In Service and Betrayal of Rituals: A Discussion on Shi’i Rituals and the Phenomenon of Ritual Inflation

By Mohsen-Hesam Mazaheri1

The author has studied sociology at the University of Tehran and is a prolific writer and researcher of sociology of religion in Iran. The focus of his scholarship has been the Shi’i rites and rituals. He also has published works in the field of social studies of the Iran-Iraq war. He has published several works in Persian in the field of religious studies, including: Shia Media (2008), Arbaeen Walk: Sociological Reflections (Ed, 2018), Tragedy of the Islamic World (2019), Religious Assemblies in Contemporary Iran (2019) and Celebrations in Shi’i Islam in Iran (1401). He is the director and editor-in-chief of the specialized encyclopedia titled “Shia Mourning Culture” and the editor of the “Sarv Books” collection (Shia Social Studies) and the “Hilal Books” collection (Social Studies of the Islamic world).

I have spoken and written several times about the definition of Shi’i rituals, recent developments, and the phenomenon I interpret as “Ritual Obesity. Nevertheless, it seems that there are still ambiguities on this topic for some of the audience. I have received feedback and opinions about previous content, including both mistaken agreements and disagreements. In this note, I will attempt to generally explain my definition of rituals and Ritual Obesity and why I believe this phenomenon is hazardous for Iranian society. Therefore, I ask the dear readers who have followed the previous discussions to read this note carefully and attentively.

Definition of Religious Rituals

Religious rituals are a type of symbolic and conventional behavior with a more or less defined form that individuals and religious groups perform/execute as a “slogan” and a symbol of their affiliation with their religion. Religious rituals encompass a wide and highly diverse spectrum of behavioral forms, each of which holds meaning and significance within its corresponding cultural field and for those who live in that field. Rituals include a variety of functions, with one of the most important being the preservation of cohesion and identity for the community of believers within each religious group.

Almost in all religions, beliefs, and sects, rituals exist, and the “ritual dimension” alongside the dimensions of “belief” and “ethics” forms the trinity of religiosity. However, the place of rituals and the importance of the ritual dimension are not the same in different religious groups. In some, the ritual dimension is very rich, while in others, it is quite weak. This situation is not static and can change depending on the circumstances of the community of believers. Various factors are involved in this regard, from political relations to religious economics, cultural changes, and media developments. Both regional and global trends can have an impact on rituals, their place, and their scope.

Historical identity and the imperatives of group identity are one of the influential factors in shaping rituals. Generally, groups that have the characteristic of being a “minority” and perceive a threat from rival religious groups are more likely to have the potential to create distinctive rituals than groups that are in the majority. This is because rituals provide these groups with the possibility of “multiple differentiation.” Differentiation is a mechanism for preserving identity and ensuring the survival of an identity-based community. From this perspective, it is natural, for example, that Twelver Shi’ism, as a minority sect in the Islamic world, has a much greater potential for ritual creation than Sunni sects and communities.

Types of Religious Rituals

The rituals present in any religious group can be broadly categorized into two groups: “primary rituals” and “secondary rituals.” Primary rituals are foundational rituals; sacred rituals that have been legitimized in the foundational texts of the religion. These rituals have a fixed and connected form, and their boundaries, conditions, and the quality of their execution are precisely articulated in religious jurisprudence (fiqh) by the founders. In the religious belief system of any faith, the legislator and primary founder of these rituals are designated as the highest holy authority (God). This is why religions are unable to provide a clear and explicit explanation for the form of these rituals. A religious practitioner must accept a specific and repetitive behavioral form without having the freedom to question why or to have ownership over it. In other words, primary rituals are recognizable to the religious practitioner but not necessarily fully understood. Adherence to these rituals is obligatory, and deviating from them may incur penalties. Furthermore, the degree and quality of a religious practitioner’s attachment to these rituals determine their level of religiosity according to the official religious doctrine. In Islam, for instance, prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage (Hajj) can be considered primary sacred rituals.

However, alongside primary rituals, in religious groups, secondary rituals usually take shape, which are considered subsidiary rituals, and in this regard, we refer to them as “secondary.” The birthplace of these rituals is in the realm beyond the boundaries of religious jurisprudence; the broader this realm, the greater the potential for the emergence of secondary rituals, and vice versa. It is the religious practitioners themselves who innovate these secondary rituals. These rituals are the arena for the manifestation of creativity and inventiveness among religious practitioners. Therefore, unlike primary rituals, secondary rituals are highly diverse, fluid, and adaptable. From one geography to another, from one historical era to another, from one cultural region to another, secondary rituals embrace various definitions and forms. Secondary rituals cannot be confined to a fixed form, and their birth, evolution, and dynamism are intrinsic characteristics.

