by Majid Naficy

This is the English version of my talk "Worship of Death before the Revolution" at a conference sponsored by The Cultural Foundation of Nima at UCLA, in August 1989 [1]. The Persian version was published as an introduction to my book In Search of Joy: A Critique of Death-Oriented, Male-Dominated Culture in Iran
(Baran publisher, Sweden, 1991).

Now that Iranians shout on the streets: “Woman, Life, Freedom” it is time to return to my book. M. N. 


A death-worshiper sees death as the only solution to all problems of life, and his permanent war cry is, "Kill or be killed." We find death worship not only in the desire of the people for martyrdom but also in the methods and slogans of their struggle and sources of their inspiration during the 1978-79 Revolution in Iran. Especially, when the clergy who officiate the ceremony of death become politically active and after the "outside the zone [2]" movement in Summer 1978 and "the nights of poetry [3]" in Fall of the same year, gradually take the leadership of the revolution. For example: the well-known days of fortieth [4] (the eighteenth of February 1978 in Tabriz [5] and ...), marches of the shrouded, setting of bridal chambers on the streets for young martyrs, gatherings in cemeteries, especially in Behesht-e Zahra, Passion plays commemorating the day of the Tenth [6] and the slogan: " every and each day is the Tenth day, every and each land is Karbala".

The best example of this desire for death can be seen in the Rex Theatre arson in Abadan on August 20, 1978 killing more than 400 viewers which, according to my late comrade, Mostafa Abkashak [7], was instigated by the clergy. The pre-revolution anti-establishment death-worship after the collapse of the Shah's police state, becomes a state policy of the Khomeini's regime, and the religious judges and the cemetery deacons take charge of the political stage.. The death-worship in our homeland reaches its peak during 1980-89 with the execution of thousands of dissidents labeled "the evils of the earth", founding of "The Martyr's Foundation" and most of all "the blessing of the war" [8] During the eight-year Iran-Iraq-War, pan-Islamist Khomeini used "human wave tactic" and sent children on mines, in hope of paradise and Pan-Arabist Saddam used chemical weapons; more than one million Iranians and Iraqis were killed and many more injured.

Now before embarking on the analysis of cultural roots and social background of death-worship in the threshold of the February Revolution, it is necessary to see what death is and how it is related to life and what the notion is that cherishes life?

Definition of Death and Phases of Dying

There are different opinions about the medical definition of human death, but it is traditionally defined as complete stop of respiration and blood circulation. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross who has done much research on death and dying, considers that a dying patient goes through the following psychological phases: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance [9]. Of course, there are nuances for each individual within this universal scheme.

A Wish for Immortality

Escape from death has occupied the human mind from early on; As can be seen in the wish for immortal life in mythology of all peoples: the Islamic Khizr, The Iranian Esfandyar and The Greek Achilles. However, these myths usually end unhappily, because the heroes in most cases, have a vulnerable spot: Esfandyar is hit through his eye and Achilles his heal. Eos's lover, Tithonus whose wish is fulfilled and has become immortal when grows old and worn-out, he asks the gods for death, because immortality is not desirable without youth and health.

Religion and the Denial of Death

As Sigmund Freud says, in his book, The Future of an Illusion, religion appeared in order to remove the reality of death from the human mind. According to the doctrine of Resurrection in Abrahamicm religions like Islam, people after death spiritually or bodily will rise and become immortal. According to the Hindu doctrine of Reincarnation, every living thing after death, will be reborn in a new form in this world. However, the religious denial of death might defeat its purpose, because a religious person in hope of reward hereafter might spend his or her life observing ceremonies which in fact lead to obsession with death rather than escaping from it.

Mysticism and Self-Annihilation

In order to win over death mystics, such as Rumi and Attar, do not focus on the world hereafter. They try to snare the bird of death for life by way of self-annihilation and rejection of all characteristics of being alive such as eating, drinking and sex. However, the tangible outcome of mysticism is not immortality, rather it is the acceptance of little deaths during life and preparation for final end.

