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



HOW DOES ONE AVOID LOOKING at the aftermaths of uprisings and revolutions and seeing them only in terms of failures and successes? Even when political failures may be obvious, developments in other spheres of life and culture also need to be carefully examined. The Iranian revolution of 1979 has had a transformative effect on matters of religion. Questions, doubts, ambivalences, and long-accepted divisions between “the secular” and “the religious” have become objects of debate on a wide scale, crossing class, gender, and ideological lines. The old distinction in Muslim-majority societies between the elite (scholars) and the laity has become increasingly blurred as non-clerics learn to engage in theological discussions. Given the eventual establishment of an Islamic republic, a series of fundamental questions having to do with Islam have come to preoccupy Iranians. The revolution is routinely characterized in Western media and by some in academia as one that made Iranian society “go backward.” Yet, if we choose not to begin with the presumption of backwardness and absence of intellectual struggles, then we are open to discovering unexpected but crucial processes that have been set in motion.

A great deal of contemplation and reflection has emerged in Iran in relation to Islam, religion more broadly, ritual, divinity, worship, and mysticism. A vital question with high stakes that has come to be debated in the last few decades is, What kind of Islam is the true one and the one we should aspire to in the contemporary moment and in the wider world today? Given such a question, it is important to look at resources that laypeople use to find answers and to debate them.

There are Iranian Muslims, as there are followers of many other religions, who may be characterized as “blind followers” or at least as uninterested in intellectual inquiries. But there are also many others whose thinking on matters of religion has become far more informed and nuanced. For example, these days, even when an Iranian Muslim believes that doing an obligatory ritual without “presence of the heart” and sincerity is religiously valid and accepted, she or he also knows that many others, laypeople and clerics, are troubled by the idea of doing rituals if they are to be acceptable merely from the point of view of religious law. Hence, although it is the case that sincerity in ritual prayer, for example, is not required by religion (vājeb), lamenting its absence is a topic that routinely comes up in conversation and on radio and television. On many programs, hosts and guests offer suggestions on how to achieve a state of sincerity in worship. So well-known has the matter of the quality of ritual performance become that in some bookstores, one can easily approach a salesperson and ask, “Do you have a book on presence of the heart?”

Alongside widespread disenchantment and frustration with various postrevolutionary governments, a set of ferocious and high-stakes debates have been taking place in the public sphere. Iranians are grappling with increasingly difficult living conditions as a result of corruption, repression, and also extreme economic sanctions imposed by the United States, and at the same time they are wondering what ought to happen in terms of political solutions. Those who are believers see the question of what kind of Islam they ought to aim for as relevant to the other problems. In fact, all that has to do with religion has now become a matter of reflection and scrutiny—from the nature of God to how each believer ought to build a relationship with Him and also the role of rituals and the contradictions created by clergy who seek to participate in both the spiritual and the political spheres. What people encounter as “religion” and what they learn through family members, texts, teachers, art, sounds, experiences, and spaces form material that individuals work with. Once they interact with this material—for example, once they begin praying regularly—the prayer does not remain intact. The individual brings to the prayer her own background, body, imagination, thoughts, and past experiences, and also ideas from adjacent worlds such as poetry.

What I am interested in conveying in this book is what different individuals do with religion. That is, what is the content of their struggles? What are the means they use to advance their thinking? In the course of the following chapters, I offer an ethnography of a group of educated, middle-class women and of the ways in which they go about exchanging and debating matters of religion. Their attempts are carried out simultaneously on the individual and collective levels—they discuss their personal understandings and experiences with many others and engage in an ongoing back and forth. My interlocutors are not isolated individuals avoiding interaction with others. They talk to their friends and to people they meet in their weekly classes, participate in larger gatherings, read, have Facebook accounts, and send each other digital files featuring their favorite cleric, author, satirist, and politician. There is little about their deliberations, ideas, and practices that is “private.” Agentive deliberation has become widespread. Their changing religiosity is a subject of complex interactions between the self and a community of believers.

