Arba’een – Iraq

Date varies. January 14, 2012

Shia Muslims finish the trek to Hussein Mosque in Karbala

This week an estimated 9 million people gathered in the city of Karbala to remember the death of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and one of the holiest figures of Islam since its founder.

Forty days ago Shiite Muslims began a period of remembrance for the third Imam, who was killed in the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE.

After being released from captivity, surviving followers of Imam Hussein

“headed towards Karbala so that they could revisit the graves of their loved ones and bury the heads of the Martyrs with the bodies. They arrived at the site of the graves and the battle of Karbala on the twentieth of Safar, or forty days after the martyrdom of Imam Hussein and his followers.”

Arba’een means 40. It’s a sacred length of time in Islam.

The Qu’ran recalls the story Moses (Musa) and his forty nights away from the people to hear the word of God. [2:51]  Muhammad said,

“Whoever dedicates himself to God for forty days, will find springs of wisdom sprout out of his heart and flow on his tongue.”

The holiday this year appears to be remarkably free of violence, considering the 9 million visitors that streamed from all parts of the country. In 2004 simultaneous bombings targeted pilgrims observing Arba’een; the attacks killed 170.

“I came to Karbala with my family and children after walking for 12 days,” says one pilgrim from Basra, “We were not afraid of terrorists…We have been taking risks and if we die we will be martyrs.”

Karbala Crowded With 9 Million Pilgrims
Why 40 Days of Mourning Arbaeen of Iman Hussein?

10th of Tevet – the Siege of Jerusalem

January 5, 2012

December 17, 2010

Wailing Wall, Jerusalem, early 20th century

The Big Guy of the three consecutive Jewish holy days is the last, the Tenth of Tevet. It is a day of fasting.

The Tenth of Tevet marks the first day of the siege of Jerusalem in 589 BC by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar (630-562 BC). The city would fall thirty months later in 587. It was actually the third time in as many decades that Jerusalem had faced the Babylonians.

The first was in 606 BC by King Nabopolassar; the second around 597 BC by his son, the new king, Nebuchadnezzar, and finally eight years later by Nebuchadnezzar again. This time Nebuchadnezzar was feeling less charitable toward the city’s residents. After the city’s walls were breached, Solomon’s Temple was destroyed, Jerusalem was razed to the ground, and its remaining inhabitants were exiled.

This date is among the most tragic in all of Jewish history and yet, as Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair points out, “on the tenth of Tevet itself, ostensibly, nothing really tragic happened. No wall was breached. No one died. Not a shot was fired. Only the siege was begun.” However the day marked the beginning of the end. The diaspora that would define the shape of Judaism for millennia.

The 10th of Tevet has also been chosen by some as a symbolic anniversary date of the millions who died in the Holocaust, whose dates of death may not be known.

In March of 2003, as the U.S. prepared for war, stories circulated about Saddam Hussein comparing himself to the ancient biblical king Nebuchadnezzar. And an evangelical minister stated in his sermon that Nebuchadnezzar was one of “the world’s greatest terrorists, maybe even higher than Bin Laden or Hitler…” Yet in Iraq he is considered a national hero. How is this dichotomy possible?

Nebuchadnezzar’s reign lasted 45 years, during which time Babylonia was at the peak of its power. He wrested his father’s territory from the Assyrians, halted Egyptian dominance, and defended the empire from Persian invaders. Under his rule Babylon grew to be the largest and most glorified city in the world with a defensive wall that stretched 56 miles. The metropolis boasted hundreds of towers, including the massive ziggurat we know as the “Tower of Babel” and the Great Temple of Marduk which held a 25 ton golden statue of Baal. His most innovative creation may have been the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Gardens were irrigated by a series of hydraulic pumps. According to legend the Gardens were built to cheer up Amytis, Nebuchadnezzar’s wife, who was homesick for her native land of Midea.

It would be like a single President ruling America from FDR through the Reagan years, taking the country from depression to superpower and defeating both Germany and the USSR in the process–not to mention overthrowing a few Central American republics along the way. So it is not difficult to see how he could be regarded as a national hero to one people, even though he brought about the near annihilation of his enemies.

The strange truth is, though Baghdad sits near what was once Babylon, the ancient civilization bears little resemblance to Iraq. To the Judeans Babylonia symbolized the boundless superpower. An ostentatious empire governed by decadence, arrogance and amorality.

