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Stamps of the Fallen (Part 1)

On Martyrs, Nations, and Postage Stamps


Adam Gaiser and James Riggan


This is the first installment of a two-part essay. The second part will be published here on Mizan in two weeks.

All of the figures in this piece are images of stamps from the personal collection of Adam Gaiser. To see a full listing of the figures with detailed catalogue information about the stamps and high-resolution images, click here.

Introduction

Martyrs pervade the public discourse and landscape of contemporary Iran. Whether it is ever-present references to the Karbala narrative, the massive cemeteries honoring the memory of the fallen from the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, or the provincial shrines that dot the countryside, martyrs have been woven into the fabric of Iranian national culture in a way that many non-Iranians find puzzling, or even perverse. Indeed, a 1984 New York Times Magazine article proclaims the Islamic Republic of Iran “obsessed with martyrdom,”1 and U.S. policy makers worry that Iran might be a “martyr state”2 or a “martyrdom machine.”3 To these observers, Iran’s persistent fixation with martyrdom possesses the allure of a horror movie: frightening, yet irresistible. Yet beyond the sensationalism of journalism and the oracular foreboding of policy wonks, the extent to which the Islamic Republic of Iran has incorporated the theme of martyrdom into its national narrative remains noteworthy in comparison to other nation-states. Moreover, a not-insignificant portion of the Iranian public appears to have accepted the martyrs as part and parcel of “their” national story.

Several recent studies have explored the Islamic Republic’s use of martyrdom and the martyrs.4 This essay will add to this growing body of literature by investigating how martyrs appear in the postage stamps of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Postage stamps offer a unique view on the topic of the Iranian martyrs. Stamps are official tax receipts that are produced by the state through its postal service; although a postage stamp is not required to show anything more than the issuing entity and the value of the stamp, they usually include various symbols, images, and messages, indicating the issuer’s intent to express meaning to the receiver. Stamps from Iran thus reflect the messages that the Islamic Republic wishes to convey. Moreover, their dissemination over the entire geography of Iran (and indeed, beyond it), as well as among all classes of Iranian society, argues for the postage stamp’s potential for pervasive and popular effect.

A postage stamp, in other words, is an excellent example of what Billig called “banal nationalism”: a persistent reminder of nationhood and an inescapable conveyor of its symbols.5 And in this respect “the lowly postage stamp”6 speaks to what, in our opinion, drives much of the fascination with Iranian martyrdom: namely, that an old idea–martyrdom–has been deployed by a modern nation-state to seemingly general and widespread success. Postage stamps, as part of the nation-state’s institutional apparatus, contribute to this process.

In fact, martyrs and symbols alluding to martyrdom appear on a significant percentage of Iran’s stamps in any given year (see the table in the Appendix below). By our calculations, these stamps constitute 22% of the overall stamp output of the Islamic Republic’s postal service over their thirty-eight years of operation. The enormous presence of martyrs and themes of martyrdom, therefore, makes Iran’s postage stamps a uniquely compelling example of “banal nationalism” at work, and offers a glimpse into how Iran’s martyrs have become so interwoven into the fabric of Iranian society and state.7

This study will examine three aspects of how images of martyrs and the theme of martyrdom appear on the postage stamps of the Islamic Republic of Iran. First, after a brief excursus into the topics of martyrdom and Iranian nation building, we will contextualize Iran’s martyr stamps by considering older/other martyr stamps from several Muslim-majority countries, including the People’s Republic of Southern Yemen (PRSY), Bangladesh, and Iraq. Stamps from these countries show how the deployment of martyrs on stamps in the interests of nation-building is neither unique to Iran nor represents a uniquely “Islamic” project. Second, a rather more extended comparison with Iraq’s martyrdom stamps, focusing specifically on those stamps produced during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, will highlight the variety of ways that martyrdom stamps can be used to bolster different national narratives; Iraq’s martyrdom stamps emphasized the cult of Saddam Hussein’s personality, while those of Iran initially accentuated Khomeini’s wilāyat al-faqīh ideal. Finally, comparing Iran’s martyrdom stamps through the decades will show how the focal point of Iran’s nationalist narrative—at least on their stamps—shifts away from a heavy focus on wilāyat al-faqīh and toward Iranian military and government sacrifice for the nation. Put another way, over time the focus of Iranian martyr stamps moves from ʿulamāʾ to other kinds of citizens, betraying a subtle change away from the sacrifices of the ʿulamāʾ as the symbolic foundation of the nation and toward a kind of “laicizing” ideal that portrays the martyrdom of everyday citizens—especially military personnel—as the bedrock of the Islamic Republic.

Martyrdom, Nation Building, and the Islamic Republic of Iran

Generally speaking, the deployment of martyrs for the purpose of community building is nothing new. Scholars of Christianity in Late Antiquity have drawn considerable attention to how the early Christians established a community around themselves by remembering the collective suffering of their ascetics and martyrs.8 Scholars of early Islam have extended their insights to make sense of how early Muslim communities and their martyrdom narratives functioned in similar ways.9 Indeed, what Sizgorich says of how “the histories of local [Christian] communities flowed through the remembered deeds of holy personages, monks, martyrs, wonder workers and zealous defenders of the faith” can fruitfully be applied—as Sizgorich did—to the early Muslims.10 Probably the most famous of the early Muslim martyrdom narratives, and a focal point for the nascent Twelver Shi’i community especially, is that of the Battle of Karbala in 61/680.11 On their way to Kufa to lead a rebellion against the Umayyad caliph, the Prophet’s grandson al-Ḥusayn b. ʿAlī, his family, and a group of companions (generally agreed to be seventy-two in number), met the forces of the Umayyad Caliph Yazīd I, commanded by al-Ḥurr b. Yazīd al-Tamīnī, at a place outside of Kufa known as Karbala. During the battle on 10 Muḥarram (i.e. October 10, 680 CE) Ḥusayn and his companions were killed, Ḥusayn’s body decapitated, and the women taken prisoner to the Umayyad capital in Damascus. For Twelver Shi’ah, the Karbala tale became the martyrdom narrative par excellence, and a paradigm for other martyrdom stories. Its importance to the Shi’ah community can hardly be overstated.

Deployment of the Karbala narrative in the interest of an emerging nation-state could be said to begin with Kamāl al-Dīn Ḥusayn Wāʿiẓ Kāshifī’s 1502 Rawḍat al-shuhadāʾ (The Meadow of the Martyrs). Based on earlier works such as Saʿīd al-Dīn’s Rawḍat al-Islām (The Meadow of Islam) and al-Khawarizmī’s Maqtal nūr al-āʾimmah (Murder of the Light of the Imams), Kāshifī’s objective was to produce a distinctly Persian account to replace existing Arabic-language narratives. 12 He succeeded, and his work became canonical within the Persian tradition in part because the Safavid political elite monopolized the Rawḍat al-shuhadāʾ (as well as the public sermons, known as rowẓeh-khānī, that were based upon it) as the basis of the distinctly Shi’i rituals that bolstered their religious legitimacy and demarcated their state from the Uzbeks to the east and the Ottomans to the west.13

In the Qajar period, the Karbala narrative became a site of contestation insofar as its public and dramatic recreation, known as taʿziyeh, was patronized by both state and social elites. Lacking the religious legitimacy of the Safavids, the Qajars patronized taʿziyeh performances to legitimate their rule.14 However, the Iranian-Shi’i ʿulamāʾ also patronized these rituals, thereby contesting the authority of the Qajar elites to use the Karbala narrative as an effective method for social and political legitimation.15 In this way, Qajar-era deployments of the Karbala narrative continued to play an important role in the creation, maintenance, and re-creation of the Shi’i socio-political order in Iran.

The Pahlavi period witnessed an exacerbation of the divisions between religious and political elites in Iran, eventually resulting in the violent overthrow of the monarchy in the 1979 Iranian revolution. For their part, the Pahlavi regime remained largely uninterested in the Karbala story: although Reza Shah Pahlavi openly supported Muḥarram rituals at the outset of his rule, he later banned them altogether. His son Mohammed Reza Shah followed suit, stressing either a “Western” identity associated with technological modernization or a pre-Islamic royal identity associated with the Persian kings of the past (figures 1 and 2, below). In general, Mohammed Reza Shah associated the Karbala narrative, along with other aspects of Iranian “Islamic” identity, with cultural backwardness.

Given the Pahlavi denigration of Muḥarram, it is perhaps unsurprising that mobilizations of the Karbala narrative and the use of the theme of martyrdom generally played a central role in solidifying resistance to the Pahlavi regime—a fact that speaks to the continuing importance of martyrdom narratives in fashioning community identities. Several high-ranking Iranian religious scholars and secular academics contributed to the articulation of an activist understanding of the Karbala story, just as many of them participated in the Islamic revolution that brought down the Shah. Their conceptualizations of martyrdom lay the groundwork for the strong connection between the martyrs and the future Islamic Republic (and thereby, to the widespread appearance of martyrs on Iranian stamps).

