Re-enacting Ashura and Animal Sacrifice

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Akhtari, Nazli. “Re-enacting Ashura and Animal Sacrifice.” Global Performance Studies, vol. 3, no. 2, 2020,

Nazli Akhtari

University of Toronto

My body lies amid clusters of wire running throughout a small cubical space. It is 1993. I was here last year, but this might be the last time I can… Likely, next year, I’ll have outgrown the body that passes for a little boy. I stare at the wires. One more passenger usually shares the exhilarating ride with me. I stare at the wires with my eyes following their movement throughout the dark, trying to juxtapose what feels so electrical about the wires to the melodrama of Noheh[1] projected through loudspeakers during the ride.[2] I know in my gut there is blood. Animals will be beheaded. Men and boys run and sing together while bleeding from the crown of their heads. Blood spills into the melodrama too. The boy who shares the ride with me wants to peek through the fabric that covers the carriage. He wants to witness the Babayi (ram) grappling with life. My companion in the ride wants to see blood gushing out of the slit throat, running over the animal’s soft curly hair and flowing down the asphalt surface of the street into the stream of water that runs along the tree-lined street. The boy is not alone in his yearning. During commemorations of Ashura,thousands of bystanders witness sheep, cows, and camels bleed to death in an entire orchestrated performance outdoors, accompanied by drums and theatrical performances representing the events of Ashura to honor the community’s collective life. I, on the other hand, am happy with distracting myself from the bloodshed, contemplating what is right in front of my eyes, as my eyes adjust in the dark to stare at the wires. “The technical is always already aesthetic,” writes Michael Taussig (Taussig 24). I know I am one of the few girls who might enter this space, Takiyeh[3] (an architecturally designed space for commemorations of Ashura), and this excites me more than anything else on the trip. This is the point where I meet my pious grandfather in an unfair transaction, where I give him love (it is unfair because he would have had it anyways) and he gives my girlhood agency to experience the forbidden inhabitancies.


This article examines “human–animal encounters” (Orozco and Parker-Starbuck 4) in the commemorations of Shia history in Iran by focusing on animal sacrifice in the re-enactments of Ashura. Hovering in the in-between of theatre, performance, and ritual, these commemorations re-enact an imagined religious past. In doing so, I argue, these symbolic (re)performances expand our notions of re-enactment beyond Western practices, such as living history projects, that rely on mimetic and realistic execution of the historical event. I show how violence in animal sacrifice in the re-enactments of Ashura, along with everyday practices of embodied care and subjection engender interspecies empathy (Govindrajan 504), adding to the moral and epistemological parameters that underline existing literature of Animal Performance Studies. In moments when any conversation on violence and political oppression in Iran runs the risk of contributing to discourses of Iranophobia and Islamophobia by reproducing the dominant stereotypes of Iranian people as agency-less victims of the theocratic state and Muslim men as violent (Khosravi 22), I seek out “an intellectually honest and politically responsible approach” (Ghannam 26) for thinking and writing about performances in which Muslim men kill, animals die, and women cry.

I remain cautious about reducing the complexities inherent in human-animal interaction in these commemorations I observe. My limitations as a post-secular subject, who negotiates her secularism in relation to Islamic thought and practice (Mahmood), as well as gaps in my knowledge about these practices, hinder my position as a researcher. My memories of participating in these commemorative events, however sensible, are childhood memories. While I gesture towards ethical concerns in different moments and consider ethics of witnessing violence, I remain respectfully attentive to the Ashura’s community and piety aspects and observant of cultural complexities and difference imbedded in these commemorative acts.

It is worthwhile to examine animal sacrifice because it persists to the present day as an inextricable part of observing the day of Ashura in contemporary Shia cultures. Animals and their deaths play a crucial role in evoking affective politics of Ashura, the tenth day of the month of Mohharam in the Hijri Calendar (Arabic calendar, 10 October 680 AD) when Prophet Mohammad’s grandson Hossein ibn Ali ibn Abi Talib and seventy-two of his companions, including his family, went to battle with Yazid. Oral histories give a visual and detailed account of the ten days during which the armies camped in the valley of Karbala located in today’s Iraq near Euphrates river. Five thousand enemy soldiers blocked the river and denied water to Imam Hossein’s troops. The archive and repertoire (Taylor) of Ashura present such elaborate depictions of the ninth and tenth day when the Sunnis beheaded Hossein and sent his head to his enemy, Yazid. During these two days, most of Hossein’s companions were killed, including young children. These images, with their anthropocentric compositions, are repeatedly recalled in various symbols of the archive (written and visual records) and repertoire (performances, social events, and embodied practices) of Ashura. Looking closely at the margins of this cultural imagery, however, brings to the foreground the non-human animals and the more than human world.

Along with Shia religion, performance traditions relating to Ashura geographically spread out in various regions. Ashura ceremonies are observed in different locales housing Shia Muslim populations, including Iran, Turkey, Iraq, India, Azerbaijan, and Afghanistan, as well as Shia diasporic communities in Europe and North America, with each locale performing its own specific cultural and collective memory. In this account, I only observe a rural community in the province of Isfahan in Iran where growing up every year I accompanied my family to participate as spectators. The commemorative parades in various locales, including Isfahan, involve different aspects. Each locale offers its own regional set of archival and performance practices to think about interspecies relationship in Ashura and in respect with the spatial and temporal dynamics within regional communities. Presence of animals in re-enactments of Ashura in various Shia communities allows us to look through the lens of what Una Chaudhuri calls Zooësis as “a way to acknowledge the manifold performances engendered by various cultural animal practices” (12).

