Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

The villagers of Aliabad do not presume political stability. They were not especially surprised at the fall of the Shah, nor at the demise of the most powerful person in the village, Seyyid Ibn Ali Askari, some months after the Iranian revolution. “One day the saddle is on the horse, the next day the horse is on the saddle,” they said. “Families become scattered. Families come and go. Ezzat va zellat. Honor and ruin.”

The role of religious activities and rituals in the political struggles of Aliabad, a village outside of Shiraz in southwest Iran, varies in relation to changing economic and social conditions. Religious activities commanded great time, energy and resources during periods when absentee landlord or central government authority was weakest. At such times, these outside authorities simply ratified in office the victors of local political competition, the persons with the largest number of local supporters, rather than maintain others in office through the use of external force. Incumbents and aspirants to office utilized a variety of cultural means, including religious ritual, to gather support from as large a number of persons as possible and to demonstrate political authority. Village residents, for their part, depended on the local political elite for access to economic resources and the means of livelihood. They were thus disposed to devote considerable time and expense to Shi‘i ritual practices as a means of securing the support of local leaders.

The proliferation of economic activity and opportunities outside of the village community, especially after the land reform of the early 1960s, and expanding economic activity financed by oil revenues, had a marked impact on the utility of religious ritual in controlling village political activity. This second stage led directly into the revolutionary period — the last half of 1978 and the first months of 1979 — when religious ritual assumed explicit political functions. A fourth and present stage incorporates the period following the revolutionary overthrow of the Pahlavi regime in February 1979 and the subsequent weakening of the central political authority. An appreciation of the religious dimension of local level politics in the contemporary Islamic Republic requires a review of the shifting relationship of religious ritual to political struggle over these four stages. Shifts in political and economic position in the village had been common — there were at least three large, decrepit courtyards housing the many poor descendants of formerly powerful kadkhodas (village heads). Seyyid Ayyub Askari, a poor, blind old man who sat in a room with a simple cotton gelim that did not even cover the entire floor space, had once been the most influential and wealthy person in the village. On the other hand, villagers commented that Seyyid Ibn Ali Askari, by far the wealthiest and most powerful person from the village before the revolution, had “come from nothing.” “ And,” they sniffed, “his father was a china teapot mender!”

Aware that the political fortunes and status of themselves and others are subject to change, villagers are sensitive to any signs of increasing or declining status, or changes in relationships or alliances. Raft o amad (coming and going, i.e., social interaction), and the attendant reciprocity in material goods, are the most important means of demonstrating political and economic status, political loyalty and political alliances. Eating meals at the home of a political figure is an especially significant indication of political allegiance. Such matters are the subject of close scrutiny and extensive conversation. People question each other about who did or did not attend functions and ceremonies, who is visiting whom, and who exchanges gifts and food. All gatherings and occasions for the presentation of food and gifts thus become demonstrations of political hegemony or alliance.

In such circumstances, control and funding of Shi‘i religious institutions and activities become important in the process of local-level politics, or taifehkeshi (the mobilization of kinship groups and/or political alliances for political struggles). Those political figures who wish to gather or maintain local-level political support are anxious to sponsor functions, to have as many guests as possible in their homes, and to engage in raft o amad with as many people as possible.

Under the Qavams

During the landlordship of the nationally prominent Qavam family of Shiraz, the village of Aliabad was a political and economic unit. There were virtually no alternatives to making a livelihood or to receiving necessary protection other than maintaining the good graces of the current kadkhoda and the head of one’s own taifeh (kinship grouping, or political faction). Likewise, the kadkhoda and heads of taifehs were dependent on the political support of their followers to maintain their positions of political superiority and their control over economic resources.

Villagers perceived themselves as dependent on the protection and assistance of the head of their respective taifeh and the good will of the incumbent kadkhoda. Some 200 household heads, about half of the adult males of the village of 3,000, were agriculturalists. They received their sharecropping rights from the head of their taifeh. Sharecropping rights were distributed to some ten agricultural work groups for further allotment among members by the village head. The strongest taifehs controlled the most land and had the most members.

