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Middle East Abeja Dispatch

In the Name of Allah
April 8, 2000

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Ornate mosques like the Masjed-e Jamé in Ghazvin decorate this pious country.

I'm accustomed to the sound of the muezzin now, calling Muslims to pray from the top of the minaret of the mosque. We've heard it before in Mali, Egypt, Palestine, and Turkey, which are all mostly Muslim countries. Despite that, each country has been really different in culture and dress. So I guess I shouldn't have been so surprised when I came to the Islamic Republic of Iran and found it completely new to me again! Obviously the word "Islamic" means different things to different people.

Alhumdulallah! (Praise be to God!) We're in a new and fascinating country! God (Allah in Arabic, or Khoda in Persian) seems to maintain a constant presence in the minds of the people of this "Islamic Republic." For one thing, the women are required to follow the strict Islamic dress code, so they walk the streets in flowing robes. People obviously place great faith in God -- how else can you explain the treacherous driving and the pedestrians darting out in front of oncoming cars?!


Although Persian is the official language of the country, Arabic is the "official" language of Islam, because it is the language used to reveal the Koran to the prophet Mohammed.

"'Islam" means "submission."

A "Muslim" is "one who submits to God."

"Allah" is "God."

"Alhumdulallah" means "Praise be to God" (just like Hallelujah!).

"Insha'allah" means "God willing," and is said whenever speaking about a future event, i.e. "I'll see you tomorrow, insha'allah."

"Masha'allah" means "God willed it," and is used when admiring something or someone, i.e. "You have a beautiful family, masha'allah."

"Muezzin" is the person who sings the call to prayer from the top of the mosque minuret.

"Shi'ite" means "Party of Allah" and is the smaller of the two sects of Islam, but the one practiced by most Iranians

The way people talk and write is another indication of how God is always present. For example, people often write or say "In the name of Allah" at the beginning of long or official things (like I did with this dispatch). To say "Good-bye," the Persians say 'khodah hafez' which means, "May God protect you." Also, whenever speaking or writing of anyone dead, they always say "peace be upon him," after his or her name. There are several things like that in the language, that I often find odd. The more religious the person, the more they use these phrases!

Muslims believe that there is only one God, and he has sent 124,000 prophets to earth to spread his word, including many from the Bible and the Torah, such as Adam, Noah, Moses, Abraham, and Jesus, peace be upon them. According to Islam, Mohammed, peace be upon him, was the final prophet God sent. He lived in Saudi Arabia in the 6th century CE. One day, Mohammed, peace be upon him, was ordered by God to "recite," and began speaking what Muslims consider to be the direct word of God. Years later it was all written down by his followers and became the Koran.

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Why doesn't Brian have to cover up?  He's just as cute as we are!

To be a Muslim, you only need to do one thing, which is the first "pillar" of Islam. You must say, "There is no God but God, and Mohammed is the messenger of God." Don't try this at home, though, it probably won't work. You've got to really mean it! These days, in order for it to count in the eyes of the Muslim world, you have to do it in the presence of witnesses, including Muslim clergy.

But to be a GOOD Muslim, you've got to do a whole lot more. To start off with, there are four more pillars of the Islamic faith (in addition to the statement above) that every Muslim is supposed to follow. They should: 2) pray 5 times a day; 3) give a portion of their income to the poor; 4) fast during the month of Ramadan 5) make a pilgrimage to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, at least once in their lifetime.

This is the first country I've ever visited where the majority of people are Shi'ite Muslim, not Sunni Muslim. The split between the two sects started soon after the death of the prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, in 632 CE. According to the Sunnis, Mohammed, peace be upon him, left no clear indication of who was to follow him as leader of the new religion. So they chose his closest companion, Abu Bakr, peace be upon him, as their leader.

Like birds in flight
chadors flutter in the wind.
Women stand tall
pride showing clear
through the veil.

The Shi'ites, however, believe that Mohammed, peace be upon him, clearly named his son-in-law Ali, peace be upon him too, as his successor, and made him their first Imam. Even though Ali, peace be upon him, was eventually named head of the Sunni group, the split remained, mostly for political reasons.

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These beautiful mosques are almost enough to make me convert to Islam!

Because I've never met Shi'ite Muslims before, I don't know which differences in cultural and religious practices have to do with the difference between Shi'ite and Sunni, and which are just products of the Persian culture. But things are definitely different here, and amazing! Following the hoards of traffic to downtown Mashhad, we made our way to the largest pilgrimage site in all of Iran, and one of the most important shrines in Shi'ite Islam, the Shrine of Imam Reza, peace be upon him. Because it's a holiday break for No Ruz , the place is packed with pilgrims from all over Iran! How fortunate we are as Americans and non-Muslims to get to witness such a powerful event!

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Full chador required for the Shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad

The shrine's importance was explained to us by a guide in the lavish "foreign visitors' center" of this huge shrine complex. " Reza, peace be upon him, was the eighth infallible Imam of the prophet's household." You see, for the Shi'ites, the leader of the religion after the death of Mohammed, peace be upon him, was known as an Imam, and only descendents of Mohammed, peace be upon him, through Ali, peace be upon him, could become the Imam.

Ok, I know, all this 'peace be upon him' stuff is kind of annoying. But the religious Muslims really talk like that! "There have been 12 infallible Imams," we were informed. "They all behaved like the prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him. No one has ever found fault with anything they did. They were infallible.


chador - a loose, usually black robe worn by Muslim women that covers the body from head to toe and most of the face
infallible - incapable of making a mistake or failing
martyr - person who is killed for his religious beliefs
mystical - having a spiritual reality

All were martyred by poison or by the sword by the Hypocrites. We believe that the 12th Imam is still alive, and that some day he will return, with Jesus and the other prophets, to save all the people of the Earth."

As I understand it, the 12th Imam just sort of disappeared many centuries ago, and they believe he is now living in a sort of mystical state until Judgement Day. As you can see, Islam in many ways parallels Christianity and Judaism in its stories!. I wonder whose messiah will come on "Judgement Day?" It seems like the whole world is placing their bets!

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While our bus driver prays inside the mosque, we bought a souvenir picture of the Ayatollah Khomeini, peace be upon him, and the religious leaders of Iran.

As you might have guessed from the name of the country, "The Islamic Republic of Iran," there is no separation between 'Church' and 'State' here. Even though all the minority religions in the country have representatives in the Majlis, or parliament, including Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians, this country is ruled by its own form of "Islamic Law." Since the Koran and other religious texts can be interpreted many ways, it's unlike any other country's government. No, no one gets their hands chopped off for stealing, but yes, I could go to jail if I went out on the streets without my head covered!

I'm still learning about Islam and the government of Iran, so stay tuned! And don't worry, I'll keep my head covered in public!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


Abeja - Iran: Where Houses Have No Furniture
Monica - Flowers, Words, and Shapes: Islamic Art in Iran.
Brian - Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Persian Architecture, And All before Dinnertime
Team - Turn Off That Faucet! Water Doesn't Grow on Trees, You Know

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