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Events and Narratives

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The word time and its equivalents in other languages encompasses two meanings that seem contradictory on first encounter. For one, we use it to refer to an event, for example, the occasion (or time) when I experienced the Friday mosque in Isfahan described in another section of this chapter. Time as event draws a boundary around a set of experiences within the flow that I identify as my life. Put into a larger frame of reference, the same principle can apply to my whole life, a lifetime, that binds me within the accidents of birth and death and identifies experiences peculiar to me in comparison with other beings.

Time in the sense of event can be scaled to any level—from a second to millennia—as long as there is a principle that provides internal coherence leading to a boundary around a set of ideas or experiences. Both psychologically and as a matter of description in historiographical representation, time as event must be “meaningful,” although here, too, the significance of the event can vary greatly. My visit to the mosque in Isfahan was a momentous event and has continued to affect me since 2012. A trip to the grocery store in my neighborhood is also an event although of a very different magnitude in meaning because of its limited effects. When describing the past, we appraise received information to select those matters that can be organized into events significant for the overall perspective we wish to convey.

In addition to its meaning as event, the word time refers also to the abstraction that stands behind the fact of incessant variation in the material world. Invisible in itself, time in this sense is detectable through reference to change in “the space in which humans live and to the nature within which they are embedded, be it the system of planets by which clocks and calendars are regulated, or the succession of biological generations as it is expressed in the social and political realm” (Koselleck, “Time and History,” 102).

Described in isolation, time as event and time as material change seem to stretch temporality to opposite ends. The two meanings are, however, interdependent and mutually mutable notions, each being the condition of possibility for the other. Time as change is “eventful” since positing the difference that creates the sense of variation is predicated on a comparison between two states of stability (i.e., events). And on the opposite side, change must be taken as a fact to create the boundaries that characterize a certain set as the definition of time as event. The separation, yet interdependence, of time as change and event explain why representations of time can vary greatly without causing the failure of logic.

Understandings of change in the past can be altered radically through the discovery or invention of a new event. In this instance, a newly posited bounded time can transform our understanding of time’s flow. For example, over the last century, efforts to recover women’s activities and voices have caused great change in the understanding of the human past as a totality. Conversely, transformation in the way we perceive change can alter our sense of events. Once the male-centeredness of historical representation is removed, what may have been considered an event pertaining to a unique woman may become transformed into a wide social pattern. Once women become visible in history, we “discover” them as actors in all contexts rather than seeing their presence as an exception.

The interdependency between time as change and event has another critical function as well: each acts as a check upon the free transformation of the other. Time as flow is limited by the contents of what can be accepted as events. A claim about change over a period requires the details of events as its building blocks. Conversely, the discovery, creation, or acknowledgment of a new event is meaningful when it fits into an existing flow. Occurrences that do not do this are nonevents until they become parts of a narrative.

Continuing with the example of women’s greater historical visibility, to claim women’s importance in history requires that we document events where this is evidently the case. And the discovery of an event where a woman acts in a certain way becomes meaningful through reference to a larger narrative. Stories of women who were regarded as great religious scholars, for instance, disrupt the notion that formal intellectual production in a society has been limited to men. But valuing such a discovery is predicated on an overall view of the past in which scholarly activity is understood as a positive aspect of social existence. In a situation where this is not accepted as an axiom, documenting instances of women as scholars would have little social resonance.

Both time as change and time as event are susceptible to mutation, although this requires conjunction between the two. This means that representations of the past can modulate along multiple axes since these are formed by combining the two notions of time. For this to happen in a given context, some aspects of understanding must be held as positively true, or factual, while other elements are treated as variable. Of course, what is taken as truth in one situation can be challenged in another, based on taking a different element within the situation as fact and considering what was thought true in the first case as variable.

Ultimately, this means that identical basic observations can be used to create any number of different representations of past time, depending on investments held by the interpreters. The simultaneous differentiation and interconnection between time as change and time as event helps us make sense of a basic fact: experiences that can be shown to have been shared between multiple witnesses can nevertheless be documented and represented in radically different ways.

Prayer niche in a highly decorated wall.

Öljeytü’s mihrab in west prayer hall of Isfahan’s Friday Mosque (2017).


Photo 137858111 © Evgeniy Fesenko |


Events and Narratives

A Niche in Time

The Friday mosque in Isfahan brims with evidence for the intersection between the two meanings of time. From these, I focus on one example. The monument’s northeast section contains one of its most celebrated features, inside an enclosure built under the rule of the Mongol Ilkhanid dynasty during the early fourteenth century. This is a mihrab—the blind niche in mosques that indicates the direction of prayer by pointing toward Mecca—that is today counted among the best examples of stucco decoration in Islamic contexts.

Justly celebrated for its aesthetic appeal, the mihrab’s form, decorations, and inscriptions signify the crowding of multiple temporalities into a single object. Narratives containing references to the various events intersect within the mihrab, which is itself an event that materialized at a certain time. The mihrab is also subject to multiple reactions through which it can be absorbed into other narratives. The mihrab is then a poignant and emphatic example for the plenitude of meaning that comes into view through an excavation of temporalities.

