Four decades on from the 1979 Islamic Revolution, very few old Iranian traditions and symbols have escaped the Islamic Republic’s ridicule and hostility. From an unsuccessful attempt to destroy Persepolis to waging a war of profanities against historical and mythological Iranian heroes, Islamic Republic's leaders have been consistent in their attacks on Persian heritage. Nevertheless, these leaders' assault on the traditions and celebrations of Nowruz, as the Iranian new year is called, has been the regime's most ferocious, blatant and long-lasting attack on Iranian culture.
Khomeini Against Nowruz
Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, never concealed his disdain for Nowruz. “I ask all of those who have rituals for what they call Nowruz to tone it down this year,” he said in a speech in March 1981, not mincing his words.
His attacks on Nowruz and other historic Iranian traditions, however, started before the Islamic Revolution. The Shah and his regime “wanted to turn the page back to the time before the Exalted Prophet, to the time of so many murderous fire-worshipping kings and to behave the same way,” he said while he was in exile in Neauphle-le-Château, a suburb of Paris, shortly before the Revolution, using the pejorative term “fire-worshipping” to refer to Zoroastrianism, the dominant religion in Iran before Islam. He then went on to disparage all ancient Iranian traditions and rituals.
In the years following the revolution, Khomeini had no choice but to deliver public messages marking Nowruz but, without exception, each time he also cited other Islamic religious occasions that fell close to Nowruz. (The Islamic calendar, unlike the Iranian one, is lunar, so Shia religious occasions fall on different days on the Iranian solar calendar.)
“It is because of these two Islamic holidays that I congratulate everybody for Nowruz”, he said in 1987, referring to the birthday of Ali, the first Shia imam, and to the day when the Prophet Mohammad received his first revelation from god.
In 1988 he issued a message of congratulations only because Nowruz coincided with the birthday of Hossein, the third Shia Imam. His message was essentially all about Imam Hossein’s birthday. The same happened in 1989 when the birthday of the Shia Twelfth Imam fell around Nowruz time.
Khamenei and Nowruz
Ali Khamenei, Khomeini’s successor as the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, has disparaged Nowruz numerous times and also called for the Islamification of the occasion. Nowruz means “new day” in Persian and on the first day of the Iranian new year on March 21, 1998, he said that “the ‘new day’ in ‘ancient Nowruz’ is good but the ‘ancient’ part is bad.” In the same speech he said that Islam has retained various older traditions in form but has changed their content and the spirit of how they are marked, and said it is necessary to do the same with Nowruz.
In the last few centuries, Iranian clerics who celebrated Nowruz have always cited an anecdote attributed to Jafar al-Sadiq, the sixth Shia Imam. In the anecdote, the imam had reminded a pupil of his about “Niruz”, an Arabic pronunciation of Nowruz. But in his speech Khamenei said that Imam Jafar al-Sadiq had meant “new day” in general, not Nowruz in particular.
This different interpretation is significant because it shows that, unlike the clerical leaders before them, the two Supreme Leaders of the Islamic Republic have refused to coexist with Iranian traditions or even to justify them by citing a Shia imam. They have broadcast their opposition to Iranian traditions loud and clear and have not tried to conceal it.
In another speech delivered on the first day of the new Iranian new year on March 21, 2015, Khamenei announced that the “ancient Nowruz” was for absolute kings but the “Muslim Iranians” had changed the meaning to their liking. In both speeches, Khamenei praised people who visit religious sites on the first day of the new year, and ridiculed those who chose to go to Persepolis, the seat of the ancient Persian kings.
The Clerics and Nowruz
In recent centuries Shia clerics in Iran had opted for a peaceful coexistence with Nowruz and even if they were not enthusiastic defenders of Nowruz, at least they did not disparage it. But after the Islamic Revolution it all changed, giving clergymen who supported the Islamic Republic an opportunity to unsheathe their swords to fight against Iranian traditions.