In the history of religiosity and through a complex process, secondary rituals are formed and gradually become recorded and accumulated in religious culture. A variety of different environmental factors, including politics, economics, popular culture, folklore, and even climate and ecosystems, play a role in their emergence. While primary rituals tend to lean toward purity, secondary rituals, by virtue of their cultural nature, tend to synthesize and amalgamate. This is why the ethnography of these rituals is often exceedingly challenging.

Due to these characteristics, many religious practitioners show a greater interest in secondary rituals compared to primary rituals because these rituals are more appealing to them and provide opportunities for creative expression. In other words, we have as many definitions of secondary rituals as we do religious practitioners.

Another significant and important difference between secondary and primary rituals is the possibility of their sociological understanding and analysis. Due to the characteristics mentioned, the process of emergence and change of secondary rituals in their context is understandable and analyzable. This is exactly where I, as a sociologist of Shi’i rituals, come into play: observing changes in rituals and attempting to understand the logic behind their occurrences. I cannot, for example, analyze prayer because it is a fixed, sanctioned form. However, I can analyze mourning and visitation rituals because they have fluid, non-sanctioned, and customary forms.

With the definitions mentioned above, in Shia Islam, the collection of visitation and mourning rituals represents the most important examples of secondary rituals. These rituals have played a prominent role in Shia culture, and throughout history, they have been closely linked to the Shia identity. None of these rituals, despite their special importance and sensitive position in Shia Islam, are considered obligatory acts of worship. Therefore, there is no compulsion in performing them. A Shia can choose not to mourn or visit, and still remain within the circle of believers, but abandoning primary rituals like prayer is considered equivalent to leaving the fold of religion (according to the official definition).

The founders of pilgrimage and mourning rituals were the Shi’i Imams (a). My encounter with the history of Shiism and concepts such as mourning is naturally not a theological one; it is a historical and sociological encounter. In this encounter, the Shi’i Imams are officially considered part of the hierarchy of Islam: the first-generation followers. Their life stories must be understood and analyzed within their historical context. For example, regarding mourning, it is evident that after Ashura and by the Imams from the fourth to the eighth, these rituals were established. They clearly had an “innovative” behavior and introduced a new and unprecedented ritual (a secondary rite). Although the Shi’i community had experienced significant tragedies before Ashura (such as the passing of the Prophet, the martyrdom of Imam Ali, the demise of Lady Fatimah, and other events), none of these events served as a catalyst for the creation of mourning ceremonies. It was only after Ashura that such an innovation occurred.

My analysis (as elaborated in detail in the first and last chapters of the book “Shia Media”) suggests that this innovation was a rational political and social tactic. The Imams, as leaders of a vulnerable minority community (due to the difficult political and social conditions faced by the Shi’a during the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates), intelligently devised discriminatory mechanisms to ensure the cohesion and survival of their community. Pilgrimage, cursing (la’n), mourning, religious tax, and similar practices are all mechanisms that can be understood and analyzed in the context of the era of the early Shi’i leaders. These mechanisms were employed to secure the survival and independence of the minority religious community. The extraordinary emphasis on mourning and weeping for Imam Hussein (even lamentation), the incitement of poets to compose elegies (which was the most influential form of media in the Arab society of that era), and providing specific financial support to poets while maintaining a lenient attitude toward them are all entirely understandable within the mentioned logic. In circumstances where the ruling political power aimed to erase Ashura from memory and suppress Shiism (including celebrating and sanctifying Ashura and desecrating the tomb of Imam Husayn), Shi’i leaders adopted a policy of resistance and established a ritual to preserve and perpetuate the memory of Ashura.

This ritual, however, evolved differently in the post-Imam era, and during the period of occultation, it took on a different path, becoming an integral part of Shi’i culture. In every corner of the Shi’a world, it acquired distinct flavors and scents, growing richer with each passing day and giving rise to a diverse spectrum of ceremonies, customs, and mourning traditions. Gradually, in each era, the ritualistic calendar expanded and evolved. Mourning extended beyond the confines of Ashura and encompassed the commemoration of the martyrdom of other Imams and prominent figures in Shi’i history. Furthermore, in those early centuries, Shi’i celebrations like Ghadir and the 9th of Rabi’ emerged and were solidified as secondary rites, serving as distinguishing features between the “true sect” and the “commoners.” Throughout all these transformations, the primary agents and actors were the devout believers themselves, along with the leaders of the Shi’i community and those in positions of authority (governments).