Let us begin by noting the mihrab’s obvious elements, things visible to its constructors as well as to us seven centuries later. The mihrab’s physical presence contains time’s double signature as event and change, connected to centuries of architectural development that made the prayer niche a focal point within mosques. There is its form, the slight hollow of a blind niche surrounded by an expanding series of alternating framing arches and decorative boxes. The mihrab’s surface is covered with writing in the Arabic script and decoration consisting of geometric patterns and stylized vegetal motifs. The form and the ornamentation connect the mihrab to architectural elements found in Islamic religious buildings all over the world. The mihrab’s directionality (pointing to Mecca) and the Arabic script signify transhistorical and transregional aspects of Islam. These features of the mihrab are meaningful because we can find them echoing across time and space. The monument’s form signifies a kind of temporality distanced from spatiotemporal coordinates.

The mihrab’s linguistic content—the texts in Arabic—makes it unique as an object that became materialized at a particular moment. Three texts adorn the mihrab, forming a layered stack of different orderings of time. This stacking is a religious argument expressed in an architectural form in a public space. Each one of the three temporal orders expressed in the text contains interpolations between time as event and time as flow. The text that ends the series of three contains a calendrical date, forming the apogee of the zigzagging between the three different orders of time invoked in the monument.

The mihrab’s origination as an event that is fixable to a moment constitutes a closure that gathers up the various temporalities that were a part of its sponsors’ world. But the mihrab’s construction is only the beginning of its story, which has continued to the present as it keeps becoming the object of a variety of human gazes. Demonstrating all these elements requires considering the texts present on the mihrab in some detail (Hunarfar, Ganjina-yi asar-i tarikhi-yi Isfahan, 116–120).

The first text forms the border encompassing the niche and is farthest away from the monument’s center. The placement of this text indexes its overarching function. It runs along three sides of the rectangle that frames the feature and reads as follows:

Beginning with the name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful. The Messenger of the Beneficent, truthful and verified, God’s prayers upon him and his descendants, said: “Whoever builds a mosque, even if it is like a bird’s nest, God will build him a house in paradise.” And the Prince of Believers, ʿAli b. Abi Talib, prayers of God, His Messenger, and His angels be upon him, said: “Whoever goes to the mosque acquires one of eight things: a brother beneficial for (the path toward) God, a refined knowledge, a firm sign, an awaiting mercy, a word that saves from rejection, or he hears a word that points toward right guidance, or he leaves a sin through fear or shame.”

These statements invoke, respectively, Muhammad’s authority to correlate earthly and heavenly spaces and that of ʿAli to indicate longterm ramifications of cultivating the habit of visiting mosques. The two statements reference the mosque’s physical space, followed by spatiotemporal deferrals of varying scales. The prophetic statement connects the material mihrab and the surrounding mosque to understandings of the afterlife in the future. ʿAli’s pronouncement extends the meaning of the space to human lives considered as extended timeframes, within which actions have consequences for oneself and others.

The cumulative text references multiple events: moments in time when Muhammad and ʿAli uttered these words, acts of going to mosques, and anticipated consequences of acts that connect presents to futures. How these events are arranged creates a didactic narrative, a temporality that tells the anticipated reader, situated in front of the monument, how to conduct life in the present and prepare for the future based on authoritative statements uttered in the past.

The second text, nested within the enclosure created by the first, runs in bands on top and around the two small decorative columns that frame the mihrab’s opening. Given that this text is not prefaced by the usual introductory phrase “Beginning with the name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful,” I believe it is meant as a continuation of the first. It reads as follows:

From Jabir b. Zayd al-Juʿfi. He said I heard Jabir b. ʿAbdallah Ansari say that when God revealed to his Prophet, God’s prayers upon him and his descendants: “Those who believe, obey God, obey the Messenger, and those charged with authority among you” [4:59], I asked him, “Messenger of God, we already know God and His Messenger, but who are those charged with authority, obedience to whom God has compared to obedience to Him and His Messenger?” He, peace be upon him, said, “They are my vicegerents, Jabir, and the leaders of Muslims after me. The first of them is ʿAli b. Abi Talib, then al-Hasan, then al-Husayn, then ʿAli b. Husayn, then Muhammad b. ʿAli, alluded to as al-Baqir—you will meet him, Jabir, and when you see him say my greeting to him—then as-Sadiq, Jaʿfar b Muhammad, then Musa b. Jaʿfar, then ʿAli b. Musa, then Muhammad b. ʿAli, then ʿAli b. Muhammad, then al-Hasan b. ʿAli, then the one who has the same name and kunya as me—God’s proof on earth and the one preserved by Him among his servants—the son of al-Hasan b. ʿAli. By his hand God will conquer, as He has mentioned, the east and the west of the earth.” There is no god but God, Muhammad is the Messenger of God, ʿAli is the friend of God.

