Among the Believers

We went out to telephone Khalkhalli's secretary again, to see whether the appointment couldn't be brought forward. It was about half past five, and a little cooler. There were more people in the street. Our driver had come back; he hadn't found anything to eat.

Behzad telephoned. Then, coming out of the telephone booth, he got into conversation with two bearded young men who were in mullah's costume. I hadn't seen them approach; I had been looking at Behzad.

I had so far seen mullahs only on television, in black and white, and mainly heads and turbans. The formality of the costume in real life was a surprise to me. It made the two men stand out in the street: black turbans, white collarless tunics, long, lapel-less, two-button gowns in pale green or pale blue, and the thin black cotton cloaks that were like the gowns of scholars and fellows at Oxford and Cambridge and St. Andrew's in Scotland. Here, without a doubt, was the origin of the cleric's garb of those universities, in medieval times centers of religious learning, as Qom still was.

The costume, perhaps always theatrical, a mark of quality, also gave physical dignity and stature, as I saw when Behzad brought the young men over. They were really quite small men, and younger than their beards suggested.

Behzad said, "You wanted to meet students."

We had talked about it in the car, but hadn't known how to go about it.

Behzad added, "Khalkhalli's secretary says we can come at eight."

I felt sure we could have gone at any time, and had been kept waiting only for the sake of Khalkhalli's dignity.

The two young men were from Pakistan. They wanted to know who I was, and when Behzad told them that I came from America but was not American, they seemed satisfied; and when Behzad further told them that I was anxious to learn about Islam, they were immediately friendly. They said they had some books in English in their hostel which I would find useful. We should go there first, and then we would go to the college to meet students from many countries.

Behzad arranged us in the car. He sat me next to the Lur driver, who was a little awed by the turbans and gowns and beards; Behzad himself sat with the Pakistanis. They directed the driver to an unexpectedly pleasant residential street. But they couldn't find the books they wanted to give me, and so we went on, not to the college but to an administrative building opposite the college.

And there, in the entrance, we were checked by authority: a middle- aged man, dressed like the students, but with a black woolen cap instead of a turban. He was not as easily satisfied as the students had been by Behzad's explanation. He was, in fact, full of suspicion.

"He is from America?"

Behzad and the students, all now committed to their story, said, "But he's not American."

The man in the woolen cap said, "He doesn't have to talk to students. He can talk to me. I speak English."

He too was from Pakistan. He was thin, with the pinched face of Mr. Jinnah, the founder of that state. His cheeks were sunken, his lips parched and whitish from his fast.

He said, "Here we publish books and magazines. They will give you all the information you require."

He spoke in Persian or Urdu to one of the students, and the student went off and came back with a magazine. It was The Message of Peace, Vol. I, no. 1.

So this was where they churned it out, the rage about the devils of the Western democracies, the hagiographies of the Shia Imams. This was where they read Schumacher and Toynbee and used their words—about technology and ecology—to lash the West.

I said to the man with the woolen cap, "But I know your magazine."

He was thrown off balance. He looked disbelieving.

"I've been reading Vol. I, no. 2. The one with the article about Islamic urban planning."

He didn't seem to understand.

"I bought it in Tehran."

Grimly, he beckoned us in. And we went up to his office after taking off our shoes. The terrazzo steps were wide, the corridors were wide; the rooms were spacious, with carpet tiling.

The man in the woolen cap, the director, as I now took him to be, sat behind his new steel desk. One of the students sat on his left. Behzad and I and the other student sat in a line on chairs against the far wall, facing the desk. And, as formally as we were seated, we began.

The student on the director's left said that Islam was the only thing that made humans human. He spoke with tenderness and conviction, and to understand what he meant it was necessary to try to understand how, for him, a world without the Prophet and revelation would be a world of chaos.

The director picked at his nose, and seemed to approve. On his desk there were rubber stamps, a new globe, a stapler, a telephone of new design. On the shelves there were box files, the Oxford English Dictionary, and a Persian-English dictionary.

