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Stamps of the Fallen (Part 2)

Martyrs on the Postage Stamps of the Islamic Republic of Iran


Adam Gaiser and James Riggan


This is the second installment of a two-part essay. The first part can be found here.

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.

Evoking Karbala

In general, what distinguishes the martyrdom stamps of the Islamic Republic of Iran is their number, variety, and longevity. That is to say: Iran has produced a great number of martyrdom stamps, which treat martyrdom and the martyrs in different ways, from 1979 up to the present. Given the importance of the Karbala paradigm to the Iranian revolution (and its subsequent national narrative), it might be expected to dominate Iranian postage stamps. However, there are few direct references to Karbala on Iranian stamps: for example, a 2002 souvenir sheet commemorates “The Evening of Ashura,” reproducing Mahmud Farschian’s 1976 painting depicting the women of Karbala weeping for Ḥusayn (figure 20, below).

More subtly, a 1996 stamp for “Captives and Missing Day” (i.e. POWs) shows a bifurcated scene, with the Karbala prisoners marching towards Damascus at the top and a modern POW in the lower right (figure 21, below right). On a superficial level, the POW becomes identified with the captives after the battle of Karbala, and possibly with the martyrs as well.

 A more detailed analysis of the representational, interactive, and compositional meanings of this stamp might concede that the POW, as a general representative of society, demands sacrifice (whether through captivity or martyrdom) to spread the revolutionary message of Islam, just as those at Karbala sacrificed.

The narrative structure alluded to at the top of the stamp represents an ideal action, and the participants are displayed in outline only, indicating their detachment from the viewer. The prisoner, on the other hand, stands in the lower right, indicating the real and given state of affairs. He is presented in a medium shot looking just past the viewer. This arrangement suggests that the viewer and the prisoner are socially connected and equal, and that the prisoner is making a demand on the viewer: the boundaries between the real and the ideal melt away in a pink cloud that connects the two worlds, implying that the prisoner insists on a sacrifice not unlike that made by those at Karbala.

More common allusions to Karbala on Iranian stamps include indirect references or incorporate key characters from the narrative in their iconic roles. Thus, a 1987 stamp commemorates Imām Ḥusayn’s birthday as well as “Revolutionary Guards’ Day” (figure 22, below left); the 1994 “Invalids’ Day” stamp (figure 23, below right) is connected with the martyred half-brother of Ḥusayn, Abū’l-Faḍl al-ʿAbbās, whose arms were cut off when he tried to bring water to the besieged.

Similarly, Women’s Day stamps have honored Fāṭimah—daughter of Muḥammad, wife of Imām ʿAlī, and mother of Imām Ḥasan and Imām Ḥusayn—and highlighted her role as the mother of martyrs: in the 1985 and 1986 Women’s Day stamps (figures 24 and 25, below far left and second from left) Fāṭimah-like figures watch over protesting women and a young child (who wears a red bandana, a symbol of martyrdom); the 1992 Women’s Day stamp strongly evokes the story of Karbala by depicting a woman, presumably Fāṭimah, holding a bloodied body. An indistinct, headless white rider on a white horse stands behind her, flanked by white figures (presumably the martyrs) and, at the top, a white sun (figure 26, below second from right). Zaynab, sister of Ḥasan and Ḥusayn who cared for the children of Ḥusayn’s family when they were taken as captives to Damascus, is also included in these kinds of representations, connected with Nurses’ Day. Her compassion undergirds the 1987 stamp in which a nurse treats a child at a hospital (figure 27, below right). All of these various stamps demonstrate that postage in the Islamic Republic of Iran draws heavily on the symbols and personalities of the Karbala narrative to convey their meaning.

Symbols of Martyrdom and Struggle

As one of the key concepts of the Karbala myth, jihad as a struggle against oppression remains omnipresent. Generally, quasi-Marxist/populist symbols such as a protesting crowd facing down guns, the closed fist raised in resistance, or a rifle represent the struggle against oppression on the stamps.1

For instance, eight of 1985’s thirty-two stamps portray the demand for struggle using one of these symbols, such as the stamp commemorating (and thereby, appropriating) the fiftieth anniversary of the Ghorshad mosque uprising, in which troops of Reza Shah Pahlavi killed several hundred protesters at a mosque in Mashhad. The protesters, shown in red, face down tan guns, with a green mosque in the backdrop (figure 28, below left).

Likewise, a 1979 stamp commemorating the revolution shows a crowd with a banner (reading “independence, liberty, Islamic Republic”—istiqlāl, āzādī, jumhūri-ye islāmī), hoisting a wounded or killed demonstrator above their heads (figure 29, below right).

Crowds facing down guns (and thereby becoming martyrs) figure prominently in several other Iranian stamps: for example, the 1983 and 1987 stamps commemorating the 1963 15th of Khordād (June 5th) uprising against the Shah (figure 30, below left, and figure 31, below center), as well as the 1988 stamps recalling the 1978 17th of Shahrīvar (September 8th, “Black Friday”) killings that marked a turning point in the Iranian revolution (figure 32, below right).

As with crowds, the symbol of the closed fist features prominently on several Iranian postage stamps. Some of these stamps associate the fist with those killed during the revolutionary struggle, as does the 1982 stamp commemorating the Islamic revolution, which combines the theme of resistance to oppression with blood and martyrdom: it shows the upraised fist flanked by bayonets. The blood drawn from the wounds on the wrist creates a mosque, aligning the blood of the martyrs with the creation of the Islamic Republic through the sacrifice of its martyrs (figure 33, below left). More subtly, a 1985 stamp commemorating the liberation of the city of Khorramshahr from the Iraqi army depicts a soldier with a fist raised in defiance. A field of tulips—a symbol of the martyrs, as we will see—flanks the soldier (figure 34, below right).

Just as much as Marxists, Iranian revolutionaries viewed their struggle against oppression as an international one. The Islamic Republic thus issued several stamps supporting Muslims across the world—in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Palestine, Lebanon—who were engaged in resistance to oppression (as the Iranian state understood it). A few of these stamps commemorated the martyrs of these struggles: a 1987 stamp commemorates Hizbullah’s martyrs (figure 35, below top left), while a later 2008 stamp honors Hizbullah’s head of security, ʿImād Fāʾiz Mughniyyah (Emad Moghnie), who was assassinated in Damascus in that year (figure 36, below top right). A 1988 stamp series depicted (in a fashion anticipating the 1990s Bangladeshi “Shaheed Intellectuals” stamps) four Palestinian “martyrs” from the Intifada (figure 37, below bottom). These stamps emphasize the global dichotomy of oppressor and oppressed, and their inclusion among other Iranian stamps identifies Iran with that worldwide struggle against oppression. Like the stamps depicting “domestic” martyrs, these stamps utilize many of the stock symbols of resistance and revolution that would be recognizable to an Iranian audience, such as raised fists, AK-47 rifles, and red banners.

Beyond quasi-Marxist and populist symbols of national struggle and martyrdom, the stamps of the Islamic Republic deployed other symbols, especially blood, tulips and roses, and doves to signal the importance of martyrdom to the national narrative of Iran.

The symbolism of blood is perhaps obvious, as is the connection between the blood of the martyrs and resistance to tyranny. Khomeini outlined this theme in a 1979 speech at Neuphle-le-Chateau:

It is as if the blood of our martyrs were the continuation of the blood of the martyrs of Karbala. Just as their pure blood brought to an end the tyrannical rule of Yazid, the blood of our martyrs has shattered the tyrannical monarchy of the Pahlavis.2

Accordingly, a 1980 “Anniversary of the Islamic Revolution” stamp visually depicted the blood of the martyrs shattering the sword of tyranny (figure 38, below left). In other stamps, the martyr’s blood bolsters the Islamic Republic: a drop of blood containing the word “yes” (areh) enters an Iranian ballot box in the 1990 commemorative stamp for the eleventh anniversary of the establishment of the Islamic Republic (figure 39, below center); similarly, in the 1995 commemorative stamp of the Republic, an Iran-Iraq War martyr reaches up from the red, blood-drenched swathe of the Iranian flag to cast his “yes” vote as Khomeini stares out smiling from the green belt at the top, which is also occupied with soldiers (figure 40, below right). In these stamps, the blood of the martyrs supports the Islamic Republic, reinforcing the martyrdom-nationalism-memory triad at work behind them.