Hedonism and Forgetting of Death

Hedonism or "let's be happy" is the non-religious complement of religious death-worship. Epicure, Abu-Nowas, Khayyam and Hafez are not comfortable to wipe out the reality of death from their minds in a religious-mystical way. However, like adherents of religion and mysticism, they see life haunted by the fearful ghost of death. In order to resolve this fear, they take refuge in happy-drinking and its subsequent forgetfulness. As Khayyam says: "Because I am not immortal in this universe/ So it is a capital sin to live without wine and one's beloved."

Unfortunately, the hedonistic heavy drinking only leads to withering away of the human body and spirit. It degrades life and exacerbates the fear of death for the living.

The Philosophy of Absurdity and Suicide

In the modern world in which the role of religion has diminished tendency toward death usually follows a non-religious direction. For example, Albert Camus, the French Existentialist writer considers the concept of suicide as the essential problem of philosophy. In his book The Myth of Sisyphus, he compares a human being to Sisyphus who constantly has to roll a rock toward a mountain top, but the rock rolls back half way. It leaves him unsuccessful in reaching his goal, that is victory over death and finding a meaning for life. After weakening his reader with the poison of absurdity and temptation for suicide, Camus suddenly rebels and expects that the human being accepts responsibility. It is obvious that his death-stricken reader will not be able to carry out this mission.

Tendency Toward Life

The science of medicine has diminished the ratio of mortalities and journey to outer space has strengthened the possibility of longer life in the human mind. Nevertheless, death occurs and denial or disregarding it leads to the opposite result. Death is a twin for life, and one has to accept it. As long as people are alive they can use their creative powers and by leaving a piece of their creation, overcome the feeling of annihilation and death. Leaving a good name for oneself, a child, a bed of flowers, a piece of poetry, music, story and the like-- these are examples of immortalization of life and not the religious resurrection or hedonistic heavy drinking. The traditional example of the tendency toward life can be seen in the preface of The Rose Garden by the fourteenthe century Persian poet, Sa'di: "The flower only remains for five or six days / But this Rose Garden will always remain green."

Social Background

Some of the social background of death-worship is as follows:

1. Wherever the rate of mortality is high due to poverty, people are more vulnerable to death and they always feel threatened by it. Children in whose families or neighborhoods people die frequently, will get used to this concept and for the rest of their lives suffer by its nightmare.

2. In societies in which religion rules over the life of the people, the death-oriented culture is more dominant.

3. Economic injustice and lack of individual liberties create not only tyrannical governments and oppressor classes but also lead the oppressed people toward violence and futile solutions such as assassination and suicide-bombing.

In the Modern Society

In a modern society like the US the rate of life expectancy has increased, the separation of church and state has been established and even in some of the States capital punishment has been abolished. However, death-worship here, appears in new forms such as lack of gun control, glorification of violence and killing on TV and movies as well as the risk of nuclear explosion which can eliminate life once and for all.

Intellectuals and Death for a Cause

Now let us return to Iran. Alongside the existence of an apt background for growth of death-worship in Iranian society, one should not ignore the role that the intellectuals played in this respect in years before the Revolution. Starting fifteen years before the February Revolution, a shift took place in the thought and methods of struggle against the Shah's regime among the leftist and religious (including clerical) intellectuals.

The desire for revolution replaced reformism and sacrificing one's life for a cause became the slogan of the day. There is no doubt that the social impact of the Shah's Land Reform and other factors like the political bankruptcy of reformist parties: Mossadegh's National Front and the Soviet-oriented Tudeh Party, the June 4, 1963 riot over the arrest of Khomeini, and the Cuban and Algerian Revolutions played a role in this change.

The Immortal Martyred

In 1968 a clergyman by the name of Salehi-Najafabadi published a book in the city of Qom, called The Immortal Martyred in which he presented a political view regarding the Imam Houssein's Tenth Day Rebellion. Another clergyman, Montazari, who later became vice-roy under Khomeini for a while, had written an introduction to this book.

According to the traditional view, Imam Houssein became martyred in order to redeem his followers, the Shiis, on the day of resurrection. In return, the Shiis have to mourn for him on the anniversary of his death. In the political version of Salehi, first, Imam Houssein is not a defeatist; that is, he did not struggle in order to become a martyr. On the contrary, he wanted to take political power and restore the early years of Moslem golden age. Second, instead of mourning, the Shiis should be inspired by Hossein's radicalism and in order to take power, they should not be afraid of martyrdom for a cause.


