Mosques in Iran Serve as a Safe Haven in Times of Social Uncertainty
Mosques Are Symbols of Cultural and Spiritual Heritage for the People of Iran
October 5th, 2016
Believe it or not, mosques in Iran serve a purpose greater than showcasing Iran’s mesmerizing and unique architecture. In fact, mosques in Iran have served as a safe haven for resistance in times of war, and continue to stand as significant symbols of cultural and spiritual heritage for the people of Iran.
But first, let us address the elephant in the room. There is no denying that there has been an overwhelming amount of news coverage highlighting the rise of terrorism and its alleged association to Islam within mass-media. With a narrative that is often depicted by those who claim to represent Islam, and conveyed by those whose interest it is to exploit it, it’s no surprise that Islam has received such a negative and sometimes even conflicting spotlight within our current age. What’s more is that when we have radical military groups like Daesh deriving their teachings from Ibn Taymiyyah, while having these very same teachings being the foundation of Wahhabi ideology, and in turn the basis of Islamic teaching within Saudi Arabia – and not to mention other places of Saudi influence around the globe, it is only sensible for us to assess this situation critically.
On the other hand, Saudi-Wahhabi ideology is heavily condemned and rejected within Iran, on the basis that it is an ideology that preaches hatred and injustice and goes against some of the very core values of Islam. Needless to say, it is an ideology that seems to have given birth to one of the most dangerous and vindictive groups of our time; Daesh.
Now that the elephant in the room has been acknowledged, let’s get back to business; Mosques in Iran. Contrary to mosques in Wahhabi teachings, they have served as places of security and unity for people in times of war, namely the Iraq-Iran war that began in 1980, while also giving Iranian communities a strong sense of cultural and spiritual heritage, safety, and belonging in a time of prolonged struggle.
The Iraq-Iran war was indeed a time of hardship and struggle for the Iranian people. After all, it was a war that almost bitterly lasted a decade. It was surely a time of devastation, but also a time of stamina and resilience for the people of Iran. Not only was Iran undergoing a horrific war, but the nation had just undergone the 1979 Revolution, and people were highly energized and passionate. So much so, that food stations (Salvati stations) were built in mosques, in which tea, milk, food, and more was offered freely, out of goodwill to the people.
The Qa’em mosque’s Salavati station was where it all started, a station dedicated to combatants, and for others who experienced fear and homelessness. An interviewee, Kheirollah Memari, who was asked about some of his experiences in the time of the war, tells the story beautifully: “When the war began, sometimes soldiers who were sent to war or were returning, passed the Qa’em Mosque on their way. The mosque was next to the same road that went to Ahvaz, where most forces were headed, and the soldiers would come to the mosque to say their prayers. Little by little we started to serve them something simple such as tea or water. When they arrived at nights, we would serve them tea after their prayers. Some soldiers also brought their own food and ate it. We had been doing this for a while when Ayatollah Mianji, God bless him, brought up the idea of setting up a Salavati station in Khorram-Abad.”
Moreover, it was not only men who dedicated their energy and passion into helping soldiers who passed the Qa’em mosque, Memari goes on to talk about the involvement of women in this passionate work. He recalls how, “Some women joined and helped us. They came before sunrise, cleaned the mosque, yard, toilets and swept and mopped everywhere. They worked in two shifts. My wife was their supervisor. They washed pots and dishes leftover from the previous night’s dinner, cooked lunch and dinner and left at about 11.” Through Kheirollah Memari’s recollection, we can see that the Salavati station at the Qa’em Mosque was not just a station for food and shelter, rather it was a platform where Iranians expressed their passion and defense for their people and country in a time of invasion and war, and a place where bittersweet memories were made through the goodwill and deeds of civilians.
Aside from Salavati stations, mosques in general were places that marked empowerment, freedom, and safety. A particular mosque with a story worth telling is the Malek-e-Ashtar Mosque, often described as a chest full of dazzling memories. Interestingly, it was only after the Islamic Revolution that the youth really became active within the Malek-e-Ashtar mosque. A woman by the name of Mrs Ashrafi, was a central part of the reform within the Mosque. Given that Mrs Ashrafi was pro-revolution, she often found herself clashing with the Imam of the mosque, as she was insistent on reforming the mosque by bringing more to it than just ritualistic prayer. An example of her passion and resilience is when she managed to convince the leadership of the mosque to consider the idea of establishing a library within it, to encourage learning and education. However, things did not always go so well for her as she was eventually kicked out of the mosque due to her continuous push for reform. Despite that she was dismissed from the Mosque, she still attended to pray, and says “the only difference was that I didn’t protest anymore.”
Fortunately, as the days passed, a few young men stumbled upon the mosque, and also shared the same passions and concerns as Mrs Ashrafi. When asked if she had previously known them, she said, “No, I didn’t know them at all. But it was clear that they were aware of the atmosphere in our mosque, about what had happened before and how I was treated.” Not long after, she met with them, and together they formed a strong team, wherein leadership and management was carried out effectively – so effectively that they were able to make decisions, and one of their first decisions was to change the name of the mosque from Kheir-Khah mosque to Malek-e-Ashtar mosque. This sentimental reform created social security, hope, and communal harmony for the people of Iran during a time of war, and social uncertainty.
In addition, culture and arts are areas that were given a strong focus. An interviewee by the name of Abolfazl Gholami says “Our strongpoint was that we got involved in artistic activities. Religious people started to act in plays and sing songs. Hamid Soheili wrote stories and these people founded Howze-ye Honari (an art organization) later.” The arts and culture not only nurtured people’s talents and gave them a supportive platform to express their talents, but also attracted others who had a passion for acting but lacked a purpose. An example of this is Gholamreza Yazdi, who recalls “Before I became familiar with the Malek mosque and its people, I loved my job, I was passionate about it. But I didn’t care whether my work sent a message. I just wanted to entertain people. But after joining the Malek theater group, I came to feel that acting is a sacred job. The stage is a sacred place.” The Malek-e-Ashtar mosque was a mosque that shattered stereotypes, proving that mosques aren’t just places for ritualistic prayer, but rather that they serve as a platform for art, and artists to express their passions and talents, be they theater, acting, singing, visual arts, or other forms of artistic expression.
Salavati stations at mosques, and the reform of mosques such as the Malek-e-Ashtar mosque have certainly contributed to the progress of spiritual, religious, and cultural harmony for the people of Iran. They have helped millions in times of immense desolation, in various ways. Based on this, it only seems fitting to refer to mosques in Iran as safe havens, continuing to stand as symbols of empowerment, belonging, and hope for the people of Iran.