Insights Into Shi’ite Islam

I have come across this book by photographer Hans Georg Berger, Einsicht – Drei Reisen in die innerste Welt des schiitischen Islam (Insight – Three Journeys Into the Innermost World of Shi’a Islam, edited by Boris von Brauchitsch and Saeid Edalatnejad, Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg Berlin 2017) when ZEIT online published a brief article about it. Not more than an announcement for an exhibition of respective pictures of the book in Berlin. Unfortunately, with numerous mostly hostile comments condemning the mere fact of displaying pious seminarians and teachers as blunt propaganda for a murderous regime where mollahs are willful oppressors.

Quite a sensation is not that Berger had collected, during his travels in Iran between 2000 and 2005, intimate portraits of young seminarians and their teachers at theological centers in Qom, Isfahan and Mashhad and how they interact in intense discussions. The contrast (or should I say, actually the lack of it) with century old early photos is, in fact stunning. These pictures had been taken by two court photographers of Qajar Shahs, Nasir al-Din Shah Qajar (r. 1848-1896) and his son Muzaffar al-Din (r. 1896-1907), who accompanied them on visits to the holy shrines of Shi’te Imams in then Ottoman Iraq. In particular, Nasir al-Din got interested in photography very early in his life, as crown prince already, as his father Mohammad Shah Qajar (r. 1834-1848) had received, as gifts from QueenVictoria and Czar Nikolaus I, two daguerrotype cameras.

One of the first pictures in Berger’s book shows sparsely populated Qom in 1905 with the magnificent golden dome of the shrine of Fatimah bint Musa, or Fatimah Masumeh, the innocent. Fatimah had died on her way to meet her brother Ali ar-Rida, Twelver Shi’ites’ Eighth Imam, in 816 CE.

I had visited Qom three times, in 2005, 2006 and 2008. Interestingly, I have taken a picture of the shrine from a similar perspective. It wasn’t possible to enter the complex alone in 2005. In 2006, I was sort of adopted by a pious taxi driver who I had hired to do some sightseeing when waiting for my connecting flight from Tehran to Shiraz. He liked the idea that he could earn some money and, at the same time, pray at three of the holiest sites in Iran on a single day, Hazrat-e Masumeh’s shrine, Jamkaran and the Imam Khomeini shrine near Tehran. I have reported on that special day for both of us here and here.

Back to Hans Georg Berger’s book. Of course, that Berger earned the confidence and respect of the seminarians and, in particular, their teachers (i.e. mollahs, by far the most conservative cast of Iran’s population) is a tremendous personal achievement. When passing by mollahs when in Iran, I have always felt an utter hostility towards and contempt for the infidel tourist. They would not pay any attention, save return a friendly greeting. Rather the opposite, express eagerness and impatience. On the other hand, one has to understand that the mollahs are often despised by normal Iranians as well, especially young people. When Berger had done his long-term studies, 2000 till 2005, Iran had briefly enjoyed the rule of a relatively liberal president, Mohammad Khatami. Much changed after the country turned again to the far right when hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was first elected and took power (and, after a lost election, was rather re-installed by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei).

The part of the book which displays Berger’s pictures shows open and friendly, in fact proud and confident, faces of very conservative young men and women, as well as few of their more open-minded teachers.

The series depicting a young seminarian (see the picture above) who winds a turban for his friend is a particularly impressive piece of art. The turban is evidently not for himself as he is wearing a black turban which proves that he considers himself a descendant of the Prophet. Instead, the turban he winds is white.

Apart from the more intimate pictures of young students in dialogue or in discussions in small groups, much of Berger’s part is also a mere collection of a tourist’s choice for a scrapbook. Some of the pictures by the court photographers of the two Qajar shahs are, on the other hand, breathtaking in particular when they depict bird’s eye views of now much transformed cities such as Qom, Samarra or Najaf. They were actually taken from hot-air balloons.

The above picture shows Samarra’s spiral minaret at the bottom with the walled preindustrial, still somewhat medieval, city at the top. The dome, left to the city center, belongs to the al-Askari shrine complex of the Tenth and Eleventh Imams, Ali al-Hadi and Hassan al-Askari. From there, pious Shi’ites believe, will Mohammad al-Mahdi, the Hidden Imam, return at the end of times. I can hardly imagine how Samarra looks nowadays, after decades of terror and war.

The original historical pictures of Kerbala and Najaf by court photographers are part of the national collection in the Golestan Museum in Tehran and have been published for the first time in Berger’s comparative study.

The book contains, in addition, six well worth reading essays. Berger himself makes clear that he knew next to nothing about Islam in general and Shi’ism in particular when entering, for the first time in 1996, the narrow portal of Isfahan’s gorgeous Madrasah Madar-e Shah on the Chahar-Bagh boulevard. It may actually be the best approach to gain knowledge from his counterpart, devoid of any bias, provided people are willing to teach him. And obviously they were. Berger, a disciple of late Joseph Beuys (d. 1986), creates, in his works, what he explains as “social sculpture” (Beuy’s term Soziale Plastik): developing a collaborative project by integrating all parties in an emancipated way in order to participate in and create a shared piece of art. A strategy of Community Involvement as the editor of the book, Boris von Brauchitsch, describes it. Alas, I am not sure, however, whether seminarians actually got this point.

