The Night of Destiny, the Light of Day

Marble latticework screen, Sidi Saiyyed mosque, Ahmedabad, India © Gérard Degeorge

Eastern spirituality is not simply the reserve of Islam. It is also present within other religions, based upon the historic and cultural environment, and it also magnificently reveals itself for example in Orthodoxy. This religion has in fact incomparable liturgies, far from rationality alone, which in itself can be soul-destroying. In this case, we can talk about “intelligence of the heart”.

Spirituality and church are not synonymous either for that matter. The church can help spirituality to flourish, but it may also stifle its expression when the former aspires to be an authority. What matters in the end is that the individual has a sense of the sacred, which can even transpire without the idea of God.

The Islamic faith, set to one day perhaps become the world’s main religion, is not or rather is no longer characterised simply by its contiguity with Europe, or even its overlapping with it. Believing such as thing would be an optical illusion, and associating Islam with the Arab World alone is a complete mistake, as for quite some time it has just represented a small minority of the world’s Muslims.

The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC, formerly the Organisa-tion of the Islamic Conference) created in 1969 as the political organisation of countries with a strong Muslim population, brings together dozens of nations from Africa, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. The largest Muslim country in terms of worshippers is still by far Indone-sia, in South-East Asia.

China and Russia, two major secular and mostly non-European em-pires, even for the latter, have large Muslim communities. In Russia, Tatarstan is the only sub-ject of the Federation to have signed a power-sharing treaty with Moscow, evidence of its strong ethnic and religious identity, as illustrated for centuries by the city of Kazan, made famous more recently by Eisenstein’s last film, Ivan the Terrible. The former USSR States of Central Asia have also witnessed a certain Sunnite renaissance.

Mausoleum, Central Asian desert, 14th century © PP

The Kaaba in Mecca is located at the heart of a country where more than a third of the popu-lation is made up of immigrant workers and executives from Asia. The prophet Muhammad turned towards this famous shrine following a revelation, some time after his Hegira or migration in 622 to Yathrib (Medina). The same is true of certain Gulf States where, in addition to a long-standing commercial tropism (was Bahrain not on the route to India for centuries before the British arrived?), demographic make-up is sometimes decisive in determining strategic economic decisions in favour of Asian interests. The elevated metro in Dubai, which one day could be connected to the Abu Dhabi metropolitan network, illustrates this, as do the choices made by the United Arab Emirates some 10 years ago regarding civilian nuclear power rather than a technology that seemed significantly more advanced.

But it is important to mention Ramadan, a holy month of fasting that is one of the five pillars of Islam, with Eid al-Fitr marking the end of this period. The Ramadan calendar shifts slightly from one year to the next. Once, I happened to experience this event in Christian “lands”, coming up to Christmas. The co-occurrence of the celebrations meant that festivities were shared by all, and Ramadan is in fact a month of giving and sharing, as evidenced by iftar even-ing gatherings with family members and friends, celebrated by people from all walks of life.

This great moment, even for a non-believer, recalls other events experienced from an outside perspective that are nonetheless quite striking: it has the magnitude of metaphysical landscapes overflown in the Najd region of the Arabian Peninsula; it echoes the call to prayer of the muezzins inflaming the shores of the Red Sea in Jeddah at sunset and reverberating off the mountain barrier close to Hejaz; it illuminates countless green lanterns and the mosques of Damascus at dawn, it shrouds the solitude of Central Asian deserts as far as the great mountain range of Hindu Kush; it draws us towards the vertiginous Sufi whirling dervishes in the courtyard of Azm Palace; it has the sumptuous radiance of the Iranian Nowruz in the Shi’ite world.

Illuminated manuscript frontispiece, Istanbul, 1784 © INALCO library

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