Persia/Chapter 19

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CHAPTER III.

RELIGIOUS CEREMONIES




SECTION I.

PURIFICATIONS.

Purifications form one of the most essential practices of the Mahometan religion. "The body appears before God as well as the soul; it must therefore be cleansed from all stain, previously to the performance of any religious act." Such is the principle on which purifications are enjoined. But bigotry has so increased the number of objects which make a person unclean, and carried its scruples relative to legal purity to such a length, that the half of life might be occupied with purifications.

"Religion," says Mahomet, "is founded on cleanliness of the body." No pretexts not even the want of water, can excuse the Musulman from the duty of purifying himself before he says his prayers. For want of running water he will use such as is stagnant and muddy, earth, or even camel's dung. Hence it may easily be supposed, that a Persian is frequently more dirty after than before his purifications. Thus all institutions, how useful soever originally, in process of time become corrupted. Moses, in making purifications a religious duty, designed to prevent those diseases which are engendered by neglect of cleanliness, especially in a hot climate where perspiration is profuse. Mahomet adopted this principle, and for the same purpose. Such was the cause of this institution, but what is its effect? If personal cleanliness be the emblem of internal purity, it must be confessed that the Persians have very filthy souls indeed.

There are three kinds of purifications: the gasl, he ab-dest or vouzou, and the gousl. The first is washing for all the material impurities that may happen to be on the body of a Musulman, on his garments, or in his oratory. It is to preserve himself from such impurities that the Musulman, though he takes the greatest care of animals, and uses them well, will constantly drive them from his person or apartment. He will abstain for the same reason from wearing robes that reach the ground, lest they should touch any thing impure; he will wear double coverings or the feet, the outermost of which he leaves at the door of apartments; and he will never go abroad or undertake a journey without his sedjadeh, or carpet, on which he says his prayers.

The ab-dest, or ablution, is required whenever the believer has defiled himself by drinking wine and on other occasions; it must precede the five canonical prayers. This ablution consists in washing the face, hands, and arms as high as the elbows, and the feet up to the ancle. The frequent recurrence of this practice has occasioned the necessity for the great number of fountains that are met with in the East, by the road-side, in the caravanserais, and in private houses. All the mosques have basins deeper than the height of a man, destined for purifications, and which may be compared to the brazen laver in Solomon's temple at Jerusalem.

The gousl, or general lotion, extends to the whole body. It is repeated twice or thrice a week in private or public baths, and it is strictly practised among all Mahometan nations.

SECTION II.

PRAYERS

Mahomet, having received from God the principles of his new religion, promised in behalf of himself and his followers to say prayers fifty times in the course of each day: the lukewarmness of men, however, soon obliged him to reduce the number to thirty. But the occupations of civil and military life were incessantly interrupted by these devotions; and the enemy availed themselves of the fervour of the piety of the Musulmans to destroy their works. Mahomet, therefore, entered into a second negotiation with God, and the number of prayers was reduced to five.

The first of these five prayers is said at noon, at which hour the civil day of the Musulmans commences; the second, when half the sun's disk is below the horizon; the third, when it is so dark that a white thread cannot be distinguished from a black one; the fourth, at bed-time; the fifth, between the moment when the stars disappear and noon. As, however, the precept was somewhat obscure, these prayers have been reduced to three, those for noon and evening, and those for bed-time and night, being said together; and great latitude is taken in regard to the time for prayer, by advancing it four hours, or deferring it for the same space.

Nothing can prevent the Persian from performing these devotions: he allows no human respect to stand in his way; on the contrary, the demonstrations of his piety assume a character of greater or less fervour, according to the notice taken of them by strangers. A Persian belonging to the suite of Asker-Khan, ambassador from Feth Ali Shah to the court of France, who affected an appearance of piety, was frequently seen spreading his carpet in the midst of an apartment where company was assembled, muttering his prayers, and making the same religious gestures as if he was alone. The annexed engraving represents a Persian performing these devotions.

These devotions furnish the Persians with a polite excuse, of which they rarely fail to avail themselves, to get rid of any person whose society or conversation is disagreeable to them. They will spring up all at once, and abruptly quit the room. "It is high time for me to say my prayers," is the only apology they make for their rudeness.

We have seen that bodily purity is one of the external qualities required for the due performance of religious devotions: there is another, namely, gesture. The Musulman is obliged to turn towards Mecca, to make certain motions with his arms and hands, and to prostrate himself according to specific rules. After stripping to his shirt, the sleeves of which he tucks up above the elbows, he puts on his head a turban of linen cloth without gold, silver, or embroidery, and performs his ablutions. This done, he puts on his stockings, turns down his sleeves, throws on his robe, spreads his carpet, and squats on a corner of it in the eastern fashion, and after combing his board, takes up his rosary and begins his prayers. He generally places on the floor, at a little distance before him, a plate of metal, on which are engraved the name of God, those of the prophet and the Imams, the profession of faith and texts of the Koran: the use of it is to receive the forehead, in the prostrations which accompany the prayers.

