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Book Review: The Mantle of the Prophet by Roy Mottahedeh

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The notion that a single idea or story could impact lives in such powerful ways, such as determining the course of one’s direction in life, is really quite beautiful. Perhaps that is the writer in me speaking; however, I’m sure many people can relate to this idea — especially those who have been inspired by a text, particularly religious texts. Religion has the ability to alter and define the lives of its practitioners in ways unimaginable.

In Mantle of the Prophet, written by professor of Islamic Middle East history at Harvard University Roy Mottahedeh, the Shi’ite faction of the Islamic faith is depicted through the eyes of Shi’ite mullah, or cleric, Ali Hashemi. The story is completely factual though the name Ali Hashemi was substituted for the mullah himself for purposes of protection.

Mottahedeh begins this seemingly lengthy piece by describing the Iranian city of Qom, which was the location of Ali’s birth and an essential site of sacred Shi’ite learning and tradition in Iran. In doing so, he simultaneously provides his readers with an overarching view of the political climate of Iran in the mid-twentieth century. Granted, the politics of hardly any country in the Middle East can be perfectly depicted within the neat lines of a 400-page book, for so many changes in power have taken place throughout the past century, it would be almost impossible to characterize a nation with words alone.

The sentiments of political change in Iran are much better understood when seeing the dichotomy of Iranian leadership through the scope of an Iranian who lived through the time. One must understand the lens by which the reader is watching the story unfold.

In the case of Ali Hashemi, his lens was a highly religious one to say the least. He was born into a family of sayyeds — descendants of the prophet Mohammad. For the Shi’tes, to be a descendant of the prophet is next to royalty and should be treated as such. Not only was he raised in a devoutly pious family, but he attended the local madreseh — Shi’ite religious institution — in Qom. According to Mottahedeh, madresehs “were seen and saw themselves as the primary focus of attempts to preserve learning and defend orthodoxy.”

On the whole, Mottahedeh hoped The Mantle of the Prophet would be a story of “a revival of religious enthusiasm and a reassertion in so many societies of the demand that religion play a role in politics.” His hope could not have been more accurate, for that is exactly what it is. In walking through Ali Hashemi’s life, the reader is fully able to understand what a vast majority of deeply devout Shi’ite Iranians felt about the various governments throughout the twentieth century and the underlying hope of many for Iran to return to state based upon the “true Shi’i Islam,” for as Ali illustrated throughout his life, in doing so, Iran would be set free from the oppression of the West.

One can learn a great deal not only about Shi’ite Islam but Iran in reading The Mantle of the Prophet. It is a bit of a hefty read and would most likely be a bit challenging to follow if the reader possessed no prior knowledge of the Islamic faith — let alone the Shi’ite faction of Islam. But overall, it is incredibly well-written, factual, and entertaining on the whole. Mottahedeh does an impeccable job of providing the reader with a great balance of the political and religious journey of Ali as it paralleled to the political and religious tensions and strides in Iran throughout the early to mid-twentieth century.

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