Its leader was the son of the former leader Nabopolassar. Both father and son waged large military campaigns in the Middle East. And during their reign Babylonia won out over its enemies as the world’s single superpower.

So how can two societies with such conflicting memories of the same events ever find a common ground?

The answer may come in the shape of a figure who arrived on the scene an estimated 1500 years before Nebuchadnezzar: Abraham. Abraham (Ibrahim in Islam) is the father from which all three religions derive. He is the first monotheist. But his story is for another day…

Mother of All Sermons

Tenth of Tevet

Zartusht no-diso

[published Dec. 27, 2007]


Today former Prime Minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto was killed by a suicide attacker in Rawalpindi where she was attending a campaign rally. Bhutto was waving to the crowd from the sunroof of her vehicle after the rally when she was struck down by an attacker who fired shots and then set off an explosive devise. Over 20 spectators were killed.

As the government and press squabble over who was behind it and the cause of her death (by bullet, shrapnel, or by her hitting her head on the sun roof, as the government insists) and who was behind it, Zoroastrians remember the slaying of another leader.

Zarathustra, the founder of Zoroastrianism, once the dominant religion of Persia, was killed just three hundred miles to the northwest in Balkh, Afghanistan.
Zarathustra, or Zoroaster as he was known to the Greeks, lived in the region of Iran and Afghanistan around 1100 BC.

He spread the idea of monotheism long before Muhammad, Buddha, or Jesus walked the earth. He may have even predated Moses.

His philosophies regarding the continuing struggle of good versus evil, and the judgment of humans at the end of their life, is thought to have inspired numerous religions including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism.

It is a common misconception that the Zoroastrians worship fire. They see fire and light as symbols of God. Zoroaster believed God–Ahura Mazda–communicated with humans through three things: Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds. But that God gave man free will to decide whether to follow these three, or to give in to evil

Once the predominant religion of what is now Iran, Zoroastrianism is now practiced by a scant 200,000 or less people, mostly in Iran and India. Zoroastrians do not accept converts. One must be born into the religion, which is one of the reasons their numbers are scarce.

One famous twentieth-century Zoroastrian was Freddie Mercury, the voice and genius behind the rock group Queen, who wrote the famous Bohemian Rhapsody:

“Goodbye everybody, I’ve got to go
Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth…”

The West is familiar with Zarathustra mainly from a scattering of cultural references.

Frederich Neitzsche wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra using a fictionalized version of the prophet who bears little resemblance to the actual man.

Richard Strauss then composed a majestic orchestral piece of the same name. This piece was then used by Stanley Kubrick in what has been called “the greatest movie opening ever” in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

In the opening the moon, Earth, and sun align. The choice of music is appropriate as Zoroastrians were keen astronomers for their time, charting the movements of the sun, moon and stars. (Astrophysicist Grant Mathews believes the three wise men in the Bible who spotted the star of Bethlehem were actually Zoroastrians tracking an unusual alignment of the planets in 6BC.) However, the Zoroastrians do not believe in reincarnation, a theme suggested by the film’s end.

Similar to Benizar Bhutto, Zoroaster was struck down by an assassin while on the alter, according to the Shahnama–the massive 10th century national epic of Persia.

Yalda: Rebirth of the Sun

(usually) December 21

Creation! Before the light of creation dazzled chaos,
Love was created — that set creation on fire…

— Hafez

On the longest night of the year Iranians around the world celebrate Yalda. It means “rebirth”, referring to the rebirth of the sun. Today is also the first day of the month of Dey.

The history of this celebration goes back almost to the dawn of civilization itself, when the ancient Aryan tribes of the central Asian steppes worshipped the sun as the source of life.

As these tribes migrated to Persia–as well as to parts of India, Europe and the Far East–they took their traditions to a new latitude. The sun-as-benefactor was a notably different view than those held by cultures of the Arabian desert, who were bombarded with the sun’s heat and thus envisioned hell to be a place of fire and flame.


