Project Canterbury

The Open Road in Persia

By the Rev. J. R. Richards
C.M.S. Missionary at Shiraz

London: Church Missionary Society, 1933.

Chapter II. The Past in the Present

"AND Pharaoh commanded the same day the taskmasters of the people, and their officers, saying: Ye shall no more give the people straw to make brick, as heretofore: let them go and gather straw for themselves" (Exodus v. 6, 7).

Hearing voices raised in heated altercation I went over to the church land in Shiraz to see what was the matter. The foreman in charge of the building and the man to whom the contract for sun-dried mud bricks had been given stood facing each other, hands waving wildly, voices raised excitedly; they were an amusing sight. It took me some time to realize what was the matter, for with an eloquence peculiar to the East they vied with one another in trying to get the maximum number of words into the minimum of time. The trouble was straw! The foreman was rationing the straw.

Persia to-day is a land of contrasts. The peasant labours to till the soil, following in the wake of the patient oxen yoked to the wooden plough, while heavy motor lorries hurry by, raising clouds of dust. Travellers rushing through the night in motor cars pass slowly-moving camel caravans, generally carrying consignments of petrol. The wealthy merchant of the town builds himself a big house in foreign style, but only a few miles away nomadic tribes pitch their tents for a night and move off again next day with their herds in search of pasture. The rich man sends for his physician while the labourer hurries to the holy man and buys a prayer charm to cure his headache.

Progress and stagnancy, modern science and age-old superstitions--these are strange bed-fellows; but then they meet under strange conditions. For centuries Persia had lived an isolated life. Surrounded on all sides by high mountains, she was cut off from the rest of the world. The history of Persia since the Moslem conquest makes tragic reading. Over and over again she fell a prey to the invader. Seljuks, Mongols, Afghans swept over the country in hordes, laying waste the land. Internal strife and constant civil war made all progress impossible. The Moslem religion, with its doctrine of an infallible book and its strong fatalism, created an atmosphere of resignation and indifference to whatever the future might hold. While other nations went ahead Persia went back. Then suddenly the country came into contact with the West and with western ideas. It was as if the England of the Middle Ages were to come face to face with the England of to-day. Can we imagine ourselves faced with the task of transforming the England of the Middle Ages into the England of to-day? If we can we shall better realize the immensity of the task that the Persian Government is undertaking. It is easy enough to disparage the efforts that are being made, and still easier to overestimate the results achieved; it is difficult and indeed almost impossible to give a fair and impartial account of the condition of Persia to-day. Far as Persia has come on the road to progress, she is still at the beginning of her journey. The Afghan revolution shows how dangerous is the road she is travelling, and it stands to the credit of the Persian monarch and his advisers that they have had the courage to face the problem and the wisdom to hurry slowly enough to avoid unnecessary conflict.

In the first chapter we saw something of the progress that is being made; in this chapter we shall see something of the other side of the picture.

In one of the main streets of Shiraz is a new building with a very ornamental entrance arch. It can hardly be called beautiful, but it certainly looks strong. In Shiraz it is the custom to erect buildings of khesht (sun-dried bricks) and to face them afterwards with burnt brick. Had you been in Shiraz to see the original khesht arch of that entrance you would have seen a very badly-built arch, sagging at the centre, and looking most unsafe. To-day you would not see that, for it is hidden behind the burnt-brick outer cover. Yet the true arch and the one that counts is not the surface one, but the hidden one. The tourist visiting Persia to-day would see that arch and judge it by its burnt-brick covering, a natural mistake to make. He would see the new Persia that we saw in the previous chapter, but perhaps he would not realize that that too is not the true Persia. The marks of progress that he would see are in a real sense but an outer covering.

Persians can be divided into two great classes, the educated and the uneducated. That may be true of all peoples, but in Persia these two classes are separated by an almost unbridgeable gulf. The masses who have inherited the darkness of the past--its ignorance, its superstitions, its indifference--are still unchanged, nor could it be otherwise. Even in England to-day old superstitions and beliefs have survived, and that in spite of all progress and of free education. Old superstitions die very slowly and reappear in unexpected quarters. Education in Persia is spreading rapidly, but it has not yet come within the means of the poor. Before education can be made compulsory other reforms must be effected. So low is the standard of living among the lower classes that even were education to become free everywhere few people could afford to let their children go to school. Meanwhile education is very largely a class affair. The educated classes are imbibing western ideas and adopting western standards while the uneducated masses remain untouched.

