Ritual and Religious Music in Iran
By: Mohammad Reza Darvish, 1997
Among all nations and particularly the Asiatic nations the role of music and literature in the execution of religious rites was so important that without music or literature no rites were performed in the past. It is for that reason that among different nations and particularly Asiatic nations religions and ritual music is considered to be the most important and largest part of their music and art. The skill in playing is so advanced that compared with other musics such as mythological and non-religious topics it is quite evident. Of non-religious music one might refer to Norooz (new year) melodies, lullabies, Chavoshi (caravan songs), working melodies and fabulous rites, marriage, mourning and medical treatment music and many other examples.
After renaissance with the change of the European perspective towards music such traditional and ritual musics were silently forgotten and with the spread of western culture to the East, ancient Asiatic melodies and mythological approach on the day to day life phenomenons was gradually forgotten and limited to sacred premises or continued in the shape of dramatic, tourism and formality shows.
Religions and ritual music in Iran Each religious faith in Iran follows its own specific ritual and religious context. Different Islamic religions such as Shia and Sunni are employing certain musics and melodies which fits their beliefs and ritual needs. Different Christian faiths or ethnic minorities such as Armenians and Assyrians who are the first tribes that embraced Christianity, are each employing their own religious music.
Mazdian and Zoroastrian faith which was the official religion of the Iranian people before Islam, continue to employ music in their religious ceremonious and rites.
Christian religious music
Different branches of Christianity are represented in Iran and besides them we have the Armenian and Assyrian ethnic minorities as the oldest Christians in our country. Due to religious link between different Christian branches in Iran with the world Christian community we can trace little Iranian music in their melodies and songs. Marginal presence of Iranian music in such melodies is due to the fact that they have directly adopted the different branches of Christian music practiced around the world. The written notes existing in such music has helped to propagate that type of music. Perhaps in the absence of records these minority musical rhythms would have gradually adapted themselves to local melodies in different parts of the globe. In addition, only four centuries have elapsed since the migration of the Armenians into Iran.
Jewish religious music
Compared to other religious minorities the religious ceremonies and rites of the Jewish minority are more closed, protected and hidden. Due to various reasons access to Jewish religious rites and hymns is always difficult.
As a result, our information about their religious music and rites and the extent of their interrelation with the Iranian music is very limited. Of course we possess considerable examples of Hebrew religious melodies which are performed in Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian synagogues, but whether such melodies are sung in Iranian synagogues is unknown at least to me. Part of Jewish religious music has been recorded but not in a broader scale that exists in Christian music. This is possibly due to insufficient records of Hebrew music that their music might have approached non-Jewish cultures to some extent.
Zoroastrian religious music
Many Zoroastrian religious and traditional rites are also accompanied by music. Regardless of certain ancient Zoroastrian traditions which show a negative approach to Zoroastrian melodies such as pastorals and minstrels before Islam, performance of music in keeping with Zoroastrian religious rites is as old as the Zoroastrian religion itself. A review of some historical texts proves that solo and chore music was broadly practiced at various ceremonies and occasions in fire temples and other Zoroastrian religious institutions before the advent of Islam. Based on the structure and rhythm of Zoroastrian texts and specially the gathas, chore and group music was considered a very important task by the Zoroastrian sect. Due to the difficulty of the rhythm during the playing of Zoroastrian chore melodies, many Zoroastrian songs have become obsolete and outdated after the victory of Islam. Right now one can still hear Zoroastrian religious songs in temples and other sacred buildings such as Darbe Mehr (sun worship temple), etc.
The wording of these songs are either derived from the gathas (songs attributed to Zoroaster) or part of the Avesta. Nowadays due to death of old Mubids or Zoroastrian priests many Zoroastrian traditions and customs are gradually being forgotten. Due to lack of replacement of Mubids and assistant Mubids who were familiar with all Zoroastrian texts, languages, customs and rites, many ancient religious customs have been forgotten and only part of such melodies have survived.