Thus, for example, Ayatollah Maḥmūd Ṭāliqānī (1910-1979) (figure 3, right), a politically active ʿālim, provided the qurʾānic justification for the revolutionary reinterpretation of Islam and the Karbala narrative.16 He interpreted al-Ḥusayn’s speech to the people of Kufa as a reiteration of a covenant which, when honored, signaled social maturity.17 Ṭāliqānī drew upon Qurʾān 4:7618 to posit a basic dichotomy in the world between “the ones who believe and therefore strive in the way of God, and the ones who disbelieve and strive in the way of false gods (ṭāghūt).”19 Striving in the way of God (i.e. jihād fī sabīl Allāh) was associated with the good in the broadest possible sense, but Ṭāliqānī’s language specifically emphasized justice and liberty in contrast to the oppression and “trampling” of social limits by the followers of ṭāghūt.20 In order to succeed in this struggle, barriers to social mobilization of the masses needed to be removed. For Ṭāliqānī, this was the role of the martyr, whose “spirit is life-giving and uplifting” and whose boiling blood gave life to “dead bloods.”21 Of course, if social revolution was necessary to remove the socially oppressive government of ṭāghūt, a just government was implied as its successor. The role of leadership fell on the shoulders of the ʿulamāʾ, for “government belongs to God, the Apostle, and the Imam. After the Imam it is the mujtahid and then the masses of Muslims who are all the executive power of divine law.”22 For Ṭāliqānī, then, governments not led by the ‘ūlamā’ were unjust governments that followed the way of tāghūt, against whom struggle—jihad—was unavoidable and necessary for all Muslims. And for this reason, the martyr galvanized Muslim society for revolution.

So too, Murtażā Muṭahharī (1920-1979) (figure 4, left), an ayatollah close to Khomeini and influential in drafting the constitution of the Islamic Republic, popularized a vision of Karbala that appealed to the masses. Incorporating Marxist strands of thought into his discourse and combing them with mainstream Shi’i theological doctrine, Muṭahharī outlined a dual meaning of Karbala: its dark side detailed the tragic events of Ḥusayn’s martyrdom, while its positive side led to a “glorious outcome, which in turn had direct relevance to contemporary social and political issues.”23 Within this framework, Muṭahharī altered the discourse of oppressed and oppressor, which he associated with the language of ṭāghūt, from one of social class to one of monotheistic belief. 24 Jihad was defined as an actively defensive war protecting freedom and the rights of humanity that inhered in monotheism. It was a “war fought for, not against, the freedom of humanity.”25 Moreover, Islam required monotheists to participate in jihad. The just society required two duties of its citizens: first, to finance the state; and second, to provide soldiers that sacrificed for the state.26 For Muṭahharī, the just society must be reinvigorated by the martyr,27 and led by an individual close to God.28 Martyrs were “the candles of society. They burn themselves out and illuminate society.” 29 For Muṭahharī, it was Ḥusayn, the prince of martyrs (sayyid al-shuhadā’), who embodied this ideal, and whose movement revitalized true Islam. For both Ṭāliqānī and Muṭahharī, their interpretation of jihad and martyrdom, refracted through their understanding of the Karbala narrative, pointed to the need for jihad as social reform, the duty of the martyr to mobilize society, and the lack of legitimate leadership in Iran. Thus, Muṭahharī opposed the use of Karbala symbols that did not “create a sense of heroism, sacrifice, and activist commitment to take one’s destiny in one’s own hands.”30

Likewise, ʿAlī Sharīʿatī (1933-1977) (figure 5, right), a leftist intellectual, offered a socialist-inflected reinterpretation of both Islam and the Karbala narrative that found traction among Iran’s intelligentsia. Sharīʿatī used the Karbala narrative to present a basic dichotomy between the oppressed, represented by Ḥusayn, and the oppressor, represented by Yazīd. His elaboration of the oppressed-oppressor dichotomy set this language in the activist terminology of fighting injustice. Abrahamic religions, and Islam in particular, were founded on a message that supported the “ordinary people against the powerful rulers of their time.”31 This message, in turn, created a responsibility for jihad so that the egalitarian society founded on justice could be realized. Jihad, within the “super-structure of the imamate,” negated “despotism, individual rule, aristocracy, oligarchy, and the dictatorship of an individual family, class, or race.”32 Karbala, for Sharīʿatī, was the archetype that connected past, present, and future struggles for equality. Ḥusayn himself was the ideal martyr, a concept that Sharīʿatī placed in a pan-Islamic and national framework.

In many ways, the activist elements of Iranian protest against the Shah found their culmination in the thought of Ayatollah Rūḥullāh Mūsavī Khumaynī (Khomeini) and the Iranian revolution of 1979-1980. In accordance with the dominant discourse of the opposition, Khomeini posited a basic dichotomy between oppressor and oppressed, between unbelief (kufr) and corrupt tyranny (ṭāghūt) and true Islam.33 Active revolution was necessary in order to liberate the oppressed and establish justice, thus making jihad “a duty that all Muslims must fulfill, in every one of the Muslim countries, in order to achieve the triumphant political revolution of Islam.”34 Martyrdom was the method that achieved the revolution, and it gave the martyrs a right to guide the nation. Khomeini, with his now famous doctrine of wilāyat al-faqīh, solved the (uniquely Twelver Shi’i) problem of the legitimate exercise of political authority in the absence of the Twelfth Imām by positing that by their nature, “law and social institutions require the existence of an executor,” and that the ʿulamāʾ were charged, as the heirs to the prophets and in the absence of the Imām, with the duty to lead the struggle against oppressors.35 This duty was placed on them by no less than the Lord of Martyrs, Ḥusayn. In addition to struggling against oppression, the fuqahāʾ were charged with establishing an Islamic government and implementing its laws.36

Khomeini brought the full implications of his Karbala discourse full circle by identifying the Shah’s regime with Ḥusayn’s killer, Yazīd b. Muʿāwiyah.37 The event of Imām Ḥusayn’s tragic death, a cause for weeping and contemplation in the work of Kāshifī, now signified a revolutionary ideology, and Ḥusayn became the model citizen of the Islamic Republic. He was, in words of Sharīʿatī, “the standard bearer” in the revolution for social reform that was jihad;38 his and his companions’ blood, according to Khomeini, ended “the tyrannical rule of Yazid,” just as the blood of the Islamic Republic’s martyrs “shattered the tyrannical monarchy of the Pahlavis.”39

Following Muṭahharī, the martyr created and re-created the nation through his sacrifice: “it is the shahīd [martyr] who infuses fresh blood into the veins of society.”40 When the martyr dies for the nation, he establishes a covenant between society and the martyr. For this reason, according to Khomeini, the martyrs possess a valid claim to guide the future direction of the nation that they created.41 The success of the Iranian revolution, followed by a gruesome and bloody eight-year conflict with Iraq, insured that this ideology of martyrdom became enshrined as an indispensable foundation of the Iranian state.

Martyrs on Postage Stamps: Three Examples

Given the relationship between martyrdom and the revolutionary movement that brought the Islamic Republic into being, it is perhaps unsurprising that martyrs immediately appeared on the new postage of the Islamic Republic, and continue to appear on them up to the present. Yet Iranian revolutionaries invented neither the postage stamp nor the concept of martyrdom; nor were they the first to combine the two. In fact, one of the first stamps to present the topic of martyrdom on stamps was the 1914 Ottoman stamp depicting the Martyrs of Liberty monument in Istanbul (figure 6, below). Thus, several possible precursors to and models for the Iranian postal service’s martyrdom stamps can be identified as a means to contextualize them.

In the interest of space, this section will focus on stamps coming from what Hodgson called “Islamdom,” specifically examining some martyrdom stamps of the People’s Republic of Southern Yemen (PRSY), Bangladesh, and, by way of comparison, Iraqi martyrdom stamps from the Saddam Hussein era.42 The stamps of Southern Yemen and Bangladesh present particularly good examples for comparison insofar as they were both issued by newly emerging nation-states, both of which possessed Muslim majorities. In addition, both countries issued their martyrdom stamps chronologically close to or contemporaneously with Iran’s martyrdom stamps. In the case of the PRSY, the stamps in question were issued a little over a decade before the Iranian revolution, while for Bangladesh, their 1991-2000 martyrdom stamps coincided with very similar stamps issued by Iran during the 1990s. Iraqi martyrdom stamps provide a contrast: Iraq was an already-established state (also with a Muslim majority), but the nationalism of the Saddam Hussein era focused on the cult of his personality, and Iraq’s postage stamps—including the martyrdom stamps—strongly reflect this concern in general.

