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Iran: Shi'a Islam, Eagles and puffer fish

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27 June 2012 15:44

Contemplating the nature of Iranian religiosity as I visited the Iranian shrine cities of Mashad (top photo) and Qum (lower photo) this past week proved more difficult than I had imagined.

Whether it was the pulse of the sub-woofer in my right ear as the taxi driver turned up the volume on 'Hotel California' while speeding through the streets of the holy city of Mashad in northeastern Iran, or the high octave action of Whitney Houston's 'I Will Always Love You' on the road to Qum, I found it difficult to reconcile my sense of place with my sense of hearing. 

Demographically, Iran dominates the global Shi'a community, accounting for nearly a third of its adherents. It is also the only example of a Shi'a religious government and acts as Shi'ism's self-appointed patron. But for all this, in historical terms Iran is a relative latecomer to the religion, and is also lacking in the shrine department.

Shi'a Islam reveres its twelve rightly guided Imams. Their burial places have over the years become shrines, and some have also developed as centres of religious learning. Yet Iran hosts only one of the Imams, Ali al-Ridha, who is buried in Mashad. His sister Fatima is buried in Qum and is the reason for the shrine there. 

It is Iraq that is the historical centre of Shi'ism, playing host to six Imams (as well as being the site of the occultation of the awaited twelfth Imam). The other four Imams are interred in Medina, and for obvious reasons Saudi Arabia's Wahhabists have precluded similar manifestations of Shi'a devotion there.

Mashad and Qum provide an insight into Iranian religiosity that one doesn't necessarily feel in relatively cosmopolitan Tehran. And while Qum, courtesy of the actions of its most famous pupil and teacher Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and its proximity to Tehran (a two-hour drive), might be considered the intellectual capital of Iranian Shi'ism, Mashad is its soul. Each city consequently has a different feel about it.

Qum is busy, as the shrine site is much smaller than Mashad and the streets are thick with clerics and students. The Mashad shrine is enormous and the atmosphere more relaxed. While there are religious schools and leading ayatollahs retain offices in Mashad, it is not at the forefront of Shi'a intellectualism so the aim is more veneration than intellectual or political debate. Being so far from Tehran (nearly 900km) also helps in its relative detachment. 

A visit to the holy cities brings out how regional Shi'ism really is. The lead-up to Thursday evening prayers in Mashad is a highlight of the weekend and attracts the largest regular crowds to the shrine as clerics deliver sermons in advance of the evening communal prayer. When I visited, the enormous Razavi grand courtyard was largely populated by Iranians with some (likely Iraqi) Arabs and smaller groups of Afghans or central Asian Shi'a, while the smaller Jumhuri courtyard had a mixed bunch but largely Gulf Arabs. 

Qum was noticeably more cosmopolitan, thanks largely to the numerous religious schools in the city. There was even the odd African and Asian face.

Iran is a religious country, and even trying to get to Mashad is difficult given the large numbers attempting to do the same. Aircraft, train and bus bookings need to be made well ahead of time due to domestic and international demand, while accommodation presents similar difficulties. Qum is much more accessible to large population centres and hence the pressure on transport is less. 

The question often asked about Iran is the degree to which either its Shi'a or its Persian identity defines it and influences its foreign policy. In reality it is both, but relative influence is hard to quantify. Not all Iranians are Persian, but an identifiable Persian culture and history is thousands of years old, while Shi'a Islam's presence goes back barely 500 years, so ethnicity and sense of place are deeply ingrained. 

Shi'a Islam is at the core of the political system and for many Iranians a key element of their personal makeup. But in promoting its state-sponsored version of Shi'a Islamic governance, Iran is at a handicap. Iran's wealth and role as self-appointed sponsor of Shi'ism is appreciated by other sections of the global Shi'a community, but Iran's Persian ethnicity and governance system puts it at odds with much of the same. 

And the puffer fish? The museum in the shrine complex at Mashad contains a range of interesting Islamic artifacts but somewhat incongruously also has half a floor devoted to seashells and dried fish, including several very large puffed-up puffer fish. I understand that all animals are God's creatures, but I couldn't make the connection between the fish, Shi'a Islam and landlocked Mashad. Just another example of Iranian incongruity, I suppose.

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