Some 200 other men of the village engaged in trade of various sorts. Aliabad provided the itinerant traders and village shopkeepers throughout the region. As insecurity was rife, traders depended on village support and especially on the kadkhoda to protect them from thieves. The kadkhoda was a “little shah” for the entire area, and not just for the village itself: He controlled the countryside, pursued thieves and could order executions. As local political clout and the assistance of a group of strong, preferably armed, men was the only hope of obtaining justice, a successful trader invariably belonged to a politically powerful and large taifeh. Such membership was the only assurance that people would treat traders with respect, pay debts, and otherwise fulfill business obligations.

Both traders and agriculturalists, then, were anxious to remain on good terms with the kadkhoda and with their own taifeh. Villagers were willing to attend the functions, feasts and rituals funded and sponsored by political leaders as a sign of their allegiance. Kadkhodas and taifeh heads were likewise anxious to maintain as large a social network as possible, and were willing to expend a great deal of time, effort and resources in doing so.

Before land reform, the kadkhoda was the representative of the Qavam family, the landlord. Competition for the position of kadkhoda was fierce, for the person holding this appointment was the most powerful person in the whole area. The landlord wanted the strongest person with the greatest number of supporters to be kadkhoda in order to keep control most effectively in the village and ensure the greatest profits from his holdings. Because the kadkhoda required a very large income to ensure the loyalty of his retainers, aspiring kadkhodas most often arose from among the most successful village traders.

The process of forming and maintaining alliances for these political struggles required incumbent and contending village leaders, and their actual or potential adherents, to become actively engaged in religious activities and rituals. [1] The most important political figure in the village funded and controlled the mosque. The last kadkhoda before land reform had built the new mosque in Aliabad. During Ramadan, the month of religious fasting, the eftar (fast-breaking meal after sunset) and the sahar (early, pre-dawn meal) provided opportunities to consolidate and demonstrate political support. One villager gave this description of the Ramadan practice of ahya’ (all-night watch):

The village notables and the kadkhoda would invite people to their homes. They would bring a rozehkhun (reciter of the passion of the imams) and then invite people for a meal. Seyyid Yakub, Ali Reza and Seyyid Ayyub did this. For example, people would have their meal in the evening to break their fast, and they would go to Seyyid Yakub’s. They would pray, listen to the rozehs and Seyyid Yakub would offer tea, fruit drinks, melon, galyun and Ramadan sweets. They would eat sahar about three or four in the morning, and then go home.

Other people, less financially able, would host only the eftar or the sahar, instead of the all night watch complete with refreshments and entertainment.

The most dramatic demonstrations of political power took place during the month of Moharram, especially on Tasua and Ashura, the ninth and tenth of that month, marking the eve and day of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein. Traders, normally dispersed throughout the area, returned to the village for the month of Moharram and the following month of Sahar, also a period of mourning. The villagers began practicing seni-zani (beating the chest with the fist) and zangir-zani (beating the back with a chain) in mourning processions from the first of the month of Moharram, and continued daily throughout the two months. Wealthy traders and members of the political elite provided meals to participants and to the community as a whole to honor Imam Hussein, and brought rozehkhuns and ta‘aziyeh players from Shiraz to recite and act out the story of Imam Hussein’s martyrdom.

The third day after Ashura, men dressed up to enact the scene of Yazid’s supporters taking Zaynab and other female members of Hussein’s group into slavery. This elaborate procession circled the village several times. Practically the entire village turned out to share in participation of the Ashura rituals. Their political significance was noted in the remark of one villager: “Whoever had zur (force), qodrat (power) and pul (money) controlled Ashura and the husseiniehs (buildings for the mourning rituals).”

The incumbent kadkhoda was always the one to bring the ta‘aziyeh players and rozehkhuns from Shiraz, house them and provide them their wages. To demonstrate his political authority, the kadkhoda would attempt to maintain tight control over the ritual proceedings, when there was always a danger of fistfights or factional outbursts. The kadkhoda himself generally took a visibly passive role during the events; his righthand men, the heads of the most important taifehs supporting him, walked between the parallel lines of mourners to keep peace.

