Tazieh, Performance Art - Iran (Persia)

Photo by Payam Moein via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Ta’zieh is a form of performance art that focuses on the life of the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, and his descendants. The stories differed from the prophet’s dialogue with Gabriel and his coming to his mission, to Imam Ali’s Martyrdom, Imam Hassan’s Martyrdom, Imam Hossein’s Martyrdom, the Prophets death, and many other performances that tell tales of the prophet and his family. Among all the themes mentioned above the story of Imam Hossein’s tragic death became the most popular one, today Ta’zieh with any theme other than that is seldom performed.

When the people of Kufa feel like they can no longer tolerate the cruelty and unjust ruling of Yazid Ibn Muawiyah of the Umayyad tribe, they ask Imam Hossein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad and the rightful ruler of the Islamic lands, to come to Kufa. They claim to support Imam in a battle against Yazid to overrule him, and choose Imam Hossein as the next Caliph. Moslem Ibn Aghil is sent to Kufa to inform people of Imam Hossein’s decision of attacking Kufa, and to prepare people for supporting the army. Yazid that was informed of the upcoming attack captures Moslem before he reaches the city and murders him and his two small children. Unaware of what happened to Moslem, Imam Hossein marches toward Kufa only to be stopped and surrounded by the Caliph’s army in the Karbala Plain.

The stories differed from the prophet’s dialogue with Gabriel and his coming to his mission, to Imam Ali’s Martyrdom, Imam Hassan’s Martyrdom, Imam Hossein’s Martyrdom, the Prophets death, and many other performances that tell tales of the prophet and his family.

As the siege continues and Imam Hossein and his follower keep fighting, the Caliph orders his army to prevent Imam Hussein’s army from accessing the water. Imam Hussein knew that the outcome of this unfair war will be death and gave his army the chance of surrendering to the enemy, all but 72 of his followers surrendered. In the tenth day of Muharam, in a dreadful fight Imam Hossein, his 72 followers and most of his family members including his two infant sons are brutally murdered.

Tazieh, Performance Art - Iran (Persia)

Photo by Payam Moein via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

What happened to Imam Hossein and his friends and family is so tragic that centuries after his death people still lament his martyrdom. The only surviving member of Imam Hossein family was one of his sons Zain Ol Abedin, who was bedridden and couldn’t take part in the fight. Imam Zain was Imam Hossein’s son from his Persian noble wife Shahrbano, the daughter of Yazdgerd the third; therefore, from Imam Zain onward all the Shiite Imams are considered to have Persian ancestors.

Although we can’t specify a period or a dynasty as the beginning of Ta’zieh in Iran, its appearance can be justified as a political and religious act. Iranian eagerness in acquiring a Persian Identity manifested itself in form of first the resisting groups like the one led by Babak Khoramdin, and then by the religious sects. People did all they could to oppose the Caliph who was the representative of the Arab invaders. Iranian openly accepted Islam because it promised equality and justice, but the Caliphs rulings had nothing to do with the massage of Islam. Having the same ancestors as the Imams and the need to oppose the Sunni caliph led to the popularity of Shiite religion in Iran. The Iranian that considered the Prophets descendants to be the rightful ruler of Islamic countries and were furious with cruel Caliphs turned to the Imams and supported them. One of the ways of flaunting this opposition and at the same time supporting Imams were Ta’zieh, a reminder of the life and death of these great characters.

Ta’zieh started with small groups going from one city to another city singing dirge and hitting their chest as a sign of their infinite sadness. Then the group singing was replaced with solo performances done by one or two singer and accompanied by the group of mourners. The two singers narrated the events of the 10th day of Muharam, and the martyrdom of Imam Hossein. Slowly the third person narration of the event changed into a first person narration, and a couple of the singer took the role of the martyrs of the Karbala coming forward separately during the performance telling the tales of their life and death, in this stage of Ta’zieh the characters weren’t involved with one another and acted individually. The effect that this first person narration had on the audiences been great, and therefore, the idea of creating dialogue between the characters came to being. In this time, the characters talked with each other in different sections of the performance, but it had not had the format of a drama like performance. In the Safavid era, the last step to completion of these forms of street performance was taken and Ta’zieh became what we see today, a drama based on the historical events with characters actively involved with each other and a narrator that interferes in story to sing dirges on the death of each character.