Citation for Taʿzīyah

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Chelkowski, Peter . "Taʿzīyah." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. May 20, 2022. <>.


Chelkowski, Peter . "Taʿzīyah." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed May 20, 2022).


The Shīʿī passion play called taʿzīyah is the only serious drama that developed in the Islamic world. Taʿzīyah (from the Arabic word ʿazāʿ, “mourning”) is mainly performed in Iran. It is a reenactment of the passion and death of Ḥusayn, the beloved grandson of the Prophet Muḥammad and the third imam of the Shīʿah. He was brutally murdered along with his male children and companions while contesting his right to the caliphate in battle on the sun-baked wasteland known as the Plain of Karbala (in present Iraq) in 61 AH / 680 C.E. This tragic massacre represents a martyrdom that could be vicariously mourned by Shīʿah worldwide. In Iran, the mourning for Ḥusayn received royal patronage when Shīʿī Islam was established as the state religion in the sixteenth century.

The Takīyah.

The taʿzīyah as a dramatic theatrical form is a result of the mid-eighteenth-century fusion of ambulatory and stationary rituals that had coexisted for more than a millennium. At first, taʿzīyah plays were performed at crossroads, in marketplaces and town squares, and later in the courtyards of inns and private houses. Eventually, special structures called takīyahs or ḥusaynīyahs were built for them, some by well-to-do persons as a pious public service and others with contributions from the citizens of a specific area. Some were large, seating thousands of spectators, while others accommodated several hundred. Many takīyah structures were temporary, put up by members of a community especially for the observances in the months of Muḥarram and Ṣafar. The most famous taʿzīyah theater was Takīyah Dawlat, the Royal Theater in Tehran, built in the 1870s by Nāṣr al-Dīn Shāh. Its dazzling splendor and the intensity of its dramatic action overshadowed even the opera houses of Western capitals, according to many Western visitors. The building was torn down in 1946.

Although in the second half of the nineteenth century takīyah buildings became a major feature in Iranian towns, a distinctly recognizable takīyah architecture did not emerge. There are, however, common characteristics of almost all takīyahs that preserve and enhance the dramatic interplay between actors and spectators. This is theater-in-the-round, in which the main performing space is a stark, curtainless, raised platform in the center of the building or a courtyard. This central stage can be of various shapes and is surrounded by a circular strip usually covered by sand. This space is used for equestrian and foot battles and for subplots and action indicating journeys, the passage of time, and changes. The scenes are changed by rotation of the stage; the performers jump off the stage and circumambulate it. The actor may announce that he is going to a certain place; by climbing back onto the stage, he may announce that he has arrived there. The action extends from the main stage to the sand-covered circular band and into the auditorium. Skirmishes often take place behind the audience in unwalled takīyahs. This centrifugal movement of the action, from the centrally situated stage out to the takīyah periphery and back, engulfs the audience and makes it part of the play. In many situations the audience actually participates physically in the play. (Some Western directors and producers have looked recently to the taʿzīyah for devices to break down barriers between actors and audience.)

The stage decor is almost nonexistent, as the minimalist setting is supposed to evoke the desolate, bleak desert of Karbala. Most of the props are symbolic as well; a basin of water, for example, represents the Euphrates River, and a branch of a tree, a palm grove.

Characteristics of the Taʿzīyah.

In Takīyah Dawlat Theater during the reign of Nāṣr al-Dīn Shāh the costumes were rich and splendid, though no attention was paid to their historicity. Even today the costumes are supposed to help the audience recognize the characters. The protagonists dress predominantly in green, and the villains wear red. Green symbolizes paradise and the family of the Prophet, and therefore Islam; red symbolizes blood, suffering, and cruelty. Actors playing women are dressed in baggy black garments covering them from head to toe, with faces veiled; thus even bearded men can play female roles as long as their voices are disguised. When a protagonist puts a white sheet of cloth on his shoulders representing a burial shroud, this indicates that he is ready to sacrifice his life and will be killed shortly. This in turn creates a cathartic state in the audience.