The concept of the sun god Mithra solidified in what is now Iran. Thousands of years before Christ and Mohammad, Persians worshipped Mithra and held fire in great esteem as a representation of the sun’s incarnation on earth. Many Iranians still celebrate Nooruz (the Spring equinox) by jumping over fire, a practice that caused religious leaders to arrest hundreds of participants as recently as 2001. According to scholar Esmail Nooriala:

It is not an act of worshipping fire. You make a fire from bundles of thistles and thorns, then jump over them with joy and enthusiasm. You become mixed with an element of nature, dance with its flames and absorb its kind of warmth. You do not think of an abstract God who is sitting on a thrown somewhere in Heaven and expects you to suppress your joy and behave in his ever lasting and expanding presence.

As Rome moved eastward to Persia, and as Persian soldiers were captured and brought back to Rome, a curious cultural exchange occurred. The Roman army–and with it a good segment of the Roman population–were exposed to and absorbed the ideas of Persian Mithriasm. At one point the worship of Mithra reached all the way from Spain to India, although the practices in the Roman Mithraism, such as bull-related rituals and imagery, bore little in common with the Mithraism of Persia.

Persia experienced a long, slow conversion from natural pantheistic religion to abstract monotheism.

Followers of Zoroaster, believed to be the first monotheistic religion, exalted Ahura Mazda as the one true divinity. Mithraism and Zoroastrianism coexisted in Persia for over a millennia, often melding and merging. It wasn’t until Roman Empire adopted Christianity as the official religion that the Persian Empire–which had rejected the idea of a state religion for over a thousand years–sought to increase its power by institutionalizing Zoroastrianism.

During the Arab invasion from the West 1400 years ago, Islam replaced Zoroastrianism as the religion of Persia. But Persians maintained their local languages, customs and many of their traditions.

The reemergence of Yalda is a relatively recent phenomenon. It has occurred mostly in the past 25 years, since the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Many Iranians, both in Iran and abroad, seek to reconnect with thousands of years of tradition and history.

These traditions include the celebration of the birth of Mithra, observed on the winter solstice. Just as the darkest hour is before dawn, the sun god is reborn precisely during the year’s longest night.

On this night many Iranians gather together, enjoy nuts and fruits of the season–pomegranate chief among them–and recite the poems of great Iranian writers like Hafez…

At dusk I woke with all my cares vanished:
in that pitch black of night I drank from the water of life.
Enraptured with the glow of the inner light:
I drank of that cup of light, glorified in nature.
What a glorious morning, what a glorious night!

— Hafez

whether he be drunk or sober
seeks the beloved.
Every place
whether it be mosque or synagogue
is the house of love.

— Hafez

Merry Yalda by Esmail Nooriala

Happy Yalda, Yuletide, Mithrakana

The Poems of Hafez


December 20, 2011
December 8, 2012
November 27, 2013

Hanukkah, or “Chanukkah” as those in the know call it, is one of the most misunderstood Jewish holidays. In fact, we don’t even know what “Hanukkah” means. Many believe it means “dedication”; others say it’s an acronym for “They rested on the 25th”. (Hanukkah starts on the 25th of Kislev.)

Hanukkah is a minor holiday in Judaism–in theory if not in practice–and isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Hebrew Bible.

That’s not to say Talmudic scholars haven’t argued about Hanukkah’s customs for ages (Whether, for example, celebrants should light one extra candle per night, or light eight on the first night and take one away each night). But the absence of holiday regulations in the Jewish Scriptures may have contributed to Hanukkah’s ability to adapt to various cultures of the Jewish diaspora.

Hanukkah History

After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, the land around Jerusalem came under the power of the Seleucid Empire.

By the 2nd century BC, the Jews of and around Jerusalem were in the midst an identity crisis: whether to maintain their own religious traditions or to assimilate into Hellenistic culture. Many Jews in the cities were willing to adopt Greek ways. According to 1 Maccabees:

In those days there appeared in Israel men who were breakers of the law, and they seduced many people, saying “Let us go and make an alliance with the Gentiles all around us…Thereupon they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem according to the Gentile custom. They covered over the mark of their circumcision and abandoned the holy covenant…

Now back then the gym wasn’t Bally’s. It was the center of Greek social life, where men discussed topics of the day in the nude, a practice which went against Jewish law, and a place where Jewish men could not easily hide the 8th-day snip.

The Seleucid Emperor Antiochus set forth increasingly harsher restrictions on Jewish rituals, including the killing of newly-circumsized babies. He replaced the Jewish High Priest with his own puppet priest, turned Jewish temples into pagan ones, and eventually forbade the practice of Judaism altogether.

