A Quaker in Iran
Message delivered by Steve Angell at West Richmond Friends Meeting
August 9, 2009
Text: Isaiah 45:1-8, 13.
I am convinced that God led me to Iran this spring, but this happened in a complicated and rather unexpected way. Local Clear Creek Meeting Friend and retired Earlham Professor Sam Neff met more than a year ago with my Dean Jay Marshall to acquaint Jay with an opportunity for an Earlham or ESR professor to submit a paper proposal to present at the Second International Conference on Religion and the Media, to meet in Tehran, Iran in November, 2008. At Jay's suggestion, I submitted a proposal. The topic I wished to explore was the effect of Barack Obama's presidential campaign on the interconnections between religion, politics, and the black and white media. My proposal was accepted. I began preparations to visit Iran, and ESR bought a plane ticket for me. I began the tricky process of applying for a visa to visit Iran.
Then, in mid-October, the conference was cancelled. This seldom happens with scholarly conferences; in fact, during more than two decades of attending such conferences, I had never known it to happen before. The reasons given for canceling the conference was that the president of the University had to undergo open-heart surgery and thus would be unable to chair the conference; also, none of the 61 American participants, including myself, had obtained visas. ESR and I were left with one unrefundable plane ticket to Iran; my ticket could be rescheduled, but not refunded.
It turned out that Sam and Ruth Neff had planned a tour of Iran in the spring. We would travel the country, including some of the larger and most famous cities (Tehran, Qom, Kashan, Esfahan, and Shiraz) as well as a humble village (Abyaneh). We would talk to a lot of ordinary people about their country of Iran, our country, the United States, and what we hoped would be our mutual desires for peace. I proposed that I should join the Neff delegation. Jay and I conferred, and he agreed. This time the visa process proceeded flawlessly, and my ticket acceptably rescheduled. I joined a group of 24 extraordinary people that the Neffs had recruited. Our group included both African Americans and European Americans; Christians and Jews; religious leaders and social and political activists; academics, farmers, lawyers, nurses, one retired doctor, social workers. We flew to Iran on April 25, and most of us were able to stay a full two weeks, returning on May 10.
I had traveled to Europe and Central America before, but never before to the Middle East. It was my first opportunity to visit a predominantly Muslim country. As someone whose scholarly work was in the history of Christianity, but with a strong interest in the broader history of religions, this was a wonderful opportunity.
But while Iran is a predominantly Muslim country, it also has religious minorities, including Jews; Armenian Christians; and the Zoroastrians whose presence in Iran pre-dates the coming of Islam to Iran in the 7th century. Our visit to Iran was an encounter with all four of these religions.
While there was plenty of the strange and unfamiliar in Iran, I often found myself coming full circle – I had the feeling of coming home and of being at home in Iran. One day of our trip was dedicated to exploring the ruins of Pasargadae, including the tomb of Cyrus, extolled in the 45th chapter of Isaiah. Cyrus was the early Persian king who conquered Babylon while the exiles from Jerusalem were living there, and he was the one who allowed the Babylonian Jews to return to Jerusalem, where they eventually rebuilt the temple. Iran brought me home to the Hebrew Bible that I love and cherish.
Cyrus profoundly respected the customs and the religions of all the peoples among whom he came with his armies. When he reached Babylon, the Jews were not the only conquered people he found in captivity. He sent them all home, and respected the religious customs of all of the peoples he found there.
Our tour guide, Mana, is a young Iranian woman, extensively educated in the humanities. Her adherence to the strict Iranian dress code is casual and grudging. Her own religious orientation is profoundly secular, although she is also profoundly in love with Persian culture. She was uninterested in Islam, which she saw as an unfortunate import by seventh century invaders of Iran, namely, the Arab armies of Omar, one of the Prophet Muhammad's successors.
Mana loved Cyrus, and she labored to have us appreciate him. "Many of the peoples among whom Cyrus went wanted to worship him," she told us. "But Cyrus did not want to be worshiped. He did not want people to regard him as a god, which would have been common for a ruler of that period. Cyrus said, 'I am a man. I am human like you.' All of his inscriptions emphasized that he was a human." Of course, humility was not Cyrus's only notable characteristic; one scholar, Edward L. Greenstein, notes that "Cyrus combined great ambition, shrewd calculation and military expertise to establish" his large empire.
One of my companions on this journey, a retired physician by the name of Will Rutt, and I were puzzling over the title given to Cyrus – he was often called "Cyrus the Great." After listening to Mana, we agreed that the reason that "Cyrus" was regarded as great was paradoxically because of his humility. How often is humility a vital ingredient of greatness?
The divide in Iranian culture between Persian and Arab influences can run deep. At the time of the Iranian Revolution thirty years ago, there were Muslim clerics who wished to obliterate the ancient ruins at Pasargadae and Persepolis. Prior to the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the Shah had often appealed to Cyrus and the Achemenian dynasty that he founded as a precedent for his oppressive rule, and he held a terribly extravagant party for Cyrus' 2500th anniversary in 1973, a party to which many world leaders were invited (and actually attended) and from which most ordinary Iranians were excluded.
