The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran (Review)

Book cover for "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ" by Hooman Majd.Title: The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran

Author & Narrator: Hooman Majd

Publication Year: 2008

Pages: 320 (audio: 9 hours 29 minutes)

Genre: Non-Fiction, Travel Writing

Source: Audiobook purchased from

From the cover:

The grandson of an eminent ayatollah and the son of an Iranian diplomat, journalist Hooman Majd is uniquely qualified to explain contemporary Iran’s complex and misunderstood culture to Western readers.

The Ayatollah Begs to Differ provides an intimate look at a paradoxical country that is both deeply religious and highly cosmopolitan, authoritarian yet informed by a history of democratic and reformist traditions. Majd offers an insightful tour of Iranian culture, introducing fascinating characters from all walks of life, including zealous government officials, tough female cab drivers, and open-minded, reformist ayatollahs. It’s an Iran that will surprise readers and challenge Western stereotypes.

In his new preface, Majd discusses the Iranian mood during and after the June 2009 presidential election which set off the largest street protests since the revolution that brought the ayatollahs to power.

I have to confess that, until recently, I really didn’t understand the whole concept of Shi’a Islam, particularly in the Iranian context. I mean, I knew that they were a fairly large sect of Islam, and I knew that the Ayatollahs were somehow considered to be the high clergy of Shi’a Islam (as compared to Sunni/mainstream Islam, which has scholars but no formal leadership structure). I even knew that the Sunni/Shi’a split largely came about from a disagreement over who should have taken over the caliphate (leadership of the Muslim community – politically, but also a bit religiously – after Muhammad), but that was really the limits of my knowledge.

This book really helped to flesh out more of the details of Shi’a Islam for me, as well as many more of the details of how Shi’a Islam and the Islamic Revolution have affected the lives of ordinary Iranians. As compared to Khomeini’s Ghost, this book was far more personal and interested in exposing the lives of every day Iranians, with less of a focus on the political elite. There was still a rather important focus at times on the politicians of the Revolution and of the current Iranian government – including Ahmadinejad – but this coverage was simply a complement to the rest of the narrative and a necessary piece of the puzzle.

I still wouldn’t really say that The Ayatollah Begs to Differ was really all that informative about certain issues, particularly those involving the personal restrictions that affect Iranians (and especially women). There was very little emphasis on “the veil”, even though there were a number of parts where Majd addressed the dress codes of the chador and the head covering; it’s just that these were largely anecdotes relating to specific experiences or situations, and not to the lives of Iranians as a whole.

In general, though, this was more of a book about modern Iranian culture, and how that culture seems to contradict the nature of the Islamic Republic, than anything. Majd is particularly interested in how ordinary Iranians’ beliefs are compatible or contradictory to the rule of the ayatollahs, and in looking at the ways in which Iranians cope with these differences.

I found Majd’s book interesting, just not personally my favourite type of book on the subject. The narration, though, I really enjoyed; I’ve never before listened to a book read by the actual author, and had been led to believe that this wouldn’t be a good thing. On the contrary, however, I really enjoyed hearing Majd’s story in his own words – it lent a kind of personability to the narrative, and allowed you to really feel like you were on the journey with him.

The Ayatollah Begs to Differ is definitely a good book if you’re looking for a cultural study of Iran or particularly of Tehran, with a focus on Islam and the Revolution or the Republic. It’s mostly based on personal anecdote, though, so if you’re looking for a full historical or factual, all-encompassing account, then you will be disappointed.


This book is a part of the Ramadan Reading event happening here this month.

You can find other posts in the series by clicking on the image to the right, or by taking a look at the schedule of posts and reviews.

4 thoughts on “The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran (Review)”

  1. It sounds like this book would hit me the same way it hit you: I’d want more on the Shah, the Ayattolah and what it is like for women. Thank you for the review! I’m giving you a shout-out in my August review….

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