Iran – Shia Muslims, Persian hospitality and beautiful art [Pt1)

I went to Iran recently together with my parents on an organised 8 day 6 night trip. I had no idea what to expect before going. While there may be many Iranians residing in Malaysia, it doesn’t tell me much about how their home country is like. And while I may have lived in a country such as Saudi Arabia, I was not sure what it would be like to step into another Islamic country. Here’s my take by category.


We went in the second week of November and the weather was perfect. Temperatures ranged between 17 degrees celcius during the day to 5 degrees at night/early morning. It was super pleasant, save for the first day where it rained. Otherwise, it was sunny for the most part. It made for beautiful and bright pictures.


Landscape view from Azadi Tower, Tehran

Tomb of Harez, Shiraz

View from Tomb of Hafez, Shiraz


Gorgeous day at Eram Garden which is located in Shiraz University

Attire and the headscarf

As an Islamic Republic, the law requires women to put a shawl over their head. While covering hair fully is not imposed, women should at least cover their neck and chest. As a result women in Iran dress modestly too, always wearing a loose blouse that covers most of their body.

Chehel Sotoun Palace, Shiraz

Blending into Autumn colours

Of course when you enter a holy shrine or a mosque are women required to fully cover up.

Iranian women typically wear a ‘chador’ which is equivalent to an ‘abaya’ that you would find Arab women wear in Saudi Arabia or other parts of the Middle East. The difference is that a ‘chador’, which is just like a normal black thin cloak, starts from the head. I notice that women have a strap to adjust the cloth on their head securely, and then insert their arms into the sleeves.

When entering the holy place, they would typically cover the cloth around their whole body (it has no buttons unlike an abaya so women manually cover it around their body with their hands).


Our local tour guide giving us a brief history at Fatimah Masumeh Shrine, Qom

Some women do wear the ‘chador’ on ordinary days too, however this is not imposed on everyone. My take is that those who wear the ‘chador’ are more religious and tend to wear it in cities that are also more religious. You can tell because those who wear it in everyday life cover their hair fully.

Religiosity and understanding differences

This intrigued me. My premature take was that “Everyone is religious in Iran”, the same way that outsiders perceive the rest of the Middle East maybe. Although the country may be governed in such a manner that gives you that impression, it’s not. I spoke to my tour guide who admitted that the younger generation are not as religious, the elderly are. But that’s a common trend in many communities, even in Malaysia.

My parents were in particular curious and interested to learn more about how Shias practiced Islam. Knowing that 10% of the Muslim population worldwide are Shia with most in Iran (and Iraq), this was the best place to observe. And we learned a lot.

Of the 81 million population in Iran, about 90% are Shia, with 10% being Sunni.


Close up look of the beautiful tile work at Shah Cheragh Shrine, Shiraz

Political opinions and differing practices aside, my personal take is that Shias are welcoming of Muslims regardless of sect. For example, they welcome you to their mosques and don’t assume anything of you. I found this heartwarming knowing that in today’s world, there is so much infighting and conflict even within the same religion.

Even in Malaysia there is tension with the presence of Shia Muslims in the country. Some of them were not even welcomed to local mosques which I find to be unjust. People need to remember that we’re all practicing the same religion, we just do it slightly differently.

…to be continued.

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