Pilgrims and passages
Flights of faith
By Amir Soltani Sheikholeslami
October 3, 2003
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
"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
and a solitary bird -- into my jacket's breast pocket.
To the uninitiated, it looks more like a miniature gardening
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
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.
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,
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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,
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
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
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
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,
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,
Consequently, the openings of these sanctuaries
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
this page to your friends