Occultism and New Age Take Off in Iran: An Interview with Alireza Doostdar

Image: Hossein Zare

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.

The Iranian Metaphysicals: Explorations in Science, Islam, and the Uncanny
Alireza Doostdar
Princeton University Press
March 6, 2018

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 not only 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.