Land of perpetual defeat
Persia: A nation that loves to dwell upon tears and death
has lived its day and is sinking into senility
June 27, 2003
From an article by Leopold Weiss
in the liberal German daily Frankfurter Zeitung, published September
21, October 7, and
1924. The English translation has been scanned from an original
magazine article, "The
Living Age", published in Concord, New Hampshire on January
31, 1925. The author, a Polish, anti-zionist Jew, converted to
Islam only a year after this provocative article was published.
He traveled far and wide throughout the Muslim world, adopted
the name Muhammad Asad and wrote extensively about Islam until
his death in 1992. Go figure. -- Mahmoud
... Four days passed after leaving Bagdad - days
of dragging through the
separated by sultry oasis nights. At the end of the fourth day
mountains appeared on the distant horizon - the mountains of
As I entered Teheran one July morning through a tall
glittering gate of
majolica tiles and faience, every booth and window, every balcony
facade, was aflame with carpets, brilliant or pale, vivid or
soft - a
visible melody of Persian art. It was a holiday. The air was
invigorating in spite of the heat.
Soldiers in good uniforms and white summer-slippers
were strolling through
the broad, right-angled streets of the newer quarter. Thin robes
cut, of almost transparent brown or black material, indicated
class of promenaders.
The common people were in their everyday
clothing, dull-colored caftans and black-felt caps, but their
bright with holiday gayety. Skillful riders dashed past at
a gallop on
wonderful. horses; and carpets, carpets, carpets, hung everywhere.
A miracle was being celebrated. A miracle that had
occurred only a few days
before - or was said to have occurred - had captured the attention
Tehran, and had taken complete possession of the minds of the
A Bahai, a member of an heretical sect that every
down upon with hatred and contempt, had insulted one of the
numerous water-shrines in the city. These shrines are fountains
water and pictures of saints and martyrs. When the man insulted
- according to reports - his eyes fell out of his head. Thus
had the saint
punished the heretic.
As a result the humble little fountain became famous
overnight: 'The hand
of God has revealed itself here.' Worshipers crowded to it in
multitudes; women brought little children to sip the holy water.
halt, and the blind were carried to the place. The blind recovered
sight as soon as the water was put to their lids; running wounds
healed under its blessed drops - at least that was popular report.
the higher clergy felt compelled to proclaim a three days'
recognition of the fact that the will of the Lord had thus
indubitably chosen between the believer and the unbeliever.
A man who studies the spirit of the
East in its strongest and most matterof-fact representatives,
the Arabs, is
likely to conclude that this particular world presents few profound
spiritual problems. I mean that all the energies, aspirations,
spiritual experiences of the individual and of the community
are concentrated upon the affirmation of their own existence, without
to explore the deeper mystery of the universe.
But in Persia
the 'spirit of
the East' has an entirely different form, involving a mystical
interpretation of the problems of existence An extraordinarily
religious fanaticism characterizes the Persian and all his
acts - a disposition to interpret everything that happens as
the work of
dark, mysterious, or tragic higher powers.
The Arabs are pious, but their piety is of the common-sense
sort - more a matter of conduct and discipline than of transcendental
theory. The Persian religiosity is basic and all-absorbing. This
of religious psychology creates a fundamental division between
Persian civilization, in spite of certain similarities in their
One race turns to mythology, the other to mysticism....
"At bottom they are not religious," a Persian who had spent his
years in Europe said to me. He meant that a majority of his
fellow countrymen merely made a hypocritical profession of religion
in order to
curry favor with a small but economically and politically powerful
- the real believers, the clergy.
I do not credit that. In
it was the opinion of an Asiatic educated in Europe concerning
therefore unreliable; for the man of Eastern Asia knows nothing
and if he has studied in Europe the effect is often to intensify
ignorance by a cloud of Occidental misconceptions. But assuming
hypothesis that he was right, assuming that a whole people
consistent lie, none the less that lie has a powerful effect
Melancholy is the most salient feature of the Persian
landscape - endless
vistas of uncultivated land, barren mountains, lonely villages
monotonous adobe houses, and occasional flocks of sheep driven
to water at
eventide in greenish-brown billows over the undulating plain.
cities borrow the character of the country.
Their life is stagnant, without variety or beauty.
One never hears music.
If a hostler starts to sing some drawling melody of an evening
caravansary people prick up their ears with surprise. The only
street-singers are occasional dervishes who chant old tragic
ballads, invariably about the first Caliph Ali and his two sons,
and their bloody death.