So too, doves, which are old symbols of martyrs dating back even to the early period of Christianity (a dove was said to have flown from Polycarp’s body at his martyrdom), figure in several Iranian postage stamps.3

For example, a 1985 set of four stamps presents (as part of the same series) a martyr being taken into heaven, a mosque, doves facing down bombs, and a rifle firing upward to celebrate the “sacred defense” (figure 41, below; interestingly, Iran issued this series of stamps during the week of Ashūrāʾ).

Additionally, in the 1988 stamp commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the June 5th demonstrations, a bloodied dove breaking a bayonet occupies the top and center (figure 42, below left). So too in the 1986 stamp commemorating the death anniversary of the Egyptian “Hero of Sinai” Sulaymān Khāṭir (Khater) and proclaiming him a martyr, a dove flies from the prison cell that holds him (he was found dead in his cell, and it was widely believed that the Egyptian authorities staged his “suicide”) (figure 43, below right).

Another well-known and near-ubiquitous symbol of martyrdom in the Iranian context is the tulip. It appears on the Iranian flag,4 Khomeini’s tomb,5 and posters from the Islamic Revolution.6 The tulip also has connections both to the pre-Islamic narrative of Firdowsī’s Shāhnāmeh as well as the Karbala narrative, in which the red tulip, watered by tears, grows from the blood of the martyrs.7

Tulips appear on some of the very first stamps of Iran: a 1979 stamp shows a tulip centered against a background of an indistinct, protesting crowd. The leaves of this flower spell out “Islamic Republic” (jumhūri-ye islāmī), and the red flower “Allāh” (figure 44, left).

 

Another, more explicit, stamp hails from the 1979 series commemorating the International Year of the Child: the 2 riyal stamp depicts a child’s drawing of a wounded man, blood flowing from his chest. A field of tulips grow from his blood, with the largest containing a group of children, two of whom have raised fists (figure 45a, below left). In addition, in both the 3 riyal and the 5 riyal stamps of the same series, tulips form part of the background (figure 45b, below center, and figure 45c, below right). What these early stamps establish, right from the beginning of the Islamic Republic, is the conflation of blood/tulips, martyrdom, and the revolution. They reinforce an idea that the Islamic Republic was founded on the blood of martyrs, and its future remains dependent upon that same blood to reinvigorate society.

The association of blood, tulips and the Islamic Republic reappears in several later stamps of Iran, for example in a 1981 series of three stamps. The first, a 3 riyal stamp, shows a red tulip with the flower yet to bloom (figure 46a, below left). The tulip superimposes an image of the Qom mosque that later appears in stamps commemorating the commencement of the revolution (cf. figures 30, 31 and 42). The second, a 5 riyal stamp, displays blood spilling in the background and on the tulip (figure 46b, below center). The tulip in this stamp overlays “17 Shahrīvar” (i.e. “Black Friday,” see figure 25c), while the 20 riyal stamp in the series displays an open flower against a clear blue background (figure 46c, below right). Inside this the last flower is the stylized tulip with the symbol of tawḥīd (God’s Oneness) that appears on the Iranian flag, from which light emanates.

These stamps depict a sequence of events and correlate them to the emergence of the Islamic Republic, and through this series, the tulip becomes associated not just with martyrdom, but with specific events in the narrative of the Islamic Republic’s foundational history—especially the revolution and the “sacred defense” of Iran against Iraq.

Thus, the 1984 stamp commemorating the fifth anniversary of the revolution shows a bush around which a green, white, and red ribbon wraps and extends beyond the borders of the map. The bush itself contains white flowers, while at the lower left edge of the ribbon is a pool of blood, and a red tulip on its side. A series of five red tulips grows up along the ribbon (figure 47, right). From the same year, the “Week of War” stamp (officially commemorating the fourth anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war) depicts an open tulip growing on a yellow stem. Inside the stem is a green rifle, and inside each petal is a rifle round (figure 48, far right).

Later depictions of “sacred defense” on Iranian stamps adopted a stylized tulip/fist symbol, such as that which appears on the 1986 stamp celebrating the 2000th day of sacred defense, in which a green tulip is prominently displayed over an outline of Iran, extending beyond the borders. The front petal is a bomb, and a fist rises up from the center as another petal. Around the tulip a banner quotes Qurʾān 2:193: “And fight them until oppression is no more” (figure 49, below left). The same symbol appears also on the 1991 stamp commemorating the sacred defense (figure 50, below center) as well as that celebrating the victory over Iraq and “Sacred Defense Week” (figure 51, below right). In this way, the Iranian state consistently conflated martyrs/tulips and the defense of Iran during the war.

The Figure of the Martyr on Iranian Postage Stamps

Alongside tulips, the most frequent type of Iranian stamp aligning the state with the martyrs is that which employs recognizable human images. In direct contrast with Iraqi martyrdom stamps from the same period, Iranian martyrdom stamps conspicuously and copiously deploy the stylized images (and later, pictures) of actual martyrs to achieve their aims.

Early commemoration stamps for martyrs tended to portray the ʿulamāʾ and government officials (some of whom were also military personnel), either individually or in small groups. Such is the case with the triad of 1981 martyr stamps, the first of which commemorates the martyrs of Tīr 7th (June 28, 1981) (figure 52a, left top). The stamp shows a stream of the seventy-three people who were killed in a blast at the headquarters of the Islamic Republic Party on this date moving forward toward the viewer. The group becomes increasingly indistinct as it extends into the distance, and eventually exceeds the boundaries of the stamp. What is clear, however, is the composition of the crowd: ʿulamāʾ concentrate in the foreground, many of whom gaze at Ayatollah Bihishtī (Beheshti), chief justice of Iran’s Supreme Court, the central figure, indicating that he is the point of origin for the action of the stamp.

The second stamp in the series shows President Muḥammad Rajāʾī and Prime Minister Muḥammad Javād Bāhunar (a turbaned ʿālim), both of whom were assassinated by a suitcase bomb on August 30, 1981 (Shahrīvar 8th) (figure 52b, left center).

The last of the triad depicts Muṣṭafā Chamrān, Iranian parliament member and leader of an irregular military unit known as the “Irregular Warfare Headquarters.” He was killed fighting the Iraqis in 1981 (figure 52c, left bottom).

 

Ayatollah Beheshti received his own martyrdom stamp in 1982 (figure 53, below far left), alongside a stamp commemorating two ayatollahs (Mīr Asadullāh Madanī and ʿAbd al-Ḥusayn Dastghayb) who were assassinated at prayer (figure 54, below center left). These last two became known as “Martyrs of [the] Altar” (also as “Martyrs of the Prayer Niche” [shahīd-i mihrāb]).8 Two more “altar martyrs,” Ayatollah Muḥammad Ṣadūqī (Sadoghi) and Ayatollah Ashrafī Iṣfahānī (Esphahani), were assassinated at (or just after) prayer in 1982, and both were commemorated on stamps in 1983 (figure 55, below center right, and figure 56, below far right).

In addition, a 1983 stamp commemorated the assassinated Ayatollah Muḥammad Mufattiḥ (Mofatteh), killed in 1979 (figure 57, below far left), as well as a stamp (for “Government Week”) depicting (again) President Rajāʾī and Prime Minister Bāhunar (figure 58, below center left). A 1984 stamp shows Ayatollah Khomeini’s son Muṣṭafā, proclaiming him a martyr for his death (he died in Iraq in 1977; Khomeini and his followers blamed the Shah’s secret police, SAVAK, for his death) (figure 59, below center right); a 1984 stamp also commemorates Ayatollah Ghāzī Ṭabāʾṭabāʾī , later known as the first martyr of the mihrāb (i.e. “altar” martyr), who was killed at prayer in 1979 (figure 60, below far right).