That Berger was able to meet Grand Ayatollah (Marja’) Mohammad Ezodin Hosseini Zanjani is remarkable. After the usual reprehension of the whole enterprise (photos, pictures, images!), the Grand Ayatollah appeared to have understood Berger’s real motivation, at least his strong desire for learning. A touching picture with Berger’s translator, Ali Morvarid, next to his dying grandfather, Ayatollah Mirza Hassan Ali Morvarid, proves that people trusted Berger’s noble intentions.

According to traditional views Shi’a Islam has a focus on maltreatment of descendants of the Prophet’s family during Islam’s Golden Age, the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries CE. An early culmination of insurrection occurred upon the slaughter of the Third Imam, the Prophet’s grandson Husayn ibn Ali by Yazid’s (an Umayyad) army at Kerbala in 680 CE. But in particular the Abassid caliphs Harun al-Rashid (d. 809) and his son al-Mamun (d. 833) are very much hated by Shi’ites as they and their predecessors had badly treated and killed Shi’a Imams, after all family of the Prophet. On the other hand, both al-Rashid and al-Mamun are considered in the West as outstanding patrons of science and initiators of the translation movement in Baghdad, which preserved the almost lost works of Greek philosophers and scientists (and many others from different cultures).

It obviously came as a surprise for Berger that the Grand Ayatollah Zanjani had been a student of French Philosopher and Orientalist Henry Corbin and was even able to recite a poem of Paul Verlaine. And, that Berger’s young translator Ali Morvarid had eagerly studied Ludwig Wittgenstein’s and Karl Popper’s works. To emphasize this by Berger in his essay (providing proof by displaying a possibly staged picture of the young student’s book shelf sporting an Iranian edition of one of Wittgenstein’s books) is somewhat revealing as it is the probably agnostic Westerner from a Christian background who totally lacks the faintest idea about what is being read and studied in the seminaries he visited. Is Berger’s actual view an undue, albeit I suppose unconscious, supremacism? In his essay, the book’s co-editor, Saeid Edalatnejad, explains comprehensive teaching and education of Shi’ite clergy in some detail which self-evidently includes the works of Greek philosophers, those of contemporary western thinkers, as well as modern technologies.

When reading the accompanying texts, I had several times Edward Said’s concept of Western Orientalism in mind. Catherine Choron-Baix’ explicit title of her essay, Bilder der Anderen (Images of the Others), seems to set apart the seminarians and teachers, mollahs (the Other) from the “enlightened seeker” from the West. It ignores in a way that Berger, as he writes in his own essay, actually included his subjects in order to jointly create a common piece of art. Choron-Baix mentions two calligraphies on early pictures by the Qajar Shahs’ court photographers which both explain, “People will see you on this picture occupying a very small space but they might ignore the huge importance behind the image.”

The editor of Berger’s book, photographer and art historian Boris von Brauchitsch, explains in his essay that Berger’s work may be placed beyond either a merely pretended objectivity or forced subjectivity. That is described as being in contrast to Nasir al-Din’s undue appropriations of Shi’ite holy sites in Iraq. At the same time, von Brauchitsch explains, Nasir conducted a sell-out of Iran’s natural resources and infrastructure to infidel Westeners, in particular, the British and Germans. I do not entirely agree. The Shi’ite holy sites in Iraq lie all in Shi’ite dominated parts of the then Ottoman Empire, a Sunni dynasty. It is evident that the Shi’te population in urban centers and the marshes in Iraq’s south (the Marsh Arabs) had greatly benefitted from the restoration and curation of the shrines of Ali Ibn Abi Talib in Najaf, that of his son Husayn in Kerbala and further shrines of the Shi’a Imams in Baghdad and Samarra. Sayyed Ali Moujani, the curator of the historical photographs from the Golestan Palace in Tehran, which are shown, for the first time in Berger’s book, indeed confirms this. He mentions the demolition of the graves of the Shi’ite Imams at the al-Baqi cemetery near Medina and, during the sack of Kerbala, the destruction of the dome of Husayn’s shrine in the early 19th century by Saudi Wahhabi forces.

The lush and expensive restoration of the sites in Mesopotamia is held in high regard by Shi’ite Iraqis even today after the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s terror regime, and that of the Islamic State has come to an end as well.

The historical pictures taken by court photographers of the two last Qajar Shahs are, in my opinion, the real sensation of Berger’s book. And, as they describe history by those who are actually concerned, that is what Edward Said had sadly missed when describing the mechanisms of Western Orientalism from centuries ago up to the present.

16 June 2022 @ 7:17 am.

Last modified June 16, 2022.

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