Theorizing Modernities article

Language and Feeling in Ritual Practice

Folio with Verses in Nasta’liq Script. The verses on this folio are written in diagonal lines of nasta‘liq script. Noted for its refined and lyrical quality, nasta‘liq is ideally suited for love poetry replete with mystical allusions and Sufi metaphors. Date: A.H. 1017/ A.D. 1608–9. Via Metropolitan Museum of Art. Public Domain.

Just what is “modern religion” exactly? Conventional wisdom, biased toward Protestant Christianity, would claim that it is the kind that fits best to modern society, which is defined and purportedly organized as secular. Since Iran is a society that officially opposes secularism, one might assume that religion there is not modern. In a secular society, one that institutionally separates religion and politics, church and state, religion is meant to be a private matter only. The ideal practice of “modern” religion is thus conceived of as interior, a matter of personal conviction and private experience, not of obligation and public display. In the history of Christianity, the latter was the critique Protestants levelled at Catholic legalism and ritual. In light of that critique, they sought to establish a new church with fewer mediators between the individual and God. By 1800, in an era of rising secularism, the Protestant thinker Friedrich Schleiermacher arrived at a further understanding of modern religion, defending the value of faith in its experiential rather than moral dimension, religion as a feeling rather than a rule. True religion, then, was the one sincerely felt, not merely performed as a duty. And this is where Niloofar Haeri’s Say What Your Longing Heart Desires: Women, Prayer, and Poetry in Iran delivers fascinating insights for those of us who know more about the history and practice of Protestant Christianity in Europe than of Islam in the Middle East. It turns our assumptions about what modern religion might be on their heads and reminds us of similarities between the two traditions.

It is an interesting feature of Protestantism that its core understandings around the proper relationship between person and God emerged from and was articulated strongly in mystical practices: Martin Luther started his career as a member of a contemplative community; Pietist movements of the seventeenth century and the revivalism of the nineteenth century all drew on mystical language and strove for a personal and immediate experience of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Today’s charismatic Christians follow in these footsteps, and in so doing, appear in the eyes of many secular observers to be decidedly un-modern. In the contexts that I have studied—German and US American Christians since 1800 —religious practices which strive to feel God’s presence in the body become increasingly viewed as “too” religious, associated with politically reactionary views and fundamentalist understandings of religious texts. It is hardly remembered now how modern it once was to practice an experiential religion and have a personal relationship to God, a stance which provided the basis for a privatized religion that could fit into a secular society.

Reading Niloofar Haeri’s book, I was struck by the different constellations and history of experiential and legalistic modes of religious engagement she described, and how well suited it is to help readers question conventional wisdom—on religion in Iran specifically, and on the notion of modern religion more generally. Just like the Christianity I have studied (and Haeri notes interesting parallels between them throughout her book), Islam has struggled with the tensions between these two modes of religion. It also appears to be the educated middle classes which strive for an experiential mode of religious practice, shying away from a legalistic, externalized mode, in which even mindlessly going through the motions is considered enough to fulfill the religious obligation (in this case, demanded by the state). As Haeri notes in her conclusion, from the perspective of Muslim practitioners drawing on the deep tradition of ‘erfān, the laws of the anti-secular, Islamist regime in Tehran are in fact “institutionalized insincerity,” demanding obedience to rules regardless of one’s feeling. Throughout the book, she shows how the regime itself cannot completely reject Persian mystical traditions, though it remains ambivalent toward them. It appears to be a contradiction in the very fabric of Islamist rule in Iran and provides a far more nuanced understanding of how religion is practiced under such conditions. Are the women that Haeri portrays practicing a more “modern” Islam than that which the regime demands? Or is the regime itself “modern” because it produces this mode of practice? Not only do Haeri’s interlocutors feel that their parents and grandparents only practiced out of obligation (in a “pre-modern” mode) before the revolution, but the book as a whole argues convincingly for a broad societal problematization of religious practice after 1979 across the spectrum from secular to religious.

