Art by Parastou Forouhar
On February 29, Masih Alinejad, a correspondent for Radio Farda, released a video of a middle-aged man kissing and licking the Masumeh shrine in the holy city of Qom, the epicenter of Iran’s Covid-19 outbreak. The man was eager to champion his piety in defiance of health warnings, and he claimed that he was doing the public a favor by “taking all the corona for himself.” Because the Masumeh shrine is one of the most revered sites of worship in Iran, and a symbol of institutionalized Islam commonly associated with the clerical establishment, it’s notable that the man felt such an intense gravitation towards it, almost as if he was trying to make love to it. There are countless rituals throughout the Muslim world, like namaz and ziyarat, that are intended to display religious devotion, but the man chose to overlook them in favor of something deeply personal and visceral. He didn’t seem aware of the fact that his own idea of Islam might be different from the regime’s, and it felt like his primal instincts led him to display subservience towards state doctrine. What's even more disturbing is that he managed to garner the support of the crowd of worshippers behind him, who encouraged his action by chanting a salutation upon the Prophet: Allahumma salli ‘ala Muhammad wa Ali Muhammad.
Why would this man risk his health to express fervent loyalty towards a symbol of institutionalized Islam? We can assume that he doesn’t have the scientific knowledge to understand the consequences of contracting corona, but this explanation doesn’t afford us any insight into how the Islamic Republic has undermined science or how indelibly it’s warped Iranian culture. It also doesn’t tell us how the regime has managed to establish its ideals as the foundation of every person’s knowledge and identity. I sympathize with this man, because I never realized how deeply the Islamic Republic had influenced me until I came to the United States as an eleven-year-old boy and was shocked by the secular culture of this country, by the fact that religion was hardly discussed in my middle school science class. Only then did I take an interest in the origins of Islam and start thinking about how religion had developed over the centuries into such a fundamental part of Iranian society.
The first Islamic state was vastly different from modern-day Iran. Although the Quran refers to Adam as God’s Caliph, it is clear from the early years of Islam that the Caliphate was intended to be a secular position, and religion was considered separate from the political realm. After Muhammad’s death in 632, Abu Bakr, a close companion of the Prophet and his son-in-law, assumed leadership over the Ummah (the community of Muslims) in the city of Medina. His role as the chief judge and the community’s war leader was to manage the institutions that had been built to maintain an Islamic society. It was never to define Islamic practice or to discuss how Islam ought to be regarded by an individual. He respected the privacy of the Ummah and tried to provide its members with the resources to strengthen their personal faith. Because he restricted himself to the political realm, there was nothing to unite the ever-growing Ummah aside from the fact that they were disciples of the Prophet. This left the door open for various cultural interpretations of Islam, for how the Prophet would have handled particular theological disagreements. Religious scholars known as the Ulama began to intervene and answer some of the most pressing questions facing Muslim communities. How do we properly honor Allah? Can His will be determined through human reason or should it solely be received through revelation? Is the Quran uncreated and coeternal with Him? These concerns were similar to the theological debates that caused the Great Schism of 1054 in Christianity. The Eastern Orthodox church, which championed asceticism and a direct experience of God, accused Catholicism of debasing spirituality by considering it from a strictly mechanical and materialistic standpoint.
Throughout the centuries, different schools of Islamic thought provided different answers to these questions. Divinity became more and more of a public discussion, although certain branches of Islam, such as Sufism, continued to regard it as a deeply private matter that could never be fully comprehended by human beings. The more these various schools became rooted in the Muslim world, the more influential their legal and political judgments became. Qualified jurists began to employ their independent reasoning to issue rulings that defined the nature of divine law in a practice that became known as Ijtihad, and the ideals of Mujtahids (scholars who employed Ijtihad) came to dominate Islamic jurisprudence, particularly Shiism, the branch of Islam associated with Iran. Mujtahids who achieved the highest level of scholarship became known as Ayatollahs, and although Ayatollahs wielded significant power in determining divine law for the public, they engaged in a type of political quietism called Taqiyyah, and did not directly interfere in the governmental affairs of the Qajar dynasty in the 19th century and the Pahlavi dynasty in the 20th. The doctrine of Taqiyyah prevented Islam from becoming an overtly anthropomorphized political commodity, or at least it did until the emergence of Ayatollah Khomeini.