Ayatollah Bihishtī and the other seventy-two martyrs of Tīr 7th appear again on a 1986 stamp (figure 61, below far left). 1987 saw the first “Teacher’s Day” stamp (others would follow in later years), which depicted Ayatollah Muṭahharī (figure 62, below center left). Although this stamp does not openly proclaim Muṭahharī a martyr, its iconography sufficiently conveys that message: in the center of an open book, a red tulip opens up, with a candle burning at the center, hearkening back to Muṭahharī’s concept of the martyrs as “the candles of society.”9 The flame overlays Muṭahharī’s chest and red blood runs down it.10 Alongside of this stamp, the Islamic Republic issued in 1987 a martyrdom stamp for Ayatollah Sayyid Ḥasan Modarris, Constitutional revolutionary and early Majlis member, who was killed in prison in 1937 (figure 63, below center right). In addition, a 1988 stamp commemorates Sayyid Ali Andarzgū (figure 64, below far right), an early revolutionary ʿālim who was killed by SAVAK just before the revolution in August of 1978.

These early martyrdom stamps of the Islamic Republic—all of which depict recognizable human figures—illustrate a number of points about how the Iranian state initially conceptualized and employed actual martyrs on their stamps. First, the stamps possess a simple conceptual structure, containing little in the way of extra symbols (such as tulips, raised fists, crowds, rifles, etc.) This suggests that their purpose was to create a national cast of model citizens who through their direct gaze placed symbolic demands on the viewers of the stamps. Second, the early martyrdom stamps overwhelmingly depict members of the ʿulamāʾ (including those from the Iranian past) and, secondarily, other government officials as the martyrs of the nation. Such an emphasis seems to suggest that the Islamic Republic wished to align the legitimacy of the nation primarily with its religious scholars—a goal consistent with the promotion of Khomeini’s notion of wilāyat al-faqīh as the ideological basis for the revolutionary Iranian state.

In keeping with the globalist pretensions of the Islamic revolution (as well as its Marxist/populist roots), Iran also issued martyr stamps for persons who were not Iranian, but whose memory served the interests of the Islamic Republic. Thus, a 1982 stamp commemorates the martyrdom of the Iraqi Shi’ite ʿālim Muḥammad Bāqir Ṣadr (executed by Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1980) (figure 65, below far left), while a 1984 stamp depicts the Lebanese Shi’ite “martyr” (shahīd) Rāghib Ḥarb (assassinated by the Israelis in 1984) (figure 66, below, second from left). Alongside these stamps are the 1984 issue commemorating the “martyrdom” of Sayyid Qutb (executed by the Egyptian state in 1966) (figure 67, below center), the 1985 stamp commemorating the 50th anniversary of the martyrdom of the Syrian ʿIzz al-Dīn al-Qassām (an early Arab revolutionary and anti-Zionist killed in Palestine in 1935) (figure 68, below, second from right), and a 1988 stamp remembering the “martyr” Sayyid Muḥammad Ismāʿīl Balkhī, an Afghani Shi’ite intellectual (and participant in the 1949 coup against the Afghani prime minister) (figure 69, below far right).

These stamps align the Iranian state with the wider struggles of the Palestinians, Lebanese, and Afghanis, as well as providing tacit criticism of the Iraqi and Egyptian regimes. They also continue the trend of portraying recognizable representations of clerics and intellectuals on martyrdom stamps: in fact, all but one of the non-Iranian martyrdom stamps from the 1980s portray turbaned ʿulamāʾ, and it could be argued that the non-turbaned Sayyid Qutb should be counted as a religious scholar in his own right.

One exception to the overall dominance of religious scholars on Iranian martyrdom stamps from the 1980s is the 1986 dual stamp portraying and commemorating Ḥusayn Fahmīdeh, a thirteen-year-old boy who blew himself up under an Iraqi tank in Khorramshahr in 1980, thereby becoming a national war hero.

The first stamp of the duo provides a child’s drawing of Fahmīdeh facing down the oncoming Iraqi tanks (figure 70a, right top). The other shows Fahmīdeh’s bust, with a quote from Khomeini: “Our leader is that thirteen-year-old child who threw himself with his little heart against the enemy. He is worth more than a hundred pens and a hundred tongues… He drank the sweet elixir of martyrdom” (figure 70b, right bottom).11 Fahmīdeh’s stamps are unique insofar as they depict a martyr who is not an ʿālim or government official; yet Khomeini’s quote still dominates nearly a full half of the second stamp, visually returning the gaze of the viewer back to the verbal presence of an ʿālim (indeed, the ʿālim) of the Iranian state. Even still, it is not difficult to imagine how such an extraordinary act could earn Fahmīdeh a place among Iran’s martyrs, despite the fact that he was not a religious scholar of some sort.

Fahmīdeh’s stamp, however, offers a glimpse of changes that would occur in how the Iranian postal service issued martyrdom stamps in the 1990s and beyond. This shift in martyrdom stamps can also be detected in the above-referenced stamps commemorating the martyrs of the first Palestinian Intifada (see figure 37): the Intifada martyrs stare out of the frame of the stamp, their names given to the right of a depiction of the Dome of the Rock, a barbed-wire Star of David, and an outline of Palestine. Moreover, these martyrs do not represent turbaned or any other kind of ʿulamāʾ. What distinguishes them, rather, is how they represent “ordinary” (albeit bearded, and therefore “religious”) Palestinians who were killed in the course of resisting Israel.

The depiction of regular civilians represents something of a break from the past tradition of presenting ʿulamāʾ on Iranian martyr stamps, and this trend would continue in the years following. Of course, the ʿulamāʾ do not disappear from Iran’s martyrdom stamps after the 1980s. Rather, stamps depicting “ordinary” Iranians begin to appear alongside them in greater numbers. Thus, a 1994 stamp commemorating the “martyr Muṭahharī” (figure 71, below left) appears in the same year with one showing documentary filmmaker Murtażā Āvīnī, who was killed by a landmine while filming in 1993 (figure 72, below center). 1995 saw the “martyr” oil minister M. J. Tandgūyān commemorated on a stamp (figure 73, below right).

Beginning in 1995, the Iranian post office began issuing stamps commemorating martyred commanders and other Iran-Iraq War casualties. These stamps strongly evoke the Bangladeshi “Shaheed Intellectuals” stamps of the same era: Iranian war martyr stamps appeared in groups of four or eight, from 1995 through 1998 (figure 74, below top) and again in 2000 (figure 75, below bottom), for a total of twenty-eight stamps. The martyred generals and soldiers stare out from the stamps, their names given at the top. In the background are the shrine of Ḥusayn and a (differently colored, depending on the year of issue) banner topped by an open palm, upon which is inscribed Allāhu akbar, “God is greatest.”

Just as with the “Shaheed Intellectuals” series of Bangladesh, the power of these stamps lies in their discomfiting ordinariness and number: although many of these stamps depict generals, their pictures communicate warmth and accessibility. In fact, most of the images do not include rank insignia on the uniforms, which are typically plain. In addition, the war martyr stamps often represent a significant number of the stamps issued in any given year: in 2000, for example, war martyr stamps comprise eight of the eighteen total stamps for that year. War martyr stamps thus comprise a significant portion of the martyrdom stamps of the 1990s, and they perpetuate the trend away from images of the martyred ʿulamāʾ in favor of “everyday” military personnel and government officials.

After the year 2000, the number of martyrdom stamps issued by the Islamic Republic decreased (indeed, after 2000 the overall yearly output of Iranian stamps has decreased). However, the trend toward presenting government officials and army personnel on martyrdom stamps continued, such that martyrdom stamps continue to comprise a significant percentage of the overall stamps issued by the Iranian state in any given year after the year 2000.

