Ta’zieh is a form of condolence and mourning drama among Shiite Muslims mostly about the tragic story of Imam Hussein’s and his 72 companions’ slaughter in the battle of Karbala, Iraq in 680 C.E. It is usually held each year in the month of Muharram, the first month of the Muslim calendar).
The event dates back to the time during which the people of Kufa, Iraq felt like they can no longer tolerate the cruelty and unjust ruling of caliph Yazid I during the Umayyad dynasty (661–750 CE). They asked Imam Hossein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad and the rightful ruler of the Islamic lands, to fight for the power in Kufa. They claimed to support Imam in a battle against Yazid so as to overrule him and choose Imam Hossein as the next Caliph.
Moslem Ibn Aghil as the Imam’s envoy departed to Kufa to inform people of the Imam’s decision to attack Kufa, and to prepare people for supporting the army. Yazid who was informed of the imminent attack captured Moslem before he could reach the city and murdered him and his two small children.
Unaware of what happened to Moslem, Imam Hossein marched toward Kufa in 680 A.E. but was surrounded by the Yazid’s army on the plains of Karbala. As the siege continued and Imam Hossein and his 72 followers kept fighting, the Caliph ordered his army to prevent Imam Hussein’s army from accessing the water. On the 10th day of Muharram, in a dreadful battle Imam Hossein, all his followers, and most of his family members including two infant sons were brutally murdered.
What happened to Imam Hossein and his friends and family was so tragic such that centuries after his death, people still lament and mourn for his martyrdom. The only surviving member of Imam Hossein’s family was one of his sons Zain al-Abedin, who due to his bedridden could not take part in the battle. He was Imam Hossein’s son from his Persian noble wife Shahrbano, the daughter of Yazdgerd the third; therefore, from Imam Zain al-Abedin onwards all the Shiite Imams are considered to have Persian ancestors.
Ta’zieh established in the late 17th century in Iran can be viewed as a political and religious act.
Iranian eagerness for a Persian identity was manifested first in the form of 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. Iranians openly accepted Islam because, among other reasons, it promised equality and justice, but the Caliphs’ rulings had nothing to do with the massage of Islam. Having the same ideology by the ancestors as of the Imams and the need to oppose the Sunni caliph led to the popularity of Shiite religion in Iran. Given that Iranians considered the Prophets’ descendants the rightful rulers of Islamic countries and furthermore, were furious with cruel Caliphs, they supported the Imams. One of the ways to flaunt this opposition and at the same time to support Imams was Ta’zieh, a ritual to commemorate the life and death of these divine characters.
Ta’zieh has been first established with small groups moving from one city to another while chanting funeral dirges and hitting their chest as a sign of infinite sadness.
The chanting group was later replaced with solo performances by one or two singers while accompanied by the group of mourners. The two singers narrate the mythical stories that happened on the 10th day of Muharram in Karbala and the martyrdom of Imam Hossein. However, the third-person narration of the event was gradually turned into a first-person one by a couple of singers who performed the role of the martyrs of Karbala’s event in front of spectators.
These singers act separately during the performance telling the tales of their life and death. In fact, in this stage of Ta’zieh, the characters were not involved with each other and acted individually but finally, the idea of creating a dialogue between the characters came to true. In this stage, although the characters talked with each other in different sections of the performance, it had not had the form of a drama.
During the Safavid era (1501-1736 C.E), the last step was taken to complete this street mourning theatre to make Ta’zieh like how it is played today: a drama based on the historical events with characters actively involved with each other and a narrator who interferes the story and sings dirges on the death of each divine character. Ta’zieh drama was inscribed in 2010 on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.