Theorizing Modernities article

Religions of the Heart: Reflections on Reading Niloofar Haeri’s Say What your Longing Heart Desires

This text, which was written in several different hands, includes nasta’liq, ta’liq shikasta, muhaqqaq, and thuluth scripts. A poem written diagonally by the calligrapher Sultan Muhammad Nur uses religious imagery to describe the beauty of the beloved, and the large writing to the left of the poem is a calligraphic exercise in which the letter shin is repeated several times. Via The Met Museum. Public Domain.

In a recent discussion with Vanessa Zolton for her podcast Hot & Bothered: On Eyre, we talked about the second of two key deathbed scenes in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847). Jane, newly settled in paid employment as a governess, is called to the bedside of her aunt by marriage, the tormentor of her childhood, Sarah Reed. Aunt Reed views herself as unfairly saddled with the care of an unruly, ungrateful child, yet she had promised her dying husband that she would continue to raise Jane in her home. As readers familiar with the book or any of the many film adaptations know, Aunt Reed does not fulfill her vow. Jane Eyre opens with lacerating scenes of the cruelty to which Jane is subjected by her cousins and by her aunt, culminating in her expulsion from the house. Jane leaves swearing never to return; her rage against the injustice done to her by her cousins and aunt seems uncontainable and unassuageable. By the time she returns to that house almost ten years later, however, Jane has learned to control her anger and, she claims, to feel only love, pity, and sorrow for her dying aunt.

Extract from The Brontë Sisters by Patrick Branwell Brontë (died 1848). PD-US. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Yet the deathbed scene is peculiar within the context of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English-language novels for its bleak coldness. Aunt Reed asks to see Jane because she feels the need to acknowledge two sins: first, her removal of Jane from her home against the wishes of and the promise made to her husband, and secondly, telling another uncle, who three years earlier on his return to England had written seeking Jane’s whereabouts, that she was dead. Jane easily grants her aunt forgiveness and stays in the house through her last illness and death. But there is no mutual love here, no tears, no visible repentance, despite the confession, for Aunt Reed still shudders if Jane tries to touch her, repulsed by this woman in whom she sees only the child she so hated. When explaining what I saw as significant about these scenes to Vanessa and her producer, Ariana Nedelman, I found myself talking in terms of a distinction very much alive to Charlotte Bronte when she wrote the novel, and so, of course, to her contemporaries: that between a religion of the law and a religion of the heart. The terms are deeply problematic in their anti-Jewish and supercessionist logic, yet as I said to Vanessa and Ariana, the theological debate being staged and enacted in Jane Eyre was less about Judaism, of which I imagine Bronte knew very little, than about what it means to be a Christian. For Aunt Reed, the mere statement of her repentance and the request for forgiveness will, she hopes, be enough to earn her salvation despite her sins. Jane both forgives her aunt and, through her own actions, stands as a subtle rebuke to her; in Jane we see a character who has come to understand that repentance requires love—all good works require love—to be truly Christian. As she learns from her teacher, Miss Temple (my thanks to Vanessa for the reminder about who teaches Jane this lesson), if one does not feel that love at first, through the repeated performance of acts of kindness, generosity, and forgiveness, anger and rancor will be abated and acceptance, even, with time and grace, the felt experience of loving kindness, will emerge.

Niloofar Haeri’s Say What Your Longing Heart Desires: Women, Prayer & Poetry in Iran is about, among many other things, what it means to be Muslim for women in post-Revolution Iran. Although Haeri’s rich ethnography focuses specifically on prayer—how it is learned, performed, and understood by the women she calls “our group”—something like the distinction between a religion of the law and a religion of the heart so common in nineteenth-century Christianity runs throughout the book. A text from Rumi’s Masnavi-e Ma’navi, referred to by Iranians, Haeri tells us, as “the Qur’an in Persian tongue,” (12) articulates one form this distinction takes in Haeri’s book and in the lives of the woman with whom she talks, learns, and prays. In response to concerns about how prayer is conducted, God sends a revelation to Moses:

Hindus praise Me in the Hindi tongue
Sindhis praise Me in the Sindhi tongue
I am not made pure by their remembrance [prayers]
but pure, full of pearls, do they become

We have no regard for words or qāl
We look at their spirit and hāl (Cited by Haeri, 13)

As Haeri explains, the distinction here is between “language, or that which is expressed verbally” and a term, hāl, “that refers to one of the most central concepts in ‘erfān,” Sufism or Islamic mysticism. The term, Haeri elaborates, is “meant to capture a sudden, fleeting, and unpredictable change in one’s emotional state, a moment when one feels an overwhelming sense of connection to the divine (to nature, to the universe)—a sense of ecstasy, joy, or even deep sorrow” (13). Moses, although put into turmoil by this revelation, goes on to share it:

Don’t search for manners and rules
say what your longing heart desires. (Cited by Haeri, 13)

A religion of the heart rather than that of manners or rules: that, God reveals to Moses, and through Moses to the readers of Rumi’s poem, is the true Islam.