After Land Reform

About the time of land reform in the early 1960s, with the increasing consolidation of power by the central government, sponsorship and control of the Ashura commemorations and other religious rituals and activities lost significance as a political tool for the village elite. The political process of revolving elites was frozen in place. The government, which took over ultimate political control of villages from landlords, could enforce the indefinite tenure of its chosen representatives in office.

The post-landlord village head, Seyyid Yakub Askari, previously the landlord’s representative, felt no great need to prop himself up with rituals and redistribution of food and other goods. [2] The social interaction of the Askari brothers with other villagers declined greatly. People commented that in the past Seyyid Yakub constantly had large numbers of guests, both villagers and his allies from throughout the area. By the late 1970s, Seyyid Yakub’s main guests were the gendarmes from the nearby station and his few top political allies within the village. Seyyid Ibn Ali, his more powerful brother, even moved to Shiraz and sponsored no religious rituals or feasts whatsoever.

The Askari brothers did not need local political support because there was no possibility of others competing for office by building up a local support group. The rituals connected with mourning for Imam Hussein, and feasts during Moharram and Ramadan, decreased drastically. No longer were ta‘aziyeh players, rozehkhuns and nohehkhuns brought from Shiraz. There was no procession on the third day after Ashura. Villagers commented that “The seyyids (the Askari taifeh) don’t go all out for Ashura anymore the way they used to.”

Resources were now used to build up contacts with centers of power outside of the village. The Askari brothers formed close connections with the gendarme station, court officials, and other influential government figures in Shiraz, and became increasingly careless of village opinion. Rather than distributing access to local resources among villagers in return for local support, Seyyid Ibn Ali used his outside backing to encroach on the property and rights of villagers, expropriating village resources.

Ashura took on a new political meaning in these changed conditions, becoming a symbol of the Askaris’ political domination. By stationing gendarmes in the village during Ashura, Seyyid Yakub forcefully reminded peasants and other villagers of his monopoly over the means of force. Seyyid Yakub did continue to handle mosque expenses. Likewise, Seyyid Yakub and two of his closest supporters, Ali Reza and Mash Yusef, sponsored the largest sofrehs from among the fewer given, demonstrating their political and economic power.

At the same time, economic changes reduced the need of villagers to form alliances with political leaders. Because of government-imposed security in rural areas, traders were no longer dependent on local political figures for protection. They were influenced to a relatively greater degree by the wish to remain on good terms with their associates in the Shiraz bazaar and the general populace of the village, who could give them their business. Eight of the ten village shopkeepers of Aliabad were ferverently pro-revolution during 1978-1979, incurring the wrath of Seyyid Yakub, the main Shah supporter in the village.

But improved transportation and security simultaneously caused a drastic decline in trading opportunities. Villagers themselves now went to Shiraz to buy their necessities. By 1978, only some 20 to 25 villagers earned their main source of income from trading — down from some 200 a decade earlier. Especially after land reform, agriculture deteriorated as well. Together with the increase in population, this forced many men to look elsewhere for a livelihood. [3] The oil boom economy of the 1970s opened up a whole new range of job possibilties, in factories built only a few kilometers from Aliabad and in nearby Shiraz. Toward the end of the decade, some 90 percent of village men were deriving the greatest part of their income from sources outside of the village. Ex-traders as well as ex-farmers entered factories or commuted to Shiraz to work in construction or other jobs. In contrast to the peasants, who showed respect and deference toward Seyyid Yakub’s face (while reviling him and his family behind his back), urban workers would completely ignore him when passing him in the village alleys. The village was no longer a unit, with political leaders monopolizing access to political, economic, social and ritual resources. For men working outside of the village, the village head, Seyyid Yakub, the heads of their taifeh, and their taifeh in general carried far less threat and political significance. According to one villager, “It’s always good to have a taifeh, always nice to be surrounded by members of your taifeh. But now taifehs aren’t the same as they were before. Each person is a taifeh for himself.”

