Summer School: Religion and Contemporary Iran

Dr Hanlie Booysen attended summer School hosted by the University of Religions and Denominations in Iran.


"In August, I attended a Summer School hosted by the University of Religions and Denominations in Iran. Landing at Imam Khomeini International Airport, female passengers not already wearing hijab transformed their appearances in a flurry of activity. Expressions of piety, identity, grace, or at a minimum cultural compliance, produced a colourful variety of headscarves, which transformed female passengers to embody a reality different from the Western norm. This was the beginning of an intellectually, culturally, and culinary rich experience, which I was lucky to share with participants from Bangladesh, Turkey, China, France, Germany, Malaysia, Palestine, Iraq, Sudan, and Kashmir.

The program started in Qum, on the host university’s campus. This ancient city is at the core of both Shia Islam and revolutionary Iran. Historic seminaries and a shrine for the seventh Imam’s daughter place Qum on the map for Islamic studies and pilgrimage, while Imam Khomeini’s presence in Qum before his exile in Najaf, Iraq, certifies its political weight. Here the dress code was predominantly pious, with women donning the chador, and males wearing long coats and trousers with intricately folded turbans. And it is not religious hierarchy, but lineage to the Prophet Muhammad that determines whether religious scholars wear a black as opposed to white turban.

The centrality of the family of the Prophet Muhammed to Shia Islam was brought to life by Eid al-Ghadir. This national holiday in Iran celebrates what Shia consider as the Prophet Muhammed’s appointment of Imam Ali as his successor, as opposed to the first three successors supported by Sunni Muslims. The perceived injustice that was done to Ali, his martyrdom and that of his son Hussein, as well as the Shia’s ongoing minority-status globally, and the “Iraqi imposed” war on Iran, are interlaced to deliver an official Iranian identity. And just as I was about to get my head around the centrality of victimisation to Iran’s public discourse, a group of young, educated, middle-class youth confidently proclaimed that their identity rests on Iranian history dating back to Darius the Great and the Persian language.

Highlights included the lectures on Shia Islam in Qum, visiting a synagogue in Esfahan, walking into a seminary in Shiraz that delivered an impromptu audience with the resident Ayatollah, witnessing a rather physical Sufi ceremony in Tehran, and drinking fresh carrot-juice with vanilla ice-cream as often as possible!

I am very grateful for the support of the School and that of the Religious Studies programme!"