Ali Khamenei’s feted annual meeting with Shia eulogists was held via videoconference this year. In his speech the Supreme Leader stressed the important role of these religious singers, calling them a "special and unique phenomenon". Khamenei also criticized what he called the “distortion” of Islamic literature in some media and online, urging the eulogists to "educate the people."
These eulogists have gone from having a marginal and insignificant role in the country to becoming heroes of the battlefield under Khamenei's leadership. But how, and why?
A Modest History
The group of eulogists known as Madah or Pamanbari first emerged after the Safavid period ended in 1736. For 200 years these singers played only a marginal role in Iranian public life and operated under the supervision of the clergy.
At public meetings, usually after the main topic addressed by the cleric, a eulogist would sit at the bottom of the pulpit and offer a side performance for a few minutes. Traditional clerics did not give the eulogists an official status and sometimes even rebuked them for exaggeration, bombast or unsubstantiated remarks. There are many examples of written works by clerics refuting the claims of eulogists, one of which is The Hossein Epic by Morteza Motahhari, a prominent disciple of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
But for the past 25 years the eulogists have become far more powerful – sometimes even more so than the clergy. Ayatollah Khamenei has consciously elevated them for his own specific reasons.
Khamenei Builds a Network
Khamenei has met Shia eulogists annually ever since he became president of Iran in 1981. The meetings have always taken place on the birthday of Fatemeh, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, was not particularly interested in the eulogists in line with the traditional clergy, and a cleric named Mohammad Kowsari performed instead of a eulogist in his presence.
Kowsari was also present for the first year of Ali Khamenei's leadership, and until the second half of the 1990s, more traditional eulogists performed a relatively low-key program. But since the late 1990s Khamenei changed his approach, and the eulogists have become an efficient network with his design, guidance and money.
Khamenei's new plan has been a lucrative one for both himself and the eulogists: the latter have achieved wealth, fame and authority, and most importantly, placed themselves above the clergy. In the new set-up, only one person has to be kept satisfied.
The network of eulogists provides at least three concrete benefits for Khamenei. Firstly, unlike his predecessor Khomeini, the current Supreme Leader did not have a prestigious position in the seminary or among traditional clerics, and his religious authority was never taken seriously. He freed himself from the need for a seminary to gain religious authority with by networking instead with eulogists, alongside other activities.
Secondly, eulogists armed with clubs came in handy in silencing the voices of Khamenei’s critics – especially since these eulogists often associate with groups of thugs. In recent years eulogists and their accomplices repeatedly attacked the homes of regime critics such as the late writer and human rights activist Hossein-Ali Montazeri and the late politician Yousef Sanei, and even clerics who sometimes do not follow Khamenei's orders, such as Musa Shobiri Zanjani and Abdollah Javadi-Amoli.
Finally, the eulogists promote superstition in all parts of the country and mobilize the public to support Khamenei.
Impunity for Bad Behavior
The eulogists who have performed in Khamenei's special ceremonies in recent years have undisputed power in the Iranian political arena and have absolute judicial immunity to say anything.
Eulogists such as Mansour Arzi, Mahmoud Karimi, Saeed Hadadian and Meysam Motiei have been allowed to swear at the president recklessly, take up arms in the streets, explicitly compare political factions with religious stories, and turn their supporters against particular people or groups.
Eulogists have also been accused of desecrating traditional religious music, accumulating wealth for themselves and living very differently in private to in public. They have also made headlines from time to time – such as when Mansour Arzi's obscenities against elderly religious leader Nasser Makarem Shirazi were published.
Eulogist Mahmoud Karimi made headlines in 2013 when he fired a gun in the street during an argument after a car accident, and of course the story ended in his favor.
Three years ago Meysam Motiei, a eulogist close to Khamenei, reciting poetry during the Eid al-Fitr prayers and being sarcastic about President Hassan Rouhani provoked dismay, but Motiei’s associates said Khamenei praised him in private meetings.