5.1 Celebrating origins
In our study of religious beliefs and practices, we turn our attention in this new unit to the celebration of festivals in faith communities. We begin with festivals that are based on a return to origins, such as the beginnings of a religious tradition. In this section, we study the example of the celebration of the Mawlid, the birthday of the Prophet, by the Muslims of Lamu in East Africa.
5.2 Timeless moments
Religious festivals are concerned with both time and the timeless. They act as an intersection between the human and the divine. In the Islamic tradition, the Prophet’s night journey to heaven, known as the Miraj, provides a good example of an event that is located in time, but deals with the timeless. We study a Swahili poem on the Miraj that is recited to celebrate this event in the Prophet’s life.
5.3 Becoming new
How time can he made new again is a hope we find in many human communities. In many cultures, this hope is expressed through the celebration of the New Year. In this section, we focus on the festival of Nawruz which is celebrated by Shia communities and other Muslims across the world. We examine some of the meanings that are associated with new year celebrations, such as the ideas of birth, renewal, health and prosperity..
5.4 People of the time
In this concluding unit, we deepen our understanding of the concept of sacred time in religious traditions. We try to gain an insight into the relation between religious communities and the passage of time. As a case study, we focus on the observance of the ceremony of Takht Nashini in the Shia Ismaili community. This event helps us to reflect on the close link made by religious traditions between the passage of time and the continuity of spiritual guidance.
Muslim communities celebrate the birth of the Prophet in different ways, depending on their culture and religious tradition. A common practice in this festival is the recitation of the mawlid, a poem that narrates events in the life time of the Prophet. In addition to this recitation, there may be processions and feasts, as well as prayers and other ceremonies held in places of worship,
The following account is a description of the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday in Lamu, an island off the coast of Kenya. It describes the ceremonies that are conducted by the Muslims of Lamu, and the poems and prayers recited in the local mosque. It gives us an insight into the celebration of ‘sacred time’ in the Muslim context.
The light of the Prophet
On Tuesday just two days before the Mawlid a cow is slaughtered early n the morning. During the cooking process the head of the sharifs comes in and reads parts of the Quran …
The poem is long, taking about fifteen minutes to sing all the way through. The voices are accompanied by the beating of the tambourines and two small drums. When this first poem ends, another is begun.
The second poem is highly melodious, and the people participate exuberantly in reciting it:
Greeting to you
His voice in this ritual is modified from his regular speaking voice; his pronunciation is different. He starts by saying:
… Finally, the sharif reads:
God and his angels
Then the sharif reads again, ‘In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful,’ and from here on the text of the Mawlid is read:
Thanks to God the Powerful who has given us the clearest proof. His generosity and kindness are extended over this world. His glory is elevated, and His power is great. He created human beings from wisdom. He concealed that knowledge. He extended His mercy on them. Then He sent to them His most honorable creature. That slave who is full of mercy. God from eternity decided to create that beloved Creature and for that reason, the traces of hue honour of that creature spread all over the worlds. We thank the Munificent for His blessing. The gift is actualized as a complete perfection in a merciful body which perfumed the entire world.
When the first section is finished, a poem accompanied by music is read, and then another part of the mawlid followed by another poem, and so on … The head of the Reiyadah sharif begins to read the conclusion of the mawlid … During this time people shout ‘Nuri ya Mtumi,’ ‘Nuri ya Mtumi,’ ‘the light of the Prophet,’ ‘the light of the Prophet,’ and others answer them saving, ‘God bless him, God bless him.’
When the mawlid is finished, the head of the Reiyadah sharif stands and goes to the top of the mosque and enters the green dome. He begins to speak through loudspeaker;
There is no God but Allah. Allah is praised in every place. Allah is eternal.
Allah is mentioned every place by every being. Allah is known through His mercy and generosity and kindness. Allah is the provider. Allah will protect us from the malevolent humans and jinn.
There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is His messenger. Muhammad is our light, our moon, and our leader. He is our protector; and he is the one who will intervene for us. God bless him and his relatives. God ordered us to salute and bless the Prophet.
The Prophet told us, ‘No one will be a real believer except he loves me more than himself’ Love is the core of Islam and without loving the Prophet and his relatives, there is no Islam. If you lose your Islam, then you will be no different from the animals. You have to obey the Prophet, who brought us light; he brought us the light of God. Look around you, and you will find that without his light the world can not exist.
The Prophet ordered us to love each other; and to be kind to each other. You must not attack each other, or insult each other. Many of us are committing sins, but you must not despair. God’s Mercy will come. The Prophet will help us.
Finally I ask God for the sake of The Prophet to forgive all of you, and to make it easy for you, so you can begin a new year as pure as a newborn child, Oh God’, please grant us our wishes. Please God, do not treat us as sinners; help us to follow your beloved Prophet. God for the sake of the Prophet, will accept our invocations.
Then other vows are made, and the mawlid is over. Everyone comes to kiss the sharifs hand.
- asr- afternoon
- Fatiha – the opening sura or chapter of the Quran
- Hospice – lodgings for travelers or visitors
- procession – people walking together in a festival or ceremony
- Rabi al-awal – the third month in the Muslim calendar
- Reiyadah – one of the areas or locations in Lamu
- sharifs – those having noble ancestors; people claiming to be descendants of Imam Ali and Hazrat Fatima
- sincere – honest, truthful
- tambourines – small, light drums covered on one side with jingling discs around them
- Yasin – one of the suras
in the Quran
- Ziyara – a visit to the graveyard to recite prayers for the dead
- actualised- made real
- Ahmed, Taha – titles of the Prophet
- ardently- eagerly
- concealed – hid
- core – heart, centre
- despair- lose hope
- elevated – of a high position
- exuberantly- with great energy
- invocations – prayers in which one calls out to God
- grieves – suffers deep sorrow
- malevolent – wishing evil to others
- melodious – musical
- munificent – extremely generous
- perish – he destroyed; suffer death
- Saviour- one who saves
- suffices – is enough
- vows – solemn promises
Reflecting on the text
What are some of the events that take place two days before the Mawlid? Why do you think people visit the graveyard on this occasion?
