QOM, IRAN - On a recent Thursday, the marble-paved courtyards of Qom's 400-year-old Hazrat-e Masumeh shrine were filled with family groups of Shiite pilgrims from different communities. Many were Iranians, but I also heard snatches of Arabic amid the Farsi and saw faces from throughout central Asia and saris from the Indian subcontinent.
Like nearly all the women here, I was wrapped in an all-encompassing black chador. (It's hard to keep that massive, single piece of cloth from slithering to the ground. I marveled at the young mothers who managed theirs while pushing strollers or keeping restive toddlers under control.)
A shrine official who learned that my husband and I were from America greeted us warmly and pressed small souvenirs into our hands. He said that as nonbelievers, we could not enter the shrine spaces but could look at - and yes, photograph - the stunning turquoise-tiled domes and minarets from the courtyards. Fifteen million pilgrims come to the shrine each year, he said.
All around the four-acre complex, busy arcades of shops cater to the pilgrim trade. (Qom's confectioners make a special gingery toffee of much deserved renown.) Shrine-related seminaries and religious high schools dotted throughout Qom serve 70,000 students. The most famous person to have studied and taught here was Ayatollah Khomeini, author of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.
All these reminders of an entrenched Islamic tradition stood in contrast to the aura of change we found a few hours later in Tehran, when we participated in an extraordinarily rich discussion - principally among Iranian scholars - on the relationship between Islam and democracy. Iranian-Canadian professor Forough Jahanbakhsh, the sole female presenter there, noted at one point that religious intellectuals in Iran have a good basis on which to address this topic, "because we have 25 years of experience of Islamic government here to reflect on."
Another thought-provoking presenter was Mohsen Kadivar, who graduated from - and taught for 14 years in - the seminaries in Qom. Dr. Kadivar, who wears the robes of a trained mullah, presented an intriguing theory of what he called "liberated democracy," based on complete equality among all human beings and a continuing freedom of conscience and belief.
This stimulating, four-hour discussion had its own interesting history. It was cosponsored by Ferdowsi University in the eastern Iranian city of Mashhad and the Washington-based Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy. Originally, the event's organizers had planned a two-day conference at Ferdowsi, which like all Iranian universities is owned and run by the state. Then, shortly before the conference's Dec. 1 opening, religious militants in Mashhad announced they would physically attack Kadivar and four of the other listed participants if they showed up.
The city's authorities reportedly said they could not guarantee the safety of the threatened five. So the conference organizers scaled back their plans in Mashhad and swiftly set up the additional session in Tehran, where Kadivar and the others could all present their thoughts. Significantly, the Tehran session was hosted - generously and efficiently - by the Ministry of Education.
The topic "Islam and democracy" evidently stirs much controversy even within the ranks of pro-regime people here. At a broader level, 25 years after the mullahs took power in Iran, the role of religion in the lives of its 70 million people also seems deeply contested.
Quite separate from the troubles encountered by the conference, our own plans to travel to Mashhad also fell through, so we spent a couple of fascinating days between Tehran and Qom. Some Iranians we met railed against the restrictions that the mullahs try to impose on people here. Others, more pious, supported signs of personal piety such as keeping to an ultramodest dress code, but expressed concern that the government's attempts to enforce such restrictions had alienated many young Iranians not just from the government, but from Islam itself.
Certainly, in Tehran, observance of the government-preferred social codes is much more relaxed than in Qom, where nearly all women wear the all-concealing chador in public. In the streets and shopping malls of Tehran, by contrast, many younger women wear tight jeans, covering their thighs with only the flimsy flaps of a long cotton shirt. And though Tehran women wear headscarves in public, many of these scarves are pushed back to reveal large amounts of once-forbidden hair. In Tehran, street stalls now openly display long-banned CDs, and young people crowd onto the Internet to experience things - like pop culture and mixing of the sexes - of which the ruling mullahs heartily disapprove.
Will this disaffection from the mullahs' rule lead to the kind of broad political upheaval that 25 years ago swept Iran's Shah from power? Most likely, not any time soon. Several Iranians said the fact that sudden "regime change" in neighboring Iraq had led to massive insecurity and social breakdown made even the most ardent reformers here very wary of pushing for too much change, too fast. But rapid or not, change is clearly on its way.
Whatever happens nationwide, though, I predict the esthetically stunning shrine complex here in Qom will survive.
• Helena Cobban is working on a book about violence and its legacies. She spent two months traveling in the Middle East this fall.