In Say What Your Longing Heart Desires: Women, Prayer, and Poetry in Iran, a brilliant and meticulous volume, Niloofar Haeri offers both specialists and a more general audience a view into the experiences of Shi’a Muslim women in Iran who negotiate their complex relationships with God using prayer, poetry, and companionship in a nuanced fashion. Based on fieldwork in Iran, interviews with esteemed religious leaders, and analyses of multi-layered media sources, such as websites, social media, and more, Haeri gives us insight that is hard to come by, as access to Iran can be limited. In the book, she argues that women’s utilization of “the centuries-old companionship and exchanges in Iranian cultural and intellectual history among mystical poetry and scriptural sources,” (8-9) helps women engage with God and act piously through their daily activities. To this end, Haeri has offered ample evidence for her argument and made an excellent ethnographic contribution to the study of gender and contemporary Iranian piety and practice.
In the book, Haeri shares insights gleaned from her extensive fieldwork and collection of interviews with more than sixty interlocutors, including twenty-five in-depth engagements with Iranian Muslim women. In order to provide the ethnographic detail their experiences necessitate, Haeri uses the stories of six women to ground the analysis of the book. The women she profiles represent different generations with disparate interests in various lines of work, but who are nevertheless united by their knowledge of the Qur'an, poetry, and the connection between the two. The book examines three kinds of prayer: do'a (spontaneous, not required, and primarily said in Persian), namaz or salat (obligatory prayers from the Qur'an and always recited in Arabic), and prayers attributed to the Shi'a Imams and collected in edited volumes (generally in Arabic). The Arabic and Persian language discussions are essential to this book. Haeri offers a novel perspective on the language of prayer as not being connected to doctrinal differences between Sunni and Shi'a, but rather to a negotiation of language and authenticity. Chapter 3 does an especially great job of examining this through the author’s discussion of do'a. To conclude that chapter, she writes, “Muslim subjectivity is often portrayed by exclusively examining that which is obligatory” (122), but the examination of do'a and women's choice in using vernacular languages in dialogue with God illuminate the many ways God can be the “Beloved.”
A particular feature of this book is Haeri's flow between sources, such as interviews with ayatollahs like Mohsen Kadivar, in order to examine the quality and organization of prayer books such as the Mafatih al-Jinan. Through the productive interplay between her sources, Haeri invites the reader into dynamic debates, such as how Muslims grapple with questions of authenticity in the content of ritual prayers or the acceptability of vernacular languages in communicating with God. Throughout the text, the author offers the specialist language readers need and thorough citations of works to guide follow-up research. At the same time, a novice can become familiar with the content through Haeri's precise in-text translations and through the context Haeri provides for her interlocutors' bond with mystical poets, the Qur'an, and texts attributed to the Shi'a Imams.
The author offers unexpected reports on women's prayers in Iran, such as the way women like Pari (one of the six women featured in the book) carefully reflect on the words of the Qur'an and adapt their prayers to what matters most. For example, Pari recounts, “instead of saying ‘so help us against the disbelievers,’ when I recite, I ask God to ‘help me against my own malice,’” demonstrating her agency in adapting prayer to the most pressing issues, believing that her attitude could be more detrimental than disbelief. This quote, presented in the book’s conclusion, can be fully unpacked after reading the four proceeding chapters. The women interviewed think carefully about what prayer can mean when seen as a dialogue with God, and they advocate for their positions on how to do that and what language to use (Persian or Arabic). Haeri is sure to note that her study does not speak for all Iranian Muslims but offers insight into how “Iranian society currently grapples with questions of religion” (156).
Overall, Haeri’s work pushes back against the scholastic and journalistic trend to focus on the legalistic aspects of Islam and, more specifically, in Iran, to offer a view of the joy, sobriety, seriousness, and creativity of being Muslim in Iran. It is also a great example of how a thorough and ethnographically rich book need not be long to be productive. In only 162 pages, Haeri takes us on an accessible journey, offering much-needed diversity to Muslim thought as she examines “what people encounter as ‘religion’ and what they learn through family members, texts, teachers, art, sounds, experiences, and spaces” (2). The text is suitable for graduate students and seasoned scholars, and parts may be helpful in undergraduate teaching (such as chapter 2, for teaching about ritual prayer and Islam). Engaged with the academic study of religion (citing scholars such as J. Z. Smith and considering the numerous categorizations of the concept of “religion”), scholars outside of the field of Islamic Studies will be able to read this book as well, such as those interested in the anthropology of religion or ethnographic methods.
Candace Mixon is a visiting assistant professor at Occidental College.
Date Of Review:
July 21, 2022
Niloofar Haeri is professor of anthropology and the program chair for Islamic studies at Johns Hopkins University. She is a Guggenheim Fellow and the author of Sacred Language, Ordinary People (2003), among other works.
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