It is hardly remembered now how modern it once was to practice an experiential religion and have a personal relationship to God, a stance which provided the basis for a privatized religion that could fit into a secular society.

Haeri’s ethnography, with its excellent material and insightful analysis, opens a window onto this problematization, which revolves around the question of prayer. Why must Muslims pray at all (since regular namāz obviously does not automatically make everyone a better person)? What should motivate people to pray (love of God or fear of punishment; display of piety, or for oneself)? These are, as Haeri informs us, “the most frequently discussed questions on television, radio, Internet and among friends and strangers in Iran today” (72). Negotiating the space between religion and the secular, between the Islamist law of the land and personal conviction, revolves around these issues. This is no doubt because prayer, as a way to regularly communicate with God,  is a central practice of Islam, and arguably of religion generally. The tension between formalistic and experiential modes of this communication turns up not only at the societal level, but also at the personal level for the women interviewed here, since they can also have a prayer session that suffices formally but still not find it to be good enough. They strive for the feeling of hāl, which Haeri identifies as a sense of “co-presence with the divine”; this is what makes prayers truly valid and efficacious for them.

Particularly in this part of her analysis, Haeri sheds light on the emotional work of what appears to be mere recitation and rote prayer (in a foreign language, no less), again calling into question one of the basic assumptions about what makes religion modern. The mechanistic mutterings of the rosary in Catholicism (at one time also in a foreign language, Latin) was the very image of premodern religion for Protestants, who championed prayer “from the heart.” And yet, as I have found, their own great attachment to the Lord’s Prayer, the Psalms, and other texts belies this prejudice; they, too, have an understanding of how memorizing and reciting the words of another entails their internalization. Those words become, to a certain extent, one’s own, and reciting them was often described to me as a high point of the church service. Haeri’s study digs deeply into how speaking from the heart relies on the formal structures of language and ritual; they provide the necessary scaffolding for achieving a deeply personal experience. Recitation, therefore, does not make sincerity impossible. The words are not the issue for these practitioners so much as the question of how one prays. A good namāz also requires effort: “concentration (tamarkoz), sincerity (kholūs), and presence of the heart (hozūr-e qalb)” (159).

The importance of hāl as an indicator of a good namāz highlights how emotion mediates the experience of divine presence, and this study also offers insight into the connection between language and emotion. Two languages are at play here and each may offer its own emotional affordance. The mystical quality of the older, foreign language may conjure a sense of mystery and awe, while one’s own vernacular would seem to be closer to the heart and everyday life, which can make for more passionate, personal feelings. Haeri’s study suggests that the art of prayer among her interlocutors involves the creative interplay between such affordances. I have used the term “emotional practice,” building on William Reddy’s speech-act concept of “emotives” and Arlie Hochschild’s understanding of emotional work, to explain why emotions like hāl are a kind of skill, even if we do not experience them as being within our own power. Emotions are not so much “had” as “done,” and the fact that they cannot reliably be accomplished successfully speaks to the inherent instability of iterative practice and space for inserting one’s own creative agency. Judith Butler and other theoreticians of performativity emphasize that language precedes the subject and indeed, following Michel Foucault, serves to subjectify the individual, but it does not fully determine her subjectivity. This potential is excellently demonstrated in Haeri’s study and will hopefully encourage more investigations of this kind in other religious contexts, continuing to trouble our assumptions about modern religion as a matter of private experience.

Monique Scheer
Prof. Dr. Monique Scheer is professor of historical and cultural anthropology at the University of Tübingen. In her teaching and research, Scheer brings perspectives from the history and anthropology of emotions together with issues around belief and conviction, religious and secular, and how they play out in social settings characterized by cultural and religious pluralism. Scheer's research monograph, Enthusiasm: Emotional Practices of Conviction in Modern Germany (2020) combines historical and ethnographic methods in applying practice theory to the study of religion and emotions in the context of modern German Protestantism.

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