Villagers felt less compelled to utilize resources in extravagant feasts, religious or otherwise. Attendance at feasts and rituals declined. Far fewer people participated in the shortened two-day commemorations for the martyrdom of Imam Hussein. Some villagers traveled into Shiraz to mourn with workmates or associates in the city. Two groups of villagers continued to participate more than others in the Ashura rituals regulated by Seyyid Yakub and his cohorts — Seyyid Yakub’s relatives, many of whom happened to be quite poor, and the peasants. The relatives had fought on the side of Seyyid Ibn Ali in bloody battles against the villagers and feared retribution. Peasants depended on agricultural jobs, monopolized by the Askari brothers, to supplement their meager incomes from their own land. In addition, peasants feared that should they fail to meet with the approval of the Askaris, the brothers might seize their land, as they had often been known to do.

The Iranian Revolution

In the years just prior to the revolution, villagers were increasingly exposed to anti-regime ideology from the many people who had moved from the village to Shiraz and elsewhere, and from villagers who commuted to work outside of Aliabad. One villager, for instance, had gone to the university in Isfahan and brought back to his relatives books and tapes by Ali Shari‘ati, along with an anti-Shah attitude. The village mullah had been active among the religious opponents to the Shah in Shiraz in the 1960s. He had not lost his anti-government attitudes, although he did not broadcast them. Some villagers had become involved in religious circles of opposition — groups ostensibly meeting to study the Qur’ an — through their work and associations in Shiraz. Some of the seyyids who had moved to Shiraz practiced a religious style of life, and had been supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini from several years before the revolution. Most of the traders from the village were involved with the Shiraz bazaar and thus open to its influence of religious opposition.

These people all saw their devotion to their religion and their opposition to the Shah’s government to be one and the same thing. Together with more secular opponents to the regime, the religious opponents began talking with and influencing villagers. In the years just before the revolution, these residents of Shiraz had been returning to the village en masse to participate in the Ashura mourning rituals. Villagers would meet them several kilometers outside of Aliabad, and all would then march in procession back to the village. The presence of gendarmes and two policemen from Shiraz to check for political content in speeches forced these guests to refrain from quarrels or any overt declaration of their political attitudes. Rather, they would use their visits with relatives and friends, and the religious aura of the days of mourning, to pass on dissenting information and attitudes, often using Shi‘a terminology and imagery. During the summer of 1978, and then again later that fall, a mullah from Qom lived in Aliabad, organizing oppositional activities and teaching that the duty of Shi‘is is to resist tyranny.

During the fall of 1978, bitter political discontent indicated that many villagers were open to the persuasion of anti-regime agitators. Political conditions and events were much more a topic of conversation than religion. People complained at length about the Askari brothers, and faulted the central government for backing the brothers, for corruption, and for the land reform during which many people had lost their rights to their land. Further, people blamed the government for its neglect of the agricultural sector, making it impossible for most villagers to earn their livelihood as agriculturalists. The United States government and its policy toward Iran, and Americans working in Iran, were also the target of verbal abuse. Only later, as individuals were exposed to networks of information organized by religious figures, did the religious idiom come into vogue to describe political and economic conditions and what should be done about them. Those who did not become active in the revolution, such as the peasants of Aliabad, at no time used religious terminology in complaining about political and economic conditions.

Attitudes toward the revolution tended to be influenced by pre-revolutionary political alignments. Seyyid Yakub and his assistants in the village political administration were actively pro-Shah, as were the opium smugglers who depended on Seyyid Ibn Ali Askari’s connections with government officials in Shiraz to continue their illegal business without apprehension. Peasants and small landowners, even if they did not favor the Shah’s government and the Askari brothers, refrained from revolutionary involvement for fear that Seyyid Yakub might expropriate their land.

The people who became involved in heightened religious activities and in the revolutionary movement, especially in the early months of mobilization up to November and December of 1978, were persons with a history of active opposition to the government or the village political elite. One of the first groups to become involved were those who had been supporters of former prime minister Mossadeq in the early 1950s. After the return of the Shah and their subsequent punishment, they had refrained from open political dissent but had maintained a quiet, cautious resistance. [4] Another group who became involved early on in revolutionary activity was people who had opposed the Askari brothers in previous village-level conflicts. These included some of the peasants and sons of peasants who had lost land during land reform and had then participated in the subsequent revolt against the Askaris. [5] Both of these groups took advantage of the opportunity to express their long-standing discontent by joining the movement against the regime.

