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G. Roger Denson

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The Beauty We Fear Part 3: The Mosques of Secular Muslim Writers (Slideshow)

Posted: 11/01/2010 1:17 pm

This is the third installment in a series of posts on mosques as seen through the eyes of some of the great novelists, poets, and journalists of the last three centuries. See the second installment.

Compared to the European writers discovering the great mosques of Islam for the first time, the mention of mosques is more muted and void of romance to the Muslim secularists inured to them from birth. Modern secular Muslim writers, particularly fiction writers, barely feature the mosque in their work, and when they do, it's anything but picturesque -- more prone to profanity and ominousness than to devotion. Most often, it is but a quotidian event, that building one passes by customarily, but an event that pulls at the chords of the psyche no less emotionally when the subject consists of personal remembrance pitted against political divisions. In Naguib Mahfouz's 1964 short story, The Mosque in the Narrow Lane, a neighborhood mosque becomes the focus of a man's difficulty in coming to terms with his environment, in this case a mosque situated in a red light district of Cairo.

The mosque stood at the crossroads of two lanes: one was an alley noted for the debauchery that occurred there, and the other housed procurors, pimps, and narcotics dealers. It seemed the only pious man in the whole quarter, or even the only normally decent man, was Am Hassanein, the fruit-juice man. For a long time, the Sheikh had shuddered every time he chanced to look up the alleys, as if he feared the contact with lewdness and crime would contaminate his soul if he were to breathe too deeply.

In the same story, Mahfouz rips apart the myths of the monolithic and radicalized Muslim on the street of the Nasser era -- a period in which the stereotype of mosques as training centers for extremists takes root, while characterizing the more common diversity within the mosque.

Sheik Abdu Rabbuh stood up to deliver the sermon. The congregation were more astonished than ever he could have predicted, at the political bent of the sermon. They listened and received the rhymed phrases about obedience and the duty of allegiance with both disbelief and irritation. And when the speaker began to condemn the revolutionaries saying that in inciting the people to revolt they were only fostering their own interests, a general murmur filled the mosque; voices rose in indignant protest, and some cursed the imam. Upon this, the police informers who had sneaked in among the worshippers fell upon the most vociferous dissidents and led them away amidst scenes of angry protest. Many people walked out of the mosque; the imam led the rest of the congregation in prayer. It was a sad and gloomy prayer.
In Khaled Hosseini's 2003 novel, The Kite Runner, the mosque is a place of childhood memories, either despite or because Hosseini was himself raised as a secular Muslim. When the orphan Sohrab disappears in the Pakistani capital Islamabad, the narrator, Amir, is sick with worry until he remembers the giant Shah Faisal Mosque that Sohrab has shown interest in earlier in the day.
I thought we'd end up driving around the city until night fell. I saw myself calling the police, describing Sohrab to them under Fayyaz's reproachful glare. I heard the officer, his voice tired and uninterested, asking his obligatory questions. And beneath the official questions, an unofficial one: Who the hell cared about another dead Afghan kid? But we found him about a hundred yards from the mosque, sitting in the half-full parking lot, on an island of grass... "You gave me a good scare," I said. I sat beside him, wincing with pain as I bent.


He was looking at the mosque. Shah Faisal Mosque was shaped like a giant tent. Cars came and went; worshipers dressed in white streamed in and out. We sat in silence, me leaning against the tree, Sohrab next to me, knees to his chest. We listened to the call to prayer, watched the building's hundreds of lights come on as daylight faded. The mosque sparkled like a diamond in the dark. It lit up the sky, Sohrab's face.

"Have you ever been to Mazar-i-Sharif?" Sohrab said, his chin resting on his kneecaps.

"A long time ago. I don't remember it much."

"Father took me there when I was little. Mother and Sasa came along too. Father bought me a monkey from the bazaar. Not a real one but the kind you have to blow up. It was brown and had a bow tie."

"I might have had one of those when I was a kid."

"Father took me to the Blue Mosque," Sohrab said. "I remember there were so many pigeons outside the masjid, and they weren't afraid of people. They came right up to us. Sasa gave me little pieces of naan and I fed the birds. Soon, there were pigeons cooing all around me. That was fun."

"You must miss your parents very much," I said. I wondered if he'd seen the Taliban drag his parents out into the street. I hoped he hadn't.

(See Slideshow for the Shah Faisal Mosque and the Blue Mosque of Mazar-i-Sharif mentioned above.)

If for Hosseini the mosque is a place of solace amid the voids of absence and death, for Salman Rushdie, in his 1981 novel, Midnight's Children, the Indian mosque is an inert witness to events mundane and catastrophic at the same time it is an indifferent utility of life and death. Characters find themselves blessed, cursed, neglected by the omnipresence of mosques. The family of the boy Saleem is exterminated in the shadow of a mosque, and thereon the boy fears for his own fate upon finding himself perennially in the shadow of one mosque or another. More than a building, though not quite a personage in the novel, the mosque functions more as if it is an implacable yet silent deity imparting sentences on lives sometimes benefic, at other times malefic, but always of life-determining circumstance.

It was the time of afternoon called the chaya, when the shadow of the tall red-brick-and-marble Friday Mosque fell across the higgledy shacks of the slum clustered at its feet, that slum whose ramshackle tin roofs created such a swelter of heat that it was insupportable to be inside the fragile shacks except during the chaya and at night.