The presence of non-human animal is traceable in the cultural imagery of Ashura. Drawings and portraits of animals often appear in illustrations that accompany written texts and historiographies related to the day as commemorated by Shia artists and authors. Some examples of archival evidence include collections of texts, objects (Alam, Nakhl, Hanjeleh[4], etc.), buildings (Takiyehs), paintings, and other visual records on and for Ta’zieh, as well as Ghahveh Khaneh paintings that depict the battle fields and have been historically used by storytellers in performances of Pardeh Khawni.[5] The archival memory shows us how mediations of Shia history/memory at once remember and forget the non-human animal. In preserving the cultural narratives of Ashura, animal figures are visible in the archival records yet they remain peripheral as to centralize the heroism and martyrdom of their human companions. Additionally, a glimpse at the vast repertoire of Ashura, its commemorative acts, and performative re-enactments renders visible how the same acts of remembering and forgetting double in spite of animals’ underlined presence and death in these commemorations. I argue that the co-presence of human and non-human animals and the sacrificial acts in the commemorative practices open new ways of thinking about interspecies empathy in performance that adds to the “archive and repertory of animal performance studies” (Chaudhuri 12).  Considering violence situated at the heart of animal sacrifice in relationship to notions of martyrdom in formation of Shia political subconscious, I posit that interspecies relationship vis a vis affective politics of Ashura offers a better recognition of the place of animal life and death in the production and perceptions of Iranian national identity.

The rich scholarship on Shia performance remains extensively focused on Ta’zieh and predominantly uses conservative Cultural and Theatre Studies methodologies. While there is still a need for existing literature to expand on considerations of gender in studying Shia performance, there is also an urgency to reinvent methodologies that attend to how gender informs both the reception of Shia performance and the role of women, children, and gender non-conforming bodies in construction of national and religious identities. There are several methodological frameworks such as performance historiography and cultural ethnography that can guide any enquiry into animal sacrifice as part of the commemorations of Ashura. However, this piece gives preference to a Performance Studies lens mostly because performance allows me to emphasize the importance of these commemorations as embodied practices in both production and transmission of social knowledge in Shia society of Iran.

Looking through performance as an epistemological lens (Taylor 37) also calls for methodologies that account for various forms of othering involved in the social construction of bodies in the re-enactments of Ashura. Returning to my childhood memories, I situate myself within the social and cultural fabric of the events as a child. Starting from this place of childhood allows for consideration of deeper interspecies intimacies and social alignments between children, as not yet fully formed religious and gendered subjects, and non-human animals. My small body gave me access to and mobility within religious spaces carefully segregated according to gender. My gender did not matter because I was a child, and, in places where it did matter, it could be temporarily assigned based on which grandparent was in charge my care. Moving through spaces, from central and masculinist places of re-enactments in Takiyehs to the sidewalks where women-only circles formed to watch, the presence of animals was central to my encounter with Ashura.

Instead of focusing exclusively on archival materials related to Ashura in search for the non-human animals, I weave in my personal memories attending these commemorative events as “scenarios” (28) that render possible a return to the archive and repertoire as co-constitutive of each other in transmission of social knowledge. Inspired by Diana Taylor’s methodological provocations in The Archive and The Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas, I work with “scenarios” as to situate myself as spectator within the frame of the events I attended in my childhood to engage with the social construction of bodies (33), human/non-human, abled/disabled, and conforming/ non-conforming.

My memories take me back to “being there,” (20) a place of spectatorship within the frame of commemorations and their collective body, implicating me in the event’s ethics and politics. My memories as “scenarios” allow this work on Shia performance to bridge the rift that Taylor brings forth to challenge between the archive and repertoire. As “scenarios,” personal memories of the re-enactments of Ashura traverse this rift by foregrounding the role of othered bodies, such as my own small body passing for a boy. Thus, I excavate the margins of the archive and repertoire in search of non-human animals, what most historians and scholars hold peripheral to the cultural history of Ashura. I intervene with my personal account to trouble the anthropocentric focus of performance historiographies that I encounter.

Zeynab and the Lion: Towards a Feminist Interspecies Solidarity

The historical genealogies of Ta’zieh best manifest how deeply Ashura informs Shia collective memory, monumentalizing the historical conflicts between Shia and Sunni Muslims. This cultural history permeates various discussions within Shia religious and nationalist discourse. For instance, Shia Muslim feminist literatures on Ashura in Iran, and far more remarkably in South Asia — particularly in India and Pakistan (Nematollahi Mahani16) — routinely draw on portrayals of Hossein’s sister Zeynab and use her as an archetype that paradoxically represents at once female empowerment and the ideal female model for “chastity, purity, and self-sacrifice” (Nematollahi Mahani 16). Zeynab is the only heroin present in the battles alongside an army of men. She secures the possibility of a Shia future by nurturing and protecting Hossein’s children in Karbala. Protesting in public after Hossein’s death in the most reiterated monologues in Shia history, Zeynab blames the Shia people of Kufa for deceit and lack of support. Upon arriving in Damascus as a war slave, Zeynab bravely stands up to the Sunni leader, Yazid, performing a manifestation of Shia resilience.[6] Nuskhehs[7] of Ta’zieh also emphasize the spiritual power of Zeynab, which is established through an interspecies relationship to a non-human subject, a lion.

The lion in these Nuskhehs comes into the fore only to amplify the supernatural and spiritual power of the heroin. The lion is detrimental to what Zeynab accomplishes spiritually to protect the bodies of the martyrs. Zeynab’s non-human companion moans and laments with her for the martyrdom of Hossein (81). Through obedience and compassion, lion, the most royal species in animal kingdom and the sole non-human figure that metaphorically is used in Shia literature to describe the relationship between Khoda (God) and Zeynab’s father and successor to prophet Mohammed (Ali Shir-e-Khoda: Ali the God’s Lion), extends Zeynab’s majestic and spiritual effects.

