments, reciters have been able to produce highly effective rowzeh cassette tapes for the mass market. The concept of “pilgrimage” in Iranian Shi‘ism also has some unique aspects. This is not just confi ned to the ritual pilgrimage to Mecca ( hajj as it is for Sunnites); it also includes visits to the tombs of Imams and other shrines ( ziârat ). Throughout the Islamic world, folk religion often attributes a holy charisma or blessing ( barakat ) to the burial sites of important religious personalities. It is believed that pious visits to such sacred places in effect transfer some of the blessing to the visitor and may lead to prayers and requests (sometimes left behind in the form of notes or ribbons tied to the shrine) being granted. Formal Sunni Islam tends to be suspicious of such practices—which in fact often do seem to represent survivals of pre-Islamic customs 9 —and conservative schools such as the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia absolutely reject them. Iranian Shi‘ism, however, embraces the visitation of various shrines (generally known as emâmzâdehs ) and has even held that visiting some of them is superior to pilgrimage to Mecca in winning the favor of the Imams and their intercession for the believer. The Safavids enthusiastically promoted pilgrimages to places such as the tomb of their eponym Safi -od- Din in Ardabil (as it was claimed he was the descendant of an Imam) and the shrine of Imam Rezâ. Shah ‘Abbâs the Great himself set such an example of piety by traveling on foot to Mashhad and humbly cleaning and sweeping the area around the Imam’s tomb. The motivation of the Safavids may have been largely political (to enhance the aura of legitimacy around the dynasty and to deal with the obstacles the hostility of the Ottomans had created for Shi‘ites wanting to go on hajj to Mecca), but the concept of ziârat clearly had much deeper foundations in the religion of the people. As a recent religious authority put it, the shrines are places “where divine favor and blessing occur, where mercy and grace descend; they are a refuge for the distressed, a shelter for the despondent, a haven for the oppressed, and a place of consolation for weary hearts, and will ever remain so until resurrection.” 10 In earlier historical periods, this was almost literally true, since such shrines were recognized as a place of refuge ( bast ), where members of the political opposition wanted by the authorities, or even criminals at times, could take sanctuary and be immune to arrest for a while. Some important centers of Shi‘ite pilgrimage are found outside the borders of contemporary Iran. Foremost among these places are the ‘Atabât or “sacred thresholds” in Iraq: the tomb of Imam ‘Ali at Najaf, the tombs of Imam Hosayn and other martyrs at Karbalâ, the tombs of Musâ Kâzem and Mohammad Taqi at Kâzemayn near Baghdad, and the tombs of ‘Ali Naqi and Hasan ‘Askari (as well as a spot where the Twelfth Imam is supposed to have disappeared) at Samarra. The tombs of other Imams and Fâtemeh are in the Baqi’ cemetery in Medina, but their funerary monuments were destroyed by the Saudis. In Syria, Iranians regularly visit the tomb of Zaynab in the suburbs of Damascus and the Maqâm-e Hosayn in Aleppo (one of the places where Hosayn’s head was supposedly kept for a while after he was killed at Karbalâ). In Iran itself, there are well over a thousand emâmzâdeh s, of varying degrees of importance and ranging from very simple monuments to very grand sanctuary complexes. The most eminent of them is the Âstân-e Qods, the great sanctuary surrounding the tomb of Imam Rezâ in Mashhad (visiting it entitles one to be known by the honorifi c mashhadi /colloquial mashdi, just as pilgrims to Mecca are called hâji ). Other very popular pilgrimage sites include the shrines of Shâh ‘Abd-ol-’Azim near Tehran, Emâmzâdeh Dâud in northwest Tehran, and Shâh Cherâgh in Shiraz. The colossal tomb of Âyatollâh Khomeini recently constructed in the Behesht-e Zahrâ cemetery has also become something of a pilgrimage center for religious people. The ritual aspect of ziârat typically involves circumambulating the tomb ( zarih , which is often covered by beautiful grillwork, sometimes gold plated), and reciting special prayers for its occupant. The pilgrim may also touch or rub the zarih, in hope of receiving a vision, and they leave money, gifts, and written pleas near it. The funds donated at the zarih s constitute an important revenue source for the religious endowment in charge of each emâmzâdeh. Some people, especially