‘Islam’ and ‘Islamism’ in the Iranian Context
Here, by ‘Islam’, I mean the everyday-life meaning of ‘Shi’ite religion’ in the context of Iran during the large part of the twentieth century until the revolution of 1977–1979. Although ‘Islam’ was an organizational religion and a major social institution, it was largely kept separated from the institution of politics. Iran had undergone a major socioeconomic transformation as result of the Constitutional Revolution of 1905–1909 (Abrahamian 1982
). A new mostly secular judiciary and a ‘modern’ centralized state were in place. Urbanization, industrialization and bureaucratization, as well as educational, communicational and military developments had progressed enough to assume that traditional forces, namely the clergy and their bazaar allies, would be unable to seriously threaten the Pahlavi regime. In other words, ‘religion’ as a social institution was undermined, as expected, due to systematic ‘modernization’ and deliberate, top–down ‘secularization’. Like many other societies, ‘religion’ did not vanish, but was rather pushed to the corners of everyday life, mainly among members of the petit bourgeoisie and rural areas. In order to be an ideal
‘religious’ Shi’ite person, it was sufficient to have some ethical integrity, to maintain cleanliness in religious terms (taha’rat
), to pray five times a day, to fast during Ramadan, to pay religious taxes (khoms
), to perform pilgrimage (to Mecca if wealthy enough, Mashad or Qom if less wealthy) and to commemorate the birth and/or death anniversaries of the Prophet and Imams, especially Imam Hussain, in addition to belief in God, his Prophets and the twelve Imams. A ‘true Twelver Shi’ite’ person would also wish, mostly passively, the return of Imam Mahdi, the twelfth and Hidden Imam in order to bring about social justice and peace on earth, cleansing it of alleged corruption and pervasive injustice. The apolitical clergy, trained in seminaries, played a central role in any number of these practices and beliefs. Mosques, which are traditionally built in the centers of cities and towns, as with bazaars, were the official offices of the clergy, providing ‘religious’ advice in relation to ‘Islamic’ practices and providing the setting for collective prayers. A major feature of these seminaries, and indeed the Shi’ite clergy organization, was their financial independence from the government, which was secured mainly by their bazaar petit bourgeoise allies (Ashraf 1988
Although the mainstream of the Shi’ite ‘ulama remained apolitical and quietist before the Revolution of 1979, political Islam had managed to survive in different forms: whether in individual or collective, progressive or reactionary, violent or peaceful, ways. Ayatollahs Seyyed Hassan Modarres and Abul-Qasim Kashani were individuals who played significant roles in the National Assembly until the early 1950s. However, as Arjomand
(1989, p. 94
) suggests, ‘Islam’ in its most politicized form emerged in the late 1940s due to the terrorist activities of a group of young clerics called Fada’iyan-i Islam (Devotees of Islam) who successfully assassinated the Prime Minster Razmara and the well-known ‘secular’ historian Ahmad Kasravi, as well as attempting a few other unsuccessful assassinations. The ‘uprising of 1342 ’ by the seminary of Qum, which led to the exiling of Ayatollah Khomeini in the following year and thus the agitation of a segment of the Shi’ite ‘ulama, provides further evidence for the presence of the political ideology of ‘Islamism’ at that time. Since then, there was a gradual amalgamation of Islamist forces with mostly Western-educated intelligentsia and what might be called ‘liberal’ activists, who were shaken by the 1953 Coup, which, together with other factors, paved the way for the revolution of 1979.
