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Ritualized cursing had long been a part of popular culture in medieval and early modern Iran. When the Safavids seized power in 1501 and imposed Shi'i Islam as the established faith of the country, they appropriated the practice in the service of the state, compelling their subjects to curse ritually the first three (Sunni) caliphs in street and square - or face decapitation. Rosemary Stanfield-Johnson here demonstrates that in a largely oral society both the royal court and the emerging Shi'i religious establishment understood that controlling the medium meant controlling the message, and therefore society itself. Moreover, the ritual of public cursing also served the interests of the people. Because the new government could rely on a reservoir of shared cultural expression, it found willing participants among its subjects, for whom the practice became more than an act of compliance. With a new perspective on the transition from Sunni to Shi'i Iran, 'Ritual Cursing in Iran' is essential for all those interested in Safavid Iran and Islamic history, as well as the relationship of politics and religion in the public sphere.
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Rosemary Stanfield-Johnson is Associate Professor of Religious History at University of Minnesota Duluth. She has taught at New York University, where she received her PhD, and Hofstra University, and at UMD since 2002.
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