This is a tale in three parts. It is the tale of the rejected holy man sitting cross-legged beneath an oil of his beloved Imam Ali in a fragrant Maryland basement, while upstairs a daughter makes supper and the TV is tuned to Walter Cronkite.

It is the tale of the 35-year-old doctoral candidate who once, as a boy, watched women tear at their hair and men beat their backs into welts with chains.

And it is the tale of the Wisconsin Avenue rug merchant who prays on a carpet to Allah five times a day.

It is a tale of Muslim Shiites and Shiism, a sect whose name is sung or spat from Western tongues, seeking order to mystery, whose fierce dogmas are now fretted over by the power-imams of Washington.

By Occidental markings, today is Nov. 30, which means only that tomorrow is the Army-Navy game, and tonight is when the pride of Palmer Park, Md. -- Sugar Ray Leonard -- goes for the title in Las Vegas.

But in another world, a world where there is an "ideology of martyrdom," today commemorates the feast of Ashura. It is the 10th and highest day of grieving in the high, holy month of Muharram, the beginning of the Muslim New Year. It is both a bloody and redemptive day, awful and glorious.

For this is the day, 13 centuries ago, when Imam Husayne, praise his name, the grandson of Mohammed, the King of Kings, was slain by his enemies, along with 72 others, in that land where the sand is red, by the calm Euphrates, his head hacked off and staked on a spear, his body trampled by horses. When that awful deed was done, a prophecy from the angel Gabriel was fulfilled.

And all heaven wept.

Across the world today, Shiite Muslims, especially Iranian Shiite Muslims, who comprise nearly the entire population of Iran, will be atoning and expiating that death, just as they have for 13 centuries.

Last year's Ashura foreshadowed the shah's fall as frenzied demonstrations mocked his regime. This year's anniversary has obvious global resonance. Some say Ayatollah Khomeini has orchestrated this year's commemoration for political ends, hanging in the balance of which could be the fate of 50 Americans and the full fury of a superpower scorned.

In Tehran, men will wear shrouds soaked in red dye and march in the streets. They will flog themselves with ceremonial chains. Women will weep. The nights will be full of wailing and religious excitement.

Ashura, Muslims will tell you, is a room with many doors. It is a volcano. It is a wave slapping against the shore. It can teach there is no escape from death, but it is weakness to be a coward.

Tale one: From the street, you wouldn't think anything different about this brick home in a residential, upwardly mobile neighborhood. There is an orange VW in the driveway, a Mercedes out front. The blinds on all three floors are drawn, yes, and there is a brass plate by the buzzer with a Persian inscription. But no other clues.

"Come alone," he had said on the phone, after two conversations.

The daughter of the holy man, now persona non grata, opens the door. "He is waiting. Please" she says, leading toward the basement.

In a far corner of the basement, seated on the floor, shoes off, at a table lit with a lamp, a man is waiting. He rises, comes forward smiling. He wears thick, dark glasses. His hands are clasped in front of him, as if in prayer or at least peace. His fingers are brown and stubby. "Please, please," he says, softly.

This is a Shiite religious center. Once, on Ashura, as many as 1,000 people grieved and prayed and rejoiced in this house. Scholars came. People thumped their breasts (the neighbors were alarmed in the early years). Women wept. This year, tonight, there will be a commemoration, though the numbers will be down by tenfold. People are scared. The "situation."

"I am ashamed myself to be part of Islam, I must tell you this," the holy man says. "Please, please, I ask you, do not say anything bad about Khomeini. The fire must not be fanned."

He takes down his Koran. He kisses it. "Such sorrow in my heart. When they do it in the name of Islam."

There is a piece of fine, white bond in the book. There is typing on the paper, done, he says, by his daughter's hand. He has underlined parts of it with green Magic Marker. It begins:

"In the name of All-Merciful and King God. These are the orders issued by the creature of God, Ali, the son of Abu Talib, to Malik, the son of Ashter: Do not behave with your subjects as if you are a voracious and ravenous heart, and as if your success lies in tearing them apart and devouring them."

He hands the paper over, like alms. "Take, please," he says.

He left the embassy six or seven months ago. He had tried to linger after the shah was gone. But they shrunk his job, froze him out. Now he stays home, a scholar with a diminished flock, while his wife works at a department store. "We do not want to leave this country," he says.

He came over with his wife and children in 1969. In December, as Christmas approached, his daughter wanted to know about Christianity, about Jesus. He took her to church, and when he came home, at 3 o'clock in the morning, he had a dream, although he thinks now it may have been a vision.

"I saw Jesus and Moses, peace be with them, and I saw Ali and Mohammad, peace be with them. And there was blue sky and a huge, white cloud. I was walking in the sky. And Jesus, peace be with Him, looked down -- He was huge -- and smiled at me. And I went to Him and I said, 'Let me kiss you' and He and Moses picked me up. And I heard a voice say, 'Everything will be done. Stay in Maryland. In Mary's Land.'"

And immediately after: "But God is great. And I am very happy."

Small brown beads come out of his pocket. He rubs them, fingers them lovingly. Except for the Eastern music floating from a back room, except for the candles, except for the rugs on the wall with their mysterious lettering, this little man in a buttoned gray cardigan, shoeless and smiling, could be almost anybody's grandfather.

He speaks of America. He loves America, he says, embracing her, opening his arms to her. "God has given the American people everything you can have in heaven -- good food, climate, plentitude of work. Of course, the American people always want more. But this is human nature."

What will he do now? It is an idle question. He will read his Koran. He will be at one with Allah, the Beneficient, the Merciful.

"I feel like a millionaire in my heart."

