Artwork by Jason Noushin
Say What Your Longing Heart Desires: Women, Prayer, and Poetry in Iran
My project on prayer and poetry was just published: Say What Your Longing Heart Desires: Women, Prayer, and Poetry in Iran (Stanford University Press). I begin this book with the question of how we can avoid looking at revolutions as either failures or successes. The 1979 revolution in Iran resulted in a mass involvement with theological questions—most notably, what kind of Islam is the true one?
The Islamic Republic sought to define and impose a certain version of Islam on Iranians. Hence, it was inevitable that people would question the authority of this particular approach by the state and offer their own alternatives. I show in my book how classical poetry (much of which is mystical) is used in the public sphere to construct and argue for alternatives.
I also examine debates such as whether a namaz must have a spiritual aspect or is it merely a fulfillment of a religious requirement. What are the stakes of such debates and how are the various positions articulated. I explore the role of language in constructing a relationship with God. What is inward speech like and is it very different from the kinds of speech we use to address others around us?
I analyze the temporality of performing a ritual: Is praying at 18 the same as praying at 60? If not, what are the changes in form and content. What happens to a ritual such as the namaz when it is performed, not in public and with other people, but in private and at home, in the presence of God alone. For more on this project, see this recent interview.
—Tanya Luhrmann, Stanford University, author of When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God
"This is one of the best books on prayer in all of anthropology. Niloofar Haeri shows that prayer is not an empty ritual, but that it becomes a relationship that changes people—and allows the secular reader to understand how poetry enables women to feel spiritual presence. A beautifully written work."
—Talal Asad, author of Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam
"Say What Your Longing Heart Desires is a work that deserves to be widely read by all who are interested in understanding the different approaches to 'authentic' religion that exist in the Muslim world. A rich and detailed account, and a valuable contribution to our knowledge of religious practice."
—Robert A. Orsi, Northwestern University, author of Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them
"Say What Your Longing Heart Desires establishes itself immediately as an essential work in the anthropology of prayer and a major contribution to the study of religious practice and experience. A subtle and compelling work."
—Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi, Princeton University, author of Foucault in Iran: Islamic Revolution after the Enlightenment
"Say What Your Longing Heart Desires will change common perceptions about women's experiences in Iran. Niloofar Haeri examines competing claims of Muslimhood and offers novel readings of theological conversations on spirituality and religious conviction in the Islamic Republic. An empirically rich and theoretically nuanced book."
A symposium organized by the website Contending Modernities where a number of scholars wrote blogs about the book and Haeri replied.