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Pilgrims and passages
Flights of faith

By Amir Soltani Sheikholeslami 
October 3, 2003
The Iranian

A world of birds set out, and there remained 
But thirty when the promised goal was gained,
Thirty exhausted, wretched, broken things,
With hopeless hearts and tattered, trailing wings.…
Time passed; then from the highest court 
    there flew a herald of the starry retinue,
Who saw the thirty birds, trembling, afraid,
Their bodies broken and their feathers frayed,
And said: "What city are you from? What race?
What business brings you to this distant place?
What are your names? You seem destroyed by fear;
What made you leave your homes and travel here?
What were you in the world? What use are you?
What can such weak and clumsy creatures do?"

-- Farid Ud-Din Attar's Conference of the Birds

"Sir, can you please step aside?"

Sabena Flight 534 -- destination Brussels -- was scheduled to depart from Boston's Logan Airport at 19:30 pm on Tuesday, September 18, 2001.

I had arrived in Boston, Monday, September 10, the night before the attacks on the United States. And now, a few yards from boarding the plane, I had been intercepted for questioning by a customs official.

"Please empty your pockets."

As I always do before a major trip, I had slipped my crumpled little Quran -- its cover adorned with pink and purple flowers and a solitary bird -- into my jacket's breast pocket. To the uninitiated, it looks more like a miniature gardening manual.

Growing up in Iran, it was impossible to set out on a journey without having my grandmother rush behind us with the family Quran in hand, make us step back into the house, and then circle the Quran above our head while calling upon the Prophet Mohammad and his household to safeguard our travel. Sacred scripture, of which we understood only the opening line -- bismillah-i Rahman-i Rahim (In the name of God, the merciful and compassionate) -- would be puffed around us like a divine fragrance.

We would kiss the holy book, and only then could my brothers and I step out of the door, rush into my father's chunk of Americana -- a walloping Chevy Caprice -- and begin our interminable backseat bickering as we screeched off for our summer holidays in the Caspian.

Since the days of the Prophet, when merchant caravans and pilgrims were attacked by armed bands of Bedouin, Muslim pilgrims have protected themselves against the hazards of travel with the power of faith. Their rings, bracelets, and amulets were inscribed with Quranic names, signs, and symbols designed to ward off death, and their camels were covered with Quranic talismans designed to shield them -- and their cargo -- against hostile tribes, thieves, murderers, jinns, and demons.

Today, virtually every truck and taxi driver in Iran has a prayer inscribed somewhere on his car, and a little Quran tucked in the dashboard. It has not made Iranians safer or better drivers, and it does not stop cranky old trucks from slipping and sliding off cliffs.

In fact, foreigners might point to Tehran's traffic jams -- a horrific maze of obstinate obstructionists denying each other right of passage -- as proof that there is no God and that if there is a God, Iranians -- the cussing and cursing cabullah -- cannot distinguish between their wrath and God's will. But, whatever one's philosophical doubts about divine intervention in human affairs, or one's material proof about other drivers as jinns and demons, tradition is tradition. 

I keep my little Quran safe and expect it to help me cross the world in safety.

"Sir." I could feel the custom's inspector's voice sharpen. His pupils contract. "Please empty your pockets. Everything." 

As I rummaged through myself for coins and keys, I felt the contours of my Quran against my chest. The moment fractured. I had the impulse to bury the book as one might a dirty secret or sharp weapon that signaled criminal intent. I wanted to cover it up, but instead I handed it over, placing it in the basket. 

The events of September 11 had divested my Quran of its traditional significance. Instead, it had become the opening into a crematorium: a shrine of crime covered with burned and mangled remains of thousands of civilians, a burial ground for people from virtually every religious denomination and from more than 80 nationalities. 

The terrible truth facing Muslims is that al-Qaeda did much more than smash civilian aircraft into commercial and military symbols of American power. It smashed those airplanes into the Quran. Ground Zero became not only a physical location burning in New York but also a fire burning through the fabric and foundations of faith. How could any person from any faith justify such a crime in religion's name, let alone witness a mass grave in the name of God?

My relationship with my faith, already strained to the limits by the violence of the Iranian revolution, was on the verge of cracking. So too was the idea of myself as an Iranian-American, a first generation immigrant beginning a new life in a promised land insulated and isolated from religious fundamentalism and political persecution. The terrorism that had forced us to leave the old world had leapt across the oceans to deprive us of peace and security in the new.

"Sir, where are you from?" 

