God and Man in Tehran

Contending Visions of the Divine from the Qajars to the Islamic Republic

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Hossein Kamaly
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , May
     2018.
     256 pages.
     $60.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780231176828.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

If we begin by taking its title, God and Man in Tehran: Contending Visions of the Divine from the Qajars to the Islamic Republic, as a guide to its central themes, we can, at the most basic level, approach Hossein Kamaly’s new book as a study of claims regarding divine-human relations (the title’s “God and Man”) within a particular local context (its “in Tehran”).

This is indeed a rough approximation of Kamaly’s main areas of concern, but such an approximation ignores the tremendous breadth of the phenomena Kamaly includes in his study. While its broad scope is truly impressive, this book does suffer from a somewhat uneven conceptual development of the two sides of its title, with the “God and Man” portion more thoroughly developed than the “in Tehran” side.

While a book with this breadth may struggle to provide an adequate conceptual framework for its scope, Kamaly’s work does not. The author’s use of “mediatory theology” as a central analytical device helps provide a clear lens through which the reader can approach what may otherwise seem to be disparate collection of phenomena. This term’s use as a “comparative rubric” that can locate various positions in “debates on the agentive relationship between God and the world” (xii) explains the inclusion of a variety of positions that include not only the clerical theology a reader might otherwise assume to represent theology in general, but also Islamic philosophy, Sufism, and skepticism (xii).

Given that the book favors breadth rather than depth, its discussion of some topics does, at points, lose some nuance a narrower study of individual phenomena may be able to offer. For example, Kamaly argues, at the turn of the 20th century, a majority of Tehran’s clerics “preferred what might be labeled commonsense or folk formulations of mediatory theology,” according to which they opposed “descriptions of the relationship between God and humans in ʿerfan-like intimate terms” because “Islam teaches man’s salvation depended on serving God” through “unquestioning obedience to God’s normative law” (130).

This passage appears to oppose ʿirfān (“mysticism,” roughly) to Islam, which may neglect sources that characterize ʿirfān as a fundamentally Islamic mode of experience, and specifically seems to overlook the fact that many authorities frame obedience to “God’s normative law” as a necessary precondition for engagement with ʿirfān (130). While Kamaly’s characterization of both theologies as mediatory still holds, and can explain his comparison of them, the explanation for his focus on Tehran is somewhat less readily apparent.

As Iran’s capital from the Qajar era onward, Tehran’s centrality to Iranian life may seem obvious enough that limiting a book’s focus to it may not require further explanation. However, in the case of Iranian religious life, such a limit requires more explanation, given that many other cities in Iran have also played large roles in the last two centuries of its religious history. Other locales, both inside and outside of Iran’s current borders, were major influences upon the development of its sub-titular “Contending Visions of the Divine from the Qajars to the Islamic Republic”; the shrine cities of Qom and Mashhad in Iran and Najaf and Karbala in Iraq are the most obvious examples.

In the absence of an explanation for the exclusion of other relevant cities, the focus on Tehran could have made more sense if the city itself were a more active participant in the book’s events; one could hope that a book with a title like this one may, at some points, explore how the urban landscape of its titular city shaped life there.

In Tehran’s case, for example, studies of the funding, construction, and geographical distribution of mosques and Husaynīyahs across the city, the impact of changes in the design and use of public space upon ‘Āshūrāʾ processions, and the many changes wrought by the massive growth of the city’s population in the 20th century could all have been rich avenues of inquiry.

God and Man in Tehran is undoubtedly a valuable contribution to Iranian Studies. Mediatory theology is an encompassing enough concept to warrant its own volume, but in addition to that, Kamaly has obviously conducted admirable research on almost all of the major elements in the development of Iranian modernity, from the arrival of “Nature” as a new value to which intellectual and cultural projects could appeal to the role of classical philosophy and mysticism in new, 20th-century settings.

In the absence of a more fully developed explanation of this setting (Tehran) and its role in shaping mediatory theology there, the book seems more focused on mediatory theology than its titular city. While a more extended engagement with the impact of their local Tehrani context upon the religious phenomena discussed in the book would have been a welcome addition, without it, God and Man in Tehran could similarly have benefited from focusing more fully and more explicitly upon mediatory theology in Iran (rather than in Tehran in particular); such a broadening could have justified a more thorough discussion of prominent figures from outside of Tehran who were nonetheless influential upon Iranian religious life, which in turn could have offered a fuller picture of the variety of discourses that have appealed to mediatory theology.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robert Ames is an adjunct assistant professor  of Liberal Studies at New York University.

Date of Review: 
June 16, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Hossein Kamaly is a scholar of the Middle East, focusing on the history of ideas. He has taught at Barnard College and Columbia University and lives in Larchmont, NY.

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