There were 14,000 theological students in Qom, they told me. (And yet, arriving at the worst time of the day, we had found the streets empty.) The shortest period of study was six years.

"Six years!"

The director smiled at my exclamation. "Six is nothing. Fifteen, twenty, thirty years some people can study for."

What did they study in all that time? This wasn't a place of research and new learning. They were men of faith. What was there in the subject that called for so much study? Well, there was Arabic itself; there was grammar in all its branches; there was logic and rhetoric; there was jurisprudence, Islamic jurisprudence being one course of study and the principles of jurisprudence being another; there was Islamic philosophy; there were the Islamic sciences—biographies and genealogies of the Prophet and his close companions, as well as "correlations" and traditions.

I had expected something more casual, more personal: the teacher a holy man, the student a disciple. I hadn't expected this organization of learning or this hint of classical methods. I began to understand that the years of study were necessary. Faith still absolutely bounded the world here. And, as in medieval Europe, there was no end to theological scholarship.

One of the great teachers at Qom, a man who still lectured and led prayers five times a day, had produced (or produced materials for) a twenty-five-volume commentary on a well-known work about the Shia idea of the Imam. Seven of those volumes had been published. A whole corps of scholars—no doubt collating their lecture notes: the medieval method of book-transmission—were at work on the remaining eighteen. Khomeini himself, famous for his lectures on jurisprudence and Islamic philosophy, had produced eighteen volumes on various topics.

That ordered life of prayer and lecture, commentary and reinterpretation, had almost perished toward the end of the Shah's time. Khomeini had been banished; the security forces had occupied Qom; and even the Pakistani students had been harassed by the secret police.

The student sitting on the director's left said, his voice falling, "If there had been no revolution here, Islam would have been wiped out."

Both the students came from priestly families in country towns in the Punjab, and had always known that they were meant to be mullahs. They were doing only eight years in Qom. They were taking the two-year Arabic course, with logic and rhetoric (rhetoric being no more than the classical way of laying out an argument); but they weren't doing literature. History was no part of their study, but they were free to read it privately. It was for Islamic philosophy that they had come to Qom. In no other university was the subject gone into so thoroughly; and their attendance at Qom, Khomeini's place, and Marashi's, and Shariatmadari's (all great teaching ayatollahs), would make them respected among Shias when they got back to Pakistan.

The student on Behzad's left said, in Behzad's translation, "I compare this place to Berkeley or Yale."

I said to Behzad, "That's a strange thing for him to say."

Behzad said, "He didn't say Berkeley and Yale. I said it, to make it clearer to you."

I tried to find out, as we left the room, about the fees and expenses of students. But I couldn't get a straight reply; and it was Behzad who told me directly, with an indication that I was to press no further, that it was the religious foundation at Qom that paid for the students, however long they stayed.

In a room across the wide corridor a calligrapher was at work, writing out a Koran. He was in his forties, in trousers and shirt, and he was sitting at a sloping desk. His hand was steady, unfree, without swash or elegance; but he was pleased to let us watch him plod on, dipping his broad-ribbed pen in the black ink. His face bore the marks of old stress; but he was at peace now, doing his newfound scribe's work in his safe, modern cell.

The director showed photographs of a meeting of Moslem university heads that had taken place in Qom two years before. And again, though it oughtn't to have been surprising, it was: this evidence of the existence of the subworld, or the parallel world, of medieval learning in its Islamic guise, still intact in the late twentieth century. The rector of Al Azhar University in Cairo, the director said, had been so impressed by what he had seen in Qom that he had declared that Qom students would be accepted without any downgrading by Al Azhar.

We walked down the steps. Against one wall there were stacks of the center's publications—not only The Message of Peace but also two new paperback books in Persian. One was an account of the Prophet's daughter, Fatima, who had married the Prophet's cousin, Ali, the Shia hero; this book was called The Woman of Islam. The other book or booklet, with a sepia-colored cover, was written, the director said, by an Iranian who had spent an apparently shattering year in England. This book was called The West Is Sick.

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