This text, the second layer of the stack on the mihrab, also contains an intricate play on time. However, the inflection here is indexed to a temporal order consisting of specific human lives rather than the eternal paradise. The text is a hadith, a report about a moment at which Muhammad made a verbal statement, here provided together with the names of the reporters. Considered at the point of its utterance, the report is a detailed prediction about the future, citing a precise list of names as a genealogy that should be treated as the prospective repository of religious authority. The twelve men referred to by name are the Imams of the Twelver Shiʿi tradition, an Islamic group distinguished by its devotion to a specific set among Muhammad’s descendants.

At a secondary level, at the time the statement was put into stucco, eleven of the twelve named individuals were recognized as having lived and died in the past. The twelfth—the one whom Muhammad describes as having his own name—is supposed to have been born in the ninth century but then having gone into a metaphysical hiding known as ghayba until the end of time. What we have, then, is a statement in the past that predicts a future, most of which has become the past by the time the statement is made manifest in this written form. Here, a past is being ratified as sacred based on a predicted future, this being done in the service of a version of Islamic history that competes with other versions.

The part of the prediction that remains unmaterialized casts a prescriptive shadow on the anticipated reader, creating an intersection between this temporal order and the one projected in the first text I have reviewed above. Between the two texts, readers are being asked to formulate their present and future lives according to imperatives concerning the afterlife, ethics in the present world, and a commitment to a partisan sacred history.

The third distinct text on the mihrab is placed at the monument’s center, immediately above the niche’s concave opening. This is a dedication that contains a date as well as the names of the monument’s patrons and the craftsman:

Sultan Muhammad. This pleasing mihrab is among the architectural additions undertaken during the just rule of the Sultan, protector of the lands of submission and belief, support of the world and the faith, the shadow of God on lands, his longevity being the cause of the protection of Islam. It is from the charitable public beneficences, exhibiting great lordship, of the chancellor of the domains from east to west, far and near, (recipient of) fortune bestowed by God and the faith, marked by the gift of closeness to the Lord of the Worlds, Muhammad as-Sawi, may God exalt his helpers and lengthen his rule. Executed by the weak servant, hopeful of God’s mercy and forgiveness, ʿAdud b. ʿAli al-Mastari, may God beautify his end, in Safar, the year 710 [1310 CE]. God, sanctified and exalted, completed (it) well and victorious.

This text marks the construction of the monument itself as an event concerned with the public piety, legitimacy, and authority of its immediate sponsors. Foremost stands the king, Sultan Muhammad Khudabanda Öljeytü (d. 1316), the eighth ruler of the Mongol Ilkhanid dynasty. He is followed by the vizier Muhammad Savaji and eventually the builder ʿAdud al-Mastari. The value of this event resides in its relationship to the two intersecting narratives contained in the previous two texts. By causing the construction of the monument, the named individuals have built themselves a house in paradise (first text) and aligned themselves with an understanding of the Islamic past and future (second text).

Islam can be an atemporal ideal, a narrative that connects the physical, spatiotemporal world to the metaphysical paradise, an argument about the past that contains competing historical timelines, and a discourse in which present claims of authority require providing ratification from acts and statements of people understood to have lived in the past.

The third text’s placement on a prominent spot in a public space anticipates an audience for whom the mihrab is meant as a religious argument. However, the meanings of the mihrab hardly become fixed at its creation. All possible reactions to it that have occurred over the seven centuries since its construction are events in themselves that enfold the monument into countless other narratives pertaining to the lives and understandings of the onlookers.

The mihrab in Isfahan reveals an array that results from substantiating the permutations between time as change and event. The mihrab intertwines three temporalities, each containing intersections between events and narratives. The monument is itself an event that projects an argument significant for the period in which it was constructed. But the possible meanings of the mihrab as event are not limited to the intentions of its sponsors. It can be incorporated into other, unforeseen narratives that can affirm, supplement, or oppose the message intended by the builders. The mihrab substantiates Islam simultaneously in multiple dimensions of time, made of an illimitable array of events and narratives.

Islam can be an atemporal ideal as reflected in the mihrab form that can be seen wherever mosques have been built. It can also be a narrative that connects the physical, spatiotemporal world to the metaphysical paradise. It can be an argument about the past that contains competing historical timelines, and it can be a discourse in which present claims of authority require providing ratification from acts and statements of people understood to have lived in the past. Any one of these elements, as well as all manner of combinations among them, can be deployed to create Islamic perspectives.

Amid all these coexisting possibilities, time as event is interlocked with time as flow, and the bifurcation between the two meanings of time is a heuristic tool useful for analyzing complex objects. The mihrab provides a valuable example to emphasize the open-ended quality of the relationship between Islam and temporality. Although unique, the mihrab is not atypical. What we see here is, I believe, the norm throughout the mass of variegated evidence available to us for studying Islam.

Related Sections in Other Chapters