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Have you ever considered hitting yourself with chains to remember a man who died 1333 years ago? This may sound strange to non-religious Westerners, but to the majority of Iran, it’s an annual occurence. The mournful, melancholy parades and nation-wide sadness is called Ashura (or Muharram) and it is all in memory of the death of Imam Hussein, the Profit Muhammad’s Grandson.

“Every day is Ashura, every land is Karbala”

-Al-Husayn

Millions of Shia Muslims throughout the region take to the streets and publicly display their mourning for Imam Husayn ibn Ali ibn Abi Talib, who was starved and then beheaded in Karbala, Iraq in 680 A.D. The somber parades and mass self-flagellation are a shocking insight into the intensity of the Iranian culture of martyrdom. Throngs of men slowly saunter the streets in a trance-like state while whipping themselves with chains and openly sobbing for the loss of their hero, some 1333 years ago.

Ashura

The ceremonies last 10 days, but the country remains in a state of mourning for as long as two months! No music is played in the streets and public displays of happiness would be considered inappropriate during this time. The main, 10 day commemoration culminates to the final day of Ashura when the crowds on the street reach almost unimaginable proportions. The hypnotic unison of the clanging chains, together with the rhythmic beat of the drums and the defeated cry of depressed hymns, ring in the streets and create a very morose atmosphere.

Ashura

We were in the city of Kerman for the final day of Ashura and it was an extraordinary ambiance of pure heart-broken sorrow, all based around a holy man who died centuries ago. Thousands of men openly sobbed while hitting themselves with chains. Lined in perfect rows, they repeated ancient hymns as they navigated through the closed-off streets.

Women, equally bereaved, silently prayed on their knees with tears of true sorrow soaking their cheeks. The entire ceremony was so intense that it is impossible to describe with words.

Women Ashura

One should keep in mind that there is also a large population of non-Muslim Iranians, and for them, the annual depression is both dreaded and despised. For weeks on end the population of Iran slips into a state of gloom that is as contagious as it is intriguing and for non-Muslims, it is a terrible inconvenience.

One non-Muslim Iranian girl told us:

“Shiraz is usually a beautiful city, famous for poetry and culture where people play music on the streets. But during Ashura, all are expected to mourn and the fun ceases to exist for weeks on end.”

As visitors, we found the ceremonies to be extremely interesting, but we can understand the hardships the annual disturbance must impose on the non-Muslim citizens of the country. Ashura has not only enlightened us on the level of faith that still exists in Iran, but it has also given us a better insight into the diverse religious demographic of this Islamic Republic.

Ashura wasn’t all doom and gloom. In the evenings, the rich give to the poor in an amazing display of generosity. Free meals are on every corner, where restaurant and hotel owners cook massive vats of food and hand it out in the streets. In Kerman, we were lucky enough to partake in this part of Ashura and we’re glad we did.

Ashura Food

Our hotel owner was one of the fortunate people who is wealthy enough to give away food. They sacrificed 6 lambs which they cooked into a stew in 3 enormous cauldrons. We helped to cook the food and then hand it out the following morning.

All in all our experience with Ashura came with mixed emotions. We learned that the culture of martyrdom in Iran is still as alive as ever. We witnessed an incredible level of faith that is possibly unmatched anywhere else on earth and we also learned about the non-Muslim Iranian culture during the ceremonies as well. Even though it was sometimes a profoundly bleak, funeral like excercise, Ashura was an eye-opener for us and we’re glad we were here to witness it.

Can you imagine hitting yourself with chains to honour a fallen hero?

Have you ever witnessed something like this?

How would you deal with it as a non-Muslim local?

Tell us below.

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Ashura- A Month Of Sadness & Self-Flaggelation In Iran (1)

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15 thoughts on “Ashura: A Month Of Sadness & Self-Flagellation In Iran

  1. Wow, this is intriguing. I wonder why I’ve never heard of this before. I would totally struggle with the “no public displays of happiness” thing, though. I’m horrible at suppressing laughter when something funny happens.

  2. That is fascinating that you were able to be there during Ashura! Really quite a opportune time to be in the country to witness something so cultural significant and unique. I have not seen it myself, my brother did witness it while in India a few years ago.

  3. In India, hey? Wow that would be an interesting place to witness this ceremony. It was fascinating to see people crying, mourning and feeling genuinely sad for the loss of someone over 1000 years ago!

    Thanks for the comment.

  4. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of Ashura before, but it sounds like something interesting to experience! Although I do agree, if I lived there, I think I’d get a bit annoyed having everything so morose for weeks on end!

  5. Really happy that you have witnessed this ceremony. No foreigner can say he knows the Iranian culture without knowing this part. If you are more curious it will be exciting and informative to read more about the story of Imam hossein (e.g. in wikipedia or lots of other sources). To point out some more facts, through centuries the ceremony has evolved and now it is a mixture of deep, genuine, meaningful elements and some shallow, nonsense and even bullshit and you have seen just few of each part. I am also happy that you have not witnessed some cruel actions, however, those types are quit rare in Iran. The way it is commonly being performed in Iran does not actually harmful to your body (Those chains does not hurt you provided that you do not hit it too strongly and too long). Some other actions are done by some Shia Muslims (mostly in India and Pakistan and in some particular parts of Iran) that actually hurts the body. For you, it would be probably interesting to see this also in Tehran, which is a less religious city relative to the others, you will see many people that may look non-religious take part in the ceremony.