those with a terminal illness, may sleep by the tomb for a short period in hope of a cure. In addition to giving the visitors the prospect of pleasing the Imams and perhaps solving their personal problems, visits to the emâmzâdeh s can also serve as the occasion for a festive excursion and relaxation, almost like a form of recreation. That is especially true for women, whose opportunities for such activities have traditionally been so constricted. A delightful, if fictional, depiction of such a family visit to a simple country emâmzâdeh can be found in the recent film Rang-e khodâ “Color of Paradise” by Majid Majidi. Many travelers to pre-modern Iran have left descriptions of such practices, including this one of the visit to the shrine of Bibi Shahrbânu: With the exception of sayyids (descendants of the prophet) and of boys who have not reached the age of puberty, men must never enter the sacred enclosure ( haram ) under any pretext, but must be content merely to chant the special litany ( ziaret-name ) in the courtyard and then go away after they have made an invocation ( do ’ a ) or a vow ( nadzr ). Women may enter the haram, read the ziaret-name, kiss the grille of the tomb, make a vow or invocation and then light candles, sacrifi ce a sheep or give money to the administrator ( motavalli ). They may sit in the courtyard and drink tea.
It may be noted that the Bibi Shahrbânu shrine, although famous, is located on the top of a rough hill and thus not visited as often as other emâmzâdeh s. There is a folk belief that men who enter the Bibi Shahrbânu shrine will be turned into a stone. One of the authors of this book, however, used to play as a young boy near this shrine and entered it on a dare from his playmates, and he can testify there was no such effect. Finally, mention should be made of the Shi‘ite practice of taqiyeh or “ prudent dissimulation” (also known as ketmân, “keeping secret”). This is the idea that one can, indeed must, conceal one’s true religious knowledge or sentiments from one’s enemies, especially if expressing those beliefs is likely to result in physical harm or death. Although this might seem curiously at odds with the glorifi cation of martyrdom that runs throughout Shi‘ism, it has long been a fundamental doctrine of the religion. The Koran enjoined Mohammad himself to use such caution in dealing with unbelievers; some of his early followers are said to have employed caution and deception to avoid being killed; and it is believed that the Imams and their followers regularly resorted to taqiyeh to escape persecution. In Safavid times, Mohammad-Baqer Majlesi exhorted Shi‘ites to use taqiyeh by appearing to conform to Sunnism when they went on pilgrimage to Mecca or visited shrines or mosques outside Iran where Sunnites were likely to be around and might object to their presence—a challenge often confronting Shi‘ite pilgrims to holy sites in Arabia during Hajj ceremonies each year. In those days, the danger of assault or death for Shi‘ites was quite real; taqiyeh was literally necessary for the survival of the faith, and no one should thus be blamed for appearing to have compromised his convictions. There has been much debate about the continued use of taqiyeh in modern times, as physical threats to the Shi‘ite minority have largely evaporated and Muslims fi nd an increasing need for solidarity against external threats. At least in its religious dimension, there is now the widespread belief that taqiyeh is unneeded and should be discouraged except in the rare instances where there is a direct, immediate, and extremely serious danger to be eluded. Far from being unwilling to discuss their beliefs, Shi‘ites have become eager to share and propagate them to any receptive audience. However, it can be argued that the practice of taqiyeh has become such an ingrained aspect of Iranian culture that is no longer related exclusively to religion and is not in abatement. Iranians are often wary of the intentions of foreigners or people outside their own trusted circle of family and acquaintances and consequently reticent to reveal their true feelings to them. Sometimes, that tends to result in the use of a certain amount of deception or prevarication in personal interactions. This is quite understandable given the Iranian historical experience with hostile outside powers and the odd mix in Iranian culture of intense socio-economic competitiveness with a polite concern to avoid doing or saying anything that might give offense to someone (a custom known as ta’arof ).