What role does food play in the celebration of the Mawlid? How does it serve to bring different groups of people together?
How is the metaphor of light used to describe the role of the Prophet in the sermon at the end of the account?
Religious festivals are occasions of celebrating faith, community, and spirituality. The sacred time provides an opportunity for the community to come together as one body of worshipers. The outward practices and ceremonies allow for the participation of all members in the festival being celebrated.
Religious festivals are also times for believers as individuals to turn inward to their own faith. The sacred time becomes personal to the believer as he or she enters into a special relationship with the sacred. At these times, believers may reaffirm their commitments to their faith, seek for forgiveness, and ask for guidance and help.
In the example we have studied, the Mawlid is an important occasion when believers ask for the Prophet to intercede on their behalf. The Prophet becomes a means through which believers can grow in their nearness to God.
What significance do religious festivals have in Muslim traditions?
WORDS TO LOOK UP
- Laylat al- qadr
570 CE: The approximate year of the Prophet’s birth
Find out how the birthdays of religious founders are celebrated in other religious traditions. What significance do faith communities give to these types of festivals?
In some Muslim traditions, the birth of the Prophet is not celebrated as a festival, Other Muslim communities view this day as special and full of meaning. Discuss the different status given to the Prophet by Muslims.
What status is given to the Prophet the Mawlid of Lamu? What is the position of the believers in relation to the Prophet?
The celebration of the Mawlid, the Prophet’s birthday is an important festival for many Muslin communities across the world.
5.2 Timeless moments
Festivals and the timeless
The poem of the ladder
All the Miraj stories share in common the main descriptions of the night journey. For example, the Prophet’s meeting with other prophets of God is to be found in all the Miraj narratives. However, how these narratives are presented vary in style and detail, and reflect cultural elements from local environments.
The following example of a Miraj poem is selected from East Africa. It forms part of the literature of the Swahili Muslims who are to be found in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The Swahili poem given here is based on Arabic version. It is recited over three nights that are devoted to the celebration of the Prophet’s Miraj.
The poem of the ladder
I begin to compose
my poem with the name of the generous
God, the exalted Lord, holy and merciful.
There is no end to the praises of Him that has greatness.
Prayers and pious greetings
may go to the Prophet.
And also his family and companions, let us pray for them;
we have the, wish to enter their ranks in (Paradise),
on the Day of Resurrection, that thee may rise and pray far us,
so that we may he saved on the difficult day of Gehenna.
Enough, I have finished, I will not extend the forward too much,
Because I have some matters I want to present in poetic form.
It is the good legend of the night of the ascension
Of the honoured one who was allowed to climb up to heaven.
‘When the time had come (for) our Lord
to reveal the future vocation of the Prophet.
He sent down Gabriel. The Prophet slept;
He went to him where he was and woke him up.
‘Rise, do not sleep, your Lord calls you, quick’…..
Gabriel said: ‘Your Lord sends you greetings.
I have been sent to call you, to go with you where God is.
Mount Burak and go quickly, proceed…..
Burak shied, Gabriel spoke’….. ‘Carry the good Beloved one.’
She said: ‘I accept; to carry (him) is good behaviour (for me)
1 know that, it is clear to me, that a reward is connected with it.
But I have a request which I would like to submit to him:
a guarantee of Paradise, that (he may) put me in a good place.’
Burak saw all her requests granted.
The intercessor of the generous Lord God guaranteed it to her.
And she bowed her head with joy and smiled;
The Prophet mounted her praying to his lord God.
The Prophet set out and arrived in Medina
Gabriel said: ‘Dismount here and pray to our Lord.
Prophet kneel down two times as is customary,
then you will mention your Lord’s name with proper recitation.
After that they went and arrived at the mountain Tur in Sinai.
Gabriel said: ‘Pray here, trustworthy Prophet.
‘This is the place of (Gods) communication with Moses……
Here was the Glory of the words, of the Everlasting God,’
A bet: that they went and arrived in Bethlehem,
where Jesus, the son of Mary, was born.
Gabriel said: ‘Pray here, stand in line (for prayer),
Pray [to) your
Lord here for it
is a good place.’
After that they left and saw a terrible demon,
With a burning log to set the Lord Prophet alight.
Gabriel said: ‘Recite … (from the Quran), pray to your Lord.’
‘The Prophet recited (a prayer), and the demon extinguished…..
After that they went and saw a tree on the road
that tore off clothes; whoever passed had no peace.
Gabriel said: ‘They are those who sit at the waiting places,
they block the way, their reward is Hell”.
After that they went on and in” a river of blood,
there were people in it (who) went in and ate poison.
Gabriel said: Those people have eaten forbidden food;
This is their reward with which they will he rewarded
Tomorrow, on the Day of Resurrection’.
After that they went and saw a humiliated man.
He wanted to take up a load (on his shoulders),
but he could not lift it, (it was too heavy).
He tried again, increasing it, but he could not carry it.
Gabriel said: ‘That is lending on pawn’ – – –
After that they went and saw wicked people;
Scratching (their) faces with claws of copper.
