‘The Mantle of The Prophet’ – Some Thoughts

Write a review of Roy Mottahedeh’s The Mantle of the Prophet (2008- Oneworld Publications). Your review should include (a) an assessment of the Madrasa system and (b) a discussion of the intellectual journey of ‘Ali (the main character in the book).

The madrassas are open systems of ‘great enclosed spaces’ which emerged from the traditions of ‘old styles of learning’ associated with a culture of attainment of knowledge which saw people  ‘wandering from teacher to teacher’. The education that the talabehs received was centered around the organization of the informal discussion circles or the halaqas. The curriculum of the madrassas includes the study of logic, ‘which provided a set of systematic principles for deriving the law from its sources’. Such knowledge is described by Mottahedeh or seen by Ali as ‘a tree that draws its food and water from questions’. The learning provided in the madrassas marked a quest that distinguished these students from ‘the rest of the uninitiated’.  In this sense the juxtaposition of the madrassa within the middle of the inside and outside space is significant because the separation of space as inside (andruni), outside (biruni) were ‘rules that no one dared to violate’.

Initially the madrasssa were also a battleground for ideology, which predominanly excluded the Shia for not following ‘true’  religion.  Shia Sunni one major difference in contrasting intellectual appraches.  In this sense both sects saw themselves as protecting the true religion  and their institutional politics were informed by the  political  rivlary between themselves. In later times another tension became manifest between the secular and religious. The ‘secular Iranians of the new education’ rejected the madrassa system seeing it as a backward insitution in modern times. The political patronage of madrassas also became a part of the ‘ideological armour’ of the state when it realized that the  teaching that had been implemented a millennium earlier could be used to its advantage.

Mottahedeh compares the madressa to a fortress which is ‘seen and sees [itself] as the primary focus of attempts to preserve learning and defend orthodoxy’. It was pecisely because of this defensive and rigid orthodoxy that  mysticism had many opponents in the madrassa and that the ‘mystical implications of theology’ were overlooked and unacknowledged. However from Ali’s personal viewpoint we come to know of the existence of another stream of consciouness in the hawzeh which believed that ‘a mature understanding of Islam came not only from books but from a mystical understanding of the world’. In Ali’s understanding ‘mysticism was a method which was clearing a road to knowing things that transform one’s existence’ but it was also an intensely private matter for him . In this sense the external binary notions of interiority and inferiority seem to carry over into his personal life as well.


Ali puts a human face to the uncertainity that lay behind that machinations of the Iranian revolution. In a paradoxical way the longing for the the past and the apprehension for the future after the success of the revolution is ironic since he is a member of the clergy himself which is poised to claim unsurmountable power. As Mottahedeh describes it ‘he(Ali) knew for certain the past could not return, he felt surprisingly uneasy about what this banner might mean for the future and, more especially for him, for his responsibility as a learned mullah and descendant of the Prophet, a man entitled to wear the Prophet’s color green.’ However such a position is indicative of a sensibility amongst the ulema which is far removed from the image of the power hungry and politically manipulative clergy that has become predominant in the present discourse on the subject. It shows a sense of purpose and responsiblity that Ali felt for his position. His humility that led him to believe that ‘God forbade anyone to call him an ayatollah when there were others, his senior in learning and in every way, who deserved that title…” seemed to be derived from this sense of responsibility. This was also reflecte in the fact that he “lacked the courage—he was tempted to say audacity—to tell other people how to live their lives’.

However it was not just that he felt obliged as a Sayid or from the fact that he was a cleric but he also seemed to like what he was doing or as Mottahedeh’s frames it ‘he had a real taste for mullah learning’ which made him to ‘anticipate future difficulties’ on theoretical positions and to easily re-explain the significance of past texts to others. In short his life in Qom was grounded in such traditions so much so that in his earlier part of life, as Mottahedeh indicates,  he is oblivious to another kind of existence that was ‘rejected by secular intellectuals’. For him ‘Tombs were facts of life’, as was the life that revolved around them.  From the beginning Ali’s proclivities for spiritual or religious teachings set him aside from his contemporaries, as well as the fact that he has an added advantage over others given his family background. His forays into solitude seeking exercises such as hiding under the bushes lead to deep ruminations into existential questions such as the reasons for ‘why wars happens’ and ‘no one seemed to win in the end’. This trend seemed to continue into his later life such as after his mystical initation and his experience of ‘seeing the light’ he did not want to share his experiences with anyone, even as he rejoiced them internally. Even his joy was private for him.

But it was eventually his sense of responsibility that forced him to shed his detachment to the world and overlook his private side to fully undertake his responsibility. His political awakening, was another factor that led him to take on a more pro-active public role. The Algerian revolution became a catalyst to incite a sense of political revolt in Ali, and the ‘ fire burning in the Algerian desert kindled a fierce burning inside him’ . So much so that the  ‘Algerian struggle became Ali’s struggle’. The personal became the political for him and it was in this way Ali’s life was informed by such responsibilities and outlooks which came from the acknowledgement which led to him to feel  ‘more conscious that people saw him as fulfilling a destiny thrust on him both by his descendence and his learning”.

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