tehranbureau An independent source of news on Iran and the Iranian diaspora

Dispatch | A Faith of Their Own: Islam and Iranian Youth


04 Dec 2012 23:17Comments
files_blogSystem_blogs_nazari__196[w730xhmresizeByMaxSize].jpg "To claim that we should live exactly the way it was so many years ago is inconceivable."

[ dispatch ] After the victory of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini oversaw the creation of a new system of governance based on a traditional reading of Islam and Islamic law -- sharia. From the institution of compulsory hejab to the absolute prohibition of alcoholic beverages, from crackdowns on pop music and dancing to severe restrictions on the conduct of unmarried couples, Iranians lost many of the personal freedoms that are taken for granted in the West.

Although the wave of political reforms in the wake of Mohammad Khatami's successful presidential campaign in 1997 left many strict religious edicts woven into the fabric of social interactions, many Iranians, especially among the younger generations, were encouraged to pursue greater freedoms, at least in the private realm. That movement enraged the conservatives who have dominated the country's ruling system since shortly after the Revolution. They still claim that the eight years of Khatami's presidency lead to the "Westoxication" and religious aversion of the youth. On the other hand, critics of the ruling system claim that its strict imposition of theocracy is what has lead to young Iranians' hatred of religion.

As a result, more than three decades later, religion has largely eroded in the lives of young educated Iranians. But certain aspects of faith continue to hold sway.

"I was never deeply religious, although in my adolescence I held traditional religious tendencies," says Morteza, a 29-year-old student at the Science and Research Branch of Tehran's Islamic Azad University. "During high school and college, I delved into enlightened religious thoughts, slowly broke with traditional religion, and ended with a reading of religion in accord with modernity."

Religious interpretations harmonious with modernity were popularized by intellectuals who, for the most part, staunchly supported incorporating religion into politics after the Revolution -- men such as Abdolkarim Soroush, Saeed Hajjarian, Mohsen Kadivar, and Mohammad Mojtahedeh Shabestari. Most were forced out of positions of influence following Khomeini's death in 1989.

Morteza says that enlightened religious thought left a positive impression on him. "Perhaps my disagreement with theocracy pushed me toward finding new interpretations of Islam during that period. Interpretations that didn't corroborate the regime's ideology."

But the role of "religion in my life melted away day by day," he says. And this process affected his psyche. "I was always worried by this awareness, and still am. I am frightened of finding a world devoid of a sacred dominion, frightened by a world devoid of meaning. Perhaps all that is left for me of religion is this fear that there is no sacred dominion there, and the wish that indeed there existed a hand behind the world.

"Once in a while, I converse with something that's in my being, which sometimes I address as God. Often I interrogate it and admonish it, and often curse it."

Among other religious responsibilities, every Muslim must pray five times each day and fast from dawn to sunset during the sacred month of Ramadan. Morteza, who works for his father's meat importing company, says that he hardly carries out his religious duties anymore. "Sometimes I perform some of the rituals in fear of my connection fading even further."

Near the heart of Tehran, next to a gas station, a coffee house offers a warm enclave for young people to sit on wood benches, order a coffee, and converse for hours. Sassan, a very tall young man, says, "I'm religious just by my own definitions, not the regime's. For example, I find mourning ceremonies great for purging the mind, but in reality, they're not that different from typical [rave] concerts."

During Muharram -- one of the four sacred months of the Islamic calendar, extending in 2012 from November 15 to December 13 -- Shiites take to mosques and streets to mourn the death of Hossein, the third Shia Imam, along with 72 of his comrades in a battle against the army of the seventh-century caliph Yazid. The major mourning events take place on the Day of Ashura, which fell on November 25 this year.

Sassan confesses that for many, participation in the Ashura ceremonies is not due to religious tendencies. "It's rumored that these days Imam Hossein has garnered many alcoholic mourners too. If alcoholics mourn for Imam Hossein, it is not a sign of their attachment to the Imam, it's a sign that our people still haven't figured out their relationships with themselves!"

Under Iranian law, drinking alcohol is haram (religiously prohibited) with a mandatory punishment of 80 lashes for any violation. During Muharram, alcohol bootleggers, called saghis, tend to restrict their sales or even halt them entirely, either from fear of the government or perhaps out of religious respect.

Sassan says, "We have a saying that if you shed tears the weight of a fly's wing [for Hossein], all your sins will be forgiven. Well, what does that tell you? It says that you can get back to sinning after a few tears with no fears."

He continues, "Some things from religion penetrates people's flesh and bones. I've seen many who have no religious tendencies, but religious beliefs have very clearly affected them. For example, unaware to themselves, they follow religious edicts with regards to sexual relationships with the opposite gender."

Yet he says, "Religion has a number of attractive aspects which are not necessarily related to religion itself."

For example?

"Like mass worship, it's pleasurable. But that's because anything done together is pleasurable."