Among the intelligentsia, as Abrahamian
(1982, pp. 462–73
) highlights, the Sorbonne-educated Dr Ali Shari’ati’s role is perhaps critical and incomparable with others, such as Ayatollahs Taleqani, Beheshti and Motahhari. Having said this, his modernist support for democracy and social justice was largely ignored in the post-revolutionary era and Ayatollah Khomeini refused even to mention his name amongst the influential figures (Godazgar 2000
). Influenced by revivalist movements against colonialism and imperialism, especially in north Africa, and intelligentsia, such as Frantz Fanon, Dr Shari’ati blew a new spirit to the dying body of Islam among the educated youth by politicizing it and making it relevant to the modern world. He distinguished between Safavid Shi’ism (‘tashayyo’e safavi
’), which he described as quietist, and Alavid Shi’ism (‘tashayyo’e alavi
’), meaning ‘true Shi’ism—the exemplary of which was its first Imam, Ali’—which was supposed to be revolutionary. He also intensely criticized the Islamic ‘ulama
, who were viewed as ‘ignorant’ of the main message of ‘Islam’ and the main philosophy of Imam Hussain’s uprising against despotism and the aristocratic rule of the Umayyad Caliph, Yazid bin Mo’avieh. His lectures in the modern building of the Hussainiyeh-e Ershad in north Tehran were widely published and attracted the attention of many educated youth. These publications along with other ‘Islamic’ publications, ‘mushrooming’ religious associations and Islamist guerrilla organizations, boosted the ‘religious’ sentiment of the public to the extent that the Qur’an became the bestseller in 1973, with 700,000 copies sold, while Mafatih al-Jenan
[Keys to the Heaven], a very traditional Shi’ite book composed of highly other-worldly prayers, became the second bestseller, with 490,000 copies sold (Arjomand 1989, p. 92
It was interesting and perhaps shocking, as Milani
) elaborates, that the Shah himself and his omnipresent intelligence service, titled ‘SAVAK’ (National Organization for Security and Intelligence), ignored such ‘Islamist’ revivalist activities and the ensuing atmosphere until it was too late. The Shah thought that ‘Islam’ and the clerics were in general uninfluential, except as appropriate tools in combating leftists. Furthermore, in his view, activist Islamists, whom he regarded as ‘erteja’e siah
’ (radically reactionary1
), were, he thought, too few to have any impact at a societal level. The global secret services, such as those of the USA (Emery 2013, p. 621
; Halliday 1999, p. 172
), the UK (Ansari 2019
) and the former Soviet Union (Volkov 2019
; Halliday 1999, p. 172
) agreed with this analysis, as did scholars, such as Nikki Keddie
(1983, p. 579
), Fred Halliday
(1999, p. 188
), Michel Foucault
) and Edward Said
(1980, p. 23
) and indeed many leftist and rightist European and American intelligentsia or ‘political scientists of all stripes’, as Halliday
(1999, p. 172
) explains. It was against such expectations that the Iranian revolution finally, and so rapidly, happened, toppling the well-armed and Western-supported regime of the Shah under the banner of the political ideology of ‘Shi’ite Islam’ and ‘religion’: what I refer to in this article as ‘Islamism’.
In the post-revolutionary era, ‘Islamism’, amalgamated with ‘cultural nationalism’ and ‘populism’, have ruled Iran with varying degrees (Godazgar 2008, pp. 62–80
). ‘Islamism’, in this context, means that ‘Islam’, as the highest-ranked social institution with its so-called ‘agents’ (clerics), ‘is fervently believed to be the foundation of a good society, and the whole society should be based on Islamic values.’ (Godazgar 2008, p. 75
). ‘Islamic values’ embrace the political ideologies of anti-Westernism, anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism as well as a specific stress on ‘being welded into the principle of Jurist Guardianship’ (zob shodan dar vali-e faqih
), as the ‘Deputy of the Hidden Imam’. This would also require an acceptance of theocracy and active participation in mosques as the official and legitimate centers for worship and Shi’ite rituals. The commemoration ceremonies of Imams, especially Tasu’a and Ashra, were transformed into political statements in favor of the Islamic authorities. This was achieved by holding religio-political requiems and by portraying the images of the authorities, in particular that of Ayatollah Khomeini. For the first time since perhaps the influential rule of Shah Abbas I (1588–1629) of the Safavid Empire (1501–1736), during which official
Friday prayers were established under a Shi’ite state, comparable to those held in the Sunni Ottoman Empire, Friday prayers were established in an official and organized way in July 1979 (Algar 2011
). In mosques and Musallas (venues for Friday prayers), people were now required to listen to government-authorized clerics and to defend ‘Islamic values’ and the Islamic Leader as the ‘Hussain of our time’ as part of their ‘Islamic’ duty of ‘enjoining good and preventing vice’ (amr be ma’aroof va nahy az monkar
). A further aspect of these newly defined ‘Islamic values’ was a specific stress on sex segregation and the veiling of women as a means of imposing moral purity. Indeed, as Amid-Zanjani
( 2012, pp. 41–42
) stresses in the quotation above, mosques, scattered across the cities, towns and villages of Iran, provided critical bases and networks for the dissemination of these politicized ‘Shi’ite values’ or ‘Islamism’ and other revolutionary activities, including the mobilization of the mass (‘Basij
’) to voluntarily participate in the Iraq-Iran war (1980–1988), during the revolution and in the early life of the Islamic Republic. Forty years after the revolution, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the religio-political ideology of ‘Islamism’ are still in place. Yet, the question I address here is: Are people still loyal to such ‘Islamic values’? If not, what are their definitions of ‘Islam’ in today’s Iranian context? Are mosques still functioning as the
major sites of the Iranian Muslims’ ‘religiosity’? If not, what are the alternatives, if any?
