Book Talk | Alireza Doostdar, The Iranian Metaphysicals: Explorations in Science, Islam, and the Uncanny (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018).
*Alireza Doostdar is Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies and the Anthropology of Religion at the Divinity School and in the College, University of Chicago.
Micah Hughes: Your book, The Iranian Metaphysicals, addresses contemporary interest in and experience with ‘the metaphysical’ in twentieth and twenty-first century Iran. Can you tell us a little bit about how you understand and use the concept of ‘metaphysical’? How would you describe its relationship to concepts like religion, magic, the occult, or the supernatural as understood by your interlocutors?
Alireza Doostdar: “The metaphysical” is an emic term: I use it as a translation for metafiziki and mavara’i, synonymous concepts that I picked up from my Iranian interlocutors. Mavara comes from the Arabic ma wara’ al-tabi‘a, which is the philosophical equivalent of metaphysics, although in my book, metaphysics refers to a domain of phenomena and forces that lie beyond ordinary material experience and thus outside the reach of physics. That is, it is not about philosophical inquiry into being as such (a conception of metaphysics that, in Iran as elsewhere, is common in academic philosophy and theology).
“‘The metaphysical’ is an emic term: I use it as a translation for metafiziki and mavara’i, synonymous concepts that I picked up from my Iranian interlocutors.”
Among the other concepts you’ve named, the metaphysical comes closest to the supernatural. The problem is that “supernatural” excludes nature, whereas when my interlocutors spoke of the metaphysical, they did not necessarily mean that they were dealing with otherworldly forces. The metaphysical could also be about things that the natural sciences in their current imperfect form could not fully grasp. Some people even told me that there are ideas that are metaphysical now but will come into the ambit of physics once scientists catch up with the discoveries of metaphysicians.
Metaphysics is also closely connected to the occult, where this is to be understood in relation to the Islamic tradition of occult sciences (‘olum-e gharibeh). I think of metaphysics as a broader category however. In terms of phenomena, everything that is occult is also metaphysical. But as a form of knowledge, metaphysics goes beyond the classical occult sciences and incorporates newer modes of inquiry and practice, like parapsychology, psychical research, mesmerism, astral projection, spirit photography, shamanic visionary journeying, and others. As is probably clear, these newer items are mostly imports from European esotericism, American metaphysical religion, and the New Age. Their addition to the corpus of the occult has made it possible for Iranians to think comparatively about the metaphysical: jinn and ghosts might be subsumed under the category of “inorganic beings,” for example, or the ajna chakra may be rendered equivalent to the extraordinary vision of friends of God. But this enlargement also means that in metaphysics, some of the epistemological and ethical determinations of the occult sciences are left behind. Metaphysics does not have to be esoteric in its epistemic configuration (but it still could be, as in Helena Blavatsky’s theosophy or in the Golden Dawn’s occultism). Neither are the specifically Islamic ethics of the occult always at issue where metaphysics is concerned.
“Metaphysics is also closely connected to the occult, where this is to be understood in relation to the Islamic tradition of occult sciences (‘olum-e gharibeh). I think of metaphysics as a broader category however.”
That leaves magic and religion. I’ve tried as much as possible to avoid the term “magic” in my book due to its fraught associations and because I find it analytically unhelpful (on this topic, see Randall Styers’ Making Magic and Graham Jones’ Magic’s Reason). Sometimes I’ve used it in relation to sihr, although I prefer “sorcery” as a translation. Elsewhere it’s slipped into my writing as a matter of ordinary language commonsense. If it weren’t for considerations of readability and avoidance of academic neurosis, I would have gotten rid of it entirely.