In addition to the colors, there is another clear division between the protagonists and antagonists in the taʿzīyah. The protagonists sing their parts, whereas the antagonists recite their lines. In the past, the actors were chosen according to their physical suitability for a role, but a good singing voice had to complement the physical stature of the protagonist actor. Since the taʿzīyah is musical drama, vocal and instrumental performance are important. Singers are accompanied by a variety of drums, trumpets (shaypūr), flutes, and cymbals. An orchestra can be substantial or consist of just a few musicians, depending of the financial resources or theatrical experience of the troupe. Throughout the play, programmatic instrumental music alternates with singing. These musical intervals set the mood or advance the action by indicating the passage of time. They also serve to cue a singer by establishing the particular dastgah, or mode, in which he is about to perform. He will then sing the scene a cappella. According to many scholars of music, much of the classical Persian repertory has survived because of the taʿzīyah.

The amateur and professional actors used to read their lines from small folded scripts held in the palms of their hands, though the professional actors knew their lines by heart. Holding a script in one 's hand indicated that the actor was only a role-carrier; in other words, that he was not the character he portrayed. In the modern period, actors of professional troupes know most of their lines by heart; if not, they pretend to know them and avoid referring conspicuously to notes. The antagonists declaim their lines, often in violent shrieking voices. Frequently the antagonists are made to appear as ridiculous buffoons, overacted. The traditional attempts to distance the actors from the characters they portray are often swept away in the modern productions of the taʿzīyah. Under the influence of movies and television, the actors identify with the personages they represent to such a degree that they are carried away by the situations. The emotions of the actors are increased by the receptivity of the audience as it meets the actor halfway. The influence of film and television is noticeable also among contemporary audiences.

A taʿzīyah director is at the same time a producer, music director, stage director, public relations coordinator, and prompter. He is responsible not only for the play 's direction and production, music and mise-en-scène, but also for all props, arrangements with the local authorities, and financial returns. The director is always on hand during the performance, regulating the movement of the actors, musicians, and audience. He remains constantly on the playing ground, giving actors their cues. His presence on the stage, however, is not disturbing to the audience as he is an integral part of the taʿzīyah production.

Women and the Taʿzīyah.

Women in particular have been attached to taʿzīyah and rawz‥ah, not only out of devotion to Ḥusayn and other martyrs, but also out of a natural empathy with the women of Karbala, by which their own sufferings pale in comparison. One of the most interesting artistic developments in Islam is the representation of the role of the women of Karbala, the women related to Imam Ḥusayn and his slaughtered comrades. The dramatic recitation of the heroic stand of the women in rawz‥ah khvānī evolved into the dramatic action of the taʿzīyah performances which in turn inspired the depiction of these dramas in paintings, on canvas, and on walls.

Among the extraordinary group of women that appear in the taʿzīyah, Zaynab is a matriarch. As a daughter of Fāṭimah and Imam ʿAlī, a granddaughter of the Prophet Muḥammad, and full sister of Ḥusayn, she is entitled to that role. It is not only her bloodline, but also her extraordinary personality, that makes her a leading female protagonist in the Muḥarram cycle. She is an inexhaustible reserve of physical and psychological strength and energy. Her devotion to her brother Ḥusayn knows no bounds. The darling of the rawz‥ah khvānī and the taʿzīyah audiences is Sakina, the young daughter of Ḥusayn. With her incredulous child 's eyes, she sees her friends, cousins, brother, uncle, and finally, her father, killed one after the other. Her story moves the audience to tears and even rage. Yet despite the great tribute to the women of Karbala, they appear physically faceless in the taʿzīyah performances; the roles of women have been traditionally performed by men. In order to disguise their masculinity, veils always cover their faces.