‘Islam’ in Its Fourth Decade: Methods and Findings
In this article, I argue for two major points: first, that there has been a decline in mosque-centered Islam, which has taken on a different meaning than it had in both pre- and revolutionary eras; and, second, that there has been a rise in individualized or semi-individualized ‘spiritualistic’ Islam, which is distinguished from ‘Sufism’ and the ‘spirituality’ of ancient Iran found in ‘religions’ such as Mandaeism, Manichaeism and Mazdakism (Foltz 2004
). I have adopted a triangulation research method in order to demonstrate the above-mentioned trends. For the former, I have used media sources that cite the general complaints of Iranian mosque leaders as well as participant and non-participant observations. For the latter, I have gathered data through participant observation and semi-structured interviews with thirty individuals in three provinces in north-west Iran.
(a) Decline of mosque-centered ‘Islam’ and ‘Islamism’
According to Shi’ite jurisprudence, until the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, Friday prayers were largely
believed to be solely performable under the imamate of an ‘innocent Imam’ (‘Imam-i ma’soum
’), i.e., the twelve Imams. However, some jurists disagreed with this conventional belief and therefore there have been
cases of performing Friday prayers in different eras, including the Pahlavi period, in mostly major cities, such as the capital (for more information, see Algar 2011
). Yet, such prayers were significantly incomparable with those of the post-revolutionary era, in terms of both forms and scopes. In post-revolutionary Iran, Friday prayers were established and institutionalized
in a centralized form by the Islamic leader as the legitimate Shi’ite authority (vali-e amr
), who was involved in the appointment of Imam Jom’ehs in cities and towns throughout Iran. The first Friday Prayer was established with the Imamate of Ayatollah Seyyed [descendant of the Prophet] Mahmud Taleqani, who was widely regarded as a ‘liberal and open-minded’ Islamic scholar, in Tehran on 28 July 1979. Ayatollah Khomeini gradually appointed Imam Jom’ehs for other Iranian cities soon after. As long as he was alive, although all Friday Prayers were established in a centralized form, their sermons (‘khotbehs
’) were non-centralized. That is, it was up to each Imam Jom’eh to decide what he needed to say to his audience during his sermons. However, during his successor’s leadership, all Friday Prayer sermons were directed throughout the country by the Central Headquarters of the Friday Prayers (Setad-e markazi-e namaz-e jom’eh
), which was established in 1990. Its defined goals were: ‘the expansion [of Friday Prayers] in order to promote the awareness of mainly the youth and teenagers towards religio-political affairs and a full imitation of the Guardianship of the Jurist (vilayat-e faqih
)’, ‘defending the values of the Islamic Revolution’ and ‘the encouragement of the people to participation in society and collaboration for the advancement of the goals of the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran.’ (Khatami 2019
) This means that all appointed Imam Jom’ehs throughout the country have been required since then to follow orders in terms of what to say in their sermons in each Friday Prayer, which they receive weekly from the Islamic Leader, who is himself officially the Imam Jom’eh of Tehran.