Debates in the Public Sphere after the Revolution

Following the initial euphoria over the success of the 1979 revolution and the end of the Pahlavi monarchy—something no one in Iran expected to see in their lifetime—Iranians experienced several years of harsh repression in the 1980s and a devastating war with Iraq (1980–1988) that, in effect, consolidated the Islamist groups’ hold on power. After the end of the war, as daily life began to become somewhat more predictable, Iranians’ previous unidirectional interest in Euro-American history and culture was replaced by curiosity concerning all things Iranian—a shift that has been called the reflexive turn.1 So much upheaval, hundreds of thousands of people killed and maimed in the war, cities showing enormous scars, so many families scattered all over the globe—all these outcomes and more brought on a sober mood mixed with curiosity about Iran and its inhabitants, its past and present, its cultures and religions. For instance, there appeared an ever-expanding number of gatherings and more formal classes (kelās) on the poetry of beloved poets such as Hafez Shirazi (1315–1390), Saadi Shirazi (1210–1291), and Jalal al-Din Muhammad Balkhi (1207–1273), referred to as Mawlana or Mowlavi in Iran (Rumi), and also classes on the Qur’an, Iranian classical music, architecture, and calligraphy. These were mixed in with even more classes in yoga, Carl Jung and other European thinkers, and also arts of self-improvement (khodsāzi) and self-knowledge (khod-shināsi). The classes take place both in people’s homes and in neighborhood cultural centers (farhang-sarā). One of the major initiatives of urban municipalities after the revolution was to build such cultural centers, particularly in poorer neighborhoods, to provide “healthy” and acceptable education and entertainment for youth.

Early in my fieldwork, I noticed that the question of what kind of Islam to pursue, posed in many forms, articulated or silently implied, exploratory or rhetorical, was ubiquitous. The Islamic republic set out to define its own kind of Islam and to produce, accordingly, citizens who would be homo Islamicus. But ideas about Islam, even among state institutions, were varied and changed depending on a variety of conditions, including the personalities of members of the top echelon, such as the Supreme Leader. Many institutions urgently set about re-evaluating practically all behavior, appearance, forms of worship, names of people and places (pre-Islamic vs. Islamic, or European names), relationships to the divine, and Iranian and Islamic culture(s), and determining how these re-evaluations ought to be propagated. As the state was busily engaged in these re-evaluations, practically everyone ended up with a stake in debating what is true Islam and who, if anyone, has the authority to define it. The state’s claim on both the spiritual and the political realms, its coercive insistence on telling citizens how to dress, appear in public, pray, eat, drink, interpret verses of the Qur’an, and so on, made the debate an existential one. Either one had to conform, at least publicly, or learn to argue one’s way out. Otherwise, one could potentially be punished, in many different ways.

The cooptation of the public sphere through the use of radio, television, newspapers, and the Internet and the coercive measures to form a Muslim citizenry could have resulted in a polarized population neatly divided into two camps: believers and nonbelievers, pro-Islam and anti-Islam, pro-regime and anti-regime. But instead, something more complex and varied has happened, a result less stark and black and white. There are, of course, people who have become allergic to the sound of and even the word Islam and all that goes with it. They simply cannot tolerate the Islamic republic’s imposition everywhere they turn, and say so loudly in any place they can. It is not hard or dangerous to voice this dissatisfaction if one frames it in terms of “what is happening is not really Islam,” a discourse deployed even by those who are not believers. But there are also many groups of women and men who have not ceded the grounds of religion to those in power. Instead, they have struggled to prevent the state’s desired monopoly on the question of what kind(s) of Islam one ought to aspire to. They have done this, in part, by bringing religion to bear on matters that are of more recent concern, such as equality in marriage and divorce, ecology, natural resources, and water management. For example, in reaction to the everyday act of washing one’s car on the street, it is common to hear neighbors ask rhetorically, “How can he be a real Muslim if he thinks nothing of wasting so much water when we have been in a drought for years?” Such commentary with this particular logic is ubiquitous these days.