One religious leader known as Mattathias refused to make a sacrifice to a pagan god in the temple. When a Hellenized Jew attempted to make the sacrifice in his name, Mattathias killed the Jew as well as one of the king’s messengers. Mattathias then fled to the countryside with his 5 sons, and recruited traditionalist Jews to join his cause.

After Mattathias’ death, his son Judas “the Hammer” Maccabee (Maccabee means hammer) led a revolt against the Greek establishment. According to 1 Maccabees, despite being greatly outnumbered, Maccabee’s rag-tag crew defeated the opposing forces and re-consecrated the temple.

What’s up with the candles?

The miracle of the “Festival of Lights” was that the Jews only had enough oil to keep the temple’s sacred flame alight for one night. However, the flame stayed alight for eight days. For this reason, Jews continue to light an eight-candle “menorah” every year. The great Jewish philosopher Hillel won out on the menorah debate: Jews light one candle on the first night, and one more candle every night thereafter.

[One Jewish-Persian custom is to light eight candles the first night of Hanukah and eight more candles each additional night for a total of 64 on the eighth night, although we suspect this tradition was started by the Jewish-Persian candle-makers union.]

Hanukkah Ironica

Hanukkah originally represented a victory of Jewish culture over assimilation into Greek culture. However, much of the importance that Hanukkah has today is the direct result of assimilation.

The observance of Chanukkah grew in importance during the 19th and 20th centuries in predominantly Christian nations such as the United States, as Jewish culture sought to adapt to the growing influence of of Christmas. Modern Hanukkah traditions such as gift-giving are borrowed straight from Christmas, which is of course celebrated around the same time of year, and which owes many of its own traditions to solstice festivals of the Greco-Romans. So in a sense, over 2000 years later, Greek influence is still going strong.

Ilse, the spiritually-confused Maltese

Hanukkah is a modern example of how holidays continuously change by synthesizing attributes of merging cultures. It’s the type of transition that took place countless times in ancient and medieval history, though detailed records of such transitions have all too often been lost to time or intentionally obscured.

Birthday of His Highness the Aga Khan

December 13

His Highness the Aga Khan has been the Imam of the Shia Ismaili for over fifty years. The Ismaili are the second largest group of Shia in the world. At age 20 he was chosen by his grandfather to succeed him rather than his father or uncle. Wrote his grandfather, Sultan Muhammed Shah Aga Khan:

“In view of the fundamentally altered conditions in the world in very recent years due to the great changes that have taken place, including the discoveries of atomic science, I am convinced that it is in the best interests of the Shia Muslim Ismaili community that I should be succeeded by a young man who has been brought up and developed during recent years and in the midst of the new age, and who brings a new outlook on life to his office.”

Five years before 9/11 the Aga Khan gave a foretelling speech to a group of young people, mostly Americans, about to enter “the real world.” Excerpts are below.

“Today in the occident, the Muslim world is deeply misunderstood by most.

“The Muslim world is noted in the West, North America and Europe, more for the violence of certain minorities than for the peacefulness of its faith and the vast majority of its people…And the Muslim world has, consequently, become something that the West may not want to think about, does not understand, and will associate with only when it is inevitable…

“…the historical process of secularisation which occurred in the West, never took place in Muslim societies. What we are witnessing today, in certain Islamic countries, is exactly the opposite evolution…

“The news-capturing power of this trend contributes to the Western tendency to perceive all Muslims or their societies as a homogeneous mass of people living in some undefined theocratic space, a single “other” evolving elsewhere. And yet with a Muslim majority in some 44 countries and nearly a quarter of the globe’s population, it should be evident that our world cannot be made up of identical people, sharing identical goals, motivations, or interpretations of the faith…

“…Concepts such as meritocracy, free-world economics, or multi-party democracy, honed and tested in the West may generally have proven their worth. But valid though they may be, responsible leadership in the Islamic world must ask if they can be adapted to their cultures which may not have the traditions or infra-structure to assimilate them: There is a real risk that political pluralism could harden latent ethnic or religious divisions into existing or new political structures…

“Although the modern page of human history was written in the West, you should not expect or desire for that page to be photocopied by the Muslim world.”

Full speech at

I was in the large church room when the Aga Khan delivered this address. Like others of my young age I did not understand the importance of his words, every one of which came true in the years that followed.