All of the Aliabad teachers and most high school students, who either lived in Shiraz with relatives or commuted daily into the city, were enthusiastic supporters of the revolution. Their complaints against the government were mainly of a secular nature, although as the revolution proceeded, religious terminology became more apparent in their discussion. Many commuting workers were influenced by fellow workers in factories, shops, or other sites.

Until the Ashura of 1978, which occurred in early December, the majority of villagers had considered it wisest to refrain from revolutionary involvement, no matter what their private political views. Then, as plans for the opposition marches for Ashura in Shiraz were publicized, Seyyid Yakub did all he could to discourage villagers from going to Shiraz to take part. In an attempt to keep political control over villagers and prevent them from participating in the uprising at the national level, he urged them rather to join in the traditional Ashura commemorations in Aliabad.

But the majority of village men, and also a few village women, took buses, pickups, cars and trucks into Shiraz. The rather insignificant traditional mourning procession held in the village made a very poor showing. Only some 40 men, mainly peasants and Askari dependents, took part. This feeble little parade was the result of Seyyid Yakub’s efforts to restrict the political implication of Ashura to a show of local-level political loyalty, in contrast to the meaning of the Shiraz demonstration as a revolt against tyranny. Two of Seyyid Yakub’s cohorts, members of the local government administration, directed the small group of mourners.

The triumphant return of the marchers from Shiraz topped off this exciting and emotion-filled day. They returned together, horns blaring, men crowded into the backs of trucks shouting out revolutionary slogans from hoarse throats with great spirit and joy. The group of some 400 people, both village residents and villagers who had moved to Shiraz, gathered at the mosque and then paraded around the village several times, with fists beating time to thunderous revolutionary slogans. The message of Ashura 1978 was clear: Government forces and representatives at the local level had completely lost control over the Hussein rituals, and government authority was deteriorating rapidly.

To some degree, throughout the local political struggle leading up to the revolution, religion was manipulated to serve political ends. The appropriate interpretation of Islam was used to defend partisan stances. Shah supporters, referring to Ayatollah Khomeini’s commonly used title “Imam,” frequently commented, “We always had twelve imams. Now suddenly there are 13?” They argued that political demonstrations in the place of rituals commemorating Imam Hussein’s martyrdom sullied the holiness of Ashura. Shah opponents, of course, took the position that the foremost duty of every Shi’i is to fight tyranny.

Villagers privately commented that members of one prominent taifeh, long rival to the Askaris, actively supported the revolution to further their own interests. And indeed, after the revolution, they took political offices and distributed “Islamic cigarettes” and other low-cost goods provided by the Islamic authorities, selling them in their village shops — at a very good profit! Others shared my own suspicion that Seyyid Muslim, son of Seyyid Yakub and one of the most enthusiastic pro-Khomeini organizers, supported the revolution in order to gain an important role in the new administration and to protect his pro-Shah relatives.

Some Iranians admitted to conscious manipulation of religious symbolism to further the cause of the revolution. One prominent organizer in Aliabad confided that “You have to use a language that the people will understand. I felt we needed a revolution, so to get people to join me, I talked in religious terms.” This young teacher further explained,

The reason I spoke in the mosque and so on is that you can’t go too far in front of the people. They won’t understand. Even though Khomeini isn’t a very great religious figure, not even as important as Shariatmadari, it was important to have a big person or to make a big person to get the people on his side and against the regime. A leftist or someone else could not have mobilized the people like that.

The growth in the strength of the revolutionary movement, apparent during the Ashura 1978 marches and other demonstrations, caused more people to decide to throw their support to the revolutionary forces. In later stages, supporting the revolution and becoming more Islamic became politically wise and socially acceptable.

