In The Iranian Metaphysicals, Alireza Doostdar describes his work as contributing to “comparative anthropologies of epistemology”—“how people know things and how the conditions of their knowing undergo shifts over time.” The framework has particular purchase in a study that centers largely on things people cannot see—the occult and the metaphysical—and for which they must rely on capacities of discernment that, for the most part, they admit to lacking. In such encounters with what cannot be comprehensively known, the very task of knowing acquires a sense of anxiety, opening onto sentiments of discomfort and unease. To refer to this analysis as a comparative enterprise is to emphasize that knowledge—its conditions of possibility and its modes of production—is always historically specific. This basic premise is especially insightful in a study that grapples with an enduring scientific modernism that, in denouncing superstition and proclaiming rational religion, aspires to universality. But, apart from the emphasis on the contextually particular that it indicates, how adequate is the concept of comparison as a description of Doostdar’s account? What exactly is being compared in Doostdar’s analysis, and what are the analytical stakes of that comparison?
Let me turn to the text itself, which vividly concretizes the abstract problems of epistemology that Doostdar poses in the book’s introduction with a rich and lively repository of ethnographic materials. In the third and final section of the book, Doostdar reports a question posed to him by a middle-aged businessman in 2009, a certain Mr. Makeri: “Is there an instrument that one can employ to determine whether one is a good servant of God? Is it possible, in the same way that one checks a car’s oil by inspecting a dipstick, for a believing Shi‘i Muslim to assess his status before God?” What interests Doostdar is not simply the answer given in response to these questions, but the conjuncture of religious and techno-scientific imaginaries that prompt the questions in the first place. In this regard, The Iranian Metaphysicals represents an anthropological inquiry into the very practice of inquiry. But what is clear from this example is that Doostdar is not offering us a comparison between two entirely distinctive traditions of inquiry—for instance, a religious versus a scientific epistemology, or an Islamic versus a Western form of knowledge. That Islamic speculation, in this instance, is anchored and enlivened by the technological banality of the dipstick forecloses at the outset the validity of such familiar comparative coordinates.
In order to understand what is at stake in Doostdar’s assertion that his project is comparative, it is useful to contrast his analysis with another comparative account of reasoning. In “The Limits of Religious Criticism in the Middle East,” Talal Asad also unsettles conventional comparative frameworks, juxtaposing Immanuel Kant’s famous essay on public criticism, “An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?,’” with a discourse on public argument offered by a group of Muslim theologians in Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s. In the latter case, Asad describes how this group of Muslim scholars drew on the Islamic tradition of advice-giving and guidance, or nasiha, to authorize their own moral critiques of the Saudi ruler. Asad presents his account as a comparison of two traditions of reasoning. However, Asad does not leave the matter there, with a static image of two distinct traditions. Rather, he argues that the two traditions are themselves situated unevenly within an imperial distribution of power. Asad maintains that the liberal tradition, of which Kant stands as one key historical figure, has become crucial to the policies and projects of most modernizing states, and the tradition of nasiha has become increasingly less viable in such political contexts. Asad’s comparison, then, takes each tradition seriously on its own terms, but also implies that the two are unequally positioned in a shared history of the present.
Doostdar, like Asad, is interested in forms of inquiry, and both are working in the long shadow of European discourses on enlightenment that claim jealous ownership over the notion of rationality itself. Throughout the book, Doostdar shows how certain categories central to enlightenment thought, such as rational religion and the superstition it banishes, have come to be established in Iran as the ground for critiquing Islamic traditions of the occult. Modes of inquiry that are often understood to characterize European Enlightenment have become internal to at least some prevalent expressions of Islamic tradition. But to conclude the analysis here would be to fixate on the question of provenance. A history of origins cannot be the entire story, and it certainly will not help us understand the moral purchase of a dipstick today. Doostdar’s account asks us to think in terms of origins but also departures, of historical pasts but also futures.
To which tradition of inquiry does Mr. Makeri’s dipstick belong? The question may seem unusual, in part because the oil gauge is a tool. It is part of a technical apparatus, meant to function smoothly and efficiently, rather than a means productive of a moral good—or is it? For Mr. Makeri, at least, this distinction does not hold: the technical affordances of the dipstick are a spur to the moral imagination and a prompt to pious self-reflexivity. Doostdar argues that the dipstick has moral relevance, not in and of itself, but largely as a response to concerns and problems developed through a popular tradition of reading Islamic hagiographies of the friends of God. Such hagiographies relate stories about the marvels performed by these special individuals, including their capacity to see the unseen with rare visual power. The friends of God possess what this hagiographical tradition refers to as an “eye of insight” that reveals moral truth, where most ordinary individuals would only see a false guise. The dipstick becomes an object relevant to moral reasoning because Mr. Makeri has inherited from the hagiographical tradition a very particular problem of rendering the unseen visible.
I confess I found it hard not to laugh when reading the passage about oil gauges and the religious conscience. Who, other than perhaps Mr. Makeri, could seize moral inspiration from something as humbly mechanical and as unimaginatively functional as a dipstick? The strength of Doostdar’s anthropology is that he does, in fact, take this moment seriously, and a reader who chuckles through such vignettes is quickly chastened to realize how much is in fact at stake. Doostdar refers to individuals like Mr. Makeri as metaphysical experimenters, and he views them as representatives of an avant-garde who restlessly work at the limits of established orthodoxy. In this emphasis on the experimental and the avant-garde, Doostdar seems to imply, without making this argument explicit, that his comparative anthropology of epistemology is, in fact, primarily about temporality rather than spatiality—about the barely perceptible futures being prodded open at the edges of our known present. For Doostdar, Mr. Makeri and his like are pushing the limits of Iranian religious traditions. Perhaps we can also see them as challenging, in an edgy, avant-garde sort of way, the established pieties of enlightenment itself.
The interplay between traditions is a two-way street. Doostdar demonstrates that certain categories of enlightenment thought have become internal to traditions of religious piety in Iran, including Islamic traditions of self-care. However, The Iranian Metaphysicals also shows us that a tradition of Islamic hagiography reorients the purchase of the enlightenment preoccupation with rational religion. A genre of divine marvels has developed into a medium in which to reason through the possibilities of scientific rationalization. What tradition of inquiry is host in this moment, and which one is guest? In whose house of reason do we dwell?
The ambiguity here is not only a question of whether the project of enlightenment has been untethered from Europe—a formulation whose impetus is driven by a possessive anxiety about North Atlantic origins. The ambiguity has to do, rather, with how we understand enlightenment’s futures and, in this case, its Islamic futures. For what Mr. Makeri and his colleagues reveal is that enlightenment itself can be anchored in hagiographic traditions, and when that happens, the future to which it points may no longer fulfill the civilizational expectations defined by Europe’s past. A comparison of enlightenment’s manifold temporal arcs—of the traditions of inquiry that map a trajectory of historical progress from superstition to rationality, but do so in heterogeneous ways—has yet to be written. Doostdar’s monograph puts this comparative project on our intellectual agenda.