More words of the Aga Khan at:

Aga Khan’s 70th Birthday Today

Students Day – Iran

December 7 (Azar 16)


December 7 – A date that lives in infamy.

You may know that today is the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the event that killed over 2400 Americans in 1941 and brought the United States into World War II.

But December 7 is also a memorial in other parts of the world.

In Iran, December 7 is Students Day. It marks the day in 1953 that three students were killed by Iranian police while protesting the arrival of U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon.

Four months earlier a U.S.-backed coup overthrew Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. Mossadegh had nationalized Iran’s oil industry, much to the dismay of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now British Petroleum). The coup is believed to have been led by the CIA and MI6, and it gave power to General Zahedi and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, aka the Shah, who would rule Iran until 1979.

In December of 1953…

“Iran and the United Kingdom agreed to resume diplomatic relations. The British prevailed on the Americans and the Americans on the shah and Zahedi to move forward on the resumption. The announcement made on 5 December caused a protest at Tehran University…prompting martial law forces to intervene. Ordered to contain the demonstrators, the soldiers fired on the crowd on 7 December (16 Azar), leaving three students dead and several wounded.”

The Shah was deposed in the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

Each year students remember those killed and wounded in the student protests of 1953.

What goes around comes around… In 2009, students in Tehran gathered on Students Day to protest the leadership under President Ahmadinejad and the Ayatollah. (Iran Student Protests Bring Out Tens of Thousands)

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Today is also a holiday in Côte d’Ivoire. December 7 marks the anniversary of the death of Côte d’Ivoire’s first President, Félix Houphouët-Boigny in 1993. Houphouët-Boigny was president of the small West African nation from 1960 until his death in December 1993. Houphouët-Boigny was instrumental in the fight for independence from France in the late 1950’s.

National Day – United Arab Emirates

December 2


You’ve heard all about the city on its way to becoming the 8th wonder of the modern world, Dubai, but what do you know about the country in which it lies: the United Arab Emirates, or UAE?

According to the World Factbook, the UAE is one of the wealthiest nations on Earth, with the 12th highest GDP per capita. The UAE has come a long way from the collection of sheikdoms striving to recover from the collapse of the pearl diving industry. Today, this tiny stretch of land between the Arabian desert and the Persian Gulf is the 4th largest oil exporter in the world, and has more oil reserves than Russia, China, and the United States combined. [And at this rate will have more Starbucks too! (-: ]

UAE (brown) & Arabian peninsula
UAE (brown) & Arabian peninsula

The UAE’s robust economy stems partly from its leaders decision to reinvest oil and gas revenues in the country’s infrastructure, to diversify the economy, and to attract foreign capital and workers.

Dubai boasts the tallest building in the world, the Burj Dubai. At over 800 meters, it’s nearly twice the height of the Empire State Building.

Burj Dubai ©2009 Imre Solt
Burj Dubai ©2009 Imre Solt

But the capital of the UAE is not Dubai. It’s Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi is the largest of the UAE’s seven sheikdoms, comprising 80% of the country’s land. Combined with Dubai, the two sheikdoms make up the vast majority of the country’s population.

Abu Dhabi holds the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, named after the country’s first President. The mosque can accommodate 40,000 worshippers, and is one of the largest mosques in the world.

The UAE has eight public holidays, of which six are Muslim holidays. The other two are New Year’s Day (January 1) and today, December 2. ( National Day marks the anniversary of the union of the seven sheikdoms to form the UAE after British withdrawal in 1971.

UAE has the world’s highest net migration rate. Only about a fifth of the country’s residents are citizens. Most of the remainder are expatriates from all over the globe.

Though the UAE is one of the Middle East’s great economic success stories, there has been concern during the financial downturn. Recently, the corporation Dubai World — the company famous for its unprecedented housing projects — made headlines for defaulting on half its $60 billion debt. Ironically, for the average UAE resident, there’s no such thing as bankruptcy. If you can’t pay your debt, you go to jail. (The Dark Side of Dubai – Johann Hari, The Independent) Though the UAE government refused to cover Dubai World’s losses, Asian banks have stepped in with a pledge of support. Evidently Dubai World has learned from its Western counterparts. Lose millions = jail. Lose billions = bailout.

Palm Island Resort seen from space
Palm Island Resort seen from space