Saturday, December 26, 2009

Minaret Muse

Within days of the Swiss rule this month to ban the construction of minarets, conservative American communities have joined the frenzy. Internet websites call for “tearing down minarets in America.” Minarets, much like cathedral steeples or belfries, are slender towers beside mosques from which muezzins, or Muslim holy men, call their people to prayer. I cannot help but speak on behalf of minarets as my work for the past twenty years has been devoted to cross-cultural understanding and I have great appreciation and fondness for these architectural works of art. In fact, I am intimately acquainted with some of the grandest and smallest of them.

In 2005 I was invited to Iran to speak at their First International Children’s Book Festival because I had written a novel about a Persian nomadic carpet weaver. During my visit a writer who hailed from Isfahan arranged for a group of us to climb the centuries old minaret that soars above the blue-and green-tiled, Friday Mosque in this city. As a Westerner steeped in Christianity, the opportunity to explore inside a minaret was a view into an unfamiliar culture and religion. I found the experience as enlightening as it was inspirational.

No light filtered into the minaret in Isfahan. In order to climb in sheer darkness, we had to feel our way. I had to run the side of my foot up the fourteen inches or so of each step’s steep rise because much of the staircase had crumbled hundreds of years ago. Flakes of stone and sand spiraled below us in the stairwell. It occurred to me as we climbed how difficult it was in the pitch darkness to distinguish the self from the void of blackness, the all. Like whirling dervishes we circled round and round, much as stars dance in the cosmos. From this tower---at dawn, noon and dusk---the call to prayer is sung, beginning with the words, Alahu Akbar, God is Most Great. The universe itself, through the lilting voice of the muezzin, draws those who listen into the natural rhythm of sun and moon, reminding worshippers throughout each day about the beneficence of our Maker. This call to prayer asks penitents to pause and stand before all of creation, to bow in humility and gratitude, to kneel---to submit or dissolve into God. Finally, by placing their heads to the ground in prostration, they assume a position in which their heart is higher than their head---a gesture symbolizing a desire to act according to one’s soul rather than one’s ego.

Thrusting open the door at the top of the minaret, the desert sun penetrated our skin, the view breathtaking. Dust-colored mountains hugged the town; clusters of adobe neighborhoods huddled below us; stone bridges stretched across the River Zayandeh, offering a cool space where people gathered to drink tea. Stories above the turquoise tiles of the mosque dome, it seemed heaven and earth touched.

I’ve since visited other minarets while traveling in the Middle East and Central Asia, and one that I will always hold dear is Kalyan Minaret in Bukhara. This minaret inspired the setting for a scene in my forthcoming novel set in Uzbekistan, once part of the northern reaches of the Persian empire. Even Genghis Khan, a non Muslim, marveled at its many arched windows high in the cupola, its brickwork and lovely Arabic inscriptions. He respected the ingenuity of its builders who crafted this tallest minaret in Asia, and Khan made sure that his army did not destroy it when they attacked the nearby fortress.

I find it sad and troubling that people in this century feel driven to pick up a club, are compelled to smash mortar and jade that would eclipse alternative vantages from which to ponder the world. Robbing Muslims of their right to express their faith not only grounds the muezzins, it diminishes opportunities for those who would reach out to the Muslims within their communities for the sake of everyone. This Christmas season as we gaze at our illuminated trees, may we be reminded of Christ’s words, “Do unto others as you would have them due unto you.” Or maybe we can open our hearts a little wider to consider another wise man, whose death is celebrated by the Whirling Dervishes, Muslims and many others on the 17th of December. A thirteenth-century poet named Jalaluddin Rumi from Konya, Turkey---the most widely read poet in the West---who said, “In my soul there is a temple, a mosque, and a church where I kneel...”

One of my most treasured views in the world is from a rooftop nestled between the Aya Sophia and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, where seagulls fly freely, circling minaret and cathedral dome within the same wing beat above the Bosphorus. Birds, carving the air so easily with their feathers, without concern for this brand of prayer or that, unaware of the names Brahmain, Buddha, Mother Earth, Father Sky, The Great Spirit…

Image: Kaylan Minaret, Bukhara

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