Science, Superstition & the Supernatural in Iran


A review of Fantasies of Reason: Science, Superstition, and the Supernatural in Iran, by Alireza Mohammadi Doostdar.

Alireza Mohammadi Doostdar’s dissertation is a rich ethnography of urban middle class Iranians exploring “the supernatural” through an expanding field of marginal but “not-quite-heretical” spiritual ideas and practices in twenty-first century Tehran (p. 271). Pursuing a classic cultural anthropological interest in the apparently exotic and strange, it fits with current anthropological emphasis (exemplified by his intellectual forebears Jean and John Comaroff, Todd West, Sanders, Rosalind C. Morris, and James T. Siegel) on what strikes one’s subjects (rather than the foreign observer) as exotic and strange. Fitting this current approach Doostdar is concerned with historicizing middle-class Iranians’ fascination with the supernatural — including “witchcraft, the evil eye, occult science…, telekinesis, telepathy, astral projection, contact with the souls of the dead, jinn, and so on” (p. 10) — rather than attributing it to an unchanging and globally marginal (i.e., non-Western) culture. Doostdar is also responsive to Islamic revivalist debates (especially Lara Deeb’s study of Lebanese Shi‘a revivalists, and Charles Hirschkind’s and Saba Mahmood’s studies of Egyptian revivalism), but draws special inspiration from Samuli Schielke’s study of Egyptians navigating the margins of “‘non-belief'” amidst the revival (p. 42). Scholars of contemporary Islam will benefit greatly from Doostdar’s reading of this new spiritualist dispensation “across a population that seems not to agree on much about religion at all,” including Islam (p. 9), and that, more broadly, shares a sense of “widespread political, social, and moral uncertainty” (p. 11).

Following his elegant, poetic acknowledgements, Doostdar’s Introduction situates the sudden efflorescence of spiritual authorities and impostors — geomancers, exorcists, self-help gurus, and Cosmic Mystics — within the novel circuits of communication available to educated urban middle class Iranians, including the mass media and small media, online forums and offline seminars and gatherings. Doostdar makes clear that the “supernatural” (mavara or metafizik) differs from established Islamic designations of the “unseen” (ghayb) and thus derives from a different, and less socially discernible genealogy. Indeed, his subjects share little identity or view but these public circuits. Doostdar suggests, however, that pervasive “doubt” about the supernatural is not merely the converse of belief, but “productive in itself” (p. 35) of subjectivities and social connections, if not one unified collective. Thus, while “the supernatural [has] become a matter of widespread interest and public concern” (p. 5), his ethnographic subject comprises a number of self-identified sub-groups, and his goal, to discern how such divergent groups of men and women “fashion their orientations toward such phenomena” (p. 8).

In Chapter 1, Doostdar outlines historical and contemporary established Shi‘i views of sorcery and witchcraft, from a seventeenth century cleric’s social satire to the current Islamic penal code and state television exposés on sorcerers and charlatans tricking vulnerable girls and women. These broadcasts are especially important, constituting for Doostdar “performances of rationality” meant to produce the effects of rationality amongst the Iranian public while also establishing firm boundaries between religious orthodoxy and superstition.

Chapter 2 recounts and analyzes extensive formal and informal interviews with women involved in various ways with new spiritualist practices. The women’s differing narratives contrast with the paternalistic attitude of the state and mass media commentators, for whom women stand as the most vulnerable to the tricks and techniques of resurgent charlatans. Doostdar specifically explores their very different responses to the supernatural, from rejection to professional career as a spiritualist. Rather than gullibility, Doostdar describes their encounters with the supernatural using Tzvetan Todorov’s concept of “the fantastic,” a subject’s moment of “‘hesitation'” between certainty and uncertainty when faced with an unusual event (p. 99). Part of urban middle-class Iranians’ exploration of the supernatural, he proposes, rests precisely on occupying this moment of the fantastic, and gathering a “thrilling experience” of uncertainty as a result (p. 101).

Chapter 3 examines a class of supernatural practices in Tehran known pejoratively as “deviant mysticisms,” in particular one method known as “Cosmic Mysticism” (p. 130), whose founder remains imprisoned on unpublicized charges. These practices, Doostdar shows, gained popularity in the wake of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), during a period of social and psychological recovery, neoliberal reform, renewed individuality and competition, “religious intellectualism” or new religious interpretation, and expanding media markets. Doostdar’s ethnographic observations of Cosmic Mysticism in practice offer powerful evidence of the new spiritualism, in which older forms of jinn possession and exorcism are displaced by explicitly “scientific” practices of “defensive radiation” against “inorganic viruses” (p. 170), and come to resemble Hollywood versions of exorcisms (with which practitioners are familiar) quite in contrast to conventional forms of the practice.

Chapter 4 provides a deeper modern history of contemporary spiritualism in which Iranian thinkers from the late nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century, much like their Euro-American and colonial contemporaries, brought novel scientific language and concepts to bear on unseen realms. Specifically, Doostdar traces a lineage from fin-de-siècle “experimental spirit science” developed by Khalil Khan, a Paris-educated physician and early twentieth century nationalist, through popular mid-century interpretations of Shi‘i concepts of faith and the hereafter, which provided “appealing Islamic worldview shot through with a scientific imagination” (p. 217).

Chapter 5 examines the mass-market genre of hagiography dedicated to mystics and masters of the “eye of insight” or “the isthmus eye” and its newfound popularity among young men (p. 245). In doing so Doostdar further elaborates the historical and social conditions for the current supernatural efflorescence. Much like televisual exposés, this new hagiographic literature also means to educate and transform an audience in need of clarification, and indeed, Doostdar attributes interest in the “eye of insight” to a broad “anxiety about the murkiness of moral standards, the blurring of boundaries between right and wrong, the spread of hypocrisy, and the difficulty in distinguishing true ‘friends of God’ from charlatans and impostors” (p. 237). This “murkiness” speaks to Iranians’ doubts about their own faith, but also to a pervasive uncertainty regarding pious appearances in the anonymous metropolis, where “face-to-face connections are felt to be less reliable than they have ever been” (p. 241). In this period of social unintelligibility, Doostdar argues, to develop the eye of insight is to imagine balancing inner piety and outer appearances; more profoundly, it imagines removing oneself from the world of (illegible) signs by perfectly interpreting them — by a capacity to see through them (p. 261). Like other self-help techniques, the hagiographic media suggests not only perfect technique but also perfect technology of vision, a kind of “extrasensory vision monocle, lie detector and mystical x-ray” (p. 263).

Doostdar’s concluding comments to Chapter 5, along with the dissertation’s concluding chapter, identify the ambiguous piety of the new supernatural practices, and, more powerfully, their relevance to the study of contemporary religion. They are “imaginative practices that fall somewhere between orthodoxy and heresy — practices that embody pious desires, concerns, and anxieties without remaining fully within the limits set by tradition.” As marginal, historically-situated practices, Doostdar argues, they illuminate “wider processes of religious change, such as conversion, disillusionment, transformations of orthodoxy, and sectarian differentiation” (p. 271). Indeed scholars of Islam and of contemporary anthropology and religion will learn much from, and put to good use, this often brilliant study of the under-examined spiritual margins of Islam.

Emilio Spadola
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Colgate University

Primary Sources

Ethnographic interviews
Ethnographic observations
Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting service
Mohammad Ali Taheri
Tzvetan Todorov

Dissertation Information

Harvard University. 2012. 296 pp. Primary Advisor: Steven Caton.


Image: From the collection of Alireza Doostdar.

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