Khomeini was a radical, not only because of his fierce anti-imperialism, but because of his overwhelming desire to institute a ruthless and intrusive theology geared towards establishing his private conceptions of divinity as the foundation of society. The main goal of his doctrine, Velayat-e Faqih, was to unite his individual sovereignty with divine sovereignty, and to declare himself the most qualified Islamic jurist, the Supreme Leader whose ideals were infallible. In his monumental political treatise, Islamic Government, Khomeini wrote that “when a mujtahid who is just and learned stands up for the establishment and organization of the government, he will enjoy all the rights that were enjoyed by the Prophet.” This was a startling assertion and an extreme alteration of the way in which Shia Islam had been perceived since its founding in the 7th century CE, but Khomeini managed to cement this idea as an integral aspect of Iranian culture by framing the sociopolitical concerns of the country in the language of his theology. He told the Marxists that Allah values their proletarian solidarity, and he told the poor and the elderly that Allah wishes to grant them health and wellness and financial security. People were inclined to accept his views because they were ready to rid their country of centuries of Western exploitation, and because they already believed in Allah as the foundation of their lives. They didn’t have the wherewithal to analyze the distinction between Khomeini’s anthropomorphized conception of Allah and Allah in and of Himself, especially because Khomeini strategically blurred that distinction by advancing the idea that God could only be fathomed through human rationality. When Muslim scholars confronted Khomeini and accused him of propagating a fascistic theocracy, Khomeini brazenly asserted that the country ought to be ruled by a single jurist, rather than several qualified jurists, because that was the only way Iran could maintain a consistent conception of God and prevent “profane innovations” of Islamic law. As a result, he declared that it was the will of Allah for him to be regarded not as an interpreter of divine justice, but rather as divine justice, since his role as a Supreme Leader was to repudiate banal human values and champion the divine essences of individuals. Khomeini’s cult of personality became so central to the Islamic Republic that over the years people began to exaggerate his importance in human history and emulate his piety through peculiar demonstrations, such as licking and kissing the Masumeh shrine during the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic proved that Iranian authorities were incapable of handling corona from a health and wellness perspective, since every aspect of their knowledge had been distorted by the rhetoric of institutionalized religion.
The coronavirus was first detected in the holy city of Qom. Officials confirmed the first two deaths on February 19, and Iran’s health minister, Saeed Namaki, said that the outbreak likely stemmed from a merchant who frequently traveled between Qom and China. Soon after this admission, the regime began to downplay the severity of the virus. On February 24, Iran’s deputy health minister, Iraj Harirchi, discouraged citizens from taking the outbreak seriously by calling quarantining “an ancient practice.” He looked visibly discomforted throughout his entire speech, wiping sweat from his pallid face, adjusting his glasses, and struggling to stand behind the microphone, and the next day he acknowledged without any sense of irony that he was ill with corona. On February 26, Mohammed Saidi, a Friday Prayer leader and the Supreme Leader’s representative in Qom, argued that the Masumeh shrine (the same shrine that was licked and kissed three days later) should remain open during the pandemic because of its healing powers. Healing powers and other similar superstitions are aspects of Khomeinism that have been popularized by the mullahs, because they grant a sacred and supernatural quality to every monument that signifies the clerical establishment. By the middle of March, Iran became one of the worst-affected countries in the world; many top officials, clerics, and members of parliament became ill, and Ayatollah Hashem Bathayi Golpayegani, one of the members of the Assembly of Experts, died. Reports indicated that Golpayegani tried to cure himself using an “Islamic remedy,” which is something that many Ayatollahs have advocated. Islamic remedies are one of the most unfortunate consequences of Khomeinism, and their prevalence throughout Iran is an indication of the effects of dogmatic religion on science and medicine. Many of these remedies deviate from the established scientific norms that mullahs consider secular and Western, and the driving philosophy behind them is “healing, not curing” individuals through divine intervention. Ayatollah Tabrizian, the doyen of Islamic medicine and one of the most ridiculed clerics in the country, advocates the following nine precautionary measures against corona.
