Monday, December 19, 2011
81. Shi’a Religious Parade Standard (Iran, AD 1650-1700)
We’ve followed the history of Iran from a source of wealth and raw materials to Sumer and Ur, and their inheritors Babylon and Assyria, through the satraps of the great Persian empire, to the Zoroastrians who risked it all on the Sassanian empire, to (post-Mongol) the source of and market for Chinese porcelain aesthetics. Here in the early modern period, MacGregor is pointing out the widespread, liberal religious tolerance that was part of the Shi’a Iran contemporary with lots of religious persecutions and wars in Europe.
The ruler contemporary with Elizabeth I was Shah Abbas of the Safavid dynasty, a rival to the early Ottomans, who went so far as to build the Armenians a big, beautiful Christian (Orthodox) cathedral in Isfahan, which is (I guess—never been there, may never go unless they stop imprisoning American hikers) the most prominent city after Tehran. He also built a beautiful mosque in Isfahan for Shi’a Islam, which became the state religion of the Safavids. By the end of the Safavid rule, however, intolerance had become the way of things in that part of the world—and Europe was starting to relax a little.
As for the origins of Shi’a, or “Party of Ali” Islam, I guess this split goes back to the first generation after the prophet, when Mohammed’s daughter Fatima married Ali, who became the first Imam (instead of the fourth Caliph) back at the original split in Islam, in the 600s. According to MacGregor, they’ve since been identified with lots of suffering and martyrdom—he goes to the mosque and sees representations of the Twelve Imams, martyrs all and the last is still in hiding, like King Arthur, ready to come back and lead the world to the promised land someday. The object here, a big ceremonial sword-like thing that you put on a pole and got a religious body-builder to carry through the streets as part of a religious processional to your mosque, similarly commemorates the Imams. MacGregor underlines for us the irony of using a sword, a symbol of aggression, for a religion that is focused on personal suffering and martyrdom.