In 1971 a religious but anti-clerical intellectual, Dr. Ali Sharia'ti presented a talk on Martyrdom in Ershad Auditorium, Tehran,in which he gave a new political view on the Tenth Day Rebellion. According to Sharia'ti, Imam Houssein knew in advance that his uprising would not lead to victory. Nevertheless, he chose martyrdom to set an example for people and raise their political consciousness. Sharia'ti criticizes Salehi for not distinguishing between jihad (holy war) and martyrdom. In jihad, the Imam of the community declares war against the enemy in order to take political power whereas martyrdom is a voluntary act geared toward preparation of a social setting for jihad.

In this new view, one can see the impact of the current events of the day, because Sharia'ti delivered his talk a short while after the 8 February 1971 assault to a gendarmerie post in the village of Siahkal near Lahijan, and the emergence of urban guerilla warfare carried out by the Marxist Cherikha-ye Fedai-ye Khalq(The Iranian People's Fedai Guerilla Organization) and the Islamic-Marxist Mojahedin-e Khalq (The Iranian People's Mojahedin Organization). There was a similarity of thought between Sharia'ti's "Martyrdom" of Imam and "political agitation" resulted from the armed actions of the urban guerillas.

Mojahedin of the People

This Koranic verse is the organizational slogan of "Mojahedin of the People": "God has preferred those who fight over those who stay at home rewarding the former to a greater extent." (4, 95) Waging urban guerrilla warfare they tried to put their theory of "revolutionary martyrdom" into practice and, inspired by the Algerian revolution, they combined Marxist theories with Islamic ideas.

A Refutation to the Theory of Survival

Amir Parviz Pooyan, a theoretician of the People's Fedai Organization, and the author of a pamphlet by the above-mentioned title, was killed by the Shah's anti-terrorist squads in Tehran in 1972. Inspired by the Cuban Revolution Pooyan, argued that in order to eliminate two absolute factors of "political repression" and "the revolutionaries' lack of strength", the revolutionary intellectuals have to set aside the "theory of survival" and "slow-paced political work". Through armed political actions and sacrificing one's life, they should inspire the masses for a revolutionary uprising.

Coupled with the theory of "death for a cause" one can find other common beliefs among People's Fedais and People's Mojahedin intellectuals which together represent a death-worship culture. They include:

Philosophical Determinism

In spite of the fact that our revolutionary intellectuals accused their reformist opponents of determinism, they were determinists of another sort. They considered themselves as representatives of either divine or historical forces of evolution, and they willingly gave their lives for this cause. Indeed, this is the philosophical source of dogmatism in a death-stricken ideology.

Worship of One's Ideology

A Communist or a Khomeinist may both bravely welcome death for their cause. However, they both regard each other's death, not as martyrdom but as an "elimination". The reason lies in the fact that for them, glorification of a warrior's death stems from one's sacred ideology and not one's bravery. In turn, the ideology represents God or History and owes its sanctity to the holy divine or historical laws and necessities.

On the contrary, I believe that we should make a distinction between ideology and ethics, and accept that bravery is good and submission to servitude is bad no matter who is the initiator. But a death-worshipper is also an ideology-worshipper and cannot see the human individual beyond the group-ideological boundaries. All individuals have the same human rights whether they are Communist or Khomeinist, rich or poor, female or male, disabled or abled body, criminal or law-obedient, and their rights should be respected at all times, and everywhere.


A death-worshiper regards joy as a sin, avoids sex and is reluctant to eat. For example, in 1972 Mehdy Rezaii, a People's Mojahed proudly stated in his defence at court that when he was underground, he had not eaten anything except bread and cheese. In a group called Revolutionaries for the Emancipation of the Working Class,(who joined the organization of the Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class (Paikar) in 1980), wife and husband were not allowed to have sex. Stoicism stems from mysticism.

Glorification of Violence

Our intellectuals had militaristic minds. They relied on violence and arms not only in their social struggle but also within the organization itself. One can remember the bloody ideological shift to Marxism-Leninism within the People's Mojahedin in 1975 and bloody factional conflict within the People's Fedayees(the Minority) in Kurdistan, 1986.