For example, Iran issued a 2003 stamp commemorating its “government martyrs” (figure 76, above left), followed by another (a dual issue) for military figures in 2006 (figure 77, above right). The latter features a large bust of Major General Aḥmad Qāzimī, who died in a plane crash in 2006, in one of its two stamps.

A 2008 series features Pahlavi-era revolutionary Navvāb Ṣafavī, founder of the fidāʾiyān-i islām (“self-sacrificers for Islam”) organization (figure 78, below left), along with Aḥmad Mutavassiliyān, a diplomat killed by the Israelis in Lebanon (figure 79, below center), and a martyred military commander, M. R. Pūrkiyān (figure 80, below right).

A 2009 stamp honors the “Dokouhe Stars,” three martyred military personnel from the Dokouhe military base in southwest Iran (figure 81, below left). A general “Martyrs of the Holy Defense” stamp from 2010 showing a generic soldier (figure 82, below center), appears in the same year as one recalling the martyrdom anniversary of Ayatollah Mufattiḥ (figure 83, below right; see also figure 57).

A 2012 stamp revisits the martyrdom of oil minister Tandgūyān (figure 84, below top left), and another from that year depicts child martyr Ḥusayn Fahmideh (figure 85, below top right); a 2013 souvenir sheet, issued for the “Remembrance Congress of Three Ministers, Combat Engineering Commander, and 1000 Martyrs of the Ministry of Defense and Logistics of Armed Forces,” commemorates various military martyrs, including Muṣṭafā Chamrān (figure 86, below center; see also figure 52c), as does the 2014 stamp for Ḥusaynʿalī ʿĀlī, a Bassīj (civilian militia) volunteer who died in the Valfajr Operation (i.e. “Operation Dawn”) of 1986-1987 (figure 87, below bottom left).12 A 2015 martyrdom stamp commemorates the 175 “martyr divers” of the Iran-Iraq War operation Karbala-4 (figure 88, below bottom right), whose bodies were returned to Iran in 2015.13

What these stamps continue to show is an overall trend away from depicting martyred ʿulamāʾ on martyrdom stamps, and thereby promoting wilāyat al-faqīh, in favor of an Iranian nationalism based in the sacrifice of military and (non-ʿulamāʾ) government officials. Martyrdom as a coin of modern Iranian nationhood, it seems, has become more and more “laicized” insofar as religious elites no longer dominate its imagery (at least on postage stamps).

Beginning in the 1990s, and certainly since the 2000s, military and government martyrs have taken over as the mainstay of Iranian postage stamps. And this trend appears to be accelerating, such that civilian martyrs are just now appearing on Iran’s stamps: a 2014 martyr stamp shows—in a fashion strongly reminiscent of the “Shaheed Intellectuals” stamps—the front-facing image of Maḥbūbeh Dānish Āshtiyānī, a sixteen-year-old girl who was shot in Jaleh Square in Tehran on “Black Friday” (September 8, 1978) by soldiers of the Pahlavi regime (figure 89, left top).

Moreover, as of the writing of this article, the most recent Iranian martyrdom stamp to appear has been a stamp commemorating martyred firefighters (figure 90, left bottom). The iconography of this stamp, which depicts firefighters running toward a blazing fire, breaks most (if not all) of the conventions of previous Iranian martyr stamps: it contains none of the symbols of martyrdom, nor does it show a martyr’s face, nor does it commemorate ‘ulamā’ or military personnel, nor even government officials. Rather, the firefighters appear as regular citizens—government employees, to be sure—but faceless and therefore “anyone.” Furthermore, the visual frame of the stamp positions the viewer at the level of the ground, looking upward toward the firefighters as they rush away from the viewer toward the fire: this is literally the “street level” view of martyrs, and it heightens the laicizing effect of the stamp. It remains to be seen if this trend in Iran’s martyrdom stamps will continue.

Conclusion

This essay attempts to provide a few insights into the deployment of martyrs and martyrdom on post-revolutionary Iranian postage stamps. Generally, we have hoped to show how stamps can be analyzed as expressions of the Iranian nation-state, and thereby as reflections of Iranian nationalism, however banal. More specifically, we have endeavored to show that Iranian stamps have a wider context insofar as other Muslim-majority nations placed martyrs (and martyr’s monuments, etc.) on their postage stamps, either before or concurrently with those that appeared on Iran’s stamps, but that Iranian stamps remain unique in how they present martyrs and martyrdom in a wide variety of ways, and in large numbers (indeed, more than could be analyzed in this essay). Additionally, we have argued that Iranian martyr stamps that provide recognizable images appear to have shifted away from depicting the ʿulamāʾ and towards portrayals of military, government, and even (most recently) civilian figures. This shift represents, to our minds, a growing laicization of martyrdom, at least as it appears on stamps.

Of course, stamps are but one medium for the expression of Iranian nationalism, and it is hoped that this article might provide a few brushstrokes in the larger tapestry of scholarly portraits of post-revolutionary Iran. Whatever insights we might have added to that discussion will need to be checked against the wider panorama of scholarship on Iran, as we are not specialists on the Islamic Republic. Yet we remain convinced that Iranian martyr stamps offer important glimpses into the ways that nation-states employ martyrs to create and maintain their communities. This mechanism—namely, the martyr-memory-community triad—comes as nothing new for those who study Late Antiquity and the early Islamic period, but its continued salience as reflected in the postage of a modern nation speaks to the ways that the study of the late antique and medieval periods can illumine the present.

 

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 imāmate, 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.

 

Notes

  1. Ervand Abrahamian, Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 71-87. The rifle does not appear prominently on Iranian martyrdom stamps (though it does appear on several Iranian stamps), being rather a symbol of resistance to oppression. I will thus not include specific examples of rifles on stamps here.
  2. Rūḥullāh Mūsavī Khumaynī, Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini (1941-1980) (trans. Hamid Algar) (Berkeley: Mizan Press, 1981), 249.
  3. See https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/study/module/polycarp/.
  4. Michael Fischer and Mehdi Abedi, Debating Muslims: Cultural Dialogues in Postmodernity and Tradition (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), 345.
  5. Kishwar Rizvi, “Religious Icon and National Symbol: The Tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran,” in Muqarnas 20 (2003): 209-224, 210-211.
  6. See https://www.lib.uchicago.edu/e/webexhibits/iranianposters/
  7. Fischer and Abedi, Debating Muslims, 345.
  8. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eys6DsvhK0o
  9. Murtażā Muṭahharī, “Jihād in the Qur’an,” in Mehdi Abedi and Gary Legenhausen (eds.), Jihād and Shahādat: Struggle and Martyrdom in Islam (Houston: Institute for Research and Islamic Studies, 1986), 81-124, 121.
  10. On Muṭahharī’s martyrdom, see the Iranian-run “Official Site of the Martyrs of the Islamic World,” http://en.icmiw.com/content/929/biology-martyr-morteza-motahhari; the piece on Iran English Radio World Service at http://english.irib.ir/radioislam/library/audio-books/item/153876-a-brief-account-of-martyr-allameh-motahhari; http://en.rasekhoon.net/article/show/1031965/biography-of-martyr-morteza-motahari/; and Khomeini’s speech in which Muṭahharī is praised as a martyr at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s4_i5a3-Zk4.
  11. Rūḥullāh Musavī Khumaynī, Ṣaḥīfat-i nūr (Tehran: Sāzmān-i Madārik-i Farhangī-ye Inqilāb-i Islāmī, 1986), 14.73. See also http://article.tebyan.net/105904/رهبر-12-ساله. Thanks to Alan Godlas, Eliza Tasbihi, and Behnam Sadeghi for help with this quote.
  12. See http://hamshahrionline.ir/details/276342/Defence/imposedwar. Thanks to Mahdi Tourage for helping me to identify this stamp, and for this link.
  13. Lachin Rezaiian, “Return of 175 Martyr Divers Agitates Grievous Memories in Iran,” Mehr News Agency, May 30, 2015.

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Stamps of the Fallen (Part 2)

Martyrs on the Postage Stamps of the Islamic Republic of Iran


Adam Gaiser and James Riggan


This is the second installment of a two-part essay. The first part can be found here.