1. Do not refrigerate ready-to-serve meals.
2. Thoroughly comb your hair.
3. Consume copious amounts of brown sugar.
4. Eat more onions.
5. Eat more apples.
6. Use Imam Kazem’s medicine.
7. Use soghoot (a type of nasal spray)
8. Before bedtime, soak a cotton ball in violet leaf oil and insert it into your anus.
9. Burn wild rue.
I find number 8 to be the most interesting item on this list. Ayatollah Tabrizian has long extolled the virtues of violet leaf oil as something miraculous and life-enhancing that can cure cognitive disorders such as Down syndrome, and other maladies like rhinitis and sore throat. His mentioning of the anus also makes me believe that what he and the unidentified man who kissed the Masumeh shrine have in common is that they are unwittingly conflating carnal desire with religious fervor. Sexual repression is common in Iran; it’s an integral aspect of a nationwide policy called Garbzadeghi, which tries to prevent Western ideas like sexual freedom from polluting Iranian culture, so it’s not surprising that certain forms of sexual expression would manifest themselves in people’s everyday actions and conversations.
Many of Ayatollah Tabrizian’s followers have invented their own Islamic remedies. Clerics like Morteza Kohansal, a self-proclaimed Islamic doctor, have visited hospitals around the country to administer a “miracle potion” to Covid patients that he calls the “Prophet’s perfume.” There are videos of him removing patients’ masks and rubbing the perfume under their noses with his unsanitized fingers, claiming that the perfume will make them sneeze the virus out of their bodies. Certain scientists like Azim Akbarzadeh Khiyavi, professor of nanotechnology and biochemistry at the Pasteur Institute of Iran, claim that injecting bee venom into the butt cheeks will cure patients of corona. Khiyavi claims that in Lorestan and Ardabil, every patient that was injected with bee venom “walked out of the hospital the next day in perfect health.”
It’s easy for us to disparage these approaches to corona, and we certainly have a right to hold the mullahs accountable for their self-righteousness. But before we engage in outright disparagement, we must remember that the mechanisms of social control in Iran are much more explicit than they are in the United States. In Iran, every citizen knows that they live in a dictatorship, whereas in the United States, the history of public relations and propaganda have instilled Americans with manufactured needs and ideals that prevent them from recognizing the extent of their oppression, as the results of the 2020 election make clear. Edward Bernays, often regarded as the “father of public relations,” employed psychoanalysis to manipulate Americans into purchasing items or adopting ideas that were irrelevant and detrimental to their lives.
“Our minds are molded,” Bernays says, “our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized.”
His use of the word “democratic” is comical to me; he uses it so nonchalantly, as if Americans have openly consented to being brainwashed. If the United States were truly a democratic society, then people like Trump would never be elected, and they would never have the opportunity to stand in front of a microphone and talk about injecting disinfectant or “hitting the body with a tremendous light” to cure corona. I have often wondered how Trump and the mullahs became so corrupted by societal power. One possible answer can be found in Noam Chomsky’s seminal work, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals.” Chomsky criticizes a number of prominent intellectuals for being subservient to power. He says that it’s difficult for us to believe how such intelligent individuals could succumb to stupidities such as fascism, but then goes on to say that the mindsets of these debauched intellectuals must be analyzed “in the context of the hypocritical moralisms of the past.”
Ayatollah Mousavi Jazayeri is the perfect embodiment of someone who relies on these hypocritical moralisms to engage in pandemic profiteering. As the representative of the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist in the province of Khuzestan, he has urged the public to donate money to his foundation to combat corona, since “it is quite probable that Imam Mahdi may have contracted the virus.” In Twelver Shiism, Mahdi is considered the final Imam who disappeared from the world and receded into the realm of “occultation.” Twelver Shiites believe that one day the Mahdi will return to bring peace and justice to the world, and rule the earth for several years before Judgement Day. The Mahdi is an eschatological concept constantly used by the clerical establishment to justify their political maneuvers, and of course the first person who truly politicized the Mahdi in modern-day Iran was Ayatollah Khomeini. During the first few years of the revolution, supporters of theocracy held up signs that called Khomeini “the light of our life,” and spread rumors that Khomeini was the Mahdi himself. Although Khomeini never referred to himself as the Mahdi (it would have been outright blasphemy to do so) he cleverly embraced the rumors as part of his political strategy to attain power. Ayatollah Jazayeri’s statement, therefore, is effective at recruiting Iranians because it utilizes the type of flawed but persuasive historical logic that Chomsky warned us about.