Gabriel said: ‘they are the people who are unjust.
On the Day of Resurrection their faces have no flesh’…..
They went on and saw a pillar of light:
it was carried for the messenger by His angel.
Gabriel said, ‘they have been ordered to hold steady
The pillar of faith and to place it under the sky.’….
They went on and saw all the other Prophets,
They called out to him with greetings…..
After that they arrived at a big building and went in,
The Holy House, the good abode of Glory….
They went inside and prayed a salat of two prostrations
They saw the Prophet meet in the mosque
Gabriel then went up and called the prayer call.
He performed the salat….
Finally a ladder descended from it heaven,
decorated with silver and gold and corallites;
the Prophet and his faithful friend ascended to heaven.
they knocked on the gate and the celestial beings answered.
Then said: ‘Who is the owner of the Light
that spreads through Heaven?’
Gabriel answered: “The Intercessor of the good and the evil’
They opened it with haste and hurry,
and met him with respect, paying him homage.
The Prophet saw our forefather, the Prophet, Adam;
He was shown the souls of his progeny and he recognized them;
where there was happy and good soul, he smiled;
weeping, when it was a bad soul for Hell.
He began his salaam to the Confessor saying;
‘Welcome, noble son, Messenger, Prophet.
The guidance is yours, the star of fortune
You are the leader going at the head
And all the Prophets go behind you.’
After that they passed on and arrived at the second heaven;
Knocking as before and being answered as the first time.
He saw Jesus and St. John, both of them,
Their appearance was identical like children of one mother
He greeted them, and they rose to stand for him
To honour him with respect and call him by name
When they had parted, they passed on and arrived
At the third heaven and they knocked with reverence.
They were answered,’ Welcome honorable one’.
He saw the sincere Joseph with his fine appearance
He began greeting the Confessor with respect.
He welcomed him and put him in a good place
After that they arrived at the fourth heaven rapidly.
Gabriel said: ‘Open ye, the Good Messenger is here’
(He) said: ‘Welcome, come through with him without delay,
The divine assistance is with the Intercessor, the good creature.’
When he arrived he was met by Idris.
The fourth heaven was his post, his seat.
He said: ‘Welcome, be at case and rest awhile.
Divine assistance is yours; you
have good fortune without end
After that they passed on and arrived in the fifth heaven.
They, went in and met the Prophet Aaron,
he welcomed them with the highest respect;
they prayed to God and parted with a good prayer.
Then they passed on, the Intercessor and Gabriel,
in the sixth heaven they arrived, both of them.
They knocked on the gate with respect and reverence.
it was opened for them and they saw Moses,
the one on whom God spoke …
Finally they passed on and arrived at the seventh heaven
Gabriel said, I have come with the beloved.
Open the gate that the Prophet of the Lord may pass.’
So they opened up and God’s Prophet passed.
He saw as person of high rank and great status.
The Prophet asked: ‘Which man is he?’ He said: ‘Khalil,
the friend of God, he is your grand father and origin.’
He gave salaam to his fore father Abraham.
He (Abraham) welcomed him, and said: ‘Yours is the honor.
O, Intercessor, announce to your community,
that they must climb the rungs into Paradise and pay homage,
and the rungs of glorification to the highest Lord.’
then they passed on and saw there, where they were.
a crowded house, built right under Paradise.
They went inside and prayed
They saw there 700,000 angels, good creations…
And their announcer of the prayer is the faithful Gabriel.
Their leader of the prayer is Michael, who is in charge,
on Fridays, to lead the prayers of two prostrations
They prayed a ritual prayer and then a personal prayer
to the Lord Most Generous …
Finally they passed on, bending for the Throne,
the eighth step of the stair way of Prophet hood,
Where there is the Jujube tree of the End of all things.
They saw many wonderful things without ending
They saw under it four rivers all flowing,
water and milk and honey, wine the fourth
And its jujube fruits are very sweet like sugar
one leaf of it covers all nations
There is nobody who can be praised, indeed there is not
Except our Lord almighty,
What pleases Him is only an order: Be! And it is!
He alters it and they cannot keep looking at it (at the tree)
Finally the bringer of his own Good Tidings saw his own river,
A present from God, its name is Abundance.
They followed it and went along its bed,
Until they arrive at the good house of Beatitude
They saw many creatures they had never seen,
Nor heard by reports from the tellers of tale;
And you did not yet think of it in your heart at all.
They saw written on the door a good tradition:
‘One is the alm and tenfold is its reward;
and eighteen fold is promised to him who lends
To a person who asks for a loan having suffered to loss
He who created the sacrifice to be asked for,
He has also bliss (to give).’
He saw Paradise; he had never seen its likeness
It was adorned with silver and gold and corallites
And with emeralds and rubies full of color,
And many kinds of silk, good and pleasant.
Then they went out and were shown a fierce fire,
And he saw terrors of punishment, he could not bear it.
He lost consciousness, his sense left him,
Gabriel embraced him thereupon
and he regained consciousness.
The Messenger passed on to the eighth rung of the ladder.
Gabriel could not go and stayed behind.
He said, ‘I cannot go further one span.
Here is my place.’ The intercessor went On…
Finally he sat down on the palanquin and it went with hin.
He passed all veils and finally saw Him,
my holy Lord, without physical appearance, with his eyes
and there was nowhere to stand, no standing place.
He saw the Lord with his two eyes.
He began his salaam and his ceremonial greetings to the Majesty.
God answered him ‘salaam to you, Prophet.
You are the chosen one who was placed in a good position.’