On the fortieth anniversary of the establishment of the first Friday Prayers, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, the ultra-conservative Temporary Imam Jom’eh of Tehran, alongside other Islamic Leader-appointed Imams of Jom’eh throughout the country, acknowledged on Friday 26 July 2019 that Friday Prayers have become ‘empty’. Confirming that Friday Prayers are ‘the microphones of the Vilayat
[the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist]’, Khatami called for assistance from the media in this regard: ‘… the audible, written and virtual media are to help Friday Prayer[s] and not to be content that Friday Prayer[s] have become empty’ (Khatami 2019
). The dramatic decline in the number of participants in prayers is neither new nor confined to Friday Prayers. This has been a subject of discussion especially among ‘reformist’ newspapers, such as Bahar and E’temad, since at least May 2017, but this was the first time that this issue was acknowledged by Friday Imams themselves, who describe such a decline as ‘dangerous’.
The ‘emptiness’ of Friday Prayers is also confirmed by Ayatollah Mohsen Gharavian, an influential member and teacher of the Qum seminary of Hawzeh Elmiyyeh: ‘Friday Prayers lack the previous status nowadays. The main reason for the lack of people’s participation, especially the educated youth, in Friday prayers is the weakness of their analytical and scientific contents, which either does not exist at all or hardly exists’ (Salam-i No 2019
). By suggesting this, Gharavian is implying that Friday prayers have simply turned into political ideological propaganda and people are not interested in this anymore. This is also confirmed by a retired professor of political sciences at the University of Tehran, Sadiq Zibakalam. In an interview with E’temad newspaper, he attributes the decline of participation in Friday and collective prayers in mosques to the ‘politicization of prayers and the incorporation of the microphones of prayers into the government structure’ and suggests: ‘we witness the microphones of Friday and collective prayers have no independent views from the ruling [establishment] and what is requested from the Imams [of Jom’eh and Jama’at] is echoed from these microphones.’ (Khatami 2019
; Salam-i No 2019
). It is interesting that, in a report about Friday prayers in Iran in the last forty years, Deutsche Welle, a German broadcaster, illustrates the change that has taken place from the mainly youthful participation of the Friday prayers in the early years of the revolution to the ‘grey hair’ participation nowadays (Khatami 2019
The dramatic decline in the participation of prayers is not restricted to Friday Prayers or ‘musallas’, where Friday prayers take place. It also includes mosques and the daily Collective Prayers (namaz-e jama’at
). This was also acknowledged by Ayatollah Ali Khatami, the Imam Jum’eh of the major city of Zanjan in the north-west Iran on 28 May 2019, in complaining about the ‘emptiness of collective prayers in mosques’ and calling it ‘a cultural concern that requires appropriate cultural tasks’ (Khatami 2019
). Indeed, the decline of the mosque-centered and organized ‘Islam’ and ‘Islamism’ is also confirmed by the participant and non-participant observations that took place in mosques and musallahs in north-west Iran. Despite the fact that the offices of the Headquarters in each city provides free transportation to the centralized Friday Prayer venues (musallas
), they were frequently observed to be mostly empty. Instead, the Friday Prayers’ audiences are packed with soldiers or, on some occasions, school pupils who are forced to attend such prayers. Similarly, the number of attendees in Collective Prayers in mosques, which are mainly situated in the populated areas of the bazaars, often did not exceed one row, especially during noon prayers.
The decline of mosque-centered ‘Islam’ and ‘Islamism’ was also confirmed by the interviews. Out of thirty, only seven informants stated the ‘mosque’ as a venue for their ‘Islamic’ activities—of which, only two mentioned the ‘mosque’ as their sole and exclusive venue. That is, the other five informants merely gave preference to the ‘mosque’ over other possible venues with different degrees and reasons. A forty-five-year-old male civil servant with a degree in Islamic Jurisprudence, who solely chose the ‘mosque’, stated: ‘Mosque is the best and the most appropriate place for the [moral] training of teenagers and the youth, expressing your personal feelings [‘ehsasat-e shakhsi’] and acquiring inner peace [‘araamesh-e darouni’]. It is the house of God.
