Mohammad Sagha
Last updated: 11 July, 2013

Religio-cultural cosmopolitanism in the Middle East

How business, religion, trade, and politics intersect from Mashhad to Medina.

The 124th floor of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa looms large over the Persian Gulf. From the world’s tallest observation deck, one can easily gaze over the metropolis spurred by state-led capitalism and tax-exempt labor. In many ways, however, the skyscraper’s story highlights the nature of Dubai’s nascent economy. Dreamt up and constructed during the country’s boom years, the entire emirate of Dubai almost fell into bankruptcy after a real estate market crash. It took a $10 billion bailout at the last minute by the neighboring emir of Abu Dhabi (on top of previous billions) to keep Dubai afloat.

Dubai is often touted as a shining beacon of cosmopolitanism in the Middle East and reflects a lofty neo-liberal vision of capitalism and culture. Yet this vision does not speak to many of the region’s peoples – there are cities of significantly greater importance in the region that represent the unshakable ties that culture, history, and religion represent.

These cosmopolitan centers are effectively “religio-cultural” capitals and include cities such as Mashhad and Qom in Iran, Najaf and Karbala in Iraq, and of course Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. These cities will not diminish in importance as competitive global interest rates rise or fall because they are bound by ties that are stronger than just economic interests. These are historically rooted centers of religious learning, pilgrimage, trade, and cosmopolitanism. As the recent attacks on Shia pilgrims in Pakistan travelling to Iran has shown, it will take more than bombs and brutal violence to break the ties which enliven these religio-cultural cities.

The religio-cultural cities tend to house important centers of Islamic learning. There are vast seminaries representing entrenched clerical networks that have defined these cities for generations, particularly in Iran and Iraq. Granted, these cities do not house transnational financial behemoths and significant banking conglomerates as are present in Manama or Dubai, but they do house a rare mix of human and commercial capital that represents an enriched and solid cosmopolitanism based off of more than just attractive economic profits. The relationships fostered in Mashhad are not mainly class based, as they are in Dubai.

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Understanding the role of religio-cultural capitals in the Middle East is key to tapping into a historical depth that is rooted in a sense of religious obligation and cultural continuity; these cities are striking examples of what regionally cosmopolitan yet religious cities could look like if this type of cosmopolitanism proliferates. Mashhad’s diversity and mix of people of different backgrounds is a modern blueprint for a future Middle East where historical relationships between the region’s diverse peoples could once again become fluid, prosperous, and rooted in a strong sense of history and identity.

Mashhad attracts millions of pilgrims annually, and non-Persian speakers fill the streets around the shrine. Iranian shop owners, or bazaaris, easily switch back and forth between Persian and Arabic. In fact, the shrine itself has congregation areas where exclusively Arabic and Urdu sermons are given, situated separately, of course, from the dominant Persian speeches.

Global interest rates do not matter much in Mashhad or Najaf. While much of the economy revolves around travelling pilgrims, the relationships fostered in such religio-cultural cities are deep rooted, cross-generational, and lasting. There are significant amounts of cross-marriages across the Iranian and Iraqi borders, especially among clerical and merchant families.

Qom represents a different religio-cultural variant; the city is today’s premier center of Shia jurisprudence and learning. Qom houses colleges from across the Islamic world, including ones that operate in Arabic and Urdu as languages of instruction. There are Arabic focused centers which house students from countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq and Saudi Arabia and Urdu colleges hosting students from the Indian subcontinent. Students from Africa also have a strong presence in Qom. In particular, the Arabic language is a fundamental requirement for all the clerics in training given the language of the Quran and the language’s domination of religious literature and scholarship for over a millennium. Reciprocally, the many Arab, African, Pakistani and other groups of students pick up Persian in Qom for academic and practical purposes. Thus, these clerics are steeped in the dominant languages of the region.

In more ways than one, the clerical presence itself is a mark of regional cosmopolitanism as clerics represent a continuous scholarly tradition rooted in both Arabic and Persian. A few kilometers outside Qom is Jamkaran, a mosque said to have been built on the order of the Mahdi, or 12th holy Shia Imam. Within Qom, there is the shrine of a sister of the eighth Imam which is just as prominent as Jamkaran. Needless to say, these sites attract huge numbers of pilgrims from across the region.

Mecca and Medina are of course the famous cities of hajj, an obligatory pilgrimage for every able Muslim sometime in their adult life. These cities are unique in their universal Islamic nature, hosting millions of pilgrims year round from across the world. The ethnic diversity as well as the inter-Muslim diversity of these pilgrims is global. These cities hold the potential for being truly religio-cultural capitals of the world. Medina in particular has been a traditional center of scholarship and holds the potential to be a city where both Shia, Sunni and other scholarship can grow side by side if the current restrictions and atmosphere change.

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However, as Muhammad Qasim Zaman points out in his book, Ulema in Contemporary Islam, there are important differences between the clergy of the Shia and Sunni: “There is no parallel in the Sunni Muslim world to the authority the highest ranking Shi’i religious scholars have wielded since the emergence of the position of the marja’ al-taqlid in the second half of the nineteenth century.” Despite these differences, the potential for scholastic dynamism in Medina given its historical as well as current importance is promising.

Despite the current relative prominence of Iran as a center of religio-cultural cities, Iraq has even more potential. Iraq holds the shrines of six out of the twelve Shia Imams (while Iran is home to only the shrine of one Imam).

Najaf, for centuries, was the center of Shia scholarship in addition to being a shrine city. However, in recent decades the city has seen its role diminished by war and dire political circumstances. Regardless, Najaf is undergoing a revival in large part due to the persistence of Iranian pilgrims who took any chance they could to visit the holy shrines in Najaf even under Saddam and even when violent sectarianism was at its worst after the American invasion and innocent pilgrims were explicitly targeted by savage terrorist attacks. Today, as one can imagine, these pilgrims take full advantage of the porous borders. Others from across the Shia world including India, Pakistan and Persian Gulf Arab states have also continually visited Najaf and Karbala, making sizeable contributions to the cities. If these cities stayed alive during war and insurgency, imagine the possibilities under peace.