Tale two: He has seen men take sharpened crescents and make straight, deep slashes into their foreheads. "Just like that," he says. He has seen the blood, bright and red, rising like a geyser, a fish in evening red. No, he will not be participating in the rites this year, he says. Education, not religion, has set him free, though in truth, back then, he was even a doubter. "I was always more disgusted than terrified. I was warned about retaliation from the supernatural for my attitudes."

He is sitting in an empty classroom at Tenley Circle. He is a stocky, friendly, thoughtful, round-faced man. He sits at a table, nodding, looking down. As he talks, he makes idle symbols with a pencil on a pad before him. The words come slowly, like the ooze of oil.

His father is a lawyer, he says. Yes, his mother will weep on Ashura, though in private. The utmost care must be taken to protect his family, he says. He begins to name the prestigious European university where his younger brother was educated -- then suddenly, with a look of struck fear, he says: "But, please, you will not give the name in the paper. They will be able to trace it, if they want.

In this climate, you are either with them or against them."

Later that evening, he calls twice. "I know I sound paranoid . . ." he apologizes.

Can he ever go back? he is asked.

"In my head or in my heart?" he says, smiling for the first time. Then he says: "The only way I can justify going back in my heart is to pursue a mission which would educate a limited number of people so that they would not be so easily manipulated and led to the streets like herds of sheep, like cows."

He bites this last word. He is disgusted.

The ayatollah? Again, the words come with great precision. "You must remember that members of his own family were murdered by the shah. You are speaking now of a vengeful old man, of a frustrated old man, of a disgraced old man who was driven from his country. I think the president of the United States should have more dignity than to pursue a verbal argument with an old man on the other side of the world."

It goes on like this, always measured, with flashes, like shook foil, of anger and resentment. At one point, he says: "Always in my family there was a strange combination of reason, logic, blind acceptance and skepticism."

Finally, on the way down to the ground floor, in the elevator, he says: "You ask if I am a Shiite. Can I be anything else? And yet I am a stranger to my own land and my own people. The rituals I have described represent to me an almost primitive, animalistic form of demonstrating belief. I regard them as subconscious acts, these rituals. I honestly believe these people are crying for themselves. They are not crying for some imam who died hundreds of years ago. They are sad about their circumstances."

And what of his circumstances? He has anticipated. "I believe that if the basic idea of Islam is trust in God and helping your fellow man, then I am a far better Muslim than those who spend their days in prayer and slashing themselves Friday. That is what I believe."

Tale three:

So come now, on a wind-whipped Georgetown afternoon, when the sky is like canvas, to Mr. Nahidian's rug store. Nahidian is sitting in the rear of his store. He is a small man, calm and bearded. The insides of his shoes are scuffed. He is wearing a woolen blazer. He is eating barley and rice from a Styrofoam cup and drinking tea. The tea is clear and tawny. It looks like stained glass, like silk dyed brown.

Here, he says, proffering a juice glass of the liquid, a smile playing like wind through live oaks, take this tea.

"This environment is the material system," he says in dulcet tones. "If we continuously think of the material, how will we be elevated to the whole system? We will not even be able to ask, 'This tea sitting in front of me comes from -- Where?' Of course, it comes from Allah."

Some people in Washington say that Nahidian is connected closely to the Iranian Embassy and the new regime there. (His sister is the wife of a high-ranking officer.) Some people will swear to you that he is an angry, violent man. Today, though, amid his rugs, Bahram Nahidian, seems a model of placidity.

"Oh, thank you. I take it as a compliment. If I may say it, I take my leader Khomeini as an example. He is very soft. No matter what happens, he is calm.

He is asked about Ashura's orgies of atonement. "Oh, the beating," he says, almost laughing. "Well, I have not participated in 20 years I have been living here for 20 years. The understanding came to me, so there is no reason to beat myself."


"Oh, yes. The understanding that the reason I used to beat myself was because I was unable to . . . give my voice out . . . to say that the shah is a criminal. But now that I am here, I am able to say those words. You see what we do with the beating is symbolic. We beat ourselves, each other, instead of the enemy. We are saying that one day we will become powerful enough to get rid of our tyrants. And we have."

The phone (there are two on his desk, plus a typewriter) has rung during this. He has dispatched it quickly, speaking in Persian.

Only now there is a customer in the store -- a woman in an Aquascutum. "Excuse me," the rug merchant says, buttoning his woolen jacket and going over with smiles. "Yes, we can put fringe on it for you, madam," he says a moment later. "A very good price, $2,300, a very good rug."

He comes back: No sale. After a while, he begins talking of "ensan" -- the Muslim view of humankind. "If a man hurts the society, he hurts himself. tIf he steals from someone, he steals from himself."

But isn't the ayatollah hurting the society? he is asked.

This causes not a ripple. "I would say the vision they have is not accurate. They have not really studied to see what is his goal, what is his aim. People who say that have not even recognized there is some other world besides the world of the material. They have seen everything in dollars. The ideology of Islam is way beyond dollar value. Khomeini, what he is talking about is humanity."

Please God, the interviewer says at this point, fumbling for transition . . . would you be willing to sacrifice your life?

In the wink of an eye:

"And my wife and my children for the cause of Allah? Sure, every minute, every moment, every day."

It looks finished. No. "And you know why? Because I am looking at the whole. You see only the world here. There is no day of hereafter. Even if you say it, you don't mean it. But in truth, if you knew there was a heaven, really a heaven, you would believe it. But you don't want to get out of that frame. I say, no, when I am dead, it is the beginning of the life of hereafter.

"And therefore, what could be better than that? To be dead, but to still be alive -- forever? That is Islam."

Both palms are up. Bahram Nahidian cracks his knuckles. The interview is concluded.

As one of the greatest poets from the age of the Caliphs has written: But if there is no escape from death, 'Tis weakness to be a coward. All that the soul finds hard before it has come to pass Is easy when it comes.