The Iranian Metaphysicals

Explorations in Science, Islam, and the Uncanny

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Alireza Doostdar
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , March
     312 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Alireza Doostdar provides a refreshing ethnographic account of several ways in which Iranians address “the rationalization of the unseen” (4). Based on fieldwork in Iran between 2006 and 2008 and archival research, his focus is on three closely related processes that stretch back to the late 19th century. One is cleansing superstition out of metaphysical knowledge, especially the controversy over the rammal (an esoteric prayer writer); a second is the effort at formulating scientific concepts to grasp metaphysical phenomena; and the third is dealing with the problems affecting Iranian society through a kind of therapeutic spirituality for moral reform. Doostdar’s ethnography is informed by analysis of historical trends in Shi’a Islam that stretch back over a millennium, especially regarding the interpretation of esoteric concepts and sciences. The result is a text that charts an innovative approach to understanding the paranormal in Iran in both its contemporary and historical contexts in eminently readable prose.

At a time when there is much maligning of Iran, in particular its brand of Shi‘a Islam, this book offers an escape from political posturing by addressing the concerns of ordinary Iranians caught between traditional Islamic heritage and the attraction of a modern scientific worldview. Doostdar argues that his use of “metaphysical” is due to the fact that it “takes on a rationalized character” that is lacking in terms such as “occult” or “unseen” (9). His main argument may be summed up as follows: “The metaphysical … allows people to think comparatively (even scientifically) about the nature of the uncanny, strange, and extraordinary without being bound to the terms of specific theological or ethical arguments” (10).

His text consists of three parts. The first ten chapters discuss the role of the rammal through extensive interviews with both those who practice and those who use their services. The details of the rammal’s ritual, dismissed by many as mere superstition, takes a psychological toll on the recipients. The fact that jinn spirits are mentioned in the Qur’an makes it possible for the rammal to gain attention, even if most Iranian Muslims argue for “virtuous caution” in dealing with the spiritual world. One of Doostdar’s interlocutors, Nafiseh, is called “the consummate metaphysical experimentalist” for combining Qur’an, New Age literature, and sci-fi movies (38). Others move between noted Persian mystics, Buddhism, Eckankar, and Carlos Castaneda (107-09), including smoking weed. 

As is clear from the people Doostdar interviewed, young women (especially those divorced) appear to be major users of the rammal (39). Doostdar does not follow up on this important gender issue, apart from noting that there is a long history in Iran of viewing women as gullible. The work of anthropologist Ziba Mir-Hosseini would be useful for studying this. Regarding the issue of divorce, it would also be beneficial to know how Iranian psychologists deal with issues of marriage and divorce.

The second part of the book looks at appeals to scientific authority. “The seductions of  modern science have proved irresistible for the Iranian religious imagination,” writes Doostdar (171). One of the examples given is Mehdi Bazargan, the politician and promoter of “religious modernism.” Bazargan, in using contemporary scientific knowledge to explain Islamic views, was particularly fascinated by the first and second laws of thermodynamics, even for modeling what the afterlife might be (141). A number of the informants who were interested in using science to interpret metaphysics were engineers. The same is true for the Christian fundamentalists Henry M. Morris of flood geology fame, who applied the laws of thermodynamics to justify scientific creationism. It would be interesting to compare the Iranian material with these kinds of Christian attempts to harmonize science and religion.

Also discussed is Mohammed ‘Ali Taheri, the founder of “Cosmic Mysticism,” who was given a death sentence in 2015 for views that were considered heretical. The third part delves into attempts by the government of Iran and its clerics to use the metaphysical in promoting social reform. This is done through hagiographies, especially of lesser known Iranians, in order to protect the public from deviance, proposing alternative spiritualities for peace of mind, and ultimately “the bureaucratization of piety in the service of state interests” (228).

The strengths of Doostdar’s analysis are many. Instead of dealing with the uncanny and metaphysical as a matter of exotic difference, he asks “what do we learn if we view the metaphysical in terms hospitable to rational inquiry?" (18). Combining ethnographic accounts of his informants with his own rich contextualization makes this a very suitable text for courses on either Islam or the notion of rationality. It is accessible to readers who have little or no knowledge of Iran or Shi’a Islam.

Doostdar discusses a variety of views on the nature of rationality, including Weber’s (240, n. 30). He suggests that Freud’s notion of the uncanny (unheimlich) is important for making sense of the diverse Iranian approaches to the metaphysical (20-21). He is not following Freud’s outdated examples, but notes that in Persian psychoanalytic literature this term is translated as “familiar-strangeness” and has the possibility of being an “incitement to inquiry.” Thus curiosity is aroused even through the sense of dread or fear. “What makes metaphysical experiments uncanny, that is, also grants them an edginess or avant-garde quality that pushes the envelopes of existing norms and produces new forms of sociality,” Doostdar concludes (22). Missing from his analysis is a comparative perspective on how rationality has been addressed by anthropologists in non-literate societies, even though Evans-Pritchard’s work on the Azande is cited.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Daniel Variso is Senior Postdoctoral Scholar at the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

Date of Review: 
May 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alireza Doostdar is Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies and the Anthropology of Religion at the University of Chicago.



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