Against the odds, the public sphere in Iran has become more vital and plural since the revolution.2 This surprises most people outside the country and perhaps some inside, too. Given a form of government that claims to be Islamic and that expresses the desire to Islamize all acts, behavior, and institutions, the immediate questions became, what is Islamic? who decides? and on the basis of which traditions? As sociologist Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi explains, “By locating Islam in the public sphere,” the religion itself was transformed “from an a priori source of legitimacy into a contested body of discourses.” Wishing to Islamize Iranian society, Ghamari-Tabrizi continues, “the Islamizers had to struggle continuously over the meaning of Islam and its bearing on specific contemporary social, economic, and cultural issues.”3 Laypeople began formulating questions that had not been asked because the stakes were so low before the revolution—or that had been discussed only among clerics and intellectual elites. Such questions multiplied and extended far and wide, in large part in reaction to the efforts of state institutions to Islamize society from top to bottom. Piety had to be visible to the eyes and ears of the state. But many Iranians begged to differ, relying in part on the poets who continued to be widely recognized as the truest of Muslims.

It is not that these debates are new. Across the centuries, Muslim thinkers, philosophers, poets, theologians, and scientists have written on what it is to be din-dar (literally, to have religion or be with religion) and how to become khoda-shinas (a knower of God). What means, then, do ordinary Iranians use to enter debates on religion, the ethics of being a true Muslim, and divinity? One of the most basic sources of ideas, concepts, and vocabulary is the vast body of mystical writing in Persian, and in particular, the classical poetry that Iranians have read or heard for centuries and continue to read today. This poetry is where, for example, the idea of praying with presence of the heart comes from—representing a kind of piety that is free of hypocrisy. One of the most consistent themes in this poetry is how to recognize religious hypocrisy. There are a surprising number of terms for insincerity in this poetry—a fact that shows the intense preoccupation with false piety. Among these terms are riyā, salūs, tazvīr, nājins, nefāq, and zarq, accompanied by the well-developed deceitful figures of the “piety-sellers,” the sheikh, the frequent mosque-goer, and so on. As early as the tenth century, the poet Rudaki (d. 940) wrote:

What God accepts from you are love’s transports,
But prayers said by rote He won’t admit.4

The renowned translator of the Qur’an and literary historian Baha’eddin Khorramshahi has written extensively on Hafez, including a book-length monograph on the poet. In a section on Hafez’s humor and doubts about what is held to be sacred (moqaddasāt), Khorramshahi writes:

Given that namāz, fasting, praying and other sacred acts are important symbols and have high religious value, the question is why has Hafez tangled with such spiritual matters? Was there no other matter to go to combat against? The answer is that at the same time as recitation of the Qur’an and doing namaz and fasting and praying are sacred acts, unfortunately they are not always heartfelt, [done with] purity and sincerity. . . . Even the Qur’an itself rebukes those namaz-reciters who lack presence of the heart (Ma’un, 4:5): “Woe to namaz-reciters who are inattentive to their namaz.” . . . The biggest threat [āfat (that which can act like a contagious disease)] to these kinds of worship and all that is sacred is insincerity and hypocrisy [riyā].5

One could say that all these poets and Hafez in particular were almost obsessed with the “disease” of hypocrisy and insincerity. As a casual exercise, I tried to count the number of verses in his divan that have to do with riya, but I soon lost count and gave up. Skepticism over coercive, visible, and legalistic religion has long been part and parcel of cultural and political discourse in Iran, even among clerics.6 It is important to understand that what was new after the revolution was the reach and the high stakes of this discourse, partly owing to the flux of war, repression, a devastated economy, and long ration lines, but also owing to the uncertain excitement of a reflexive turn that posed questions such as should we pray out of love for God or out of fear. These questions gradually came to define the postrevolutionary and post–Iran-Iraq war moments.7

