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Ta'ziyah

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Ta'ziyah

    The ta'ziyah is a passion play (religious drama) that reenacts the death of Husayn ibn Ali , the grandson of Muhammad and the third Shi'i imam. In 680 Husayn traveled from Medina to Iraq to advance his claim to the caliphate, which was under control of the Umayyad dynasty. Forces loyal to the Umayyad rulers massacred Husayn's small band at Karbala. This martyrdom became a defining event of Shi'i Islam.

    Since Husayn's death, Shi'is have commemorated the Karbala tragedy. In the 1700s, they combined certain rituals into a drama. Performers staged ta'ziyah plays at crossroads, town squares, and marketplaces, and then in the courtyards of inns and private houses. Patrons later built special stages for performances, ranging from small temporary structures to large theaters that could hold several thousand spectators. Until recent times, the ta'ziyah was the only major form of drama performed in the Islamic world.

    Ta'ziyah theaters consist of a central platform surrounded by a space for the audience and a circular strip of sand. The play's main events occur on the stage. Battles, subplots, and actions indicating journeys or the passage of time take place on the sand behind the spectators. The play thus surrounds the audience members, increasing their emotional involvement. Spectators often weep and beat themselves during critical moments. The stage rotates between scenes, during which times the performers jump off and announce that they are going to a certain location. When they climb back on the stage, they may declare that they have arrived.

    Ta'ziyah plays have a minimum of scenery in order to evoke the desolate, bleak desert of Karbala. Most props are symbolic. A water basin, for example, represents the Euphrates River, and a tree branch signifies a palm grove. Costumes also have symbolic value. Actors portraying heroes wear green, and villains are dressed in red. Green symbolizes paradise, the family of the Prophet, and Islam; red represents blood, suffering, and cruelty. Actors playing women wear baggy black garments and veils, so that even bearded men can perform these roles. A character who places a white cloth on his shoulders indicates that he is ready to sacrifice his life and will be killed shortly. This action provokes a highly emotional response from the audience.

    The ta'ziyah drama consists of ten separate plays, each representing a specific event in the Karbala tragedy. Ta'ziyah troupes usually remain in a location for ten days to two weeks, performing a different play each day. A single performance lasts from two to five hours. Plays typically revolve around one hero fighting an entire army while the other characters reflect on their condition and make philosophical and religious remarks.

    Shi'i monarchs in Iran have traditionally supported ta'ziyah productions. In the 1870s, they established the Royal Theater in Tehran, which surpassed many Western opera houses in splendor. In the 1930s, however, Reza Shah Pahlavi's secular government restricted performances to rural areas. The ta'ziyah was revived in the 1970s to stir support for the Islamic revolution. The drama remains extremely popular in Iran today and its influence has spread. In 1991 the Avignon Arts Festival in southern France hosted a ta'ziyah, which received a rousing reception. See also Husayn ibn Ali ; Karbala and Najaf; Martyrdom.

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