The Shia seminary town of Qom, seventy-five miles south of Tehran, is bleak and set in semi-desert, with a dried-up river going through it. It has few orchards; it is not renowned for any fruit or pickle. Most of the vegetables you find here have traveled long distances. The townspeople produce a sickly caramel, sometimes embedded with shards of pistachio, called sohan. To escape the soporific effects of the heat the seminarians work in subterranean libraries. In the case of bachelor scholars, widows and impoverished women attend to their physical needs. Some people have likened Qom to Oxford or Cambridge, for the seminarians wear black gowns and inhabit cells inside brick-built colleges that look in on themselves. There, the resemblance ends. Never in English history were the universities as mighty as the seminaries of Qom are today.
Qom rose to prominence as a modern seminary town after Britain seized what is now Iraq from the Ottomans at the end of World War I. When the clerics of Najaf, an important Shia shrine town in southern Iraq, incited revolt against the British, they were expelled; some of these clerics ended up in Qom, which a prominent ayatollah was reviving as a center of religious learning. Qom’s development was still not assured; from 1925, the Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, regarded Islam in general and clerics in particular as hindrances to his efforts to modernize Iran. He introduced military service for some clerics and banned all but the senior clergy from wearing the traditional gown and turban. He came to Qom to horsewhip a senior ayatollah who had criticized the Queen’s immodest mode of dress.
Clerical resentment of the monarchy increased under Reza’s son, Mohammad Reza, but the theologians of Qom were divided on whether Islam required that they actively oppose tyranny or concentrate on their primary duty: studying Islamic law and transmitting it to believers. In the 1960s, the activists came under the influence of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini; and in 1979, after the Shah fled and Khomeini returned from exile to set up the modern world’s only clerical state, Tehran was its capital but Qom was its heart.
Since then, Qom has been booming. The clerical population has risen from around 25,000 to more than 45,000, and the nonclerical population has more than tripled, to about 700,000. It is very hard to calculate the vast sums of money that flow, in the forms of alms and Islamic taxes, to Qom’s ten senior ayatollahs—called “Objects of Emulation” because their fellow clerics have pronounced them qualified to act as models whose behavior and rulings laymen and lesser clerics can follow. (Every believer is free to choose the “Object of Emulation” he or she admires most, whether they are inside or outside Iran.) These donations, along with state help for favored institutions, have pushed up the number of seminary schools in Qom to fifty-odd, and the number of research institutes and libraries to around 250. These institutions produce hundreds of books and journals…
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