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Iranian ponders Islam, Christianity

TEHRAN, Iran (BP)–“When one limb aches, the whole body aches. You who are not troubled by the troubles of others, should not be called the children of Adam,” says Ali*, quoting the 13th-century Iranian poet Sa’di.

To Christians, that is a reference to 1 Corinthians 12.

To Ali, Christian traditions borrow from Iranian ones, rather than the other way around. Ali, in fact, doesn’t believe in the superiority of any belief. He says all religions lead to the same God.

He respects all prophets, including Jesus, as good and wise. In Islam God is one, so Jesus cannot be God, he states emphatically.

“Jesus and Muhammad are the same,” Ali says. “They were both prophets.”


Born in Tehran and educated in London, Ali is a self-professed man of science who defines fact and truth according to the majority opinion of scholarly texts rather than religious ones.

Out of curiosity he read a copy of the Old Testament that someone gave him.

“I was surprised,” he says. Christians “call it religion, but I call it history. Persian history. It contains our prophets. I was proud that they recognized our history and put so much worth in it.”

He knows who Christians say Jesus is, but he hasn’t read the New Testament for himself. Iranians don’t have open access to the Scriptures because publishing and distributing Bibles is illegal in the Islamic Republic.

Ali has seen what can happen when people push against the restrictions too much, and it haunted him. When he was younger, he witnessed a public beating of someone who went against the regulations. “I couldn’t sleep for months,” he recalls. “But it’s seldom done anymore. But once and awhile they still do it for the people to get a hint from it about what they shouldn’t do.

“In our culture, shame is worse than the fire of hell.”


So far, the regulations haven’t shamed Ali into taking Islam any more seriously than he has to by law. Ali doesn’t place much stock in going to the mosque, venturing there only to witness a special ceremony rather than to pray. Most people who go to mosques are pleading to God for His favor, he observes. Ali tells the story of a woman who tied herself to the gates of a mosque until she felt God heard her prayers.

Since God is to be revered as unreachable, it is prophets who Iranians connect with on a personal level. The 14th-century poet Hafez is so honored, Ali says, that Iranians pair the reading of the Qur’an with the writings of Hafez.

“They pray to him for truth. They open his book and point to the truth they are looking for,” Ali says. “They go to him for what they are supposed to do — if they are supposed to marry, if they will recover from illness. They trust in him to know what’s going on in their lives and what’s going to happen before it does.

“You ask him to tell you the truth, like a friend. He’s equal to you, beside you. Open his book and you will turn to the truth. He’s more than a poet. He is a prophet. He is equal to mystics.”

In Islam, mysticism is identified with being a Sufi, one who relies on contemplation to discern God’s will. Shiite Muslims follow imams, who they believe are the rightful successors to Muhammad. In Iran, festivals are held to hasten the coming of the 12th imam, who is supposed to bring justice to the world.

There are two theories about when this will happen, Ali explains. “He won’t come until everything is good in the world or until everything gets so bad in the world that it needs to be redeemed. Some want to help it be as good or as worse as it can be to hasten his coming.”


Ali believes Christianity borrowed its philosophy of good and evil from the prophet Zoroaster. Zoroastrianism is an ancient Iranian belief that good and evil are overarching influences that battle each other in the world.

Signs of Zoroastrianism remain in contemporary Iran. Motorists hang guardian symbols on their rearview mirrors depicting an eye to guard against evil. “It’s meant to catch and release any bad energy coming your way from people you encounter, so nothing bad will happen to you,” Ali comments.

“I don’t ignore what people believe,” he says. “It is there. It seems to be very silly but human belief is interesting. Some people are devout, but some go through the outward motions because they have to. They don’t have faith in anything.”

Ali places himself in the latter category of keeping up appearances, divorcing public behavior from the relevancy of real life behind closed doors. “Like most people I don’t like boundaries, but unfortunately we are all victims of boundaries,” Ali says.


When he was in his 20s, the native Iranian fell in love with a young Armenian woman. His parents objected to the match, willing to give permission for their son to marry only someone from the same ethnic and religious background.

Armenians in Iran come from a Christian heritage, including an era of persecution from the Turks. In some Iranian towns with an Armenian population, the landscape is dotted with small church steeples topped with crosses. The Armenians can practice their faith, Ali explains, as long as they do not attempt to convert a Muslim.

Obedient to his parents’ wishes, Ali married an Iranian woman instead but never forgot his first love.

He says he will not put limits on whom his children can marry.

“I don’t care what religion they are. I only hope they have a good heart,” he says, patting his chest.

Having chosen duty over matters of the heart as a young man, Ali says his heart will warm to matters of faith later in life. In Islam, closeness to God can really be obtained only in paradise upon death.

“Faith is always there,” Ali says. “I’m not a fanatical, serious Muslim. Maybe when I’m older and closer to death, I’ll take it seriously.”
*Name changed. Kate Gregory covered this story for the International Mission Board.

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  • Kate Gregory