Sunday, March 25, 2012

Post #224 - Words from the Mouth of God

Continuation of my 2006 trip report:

Next stop: The Holy City of Qom – the “Vatican” of Shi’ite Islam, and under Muslim control since just 25 years after the flight of Mohamad to Medina – where most of the senior leadership of Iran had their theological training. The town has tripled in population since the Islamic revolution, to a present-day one million – not counting as many as half a million Afghan and Iraqi immigrants and thousands of foreign students. We were booked into the International Hotel, just a stone’s throw from the major shrines and mosques of Qom.

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From the hotel, we walked through gathering twilight as the multicolored electric lights of the bazaars and mosques came on. Our first meeting with a Muslim cleric took place near the Astaneh (“holy shrine”) of Hadrat e Fatima Ma’soumeh, which receives some 15 million visitors annually. The subject of the shrine was daughter of the one of the imams of Shi’ism, and sister and aunt of his successors (7th, 8th and 9th imams); it has been said that this shrine is “the cornerstone of the city, and [the place] by which the birth certificate of the holy city had been written.” We were offered tea and cookies, gift-wrapped selections of publications on Islam, and then conversation with Mr. Rahim Samadi, a member of the Islamic International Foundation of Cooperation, a sort of outreach to the world by Qom’s “secretariat”.

We learned that one need only utter the "adhan" (“There is no God but God, and Mohamad was his prophet”) in order to be considered a Muslim. Samadi explained that Islam rests on three main principles: the unity of God, Mohammad as his prophet, and the faith in resurrection following final judgment. Further, he indicated that Shi’e Islam includes a belief in the "imamat" (or leadership by specially-distinguished holy persons), and the concept of divine justice. Two books – the Holy Qoran and what is sometimes called “The Keys to Paradise” – prayers, conversations and visitations – constitute the main Islamic scriptures. He spoke of the contexts in which supplications might be offered: certain days, certain places of significance, on certain occasions, and by certain persons (such as those who are repentant, lovers, etc.). The conversation about theology was continued over dinner, as two Islamic scholars joined us at the hotel restaurant – one of them, Sheikh Ahmad Hanif, had been born in Trinidad, Jamaica, but had moved with his family to Toronto as a boy. He converted to Islam under the influence of Malcolm X. Hanif had been studying in Qom for over twelve years, and lived there with his wife and four children.

In his recent book (No God But God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam), the young Iranian-American scholar Reza Aslan asserts: “One could argue that the clash of monotheisms is the inevitable result of monotheism itself. Whereas a religion of many gods posits many myths to describe the human condition, a religion of one god tends to be monomythic; it not only rejects all other gods, it rejects all other explanations for God.” Yet, Aslan writes in another passage, “Muhammad never claimed to have invented a new religion. By his own admission, Muhammad’s message was an attempt to reform the existing religious beliefs and cultural practices of pre-Islamic Arabia so as to bring the God of the Jews and Christians to the Arab peoples.

"‘[God] has established for you [the Arabs] the same religion enjoined on Noah, on Abraham, on Moses, and on Jesus,’ the Quran says (42:13).” And, Aslan says “because neither ethnicity nor culture nor race nor kinship had any significance to Mohammad, the Ummah [the Muslim community at Medina], unlike a traditional tribe, had an almost unlimited capacity for growth through conversion.”

It is difficult to assess the actual degree of openness to religious tolerance, ecumenism and interfaith dialogue that exists among the leadership of the Islamic Republic. Because it is both a political entity and a center of Shi’e Islam, one cannot easily weigh the importance of a Persian history of peaceful co-existence, the passions aroused by the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the sometimes contradictory utterances of IRI officials. It has been suggested that “constructive ambiguity” is almost a tool in the diplomatic toolbox of Iranian leaders, since having outsiders off-balance can be a source of strength, balancing superior force of arms or economic clout enjoyed by their antagonists.

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A special after-hours tour of Qom Astaneh Museum gave us an opportunity to see examples of the various arts associated with Islamic culture in Iran, from textiles to metalwork. (The representational art of the miniature and romantic Persian book illustrations were absent, from the museum, though they are omnipresent in the bazaars.)

Fittingly, for the first time since I had arrived in Iran, here in Qom I heard the muadhdhin’s voice carrying the adhan or call-to-prayer to the ears of believers – the dawn prayer which ends with “prayer is better than sleep.” It stuck with me as I took the breakfast buffet with my fellow-delegates – bread, yoghurt, melons and tea, and Western add-ons like cereal and sausage.

The Library of Ayatollah Sayed Shahab Al-Din Marashi Najafi was one of the most amazing things we saw in Iran. This repository of old manuscripts stands as a memorial to the selfless dedication of its founder and namesake, a teacher and scholar who was originally from Najaf, in Iraq. Najafi, according to our host and guide, Library president Dr. M. Mar’ashi, collected money over many years of poverty and deprivation to purchase priceless items that otherwise might have been destroyed or lost to museums and libraries in far-flung parts of the world: Coptic texts in Amharic from the 12th Century, an 800-year-old Latin psalmestry, a play by Shakespeare in the bard’s own hand, meticulous and beautiful Arabic calligraphy of the Holy Qoran and examples of Persian poetry and prose. He was an embodiment of the Sufic expression about service: “I will not serve God like a laborer, in expectation of my wages.” [Rabia El-Adawi]. To gather these treasures, Najafi worked multiple jobs, fasted and prayed as a surrogate for others – while writing some 150 books himself. His own donation of over 30,000 manuscripts began what today is a precious collection, kept in prime condition by a team of scientists and artisans who literally fill the holes left by bookworms or reverse the damage done by mold, termites and neglect. When he passed away in 1990, three days of mourning were declared and millions mourned his passing. His worldly wealth at the time of his death amounted to less than $10.

Sr. Ellen Francis, once married to an Iranian, had received her master’s in library science from Tehran University; she was gratified to see the advanced techniques of restoration and preservation that are in use at this extraordinary facility. Most of the holdings of the Library have been deposited with the [U.S.] Library of Congress on microfiche to ensure they will never be lost to scholars and bibliophiles.

The curator of the library was presented with several titles in English by delegate Gray Henry-Blakemore, who runs Fons Vitae, a publishing house she started in Louisville, KY, which distributes works on spiritual (especially Islamic) subjects. Gray embraced Islam some years ago, and studied for years at a theological school in Egypt.

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