My experience of this journey to the Islamic Republic of Iran started with a mild anxiety and fear. By the way the media constantly portrayed Iran, in the back of my mind, I was going to a country where the health services would not be up to international standards, the people uneducated and sectarianism rife.
I travelled with a group of scholars from different Islamic schools of thought. Everyone was an expert in their own denomination. I personally have a basic level of knowledge of Islam but my heart is full of respect for all the scholars. I was eager to learn from everyone in order to understand how I might be able to bring the Ummah of my beloved Prophet closer together. Our journey from London to Tehran was very comfortable and enjoyable. We landed in Tehran in the early hours and travelled to an excellent hotel.
Our first meeting was in Tehran with the Vice President to the University of Religions and Denominations (URD), Dr Yahya Jahangiri, who gave us an overview about the university. It was very impressive to know that this university produces scholars in all denominations of Islam and they provide guidance to Muslims all over the world. Unity of Muslims across the world was the main theme of the meeting. The Pakistani delegates of the group were keen to know more about Iran’s stance with regards to oppressed Kashmiri citizens. There were also questions about Iran’s involvement in the Syrian conflict and a dialogue on the ways of improving Pakistan – Iran bilateral relationship. Later during the day, we visited the world’s sixth tallest tower, the Milad tower, and also took in some Iranian architectural sights.
Some of my friends in the UK had told me that in Tehran the Sunni Muslims have no mosque and they are not allowed to practice Islam in accordance with their tradition. It was a pleasant surprise when the coach driver parked the coach in front of the three-storey Sadeghiyeh mosque in the west of Tehran. The Imam, Maulana Aziz Ahmed, led the evening prayer and our hosts joined the congregation too. Molana Aziz informed us that on Friday his mosque is attended by two to three thousand worshippers. He also said that there were at least fifteen similar Sunni mosques in Tehran alone. In addition, there are about two hundred small places providing education and prayer facilities to Sunni Muslims.
Our meeting with the head of Iran’s Hajj mission, Hujjatul Islam Maulana Qazi Askar was informative and this was a moment of happiness for all of us when he broke the news that this year 86,000 (16,000 Sunni Muslims and 70,000 Shia Muslims) would be going on the Hajj pilgrimage from Iran. Our hosts were very hospitable and served us fruits and Iranian tea. We had a tour of the Holy Qur’an Museum where we saw some very old pictures of the Holy Kaaba.
The visit to the Palace of the deposed last Shah of Iran made me realise that the impressive buildings and expensive furniture he owned had no effect on lifting the nation. However, the visit to the simple but respectable accommodation of the late Imam Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took my thoughts to the time of Iranian Revolution when the great leader led the nation to its destiny. There was a clear message that simplicity, spirituality and honesty, not wealth and power, win hearts and minds. We also met with Seyyed Hassan Khomeini (the grandson of late Imam Khomeini) I found his personality very impressive. Our host for lunch was the former ambassador to Pakistan Hujjatul Islam Seyyed Siraj Uddin Mousavi. Later, on the way to the City of Qum, we visited the shrine of the late Ayatollah Khomeini and offered our fatiha (prayer).
We were very excited to travel to the city of Qum and felt blessed to visit the shrine of Lady Fatima Ma‘suma (the sister of Imam Ali Al Raza(a)) . The shrine was crowded with people showing their love and respect for the progeny of the beloved Prophet Muhammad(s). We also visited the Qum Historical Museum.
Our afternoon meeting with the head of the Islamic Centre of England, Hujjatul Islam Dr Mohammad Ali Shomali proved very productive. We discussed diversity as a strong tool in serving the communities in the UK. Issues such as moon sighting in Ramadan, finding ways for Muslims residing in the UK be able to have the same day for Eid, the permissibility of using scientific calculations to determine the Eid days, were discussed.
We then visited the University of Religions and Denominations and met with the University’s Chancellor, Hujjatul Islam Syed Abul Hassan Nawab. We received a copy of the Fatawa (religious edicts) issued by renowned and respected Shi‘a scholars on the prohibition on disrespecting the companions and the wives of the Holy Prophet Muhammad(s).
Our evening meeting in Qum took place at the seminary of Imam Musa Kazim(a). We also met with Hujjatul Islam Dr Mohammad Hasan Zamani, Vice-Chancellor for International Affairs at Qom Seminary as well as other personalities. The representative of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei for Kurdistan came to meet us at the same place. He explained how this institute is working to bring unity to the Muslim Ummah.
The delegation also travelled to Sanandaj, the capital of Kurdistan province, via Hamadan. We took in the natural beauty alongside the good quality motorways. Our next stop at Hamadan was a well-designed restaurant at the top of a hill. I got a chance to enter a small hospital and was impressed by the cleanliness and relatively quiet emergency department.
After ten hours, we reached Sanandaj. We were advised to be ready in the morning to have a meeting in the library of Ayatollah Khamenei with Sunni scholars. The Sunni scholars talked about their positive quality of life and freedom to practice their rituals since the foundation of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
We were then taken to visit a 300-year-old Sunni Friday prayer mosque. The mosque has a chain at its door and in the past, if someone entered the mosque via that door he or she would be protected by the state authorities. The mosque’s Chief Imam is a great scholar who delivered a beautiful sermon during Friday prayer. Once we completed the prayer we noticed that the respected Shi‘a Muslim scholars were also present in the congregation and that it was the first ever Friday prayer that had been marked together by Sunnis and Shi‘as in this great mosque.
We were invited to the biggest university in Kurdistan where we met with the Governor of Kurdistan. It was amazing to know that Kurdistan has a literacy rate of around 90 percent, up from 30% since the Islamic Revolution. The journey from Sanandaj to Kermanshah airport by coach was a pleasant trip underneath a clear morning sky. We passed through the beautiful dry and green mountains across lands with very well designed irrigation systems.
From Kermanshah airport, we flew for 90 minutes and landed in Mashhad. I was excited to visit the holy shrine of Imam Reza(a) where I expected to experience spiritual enlightenment. My heart and mind felt blessed at the shrine. For the duration that I was permitted to stay near the shrine of this great Imam, my soul filled with comfort and spiritual upliftment. At the dining area, I observed thousands of visitors being served food in a respectful way. I have not seen such discipline anywhere in the world. Adjacent to the compound to the holy shrine stands the university, funded through donations made by visitors to the shrine. We stayed in Mashhad for two nights and also enjoyed our visit to the Qur’an Museum and a traditional Iranian gym. The gym participants were enjoying a traditional exercise class. We left Mashhad with heavy hearts and prayers hoping to be able to visit this blessed city again.
I was also happy to learn from various people that the non-Muslim minorities also enjoy their rights in the same way as Muslims in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
We flew back to Tehran and four of us managed to go to a shopping centre and see a few areas of this beautiful city. The level of cleanliness was good, public transport including trams were available at all times. The food was of good quality and economical.
In summary, I enjoyed every minute of this spiritual and academic tour to the Islamic Republic of Iran. I would encourage other Muslim countries to organise similar tours to improve understanding across borders and lead to harmony and mutual respect. I learned how the Shi‘a Muslims and Sunni Muslims can stand shoulder to shoulder to bring peace and unity among the Muslims in Iran. Diversity is our strength and minor differences between Islamic denominations should never be allowed to divide us.