When a high priest announces a visit
provincial town, it is the custom for everyone to don formal
receive him, as if to attend a funeral.
Are the Persians a sad people? Perhaps not altogether; but
they seem to
enjoy their voluntary gloominess.
Their mournful mood does not spring so much from distaste for
life as from
dislike of responsibility. A nation that loves to dwell upon
death has lived its day and is sinking into senility.
Every evening about sundown the people of the city
squat like great, stupid, black birds on the banks of the little
streams that run
shadow of the luxuriant elms on either side of the principal
Teheran, silently contemplating the flowing water. Are they truly
the melancholy of centuries weigh upon them - a melancholy unknown
modern Westerners? Are they sunk in that interminable meditation
which we imagine the peculiar gift of the
Oriental? Are they waiting for something to happen? If so,
A thousand interrogations like these confront me.
Here is a nation apparently engulfed in unsounded depths of indolence
people shut the door of their soul in the face of the foreigner,
are condemned by him as lying and suspicious.But the lying
is not malicious; it is merely the easiest escape from
unpleasant possibilities. This national melancholy is the spiritual
the people, and its varying intensity and temper are distinguishing
of the different local types of Persia.
Yet this melancholy -
or it might be better called, perhaps, joyless passivity of mind
is not the true background
of the Persian soul.
times we discover these people, with their dark, sad, half-veiled
reacting in naive merriment to some petty stimulus like happy
children. They are a people whose energy has been exhausted,
who no longer
the morrow, who neither hope nor despair.
Islam! That is a short name for something great,
brilliant, and often
misunderstood in Europe. A gifted Prophet recognized one day
that the cup
of his nation's energy was overflowing, and led his people on
The teaching of the Prophet was concentrated upon self-discipline
keeping spiritual interests always to the fore. The Mohammedan's
prayers, with their strict and immutable form, were destined
to be the
symbol of the Arab for all time to come.
We can understand this symbol only in the light
of Mohammed's words explaining the exacting rites of his faith:
'The cult of the body
the cult of the soul.' Islam was therefore a creation of the
sprang from his nature and responded to his needs. When he carried
faith to other nations, he did not modify it to suit them - he
to accept it precisely as he had made it.
Persia met this fate. She became Mohammedan. Her
old Zoroastrian religion
had long since lost its vitality, and was incapable of resisting
victorious invader. Persia therefore became Mohammedan without
Arabian, and this led to that inner contradiction which makes
such a puzzle today.
For Islam, unlike Christianity, is not
international, is not revolutionary, but is exclusively Arabian
It was solely the vehicle for the outlet of Arab energy. Imposed
foreign nation with a great national past, it was like
a secret poison, a
daily reminder of the weakness of the convert, - no, the
steadily undermining his self-confidence and his faith
in his own national
That is what Islam has done to Persia.
The individual Persian feels like a man ejected from his inheritance.
The historical continuity of his national life has been suddenly
interrupted. An Aryan people whose spiritual structure
on a broad
and florid romanticism had imposed upon it the ethos of a nation
horsemen. The conflict that thus arose between the spontaneity
individualism of the Aryan and the rigid ritualism of the Semite
itself in an explosive release of suppressed forces - in fanaticism.
It may be objected that other nations accepted Islam
without these unhappy
results. But such instances are similar only in appearance. The
Turks, for example, received Mohammedanism without ever engaging
hostilities with the Arabs. They voluntarily adopted that faith
- it was
not forced upon them. At that time the Turks had no great history
them. They were not compelled to repudiate their past, to break
traditions and precedents.But the Persians, when they accepted
Mohammedanism, by that act abjured
their own past culture and their long heroic history.
Here lies a key to the misfortunes of the Persian
nation since it accepted
Islam. It requires no profound intelligence to comprehend that
a people can
become great only by evolving in the line their own inborn qualities
predetermine. Diverted from that course and forced into a path
alien to their character, they lose heart and envisage apathetically
defeated destiny. And the sign of this in Persia is the melancholy
become a national trait.
But what of tomorrow? Persia's tomorrow will not
dawn until a Persian
prophet arises - a pure, a clairvoyant, a powerful prophet, a
the future, who will shatter Persian Mohammedanism like a worn-out
and give the people a new and truly native ethos. Until that
will be no reform, no political regeneration, no economic revival.
these things are but expressions of the self-confident vigor
of a nation,
and national self-confidence and vigor are impossible in Persia's
state of spiritual apathy and darkness.
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