A reading of Zeynab’s character in relationship to the lion serves as an example demonstrating how animal figures in narratives of Ashura perform on the periphery of the centralized heroic human characters. More importantly, this reading opens up the possibility of thinking about the place of non-human animals in formation of Iranian national identity. The lion specifically brings forward the Iranian national emblem of Shir-o -Khorshid (Lion and Sun). Lions and cats more broadly are culturally specific animals in Iran due to multiple factors. These include aforementioned Shir-o -Khorshid, the ancient symbol, that proliferates across various visual media as a national emblem (including Iran’s flag before 1979 revolution), famous breed of Persian cats, the cat-shaped silhouette of the country on the world map, and the large population of stray cats in urban centers, who are subject to mass-killings that prevent their viral over-population. At least since the fourteenth century, cats have made appearances as central figures in classical Persian poetry, most famously in satiric Qasideh (poems) of Ubayd-i Zakani. Prashant Keshavmurthy observes an urban literary tradition in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in which cat-poetry rises as a sub-tradition in Persian literature, reflecting on “the Prophet Muhammad’s fondness for cats” and singling “cat out from other creatures for special Muslim attention” (Keshavmurthy). These cultural and literary styles support how lions and the cat family in general can condition distinct kinds of interspecies performance and intimacies closely tied to Persian-ness and pre- and post-Islamic notions of Iranian-ness. Therefore, the bond with the lion renders possible a kinship between Zeynab, an Arab woman, and Iranian audiences that can be traced back to pre-Islamic notions of national identity and non-religious literary traditions such as Tanz (Iranian satire).

While this interspecies bond between Zeynab and the lion keeps the animal still in the margins, Zeynab’s relationship to the lion inspires a radical cultural feminist approach to women’s historical linkage with animals (Adams and Donovan 3-7). Furthermore, paying attention to Zeynab in Ta’zieh expands the considerations of gender in historiographies, showing us the affective role of Ashura vis a vis gender in stirring up emotions to organize and mobilize political action. For instance, scholars have argued that during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the newly formed Islamic Republic of Iran appropriated Zeynab’s character to construct a pious female role model (Nematollahi Mahani 23). This archetype of Zeynab, as mother/sister of the martyr, is performed not only in Ta’zieh but across other state-sponsored media.

Character portrayals such as Zeynab’s are amongst various examples that show political appropriations of narratives of Ashura in Ta’zieh. To further build on how the Iranian state and religious communities utilize Ashura for their own specific ends, in what follows, I give a brief overview of the political history of Ta’zieh. I hope this history (as early as the eighteenth century) troubles the common assumptions that limit various forms of violence as well as state’s practices of control over cultural productions (such as censorship and political propaganda) to the post-revolutionary era. Furthermore, a glance at the last 300 years of Shia performance informs this piece on animal sacrifice by foreshadowing the harsh reality as why our historiographies keep persisting on human bodies situated within patriarchal, colonial, and neo-oriental structures.

My focus on non-human animal is not meant to critique the existing performance historiographies and literature that centralize human. But, instead, I make an attempt at questioning how we continue to prioritise based on underpinning binaries such as nature and culture, and human and nonhuman. Long sentences and sudden deaths of the Iranian animal activists and environmentalists in incarceration are testimony to why we have to rethink necro-politics through an interspecies lens. Before we see an end to centuries of regional conflicts in the Middle East and decades of proxy wars and before the world reaches settlements over cheap Iranian oil or transparency in its nuclear program, we are already facing climate catastrophe causing death to human and non-human forms of life in the region.

In addition to explaining why cultural histories largely remain anthropocentric, the development of Ta’zieh over the years makes a case for the broader role commemorations maintain in community life. The commemorations are historically rooted in the pre-Islamic indigenous rites and thus are precursors of Ta’zieh. Unfolding alongside Ta’zieh, commemorations observe the same history. However, due to their more inclusive format in who gets to participate, commemorations play a relatively more vital role in the contemporary formation of national identity and selfhood in comparison to Ta’zieh. Additionally, through a more direct inclusion of animal cultural practices such as marching horses and camels as well as animal sacrifice, commemorations provide a diverse setting for interrogating animal alterity and its cultural production within the context of Shia performance.

A Brief Political History of Ta’zieh and Shia Performance in Iran

Non-human animals are kept witness as they march and die on the margins of history books showing us the emergence of Ta’zieh out of commemorations that I call Dasteh Azadari (morning ensemble) in this article. Ta’zieh transformed to its latest form (as we know it today) in the early eighteenth century (Beiza’i 120). Safavid dynasty (1501–1736) is known to be the first to notice the political potential of Dasteh and effectively utilized it to create a unified sense of national and religious belonging in order to achieve a Shia majority within their vast ruling region (Malekpour 11). Ta’zieh, however, did not reach its highest and fullest form until the mid-nineteenth century during Qajar era. Performing arts and entertainment were favorite indulgences for elites in Qajar Iran. The many diverse recreational activities they engaged in, including ostentatious parties, hunting, music, photography, erotic dance, drug use, and travel, all show that the religious aspect of Ta’zieh was not the most important (Nematollahi Mahani 14). In his encounters with early European modernity, Naser Al Din Shah, the longest ruling king of Qajar, was famously mesmerized by western spectacles such as French ballet. He invested in Ta’zieh not for political nor religious ends per se but, rather, as public events that gathered different social classes and replicated the social hierarchies of European ballet and opera houses. The Qajar king went so far as to build the most magnificent Ta’zieh house, Takiyeh Dowlat, in the heart of Tehran. Historiographies also mention Qajar animal practices such as preceding parades with more than 200 marching camels. Ta’zieh served Qajar elites as an art form that offered “a social bond, one that connected them to society” (14).

