Currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand (06/12/2013) - 31200km cycled

4 Mar 2013

Religion in Iran

Posted by Will

I’ve spent many nights in Iran on the floor of the village mosque or prayer room.  There are many advantages to sleeping in a mosque: soft carpets, a boiler and a water supply.  There are disadvantages too, the chief one being woken at 5am by morning prayers.  No one ever objects to my presence though.  In fact, the locals encourage me to stay there and the man in charge often brings tea, biscuits and blankets to help me to sleep.  So long as I don’t do something stupid like sleep next to the wall closest to Mecca (people towards me) or set up camp in the women’s section (all signs are in Farsi), everyone prays happily around my sleeping bag in the true spirit of Islam.

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Iran, or more accurately the Islamic Republic of Iran, is a country where the majority are Shia Muslims (as opposed to Sunni).  Like all Muslims, Shias believe in one God and that Mohammad was the final prophet.  Different from Sunnis though, they believe in the power of twelve Imams who were the direct descendents of Mohammad.  Ali was the first Imam and the husband of Mohammad’s daughter (who also very conveniently wrote that ‘the responsibility of an Islamic government is to care for the wellbeing and safety of tourists’ – always up my sleeve if I ever get into any trouble!).  Down the family tree the Imams go until Mahdi, the twelth Imam, who mysteriously disappeared as a child.  Most Shias believe that one day Mahdi will return to reign over the earth rewarding those who have been good and punishing those who haven’t.

The twelve Imams are a very important in Iran, especially the third, Imam Hossein, and the eighth, Imam Reza.  The former was brutally killed in the desert and so is considered a martyr for Islam while the latter travelled to the far-flung town of Mashhad to spread the word.  The tombs of these two men are the 3rd most important place for Shia Muslims (after Mecca and Medina).  Millions of pilgrims make their way to Mashhad every year to pay hommage and the Imam Reza endowment is the third wealthiest institution in all of Iran (after the national oil company and the revolutionary guards) due to the sheer volume of donations.  As anyone who has had to deal with bureaucracy in Iran will know, Iran has a ridiculous amount of public holidays which is mainly because all the Imams are worthy of a day off.

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Religious tolerance is more evident in Iran than Westerners think yet still it is limited.  Armenians are able to practise Christianity relatively freely (there’s a huge church in the middle of Esfahan and home-made wine in Armenian homes is legal) and my claim to be Christian is almost always met with smiles (for some reason saying Catholic is met with even more vigorous nodding).  The Sunni minority in Iran, the Kurdish and Baluchi parts, has it tough though.  Also, in most circles it would be social and economic suicide to declare yourself an atheist.  Whenever I mention religion is on the slide in Britain people tut, shake their heads and offer commiserations.  Undoubtedly, life without God is incomplete in the opinion of most Iranians.

That is not to say that most Iranians endorse the Islamic laws put in place after the revolution in 1979.  There is a difference between thinking that people ought to believe in God and thinking that a particular interpretation of religion should be publicly enforced.  The majority of young people I’ve met are frustrated with the separation of girls and boys.  There are jokes about the hijab and many women only fractionally cover their hair.  There are just as many sexually active unmarried people here as anywhere else and a large number drink alcohol regularly.  Mullahs are mocked as religious madmen and government images of teary worshippers are laughed at for as long as it takes to flick the channel over to MTV.  A person’s opinion tends to fluctuate depending on his/her age and place of residence.  In general, younger people and city people are less loyal to the religious rules that govern them.

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How has all this affected me as a bicycle tourist?  Government funding for mosques, prayer houses, and emamzadehs (religious tombs) has certainly gone a long way towards providing for my accommodation every night.  Mosques are good places to relax for a few hours too with a warm and cosy atmosphere.  At least a few sentences of every blog post written on this website were formulated in a mosque: call it divine inspiration.  The never-ending tide of kindness flowing out of most Iranians is no doubt largely due to their adherance to Islam.  Is it a coincidence that the three most consistently welcoming countries on my trip so far (Turkey, Iraq Kurdistan and Iran) are all Muslim countries?  I’m not ready to answer that yet – there are so many factors involved – but I’m starting to swing towards a verdict.  On the flip side I can’t think of any way in which religion has affected me badly.  I prefer being able to interact freely with girls and like drinking alcohol too.  So do a lot of young Iranians apparently.  A lifetime of restrictions must get tiring but for a traveller it’s quite bearable.

I used to feel uptight about entering a mosque because I thought doing so would inevitably lead to some embarassing cultural misunderstanding.  Now, I’ve learnt these religious places are for everybody.  Religion is a huge part of life in Iran but it’s far less uptight than I had imagined.  Most Iranians relax.  If you don’t take your shoes off outside the mosque someone will tap you on the shoulder with a smile and remind you.  They won’t ever bark religious doctrine in your face.  No one has tried to convert me either.  Religion in Iran amongst ordinary people is nothing to be worried about.

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3 Comments already on “Religion in Iran”
  1. 3:05 pmpermalink
    04 Mar 2013

    Charles

    Viral diplomacy. The way forward. Bravo Will. xc

  2. 7:49 pmpermalink
    05 Mar 2013

    "Khosh" girl

    Brilliant William, Although you are English man, you describe Muslem people fantastic without any west back mind! I am pleasured you like Iran and have good time in it.
    wish you have safe journey.
    xxXXxx

  3. 9:41 pmpermalink
    29 Mar 2013

    Robin

    Will, a brilliant piece and validation, not that one was needed, for travel. Am so pleased you are so clearly having an amazing time though we miss you – in Polz and Quod too. VB.