Say What Your Longing Heart Desires
Women, Prayer, and Poetry in Iran
Niloofar Haeri


Contents and Abstracts
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The Introduction argues that revolutions should not be viewed as either successes or failures. Since the 1979 revolution, the public sphere in Iran has become an arena of high-stakes debates on religion, because the Islamic republic set out to Islamize the society from top to bottom. This chapter documents the profound interlacing of mystic Islam with official legalistic Islam. Muslim Iranians have become far more knowledgeable about religion than they were before. The reasons for undertaking religious rituals are at the heart of these debates.

Chapter 1: Where Do Ideas Come from? An Education in Classical Poetry
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This chapter presents a detailed ethnography of the presence of poetry in childhood of the Iranian women whom I interviewed and with whom I held gatherings, and also the presence of poetry in their lives at the moment. It shows the crucial importance of classical, mystic poetry as a source of ideas about religion, divinity, the individual, piety, and the heart as the preferred seat of piety, as opposed to ostentatious acts that are visible to others to prove one's Godliness.

Chapter 2: Fixed Forms and the Play of Imagination: Everyday Ritual Prayers
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This chapter is concerned with the details of the most central ritual in Islam, the five daily, obligatory prayers, called namaz in Persian and salat in Arabic. It describes the contents of the shortest namaz and then analyzes what the women who were my interlocutors describe as a "good namaz," one that is made with "presence of the heart," concentration, and sincerity. Among the points made are that this ritual is practiced, rather than repeated, every day and that the fixity of the forms (as verses of the Qur'an) do not limit the meanings that reciters wish to convey to God. This chapter challenges received wisdom in the social sciences that repetition necessarily leads to roteness, and gives a visual example of religious imagination and techniques of concentration.

Chapter 3: What Are We up to When We Pray? Spontaneous Conversations with God
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This chapter is about do'a, a kind of prayer that is not obligatory but that everyone engages in. The chapter presents a number of moving narratives about times when the women experienced anger and disappointment with God. As a spontaneous conversation with God, a do'a is said in Persian, while a namaz, discussed in Chapter 2, is in Arabic. The chapter shows how certain do'a sessions with God become hard to characterize using available religious terminology, as they cover many different grounds based on what is occupying the mind of the believer.

Chapter 4: Movable Mosques: Prayer Books, Women, and Youth
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This chapter is about prayer books that contain prayers traditionally thought to be written by the Shi'a Imams. Because the chain of transmission for these prayers is lengthy, covering several centuries, some are skeptical of their authenticity. This chapter presents a social history of the two best-known prayer books in Iran and then moves on to more recent ones, in particular those produced by the younger generation and women. One woman's books have won prizes and have broadened what can be characterized as do'a. These recent prayer books are seen as representing "simple mysticism," and they are all written in Persian.

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This final chapter offers two stunning ethnographic examples of changes in forms of religiosity that show the effects of the revolution: a woman changing a phrase in a verse of the Qur'an to stay true to her own thinking; and a marked-up page of the Qur'an. Haeri re-states that Iranians have become far more knowledgeable about matters of religion; that they engage in agentive deliberation; and that their understandings are reached through a back-and-forth between what the communities they are in touch with argue and what they arrive at through their own analyses. It also summarizes the argument first presented in Chapter 1 that to understand religiosity, we must find ways of going beyond a wholly meaning-centered approach and pay attention to evocations of others' presences, the Prophet, Imams, ancestors, and relatives, in religious acts, prayers, poems, and texts.