On the blind side of the Friday Mosque, where the magicians were out of sight, and the only danger was from scavengers-after-scrap, from searchers-for-abandoned crates or hunters-for-corrugated-tin ... that was where Parvati-the-witch, eager as mustard, showed me what she could do.
When I tumbled out of the basket of invisibility into the shadow of the mosque, I had been rescued by rebellion from the abstraction of numbness...
... and the snake uncoils, faster faster Picture Singh plays until the flute's music fills every cranny of the slum and threatens to scale the walls of the mosque...
And all this, in a series of extraordinary night-time displays, she revealed to me beneath the walls of the Mosque - but still she was not happy.
Standing on the steps of the mosque, he unfurled a banner which was then held up by two assistants. It read: ABOLISH POVERTY, and bore the cow-suckling-calf symbol of the Indira Congress.
...because although we lay down together beneath the walk on the blind side of the Mosque, the moonlight showed me her night-time face turning, always turning into that of my distant, vanished sister...
But Shaheed was staring at a maidan in which lady doctors were being bayoneted before they were raped, and raped again before they were shot. Above them and behind them, the cool white minaret of a mosque stared blindly down upon the scene.
Shaheed was conscious, despite bisection, and pointed up, 'Take me up there ... so I carried what was now only half a boy (and therefore reasonably light) up narrow spiral stairs to the heights of that cool white minaret, where Shaheed babbled ... the loudspeaker system was activated, and afterwards people would never forget how a mosque had screamed out the terrible agony of war.
Wrath enabled me to survive the soft siren temptations of invisibility; anger made me determined, after I was released from vanishment in the shadow of a Friday Mosque, to 'begin, from that moment forth, to choose my own, undestined future.'


In her novella, Women Without Men, Iranian writer Shahrnush Parsipur portrays the mosque as a place that promises solace to the demolished and the outcast through some thin tissue of childhood connection, but at the same time takes on an authoritative aura of foreboding for those who have lapsed from the faith and sinned.

The 26-year-old Zarrinkolah, a prostitute since she was a child, is already old for having to service thirty men a day, some who beat her, and for enduring the threats of the other prostitutes and the woman for whom she works. She recognizes that her espair has reached an extreme when, "Zarrinkolah saw all the men without heads." When another prostitute suggests she should pray, Zarrinkolah visits a women's bathhouse, where...

Zarrinkolah paid the bath worker well so that she wouldn't tell anybody about her, and asked her how to perform ablutions after sexual pollution.

When the bath worker left, Zarrinkolah performed ablutions. She dis it fifty times. Her entire body was burning from the chafing of the sponge.

She intended to get dressed and go to the shrine of Shah Abdulazim, but she had a sudden urge to pray. She decided to pray naked, but she didn't know how to pray ... Zarrinkolah put on her clean clothes and gave her dirty clothes to the bath worker. She went out and walked to the shrine of Shah Abdulazim.

It was nighttime and the shrine was closed. She sat outside in the yard and cried quietly in the moonlight.

In the morning, when they opened up the shrine, her eyes were swollen shut. She stopped crying, but did not enter. Her body felt like a piece of straw.

She ate breakfast in a restaurant. She asked the owner, "If a person wants to drink cool water during the summer, where should she go?"

The owner looked at her puffy eyes with pity and said, "Karaj isn't bad."

There was nothing in her face to sho that she had been a prostitute. She had become a small woman of twenty-six with a heart as big as the sea."

Parsipur leaves it purposely unclear whether the mosque that had beckoned Zarrinkolah isn't able, or refuses, to fulfill the promise it holds out to her because it has become a mirror of her shame or that its very preence through the night of tears has worked out the miracle of her healing in supplying her with the resolve to look for another means of survival. We only know that somehow it has played the role of psychological catalyst required for her to abruptly find the strength to ove forward in her new life without men.

The the film version of Parsipur's novella, which won the 2009 Venice Film Festival Silver Lion Award for Best Director, Shirin Neshat intercedesnon this space of ambiguity to infuse the story, already long banned by Iran's post-revolutionary government, with a more acutely-defined commentary on the gender segregation imposed by the Sharia law of hijab.

Although the film's stylistic adoption of magical realism renders it unclear whether Zarrinkola (here renamed Zarrin) merely dreams or really encounters a scene of men praying before the mosque, Neshat's message is clear that it is what prompts her to leave the mosque without entering it. The film also underscores the traumas that the woman has suffered after years of sexual abuse at the hands of men, all of which compel her to see the mosque is the domain of the very men whose domination decrees who is cast out from respectful society for their sins even when it is the same men who require her to sin in fulfilling their desires.

That the secularism of Mahfouz, Hosseini, Rushdie and Parsipur has brandished them in some Muslim nations as social and political dissidents in the decades since the 1970s has much to do with the perceived interventions of Western nations on modern Islamic affairs. This is in contrast to the tolerance shown secularism by Islamic authorities at least since the 10th century, when religious and political life developed distinct spheres of influence to the point of giving way to political regimes without any intrinsic religious character--though officially these powers remained loyal to Islam and committed to its defense.

This changed in the 20th century, when nations such as Egypt, Iran, Algeria, Pakistan and Muslim India, assumed Western-styled secular governments and legal systems while courting Western political and economic interests--democratic, socialist or communist--at the expense of Islam. The backlash heaved onto such governments in more recent decades by Muslim fundamentalists have largely received the support or blind eye of the greater populace because fundamentalism presents the only viable defense against the erosion of Muslim values by commercial, cultural and ideological imports. We need only to understand that secularists in these nations, though they may not share the faith of their governments, do share the values that come with being born into the cultural matrix issuing from a religious past, much the way that a New Yorker or a Los Angeleno acknowledges the remnants of Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism that continue to inform the culture and ethics of today.


Go to Part 4: Americans on Mosques, from Mark Twain to Malcom X

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Read other posts by G. Roger Denson on Huffington Post in the archive.


Shah Faisal Mosque, Islamabad, Pakistan, 1986
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Photo: Rik van Oijen
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