In Yemen, the brief 1967 struggle between the Marxist para-military National Liberation Front (NLF, al-Jumhūriyyah al-Qawmiyyah) and its rivals, mainly the British army as well as the Arab Nationalist Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY), created a number of dead who were later claimed as martyrs by the newly created PRSY.43 Organized as a Marxist government with close ties to the Soviet Union, the PRSY built a martyr’s monument in Aden, established a “Martyr’s Day,” and issued postage stamps that commemorated the martyrs and the monument.

The association of martyrs with the creation of the PRSY was explicit: the first group of stamps issued by the PRSY in their first year of existence (1968) included a stamp commemorating “Revolution Day 14 October, 63” (figure 7, above left). The stamp depicts a mountainside in the Radfān region (near Dhala/al-Ḍāliʿ) where British troops attacked NLF affiliated groups during the “Aden emergency” of 1964. An arrow on the stamp indicates the specific place on the mountainside where the “first martyr fell.” This depiction unambiguously aligns the PRSY with its imagined “birthplace” in Radfān: the strong implication is that the NLF soldiers, transformed into martyrs through their conflict with the British, literally created the nation at the time and place indicated on the stamp. A 1988 stamp commemorating the “14th October Revolution’s Silver Jubilee” re-creates the visual of this 1968 stamp (figure 8, above right), preserving even the arrow indicating where the first martyr fell, and adding an upright NLF soldier on the stamp’s right.

In the second year of its existence, a 1969 PRSY collection of three stamps commemorated the Martyr’s Monument in Aden along with “Martyr’s Day” (figure 9, left). Anderson has shown how monuments help to “imagine” a nation.44 Like the earlier “Revolution Day” stamp, the PRSY’s “Martyr’s Day” stamp focuses attention on the “martyrs” of the nation by calling to mind the Martyr’s Monument. In a kind of second-order fashion, the stamps themselves participate in the production of Yemeni nationalism by pointing toward the physical Martyr’s Monument while simultaneously marking the day that the state set aside to officially honor their memory.

On the most general level, then, one point that can be made by comparing the PRSY stamps to those of Iran is that the alignment of martyrdom and nationalism is hardly novel in the Iranian case. Another point to be taken from the martyr stamps of the PRSY is that Marxist deployments of martyrdom in the interest of the state—not strictly “Islamic” ones—form the immediate background for the martyrdom stamps of Iran. It has already been noted how Muṭahharī and Sharīʿatī filled out their concepts of jihad and martyrdom with ideas (such as the oppressed/oppressor dichotomy) that resonated strongly with a Marxist worldview. Likewise, Abrahamian has argued that Marxist ideologies and symbols lived on in a “populist” guise in the Islamic Republic of Iran.45 And while the importance of Marxist ideology to the modern history of the Middle East is known among scholars, this insight often goes underappreciated outside of scholarly circles. Of course, this point should not be overstated: what makes the ideational geography of the Islamic Republic of Iran so unique is how many of its important intellectuals have harmonized and adapted Marxist/populist ideology to Shi’i Muslim thought. It should not come as a great surprise, then, if such synchronization appears on postage stamps.

A second example for martyrdom stamps hails from Bangladesh. Bangladeshi independence from Pakistan in 1971 also arrived with widespread violence, including the 1971 genocide that killed, according to some accounts, as many as three million Bangladeshis.46 In particular, the Pakistani army and its local militia supporters targeted pro-nationalist professionals—especially teachers, but also journalists, physicians, and lawyers, as well as some writers, artists, and engineers. The postal service of Bangladesh issued several stamps commemorating these victims as martyrs, but none of these issues rival the sustained and massive “Shaheed Intellectuals” series that commemorated the 20th anniversary of independence. All told, 152 stamps showing the busts of individual genocide victims—identified on the stamps as “shaheed” (martyrs)—were issued between 1991 and 2000 on sheets containing either ten or eight separate stamps per issue. The stamps are remarkably uniform: the busts of the fallen, colored in black, stare out from the stamp, while their names, years of life (all ending 1971), a line proclaiming them a “shaheed intellectual,” the stamp’s value, and “Bangladesh” frame their pictures in brown on three sides (figure 10, below).

The power of these stamps lies in their simplicity and their number: the photos appear un-retouched, giving them the everyday appearance of passport, yearbook, or simple job pictures. Their ordinariness creates an intimacy with the viewer, facilitating an easy identification with the person displayed in the stamp. And there are many of these stamps—so many that the faces and names become blurred and interchangeable. When the volume of these martyrdom stamps renders the experience of identifying with the individuals on the stamp impossible, it is precisely then that the full scale and senselessness of their murder is brought home to the viewer. As with the stamps of the PRSY, Bangladeshi martyrdom stamps provide context for those of the Islamic Republic of Iran, reminding scholars that Iranian martyrdom stamps sit alongside those of other Muslim-majority countries. Indeed, Iran issued several stamps in the mid-1990s that closely imitated the 1991-2000 Bangladeshi “Shaheed Intellectuals” stamps.

Lastly, and by way of comparison, the stamps of Iraq during the Saddam Hussein period—a period that covers much of the initial time frame covered by the Iranian stamps—offer a contrasting aesthetic to those of Iran. Iraqi stamps are unique in how they present a nationalism scarcely reliant on the martyr-memory-nation triad.

Instead, Iraqi stamps promoted the cult of Saddam Hussein’s personality, even on stamps ostensibly commemorating the martyrs. Iraq’s first martyr stamp in 1981 commemorated “Martyr’s Day” (yawm al-shahīd), December 1st, with an issue of three regular and three official (i.e. used for official government business) commemorative stamps (figure 11, right).

The stamp shows a war medal (possibly the Iraqi medal for bravery) at the top. In its middle, two doves hold up a banner that contains a quote from Saddam Hussein: “the martyrs are better than all of us” (al-shuhadāʾ akram minnā jamīʿan); the bottom of the stamp depicts a map of the Arabic-speaking Middle East/North Africa region sprouting three flowers. Saddam Hussein’s quote, then, forms the centerpiece of the stamp, which depicts no actual martyrs, not even in stylized form.

Martyr stamps that contain abstract forms, often including the above quote from Saddam Hussein, form something of a template for subsequent Martyr’s Day stamps from the 1980s. The first of the two issues that make up the 1984 Martyr’s Day series shows a stylized Iraqi martyrs’ monument in Baghdad, with Saddam Hussein’s quote and an Iraqi flag coming from inside the monument (figure 12a, below left). The second stamp in the same series has a female figure, standing in the clouds in front of a flag-draped coffin, holding up a Kalashnikov and offering a medal; above her head, a dove is engulfed in light (figure 12b, below right).

So too, the 1985 Martyr’s Day stamp depicts a stylized tree-becoming-person, with Saddam Hussein’s quote in the symbolic sun behind the emerging Iraqi flag (figure 13, below left). The 1988 Martyr’s Day stamp contains a hand, colored in the Iraqi colors, holding a candle. Within the circle of light is Saddam Hussein’s quote (figure 14, below center). The 1989 Martyr’s Day stamp contains no quote, but it does depict a stylized martyrs’ monument with doves and an Iraqi-flag road leading to a horizon and sun (figure 15, below right). None of these stamps, then, depict any actual martyrs, and only one contains a human form.

After the US-led first Gulf war against Iraq, Iraqi martyrdom stamps of the 1990s continued to offer abstract or stylized forms in preference to realistic or identifiable human forms (see figures 16, 17, and 18 below).

The singular exception to this rule is Iraq’s 2001 stamp and souvenir sheet from the series commemorating the ʿĀmiriyyah bombing. The stamp and the souvenir sheet show a mother holding her dead child in her arms; the devastated shelter forms a backdrop, along with a phrase declaring the “commemoration of the martyrs of the Mother of all Battles” (dhikrā shuhadāʾ Umm al-Maʿārik) (figure 19, below).

What these Iraqi martyrdom stamps have in common—with the exception of the 2001 series—is the consistent use of abstract forms and images (the Iraqi martyr’s monument is itself highly abstract), as well as the near omnipresent Saddam Hussein quote about the martyrs. Of course, the figure of Saddam Hussein appears ubiquitously on a significant portion of Iraqi stamps from this period: the reticence to show actual persons other than Saddam Hussein on Iraqi postage stamps speaks to the exclusive nature of the cult of his personality, as well as the extent to which Iraqi nationalism revolved around the figure of the leader. That this cult of personality bled into the postage of the Iraqi Republic is hardly surprising; however, when placed against Iranian martyrdom stamps from the same period, the stamps of Iraq provide a poignant contrast to those of Iran, where realistic caricatures of actual martyrs appeared on many of Iran’s martyrdom stamps.

Part 2 of this essay will be published here on Mizan in two weeks.