Religion is the most difficult term of all. Most people I spoke with would agree that religion deals with metaphysical things. But many of them took pains to distinguish what they did from religion. Some metaphysicians were adamant that metaphysics is a science and has nothing to do with religion. But when I probed further, it often became clear that their insistence came from a place of political insecurity: they did not want to be accused of promulgating an alternative to Islamic orthodoxy. That precise accusation became very common after around 2008, with the leaders of metaphysical seminars facing intimidation or arrest for promoting “deviant” mysticism. Even so, lots of metaphysical enthusiasts continued to view their practice as a kind of religious activity, or sometimes as a mystical one, or even spiritual in the sense of spiritual-but-not-religious. For some, this path was perfectly concordant with Islam. Others saw it as an alternative. Another orientation, less common than the others, was to see metaphysics as neither religious, nor scientific, nor spiritual, but as an object of imaginative involvement and a refined secular pleasure. In all these instances, what we see is a heightened concern with boundary maintenance (something not at issue so much with “supernatural,” “occult,” or “magic”), which shows that the status of the metaphysical as religious or not religious was one that vexed people.
“Religion is the most difficult term of all. Most people I spoke with would agree that religion deals with metaphysical things. But many of them took pains to distinguish what they did from religion. Some metaphysicians were adamant that metaphysics is a science and has nothing to do with religion. But when I probed further, it often became clear that their insistence came from a place of political insecurity: they did not want to be accused of promulgating an alternative to Islamic orthodoxy.”
MH: You are quite clear in the introduction to the book that you don’t see metaphysical pursuits at odds with modern notions of rationality or scientific explanation. You mention that your own skepticism about the metaphysical was something shared amongst your interlocutors even as they described to you their experiences with things ‘unseen’ or perhaps ‘supernatural.’ Can we say that your work shows us how the perceived divisions between science, religion, and what you call ‘the uncanny’ in our present moment are actually more porous than previously imagined?
AD: Yes, that’s right, although I would put it somewhat differently. I prefer not to begin by dividing practices into “religious” or “scientific” or “magical” as if these are obvious and self-evident distinctions (except where these appear as emic categories). Instead I focus on concrete instances of inquiry and ask how people know what they know. My interlocutors usually sought answers or solutions that they understood to be metaphysical in the ways I have described. Some of these were theoretical questions, but most of the time there were practical or existential matters at stake. One felt assaulted by misfortune, puzzled over an uncanny experience, suffered alienation from God, questioned whether life could persist beyond death, sought to achieve tranquility and peace of mind, pursued a spiritual cure or extraordinary power, and so on. Knowledge is at the center of all of these problems, although it is never the only issue. As an analyst, should I view the answers (or solutions) as religious, scientific, or something else? My interlocutors had their own ideas about that, but for me what mattered more was the way in which they arrived at their knowledge: their styles of reasoning, conceptions of evidence, regimes of verification, notions of truth and efficacy, modes of relating subject and object, and so on. In some cases, they borrowed these epistemic elements from self-consciously scientific contexts (quantum physics, psychical research, thermodynamics, etc). Their translations thus allowed me to think about how scientific imaginations, concepts, and virtues create linkages between different forms of inquiry. That’s the “porousness” to which you refer, but I would prefer to think of it not as a crossing of boundaries (because that presumes already well-constituted and separate territories, when we know that such territories are always themselves the products of practices of boundary making and boundary policing), but instead as an intertwining of different modes of questioning.
MH: You’ve spoken elsewhere about what inspired you to write The Iranian Metaphysicals; I’d like to ask you a more pointed question about disciplinary boundaries. Your book sits at the intersection of a couple thematic and disciplinary areas. It is an ethnographic study of engagements with ‘the metaphysical’ in contemporary Iran, but you also touch on issues of interest to Islamic Studies – particularly Shi’i studies, Religious Studies, and perhaps even Science and Technology Studies (STS). What do you think holds these diverse interests together in the narrative you tell? Is anthropology as a discipline particularly well placed to do this kind of work?
AD: That’s largely a product of my own eclectic interests. I came to anthropology very late. Before I enrolled for a master’s degree in education in the U.S., I didn’t know that the discipline existed (my undergraduate degree was in electrical engineering). Later, during my doctoral studies, I frequently ventured outside of the anthro department to take courses in history, religion, Islamic studies, and history of science. I think what united my interests at the time, and to some extent still does today, was less a commitment to a particular discipline or method than a fascination with knowledge as an object of study. Anthropology as practiced today in the American academy is very open to other disciplines, and that made it easier for me to pursue a multifaceted and unwieldy project while ensuring that my inquiry was legible to longstanding disciplinary interests within anthropology itself.
