Book Review: The Ayatollah Begs To Differ: The Paradox Of Modern Iran by Hooman Majd

Images Courtesy of Goodreads

Images Courtesy of Goodreads

From the Backcover

The grandson of an eminent ayatollah and the son of an Iranian diplomat  journalist Hooman Majd is uniquely qualified to explain contemporary Iran’s complex and misunderstood culture to Western readers. 

The Ayatollah Begs to Differ provides an intimate look at a country that is both deeply religious and highly cosmopolitan, authoritarian yet informed by a history of democratic and reformist traditions. Majd offers an insightful tour of Iranian culture, introducing fascinating characters from all walks of life, including  zealous government officials, tough female cab drivers, and open-minded reformist ayatollahs. It’s an Iran that will surprise readers and challenge Western Stereotypes. 

Cover Gushing Worthiness: I’m not quite fond of the cover for the paperback edition (the cover on the left) which is also the edition I own. I  don’t think it captures the essence of Iran quite well because Iran is a country more than just women dressed in Black Chadors. The harcover edition (the one on the right) captures Iran much more vividly, with its eye of Ayatollah Khomeini; a household name and prominent religious and political figure in Iran’s contemporary history and the people moving about.  So in conclusion, the hardcover edition get’s my vote for a good cover.

Review: I first heard about The Ayatollah Begs to Differ from goodreads where it appeared as a recommendation under my Middle East shelf. First of all I have to say I love the name of the book. I think it’s what first drew me to clicking the image and reading the synopsis. I think the title of the book is provocative and I mean this in a good way. I think as soon as people hear the term “Ayatollah” their minds kick into over drive and think about Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranian Revolution and Iran of course. However this book is more; it captures a country that is trying to modernize whilst holding onto its deep religious and Shi’ite heritage.

For those who don’t know what an Ayatollah is; simply put “Ayatollah” translates into “sign of God” but in Iranian Shi’ism it is referred to a revered member of the Ulema (Islamic religious class)*.

Hooman Majd has been described as both “100% Iranian and 100% American” by one of his friends and I found that to be quite interesting; especially since I’ve also grown up in two different countries and I don’t really know if I’m both 100% Canadian and 100% Sri Lankan. Majd is a child of both nations and I believe that is the reason he can give such a good insight to Iran and provide a humorous take while at it.

The Ayatollah Begs to Differ is not a book about politics per say, even though there is a focus on it, but rather it is about the lives of ordinary Iranians living in a regime that many Western audiences would deem unjust and non-democractic. I think the important message that I came away with after reading this book is how Democracy may work in Iran. Former President of the Islamic Republic of Iran- Mohammad Khatami says

Democracy in Iran deserves a much higher status than it occupies today…Democracy in the West is shaped by their culture and history; and our Democracy will be shaped in accordance to our own culture and history. I don’t mean Liberal Democracy. Democracy means the government is chosen by the people and they have the power to change it if they are unhappy, but Islam is one of the foundations of our culture and it will influence our democracy. Of course Islam must adjust to democracy as well.

I personally thought that statement was powerful because it helped me understand the potentially intertwined relationship between Democracy and Islam.

I thought the people Majd spoke to in this book were interesting and had a certain whimsical characteristic to them. I liked learning about the female taxi driver who had two children and a sick mother to look after, the middle-class Persian family whose son-in law was part of the Revolutionary Guard but found time to play football with his friends, the French and the British people living in Iran, former President Khatami and the reformist Ayatollah Mousavi Bojnourdi were all people from different walks of life who tried to make the best in a regime as the one in Iran.  I think learning about the reformist Ayatollahs was one of the important aspects of the book, especially since people may be uninformed about them since most people associate Ayatollahs as conservative hardliners and Khomeini of course.

What is important about this book is it paints a picture of the everyday Iranian. Someone who has hopes and may dream of a better life, someone who does the best in a system and someone who is quite proud of their heritage. This is something that I too have encountered in my encounters with a few Iranian people; Iranians are very proud and nationalistic people. Sometimes it can come across as being racists towards other cultures, but it is not necessarily. As a country that has suffered from so many invasions identity is important to them, just like it is for people in other countries. I think Majd explains in this conundrum of proud Iranian nationalism well in the book. Another thing that I found interesting was the explanation of using both “Iran” and “Persia” to distinguish the country. The explanation is a bit too long to give in a review, but if you have the opportunity to read the book, you’ll see what I mean.

Apart from the book being informative I liked Majd’s writing a lot. It was humorous and sarcastic in a way that had me actually laughing out loud at some points. When I say some of the things out loud to explain it to people it doesn’t sound funny, but when you read the book you understand the humour. The book didn’t read like a textbook and it isn’t mean to be one. I personally didn’t find it to be flat and there wasn’t anything I would have taken out because everything held a significant meaning and explained how  Iranian people interpreted things.  What I liked most was learning about Iran’s former President Mohammad Khatami. Until now I didn’t really know anything about him, but I was glad to have learned more about him and his moderate view. I think he explains the context of Iran very well in his talks with Majd. Also we do gain a bit of insight into the ruling Religious Class of Iran, probably one of the most hated elements by the West in regards to the country. I think Majd explains their leadership well in a concise manner.

Overall, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ was an enjoyable read. I learned a lot about Iran;a country which remains as a puzzle for most Islamic history students because of its secrecy and current position in the eyes of the west. To learn about every day Iranians was eye-opening and it helped to understand the country a bit more. I will definitely pick up Hooman Majd’s other book The Ayatollah’s Democracy: An Iranian Challenge. 

My Rating: 4/5

Would I recommend it? Yes

*The definition for an Ayatollah was taken from An Introduction to Islam by Frederick Mathewson Denny.

The Ayatollahs may from time to time silence dissent at home, they may rule autocratically, and with their infuriating manners they may annoy and even repulse many in the West. But they rule for now with the confidence that they do not face a population that seeks to overthrow them. As long, that is, as they don’t lose their Persian sensibilities. 

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Ayatollah Begs To Differ: The Paradox Of Modern Iran by Hooman Majd

  1. Pingback: January in Review « The Streetlight Reader

  2. Pingback: Bookish Haul of Awesomeness Numero Tres | The Streetlight Reader

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