Thursday, June 19, 2008

Socializing in Qom

A BBC reporter visited some Iranian opposition figures.

"Welcome to your house."
This is how I was greeted in English when I met Grand Ayatollah Hossain-Ali Montazeri at his home in Qom.

Hardline supporters of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, attacked this house in 1997 when Ayatollah Montazeri questioned the unaccountable rule exercised by the supreme leader.

I asked him how the Sharia law that sanctions the killing of Muslims who convert to other religions could be justified.

He said the Prophet Muhammad ordered apostates to be killed because his enemies were deliberately converting to Islam and then converting back to their old religions in order to give Islam a bad name.
He emphasised that such a ruling doesn't apply to the modern world and people should be free to choose their religion.

In contrast to Ayatollah Montazeri, Ayatollah Rouhani is a traditionalist theologian and his opposition to Ayatollah Khomeini was from a more conservative viewpoint.

In his opinion, Ayatollah Rouhani said, the supreme religious leader of an Islamic state should not be selected by an assembly of other clerics, but rather chosen by divine powers.

Ayatollah Rouhani opposed a range of other government policies and disapproves of such things as the playing of chess and listening to music.

He told me that he was the highest Shia authority in the world and nobody, including Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq, could be compared to him.
Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanei's house was my next destination. I had no prior appointment but when his assistant told him that I was from the BBC he greeted me warmly.

Ayatollah Sanei is seen as one of the most progressive theologians in contemporary Iran.

He was the highest judicial authority under Ayatollah Khomeini but later decided to move to Qom to devote his life to theological issues.

A few years ago he caused uproar in conservative religious circles by declaring that women were completely equal to men in all aspects of political and social life and went as far as saying that a woman could even become the supreme religious leader.
The ayatollah's views are in total contrast to his brother's, Ayatollah Hassan Sanei, who as the chairman of an Islamic charity put a bounty on Salman Rushdie's head after his book The Satanic Verses was deemed blasphemous.

He then attended a wedding.

Both the bride and groom's father were clerics. They had hired a modern public hall in the city for the wedding.
When I was introduced to the bride's father as a BBC journalist he treated me as a guest of honour and asked me, jokingly, to broadcast the ceremony live on the radio.

Women and men were separated. The groom was the only man allowed to the women's section where the bride was sitting.

When he came to greet us one by one I noticed that he was wearing a Western-style suit with bow-tie and his hair cut was ultra-modern, a style usually disapproved of by the authorities.
The groom's close friends were all wearing bow ties. In fact most of the guests were wearing ties. Ties are normally frowned upon of as a western or imperialist import in Iran. I was one of the few guests without a tie!

I asked a cleric who was sitting next to me whether the groom's father approved his son's outfit and hairstyle. He said the poor father had no say in the matter.

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