What is happening in Iran today is the coming to life on an enormous landscape of an historical event of the past that has become legendary in Muslim – especially Shia – memory.
I have a small taste of what that means from my own experience of Passover in 1968, shortly after the murder of Martin Luther King, when Black Washington rose in rebellion and the US Army occupied the city. My experience of that upheaval was that Passover had risen from the ancient past into the volcanic present. I was not alone in that generation of questing, questioning Jews to sense that coalescence of past / present / future. Out of it came the Freedom Seder and the liberation of the haggadah to deal with many aspects of liberation, not only the ancient Israelite deliverance from Pharaoh..
Or think about Passover of 1943 in the Warsaw Ghetto, when on April 19, the eve of Passover, the Nazi forces tried to smash the Ghetto and were met with fierce resistance. Again, the ancient past and the volcanic present met.
When this happens, both "politics" and "religion" are apt to melt into a new shape, either far more repressive or far freer. If we pay wise attention, we may get a deeper sense of what both those realms really are at their most intense. Those of every faith might wisely reexamine the deepest meanings of "ritual" in our own traditions.
The same thing is happening now in Iran in relation to the holy day of Ashura.
(The word means "tenth," as its cognate "Aseret" does in Hebrew. It is the tenth day of the lunar month of Muharram.)
Muslims consider Muharam, the lunar month in which we are now living, the "New Year" month, connected with the renewal of the mission of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, as he left Mecca under pressure from its power elite and resettled in Medina, where his teachings flourished into the success of Islam.
Accordig to hadith (reports of Muhammad's life), he learned from some of the Jews of Arabia that the tenth day of the Jewish "new year" month, Yom Kippur, was a day of fasting –- some said, instituted by Musa Nebi (the Prophet Moses) as a celebration of liberation from slavery to Pharaoh. Muhammad is said to have remarked that he too could affirm this day.
So in accord with Muhammad's decision, many Sunni Muslims have fasted on Ashura, in celebration of the liberation of the people of Moses .
For the Shia community, Ashura became a formative and central sacred time, imbued with deep grief rather than celebration. On and around that day, in and after the battle of Karbala (in what is now Iraq), the caliph Yazid ordered the deaths of Muhammad's grandson, Hussein ibn Ali, and a little later the surviving members of Muhammad's family. The Shia Muslim community grew from and into an intense belief that Ali, Muhammad's son, and then Hussein had been Muhammad's legitimate heirs, destroyed by a tyrant. The desire for social justice, held by all Muslims to be part of Islam's central teaching, became a burning passion for the Shia.
Ashura itself became a day of grief-stricken pilgrimages to Hussein's grave in Karbala. And the whole month of Muharam became a time for refraining from violence –- even suspending military operations in time of war. This tradition became so strong that even the last Shah of Iran, facing revolutionary street demonstrations, restrained his security forces during Muharam.
And now we come to the volcano of this past week. One of the great religious teachers of Shia islam, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, died just in time to fit ionto the legendry of Ashura. Montazeri was originally expected to succeed Ayatollah Khomeini as Supreme Leader of Iran; but he became more and more critical of the overbearing behavior and power of the clergy as against what he saw as a decent balance of democratic and clerical decision-making. So he had been treated by the prenet Iranian leadership as an outcast. so his role as well as his death fit into Ashura.
Demonstrations against the government that probably would have been Ashura-intensified anyway took on even greater passion in mourning for Montazeri. And now the government has violated the holiness of the day by killing demonstrators, thereby angering even some traditional religious folk.
When a society is heated to this high temperature both politically and religiously, I would expect profound change in both realms. I expect that for this generation of Shia Muslims, and perhaps for many Sunnis as well, Ashura will never be the same again.
And just as the Exodus story has spoken powerfully to many communities that are not Jewish, perhaps Ashura will begin to speak to non-Muslims as well.
Franz Kafka once wrote a very short story, approximately thus: "One day a leopard came stalking into the synagogue, roaring and lashing its tail. Three weeks later, it had been made part of the liturgy."
The leopard of the Karbala massacre that had been ritualized and tamed into Ashura is out of the cage again. God is out of the cage. Expect volcanoes.
A final note on US policy: The push for sanctions against Iran that will bear most heavily on the public rather than the rulers –- like the bill now before Congress to try to prevent sales of gasoline to Iran and thereby raise its price there enormously – seems to me likely, if they work, to blunt the anti-governmental anger of the opposition and redefine the US as the enemy. Some policy-makers keep thinking that if a powerful state imposes sanctions on a weaker one, the people of the weaker society, as their suffering increases, will turn against their leaders as the cause. But almost always, they unite around their leaders against foreign intervention.