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NATIONAL CELEBRATIONS OF IRAN
Prophet’s Birthday, Early Islam & the Five Pillars

October 2009-09-09
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HeadingHajj, obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca

In 630, the Prophet arrived in Mecca as a victor. First, a truce was made between Abu-sufyan, the leader of Mecca, on behalf of all the male inhabitants. Next, another truce was made with Hind, Abu-sufyan’s wife, on behalf of the women of Mecca. After the peace treaty, once the Prophet reached Ka’bah, he rode around the sanctuary seven times, and each time touched the black stone, a meteorite placed in the house. He ordered the idols and other images destroyed.

This was the first pilgrimage to Mecca made by Muslims, though not everyone became a convert and many still received protection under the peace treaty. During another pilgrimage, the Prophet’s son-in-law Ali stood on the hill Mina and read a new decree. In the beginning of the ninth chapter of the Quran, the Prophet finally broke with the idol-worshipers. In the future no unbeliever was to perform the pilgrimage within the holy area. By 632, ten years after Hijrat the Prophet’s task was completed; Arabia was in Muslim hands.

According to the Muslim sources, in this year he made a final visit to Mecca with all his wives and a great company of believers. Every single action he took during this last visit has been noted and handed down with exactitude. This has become the model of correct performance of the sacred rites. On the second or the third day the Prophet established a lunar calendar of twelve months and dictated the basic duties of Islam to believers. He was around sixty years old at this time. His wife Khadija had died years earlier. It was only after her death that he married a number of women including his favourite, the very young Aisha, the daughter of his close friend Abu Bakr. Still a child at the time, Aisha has become a point of contention for Sunni and Shi’ite. While the first group regards her as the mother of all Muslims, the Shi’ites accuse her of dividing the community, plotting against Ali and his wife Fatima.

The Prophet’s treatment of his wives, internal quarrels and his preference for his young bride Aisha and the role she played in power struggles after his death in 632 have formed the basis of how women should be treated by Muslims and a source of great controversy until present. Other close friends and allies of the Prophet, like Abu Bakr, Umar and Osman (the first three caliphs) and Ali (his son-in-law), are other sources of conflict and dispute between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims.

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HeadingPillars of Islam

In his days in Medina and Mecca the Prophet formulated the basic doctrines of Islam. Allah is the only Lord of the Universe, and this is called Tawhid (unity of God), the first pillar of Islam. Allah has existed from eternity and is absolute in his decrees of good and evil. His decrees are ordained because he wishes so and he can alter them as he pleases. Such altered commands are evident in the Quran when new creeds are revealed and the old ones are abandoned or modified (nasekh and mansoukh). Muslims should obey all decrees and submit to Allah’s will unconditionally. God’s orders would be revealed through the Quran—a heavenly tablet that existed before existence itself. The idea of heavenly tablets was a familiar concept in ancient Mesopotamia and Judaism in its traditional literature has regarded Torah as pre-existent. The Quran is a transcript of the tablet (loh i mahfouz) preserved in Heaven.

The second basic dogma or pillar is Muhammad himself. He is the Apostle of God and the last in a chain of prophets going back to the first human, Adam and then to Abraham and ending with Muhammad, the seal of the prophets. The Jewish and the Christians faiths are accepted as true faiths and their prophets are considered to be God’s representatives. Jesus, the last messenger before Muhammad, had predicted the coming of the new prophet. However, the Jews and the Christians falsified the pure doctrines of Abraham and Jesus. Islam’s task was to restore the true faith through the Prophet Muhammad. This was achieved by revealing God’s true words and commands through the holy Quran. This is called Nabouvat, which means accepting Muhammad to be God’s Apostle.

The third pillar concerns life after death and resurrection at the time of the final judgment. On this day the dead will rise, their deeds will be judged and if they are found guilty they will be sent to Jahannam (Hell) to be tortured forever. The good will be placed in Paradise (Behesht) with streams, greenery, delicious food, wine and beautiful virgins. This pillar is called Ma’ad and is very important in the Quran. Non-believers are constantly threatened by punishments they might receive once they end up in Hell. The believers, on the other hand, are advised not to be concerned with the worldly affairs because of their rewards in the afterlife.

The Shi’ites believe in two other pillars that are not accepted by the Sunni Muslims: Adl and Imamat. The first means that God is just and the second requires believing in imams. The imams are descendents of the Prophet Muhammad from Fatima and the true leaders of the Islamic community. The pillar, God being just, was a major issue for the Iranians converting from Zoroastrianism into Islam. Their ancient religion had separated the origins of good and evil. Ahura Mazda was only capable of producing goodness while Ahriman was responsible for all evil.

It was very hard to understand how Allah could have created Satan, the origin of all that is evil. The question was, are humans responsible for their actions and should they be punished accordingly despite the fact that God created Satan? If it is Satan that deceives and manipulates the human soul, so why does Allah let him to do so, and why should humans be punished? This major doctrinal issue has never been resolved and in the end it was decided that God knows best. One day all will be revealed to humans and meanwhile it is accepted that god can only be just and humans will be punished for their misconduct.

