It took five years to build, cost more than $10 million, used large quantities of gold, silver and ebony, and engaged over 600 of the country’s finest craftsmen. It then made a 2,000-kilometer journey to its destination, stopping in many village and towns on the way to that its sight would bestow blessings on the people. Everywhere it was accompanied by a delegation of clerics, preachers and heavily armed security men.
The “it” in question is the frame that surrounds the tomb of Salman Farsi whose shrine is located in the Salman-Pak (The Pure) just south of the Iraqi capital Baghdad. The shrine had suffered decades of neglect, its dome peeling off and its basic structures weakened by the elements. Today, the shrine is back to its former glory and fitted with a huge crystal chandelier and paved with fine Persian carpets.
The idea to renovate the shrine was first raised by a group of devotees in Isfahan where Salman is reputed to have spent part of his childhood in the 7th century AD.
A crowd funding scheme provided the seed money required for the project which in its latest stages also received public finance in the context of a growing trend to highlight Iran’s links with Islam from the earliest phases of that religion.
Salman the Persian was one of the earliest non-Arab converts to Islam and a prominent member of the Prophet’s entourage in Medina. He is remarkable for his abiding status as a pious and at the same time dexterous man whose military and diplomatic know-how rendered immense services to Islam in its early stages.
Born into a prominent Zoroastrian family in Kazerun, southern Iran, Salman, whose Persian name was “Ruzbeh” started his career as an officer in the Sassanid army but soon decided to give up his commission and travel “in search of the truth”. His journeys took him to Ctesiphon, then capital of the Sassanid Empire, in Mesopotamia and hence to Syria, then a province of the Byzantine Empire. It was there that he encountered the Anchorite Christians and was fascinated by the idea of prophets sent by God to guide the people. He then traveled south to the Arabian Peninsula where the Prophet of Islam had just started preaching his divine message. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
Last month the official media in Tehran evoked the idea of naming November 7 as Salman Farsi Day as a means of countering the Cyrus the Great Day declared by Iranian nationalists.
However, the official news agency IRNA went even further and suggested that the government declare a Cyrus the Great Day.
Travel agencies specializing in pilgrimage to holy cities in Iraq now include a visit to Salman Farsi shrine as part of their packages.
The current new fascination that many in Iran feel for Salman is part of the movement for “Iranian Islam” which has been gaining ground in the past few years.
Iranian history in the past 15 centuries has often see-sawed between religion and nationalism. The rise of one has often been accompanied with the decline of the other and vice versa.
“Partly because of dissatisfaction with the role of (Shi’ite) clerics in politics, Iran is experiencing a growing anti-religious trend,” says Mehrangiz Bayat, a Tehran researcher.
That analysis is backed by some prominent clerics. For example, Grand Ayatollah Shubeir Zanjani, one of the top clerics in Qom, warned last week that involvement in politics had contributed to the decline of the authority and popularity of the Shi’ite clergy in Iran.
Ultra-nationalists, including pan-Iranists who dream of reviving the Sassanid Empire in one form or another, have seized the popular disaffection with the ruling clergy as template for attacking Islam as “an alien Arab religion imposed on Aryan Iranians by the sword.”
They ignore the fact that the mass of Iranians converted to Islam long after the 80-year-old Arab occupation of parts of Iran had ended.
The concept of the “Iranian” or ”Aryan Islam” has been launched to counter the claim of “alien Islam”.
Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was and remains an advocate of the concept. During his tenure he borrowed the Cyrus Cylinder, an artifact on which Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenes Empire, is supposed to have inscribed the first declaration of human rights, from the British Museum and put it on show in Tehran. The exhibit, guarded by a squadron of soldiers dressed in Achaemenian military uniforms, attracted more than five million visitors.
Ahmadinejad justified his move, which angered some mullahs, on the grounds that Cyrus is supposed to have been mentioned in the Koran ad “zul-qornayn”. (Some scholars believe the reference is to Alexander not to Cyrus!)
According to reports, which cannot be independently verified, the “brain” behind the idea of an “Aryan Islam” is an obscure cleric named Hassan Yaaqubi who, although he has never been seen or heard in public, is supposed to have authored more than 40 books.
Other clerics have tried to promote the idea of an “Aryan Islam” by claiming that Hussein Ibn Ali, son of Ali Ibn Abitaleb and Fatimah, married Bibi Shahrbanu a daughter of the last Sassanian King Yazdegerd, initiating a fusion of Islam and Iran.
“All descendants of Hussein have Iranian blood in their veins,” says Ayatollah Sobhani. “This means an unbreakable human bond exists between Islam and Iran.”
Iranian nationalists, however, reject that idea and claim that Bibi Shahrbanu, whose shrine near Tehran attracts millions of pilgrims every year had been taken a captive and never converted to Islam.
Another cleric, Ayatollah Husseini Qazwini, claims that Iran’s Islam bond was strengthened by the Twelfth Imam, known as the Hidden Mahdi al-Montazar, emerged from his Long Absence in secret and married a girl from Tehran, ensuring the continuation of the “sacred line of Ali” with generation after generation of people with “Iranian blood in their veins.”
However, the traditional Iranian conflict between nationalism and religion seems set to intensify. According to government sources, more and more Iranians now use non-Islamic names for their new-born children. That has led to a decision by the Central Registration Office at the Ministry of Interior last Thursday to toughen rules for using “non-Islamic” names.
Spokesman for the registration office Seyf-Allah Abutorabi told a press conference that the ministry would also help those who wish to replace their non-Islamic names to do so with a minimum of bureaucratic hassle.