KlinKlin, 3 November 2022
Qom is the sandy heart of Shia Islam. The holy city is visited by more than 20 million pilgrims a year and its seminaries are followed by nearly 50,000 people from 80 countries. Many would say that all of Iran’s problems are rooted there. This may be true. Both Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Khamenei are graduates of the Qom seminary. But it is also true that the key to understanding the Islamic Republic and the current crisis is buried beneath its turquoise minarets
Infidel Iranians describe it as a dark fortress of evil. It may sound dramatic, but the bitterness in the voice of these otherwise kind and good people is surprising. “Why would you go there? There’s nothing in Qom but sand and the mullahs*. Both equally harmful. Only fanatics go there,” commented one of the women I spoke to.
Words tinged with intense emotion that would hardly do justice to the complexity of Shia Islam, especially in Iran.
Tranquillity and warmth
If there is one word to describe Qom, it is serenity. The city moves to its own unique rhythm due to its homogenous culture and values, even though it is also the most ethnically diverse. Something that cannot be said of most Iranian cities, torn by a diametric opposition between the traditional and the modern.
The people of Qom not only didn’t flinch from the lens like most residents of Tehran, Kashan, Shiraz, Isfahan – they stopped me and begged me to take their picture. “Show us to the world!” The hospitality of the locals was in stark contrast to the colours with which most Iranians portrayed them.
What is true Islam?
The reason for the discrepancy is due to the different manifestations of Islam he has in Qom and outside. Shia Islam is a direct reflection of the deep Persian culture that preceded it by several thousand years. Unlike Sunni countries where the influence of religion is imposed and obliterates local culture and customs**, Iran incorporates religion into itself.
This creates a unique fusion of faith, tradition and philosophy, where the works of the philosopher poets Hafez Shirazi and Mevlana Rumi are not infrequently held in equal esteem with the teachings of Imam Ali and even the Qur’an. Muslim Ramadan is also often held in equal esteem with the non-islamic Norouz and Yalda*. You will be hard pressed to find a more peace-loving and hospitable nation than Iran. And Qom is a reflection of that.
However, the face of Qom outside the city, however, is different. The city is associated mainly with the clerics who get involved in politics and use religion mostly as a tool of control. Regardless of what they say or how they dress, they behave identically to every repressive regime in history that has flown the flag of religion or ideology.
“This government is not the face of Shia Islam. By their actions in recent decades, these people have actually alienated most Iranians from the religion. They have disgusted us. What is true Islam according to them – killing women and children? Torture and rape of civilians? Life imprisonment and executions for criticism of the government? Corruption to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars? Apparently all this is allowed in Islam, but for a woman not to wear the hijab is a grave sin and shakes the very foundations of the state,” says Salman, 33, from Qom. He claims to be a strong believer but is also against the Islamic Republic.
“It pains me that these people, by their actions, are actually alienating Iranians from the true faith and traditions. Not to mention that the world thinks of us as a backward and savage country. I work in tourism and I have received questions like ‘I didn’t know you had a cinema here’, ‘are you allowed to read anything other than the Koran’.
The protests are not about the hijab, but about a better and dignified life! For human rights and against the crushing corruption in the government. I am a Muslim and I tell you that if we are guided by the Holy Quran, the state should not impose by force on anyone – anything. If you want, don’t wear a headscarf. If you want, drink alcohol. If you want, even renounce Islam. This is a personal matter, not a state matter,” he adds.
The opinion of the clerics
The opinion of most Iranians, even the faithful, coincides with that of Salman. But it appears that even many of the clerics support him. So says Mullah Farzadi, a senior cleric in Qom.
I will quote his opinion without changes because it shows the possible coexistence of religious conservatism with a spiritual understanding of people’s differences:
“We have received the religion directly from the 12 Imams, while Sunni countries have adopted it through third parties, followers who have distorted the face of Islam. And so it has come to the horrific manifestations we see today. Take Saudi Arabia, for example. A century ago, the currents of Wahhabism and Salafism emerged there. Most of all, they hated other Muslims. Look how much grief, wars and terrorism they have brought to the Muslim world, more than to all other religions and nations.
But because of their great financial capabilities, they have been able to spread their distorted and erroneous point of view in Asia, Africa and even Europe. Boko Haram in Nigeria, the most dangerous terrorist group in the world – are Salafis. The Taliban in Afghanistan, al-Shababi in Somalia, the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq – all Salafis. Even European-born terrorists were radicalised in mosques built with Saudi money. I do not want to politicise the issue, but this is the reality.
