Mystics and Interlopers

By Nile GreenSeptember 26, 2018

Mystics and Interlopers

The Iranian Metaphysicals by Alireza Doostdar

A QUESTION for our post-secular times: How effective are Islamic states at satisfying the religious needs of their citizens?

As the most fully realized example of the various models of Islamic statehood theorized since the mid-20th century, Iran’s Islamic Republic is an obvious candidate for considering this subject. Since its founding in 1979, its sprawling governmental agencies have explored myriad ways of providing citizens with what official clergy consider the correct version of Shi‘ism, whether through school lessons and morality laws or religious TV dramas and monumental pilgrim sites. Such attempts to monopolize the supply of religion have been reinforced by restricting competition from other religious providers via legal and various disincentives against propagating other faiths, including “deviant” forms of Islam.

For many Iranian citizens, this has given rise to the practical metaphysical dilemma of where to find religious fulfillment in a country where state-sanctioned religion is unfulfilling and other expressions of religiosity are curtailed. In his important and highly original new book, Alireza Doostdar explores the ways in which Iranians have negotiated this dilemma. Without directly addressing the question posed above, his book affords rare insight into how it might be answered by showing how middle-class Iranians have sought spiritual solace outside official Islam, while avoiding the risks of conversion to another religion.

It is here — in the question of what gets recognized or conceptualized as “religion” — that Doostdar charts out his domain of inquiry into the range of metaphysical beliefs and occult activities whose practitioners and (mostly low-key) promoters try to present in terms compatible or at least not openly conflicting with official religion. The result is far more nuanced than just another study of “rituals of resistance.” As Doostdar is careful to show, while his informants do their best to stay off the state’s blasphemy radar, having grown up in the Islamic Republic, their mystical ruminations frequently echo official discourses of moral uplift and religious rationalization. Despite their pursuit of distinct spiritual trajectories from those plotted by state Shi‘ism, these Persian “metaphysicals” remain products of a society shaped by Iran’s particular iteration of Islamic government.

What Doostdar is dealing with is the startling popularity in Iran of a range of esoteric doctrines, psychic services, and body-mind therapies that at first glance seem familiar to anyone who has walked certain sections of Sunset Boulevard: Reiki, New Thought, and Eckankar are all part of his purview. But these imported products of the Western New Age have not only been adopted alongside more indigenous Islamic occultisms. They have also frequently been blended with them to produce new esoteric systems in which the Qur’an and ectoplasm are melded with apparent hermeneutical harmony. In the most striking case, no less a figure than Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, is shown to have written a theological treatise in his youth that used the table-tapping evidence of French-founded Spiritism to prove Muslim doctrines of the afterlife. For, as Doostdar carefully explains, the domain of the metaphysical has not only flourished in Iran as an alternative to official religion; it has done so by absorbing the language of modern science that had previously been appropriated by the founders of the Islamic Republic. 

While the book focuses primarily on the period between the early 1990s (when many of the new spiritual practices spread) and the late 2000s (when Doostdar carried out his fieldwork), several chapters reach back to Iran’s importation of European science in the 19th century. This longer developmental backdrop is crucial for understanding the rationalization process that Doostdar unravels by which, over the course of the 20th century, clergymen, intellectuals, journalists, and politicians inadvertently joined forces in promoting a scientized model of metaphysical reason that ultimately purged both official Shi‘a Islam and unofficial spirituality of anything resembling “superstition” (khorafat), a category drawn up as the discursive polar opposite of “science” (‘elm) and the “rational” (‘aqlani) more broadly. With the creation of the Islamic Republic, and the bureaucratic elaboration of its epistemological Islamocentrism via new disciplines of Shi‘i political science, Shi‘i sociology, and even Shi‘i town planning, this process of religious rationalization gathered pace as official ideologues sought to realize their utopia as a religious but no less rational alternative to the secular West.

Thus, the peculiarly modern invention of an Islamic Republic provided the discursive context for the rise of a rationalized metaphysics that, even as it was pursued as an alternative to state religion, was ultimately inseparable from the intellectual habitus the state had created. 

To provide a few tangible sociological handles for readers to grasp these abstruse developments, Doostdar divides his book into three parts, named after key figures who embody the metaphysical predicaments of modern Iran. The first, “Rammal,” centers on the debates that came to surround the traditional purveyor of such occult services as palm-reading, faith-healing, and exorcism. (The term is from raml, “geomancy,” being one of the rammals’ many mystic stocks in trade). From the early 20th century, such rammals were widely disparaged as charlatans by secularizing officials and intellectuals who saw superstition as the key culprit behind Iran’s backwardness in comparison to Europe. Since the rammals’ practices drew on many formal features of Muslim belief — such as the existence of a “world of the unseen” (gheyb) and of “genies” (jinn) — for many Shi‘i clerics these criticisms seemed to impinge dangerously on their own guarded domains. As a result, leading members of the clergy joined the denunciation of superstition, while at the same time formulating new theologies designed to distance and thereby protect Shi‘ism from the secular charge of superstition. In the wake of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, it was this newly rationalized Shi‘i Islam that became the creed of the Islamic Republic.