  6. Hi Mahdi,

    We are both very happy that we were able to witness this ceremony – by chance. We didn’t realize Ashura was taking place when we were in Iran, but glad we were able to see it. The ceremony we saw wasn’t harming anyone or anything, the whipping of the chains wasn’t very hard, just very repetitive. We saw Ashura in Iraq, on t.v., and it was definitely more crazy than the one in Iran!

    Thanks for the comment.

  7. Hi dear Nick and Dariece
    I am a PhD student of educational sciences in tehran university.
    Like you, i am a traveler and interested in seeing diffrent cultures. Based on this, i was lots of Iranian cities. By the way, last year i saw Yazd with a couple from your country (a good and kind couple).
    Ashura is mixed with lots of misunderstandings and distorted images. I myself am a religious person and take part in Ashura every year. You are right, we respect this death and do not publicly rejoice during this time. But we do not see it as a sign of sadness and unhappiness. Unlike, we see it as a sign to remember the good ones and try to be like them. We mourn for someone who was very righteous

  8. Hi dear Nick and Dariece
    And a lasting thanks to you for an unbiased introducing of Iranian culture and people. I myself like your site so much and introduced it to lots of my friends.
    I am Mahdy Yusofi, a PhD student of educational sciences in Tehran university and teach in Qom university in Qom city (a religious city close to Tehran).
    Like you, i am a traveler and interested in experiencing different cultures. Based on this, i saw lots of Iranian cities. By the way, last year i saw Yazd, Tabriz and Shiraz with a couple from your country (a good and kind canadian couple). Your pictures remind me of the best memories of my life.
    Ashura is mixed with lots of misunderstandings and distorted images. I myself am a religious person and take part in Ashura every year. You are right, we respect this death and do not publicly rejoice during this time. But we do not see it as a sign of sadness and unhappiness. Unlike, we see it as a sign to remember the good ones and try to be like them. We mourn for someone who was very righteous and mourn for losing these kind of people. Based on that, during this time, we do not do the bad acts and do our best to be like them.
    Did you know during this 2-month lament the rate of crime and bad deeds decrease heavily in Iran? Did you know even some parts of the jews, the christians, or even the zoraastrians take part in Ashura? did you know bad memories and enmities will be forgotten in Ashura and those people who have had serious problems with each other, will forget those problems and will forgive each other? did you know Gandhi the great leader of indian people said “the only way to reject the colonialism of England and to live like the nobles is to live like Hussain” ?
    On the other hand, the culture of Ashura was definitely the main and foremost motivation for iranian martyrs during our 8- year war with Iraq and those martyrs protected their country and sacrificed their life in the memory of Imam Hussain who sacrificed his life and his relatives to protect our religion and send it to our hand through the centuries.
    What would you do if you know someone who sacrifice his or her life for you? what would you do if you know someone who have lost everything in his or her life for the others?
    We respect Hussain and his relatives to respect this sacrifice and to remember the way of a good life and try to habit like that.
    Sorry for the long writing
    I hope this helps
    Undoubtedly, you do not need to accept my point of view
    Mahdy form Qom

  9. i really enjoyed you’re way of looking to different parts of iran.
    but self injuring in ashura is banned by the government….
    ashura is a holy day for muslims in iran and people really help each other with giving foods to poor people,giving money to poor people and things like that.
    as mahdy said the degree of crimes really fell down in this month
    actually is a kind of fun month for children they really like tasu’a and ashura.
    it’s so holy for people
    and i really enjoyed your beautiful lecture about iran

  10. hi. interesting view.
    but that is nothing compare to Arbaeen walk!
    which many iranian take part too. just google it!
    20 millions of shia and non shia even non moslem people from around the glob walk toward Imam Hosein shrine in karbala. it was 3 days ago actually.
    Arbaeen, also known as Chehlum, commemorates the end of the 40-day mourning period after Ashura.
    If u planing to go to Iraq pick this time of the year.
    last year 3 million Iranian went there for this ceremony.

    any way I enjoyed ur blog very much. specially parts about my beautiful city. Esfahan

  11. Hi
    if you want go to the iraq and go to the Karbala city on Ashura day
    dont afraid
    last year near 30 millions people went to the karbala from all the world…..
    thats love i hope you feel it…..
    dont afraid go our guys and Iraqi brothers are there isis is nothing…… all years they tell us we will kill all of you we bombing you but all years more people come in all people know that what they want do and maybe die….but people go to karbala on ashura day….
    thats love
    People love Imam Hussein
    i hope you feel it…..

  12. As a muslim girl which is not really religious, I have to say although its hard to stand for this much mourning during this 2 months (the mourning is actually for 10 days but so many holy people died in this 2 months so thats why we say it’s mourning for 2 months) it gives us power and good energy because we can see that everyone are trying to do sth nice! To be a better person and to help people who are suffering these days like Hussain. One more thing that “Muharram” is the name of this month and Ashura is just a name for one day which is the 10th day of Muharram and Hussain and 72 people of his families and friends were killed by cruelty on this day

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