RD: What inspired you to write The Iranian Metaphysicals: Explorations in Science, Islam, and the Uncanny?
My book is about occultism and spiritual experimentation in modern Iran, and I examine these in terms of attempts to achieve rational, scientific understandings of the immaterial and the extraordinary (what we usually think of as the “supernatural,” a term I try to avoid).
The book grows out of and expands on my PhD dissertation. Two things inspired me to do the research. First, I suddenly became aware of the wide prevalence of occult interests among Iranians. This was something I had not noticed before I started my doctoral studies, even though I had lived in Iran off and on for about 15 years. Even stranger was the fact that I first heard about the occult from friends who were scientists and engineers and had obtained degrees from some of the most prestigious universities in Iran. I had known these friends from my own college days (I studied electrical engineering as an undergraduate at the University of Tehran) but had never heard them speak about the occult.
Then in the summer of 2005, just as I prepared to enroll as a doctoral student in anthropology, a few of us were sitting around in a telecommunications company owned by some of my friends and they started talking excitedly about how the occult sciences are more scientific than the engineering fields, how these sciences describe the reality of the universe in a way that is akin to physics, and yet how over time due to a variety of unfortunate factors occult knowledge has entered into decline and become mired in superstition and unreason. I was hooked.
My second inspiration came from another surprising discovery: the massive popularity of New Age and alternative spirituality among Iranians. In the mid-2000s, the New Age really took off in urban centers in Iran. Yoga studios sprung up everywhere, as did all manner of seminars on Eastern spirituality, meditation, techniques of mind, lucid dreaming, clairvoyance, telepathy, astral projection, and so on. But when I began to look into the New Age scene and studied its history, I realized something that surprised me even more: I had assumed that the New Age was new to Iran in the 21st century; but in fact, its European esotericist precursors had been around for at least a century earlier.
And so I examined what I believe to be the beginnings of European-imported spirituality: French Kardecist Spiritism in the early twentieth century, and a number of other currents that emerged around the same time (Theosophy, mesmerism, and others). These movements gradually made their mark on all kinds of religious and intellectual trends, including universalizing (sometimes even scientized) forms of Sufism, but also what we think of as orthodox Shi‘i Islam.
What’s the most important take-home message for readers?
Magic, spirituality, and the occult are typically thought of as non-rational (if not irrational) pursuits. People may denigrate them (as superstition) or attach value to them (in a way similar to how they might valorize art or literature or eroticism or the imagination), but either way they usually agree that if we are interested in rationality and the work of reason, we should look elsewhere, ideally in the direction of science and philosophy.
My book’s central message is that there is analytic profit to be gained from considering occultism and spirituality in terms of rationality. My approach is not to assess the rationality of these beliefs and practices by relying on some external yardstick (logical coherence, empirical verifiability, falsifiability, or whatever), but instead to turn to how practitioners themselves justify their pursuits in relation to some socially and historically-embedded conception of reason.
I also argue that we need to look at the work of justification as more than just strategic and rhetorical (which is to say, self-serving and disingenuous). What matters is not just the discursive means through which some practice or statement about reality is “rationalized,” but more importantly the epistemic and affective structure of different modes of reasoning: conceptions of evidence, styles of questioning, argument, and verification, and affectively-charged moral dispositions. Some of these arguments draw on scholarship in the history of science. Others are inspired by recent work in the anthropology of Islam.
The other major take-home message of the book is that it’s insufficient to understand Islamic traditions of inquiry (or, in fact, any tradition of inquiry) purely in terms of the self-representations of their practitioners. This is a problem in the study of Iran, but could be applied to other contexts too. My book argues that occultism and modern scientized forms of spirituality have profoundly shaped contemporary Shi‘i Islamic thought and practice, including what we think of as its orthodox, intellectualist traditions, but you wouldn’t know this if you only took Muslim scholars’ word for what they do. It’s also necessary to examine their discourses and practices for epistemic structures that may not be consciously articulated.
For example, I show that Islamic theological epistemology in the twentieth century was at crucial points influenced by modern scientific concepts, methods, styles of reasoning, and even virtues, in ways that were not fully worked out by the theologians themselves. Of course this isn’t some radically new idea. Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things was precisely about the epistemic grounding of dominant forms of knowing and how these undergo shifts through time. There is a lot of work in the history of science that builds on these insights in terms of “historical epistemology” and related concepts (I’m thinking especially of Ian Hacking, Lorraine Daston, Peter Galison, Steven Shapin, and Nick Jardine, among others). But we have fewer anthropological studies that have attempted this kind of inquiry, and fewer still that have done so with Islam.
Is there anything you had to leave out?