Conversely during Pahlavi’s reign (predecessors to Qajar dynasty), various forms of Shia performance were pushed out of urban life into the country’s rural regions. In 1930, Takyieh Dowlat was demolished and Shiaperformance transformed into religious counter practices to Pahlavi’s secular agenda (Malekpour 12). Pahlavi’s political aim was to eradicate all Islamic elements to establish a modern and so called “progressive” government, one that could be compatible with European Modernity and rising American Imperialism. What is more central to the project of colonial-modernity than the social reconstruction of human and non-human bodies?

Early twentieth century, therefore, marks the moment in recent political history when both Ta’zieh and Dasteh became extremely community-based practices among Shia non-elites. This continued to be the case until the late 1970s when the Islamic Revolution, from its initial uprisings to its success, saw the value in using the narratives of Ashura to reconstruct religious identities as both protagonists and victims of their secular/imperial enemies. The Islamic Republic welcomed back all forms of Shia performance, including Dasteh and Ta’zieh. However, I argue that Dastehs resumed a considerably larger presence in the community life in both rural and urban areas due to the democratic structure they offer to their participants. For this same reason, Dastehs remain more vulnerable to being utilized by the state for political purpose. For instance, Dastehs infamously proved helpful in motivating and recruiting working class child soldiers during the Iran-Iraq War shortly after the revolution.

The history of Ta’zieh, amongst other performance practices related to Ashura, adds to the complex power dynamics between state and community life as well as encounters with early modernity and twentieth century international diplomacy. Islamic Iranian ideology and practice has not always been under restrict influence of the state. Nonetheless, Dastehs best reflect the political and religious intervention of the state’s sovereign power in the community participation as well as everyday life in post-revolutionary Iran. It is no surprise then that most studies on what I earlier called “performances in which Muslim men kill, animals die, and women cry,” remain focused on the tensions between national politics, religion, and performance traditions. In other words, as the political tensions persist, the anthropocentric topics concerning human bodies in pre-existing patriarchal structures are prioritized over considerations of othered bodies and the more-than-human world.

On “Being There”

My experience “being there” in the commemorative events in the 1990s and 2000s is similar to how these events are described in numerous historiographic texts on Iranian performance traditions. Bahram Beiza’i, for instance, uses the same phrase, Dasteh Azadari (mourning ensemble), as the community I was a part of used to refer to commemorations. A theatre historian and practitioner, Beiza’i’s fascination with Dasteh Azadari rests on their performance aspects, some of which he lists: the unison and settled group movements, dance accompanied by a chorus of singing Noheh, as well as decorated props that are integrated into the choreography. His detailed description goes on to imply how different performative elements are coordinated to augment the event (Beiza’i 50). Riding in the Hanjeleh (the small carriage decorated with lights, carpets, saw and daggers, and costumes signifying the heroes and martyrs of Ashura), I recall watching the elements that Beiza’i observes in his account. However, my memories deviate from his historiography, as the encounter with the non-human animals was central to my act of witnessing.

Like every other young kid, I could not wait to go to Dasteh. I begged my parents to let me stay with my grandparents who kept a Babayi (ram) in their yard during the season. I mostly missed Dastehs that happened on the first eight evenings of Mohharam. The last two days were statuary holidays, and I was allowed to accompany my grandfather, Baba Haji, in the afternoon of day nine and at noon on day ten. An older and respected member of his mosque, Baba Haji had earned the leading position. He would stand in the first spot on the right side of the two lines of Zanjeer Zani.[8] while I sat in the closest Hanjeleh moving slowly alongside the marching group during the ceremony. Once the group organized itself and everyone stood in their starting positions, the children sat together in groups of two or three in Hanjelehs. A storage place for wires, cables, and other electricals used for decorations, inside of the Hanjeleh felt like a safe but dark and messy hiding spot to witness from. We moved collectively keeping a consistent rhythm with Noheh. Every time the Zanjeers (chains) would land on their shoulders, a man hit the bass drum traveling on a wheeled cart. The drumbeat amplified the sound and weight of the chains. I heard my heart pounding in my chest, as Baba Haji endured the pain of strike to honor the sufferings of Imam Hossein. Our bodies were synchronized with music and incorporated with other moving parts such as set and prop pieces highlighting the heroes of Karbala. Some children would be dressed up in costumes and sit on horses. Animals were fed and watered on the sides of the road waiting for us to pass through. Our passage coincided with the descending knife that took their lives. The spectators, mostly women, elders, and young children, watched from the sidewalks. After Dasteh, Baba Haji and I would usually ride home on his bicycle. When we got home, it was time to put Vicks rub on the big purple bruise spreading out on his right shoulder.

Dasteh had a crucial place in my grandfather’s social life in his community. This communal aspect remains as important for many Shia Muslims. This is partly due to the fact that, while performing in Ta’zieh entails specialized performing skill sets and singing in Ta’zieh is often hereditary, participating in Dasteh is for anyone who shows up. Ta’zieh and Dasteh happen around the same time of the year, mostly during the first ten days of month of Mohharamand the day of Arba’een (the twentieth of Safar). Often on the same days, audiences march in Dasteh on their way to Ta’zieh’s venue. Dastehs engage with the same religious histories and, just as Ta’zieh does, produce “a sense of national belonging and a conception of ethnic identity through performing parts of Shia history” (Mottahedeh 75). While Ta’ziehis delivered through enacting a dramatic text in respect to its own theatrical conventions, Dastehs are street performances that involve multiple performative and community aspects.