The veil of light was raised and he went back.
and arrived where the faithful Gabriel was
They both descended and saw the Prophet Moses,
and he (Mohammad) told him the story unto its end
After that they descended and arrived in the night,
in the Holy temple, the House of eternal Boon.
They saw Burak she was in the same place as originally.
The Prophet mounted her in the Name of God
While travelling they saw many camels coming from Syria,
with the Quraysh; he passed them
When the animals saw Burak they fled.
One broke its knees so that it could not stand.
They went on again and saw many caravan camels:
one got lost and they went to put it in line.
He gave salaam, the Prophet and they said,
The voice that speaks salaam is that of the Prophet.’
After that they went and arrived in Mecca while it was still dark
It was not yet dawning noticeably: the Prophet sat and thought.
He was afraid of the Quraysh and their scheming,
that they would deny his story about Heaven.
While he was still thinking and wondering, the Prophet.
saw the cursed rebel against God, Abu Jahl
He came to put indiscreet questions in order to mock him
And to know the situation:
‘O Muhammad, I see you are bending down your forehead’
‘Which matter do you have that is so big as to change you?
You have changed; your forehead is not shining.
Tell me let me know your story
There is so very little we know about you, father of Kassim’
And Muhammad said: Yes indeed, I will tell you my story;
this night I went on a far journey.
I reached heaven and saw God the compeller.
and He gave me words to cherish in my heart.’
The cursed man gathered his whole clan,
and they all appeared to hear the story of the Prophet.
When he told every story to perfection,
there arose laughter and mockery, and he was jeered.
‘Say; Muhammad, it is a lie, your story’
Have you really arrived hack in one night from a long journey
You have traversed heaven and saw God the compeller?
You are magnifying your dignity, it is all lies,
unworthy of a Prophet.’
‘The story of heaven and God’s throne, we do not know because we cannot go and verify it.
Give us a description of the Holy Mosque,
because we have travelled, we know its features’ …
And he described for them the appearance
(of the Holy Mosque) and repeated it;
he measured it all out in feet and yards and even Spans.
And Abu Bakr said: ‘O, Prophet, this is its description,
you have ‘caught’ exactly all the outward looks,’
All the Quraysh said: ‘You reliable one!
This is its description; you have made it completely clear
our men are travelling just now, the sons of so-and-so.
When will they arrive, tell us, that we may understand?’
He said, ‘Your people are still far away, they will appear
on the fifth Friday front now that is their day of arrival’
When this day came they were waiting.
They did not see anything, until the sun was due to set.
The Prophet prayed to his beloved God,
to hold the sun in its place in order to fulfill his promise,
And then their people appeared before them,
the complete number.
And while the sun was still there his word came true…
I have finished writing the Miraj in poetic form
In praise of our Lord the Generous God.
Prayers and salaam and grace and glorification
may go to the Prophet and too his family and all his people …
- ascension – rising up
- customary– usual; according to custom
- Day of Resurrection, day of Gehenna – the Day of Judgment
- dismount – get down from a horse
- exalted – of a high position
- extinguished – killed
- forbidden – not permitted
- forward – introduction to the poem
- humiliated- ashamed
- intercessor – one who mediates or intervenes between God and human beings
- pawn – tending money on high interest
- vocation – mission, eating, career
- alm- charity, donation to the poor
- ascended– climbed up
- beatitude- blessing
- bliss – perfect happiness
- celestial – heavenly
- Confessor- the Prophet as one who seeks forgiveness from God for a person’s wrong-doings
- corallite – substance made from coral found in the sea
- descended – climbed down
- glorification – praise
- homage – respect
- palanquin – a light bed or couch, covered by curtains, and resting between parallel sticks, used as a means of transport
- progeny – descendants
- prostration – act of bowing down in prayer
- salaam – greetings; ‘may the Peace of God be upon you’
- span – a short distance
- tidings – news
- boon – blessing
- cherish – hold dear, protect
- compeller- one who raises strong interest: one who brings something about by force
- indiscreet – un-thoughtful
- jeered – scorned, ridiculed
- magnifying – making greater
- mockery- ridicule
- rebel- a person who fights against, or resists authority
- scheming – plotting
- verify – establish the truth of some:
Reflecting on the text
When are the main episodes of the night journey that the poem describes?
How does the author introduce himself at the beginning of the poem? How did the Prophet’s night journey begin?
What types of people did the Prophet come across who were suffering for their misdeeds? What type of offences do they represent?
Which prophets did Prophet Muhammad meet as he rose through the seven heavens? Why do you think the poet has selected to mention these prophets in the poem?
What kinds of things did the prophets see after he left the seventh heaven? What is the meaning of the tradition that was written on the door?
How does the poet describe the Prophet’s encounter with God?
What was the response of the Quraysh when the Prophet told them about his night journey? What kind of proof did they ask of him?
Height and flight
The celebration of Miraj by Muslim communities is an occasion when believers reflect on their own spiritual life. In mystical and esoteric traditions of Islam, the believers aspire to experience Miraj in their lives, too. They believe that by performing their religious duties, by leading an ethical life, and though prayer and meditation, it is possible to progress spiritually just as the Prophet did.
In Shia and Sufi literature, we find many references to the subject of Miraj. The poets and thinkers encourage believers to reflect more deeply on the meaning of spiritual ascent. They point to the inner life as consisting of different stages or heights that can be scaled through spiritual discipline. The more a person gets to know himself or herself, the greater the inner heights that one achieves.
Height and flight are important metaphors in mystical literature of all religious traditions. They are often represented by birds, angels, or other winged creatures, such as Burak, the flying horse. They point to the inner longing within human beings to transcend the limits which their material environment imposes upon them.