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.

Evoking Karbala

In general, what distinguishes the martyrdom stamps of the Islamic Republic of Iran is their number, variety, and longevity. That is to say: Iran has produced a great number of martyrdom stamps, which treat martyrdom and the martyrs in different ways, from 1979 up to the present. Given the importance of the Karbala paradigm to the Iranian revolution (and its subsequent national narrative), it might be expected to dominate Iranian postage stamps. However, there are few direct references to Karbala on Iranian stamps: for example, a 2002 souvenir sheet commemorates “The Evening of Ashura,” reproducing Mahmud Farschian’s 1976 painting depicting the women of Karbala weeping for Ḥusayn (figure 20, below).

More subtly, a 1996 stamp for “Captives and Missing Day” (i.e. POWs) shows a bifurcated scene, with the Karbala prisoners marching towards Damascus at the top and a modern POW in the lower right (figure 21, below right). On a superficial level, the POW becomes identified with the captives after the battle of Karbala, and possibly with the martyrs as well.

 A more detailed analysis of the representational, interactive, and compositional meanings of this stamp might concede that the POW, as a general representative of society, demands sacrifice (whether through captivity or martyrdom) to spread the revolutionary message of Islam, just as those at Karbala sacrificed.

The narrative structure alluded to at the top of the stamp represents an ideal action, and the participants are displayed in outline only, indicating their detachment from the viewer. The prisoner, on the other hand, stands in the lower right, indicating the real and given state of affairs. He is presented in a medium shot looking just past the viewer. This arrangement suggests that the viewer and the prisoner are socially connected and equal, and that the prisoner is making a demand on the viewer: the boundaries between the real and the ideal melt away in a pink cloud that connects the two worlds, implying that the prisoner insists on a sacrifice not unlike that made by those at Karbala.

More common allusions to Karbala on Iranian stamps include indirect references or incorporate key characters from the narrative in their iconic roles. Thus, a 1987 stamp commemorates Imām Ḥusayn’s birthday as well as “Revolutionary Guards’ Day” (figure 22, below left); the 1994 “Invalids’ Day” stamp (figure 23, below right) is connected with the martyred half-brother of Ḥusayn, Abū’l-Faḍl al-ʿAbbās, whose arms were cut off when he tried to bring water to the besieged.

Similarly, Women’s Day stamps have honored Fāṭimah—daughter of Muḥammad, wife of Imām ʿAlī, and mother of Imām Ḥasan and Imām Ḥusayn—and highlighted her role as the mother of martyrs: in the 1985 and 1986 Women’s Day stamps (figures 24 and 25, below far left and second from left) Fāṭimah-like figures watch over protesting women and a young child (who wears a red bandana, a symbol of martyrdom); the 1992 Women’s Day stamp strongly evokes the story of Karbala by depicting a woman, presumably Fāṭimah, holding a bloodied body. An indistinct, headless white rider on a white horse stands behind her, flanked by white figures (presumably the martyrs) and, at the top, a white sun (figure 26, below second from right). Zaynab, sister of Ḥasan and Ḥusayn who cared for the children of Ḥusayn’s family when they were taken as captives to Damascus, is also included in these kinds of representations, connected with Nurses’ Day. Her compassion undergirds the 1987 stamp in which a nurse treats a child at a hospital (figure 27, below right). All of these various stamps demonstrate that postage in the Islamic Republic of Iran draws heavily on the symbols and personalities of the Karbala narrative to convey their meaning.

Symbols of Martyrdom and Struggle

As one of the key concepts of the Karbala myth, jihad as a struggle against oppression remains omnipresent. Generally, quasi-Marxist/populist symbols such as a protesting crowd facing down guns, the closed fist raised in resistance, or a rifle represent the struggle against oppression on the stamps.1

For instance, eight of 1985’s thirty-two stamps portray the demand for struggle using one of these symbols, such as the stamp commemorating (and thereby, appropriating) the fiftieth anniversary of the Ghorshad mosque uprising, in which troops of Reza Shah Pahlavi killed several hundred protesters at a mosque in Mashhad. The protesters, shown in red, face down tan guns, with a green mosque in the backdrop (figure 28, below left).

Likewise, a 1979 stamp commemorating the revolution shows a crowd with a banner (reading “independence, liberty, Islamic Republic”—istiqlāl, āzādī, jumhūri-ye islāmī), hoisting a wounded or killed demonstrator above their heads (figure 29, below right).

Crowds facing down guns (and thereby becoming martyrs) figure prominently in several other Iranian stamps: for example, the 1983 and 1987 stamps commemorating the 1963 15th of Khordād (June 5th) uprising against the Shah (figure 30, below left, and figure 31, below center), as well as the 1988 stamps recalling the 1978 17th of Shahrīvar (September 8th, “Black Friday”) killings that marked a turning point in the Iranian revolution (figure 32, below right).

As with crowds, the symbol of the closed fist features prominently on several Iranian postage stamps. Some of these stamps associate the fist with those killed during the revolutionary struggle, as does the 1982 stamp commemorating the Islamic revolution, which combines the theme of resistance to oppression with blood and martyrdom: it shows the upraised fist flanked by bayonets. The blood drawn from the wounds on the wrist creates a mosque, aligning the blood of the martyrs with the creation of the Islamic Republic through the sacrifice of its martyrs (figure 33, below left). More subtly, a 1985 stamp commemorating the liberation of the city of Khorramshahr from the Iraqi army depicts a soldier with a fist raised in defiance. A field of tulips—a symbol of the martyrs, as we will see—flanks the soldier (figure 34, below right).

Just as much as Marxists, Iranian revolutionaries viewed their struggle against oppression as an international one. The Islamic Republic thus issued several stamps supporting Muslims across the world—in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Palestine, Lebanon—who were engaged in resistance to oppression (as the Iranian state understood it). A few of these stamps commemorated the martyrs of these struggles: a 1987 stamp commemorates Hizbullah’s martyrs (figure 35, below top left), while a later 2008 stamp honors Hizbullah’s head of security, ʿImād Fāʾiz Mughniyyah (Emad Moghnie), who was assassinated in Damascus in that year (figure 36, below top right). A 1988 stamp series depicted (in a fashion anticipating the 1990s Bangladeshi “Shaheed Intellectuals” stamps) four Palestinian “martyrs” from the Intifada (figure 37, below bottom). These stamps emphasize the global dichotomy of oppressor and oppressed, and their inclusion among other Iranian stamps identifies Iran with that worldwide struggle against oppression. Like the stamps depicting “domestic” martyrs, these stamps utilize many of the stock symbols of resistance and revolution that would be recognizable to an Iranian audience, such as raised fists, AK-47 rifles, and red banners.

Beyond quasi-Marxist and populist symbols of national struggle and martyrdom, the stamps of the Islamic Republic deployed other symbols, especially blood, tulips and roses, and doves to signal the importance of martyrdom to the national narrative of Iran.

The symbolism of blood is perhaps obvious, as is the connection between the blood of the martyrs and resistance to tyranny. Khomeini outlined this theme in a 1979 speech at Neuphle-le-Chateau:

It is as if the blood of our martyrs were the continuation of the blood of the martyrs of Karbala. Just as their pure blood brought to an end the tyrannical rule of Yazid, the blood of our martyrs has shattered the tyrannical monarchy of the Pahlavis.2

Accordingly, a 1980 “Anniversary of the Islamic Revolution” stamp visually depicted the blood of the martyrs shattering the sword of tyranny (figure 38, below left). In other stamps, the martyr’s blood bolsters the Islamic Republic: a drop of blood containing the word “yes” (areh) enters an Iranian ballot box in the 1990 commemorative stamp for the eleventh anniversary of the establishment of the Islamic Republic (figure 39, below center); similarly, in the 1995 commemorative stamp of the Republic, an Iran-Iraq War martyr reaches up from the red, blood-drenched swathe of the Iranian flag to cast his “yes” vote as Khomeini stares out smiling from the green belt at the top, which is also occupied with soldiers (figure 40, below right). In these stamps, the blood of the martyrs supports the Islamic Republic, reinforcing the martyrdom-nationalism-memory triad at work behind them.

