On a sunny autumn mid-morning Friday a huge
howl made me run out of the house I was visiting to see what was
happening. I rushed toward the sound. It was coming from the
center of the village. The minute I saw the source, I brought
myself to a screeching halt. It was a large gathering. A huge
mullah—Shiite cleric—was seated on a chair under the shade of a
solitary tree preaching. Men on one side on the ground took up
about a third of a circle and women covered the ground on the
other side. A narrow fire lane separated the fire from the
I scanned the place quickly to decide my next move. Stay. But sit
on that far away boulder. It is a safe place. You can see and hear
things, yet you won't be part of the ado. You won't stick out
either. See those three older men seated on that boulder far from
the gathering taking turn at the water pipe; see the cluster of
young men standing at a distance gawking. Why aren't these men
participating in the religious event? Are these men dissenters,
skeptics or heathens? I suppose every group has its share of
non-conformists. Some little boys are kicking a ball farther out.
So, sit down and take in the scene.
As I eased myself on the boulder, I wondered how the massive thing
ever got where it was—dessert as far as the eye can see—miles and
miles away from mountains and rivers. I frequently get side
tracked by all the questions that pop up in the echo chamber I
carry on my shoulders. Never mind. Take in the show.
I will spare you a detailed report. You can, in a moment of
recklessness, book yourself to one of these numerous frequent
Islamic gatherings for first hand experience.
Briefly, on that Friday the large mullah was narrating the
purported tragic fate of Imam Reza—the eight Arab Shiite Imam who
is buried in the city of Mashhad in Iran. The mullah was planning
to go on pilgrimage to the Imam’s shrine as soon as the
God-fearing faithful villagers coughed up enough money for his
journey. No, it wasn't a junket. No, he wasn't going to Mashhad
for a few seeghes—temporary religiously approved marriages that
allow a man and a woman to bed together from as little as a few
minutes or for as long as their hormones ruled. He claimed he was
going to go to the shrine to personally plead with the holy Imam
to intercede with God to forgive the sins of his flock. His flock,
as wool-less as they were, still needed fleecing from time to
time. And no one was more qualified to do the job than the large
mullah who occupied the solitary chair. Did the villagers sin so
that forgiveness was required?
They indeed must've had, otherwise why would they be condemned to
the hell they were in. Would their suffering on earth count for
time done in hell? No, they have seen nothing yet, the man was
saying. The hell they were in was plenty bad. But, the hell to
come, as he described it, made the desolate, graceless dessert
village look like paradise. Everything is relative, I suppose.
The mullah described hell in such horrifying details that made my
skin crawl. I knew I was going to hell. Couldn't I go to a
different hell, please? I dreaded his. He described hell at length
and in harrowing details and said only a few words about heaven.
He said heaven was a place of unsurpassed beauty and bounty. No
work, all play, with rivers of honey and milk and lush fruit and
other delectable for men. What about the women? What do they get?
Men saturated to their eyeballs with milk and honey fueled
passion? Is the next world also men’s?
Talking about heaven, however, was leaping ahead. First, you had
to buy your way out of hell before even being considered for
admission into heaven, he kept saying.
Question: Why did the massive mullah have to go all the way to
Mashhad to pray for his riddled-with-sin congregation? Couldn't he
just save the wretched their badly needed coins by praying for
them from where he was? Oh, the Imam was hard of hearing? You had
to get up close? I don't think even shouting directly in his ears
would've made the man hear any better. He was dead for over a
thousand years. He doesn't need ears to hear? He is now
telepathic? If so, he could receive the supplications just the
same from the village. Unless of course he decides to ignore them
like he had done so for centuries.
The master crowd worker played his audience like a sitar. He told
them how all those who betrayed the beloved Imam burned in God’s
inferno full of scorpions, tarantulas, rattle snakes and more.
To my astonishment, one of the men in the circle took advantage of
the mullah’s momentary pause, “Your personage Agha, what sins the
scorpions, tarantulas and snakes have committed to be condemned to
hell, since God himself created them the way they are and wouldn't
these venomous creatures themselves burn in the raging inferno?”