With the deterioration of these traditions many religious songs related to these customs have also been forgotten. One can refer to the analog performance of certain Mubids during the performance of gathas and the Avesta which due to insufficient training has been forgotten or is performed wholly in an unmusical or discordant tone. Also many yashts which were used in Zoroastrian religious rites have lost their subjectivity and are not being used including a considerable amount of Zoroastrian religious music and performance of the `Ferdog' musical songs in graveyards. In that ceremony a solo singer and an Avesta narrator and a chore consisting of Mubids and assistant Mubids used to participate.
In Zoroastrian fire temples and Darbe Mehrs (sun workshop temples) normally there are one or two bells. The bells are tolled at certain and fixed intervals during the ceremony. According to certain records and traditions, the Zoroastrian religious music has greatly influenced the formalities of Christian `tartils' during the dawn of Christianity. The weight of Zoroastrian religious music is very natural and closely follows parts of speech. The framework of this music is lyrical and harmonic. The cadence in Zoroastrian music is very natural, interconnected, mild and to a large extent harmonies with the dialogue of speech, but musical intervals have not been adjusted in such songs.
In the meantime some Zoroastrian musics are comparable to tambourine music used in ancient Iran presently chanted in Kermanshah or certain Islamic/prayer melodies such as the Naderi method of recitation of the Quran and some of the pilgrimage songs and prayers. Also the voice structure is composed of a series of sounds that very closely resemble the melodies and songs used in `tartils' that were sung in Christian churches and Gregorian churches at the dawn of Christianity. As we are aware the Gregorian songs originated from the East and these songs and melodies are greatly influenced by Hebrew melodies that are in use in Palestine, Syria as well as Hellenic music.
Anyhow a study of the Zoroastrian music is important from different points of view. Based on my studies and listening to the songs still sung by the Zoroastrian community in Iran, although these songs have been greatly changed and distorted they appear much purer and healthier than similar melodies sung by the Parsi community in India. On the other hand a considerable amount of specimens of Zoroastrian music which displays traces of Iranian music is worth examination.
Islamic religious music
From the following angles Islamic music is important:
Compared to other religious musics in Iran Islamic music is more diversified and superior in quality.
Islamic music covers a greater portion of the Iranian music and incorporates a variety of branches.
On the basis of its text and application this sort of music incorporates a considerable part of Iranian music.
Compared to other cultural and artistic branches such as prose and verse literature, drama, epics, mythology, plays, stage decoration, costume, face makeup, language and dialect, an examination of the Islamic religious music is indispensable.
Considering its context and performance, the Islamic music can be divided into several branches and surely each of these branches can themselves be divided into a variety of subdivisions:
Passion play (Tazieh).
Mystical and convent music.
Of the above classifications the Ashuraei and passion plays are exclusively practiced by the Shia sect. Nevertheless, prayer and convent (khanqahi) music is also prevalent in the Shia faith. But the other branches of Islamic religion only employ prayer recitals, mystical and convent music.
The Ashura epic and the method of martyrdom of Imam Hossein (peace be upon him) is a turning point in the history of Shia belief throughout the Islamic world and enjoys special significance. The Karbala tragedy was such that among Shia elders and saints Imam Hossein is the most distinguished religious figure in Islam. For that reason Ashuraei rites and music is one of the outstanding examples of religious music in Iran.
According to certain records, the Moharram mourning ceremony was initiated during Ale Booyeh Period (10th century A.D.) and this ceremony permitted the Shia Muslims to openly lament the tragic martyrdom of Imam Hossein and his followers.
According to Arab historian Ibne Asir, the Moharram mourning ceremony commenced during the Ale Booyeh Dynasty.
These ceremonies continued in Iran in several centuries until the birth of Safavid Dynasty when the Shia faith became the official religion of Iran and naturally at that epoch the Ashura mourning ceremony and its music was further expanded. Ashura music itself is divided into several branches such as lamentation, narration (recitation) and declamation of the tragedy, dirge, commemoration of Karbala martyrs (Rowzeh), war annals, etc.
Lamentation is divided into many sub-divisions of which the most important one is the Ashura music. I think the oldest mourning ceremony was lamentation which started with preaching and lectures and was later on perfected. Lamentation for the death of mythological heroes was popular before Islam also in Iran. In his History of Bokhara, Narshakhi says: "The people in Bokhara sung strange songs to lament Siavosh's death and the minstrels called these songs `The Wrath of Siavosh". The people in Bokhara lament Siavosh's murder and this custom was popular in all provinces and minstrels composed songs and singers chanted doleful lays and wept...
