The Magazine

The Man and the Myth

The many faces of Hassan Rouhani

Jul 14, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 41 • By ALI ALFONEH and REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Combining hard work with aspiration, he managed to make the right connections to marry above his social class: Sakineh Peyvandi, his 14-year-old bride, was from a wealthy family in the village. The young couple’s first two children died in infancy, making Hassan the oldest of five siblings. 

Asadollah’s piety grew with his social ambition and wealth. In 1952 he undertook the pilgrimage to Mecca, which earned him the title of Hajji. In 1956 Asadollah further boosted his prestige by taking his entire family to the holy sites in Najaf, Iraq, the burial place of the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, the Caliph Ali, the founding father of Shiite Islam. He did so at a time when most of Iran’s peasants, who then vastly outnumbered city-dwellers, would not even visit a neighboring village.

The piety of the Fereydouns was noticed: Villagers consulted Asadollah in religious affairs, wandering preachers found a place in his home, and by 1958 Grand Ayatollah Hossein Tabatabaei Boroujerdi appointed him his vakil, or representative, in Sorkheh. Asadollah was now authorized to collect khums, or annual taxes of one-fifth of all gain, from the faithful. This was no mean achievement. Boroujerdi was the supreme “source of emulation” for Shiites worldwide, and Asadollah would get to see the great man when traveling to Qom to hand over the cash to his office. This was an honor bestowed on few in any province.

Hassan was enveloped by his father’s faith. When he was only 5 years old, he started going with his father to group prayer. At about the same age, he started studying the Koran at the home school of his paternal grandmother. And he was enrolled at the village’s primary school even before attaining school age. His father also made the children herd sheep, weave carpets, and work on his land for a low wage, from which he subtracted the price of school pens and paper, which the children were obliged to buy at his small shop. 

Encouraged by his father, Hassan started theological studies in Semnan in 1960. But in the fall of 1961, Asadollah enrolled him at the Alavi School at the Theological Seminary in Qom, the training ground for most of Iran’s influential clerics. Rouhani’s autobiography leaves the impression that the transfer from Semnan to Qom reflected the grand ambitions of a father for his son, but the move was also politically expedient. After the death of Boroujerdi in March 1961, most villagers in Sorkheh changed their allegiance to Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpayegani. The Shiites of Iran, even after the Islamic Revolution established a clerical dictatorship, are free to choose their religious guides. Fereydoun, always sensitive to the popular mood, enrolled Hassan at the Golpayegani-led Alavi School. In return, the ayatollah made Fereydoun his vakil, authorized to collect religious taxes. Later Rouhani would display a similar instinct for discerning the popular mood and choosing patrons.

Most urban Iranians considered Qom a place of pilgrimage en route to or away from Tehran. The shrine of Fatima, the sister of the eighth imam of the Shiites, attracted hundreds of thousands of pilgrims annually. (The dominant form of Shiism in Iran, the Twelver rite, traces its legitimacy and charismatic spiritualism to Ali and 11 of his male descendants.) The unforgiving desert climate and the stern conservative atmosphere of Qom, however, discouraged pilgrims from staying, even for a night. For 13-year-old Hassan, with only Sorkheh behind him, the famous schools of Qom and their learned clerics from around the Shiite world must have been dazzling. Imagine a sandy, late medieval Oxford.

Hassan’s enrollment coincided with the arrival of Mohammad Beheshti, destined to be the first judiciary chief of the Islamic Republic, whom Golpayegani had entrusted with the task of modernizing the school. One cannot overstate the influence of the charismatic Beheshti on Rouhani. “Disciplined, grand, and stylish” and “wearing shoes instead of slippers,” clad in “a very clean ironed robe,” confident and conversant in English, Beheshti must have been everything Hassan aspired to be. Even today, Rouhani’s speeches closely emulate Beheshti’s in structure, diction, and delivery.

Beheshti was a demanding modernizer whose innovations amounted to a pedagogical earthquake in Qom. All students at the Alavi School had to pass an entrance exam before being allowed to continue their studies. Marks were introduced, and so were annual exams. The students had to study subjects such as Persian literature, calligraphy, colloquial Arabic, mathematics, physics, and chemistry. 

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