Inflation in Religious Rituals

With changes in the political dynamics of Shiism and the establishment of Shi’i governments in Iraq and Iran, the trajectory of Shi’i rituals underwent significant transformations. Shi’i governments, from the Buyids to the Safavids and Qajars, presented themselves as official supporters and custodians of Shi’i rituals, exerting considerable influence over the development and evolution of these rituals. The most significant interventions and influences of political institutions on Shi’i rituals occurred during periods such as the Safavid dynasty, the latter part of Reza Shah’s reign, and the Islamic Republic.

In recent decades, the development of Shi’i rituals, the expansion of the ritualistic calendar, and the growth of religious infrastructure have seen an unprecedented and accelerating pace, unlike any other period in history. This religious inflation includes the unprecedented expansion of holy sites (shrines and Imamzadehs), the increase in the number of mourning ceremonies and gatherings, the rise in the number of eulogists and their elevated status, the institutionalization and periodization of rituals, the development of mourning ceremonies, and the invention of new widespread rituals such as the Arbaeen pilgrimage, among other examples. Throughout this process, a diverse range of factors contributed to these religious transformations, from external to internal influences, encompassing political, economic, cultural, and social factors. Some of the most notable factors, regardless of their degree of influence, include:

  • Media developments and the rise of ubiquitous social networks.
  • Political changes within the Islamic Republic, including significant events like the June 2009 election protests, the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the 2009 post-election unrest.
  • Urbanization trends in the years following the Iran-Iraq War, the empowerment, and growth of the urban middle class.
  • Cultural changes within society and the emergence of new lifestyle patterns.
  • The decline of religiosity and the emergence of various religious challenges.
  • The rise of new Islamic ideologies and radical Sunni groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
  • The fall of Saddam Hussein and the Shi’i empowerment in Iraq.
  • Intensifying regional competition, especially between Iran and other regional powers, notably Saudi Arabia.
  • The Syrian Civil War.
  • Competition and conflict between Shi’i discourses and the strengthening of identity-based discourse within Iranian Shiism.
  • The increasing bureaucratization of religious organizations.
  • The ritualization of Iranian society (requiring independent examination) and the adoption of Western rituals like Valentine’s Day and Black Friday.
  • The decline of religious intellectualism in the 1980s.
  • The crisis of the efficiency of the system and the emergence of socio-economic challenges.
  • The rapid growth of pop culture.
  • Transformations in the cultural and media economy, and the emergence of a new generation of cultural products.
  • The emergence of mystical movements (both religious and secular) and their popularity.

And other factors.

This collection of factors, each of which requires independent examination, has led to the unbridled growth of rituals in recent years. This is the very phenomenon that I refer to as “Ritual Inflation.”

Critique and Analysis of Ritual Inflation

The development of religious rituals has had and continues to have many critics who have expressed their views from various perspectives. One group of critics includes religious intellectuals who view ritualistic religion in opposition to religious knowledge and as a form of superficial, populist religiosity. They consider the growth of rituals as a sign of the decline of intellectual and contemplative religiosity, and as manifestations of religious formalism and outward appearance. They oppose this trend from this standpoint.

The second group consists of some religious scholars and elites who see the growth of rituals as a manifestation of the spread of superficial religiosity and a departure from genuine Shiism. Their concern primarily arises from the fact that with the growth of rituals, the authority of the religious community has changed, and eulogists (who are the main agents of rituals and stimulate religious emotions) have replaced the clergy.

The third group includes researchers and historians who question the historical credibility of narratives and historical references related to emerging rituals. They consider some of these newly emerged rituals to be baseless and fabricated from a historical perspective.

While I understand the positions of these three groups, I have a different stance. I am a social researcher, not a religious intellectual or cleric. For me, the foremost and most important concern is the preservation of society and humanity, followed by religion and faith. I consider religion to be in the service of humanity and society, not the other way around. Therefore, anything that harms society is considered a detriment, even if it involves the development of religion. Human experience has shown that the expansion of religion must have limits because when it exceeds those limits, it can become highly dangerous and subject humanity to the perils of religious and sectarian biases, regardless of the religion, be it Catholicism, Judaism, Shiism, Sunniism, Buddhism, Baha’i faith, or any other, all have the potential for such biases.