MH: The Iranian Metaphysicals contributes to a larger discussion within the anthropology of religion and Islam specifically. You discuss how the Iranian state encourages the cultivation of pious virtues as a ‘modality’ of its governance. Part of this modality is that the state seeks to regulate the cultivation of virtue through the prohibition of vice – specifically the dangers that unregulated forms of spiritual knowledge may pose to the citizen/subject. In the Iranian case, it is this act of prohibition that has often been of interest to scholars in the Euro-American academy; is it accurate to say that you show how, historically and in the present, the relationship between authorized religious knowledge (the state’s claim to “orthodoxy”) and unauthorized spiritual pursuits (perhaps in the figure of the rammal or in the Cosmic Mysticism movement) exist in tension, but not necessarily in opposition? How is that so?
AD: There are several ways to look at this. First, what counts as heterodox in relation to Islamic orthodoxy is not fixed, even within a single tradition (let’s say the Twelver Shi‘i tradition). In part this goes back to the question I discussed earlier, about whether or not metaphysical knowledge is judged to be religious, scientific, or something else. One of the themes I discuss in my book is the rise of French Spiritism among Iranian elites at the beginning of the twentieth century, and the uptake of certain arguments from Spiritism and psychical research among Islamic scholars in the 40s and later. In the mid-1940s, Ayatollah Khomeini saw no contradiction in citing a French psychical researcher in support of his arguments for the permanence of the soul after death. In the 1960s, Naser Makarem (now Ayatollah) similarly cited European psychical research, but deployed it against a newly resurgent and popularizing Iranian Spiritism. Khomeini coded Spiritist arguments as scientific. Makarem did the same with European Spiritism, but disparaged Iranian Spiritism as fraudulent and heretical.
“…what counts as heterodox in relation to Islamic orthodoxy is not fixed, even within a single tradition (let’s say the Twelver Shi‘i tradition). In part this goes back to the question I discussed earlier, about whether or not metaphysical knowledge is judged to be religious, scientific, or something else…”In the past decade, Islamic scholars have occasionally approached concepts like chakras and positive/negative energy in similar ways. A popular preacher in Shiraz once said that beating one’s chest, as Shi‘a Muslims do during mourning ceremonies in Muharram, activates the chakras of the chest. Analogous arguments have been made for ablutions. In both cases, a scientific case is being made to support Islamic ritual behavior. But from around 2008, these kinds of arguments gradually declined. This was not because orthodox scholars were suddenly wary of science (criticisms of scientism do exist, especially where this concerns Qur’anic exegesis, but these were not pertinent at this particular moment). Rather, it was because chakras and energy began to be re-coded as mystical concepts associated with deviant forms of spirituality (this is not to say that no one considered chakras to be “mystical” before, but that their coding as “deviant” was less common). So chakras were not unorthodox before around 2008, and they only became disparaged as such once a critical orthodox consciousness emerged about mystical deviance associated with Eastern spirituality and the New Age. This, in turn, had a lot to do with the widespread popularity of alternative spirituality in the mid-2000s. In a paradoxical way, this popularity both encouraged some scholars to deploy a concept like “chakra” in theological argumentation, and eventually undercut the possibility of such deployments.
The second issue is that some forms of practice and knowledge have long maintained a complicated position on the edges of Islamic acceptability. The occult sciences are a good example, and I devote a significant part of my book to discussing orthodox ambivalence toward them. For most contemporary Shi‘a scholars, some forms of occult knowledge/practice are unambiguously permissible, and in some instances they are even valorized as noble or sacred. But these same scholars discourage most people from approaching the occult lest they should fall victim to a variety of dangers. Is it therefore orthodox or not to practice the occult? We are in the realm of hesitation. An argument I make in the book is that in the case of the occult, orthodoxy is partly constituted through a practice of virtuous caution. But what happens when the state is the agent of orthodoxy? How can caution be enforced? Often the organs of the state do so through prohibition (forbidding the circulation of occult books, arresting occult professionals, and so on). But they have not always done so consistently. Nor do they come out and say that engaging with the occult is absolutely forbidden according to Islam, because that would fly in the face of scholarly consensus.