Playing with Death

In the seventies, the intellectual guerrillas while underground constantly prepared themselves for the period of detention, cross-examination, torture and execution. Their objectives were to be in control of their own death rather than allowing the police to manipulate them. To serve this purpose they always had cyanide capsules in their mouths.

As a result, the emergence of death-worship in the Islamic Republic is not only related to the economic poverty and high rate of mortality or political repression and the dominance of religion but it also depends on the thought and practice of the intelligentsia in the years preceding the Revolution. Today, too, the kind of responses which our intellectuals have for the question "why did we end here?", will undoubtedly affect the course of future events in Iranian society. Of course, we should not limit ourselves to the cultural criticism, we need an agenda for action as well.

The Abolition of Capital Punishment

Somewhere this vicious circle has to be broken. While in the Shah's prison in the 70's, Asadollah Lajevardi, the chief of the torture chamber in the Islamic Republic, undoubtedly dreamt of the present day fields of execution. Likewise, there are many people suffering from repression in this regime who envision the mullahs over the future gallows. We must set aside this habit of cannibalism and admit that through killing or being killed we cannot find a remedy for the pains of our society. We also should ask all the writers of political agendas to remove capital punishment for political opponents immediately and unconditionally. A few months after my arrival to Los Angeles on May 17, 1984 I started to collect signatures from Iranian emigre for this purpose. Capital punishment is based upon tribal revenge and religious retribution and should be eliminated from modern criminal laws. It does not deter criminals but rather it teaches brutality.

Marxist and religious intellectuals both have contradictory traditions towards capital punishment. For example, opposite to the medieval Spanish Inquisition and Khomeini's religious courts, we have in America the Quakers who, from the very beginning have been against violence and killing. Recently, some Muslim abolitionists use this Koranic verse to condemn capital punishment: "For that cause we decreed for the children of Israel that whosoever killeth a human being for other than manslaughter or corruption in the earth, it shall be as if he has killed all mankind , and whoso saveth the life of one it shall be as if he has saved the life of all mankind." (5:32)

Contrary to Lenin and especially Stalin, we have a free thinker like the Polish Marxist, Rosa Luxembourg who wrote an article for the abolition of capital punishment and published in Die Rote Fahne November 18, 1918. In spite of siding with the October Revolution she condemns the violent methods of Bolshevism. One can find the same contradiction in Marx's works as well. On the one hand, he condemns capital punishment in an article published in the New-York Daily Tribune February 17-18 1953 and on the other hand, by adhering to the dictatorship of the proletariat, he favored the execution of the political opponents.

The abolition of capital punishment does not lead to compromise with the theocracy but on the contrary, it attacks the real foundations of this violent regime. By killing oppressors one cannot eliminate oppression and by killing the clergy one cannot eradicate theocracy. >From somewhere this vicious circle of death-worship has to be broken. "humanistic execution" is nonsense just as are "good slavery". Let respect for human individuals grow in us, let love for life bloom in us, hello to life!



[1] The other speakers were Nasim Khaksar, Abbas Milani and A. Navid. See Ketab e Nima Vol. 3, Los Angeles, Fall 1990, p. 129

[2] In the summer 1978, people protesting the zoning regulations in Tehran stoned government buildings. This marked the beginning of the 79 Revolution.

[3] In the autumn of 1978, the Goethe Institute in Tehran sponsored Ten Nights of Poetry Readings in which intellectuals protested against censorship.

[4] A mourning day forty days after a death.

[5] Commemorating the riot which occured in the city of Qom forty days before.

[6] Commemorating the death of Imam Hossein, the great Shii martyr who is buried in the city of Karbala in Iraq.

[7] In a pamphlet in Persian published in Los Angeles titled: Who Are the Real Arsonists of Rex Theatre Holocaust? 1988.

[8] Referring to the Iran-Iraq War, Khomeini called it "a blessing", that is, for his government.

[9] Kubler-Ross, Elizabeth On Death & Dying New York Mac Millan Publishing Company Inc. 1969