January 29 2023

Women, Prayer, and Poetry in Iran with Niloofar Haeri

Interview with Niloofar Haeri

Kristian Peterson interviews Niloofar Haeri, AAR Book Award winner

Niloofar Haeri joins Kristian Petersen to discuss her award-winning bookSay What Your Longing Heart Desires: Women, Prayer, and Poetry in Iran (Stanford University Press). Through the book, Haeri examines the everyday prayer practices of Iranian women as the basis for reflecting on the relationship between prayer and poetry and on how ideas about religiosity debated in classical Persian poetry inform the world of prayer.

Haeri's book won AAR's 2021 award for "Excellence in the Study of Religion: Constructive-Reflective Studies." She is a professor of anthropology and the director of graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University. 

Kristian Petersen:

Welcome to Religious Studies News. I'm your host, Kristian Petersen, and today I'm here with Niloofar Haeri, professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University and winner of the AAR Book Award in Constructive-Reflective Studies. She's here to speak to us about her book, Say What Your Longing Heart Desires: Women, Prayer, and Poetry in Iran, which was published with Stanford University Press. Congratulations and thanks for joining me.

Niloofar Haeri:

Thank you. Thanks very much for inviting me.

Kristian Petersen:

I really enjoyed this book. As somebody who's also in Islamic studies, I feel like I can use a lot of this in my classes in the future, so I was very excited to get into it. You cover the daily lives of Muslim women and their engagement with poetry and prayer in contemporary Iran.

For many listeners, this is going to be a context that is unfamiliar to them, so can you offer a brief sketch of the sociopolitical landscape for listeners who may not be familiar? What are some of the basics about contemporary Iran and the daily lives of women in order to understand your project?

Niloofar Haeri:

I mean, the thing is that the situation in Iran has changed since I wrote this book, because of the recent protests that are going on. However, I can tell you that while I was doing field work, which was more or less from 2008 to 2016, there was relative — it's always relative — political stability. These are women who cover a range of middle class backgrounds. Some of them live rather comfortably, some of them are in debt, but they still would be considered middle class. Almost all of them have a BA and some of them have masters degrees. Most of them became high school teachers and, right now, they are retired. Well, when I did my field work with them, they had already retired.

Kristian Petersen:

One of the things I really liked about the book that I think will be really beneficial to other people in the study of religion is you interrogate and unsettle who gets to define religion by challenging the state's monopoly on defining, quote, unquote, "true Islam." And I think even now, with the protests going on right now, we're seeing this, in even more striking fashion. How would you describe, at the time or even today, the state vision of official Islam? How does your work or your approach help us understand the more intimate wrestling with Islamic principles and practices in constructing a new vision of the tradition?

Niloofar Haeri:

Right. The dominant view of what is correct or true Islam within the government is a very legalistic one. Essentially, you do your namāz, your prayers. You do the fasting. Whether or not you, as a lay Muslim, in doing these obligations, actually manage to make a connection with God, whether you feel totally sincere while you're doing it or not, is of secondary importance in that view. You basically do what you are told and what you have been told are obligatory rights and rituals that you're supposed to perform. Now, of course, those same people would say, "Yes, it would be great if you can be completely sincere while you're doing these things." But for a prayer to be valid, it's not necessary.

Whereas, a lot of other people, including the women that I interviewed, question the value of doing a ritual like the daily prayers when you don't manage to make a connection to the divine. When it doesn't affect your behavior toward others, it doesn't make a better person of you and you just, essentially stand there, what Iranians call dolla rāst. You bend and you stand up, sort of mechanically, and say the verses of the Quran.

So, they question that kind of Islam and there is a constant back and forth. Even within the government itself, as I said, that's the dominant view. But even within the government, for example, there are clerics who come on television who talk about how important it is to have presence of the heart when you pray. So this way of being a thoughtful, sincere Muslim is a discourse that circulates very widely and that's what these women are also engaged in.

Kristian Petersen:

Now, much of this maybe vernacular vision, if we could call it that, is informed by this tradition of classical, mystical poetry and this tradition of Irfan. Can you tell us a little bit about what this tradition's all about? Who are the authors that become important? What makes this poetry appealing to Iranians and how does it show up in their lives?

