The New Year of the Shi’ites and Alevis commences at the Spring Equinox, and is celebrated as the Feast of Nevroz. For them there are two new years: one, reckoned in lunar months, is the first day of Muharram; the other is the Spring solstice of the solar year. The former is a sad day, the anniversary of genocide; the latter is a day of good omen, a joyful occasion. The Festival of Nevroz, the national festival of Iran, is called “Crimson Egg Day” and a number of beliefs and myths are associated with it: Ali’s birthday, the beginning of Spring, the grounding of Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat after the Flood, God’s recognition of Mohammed as His prophet, Mohammed’s acceptance of Ali as candidate for His successor, and the destruction by Prophet Mohammed, like the Prophet Abraham before him in the Temple of Nemrut, of 360 idols in the ancient Temple of Mecca. March 21st, when day and night are of equal length, is anticipated as a joyful day, full of hope for the future, and being sad or mournful on this day is regarded as shameful and a sin. Houses are cleaned from top to bottom for Nevroz, when, it is believed, illness and evil will cease to exist, quarrels are reconciled, graves are visited, people leap over Nevroz bonfires making various wishes as they do so, and the Festival is celebrated with assemblies and special programmes. Nevroz is the Persian word for “new day” and it is celebrated as the Feast of Life among those Parsees who are adherents of the Zoroastrian religion.
A religious order known as Bektashism, taking its name from Hadji Bektash who lived in the 13th century is distinct from, but similar to Anatolian Alevism. Only a person born into an Alevi family may become an Alevi, but anyone who joins the order may become a Bektashi. There are more similarities than differences between the two orders. The saying, “The only difference lies in the practice not in the path”; is generally used when referring to Alevi-Bektashi culture, beliefs or traditions. Hadji Bektash is of great importance to Alevis and in their centres of assembly and worship his portrait is displayed with pride alongside that of Ali. Very few historical facts are known about his life, but he is thought to have been a Turkoman, born in Nishapur, Turkistan. Having qualified as a mystic, he later travelled to Anatolia. “You alone are responsible for your words, deeds and morals” is one of his precepts, and another is “Do as you would be done by”, literally translated as ‘Do not practice on another what would be hard for you to bear.” One of the cornerstones of the Alevi-Bektashi creed is the Spiritual Brotherhood which advocates mutual help, mutual support and fraternity. Ahi-ism, a branch of Alevi which applies to commercial and professional sectors, whose tradition carries certain of its qualities to the present day, joined Bektashism after the murder of Ahi Evren, and was united and totally absorbed by it. Today many members of Alevi-Bektashi order preserve some of the old folk-religious customs, such as placing lighted candles at the tomb of a saint, kissing the door frame on entering and avoiding treading on the doorstep of a holy building, requesting prayers to be said by distinguished healers, or writing a wish or request on a strip of cloth and tying it to a sacred tree or shrine. The belief that after his death Hadji Bektash turned into a falcon and flew away can be associated with Shamanistic roots.
The act of repeating the name of Allah silently or aloud, in solitude or in a group, is known as Dhikr, which is an invocation or remembrance, and for the Sufi it is a means of experiencing a true sense of Allah’s presence. To achieve this sublime state, each Sufi tariqa (order) uses its own individual practices. The word ‘tariqa’ means “pathway” in Arabic. The Sufis’ shaikhs (or sheikhs) and pirs (religious leaders) began meeting together in the community in the 12th century. Every Sheikh can trace his genealogy back to the Prophet Mohammed; if he traces it back to the Prophet through Ali, his sect takes the name Alevi; if through Abu Bakr, his sect is named Bakri. The Sufi master is their role-model and the source of their knowledge. He is revered as a God-inspired teacher, and respected as a person through whom God’s blessing can be passed on to others. Today there are 70 different orders of Sufism, such as Alevi, Bektashi, Burhani, Khalwati, Madari, Mawlawi, Naqshabandi, Qadiri, Rahmani, Rifa’i, Shadhili, Suhrawardi, Tijani and many others, the largest brotherhoods today being the Qadiri and the Shadhili.
