On a recent Thursday, the marble-paved courtyards of Qom's 400-year-old Hazrat-e Masumeh shrine were filled with family groups of Shiite pilgrims from different communities. Many were Iranians, but I also heard snatches of Arabic amid the Farsi and saw faces from throughout central Asia and saris from the Indian subcontinent.
Like nearly all the women here, I was wrapped in an all-encompassing black chador. (It's hard to keep that massive, single piece of cloth from slithering to the ground. I marveled at the young mothers who managed theirs while pushing strollers or keeping restive toddlers under control.)
A shrine official who learned that my husband and I were from America greeted us warmly and pressed small souvenirs into our hands. He said that as nonbelievers, we could not enter the shrine spaces but could look at - and yes, photograph - the stunning turquoise-tiled domes and minarets from the courtyards. Fifteen million pilgrims come to the shrine each year, he said.
All around the four-acre complex, busy arcades of shops cater to the pilgrim trade. (Qom's confectioners make a special gingery toffee of much deserved renown.) Shrine-related seminaries and religious high schools dotted throughout Qom serve 70,000 students. The most famous person to have studied and taught here was Ayatollah Khomeini, author of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.
All these reminders of an entrenched Islamic tradition stood in contrast to the aura of change we found a few hours later in Tehran, when we participated in an extraordinarily rich discussion - principally among Iranian scholars - on the relationship between Islam and democracy. Iranian-Canadian professor Forough Jahanbakhsh, the sole female presenter there, noted at one point that religious intellectuals in Iran have a good basis on which to address this topic, "because we have 25 years of experience of Islamic government here to reflect on."