On my way to or from Dasteh, I occasionally stood in the circle and listened to the enchanting verses of the male actors dressed up for war, the young boys singing the female parts, and watched the horses whose real presence makes you wonder about Ta’zieh’s highly symbolic representation. Despite all its allure, Ta’zieh never feels as present as Dasteh in the community’s life in contemporary Iran. Dasteh remains less known to performance scholarship, which is in spite of its underlined presence in contemporary life and its close historical, cultural, and religious ties to Ta’zieh. Theatre historians and scholars (Jamshid Malekpour, Bahram Beiza’i, Mahnia Nematollahi Mahani, and Kamran Scott Aghaei) trace the early origins of Ta’zieh in Ancient Iranian mourning rites as well as Ashura’s commemorative parades, highlighting the inceptive position of these forms in producing national belonging. Dasteh is integral to broader understandings of Iranian performance traditions in relationship to culture, religion, and political history as it has always transformed in close accordance to its time. This transformation is manifest in Dasteh’s iterations from the ancient pre-Islamic rituals to their religious form in early Islamic Iran.

Imaginative Re-enactment of a Shia Religious Past

Thinking about the presence of animals and their sacrifice as mimetic solutions for re-enacting bloodshed is an entry point into an aesthetic analysis. In displays of the martyrdom of Hossein, animals are “the surrogated double,” who “may appear in memory only to disappear,” (6) whose “disappearance,” as Joseph Roach argues, enables their “contributions to cultural definitions and preservation” (6). Taking up the relationship between memory, performance, and substitution in Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance, Roach examines how culture reproduces and recreates itself by a process, which he proposes can be best described by the word “surrogation” (2). Roach’s propositions about cultural performance are in line with what some of the most prominent texts in Anthropology posit about foundational principles of sacrifice. Examples, including Wendy Doniger and Brian Smith’s article, Sacrifice and Substitution: Ritual Mystification and Mythical Demystification, Henry Hubert and Marcel Mauss’ Sacrifice: Its Nature and Function, and Claude Lévi-Strauss’ manuscript, The Savage Mind, similarly consider substitution to be the basic principle of ritual sacrifice, where a surrogate victim is used for the original other. Using  “surrogation,” (Roach 3) as an analytical entry point, I argue that the Shia survivors place animals as “fit satisfactory alternates” in a continuous and unstoppable cultural process to fill in the human loss caused by war in keeping with Shia political subconscious that is formed based on notions of martyrdom. Dastehs are “dramas of sacrificial substitution” (3), in which animals offer “double surrogates” (3) to re-enact and experience the execution and blood in the narrative of war. But more importantly, re-enactments of Ashura present us complex cases with coded symbolic systems of representation in comparison to common practices of re-enactments. As educational and recreational practices, living history projects such as civil war re-enactments (Schneider), reperformances of witch trials (Preston), and war tourism (Alvarez) are examples that show us that the Western practices of these re-enactments often seek out to be faithful realistic representations of the historical events as their re-enactors imagine them happening in the past.

The re-enactments of Ashura remain consistent with other representational Islamic forms in employing symbolism that is evident in various post-Islamic visual and performing artistic practices as a creative reaction to early interpretations of Quranic verses that prohibited all forms of simulation and making statue (close representation of human figure) (Beiza’i 44). Yet, I use the term re-enactment to refer to the Dasteh because even though the displays of Ashura do not practice a mimetic approach to representation of war, they produce affiliations through symbolically re-enacting an imagined past. Dastehs as re-enactments open up an understanding of the imaginative as an alternative to the realistic in producing embodied cycles of memory and cultural affiliation. The imaginative entails a performance that is not so much about remembering the past (Schneider 32), the “pastness of past” (33) or “keeping the past alive” (10). Dastehs are re-enactments that suggest touching feelings (Sedgwick) more than touching time (Schneider), producing a shared national affiliation through affective politics of Ashura. Yet what role do animals and their slaughter/deaths play in producing this shared national and religious affiliation? What does and how is animal’s participation determined? How do animals’ different configurations as dutiful companion, food, and possession come into play in performing the Shia religious past, present, and future?

Animals in the commemorations of Ashura do more than serve as proxies benefiting the pragmatic economy of performance. Killing sheep, cows, and camels in ritual sacrifice entails different sets of ethical considerations in comparison to killing them just for representation of violence. Witnessing ritual sacrifice demands the onlooker to prioritize the ritual aspect of the spectacle over all others, including religious considerations. Shia leaders and scholars have argued, based on Qur’anic verses, that animal sacrifice is not part of one’s religious obligations (Heidari). Nevertheless, Shia Muslims persistently practice animal sacrifice as part of observing religious holidays, including the day of Ashura, and animal rights activists and religious organizations, Hindu reform, for instance, continue blaming Islamic influence for violent practices, including rituals of animal sacrifice (Govindrajan 515).

Interspecies Kinship and Sacrifice

As ritual, the violent spectacle of animal sacrifice challenges the ethical concerns of the outsider/secular spectator in regard to witnessing death (killing). In a performance setting, the act of spectating death (killing) transgresses ethics of witnessing. The bystander’s agency over the actions goes beyond ending her own act of looking. As a child, I deliberately distracted myself with staring at the wires inside the Hanjeleh when I participated in the marches with my grandfather. Closing my eyes on the action, I nonetheless witnessed the killing if not visually then viscerally and still partook in the event’s animal practices as I later indulged in Gheymeh (the famous street food made with sacrificed meat and served on the day of Ashura). In a performance setting, the distinction between witnessing and complicity blurs; to stand witness to animals getting killed is to take part in the act of killing. In that moment the spectator has agency to intervene. She has the willpower to press the stop button. But what if she considers the act of killing as material and affective conditions to an interspecies kinship and solidarity? Or suppose taking part in the act of killing her non-human companion brings her closer to God? The five-year old me did not; she looked away instead and focused on Gheymeh.