The notion of imamat is also influenced by the Iranian traditions. The death of the Prophet divided the Muslim community forever. The right to occupy his place became a question of great religious importance and has resulted in the formation of the two major sects, Sunni and Shi’i. The latter, believe that his son-in-law Ali should have been the rightful hire after the Prophet’s death. However, he only managed to become the fourth Caliph and eventually was murdered in 661. His eldest son Hassan was no match for the powerful Muawiya from the house of Umayyad. He resigned his claim and was paid a handsome settlement and died under suspicious circumstances. The Shi’ites believe he was poisoned and therefore he is regarded as a martyr. Ali’s second son Husayn fought Muawiya and lost.

The whole family was massacred in the battle of Karbala. This battle is at the center of the most important Shi’ite religious gathering during the month of Muharram. On this occasion Husayn’s death is mourned with plays, self-beating, processions and prayers. It can last for one to three days depending on the locality. Ali’s assassination and Husayn’s martyrdom are central to the Shi’ite doctrine. As a result most religious occasions are celebrations of death and martyrdom. This is contrary to joyful celebrations Zoroastrians held at all times. The Shi’ites managed to attract many supporters within the ranks of mawali (the non-Arab newly converted Muslims). The mawali converted believing all would be equal in the new faith and expected exemption from toll tax that was conferred on other religions. They fought alongside the Arabs and ran the administration and bureaucracy. However, they were not treated the same as the Arab Muslims and were subjected to humiliation abuse and hardship. They were taxed and viewed with hostility and the leading Arab tribes never fully admitted their claims.

Surviving members of Ali’s family looked for support from such groups. Persians, always revolting against the conquering Arabs, saw a golden opportunity and launched a revolt against the ruling Arab families and sided with the Prophet’s descendents instead. What began as a political and social revolt soon acquired a religious character. A man named Mukhtar headed a revolt in the name of Muhammad al-Hanafiya, the son of Ali by a wife other than Fatima. He lost in the battle but managed to convince his followers that this Muhammad was not dead but that he had retired into concealment in the mountains around Mecca and that he will make a second appearance to restore peace and justice to the world. Such was the birth of the Mahdi legend with the Shi’ites believing in his return as a Messiah and a saviour. The legend had its own evolution and eventually Mahdi came to represent the last in the line of Ali and his family, who disappears after the death of the 11th Imam.

The Shi’i doctrines were consolidated over a long period of time and were influenced by Zoroastrian traditions still deeply rooted and present in the Iranian territories. In its Iranian context the idea of a saviour coming and saving humankind at the end of time is Zoroastrian in origin and resembles the appearance of the last saviour and time lord Saoshyant. Even the name Imam Zaman or time lord given by the new Shi’ites to this Messiah embodies the same concept long held by Zoroastrians. Gradually more specific doctrines began to appear that were different from the ones held by the traditional orthodox Muslims known as Sunni. Sunnat means tradition and Shia means follower. Soon the two became quite distinct in a number of ways.

Sh’ites rejected the principle of the consensus of the community with respect to the leadership. Instead they proposed that there was an infallible imam in every age to whom alone God entrusted the guidance of his servants. Imams where to be found among the Prophet’s closest relatives. This propaganda met with great success. Soon the house of Umayyad, the ruling Caliphs, was overthrown and a new leader descended from Abbas (a relative of Ali) took over. The victorious Abbasids, however, once in power killed all their Iranian associates and their leaders, attacked the tomb of Husayn, and eliminated all those who stood in the direct line of descent from Ali. Bitterly disillusioned by the victor’s actions, Shi’ites concentrated on doctrinal issues and their evolution continued. They taught that the faithful must believe in all the imams and especially in the imam of their own time. The twelve imams all believed to have descended from Fatima became the “Holy Twelve” and along with Ali and Fatima they formed the “Fourteen Innocents”.

The notion of twelve imams itself resembles the twelve eyzads or deities venerated by Zoroastrians. These imams are divinely appointed rulers and guardians of the faithful who have succeeded to the prerogatives of the Prophet himself. They posse superhuman qualities received from Muhammad. Such qualities are inherited through a divine light, which is passed on from one generation to the next starting from Adam and culminating in Muhammad and his descendents. Though such ideas were originally limited to the holy twelve, they were gradually applied to the current imams as well. Another major difference between the two sects involved the notion of the 14 innocents and the belief that none is capable of committing any sin. Sinlessness and infallibility are qualities that the imams possess. They also posses secret knowledge and know the future. They are the sole and ultimate authority in the interpretation of the Quran. They are the source of all truth, and the only beings with the right to men’s obedience. They incorporated the legend that Husayn had actually married the daughter of the last Sasanian king (Shahrbanu). By the virtue of their lineage they carried a special divine grace, similar to the Zoroastrian Royal khvarenah (glory). Consequently all doctrines must bear the imam’s authority. An authoritarian church was formed and found solid grounds for expression in the new religion.

With the Iranian Shi’ites they believe that the last imam (the 12th one) disappeared in the year 880. He is expected to come back once again as Mahdi (guided one) to restore justice. The movement is very messianic in nature and has been popular all over the Islamic world. There are many different Shi’i sects and in other places, particularly North Africa, they are more influenced by the ancient Jewish and Christian messianic movements of the time rather than Zoroastrianism.

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