Niloofar Haeri:

Sure. I'm not sure I would call this vernacular. These debates among Muslims about what it is to be a true Muslim, how should we make a connection to the divine, what are the ultimate goals and so on have been going on for centuries. They have been undertaken by so many people, by poets, by theologians, by philosophers, by jurists and so on. And so, really these debates about how one ought to live and behave as a Muslim are not really vernacular. I'm not actually sure what you mean by vernacular. But in any case, they have been at the center of debates among Muslims for a long time. Of course, their importance goes up and down. But when the Islamic Republic came into existence and declared itself Islamic, then of course that brought Islam to the center of public debates because then the question became, "Okay, you're saying you're Islamic, but how do you define true Islam and what are your sources?"

Insofar as the mystic tradition or the Irfan tradition is concerned in Iran, as you said, it goes back quite a long way in poetry. Maybe by the 14th century it had become quite dominant. The whole vocabulary of mysticism had become dominant in poetry. Here, for example, in this poetry, there are several concepts that ordinary people come across. For example, presence of the heart, which is important when you perform religious rituals. If your heart is not in what you are doing, if you don't have presence of the heart, the value of what you're doing is not clear.

Another concept that's very important is sincerity, because this kind of poetry, for example, in particular I would say Hafiz is almost obsessed with false piety. With figures who propagate false piety, they try to be very visible Muslims. Whereas, in this poetry, the heart is the true seat of piety because it's invisible, because you are not showing off to others or trying to come across as more pious than you really are. So when you start to learn this poetry, you really also start to learn about religion and about what it is to be a Muslim that does not engage in false piety.

Another concept is the question of haal, which I talk about in my book, which is very present in this poetry and haal is that moment when suddenly one feels ecstasy and joy and you feel a connection to the divine. It is very fleeting, but it is an experience of the divine. In this poetry, one learns that it is that state that's really important to achieve.

However, what most clerics do not like about this concept of haal is that they cannot mediate it. Haal is something that happens and it is not that the more fervent your belief in the principles of Islam, the more frequently you will feel haal. Haal is something rather mysterious and it's a fleeting experience of the divine. So yeah, these are some of the concepts that really stand out and that one learns when one becomes familiar with mystic poetry,

Kristian Petersen:

Yeah, and you can see how that plays out in the everyday practice and participation of these women that you explore. A large part of the book is this ethnography and in one chapter you focus on the five obligatory prayers or namāz.

Niloofar Haeri:

Yes.

Kristian Petersen:

And you've kind of given us a little hint of some of the perspectives of your interlocutors and how they understand them. But one thing I found really interesting that I think other listeners will also find relevant is thinking about how your approach and your findings help us understand this seemingly static ritual practice in more dynamic ways. Can you talk a little bit about thinking about namāz from this interpretive and personal perspective as opposed to the legalistic practice that you were mentioning earlier?

Niloofar Haeri:

Right, sure. This is actually how I became interested in this project, because when you look at the performance of namāz, and as I say in my book, I grew up in a religious family and I saw people pray. When you look at it from the outside, it seems like a rather repetitive and mindless activity. And you wonder how it is that over time, across decades, across a lifetime, believers can keep doing this and somehow keep it meaningful. So the question for me was this outside perspective that I have, is that really how those who engage in namāz see it.

And so, the first clue that I got that this is, in fact, not the case, is when this relative of mine who performed her evening prayer and then came out and she said, "Oh, this was such a good prayer tonight, I felt closer to God," and I was completely mystified by that because I had always assumed, and in fact my whole training in the social sciences helped me make this assumption, that a ritual prayer is just that, you are told what you're supposed to do. First you do this, second, you do that, and then finally it's over. It can't go well or badly if you follow this kind of chain, but then when she said that night, "It went really well." Then I started thinking, "Well, so what does that mean?" And, "It could also go badly then."

And so, that's how this whole project started and then many, many insights emerged as a result of my ethnography that I hadn't thought about. I will give you just a couple of examples. For example, when you stand to perform any kind of repetitive activity, whether it's the namāz, whether it's playing an instrument, whether it's swimming, dancing, whatnot, when you begin to do that, you cannot know how it's going to go. You cannot know in advance how this will unfold. That's a challenge, and that brings in a certain kind of mystery and excitement.