Some scholars divide into two the systems of thought governing the sects, according to whether they conform or contravene Islamic rules. With the passing of time, theories were developed which put their own interpretation on Islamic rules, defining the practices, principles and decrees of Sufism, and produced theories bearing the influence of beliefs and traditions from Ancient Greece, India, Iran, and of Judaism and Christianity. They arrived at theoretical ways for the transformation of human qualities into divine qualities. Certain Sufis, for instance al-Hallaj, emphasised the union of the soul with Allah to such an extent that they were impugned for maintaining that the soul and Allah were one and the same. In the year 922, al-Hallaj was condemned to death for stating, “I am the Truth”. Abd al-Karim al-Jili in the 15th century is credited with elucidating the concept of water as the symbol of God and ice as representing the creation, in their apparent differences and hidden identities. Yet another movement came to life which, developing from this line of thought, sought to balance these theories or to reinterpret them in the light of Islamic decrees, and resolved to give as much importance as possible to intelligence and reasoning. In the 12th century, al-Ghazzali, who was an important representative of this second movement, stressed the idea that although Islam was a monotheistic religion, it was not monistic, that is, the belief that all beings, God and soul included, are ultimately composed of a single substance. In a way, the belief in visiting shrines can be interpreted as a violation of Islamic tenets. Beliefs of this kind are supposed to have infiltrated the world of Islam through mysticism (tasawwuf) from the religions of ancient India and from Christianity.
The main methods of training for the Sufi orders are penance and Dhikr. Although fundamentally the same, depending on the tariqa they bear dissimilarities in form. Candidates for the Dervish brotherhood undertake a fast for varying periods, the most common being forty days. During this time, the Dervish candidate renounces wordly pleasures, begins a life of strictest abstinence and spends his time in prayer, invocation, strife against sexual desire and assessment of his life. The life of the hermits is an example of the Muslim mystical ideal, which is to transcend all that alters and degenerates, in order to reach unchanging eternity. A symbol of Sufi endeavour to attain union with the divine is known as the Simurgh.
Each order has its own special costume, such as cloak, belt or crown. A Sufi training centre is named zawiya, or tekye -a lodge, or khanqah- a kind of seminary.
In many of the Sufi orders, team dancing is practised. Muslims generally steer clear of music because it excites the senses, but in the mystical Sufi brotherhoods music has always been highly regarded. They customarily play musical instruments, such as the pipe, the tambourine and the lute, and usually Sufi music includes vocal or choral compositions, using the notation and scales of profane music. Hymns are sung in nearly all Sufi orders. Sufi thought is of great importance in Islamic history. Some of the best examples of Sufi literature are Sufi love poems, written in Arabic, Persian, Turkish or Urdu.
MUHARRAM is the first lunar month of the Hegira calendar and Ashura is an Arabic word meaning the tenth. Ashura Day is the name given to the tenth day of Muharram. There are many different interpretations of Ashura Day. It is claimed variously to be the day on which Adam acknowledged his repentance; the day Noah’s Ark landed on Mount Ararat after the Flood; the day Abraham was rescued from the fiery furnace; the day Jacob was reunited with his son Joseph; the day the Prophet Mohammed was born. It is the day on which Jews observe Yom Kippur, (Day of Atonement) which is spent fasting.
10th Muharram, Hegira 61 (10th October, 680 CE) is commemorated as a day of mourning in the Muslim world because the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima, and his uncle’s son and the fourth Caliph Ali’s youngest son Imam Huseyn together with 72 comrades were martyred in the Karbala Desert (Iraq) by the armies attached to the Yezid of the Omayyads. For this reason, Ashura Day is a day of mourning for Muslims. The members of the school of Ja’far mourn the martyrdom in the Karbala Desert, they shed tears and perform a play (Ta’ziya) which relates the story of the Karbala massacre. Ta’ziya is the only type of drama in Islam.
Ashura is also the name of a dessert. After the mourning ceremony, it is eaten to celebrate the survival of Huseyn’s son, Imam Zeynu’l-Abidin, through whom the family would continue.
The school of Ja’far, who form the majority of the Shi’ite sect, are also named, Ithna A’shariya or Imamis. At present, it is the formal doctrine of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Belief in the Imams appointed by will and testament is regarded as one of the basic tenets of their religion. The Caliphate era began after the death of the Prophet Mohammed. The fourth Caliph, Ali, expressed faith in the Twelve Imams. Within them, they maintain, is a supernatural ‘Mohammedan Light’ granting them superhuman knowledge and strength, and their sufferings make them accessible to their believers through divine grace.