’ Another informant, a twenty-six-year-old woman and teaching fellow at a university with a family background in the revolutionary guards, mentioned:
‘In my view, the faithful must choose mosques, which are the houses of God, but the majority of the Iranian people prefer to make pilgrimages to Imams’ or Imamzadehs’ tombs rather than attending mosques these days. Mosque is the house of God and, in my view, is the most sacred place for [having] conversations [with God] [‘raz va niaz’] and for the expression of religious emotions [‘ehsasat-e mazhabi’]’.
It was interesting that even these two informants, who solely chose the mosque as a venue for their ‘religious’ activities, mentioned no term related to ‘political Islam’ or shari’a as part of their ‘religious’ commitment or sensation for attending mosques. These interviews and the non-participant observation also confirm that the decline of participation in Collective and Friday prayers has not occurred over night, but has happened gradually over the past forty years, especially during the last two decades. I now turn to the question of ‘Where have the congregations gone?’ and ‘What has happened to their “religiosity”?’
(b) Rise of individualized or semi-individualized ‘spiritualistic Islam’
My strategy for this part of the research comprised participation observation in the three provinces of East Azarbaijan, West Azarbaijan and Ardabil, which are situated in north-west Iran, as well as thirty semi-structured interviews focused on Tabriz, the capital city of East Azarbaijan in 2015–2017.2
Participant observation included observations of mosques and ‘Imamzadehs
’ (the tombs of presumed grandsons of Shi’ite Imams), ‘maqbarahs
’ (the tombs of reputed saints), Friday prayer venues called ‘musallas
’, university mosques, ‘Hussainiyehs
’, congregation halls for commemoration ceremonies of Shi’ite Imams, and public spaces such as streets, especially during the Shi’ite rituals of Tasu’a and Ashura. This method was adopted due to the ‘complexity’ of the social context in which ‘religious’ change was occurring (Darlington and Scott 2002, pp. 74–76
; Atkinson and Coffey 2001, p. 812
). In addition, after identifying the fact that there were other groups of Iranian Shi’ites that avoided public spaces for performing their ‘religious’ sensations, a snowball sampling method was adopted in order to interview further informants who were not easily visible for ‘ideological or political reasons’ and given the ‘sensitivity’ of the topic (Corbetta 2003, p. 222
; Gray 2014, p. 223
). However, in order not to compromise the diversity of the sample frame, I made sure to specify the required characteristics of new sample members from diverse backgrounds in terms of age, gender, education, marriage, occupation and social class (Ritchie et al. 2003, p. 94
; May 2011, p. 145
; Gray 2014, p. 223
). It was important to make sure that the diversities of the definitions of ‘Islam’ were explored.
In terms of the analysis of the qualitative data, influenced by Asad
) and Foucault
), and due to consistency with the theoretical approach of ‘social constructionism’ (Beckford 1989
), this project has adopted a ‘Critical Discourse Analysis’ approach, according to which ‘discourses’, in the sense of patterns of beliefs, customary actions and language, are major conventional ways via which ‘ideology’, in the sense of ‘a set of interrelated ideas’ that are associated with power, are produced, re-produced and disseminated (Johnstone 2002, pp. 45–55
). That is, I attempt to identify and comprehend the discourses, portrayed via participant observations and semi-structured interviews, by exploring the meanings of our informants’ forms of language and activities and trying to find ‘ties’ or connections between these forms in order to understand the power structure and its impact on the society in which the properties of change and continuity occur (Van Dijk 2001, pp. 352–58
; Georgakopoulou and Goutsos 2004, pp. 14–22
). All informants, apart from one, were from Shi’ite backgrounds. Due to the flexibility of the method and giving priority to the identification of, and understanding the quality, of change, a semi-structured method of interviews was adopted (Burns 2000, pp. 424–25
; Kvale and Brinkmann 2009, p. 130
). The interviewees represent mainly lower and middle classes from an age range of 18 to 62 years. There were 16 women and 14 men, with an educational level ranging from primary school to doctoral studies: four below the equivalent of GCSEs, eleven with GCSE, A-levels and national diplomas-equivalent qualifications and fifteen with bachelor’s degree and above. Nearly half of them came from a state-employment background and the other half from a private sector or bazaar background. All the questions asked were about ‘Islamic’ activities and sensing ‘religion’, including when, where, and how these sensations and activities occur.
