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Performing Ta’ziyeh, Performing Empathy

Below is an outline of a religious service about empathy and the Ta’ziyeh created for, but not limited to, the Unitarian Universalist tradition. The service below, not only would be a service for a Sunday, but also would require a process beforehand to deepen the congregation’s knowledge of Islam and the art form of the Ta’ziyeh. Prior to the service, the congregation would be split into three groups. One of the amazing aspects about Ta’ziyeh is the audience’s full participation in it. All three groups would meet four weeks prior to not only delve into and practice a part of the Ta’ziyeh drama, but to make it relevant and their own. They would be given a set of tasks of how to deal with the text that would include discussion questions, informational workshops about the Ta’ziyeh’s, and lectures from scholars or practitioners as well as a process on how to develop their theatrical performances.


This service has the goal of using Ta’ziyeh as a way to open up a different type of space in which to not only learn more about this particular type of theater, but to also open up a space conducive to furthering discourse and a deep understanding of another’s culture and religion that will allow for the participants to become more compassionate towards those of any differing faith. The service consists of a mixture of a few UU traditions as well as drawing upon sources that range from readings of the Qur’an to a reading of a ghazal, to music from different sources. Also present in the service is a homily that serves as a guiding piece for the purpose and significance of this type of worship.


Performing Ta’ziyeh, Performing Empathy


Opening Words: Milan Kundera wrote in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, “there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.” In the spirit of feeling compassion whether light or heavy, in the spirit of the difficulties that imagination may lead to, and in the spirit and lending an ear to a hundred echoes and the pain that continually echoes, I welcome you into this space. A space of hopeful enlightenment and small pieces of revelation.


Chalice Lighting from the Qur’an

“By the sun and its brightness

And [by] the moon when it follows it

And [by] the day when it displays it

And [by] the night when it covers it

And [by] the sky and He who constructed it

And [by] the earth and He who spread it

And [by] the soul and He who proportioned it

And inspired it [with discernment of] its wickedness and its righteousness,

He has succeeded who purifies it,

And he has failed who instills it [with corruption].


1st performance of the Ta’ziyeh




A Ghazal Read by the Children of the Congregation in both Urdu and English:



Through passion, through love, the state found the relish of life

It found a cure for pain; it found a pain without cure


2nd performance of the Ta’ziyeh




The cafeteria at my High School was spacious, light, filled with wooden floors and long tables, a fireplace stood somewhat awkwardly, but still with majesty at in the middle of the room. Though such a beautiful dining hall, I often grabbed my lunch and sat with friends for whatever reason outside the bathrooms. I did this most days, except for the time of Ramadan that came after September 11th. A liberal and artsy high school packed with primarily white students who prided themselves on being politically active and in the know, we were upset and angry at the treatment of Muslims after that bright and sunny day when a plane crashed into the two towers. To demonstrate our solidarity, many of us fasted from sunrise to sunset during this month to honor Ramadan, sitting at tables in the dining room, feeling hungry and somewhat lost. Though I participated in this I do not know if I ever got to a point of feeling true empathy. I wanted to. Or did I really want to? Did I want to truly feel the confused pain and complicated emotions of being a Muslim in the U.S. after September 11th? Probably not.


So many of us want to be close to people, not just the people we love who are near us, but to all people, to feel with full heart all of the complications that exist between and within us. Yet, so often coupled with this want to feel and to be with people, is a want to stay away from the other who is different, the other who believes in something different than us? Today we explore the art form of the Ta’ziyeh. The word Ta’ziyeh refers to manifestations of sympathy, mourning and solace, but is also a dramatic performance that is enjoyed and celebrated by some Muslims in Iran. Today we have already started to delve into this piece, a drama that though not our own, tells a story in a form we are familiar with and calls upon us to question the roles of the audience and actors, ask ourselves if this piece fits into what we have thought of as Islam, and finally ask if art pieces such as these help us build empathy and a greater compassion?


Often, when we explore, study, and delve into other religions, we have full intention of understanding them to further our spirituality, views, and studies, but also to expand our tolerance, move beyond it, so that we can develop true compassion towards those who may not share our spirituality, but share a part of the path in a walk to divine. In order to develop this compassion, we must also work to develop empathy. Developing a sense of a wider family in a real way in which we can recognize all the roots that we come from.


Aspen trees have beautiful white bark with more of a rough patch at the bottom to discourage deer from eating it. This past March my friend Justin and I went driving in the Rockies. He told me that Aspen trees have interconnected root structures that connect them all. A forest of Aspen trees though at first glance looks like a cluster of trees, is in fact much more connected than one might see. An attempt to uproot an Aspen tree is in fact an attempt to uproot an entire forest.


Ideally, family would be similar to an Aspen forest. A group of interconnected individuals that stand strong and separate, yet at the roots, are intricately connected. Not only intricately connected, but within this connection, protected. If one is uprooted we all become a little uprooted. Of course, family is not always like this. The roots we grew up out of, the roots we put down, do not always connect and interconnect the way we desire, they often have minds of their own, roots and shoots that interact differently with others, creating a more complex structure, a more complex forest than that of an aspen tree. In this root complex we cannot ignore the roots of others, we cannot ignore the complexities, even when these roots are hard to access or difficult for us to see. Often when it is difficult for us to see our ignorance, it is useful to use art as a gateway, to use performance, drama, and dance to engage with a space that not only educates us about spirituality outside the one we know, but to creatively open our minds for the possibility of revelation. And with that, we go back in to the Ta’ziyeh.


3rd performance from the Ta’ziyeh




Closing Words: All Rivers Run to the Sea by Kayle Rice

It starts with a drop,

Then a trickle…

A burble, a rush of water,

bubbling toward its destination;

And finally the wide, endless sea.

All rivers run to the sea.

Today you brought water

Poured it into a common bowl.

Though our experiences have differed,

These waters mingle,

signifying our common humanity.

Today you came;

And shared in this sacred community.

May you depart this sacred space,

Hearts filled with hope for new beginnings;

A fresh start.

Go forth, but return to this community,

Where rivers of tears may be shed,

Where dry souls are watered,

Where your joy bubbles,

Where your life cup overflows,

Where deep in your spirit you have found in this place a home.

All rivers run to the sea.



Go in Peace.

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