That laypeople engage in matters of theology has had the consequence of lightening the starkness of the long-standing historical distinction in Muslim societies between elites (khawās) and laity (’avām),8 as was mentioned before. One factor, among many others, that has enabled the latter’s participation is that they can read bilingual Qur’ans, in Arabic and Persian—most Iranians do not know Qur’anic Arabic.9 Also, in weekly Qur’an classes, the availability of countless translations of the Qur’an results in participants’ coming with many different translated editions. When each verse is read out loud, its Persian translation is shared by those whose versions differ. This immediately turns into a hermeneutic exercise in which lay Iranians can participate to various degrees. In the long debates that ensue, problems of translation and interpretation merge, so that the inadequacy of a word in Persian for a particular term in the original Arabic leads to further considerations that have to do with theological precedence, likelihood, and coherence. Some pull out various Arabic-Persian dictionaries to check their translations. In this way, even those without much knowledge of Islamic theology or of Qur’anic Arabic manage to participate in interpreting the Qur’an. Given Iran’s high literacy rate today as compared to even a few decades ago, people’s access to sources of knowledge, and the proliferation of colleges, universities, and seminaries, as well as publications and websites, that distinction has not only diminished but has become less acceptable and justifiable. Although one can still hear some impatience in the discourse of clerics and even, at times, educated secular Iranians, toward lay participants, it is not as taken for granted as it used to be.

In scholarly work, Islam is often represented as a uniquely legalistic religion whose adherents are always sure of what to do and what to think.10 The late Shahab Ahmed refers to this approach as a “totalizing ‘legal-supremacist’ conceptualization of Islam as law, whereby the ‘essence’ of Islam as a phenomenon of prescription and proscription, induces, indeed constrains us to think of Muslims as subjects who are defined and constituted by and in a cult of regulation, restriction and control.”11 Muslims are routinely described in the media and in social scientific writing in terms of obligatory and required conduct—matters that are vajeb. But there is a large body of what are called mostahabbāt—acts that make one “favored” in God’s eyes—and these are not vajeb, meaning that not doing them has no legally defined reprimand or punishment. I did not meet anyone who stayed away from such acts because they are not legally required. Examples are nonritual prayer (do’ā), visiting sick people, paying homage to elders, helping the poor, feeding the hungry, being good tempered, and even saying salām (hello). One could say that mostahabbat help clarify the ethics of being a Muslim. I include in this book two chapters devoted to acts that are mostahabb—spontaneous conversations with God and reciting Imams’ prayers. The absence of systematic attention to favored as opposed to mandatory acts has made Muslims appear, for all times and in all places, as rigid, unbending, and without doubts or ambivalence about what it is they have to do to be a Muslim. One could be forgiven for thinking that Muslims have hardly any interiority and individuality.

At least since the thirteenth century, a great deal of mystical thought and theorization in Iran has been carried out in the form of poetry. Classical poets have elaborated on the nature of the divine, the path or journey toward God (selk), the conduct (solūk) through which one may seek a sincere relationship with Him that is out of profound love (’eshq) rather than fear, the quality of ritual performance, and the invisible heart (rather than public displays) as the true seat of religiosity. For many laypeople, it is this poetry that serves as the main source of ideas for exploring and making sense of what it is to be a true Muslim.

In the following pages, I examine the ways in which women’s explorations of the kind of Muslim they strive to be involves, among other things, the centuries-old companionship and exchanges in Iranian cultural and intellectual history among mystical poetry and scriptural sources such as the Qur’an, the hadith, Imams’ biographies, and more recent writings by clerical scholars and those who are referred to as “religious intellectuals.” As I will show in the next chapter, this companionship is reproduced in women’s daily lives. In addition to an ethnography of the place and role of poetry in the lives of my interlocutors, I will examine three kinds of prayers, each constituting a separate speech genre—spontaneous prayers called do’a, which are not mandatory, can be undertaken at any time, and are in Persian; ritual obligatory prayers called namaz (salāt in Arabic), whose verses come from the Qur’an and are therefore in Arabic; and finally prayers composed and passed down by various Shi’i Imams and gathered in prayer books edited and “updated” by well-known clergy. These are also in Arabic. In each chapter, I will attend to the contours of the coexistence of Persian and Arabic in the realm of religious acts and the implications of the contrasts in their historical and social lives. The doctrinal disagreements between Shia and Sunni Muslims are given much coverage in Western scholarship. But the contrasts between Arabic and Persian language ideologies and their implications for the choice of language of mass education, and the availability of bilingual Qur’ans in Iran, have had profound consequences for the participation of lay Iranians in theological debates. These and similar factors have little to do with denominational differences.12