We have seen what education has done for the people of Africa in the splendid men it has produced. An Aggrey is not produced by taking a native out of the primeval forest and dressing him in western clothes. Miracles of that kind do not happen, nor can we expect them to happen. The illiterate Persian compelled to wear western dress has not changed in himself at all. Years and years of effort and struggle will be needed before Persia shakes herself free of the strangling grip of the past. Meanwhile the light of the new day intensifies the darkness of the night in which the masses dwell. Light and darkness--these exist side by side; here and there they tone each other down; but for the most part they are distinct.

On the night of December 8, 1927, there was a total eclipse of the moon visible in Shiraz. While the educated watched it with real interest, there was tumult among, the masses. Some were praying, some were shouting, the great majority were beating copper vessels, and those who possessed guns brought them out and fired at the moon. The din was terrible. I asked a Persian gardener what all the noise was about, and he replied that a dragon was trying to swallow the moon and the people were trying to drive it away.

In one of the main streets of Shiraz there is a government hospital; the doctor in charge is very keen on pathology and microscopy and gives daily lectures to young practitioners holding the government licence to practise. Not very far from this hospital, in one of the side streets, sat a sayyid (a descendant of the prophet Mohammed); before him on the ground was a dish containing water, and around the edge of the dish was written a prayer. A lunatic sat facing the sayyid and staring fixedly into the water. This poor man believed himself troubled by evil spirits and had come to the sayyid for help. The sayyid bade him look into the water and he would see the jinn (evil spirits), so the man obeyed. "Do you see them?" asked the sayyid. "No," answered the man. "Then continue to look for I have bid them come." After an interval during which the lunatic sat quite still and stared fixedly into the water, the sayyid once more asked: "Do you see them now?" "Yes, I see them," was the reply. "Tell them," said the sayyid, "that if they continue to worry you I shall bring a stick and beat them!" "Why do you worry me? What have I done to you? Did you hear what Aqa said? If you worry me again he will beat you with a big stick," said the poor man.

One evening I sat talking to a number of young men of fairly good education. One of them scorned all religion, claiming that science had destroyed the basis of religion. He fairly bubbled over with modern knowledge. Another evening I sat with a number of men of a very different type. They told me stories of evil spirits and of fairies; not a man among them remained silent, all had some tale to relate. One of them, a man in the thirties, uneducated and illiterate (now a member of the police force) took off his hat and showed us a small, round, bald patch near the top of his head. It seems that it had suddenly appeared, the hair having fallen in a night. A fairy, he said, had fallen in love with him, and stolen a lock of his hair while he lay asleep!

Behind all the outward manifestations of progress the life of the masses goes on unchanged. The future depends largely on the way in which the young men of to-day who are able to take advantage of the facilities for education face their responsibilities. So great is the gulf between the educated and uneducated that there is a real danger that the former, through contempt of the latter, will fail to realize their responsibilities towards them. Proud of his new knowledge the young Persian despises the masses of his countrymen who are still living in the darkness of superstition and ignorance. Not so very long ago a young Persian of good education was discussing the conscription law. The law was a very good one in itself, but it was foolish of the Government to make it apply to young men of education. Let them take the villagers and illiterate townsmen for cannon fodder, they are not fit for anything else, and let them show that they realize the value to the country of young men of education. That was his point of view. Others are really desirous of serving their countrymen, and are eager to take advantage of any opportunities that come their way. Education alone can be a danger rather than a help. Increased capacity for good is not enough in itself. There must be added to it love for all that is good. But good is a relative term, and does not convey to the Moslem what it does to the Christian. Difficult as is the position of Christian schools in Persia to-day, they yet can do much to inspire the young men and women of Persia to serve their country in a spirit of unselfish love.

Persia's great need is for men of high ideals and lofty character to fill responsible positions. Islam, with its emphasis on outward show, which is the failing of all legalistic religions, and Baha'ism, with its shallow humanitarianism and complete lack of driving power, can never produce such character. Official methods have changed, new institutions have appeared modelled on western lines; but the spirit of officialism has changed very little. Laws have been passed whereby all bribery and corruption is a crime incurring heavy penalties. Yet none would dare to say that bribery is a thing of the past. Not so very long ago the lawyer engaged by the defendant in a certain case visited his client on the day previous to the trial. He had no doubt at all but that his client would be discharged, in fact he was sure of it; there was only one thing left to be done, the client must arrange for some one to call on the judge to see how much he wanted. The times have changed, bringing with them many new institutions; but the spirit in which the officials carry out their work has changed but little. The heart of Persia remains unchanged. No Act of Parliament can change the heart of a nation.