“They have committed no sins. They just do their jobs as assigned
by God. They don't burn either. They are made fireproof first,”
the mullah answered without missing a beat.
“What happens next, after the sinner is bitten and burned?” the
nervy guy asked the follow up question.
“The scripture promise that the next life is eternal. You go to
hell, you stay there forever. You go to heaven, that’s your abode
everlasting. People who doubt the scripture are assuredly
hell-bound,” the mullah said with a menacing voice. The women
wailed and cursed the impudent questioner and the men seemed ready
to dispatch the infidel-sounding man to the dreaded inferno
immediately. One of the acts that earn merit points is the killing
of heretics, infidels and apostates and the faithful are
determined on accumulating merit points.
I concluded that questioning religious dogma seldom produces
satisfactory answers. What is certain, however, the sin of asking
questions expands the torture served the questioner both on earth
and in hell.
A minute after the unwelcome interruption, the mullah skillfully
steered the Rozeh Khooni—Shiite’s religious revival composed of a
mix of passages chanted from the Quran and narration of the
suffering of the Imams—train back on track. The women wailed, beat
themselves on the head and rocked back and forth in agony. The men
sobbed and beat themselves on the chest. What in God’s name is
going on here? Isn't the world already beating up without let up
on these miserable people? Are these wretched people going to
heaven? Will the mullah be there too? That’s no heaven that I care
to go to, no matter the rivers of honey and milk and all the lush
stuff. I've got to find me a different heaven. As I cogitated,
this popped up in my head: Heaven is a happy heart, hell is a
heavy heart. Yeah, we are all in hell alright. And this is the
Islamic idea of entertainment on Friday—the day of rest and
The showman hit the climax by shrieking, with his unusually
high-pitched voice, the heart-wrenching episode of the Imam Reza’s
death, as tears glided out of the two slits he sported for eyes.
The infidel enemies fed the Imam poison, he screamed. The
congregation reacted hysterically.
I had heard a different version about the Imam’s death. Aren't
there always two sides to a story? The other version claims that
the Imam died from gorging himself on huge quantities of Mashhad’s
delicious grapes. Apparently, being from Arabia, his system
couldn't handle alien delectable Iranian fruit and he died from a
severe case of the runs. I can't vouch for either version. I'm
just reporting. Besides, the man died over a thousand years ago,
from poison or diarrhea, let him be. What do these wretched people
have to do with his death, self-inflicted or otherwise? Why mourn
the man at all, if indeed he was a saint of their God. He must be
having a ball in the purported lush heaven feasting and
frolicking. Why feel sorry for the lucky man? He should mourn
their dreadful plight and use any influence he has with God to do
something about it.
Why didn't these people spend the day doing something that would
bring a bit of cheer to their anguished heart? Maybe it is true
that misery likes company. Those miserable people yearned for more
misery. They wouldn't know how to deal with happiness and joy.
The Bible says, “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.” But this mullah was
sowing doom and gloom and reaping a trip of joy and titillation.
All along, people, one by one, got up and went to the mullah’s
assistant seated to his right on the ground and gave him some
coins and an occasional note. The assistant thanked, blessed and
assured them that Agha will pray for them at the shrine. The
mullah played his hand so well that even I, a cynical disbeliever,
was moved to tears and fears from time to time. At one point I
checked my pockets searching for coins to offer him so he would
pray for me too. You can never be too safe. All I could find in my
pockets were holes. Darn it, the precious coins I never had
must've fallen out of the holey pockets I had.
Do you blame the mullah for fleecing the fleece-less? Don't. It is
the order of this world. The less you have, the more you give and
the more you have the more you take. Besides, the mullah had
pressing ongoing expenses in addition to his planned pilgrimages.
He had three wives to support and a bevy of kids to feed. He was
seriously thinking about getting a fourth wife. How would he do
that if his flock didn't part with generous amounts of wool? He
should plow the un-giving fields? That would be foolish and the
village’s only obese person will end up looking like the rest of
the walking skeletons. “One prosperous man is better than a
thousand destitute,” some prosperous con man must've coined that
The mullah was the village’s one and only prosperous person and
better than us, the destitute thousands.