The core of the taʿzīyah repertory is the Karbala tragedy and the events surrounding it. The Karbala massacre is divided into many episodes performed on separate days. The passage of Ḥusayn from Medina via Mecca to his death at Karbala is represented in some ten plays in as many days. In these plays, a hero singlehandedly fights the entire enemy army, allowing the rest of the protagonists, grouped on the central stage, to muse about their condition and to make comments of a philosophical and religious nature. There is only one fixed day and play in the Muḥarram repertory—the martyrdom of Ḥusayn on the tenth (ʿāshūrāʿ); the others can be performed in varying order. Usually the sequence starts on the first day of the month of Muḥarram with a play dedicated to the death of Ḥusayn 's emissary to Kufa, Muslim ibn ʿAqīl. This is followed in daily sequence by the martyrdom of two of Muslim 's children, and then by plays about the martyrdom of various members of Ḥusayn 's family and companions. Most commonly, on the sixth of Muḥarram the martyrdom of Ḥurr is performed, (Ḥurr was a commander of the opposing forces who deserted Yazīd 's army, joined Ḥusayn 's cause, and was killed); on the seventh, the martyrdom of Qāsim the Bridegroom; on the eighth, the martyrdom of ʿAlī Akbar, the oldest and favorite son of Ḥusayn; and on the ninth, the martyrdom of ʿAbbās, a half-brother of Ḥusayn and his standardbearer. The basic repertory of the taʿzīyah does not necessarily end with Ḥusayn 's death. The performances may continue after the day of ʿĀshūrāʿ to show the tragic lot of Ḥusayn 's women, who were taken as captives to Damascus.

The Shīʿī cult of martyrology brought into the taʿzīyah fold new plays about other Shīʿī martyrs before and after Karbala. Since the mid-nineteenth century, plays based on the Qurʿān, hadīth, and even current events have been written and performed. They are connected, however, to the Karbala tragedy through the employment of gurīz, a direct verbal reference or the staging of a short scene from Ḥusayn 's passion. The expansion of the repertory was followed by the expansion of the time for performances from the month of Muḥarram to the entire year.

Taʿzīyah Manuscripts and Troupes.

The largest collection of taʿzīyah manuscripts is that of Enrico Cerulli, the Italian ambassador to Iran from 1950 to 1954. The manuscripts come from various places in Iran and the collection is housed in the Vatican Library. A descriptive catalogue was written by Ettore Rossi and Alessio Bombaci and published by the Vatican in 1961 as Elenco di drammi religiosi persiani. The oldest collection seems to be that of a German scholar Wilhelm Litten; it dates back to the years 1831–1834. This collection of fifteen taʿzīyah, which were copied for Litten directly from the actor 's texts, was published by Frederich Rosen under the title Das drama in Persia (Berlin: Leipzig, 1929). The taʿzīyah collection of Alexander Chodzko, a Polish gentleman in the Russian diplomatic service in Iran, is probably as old as that of Litten. It is housed in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. It contains thirty-three manuscripts that were copied for Chodzko at the Royal Theater in Tehran. Two very important collections belong to the Malek Library and Majles Library in Tehran. The most important collection of taʿzīyah translations is that of Sir Lewis Pelly. This British scholar and diplomat spent eleven years, from 1862 to 1873, in southern Iran and translated thirty-seven taʿzīyah plays into ornate Victorian English and published them in two volumes in 1879 in London under the title, The Miracle Play of Hasan and Husain.

Modern Taʿzīyah Performances.

The taʿzīyah troupes of today are often family businesses, although they depend only partially on income from performances. Professional troupes today usually stay in one place for ten days to two weeks, giving a different play every day. Sometimes there are two performances a day, one in the evening. A play can last from two to five hours.

In the 1930s Reza Shah 's government, considering the taʿzīyah a backward ritual, imposed restrictions on its performance in urban areas, until it was only performed in rural areas. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, however, used taʿzīyah and other popular Shīʿī rituals and beliefs as a means of mass mobilization for the Islamic Revolution. During the eight years of war with Iraq, the heroism depicted in the taʿzīyah was employed to increase the fighting spirit of Iranian combatants and to bring solace to those who had lost their loved ones.