As the new state tried to impose a monopoly on religion by banning the activities of rammals (and a host of other religious competitors), the Shi‘i clergy institutionalized certain metaphysical doctrines they shared with the “charlatans” into the state’s officially expounded religion. While belief in a “world of the unseen” became part of official theology, manipulators of that world’s occult forces became subject to prosecution. At once condoned and condemned, in post-revolutionary Iran the occult acquired an ambiguous and contested status. Thus, while around 10 percent of the population still apparently visit rammals, the latter are forced to conduct their supernatural business from shady and illegal outposts in the shabbiest of suburbs. 

Yet as the rammal was pushed to the margins of respectability during the decades either side of the revolution, scientized forms of metaphysics emerged in Iran as an alternative to the embarrassingly backward ways of old. Crucial to this development was the introduction to Tehran high society of Spiritism by an Iranian doctor trained in France. In the mid-1920s, this led to the founding of the Society of Experimental Spirit Science (Anjoman-e Ma‘rifat al-Ruh-e Tajrobati), where modernizing members of Iran’s professional, bureaucratic, and intellectual classes gathered to summon the spirits of long-dead luminaries of national greatness, whether the poet Hafiz or the philosopher Avicenna. Following cues from Europe, the Iranian aficionados of Spiritism presented the séance as a scientific experiment that offered empirical proof of the existence of the “world of the unseen.”

As science seemed to be at once proving and improving the vaguer speculations of rammals and clergymen alike, there arose a new type of metaphysician; indeed, a new discursive field that in an echo of its imported origins acquired the Persian name metafizik. Wrapped in the language of science, this philosophical label lent the new metaphysicians room for maneuver when the founding of the Islamic Republic brought about the policing of religion, particularly of what state clerics regarded as apostasy or blasphemy. Being positioned outside the formal domain of religion thus afforded metafizik a space to operate, particularly by the 1990s, when the cultural thaw under Presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami enabled the publishing of numerous new books under the safe label of metafizik. As disenchantment set in with politicized official Shi‘ism in the wake of the Iran-Iraq war, the market for these books boomed, especially among the middle classes whose milieu is Doostdar’s primary field of inquiry.

Several of his chapters summarize the writings of Mohammad Ali Taheri and Mostafa Malekian, prominent theorists of the new metaphysics. Offering self-help style therapeutic spirituality, the “Cosmic Mysticism” (‘Erfan-e Halgheh) of the former engineer Taheri was particularly influential among the educated, who flocked to his seminars and clinics in cities across Iran (as well as in California). Doostdar relates the success of such figures to the spread of scientific attitudes that regard the value of different forms of religiosity as being empirically testable according to the degree to which they provide individual practitioners with tranquility and joy. Yet even as the purveyors of this individualistic spirituality tried to steer clear of the state’s domains of politics and religion, the risk remained that their ideas — or influence — might attract official attention. In Taheri’s case, this is precisely what happened when he was arrested in 2011 and eventually charged for Fesad fi’l Arz (the equivalent of blasphemy, literally “spreading corruption on earth”). Since then, several of his followers have also been arrested, while Taheri himself apparently remains in prison appealing a death sentence.

Given its self-appointed charge of overseeing its citizens’ morality and orthodoxy, the Islamic Republic could not ignore the fact that many Iranians were turning away from official Shi‘ism toward various forms of metafizik in order to satisfy their spiritual needs. Yet its policies were not only based on coercion any more than its citizens’ spiritual aspirations involved a wholesale rejection of state Shi‘ism. It is here that Doostdar is at his most subtle, refusing to reduce his subject into another account of “counterhegemonic” resistance. Instead, he reveals the meshing of private and public notions of spirituality as the omnipresence of official notions of religion shape citizens’ minds at the same time that the state’s need for moral legitimacy compels its clergymen to respond to the public’s spiritual discontent. 

This entangled dynamic is the focus of the book’s third and final part, which centers on the figure of the “Friend of God,” or Muslim saint. Since early Islamic history, the question of which mortals Allah has chosen as his favored friends has been contested, with the saintly biography emerging as the preeminent vehicle for these contests. Unsurprisingly, then, the hagiography became a key tool in the Islamic Republic’s mission to create a pious citizenry. In state-subsidized hagiographies, revolutionary clerics and martyrs were presented to the reading public as religiously and politically correct role models. Yet this governmental instrumentalizing of the Friends of God had unintended consequences as the hagiography slipped out of state hands. Since the 1990s, a welter of unofficial hagiographies was published that championed the saintly claims of figures with no links whatsoever to the official revolutionary Islam. On the contrary, these alternative Friends of God tended to be political quietists who devoted themselves to the introspective cultivation of moral perfection. With the spread of internet access, the saints entered cyberspace as young believers wrote blogs about their favorite saints that debated and challenged the official pantheon.

