Whither Islam in Iran 

"Let the People of the Book know that they have no control over the grace of God;
that grace is in his hands alone, and that he vouchsafes it to whom he will.
God’s grace is infinite.” Qur’an 57:29, trans. n. J. Dawood.

“Strive always after ready bliss; for Adam, when by fortune left,
Abandoned the abode of Peace, and of the garden’s joy was reft.
Drink one full cup or two, and then from life’s bright banquet turn aside
Check thou, to wit, too eager hope that happiness may ever bide.”
Hafez, Divan, 15, trans. herman Bickwell.

I brought my copy of the Qur’an to Iran, and managed to read it in its entirety during the two weeks that I was there, in late April and early May, 2009. The Divan of Hafez I purchased in the home town of Hafez, sultry Shiraz in southern Iran. It is difficult to understand Iran fully without coming to the realization that some Iranians love the Qur’an most of all; some love Hafez most of all; and many Iranians love both of these books.

Our guide, Mana, was an Iranian that loved Hafez, but who could do without the Qur’an. Mana was thoroughly secular. She chafed under Islamic dress restrictions, although she was clear just how far she could push them. “There are more Iranians like me every day,” Mana an- nounced brightly, one of the first things that she told us.

She had been a graduate student, undoubtedly a brilliant one, who had mastered the study of what she had loved, pre-Islamic Iranian culture. But, for her, the seventh-century Arabs who had brought Islam to Iran were just unfortunate foreign invaders. When asked about Islam, her answers were short and concise; when she was asked about Persian culture, her answers were passionate and effusive.

A few days into our stay in Iran, the counterpoint to Mana showed up. Elham was a friend of one of us 24 Americans on this expedition. Elham was very traditionally muslim, in a typical Iranian way. She wore the chador, which exposed her face, but covered the rest of her body in a swath of black. On festive occasions, a colorful cloth peeked out from her chador and covered her throat.

When Elham first saw Mana, she told her, “You are not dressed right.” Mana ignored her. Elham accompanied us on some of our bus expeditions. When I asked Elham about Shiite muslim holidays, she answered, but she was much more interested in asking me about English  usage. my dog’s name was “Sojourner,” I admitted at one point. “So what does the word ‘sojourner’ mean?” She asked.

Although Mana and Elham found it a challenge to encounter each other, each in their own way was extraordinarily hospitable to us Americans, and that was our experience all over Iran.

My sense was that their hospitality was not just a result of Iranian culture, although indeed hospitality is engrained in Iranian culture. Instead, their hospitality, and that of other Iranians we met, was based on a genuine interest in America and Americans, not based on a desire to make the past thirty years of difficult relations to vanish (there are real issues that divide our countries), but rather based on the knowledge that such issues are so much easier to work with when there is genuine friendship and dialogue between our two countries, not just at the level of leadership, but also at the level of people-to-people relationships.

As I was about to board our tour bus in Tehran, an elderly Iranian man with virtually no English stopped me. “French?” he guessed. Since there are virtually no Americans in Iran now, his guess was a good one. “No, we are American,” I replied. “American? I am so happy!” he stated with a huge smile. May further moves toward peace and reconciliation, toward further dialogue and better understanding of our two beautiful countries and cultures, bring us much more happiness!

Steve Angell, Leatherock Professor of Quaker Studies
Earlham Shool of Religion, Richmond, IN 47374