Stories and explanations of the Prophet’s Miraj reveal that sacred time in Muslim traditions is understood at many different levels.
Images of time
The renewal of time
whole of nature comes to life. Plants sprout up again, and flowers begin to blossom. Animals start foraging for food, and giving birth to their young. The world becomes new again.
New years Day
The first ten days of Muharram are a period when Muslims commemorate the death of Imam Husayn and his family at the battle of Karbala.
The celebration of Nawruz
The rituals and ceremonies performed during Nawruz celebrations are of ancient origins. They have become adapted and modified by different cultures, and as times have changed.
In Iran, the Nawruz festival is spread over thirteen days. The preparation for the festivals begins several weeks beforehand. The houses are spring-cleaned new clothes are bought, and food is prepared for the festival. One week before Nawruz, people light piles of thorn and brushwood, and then the jump over the fires.
Families also prepare the haft-sin, or seven items beginning with the letter ‘sin’ in Persian. These items include, for example sib (apple), sir (garlic), sumak (sumac), sinjid (jujube). samanu (a kind of sweetmeat), sirka (vinegar) and sabzi (greens). These items are placed on a cloth spread on the floor in front of a mirror. On the actual day of Nawruz the families visit one another with gifts, and hold a feast. On the thirteenth day, many go for a picnic in the country.
The rituals and ceremonies performed during Nawruz are rich with meaning. They refer to new beginnings, health, prosperity and well-being that family’s hope they will experience in the New Year.
The following account of Nawruz gives us a detailed description of the preparation and celebration of this festival, It is extracted from a book in which the author is recalling her childhood days in Iran.
When the earth turns and enters the New Year
In our house, preparations for Nawruz started weeks before it arrived. Sometimes winter lingered and delayed things, with snowfalls as late as the beginning of March. But usually, at the approach of Nawruz, spring
was in the air. There was a change in the quality of light; buds appeared on the bare branches, and sudden downpours of warm cad1 left everything glistening in the soft sun.
Then the swallows began to return from the South to their nests in their caves – there was one immediately above my window, and as soon as I heard rustling in it, I knew it was refurbishing its home with fresh twigs and feathers, and that winter was gone for good.
My mother would have the house spring-cleaned from top to bottom, the korsis [a low table covered with blankets with a charcoal brazier underneath, used for sitting around in winter and keeping warm] were dismantled and stored away, the paraffin stoves washed and made ready in case the weather took a turn for the worse.
Money was always a problem, considering the size of our household and our social obligations, and my mother had to juggle and fret and find enough to satisfy everyone’s needs and expectations while keeping our aberoo (honour, dignity) safe. Everyone had to have new clothes, servants had to be given extra money for their own New Year expenses, quantities of silver and gold coins had to be bought for ‘New Year tips’ – people always tipped each other’s Servants when they went visiting – for children, and so on . . .
My brothers would have suits, shirts and shoes made by Uncle Alem’s tailor and shoemaker, and my mother would take my sister and me Nawruz-shopping in Lalehzar … She would spend a long time looking, comparing, discussing matters with the shopkeepers, before deciding on what she wanted for our new dresses …
My mother, who never usually cooked, made all the pastries and sweetmeats and sugar almonds and marzipan fruit and endless other goodies for Nawruz herself. They were too delicate and complicated to be tackled by any but the most competent pastry-cook, which she had taught herself to be.
As there were no gas and electric ovens in those days, she had procured a primitive, makeshift charcoal variety, with which she made do.
The oven was rather temperamental, and subject to extremes of temperature for no apparent reason. Yet she go the better of it and seldom burned anything.
Hundreds of visitors came to the house during the New Year celebrations, which lasted thirteen days and tons of sweetmeats and pastries were needed if each took the tiniest piece. So Mother spent weeks making abundant quantities of each variety, arranged them in airtight tins and stored them in cool larder.
She would make dough with different flours – wheat, rice, and chick-pea – butter and sugar; then roll it out thin and, with the help of tiny metal moulds, cut it into hearts, circles, crescents, stars, clovers… This was part of the process to which we all contributed with tremendous excitement. We would sit around her … in the evenings and press the moulds on to the flat dough, then arrange the pieces on oven trays ready to be cooked, while Aunt Ashraf entertained us with stories and anecdote of past Nawruzes…
A couple of weeks before Nawruz Mother began preparing the haft-seen – a collection of seven items whose names start with the letter ‘S’ in Persian, like grass, apple, certain spices and berries, each item symbolizing fertility in a different area of life.
First she planted the sabzi (grass), soaking a cup of wheat grains or green lentils in water for three days, then, when it begin to sprout, taking the grains out of water and spreading them on a plate, which she covered with a damp cloth. Over the next few days, the sprouts would grow and green blades appear. Every day she would sprinkle the grass a little, until by New Year’s Eve it had grown a couple of inches tall – the symbol of new growth.
The haft-seen varies in size, and can be modest enough to be contained on one tray, or large enough to spread over a whole table, depending on the size and inclination of the family. Ours was a rich decorative affair, with coloured eggs, a goldfish in a glass container (fertility at sea), an orange with stem and leaf in a bowl of water (a metaphor for the earth turning in the atmosphere), candles, a mirror, plateful of sweetmeats and marzipan mulberries,
Excitement gathered as New Year’s Day approached. On the last Wednesday before Nawruz there was the public Feast of Fire, a custom that has survived from Zoroastrian times. Peasants brought cart-loads of thorn-bushes to the city and hawked them through the streets. Everybody bought some to burn on Fire Wednesday. For a short while at dusk, the streets were aflame with burning thorn- bushes, over which children and youngsters jumped saving, ‘Fire! Fire! Give me your glowing cheeks and take away my sallow complexion!’