In 1991, the taʿzīyah was staged at the Avignon Arts Festival in southern France, where it received a tumultuous reception. It was a very bold move on the part of the French authorities to invite a taʿzīyah troupe to France. Apart from political implications, there were also social and dramatic connotations to these performances. How could the Shīʿī passion play be performed for a non-Muslim and non-Shīʿī audience in the city of popes? Nine years later it was performed in Paris, Parma, and Rome in Italy, and, in 2002, in New York City. The performance in New York must be viewed as an extraordinary achievement when one takes into consideration that the taʿzīyah, which is the apotheosis of martyrdom, was performed in a huge tent next to the Metropolitan Opera house nine months after September 11, 2001.

The taʿzīyah 's popularity continues unabated in Iran. Many articles on the taʿzīyah form have appeared in recent Iranian journals.



  • Al-Serat12 (Spring–Autumn 1986). Special issue of the journal contains papers from the Imam Ḥusayn Conference (London, July 1984) and provides important coverage of the Karbala tragedy.
  • Arnold, Matthew. “A Persian Passion Play.” In Essays in Criticism. London, 1871.
  • Beyzaʿi, Bahram. Nemayes dar Iran. Tehran, 1344.
  • Calmard, Jean. “Le Mécénat des Représentations de Ta ’ziye.”Vol. 2.Le Monde iranien et l ’Islam. Geneva, 1974.
  • Canetti, Elias. Crowds and Power. New York, 1978.
  • Chelkowski, Peter, ed.“From Karbala to New York: Taʿziyeh on the Move.”Drama Review49, no. 4 (Winter 2005). The Drama Review is a journal of performance studies; the Winter 2005 volume is entirely devoted to taʿzīyah. The project was a result of the 2002 performances at Lincoln Center and an accompanying symposium at the Asia Society.
  • Chelkowski, Peter, ed.Taʿziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran. New York, 1979. Traces the historical development and flourishing of taʿzīyah into its full-fledged dramatic form today; it includes essays on theatrical, anthropological, musical, artistic, and other aspects of the ritual by scholars from Asia, Europe, and America. Based on the proceedings of the international symposium held during the Shīrāz (Iran) Festival of the Arts in August 1976.
  • Chodzko, Alexander. Théatre persan. Paris, 1878.
  • Floor, Willem. The History of Theater in Iran. Washington, D.C., 2005.
  • Homayuni, Sadeq. Taʿzia dar Iran. Shīrāz, 1368; enlarged second edition, Novid, Shīrāz, 1380.
  • Malekpour, Jamshid. The Islamic Drama. London, 2004.
  • Mamnoun, Parviz. Schi ’itisch-persisches Passionsspiel. Vienna, 1967.
  • Masʿudiya, Mohammad Taqi. Musiqi Taʿzia. Sorus, Tehran, 1367.
  • Monchi-Zadeh, Davoud. Ta ’ziya das persische Passionsspiel. Stockholm, 1967.
  • Müller, Hildegard. Studien zum persischen Passionsspiel. Freiburg im Breisgau, 1966.
  • Pelly, Lewis. The Miracle Play of Hasan and Husain. 2 vols.London, 1879. Contains translations of thirty-seven taʿzīyah plays, into an ornate Victorian English.
  • Pinault, David. The Shiites: Ritual and Popular Piety in a Muslim Community. New York, 1992.
  • Riggio, Milla Cozart, ed.Taʿziyah: Ritual and Popular Beliefs in Iran. Hartford, Conn., 1988. Short book containing essays prepared for a drama festival and conference held at Trinity College in the spring of 1988.
  • Rossi, Ettore, and Alessio Bombaci. Elenco di drami religiosi persiani. Vatican, 1961. Catalog of the collection of original taʿzīyah plays (1,055 manuscripts) housed at the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana.
  • Shahidi, ʿAnayatoʿllah. Pezuhesi dar Taʿzia va Taʿziakvani. Farhang va Mardom, Tehran, 1380.
  • Virolleaud, Charles. Le Théatre persan. Paris, 1950.

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