The 2 Lives of a Newly Minted Cleric
By Elaine Sciolino
The New York Times
October 6, 2000
TEHRAN - The black cloak was draped over his shoulders, nearly covering
his neatly pressed long gray robe. The white turban carried on a gladiola-covered
tray was placed on his head. Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem-Shirazi, one
of the most senior religious leaders in Iran, expressed confidence that
the new cleric would carry on the work of his father, a beloved senior
ayatollah from Shiraz who had died a few days before. The crowd of several
thousand cheered, "Praise be to God!" over and over.
The "bestowing of the turban," as the crowning ceremony is
called, was over in five minutes.
Amir Mahallati has been a diplomat, a visiting professor at Princeton,
Yale and Columbia, a scholar in residence at policy institutes in Washington
and a self-appointed pitchman for promoting understanding between Iran
and the United States.
As Iran's ambassador to the United Nations in the late 1980's, he was
recalled home after he promoted an early end to the Iran-Iraq war. A self-taught
expert on medieval Persian poets, he can effortlessly recite their mystical
Now suddenly, at 48, without any formal religious training or scholarly
writings to his name, Mr. Mahallati has been transformed into a cleric.
And not a low-level cleric, either. He has been made a hojatolislam, the
same rank as Iran's president, Mohammad Khatami, and just one level below
"To go from being a layman to a cleric overnight!" Mr. Mahallati
exclaimed over dinner at a private home in Tehran one evening. "Well,
I've never been one to be cautious."
The vocation is usually passed down within a clerical or deeply religious
family. For 300 years the Mahallatis have been clerics. Mr. Mahallati's
grandfather was a learned ayatollah who taught Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini,
the father of Iran's Islamic revolution of 1979.
But the clerical profession in Iran is also surprisingly informal and
democratic. No central authority grants theological students the right
to don, or doff, clerical garb. There are no fixed rules or requirements
for becoming an ayatollah or a hojatolislam. Still, making a man with no
formal religious training a cleric overnight is unusual.
And it was done in part for a very temporal reason.
Even though the Islamic Republic confiscated vast swaths of property
and countless businesses and homes from private owners at the beginning
of the revolution, there is a strong tradition favoring private ownership.
Powerful clerics often control profitable "endowments," charitable
enterprises that help feed the poor.
Ayatollah Majdeddin Mahallati, Mr. Mahallati's father, built a seminary,
a hospital, a mosque and free housing units for families that had lost
their breadwinners, and founded a charity to provide social security payments
to the poor. He willed his endowments to Amir, his eldest son.
That son said the primary reason he had become a cleric was "to
fulfill a father's dying wish and to continue the charitable works of the
family." But he acknowledged that if he had not moved to Shiraz and
donned a turban and cloak, the endowments would have reverted to the Islamic
"If I hadn't taken over," he said, "the state would have
stepped in. My father created these endowments, and so he had the right
to say who should succeed him. And he chose me." He added that the
endowments were deeply in debt.
So Mr. Mahallati came up with a comfortable compromise. For part of
the year he would wear his clerical turban and robes and study, preach
and advise the faithful in Shiraz, all the while running his father's enterprises.
The other part of the year, he would dress in civilian garb. He would lecture,
travel and promote Iranian and Islamic culture from his headquarters in
a modern townhouse where he lives alone in suburban Maryland.
The arrangement allows him to maintain his legal resident status in
the United States.
In Shiraz he has moved into his parents' house, where he lives with
his mother, and keeps in touch with his American friends by mobile phone
and e-mail. He studies Arabic and jurisprudence for three hours every day,
and for several hours after that he receives visitors. He goes at noon
to lead prayers at his grandfather's mosque; in the evening, at his father's
Mr. Mahallati admits that he is feeling his way in his new role. Shortly
after he was made a cleric, he was visited by more than 100 people from
Shiraz who told him that his father had traditionally given them a good
lecture and a good meal. So the son arranged for a lavish dinner. He gave
a long talk on an unusual subject, filmmaking.
"I told them that they had no excuse for denying their sons and
daughters a world in the arts, and if they came to you and said they wanted
to be actors or directors, you tell them to go wholeheartedly into these
fields," he said. "I told them that preaching day and night to
people does not work. You have to use the language of art and popular culture.
"And then I said to myself, `Oh, my God, here are the heads of
the most conservative families in Shiraz, and I'm promoting movies.' My
language isn't clerical language."
Mr. Mahallati studied economics at the National University in Tehran,
civil engineering at the University of Kansas, political economy at the
University of Oregon and international relations at Columbia University.
So when people come and ask him complicated questions about Islamic jurisprudence
or alms-giving or how they should properly wash themselves, Mr. Mahallati
admits that he often does not know what to say.
"Sometimes I say to myself, `O.K., let me just use common sense.'
Other times I say: `I have to study the matter. Please come back tomorrow.'
So far I haven't blown it."
There are other adjustments. When he was a diplomat, he was under strict
instructions not to shake the hand of any woman who was not a close family
member. A hand over the heart and a bow had to suffice. In private life
in the United States, he has let common sense prevail. But now he will
revert to the hand over the heart and the bow.
Even wearing the clerical robes took some adjustment. "You cannot
walk fast in this clerical costume," he said. "It doesn't look
good. The robe starts flapping in the air."
He still has to learn how to wrap a turban. For the moment, a friend
wraps six of them at a time in advance, so he always has one ready to pop
on. He is sometimes told that his neatly clipped beard is too short and
his hair too long.
And he already senses that his once anonymous life has evaporated. One
afternoon in Shiraz, when he sneaked out to an Internet cafe in his civilian
garb, he was spotted by one of his father's followers, who called him by
his religious title and told him how nice it was to see him.
"My cover was blown," Mr. Mahallati said. "The weight
of the cloak can sometimes be very heavy."