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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
The Iranian

From an article by Leopold Weiss in the liberal German daily Frankfurter Zeitung, published September 21, October 7, and December 10, 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 Shahbodaghi

... Four days passed after leaving Bagdad - days of dragging through the desert, separated by sultry oasis nights. At the end of the fourth day blue mountains appeared on the distant horizon - the mountains of Persia.

As I entered Teheran one July morning through a tall glittering gate of majolica tiles and faience, every booth and window, every balcony and 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 of Arab cut, of almost transparent brown or black material, indicated the better class of promenaders.

The common people were in their everyday clothing, dull-colored caftans and black-felt caps, but their faces were 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 of all Tehran, and had taken complete possession of the minds of the excitable Persians.

A Bahai, a member of an heretical sect that every Shiite looks down upon with hatred and contempt, had insulted one of the numerous water-shrines in the city. These shrines are fountains with consecrated water and pictures of saints and martyrs. When the man insulted the shrine - 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. Finally the sick, the halt, and the blind were carried to the place. The blind recovered their sight as soon as the water was put to their lids; running wounds were healed under its blessed drops - at least that was popular report.

Finally the higher clergy felt compelled to proclaim a three days' celebration in 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, and spiritual experiences of the individual and of the community are concentrated upon the affirmation of their own existence, without seeking 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 intense religious fanaticism characterizes the Persian and all his thoughts and 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 and practical sort - more a matter of conduct and discipline than of transcendental theory. The Persian religiosity is basic and all-absorbing. This difference of religious psychology creates a fundamental division between Arab and Persian civilization, in spite of certain similarities in their externals.

One race turns to mythology, the other to mysticism.... "At bottom they are not religious," a Persian who had spent his younger 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 minority - the real believers, the clergy.

I do not credit that. In the first place, it was the opinion of an Asiatic educated in Europe concerning Asia, and therefore unreliable; for the man of Eastern Asia knows nothing of himself, and if he has studied in Europe the effect is often to intensify his ignorance by a cloud of Occidental misconceptions. But assuming as an hypothesis that he was right, assuming that a whole people lives a consistent lie, none the less that lie has a powerful effect on its national life.

Melancholy is the most salient feature of the Persian landscape - endless vistas of uncultivated land, barren mountains, lonely villages of monotonous adobe houses, and occasional flocks of sheep driven to water at eventide in greenish-brown billows over the undulating plain. Even the 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 at a 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, Hussein and Hassan, and their bloody death.

When a high priest announces a visit to a provincial town, it is the custom for everyone to don formal black to 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 tears and 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 under the shadow of the luxuriant elms on either side of the principal streets of Teheran, silently contemplating the flowing water. Are they truly sad? Does the melancholy of centuries weigh upon them - a melancholy unknown to us 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, for what?

A thousand interrogations like these confront me. Here is a nation apparently engulfed in unsounded depths of indolence and apathy, whose people shut the door of their soul in the face of the foreigner, and who 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 bond of the people, and its varying intensity and temper are distinguishing marks 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. At times we discover these people, with their dark, sad, half-veiled eyes, reacting in naive merriment to some petty stimulus like happy children. They are a people whose energy has been exhausted, who no longer think of 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 a crusade. The teaching of the Prophet was concentrated upon self-discipline and upon keeping spiritual interests always to the fore. The Mohammedan's five daily 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 leads to the cult of the soul.' Islam was therefore a creation of the Arab. It sprang from his nature and responded to his needs. When he carried his new faith to other nations, he did not modify it to suit them - he forced them 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 the victorious invader. Persia therefore became Mohammedan without becoming Arabian, and this led to that inner contradiction which makes the Persian such a puzzle today.

For Islam, unlike Christianity, is not international, is not revolutionary, but is exclusively Arabian and conservative. It was solely the vehicle for the outlet of Arab energy. Imposed upon a foreign nation with a great national past, it was like a secret poison, a daily reminder of the weakness of the convert, - no, the conquered, - steadily undermining his self-confidence and his faith in his own national dignity.

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 was based on a broad and florid romanticism had imposed upon it the ethos of a nation of desert horsemen. The conflict that thus arose between the spontaneity and individualism of the Aryan and the rigid ritualism of the Semite manifests 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 ancient Turks, for example, received Mohammedanism without ever engaging in hostilities with the Arabs. They voluntarily adopted that faith - it was not forced upon them. At that time the Turks had no great history behind them. They were not compelled to repudiate their past, to break with their 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 of existence alien to their character, they lose heart and envisage apathetically their defeated destiny. And the sign of this in Persia is the melancholy that has 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 Zoroaster of the future, who will shatter Persian Mohammedanism like a worn-out shell and give the people a new and truly native ethos. Until that happens there will be no reform, no political regeneration, no economic revival. For these things are but expressions of the self-confident vigor of a nation, and national self-confidence and vigor are impossible in Persia's present state of spiritual apathy and darkness.

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