Using the above-mentioned methods, I argue here that Iranians have diversified the forms of their ‘religiosity’ by creating and defining a variety of new venues and forms of ‘Islam’ that are overall indicative of an individualized or semi-individualized ‘spiritualistic Islam’. Following Beckford
(2003, pp. 71–72
), by ‘spiritualism’ (ma’anaviyat-garaei
), I mean individualized, subjectivized and fragmentized definitions of ‘Islam’ that, under the influence of societal conditions and global forces, are ‘socially constructed’ in ways in which they go beyond the objective political or apolitical meanings defined by institutional or organized Islam in the Iranian context: the ‘re-location of the sacred’ from ‘institutional Islam’ to ‘individualized Islam’. In this sense, ‘spiritualism’ avoids and often loathes organized ‘Islamism’ or the political ideology of Islam, which has dominated the discourse of the revolutionary and post-revolutionary era, and also resists
non-ideological and shari’a
-centered ‘Islam’ as an institutional religion, which was the characteristic of pre-revolutionary Iran. For Beckford
(2003, p. 72
), these subjective or individualistic forms of spirituality are the characteristics of late modernity, to be distinguished from medieval Europe and the Pietist movement in 17th and 18th century Germany. In medieval Europe, Christian churches used and/or encouraged ‘spirituality’ as an institutional apparatus in order to regulate
their members’ lives in the form of training or discipline. In contrast, today’s ‘spiritualism’ tends to embrace ‘a variety of largely voluntary beliefs and practices which are expected to enhance the capacity of individuals to, e.g., realize their full potential or achieve “authenticity” to their “true” self—without any necessary connection to any particular religious tradition or institution.’ (Beckford 2019
). His main point is that there has been a historical shift in the definition of ‘spiritualism’ from the former to the latter:
‘This shift… is associated with very broad social and cultural changes such as the declining importance of ‘attributed’ identities (or status) and the rising importance of ‘achieved’ identities; the declining importance of membership in all kinds of voluntary organisations (churches, trade unions, political parties, etc.); the growth of ‘identity politics’; and the growing interest in cultivating ‘the self’ as a life-long project which may produce different views of the self at different stages of life. These changes have all accelerated in the global and digital era (especially through social media); and they help to draw a clearer distinction between ‘religion’ (as a matter of collective discipline, regulation, tradition) and ‘spirituality’ (as something that is freely chosen to be cultivated by individuals).’
Although this shift ‘is most noticeable in the liberal capitalist world’, it is not limited to it (for example, see Fedele and Knibbe 2013
; Godazgar 2007
). In this sense, my definition of ‘spiritualized Islam’ is distinguished from both ‘Sufism’ and the ‘spirituality’ of ancient Iranian ‘religions’ (Foltz 2004
), although I believe that both of them are
important ‘cultural resources’, to borrow Demerath’s (2002, p. 21, cited in Beckford 2003, p. 72
) term, for the present-day individualized ‘spiritualistic Islam’, which is ‘modern’ in Eisenstadt
) sense. While, ‘modern spiritualism’ in the contemporary Iranian context shares to some extent with ‘Sufism’ elements of intercession (shefa’at
), mediation (tavassol
) and entreaty (talab-e hajat
), especially in the act of pilgrimage to Imamzadehs
, it does not share with it Sufism’s critical element of having a tutelage (pir
), which is highly hierarchical and organizational. That is, unlike Sufism, ‘modern spiritualism,’ in the Iranian context, is neither institutionalized
nor organized. In addition, intercession in Sufism is mainly spiritual in other-worldly forms. Yet, intercession in ‘modern spiritualism’ can take both this-worldly (physical and materialistic) and other-worldly or metaphysical forms. Iranian ‘ancient spiritualism’ also has a commonality with ‘modern spiritualism’. Both of them emphasize the significance of ‘coming from the heart’, ‘genuineness’ and lack of ‘duplicity’ (ri’a
) and indeed any type of ‘formalism’, including institutional or organizational formations. However, ‘modern spiritualism’ is distinguished from ‘ancient spiritualism’ in the sense that the modern version is shaped by global forces and conditions of late modernity such as satellite TV, internet, migration and social media. In brief, ‘modern spiritualized Islam’ may be considered a response to a person’s individualistic and subjective needs that arise from the new societal conditions that one might associate with ‘late modernity’ or ‘post-modernity’, which may be materialistic, metaphysical or psychological.