Each of the episodes in the lamentation of the Karbala tragedy is important and distinct. Good qualities, bravery, the method of martyrdom of each of the heroes of Karbala tragedy form various themes for such lamentations. Among these episodes lamentation for the martyrdom of Imam Hossein (pbuh) is outstanding in quality and volume. In addition, the events occurred on each day of the first 10 days of the month of Moharram form a distinguished section of these lamentations such as lament for Hazrat-e Abbas, for Ali Akbar, for Ali Asghar, for Zeinab and above all for Imam Hossein (pbuh). Besides these melodies and songs one might refer to the lamentation of the `The Last Supper' on the occasion of the female orphans who were left behind after Imam Hossein's martyrdom, the lamentation of the sunrise, etc...
Normally several other symbolic rituals are observed along with the lamentation such as breast beating, chain beating, stone beating, and dagger beating. Among these, breast beating is widely popular in different regions in Iran among the Shia sect. The Iranian tribes have been the first followers of Shia faith and from the beginning they have mingled the Ashura mourning ceremony to a collection of other traditions. The impact of native melodies on elegies and lamentations and inclusion of many local customs and rites in the Ashura mourning, are examples of such integration. Aside the fact that the melodies in different regions in Iran are greatly influenced by native music, symbolic rites such as breast beating, stone beating, etc. follow special body moves and figures which have an aesthetic origin. As a result, many breast beating figures used in Boushehr (in southern Iran) follows the customs of natives of Boushehr.
Lamentation related to breast beating, chain beating, stone beating, or dagger beating, etc. differs according to the instruments used or the physical movement of the body; it follows specific rhythm and speed. As a consequence each ceremony is accompanied by its specific lamentation rite.
Nearly in all Shia populated regions in Iran breast beating is popular. Meanwhile chain beating also varies from place to place and each employs its specific lamentation song. The diversity in chain beating in different regions in Iran is notable in the different movements and figures and methods of beating the chain or the different chains used.
Stone beating is another symbolic rite which is popular in several parts of the country accompanied by special melodies. Normally two pieces of stone are beaten on the sides of the mourner by special manners and movements accompanied by lamentation song. Apparently as a result of the physical damage caused by stones on the body, wood stick is gradually replacing stone. Lately instead of stone beating other terms such as Karbzani or Karebzani, playing cymbals and ratchets are used. In Mazandaran and some other regions like Komesh, south of Alborz mountain, the term Kareb and in Gilan the term Karb and in Aran (Kashan), cymbal is customary. This ceremony needs considerable physical strength by the performers and is popular in Lahijan and Aran, a district in Kashan, as well as Semnan and Sabzevar.
The lamentation music also varies in different regions. Some of the lamentation music originates directly from Iranian musical divisions. Others follow the popular music of the region and in some areas both the traditional Iranian music and local music is used simultaneously. The slogans used in the lamentation is also different and the Persian text is often preferred, but in some regions in Iran the lamentation is sung by local dialects. The lamentation music in the ceremonies follow two main rules i.e. rhythm and the rank.
Normally the lamentation starts with such songs which have less speed and dynamism but once the lamentation gains peep the tone grows rapid and one piece is immediately followed by another piece. The rhythm also varies from 4/4, 2/4 to 6/8 and 6/4 scales. Singers of lamentation music normally are attentive to the rank of the music as well so that if a single rank is employed in the lamentation ritual, the song is carried out on a continuous basis. Changing one rank into another rank in lamentation music is carried out very carefully and delicately. The wailing melody is normally sung by a solo singer (the principle mourner) and is responded by the chore of breast beaters, chain beaters, Karbzans, etc.
Except lamentation other rituals are observed in the Ashura mourning ceremony such as narration or recitation, description of tragedy, dirge and preaching. Each of these parts have a special place in the Ashura music which cannot be described here in detail due to lack of space.