“An argument I make in the book is that in the case of the occult, orthodoxy is partly constituted through a practice of virtuous caution. But what happens when the state is the agent of orthodoxy? How can caution be enforced? “
A third issue, related to the second, is that the state is not the only upholder of orthodoxy (and anyway “the state” is a heterogeneous entity itself). On some issues, like the tradition of Shi‘i mysticism, there are ulama who maintain some distance from the state and are much more stringent on what counts as heterodox. Their criticisms sometimes put state officials in an uncomfortable position. My book deals with this tension to some extent, but there are others who have delved into the topic with much more historical depth (Ata Anzali’s “Mysticism” in Iran is an excellent recent example). State support for mysticism is largely indebted to Ayatollah Khomeini’s larger-than-life character as a mystic and leader. But mysticism also has serious opponents both within and outside the state apparatuses. Furthermore, even among mysticism’s supporters, there are widely diverging views on what counts as correct practice, and whether and how mystical narratives, ideas, and practices should be allowed to circulate beyond the elite circles of the howzehs.
MH: The arrangement of your book is somewhat different from the ‘standard’ academic monograph. You have three main sections that bring together a series of smaller vignettes, which address either a larger theoretical concern or describe an ethnographic scene from your fieldwork. This structure seems purposeful beyond simply an aesthetic decision or organizational method. Could you talk about why you chose this form? Is this part of the ‘explorations’ you allude to in the subtitle of the book?
AD: You’re probably right about academic monographs in Islamic studies, and perhaps in religious studies too. But I know of several anthropological antecedents, and one in particular – Harry West’s Kupilikula – was prominently in my mind when I decided to try the short-chapter structure (two others that come to mind: Michael Taussig’s Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man, and João Biehl’s Vita).
The structure emerged after a long period of struggle. I made several unsuccessful attempts to design a fewer number of much longer chapters. Somehow, I could not get my materials and arguments to fit that format, partly because I just had a lot of material and it was difficult to divide them up into medium-sized single-argument-driven chapters. Eventually I realized that the book needed to be divided into three parts (now called Rammal, Scientist, and Friend of God). From there it followed naturally that I needed several short chapters for each part (twenty-four in all, excluding the introduction and conclusions).
“I had my readers in mind as well and wanted to appeal to more than just graduate students and above. The way it turned out, it’s possible to read through the book cover-to-cover, but I think that it’s also possible to pick and choose, and even to begin the book from a chapter in the middle and jump around as one likes.”
I had my readers in mind as well and wanted to appeal to more than just graduate students and above. The way it turned out, it’s possible to read through the book cover-to-cover, but I think that it’s also possible to pick and choose, and even to begin the book from a chapter in the middle and jump around as one likes. To grasp the full argument of the book, you would still need to read in the order presented (with the endnotes!), but I’m hoping that the structure will enable readers to freely follow their interests and not feel constrained by an overly rigid chapter structure and narrative arc. Short chapters are easier to swallow too, and give one a sense of achievement when completed. It’s kind of like all those achievements in video games. So in a sense you could say I designed the chapters this way because I like games!
Related to this, I wanted to try to recreate, to some extent, the affective structure of metaphysical encounters. My interlocutors were often thrilled and excited by the occult, or in any case delighted in discussing such topics and even hearing me speak about my research with them. There are texts that cater to precisely this desire for excitement, especially those known as ‘aja’eb-nameh (wonders of creation books). You can open these on any page and follow the wondrous accounts as you wish, whether you seek edification or astonishment or delight. I hope that my book captures some of those feelings too.
MH: Are you working on any new projects? Are there any themes that will continue from this book into your future work?
AD: I’m currently working on two projects that extend various threads from the first book. One will hopefully be a book about the politics of the occult and what it reveals about the Islamic Republic, particularly the tensions that emerge when a revolutionary state cannot or will not leave revolution behind.
The second project is about social science in Iran and various attempts at formulating Islamic alternatives. This one does not deal with the occult, but it extends some of my concerns with knowledge and the intertwining of different modes of rational inquiry. In this case the most relevant intersections are between Western social theory, empirical research, and Islamic theology and philosophy