My interlocutors for this study all read the Qur’an regularly. They have memorized many parts of it and attend Qur’an classes. But their reflections about who is a true Muslim are not limited to strictly religious or scriptural sources. In the course of the many conversations I had with them, it became clear to me that in order to understand their subjectivity as Muslims, it was not enough to examine how they performed ritual and non-ritual prayers and what ideas they held with regard to the underlying theology or philosophy of worship. Their attention to poetry, honed since childhood, was part and parcel of the same world. Scriptural sources and commentary on them on the one hand and mystic poetry and the vast literature on this poetry on the other are the major discursive traditions that have been in dialogue with each other over centuries, crisscrossing in different ways depending on sociopolitical conditions.13 There are many historical and contemporary forces that shape Iranian society and the groups within it.14 In this book I focus on the exchanges between mystical poetry and scriptural sources.

Using the grounds of prayer and poetry, I hope to illuminate the women’s analyses, critiques, and disagreements. Almost all of them have been attending poetry classes with great commitment for at least a decade. They also organize their own gatherings where, among other things, poetry is shared. Historically, gatherings are the most popular form of socialization in Iran. There are many regular get-togethers. We have dowrehs (literally, cycle or periodicity—a regular gathering of people who, for example, went to the same school or worked in the same place), mehmāni (a generic term for “party”), majles (a get-together for poetry recitations and literary discussion; also meaning “parliament”), sofreh (a gathering for the purposes of a vow that has been made), and rowzeh (a mainly religious gathering where a reciter with a pleasant voice is invited and paid to recite sūras, prayers, and devotional poetry). Kelas (a class) can be added to such get-togethers regardless of where they take place. In classes, whether spontaneous or planned, it is common and even expected for various individuals to bring up particular poems to recite and discuss, or a paragraph from the writings of an author who has caught their attention and that they find somehow relevant to share; satirical writings on the political situation are also a regular part of gatherings, as are music and songs.

It is important to rethink the significance of the space of the home after the revolution in Iran. Under conditions where a variety of activities cannot easily find venues in more institutional settings, many events have moved indoors. The degree to which this movement to indoor space happens continues to vary depending on political conditions. The home has been transformed into a quasi-public space. People organize gatherings and sometimes even invite speakers—this can mean asking a friend or even a stranger they met somewhere to speak on a particular topic. These talks are followed by question and answer sessions and long discussions. Those who attend such gatherings do not all know each other; they may be invited by friends of friends of friends. People come prepared with material that for one reason or another they find relevant to share—a poem, a passage of prose, a joke or a literary satire, recent or old stories with punch lines. They come with recommendations for books, CDs, and classes in another person’s home or another cultural center. At times, television talk shows of various formats reflect the themes and questions raised in such home gatherings. Hence, making a sharp distinction between the public and the private would obscure the complexity of what has been happening.

