Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Quaker Mohammad and Other Stories from Iran

One of the ways to break down stereotypes about the Other is to tell stories that humanize them. Linda Kusse-Wolfe is a master storyteller, and her anecdotes about her experiences in Iran were very revealing (and often funny).

She and her husband spent a year and half in Qom, the holiest city in Iran, as part of a Mennonite Reconciliation Project. Qom is a city of one million people, a religious center that is similar in some way to the Vatican. Over 50,000 clerical students reside in Qom and can be identified by their turbans: those wearing white turban are regular students, and those wearing black turban are descendents of Mohammad (they are called Saidi).

David and Linda were the only publicly professed Christian in the city. (Some Iranians who were Christian preferred not to reveal their religious views for political and social reasons.) The Wolfs were affiliated with an Interfaith Institute whose director was a very conservative Shia cleric. He didn’t want the Wolfs to downplay their faith. He told them:: “I want you to be Christians.” In other words, he wanted them to be honest, not gloss over their “errors.”

The Wolfes noted that many of the Iranians they met were called Mohammad since it is a common name among Muslims (and indeed, is the most common name in the world). To help distinguish among the many Mohammads they met, the Wolfes gave them nicknames. There was “Pizza Mohammad,” “Student Mohammad,” and “Quaker Mohammad.”

They nicknamed this student “Quaker” Mohammd because of his keen interest in Quakerism. After researching the Quakers online, he told the Wolfs: “Quakers are people that speak the Truth.” He had done his Master’s thesis on Quakerism.

The Wolfes were taken aback when Quaker Mohammad asked them:  “Are you Hicksite or Gurneyite?”

“That’s when we realized he really knew what he was talking about,” explained David. “He was also translating Quaker stuff into Farsi.”

One of the challenges for Linda was the obligation to wear hijab and a black chador with black shoes and undergarments. This was a requirement because Qom is a holy city.

.”I made up my mind I would not complain.” explained Linda. But it wasn’t easy.

Women must ride in the back of the bus—a requirement reminiscent of Jim Crow laws in the South.

“It was annoying but it enabled me to talk more openly with women,” said Linda. She came to appreciate the graciousness of Muslim women. And she found some of their request surprising. Asked what gift she’d like from USA, Muslim woman requested “Harry Potter.’

The Wolfes shared many stories about the challenges faced by Christians in Iran, but since these stories are “off the record,” I suggest that those interested should read a pamphlet called “A Quaker in Iran” by Steve Angell, a professor of religion and Quaker studies at Earlham College. This pamphlet is available for free at the QUF website: I am also willing to send my pamphlet on “Islam from a Quaker Perspective” to anyone who is interested. Just email me at

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