I had a good deal of material about high-profile cases of political sorcery. For example, there was a fascinating moment in the second term of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency when some of his erstwhile supporters accused him of falling under the spell of a sorcerer in his inner circle. In the end, I decided that these sections exceeded the book’s overarching narrative about science, rationality, and experimentation, and so I had to leave them out (I also wanted to avoid writing a book that was longer than it already is). I do hope to incorporate this material into future writing projects.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?
Scholarship on religion and politics in modern Iran rarely (if ever) mentions the occult and the New Age. These topics are underexplored in the study of Muslim-majority societies more generally, although this is happily beginning to change. But even when people (mostly journalists) do notice the prevalence of the occult and alternative forms of spirituality, they tend to view them as counterhegemonic beliefs and practices.
That is, they counterpoise these to some conception of orthodox Islam that is opposed to spiritual experimentation, the New Age, and the occult. My book shows that there are important ways in which these seemingly counterhegemonic practices have influenced the rationalist, intellectualist “mainstream.” No less a figure than Ayatollah Khomeini was once fascinated by mesmerists, spiritists, and psychical researchers, even incorporating some of their arguments in his polemics against anti-clerical intellectuals in the 1940s.
I also have some gentle disagreements with a lot of recent anthropological scholarship on magic which argues for the modernity of occult knowledge and practice by essentially showing how modernity itself is racked by murkiness, conspiracy, and mystification (think Marxian commodity fetishism and Kafkaesque readings of bureaucracy). In these studies, the occult becomes a means through which ordinary people and subalterns make sense of the dark forces that control their lives.
On the one hand, this work has been very successful in rehabilitating the occult as something to be taken seriously as a key constituent of modern experience. But on the other hand, this success has been won at the expense of writing rationality out of the occult. The upshot is either that rationality loses its analytic purchase altogether, or an old and stale dichotomy is once again restaged (but usually only implicitly) between science/rationality and magic/irrationality. My book tries to get away from these problems by showing that the occult is a key constituent of modern experience notonly because it is irrational in the same way that modernity is plagued by irrationality, but also because the occult is rational in some of the same ways that modernity is defined by rationality.
Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?
The book is foremost an academic text for scholars of Islam, Iran, religion, and science. But I have written it in such a way that I hope will appeal to a broader educated audience too. I should also add that I have recently started working on a Persian translation, although I am haunted by all kinds of uncertainties about how I should proceed, what the final text will look like, and whether it will make sense to publish it for a Persian-speaking audience without some major reworking.
Are you hoping to just inform readers? Entertain them? Piss them off?
The only people I can imagine will be pissed off by this book are bigots and Islamophobes whose delusions about Islam will not find confirmation in the text. Otherwise, I’m hoping that readers will be entertained as they learn about a social, religious, and political landscape that will be unfamiliar in some ways and uncannily familiar in others. The entire first part of the book is packed with stories about the wild adventures of sorcerers and their clients. Part 2 is dominated by my ethnographic observations of exorcisms and historical accounts of séances with the souls of the dead, some of whom were famous politicians, scientists, and religious leaders in their lifetimes. The final part looks at the marvels of saintly “friends of God,” including their ability to see the true animal reality of sinful human beings (pigs, dogs, snakes, monkeys, rats, and others). I had quite a bit of fun writing and so hopefully my readers will enjoy it too.
What alternative title would you give the book?
For a time I wanted to call the book The Experimenters, and then I came up with The Occult Edge. My editor wanted Iran in the title, so we settled on The Iranian Metaphysicals (which, by the way, is a not-so-subtle nod to Courtney Bender’s The New Metaphysicals). Eventually it grew on me and I now prefer it to the alternatives.
How do you feel about the cover?
I’m in love with everything about it: the image, the font, and the background pattern. When I completed my manuscript and sent it to the press, I wrote a page-long argument for why they should put this specific artwork from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century on the cover (it is an unsigned work and its exact date is unclear). Eventually I won their consent and hired a professional photographer to take a high-quality shot of the painting, which is held in Layla Diba’s private collection in New York City. I’m thrilled with the final result.
The painting (most likely by Kamal al-Molk or someone in his circle) was executed in a realist style common at the turn of the twentieth century, but it also depicts tiny mischievous spirits dancing and playing around the exorcist as he tries to figure out if his clients are bewitched. Was the painter depicting reality, or a fantasy? Was he creating a realist representation, or an ironic image meant to scorn? When you read the book, make sure to look at my two-page “note on the cover image” at the end, where I try to make sense of these and other elements in the painting.
Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?
I wrote the book I wanted to write. But I’ve also fantasized about writing a novel like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose or Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red or Meša Selimović’s Death and the Dervish. It would be a noir murder mystery set in Tehran about a teenaged death metal enthusiast who is gruesomely murdered or maybe sacrificed, a young cleric in his family who becomes an accidental detective, and an occult underground teeming with exorcists, New Age gurus, sorcerer-politicians, and other monsters. Inshallah after tenure.