“A knife is an instrument used in the kitchen, just as thoughts are instruments of the mind. So what would it mean if we say that a knife is not just a knife but an ‘Islamic knife’?”
Another authority figure who exemplifies this flawed logic is the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Major General Hossein Salami, who unveiled a special black device on April 15 that looks something like a shoebox. The device was invented by scientists in the Basij paramilitary force, and Salami claimed that it uses antennas to generate a magnetic field that can detect coronavirus infections up to 100 meters away. He referred to the device as “an amazing scientific technique that has been tested across various hospitals.” Almost immediately after the device was presented to the public, there was a great deal of backlash from the Iranian Health Ministry, who claimed that the device had never been verified or licensed by officials in the health department.
Reza Mansouri, a physicist from Sharif University (one of the most acclaimed universities in the Middle East) harshly condemned the device in a lengthy speech, in which he admitted that he was worried about the future of Iran, and that he was too frightened to criticize the regime for publicizing such a ridiculous approach to corona.
“The whole world is laughing at us,” Mansouri wrote. “But if I tell the truth, then I will get eighty lashes and be sent to jail for two months.”
He did go on to criticize the regime to some degree by discussing how easily Ayatollahs and religious charlatans can “purchase the necessary documents to become experts in any field.” He lamented the fact that renowned universities like Sharif are no longer “learning centers” or communities that strive to champion scientific truths, and he recalled how poorly he was treated by the media and by university officials some years ago, when he tried to point out that religious figures were posing as scientists on the evening news.
“Everyone tried to damage my reputation by accusing me of surrounding myself with unbelievers,” Mansouri said. “It’s unfortunate that universities are defending the ideologies of seminaries.”
Perhaps the most salient part of Mansouri’s speech comes in the last few paragraphs, in which he dissects the difference between knowledge and Islamic knowledge, and analyzes what exactly it means to call something “Islamic.” He says that religion is interpreted by the Islamic Republic in a manner that makes it antithetical to science, and he bemoans the fact that the regime requires scientists to approach disciplines like chemistry, physics, and biology from an Islamic standpoint.
“We have to use knowledge to substantiate Islamic teachings . . . Mullahs think that knowledge is an instrument to prove religious truths.”
He gives us an interesting example. “A knife is an instrument used in the kitchen, just as thoughts are instruments of the mind . . . so what would it mean if we say that a knife is not just a knife but an ‘Islamic knife’?”
When I consider the Islamic nature of an object such as a knife, I don’t think of it as some sort of external quality that has to be attributed to the knife, but rather a quality intrinsic to the knife, a quality that can be analyzed and studied scientifically. If we observe the knife and say that it has such and such qualities, then those qualities can certainly be considered “Islamic” or “divine” or whatever other terminology we want to apply to it, as long as we understand that these terms are aspects of a particular linguistic context, and that the full truth of the knife will always elude us and lie outside of the terminology that has shaped our conceptions. Our manufactured terminology, of course, is also a reflection of the confines of our contemporary sociopolitical system, so we have to remember that our relationship with the knife is based upon the way in which our subjectivity has been molded by our surroundings.
Mansouri’s assertion about the detrimental role of religion also relates to American culture. During the 90s, there was a strange perception in Iran that the United States was a place of free thought and free expression, but I distinctly remember being a middle schooler in North Carolina during 9/11 and realizing just how hostile and narrow-minded American religiosity could be. A few hours after the World Trade Center bombing, I was retrieving a textbook from my locker in the hallway when a boy named Chuck walked up to me and asked me whether “my people were Satan worshippers.” Later that day, another boy named Trevor passed me a note in class that said “All Muslims burn in hell!” These comments made me feel alienated at school, and I understood how deeply imbedded religion was in American consciousness. These kids didn’t necessarily consider themselves believers (they even mocked Christians sometimes) and yet their insults were steeped in Christian theology. Unlike the mullahs, who wore their religion proudly, these North Carolinians didn’t even seem aware of the fact that they were zealots. Just as Bernays told us, they were acting out the beliefs and personalities that society had implanted into their minds.
