One morning in Shiraz
Posted by Sen on January 25, 2009
I was in the bazaar of Shiraz one morning early, just after sunrise in April. The sound of a sermon drew me off the main route through the bazaar: the mullah’s voice rising and falling in beautiful rhythmical Persian.
I followed the sound and came into a courtyard with shops on two floors around, and in the middle a garden with some orange trees. It appeared to be a former madrasah converted into shops. In one corner sat the mullah on a chair, rocking back and forth and gesturing left and right in time with the rhythms of the language, all built up of pairs of synonym phrases. Either he had it entirely memorised, or this was highly polished extempore art like rapping.
In front of him a cloth of perhaps 10 metres square was spread out on the ground, and about 25 merchants were sitting around the edges of the cloth, eating cucumber and flat white bread and white cheese, and drinking tea. Several of them gestured me to come and sit at an empty place, and one who made it his business to serve the others brought me some food and tea. I noticed, a little bit further away, under one of the orange trees, that there were two women also sitting on a cloth. The sermon was interrupted with some munajat, responses from the merchants, then more rhythmic Persian by way of conclusion. Then the mullah looks at his watch, jumps up, bows left and right and hurries off. I suppose it lasted 30 minutes, but I was hardly aware of time passing.
The shopkeepers fell to gossiping, and then went off one by one to raise the shutters on their shops.
I was reminded of that morning in Shiraz by the following section in Abdu’l-Baha’s Some Answered Questions, which talks about the continuing vitality of Christianity:
“…the breezes of Christ are still blowing; His light is still shining; His melody is still resounding; His standard is still waving; His armies are still fighting; His heavenly voice is still sweetly melodious; His clouds are still showering gems; His lightning is still flashing; His reflection is still clear and brilliant; His splendor is still radiating and luminous; and it is the same with those souls who are under His protection and are shining with His light.
(Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, pp. 152-3)
I am sure this applies equally to Islam. Islam is not dead, or dying, whatever troubles Islamic societies may be going through. However I know from observation and from reading that for most people in Iran, the Islam that is part of their daily lives and beliefs is not the Islam of the Friday Sermon and the Ayatollahs. Islam is not one thing, and Iranian Islam is not one thing. There is sufism, popular islam, ghulaw sects, intellectual reinterpretations, Ismailis, Sunnis, political islam, women’s prayer groups, and much more. There is Friday prayers, but there is also visiting family graves, making ziyarat to a shrine, hanging a charm against the evil eye on the wall, saying inshallah, trying to be an honest person, trying to climb to the top ranks of the ulama and wear a big turban, trying to attain an ecstatic vision of the unity of God. Every day millions of people in Iran are closely engaged with one or other aspect, of one or other Islam. Most of them are admirable. All this is not going to simply evaporate, in the way people’s nominal adherence to communism vanished after the fall of the Iron Curtain. It goes deeper than an ideology, is more rewarding, and offers more surprises.
Islam will not fade, but there is a growing recognition that the future of Islam, and of Iran, lies in the secular state; one which treats all its citizens equally and does not interfere with freedom of conscience and the diversity of religious practice. Shoghi Effendi said …
…in the marked distinction which unofficially and in various phases of public life is being made by an enlightened and pressing minority between the tottering forms of a discredited Ecclesiasticism and the civil rights and duties of civilized society; … a discerning eye can easily discover the symptoms that augur well for a future that is sure to witness the formal and complete separation of Church and State.
(Shoghi Effendi, Baha’i Administration, p. 148)
You could say that this is a failed vision, since Shoghi Effendi did not foresee the resurgence of obscurantism, bigotry and oppression that has marked the recent history of Iran. But you could also say that this is a prophecy that cannot fail. No contemporary society has been successful without separating church and state, so just as a trapped bird will fly to and fro in a room and batter itself against all the windows until it eventually finds the opening, Iran will, sooner or later, find the way forward. When it does, it will find that the light of Muhammad is still shining, His melody still resounding, His standard still waving – not less but more vigorously, when the state rules and religion is faithful, and neither interferes with the other.
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