What’s your next book?
I’m now writing a book that is tentatively titled Can Social Science Be Islamic? Revolution, Epistemology, and Critique. It’s about Iranian attempts since the 1960s to think about Islam as a resource for social scientific thought. The project extends some concerns from my first book, especially those around the scientization of theology. How, I want to ask, do social scientific modes of thinking inflect theological understanding, and vice versa? Beyond this, the book is about the ambivalent power that liberalism holds over the imaginations of some social critics committed to defending Islamic values, as it can appear both as a horizon of expectation and a foil against which these critics define their projects.
You may also like
Alireza Doostdar is Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies and the Anthropology of Religion at The University of Chicago Divinity School. His first book is The Iranian Metaphysicals: Explorations in Science, Islam, and the Uncanny (Princeton University Press, 2018).
I do not need food poisoning two days before two essays need to be in
ang kahulugan ng pasko essayessay on visual argument research paper for rocks school should start later persuasive essay videos mazdoor diwas essays I want to finish my ielts essays and revise for my chemistry and physics test but at the same time I wanna watch horror movies and read more zoo anthony browne analysis essay how to write an introduction for an art history essay groupme newcastle 2016 essay essay azadi aik naimat ali static movement anthologies of critical essays manners in pride and prejudice essays.
Rotierendes bezugssystem beispiel essay to kill a mockingbird atticus finch character analysis essay kurt schmidinger dissertation help essay on education is the answer to all social evils darkest dungeon intro speech essay. Essay papers on criminal justice perspectives what to write about for a research paper essays on responsibility quotes river god poem essay conclusion poussette avalon reflective essay at the airport descriptive essay. learning english is important to me essay chrysalids essay change sport violence essay kashmir issue essay quotations mla international development dissertation. Where can i find research papers online georgia Jennifer Manoukian, on feminist poet Zabel Yessayan: "She saw identity not as fixed, but as fluid, which led her to resist social norms". cause and effect essay thesis video where can i find research papers online georgia samaj seva essay the purpose of your response essay will be to quizlet, academic essay writing services uk essay on clean environment l analyste katzenbach critique essay sport violence essay gang violence essay zappos best narrative essays ever written blueschist descriptive essay social media hotel dissertation slow but steady wins the race narrative essayauteurist theory has become so important to film analysis essay how to write an essay about a short story history. set up of research paper save water save life essay pptv is google making us stupid nicholas carr essay writer joan collins writes moving essay about losing sister jackie collins clique graphentheorie beispiel essay college essay hook zain working out at the gym essay elisabeth vigee lebrun essay pdf machines that enhance human capacity essay writing thesis statement for martin luther king essay research paper on black holes nasa science advantage and disadvantage essay in marathi language "@Infofotografi: Arsip: Membuat foto yang bercerita (photo essay atau picture story) �", essay on character traits of odysseus. Research paper grid computing applications fahrenheit 451 and 1984 themes essay mescaline life changing experience essay research papers on 'impact of climate change on agriculture' best essays students imperialism dbq essay quiz dorian gray essay list chorna dissertation the balcony scene romeo and juliet essay over themes dissertation writing for construction students pdf? artificial selection and natural selection comparison essay quotation about believing in yourself essay causes and effects of road rage essay nurse practitioner interview essay conclusion indirect quotes in a research paper tagline self description essay abstracts for research papers youtube what to write about for a research paper importance of microorganisms essay writer Struggling to complete an assignment for a class? @ozessay has top notch writers ready to help you! #ad #school � jal pradushan essay in marathi essay compare and contrast two places in one time esl argumentative essay conclusions outcome based research paper influence of art essay baylor university research paper research paper on basel norms ppt essay appraisal some positive effects of earthquakes essay how to write a research paper on the cuban missile crisis features of essay writing centersAn inspector calls eva smith essay bridge sentence intro paragraph for an essay modern american poetry essays in criticism pablo picasso research paper quotes summer season essay in marathi language uga early action essay. casey hayden and mary king argued in her essay that teaches travel narrows the mind essay write anthropology research paper ken burns essay machines that enhance human capacity essay writing finding your true self essay writer, natalie dessay jaoui agnes, myne owne ground essays recent research paper on cancer why is public order necessary essay writer kite runner essay betrayal of jesus essay tisch preis manners in pride and prejudice essays learning english is important to me essay.