In terms of the question of whether my informants pursued an individualistic subjective or a universal objective ‘Islamic’ requirement, it may be concluded that they were predominantly in favor of the former. However, the extent of subjectivity among them was not the same, as is to be expected. Therefore, I have compared the degrees of their subjective spiritualism from various angles, as outlined below. That is, individualized or semi-individualized ‘spiritualistic Islam’ in the context of modern Iran takes various forms: venues, conceptualization of and relationship with ‘saints’, outward appearance of participants, impact of mass and social media, language, ‘art’ and ‘music’, and architecture. These different forms are designed to check to see whether Iranians in the modern context express the kinds of spiritualist tendencies predicted by the theory. What I find is that they do indeed express such tendencies, as in many other societies. Furthermore, what I find is that within the Iranian context, the popular meaning of ‘religion’ has changed since the revolutionary period.
Inspired by Beckford
) ‘social constructionist’ theoretical approach towards the meaning of ‘religion’, this research illustrates how the definition of ‘Islam’ has changed in the Iranian context during the last forty years. The largely non-ideological institutional ‘Islam’ in the pre-revolutionary era became highly political and remarkably organized around mosques throughout the country during the revolution of 1977–1979 and the early post-revolutionary era (‘Islamism’). On the fortieth anniversary of the Islamic revolution, this research demonstrates that contemporary Iran is experiencing a different definition of ‘Islam’ that is associated with ‘spirituality’, as defined by Beckford
(2003, pp. 71–72
As the findings show, the ‘sacred’ has been ‘re-located’, in Beckford’s terms, from an organized and institutional ‘Islam’ during the pre- and the early post-revolutionary Iran to a profoundly ‘fragmented’, ‘subjectivized’ and ‘individualized Islam’ or ‘spiritualism’ in contemporary Iran. Such a ‘re-location’ is easily visible across the various aspects of ‘Shi’ite’ everyday life, ranging from the ‘diversification of “Islamic” venues’ to ‘Islamic architecture’ in the Iranian context, as discussed above. Depending on my informants’ age, gender, education, social status and class, and urban or rural birthplace, their experiences of ‘spiritualized Islam’ in various dimensions of everyday life has been ‘constructed’ in incredibly diverse forms. These forms not only go beyond the requirements of an institutional Islam, such as the objective obedience of shari’a and Shi’ite authority, but also dangerously oppose these requirements in some cases, such as those of conceptualizations of the ‘Imams’ and ‘music’.