Most Muslims, certainly most Iranians who have sought refuge in the United States, know that September 11 is much more than a jihad against America. In fact, there has been a holy war against them, long before it reached the shores of the United States. The violence that shook the United States provides a glimpse into the plague that has been claiming the lives of thousands of Muslims. The map of the Islamic world, from Algeria to Afghanistan, Iran to Lebanon, Kashmir to Palestine, Sudan to the Philippines, is checkered with ground zeros. If this terrorism is to be rooted out, then it can only be done if one tackles the ideology that legitimizes terror: fundamentalism. 

Like Jacobinism, Bolshevism, and Fascism, Islamic fundamentalism is a modern political invention: a grotesque revolutionary ideology that distorts the basic principles of religion in the name of liberating and unifying an oppressed nation. As with other puritanical movements, the armed prophets of this new faith believe that they can resurrect the decaying body of their divine community by waging war against Satan.

In practice, this means converting the state into a symbol of faith and an object of worship: a sacrificial instrument of death with which they protect the virtuous body of their divine community by eliminating their satanic enemies -- foreign sources of contamination and alien symbols of corruption. Because they wage total warfare in the name of absolute principles of reason, religion, and national interest bound to their infallible interpretation of legal doctrine, they cannot and do not accept any limits on their freedom to kill. 

Far from using religion to protect life by checking the predatory nature of man and the state, fundamentalists use the cover of war and the mask of faith to unleash predatory personal, tribal, territorial, and economic ambitions. 

The state becomes a stage for demonstrating the power of their ideology by staging spectacles of sacrifice in which their victims confess to their sins before being crucified in the name of God. Religion is cheapened and dispensed as entertainment by armed imams -- entertainers and executioners -- who appeal to the lowest common denominator: the hunger of enraged and deprived predators.

Violent crowds of sans-culottes -- the incarnations of reason and religion -- emerge from nowhere to pray for death and feast on crime. The flesh and blood of the victims of the state -- the demonized body of kings, clerics, students, atheists, spies, deviants -- become prized consumer items, the coin that binds the faithful mass to worship violation at the bloody altars of the divine state. The guillotine -- a sacrificial blade -- becomes the symbol of Allah. The state becomes a cutting board. 

In this fundamentalist utopia, professing one's faith in God means submitting before the authority and conforming to the dictates of the state: glorifying the history of the revolution in a legal calendar that sanctifies acts of collective crime. Because religion and reason are the patented intellectual property of the philosopher-kings -- the guardians of an abstract utopia -- there can be no such thing as personal responsibility, individual liability, or political accountability for crimes committed in the name of God. To protest against the state -- to question the right of fundamentalists to kill -- is to step outside the boundaries of faith. To reject their right to wage a holy war in the name of their divine principles is to disarm the faithful -- to enter an alliance with Satan. 

Fundamentalism deprives religion of its life-affirming, unifying, and healing nature. Monotheisms become doctrinal sources of division, discrimination, segregation, and warfare. The state of opposition between God and Satan (Heaven and Earth) gets translated into clashes between civilizations, clashes within nations, clashes across genders. In foreign policy, fundamentalism is about demonizing and, thus, dehumanizing, an external enemy.

In domestic policy, fundamentalism leads to a split between armed guardians of the virtuous republic and the illegitimate domestic representatives of Satan: the corrupt body of rebellious women and children. The public sphere expands in the name of protecting virtue, the private sphere contracts in the name of guarding honor.

The state threatens and inflicts severe physical, emotional, and economic damage in the name of guarding its divine constitution against contamination, its borders against transgression. Touching -- holding hands -- is forbidden. Cutting -- chopping hands -- is permitted. Sexuality is criminalized, criminality sexualized. Every desire forbidden, every perversion promoted. War -- the most grotesque and graphic forms of violent pornography -- is celebrated, arms paraded, carnage worshiped, death glorified.

In short, fundamentalism converts faith into the memory of trauma and abuse bound to the coercive power of a militant state ruled by an abstract collective ideal. It destroys individualism, autonomy, and choice -- the capacity to consent and the right to dissent. By insisting upon a return to an authentic identity bound to their dominant reconstruction of history, fundamentalists negate the essence of faith: recognition of the sanctity, unity, complexity, and diversity of life. 

In this sense, it is a terrible mistake to frame the conflict with al-Qaeda and its brand of fundamentalism as a clash between the West and Islam. It is an even greater mistake to confuse Islam with fundamentalism -- that is to say, to confuse a religious identity with a criminal identity. To do so is to repeat the error of fundamentalists who confuse a secular identity with a satanic identity. It is to lose the war and the peace. 