Horses consistently appear wounded, beheaded, and killed in the written and visual records as well as in performed iterations of Ashura’s cultural narrative. In commemorations, horses with garments and flowers often carry small children to signify the brutality and violence of killing young children in the war and, more explicitly, point to the protagonist’s newborn sons. Horses, however, are the only animals in Dasteh that are not subject to sacrifice, perhaps because eating horse meat is religiously detestable in Shia Islam. Animal consumption therefore does not only pertain to the economy of performance; it more importantly serves the economy of edible.

But can the configuration of animal as food be irreconcilable with its other configurations, such as dutiful companion and possession? These ontological categories and lived realities produce different orders and “distribution of the sensible” (Rancière 12) that delimit the parameters of what can be said of an animal’s “participation” within a western/secular discourse. Animal sacrifice in commemorations of Ashura theatrically oscillates between a theatre of assassination and performance of slaughter; it moves from theatre of wartime murders to performing butchery. But how do Shia re-enactors reconcile the violent reality of sacrifice beyond its theatricality and with its ritual aspects?

An interspecies kinship between human and non-human animal is a precondition to working out a logic for ritual animal sacrifice. Radhika Govindrajan argues “animal sacrifice can be productively theorized as a practice of kindred intimacy between human and nonhuman animal [that] acquires its power and meaning through its anchoring in a realm of interspecies kinship” (504). The everyday practices of embodied care, subjection, and violence, Govindrajanposits, all create and sustain this kinship between human and animal (504). Therefore, the “spectacular act of violence at the heart of sacrifice — the beheading of the sacrificial animal — is crucial to the constitution of kin solidarity between human sacrificer and animal victim” (504). I posit it is exactly this spectacle of violence situated at the heart of the sacrificial acts during Dasteh that allows for consideration of these Shia cultural practices as performances that engender interspecies empathy and add to the moral and epistemological parameters that underline existing literature of Animal Performance Studies. Ashura’s re-enactors delimit animals’ participation in keeping with mostly the ritual but also religious and community aspects of sacrifice, as opposed to confining the killing to the pragmatic economy of representation and/or edible.

Sacrifice, Martyrdom, and Defeat in Shia

Casting an interspecies lens onto animal practices in Dasteh shows the significance of non-human life and death in the formation of Shia religious and national identities. The Shia political subconscious is formed on the basis of a cultural narrative of martyrdom. Notions of martyrdom (Shahadat) closely intertwine with those of sacrifice (Ghorbani) in Shia philosophy and Iranian mysticism. Martyrdom is the ultimate form of sacrificial act, in which a human life is given and often by a willful subject for the religious or spiritual well-being of an entire community of Shia believers. The term for sacrifice (both human and non-human) in Farsi, Ghorbani, originates from the Arabic synonyms for intimacy and closeness. Ghorbani is that precious intimate something/someone that is given in order to bring the giver closer to Khoda (God). In these transactional acts, the real beneficiary is not Khoda (God) but the Shia community at large (Heidari). In the example of child soldiers, I mentioned earlier as to show state’s use of Dastehs in mobilizing political action during the Iran-Iraq War, the young working-class Iranian boys were not promised money or free education. Above all, their families were promised martyrdom for their sons, a guaranteed route to heaven (Ahmadi 175).

How should we then rework animal sacrifice in respect to these intertwined notions of sacrifice (of the non-human) and martyrdom (of human) in Shia context? Can we think of animal as that precious someone, not something, within a narrative in which the archetype of heroism is the sacrificed/martyr? Donna Haraway claims “sacrifice turns the animal as somebody into the animal as something that is not close enough to command a response from the human” (qtd. in Govindrajan 516). The most constitutional element in construction of the Shia ideal of heroism is martyrdom (Dabashi 84), which also recasts subject-hood back onto the animal as stand-in for heroes of Karbala, commanding an affective response from the Shia re-enactors. The interspecies kinship constituted in animal sacrifice opens up “a world rich with the possibility of mutual response and recognition” (Govindrajan 516). Shia re-enactors recognize animal as the worthwhile sacrificial substitute whose dramatic position coalesces with Shia notions of heroism and martyrdom in remembering the most archetypal moment in Shia collective memory: the martyrdom of Hossein.

The archetype of Hossein in the narrative of Ashura has been historically characterized by two interrelated concepts of Mazlumiyyat (innocence) and Shahadat (martyrdom) (Dabashi 80). In Dasteh, the animal becomes the surrogate for Hossein’s innocence, a “condition of being tyrannized,” (Dabashi 80) and martyrdom. First the animal is laid on the ground (except for camels which are trapped in a deep hole, so the animal could not make a run). The animal’s limbs are tied with ropes. A few men kneel and hold the animal tight. The killer/butcher feeds the animal water to boost her blood circulation and to remember Imam Hossein’s thirst when he was beheaded. Then he strikes. The process of gathering in crowds on the streets, placing the animal in a condition of being tyrannized, and witnessing the animal’s defeat replicates “the triangulated pattern of revolutionary event in the political subconscious of Shi’ism” (84).