Composition of Ashuraei music
With the exception of Ta'zieh or passion play, several musical instruments are used in Ashurai music. These are mostly wind or drum instruments including the following:
Damam and cymbals are instruments specifically played in Boushehr. During this ceremony three types of musical instruments including a long horn, several metal cymbals and damams are used. Damam is a double-sided relatively large drum. At one side it is played by sticks and on the other side by the hand. Due to its size and performance damam is divided into three categories: ordinary damam, Ghambar damam and Ashkoon damam. The result of playing these three types of double sided drums is a polyrhythmic music. Damam is played to announce the start of the mourning ceremony.
Karna (trumpet or horn)
At certain villages in Gilan such as Mashk, Lasht, and Rudbeneh in Lahijan long Karnas (trumpets or horns) are used in Ashura ceremony. The main body of the trumpet or horn is made of reed at the end of which it has a bend like an staff made of squash. It has a wooden mouthpiece at the other end of the trumpet to blow into the pipe. This special trumpet is used both in passion play and other Ashuraei ceremonies and is called martyrdom song. At certain rituals one of the two singers and a group of Karna players play alternately.
Karb (Kareb or cymbal)
Karb is made of two pieces of thick stick which is held by the player's two hands through a leather belt. This apparently replaces the dangerous stone beating. Karb is normally played in group through special rhythm and is popular in Aran, Kashan, some districts in Semnan as well as Sabzevar and Lahijan.
This horn is made of a relative large shell. By boring a hole in its upper part it allows the player to blow into it. There is another hole bored on the body of the shell which changes the sound by about one semitone. Such instrument is available in Kherqan, south of Alborz Mountain.
This is like a trumpet with the exception of a piston used in army music bands. Formerly different sizes of brass horns were used in mosques, Tekiehs and Hosseiniehs in Iranian villages. The original brass horns were hand made and later on they were developed and perfected in France, England and Russia.
In such regions where horn is played the kettledrum is used as its accompanying beating instrument. Moreover, wherever hautboy is employed for Ashura rituals the kettledrum is also used as a beating instrument.
Hautboy is occasionally used in Ashura ceremony in some provinces such as Khouzestan and Khorassan.
Naqareh (timbal or kettledrum)
Naqareh is another beating instrument which is used instead of drum in Ashura ceremony.
Tazieh (passion play) music
Literally Tazieh means mourning, lamentation and commemoration of those who have died. Ta'zieh also means sharing other's grief and condoling the survivors or mourning for the departed, but in religious stage plays they are attributed to special rituals and traditions. Contrary to its meaning Ta'zieh does not necessarily mean a sad song. Tazieh is a religious dramatic play in Iran in which music is an inseparable branch. In the whole Islamic world, Iran is the only country which has developed a dramatic play for religious rituals. Contrary to what is assumed, passion play or Tazieh is not a simple or specific cultural phenomenon or invented at a specific period in history, but it has gradually been developed and several centuries under the influence of different social, religious, cultural, artistic and philosophical conceptions.
The exact date for the emergence of dramatic Tazieh is not known but we are sure of two important points in that connection: First of all Ta'zieh is the product of a long evolutionary process and not the fruit of inspiration or creative talent of an individual. Ta'zieh play is a completed version of other mourning ceremonies such as lamentation, preaching, simulation, sketching, group marching, recitation, etc.
Group marching and preaching during the Moharram season grew more and more complicated, refined and theatrical and at the second half of the eighteenth century they were fully integrated and converted into a modern theatrical and dramatic performance known as Tazieh.
Anyhow what we can gather from our past records is that Moezudolleh Ahmad ibne Booyeh popularized lamentation and simulation and in recent centuries the theatrical or simulation process was eliminated from these ceremonies stage by stage. The revolution in that area can be studied in the meticulous observations recorded by European travelers' in their copious travelogues and notes.
During the Qajar period the traditional passion play was preserved in villages but in cities and particularly in Tehran the simple and semi-theatrical system was abandoned and the Ashura ritual was converted from primeval play into full-fledged dramatic play.
Anyhow the method of perfection and the traditional roots of the passion play is an important subject which we do not have enough space here to elaborate.
Nowadays Tazieh music, the text and the play form three separate divisions of the drama which cannot be separated from each other in Ta'zieh or any other musical play. The Ta'zieh music can be examined from two distinct angels: singing music and instrument music. These two aspects of Tazieh are closely interconnected with the text and various forms of the drama. The main section of Tazieh music is singing. At one hand the songs are based on Iranian musical divisions and ranks and on the other hand in many aspects they protected and promulgated these songs and ranks during the course of decades.
