I have a new favorite poem, although it isn’t new, exactly.
Signs of the zodiac: You give something to every jackass.
You hand them fancy baths, millworks, and canals–
while noble souls must gamble, in hopes of winning their nightly bread.
Who would give a fart for such a constellation?
That’s from a new translation of the Rubáiyát, a collection of quatrains attributed to the Persian astronomer and mathematician Omar Khayyam that still holds the fascination of millions, some nine centuries after they were first written down.
In a delightfully quirky article in the Nation, Rubáiyát translator, history professor, and progressive pundit Juan Cole quotes from Khayyam’s poems to make a point about religious fundamentalism in both Iran (formerly Persia) and the United States (formerly somewhat sane).
Whether in America or Iran, fundamentalist religion (or, in the US case, a Trumpian and Republican urge to curry favor with it) often made for dismally bad public policy during the first wave of Covid-19. Among other things, it encouraged people, whether in religious institutions in both countries or in American anti-shutdown protests, to engage in reckless behavior that endangered not just themselves but others.
Don’t we know it!
In the Muslim equivalent of the Bible Belt, the clerical leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, stopped shaking hands and limited visits to his office in early February, but he let mass commemorations of the 41st anniversary of the founding of the Islamic Republic go forward unimpeded. Then, on February 24, he also allowed national parliamentary elections to proceed on hopes of entrenching yet more of his hard-line fundamentalist supporters — the equivalent of America’s evangelicals — in Iran’s legislature. Meanwhile, its other religious leaders continued to resist strong Covid-19 mitigation measures until late March, even as the country was besieged by the virus. Deputy Minister of Health Iraj Harirchi caught the spirit of the moment by rejecting social-distancing measures in February while downplaying the seriousness of the outbreak in his country, only to contract Covid-19 himself and die of it.
The virus initially exploded in the holy city of Qom, said to have been settled in the eighth century by descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. It’s filled with a myriad of religious seminaries and has a famed shrine to one of those descendants, Fatima Masoumeh. In late February, even after government officials began to urge that the shrine be closed, its clerical custodians continued to call for pilgrims to visit it. Those pilgrims typically touch the brass latticework around Fatima Masoumeh’s tomb and sometimes kiss it, a classic method for passing on the disease. Its custodians (like those American evangelical pastors) continued to believe that the holiness of the shrine would protect the pilgrims.
So where does the Rubáiyát come in? The message of the slyly secular poems, says Cole
… is that life has no obvious meaning and is heartbreakingly short. Death is near and we might not live to exhale the breath we just took in. The afterlife is a fairy tale for children.… The only way to get past this existential unfairness is to enjoy life, to love someone, and to get intimate with good wine. On the other hand, there is no reason to be mean-spirited to other people.
He quotes another Khayyam quatrain:
Don’t blame the stars for virtues or for faults,
or for the joy and grief decreed by fate!
For science holds the planets all to be
A thousand times more helpless than are we.
It’s superficially about astrology, which, unlike Islam and Zoroastrianism, it was safe to criticize in 11th- and 12th-century Persia; but the rejection of cosmic superstitions can easily be applied to those faiths as well.
Wars and pandemics choose winners and losers and — as we’re learning all too grimly in the world of 2020 — the wealthy are generally so much better positioned to protect themselves from catastrophe than the poor. To its eternal credit, the Rubáiyát (unlike both the Trump administration and the Iranian religious leadership) took the side of the latter, pointing out that religious fatalism and superstitions like astrology are inherently supportive of a rotten status quo in which the poor are the first to be sacrificed, whether to pandemics or anything else.
In our own perilous times, right-wing fundamentalist governments like those in Brazil and the United States, as well as religious fundamentalist ones as in Iran, have made the coronavirus outbreak far more virulent and dangerous by encouraging religious gatherings at a time when the pandemic’s curve could only be flattened by social distancing. Their willingness to blithely set aside reason and science out of a fatalistic and misguided faith in a supernatural providence that overrules natural law (or, in Donald Trump’s case, a fatalistic and misguided faith in his own ability to overrule natural laws, not to speak of providence) has been responsible for tens of thousands of deaths around the world. Think of it as, in spirit, a fundamentalist version of genocide.
The pecuniary motives of some of this obscurantism are clear, as many churches and mosques depend on contributions from congregants at services for the livelihood of imams and pastors. Their willingness to prey on the gullibility of their followers in a bid to keep up their income stream should be considered the height of hypocrisy and speaks to the importance of people never surrendering their capacity for independent, critical reasoning.
The Rubáiyát‘s translation in question can be previewed and purchased here.
(Image via Shutterstock)