On 7 January, four days after being assassinated in a United States drone strike in Iraq, military commander General Qassem Suleimani was set to be laid to rest in his hometown of Kerman having performed his final service to Iran – that of “purifying, healing and spiritually nourishing” the country and its people.

Hundreds of thousands of mourners turned out for Suleimani’s burial, adding to the estimated millions that had already packed the streets in Iran and Iraq, and resulting in a crush that killed more than 50 people and led to the burial being postponed. 

To fully understand the significance to Iranians of Suleimani’s assassination – and the consequences expected to ensue – it is necessary to understand the significance of martyrdom in Iran.

Imami or Twelver (ithna ‘ashari) Shiites in Iran differ from the global Sunni majority in two important respects: the centrality of the family of the Prophet Muhammad and of martyrdom.

The notions of martyrdom and victimisation link back to Ali ibn Abi Taleb, the fourth Rightly Guided Caliph and first Shia Imam. Shia Muslims believe Ali, Prophet Muhammed’s cousin and son-in-law, lost his position as designated successor to Abu Bakr, the Prophet’s long-time companion. For Shia, this event set in motion a history of victimisation, as reflected in the martyrdom of Ali and his sons, Hassan and Husayn, as well as every other Imam, except the twelfth, who is believed to have gone into occultation before he could be killed.

Sea of mourners

In her study of the commemoration of martyrs from the 1980–88 war between Iran and Iraq, anthropologist Rose Wellman shows that through the act of martyrdom the “blood and bodies of martyrs are considered purifying, healing and spiritually nourishing to the citizens, the land, and the territory of the Islamic Republic”.

Suleimani’s assassination earned him his martyrdom with honour. The sea of mourners in the cities of Ahvas, Mashhad, Tehran, Qum and Kerman support the notion that he has, like the Shia Imams, been unjustly killed. Moreover, the ritualisation of Suleimani’s funeral places his martyrdom in the service of Iran and its people.

Evident is sociologist Émile Durkheim’s notion of the relationship between ritual and group cohesion. An official Iranian spokesman said, “the unity and solidarity that the enemy may have targeted have been greatly enhanced by the blood of Martyr Soleimani”.

Suleimani’s funeral processions in the various cities, in each of which huge crowds of men, women and children came together with banners and slogans in support of their hero-martyr, and by extension the state, contrast with the November 2019 anti-regime demonstrations in Iran. Already suffering from renewed US sanctions on oil sales since May 2018, a significant overnight increase in gas prices sent thousands of Iranians into the street. The state brutally suppressed the protests, leading to more than 300 deaths according to Amnesty International. Soleimani’s funeral ritual transcended this social upheaval to present a nation in mourning.

Journey from Baghdad to Kerman

The funeral started in Iraq with a procession through the streets of Baghdad and a visit to the Shia shrine cities of Karbala and Najaf. In Iran, Suleiman’s remains, along with those of five other members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and that of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a commander of the Hashd al-Sha’abi or Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, were met by thousands of mourners in the southwestern city of Ahvaz. From there, the procession moved to the north-eastern city of Mashhad, which hosts the shrine of the revered Imam Reza, the eighth Imam.

Shia biographies have it that Imam Reza was poisoned at the directive of the seventh Abbasid Caliph, Abu al-Abbas Abdallah ibn Harun al-Rashid, better known as Ma’mun. Ma’mun’s betrayal resonates strongly with Iranians, as seen in President Rouhani’s reference, during his visit to Suliemani’s family, to the CIA-engineered Iranian coup of 1953, and the downing of an Iranian passenger plane by the US navy in 1988.

On 6 January, the funeral procession moved to the Iranian capital, Tehran, where, accompanied by leaders representing various centres of power, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei prayed over Suleimani’s body at Tehran University. Next, before reaching Suleimani’s final resting place, the procession moved south to the city of Qum, the centre for Shia Islam in Iran. Here, the coffin was walked around the Fatima Masoumeh shrine, where Imam Reza’s sister is buried.

In this journey from Baghdad to Kerman, Suleimani’s funeral procession has sacralised and strengthened a country in the face of a challenging future. Not, presumably, the Americans’ aim.

Dr Hanlie Booysen is a Lecturer in the Religious Studies programme at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington.

Leave a comment