The school of Ja’far indicates that the worship and religious procedures of this sect follow Ja’far al-Sadiq’s teachings. He was the Shi’ite’s sixth Imam, the last acknowledged Imam of all the Shi’ite sects, and was the great great grandson of Ali. One of his most basic thoughts, widespread among Shi’ites, was that God previously determined a definite form for certain things, but left others to human conduct. A further fundamental belief is that whatever is not in accordance with the Koran, no matter what evidence in its support may be put forward, must be discarded. The divisions among the Shi’ites began with the death of Ja’far. The representatives of his eldest son Ishmael, (the Ishma’ilis) maintain that Ishmael is only lost, and that one day he will reappear. The members of the school of Ja’far do not accept the doctrine of Ishmael as a lost imam. The Ishma’ilis expresses faith in the seven Imams.
Shi’ism became the formal doctrine of Iran during the Safavid dynasty (16th century). It is believed that the twelfth Imam, Mohammed el-Mehdi, did not die but was hidden (878) and that he will reappear just before the Day of Judgment and ensure that Justice prevail in the world (expectation of the Muslim Messiah, Mahdi). Up to this time the mujtahids, expounders of Islamic law, who took over the regency from the imams, are considered authorized to implement the Shari’a punishments, and to adjudicate in social and economic matters. Refusal to accept their judgments is equivalent to a refusal of the judgments of the Imam. Nowadays, the authority of the mujtahids can be placed in ascending order thus: Huccetu’l Islam, Islamic proof; Ayetullah, sign from Allah; Ayettullahi’l Uzma, the paramount sign from Allah.
Other religions have a similar expectation of a return: the Jews wait for the Messiah, Christians wait for the second coming of Jesus, Buddhists for the return of Buddha, Hindus for that of Vishnu.
The crescent moon, (hilal) is the accepted symbol of Islam, and this particular form of the moon has a religious significance. It is the symbol of rebirth, because it possesses both an open and closed form, like a person caught in the throes of death, before opening up and reviving. Thus the crescent is an image of heaven and a symbol of revival.
Apart from pork, blood, alcohol and narcotics, everything is permissible. Muslims are forbidden to eat the meat of any animal that dies of natural causes instead of being slaughtered in the prescribed manner. Traditionally, animals are slaughtered after first pronouncing the name of Allah and then the blood is drained, a method similar to that used by the Jews.
Muslim women may not marry non-Muslim men, but Muslim men are permitted to marry other “Peoples of the Book”, i.e., Christians and Jews.
Like Jewish males, Muslim males are circumcised, but Muslim circumcision is performed on no fixed date just before reaching puberty and is a festive occasion, with special clothes for the boy, and entertainment provided. Islam forbids usury.
In Islam, conduct and practices which are in accordance with the words of the Prophet Mohammed are known as Sunna. The branch of study which organises this learning is called Hadith. SUNNISM is the collective name for the doctrines based on the form of belief determined and practised by the disciples according to the Prophet Mohammed’s Sunna. Sunni Muslims regard the first four Caliphs as the true successors of the Prophet. In Sunnism it is held that the Caliphs should be chosen through decisions of the Islamic community. They may be chosen from people of any race or region.
The four schools of law that have survived in Sunni Islam are Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanbali. The Hanafi is the most followed and which was accorded official recognition by the Ottoman Empire. Most Muslims in central Asia, India and Turkey, and many throughout the Middle East, follow Hanafi. The Maliki School prevails throughout northern and western Africa, in the Sudan and parts of the Persian Gulf, The Shafi’I is found mostly in eastern Africa, parts of Arabia and throughout southeastern Asia, and the Hanbali, now the least followed among the Wahhabis of central Arabia and parts of the Persian Gulf.
There are 1.3 billion Muslims in the world that is one person in every five. 20% of Muslims are from the Arabic-speaking world. 5% of Arabs are not Muslims. 83% of Muslims are Sunni, 16% Shi’ite and 1% other sects.