The bigger question here is this: should religion play a role in addressing the coronavirus crisis? The number of deaths caused by corona in Iran are not known, because the regime has fabricated data and encouraged hospitals to report false diagnoses. All through April and May, the government reopened shopping malls, bazaars, and mosques, and reports indicate that there was a spike in the number of cases at the beginning of June and another in Khuzestan at the start of August. But the severity of the outbreak has generally been difficult to evaluate. My family members in Tehran are uncertain whether the number of cases has increased or decreased in recent weeks. Reports from the BBC indicate that the number of deaths may have reached as many as 42,000 in the beginning of August, but the Iranian Health Ministry only reports 14,000. Misinformation from the regime has been rampant, and it has only increased the general public’s animosity towards the government. Most Iranians, I believe, would say that religion should have no place in society, but my concern with this idea is that religion isn’t something that can be discarded. In the Western world, and especially in the United States, recent intellectual movements like New Atheism have attempted to relegate religion to the margins of society. But this has only resulted in religion being co-opted by peculiar cultists, especially in small towns in North Carolina.
In 2013, my girlfriend, Amanda, was working at a lab in Morganton, North Carolina, and I would drive over from Chapel Hill on the weekends to visit her. Amanda used to attend a Bible study every Saturday afternoon, and one time she convinced me to accompany her, even though I was reluctant to do so. I thought that the Bible study would take place at the local church downtown, so I was surprised when we arrived at a dilapidated mobile home in the middle of a large field and were welcomed inside by an old man, Pastor Marshall, who had just finished feeding his chickens. We sat in a circle in the living room with about seven other middle-aged men, and Pastor Marshall asked me to introduce myself to the group. Then, he told me that they would begin their session as usual, with “a bit of raw inspiration from the Almighty.” He closed his eyes, lowered his head, and began speaking in tongues, jibber-jabbering as fast as he could, and after he was done, it was the next person’s turn. I watched every one of the men speak in tongues, and I couldn’t believe that Amanda was just as adept at it as they were. It was the most captivating mumbo jumbo I had ever heard, and I was almost tempted to participate in it, even though Pastor Marshall asked me to be an observer, since it was my first meeting.
A few months later, Amanda came home in tears and told me that after the men had left, Pastor Marshall had pushed her up against the bookcase in the living room and tried to kiss her. This incident convinced me that all religious people were hypocrites and that all religions should be eradicated. But later on, I came to the conclusion that religion was not the culprit, because people like Pastor Marshall had been morally corrupted by the institutionalization of human spirituality. I realized that every human being seeks spiritual fulfillment in their life and benefits from having a sense of purpose, so religion will always manifest itself in one way or another. There is no such thing as an absence of belief or a refusal to consider one’s relationship with the universe, and every society throughout history has sought to address the basic existential concerns of its citizens in different ways.
In ancient Greece, there was a distinct difference between the practical and the divine, and between human activities and contemplation. Human activity was considered inferior to contemplation, because it was concerned with creating what was useful and necessary to survive in society, whereas contemplation was concerned with transcending practical needs in order to fathom the everlasting beauty of the universe, which could never be replicated or created by human endeavors. The polis was the center of public and political life, and as such it was of secondary importance to contemplation, because ruling over subjects and dwelling on practical matters was merely a human necessity, not a divine truth. Plato believed that all human activities should culminate in contemplation, and Plato’s political philosophy, which heavily influenced the origins of Islamic theology, was devoted to reorganizing polis life so as to make it ideal for the philosophers, who valued their private thoughts more than their practical actions. In Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” the philosopher frees himself from the fetters that bind him to his fellow men and leaves the cave to discover the sun. The philosopher is not accompanied by other men when he witnesses the truth, and his singularity indicates the significance of personal revelation, of withdrawing from society so as not to be beguiled by the shadows on the wall. Similarly, Socrates was committed to contemplation, and he altered the focus of intellectual discourse by championing the ethereal as the true center of metaphysical thought. He was unique among the great thinkers for never writing down his ideas, and this indicates his unwillingness to want to be remembered by future generations of society.