Millions of Muslims reject, on a daily basis, the politics of death and demonization. And they reject the right of terrorists -- no matter how virtuous their faith, how great their cause, how glorious their ideology, how pure their history, and how justified their rage -- to harm other human beings by waging war in the name of God. Instead, they choose to live the basic Muslim greeting, Salaam-o-Aleykum, meaning "peace be upon you." 

The fundamentalist jihad against the Great Satan -- al-Qaeda's holy war against the United States -- is about the creation of a new geography of faith, the establishment of religious, racial, political, and legal principles detached from centuries of tradition. If it is to be defeated, it must be defeated as a political ideology at the level of first principles before it can be defeated in any particular battlefield, whether it is Afghanistan, Iran, Palestine, the Sudan, India, Europe, or the United States. In this war, the primary instrument for defeating fundamentalists is to break the connection between their ideology and the Quran, the source of their religious and political legitimacy. 

In the case of al-Qaeda, which means the "base," it means draining the intellectual and emotional sewers that animate its faith, demonstrating the depth of its leadership's ignorance -- the baseless nature of its jihad -- by exposing the extent to which its criminal acts represent a violation of tradition. 

Nowhere is this tradition more clearly upheld than in the Hajj. 

Although in modern times, travel is associated with tourism and business, in the Islamic tradition, as in other religious traditions, travel is understood as pilgrimage toward a sacred destination or a mystical experience, a flight toward a divine source of enlightenment or illumination. Thus, the right to travel -- the freedom of movement -- is an essential component of the freedom to worship. 

In Islam, this freedom is manifest in the Hajj: the annual pilgrimage of millions of Muslims to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina -- a basic pillar of Islam. Each year, millions of pilgrims reenact the story of the birth of their community by reliving the account of the Prophet's flight from Mecca to Medina. Their faith in God, quite literally, is the force that binds and turns the Islamic world's calendar. 

Historically, the pilgrimage was an extraordinarily long and difficult undertaking -- a global marathon across the most unforgiving of terrain. The land and sea routes to Mecca and Medina were littered with the skeletons of caravans ravaged by warlords, stricken by disease, short on water, lost in the desert, or swallowed by the sea. The risks associated with travel taxed pilgrims to their limits, but these tolls did not stop the flow of the Hajj. With each step toward and out of the heartland of faith, pilgrims planted the seeds that opened up the networks and arteries of Islamic civilization. 

Many advances in the fields of mathematics, optics, astronomy, navigation, transportation, geography, translation, history, education, medicine, insurance, finance, culture, and even politics -- the ideas of time and equations of space -- were grounded in a perspective defined by religion: the pilgrim's basic orientation, observation, and movement toward the sanctuaries of God. 

Today, the Hajj integrates the Islamic world into a vast global economy of faith. It requires a complex transportation infrastructure, including a secure, efficient, and profitable civil aviation industry capable of transporting millions of Muslims through major cities and airports across the planet. Whatever their reservations about foreign universities, banks, and corporations, or, for that matter, foreign pilots, stewardesses, and traffic controllers, millions participate in structures and economies of knowledge that enable them to perform the Hajj. Without systems for ensuring and protecting these structures, they could not participate in the miracle of flight -- performing a religious commitment. 

While the means of transportation, the distances, origins, numbers, and beliefs of pilgrims have changed with modernity, the underlying traditions that secure the Hajj remain unchanged. The pilgrimage is secured by the price of a bedrock of faith bound to the observation of certain legal and religious principles. The pilgrim's movement through space and time would be impossible without basic respect for international treaties and agreements codifying, and international and national institutions enforcing, a general principle of law and a customary right: the right to safe passage. 

To violate this right in the name of any principle is to wage a war against every religion. To wage such a war is to cut the arteries of faith by raising the price of movement and staining the nature of faith. It is to deny pilgrims -- no matter what their beliefs, origins, and sins -- the right to enter and exit their sacred sanctuaries. 

Traditionally, the right to safe passage has been intimately bound to the recognition and protection of the sanctity and inviolability of holy sites, the ultimate destinations of faith. These sanctuaries allow pilgrims to follow in the footsteps of the prophets in a flight toward the divine. Much like the holy books, these sacred routes, destinations, monuments, and sanctuaries are invested with religious significance: They protect life by checking death in the name of God.
In this sense, the objects of pilgrimage, religious capitals like Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Mecca, and others, derive their sanctity from the passage of divine figures such as Abraham, Moses, Christ, Mohammad, the Buddha, and others.

