Theorizing Modernities article

The Divergent Encounter between Prayer and Poetry in Contemporary Iran

Leaf of Calligraphy from Poems by Sa’di. Via The Met Museum. Public Domain.

In the fall of 1997, when I was living in Shiraz, a city in the south of Iran famous for its poets and its mystics, a few times I woke up early enough to join a small group of women who at dawn went for walks up one of the barren hills surrounding the city. Once the abode of saints and the source of subterranean water springs, these hills were already menaced by urban expansion back then, but still constituted for Shirazis an exit route from the concerns of everyday life and an opening towards a separate domain of experience. One of the women, a grandmother who lived first-hand Iran’s social and political upheavals, told me that while ascending the hills at dawn, she composed instant poems about God, nature, and her feelings. Words would come to her and the rhythm of her steps, intertwining with the embodied memory of the few verses she had learned in school, generated a sound pattern that weaved these words into composite expressions. She felt a connection with the universe and a correlate sense of emotional relief. At times, if she remembered these short compositions or had scribbled them on scraps of paper, she recited them to her family or friends in a self-joking halfway manner. Her position as an old woman allowed her to both inhabit and disavow these “poems.” Her “poems” certainly would not have been considered such by any of the innumerable literati of the city, but, precisely for this reason, they stood out for me as capturing something of a specific mode of existence that made irrelevant the distinction between communication with a transcendent God and a sensation of being one with the universe. Defying presumed differentiations between compositional rules and free improvisation, between argumentation and feeling, her “un-poems” were at once metaphysical and immediate. Their triviality was an act of profanation of every religious and poetic order. “Sprung at dawn on the hills, the irreverent micro-epiphanies of an old woman of Shiraz displaced centuries of sophisticated elaborations of theologians, mystics, and poets,” I scribbled in my notes. But I had to interrupt the walks, could not retrieve any of the un-poems, and lost touch with my acquaintance. This mode of existence remained an undeveloped comment in my notebook.

Now many years later, Haeri’s new important book, Say What Your Longing Heart Desires helps me understand better the early morning Shirazi un-poems of my lost acquaintance and the mode of existence they delineated. The world of the women of Tehran Haeri vividly describes is twenty years more recent and hundreds of kilometers away from the barren hills of Shiraz. The Tehrani women’s engagement with prayer and poetry seems to me far from the ways of my Shirazi acquaintance. But what the Tehrani women do, as narrated by Haeri, helps clarify how the Shirazi un-poems weren’t a simplistic and irreflexive blurring of prayer and poetry, as they might have appeared to some Shirazi, but also Tehrani or international learned observers. Rather, following Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who I take as a guide in this short essay, they were an act of profanation that made communication with the transcendent inoperative by opening up a different relationship between language, life, and the world.

To understand how such profanation can happen, in conversation with Haeri’s findings, I examine three aspects of the complex relationship between prayer and poetry. Discussing how women in the Iranian capital Tehran pray, read poetry, and take classes in Qur‘an and Persian mystical literature, Haeri explains that the women she frequented reappropriate institutionalized, state sponsored Islam by performing prayers as an intimate engagement with God, drawing in equal measure on their relationship with the divine and the poetic. The relationship between prayer and poetry in these women’s practices is far from simple. Prayer and poetry are too similar to be separated, but too different to be equated. Their interconnection is also what sets them apart.

The first point of divergent convergence between prayer and poetry is the bilingualism that defines their practice. In Iran, Arabic is the language of the Qur‘an and prescribed prayers (salat in Arabic, namaz in Persian—the bilingualism starts here). Persian is the language of mystical poetry and everyday use. Iranians usually study Arabic in school, but they often rely on Persian translations to read the Qur‘an for its meaning, and use Persian for voluntary prayers (do‘a), though collections of Arabic prayers are also widely used. Mystical Persian poetry is full of Qur‘anic references, and while written in a language intelligible to any Persian speaker, its metaphors and rhetorical figures require long term engagement and socialization to be appreciated. This intertwining of the two languages makes it such that, as Haeri explains, Arabic is seen as the sacred language in which one fulfills one’s religious duties. Arabic resonates with the divine even if (or precisely because) one doesn’t immediately understand its meanings but remains one step removed from the joys and pains of everyday life. Persian instead is the vernacular that offers the women a repertoire of mystical verses to put into words their spiritual and existential attachments. Persian is the everyday language that allows them to address God as a close confidant in informal prayers, even though in these conversations they can never quite fully inhabit the transcendent plane of Arabic. This bilingualism is no simple opposition between a religious language and a secular one because the interplay between Arabic and Persian opens and closes intersecting sacred and profane domains of experience. At the limit, the two languages tend to converge towards something more indistinct, at once enlightening and frightening. Though according to some religious scholars, Persian can be used in certain sections of the namaz, using lines of Persian poetry in the prayer sequence one might risk diverging from procedure. Probing such linguistic intersections, moving back and forth between intimacy and transcendence, as Haeri narrates, the Tehran women at times tend to expand linguistic boundaries and devotional rules to create a space that in their view makes communication effective and gives them the sense that they have performed a “good” prayer. Combining the planes of expression of Arabic and Persian, the women reconfigure the established order of things through a linguistic experience that makes the power of words cosmological.