But there is another sense in which the past is active in the present. An old Persian proverb runs: "History is the mirror of the past and the lesson of the present." Persia's true inheritance from the past is something very different from that which we have considered above. All the animistic ideas common among the masses in Persia are found throughout the Moslem world. The corruption, bribery, and lying which made the courts and government offices a byword in the past were not peculiar to Persia. How very different is this spirit from the old spirit of Persia as expressed in the summary of Zoroastrian belief--the old belief of Persia--Humata, Hukhta, Hvarshta--Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds.

The young Persian of to-day is looking back, back beyond Islam, and finding his true inheritance. The Jew looked back with pride to the glorious reigns of David and Solomon, but looked forward to the future for his Golden Age. The young Persian of to-day looks back with glowing pride to the greatness of Persia before the coming of the Moslems, and looks forward to the day when Persia shall once more take her place as one of the great nations of the world. That glorious past may seem far away, but it is not without its influence on the present, and for that reason it is necessary for us to glance back to the history of Persia before the coming of the Moslem.

Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire, was in many ways a remarkable man, but in his religious policy he was more than remarkable, he was unique.

Cyrus had an idea which was at once political and religious. Babylonia and Assyria, unable to get away from the fetishist idea attaching to the plastic images of the gods, used to carry off the gods of the conquered peoples as trophies, making them a kind of triumphal procession under their own national god. So far from carrying off these images, Cyrus restored them to the people whose palladia they were. He gave the statues of the gods which he found in Babylon back to their lawful owners; in the same spirit he returned the sacred vessels of the Hebrews. One can easily imagine the sentiment of gratitude felt by the peoples conquered by Babylon on the news that their national gods were coming home. This idea of genius consolidated the power of the conqueror; the Persian Empire was founded. [Huart, Ancient Persian and Iranian Civilisation, p. 45.]

In furtherance of the same policy Cyrus on ascending the throne of Babylon took the hands of the god Bel-Marduk, thus signifying that he was indebted to the god for his throne.

Darius the Great, himself a devoted worshipper of Ahura-mazda, and probably the first reigning king to accept the religion of Zoroaster, followed the policy inaugurated by Cyrus in dealing with foreign nations. He built the temple of Ammon (the ruins of which can still be seen in the oasis of Thebes), and was initiated into the mysteries, associating himself with the mourning with which the death of the Apis bull in 517 B.C. was celebrated. Yet Darius regarded himself as the chosen of Ahuramazda. The inscription on his tomb is a curious blending of boastful arrogance and humility. One sentence runs: "Says Darius the King: Ahuramazda when he saw this earth in commotion, afterwards gave it to me; he made me king; I am king."

Cyrus and Darius have left their mark on the whole of the subsequent history of Persia, and that in spite of the fact that until quite recently they were all but forgotten in Persia itself, the Shahnameh of Firdusi--a mythical history--having become the acknowledged history book of the nation. Names may be forgotten, deeds be sunk into oblivion, yet influence may persist. So it was in this case; an influence remained, and that influence was twofold.

(1) The Achaemenians claimed to be kings by divine right, as we saw from the inscription on the tomb of Darius, and that claim has influenced the whole of subsequent Persian history. We find the Sassanian monarchs making the same claim, but in far more extravagant language. The inscription on a bas-relief of Shapur I near Shiraz affords a good example of the claims made by the Sassanian kings. "This is the image of the Ormuzd-worshipper, the god, Shapur, king of kings, Aryan and non-Aryan, of the race of the gods, son of the Ormuzd-worshipper, the god, Ardeshir, king of kings Aryan, of the race of the gods, the offspring of the god, Papak the king." The king is still a worshipper of Ahuramazda (Ormuzd), but nevertheless he himself is a divine being. This was the position of the king in Persia previous to the Moslem conquest.

