Ashura is the tenth day of the month of Muharram. On that day- in the year 61 of the Muslim calendar (680 AD), Hussein, the beloved grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was brutally put to death, together with seventy-two of his male companions, including his sons and brothers. This massacre took place at Karbalah in present-day Iraq. For the Shi’is, Hussein’s passion and death are considered the greatest suffering in human history. This ultimate example of sacrifice is the cornerstone of Shi’i faith and culture.
Scores of rituals devoted to Ashura have developed during the last thirteen centuries, especially in Iran where Twelver Shi’ism became the state religion in the sixteenth century. Many of these rituals were used as the catalysts for mass mobilization during the bloody eight-year war imposed on Iran by Iraq (1980-88) in which Khosrow Hassanzadeh served as a volunteer. A series of his paintings entitled Ashura is devoted to Hussein’s sister, Zaynab, and her female companions. Zaynab was a charismatic leader among the extraordinary group of women at Karbalah. As the daughter of Fatimeh and ‘Ali, a granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad and the full sister of Hussein, she is entitled to be regarded with the respect due to a matriarch. Her devotion to her brother knew no bounds. She served as the model and icon for all Iranian women as hundreds of thousands of their husbands, brothers and sons died in the war against Iraq.
Paintings devoted to Ashura play a very important role in Islamic art history because they defy Islamic taboos and restrictions concerning figural representation of the holy personalities. Large-scale paintings on walls and canvases depicting Ashura and other aspects of Shi’i martyrology are referred to as ‘naïve’, ‘folk’ or ‘coffeehouse’ painting. They are a reflection of the Ashura passion plays called ta’ ziyeh. In ta’ziyeh, roles of women are performed by male actors who hide behind head-to-toe costumes and veils. Hassanzadeh’s Ashura women follow that tradition, with some variations. In ta’ziyeh performances and painting, women’s clothes black; in Hassanzadeh’s works, the women’s gar are range from white to multicoloured to black with symbents appliques. All of the women in the Ashur° series app°11c before backgrounds inscribed with Persian or Arabic calligraphy, some instances of which are verses fro the Qur’an, some invoking the heroes of Ashura , some prayers of petition and some texts connected with the Shi’i equivalent of Pilgrim’s Progress. This follows the tradition of decorating the walls of takiyehs or husseiniyehs — places where various Shi’i rituals are enacted — with canvases covered with calligraphy.
The most outstanding painting in the series is that of a white-shrouded female whose head and upper body are encompassed by an angel straight out of a Timurid or Safavid Persian miniature. Another painting represents the silhouette of a woman against a colourful background inscribed with Qur’anic verses. The silhouette contains an image of a mounted horseman who resembles the Iranian legendary hero Shiavash, thus connecting Ashura with the pre-Islamic Iranian tradition. Hassanzadeh’s Ashura series is a fine tribute not only to Zaynab but also to every generation of Iranian women.