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Niloofar Haeri. Say What Your Longing Heart Desires: Women, Prayer and Poetry in Iran

Behnam Fomeshi
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Niloofar Haeri. Say What Your Longing Heart Desires: Women, Prayer and Poetry in Iran. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020, 224 p.

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1Through offering an ethnography of a group of educated, middle-class women who “had been attending weekly Qur’an and classical poetry classes for years” (xii), the volume shows that poetry and prayer are companions in the cultural history of Iran. It attempts to answer the question, “What does this companionship mean for forms of religiosity in Iran?” (xiv). It consists of an introduction, four chapters, a conclusion, a glossary, notes, a bibliography, and an index.

2Challenging the “presumption of backwardness and absence of intellectual struggles” in the characterization of the 1979 Iranian Revolution by Western media and “some in academia”, the volume tries to discover certain “unexpected but crucial processes that have been set in motion” (1). The Revolution may have failed to realize its democratic aspirations in the realm of politics. Nevertheless, its “transformative effect on matters of religion” should not be underestimated (1). Non-clerics’ engagement in theological discussions in post-1979 Iran has blurred “the old distinction in Muslim-majority societies between the elite (scholars) and the laity” (1).

3One of the sources of ideas and vocabulary Iranians use to enter debates on religion is mystical writing in Persian, in particular, the classical poetry (6). “Skepticism over coercive, visible, and legalistic religion” has been a frequent theme of such poetry (7). Along with scriptural sources and the literature on them, mystic poetry and commentary on them are “the major discursive traditions that have been in dialogue with each other over centuries” (9). The following examples illustrate how thoroughly the discourses of prayer and poetry can interact. A person recites a few lines of Persian poetry in her qonūt (a nonobligatory part of namāz) (52) and another person refers to the lines of Persian poetry as “ayāt”, “usually reserved to mean Qur’anic verses” (113). Furthermore, mystical Persian poetry challenges the secular/religious binary opposition in Iran (64). While religious Iranians see a vast reservoir of theological thinking in mystical Persian poetry, secular-minded Iranians find in it a certain open-minded modernity.

4The volume highlights the post-1979’s (unexpected) democratic development in the realm of religion that led to the lay people’s involvement with religious debates, and shows how Persian poetry blurs the distinctions between secular/religious and laity/scholars. Furthermore, it provides evidence that the discourse in Iran (not of the Islamic Republic) is less sectarian (103) than what one frequently hears outside Iran about the Sunni-Shi’a divide. While the insightful discussions of the volume inspires the scholars of religion, anthropology, and literary studies for further research, the reader-friendly language makes it an accessible source for non-experts too.

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Behnam Fomeshi, « Niloofar Haeri. Say What Your Longing Heart Desires: Women, Prayer and Poetry in Iran »Abstracta Iranica [En ligne], Volume 42-43 | 2021, document 3, mis en ligne le 30 décembre 2021, consulté le 19 juillet 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/abstractairanica/52925 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/abstractairanica.52925

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