Faith & Reason: Ayatollah almost gets checkmate in one

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When a group of Christian and Muslim scholars met in Iran recently, the opening question showed how far apart they were. But the conversation soon showed up some common concerns

ONE OF the abiding illusions of Western popular thought is that, given time, the world will converge on our form of market society, or market economy, and share its values. Other cultures are to be seen as stages on the path to minor variants of our secular pluralism, much as Victorian anthropologists viewed the "primitive" societies that they studied. John Gray in his book False Dawn traces this view to the Enlightenment belief "that all civilised people have the same basic values and want the same things"; beyond that is "barbarism".

Iran is perhaps the most difficult to fit into this Western myth. Here was the archetypal muscular "modernising" society under the Shah, complete with wide motorways, Western intelligence agencies, firmly entrenched arms dealers and a spectacularly small and rich ruling elite. But modernising capitalism did not collapse before Marxism (one descendant of the Enlightenment handing over to another) or to any other of its offspring, but to Islamic revolution.

Some 20 years on, the headscarves were still dutifully going on in the plane as we came into land at Tehran. But the fact that the Organisation of Islamic Culture and Communications, an establishment body, was hosting six of us brought together by the Centre for the Study of Islam at Selly Oak in Birmingham, was some measure that things were opening up. President Khatami had been elected in 1997, bringing a period of political change. This change could not adequately be described as "liberalising" or "modernising" though; it remained predominantly in a Muslim idiom and it was subtle.

We started with tea at Muttahari College next to the Majlis parliament. A twinkling, bespectacled Ayatollah Kashani, Friday preacher at Tehran's central mosque and a member of the powerful Council of Guardians, greeted us warmly and immediately told us what was on his mind. It was whether we had any views about the nature of the thousand year's reign on earth that Jesus and the Mahdi would inaugurate when they returned. He was writing a book on the topic and had surprisingly discussed this with Cardinal Ratzinger - or Rock- Singer as the interpreter called him to great confusion - at the Vatican. This may have been to a Muslim the theological equivalent of pawn to king's four in chess but to Christians - for whom the nature of the Second Coming is not the subject of regular debate - it almost proved checkmate in one. It spoke of the gap between the agendas of the two cultures.

Play recommenced the next day with a formal opening ceremony of a Christian- Muslim seminar on social justice and poverty from a scriptural perspective. The Anglican bishop Iraj Mottahedeh read out a message from the Archbishop of Canterbury before a large audience that included leaders of all the religious minorities, Protestant, Armenian, Jewish and Zoroastrian. Several of those present and their churches had suffered greatly in the early years of the revolution.

Yet the relationship between Christianity and Islam in Iran was ambiguous. The 200,000-strong Armenian community had been allowed to retain a vibrant ethnic identity, based on their preponderantly Orthodox Christian belief. The Iranians felt that they had achieved an unusual degree of integration.

In our own dialogue there were frustrations built into the process of bringing together the intellectual tradition of the Muslim religious seminaries and that of Western academic theology. The deductive method of the Muslim thinkers - deriving all arguments from Muslim sacred texts and first principles - required the methods of medieval disputation to rebut. Social, economic and political issues did not earn the same degree of scrutiny from the ayatollahs as they do from Western Christian theologians; they left such matters to economic "planners".

Following an admission from the Christian participants that a range of views was represented on our side, the leading representatives of Shiite Islam, Ayatollah Muhammad Khamenei and Ayatollah Muhammad Hadi Marefat, made it clear that not everyone on the Iranian side agreed with each other either. Nowhere was this more clear than on the issue of the role of women. All women present - and there were fewer than 10 - wore regulation black, a full dress covering the ankles, in contrast to the more relaxed style visible on the street, with headscarves worn well back.

The Muslim women were particularly interested in the behaviour of Jesus towards women as related in the Christian scriptures, though none of them spoke until after a paper on Catholic Social Teaching which described the evolution in papal thinking about the gender issue - despite Pope John Paul II's hard line against the ordination of women, he has over the last 10 years laid increasing stress on the dignity and equality of women. The frustration of one or two of them with contemporary Iranian society was evident. It may well be that Iranian women will represent the most effective pressure for change in Iranian Shiite Islam. As we gained height over Tehran - Lufthansa thoughtfully avoids Iraqi airspace - there was not a headscarf to be seen.

Ian Linden is Director of the Catholic Institute for International Relations