Dalak island, Eritrea
Probably the best introduction to the Iran of the ayatollahs, Roy Mottahedeh’s book is not easy reading, even for the intelligent general reader of Middle east history whom it is aimed at.
It starts as the simple biography of Ali Hashemi, the son of a mullah. There are some beautiful pages on the daily life of a small boy, divided between school, bazar, mosque and home, in the provincial city of Qom in the late 1940s.
But as the boy grows up and leaves school for the Faiziyeh madreseh (islamic college), the book becomes more complex. It develops on several intertwined levels. At one level, it is a chronicle of the political events which led from the constitutional crisis of 1906, through the years of Mossadeq’s nationalist government (1951-53), to the Islamic revolution of 1979.
At another level, it is a history of Iranian culture and society in the 20th century. It is also a comprehensive panorama of Shia thought, from the death of Hussain, the prophet’s grandson, to the rise of Khomeini.
Mottahedeh skilfully switches back and forth between the daily life of Ali Hashemi and his historical context. One chapter, for example, deals at length with the madreseh curriculum, giving the non-Iranian reader a chance to grasp what is taught at the Faiziyeh, to feel he is actually there.
Mottahedeh then introduces a chapter on the formal structure of Shia theology. This he makes more palatable by telling the story of Avicenna, who integrated Aristotelian methods into Islamic thought.
The most formidable factor of change was the introduction of modern secular education. Mottahedeh describes the life of the educationalist Isa Sadiq, who helped Reza Shah build a modern country in the second quarter of the century. He portrays the uneasy relationship between intellectuals and the first Pahlavi Shah.
Ali Hashemi becomes a brilliant Islamic scholar and moves to Najaf, the Shiite holy city in sosuthern Iraq, whose madresehs historically rivalled Qom’s.
The revival of the “jurisconsult” school at the end of the 18th century, the slow creation of a religious hierarchy in the 19th under the Qajars, the line of succession of the Marja-e-Taqlid (mullahs who are “sources of imitation”) in the 20th -- it is all there, together with an account of the relationship between the two Pahlavi Shahs and the Shiite leadership, until the collision between the Shah and Khomeini in 1963, leading to the latter’s imprisonment and exile.
In 1971 Ali Hashemi is arrested by Savak, the Shah’s secret police. In jail he recognises the voice of his friend Parviz, the baker’s son with whom he went to school in Qom. It is the year in which armed resistance to the regime begins.
After 400 densely-written pages, the author poses his final question. What was it that they had in common, the students of secular educationalists like Isa Sadiq and the students of religious masters, the Shariatis, the Taleghanis, the Shariat-Madaris?
The answer was Islam, which the more secular Iranians rediscovered through the informal discussion groups -- the dowrehs and hayats -- which were the one form of organisation the Shah could not suppress.
When you turn the last page of this unique book, built like a puzzle which makes sense only when you fit in the last piece, you know you must read it a second time, perhaps a third time, to understand the world of Ali Hashemi, the boy from Qom who became an ayatollah.
(The Middle East magazine, April 1986)
Droits de Reproduction strictement réservés © Chris Kutschera 2002