In addition, this research illustrates that there have been correlations between the independent variables of age, gender, education, social class and birthplace, on the one hand, and the individualized ‘spiritualistic Islam’, on the other. The younger my informants were, the more they were susceptible to ‘spiritualism’- while the average age for the people with inclinations towards spiritualism was around 30, it was 36 for the people who were inclined more towards objectivized Islam. It was interesting that females had more tendency towards ‘spiritualism’ than men (10 males and 15 females vs. four males and one female), especially when they chose their private space, made pilgrimages to Imamzadehs
or showed ‘no preferences’ about venues. That is, men were more inclined to attend mosques. This is consistent with the contemporary contexts of the United Kingdom, Greece, Portugal, Italy, Spain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Mexico and Israel, where more women than men leave different traditional religions and join various spiritual movements (Fedele and Knibbe 2013
; Fedele 2019
). In terms of education, the informants with first degree education and above were more susceptible to subjectivized ‘spiritualism’, while those with a level of general education and below were more inclined to a rather ‘objectivized Islam’. The lower their level of education, the lower their level of ‘spiritualistic Islam’ was. Furthermore, the informants who belonged to a lower social class and rural backgrounds had a lower level of ‘individualized Islam’ than those who belonged to (lower-)middle class and urban backgrounds. As Beckford
(2003, p. 72
) elaborates, this is perhaps because the societal conditions in ‘late modernity’, which are themselves exposed to global forces (such as satellite TV, internet, social media and migration), play a critical role in shaping these individualized forms and ‘re-drawing’ the frontier between ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ through changes in social relationships and culture.
In this sense, contemporary Iranian ‘spiritualized Islam’ is differentiated from the type of ‘spiritualism’ that takes place within
the frontiers of an institutional religion, whether ‘Islam’, such as ‘Sufism’, or other religions, such as the Christian ‘spirituality’ observed in Kendal in north-west England (Heelas and Woodhead 2005
). For example, ‘spiritualism’ in the current Iranian context is distinguished from ‘Sufism’ in the sense that the latter has historically given special, if not the highest, status to ‘Imams’, especially the first Imam, as the ‘awlia elahi
’ (divine figures), whilst the former may desacralize them as ‘ordinary people’ or even as ‘violent’ or ‘cowardly’ figures. Or, whilst the former does not restrict itself in terms of the types of ‘music’, ‘Sufism’ is conditional to a specific type of music that is associated with ‘deep mediation’. Moreover, the link between body, beliefs and emotions is central for ‘Sufism’ in many social contexts from Asia to Africa, but there is no such essentiality in ‘spiritualized Islam’ in today’s Iran. On the contrary, some of my informants distanced themselves from ‘emotions’.
Iranian ‘spiritualism’ can also be distinguished from the Kendal project, according to which although ‘spiritualism’ in the context of north-west England (Kendal) takes a form of ‘subjectivization’, the majority of these ‘subjectivized’ and ‘spiritual’ people still consider themselves ‘congregational members’ who are ‘remaining obedient to God, scripture and the church.’ (Heelas and Woodhead 2005, p. 113
). My informants might still believe in God and the Qur’an, but they showed little sign of ‘obeying’ Him in the sense of pursuing shari’a
and acquiring its knowledge by visiting mosques and listening to, let alone seeking advice from, ‘religious’ authority in the way in which it has been reported about Kendal or traditionally occurring during (pre-)revolutionary eras. As we have seen, some of them even went beyond Shi’ite particularism and the recognized boundaries of ‘religious’ figure by giving examples that are inclusive of all humanity, rather than Shi’ism. In addition, our informants did not identify themselves as part of any collectivity in the way that the people in Kendal did, i.e., ‘congregational members’. Moreover, unlike the Kendal project (Heelas and Woodhead 2005, p. 11
), this research does not differentiate between ‘subjectivization’ and ‘individualization’. By both ‘subjectivization’ and ‘individualization’, I mean that Iranian Shi’ites pay more attention to their own individual and
subjective desires, needs, wishes and consciousness than the formalist and collectivist requirements of ‘political Islam’ as well as those of the organized and institutionalized non-ideological ‘Islam’. This meaning of ‘individualization’, associated with ‘spiritualism’, is fully consistent with Godazgar
’s (2007, p. 397
) findings in relation to the definition of ‘individualism’ as a key element of ‘consumerism’ in the current context of Iran.
Finally, I conclude that Beckford’s ‘social constructionist’ approach to ‘spirituality’, the ‘re-location of the sacred’ and ‘cultural turn’ from institutional state ‘religion’ to individualistic ‘spiritualism’ under the forces of globalization and the societal conditions of theocracy is fully consistent with the findings of this research.