We must distinguish religion from the people who claim to be its followers. Controversy comes not from religion itself, but from interpretations of it. It comes from people and politics. Take the example of the protests against the hijab. On the one hand, they are a pretext for enemies to provoke us. But on the other hand, they are an expression of genuine resentment among the population. Why, you ask me, does Islam require women to cover themselves? I will answer you:
Ladies have to conceal their beauty from strangers in order not to attract them. This is done to protect family life. To be fair, there are guidelines in Islam even on how men should dress. They should not provoke the ladies with their behaviour or clothing. But we don’t require them to cover up as God has created us in such a way that the man woos the woman. The woman does not court the man. It is said, “God created woman to be loved and man to love her.”
Often times men become so enamored with a woman that they are willing to sacrifice themselves for her. Such is life, most relationships are more one-sided. Imam Ali has said, “A woman is not a lover and a champion, we should not give her hard work.” That’s why women are a symbol of love and beauty.
This is true especially for young women. Old women, to whom male interest has waned, are not obliged to cover themselves. Even the Qur’an says that only the young and especially the beautiful should do so. Older ones are forbidden out of respect for culture and tradition.
Keep in mind that if the women in a community are so open and inviting, and seductive – the man will deal with them all day, and when he gets home, he will have no interest in his own wife! Forgetfulness and chastity is protection for the family and the wife. It is every woman’s right to have her husband.
The man should have a wife and the woman a husband. Not friends and girlfriends. The opposite attitude has destroyed the family institution in the West. The population in Europe is declining and this is one of the main reasons. Concealing female beauty is for the sake of family life. But how this should be done is up to the community.
Hair is part of a woman’s beauty, but it is only one aspect. Lips, eyes, face – these are all powerful aspects of every woman’s beauty. It is said that God is beautiful and he loves beauty! But whether the authorities should enforce prohibition by force… that is a difficult question.
According to some theologians, it is the duty of the government to oblige women to cover themselves. Others, however, believe it is their sacred right to decide for themselves.
Alas, from the beginning of the Islamic Revolution hardliners emerged. They want to enforce every aspect of Islam as strictly as possible and believe that women should be forced. Unfortunately, the issue has long been not purely religious or social. It has become political and even international. Many in the government believe that if they soften their stance on the hijab – it is “kowtowing” to Western media and governments. And so women not being covered has become a particularly sore subject and target.
Many Islamic scholars now believe that women should decide for themselves. That it is neither possible nor right to force them. Because in true Islam there is no coercion. But the government politicizes everything.
In Islam there are rights to God and rights to man. I encourage you to become more familiar with them. A right to God is to pray, for example. Every human being is born equal and with rights. Rights to human beings are not to be robbed, killed, lied to, and abused. Any interference against another human being falls under the jurisdiction of the government, which must intervene.
However, not wearing hijab does not directly violate other people’s rights. Nor does not praying and fasting. Those are rights to God and he will decide who to judge and who not to. I believe that where a person’s personal life is concerned, it is their sacred right to decide for themselves. The government should not interfere.”
God and the King
It’s hard to say how many of Iran’s clerics are of a similar opinion, but it’s certainly not one. Times are changing, and as more Iranians open up to the world, so too are more mullahs.
Their controversy with the government is also becoming more serious from a religious point of view, as the authorities openly violate human rights. However, to express open criticism could mean career suicide or outright imprisonment. That is why it is right to read between the lines.
In our conversation with Mullah Farzadi, he mentioned something very interesting about the Saudi King and his relationship with Salafism.
“Kings don’t believe in any religion.”
This made me wonder – what about the Ayatollahs, the presidents, the generals, the popes, the prime ministers, the patriarchs? Judging by what is happening in the world, the answer seems increasingly clear. Iran is no exception. The country’s problems resemble those in Bulgaria and Europe more than we suspect…
*In Shia Islam, the mullah is a theologian who participates in the science, politics and spiritual life of the country.
**Of course there are exceptions.
***To varying degrees depending on different social classes.
****Nooruz is the Iranian New Year, which is celebrated on or around March 21. Yalda marks the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year on December 20, 21 or 22. Both holidays have Zoroastrian roots, the religion of Persia before the advent of Islam.
The article has been first published in Bulgarian on the author’s independent site KlinKlin. It is republished and translated with author’s permission.