Moreover, for Muslims, this period before the time of Muhammad is often referred to as the "Age of Ignorance;" to suggest that there is greatness to be found in this period is farther than many Muslim clerics would want to go. Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed and the cultural treasures of ancient Persia were preserved. But many Iranians still get caught up in the rather limited conundrum, baldly stated: Who is greater, Cyrus or Muhammad? What is greater, Persian culture or Islamic culture? From the outsider's viewpoint, the way that Persian and Islamic influences can intertwine and intermingle is extremely impressive. It is impossible to imagine contemporary Iran without either the ancient Persian or the Islamic influence, just as it would be impossible to imagine Christianity without either the Hebrew or the Greek influence. God has quite evidently worked through both strands. I keep coming back to the thought that God delights in the synthesis of Persian and Islamic cultures in Iran, just as God delights in the synthesis of Hebrew and Greek strands in Christianity.
As we have seen, through the second Isaiah, God addresses Cyrus thusly: "I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me." And again: "I arm you, I empower you, though you do not know me." I may think that I know who God is. I may call on God in Quaker worship every Sunday. Iranians, too, call on the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Ishmael, and of Jacob, and of Jesus. But Isaiah reminds us that God can always call on us, even if any of us are not calling on God, or have a mistaken conception of who God is. God can call on us, God can empower us, even if we are ignorant of God, even if we do not know God, just as God called on the Persian king Cyrus 2500 years ago.
"People of the Book" and of Light
Those who talk to Muslims or read the Qur'an, the Muslim's holy Scriptures, will find much that is familiar to Quakers and other Christians. The Qur'an discloses a continuous divine revelation, one that started with the ancient Jews and continued through Jesus and the early Christian movement up to the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad in Arabia in the 17th century. Take for example, this passage from the 57th surah of the Qur'an:
"We sent forth Noah and Abraham, and bestowed on their offspring prophethood and the Scriptures. Some were rightly guided, but many were evil-doers. After them, we sent other apostles, and after those Jesus, the son of Mary. We gave him the Gospel, and put compassion and mercy in the hearts of his followers. . . . Let the People of the Book know that they have no control over the grace of God; that grace is in His hands alone, and that he vouchsafes it to whom He will. God's grace is infinite."
Mystics of many traditions, like the Muslim mystics, or Sufis, have thrilled to the Qur'ans description of divine light:
"God is the light of the heavens and the earth. His light may be compared to a niche that enshrines a lamp, the lamp within a crystal of star-like brilliance. It is lit from a blessed olive tree neither eastern nor western. Its very oil would almost shine forth, though no fire touched it. Light upon light; God guides to His light whom he will." (24th surah)
How often do we encounter the image of "light" in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures? "Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee." "The Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising." That from Isaiah, chapter 60. "The light that enlightens every human being was then coming into the world." That from the prologue of the Gospel of John.
Muslims do not solely emphasize the transcendence of God. They also talk about God's nearness, even God's immanence, that God is inside of us. How else should one interpret the assertion in the 50th surah? "We[, God,] know the promptings of the human soul, and we are closer to you than your own jugular vein.'
Yes, reading the Qur'an we find much that is familiar. God is inside us, and guiding us to God's light.
As we visited Iranian mosques, we found much use of light and color to bring our spiritual focus to God. In Shiraz, there is a breathtaking mosque composed almost entirely of mirrored surfaces; our group did not visit that mosque, but we did visit the shrine to the fourth imam of Shi'ite Islam, Zayd, which was decorated in the same way. Beautiful blues and yellows were a frequent color scheme in Iranian mosques and there was an exceptional mosque in Shiraz that had rose as its predominant coloring. Neither human beings nor animals are displayed in Islamic sacred artwork, but much use is made of the plant kingdom and of stylized calligraphy of Quranic verses.
Most mosques have a minaret where a muezzin used to give the call to prayer three times a day (three, rather than five times a day as is common elsewhere in the Islamic world; modern-day Iran dispenses with a live muezzin, and in the rare instances where the call to prayer is broadcast, it is done so in a recorded version.) One mosque, however, that never had a call to prayer is the extraordinarily beautiful Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque in Esfahan's grand Imam Square, constructed in the seventeenth century by another Persian monarch designated as "the great," Shah Abbas the First, primarily as a place that the shah's harem could worship. One story as to why this Mosque had no minaret stresses the importance of Sufis in the design of the mosque. Sufis believed in and practiced prayers through contemplation, or through dancing (think of the whirling dervishes), but not primarily in spoken prayer. Thus, for their worship, the minaret would have been largely redundant.
