Even the time is different in this Holy City, as if to register the desire of the Shia sect of Islam to keep its distance from Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his works.

The religious part of Qom still tells time the old way - the way it was before the government years ago set other Iranian clocks ahead 90 minutes to conform to changes made elsewhere in the Middle East.

Yet such stubborn surface devotion to the past is a dangerous illusion that mirrors the shah's propaganda depicting the Shia leadership as hopelessly retrograde and reactionary.

Actually, the clergy's current conflict with the shah has brought about changes unthinkable even six months ago when a shaking first was a not an unusual greeting to foreign motorists driving through this fervently religious city.

The casual visitor would be hard put to notice the changes. All seems outwardly the same in this center of Islamic learning, where about 10,000 seminary students from all over the Shia world study at the Dar-ul-Tabilq, or House of the propagation of the faith.

Yet, the clergy has learned the tactical ropes in its conflict with the shah. The most important lesson is that for reasons of his own - and his image abroad in the era of American official concern with human rights - the shah has decided to tolerate a certain level of dissent.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the antagonists' dealings with the foreign press that comes whenever heavy tanks or just riot police take over the town.

When the first foreign report's interviewed Ayatollah Shariat Madhari in January, for example, their 120-mile journey from Tehran was conducted with all the planning and secrecy of a major military operation.

Cars were changed en route. Guides appeared out of nowhere to lead the visitors silently to their rendezvous with the ayatollah, meaning leader of prayers.The whole atmosphere was one of fear and trembling, intrigue and imminent arrest.

By now, as dozens of foreign journalists - and the government, thanks to its efficient secret police, known as SAVAK - have discovered, appointments with the ayatollah can be arranged with a simple telephone call from dissidents in the capital. They dispatch the press in taxis with scribbled notes of introduction.

But for all the clergy's efforts at urbanity, there are limits when to comes to welcoming women in this city, known throughout the land for its antifeminism.

The current crisis with the government has allowed the QOM clergy to ignore the fanatics' worst antifeminist outpourings - an indication of the power the leadership has acquired in its struggle against the government.

Still, Western women are welcome to QOM only if they wear the chador , the full-length veil affected by the religious. Whether insisting that visiting reporters wear the veil is in keeping with the town's reputation or meant as a disguise to fool inquisitive police informers is not clear.

But since the wearing of the chador is quite an art - involving holding it in either side of the mouth - it is doubtful that many Iranians fail to see through such novices's performances.

Photographs were once taboo. But now the ayatollah, a small, stooped figure with a Santa Claus beard, shows no sign of displeasure at the sight of a camera.

Buoyed by the fervor of his partisans, Shariat Madhari has become more outspoken as events have forced the once retiring cleric onto stage center.

He receives visitors in a bare room, whose gray walls and two naked light bulbs are relieved only by a splendid carpet, and two oil lamps, surrounded by a coterie of servants and associates.

The same questions - about cooperation with the Communists, the role of women, the protest movement's detailed goals - have been asked so often that the ayatollah has no trouble reeling off his answers.

But an incident earlier this month - when troops raided the compounds of two ayatollahs, leaving two mullahs dead - obviously angered him.

"The government says it was a mistake. Its purpose was to threaten us to stand aside. We will never stop," he said.

Did he then fear that he risked arrest?

"The government will never make the mistake," he said, "because the whole country would blow up."