Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The life of the mind in contemporary Iran

Read alongside the recent interventions in modern Iranian intellectual history by Cyrus Schayegh, Alireza Doostdar on the metaphysical and the occult, and Ata Anzali on the rise of the category of the 'mystical' (which I had the pleasure of reading for the press and endorsing in a blurb), Hossein Kamaly's new book God and Man in Tehran represents a major event that should be and can be read profitably by those wishing to make sense of the intellectual roots of modern Iran as well as working through the dynamics and complexities of the Safavid period. 

What is at stake is making sense of the visions of theology in the modern period, along the spectrum from atheologies to the most forthright political theology of absolutist notions of sovereignty. 

In seven chapters, Kamaly takes us along this spectrum from the Qajar period to revolutionary Iran, considering the impact of the sciences upon 'mediatory theology', the teaching of philosophy within and without the madraseh, the transformations in Sufism (both of the more official orders and informal networks and apparatuses), and a whole range of reformist thought within Islam. Along this journey, Kamaly introduces many an intellectual to us, unknown on the whole expect to those who read the sources and understand the more intellectual milieu in Persian well. 

That it is centred on Tehran is significant, because it is the city and the centre that since the Qajar period has taken over from Isfahan as the intellectual core of Iran and the central place in Iranian intellectual history. Chapter 3, although not actually on Khomeini, nevertheless helps us to understand Khomeini far better than much of what is published on him. Chapter 4 explains the lasting allure of uṣūlī Shiʿism. Chapter 5 analyses the reasons why madraseh philosophy embraced Mullā Ṣadrā and promoted his thought. In that chapter, Hādī Najmābādī (d. 1902) is discussed, a figure who would be worth a dissertation - perhaps alongside his contemporary, a real mover and shaker of the seminary (and a leading beneficiary of financial corruption within it) Āqā Najafī. This chapter also shows some of the keys links between the seminary and the study of philosophy in the new Tehran University (and it is no accident that the old Sepahsalar madraseh was at least for a time the theology and philosophy faculty of the new university). Chapter 6 deals with the Sufis orders and ʿerfān - the only element that could take the argument further would be the ways in which the latter is contested in post-revolutionary Iran in the public and private spheres associated with the legacies of Ṭabāṭabāʾī and others in his circle. 

The final chapter hints at the links between skepticism and the reformists and winks at the older tradition of the rind in Ḥāfeẓ - but it is far too short. If it is a conclusion, one would want more. The book on the whole is a series of wonderful vignettes that in effect table a whole gamut of research questions that eager graduate students should take forward. This does not detract from its value as a snapshot of the various modes of understanding 'theologies' in modern Iran centred on Tehran. As a work it is also an expression of the culture of modern Tehran, at once at home with poetry and the literary greats as well as the philosophy and theology of Persian Islam. 

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