So too, doves, which are old symbols of martyrs dating back even to the early period of Christianity (a dove was said to have flown from Polycarp’s body at his martyrdom), figure in several Iranian postage stamps.3

For example, a 1985 set of four stamps presents (as part of the same series) a martyr being taken into heaven, a mosque, doves facing down bombs, and a rifle firing upward to celebrate the “sacred defense” (figure 41, below; interestingly, Iran issued this series of stamps during the week of Ashūrāʾ).

Additionally, in the 1988 stamp commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the June 5th demonstrations, a bloodied dove breaking a bayonet occupies the top and center (figure 42, below left). So too in the 1986 stamp commemorating the death anniversary of the Egyptian “Hero of Sinai” Sulaymān Khāṭir (Khater) and proclaiming him a martyr, a dove flies from the prison cell that holds him (he was found dead in his cell, and it was widely believed that the Egyptian authorities staged his “suicide”) (figure 43, below right).

Another well-known and near-ubiquitous symbol of martyrdom in the Iranian context is the tulip. It appears on the Iranian flag,4 Khomeini’s tomb,5 and posters from the Islamic Revolution.6 The tulip also has connections both to the pre-Islamic narrative of Firdowsī’s Shāhnāmeh as well as the Karbala narrative, in which the red tulip, watered by tears, grows from the blood of the martyrs.7

Tulips appear on some of the very first stamps of Iran: a 1979 stamp shows a tulip centered against a background of an indistinct, protesting crowd. The leaves of this flower spell out “Islamic Republic” (jumhūri-ye islāmī), and the red flower “Allāh” (figure 44, left).

 

Another, more explicit, stamp hails from the 1979 series commemorating the International Year of the Child: the 2 riyal stamp depicts a child’s drawing of a wounded man, blood flowing from his chest. A field of tulips grow from his blood, with the largest containing a group of children, two of whom have raised fists (figure 45a, below left). In addition, in both the 3 riyal and the 5 riyal stamps of the same series, tulips form part of the background (figure 45b, below center, and figure 45c, below right). What these early stamps establish, right from the beginning of the Islamic Republic, is the conflation of blood/tulips, martyrdom, and the revolution. They reinforce an idea that the Islamic Republic was founded on the blood of martyrs, and its future remains dependent upon that same blood to reinvigorate society.

The association of blood, tulips and the Islamic Republic reappears in several later stamps of Iran, for example in a 1981 series of three stamps. The first, a 3 riyal stamp, shows a red tulip with the flower yet to bloom (figure 46a, below left). The tulip superimposes an image of the Qom mosque that later appears in stamps commemorating the commencement of the revolution (cf. figures 30, 31 and 42). The second, a 5 riyal stamp, displays blood spilling in the background and on the tulip (figure 46b, below center). The tulip in this stamp overlays “17 Shahrīvar” (i.e. “Black Friday,” see figure 25c), while the 20 riyal stamp in the series displays an open flower against a clear blue background (figure 46c, below right). Inside this the last flower is the stylized tulip with the symbol of tawḥīd (God’s Oneness) that appears on the Iranian flag, from which light emanates.

These stamps depict a sequence of events and correlate them to the emergence of the Islamic Republic, and through this series, the tulip becomes associated not just with martyrdom, but with specific events in the narrative of the Islamic Republic’s foundational history—especially the revolution and the “sacred defense” of Iran against Iraq.

Thus, the 1984 stamp commemorating the fifth anniversary of the revolution shows a bush around which a green, white, and red ribbon wraps and extends beyond the borders of the map. The bush itself contains white flowers, while at the lower left edge of the ribbon is a pool of blood, and a red tulip on its side. A series of five red tulips grows up along the ribbon (figure 47, right). From the same year, the “Week of War” stamp (officially commemorating the fourth anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war) depicts an open tulip growing on a yellow stem. Inside the stem is a green rifle, and inside each petal is a rifle round (figure 48, far right).

Later depictions of “sacred defense” on Iranian stamps adopted a stylized tulip/fist symbol, such as that which appears on the 1986 stamp celebrating the 2000th day of sacred defense, in which a green tulip is prominently displayed over an outline of Iran, extending beyond the borders. The front petal is a bomb, and a fist rises up from the center as another petal. Around the tulip a banner quotes Qurʾān 2:193: “And fight them until oppression is no more” (figure 49, below left). The same symbol appears also on the 1991 stamp commemorating the sacred defense (figure 50, below center) as well as that celebrating the victory over Iraq and “Sacred Defense Week” (figure 51, below right). In this way, the Iranian state consistently conflated martyrs/tulips and the defense of Iran during the war.

The Figure of the Martyr on Iranian Postage Stamps

Alongside tulips, the most frequent type of Iranian stamp aligning the state with the martyrs is that which employs recognizable human images. In direct contrast with Iraqi martyrdom stamps from the same period, Iranian martyrdom stamps conspicuously and copiously deploy the stylized images (and later, pictures) of actual martyrs to achieve their aims.

Early commemoration stamps for martyrs tended to portray the ʿulamāʾ and government officials (some of whom were also military personnel), either individually or in small groups. Such is the case with the triad of 1981 martyr stamps, the first of which commemorates the martyrs of Tīr 7th (June 28, 1981) (figure 52a, left top). The stamp shows a stream of the seventy-three people who were killed in a blast at the headquarters of the Islamic Republic Party on this date moving forward toward the viewer. The group becomes increasingly indistinct as it extends into the distance, and eventually exceeds the boundaries of the stamp. What is clear, however, is the composition of the crowd: ʿulamāʾ concentrate in the foreground, many of whom gaze at Ayatollah Bihishtī (Beheshti), chief justice of Iran’s Supreme Court, the central figure, indicating that he is the point of origin for the action of the stamp.

The second stamp in the series shows President Muḥammad Rajāʾī and Prime Minister Muḥammad Javād Bāhunar (a turbaned ʿālim), both of whom were assassinated by a suitcase bomb on August 30, 1981 (Shahrīvar 8th) (figure 52b, left center).

The last of the triad depicts Muṣṭafā Chamrān, Iranian parliament member and leader of an irregular military unit known as the “Irregular Warfare Headquarters.” He was killed fighting the Iraqis in 1981 (figure 52c, left bottom).

 

Ayatollah Beheshti received his own martyrdom stamp in 1982 (figure 53, below far left), alongside a stamp commemorating two ayatollahs (Mīr Asadullāh Madanī and ʿAbd al-Ḥusayn Dastghayb) who were assassinated at prayer (figure 54, below center left). These last two became known as “Martyrs of [the] Altar” (also as “Martyrs of the Prayer Niche” [shahīd-i mihrāb]).8 Two more “altar martyrs,” Ayatollah Muḥammad Ṣadūqī (Sadoghi) and Ayatollah Ashrafī Iṣfahānī (Esphahani), were assassinated at (or just after) prayer in 1982, and both were commemorated on stamps in 1983 (figure 55, below center right, and figure 56, below far right).

In addition, a 1983 stamp commemorated the assassinated Ayatollah Muḥammad Mufattiḥ (Mofatteh), killed in 1979 (figure 57, below far left), as well as a stamp (for “Government Week”) depicting (again) President Rajāʾī and Prime Minister Bāhunar (figure 58, below center left). A 1984 stamp shows Ayatollah Khomeini’s son Muṣṭafā, proclaiming him a martyr for his death (he died in Iraq in 1977; Khomeini and his followers blamed the Shah’s secret police, SAVAK, for his death) (figure 59, below center right); a 1984 stamp also commemorates Ayatollah Ghāzī Ṭabāʾṭabāʾī , later known as the first martyr of the mihrāb (i.e. “altar” martyr), who was killed at prayer in 1979 (figure 60, below far right).