 

ADAM GAISER (Ph.D. 2005, University of Virginia, History of Religions) teaches courses in Islamic Studies at the Florida State University. His research mainly focuses on the early development of the Kharijites and Ibadiyyah.  His first book, Muslims, Scholars, Soldiers: The Origin and Elaboration of the Ibāḍī Imamate Traditions (Oxford, 2010) explores the issue of the Ibadi imamate, while his second, Shurāt Legends, Ibāḍī Identities: Martyrdom, Asceticism and the Making of an Early Islamic Community (University of South Carolina Press, 2016) investigates early Ibadi identifications with the Muḥakkimah and shurāt through the medium of martyrdom and asceticism literature.  He is currently working on an introduction to Muslim sectarianism (The Umma Divided: Muslim Sects and Schools, Cambridge, contracted).  Dr. Gaiser also teaches courses on Shi’ism, Islam in North America, Islamic law, the Prophet Muḥammad, and the Qur’ān.

JAMES RIGGAN is a Ph.D. candidate in the History and Ethnography of Religions at Florida State University. His primary area of expertise is Islam in North Africa, with a focus on qurʾānic healing (ruqyah sharʿiyyah). His research concerns the materiality of scripture; anthropological approaches to the study of Islam; and the relationship between medical systems and Islamic reform movements.

 

APPENDIX: Proportions of stamps featuring martyrs and themes pertaining to martyrdom issued by the Islamic Republic of Iran, 1979-2016

Here, “total stamps” indicates the number of all the stamps issued in a given year, including definitives, commemoratives, official stamps, airmail stamps, souvenir sheets, customized stamps, and semi-postal stamps, but excluding the overprinted definitive stamps from 1979 (the stamps themselves were issued by the Pahlavi government). The category of “martyrdom stamps” includes stamps depicting martyrs or symbols that evoke martyrdom such as those discussed in this article (revolutionary crowds, raised fists, blood, tulips, roses, or references to the Karbala narrative).

 

Notes

  1. John Kifner, “Iran: Obsessed with Martyrdom,” New York Times Magazine, December 16, 1984; see also Scott Peterson, “Among Iran’s ‘True Believers,’ an Enduring Faith in Martyrdom,” The Christian Science Monitor, February 7, 2014. 
  2. Andrew Grotto, “Is Iran a Martyr State?” Brown Journal of World Affairs 16 (2009): 45-58.
  3. Phillip Smyth, “Iran’s Martyrdom Machine Springs to Life: Saudi Arabia’s Execution of a Shiite Cleric Has Put the Middle East on Edge—and Set Up Tehran for Its Favorite Role,” Foreign Policy, January 5, 2016.
  4. Kamran Scott Aghaie, The Martyrs of Karbala: Shi’i Symbols and Rituals in Modern Iran (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015); Rose Wellman, “Regenerating the Islamic Republic: Commemorating Martyrs in Provincial Iran,” The Muslim World 105 (2015): 561-581; Roxanne Varzi, Warring Souls: Youth, Media, Martyrdom in Post-Revolution Iran (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006); Ravinder Kaur, “Sacralising Bodies: On Martyrdom, Government and Accident in Iran,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 20 (2010): 441-460; Pedram Khosronejad (ed.), Unburied Memories: The Politics of Bodies of Sacred Defense Martyrs in Iran (New York: Routledge, 2013).
  5. Michael Billig, Banal Nationalism (London: Sage Publications, 1995), 6.
  6. Donald M. Reid, “The Symbolism of Postage Stamps: A Source for Historians,” Journal of Contemporary History 19 (1984): 223-249, 246.
  7. Because there are simply too many martyr stamps to discuss in one essay, we aim for a representative sample.
  8. Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 69 ff; Elizabeth Anne Castelli, Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 29; L. Stephanie Cobb, Dying to be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 9-10.
  9. Matthew Pierce, Twelve Infallible Men: The Imams and the Making of Shiʽism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016); Adam R. Gaiser, Shurāt Legends, Ibāḍī Identities: Martyrdom, Asceticism, and the Making of an Early Islamic Community (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2016).
  10. Thomas Sizgorich, Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity: Militant Devotion in Christianity and Islam (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 147.
  11. Haider notes that “the narrative of the tragedy of Karbala achieves its most detailed and refined form with the Twelvers.” While other Shi’i groups such as the Zaydis and Isma’ilis do commemorate the event, they tend to do so in comparatively modest ways. For the Twelvers, on the other hand, it could be argued that “the narrative of Ḥusayn’s death lies at the heart of Twelver identity and worship.” Najam Haider, Shīʿī Islam: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 73.
  12. Abbas Amanat, “Meadow of the Martyrs: Kāshefī’s Persianization of the Shiʿi Martyrdom Narrative in Late Tīmūrid Herat,” in Farhad Daftary and Josef W. Meri (eds.), Culture and Memory in Medieval Islam: Essays in Honour of Wilferd Madelung (London: I.B. Taurus, 2003), 250-278, 258.
  13. Aghaie, The Martyrs of Karbala, 11-12; Kamran Scott Aghaie, “The Karbala Narrative: Shi’i Political Discourse in Modern Iran in the 1960s and 1970s,” Journal of Islamic Studies 12 (2001): 151-176, 153; Ann K. S. Lambton, “A reconsideration of the Position of the Marjaʿ al-Taqlid and the Religious Institution,” Studia Islamica 20 (1964): 115-135, 115-116.
  14. Ibid., 13-16.
  15. Ibid., 17.
  16. Hamid Dabashi, Theology of Discontent: The Ideological Foundation of the Islamic Revolution in Iran (New York: New York University Press, 1993), 217.
  17. Maḥmūd Ṭaliqānī, “Jihād and Shahādat,” in Mehdi Abedi and Gary Legenhausen (eds.), Jihād and Shahādat: Struggle and Martyrdom in Islam (Houston: Institute for Research and Islamic Studies, 1986), 47-80, 68.
  18. “Those who believe fight in the cause of God, and those who disbelieve fight in the cause of ṭāghūt. So fight against the allies of Satan. Indeed, the plot of Satan has ever been weak.”
  19. Ṭaliqānī, “Jihād and Shahādat,” 51.
  20. Ibid., 51. 
  21. Dabashi, Theology of Discontent, 251.
  22. Ṭaliqāni, “Jihād and Shahādat,” 65-66.
  23. Aghaie, “The Karbala Narrative,” 173.
  24. Murtażā Muṭahharī, Social and Historical Change: An Islamic Perspective (Berkeley: Mizan Press, 1986), 97.
  25. Murtażā Muṭahharī , “Jihād in the Qur’an,” in Abedi and Legenhausen (eds.), Jihād and Shahādat, 81-124, 113.
  26. Muṭahharī, “Jihād in the Qur’an,” 121.
  27. Ibid., 136.
  28. Murtażā Muṭahharī, Master and Mastership (Albany: Moslem Student Association [Persian Speaking Group], 1980), 34-35.
  29. Muṭahharī, “Jihād in the Qur’an,” 121.
  30. Dabashi, Theology of Discontent, 176.
  31. ʿAlī Sharīʿatī, “Shahādat,” in Abedi and Legenhausen (eds.), Jihād and Shahādat, 153-229, 155-156.
  32. Ibid., 201-202.
  33. Rūḥullāh Mūsavī Khumaynī, “Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhullah Musawi Khumayni,” in Seyyid Hossein Nasr, Hamid Dabashi, and Seyyid Vali Reza Nasr (eds.), Expectations of the Millennium: Shiʽism in History (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989), 356-367, 362.
  34. Ibid..
  35. Ibid., 356; 364.
  36. Rūḥullāh Mūsavī Khumaynī, Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini (1941-1980) (trans. Hamid Algar) (Berkeley: Mizan Press, 1981), 108.
  37. Kamran, “The Karbala Narrative,” 162-163.
  38. Sharīʿatī, “Shahadāt,” 154.
  39. Khumaynī, Islam and Revolution, 249.
  40. Murtażā Muṭahharī, “Shahīd,” in Abedi and Legenhausen (eds.), Jihād and Shahādat, 125-152, 136.
  41. Khumaynī, Islam and Revolution, 270-271.
  42. See also the China Martyr stamps from 1932-1949 at http://www.pipexstampshow.org/PIPEX2014/TitlePages/PIPEX%20Exhibit%2029.pdf; also https://stamps.org/userfiles/file/AP/feature/Feature_03_15.pdf. Given the Soviet connection, the “Hero of the Soviet Union” stamps function as the equivalent of martyr stamps: see https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Heroes_of_the_Soviet_Union_of_World_War_II_stamp_series,_1960-1971 for some examples. For a discussion of the term “Islamdom,” see Marshall G.S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization (3 vols.; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 1:57-60.
  43. The People’s Republic of South Yemen changed its name to the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in 1971.
  44. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 1983), 178 ff.
  45. Ervand Abrahamian, Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 13 ff; 60 ff.
  46. http://www.genocidebangladesh.org/

 

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Stamps of the Fallen (Part 1)

On Martyrs, Nations, and Postage Stamps


Adam Gaiser and James Riggan


This is the first installment of a two-part essay. The second part will be published here on Mizan in two weeks.

