Theater State and the Formation of Early Modern Public Sphere in Iran

Studies on Safavid Muharram Rituals, 1590-1641 CE

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During the Safavid period, the Shi'i Muharram commemorative rites which had been publically practiced since the 7th century, became a manifestation of state power. Already during the reign of Shah 'Abbas I (1587-1629) the Muharram rituals had transformed into an extraordinary rich repertoire of ceremonies and ceremonial spaces that can be defined as 'theater state'. Under Shah Safi I (1629-1642) these ceremonies ultimately led to carnivalesque celebrations of misrule and transgression.
This first systematic study of a wide range of Persian and European archival and primary sources, analyzes how the Muharram rites changed from being an originally devotional practice to an ambiguous ritualization that in combination with other public arenas, such as the bazaar, coffeehouses or travel lodges, created distinct spaces of communication whereby the widening gap between state and society gave way to the formation of the early Iranian public sphere. Ultimately, the Muharram public spaces allowed for a shift in individual and collective identities, opening the way to multifaceted living fields of interaction, as well as being sites of contestation where innovative expressions of politics were made. In particular, the construction of the new Isfahan in 1590 is linked with the widespread proliferation of the Muharram mortuary rites by discussing rituals performed in major urban spaces.

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Biographical Note

Babak Rahimi, Ph.D. (2004) in cultural and historical sociology, European University Institute, is assistant Professor of Iranian and Islamic Studies at the University of California, San Diego. He has published cultural and historical studies on early modern and contemporary Iran.

Review Quotes

" Theater-State and the Formation of Early Modern Public Sphere in Iran is the most original study in the social anthropology of Iran known to me. It is a detailed study of ritual in seventeenth-century Iran with a masterful analytical discussion of sociological and literary theory that brings out its broad significance for all students of comparative cultural studies."
Said Amir Arjomand, Distinguished Service Professor of Sociology, Director of the Institute for Global Studies at Stony Brook and Editor of the Journal of Persianate Studies

Readership

All those interested in Iranian and Middle Eastern history, anthroplogy, cultural studies, historical sociology and political theory.

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