Nearby, in fact on the same square, is the Imam mosque, constructed nearly simultaneously with the Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque. In that mosque, both interior and exterior sound plays a very important role in worship. In fact, there is one floor stone in the mosque where, if one stands and sings or even whispers, the acoustics of the mosque will echo the sound through the whole mosque. Our group's visit to the Imam mosque corresponded with a visit by a group of male education students from a local teacher's college. They stood on the special stone and sang beautiful religious songs that rang impressively through the mosque. We Americans stood and listened; we too could have stood on that stone and sang, but none of us did. But afterwards we found an opportunity to talk to our new friends. They had many questions for us about our views of Iran, and of Islam. Like countless times elsewhere in Iran, we left with new friends.
Light, color, sound, silence: my visit to Iran reinforced my intuitive sense that all of these can be moving, even stunning, pathways to God. The play of light in worship space is a familiar sign of God for me; most Quaker meeting houses testify to that sign of the presence of God. Dazzling color, while not entirely new to me in the context of worship – I've visited European cathedrals, for example – was, in its Iranian form, an extraordinarily wonderful revelation.
I was about to step on the tour bus in Tehran, when an older gentleman, with a deeply lined face and long white whiskers, stopped me for a moment. "French?" He asked. Given the paucity of visas handed out to Americans, his guess of my national identity was understandable. "No, American," I replied. His face broke into a broad smile. "American? I am happy." Those few eloquent words spoke for everybody that I met in Iran.
I am old enough to remember distinctly the takeover of the American embassy in Iran thirty years ago, and the Iranian chants of "Death to America" that pervaded ABC's Nightline and other news programs of that era. On this trip, I never detected a trace of that hostility. I saw one sign on the wall outside of the former American embassy that exhorted, "Down with the USA," but that was the only such sign that I saw in my extensive travels through Iran.
Attitudes toward America are not especially a partisan issue in Iran. There are indeed two vigorous political parties, the conservatives and the reformists, and the reformists in general are slightly more open to a broader range of Western influences. But everybody, reformist or conservative, that I met went out of their way to display interest in and friendship toward Americans and America. The cleric who met with us in Qom, Hojateslam Muhammad Naziri, was open about his admiration of the writings of a Los Angeles psychologist, Barbara DeAngelis, and expressed the hope that there would be an ayatollah who lived in the United States sometime soon. And everyone, conservative, reformist, or other, was eager to practice their English with Americans.
Their interest in Americans was not an uncritical one. Indeed, we Americans have much to be self-critical for, when it comes to our relationship with Iran. A 1953 coup sponsored by our Central Intelligence Agency overthrew a popular left-wing elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, and replaced him by an oppressive dictator, Shah Mohammed Pahlavi, who ruled for 26 years and could only in the end be displaced by a popular revolution. Americans are not the only foreign power to have meddled extensively in Iran's internal affairs. Great Britain, Russia, and the United States have taken turns doing that for much of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Foreigners have much to be repentant about.
But many people, including me, wonder why, after 30 years, the great nation of the United States of America can't be friends with the great nation of Iran. I can report that it is what the people of Iran want. Is it not also what God wants? As the Psalmist writes, "Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it." (Psalm 34:14) What can we do to seek peace with Iran?
There are many knotty issues in U.S.-Iranian relations, and this is not the appropriate place or time to address the details. What does seem worth saying here is the uniformly good feeling that existed as we visited the Iranians, as we befriended each other. Many times, as we reflected during our conversations, we were sure, not only that the American and Iranian peoples could be friends, but also that we are friends. We wished and prayed for this discernment to trickle up to our leaders.
On my flight out of Tehran, I sat next to an Iranian man, who, for most of his life, had earned his living as a truck driver in Europe. He pleaded with me to carry the message to the United States that we should not bomb Iran. That would simply unite Iranians behind their current, hard-line regime, he observed. Iranians would have to become suicide bombers as Americans have experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the United States should use whatever diplomatic means that we can, he asked that Iranians be given time to clean up their own house, to replace their current intransigent and corrupt rulers with a truly decent government. In the months since I left Iran, we have witnessed the great sincerity of millions of Iranians who have the same yearning for freedom that my seatmate on the plane had. We have also seen the power of the entrenched conservative establishment, which in elections that were not free and fair may well have obstructed the majority of the Iranian people. May it be that Americans have learned the lesson that our bombs, and our covert military forces, should stay out of this dispute which is for Iranians to resolve.
How any of us Americans and Iranians are being used by God and can be used by God may seem considerably more uncertain to us in our time than it was to the prophet who celebrated the just governance of Cyrus 2500 years ago. We may feel, and we ought to feel, the anguish of the Iranians and anyone who suffers. Dear Jehovah, Allah, Ahura Mazda, eternal Christ spirit, the great God who holds the whole world in your hands, may your peace, truth, righteousness and love prevail.
-- Stephen W. Angell
Leatherock Professor of Quaker Studies
Earlham School of Religion
228 College Ave.
Richmond, IN 47374
Phone: (765) 983-1496
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 Cyrus II. Edward
Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. Vol. 3. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. p2119. 15 vol.