The Persians never took kindly to Arab rule, and when Islam was divided into two great sects, Shi'ah and Sunni, Persia became in time the stronghold of the former. And here we see how old ideas persist. Husain the son of 'Ali is said to have married Shahrbanu, the daughter of the Sassanian king Yezdigerd. When Shah Ismail founded the Safavi dynasty in Persia the nation adopted the Shi'ah faith with enthusiasm, for Shah Ismail was a lineal descendant of Husain and Shahrbanu. Now the Shi'ah doctrine of the Imamate is a projection into the realm of religion of the belief in the divine right of kings. Shah Ismail was a lineal descendant of Shahrbanu, and was therefore "of the race of the gods" and could claim the throne by divine right, while as a descendant of Husain who according to the Shi'ah belief was Imam by divine right, he was also able to claim the religious respect of the people. Thus in him national pride and religious enthusiasm found a common centre. It was this that made the Shi'ah faith attractive to the Persian, as is amply proved by subsequent events. When, after the expulsion of the Afghans, Nadir Shah became king by election, he had no difficulty in making the Sunni faith the national religion, nor was there anything remarkable in that when we remember that popular election is one of the principles of the Sunni faith. Under the Safavi monarchs the Shi'ah faith was in a very real sense a Persian religion, but it lost most of its meaning when that dynasty came to an end.

Loyalty to the throne and national pride are marked characteristics of the young Persian of to-day, but no longer is loyalty to the Shi'ah faith regarded as a necessary adjunct of loyalty to the throne. Young Persia is reading history, and learning many lessons from history. Hatred of the Arab for the ruin he caused in Persia makes many turn from Islam--the religion of the Arab. Apparently insignificant things are often fraught with deep meaning, and it is worthy of note that young educated parents tend more and more to give their children pure Persian names. Iraj and Khosro are taking the place of Ali and Husain; Purandukht and Mehrbanu are taking the place of Fatimeh and Khadijeh.

There remains one more point that must be considered in this connexion--the official attitude towards Shi'ah Islam. In 1924 Persia would have become a republic had it not been for the opposition of the Shi'ah divines who declared that a republican form of government was contrary to the principles of the Shi'ah faith. Riza Shah Pahlevi can thus be said to owe his throne to the fact that the old belief in the divine right of kings has become enshrined in the Shi'ah faith, making a republic unacceptable to the religious leaders. If we bear this in mind the present religious policy of the Persian Government will need no explanation. Materialistic ideas are spreading, and, in the north particularly, revolutionary ideas also. The proximity of Russia and the activities of Bolshevik agents have been a cause of real anxiety to the authorities. It is not surprising, therefore, that the government policy is to bolster up Islam, for as long as the Shi'ah religion is a power in the land republican ideas are not very likely to become general.

(2) From being a comparatively unimportant people the Persians under Cyrus suddenly became the rulers of a great empire which waxed still greater under Darius and his son Xerxes. It is not strange that this should be reflected in the architecture of the period. Darmesteter declares that "Persian art was a composite art born of the royal fancy, which had gathered into an artificial, powerful unity, like the Empire itself, every artistic form which had struck it in the provinces of Assyria, Egypt, and Asiatic Greece." [Quoted by Huart, in Ancient Persian and Iranian Civilization, p. 89.] True as this is, it yet must be admitted that the result was to produce something which we can only call Persian. It was original in that it was an unique combination of many and varied artistic forms.

If we turn from the history of Persian art to the history of religion in Persia we see a similar tendency. The religious policy of the Achaemenian monarchs who, like Darius, could worship one god and give official countenance to many others, could have but one result--religious syncretism. As they blended the arts of the various provinces into one, so also in the sphere of religion cults were blended and gods allied. Persia became the home of syncretistic faiths. Mithraism was a combination of Iranian and Semitic elements; Mani-chaeism combined elements from Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Christianity. The Persian seems always to have retained this genius for synthesizing religions, and this should be borne in mind when we consider the growth of religious movements in Persia. The 'Ali Elahi religion would seem to contain elements from many different religions, from Mithraism to Islam. The Baha'i religion is a better known example, consisting as it does of a blending of selected elements from Islam, Babism, Christianity, and several other sources.

To sum up, we may say that the Persian is good at picking out and weaving together various threads that appeal to him, but he cannot see the inconsistencies and weaknesses of the finished article. The Persian mind is synthetic rather than analytic in its method of working. That is why a religion like Baha'ism makes a peculiar appeal to the Persian; it enables him to retain anything that appealed to him in Islam and at the same time to claim as his own those elements in other religions which have a similar appeal. History shows us that all such religions are doomed to pass away. Both Mithraism and Manichaeism were in their day a menace to Christianity, but the Christian Church triumphed over both. Baha'ism, like them, will pass away.

If Persia is to be won for Christ we who are His servants must never forget this tendency of the Persian mind, but must strive with infinite patience to help each searcher after truth to see the weakness of any attempt to synthesize his old ideas with the new. The new wine, if it is to be preserved, must needs be kept in new bottles.

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