Zulm[tyranny], qiyam [insurrection], and the historical fact of Imam Hossein’s defeat become the triangulated pattern of revolutionary event in the political subconscious of Shi’ism. If tyranny is not resisted, there will be something missing in the moral composition of the universe. Revolt is the “natural” state of a Shi’i historical presence. But the defeat of that revolt is almost a foregone conclusion because of the archetypal normativity of Imam Hossein’s defeat in the Battle of Karbala (84). Defeat, therefore, is at the crux of an interspecies solidarity that superimposes Hossein’s martyrdom onto the non-human animal sacrifice while also rendering other symbolic functions possible such as expelling carnality. These performances take their spectators and performers through the stages where one faces the animal, at times bonds with it, feeds, and waters it, then kills and consumes it. The “embodied experience of everyday entanglement in relations of care, attention, and subjection” fosters a sense of shared kinship, enabling an identification of human with nonhuman animal in sacrificial contexts (Govindrajan 505). Once “what’s done is done,”[9] men remove the carcasses from the streets and drive them to private residences, garages, community centres, and butcher shops where community members privately prepare the meat for the ceremony on the next day. Tomorrow, all come together again for cooking and sharing food. Animals are placed as stand-ins in the re-enactments of the fictio-historical narratives and cultural memories of Shia Muslims. Through this interspecies kinship, they offer the community opportunities to make the sacrifice, to come together to share, and to fulfil their pious duty by giving food generously to the less fortunate. Above all, the non-human animals through substitution in these imaginative re-enactments define and preserve cultural patterns in the political subconscious of Shia religious communities.

Mourning and Spectatorship

Witnessing the events in my childhood, I wondered why people cried. I was told about Imam Hossein’s assassination in school and at home. Knowing that people cried for him made things even more confusing: “How could they be so upset over loss of someone they never met or knew?” The spectators’ act of mourning is based on grounds beyond loss of Imam Hossein. Understanding mourning in the context of Dasteh calls for a more far-reaching engagement with histories and theories of mourning rites in Iran.

As a child, I perceived animal death and acts of mourning as coalescing. I had learned that animal life is not even close to be as precious as human life. Yet the death of non-human animal portrayed mortality that I shared with them. To me, animal life symbolically stood in for human life, in turn also becoming grieve-able life, to cite Judith Butler’s analysis of necro-politics in Why Preserve the Life of the Other? In other words, I imagined that animal life momentarily became grieve-able life in acts of representing life of Imam Hossein. This is not to argue that in Dastehthe animal life deliberately substitutes the human life, but that in these rituals of mourning animals are placed as what Roach calls “fit satisfactory alternates” (2). Revisiting his concept of “surrogation,” selective memory of Shia spectators entails “public enactments of forgetting, either to blur the obvious discontinuities, misalliances, and rupture or, more desperately, to exaggerate them in order to mystify a previous Golden age, now elapsed” (2-3). Animal in Roach’s formulation is “the fit that cannot be exact” (2-3). Images of animals surrendering, trucks filled with animal carcasses, and smell of blood together enhanced the underlying narrative of battlefield, triggering my multi-modal sensory. Something was changing. We were engaged in a cathartic experience of rupture caused by death. Presence of the non-human animal was central to what was changing in my world.

Despite inconspicuous presence and death of animals, other commemorative practices such as Rozeh Khwani and Tatbir/Qama Zani help to contextualize aspects of Dasteh involving mourning and physical injury. The participants in Iranian rituals often anticipate mourning and spectatorship as coterminous elements of performance. Performance historiographies trace back rituals of mourning to pre-Islamic indigenous rites, most notably Siavashan or Souge Siavosh.[10] Ta’zieh too can be studied amongst the religious adaptions of Siavashan. In contemporary Iran, Rozeh Khwani (reading the Rozeh) centres rituals of mourning. As performances, Rozeh Khwani, not unlike Dasteh, reveal the political and religious influence of the state’s sovereign power over the community. They also bring to the fore the disparity between the state’s ideals of religious practice and the communities’ approach to religion. For instance, in public ceremonies of Rozeh, seating is designated according to gender and almost always a male singer sings the Nohehinto the microphone. The state-sponsored rituals of Rozeh Khwani are followed by a sermon or lecture by a religious leader (Aghaei 136). Almost always a communal dinner proceeds by gathering thousands of people from different socio-economic backgrounds to share food, the meat of the sacrificed animals.

Women also perform female-only mourning rituals within their own small and “informal social networks centered around families, friends, and neighbors” (146). These religious gatherings mostly serve as socializing opportunities within female-only circles. The upper-middle class women in the city of my upbringing, Isfahan, for instance, love to hold private female exclusive Rozehs in their homes. In these by-invitation-only events, a female singer sings the Noheh, while the guests cry. This is followed by a sermon as the female singer offers life advice based on the content of the Noheh. Afterwards, the party indulges in finger foods, discusses recipes and new fashion trends, and match-makes in heaven. Cats lurk in the backyard scheming for the leftovers. Through these varied forms, Rozehoffers an underexamined case to study feminist religious practice in relationship to gender and socio-economic class in Iran, showing that mourning in the cultural context of Shia is not a direct response to Imam Hossein’s loss per se but a prominent cathartic form of feminine audience response.

The most contested practice[11] during commemorations of Ashura is Tatbir or Qama Zani. Groups of extremist men (some of whom bring children as young as three) hold a ceremony in public bath houses in which they change into white robes. They strike their own heads with a dagger. Some participants help each other with striking. Some parents strike the head of their young children to show their devotion. They let the blood run in remembrance of ImamHossein’s innocence. Afterwards, the group collectively runs to the streets to join the commemorative parades. The Supreme leader as well as other religious public figures in Iran consider Qama Zani self-harm and strongly advise against it (152). Sunni Muslims criticize the displays of violence in the commemorations of Ashura because, in the first place, its religious narrative is set out to enforce Sunni-otherness and, to begin with, self-flagellation is at odds with fundamental principles of Islamic practice. In most communities, police forces intervene to stop the ceremony, but Qama Zani continues as an underground practice (152). While the police intervene and attempt to end the practice of Qama Zani, as it entails self-harm and violence to human bodies, sovereign power does not sanction public displays of violence done to animals. Walking in bazars of Isfahan the day after Ashura, you cannot but notice the shop owners with bandaged heads testifying to their agency over their own bodies and pious practice.