My contention is not that people should ignore practical affairs and only focus on the divine, but rather that religion should remain an individual’s personal experience of the universe, and that a human crisis like corona ought to be recognized as nothing other than a human crisis and addressed as such. Although the clerical establishment acknowledges the ethereal as the most refined consideration of mankind, they have made the grave mistake of trying to implement it in society. They have sullied it by politicizing it and robbed it of its enigmatic quality by referencing it to solve practical human problems. As a result, their approach to corona has been astonishingly bizarre and inhumane.
There is an interesting section in The Plague in which Bernard Rieux and Tarrou have a conversation about religion. Bernard is a diligent doctor who has witnessed countless deaths from the plague, and he works tirelessly to combat the disease. He tells Tarrou that “since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refused to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence?” Tarrou disagrees and tells him that despite his hard work, his “victories will never be lasting.” Bernard is an arrogant and self-righteous intellectual, just like the clerics, and he firmly believes that his approach is the only way to eradicate the plague. Tarrou reminds him of the shortcomings of his thoughts and actions, and in a way clues him into the irony of his question. Bernard rejects religion, but what he doesn’t realize is that every human endeavor, whether religious or scientific, has its own limitations, and that nothing can overcome the inevitability of death. Death is the only insurmountable impasse, and I’ve learned over the years that it can only be faced by setting aside rigid dogmatism and standing arm in arm in the spirit of solidarity.
When I left Iran, I felt like I had finally escaped the dogmatism that had been confining my life, but what I soon realized was that religious intolerance and bigotry were not unique to the Islamic Republic. When I was twelve years old, my family and I lived with my aunt and uncle in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I had never understood why my uncle, an Iranian Muslim, had decided to marry Jean, a Christian farmer born and raised in Hershey, Pennsylvania. But what was even stranger to me was that no one in my family had the power to stop Jean from trying to convert me to Christianity. Every Sunday, Jean would wake me up at 8 AM and force me to accompany her to church. One Sunday there was a contest in which everyone at church had to guess how many M&M’s were in a large jar. The winner, Jean told me, would receive “a very special prize.” I didn’t speak much English then, so I had no idea what the contest was about, and when it was my turn to walk up to the front table and write my answer on a slip of paper, I glanced at the pile of papers next to the jar and noticed that the last contestant had written 412. I decided to pick a similar number and wrote 422. At the end of the church service, they announced that I was the winner, since there were 430 M&M’s in the jar. I was embarrassed when I walked up to the podium in front of the entire congregation to receive my prize, the entire jar of M&M’s. People were clapping for me, and I knew that I was supposed to feel happy, but for some reason it was difficult to believe that I had actually won something. My aunt and I lingered in the lobby afterwards, waiting for the pastor, and the pastor brought me into a little office and asked me how I felt. I told him how surprised I was to be the winner, but he ignored my remark and asked me questions that felt oddly personal. Where was I from? What was my religion? Did my family pray to God?
“The real prize is not these M&M’s, you know,” the pastor said. He handed me a tiny graphic novel and told me to read it carefully and sign the last page of it. When I came home that night, my father and I read the graphic novel with the help of a dictionary, but my father didn’t allow me to sign the last page, which said “I, _________, have decided on this day to repent for my sins and give my life to Jesus Christ.”
“Do you really think there are 430 M&M’s in that jar?” my father asked.
We looked at the jar but neither of us actually wanted to open it and count the M&M’s, because it felt like a pointless task. What I recall most fondly about this incident was my father telling me that regardless of how many M&M’s there were in the jar, our duty as Muslims was to love Christians, because “we all return to God one day, and that’s that.”
Years later, I learned that my father had alluded to the inevitability of death, and I believe that his idea of love is the type of kinship that is required to handle a crisis like corona. The fear of death instills anxiety and insecurity into human beings and leads them to foist their beliefs upon others. When the fear of death has been overcome, humanitarianism will take its place at the forefront of society, and basic ethical actions, like providing health care and addressing the needs of the community, will attain newfound significance. Only then, will our practical endeavors culminate into something greater than humanity itself, and allow every individual to experience a sense of exaltation and unification that is nothing short of divine revelation.