Qom (AsiaNews) - Finding a version of Islam that studies carefully other religions, that is open to contacts with other universities in the world, to discuss history, philosophy, and the sciences of modernity, was the unexpected and amazing discovery I made during my visit to Iran, especially in the holy city of Qom, home to the best theological schools of Shia Islam.
Given the fact that so much news coverage from the Middle East is often full of stories about anti-Christian violence, anti-religious persecution, hatred of atheists and the secular world, it would be easy to conclude that Islam is totally closed off to discussion or in a defensive posture vis-à-vis modernity.
Hence, imagine my wonder when I found Iranian theological schools and universities where people are actually reading the texts of other religions, studying history in a scientific manner, debating about modern philosophies and theologies, mathematical science and social sciences like sociology and psychology.
Seen from afar, Qom looks a bit like Makkah, but smaller. Everything is centred around the shrine-mosque with the golden dome, which holds the remains of Fatima Masumeh, the sister of Imam Ali al-Ridha, the eighth imam of Twelver Shia Islam.
People of every age, men and women together, enter the shrine from the four cardinal points. Taking off their shoes, they walk through large rooms around the inner sanctum, the blue and yellow majolica, colourful rugs and solemn chandeliers giving the halls a bright and colourful shine
Here and there, groups of people pray, or mediate on the Qur'an. Others stop in front of the graves of the dead. A young man cries disconsolately as he leans against the wall near a tomb, others standing in prayerful silence.
In one room braille Qur'ans are available to anyone as a group of blind believers prays aloud, their fingers moving over the embossed pages.
In the holiest of holy, Masumeh's tomb is a niche with silver-covered walls and a golden roof. In separate lines, men and women move towards it. As crowd walk by the partitions, they stop to look at the sarcophagus through the slits, many touching, kissing, leaning their forehead; some whispering and calling.
In the hour I spent at the shrine, I saw perhaps 3,000 people (pictured) come through. In itself this expression of religiosity shows the distance between Sunni and Shia Islam.
Under the shadow cast by Allah's absoluteness, man virtually disappears in Sunni Islam. I remember a year ago, when Saudi King Abdullah died, Arab newspapers quickly noted that his grave would be unmarked - no name, no picture. Everything had to be erased to honour Allah.
Here, alongside other notable burials, Masumeh's tomb can be easily recognised, and honoured, the object of the gratitude and the grief of the living.
Perhaps under the influence of Sufism (mystical Islam), Shia Islam and the traditions connected with Ali and his sons Hassan and Hussein, who were killed by the first caliphs, have always needed an intermediary between man and God.
Unlike Shia Islam, which extols the spiritual teacher who explains, interprets, and re-reads the Qur'an, Sunni Islam has become ossified around the law, its enforcement, and a literal reading of the Qur'an.
A great Islam scholar, Fr Samir Khalil Samir, has confirmed me in my thoughts. "My experiences with the Shia," he told me, "have always been deep and open, much more than with Sunnis. Shias admit an open reading of the Qur'an, whereas the Sunni interpretation is always literal, bolted."
"Last night, an Iraqi Shia student came to me and we talked for almost two hours on spiritual matters," Fr Samir said. "It was a deep and enriching exchange. He was well-read about Christianity. This morning I have been waiting for four Shia professors from the University of Kufa in Iraq who want to meet me. I have always had the impression that the Shias are very open, both dogmatically and spiritually, and that they want to know us."
The city of Qom has a population of more than a million people. Some 50,000 of them are students, Shia and non-Shia, seminarians and lay people, attending some 50 theological schools or universities. Each school is well-equipped in terms of educational facilities and libraries, with books in different languages on science and religion.
Among them, it is worth mentioning the University of Religions and Denominations (URD), which is located just outside Qom. I visited it accompanied by Prof Mahdi Salehi, editor of the university's journal.
Married with a four-year-old daughter, Prof Salehi, 34, told me that the university began as a research centre 15 years ago. Chaired by Chancellor Hojatoleslam Navab, it has about 2,000 students, mostly Iranians. Students must have a good knowledge of English to take courses.
The university offers graduate programmes in Islamic theology and in various Islamic denominations as well as in Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Some courses on Judaism are taught by Jewish professors.
The URD also has joint programmes and student exchanges with universities from around the world, including Paderborn, Frankfurt, Potsdam, Sorbonne (Paris), Gregorian University (Rome), Mumbai, etc.
Many of the texts of other religions are translated by faculty members. "In order to learn about other religions we need to study their basic sources," one scholar said, "and translate them into Persian. So far we have published some 200 books, including 50 Christian source texts."
"The chancellor's motto is the university's philosophy," he said, noting that "many conflicts between religions are due to the fact that they do not know each other. If we want to live in peace and coexistence, we need to know each other. The philosophy of this university is precisely coexistence and dialogue between religions."