All of the figures in this piece are images of stamps from the personal collection of Adam Gaiser. To see a full listing of the figures with detailed catalogue information about the stamps and high-resolution images, click here.

Introduction

Martyrs pervade the public discourse and landscape of contemporary Iran. Whether it is ever-present references to the Karbala narrative, the massive cemeteries honoring the memory of the fallen from the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, or the provincial shrines that dot the countryside, martyrs have been woven into the fabric of Iranian national culture in a way that many non-Iranians find puzzling, or even perverse. Indeed, a 1984 New York Times Magazine article proclaims the Islamic Republic of Iran “obsessed with martyrdom,”1 and U.S. policy makers worry that Iran might be a “martyr state”2 or a “martyrdom machine.”3 To these observers, Iran’s persistent fixation with martyrdom possesses the allure of a horror movie: frightening, yet irresistible. Yet beyond the sensationalism of journalism and the oracular foreboding of policy wonks, the extent to which the Islamic Republic of Iran has incorporated the theme of martyrdom into its national narrative remains noteworthy in comparison to other nation-states. Moreover, a not-insignificant portion of the Iranian public appears to have accepted the martyrs as part and parcel of “their” national story.

Several recent studies have explored the Islamic Republic’s use of martyrdom and the martyrs.4 This essay will add to this growing body of literature by investigating how martyrs appear in the postage stamps of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Postage stamps offer a unique view on the topic of the Iranian martyrs. Stamps are official tax receipts that are produced by the state through its postal service; although a postage stamp is not required to show anything more than the issuing entity and the value of the stamp, they usually include various symbols, images, and messages, indicating the issuer’s intent to express meaning to the receiver. Stamps from Iran thus reflect the messages that the Islamic Republic wishes to convey. Moreover, their dissemination over the entire geography of Iran (and indeed, beyond it), as well as among all classes of Iranian society, argues for the postage stamp’s potential for pervasive and popular effect.

A postage stamp, in other words, is an excellent example of what Billig called “banal nationalism”: a persistent reminder of nationhood and an inescapable conveyor of its symbols.5 And in this respect “the lowly postage stamp”6 speaks to what, in our opinion, drives much of the fascination with Iranian martyrdom: namely, that an old idea–martyrdom–has been deployed by a modern nation-state to seemingly general and widespread success. Postage stamps, as part of the nation-state’s institutional apparatus, contribute to this process.

In fact, martyrs and symbols alluding to martyrdom appear on a significant percentage of Iran’s stamps in any given year (see the table in the Appendix below). By our calculations, these stamps constitute 22% of the overall stamp output of the Islamic Republic’s postal service over their thirty-eight years of operation. The enormous presence of martyrs and themes of martyrdom, therefore, makes Iran’s postage stamps a uniquely compelling example of “banal nationalism” at work, and offers a glimpse into how Iran’s martyrs have become so interwoven into the fabric of Iranian society and state.7

This study will examine three aspects of how images of martyrs and the theme of martyrdom appear on the postage stamps of the Islamic Republic of Iran. First, after a brief excursus into the topics of martyrdom and Iranian nation building, we will contextualize Iran’s martyr stamps by considering older/other martyr stamps from several Muslim-majority countries, including the People’s Republic of Southern Yemen (PRSY), Bangladesh, and Iraq. Stamps from these countries show how the deployment of martyrs on stamps in the interests of nation-building is neither unique to Iran nor represents a uniquely “Islamic” project. Second, a rather more extended comparison with Iraq’s martyrdom stamps, focusing specifically on those stamps produced during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, will highlight the variety of ways that martyrdom stamps can be used to bolster different national narratives; Iraq’s martyrdom stamps emphasized the cult of Saddam Hussein’s personality, while those of Iran initially accentuated Khomeini’s wilāyat al-faqīh ideal. Finally, comparing Iran’s martyrdom stamps through the decades will show how the focal point of Iran’s nationalist narrative—at least on their stamps—shifts away from a heavy focus on wilāyat al-faqīh and toward Iranian military and government sacrifice for the nation. Put another way, over time the focus of Iranian martyr stamps moves from ʿulamāʾ to other kinds of citizens, betraying a subtle change away from the sacrifices of the ʿulamāʾ as the symbolic foundation of the nation and toward a kind of “laicizing” ideal that portrays the martyrdom of everyday citizens—especially military personnel—as the bedrock of the Islamic Republic.

Martyrdom, Nation Building, and the Islamic Republic of Iran

Generally speaking, the deployment of martyrs for the purpose of community building is nothing new. Scholars of Christianity in Late Antiquity have drawn considerable attention to how the early Christians established a community around themselves by remembering the collective suffering of their ascetics and martyrs.8 Scholars of early Islam have extended their insights to make sense of how early Muslim communities and their martyrdom narratives functioned in similar ways.9 Indeed, what Sizgorich says of how “the histories of local [Christian] communities flowed through the remembered deeds of holy personages, monks, martyrs, wonder workers and zealous defenders of the faith” can fruitfully be applied—as Sizgorich did—to the early Muslims.10 Probably the most famous of the early Muslim martyrdom narratives, and a focal point for the nascent Twelver Shi’i community especially, is that of the Battle of Karbala in 61/680.11 On their way to Kufa to lead a rebellion against the Umayyad caliph, the Prophet’s grandson al-Ḥusayn b. ʿAlī, his family, and a group of companions (generally agreed to be seventy-two in number), met the forces of the Umayyad Caliph Yazīd I, commanded by al-Ḥurr b. Yazīd al-Tamīnī, at a place outside of Kufa known as Karbala. During the battle on 10 Muḥarram (i.e. October 10, 680 CE) Ḥusayn and his companions were killed, Ḥusayn’s body decapitated, and the women taken prisoner to the Umayyad capital in Damascus. For Twelver Shi’ah, the Karbala tale became the martyrdom narrative par excellence, and a paradigm for other martyrdom stories. Its importance to the Shi’ah community can hardly be overstated.

Deployment of the Karbala narrative in the interest of an emerging nation-state could be said to begin with Kamāl al-Dīn Ḥusayn Wāʿiẓ Kāshifī’s 1502 Rawḍat al-shuhadāʾ (The Meadow of the Martyrs). Based on earlier works such as Saʿīd al-Dīn’s Rawḍat al-Islām (The Meadow of Islam) and al-Khawarizmī’s Maqtal nūr al-āʾimmah (Murder of the Light of the Imams), Kāshifī’s objective was to produce a distinctly Persian account to replace existing Arabic-language narratives. 12 He succeeded, and his work became canonical within the Persian tradition in part because the Safavid political elite monopolized the Rawḍat al-shuhadāʾ (as well as the public sermons, known as rowẓeh-khānī, that were based upon it) as the basis of the distinctly Shi’i rituals that bolstered their religious legitimacy and demarcated their state from the Uzbeks to the east and the Ottomans to the west.13

In the Qajar period, the Karbala narrative became a site of contestation insofar as its public and dramatic recreation, known as taʿziyeh, was patronized by both state and social elites. Lacking the religious legitimacy of the Safavids, the Qajars patronized taʿziyeh performances to legitimate their rule.14 However, the Iranian-Shi’i ʿulamāʾ also patronized these rituals, thereby contesting the authority of the Qajar elites to use the Karbala narrative as an effective method for social and political legitimation.15 In this way, Qajar-era deployments of the Karbala narrative continued to play an important role in the creation, maintenance, and re-creation of the Shi’i socio-political order in Iran.

The Pahlavi period witnessed an exacerbation of the divisions between religious and political elites in Iran, eventually resulting in the violent overthrow of the monarchy in the 1979 Iranian revolution. For their part, the Pahlavi regime remained largely uninterested in the Karbala story: although Reza Shah Pahlavi openly supported Muḥarram rituals at the outset of his rule, he later banned them altogether. His son Mohammed Reza Shah followed suit, stressing either a “Western” identity associated with technological modernization or a pre-Islamic royal identity associated with the Persian kings of the past (figures 1 and 2, below). In general, Mohammed Reza Shah associated the Karbala narrative, along with other aspects of Iranian “Islamic” identity, with cultural backwardness.

Given the Pahlavi denigration of Muḥarram, it is perhaps unsurprising that mobilizations of the Karbala narrative and the use of the theme of martyrdom generally played a central role in solidifying resistance to the Pahlavi regime—a fact that speaks to the continuing importance of martyrdom narratives in fashioning community identities. Several high-ranking Iranian religious scholars and secular academics contributed to the articulation of an activist understanding of the Karbala story, just as many of them participated in the Islamic revolution that brought down the Shah. Their conceptualizations of martyrdom lay the groundwork for the strong connection between the martyrs and the future Islamic Republic (and thereby, to the widespread appearance of martyrs on Iranian stamps).

