Iran/Persia is the torn heart of Central Asia (Asia Minor). Secular China is the body, Byzantine Russia the head, the Hindu Indian Subcontinent the limbs, and the Arab Middle East is the skin (with dermatitis). The central region is living and developing while mainly off the radar of the West. Powers attempting to squeeze Iran's life force or hobble Iran's vital health do so at their own peril. A visitor to Iran in 2017 cannot help but sense this allusion to an organism, so long as the traveller bears no political pretenses or religious prejudices.
Islam's friendlier face; Visit to Isfahan of mulla from Karbala, Iraq
Iran was the first empire on earth and this was no coincidence. The extraordinary history of Persia, extending over at least three millennia, is in part driven by its geographical location at the intersection of the silk and spice routes. The plateau provided residence for the seeds that sprouted and established, first, the conflict of good versus evil, overseen by Ahura Mazda and the prophet Zoroaster within the fabric of Zoroastrianism; and, second, the liberation from Babylon of Judaism which evolved into Christianity; and then finally, the stew of Sunni and Shiite Islam culminating in the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1978, a Shia-capitalist society. Of course, this is a complex web of intrigue and human collusion with circumstances that still are beyond full understanding. The West and East meet in the deserts of Iran, a virtually treeless, rocky plateau and mountains, guarding a few large oases that are today crowded with people tending, not sheep, but vehicles and devices.
Consumerism in Iran today is rampant, but suggestive of the probability that the lot of the inhabitants of this dry land has improved substantially in a material sense. Wealth is unevenly distributed for sure, as in most urban centers around the globe. However, a questionable but dynamic energy pervades the cities’ streets as secularism, like in Western nations, is steadily usurping the power of spiritualism-religion. The clerics of Iran remain the nation’s moral authority no doubt, but religion’s ebb and flow here seems to be moderating. The Friday mosques still collect the young men at noon for the ritual prayers, but it appears to me that many of the holy places are attended by a plurality of older citizens and tourists, just like many Christian churches/cathedrals and Jewish synagogues in Europe and the US.
Not much room to maneuver as Persians shop til they drop
Ornate passages and wares
Meanwhile, the more conservative activist Moslems in Iran who inhabit the Shia sects that publicly engage in ritual flagellations and head beatings within the shadow of Ashura are a proselytizing offshoot of the more sedate Islam. Ashura is the tenth day of Muharram in the Islamic calendar. In Sunni and Shi'a Islam, Ashura commemorates the moment when the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, Husayn ibn Ali, was murdered in a battle in Karbala, Iraq. These people, comparable to the evangelical Christians of America, are the teachers and preachers acting to shore up the troops and concocting stimulants meant to inspire and sustain the faithful. Shia clergy tend to view missionary work among Sunnis (and apparently others) to convert them to Shi'a Islam as a worthwhile employment.
In modern Iran, Husayn’s struggle is seen as a battle against tyranny and unfairness. Some Sunni leaders, too, promote processions and rites as a way of remembering the suffering and pain of Husayn. The Ashura, this year (2017) held on September 28-29, is of particular significance to Twelver Shi'a and Alawites, however, who consider Husayn (the grandson of Muhammad) Ahl al-Bayt, the third Imam to be the rightful successor of Muhammad.
Welcome to our religion, in Kashan
Flagellations are meant to show people’s regret of the fact that they were not present at the battle to fight and protect Husayn and his family. In Sunni and Shi'a Islam, Ashura also marks the day that Moses and the Israelites were saved from Pharaoh by God creating a path in the Sea, and is the Islamic equivalent to Yom Kippur. Other commemorations include Noah leaving the Ark and Muhammad's arrival in Medina.
Iraqi mullah comes to town, Ishafah, Iran
While in Iran, there were many gatherings of men and women clad in black preparing for the day of Ashura, practicing their public devotions and display of determination on behalf of Husayn. Colorful displays of the Husayn family calligraphy, black flags , allusions to battle, are evident throughout Iran weeks before the day of commemoration. The big event is in Karbala, Iraq, but I spotted an Iraqi cleric delegate visiting the great square of Isfahan, days before the event. Clerics in Iran also erect literature stands and welcome tables at scattered mosques and mausoleums, inviting tourists and locals alike to engage in "friendly" discussion of the tenets of the Koran.
Symmetry of an asymmetric religion
To Be Continued