The second point of divergent convergence between prayer and poetry is the relationship between rules and desires. In conversation with Haeri, the women seem to suggest that instituted Islam is an affair of prescribed rules and regulations that, while necessary, makes one’s relationship to God distant and anonymous, turning prayer into a dull repetition of empty formulas. They contrast this rigidity with poetry, a speech act that they see as translating inner feelings into words. As in the case of bilingualism, this is no simple juxtaposition. To start with, as Haeri shows, rules in prayers are crucial for establishing the ground of devotional effectiveness: it is the embodied reiteration of words and movements that gives them meaning. But rules and manners are only one dimension of prayer. Its success is also predicated on an appropriate disposition, itself a matter of self-cultivation perhaps, but one that is not dependent upon the application of an abstract rule to a routine performance. Success in prayer depends on how one inhabits the rule and therefore feels it: the heartless pronunciation of prayer will not lead you very far, say the Tehrani women, this time agreeing with what religious scholars say in the media. Poetry, indirectly, helps in developing the proper intention and disposition in prayer because with its figures and associations poetry makes the world of spiritual imagination vivid and concrete: it offers a descriptive language of desire. But poetry is made of rules and manners no less than prayer. Aesthetic pleasure in Persian poetry is achieved via the appropriate assembling of different elements: proper meter, rhyme, and rhetorical figures are essential to poetry. One can take as an example the verse by the famous 13th century mystical poet Jalal ad-din Rumi that Haeri uses as the title of her book in her own beautiful translation. The verse, composed of two lines, is pronounced by the Prophet Moses addressing a shepherd on how to pray:

Hiç ādābi o tartibi maju
har çe mikhāhad del-e tang-at begu

“Don’t search for manners and rules
Say what your longing heart desires”

The verse states that in prayer one should relinquish manners and rules (ādāb and tartib) and simply express one’s feelings and desires. However, this intimation is articulated through the very poetic conventions the verse incites readers to leave aside. For example, sound alliterations such as the one between the terms ādāb and tartib are fundamental in poetic compositions. In fact, the entire verse is an exercise in parallelism. Appearing at the end of the verse, the two imperatives maju/begu (“don’t search/say,”) highlight the negative/positive contrastive injunction that defines the two lines that make up the verse. In its apparent simplicity—these imperative forms are part of everyday vernacular in contemporary Iran—this parallelism exhibits complete mastery of conventions via phonemic (m/b, a/e, j/g) and semantic (don’t/do) oppositions, while also enfolding, hidden in the rhyme at the end of the verse, the object of the prayer’s desire. The ending of the two imperatives, the vowel u, is also in Persian the third person pronoun which might refer, as Haeri explains, both to the beloved (who makes one’s heart long) as well as to God. The pronoun u is gender neutral and can be translated in English as either he, she, or it. The opposition between a negation (“don’t search”) and an affirmation (“say”) finds its resolution in a neutral desire which also constitutes the verse’s rhyme. Poetry works here as a device that by contrasting what it declares with how it works asserts its own self-referentiality. By exhibiting rules and manners but negating their relevance the verse demonstrates its own power of expression: this is what poetry can do. Despite the women’s tendency to see them as opposite, rules and desires in prayer and poetry are not mutually exclusive. However, while in prayer rules need to be internalized in order for them to feel as desirable, in poetry the rules need to be explicitly exhibited in order to make poetry itself the object of desire.

The third point of convergence between prayer and poetry also marks their ultimate divergence. The Tehrani women conceive prayers as acts of communication. For them, Haeri tells us, prayers are the linguistic medium to address God. Whether their performance is perceived as successful or not, prayers, as rituals, renew and reinforce the transcendent distance that separates God and humans by establishing a communication channel between them. (Haeri suggests that the women see their successful prayers as producing a state of “presence” a sense of intimate nearness with God, and this is certainly appropriate, but such presence is the correlate effect of an act of communication with the distant Other. In other words, in prayer presence can be felt only as the opposite of the necessary absence that establishes the act of communication). When women feel that God is not answering their calls, the communication channel of prayer is no less effective, to the extent that women stop praying, even for long periods, because they expect a response. Eventually they often come to realize that such a response is dependent on their own disposition, because God always answers, either by triggering events in a person’s life, or by not responding.

Poetry is as transformative a speech act as prayer is, however, the power of poetry does not rest on communication but, as I mentioned, on self-referentiality. Persian poems, as the verse quoted above shows, often address something or someone, but their effectiveness does not rest on the speech act reaching the addressee (whose identity is therefore ultimately irrelevant from this perspective). The success of poems is not predicated on an answer to the call. A Persian poem works when its assemblage, drawing attention to the expressive power of language via linguistic means, generates an intransitive desire, a desire of desiring, thus reorienting its direction away from a transcendent order towards the poem itself: poetry is self-sufficient. In so doing, verses trespass any circumscribed domain of experience, undo any sacred separation between a metaphysical order and the here and now, making temporarily irrelevant the distinction between presence and absence. Certainly, as the Tehrani women seem to do, this power of poetry can be retooled to supplement prayer with an uncommunicative dimension, but ultimately prayer requires the re-inscription of language into a separate order that is beyond it, otherwise its own efficacy as an act of communication is compromised, and its distinction with ordinary language neutralized.

A (Shirazi) poetic mode of existence instead is predicated on this very indistinction. The immanent power of poetry of not-communicating is what makes possible to experience language and life differently. In these moments, losing its function of saying something, language is exposed as pure event, revealing its own power of expression. After all, this is also what at times life is: life and nothing else. There are times when, walking at dawn, distinctions between life as it is and life as it should be are suspended. This is the power of poetry and its mode of existence, at least as I had the fortune to encounter it on the hills of Shiraz. This is the “faith of the old women of Shiraz” as I came to understand it.

Setrag Manoukian
Setrag Manoukian is a cultural anthropologist interested in knowledge and its relationship with power. His area of specialty is Iran. He is the author of essays on Iran’s society and culture, and of City of Knowledge in Twentieth Century Iran: Shiraz, History, Poetry (Routledge, 2012). He teaches in the Institute of Islamic Studies and the Department of Anthropology at McGill University, Montreal, Canada.

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