13 May 2017

Impressions and Images of Iran: Ashura (or Conversations with an ex-Muslim Atheist)

I have already mentioned Ashura a few times before, and it is finally time to talk a little about it. Ashura is a religious holiday, which occurs during the tenth day of Muharram in the Islamic calendar. In 2016, it fell on October 11. There are events that are held in all towns and cities, and for the most part, the whole country shuts down for two days. On the first day, I found myself hiking in the Alamut Valley. And it turns out that my driver and guide was an ex-Muslim atheist. And he had plenty of things to say about Ashura.

See, Ashura is not a happy event. It is called the Day of Remembrance in English, and is celebrated both by Sunni and Shia Islam. Iran is majority Shia, and I must say, Sunnis and Shiites commemorate Ashura differently. For Sunnis, Ashura commemorates the day when Moses and his followers were saved by God from Pharaoh by opening up the Red Sea. For Shiites however, Ashura commemorates the death of Imam Hussein during the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD. Imam Hussein is the 3rd of the 12 Imams, and therefore is a very important figure in Shia Islam. Hence, for Shiites, Ashura is a day of mourning.

So for the days leading to Ashura, everyone almost wears black. I was told I should refrain from wearing red. And every evening, there would be a procession along the main street of every town I was in. I first saw it when I was in Kashan, my very first city. I already saw these large scaffolding, and I really didn't know what they were for. Only later did I realize that these structures would be carried by men around town during the procession, as part of the mourning rituals that are related to Ashura.

I originally wanted to go to Mashhad after visiting Kerman and the southeast. However, Mashhad is a holy city, and I was told it would be crazy crowded. So instead of heading there I went to Shiraz instead. And as I said before, I timed my movements such that by the time Ashura hits, I would be hiking outdoors in the Alamut Valley.

Even though I was outdoors, we were affected by Ashura. In some villages that we passed, my atheist guide (more about him later) had to do detours because the main road was impassable, due to the processions. But at the same time, it was also a day where we got free food all over the place. Ashura is a time where people feed everyone, to a certain extent. While I was in Shiraz, for example, I was in a travel agency trying to book tickets to fly to Tehran, and a random person just came into the office bringing a box of cookies for everyone including me. I got free food just by walking down the street. And even in the rural villages in the valley, we could have stopped every fifteen minutes or so by a shed on the side of the road, and someone would be there to give us hot tea, some dates, and some biscuits.

This is the custom of giving free food, or nazri. The Shiites believe that these free meals are holy, and have been consecrated in the name of Hussein. Eating nazri is considered an act of communion with God, Hussein, and humanity.

That is one perspective.

Another perspective was provided by my guide, who told me that the reason Shiites give free food to everyone is because they want to ensure their salvation. So by giving food to others, they are buying their place in heaven. It is a rational thought, until you realize that heaven might be a social construct that doesn't really exist.

My guide happened to be very international, and acquainted with the world. He is Iranian, and therefore he hasn't traveled much given the fact that Iranians don't get visas easily. Nevertheless, because he is a well-known guide, he meets people from all over the world, people like me, who wants to see his part of the world. And he asks questions, thought provoking questions, questions that for me, as an ex-Jehovah's Witness, questions that reveal that humans are more similar to each other, that reveal that even though Muslims and Christians can seem to be on the surface miles apart, but really, there are very interesting parallels.

I sometimes wonder how open he is when it comes to his beliefs. Apostasy in Islam is not to be taken lightly. Some people who decided to leave Islam were killed just because they left. I suppose that is a harder predicament to swallow, if you compare to the shunning the Jehovah's Witnesses do. So even though he was very vocal with me, I am not sure how vocal he can be with other Iranians.

I suppose I learned a lot about Iranian society during that day. I learned how religion controls a huge part of Iranian society, and even though not everyone is religious, unfortunately the people who control the country's affairs are. Iran is a country with a theocracy: the people elect a President, but the President is under the control of the Supreme Leader. Therefore, even though a majority of Iranians are not religious and modern folk, there is a limit to the change that can happen, because whatever changes that are put to the table can easily be swept away by the Supreme Leader.

At the end of the day, I realized how fortunate I am to be where I currently am, an atheist living in a country where I can freely exercise my non-belief. I also realized that the world has a large room to grow: science and reason is rather advanced here in the 21st century, but there are plenty of other places where it could still catch up. When I went back to Qazvin during the evening, as well as the day after in Tehran, and on television I saw the massive sea of men all clad in black, carrying chains, beating their backs as a sign of penitence, because their Imam died several hundreds of years ago, it impressed in my mind how urgent this catching up should occur.


  1. It was super weird to me, a French, to realize how politics and religious beliefs mix in the USA. This is something I didn't see from Europe. I like living in a secular country and the idea of a religious state bothers me.

    1. Zhu,

      I suppose Europe had enough of being a religious state, and there's enough historical events for Europe to prefer secularism. That is not the case with the USA, so you definitely find large swaths of society thinking that being Christian is indeed correct, and that Christianity should dictate politics. That bothers me too definitely.