Thus, for example, Ayatollah Maḥmūd Ṭāliqānī (1910-1979) (figure 3, right), a politically active ʿālim, provided the qurʾānic justification for the revolutionary reinterpretation of Islam and the Karbala narrative.16 He interpreted al-Ḥusayn’s speech to the people of Kufa as a reiteration of a covenant which, when honored, signaled social maturity.17 Ṭāliqānī drew upon Qurʾān 4:7618 to posit a basic dichotomy in the world between “the ones who believe and therefore strive in the way of God, and the ones who disbelieve and strive in the way of false gods (ṭāghūt).”19 Striving in the way of God (i.e. jihād fī sabīl Allāh) was associated with the good in the broadest possible sense, but Ṭāliqānī’s language specifically emphasized justice and liberty in contrast to the oppression and “trampling” of social limits by the followers of ṭāghūt.20 In order to succeed in this struggle, barriers to social mobilization of the masses needed to be removed. For Ṭāliqānī, this was the role of the martyr, whose “spirit is life-giving and uplifting” and whose boiling blood gave life to “dead bloods.”21 Of course, if social revolution was necessary to remove the socially oppressive government of ṭāghūt, a just government was implied as its successor. The role of leadership fell on the shoulders of the ʿulamāʾ, for “government belongs to God, the Apostle, and the Imam. After the Imam it is the mujtahid and then the masses of Muslims who are all the executive power of divine law.”22 For Ṭāliqānī, then, governments not led by the ‘ūlamā’ were unjust governments that followed the way of tāghūt, against whom struggle—jihad—was unavoidable and necessary for all Muslims. And for this reason, the martyr galvanized Muslim society for revolution.

So too, Murtażā Muṭahharī (1920-1979) (figure 4, left), an ayatollah close to Khomeini and influential in drafting the constitution of the Islamic Republic, popularized a vision of Karbala that appealed to the masses. Incorporating Marxist strands of thought into his discourse and combing them with mainstream Shi’i theological doctrine, Muṭahharī outlined a dual meaning of Karbala: its dark side detailed the tragic events of Ḥusayn’s martyrdom, while its positive side led to a “glorious outcome, which in turn had direct relevance to contemporary social and political issues.”23 Within this framework, Muṭahharī altered the discourse of oppressed and oppressor, which he associated with the language of ṭāghūt, from one of social class to one of monotheistic belief. 24 Jihad was defined as an actively defensive war protecting freedom and the rights of humanity that inhered in monotheism. It was a “war fought for, not against, the freedom of humanity.”25 Moreover, Islam required monotheists to participate in jihad. The just society required two duties of its citizens: first, to finance the state; and second, to provide soldiers that sacrificed for the state.26 For Muṭahharī, the just society must be reinvigorated by the martyr,27 and led by an individual close to God.28 Martyrs were “the candles of society. They burn themselves out and illuminate society.” 29 For Muṭahharī, it was Ḥusayn, the prince of martyrs (sayyid al-shuhadā’), who embodied this ideal, and whose movement revitalized true Islam. For both Ṭāliqānī and Muṭahharī, their interpretation of jihad and martyrdom, refracted through their understanding of the Karbala narrative, pointed to the need for jihad as social reform, the duty of the martyr to mobilize society, and the lack of legitimate leadership in Iran. Thus, Muṭahharī opposed the use of Karbala symbols that did not “create a sense of heroism, sacrifice, and activist commitment to take one’s destiny in one’s own hands.”30

Likewise, ʿAlī Sharīʿatī (1933-1977) (figure 5, right), a leftist intellectual, offered a socialist-inflected reinterpretation of both Islam and the Karbala narrative that found traction among Iran’s intelligentsia. Sharīʿatī used the Karbala narrative to present a basic dichotomy between the oppressed, represented by Ḥusayn, and the oppressor, represented by Yazīd. His elaboration of the oppressed-oppressor dichotomy set this language in the activist terminology of fighting injustice. Abrahamic religions, and Islam in particular, were founded on a message that supported the “ordinary people against the powerful rulers of their time.”31 This message, in turn, created a responsibility for jihad so that the egalitarian society founded on justice could be realized. Jihad, within the “super-structure of the imamate,” negated “despotism, individual rule, aristocracy, oligarchy, and the dictatorship of an individual family, class, or race.”32 Karbala, for Sharīʿatī, was the archetype that connected past, present, and future struggles for equality. Ḥusayn himself was the ideal martyr, a concept that Sharīʿatī placed in a pan-Islamic and national framework.

In many ways, the activist elements of Iranian protest against the Shah found their culmination in the thought of Ayatollah Rūḥullāh Mūsavī Khumaynī (Khomeini) and the Iranian revolution of 1979-1980. In accordance with the dominant discourse of the opposition, Khomeini posited a basic dichotomy between oppressor and oppressed, between unbelief (kufr) and corrupt tyranny (ṭāghūt) and true Islam.33 Active revolution was necessary in order to liberate the oppressed and establish justice, thus making jihad “a duty that all Muslims must fulfill, in every one of the Muslim countries, in order to achieve the triumphant political revolution of Islam.”34 Martyrdom was the method that achieved the revolution, and it gave the martyrs a right to guide the nation. Khomeini, with his now famous doctrine of wilāyat al-faqīh, solved the (uniquely Twelver Shi’i) problem of the legitimate exercise of political authority in the absence of the Twelfth Imām by positing that by their nature, “law and social institutions require the existence of an executor,” and that the ʿulamāʾ were charged, as the heirs to the prophets and in the absence of the Imām, with the duty to lead the struggle against oppressors.35 This duty was placed on them by no less than the Lord of Martyrs, Ḥusayn. In addition to struggling against oppression, the fuqahāʾ were charged with establishing an Islamic government and implementing its laws.36

Khomeini brought the full implications of his Karbala discourse full circle by identifying the Shah’s regime with Ḥusayn’s killer, Yazīd b. Muʿāwiyah.37 The event of Imām Ḥusayn’s tragic death, a cause for weeping and contemplation in the work of Kāshifī, now signified a revolutionary ideology, and Ḥusayn became the model citizen of the Islamic Republic. He was, in words of Sharīʿatī, “the standard bearer” in the revolution for social reform that was jihad;38 his and his companions’ blood, according to Khomeini, ended “the tyrannical rule of Yazid,” just as the blood of the Islamic Republic’s martyrs “shattered the tyrannical monarchy of the Pahlavis.”39

Following Muṭahharī, the martyr created and re-created the nation through his sacrifice: “it is the shahīd [martyr] who infuses fresh blood into the veins of society.”40 When the martyr dies for the nation, he establishes a covenant between society and the martyr. For this reason, according to Khomeini, the martyrs possess a valid claim to guide the future direction of the nation that they created.41 The success of the Iranian revolution, followed by a gruesome and bloody eight-year conflict with Iraq, insured that this ideology of martyrdom became enshrined as an indispensable foundation of the Iranian state.

Martyrs on Postage Stamps: Three Examples

Given the relationship between martyrdom and the revolutionary movement that brought the Islamic Republic into being, it is perhaps unsurprising that martyrs immediately appeared on the new postage of the Islamic Republic, and continue to appear on them up to the present. Yet Iranian revolutionaries invented neither the postage stamp nor the concept of martyrdom; nor were they the first to combine the two. In fact, one of the first stamps to present the topic of martyrdom on stamps was the 1914 Ottoman stamp depicting the Martyrs of Liberty monument in Istanbul (figure 6, below). Thus, several possible precursors to and models for the Iranian postal service’s martyrdom stamps can be identified as a means to contextualize them.

In the interest of space, this section will focus on stamps coming from what Hodgson called “Islamdom,” specifically examining some martyrdom stamps of the People’s Republic of Southern Yemen (PRSY), Bangladesh, and, by way of comparison, Iraqi martyrdom stamps from the Saddam Hussein era.42 The stamps of Southern Yemen and Bangladesh present particularly good examples for comparison insofar as they were both issued by newly emerging nation-states, both of which possessed Muslim majorities. In addition, both countries issued their martyrdom stamps chronologically close to or contemporaneously with Iran’s martyrdom stamps. In the case of the PRSY, the stamps in question were issued a little over a decade before the Iranian revolution, while for Bangladesh, their 1991-2000 martyrdom stamps coincided with very similar stamps issued by Iran during the 1990s. Iraqi martyrdom stamps provide a contrast: Iraq was an already-established state (also with a Muslim majority), but the nationalism of the Saddam Hussein era focused on the cult of his personality, and Iraq’s postage stamps—including the martyrdom stamps—strongly reflect this concern in general.