As state and citizen hagiographers competed to define saintly role models for the population at large, the very people whom the Islamic Republic regarded as its right and duty to religiously guide came to reject the state’s moral monopoly by reading about unofficial Friends of God who offered ethical alternatives to the state’s version of Shi‘ism. Far more than metafizik, the proliferation of these unofficial hagiographies constituted a dilemma for state clergy. For in terms of both Islamic legality and political legitimacy, it was far harder to prosecute or otherwise suppress the writing of biographies of figures who were after all pious Shi‘ites, whatever their lack of revolutionary credentials. Yet as with the rising influence of metaphysicians like Mohammed Ali Taheri, there was a tipping point. With the unofficial hagiographies, it came in February 2005 when the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered an official investigation of the “deviant” spirituality these writings were said to propound, only for pious citizens to mutter complaints about clerical con artistry. 

As such episodes show, Doostdar’s inquiry is not into doctrinal debates per se. Rather, it is an investigation of the social locations and mechanisms of metaphysical thinking that he reveals as inseparable from their content. Unlike the majority of state-view studies of Islam in post-revolutionary Iran, his book focuses on lived religion and does so, moreover, through a triangulation of the state, individual citizens, and the unevenly censored public sphere that stands between them. As a work of urban and literate anthropology, The Iranian Metaphysicals epitomizes the transformation of the anthropology of Iran from its pre-revolutionary heyday in the 1960s and ’70s, when the focus of research was overwhelmingly on rural (usually tribal) and non-literate sections of the population. 

The other key transformation has been the rise of the Iranian-heritage anthropologist, lending the researcher an equivocal insider status that leads Doostdar to consciously cultivate what he calls “self-distancing” denial of the beliefs of his subjects. And it is as a work of anthropology that the book is most readable via vivid descriptions of séances, exorcisms, and spiritual healing sessions that provide the interpretive starting point for Doostdar’s unraveling of the morally self-fashioning function of his informants’ metaphysics. 

For an academic book, there is also an unusually fascinating cast of characters, such as fashionable Nafiseh, the “consummate metaphysical experimentalist,” and Mr. Shirazi, the fortune-teller-busting police officer who nonetheless admits to occasionally using occult techniques for solving crimes. Yet their purpose is less to provide local color than to reveal a “landscape of spiritual seeking, therapeutic experimentalism, and occult exploration” that seasoned observers of the Islamic Republic have not previously seen. By taking seriously the intellectual content of beliefs expressed in his numerous ethnographic interviews with these informants, as well as esoteric doctrines formulated in books, blogs, and websites, Doostdar argues for the existence of a distinct form of “Shi‘i reasoning” that has emerged from the intersection of Islamic theology and imported spirituality amid an overall context of religious rationalization in which both state and citizens have sought to distinguish both official religion and unofficial metaphysics from the taints of premodern superstition.

After conducting readers through these contested domains, Doostdar makes two key conclusions: first, that the “occult” has been central to the shaping of religion in modern Iran; second, that scientifically inflected debates about rationalized mysticism point to the existence of multiple cultural versions of reasoning. Yet The Iranian Metaphysicals also shows us a great deal more, taking us a long evidentiary stride closer to answering the question of whether an Islamic state can succeed in satisfying the religious needs of its citizens. Doostdar doesn’t ask this question directly, nor does he provide details of the demography and scale of this alternative spirituality that would be needed to fully answer it. But given that collecting the quantitative data to properly resolve the issue would need the kind of mass survey that would never be permitted, the closest we are likely to come to an answer will be through qualitative evidence of the kind he has provided in plenty.

For much of the 20th century, in Muslim-majority regions as elsewhere, the most pressing political question was whether the state could satisfy the material needs of its citizens. As Kevan Harris has recently shown through his study of the politics of welfare in Iran, this is something the Islamic Republic has also inevitably had to address. Even so, the primary raison d’état of any Islamic state is the provision of moral and spiritual welfare. Yet over the past half-century, as Islamist thinkers and activists have theorized and occasionally realized various visions of Islamic statehood, the question of whether citizens regard them as successful in this regard has never been seriously considered, whether by proponents, critics, or analysts of Islamism. However inadvertently, through his study of non-state spirituality in Iran, Alireza Doostdar has at least made that question ponderable. And in doing so, he has laid bare the myriad ways in which Iran’s officially Muslim citizens have pushed at the metaphysical boundaries their leaders have seen as their duty to define.


Nile Green holds the Ibn Khaldun Endowed Chair in World History at UCLA, where he also served as founding director of the UCLA Program on Central Asia. His many books include Terrains of Exchange: Religious Economies of Global Islam and The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austen’s London. He is currently a Guggenheim Fellow.

LARB Contributor

As Ibn Khaldun Endowed Chair in World History at UCLA, Nile Green brings global history into conversation with Islamic history. He has researched and traveled in around 20 Muslim countries, including Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen. His many books include The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austens London, Global Islam: A Very Short Introduction, and How Asia Found Herself: A Story of Intercultural Understanding. Green also hosts the podcast Akbar’s Chamber: Experts Talk Islam, which is available on all major platforms.


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