Sometimes you will manage to have concentration throughout and it will go very well. Sometimes you don't manage that. In fact, some of these women said to me, "Once I realize my mind has wandered, I just stop praying until I can concentrate again." So, by the end of it you will see, for example, that your emotional state has changed, but you cannot know in advance that that will happen. So that's one very important aspect of doing something that, from the outside, looks repetitive. But it's based on the wrong assumption that we know how it's going to go. Of course we don't, because it unfolds in time. In a time that we cannot know about.

Another very important discovery that I had was that, for example, I was told that some of the women said, "When I stand to pray and I'm in the middle of praying, I'm also telling God my concerns, my questions, what is it to be on the right path toward you? Or I have other concerns," and so on. And so, I asked whether they consider that maybe somewhat of a contradiction to concentration because they're saying these verses, but then at the same time, they're also talking to God and saying things that may or may not be semantically related to what they're saying. But what they replied was that "No, this act of communication to God, while I'm saying the verses and sharing with God what I want to share, they're one and the same act. And if I manage to tell God what I want to tell him in the process of doing the namāz, then that's a good namāz."

And so, what I realized is that whereas we assume that the relationship between form and meaning in ritual is always constant and is always relevant, it's actually not the case. You can be saying things and you can use the opportunity of saying those things to say other things. Right? It's not just a one track kind of matter. And so, we need to rethink the whole nature of language in rituals that are repeated. It doesn't function. We are very used to the Protestant sort of idea that when we use language, whether it's in a ritual or not, the whole relationship between form and meaning is always the same. It doesn't change, and what is important is the meaning of what we say.

But in a ritual, meaning becomes far more complicated than if we are just having a conversation. So these were some of the discoveries that I made while talking to these women about namāz, and I realized how far away my idea was that, oh, this is just a repetitive thing, and you stand there and you say these things and then it's over and it just doesn't ever change. Also, just one more thing is that I discovered that their feeling toward namāz changes depending on their mood, and some of them would say, "If I enter namāz in a mood that is light, my namāz will be like that. And if things have happened to me and I feel low or depressed or whatnot, that my namāz also reflects that." Yeah.

Kristian Petersen:

And you described these very kind of intricate thoughts and feelings of your subjects in really wonderful ways. It's very well written as well throughout the book. You also focus on another type of prayer, dua.

Niloofar Haeri:

Yes.

Kristian Petersen:

And I'm wondering if you could tell us a little bit about how you captured these prayers and conversations around them and how your subjects understood the effects and limitations of duas.

Niloofar Haeri:

Yes, sure. At first, when I began this project, I wasn't paying attention to dua partly because we are so programmed to pay attention only to what is obligatory for Muslims to do and dua, which is not obligatory — you don't have to do it if you don't want to — was not quite on my radar. But of course, hanging around with these women for so long, it quickly became clear that dua is very important to them for lots of reasons. One is that they do dua at all times of day or night. I mean, it doesn't have a particular time. The other thing is that it's in Persian whereas the verses for namāz are in Arabic. And a lot of them said, "When I talk to God in Persian, I do feel kind of closer to God." I'm trying to avoid "him" because in Persian, we don't have gender in third-person singular, so we never refer to God explicitly as him or his.

But in any case, it's in Persian. And then, what often happens is that after namāz, they kind of relax on their prayer rugs and they start basically talking to God in Persian and they share not only their anxieties or things like, "God, please help my mother be cured from this disease," and so on. What was very surprising to me was that when I asked women, "What do you say dua? What is dua like for you?," and so on, a number of them told me of times when they had become very angry at God. This was completely unexpected for me. And they told me about why they became so angry at God. And they explained that as a dua. Because they were talking to God and they were expressing to God just how angry they were at him.

And it was interesting to me that they didn't say things like, "Oh well, I say this and that to God," all of the things that would fit one's expectation. Instead, they would say things like, "But also I've gotten mad at God at times." And then, they would put that separate from their other dua. But no, this was also dua because basically anytime you talk to God or address God directly, it is dua. I ended up hearing these very moving stories of their anger at God. I relate some of them in my book and, if you like, I can summarize one or two of them, but in any case, dua really became a site of exploration and discovery. Some of them said, "Sometimes when I do dua, it just goes on and on and on. I just talk to God. It becomes this kind of unexpected conversation and I myself realize what I'm thinking about in that moment." Yeah.