Signs of sincere religious motivation were also visible throughout the struggle. Some villagers had long been involved in religious activities and seemed to be anti-regime as a result of their genuine, unselfish devotion to Shi‘ism. For many Iranians, the escalating atrocities by government forces against their fellow citizens gave credence and reality to the Shi’i worldview, which compared the Shah to the tyrant Yazid and considered Ayatollah Khomeini to be the Hussein of this era, the leader in the current struggle against tyranny. People gained respect for and devotion to Shi‘ism as they saw Shi‘i leaders and Shi‘i teachings urging revolt against the Shah. For many, this increased their devotion to their religion. Participation in the rituals of revolution gave them the courage, determination, and faith necessary for the “objectively” hopeless struggle against the Shah’s regime. Their bellef in Shi‘ism provided the confidence that their actions and sacrifices would not be in vain. Of course, in the months following the February 1979 revolution, as some individuals became disillusioned with the course of the revolution and the activities of the Islamic Republic, I frequently observed a reversal in this increased devotion to Islam, and sensed even a feeling of repugnance toward religion.

Ritual and Village Politics After the Revolution

After February 1979, local political support once again became a factor of importance at the village level. The government’s powers of coercion had deteriorated greatly. Authorities in Shiraz were forced to adopt a policy similar to that of the time of the landlord. They could merely ratify local majority opinion concerning village political leadership.

Once again, local support and strength of taifehs became significant in the political process. Seyyid Ibn Ali undertook to mend relations with villagers and mobilize his own taifeh, which he had heretofore neglected, for his own defense. Quite a few of his relatives responded to the call to form an “association of seyyids” but his measures to rally other villagers were unsuccessful. Throughout the summer and fall months of 1979, a period of conflict between Seyyid Ibn Ali and his supporters on the one hand and the opposition faction on the other, villagers began to realize that Seyyid Ibn Ali no longer enjoyed powerful outside connections with which to further his interests in the village or to protect himself from the resentment of villagers. Former neutrals decided that their best interests would be served by joining the opposition forces, and nominal allies of Seyyid Ibn Ali deserted him.

Religious activities and rituals played a significant role in the erosion of Seyyid Ibn Ali’s political support and the correlative growth in the strength of the opposition. Islamic institutions, activities, and rituals were taken over and controlled by the village activists. Planning and support meetings of the opposition alliance, comparable to the gatherings of relatives and allies at the Shiraz home of Seyyid Ibn Ali, were often held in the Aliabad mosque.

The sofreh (meals traditionally held during Ramadan) of summer of 1979 registered the loss of the Askari taifeh’s political power. Seyyid Yakub failed to hold his usual sofreh. The excuse was that he was ill, but people suspected he had been afraid no one would come. Mash Yusef, the second closest associate of Seyyid Yakub, held a dinner and invited many people, but very few attended. The failure of the Askaris’ and their primary political allies to host well-attended sofrehs reflected the deterioration in their political status and itself led to further loss of confidence in their ability to withstand the threat from the opposition.

The peeshvaz, or welcoming of the hajjis (pilgrims) back from Mecca in late November 1979 provided the opposition with an opportunity to flaunt their political power. Mash Yusef was one of those returning. Before his arrival, young activists joked about not letting him into the village, about giving him a beating. When elders cautioned that it would be a sin to beat up someone who had just returned from the house of God, the activists retorted that his hajj hadn’t been accepted because the money for his trip had come from smuggling opium, and that Mash Yusef had committed terrible deeds of violence against other villagers in the service of Seyyid Ibn Ali. Two sons of Mash Yusef were reduced to asking a leader of the opposition for his intervention and protection. In spite of this intercession, Mash Yusef and his family must have been afraid of confrontation. He and another ally of Seyyid Ibn Ali arrived in Shiraz Friday evening, November 23. Instead of staying the night in Shiraz and making a grand entrance to the village the next day, as was customary, they immediately headed off in Ali Reza’s car, reaching the village about eight or nine in the evening. Some boys, marching around the village and practicing seni-zani (it was the month of Moharram), gathered around and taunted them. One villager remarked that hajjis always come in the morning or the afternoon and not at night like Yusef and Seyyid Aqa. Never before has this happened in the history of Aliabad, that “hajjis come at night without fanfare, and no one goes out to meet them. They were afraid. They came like thieves.”

The opposition passed around the word that people were not to visit the home of Mash Yusef, in the usual token of respect and congratulations required from every member of village society. Mainly family members were present on Saturday. There was not the usual heavv flow of visitors coming to sit and drink tea. Nor did Mash Yusef host large meals, inviting one group of villagers after another for several days in succession, as was customary.