From the air, the town must have looked strewn with stars, all bright and twinkling. The dry bushes blazed quickly and lusciously and died without leaving any debris. We did not join the street celebrations but Ali bought some thorn-bushes so that we could light fires on the paved paths in the garden, and jump over them with our friends.
While the fire died out, you could make a wish and then stand on a dark street corner, listen to what people said as they went past, and interpret their words as an oracle. Young girls like Ozzie and Zahra, keen to know if marriage was in the stars for them, spent the early evening of Fire Wednesday eavesdropping. It was always a cheering experience, as in the atmosphere of general excitement and good will you could interpret everything to fit your wishes.
- brazier- a portable heater with a pan or stand for holding lighted coals
- competent – expert, skilled
- debris – scattered fragments
- dismantled – took apart
- eaves – the underside of a projecting roof
- eavesdropping – listening secretly to a private conversation
- fret – worry
- hawked – sold
- inclination – liking
- lingered- stayed on; was slow to go away
- lusciously – with energy, passion
- makeshift- temporary; for the time being
- marzipan – a paste of ground almonds and sugar
- metaphor- a phrase in which one object stance for another, to suggest a likeness between the two
- moulds – metal cutters of different shapes
- obligations – duties
- oracle – prophecy. Prediction
- refurbishing – restoring
- sallow complexion – sickly yellow colour of the skin
- strewn – scattered
- swallows – swift-flying birds with forked tails and long pointed wings
- temperamental – unpredictable, unreliable
On New Year’s Eve, Nanny would always produce the traditional dinner of rice and spring herbs, usually served with fish and a herb omelets. Walking in the streets, you could smell the aroma of wild garlic and saffron, of fried fish and fresh bread, emanating from people’s kitchens. Herbs, rice and fish were not cheap, as fishmongers and hawkers always increased their prices in accordance with the surge in public demand.
The poor could not afford it, but everyone sent platefuls to those they knew to be needy yet too proud to show their poverty. We had Iwo families in the neighbourhood to whom my mother sent food and sweetmeats at Nawruz…
Presently we would hear the cannon detonate in Army Square at the centre of the town, and the radio would wish everyone a happy Nawruz. Kisses
and hugs all round, then the tasting of sweetmeats ‘to sweeten the new year’
and the handing out of presents by Father.
‘Who will go out and come in first?’ Mother would ask, as the first person who crossed the threshold would bring good or bad fortune to the house. It was usually my sister who performed this little ritual – she had a ‘lucky foot’, they said. At other times it was Nanny whose piety and goodness ensured similar blessings.
Hardly had we risen from the table than a flood of visitors would start. According to a strict hierarchical gradation, you visited your relatives first, then friends – age, social position, authority, everything fitted into the traditional order of thing My mother’s brothers and sisters arrived before anyone else, as she was the eldest sister and my father the head of the family then our paternal relatives, much more numerous, streamed in soon after.
For the next few days, the door remained open, the samovar purred from dawn to midnight, and extra staff came to cope with serving several sets of guests in different rooms…
… time had to be found somehow on the first day to visit my grandmother and my father’s two older brothers because of their seniority, even though the
stream of visitors never let up and juggling with minutes was frustrating and
unnecessary. But ‘that is how things had always been and would always be.’
After the first few days, my Mother started ‘returning the calls’ with my sister and me: a dozen calls in the pace of half a day, staying a few minutes at each house, enough time for kisses and expression of affection. One tiny sweetmeat taken with a minute glass of tea in each place and you were replete by the time you reached home. ..
In later years, Nawruz obligations became so heavy, with endless visiting and return-visiting and tipping and leaving cards and making sure that no one was left out or offended, that those who could afford it went away to Europe or to their country houses by the Caspian sea, to escape from it all. But as children we loved the razzmatazz — the new clothes, the visitors – some of whom were distant cousins we never saw during the year – the succulent dishes and sweets.
Nawruz festivities lasted thirteen days, during which schools and offices were closed and everything stood at a standstill. It was the time of renewing bonds of friendship and good neighborliness, of gifts and forgiveness.
On the thirteenth day after Nawruz everyone who could would leave the city for a picnic in the country, to throw away their plate of sabzi and with it the cares and worries of the old year. As usual, the whole extended family took part in the outing – grandparents, parents, children, servants … Everyone took basketfuls of food and soft drinks, even samovars and rugs to spread on the ground…
Once outside the city, every patch of grass was covered with picnicking families, every green valley alive with the sound of music – from live performers as well as radios and hand-wound gramophones. Feathers of smoke from little samovars and makeshift charcoal braziers curled up in the air and drifted with the breeze: the smell of grilled meats and stews saturated the atmosphere…
– By the beginning of April, the short spring was at its height: the orchards, running down as far as the eye could see, were a riot of pink and white blossoms, the mountain, slopes, still streaked with snow on high ground, carpeted with wild flowers — tulips, crocuses, irises, narcissi — the limpid air filled with their heady scent. We would run down the paths and disperse in the gardens and orchards, and disappear in small groups of twos and threes…
At the end of the day, you threw away your sabzi as far as you could, and returned home. For weeks after Nawruz if you drove to the country, you saw bunches of drying, rotting sabzi strewn in the fields, until the new corn hid them from sight. After the picnic of the Thirteenth Day, Nawruz was over. We went back to school wearing our new shoes and coats, and telling each other all that we had done.
