For all the glee in certain segments of the West over the death of Qassim Suleimani, in Iran his demise was almost universally met with tears — whether it be a member of the public, the military or the government. The best example might have been on Iranian state TV when a senior Revolutionary Guard officer wept so intensely that the host, also with tears in his eyes, had to console him. Tears even spilled from the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who through sobs, vowed to seek revenge for Suleimani’s killing in a public address. Meanwhile, in Qoms, Iran’s holiest city, religious clerics held a day-long mourning ceremony, in which groups of men loudly wailed and sometimes hit themselves on their heads and legs.
This, of course, spurred even more glee among the American right, which saw it as yet another example of Iranian weakness.
It fits the larger Western narrative about politicians who cry — that they’re either inauthentic, weak, or both. Conservatives famously mocked Barack Obama when he publicly shed tears for the victims of Sandy Hook, and the same thing happened last year when British Prime Minister Theresa May was forced to step down and cried during her resignation speech.
In Iran, however, crying has the exact opposite effect. There, it’s often used by men running for office to either win election or rank more favorably in the Supreme Leader’s eyes. “Since the Islamic Revolution, crying has been one of the pillars of Iran’s domestic and foreign policy,” the pseudonymous Iranian blogger Kodan-e Ba Estedad writes in Farsi. “The leader who cries shows his thankfulness for God’s mercy.”
Public processions where protesters collectively mourned were common during the 1979 revolution, which historian Ervand Abrahamian notes was a way of mobilizing against the “tyranny” of the Shah’s police and army. More recently, during the 2014 elections, Mohammad Reza Aref, who served as vice president under Mohammad Khatami, put out campaign material that featured him crying about the victims of Iran’s drug crisis. Even Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, was known to frequently cry in public addresses, as well as in private meetings with his closest advisors and colleagues.
To understand the role of crying in Iran, you first have to understand Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar. Specifically, you have to understand the day of Ashura — the heart and soul of Shia Islam. For Shias, the predominant sect in Iran, Ashura commemorates the death in 680 A.D. of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed who died in battle against Yazid, leader of the Umayyad army that controlled the land that is today Syria and Iraq. The event itself was contentious for political reasons as many felt that Yazid was an illegitimate Islamic ruler, and that the successor of the Prophet should have been a member of his family. The battle, which took place in Karbala, Iraq, was brutal and culminated in Yazid’s army slaughtering Husayn’s extended family, including infants.
It’s considered among the greatest tragedies in Islamic history, and Shias around the world carry out public mourning ceremonies — complete with long periods of crying, recitation of prayers, and in some countries, self-flagellation with blades and extraordinary amounts of blood — to commemorate it.
The Muharram story is also foundational to the Islamic Republic, which, upon its founding, fashioned itself as the global authority on Shia Islam. During the revolution, some compared Khomeini to Husayn Ibn Ali — a devout, stoic man standing up to the modern-day Yazid (in this case, the Western-backed Shah). Ever since, the government has invested millions in funding pilgrimages to Karbala and maintaining Shia holy sites (such as the Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque in Damascus). Similarly, there are programs that sponsor poets and orators who tell the story of the Battle of Karbala, and in 2016, an Iranian-backed international network of TV stations called Imam Hussein TV debuted that broadcast religious recitations from Qoms to the Western world.
With that in mind, it’s not surprising that, in the aftermath of Suleimani’s death, paintings depicting the general being embraced by Husayn ibn Ali in Karbala went around social media:
Personally speaking, I grew up in a Shia family and attended numerous Ashura mourning ceremonies with my father. It was the only time I can remember, other than when my grandmother died, that he shed tears. As the imam recited the story of Husayn ibn Ali in Arabic and Urdu, my father would sit on the floor, huddled between hundreds of other men, and hunch his back and cover his eyes, possibly out of embarrassment that I might see him cry.
Years later, when I asked him whether it was the stories of Husayn that had brought him to tears, he admitted that it was more of an opportunity to actually weep, as well Ashura’s general themes (sacrifice, death, the fear of failure and the pain of losing a child) that got to him. My dad saw many of his own struggles in Husayn’s story, whether that was the fear of failing my grandparents or when he almost lost me during childbirth — events, too, that he’s still hesitant to talk about, let alone openly grieve. In that way, the mourning ceremonies provided a rare, intimate space in which men like him, who carry around with them a certain amount of pain, sadness and trauma, can cry without feeling judged or ashamed.
This, then, is all rolled into a religious and political context, too. In religious school, for example, I was told that crying during Muharram would both bring me closer to God and reap its own rewards in the afterlife. “There are angels who watch [the ceremonies] and collect our tears,” I remember one teacher telling me. “The amount of tears you shed are a reflection of how pure you are.” And particularly in Iran, Muharram is often invoked to affirm the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic (as well as its citizens loyalty to it), which likes to cast itself as Husayn ibn Ali against a new generation of Umayyads: the U.S.
So the tears are far from a source of weakness. If anything, they’re a mark of fierce devotion.