Haeri’s book shows how this principle is at work across three types of prayer common in Iran. The ritual obligatory prayers known as salāt in Arabic and namaz in Persian, prayers made up of the recitation of the Qur’an in Arabic, a language many who perform namāz do not know; do’ā, spontaneous non-obligatory prayers in Persian that can be said at any time and in any place; and prayers composed, collected, and passed down in prayer books, also predominantly in Arabic. Throughout all these different forms of prayer, among the Iranian women with whom Haeri speaks—whom she observes and with whom she learns and prays—the fundamental conception of Islam as pursuing what one’s “longing heart desires” can be found. Haeri suggests that it is the influence of Persian poetry, so central to Iranian culture, recited and memorized from childhood on, that gives this particular cast to prayer. For the medieval Persian poetry in which these women’s lives are immersed is itself saturated with ‘erfān. Love for God and for God’s creation runs through the verses recited and sung by Iranians of all ages, pushing gently, yet authoritatively, against more legalistic conceptions of what it might mean to be Muslim.

Although Haeri’s rich ethnography focuses specifically on prayer—how it is learned, performed, and understood by the women she calls “our group”—something like the distinction between a religion of the law and a religion of the heart so common in nineteenth-century Christianity runs throughout the book.

Something similarly complex occurs within English literary traditions, in which eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Evangelical Christian calls for the return to a religion of the heart, one I believe is grounded in early and medieval Christian monastic and mystical traditions, finds its expression in poetry and the novel. Jane Eyre is, among other things, a work of evangelical theology, one in which what it means to be Christian is articulated through story and through the poetry of Bronte’s language. English language literature has many sources and feeds from many different streams, but at least some of them are explicitly religious, tied to early claims that religious poetry is the highest form of poetry and that true poetry is always religious. This is all grounded in the role the recitation of the Psalms takes within the Christian tradition. From its earliest centuries, Christianity organized the life of prayer around the Psalms, calling on those who recite them to become one with the psalmist as he cries out in love, despair, fear, awe, desire, and shame before God (see Hollywood, “Song, Experience, and the Book”; Craig, Hollywood, Trujillo, Representations; and Furey, “Impersonating Devotion”). The Psalms were said to contain every affect and to recite the Psalms was to learn to direct these affects toward their true source—God. The extraordinary role feeling plays in the development of English literary criticism requires further exploration; within this critical tradition we can see that the novel is second only to poetry—at times stands alongside it—in its capacity to incite true religion. Many things in Haeri’s wonderful book call out for comparison with Christian traditions of prayer, reading, and devotion, but two things resonate most strongly with my own current research. First, how might we understand the recitation of the Qu’ran and other prayers within Islam and the recitation of the Psalms and related material in Christianity? My guess is that there are sharp differences as well as similarities here. Secondly, what role does poetry and literature plays in cultivating the heart in both Islam and Christianity? Do different understandings of revealed scripture across and within the two traditions make a difference to the role played by non-scriptural literature? (And of course, the cultivation of the heart is also a central theme in the Hebrew Bible.)


Amy Hollywood
Amy Hollywood, Elizabeth H. Monrad Professor of Christian Studies at Harvard Divinity School, is the author of The Soul as Virgin Wife: Mechthild of Magdeburg, Marguerite Porete, and Meister Eckhart (University of Notre Dame Press, 1995), which received the Otto Grundler Prize for the best book in medieval studies from the International Congress of Medieval Studies; Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands of History (University of Chicago Press, 2002); and Acute Melancholia and Other Essays (Columbia University Press, 2016). She is also the co-editor, with Patricia Beckman, of The Cambridge Companion to Christian Mysticism (2012) and, with Eleanor Craig, Niklaus Largier, and Kris Trujillo, of a special issue of Representations, "The Poetics of Prayer and Devotion to Literature" (2021). Devotion: Three Inquires on Religion, Literature, and Political Imagination, co-authored with Constance Furey and Sarah Hammerschlag, will appear in December 2021.

Leave a Reply

Fully aware of the ways in which personhood has been denied based on the hierarchies of modernity/coloniality, we do not publish comments that include dehumanizing language and ad hominem attacks. We welcome debate and disagreement that educate and illuminate. Comments are not representative of CM perspectives.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.