Kristian Petersen:

Yeah. These were really fascinating to read about as well. In the last chapter, you look at prayer books and how contemporary readers are interacting and understanding both kind of traditional historical prayer books, but then also newer ones. So can you tell us a little bit about how traditional prayer books compare to those written by a younger generation and by women, and what differences you find between them?

Niloofar Haeri:

Sure. The two most famous traditional prayer books are Sahifeh Sajjadieh and Mafatih al-Jinan. And a lot of the women, especially the more educated women, they gradually develop a position against Mafatih, which means keys to paradise, because it tells basically the reader, if you recite such and such prayer 19 times, God will forgive your sins, or something like that. It has a lot of that kind of thing. And for that reason, many women, and especially men, but many women don't like it. However, I call this chapter "A Movable Mosque." And the reason is that Mafatih also explains to the reader what kinds of rights and rituals to perform, what day of the week, how to perform and so on.

And so, even if as a woman, someone might not like it, the point is that the book is used to undertake acts outside of the mosque that make you feel like you are also doing something in the mosque. Because, as you know, women historically have not played a major role in what a day looks like in a mosque, you do this and you do that. And so, most of those decisions are not made by women, but of course women would like that. And so they do it with a combination of using a prayer book like The Mafatih, but also their own improvisations. Once 10, 15 women get together, there's a lot of conversation about, "How should we do this? How should we arrange the tablecloth? What are we going to cook? What kind of singer are we going to have?," and so on and so forth. And so, the Mafatih helps them do this kind of thing, almost like bring the mosque into your own home.

The newer prayer books are written by the younger generation, as you said, and a lot of the very popular ones are written by young women. Some of the most famous are written by a young woman called Erfan Nazar-Ahari, who has a PhD in philosophy. And she writes these, what is called in Iran, simple mysticism. The genre is called simple mysticism. And basically, they are these short poetic texts where the reader can recite them to talk to God. One of her books that became very famous is called Tea with a Taste of God or Every Dandelion is a Messenger. Messenger referring to the prophet. So what really caught my attention was not just their popularity, but also the fact that if you go to religious bookstores, these are put on the same shelves as other prayer books. So you have a situation in which you no longer have either an imam or, say, a cleric writing a prayer in Arabic. You have a young woman with a PhD in philosophy who is writing in Persian, and that also gets categorized as dua, which I found very interesting and a change in perceptions of dua.

Kristian Petersen:

Yeah. Overall, the book really is fascinating, and I mean, the ethnographic detail is great to read and I'm sure would be really engaging for students. Students seem to love these kind of narrative parts of life and how they explain larger phenomena. So I want to ask you as a final question, just how you imagine that others in the study of religion working outside of Islamic studies or in West Asia, how they might pick up and benefit from your work? How do you imagine others might apply your conclusions or your methods or in other fields?

Niloofar Haeri:

Well, I don't want to be presumptuous and tell others, but I feel like there are a couple of things one could say. One is that, for me, doing the ethnography for this book was really an eye opener. And I realized that before this research, I had taken it for granted that I knew what it means to be religious, whether a Muslim or a Catholic or Buddhist, or whatnot. I sort of never really asked myself, never really posed the question, "What is it to be religious? Do you know?" And then I realized, no, I don't know. So I think anyone who works on religion, it would be very good to interrogate themselves and see what kinds of assumptions they have that they need to challenge.

And then, the other thing is that ethnography is really important because you learn so much that you didn't know. It's just not possible without ethnography to know the particularities, and it's the particularities that give some more than a surface understanding of religion and religiosity. It's kind of hard for me to imagine working on religion without doing ethnography. Of course, one could say, "Well, I just do textual work," which is fine and very necessary. But ultimately, if one is to understand how the texts have affected, permeated, shaped or not shaped the lives of those who are supposed to follow them, then I think it's really important to do ethnography.

Kristian Petersen:

Well, thank you for talking about your book. It was a pleasure to read, and congratulations again on the award.

Niloofar Haeri:

Thank you so much. Thanks for inviting me.