In Yemen, the brief 1967 struggle between the Marxist para-military National Liberation Front (NLF, al-Jumhūriyyah al-Qawmiyyah) and its rivals, mainly the British army as well as the Arab Nationalist Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY), created a number of dead who were later claimed as martyrs by the newly created PRSY.43 Organized as a Marxist government with close ties to the Soviet Union, the PRSY built a martyr’s monument in Aden, established a “Martyr’s Day,” and issued postage stamps that commemorated the martyrs and the monument.

The association of martyrs with the creation of the PRSY was explicit: the first group of stamps issued by the PRSY in their first year of existence (1968) included a stamp commemorating “Revolution Day 14 October, 63” (figure 7, above left). The stamp depicts a mountainside in the Radfān region (near Dhala/al-Ḍāliʿ) where British troops attacked NLF affiliated groups during the “Aden emergency” of 1964. An arrow on the stamp indicates the specific place on the mountainside where the “first martyr fell.” This depiction unambiguously aligns the PRSY with its imagined “birthplace” in Radfān: the strong implication is that the NLF soldiers, transformed into martyrs through their conflict with the British, literally created the nation at the time and place indicated on the stamp. A 1988 stamp commemorating the “14th October Revolution’s Silver Jubilee” re-creates the visual of this 1968 stamp (figure 8, above right), preserving even the arrow indicating where the first martyr fell, and adding an upright NLF soldier on the stamp’s right.

In the second year of its existence, a 1969 PRSY collection of three stamps commemorated the Martyr’s Monument in Aden along with “Martyr’s Day” (figure 9, left). Anderson has shown how monuments help to “imagine” a nation.44 Like the earlier “Revolution Day” stamp, the PRSY’s “Martyr’s Day” stamp focuses attention on the “martyrs” of the nation by calling to mind the Martyr’s Monument. In a kind of second-order fashion, the stamps themselves participate in the production of Yemeni nationalism by pointing toward the physical Martyr’s Monument while simultaneously marking the day that the state set aside to officially honor their memory.

On the most general level, then, one point that can be made by comparing the PRSY stamps to those of Iran is that the alignment of martyrdom and nationalism is hardly novel in the Iranian case. Another point to be taken from the martyr stamps of the PRSY is that Marxist deployments of martyrdom in the interest of the state—not strictly “Islamic” ones—form the immediate background for the martyrdom stamps of Iran. It has already been noted how Muṭahharī and Sharīʿatī filled out their concepts of jihad and martyrdom with ideas (such as the oppressed/oppressor dichotomy) that resonated strongly with a Marxist worldview. Likewise, Abrahamian has argued that Marxist ideologies and symbols lived on in a “populist” guise in the Islamic Republic of Iran.45 And while the importance of Marxist ideology to the modern history of the Middle East is known among scholars, this insight often goes underappreciated outside of scholarly circles. Of course, this point should not be overstated: what makes the ideational geography of the Islamic Republic of Iran so unique is how many of its important intellectuals have harmonized and adapted Marxist/populist ideology to Shi’i Muslim thought. It should not come as a great surprise, then, if such synchronization appears on postage stamps.

A second example for martyrdom stamps hails from Bangladesh. Bangladeshi independence from Pakistan in 1971 also arrived with widespread violence, including the 1971 genocide that killed, according to some accounts, as many as three million Bangladeshis.46 In particular, the Pakistani army and its local militia supporters targeted pro-nationalist professionals—especially teachers, but also journalists, physicians, and lawyers, as well as some writers, artists, and engineers. The postal service of Bangladesh issued several stamps commemorating these victims as martyrs, but none of these issues rival the sustained and massive “Shaheed Intellectuals” series that commemorated the 20th anniversary of independence. All told, 152 stamps showing the busts of individual genocide victims—identified on the stamps as “shaheed” (martyrs)—were issued between 1991 and 2000 on sheets containing either ten or eight separate stamps per issue. The stamps are remarkably uniform: the busts of the fallen, colored in black, stare out from the stamp, while their names, years of life (all ending 1971), a line proclaiming them a “shaheed intellectual,” the stamp’s value, and “Bangladesh” frame their pictures in brown on three sides (figure 10, below).

The power of these stamps lies in their simplicity and their number: the photos appear un-retouched, giving them the everyday appearance of passport, yearbook, or simple job pictures. Their ordinariness creates an intimacy with the viewer, facilitating an easy identification with the person displayed in the stamp. And there are many of these stamps—so many that the faces and names become blurred and interchangeable. When the volume of these martyrdom stamps renders the experience of identifying with the individuals on the stamp impossible, it is precisely then that the full scale and senselessness of their murder is brought home to the viewer. As with the stamps of the PRSY, Bangladeshi martyrdom stamps provide context for those of the Islamic Republic of Iran, reminding scholars that Iranian martyrdom stamps sit alongside those of other Muslim-majority countries. Indeed, Iran issued several stamps in the mid-1990s that closely imitated the 1991-2000 Bangladeshi “Shaheed Intellectuals” stamps.

Lastly, and by way of comparison, the stamps of Iraq during the Saddam Hussein period—a period that covers much of the initial time frame covered by the Iranian stamps—offer a contrasting aesthetic to those of Iran. Iraqi stamps are unique in how they present a nationalism scarcely reliant on the martyr-memory-nation triad.

Instead, Iraqi stamps promoted the cult of Saddam Hussein’s personality, even on stamps ostensibly commemorating the martyrs. Iraq’s first martyr stamp in 1981 commemorated “Martyr’s Day” (yawm al-shahīd), December 1st, with an issue of three regular and three official (i.e. used for official government business) commemorative stamps (figure 11, right).

The stamp shows a war medal (possibly the Iraqi medal for bravery) at the top. In its middle, two doves hold up a banner that contains a quote from Saddam Hussein: “the martyrs are better than all of us” (al-shuhadāʾ akram minnā jamīʿan); the bottom of the stamp depicts a map of the Arabic-speaking Middle East/North Africa region sprouting three flowers. Saddam Hussein’s quote, then, forms the centerpiece of the stamp, which depicts no actual martyrs, not even in stylized form.

Martyr stamps that contain abstract forms, often including the above quote from Saddam Hussein, form something of a template for subsequent Martyr’s Day stamps from the 1980s. The first of the two issues that make up the 1984 Martyr’s Day series shows a stylized Iraqi martyrs’ monument in Baghdad, with Saddam Hussein’s quote and an Iraqi flag coming from inside the monument (figure 12a, below left). The second stamp in the same series has a female figure, standing in the clouds in front of a flag-draped coffin, holding up a Kalashnikov and offering a medal; above her head, a dove is engulfed in light (figure 12b, below right).

So too, the 1985 Martyr’s Day stamp depicts a stylized tree-becoming-person, with Saddam Hussein’s quote in the symbolic sun behind the emerging Iraqi flag (figure 13, below left). The 1988 Martyr’s Day stamp contains a hand, colored in the Iraqi colors, holding a candle. Within the circle of light is Saddam Hussein’s quote (figure 14, below center). The 1989 Martyr’s Day stamp contains no quote, but it does depict a stylized martyrs’ monument with doves and an Iraqi-flag road leading to a horizon and sun (figure 15, below right). None of these stamps, then, depict any actual martyrs, and only one contains a human form.

After the US-led first Gulf war against Iraq, Iraqi martyrdom stamps of the 1990s continued to offer abstract or stylized forms in preference to realistic or identifiable human forms (see figures 16, 17, and 18 below).

The singular exception to this rule is Iraq’s 2001 stamp and souvenir sheet from the series commemorating the ʿĀmiriyyah bombing. The stamp and the souvenir sheet show a mother holding her dead child in her arms; the devastated shelter forms a backdrop, along with a phrase declaring the “commemoration of the martyrs of the Mother of all Battles” (dhikrā shuhadāʾ Umm al-Maʿārik) (figure 19, below).

What these Iraqi martyrdom stamps have in common—with the exception of the 2001 series—is the consistent use of abstract forms and images (the Iraqi martyr’s monument is itself highly abstract), as well as the near omnipresent Saddam Hussein quote about the martyrs. Of course, the figure of Saddam Hussein appears ubiquitously on a significant portion of Iraqi stamps from this period: the reticence to show actual persons other than Saddam Hussein on Iraqi postage stamps speaks to the exclusive nature of the cult of his personality, as well as the extent to which Iraqi nationalism revolved around the figure of the leader. That this cult of personality bled into the postage of the Iraqi Republic is hardly surprising; however, when placed against Iranian martyrdom stamps from the same period, the stamps of Iraq provide a poignant contrast to those of Iran, where realistic caricatures of actual martyrs appeared on many of Iran’s martyrdom stamps.

Part 2 of this essay will be published here on Mizan in two weeks.

