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



This book had its beginnings in a series of inquiries that sprang up unexpectedly while I was doing research several years ago in Tehran on a different subject. Having grown up in a religious family in Iran, with a rather well-known ayatollah as my grandfather, and having lived through the 1979 revolution, I spent many years of my life running the other way whenever the subject of religion came up. I was uninterested and at times even quietly hostile.

Then one summer evening in 2008, I went to visit a relative in Tehran. When the sound of the call to prayer came on the television, she went to her room to do the evening ritual prayers. When she returned, I noticed that she had a smile on her face and looked serene. She told me that her prayers that evening had “gone well” and that she had managed to feel close to God.

I was mystified. Could ritual prayers go well or badly? In all the years that I had spent in the company of women and men who prayed, I had assumed that they were basically uttering the same short sūras (chapters) of the Qur’an while they went through the prescribed body postures and that the prayer session was finished once they had recited the very last sura and had completed the farewells to God and His messenger. That was all. So what could this woman mean when she said her prayers went well? Was she implying that prayers could also go badly?

Are rituals not authorless acts that are scripted, and believers just follow the script? And if so, then what could happen differently in the duration of their performance if every step was followed as the performer had been told to do it? Questions like these made me realize that in fact, I did not understand the most basic ritual that Muslims must perform every day. I had the sinking feeling of someone under whose nose whole worlds had existed and played out, while she had been running away.

But I don’t think I was alone. The degree of intolerance that I witnessed on the part of secular Iranians toward their “religious” compatriots in the course of fieldwork for this book was an eye-opener. They often expressed cynicism and spoke of Islam as the source of “all of our problems.” In one of my talks on prayer at a university in the United States, a number of Iranians in the audience accused me of engaging in propaganda in support of the Islamic republic because I did not express opposition to prayer but was instead doing research on it. I put the adjective religious in quotation marks earlier because I think we need to ask, and not take for granted that we know, what it means to be religious. This question became a major driver for the research that followed my experience with the woman who told me about her ritual prayer, her namāz. That research eventually led me to understand far better the significance of the questions that were being debated in the public sphere in Iran: What does it mean to be a Muslim? What kinds of Muslims are there in any given time and place? What kind of Islam is the true one? In this book, I explore the debates, doubts, imaginations, exchanges, ideas, and practices of a group of Shi’i Muslim women who aspire to find answers to those questions.

As a result of serendipitous conversations such as the one I just described, I fell in with a group of women who had been attending weekly Qur’an and classical poetry classes for years. The chapters that follow are based on exchanges with these women that took place between 2008 and 2016. I talked to several men as well—the women’s Qur’an and poetry teachers and their male siblings—and also various other women and men that I ran into. These experiences led me to identify a few areas where there are marked gender differences. For example, women regularly organize various kinds of religious gatherings for which they go to great lengths in terms of time and expense. The frequency, size, and elaborateness of these gatherings depends on the organizer’s class and education. I almost never heard of similar gatherings organized by men, at least not on a regular basis. In fact, during these kinds of ceremonies, the men in the house are generally asked to leave, although theoretically they could use a separate space in the house and have an event of their own. Another gendered practice is that many women use prayer books that aim to teach special rites for specific purposes and needs and that contain prayers said to be composed by the Imams, whereas these women also report that their fathers or brothers rarely show interest in such prayer books. I found that to be the case as well in my conversations with some of the men who became my interlocutors. Still, the type of searching and exploration of religion undertaken by the group of women with whom I worked can also be observed among men. For example, in poetry classes that are offered in neighborhood cultural centers, as well as in discussion groups organized at homes, there are usually as many men as women. The struggles to define the kind of Islam that one ought to pursue seem to me to be shared by women and men. In this book, however, I write almost entirely about the women I befriended. On the one hand, the rapport that I was able to build with them as well as my ease of access were determining factors leading me to limit my research to women. On the other hand, with a few exceptions, most of what has been written on Islam has focused on Muslim men, and we do need more studies of women.

Returning to my relative’s living room on that night, I was so intrigued by what she said about prayer that I left the research project I had begun, and concentrated on namaz, the ritual and obligatory prayer of Muslims (salāt in Arabic) that must be performed five times per day. As I expanded my network and was able to engage in more in-depth conversations, the questions proliferated and led to others—for example, Muslims are routinely characterized by acts they are required to undertake, such as namaz, and not by those they engage in that are not compulsory—these are called mostahabbāt (“favored” acts). There are many of them. Muslims also do nonobligatory spontaneous prayers, called do’ā, at least as frequently as ritual prayers. And yet one rarely hears much about do’a—how, when, and why such prayer is performed. What do people say to God? Is God treated differently in a do’a than in ritual prayer? Is there anything to be learned from the fact that the namaz is in Arabic whereas the do’a that follows it is almost always in Persian?

As I began to accompany my interlocutors to their various weekly activities, I noticed that they all attended poetry classes as well—most for years if not decades (none of them writes poetry of her own as far as I could tell). The classes covered almost exclusively the work of classical poets: Hafez, Saadi, Mowlavi (Rumi), Nizami, and others. Was I to treat the women’s commitment to poetry as something entirely different from their pursuit of Qur’an classes? What would we miss, both about their religiosity and about contemporary Iran, if we examined only what we perceive to be explicitly the domains of “religion” and of “Islam”—namaz, fasting, alms, pilgrimage to Mecca, and so on?

After participating in the weekly poetry classes, it became clear to me that poetry and prayer are companions in the lives of these women and, more broadly, in the cultural history of Iran over the last few centuries. They continue to exchange, argue, challenge, borrow, and glance at each other. Classical poetry, as others have pointed out, came to be synonymous with mystic poetry in Iran. And this poetry is simultaneously Islamic and a challenge to what some Iranians call “dry religion.” More broadly, it has been the provocateur par excellence for posing theological and existential questions. As one of my interlocutors put it, “this poetry waters our religion.” What does this companionship mean for forms of religiosity in Iran?

The women I write about came of age at the time of the 1979 revolution. They describe how the revolution prompted them to think more profoundly about Islam. They contrast their religiosity with that of their parents and grandparents, characterizing the latter’s approach as “inherited”—that is, they relied on what they were told and were not sufficiently independent-minded. The stories and analyses of my interlocutors were an education for me, and I hope they will serve the reader in a similarly rewarding way. My overriding goal is to share these women’s reflections.

I have tried to make this book, insofar as possible, free of jargon, having in mind, in addition to university students, a broadly educated readership. For this reason, I have avoided many theoretical lines of inquiry that I hope to pursue in other venues. In order to make it easier for the non-specialist reader to follow up on some of the discussions, I offer in the notes links to sources that are in English and easily accessible (such as entries in the Encyclopædia Iranica) in addition to scholarly references. I also include links to songs and recitations.