For young people, one of religion's most challenging aspects is the way it complicates sexual relationships. That's certainly how Niloofar, a 24-year-old law student, sees it. She wears a full length hejab and considers herself religious, but acknowledges having a boyfriend.

"With respect to me, my ideas don't connect with religion's," she says, trying to explain the contradiction. "My reasons for accepting 'having a boyfriend' is unrelated to religion. See, I am not a Hezbollahi [a derogatory label denoting someone mindlessly religious]. But I am not without religious tendencies either. But before anything else, ethics is foremost for me.

"See, I have my own ideas about having a relationship with one of the opposite sex, and being 'legitimate' or 'illegitimate' to each other," she continues. "I have my own idea as to what is meant by two people being 'legitimate' to each other."

Unrelated males and females are considered "illegitimate" companions. Looking at someone of the opposite sex with lust, or the intent to incite it, is seen as sinful; establishing a sexual relationship is a crime. According to the law, unrelated men and women are allowed to touch each other only when a religious agreement binds them.

But, says Niloofar, "No one can prove that anything special takes place when a binding agreement is executed."

Then what's the purpose of the agreement?

"What occurs has more to do with the maintenance of general social order.... As they say, it is to keep rocks staying atop one another" -- in other words, to avoid a collapse.

She says that Mohammad Mohaghegh Damad, her professor of law at Beheshti University, stated in his lectures that when a man and a woman consent to sleep together then they are "legitimate" to one another.

According to that view, I observe, it would seem that all love affairs are legitimate from the Islamic perspective. Smiling, she says, "Exactly, that was his point."

Solmaz, in her mid-20s, also dresses in a relatively conservative fashion. I ask her if she prays. "Not regularly, but yes, I believe in it," she says. "In reality, laziness causes me not to pray on time. I do pray, but sometimes, well, it ends up missed then."

A prayer is "missed" if one is not performed during any of the five prescribed periods: between dawn and sunrise, noon and late afternoon, late afternoon and sunset, sunset to end of dusk, and nightfall to midnight. Prayers can be performed after the set periods, but they do not bring as much heavenly forgiveness and largess.

I ask Solmaz to address the effect of religion at a more personal level. Has she ever felt that it has saved her from some emotional crisis, or brought her a special calmness?

"I have had some religious experiences, quite delightful, perhaps numbering fewer than the fingers on one hand. But they enthralled me. My mind's stuck on them. I can't deny them, or ignore them," she replies.

How about her feelings during worship?

"See, there are experiences of some presence that you feel at some instances during worship. You feel the being of your heart. You don't expect me to say that one day I prayed during worship that God would cure my paralyzed grandmother and suddenly she got up and walked? No!

"There are instances in which you get connected. A relationship forms. You pray for months or years, or you're reciting your thanks, but you get a connection only once in a while." She echoes her earlier statement, "Such a feeling is not forgettable."

I ask her if there's ever been a time when she had lost her religious belief. "No," she replies. Then adds, "Maybe there was a period that I was not engaged with it. Or I had fundamental questions, but losing it? No."

Solmaz say that religion has never hindered her. "The Islam I know is not demanding."

But is this the view that the Islamic Republic demands?

"Khomeini divided Islam into two types, 'pure Mohammedan Islam' and 'American Islam.' This division speaks to the notion that hagh [truth, justice, equality] is constant. Renaming 'pure Islam' as 'pure Mohammedan Islam' is meant to emphasize hagh. The masks of 'pure Islam' and 'inauthentic Islam' have changed often to take advantage of the spirit of the time and to trick the simpletons."

Solmaz says that she doesn't believe in such classifications. "I don't accept these notions at all. No way. None of them. They're bogus."


"What does 'pure Mohammedan Islam' basically mean? Really, what does it mean? A notion gets its meaning in a specific locale and the moment's social and cultural weave, plus a thousand and one other things. It doesn't take shape in a vacuum. So humanity's take on Islam was frozen for all times and it is has now passed into our hands and yours, fixed."

So what exactly is her view of "pure Mohammedan Islam," as espoused by the father of the Islamic Revolution?

"You know what it means to have pure Mohammedan Islam? It means to also accept savagery at that level. As you can see, the political leaders of Iran embrace such savagery, for example, by allowing stoning."

Death by stoning is the punishment mandated for adultery in the Islamic Republic. Solmaz asks, "Who can acquiesce to carry out such a decree today? It is a mismatched patch on our times. It's not justifiable.

"Everything gets defined by the weave of its time, place, and context, and those change. To claim that we should live exactly the way it was so many years ago is inconceivable.

"Political rulers choose their views, but they are laying waste to the whole religion for the sake of their politics," she says in conclusion.

Photo credit: Amin Nazari via akkasee.com.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

@TehranBureau | TB on Facebook

SHAREtwitterfacebookSTUMBLEUPONbalatarin reddit digg del.icio.us
blog comments powered by Disqus

In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.