Martyrdom and Masculinity in Warring Iran. The Karbala Paradigm, the Heroic, and the Personal Dimensions of War

Olmo Gölz


During the Islamic Revolution (1978/79) and the subsequent Iran-Iraq war (1980–1988) the cult of the martyr in Iran had a lasting impact on the dynamics of revolution and war. As a powerful mode of the society’s boundary construction, the figure of the martyr represented a culturally idealised catalogue of norms and thus he crucially contributed to the establishment and maintenance of the Islamic Republic’s political system. Beyond that, in this article martyrdom is conceptualised as a radicalisation of these modes of boundary construction, and thus as an extreme form of heroism, since the underlying discourses not only determine the sacred centre of the martyr’s society, but rather define opposing entities and ‘wrong behaviour’ in polar terms. Furthermore, I argue that martyrdom is to be determined as a dominant discourse influencing hegemonic masculinity in Iran in the late 70s and 80s. Accordingly, the cult of the martyr is to be understood to affect all aspects of gender relations in warring Iran. In this paper I shall show how the Islamist discourse on martyrdom had been forged and fostered through references on the Karbala narrative of early Islam and its modern reinterpretation as a heroic narrative which distinctively calls for the self-sacrifice of the true believer when facing tyranny and injustice. In effect, via the exaltation of martyrdom as a radicalised mode of boundary construction, everyone’s contribution to the war became a personal obligation.