Rozeh Khwani and Qama Zani are commemorative practices that contextualize the aspects of Dasteh, besides animal sacrifice, that involve mourning and physical injury. Qama Zani is an extreme example that best demonstrates an interspecies corporeal engagement rendering physical injury and bleeding to both their human and animal bodies. But it is the animal life that becomes the most affordable in these “dramas of sacrificial substitution” (Roach 3). Qama Zani is the closest Dasteh gets to the realistic re-enactment of the historical event. Yet Qama Zani negates the theatricality of re-enactment by cutting through the skin and vein authenticating pain, blood, and injury. This re-establishes an interspecies kinship through pain, a kinship with a compassionate past. This season is one of the busiest for acquiring rams, so Baba Haji would always purchase one few weeks in advance and keep it in the yard. By the Day of Ashura, Babayi (ram) and I were really good friends. This companionship challenges animal alterity as the child spectator sorrows over the heartbreak and loss of her companion species (Haraway).


The embodied practices of care and love forge an interspecies kinship between human and non-human animal. However, the embodied experience of violence too adds to the shared intimacies and kinship solidarity between human and non-human companions. Animals’ presence and sacrifice in Dasteh might seem to pose tensions between configurations of the animal as dutiful companion, food, and possession within a Western/secular context. However, by unpacking animal sacrifice in respect to the intertwined notions of sacrifice and martyrdom in Shia context, I show that animal is culturally recognized as the worthwhile sacrificial substitute whose dramatic position coalesces with Shia notions of heroism and martyrdom to remember the most archetypal moment in Shia collective memory. By recasting an interspecies lens onto animal sacrifice in Dasteh, this article adds to the complexities inherent to the human-animal interaction in performance. The ways in which Ashura’s re-enactors delimit animals’ participation, as a culturally-specific category, expands our understanding in regard to witnessing animal’s death in a performance setting.

Dasteh and commemorations of Ashura in general as religious and communal practices render evident the relationship between Iranian performance traditions to culture, religion, and political history over centuries. The commemorations of Ashura play a crucial role in the communal life of Shia Muslims in post-revolutionary Iran, offering them a site to negotiate diverse sets of religious thought and practice with the state’s sovereign power. In other words, studying commemorations of Ashura brings into the fore practices that counter the state’s appropriation of Ashura for its own political and religious agenda in the community participation as well as everyday life, including cultural animal practices.

Part of my effort in this essay has been to foreground these complexities of interspecies relationship vis a vis affective politics in order to highlight areas of cultural and historical research that can contribute to better recognizing the place that animal life and death have in the production and perceptions of Iranian national and religious identities.By looking back at my own memories of witnessing these commemorations, I also undertake this account of animal sacrifice to make a methodological intervention to the debates and conversations about Ta’zieh and other Shiaperformances during Ashura. In doing so, I excavate the margins of the archive and repertoire of Ashura to illuminate the presence of non-human animals in my cultural history, aiming to trouble the anthropocentric focus of performance historiographies that I encounter and engaging with future possibilities for research in Iranian (Performance) Studies to include more of the more than human world.

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[1] Noheh refers to songs lamenting the sufferings of Imam Hossein in the Battle of Karbala.

[2] I was riding in the Hanjeleh, a small carriage decorated with lights, carpets, saws and daggers, and costumes to signify the heroes and martyrs of Ashura.

[3] Takiyehs are important archetypes of Islamic architecture in Iran and other Shia regions. Similar to other public spaces such as mosques, minarets, Madresehs (schools), and Karevansaras (inns), Takiyehs have their own distinguishable layout. Their architecture is often recognized for its simplicity and flexibility to be transfigured by using decorations and temporary elements. Also, many Takiyehs are designed and set for seasonal use during Ashura.

[4] Alam, Nakhl, and Hanjeleh are set and prop pieces built and used in the commemorations of Ashura.

[5] Pardeh Khawni is a form of Iranian ritual performance. Usually in an inn or café, audiences gather to hear a solo performer narrating and singing a religious tale. The storyteller enhances visualization of the dramatic narrative by using an oversized illustration of the battel field, known as Ghahveh Khawneh (coffee house) painting on a large piece of fabric (Pardeh) (Chelkowski and Dabashi).

[6] To read translated excerpts from selected iterations of these monologues, see “Zeynab in Ta’ziya” in Mahnia Nematollahi Mahani’s book, The Holy Drama: Persian Passion Play in Modern Iran.

[7] Nuskhehs (written copies of a text) are the blueprint texts used by performers in singing the Ta’zieh.

[8] Zanjeer Zani (striking with chain) is a self-flagellation practice common during the commemorations of Ashura. Groups of participants strike their shoulders with chains. Their movements are choreographed and coordinated with Noheh and percussion.

[9] Lady Macbeth speaks the phrase to her husband after the murder in Act Three, Scene Two of Macbeth.

[10] Siavashan is an Iranian indigenous rite dating back to pre-Islam era.

[11] These practices are contested because many of them are considered self-flagellation. In addition to Tatbir or Qama Zani, Zanjeer Zani (striking with chain) and Sineh Zani (striking chest) are most common during the commemorations of Ashura.