Among the Mullahs

In Qom, the site of Iran’s secret uranium-enrichment facility, the Islamic Revolution remains as strong as ever.
Yannis Kontos/Polaris

Before last fall—when the Iranian government revealed it had hollowed out a nearby mountain, and was planning to enrich uranium there—the most prominent site in Iran’s Qom province was the Shrine of Fatima al-Masumeh. Minutely tiled in blue and green, with mirrored tessellations that make it sparkle in the night, the shrine contains the body of the sister of one of the 12 revered imams of Shiite Islam. Along with the nearby Feyzieh madrassa, the most distinguished center of Shiite learning in the world, the Masumeh shrine has attracted to Qom a population pleased with clerical rule, and made it Iran’s most religious city and the seat of the mullahs’ power. That’s why Qom seemed like an utterly predictable location for the nuclear project when the revelation came in September, during my visit there.

In the protests this summer following Iran’s presidential election—in which the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, claimed a much-disputed victory over the reformist candidate, Mir-Hossein Moussavi—Tehran became the obsession of the Twitterverse: no one could be sure what was happening on the streets, but stray messages and videos escaped here and there, and amounted, darkly, to rumors of revolution. But Qom responded somewhat differently. This was the Iran that remained not only un-Twittered but without any desire to Twitter, that was content with things as they were already, and perhaps as they were quite a long time before that, too.

Iranians I met in Tehran had suppressed snickers when I told them my itinerary included several days among the mullahs. It was as if a Pakistani had come to the United States and announced that he would spend most of his trip in Salt Lake City and Tulsa, to see the Tabernacle and Oral Roberts University. Except that in Iran, the religious leaders still hold unquestioned authority. And in Qom, the original Islamic Revolution—the one that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power in 1979—remains robust and popular.

The day that I visited the Masumeh shrine, about a dozen people were standing in front of it, looking up at a blue backlit sign, about the size of a truly boss home-theater screen, displaying 14 lines of tightly printed Arabic. Pilgrims usually say the lines before entering, even if, like most Iranians, they speak very little Arabic. I fumbled the words—a long and repetitive series of blessings upon Muhammad, his prophetic predecessors, and his descendants—but the rest of the crowd intoned each syllable just right, with the precision of diamond cutters. Because Qom is a pilgrimage site, it attracts visitors from many parts of the Shiite world. In the right, or maybe wrong, light I can look vaguely Afghan, so the assumption of many fellow pilgrims was that I had come from central Afghanistan to visit Masumeh.

Inside, the shrine is immaculate. The body of Masumeh lies in a cubic metal cage near the complex’s center. Shia converge on it from all sides to pay homage to someone considerably more important, in their view, than Mir-Hossein Moussavi, who is just the latest in a string of worldly fads. Once the pilgrims have ritually cleansed and incanted, they circle the cage counterclockwise, reaching over each other to feel its metal lattice and lunging forward to let their lips linger on the Arabic lettering at its corners. This holy mosh pit sucked me toward Masumeh soon after I entered and, after I grazed the cube’s corner with my hand, spewed me out into a tranquil open prayer area.

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