Two of the most important terms used in this book are mysticism and poetry, but their associations in English, historical and contemporary, can lead readers astray. For mysticism, one can use Sufism in English. However, in Iran the preferred term is ’erfān, derived from the Arabic root meaning “gnosis.”15 Although I will most often employ ’erfan, occasionally I will use “Sufi,” “mystic,” and “mysticism.” In English, reading poetry is often deemed a rarified act reserved for a small group of highly educated, elite individuals who tend to read it silently, as a private activity. In Iran, the body of classical poetry that I discuss is shared and discussed most often in a group, congregationally. Poetry is recited and sung, offering a shared aesthetic pleasure, mediating group intimacy, and promoting debate about how one ought to behave, what an ethical life is, what use it is to pray if one lies and cheats, and other questions. Even more than with poetry, the term mysticism in English implies a domain of thought that is perceived to be far removed from the daily lives of ordinary people. This is not the case in Iran. ’Erfan is relevant everywhere, from mass media to music, everyday exchanges, textbooks, biographies of poets and Imams, and classes for adults.16 It is broadly divided into “practical” (’amali) and “theoretical” (nazari). ’Erfan has become so popular that the term is now being used as a proper name for both boys and girls.

Let us examine in some detail the debates generated by one of the best-known and beloved versified stories of Rumi.17 We can then see the place of ’erfan in contemporary Iran more clearly.


1. See, for example, Adelkhah, Being Modern in Iran.

2. Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi explains this quite well in his book Islam and Dissent in Postrevolutionary Iran.

3. Ibid., 83; emphasis added.

4. See Ilahi-Ghomshei, “Principles of the Religion of Love in Persian Poetry,” 77.

5. Khorramshahi, Divan-e Hafez, 118–19. I have slightly changed the original Persian; using fewer synonyms to make the English more readable.

6. Although his actions as the Supreme Leader of Iran stood in contradiction to these facts, Ayatollah Khomeini spoke about presence of the heart and about there being as many ways to reach God as the number of our breaths, and he wrote poems intended to be mystical and using the symbolic vocabulary of wine and the lover.

7. Given the relative absence of theological debates in the public sphere in Europe and the United States over the last few decades, one might ask whether it takes a revolution for such debates to occur. I would argue that in the United States, for example, many Christian denominations have been formed due to the availability of a legal infrastructure for such groups and their acceptability. But the state in Iran, before and after the revolution, has not allowed and does not now allow splinter groups who disagree with one another on theological grounds to form separate denominations. The legalization and ease of forming denominations is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the freedom to form one’s own sect allows for fresh inquiries that may otherwise be stifled by the larger group. But, on the other hand, actual theological debates often then move out of the public sphere. Whereas the political stakes of disagreements between established religions on the one hand and cults and new religions on the other may attract media attention, the theological stakes are not high because neither the state nor the church is imposing religion coercively. The debates in Iran have become existential because the state claims both religious and political power. Among the Muslim population, everyone is a “Shi’a” with a small, equally undifferentiated minority of “Sunnis.” Certainly, there are many different kinds of Shi’as and Sunnis, but they are formally and legally uniform. There are also Sufi groups with their own leaders, histories, and practices, though after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini they have been increasingly harassed and silenced. But the fact that one cannot simply split off and go one’s own way means, among other things, that debates over theological differences are kept alive in the public sphere.

8. From Arabic ‘awām.

9. Bilingual Qur’ans have been around for centuries, but the desire to participate in debates has pushed many Iranians to spend time actually reading at least parts of the Qu’an so that they can have their input into conversations about Qur’anic interpretation.

10. See Shahab Ahmed’s trenchant critique of scholars who represent Islam in this way for all times and places, in What Is Islam? 117–29. On the importance of ambiguity and ambivalence in “human and historical Islam,” see 36–46.

11. Ibid., 120.

12. On the history of translations of the Qur’an into Persian, see Zadeh, Vernacular Qur’an; on Arabic language ideology, see Haeri, Sacred Language, Ordinary People.

13. Asad, “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam.”

14. See, for example, Amanat, Iran: A Modern History; Katouzian, The Persians; and Atabaki, Iran in the 20th Century.

15. See Anzali, “Mysticism” in Iran, for an explanation of how the term ’erfan came to be preferred to Sufi. I follow his usage.

16. Doostdar, Iranian Metaphysicals.

17. For general information about Rumi, see “Rumi, Jalāl-al-Din,” Encyclopædia Iranica,