Several musical factors can be traced in the Ta'zieh music of which the most important is the Iranian divisional music which forms the main ingredients of passion play songs. In the majority of cities each simulation imitates a certain rank such as Hazrat-e Abbas simulation = Chahargah; Hour = Iraq.
Among famous Tazieh singers one comes across figures that were not only not behind famous singers of their time but were respected and imitated by other singers and were even considered pioneers and guides. Among these vanguards one might mention Seyyed Hossein Shabieh, Seyyed Ahmad Khan, Qolikhan Shahi and Abulhassan Eqbal Azar.
Among them the music played in different regions in Iran is playing an important role in the passion play. Besides passion plays performed in central regions and particularly in the capital, the passion plays in Fars, Gilan, Mazandaran, Azerbaijan and Koumesh (Semnan, Damghan and Shahroud), Lorestan and Kermanshah are accompanied by the local songs alongside Iranian musical divisions. One can easily spot the presence of Iranian traditional music in the majority of passion plays in the form of songs or instrument passion plays which are performed by instruments such as fanfares (trumpets) kettledrums and hautboy.
Of other aspects of Tazieh one might refer to chore music. In Tazieh rituals chores echo the solo singer. Pishkhan or lead solo singer is a sort of song which is played as a prelude to the Tazieh. In other words the lead singer starts a sort of solo lamentation which prepares the environment for passion play and this introduction is augmented by several wind and beating instruments.
Song dialogues or recitals apply special charm to Tazieh music. These recitals are also rooted in the ancient Iranian music. Such recitals consist of narrating stories accompanied by music or verbal narration of the Avesta, prayer narration, etc.
Narration is another important phenomenon of passion play songs. Nowadays two systems are still employed in passion plays: melancholy declamation which is related to those who echo the feeling of the oppressed and the remnants of epic narrators. The epic narrator is the phenomenon known as Oshtolom song in present passion play. This is a conversation type narration which has no written text.
Another section of the passion play is instrument music. The performance of instrument and singing music in passion play is different. Instrument music is another inseparable ritual in Ta'zieh. The instruments are bugles, hautboys, Karna, kettledrum, large drums, side drum, cymbals, clarinets, trumpets and so on. What the players do is too utter a combination of sounds which create the necessary atmosphere and sound echo. These intermingled sounds are in the meantime rhythmical and change according to episodes on the stage. Sometimes the songs strengthen the play and at times they help create the general feeling on the stage. Therefore, the composition of music in passion play depends on the dramatic variable. That which is important in passion play music is that the instruments never accompany songs except in rare cases when the flute, pipe or the clarinet is played to accompany the singer. Lack of accompaniment of song with the instruments has several reasons which cannot be explained here.
Contrary to Ashuraei music and passion play which are exclusively related to the Shia faith, prayer music is diversified and is practiced by a considerable number of Islamic tribes of Shia and Sunni (Hanafi, Shafeie, Maleki and Hanbali) sects. Islamic prayer music enjoys the following qualifications:
All these musics contain prayer texts.
Praying to God, praising the Prophet Mohammad, Imams and the saints forms a great portion of that music.
Praising Almighty God and beseeching his assistance to cope with natural calamities and catastrophes is another section of such Music.
All the different types of music are songs and contain texts.
The songs are chanted in three manners:
a. Solo songs
b. Chore music
c. Exchange of songs between solo and chore singers
The place of performance of prayer music is varied and includes mosques, Tekieh (religious theater), Hosseinieh, houses, open fields and any other place.
The music is conducted with complete peace of mind and as a result few prayer musics lead to excitement.
The melodies have hymns and little cadence and the musical sounds are often interconnected and continued and the voice structure is not too expanded.
The ranks employed are varied and at the same time simple. They are ranks used in Iranian musical divisions. Some music ranks employ local melodies in different regions and some follow ancient Iranian musical ranks. Nevertheless nowadays we have a lot of prayer musics which is based on Arabic musical ranks.
Some prayer music's are comparable to the religious music used by other religions in Iran such as Zoroastrians and Christians.
