Posts Tagged ‘Islam’


Living Mosques

October 2, 2008

1/10/08 Esfahan


            Loitering outside the front of  the stunning Imam mosque, half-heartedly browsing through postcards, I met a man who called himself Zizou the Nomad. He said he was a member of the Lore tribe from Lorestan, that he was an archaeologist and desert tour guide and then went on to list all of the websites and books in which various tourists had mentioned him over the years. After, he started indicating and explaining various architectural aspects of the entrance of the Imam mosque that towered over our heads; small details, such as the difference between the designs on the vase-shaped bases of the engraved columns that flanked the doorway, which indicated he difference between the work of a master and his student.


            Out of the many other details that he mentioned, the most interesting was when, sweeping his hand over his head in allusion to the multiple shades of blue-turquoise mosaic tiles above, he said: ”Many people think that the reason why mosques in Iran are decorated in blue is because blue is the colour of paradise. But this is not true. the reason blue is the chosen co0lour of worship is because it quiets the mind and soothes the soul”.


            Sitting in a small alcove inside the mosque, staring at the spectacular dome and minarets that rise before me, I can feel the simple yet undeniable truth in his words. The turquoise dome, stenciled with a pattern of interwoven white and yellow  vines and flowers and then surrounded by a band of white calligraphy set against a dark blue background, sits against the periwinkle sky like some celestial mushroom, in complete coordination and harmony with its surroundings. In many ways, it seems much more like a product of nature than the work of man. A spring blossom on the verge of blooming; a precious stone wrought with the veins of more humble rock, worn out of the surrounding desert by millions of years of sporadic rain. In its roundness there is safety, protection. And as the shades of blue shift from dark to light to various degrees of green and then come to be intercepted by crests of white, one feels like they are staring into the shifting depths of an undulating ocean, occasionally broken by some surface spray.


            Indeed, every detail of this mosque seems to lend itself to contemplation, surrender, worship. Yet it is not only that which makes this mosque in particular, and the many others with similar compositions that I have seen so far in Iran, so appealing.  Apart from the breathtaking architecture, Iranian mosques provide outsiders with a place in which they can discretely observe people as well. Contrary to the sites of ‘dead tourism’ which I wrote about in my last post, mosques are full of life, in the sense that they are places in which people live out many different parts of their lives.


            A big part of such living is religious: mosques are first and foremost places of worship. Because they are open to the public, both Muslim and non-Muslim, throughout the day, one can enter the mosque at prayer times in order to listen to and watch the sermon. What is wonderful about this experience is that because worship, piety and faith are all very public acts in Shi’a Islam, identifiable from anything from dress to the call to prayer to active participation in the community (for a very interesting book on public piety in a Shi’a community in southern Beirut, Lebanon, see An Enchanted Modern by Lara Deeb), the presence of foreigners at prayer times is not perceived of as intrusive or voyeuristic. Therefore, with the required subtlety, one can observe the ways in which people live their faith, for example the physical aspects of prayer (prostration and replies to the Mollah who gives the sermon).


            Even outside designated prayer time, it has been interesting to witness the social interaction in mosques. In Yaszd: a group of a few men sitting in a semi-circle, chatting easily (about what I don’t know: it could have been trivial banalities or theological deliberations), when suddenly, in some consensus, they decide that its time to pray. They stand, face the pulpit and focus themselves. Then, each in his own time, they begin their prostrations. Their movements are unsynchronised, as each one follows his own personal rhythm and timing, one choosing to spend a couple seconds more with his head pressed against the stone on the floor; the other effectuating his sequence with a faster flow. At the end, as they begin to exit the carpeted praying area, they turn to one another and resume their relaxed conversation, which lasts as they replace their shoes and continues as they leave the mosque. 


            On the other hand, mosques the social interactions that occur in mosques exceed the religious. Most notably for Iran, they were spaces in which the blood-stained hands of the Shahs brutal secret police, Savak, had little reign, and therefore provided a realm in which resistance to that regime co0uld flourish (many analyses conclude that this was a decisive factor in how the Islamist pockets of resistance came to dominate over others during/after the revolution). And their activities exceed politics as well. I have seen whole classes of art students, each equipped with clip-board, pencils and paper, being taken to the fringe rooms of a mosque which house its most valued artifacts: here an exquisite Safavid portal carved out of wood; there a 900 year-old dome which is apparently the most mathematically precise in existence (both in Esfahan’s Jameh mosque). At other times the courtyard is a veritable playground, with groups of children running around playing tag or chasing pigeons. At other times it is a communal bedroom, with old men and women lying curled up on their sides or spread out on their backs under alcoves or in corners. Now, with the end of Ramadan, they are picnic grounds, with families gathered in circles exchanging crisps and drinks.


            The only two other mosques where I’ve experienced similar activities are the Grand Mosque in Damascus and the Al Azhar mosque in Cairo. But perhaps, that is because they constitute 50% of the mosques that I had visited before coming to Iran, because many mosques in Muslim countries do not allow non-Muslims to enter. Thankfully, this is no the case in Iran. And many of the most interesting, reflective, moving moments that I’ve experienced since being here have been in mosques, witnessing the diversity of lives that flourish therein.