Ayatollah Bihishtī and the other seventy-two martyrs of Tīr 7th appear again on a 1986 stamp (figure 61, below far left). 1987 saw the first “Teacher’s Day” stamp (others would follow in later years), which depicted Ayatollah Muṭahharī (figure 62, below center left). Although this stamp does not openly proclaim Muṭahharī a martyr, its iconography sufficiently conveys that message: in the center of an open book, a red tulip opens up, with a candle burning at the center, hearkening back to Muṭahharī’s concept of the martyrs as “the candles of society.”9 The flame overlays Muṭahharī’s chest and red blood runs down it.10 Alongside of this stamp, the Islamic Republic issued in 1987 a martyrdom stamp for Ayatollah Sayyid Ḥasan Modarris, Constitutional revolutionary and early Majlis member, who was killed in prison in 1937 (figure 63, below center right). In addition, a 1988 stamp commemorates Sayyid Ali Andarzgū (figure 64, below far right), an early revolutionary ʿālim who was killed by SAVAK just before the revolution in August of 1978.

These early martyrdom stamps of the Islamic Republic—all of which depict recognizable human figures—illustrate a number of points about how the Iranian state initially conceptualized and employed actual martyrs on their stamps. First, the stamps possess a simple conceptual structure, containing little in the way of extra symbols (such as tulips, raised fists, crowds, rifles, etc.) This suggests that their purpose was to create a national cast of model citizens who through their direct gaze placed symbolic demands on the viewers of the stamps. Second, the early martyrdom stamps overwhelmingly depict members of the ʿulamāʾ (including those from the Iranian past) and, secondarily, other government officials as the martyrs of the nation. Such an emphasis seems to suggest that the Islamic Republic wished to align the legitimacy of the nation primarily with its religious scholars—a goal consistent with the promotion of Khomeini’s notion of wilāyat al-faqīh as the ideological basis for the revolutionary Iranian state.

In keeping with the globalist pretensions of the Islamic revolution (as well as its Marxist/populist roots), Iran also issued martyr stamps for persons who were not Iranian, but whose memory served the interests of the Islamic Republic. Thus, a 1982 stamp commemorates the martyrdom of the Iraqi Shi’ite ʿālim Muḥammad Bāqir Ṣadr (executed by Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1980) (figure 65, below far left), while a 1984 stamp depicts the Lebanese Shi’ite “martyr” (shahīd) Rāghib Ḥarb (assassinated by the Israelis in 1984) (figure 66, below, second from left). Alongside these stamps are the 1984 issue commemorating the “martyrdom” of Sayyid Qutb (executed by the Egyptian state in 1966) (figure 67, below center), the 1985 stamp commemorating the 50th anniversary of the martyrdom of the Syrian ʿIzz al-Dīn al-Qassām (an early Arab revolutionary and anti-Zionist killed in Palestine in 1935) (figure 68, below, second from right), and a 1988 stamp remembering the “martyr” Sayyid Muḥammad Ismāʿīl Balkhī, an Afghani Shi’ite intellectual (and participant in the 1949 coup against the Afghani prime minister) (figure 69, below far right).

These stamps align the Iranian state with the wider struggles of the Palestinians, Lebanese, and Afghanis, as well as providing tacit criticism of the Iraqi and Egyptian regimes. They also continue the trend of portraying recognizable representations of clerics and intellectuals on martyrdom stamps: in fact, all but one of the non-Iranian martyrdom stamps from the 1980s portray turbaned ʿulamāʾ, and it could be argued that the non-turbaned Sayyid Qutb should be counted as a religious scholar in his own right.

One exception to the overall dominance of religious scholars on Iranian martyrdom stamps from the 1980s is the 1986 dual stamp portraying and commemorating Ḥusayn Fahmīdeh, a thirteen-year-old boy who blew himself up under an Iraqi tank in Khorramshahr in 1980, thereby becoming a national war hero.

The first stamp of the duo provides a child’s drawing of Fahmīdeh facing down the oncoming Iraqi tanks (figure 70a, right top). The other shows Fahmīdeh’s bust, with a quote from Khomeini: “Our leader is that thirteen-year-old child who threw himself with his little heart against the enemy. He is worth more than a hundred pens and a hundred tongues… He drank the sweet elixir of martyrdom” (figure 70b, right bottom).11 Fahmīdeh’s stamps are unique insofar as they depict a martyr who is not an ʿālim or government official; yet Khomeini’s quote still dominates nearly a full half of the second stamp, visually returning the gaze of the viewer back to the verbal presence of an ʿālim (indeed, the ʿālim) of the Iranian state. Even still, it is not difficult to imagine how such an extraordinary act could earn Fahmīdeh a place among Iran’s martyrs, despite the fact that he was not a religious scholar of some sort.

Fahmīdeh’s stamp, however, offers a glimpse of changes that would occur in how the Iranian postal service issued martyrdom stamps in the 1990s and beyond. This shift in martyrdom stamps can also be detected in the above-referenced stamps commemorating the martyrs of the first Palestinian Intifada (see figure 37): the Intifada martyrs stare out of the frame of the stamp, their names given to the right of a depiction of the Dome of the Rock, a barbed-wire Star of David, and an outline of Palestine. Moreover, these martyrs do not represent turbaned or any other kind of ʿulamāʾ. What distinguishes them, rather, is how they represent “ordinary” (albeit bearded, and therefore “religious”) Palestinians who were killed in the course of resisting Israel.

The depiction of regular civilians represents something of a break from the past tradition of presenting ʿulamāʾ on Iranian martyr stamps, and this trend would continue in the years following. Of course, the ʿulamāʾ do not disappear from Iran’s martyrdom stamps after the 1980s. Rather, stamps depicting “ordinary” Iranians begin to appear alongside them in greater numbers. Thus, a 1994 stamp commemorating the “martyr Muṭahharī” (figure 71, below left) appears in the same year with one showing documentary filmmaker Murtażā Āvīnī, who was killed by a landmine while filming in 1993 (figure 72, below center). 1995 saw the “martyr” oil minister M. J. Tandgūyān commemorated on a stamp (figure 73, below right).

Beginning in 1995, the Iranian post office began issuing stamps commemorating martyred commanders and other Iran-Iraq War casualties. These stamps strongly evoke the Bangladeshi “Shaheed Intellectuals” stamps of the same era: Iranian war martyr stamps appeared in groups of four or eight, from 1995 through 1998 (figure 74, below top) and again in 2000 (figure 75, below bottom), for a total of twenty-eight stamps. The martyred generals and soldiers stare out from the stamps, their names given at the top. In the background are the shrine of Ḥusayn and a (differently colored, depending on the year of issue) banner topped by an open palm, upon which is inscribed Allāhu akbar, “God is greatest.”

Just as with the “Shaheed Intellectuals” series of Bangladesh, the power of these stamps lies in their discomfiting ordinariness and number: although many of these stamps depict generals, their pictures communicate warmth and accessibility. In fact, most of the images do not include rank insignia on the uniforms, which are typically plain. In addition, the war martyr stamps often represent a significant number of the stamps issued in any given year: in 2000, for example, war martyr stamps comprise eight of the eighteen total stamps for that year. War martyr stamps thus comprise a significant portion of the martyrdom stamps of the 1990s, and they perpetuate the trend away from images of the martyred ʿulamāʾ in favor of “everyday” military personnel and government officials.

After the year 2000, the number of martyrdom stamps issued by the Islamic Republic decreased (indeed, after 2000 the overall yearly output of Iranian stamps has decreased). However, the trend toward presenting government officials and army personnel on martyrdom stamps continued, such that martyrdom stamps continue to comprise a significant percentage of the overall stamps issued by the Iranian state in any given year after the year 2000.

For example, Iran issued a 2003 stamp commemorating its “government martyrs” (figure 76, above left), followed by another (a dual issue) for military figures in 2006 (figure 77, above right). The latter features a large bust of Major General Aḥmad Qāzimī, who died in a plane crash in 2006, in one of its two stamps.