 

ADAM GAISER (Ph.D. 2005, University of Virginia, History of Religions) teaches courses in Islamic Studies at the Florida State University. His research mainly focuses on the early development of the Kharijites and Ibadiyyah.  His first book, Muslims, Scholars, Soldiers: The Origin and Elaboration of the Ibāḍī Imamate Traditions (Oxford, 2010) explores the issue of the Ibadi imamate, while his second, Shurāt Legends, Ibāḍī Identities: Martyrdom, Asceticism and the Making of an Early Islamic Community (University of South Carolina Press, 2016) investigates early Ibadi identifications with the Muḥakkimah and shurāt through the medium of martyrdom and asceticism literature.  He is currently working on an introduction to Muslim sectarianism (The Umma Divided: Muslim Sects and Schools, Cambridge, contracted).  Dr. Gaiser also teaches courses on Shi’ism, Islam in North America, Islamic law, the Prophet Muḥammad, and the Qur’ān.

JAMES RIGGAN is a Ph.D. candidate in the History and Ethnography of Religions at Florida State University. His primary area of expertise is Islam in North Africa, with a focus on qurʾānic healing (ruqyah sharʿiyyah). His research concerns the materiality of scripture; anthropological approaches to the study of Islam; and the relationship between medical systems and Islamic reform movements.

 

APPENDIX: Proportions of stamps featuring martyrs and themes pertaining to martyrdom issued by the Islamic Republic of Iran, 1979-2016

Here, “total stamps” indicates the number of all the stamps issued in a given year, including definitives, commemoratives, official stamps, airmail stamps, souvenir sheets, customized stamps, and semi-postal stamps, but excluding the overprinted definitive stamps from 1979 (the stamps themselves were issued by the Pahlavi government). The category of “martyrdom stamps” includes stamps depicting martyrs or symbols that evoke martyrdom such as those discussed in this article (revolutionary crowds, raised fists, blood, tulips, roses, or references to the Karbala narrative).

 

Notes

  1. John Kifner, “Iran: Obsessed with Martyrdom,” New York Times Magazine, December 16, 1984; see also Scott Peterson, “Among Iran’s ‘True Believers,’ an Enduring Faith in Martyrdom,” The Christian Science Monitor, February 7, 2014. 
  2. Andrew Grotto, “Is Iran a Martyr State?” Brown Journal of World Affairs 16 (2009): 45-58.
  3. Phillip Smyth, “Iran’s Martyrdom Machine Springs to Life: Saudi Arabia’s Execution of a Shiite Cleric Has Put the Middle East on Edge—and Set Up Tehran for Its Favorite Role,” Foreign Policy, January 5, 2016.
  4. Kamran Scott Aghaie, The Martyrs of Karbala: Shi’i Symbols and Rituals in Modern Iran (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015); Rose Wellman, “Regenerating the Islamic Republic: Commemorating Martyrs in Provincial Iran,” The Muslim World 105 (2015): 561-581; Roxanne Varzi, Warring Souls: Youth, Media, Martyrdom in Post-Revolution Iran (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006); Ravinder Kaur, “Sacralising Bodies: On Martyrdom, Government and Accident in Iran,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 20 (2010): 441-460; Pedram Khosronejad (ed.), Unburied Memories: The Politics of Bodies of Sacred Defense Martyrs in Iran (New York: Routledge, 2013).
  5. Michael Billig, Banal Nationalism (London: Sage Publications, 1995), 6.
  6. Donald M. Reid, “The Symbolism of Postage Stamps: A Source for Historians,” Journal of Contemporary History 19 (1984): 223-249, 246.
  7. Because there are simply too many martyr stamps to discuss in one essay, we aim for a representative sample.
  8. Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 69 ff; Elizabeth Anne Castelli, Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 29; L. Stephanie Cobb, Dying to be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 9-10.
  9. Matthew Pierce, Twelve Infallible Men: The Imams and the Making of Shiʽism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016); Adam R. Gaiser, Shurāt Legends, Ibāḍī Identities: Martyrdom, Asceticism, and the Making of an Early Islamic Community (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2016).
  10. Thomas Sizgorich, Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity: Militant Devotion in Christianity and Islam (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 147.
  11. Haider notes that “the narrative of the tragedy of Karbala achieves its most detailed and refined form with the Twelvers.” While other Shi’i groups such as the Zaydis and Isma’ilis do commemorate the event, they tend to do so in comparatively modest ways. For the Twelvers, on the other hand, it could be argued that “the narrative of Ḥusayn’s death lies at the heart of Twelver identity and worship.” Najam Haider, Shīʿī Islam: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 73.
  12. Abbas Amanat, “Meadow of the Martyrs: Kāshefī’s Persianization of the Shiʿi Martyrdom Narrative in Late Tīmūrid Herat,” in Farhad Daftary and Josef W. Meri (eds.), Culture and Memory in Medieval Islam: Essays in Honour of Wilferd Madelung (London: I.B. Taurus, 2003), 250-278, 258.
  13. Aghaie, The Martyrs of Karbala, 11-12; Kamran Scott Aghaie, “The Karbala Narrative: Shi’i Political Discourse in Modern Iran in the 1960s and 1970s,” Journal of Islamic Studies 12 (2001): 151-176, 153; Ann K. S. Lambton, “A reconsideration of the Position of the Marjaʿ al-Taqlid and the Religious Institution,” Studia Islamica 20 (1964): 115-135, 115-116.
  14. Ibid., 13-16.
  15. Ibid., 17.
  16. Hamid Dabashi, Theology of Discontent: The Ideological Foundation of the Islamic Revolution in Iran (New York: New York University Press, 1993), 217.
  17. Maḥmūd Ṭaliqānī, “Jihād and Shahādat,” in Mehdi Abedi and Gary Legenhausen (eds.), Jihād and Shahādat: Struggle and Martyrdom in Islam (Houston: Institute for Research and Islamic Studies, 1986), 47-80, 68.
  18. “Those who believe fight in the cause of God, and those who disbelieve fight in the cause of ṭāghūt. So fight against the allies of Satan. Indeed, the plot of Satan has ever been weak.”
  19. Ṭaliqānī, “Jihād and Shahādat,” 51.
  20. Ibid., 51. 
  21. Dabashi, Theology of Discontent, 251.
  22. Ṭaliqāni, “Jihād and Shahādat,” 65-66.
  23. Aghaie, “The Karbala Narrative,” 173.
  24. Murtażā Muṭahharī, Social and Historical Change: An Islamic Perspective (Berkeley: Mizan Press, 1986), 97.
  25. Murtażā Muṭahharī , “Jihād in the Qur’an,” in Abedi and Legenhausen (eds.), Jihād and Shahādat, 81-124, 113.
  26. Muṭahharī, “Jihād in the Qur’an,” 121.
  27. Ibid., 136.
  28. Murtażā Muṭahharī, Master and Mastership (Albany: Moslem Student Association [Persian Speaking Group], 1980), 34-35.
  29. Muṭahharī, “Jihād in the Qur’an,” 121.
  30. Dabashi, Theology of Discontent, 176.
  31. ʿAlī Sharīʿatī, “Shahādat,” in Abedi and Legenhausen (eds.), Jihād and Shahādat, 153-229, 155-156.
  32. Ibid., 201-202.
  33. Rūḥullāh Mūsavī Khumaynī, “Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhullah Musawi Khumayni,” in Seyyid Hossein Nasr, Hamid Dabashi, and Seyyid Vali Reza Nasr (eds.), Expectations of the Millennium: Shiʽism in History (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989), 356-367, 362.
  34. Ibid..
  35. Ibid., 356; 364.
  36. Rūḥullāh Mūsavī Khumaynī, Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini (1941-1980) (trans. Hamid Algar) (Berkeley: Mizan Press, 1981), 108.
  37. Kamran, “The Karbala Narrative,” 162-163.
  38. Sharīʿatī, “Shahadāt,” 154.
  39. Khumaynī, Islam and Revolution, 249.
  40. Murtażā Muṭahharī, “Shahīd,” in Abedi and Legenhausen (eds.), Jihād and Shahādat, 125-152, 136.
  41. Khumaynī, Islam and Revolution, 270-271.
  42. See also the China Martyr stamps from 1932-1949 at http://www.pipexstampshow.org/PIPEX2014/TitlePages/PIPEX%20Exhibit%2029.pdf; also https://stamps.org/userfiles/file/AP/feature/Feature_03_15.pdf. Given the Soviet connection, the “Hero of the Soviet Union” stamps function as the equivalent of martyr stamps: see https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Heroes_of_the_Soviet_Union_of_World_War_II_stamp_series,_1960-1971 for some examples. For a discussion of the term “Islamdom,” see Marshall G.S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization (3 vols.; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 1:57-60.
  43. The People’s Republic of South Yemen changed its name to the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in 1971.
  44. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 1983), 178 ff.
  45. Ervand Abrahamian, Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 13 ff; 60 ff.
  46. http://www.genocidebangladesh.org/

 

Stamps of the Fallen (Part 1)

On Martyrs, Nations, and Postage Stamps

Stamps of the Fallen (Part 1)

On Martyrs, Nations, and Postage Stamps