The peeshvaz of three hajjis on the side of the opposition provided a striking contrast. Arriving on the same flight from Mecca as Mash Yusef, they stayed the night with relatives in Shiraz, sending word of their imminent entrance into the village. Saturday afternoon, a huge crowd walked the traditional seven kilometers down the road in the direction of Shiraz to meet them. From there the three hajjis and their families and closer associates got out of their caravan of vehicles to walk back to the village with the jubilant crowd. Moharram had begun, and many of the men honored the hajjis with a performance of seni-zani. Accompanying the rhythm of the self-flagellation were traditional Moharram noheh, and revolutionary couplets composed to honor the pilgrims such as: “Mostazef piruz ast, Zamindar nabud ast. Marg bar seh mofsedfil mahali, Seyyid Yakub o Ali Reza o Ibn Ali.” (The poor and weak are victorious. The landowners are vanquished. Down with the three corrupters of the village, Seyyid Yakub and Ali Reza and Ibn Ali.)

The village populace paid Hajj Hamdula the ultimate mark of respect and political eminence: they came to eat at his home in large numbers without invitation, including villagers who had moved to Shiraz. Monday evening the entire contingent of men and older boys who had been practicing seni-zani and zangir-zani went in a group of about 200 persons to pay their respects.

The mourning events of the month of Muharram, beginning November 21, likewise carried political implication. Villagers marked their victory over the Shah and over Seyyid Ibn Ali and the Askari taifeh by commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussein with greater participation, display, splendor and devotion than had occurred for quite some years. From the first evening of the month, men and boys marched through the main alley circling the village, beating their backs with chains and chanting noheh. The great majority practiced the more arduous and painful zangir-zani rather than the less meritorious seni-zani. Village opposition leaders strolled between the parallel rows of mourners to keep order, direct proceedings and lead the chants with microphones. Elaborate processions which had fallen into disuse during the preceding seven or eight years were revived.

Although welcome to join in the rituals as individuals, the Askari taifeh was denied the right to participate as a group. In contrast to the opposition, who with dashing self-assurance exhibited their political strength in terms of numbers of supporters, members of the Askari taifeh did not even dare to show their faces. The seyyid women, normally a formidable presence, were not in evidence among the women making the traditional pilgrimage to the local shrine on the afternoon of the third day after Ashura. Not one of Seyyid Ibn Ali’s allies attempted to give a kharj — the feast commemorating Imam Hussein’s martyrdom. Instead, after the conclusion of the Ashura procession, most mourners went for lunch to the home of Hajj Sadrolla, owner of a local construction company and one of the leaders of the revolt against the Askari taifeh. The most politically dramatic kharj was held on the third day after Ashura. At the conclusion of the religious rituals, the large crowd of mourners marched to the home of Seyyid Akbar Askari, a recent turncoat from the Askari taifeh, chanting slogans such as “Seyyid Akbar, Seyyid Akbar. Pevandetan mubarak” (Seyyid Akbar, Seyyid Akbar. Congratulations on your alliance) as well as the usual “Down with Ibn Ali.” One hundred and fifty extra, uninvited guests attended Seyyid Akbar’s sofreh to commend to changing sides.

Yet, comparing 1979 with earlier years, before land reform, villagers admitted that this commemoration was not as tameez (distinctive, proper) nor as mofasal (complete, lengthy and rich in detail). In the past, there had been seven or eight camels, perhaps ten mules and a horse or two in the kutal procession. In 1979 there were only four camels, four mules and two horses. Seni-zani had been practiced both afternoon and evening for up to two months, instead of just in the evening with the last performance on the thirteenth of Ashura. Some 50 people had donated kharj instead of merely four. In 1979, no ta‘aziyehkhun, nohehkhun or rozehkhun were brought from Shiraz to recite and act out the passion of the Imams. One villager explained that: “Before, people didn’t have such busy schedules. Most men were either traders or agriculturalists and could take time off at most times during the year whenever Moharram fell. They were free in the afternoons and so could do seni-zani both afternoon and evening. But now people have to work for wages and have to spend all of their time running around to earn enough money for food. Now they’re free only on holidays and Fridays, so they can do seni-zani only then and in the evening.”

