Postcards from Iran
Islam is one of the world’s great religions, and its foundations promote kindness and ethical behaviour. The ways it serves as a guiding principle of the Islamic Republic seem both to outsiders and to many Iranians to be something very different, at odds with Islam’s core values.
The present government is guilty of countless cruel and tyrannous acts and, to say the least, discriminatory laws and practices. In terms of the status of women alone, they are in defiance of many international agreements, even the ones to which they are signatories. They have also created a very dangerous position for their nation on the world stage.
But the Islam of generosity, compassion and mystic spirituality is also very much in evidence.
I came to appreciate the ways that mosques serve their communities. They are conveniently placed in every neighbourhood and by the roadside.
People enter them to join in prayer, uniting their energies for common cause. The mosque is also open as a place of rest. I found them to be profoundly peaceful. We saw young girls doing their homework in a quiet mosque, while other people prayed. All of us simply enjoyed the magnificent art work — which is a spiritual experience in itself. Arches on the outside of the building were built specifically to provide places for passers-by to get out of the sun, perhaps to eat or even to sleep.
Although Iranian hospitality predates Islam by a long way, it finds confirmation in religion. One of the five things a true Muslim must do is to ensure that others are not in need.
On the highway about 150 km from Mashhad we saw some thirty pilgrims, walking to the shrine in honour of Imam Reza. This enormous shrine, with its massive gold dome and endless magnificent courtyards, is the second most important pilgrimage site for Shia Muslims, after Mecca. Imam Reza, who lived in the 8th century CE, was the eighth in the Shia lineage. He was known as a healer. People come to the shrine seeking healing and down through the centuries they have given generous donations. By now the shrine’s organization has become very wealthy.
The pilgrims were walking right at the edge of a busy freeway, undeterred by the noise and the black truck exhaust. They strode along purposefully, singing. Some carried flags in various colours. Judging by their clothing and appearance, Fleur guessed they may have been Kurds from the far western areas of the country — a very long walk indeed. Other pilgrims come even further, although they may arrive on public transport. In fact many of the passengers on my plane were on their way to the shrine, satisfying a life-long desire. The twenty million pilgrims who come to Mashhad every year contribute hugely to the city’s economy. Some plan to retire there.
On one of the saint’s days we saw a procession on the streets of Mashhad. Men walked in front, beating their own backs with chains to enhance their mourning. Women in chadors, and children followed them. Drummers set the beat, and one man sang into a microphone attached to a sound system in the truck that accompanied the parade. The use of chains used to be confined to the Day of Ashura, the mourning for Hoseyn, grandson of the prophet Mohammad who was killed in battle at Karbala. Now it seems to extend to other saint’s days as well. I saw the chains for sale in one of the metal-worker’s stalls in the Esfahan bazaar.
Mourning for saints is very common in Iran. The mourning is profound, as if these saints were members of the family who had just passed on recently. Oddly enough I felt that this passion has something in common with the way Fleur spoke of historical figures such as Cyrus the Great or Amir Kabir.
History is alive here, both religious and secular.
Continue the journey as I relay my conclusions about my trip to Iran
Please feel free to write to me with your comments and questions.