- aroma – fragrance
- cannon – a large heavy gun on a carriage
- detonate – set off, explode
- emanating – coming from
- equinox – the time or date at which the sun crosses the equator, when day and night are of equal length
- gramophones – record players
- heady- intoxicating
- hierarchical gradation – an arrangement based on ranker position
- limpid – clear
- minute – very small
- paternal – on the father’s side
- razzmatazz – glamorous excitement
- replete – filled up
- riot- a display of a large quantity of something
- samovar – a Russian tea urn or vessel for keeping the water hot
- saturated – fifed completely
- succulent – pleasant to taste
- surge – sudden increase
- threshold – entrance
Reflecting on the story
From the story, what can we tell about the author? What kind of family did she belong to?
What kinds of preparations were made by the family before Nawruz?
What was the haft-seen? What were some of the items in it, and what did they stand for?
What did the people say while jumping over the fires? What does this saying mean?
How values such as help and support between families were expressed during the festival?
What other values are mentioned in the story?
How did the people know when the New Year had arrived? What happened on the day of Nawruz? What happened on the thirteenth day? How does the author describe the surroundings in which the picnics took place? What do we learn from the story about the meaning of Nawruz for one family in Iran?
A time of renewal
Nawruz also leads people to reflect on their personal lives. They think of their achievements and failures during the past year, and make resolutions for the new one. The aspirations to improve the quality of one’s life, and of those for whom one is responsible, become the goals for a new year.
Nawruz invites people to reflect on the concepts of renewal in their inner lives. The spiritual life calls for constant reinforcement of one’s commitment to one’s faith. Nawruz is a time when believers reflect on their faith; they seek for ways in which they can renew their relation with the sacred.
Compare the festival of Nawruz with a new year’s festival celebrated in another religious tradition. What are some of the similarities and differences in the way the two festivals are celebrated?
In recent times, festivals have become increasingly commercialized. They are events when many people spend large sums of money. Discuss whether festivals are losing their original meaning.
What are some of the factors that lead to changes in the way that festivals are celebrated or how religious practices are performed?
Nawruz is an example of a festival in Muslim cultures that is based on the concept of the renewal of time.
5.4 People of the time
Concepts of time
Time in Muslim traditions
Time and Imamat in the Ismaili faith
the Ahl al-bayt, the Prophet’s family. The Imams contextualized the message of God so that it was made meaningful for the people of each age.
The celebration of Imamat Day
Ismaili Shias celebrate the continuing guidance through the Imam of the time in every age by celebrating Imamat Day. This is the day when a new Imam is appointed by the preceding Imam, and becomes the Imam of the time. Each Imam is the direct descendant of Prophet Muhammad, through his cousin and son-in-law, Mawlana Ali, the first Imam, and his wife Hazrat Fatima, the Prophets daughter.
The present Imam of the Ismailis is Mawlana Shah Karim al-Husayni, who is also known as Age Khan IV. He is the forty-ninth hereditary Imam of the Ismaili Shia Muslims. He was appointed to the throne of Imamat by the previous Imam, Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah, who was his grandfather. Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni became the forty-ninth Imam of the Ismailis on 11th July 1957. Ismaili communities all over the world celebrate this day as Imamat Day.
The following account describes the enthronement ceremony of the Imam in 1957, known as Takht-nashini. This ceremony took place in different parts of the world, including Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, India and Pakistan. On these occasions, the Imam indicating to the community aspirations for the future. The Imam assured the jamats that he would devote his life to guiding them in the new age. The account provides us with an insight into a special kind of event in Muslim traditions that celebrates the continuity of spiritual guidance in every age.
The Imam of the time
At first, the day had threatened to be cloudy and showery, but gradually it became fine and sunny with clear blue skies. The day was made all the more pleasant by the cool and gentle breeze blowing from the Indian Ocean.
The site in which the Uganda Jamatkhana stands was the venue of the first of a number of similar Takht-nashini ceremonies to be held in Africa, and in the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent. It was from the early hours of the morning that Ismailis had started to make their way to the ceremonial area, and by noon-time the ground was filled up.
The number of non-Ismailis who had turned up for this occasion was far greater than had been anticipated and when an appeal was made to the Ismailis to give up their seats for the guests, it was met with an immediate response.
In the gaily festooned grandstands, leaders of the Ismaili community in their gold turbans and crimson robes moved about the crowd, and looked as colorful as their womenfolk in flowering saris of a hundred shades, lavishly embroidered with gold and silver thread and sparkling diamante. There were hundreds of children too, among the crowd. Some were bewildered and baffled, some looked for friends and made merry, while the very tiny ones slept peacefully in their mother’s arms.
The houses around the area provided a wonderful grandstand view of the whole proceedings. Their decorated balconies were packed with people, and many more stood and sat on the rooftops, unmindful of any dangers….
A thunderous applause and shouts of …Allahhu Akbar’ greeted the arrival of Mawlana Shah Karim al-Husayni Hazir Imam … Having taken his seat in full view of the huge gathering, Mawlana Hazir Imam gave his permission to commence the ceremony.
After the recitation from the holy Quran, the President of the Ismaili Supreme Council for Tanganyika performed the robing ceremony by placing a red and grey robe over the shoulders of Mawlana Hazir Imam. The robe was worn by Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah during his Jubilee celebrations. Then came the addresses from the jamat and the members of other communities.