A 2008 series features Pahlavi-era revolutionary Navvāb Ṣafavī, founder of the fidāʾiyān-i islām (“self-sacrificers for Islam”) organization (figure 78, below left), along with Aḥmad Mutavassiliyān, a diplomat killed by the Israelis in Lebanon (figure 79, below center), and a martyred military commander, M. R. Pūrkiyān (figure 80, below right).

A 2009 stamp honors the “Dokouhe Stars,” three martyred military personnel from the Dokouhe military base in southwest Iran (figure 81, below left). A general “Martyrs of the Holy Defense” stamp from 2010 showing a generic soldier (figure 82, below center), appears in the same year as one recalling the martyrdom anniversary of Ayatollah Mufattiḥ (figure 83, below right; see also figure 57).

A 2012 stamp revisits the martyrdom of oil minister Tandgūyān (figure 84, below top left), and another from that year depicts child martyr Ḥusayn Fahmideh (figure 85, below top right); a 2013 souvenir sheet, issued for the “Remembrance Congress of Three Ministers, Combat Engineering Commander, and 1000 Martyrs of the Ministry of Defense and Logistics of Armed Forces,” commemorates various military martyrs, including Muṣṭafā Chamrān (figure 86, below center; see also figure 52c), as does the 2014 stamp for Ḥusaynʿalī ʿĀlī, a Bassīj (civilian militia) volunteer who died in the Valfajr Operation (i.e. “Operation Dawn”) of 1986-1987 (figure 87, below bottom left).12 A 2015 martyrdom stamp commemorates the 175 “martyr divers” of the Iran-Iraq War operation Karbala-4 (figure 88, below bottom right), whose bodies were returned to Iran in 2015.13

What these stamps continue to show is an overall trend away from depicting martyred ʿulamāʾ on martyrdom stamps, and thereby promoting wilāyat al-faqīh, in favor of an Iranian nationalism based in the sacrifice of military and (non-ʿulamāʾ) government officials. Martyrdom as a coin of modern Iranian nationhood, it seems, has become more and more “laicized” insofar as religious elites no longer dominate its imagery (at least on postage stamps).

Beginning in the 1990s, and certainly since the 2000s, military and government martyrs have taken over as the mainstay of Iranian postage stamps. And this trend appears to be accelerating, such that civilian martyrs are just now appearing on Iran’s stamps: a 2014 martyr stamp shows—in a fashion strongly reminiscent of the “Shaheed Intellectuals” stamps—the front-facing image of Maḥbūbeh Dānish Āshtiyānī, a sixteen-year-old girl who was shot in Jaleh Square in Tehran on “Black Friday” (September 8, 1978) by soldiers of the Pahlavi regime (figure 89, left top).

Moreover, as of the writing of this article, the most recent Iranian martyrdom stamp to appear has been a stamp commemorating martyred firefighters (figure 90, left bottom). The iconography of this stamp, which depicts firefighters running toward a blazing fire, breaks most (if not all) of the conventions of previous Iranian martyr stamps: it contains none of the symbols of martyrdom, nor does it show a martyr’s face, nor does it commemorate ‘ulamā’ or military personnel, nor even government officials. Rather, the firefighters appear as regular citizens—government employees, to be sure—but faceless and therefore “anyone.” Furthermore, the visual frame of the stamp positions the viewer at the level of the ground, looking upward toward the firefighters as they rush away from the viewer toward the fire: this is literally the “street level” view of martyrs, and it heightens the laicizing effect of the stamp. It remains to be seen if this trend in Iran’s martyrdom stamps will continue.

Conclusion

This essay attempts to provide a few insights into the deployment of martyrs and martyrdom on post-revolutionary Iranian postage stamps. Generally, we have hoped to show how stamps can be analyzed as expressions of the Iranian nation-state, and thereby as reflections of Iranian nationalism, however banal. More specifically, we have endeavored to show that Iranian stamps have a wider context insofar as other Muslim-majority nations placed martyrs (and martyr’s monuments, etc.) on their postage stamps, either before or concurrently with those that appeared on Iran’s stamps, but that Iranian stamps remain unique in how they present martyrs and martyrdom in a wide variety of ways, and in large numbers (indeed, more than could be analyzed in this essay). Additionally, we have argued that Iranian martyr stamps that provide recognizable images appear to have shifted away from depicting the ʿulamāʾ and towards portrayals of military, government, and even (most recently) civilian figures. This shift represents, to our minds, a growing laicization of martyrdom, at least as it appears on stamps.

Of course, stamps are but one medium for the expression of Iranian nationalism, and it is hoped that this article might provide a few brushstrokes in the larger tapestry of scholarly portraits of post-revolutionary Iran. Whatever insights we might have added to that discussion will need to be checked against the wider panorama of scholarship on Iran, as we are not specialists on the Islamic Republic. Yet we remain convinced that Iranian martyr stamps offer important glimpses into the ways that nation-states employ martyrs to create and maintain their communities. This mechanism—namely, the martyr-memory-community triad—comes as nothing new for those who study Late Antiquity and the early Islamic period, but its continued salience as reflected in the postage of a modern nation speaks to the ways that the study of the late antique and medieval periods can illumine the present.

 

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 imāmate, 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.

 

Notes

  1. Ervand Abrahamian, Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 71-87. The rifle does not appear prominently on Iranian martyrdom stamps (though it does appear on several Iranian stamps), being rather a symbol of resistance to oppression. I will thus not include specific examples of rifles on stamps here.
  2. Rūḥullāh Mūsavī Khumaynī, Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini (1941-1980) (trans. Hamid Algar) (Berkeley: Mizan Press, 1981), 249.
  3. See https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/study/module/polycarp/.
  4. Michael Fischer and Mehdi Abedi, Debating Muslims: Cultural Dialogues in Postmodernity and Tradition (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), 345.
  5. Kishwar Rizvi, “Religious Icon and National Symbol: The Tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran,” in Muqarnas 20 (2003): 209-224, 210-211.
  6. See https://www.lib.uchicago.edu/e/webexhibits/iranianposters/
  7. Fischer and Abedi, Debating Muslims, 345.
  8. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eys6DsvhK0o
  9. Murtażā Muṭahharī, “Jihād in the Qur’an,” in Mehdi Abedi and Gary Legenhausen (eds.), Jihād and Shahādat: Struggle and Martyrdom in Islam (Houston: Institute for Research and Islamic Studies, 1986), 81-124, 121.
  10. On Muṭahharī’s martyrdom, see the Iranian-run “Official Site of the Martyrs of the Islamic World,” http://en.icmiw.com/content/929/biology-martyr-morteza-motahhari; the piece on Iran English Radio World Service at http://english.irib.ir/radioislam/library/audio-books/item/153876-a-brief-account-of-martyr-allameh-motahhari; http://en.rasekhoon.net/article/show/1031965/biography-of-martyr-morteza-motahari/; and Khomeini’s speech in which Muṭahharī is praised as a martyr at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s4_i5a3-Zk4.
  11. Rūḥullāh Musavī Khumaynī, Ṣaḥīfat-i nūr (Tehran: Sāzmān-i Madārik-i Farhangī-ye Inqilāb-i Islāmī, 1986), 14.73. See also http://article.tebyan.net/105904/رهبر-12-ساله. Thanks to Alan Godlas, Eliza Tasbihi, and Behnam Sadeghi for help with this quote.
  12. See http://hamshahrionline.ir/details/276342/Defence/imposedwar. Thanks to Mahdi Tourage for helping me to identify this stamp, and for this link.
  13. Lachin Rezaiian, “Return of 175 Martyr Divers Agitates Grievous Memories in Iran,” Mehr News Agency, May 30, 2015.

Stamps of the Fallen (Part 2)

Martyrs on the Postage Stamps of the Islamic Republic of Iran

Stamps of the Fallen (Part 2)

Martyrs on the Postage Stamps of the Islamic Republic of Iran