Some of you know that, in the 1970s, I — along with my family — spent several years living and working in the Middle East. In preparation for this adventure, I read everything that I could get my hands on that would give me some insight into the social and religious traditions of the region. Then, while living in Iran, I learned more.
I lived in the city of Isfahan in the center of Iran. The city was designed by the Persians to be a showplace capital that would rival Constantinople, the famed center of the Ottoman Empire. It boasted wide avenues leading to large public squares, palaces, caravansaries, mosques, and madrasehs (religious schools) as well as an expanded ‘old’ bazaar. The Royal Square or Maidan-I-Shah, was the focal point of the city, and was seven times the size of the Piazza San Marcos in Venice.
Isfahan’s master builder, Shah Abbas, was a descendant of Ismail, a Turkish-speaking warrior, who, in 1501, became the first Safavid ruler of Persia. Ismail’s initial action was to make ‘Twelver’ Shi’ism the official religion of the land. We’ll talk more about the twelvers later. For now, it’s enough to know that his state was not a nation state in the modern sense, but an ideological one. He and his successors imported Shi’ite theologians from Arab countries to indoctrinate the Iranians, and ordered preachers to denounce the first three Sunni caliphs in their Friday sermons. Although the caliphs had been close to Mohammad personally, Shi’ite leaders didn’t consider them to be his religious heirs.
I learned most of this after I arrived ‘in-country’ when I took a class on Shi’ism taught by Ahmad, a local high school teacher who spoke excellent English. Ahmad’s mission was to instill in his students a full understanding and appreciation of his religion, and he started with the basics.
Ahmad told my class that Muslims believe in one God who communicated his Word to humanity through his chosen messenger Mohammad. A man of special talents, Mohammad memorized the exact words revealed to him by God and then dictated them to his companions. This recitation can be found in the Muslim Holy Book, the Koran or Qur’an.
God’s message included the ‘Five Pillars’ of Islam. The first, the creed by which a Muslim affirms his faith, says: ‘There is no God but God, and Mohammad is his messenger.’ The others include the obligation to pray five times a day; charitable giving or Zakat; fasting from sunrise to sunset during the Islamic lunar month of Ramadan; and a pilgrimage to Mecca called the Hajj, an obligation for all Muslims who are physically and financially able to make the journey. (The pilgrimage now draws between 2 million and 3 million people every year.)Taken together, the Five Pillars imply surrender or submission, and the followers of the faith, Muslims, are those who have submitted to the will of God.
Mohammad remains important because he was the human vehicle through which the knowledge of ‘surrender’ was communicated. He is also important because he founded a community of believers, what we might call a state. I’ll talk more about him in the next e-mail.