From rhythmical point of view prayer music is divided into two main categories:
Those who follow specific meter. Examples are certain praise recitals, pilgrimage songs and prayer for chapters and incantations or recitals done mechanically.
The majority of such music's are performed by ordinary people and for that reason they have little cadence, limited sound structure and connected intervals. Simplicity of the rank from the point of view of intervals, simplicity of rhythm, slow tempo and little writing or decoration in the songs, are the characters of prayer music which aims to create a peaceful atmosphere of contemplation and concentration on the text.
What has been mentioned above is part of the general qualities that we have observed in prayer music.
Quran recitation, recital prayers, communion, pilgrimage songs, call for prayer (Azan), commendation, incantations, and periodical prayers are examples of prayer musics which are more popular. Some prayers are connected to the nature. These prayers are related to laudation and commendation of the nature (prayer for seasons) or they demand boon from God during natural catastrophes (such as praying God to avert drought, prayer for rain, prayer to avert lunar or solar eclipse, or protect the people from harmful beasts, etc.).
An examination of this sort of music in Iran is important from different angels. The religious/ritual feature of many of these prayer musical pieces have ensured their promulgation from the inundation of time. Since this type of music has a wide and varied social audience and the narrators largely come from the ordinary masses, they have remained immune from the invasion of professional musicologists.
In some Islamic prayer melodies we come across melodies which lead us to our ancient culture. Some rare Quran recitative songs are explicitly comparable to Zoroastrian hymns. Surely the similarity is only in the province of melody and not in the text. During my research I have seen rare examples of Quran recitative melodies and some prayers, pilgrimage songs or eulogies which closely resemble the ranks, breaks, rhythm, and time length of Avesta and gatha recited by Zoroastrian Mubids. A study of this phenomenon has historical and cultural significance from the musical point of view and not religion.
Nevertheless nowadays many examples of prayer musics follow Arab musical patterns. An imitation of Arabic music particularly in the recitation of the Quran and singing of Azan is due to the following reasons:
Technical influence of Arab prayer narrators and singers in the past centuries.
Seclusion of many genuine prayer narrators in the Iranian villages which closely follow Iranian music.
A research, registration and propagation of models of prayer music based on Iranian ranks is important and needs a lot of patience and investment.
Many narrators and singers of prayer music believe that since many texts including Quranic texts and recitative pieces are in Arabic language, they must necessarily follow Arab music. But the existence of many Iranian musical tones and versions in these prayer songs has proven that this is a mistaken assumption.
See Chelkovski Peter, Tazieh, Native Iranian Art, translated by Davood Hatami, Science and Culture 1988, p. 10.
See Chelkovski Peter, Ibid., Ta'zieh and Lamentation Rituals in Iran Before Islam, written by Ehsan Yar Shater, p. 128, History of Bokhara, p. 24.
For further information see Darvish Mohammad Reza, Introduction on Recognition of Iranian Local Musicís, first volume (Hormozgan, Boushehr, Khouzestan), Music Department of the Art Bureau, 1994, pp. 55 and 59.
Mahjoob Mohammad Jafar, Publication No. 3. of Shiraz Arts Festival, 1961, p. 1.
Chelkovski Peter, Tazieh, An Advanced Iranian Native Music, translated by Davood Hatami, Science and Culture 1988, p. 9.
Mahjoob Mohammad Jafar, Ibid.
Chelkovski Peter, Ibid. p. 12.
Chelkovski Peter, Ibid.
Revolution in Ta'zieh Literature and Music, written by Enayatollah Shahidi, p. 71.
Bektash Mayel, Ghaffari, Farrokh, ibid p. 6
Chelkovski Peter, Ibid, p. 12.
Beizayi Bahram, Theater in Iran, 1965, p. 120.
Chelkovski Peter, Ibid, p. 72.
For further information refer to sources mentioned in this article as well as Darvish Mohammad Reza, A Glimpse at Arab Music (the influence of Arab music on Iranian music) Mahoor, 1994, p. 13.
For further information on Taízieh music see Darvish Mohammad Reza, A Glimpse at Arab Music (influence of Arab music on Iranian music), Mahoor, 1994, pp. 135 and 145.