Day 4 in Iran

Post by Jim Pankratz, Academic Dean at Conrad Grebel University College

Jim Pankratz meets with scholars at Qom University

Jim Pankratz meets with scholars at Qom University

Qom, home to the Ayatollah Khnomeini before his exile in the 1960s and after his return from exile in February 1979. Center of Shiite scholarship. A city of scores of theological schools and universities and thousands of students.

We arrived in Qom in the late morning after a two-hour drive along a six-lane highway that took us south of Tehran, past the international airport and through the dry grey-brown landscape of central Iran. The flow of traffic felt familiar, but less crowded than intercity highways in the U.S. and Canada. Something was missing. And then we spotted it to the west, less than half a mile away — a separate highway for trucks. Now there’s an idea we can promote as an example of practical cross-cultural learning!

We were generously welcomed at Qom University by its founding president, despite his ill health. The University has almost 6,000 students and is planning for 20,000. Its student population is almost evenly divided between men and women. It offers undergraduate, MA and Ph.D programs in more than fifty departments. We met deans, vice-presidents and faculty representing research, arts, law, engineering, science and environment. The university specializes in the integration of Islamic thought and academic disciplines, so its faculty is all educated in Islam and in their discipline. Their current academic plan calls for more M.A. and Ph.D programs, more interdisciplinary work and more international relationships.

In the open discussion of possible collaboration between universities, programs, or individual scholars, we talked about language and linguistics, philosophy, comparative study of Scripture (Qur’an and Bible), environment (including religion and literature and environment), Abrahamic faiths, criminology, international affairs, and peace and justice.

We identified several ways in which cooperation could take place:

  • Faculty collaboration on research and publication;
  • Faculty sabbaticals;
  • Professors teaching short courses;
  • Students developing contact with students in another country by email, video-conferences, joint online projects, and short visits; and
  • Sharing ideas for new program development.

Professor Legenhausen, who teaches occasional courses at this university and who has had a long scholarly and personal relationship with Mennonites, spoke briefly about who are the Mennonites and what their relationship has been in Iran over the past 18 years.

We were served lunch at the university and then went to check in at our hotel. In the best siesta tradition, we had a rest before our next visit.

The Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute (IKERI) has been a partner with MCC and Mennonite scholars for about ten years. Its buildings have the shape, design, and décor of fine Islamic architecture with domes, arches, and colorful calligraphy. We were welcomed by the Director of International Affairs, Professor A. Haghani, a warm friend of all Mennonites who have traveled to Iran. We were then hosted by Ayatollah Rajabi and several of his colleagues, including Professor Legenhausen. The Ayatollah spoke about the importance of our shared search for truth and commitment to peace.

Discussions then focused on plans for the next dialogue between Mennonite and Shia scholars – seminar theme, timing, schedule, scale of the event, potential participants and publication of results. Within the next month there will be further consultations among Mennonite and Shia scholars to finalize details. The conference is planned for late spring 2009 in Qom.

We paused in the planning meeting for evening prayers, which we as guests observed from a balcony. Then, after another generous meal with our hosts, we returned to our hotel for visits with some of the scholars we had met during the day, for a walk in the local streets, and for rest.

Our first visit tomorrow morning is at 8 a.m., and that story will come to you from the eyes, ears, and pen of Loren Swartzendruber, president of Eastern Mennonite University.

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