A Persian is rarely without a string of beads in his hand: this he carries not so much out of a spirit of religion, as for a guide in the ordinary concerns of life. When, for example, he thinks of going to some place, making a bargain, or performing any action whatever, he lays hold of a handfull of beads at random, and from their number he decides whether he shall do what he intended or not.

As there are no clocks in Persia, the time for each prayer is announced by the muezzins, or cryers, stationed for the purpose in the minarets of the mosques. To augment the power of their voices, they pull their mouths with their little fingers, placing their thumbs in their ears, and sing out with all their might, so that they may sometimes be heard at the distance of twelve or fifteen hundred paces. On hearing the well-known sound, every one says his prayers either at the mosque, or at his own house; for the Persians rarely visit their temples, as their religion allows them to perform at their own homes the duties which it imposes.

We shall conclude this section with a trait which evinces the subtlety of the Persian divines. Their religion forbids them to pray in a room containing any painting of the human countenance. To evade this injunction, the face is represented with one eye only: thus mutilated, it is no longer an image, my these doctors, but a grotesque figure which is not forbidden by their law.

SECTION III.

ALMS AND FASTS.

The Koran, in several places, commands the giving of alms. Every Musulman who has acquired wealth, generally devotes part of it to the foundation of establishments of public utility, and that independently of the tithe required by religion to be given in charity, if he would ensure to himself a quick passage over the Pouli-sirath, on the day of judgment. Ostentation, indeed, is more frequently his motive than piety; but be the cause what it may, the effect is beneficial.

Charity may be said to be the pre-eminent virtue of Mahometan nations: there is not a moralist, not a poet, but recommends the practice of it, and sounds its praises. "Be ye like the trees laden with fruit and planted by the road-side," says Djami: "they give shade and fruit to all, even to those who pelt them with stones."

Most of the caravanserais of Persia, as well as the bridges, cisterns, mosques, colleges, and baths, are pious foundations.

Fasting is no less an obligation than purifications and prayer: it is termed by the doctors, the gate of religion. The fast of Ramazan alone is of divine command; the others are of human institution. It consists in abstaining from every kind of food from day-break till night, from all sin, and from temporal concerns, and the care of life, during the thirty days contained in that month: hence a perfect dervise is described to be a man living in this world in a perpetual Ramazan.

This month is the ninth in the year of the Persians, which is lunar: thus it runs through the different seasons, and falls in winter as well as in summer. When the moon of Ramazan appears, the muezzins announce it with a loud voice from the tops of the mosques, strike up hymns, and publish the commencement of the fast as the most welcome intelligence. The people reply to this intimation with shouts of joy, and in an instant all the shops are illuminated. At the same time, the trumpets sound at the doors of all the baths, to give notice that they are open; for this fast, like all other religious ceremonies, must begin with purification. Its conclusion is celebrated with greater solemnity than the commencement. The acclamations of the people, the sound of instruments, and all sorts of festivities, declare that a season of joy has succeeded a period of privation. These diversions are sometimes Continued five or six days. The fast of Ramazan must be extremely distressing in summer, when the days are long. Let the Catholic who murmurs against lent, which merely enjoins abstinence from certain articles of food, consider the Persian summoned betimes to his daily avocations, overpowered with heat, fatigue and hunger, taking as it were by stealth a few drops of water to quench his thirst, abstaining even from smoking, and waiting till the tardy departure of the sun shall allow him to break a fast of nearly seventeen hours!

In Persia, however, as in all other countries, there are persons ingenious enough to evade these disagreeable precepts, or to soften their rigour. Some will sleep all day, during the Ramazan, and pass the night in excesses of every kind; and such people, nevertheless, think that they are duly observing the fast.


SECTION IV.

PILGRIMAGE.

The only pilgrimage enjoined by the Mahometan religion, is to the kaabah, or temple of Mecca, the object of the veneration of all true Musulmans. The Persians, however, are far from strict in their observance of this precept. They think, and justly too, that this act of piety cannot well be performed but by those who are in good health, and whose circumstances will allow them to take such a journey without injury to their families. Many, however, acquit themselves of tiffs duty by substitute. You meet in Persia with numbers of Arabs., who sell the tide of pilgrim which they have acquired, or who travel to Mecca instead of another for a certain sum of money. To prevent fraud, their employers require them to bring back the certificate which the sherif of Mecca delivers to pilgrims.

The Musulman who has visited the sacred city, bears for the rest of his life the honourable title of hadjee, or pilgrim. On his return from Mecca, he usually passes through Jerusalem and Hebron, which he also considers as sacred places, on account of his veneration for Abraham; and in his way back to Persia, he traverses the Arabian Irak, where he pays his devotions at the tomb of Ali and his son Hossein.