One of the most famous attacks on Nowruz ceremonies came from Morteza Motahari, an influential ideologue of the Islamic Republic, who was assassinated shortly after the revolution in 1979 by an extremist, anti-clerical militant Shia group. He attacked Nowruz directly in his writing and during ceremonies and festivities associated with the celebration: Chaharshanbe Suri (“Red Wednesday” or “Festive Wednesday”), a festival celebrated on the eve of the last Wednesday before Nowruz, when people light bonfires and jump over them; Haft-seen, an arrangement of seven symbolic items the names of which start with the letter “S”; Sizdah Be-Dar (“Outdoor Thirteen”), the 13th day of the new year and the last day of the new year holiday, when people picnic outdoors and throw the greens that they have grown for Nowruz into water to fend off the bad luck that the 13th day might bring. Motahari condemned these rituals and festivities as superstitions and labeled them “shameful”.
In 2002, Tehran’s Friday Imam Ahmad Khatami accused Nowruz enthusiasts of wanting to celebrate 2,500 years of Persian Empire, as the last Shah had done in 1971.
Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi, another religious authority, has in recent years repeatedly criticized Chaharshanbe Suri and Sizdah Be-Dar, condemning the celebrations as “superstitions”. This happens to be the same term that he uses to dismiss the Holocaust.
Other clerics have also used the terms “superstition” and “fire worship” in their official communications, but when they speak about Nowruz, they deploy a more aggressive tone. Last year, a cleric named Mohammad Mohsen Hosseini Tehrani posted a a video in which he said: “Nowruz is fit for the bovines and the donkeys”. He died in 2019, but not before publishing a book condemning Nowruz.
The War against Everything Iranian
The war the Islamic Republic has waged against Iran’s history, traditions and rituals is not limited to Nowruz. It covers almost anything Iranian, especially if it has its roots in pre-Islamic Iran.
Kaveh the Blacksmith, a 5000-year-old figure in Iranian mythology, is known for leading a popular uprising against a ruthless foreign ruler. When a statue of the mythological figure was erected in Isfahan, it enraged the clergy, including Ahmad Jannati, the secretary of the Guardian Council, who publicly called for it to be destroyed.
Babak Khorramdin, the 9th-century leader of an uprising in Iran against the Abbasid Caliphate, has been condemned by all clerics who support the Islamic Republic. Every year ceremonies to commemorate him are either banned or security agents harass people taking part because, according to Grand Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpayegani, these people “promote his ideas and defending them is the same as promoting the profane and enmity against Islam.” He also demanded: “Wasting public and private money to promote his name and his memory is forbidden and authorities must put a stop to it.”
When a statue of Ariobarzanes, an Achaemenid prince who led a last stand of the Persian army at the Battle of the Persian Gate against Alexander the Great in 330 BC, was erected in the city of Yasuj, the capital of Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad province, it met with a ferocious response from the officials of the Islamic Republic and the province commander for the Revolutionary Guards. Eventually, in late 2018, the statue was burned down by what was described as “unknown culprits”.
In 2011, a 5,000-square-meter mural in Mashhad depicting scenes from the Book of Kings, the Iranian national epic composed by Ferdowsi more than a thousand years ago, was wiped off under the cover of night. And in Sari, the provincial capital of Mazandaran, an equestrian statue of Arash the Archer, a mythological Iranian, was removed from a public square and destroyed.
The list goes on and on, but why? For what reasons are the clergy hostile toward Iranian history and Iranian traditions? Two of the reasons given for this animosity seem the most germane.
The first is that, even more than 13 centuries after the Arab invasion of Iran, clerics still see Iran and Iranian traditions and symbols as enemies of Islam.
The second reason concerns the sociology of power. In the four decades since they grabbed power in Iran, the clergy has had no compunction about ruthlessly suppressing anybody or anything that they see as being against the Islamic Republic — or even competing with their view of the world.
This has even extended to Iranian music. “Since music has always been popular among the people and has had numerous fans, the clergy and the mullahs want to turn this popularity towards themselves,” said Mohammad Reza Shajarian, the master of Iranian traditional music who was highly revered and who died in 2020. “They noticed that music grabs total attention, leaving them deprived of any, so they declared that music was forbidden. Over the last 1,000 years or so, it has been religion alone that has stopped music from growing because the clergy views music as a rival and wants to drive it off the stage.”