Ahmad Iravani is a professor from Mofid University in Qom, the center of Shiite Islamic orthodoxy and learning in Iran. He has earned the highest post-doctoral degrees possible in traditional Islamic teaching (called Ijtehad), and until recently served as head of his university's School of Philosophy while he also was teaching Islamic economics, law, logic and philosophy at several other Iranian universities.
He left all that behind in 2000, when he got a chance to study Western philosophy at Catholic University.
"I had an opportunity and thought it was important to take it, to finish my studies," says Professor Iravani, who has focused his scholarly attention on modern humanities.
He was able to study ancient philosophy, logic and some Western philosophical texts in Iran, where he earned bachelor's and master's degrees in Western philosophy. But because some modern academic disciplines are relatively new at Iranian universities — which are rooted in traditional Islamic teaching — scholars like Professor Iravani are interested in studying in the United States, according to the professor and the Rev. George McLean, O.M.I., director of CUA's Center for the Study of Culture and Values.
Father McLean, who also is a CUA professor emeritus of philosophy, has made a life's work of helping scholars like Professor Iravani share their ideas. He met Professor Iravani while attending a 1999 seminar on Mulla Sadra (the father of Islamic Transcendent Theosophy) in Tehran, and by invitation of Professor Iravani paid a short visit to Mofid University. Later, in May 2000, Father McLean spent a good deal of time in Iran meeting with academics, and was reportedly the first non-Muslim to teach at Mofid University for one month. During this trip, he became better acquainted with Professor Iravani and invited him to visit Catholic University.
In September 2000, Professor Iravani accepted the invitation and visited Washington, D.C., along with the executive vice president of Mofid University, who came to sign a three-year memorandum of understanding for institutional cooperation with the Very Rev. David M. O'Connell, C.M., President. The agreement provides for cooperation on exchange of students and professors between the two universities, in addition to collaborative conferences and teaching/research projects.
The two Iranian visitors were at a law school reception with Professor Marshall Breger and Interim Dean Robert Destro when Father McLean suggested that Professor Iravani pursue a doctoral degree in philosophy at CUA. Shortly thereafter, Professor Destro invited him to teach a course on Islamic law at the Columbus School of Law. The offers were so tempting that Professor Iravani opted to stay in the United States to immediately start studying and teaching.
He had to wait another year for his wife and four teenage children to be approved for additional visas.
"It was very difficult being away from them," he says, adding that he returned to Iran after the 2000/2001 school year to go through the process of obtaining new visas so he could bring his family to the United States. He was successful, even after the events of Sept. 11. While travel to the United States was difficult for many Middle Eastern people at that time, Professor Iravani said customs and immigration officials were very helpful.
"A lot of people at home told us not to go, but we took a risk," says the professor, who is now living in Gaithersburg, Md. "Since we've been here, we've received nothing but respect and sympathy."
Since his return, Professor Iravani has spent a fair amount of time traveling around the country, giving lectures at other universities and Iranian cultural centers. He's had more invitations to speak about Islam since Sept. 11. The topics are sometimes controversial – people want to know about women's rights as taught by Islam, about freedom of thought and faith in the Muslim world, the relationship between science and religion, and possible conflicts between modern thought and Islam.
"Normally, non-Muslims want to know if the attacks could be justified in Islamic studies. I explain it's very difficult to find justification in the Islamic texts we have, because killing of innocent people is something forbidden. Even in a war, Islam forbids such destruction or harm, even toward the environment, toward trees or animals," he says. "Sometimes people say they are somewhat ignorant of Islam, so I see the benefits of fostering understanding."
He hopes his work with Father McLean and the Center for the Study of Culture and Values will help create more opportunities for exchange between Islamic scholars and their counterparts at Catholic University. This kind of dialogue is greatly needed at this time, he says.
Bridging a culture gap is nothing new to Professor Iravani, who explains that he's been to more than 100 countries."I like to make new friends and learn," he says. "That's why I am enjoying my time as a student – able to be adventurous and meet so many diverse people. It is wonderful to learn so much from others."