It has been thirty years since Talal Asad first laid out a conceptual framework for thinking about Islam as a tradition in his seminal article “The Idea for an Anthropology of Islam.” Over the intervening years, Asad’s invitation to anthropologists to approach Islam as a discursive tradition has had an immense impact on scholarship concerning Muslim societies, though, admittedly, citations of his work have far outpaced attempts to follow out its analytical implications. Nonetheless, the generativity and insight of his reworking of Alasdair MacIntyre’s notion of a discursive tradition as a concept appropriate for the analysis of Islam has been born out in a growing body of anthropological works.
Alireza Doostdar’s The Iranian Metaphysicals stands as a rigorous and thoughtful contribution to this scholarship. Drawing on a rich ethnographic archive, Doostdar gives us a superbly argued and highly original exploration of Iran’s “metaphysical explorers,” a category that includes a wide range of practitioners, from traditional Shi’i specialists in the occult (rammals), to the “cosmic mystics,” followers of one of the popular twentieth-century spiritual-therapeutic alternatives to emerge in Iran, to those who seek guidance and wisdom from the “friends of God,” Muslim ascetics, often capable of miraculous feats. Focusing on an arena of practice and experimentation that scholars have generally dismissed as marginal to the study of religious life in Iran, Doostdar shows us that, to the contrary, these outlying practices have often enough provided the leading edge along which a number of key twentieth-century developments in Shi’i Islam have passed. The book’s central focus is on how the rationalizing impulse that accompanied Iranian modernity shaped a wide variety of experiments and institutional forms concerning metaphysical knowledges and practices, including new scientific frameworks for interpreting longstanding occult and Sufi practices, as well as the introduction of novel techniques and therapies derived directly from Western counterparts. The picture Doostdar gives us is not one of a homogeneous cultural or religious space, but of a plurality of overlapping and diverging modes of reason, including different responses to the modernist drive toward rationalization.
While this book is an extraordinary accomplishment, rich in its ethnographic wanderings and sophisticated in its theoretical framing, my interest in this short essay is confined to the book’s treatment of the question of tradition. Importantly, this decision stems not from a shortcoming of The Iranian Metaphysicals, but rather, for the sophistication and rigor with which it approaches the notion of tradition, and thus affords the reader an opportunity to reflect on what, in my view, are some of the key aspects and challenges that Asad’s elaboration of this notion entails. Doostdar explores how the arguments, perspectives, and understandings of his informants are inscribed within, and extend, traditions of reasoning, including orthodox Shi’a traditions (“Shi’a reason”), as one of a number of powerful sources of authority in contemporary Iran. Focusing on metaphysical practices forged at the unstable and shifting intersection between established Islamic genres and novel techniques and practices modeled on Western inquiries into the scientific occult, Doostdar traces the patterns of transformation, rejection, accommodation, and assimilation occurring at this intersection. Reflecting, in his conclusion, on the value of such practices in the analysis of traditions, he notes:
Analyzed in this way, edgy practices like metaphysical inquiries give us a view of the processes through which traditions—including Islamic ones—undergo expansion, contraction, and contortion. By focusing on the way in which practices are rendered uncomfortable or avant-garde, we can develop an understanding of the way in which a tradition may change—whether this occurs through jettisoning, resignifying, or incorporating various sorts of inquiry and practice, or through epistemic and affective transformations.
On the one hand, Doostdar’s work can be seen as a contribution to the analysis of how traditions change under the impact of Western modernity, the processes of incorporation, defensive response, and resignification that are key to understanding the trajectory of Islamic societies over the last two hundred years. On the other hand, The Iranian Metaphysicals demonstrates how an important dimension of orthodox Islam’s encounter with Western scientific epistemologies took place on the margins of orthodoxy, as if occult practices provided a safer experimental ground wherein orthodoxy could confront the provocations and possibilities of the emerging regime of scientific rationality. In both of these ways, Doostdar’s book is essential reading for scholars concerned with the impact of Western epistemologies on traditions of Shi’a Islam. Highlighting the patterns of debate and argumentation whereby practitioners and critics attempt to make sense of the new practices they inhabit, Doostdar’s work superbly captures the dynamic encounter between competing epistemologies and ethical models.
Doostdar’s writing offers an important counterpoint to an exisiting body of scholarship on Iran that has emphasized the declining scope of Islamic Shi’a reason in the face of Western political, bureaucratic, and scientific rationalities (examples could include the work of Sami Zubaida or Darius Rejali). His text complicates claims about the eclipse of Islamic reason in a number of ways. To begin, he rejects the idea that processes of rationalization are without precedent in Iran. Twentieth century rationalizing trends, he argues, are both “continuous and discontinuous with the past,” extensions of earlier epistemological efforts often aimed at curbing the scope of mystical practice, though also an unprecedented transformative force that has reshaped Iran since the late nineteenth century. Much of the book centers on the variety of ways people involved in realms of occult or metaphysical practice have attempted to make sense of the conflicting attachments and modes of rationality they encounter in their lives in the context of the expanding authority of rationalist and scientific models. As opposed to the earlier work emphasizing the decline of tradition, Doostdar attends closely to the plurality of (at times conflicting) commitments, styles of argument, and sensibilities that inform his interlocutors’ understandings of such metaphysical practices, and the way such diverse modes of engagement either extend or abandon traditions of Shi’a Islam. Indeed, a great virtue of this book is the way it examines the multiplicity of epistemological commitments and styles of argument by which Iranians seek to bring coherence to their at times conflicting commitments to both Shi’i Islam and to scientific models of reason.
Yet, Doostdar’s emphasis on the way “different possibilities for reasoning become available to people,” while certainly fruitful, leaves me with one concern. Specifically, in adopting such an analytical frame, don’t we run the risk of loosing sight of the very different status of the diverse traditions of reasoning addressed? The modes of scientific and bureaucratic rationality that have reshaped Iran, along with the rest of the world, since the nineteenth century, are more than epistemic “possibilities.” Rather, they are conditions of modern life that impinge upon, shape, and limit any attempt to extend or secure forms of tradition-guided reason, Islamic or otherwise. That is, arguments for the compatibility of a practice with traditions of Shi’i Islam take place in a context where scientific rationalism is not simply an epistemological possibility but an ontological condition. Admittedly, Doostdar’s text begins precisely with a recognition of this fact. What is not so clear, however, is how this ontological condition bears on his analysis of tradition and the styles of argument that undergird it.
Let me try to clarify this point by reference to the following observation Doostdar makes toward the end of the book:
When Ayatollah Makarem claimed on the basis of empirical evidence that European psychical research was sound, he was both extending Shi’i reasoning in novel ways and helping entrench an empiricist mode of argumentation that exceeded the Shi’i tradition and was at times turned against it.
Can we really parse out such arguments in regard to the diverse traditions they uphold or undermine? Wouldn’t we say that the persuasiveness of any argument for the compatibility of a practice with Shi’i Islam necessitates that it at least not contradict or stand in opposition to the everyday world fashioned, to a significant extent, by empiricist and rationalist powers? How do we hold together in our inquiries into the trajectories of Islam an appreciation of the diverse sources of authority by which individuals make sense of their lives and the conscripting powers put into place by the juggernaut of Western modernity? While these are old, well-worn questions, they have an uncanny way of reappearing where least expected.