The village, in other words, did not regain its status as a political and economic unit. Competition at the local level was once more possible, with the outcome dependent on mobilizing local support, but less was at stake. Ninety percent of village men continued to derive their incomes from outside of the village. For their involvement in the factional struggle, they received no major economic rewards, no access to means of a livelihood — merely hopes of receiving a small share of the land seized from Seyyid Ibn Ali. The leaders of the opposition enjoyed independent sources of income as well, and did not depend on the factional dispute to bring them control over economic resources. Comparatively less effort and resources were expended in eliciting political support.

Unless the village community and resources again gain central importance in the lives of villagers, religious rituals and institutions are not likely to take on the political significance apparent at the local level during the time of the landlord. During the time of the Qavams, class conflict in Aliabad was minimized by the necessity for economically and politically powerless persons to connect themselves with a political leader. Because of the lack of economic alternatives and need for protection, there was no escape from expressing loyalty to one local political leader or another through participation in religious rituals. Religious ritual was instrumental in factional disputes over power and resources. But economically and politically dependent villagers were not free to use religious ritual to challenge the system.

Because of economic changes during the 1960s and 1970s, there was a decline in the effectiveness of the political power of local-level elites and of religious ritual as a tool to control political loyalties and contain political activities within the village community. Due to the availability of wage labor and other types of jobs, migrants and commuters were free to refuse to participate in community rituals. They were free to join with others in similar socioeconomic circumstances and positions of political powerlessness to resist the current regime. They traveled to Shiraz to participate in Ashura rituals of a different form, implying a different version of Islam, and supporting a change in the political system.

The revolution marked the lowest point in the importance and political effectiveness of local religious rituals. The local-level political elite could command the presence of few villagers at the Ashura rituals because they did not control access to important economic resources for the majority of villagers. Likewise, there was little incentive for aspiring politicians to expend resources on rituals because political competition at the local level was prevented by the forces of the central government. After the revolution, local religious rituals again gained some importance due to the local political competition allowed by a weakened central government. If one can judge by historical experience, the success of the Islamic Republic in maintaining political control over the residents of village communities through local representatives and local rituals will depend on the degree of dependence of residents on locally controlled economic resources.

Author’s Note: This article is based on 18 months of field research in Iran from June 1978 through December 1979. As in my earlier account of this village during the Iranian revolution [“One Village in the Revolution,” MERIP Reports 87 (May 1980)], the names of the village and of persons have been changed in the interests of privacy. Research was made possible by a fellowship from the Social Science Research Council and the American Council of Learned Societies. The conclusions and other statements in this article are my own. I owe a great debt to the many kind and open-minded Iranians who offered their friendship and assistance. I am grateful to Richard Antoun, Michael Fischer, Ann Betteridge and Ervand Abrahamian for their constructive criticism.

Endnotes

[1] Lynn Walter also suggests relationships among wealth, ritual gifting and feasting, and political influence in an Indian community in Ecuador. See Lynn Walter, “Social Strategies and the Fiesta Complex in an Otavaleno Community,” American Ethnologist 8 (1981), pp. 172-185. Peter Bertocci likewise points to the interrelation of wealth, control over religious ritual and feasting, and political power and factionalism in a Bangladesh community. See Peter J. Bertocci, “Models of Solidarity, Structures of Power: The Politics of Community in Rural Bangladesh,” in Myron J. Aronoff, ed., Political Anthropology Yearbook I: Ideology and Interest; The Dialectics of Politics (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1980), pp. 97-125.
[2] Some of the material for this article is drawn from Mary Hooglund, “Ritual and Revolution in Iran,” in Myron J. Aronoff, ed., Political Anthropology Yearbook, Vol. II: Culture and Political Change (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1981).
[3] For a discussion of these changes, see Eric Hooglund, “Iran’s Rural Inheritance,” MERIP Reports 99 (September 1981).
[4] See Mary Hegland, “One Village in the Revolution,” MERIP Reports 87 (May 1980).
[5] Ibid.

How to cite this article:

Mary Hegland "Religious Ritual and Political Struggle in an Iranian Village," Middle East Report 102 (January/February 1982).
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