Mawlana Hazir Imam then rose to address the jamat and to thank the people of Dar-es-Salaam for the welcome given to him…
‘I would like to begin this reply to your kind addresses by thanking the whole city of Dar-es-Salaam for the wonderful welcome given [to] me, and the magnificent festivities which have marked this occasion…
‘My grandfather often reminded you that we are living in the atomic age. But what in fact do we mean when we say this … The most significant thing about the atomic age is the new and unbounded sources of energy which are released for the use of mankind. In Europe and America today, power stations are springing up which need no coal, nor oil, nor water power to run them. From them will flow the energy which will create new towns, railways, factories and all the foundations of modern industrial progress.
‘These things are still far off. But they will come. They will affect all your lives in the next half century. With this material progress will come many difficulties as well as many blessings. This will affect not only the Ismailis, but all who live in this territory, and perhaps even the whole of Africa. I shall devote my life to guiding the community in all the problems which these rapid changes will bring in their wake.
‘However, it should not be believed that material progress is all that counts. As so many advanced nations are finding to their cost, man’s mastery of physical forces has far outstripped his mastery of himself. His mind cannot grapple with the complexities his hands have created. That is why my grandfather attached so much importance to education in our community.
‘Today, I believe education is more important than ever before. But remember that education does not stop at the school room; it continues through the newspapers, the radio, films and … television.
‘… The Ismaili community’ must prepare itself for changes of this magnitude … I do not think that the great progress I have spoken about will make our lives any less happy than in the past.
‘The faith by which we live is the only sure guarantee that our problems will be surmounted. The younger people among you must be especially aware of this. Only the faith of your fathers will enable you to live in peace.’
- Allahu- Akbar- God is Great’
- bewildered, baffled – confused
- crimson – a deep red or purple colour
- diamante – decorated with sparkling material
- festooned – decorated with chains of flower, ribbons and lights
- grandstands – the main stands in a stadium
- installation – the placing of a person into an official position
- lavishly- abundantly
- subcontinent – a large land mass, smaller than a continent
- venue – a meeting place
- complexities – complicated objects or forces
- grapple – overcome a difficult problem
- industrial- to do with manufacturing and trade
- magnitude – size
- outstripped – overtaken, surpasses
- surmounted – overcome
- unbounded- unlimited
- wake – trail, track; what follows
Reflecting on the text
What kind of ceremony marked the appointment of Mawlana Shah Karim as the Imam of the Ismailis?
Where did this ceremony take place, and how was it conducted? What important messages are reflected in the Imam’s address to the jamat?
What kinds of changes did the Imam feel would have a great impact on people in the decades to come?
How could the jamat prepare itself for these changes?
Whet significance does the Takht nashini ceremony for Ismailis?
History reveals to us the numerous and deep changes that Muslim communities have experienced since the time of the Prophet. Muslim history consists of many periods and events that have raised new challenges and situations for the people of each age.
The Prophet too faced new situations in his life that needed to be creatively addressed. In guiding the Muslims, the Prophet had to respond to new issues and problems that arose around him.
In the periods that followed, Muslim communalities encountered questions that had not been faced in the Prophet’s time. In the present age, new challenges have arisen due to the changes that have take place in modern times.
In the Shia Ismaili faith, the Imam of the time guides his murids to understand and practise the faith of Islam in the context of changing times. The Imam translates the spiritual and ethical vision of Islam so that it speaks to the questions of the age.
WORDS TO LOOK UP
- Imam al-zaman
- Imamat Day
- 1887-1957 : Imam Sultan Mohammad Shah (Aga Khan III )
- 1957 – present: Imam Shah Karim al Husayni (Aga Khan IV)
Find out how the appointment of a religious leader is celebrated in other faith communities. What ceremonies are conducted to observe this event?
In Muslim communities, we find groups who believe that Islam should be practised as it was in the time of the Prophet. Other groups are of the view that Islam needs to be modernised. Discuss both viewpoints by examining the underlying arguments.
What kinds of issues and questions will people living in the new century face? What role can religious traditions play in helping to create a better world?
Imamat Day provides us with an example of a festival in the Shia Ismaili tradition that celebrates the continuity of spiritual guidance through changing times.
5.1 Celebrating origins
- Explain in your own words the term ‘sacred time’.
- How do religious festivals reflect the celebration of sacred time?
- What are festivals of origins? Why are beginnings viewed with meaning by religious communities?
- What kind of festival is the Mawlid How is it celebrated in Lamu?
- What status is given to the Prophet in the poetry recited on this day?
5.2 Timeless moments
How are religious festivals concerned with both time and the timeless?
- What is the Miraj? Why is this event celebrated by Muslim communities?
- How does the Swahili ‘Poem of the Ladder’ present the Miraj?
- How is the Miraj interpreted in Muslim traditions? What is the difference between a literal and symbolic interpretation of Miraj?
- Why does the story of the Miraj lend itself to many meanings? What are some of the main symbols we find in this story?
5.3 Becoming new
- How is time experienced in various cultures and periods? How do people interpret the passage of time?
- What kinds of events in nature reflect the human hope in the renewal of time?
- What is the Nawruz festival? Where did it originate, and which communities celebrate it today?
- What de we learn from the Iranian story about the importance that Nawruz has for the people who celebrate it?
- What kinds of symbols are used in the festival that bring out its various meanings?
- What are some of the concepts of time that we find in different cultures? How is the cyclical view of time different from a linear one?
- How is the concept of time viewed in different Muslim traditions? What significance does it have in the Shia Ismaili tradition?
- What is Imamat Day and what meaning does it have for Ismailis? How does the Imam of’ the time guide the Murids in the understanding and practice of their faith of Islam?
- What is the relation between the ideas of time and guidance in the Ismaili faith?