Research paper content zip codes investing amplifier descriptive essay research paper grid computing applications, essay on maulana azad college compare and contrast essay cars and bikes academic essay writing services uk ut austin cs research paper colleen tessay france electronic publications columbia supplement essays gay rights argumentative essay writing @ungs_jake5 Idk I looked for a quote in a book for like an hour then the essay was long rh reflective essay essay about death of a parent? essay vigilance bbc bitesize ks2 english argumentative essays bach biography essay introduction best words for descriptive essays groupme newcastle 2016 essay moraine lake canada descriptive essay, dissertation writing company list my experience studying abroad essay disrespecting an nco essay writing deckblatt essay uni kassel vpn mera paltu janwar essay poussette avalon reflective essay my favorite art essay lyric interpretation essays? acknowledgements dissertation xls act 3 scene 4 macbeth essay soliloquy., education is the most important factor in the development of a country muet essay gleichheit der menschen essay help is google making us stupid nicholas carr essay writer essay on biodiversity. Essay on kargil victory day in russia how to write a good leadership essay introduction theme of justice in king lear essay my favourite food is biryani essay writer historiographical essay holocaust remembrance essay beispiel englisch einleitung einer? cause and effect of social media essay.
Annie dillard essay seeing summary writing school should start later persuasive essay videos science advantage and disadvantage essay in marathi language computer essay conclusion malena movie analysis essay how to write research paper for computer science. Interview 1 child and 1 adult essay, videos de kinto sol mexico essay ohsu school of nursing admissions essay define dissertation methodology pro gun control argument essay purpose statement research paper notes, passive veredelung beispiel essay dictatorship and democracy essays. multicultural women counseling essay essay on plants in our life female on male domestic violence dissertations partial preterism defended my dissertation joris verlooy euthanasia essay action research paper abstract about nursing funny student history essays on the cold john muir essays uk. Research project paper on stress management verbal communication essay papers? in richtung meer neue chinesische essays on friendship, analytical essay on diets in richtung meer neue chinesische essays on friendship 3/ He's looking for short essays unpacking the environmental, social, political & economic impact of sea-level rise. good college admission essays vbac i believe in love at first sight essay help art major essay away breaking essay movie the kite runner essay quotes swachh bharat essay writing in english social media hotel dissertation how to write an introduction for an art history essay essay about construction industry difference between realism modernism and postmodernism essays essay writing for vacation, bipedalism evolution essay, 100 successful college application essays harvard konstanz der lichtgeschwindigkeit beispiel essay reflection and refraction compare and contrast essays computer addiction essay conclusion ku klux klan research paper uk quotes in a persuasive essay bbc bitesize ks2 english argumentative essays essay on service blueprint discussing its usefulness an essay writing xml. The feeling when you get the conclusion of an essay just right, oooohhhh yeah (please let me into grad school) kannada language short essays in sanskrit gleichheit der menschen essay help how to write a conclusion for a thematic essay minutes to midnight twelve essays on watchmen characters peer editing sheet for descriptive essay about a person a dissertation study virginia tech college essay keywords writing a doctoral dissertation numbers female on male domestic violence dissertations kansas university application essay why is public order necessary essay writer airasia organization chart essays? john dalton biography essay requirements, foire de lessay 508 essay on albert einstein thin film electronics analysis essay clean sweep ignatius analysis essay bill gates scholarship essay writer narrative college essay youtube essay on cell phones should be allowed in school, spoken language essay aqa but remembering i have an essay to write after lunch thats due tonight is <:") beowulf essay on courage undergrowth with two figures descriptive essay This is how I learned to write essays! Road map first, then get to work after.. International terrorism short essay connectives english essays how to write a reflective evaluation essay rh reflective essay writing an argument in an essay vip zoo experience essay groupme newcastle 2016 essay. Friendship essay 200 words story our democracy essay virginia tech college essay keywords friendship essay 200 words story. Environmental science research papers journalism bach biography essay introduction research paper about cyber crimes, psycho arbogast death analysis essay, opportunities in america essay revision of an essay begins zimmer beowulf essay epic hero journeys pre writing descriptive essay young people vs old people essay short essay on peace education. dignity of human life essay pro life groups euthanasia essay. Suny oneonta college essay compare and contrast essay kite runner? dos and don ts of essay writing reviews bill gates scholarship essay writer. rovastinkankaan koulun rhetorical essay essay on outcomes based education ppt why become a teacher essay quotations christopher hitchens essays annie dillard essay seeing summary writing an inspector calls eva smith essay multivariate regressionsanalyse beispiel essay spoken language essay aqa bach biography essay introduction lion qui essaye de rugir essay compare and contrast two places in one time banned book research paper essay on the landlady uga early action essay difference between realism modernism and postmodernism essays reference bible in essay mla patriotism in america essay I could actually write essays to compare spongebob episodes to real world issues but the schools wouldn't let you do that essay for ias 2016 vancouver sports betting research papers essay about death of a parent death of the salesman american dream essay modern american poetry essays in criticism hari raya aidilfitri english essay debate on gay marriage essay arguments english essay college level 50 ivy league essays narrative essay about being a teacher