Iran: The Modern Face of Islam

The Islamic revolution is today a spent force in Iran, and the Islamic Republic is a tired dictatorship facing pressures to change…. Iran more than any other society in the Muslim world is a place where fundamentals are under scrutiny and open to questioning and new thinking.

No other country in the Muslim world is so rife with intellectual fervor and cultural experimentation at all levels of society, and in no place in the Muslim world is modernity and its various cultural, political, and economic instruments examined as seriously and thoroughly as in Iran. The cultural dynamism of the country will also be a force that will define the Shia revival. The hundreds of thousands of Iranian pilgrims who travel to Iraq along the highway from Tehran to Najaf are also a conduit for ideas, investments, and broader social and economic ties. They visit shrines and clerics but also fill the bazaars of shrine cities, and many buy property in anticipation of a boom in pilgrimage and business. The outcome of debates in Iran will bear on the character of the Shia revival and are being influenced by forces that the changes in Iraq have unleashed.

In many regards Iran presents the modern face of Islam. Persian is now the third most popular language on the Internet (after English and Mandarin Chinese), where one can surf more than 80,000 Iranian blogs. Iranians are actively engaged in discussions about Western thought. There have been more translations of Immanuel Kant into Persian in the past decade than into any other language (and these have gone into multiple printings); one of them is by the current conservative speaker of the Iranian parliament. In some areas of mathematics and physics, such as string theory, Iranian research centers rank among the best in the world; and Iranian cinema has in recent years become a powerful force, with films such as Abbas Kiarostami’s existential drama A Taste of Cherry attracting global notice.

This cultural dynamism has even left its mark on the Iranian religious establishment. Since the Khomeini revolution, Shia centers of learning in Iran, especially in the city of Qom, have prospered. There are large new libraries in Mashad and Qom, each housing millions of books and manuscripts, electronically catalogued with searchable databases and the latest technology for retrieving and maintaining them. A visitor to the Library of the Shrine of Imam Reza in Mashad or the Ayatollah Marashi Library in Qom cannot fail to be impressed by the size of the collections, the scale of the services provided, and the care that has been given to infrastructure and the use of technology. The achievement is as much in furthering Shia studies by making rare manuscripts and archaic texts available to eager clerics and seminarians as it is in promoting library science by creating the means to manage such vast collections. Ancient manuscripts commingle with computer terminals and high-tech restoration and preservation labs. The vast libraries are full of turbaned seminarians, some buried in theological texts, others absorbed in managing the collections on their computer terminals.

OURCE: The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future, by Vali Nasr (W. W. Norton, 2006), pp. 212-214

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