The presence of these figures, for better or for worse, invests ideas of space and fixes ideas of time within a perspective rooted in faith. Their arrival marks the end of one period of time and their departure heralds the beginning of another. The stories, traditions, temples, and peoples attached to their name guard the price of sacred contracts. These contracts make life -- exchange -- possible by sanctifying language and stabilizing commerce. They bind the faithful to the recognition of legal obligations contracted in the name of a divine sovereign. They establish calendars -- ideas of space and time, past and future, birth and death, male and female -- that enclose the body of a civilization in ideas of birth, death, and rebirth.

Consequently, the openings of these sanctuaries -- the boundaries that separate nations and civilizations by separating the ideas of heaven and earth -- are not only the tombs of the past but also the wombs of the future. They are the gates of departure to the heavens and the points of return to earth. If their calendars revolve around points of time bound to tombs of death, it is because the heavens are buried in the earth, and the scarred surfaces of the earth, the graveyard of faiths, much like a divine womb, contains and conceals the seeds of life: the possibilities for rebirth and regeneration. Pilgrimage to these religious capitals is an expression of faith in the promise of life. After all, to die in the name of faith is to be born in the name of faith. 

The fundamentalists' embrace of suicide and war is based on an inversion of faith, the belief that killing and death in the name of a divine state or holy nation speeds up their entry into the heavens. They embrace a divine fiction based upon the claim of their leaders to hold the keys and guard the gates of the heavens. In actuality, their martyrdom allows pious predators to capitalize on their faith to speculate in war. In this sense, fundamentalism turns religion into a militant doctrine that shatters the value of life to sanctify the price of death. 

Al-Qaeda's attacks on New York tore down and through the Geneva Conventions, whose pillars derive their authority from all the holy books. To cut against the legal and religious grain of this document is to strip the world community of protections purchased and paid for by millions of soldiers and civilians, peoples, nations, and races whose sacrifice, suffering, and death is enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations.

In claiming to wage war in the name of religious principles, they have exposed millions to a cycle of retaliation and terror that has no legal sanction and no base in faith. Even the most fanatical members of al-Qaeda would not want their adversaries to abandon all restraint and smash commercial aircraft containing Muslim pilgrims into holy sanctuaries, and to justify terror in the name of Christ, or the principle of Liberty. 

There are depths of crime to which religion cannot and must not be allowed to sink.

The right to safe passage, as enshrined in the pilgrimage, and expressed in the voyages of modern birds of flight, is no mundane right. 

It is a right secured by the genius of the great Arab astronomers and geographers, a right nourished by the numeric inventions and infinite playfulness of Indian mathematicians. It is a right born out of the dreams of Italian inventors and the daring of crazy American brothers. It is a right celebrated in the mythology of the Greek poets, pulsing through the literature of lost French aviators, and rising out of the resurrection songs of African musicians. It is a right burning with the passion of Persian mystics and breaking out of the cosmic gaze of Jewish refugees. It is an impulse known to every kid who has ever flown a kite and every bird that has ever flown into one.

The miracle of flight -- the price of an airline ticket -- is a contract that binds passengers to the observation of a miracle. It would be impossible to fly without the protection of vast human chains that guard structures of knowledge with the price of faith. This faith links each and every passenger to the entire history of flight. It links, unites, and mixes cultures, peoples, and civilizations. It expands the possibilities of science, commerce, and religion. 

In this context, the miracle of faith is not grand interventions and exhibitions by religious supermen and scientific geniuses. It is no more than the thousands of everyday routines, courtesies, gestures, assumptions, and connections that open up the possibilities of passage. Such faith is not manifest in explosions of rage and projections of power -- the domination and occupation of space and time -- but in practicing patience and establishing trust -- creating space and releasing time.

Without a tradition to secure passage, no Muslim would reach Mecca, no pilgrim would reach America, no faith its Jerusalem, no lover the beloved, no child its dreams. 

In the end, no matter where the final destinations of faith, we human beings are the strangest of birds. We never fly in the sky. We fly through one another and with one another, the people of the past, the people of the present, and the people of the future, a community of lost tribes and wounded nations, approaching and circling the divine in an infinite loop of faith. 

And when we fall in flames of fire, as we do and as we must in any journey toward the divine, we rise out of the ashes of history with the power of faith, our blood and flesh mingled as One born out of Many, a Phoenix of Peace, created in the image of God, her wings spread wider and his sight set further.

The customs officer handed back my Quran. I slipped it into my jacket and stepped into the plane: Sabena Flight 534. Tuesday, September 18. Destination Brussels.


This article was originally published in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin in April 2003.

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