In critiquing Ritual Inflation, my position, motivation, and objective are fundamentally different from religious intellectuals. As I have stated repeatedly before, I am a critic of the antagonism of religious intellectuals towards popular religion. I defend the logic of religion and the necessity of understanding and evaluating it within its own framework (not based on elitist standards) in the face of the invasion and violence of intellectual elites against popular religion.

In my opinion, the changes in rituals (which are a result of changes in religious practices) are entirely “natural” (not necessarily desirable). My effort is to explain them and highlight the potential risks they may pose to society. In fact, when religious intellectuals, religious governments, clergy, or any other power emerges in a violent and confrontational manner against popular religion, I feel obligated to stand alongside the general public and defend them.

My critique of Ritual Inflation is not that the new rituals are not “authentic” and are “innovations.” I believe fundamentally that no rituals, except for the primary and legislatively mandated rituals, have authenticity, and all “traditional” rituals in their time were innovations. My critique is also not that the emergence of new popular rituals distances people from “true Shiism” or “pure Shiism” because I fundamentally do not subscribe to the existence of a concept called “true” or “pure” religion, nor do I believe in the possibility of access to it. Religious practices and, by extension, secondary religious rituals are inherently human and cultural constructs. The obsession with purity and authenticity regarding human culture is a raw deal.

So what is my criticism of Ritual Inflation?

First: The Transformation of Rituals into Tools of Political Power

Rituals have always been coveted by political powers due to their high potential for emotional mobilization and mass participation, especially in religious or self-proclaimed religious governments. This context, as previously mentioned, has led to governments and those in power being recorded as a category of founders and promoters of rituals (secondary). Numerous examples, both in contemporary history and before, can be cited where Shia rituals, particularly the mourning of Ashura, have been turned into tools in the hands of the ruling authorities for political purposes. In the recent years of expanding Shia organizations and ritual inflation, the footprint of the political system’s will is quite evident. Although, on the surface, this is welcomed by many clerics and Shia movements who consider it synonymous with the spread of Shiaism, in reality, it will ultimately harm the Shia community as a whole.

Second: The Inflation of Rituals and the Imbalance Among Different Dimensions of Religiousness

Various research in the field of religion in recent years also indicates that indices such as religious ethics (honesty, trustworthiness, etc.), religious beliefs (belief in the unseen, belief in the afterlife, etc.), and even adherence to formal rituals like prayer and fasting have experienced a declining trend, while secondary rituals are on the rise. In other words, although rituals have grown, it cannot be claimed that all dimensions of religiosity have grown in parallel. Religion can effectively fulfill its role when all its dimensions grow in balance. The increasing concentration of rituals in religiosity, along with the dilution of religious and ethical dimensions, is detrimental to the effectiveness of religion. The continuation of this trend produces not the “religious individual” but merely the “ritual performer.” When rituals become an end in themselves, rather than serving a greater purpose, they lose their effectiveness. While rituals can have various functions for society and are very useful in this regard, inflated and non-evolving rituals reduce them to mere leisure and entertainment. Such rituals are no longer serving the community.

Third: Intensification of Identity-Based Approaches and Sectarian Divisions

For me, the fundamental concern is the preservation of society. So, hypothetically, if these new rituals contribute to the preservation of society, the improvement of interpersonal relationships, enhancing citizens’ lives, and other goals we expect from religion, I have no objections. However, my analysis of the trend of Shi’a ritual inflation suggests that this trend is leading to the intensification of sectarian identity and division. This path will lead to the production of religious violence. Its signs are quite evident in the religious gatherings in recent years: highlighting historical differences with Sunni Muslims, the development of literature and rituals that involve cursing Sunni figures, widespread growth of extremism and fanatical literature in religious gatherings, and the emergence of the Shia Takfiri movement. The expansion of shrines and holy sites, the increase in the population attending religious gatherings, the high consumption of religious and media products among Shi’as such as religious satellite networks, and the inflation of rituals may all seem like signs of the growth of Shi’a Islam on the surface. However, that is not the whole story. The warning I have been trying to convey for several years is that the end of the path of sectarian growth within Shi’a Islam and the strengthening of Shi’a identity ultimately leads to bloodshed, war, societal sacrifice, and human death.


  1. Source: (published July 2019)