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Stanford Humanities Center Q&A: Linguistic Anthropologist Niloofar Haeri

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Anthropologist Niloofar Haeri explores the roles of prayer and poetry for college-educated, Muslim women in Iran.
Photo Credit: 
Steve Castillo

Stanford Humanities Center external fellow Niloofar Haeri is a professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University and the Director of the Program in Islamic Studies there. She is also a Guggenheim Fellow (2015-2016). Haeri’s research specializes in Iran and Egypt. She is the author of Sacred Language, Ordinary People: Dilemmas of Culture and Politics in Egypt (2003) and co-editor of Langue, religion et modernité dans l’space Musulman contemporain (2008).

Her current book project entitled In the Presence of the Divine: Prayer and Poetry in the Lives of Iranian Women, focuses on women in Tehran, Iran whose daily lives include both poetry and prayer. The subjects of her research are one of the first generation of women in Iran who went to university. They are now in their 60s and early 70s. They attended university and became educated and economically independent, unlike their mothers. Haeri argues that theirs is a significant generation of women in the history of modern Iran. Her research aims to better understand individual ordinary Muslims, by examining their every day lives, their interiorities, and the particular ways in which they approach religion.

Recently, Haeri spoke about her research at the center.   

Q: What drew you to the topic of poetry and prayer among women in Tehran, Iran? 
I was doing an entirely different research project and happened to find myself in the living room of an older family member. She went to do her evening and night prayers [known as namaz in Persian and salat in Arabic]. When she finished, she said, ‘That was such a good prayer.’ And in my head, I thought, ‘What does she mean it was such a good prayer? What's a good prayer?’ 

Eventually I talked with her about it, and a project started to form in my head. I realized that the relationship with prayer is one that is alive, that is in part about constructing an intimate relationship with God, that people continuously reflect on the act, on their motivations for prayer, on whether their mind wanders during prayer or they manage to concentrate, on how honest they can be with God and so on. For them, prayer is a live thing. It's a part of their daily life. And it can go well or not.

Additionally, I read up on work on Islamic prayer in the social sciences including anthropology and Islamic Studies and, on the one hand, learned a great deal. And on the other, realized that for a variety of reasons, almost all the writings on prayer among Muslims focus on congregational prayer and what Muslim jurists have said about prayer. There is nothing wrong with that, but that is only a part of what we need to know. The other is how do different kinds of Muslims think about and perform the prayers and how do they eventually make a personal and intimate relationship with it. Ritual is like language—it precedes us—we are born into it. Yet, at some point, people make individual connections to it—from the philosophy of prayer to the minutiae of what to wear, where to perform it and so on. The larger question that is left out, in part because studies of Islam are always so politicized, is what is our model of a Muslim? What possible subject positions do we imagine for Muslims? Who is a Muslim and how can this person continue to be Muslim and perform the required rituals without ever making or without being continuously in the process of constructing an individual relationship to that big universe called “Islam.”

Anyway, returning to social scientific studies, inevitably, the focus falls mostly on men because women go to mosques much less. Congregational prayers are often analyzed for their politics, for their symbolism, which almost entirely leaves out the interiority that develops as a result of prayer, especially prayer that you perform when you're alone.

I realized we need to have some idea of what happens with prayer when it’s not in the mosque. Contrary to the images of Muslims in the media who are always praying in mosques, most people pray more frequently at home. Whether in Egypt or Iran I don’t know anyone who goes to the mosque five or even three times in the same day. And when you pray at home, you are quite often alone. So I began to think about what the experience of prayer is like when you pray by yourself. What is a ritual like when you don’t perform it publicly?

It is important to remember that what an ideal prayer is—whether it must be a spiritual act or, as some religious authorities continue to assert, an obligation to be fulfilled with or without the spiritual dimension, these positions have been debated among Muslims for centuries and they are still being debated.

Q. As an anthropologist how do you conduct your research? 
You must spend time with people, hang out, talk, observe, ask questions, find new questions to pose. The best thing is to assume as little knowledge as possible. I went to weekly Koran classes to get to know more women with similar social backgrounds—that is from a range of middle class milieus with at least a high school diploma. These classes included women in their 40s, 50s, and 60s.  I started to interview them. And then they introduced me to their neighbors, to their friends and so on. I interviewed friends and then friends of friends. I ended up interviewing 25 women at length and in depth over several years. I also talked to religious authorities from low clerics to well known ayatollahs; as well as to poets, journalists, publishers, bookstore owners and so on.

Q.  What have you learned in your research on prayer that has surprised you?  
Well the biggest surprise was that a prayer can go well or badly! That you don’t just recite chapters of the Koran while standing, or prostrating and then that’s it. I found out several things that made me realize how little I understood the concept and the act of prayer. For example, for these women, the first thing that makes a good prayer is concentration. They would say, ‘Concentration is very hard. It's a constant struggle. Our minds wander. They go to all kinds of places.’  So then they develop techniques of concentration. If one’s image of prayer is that the individual stands there and repeats verses from the Koran, then the question is what do you need concentration for—you’ve already memorized these verses.

So much have the politics of congregational prayer been emphasized that the similarities that exist between praying in Christianity and Islam are often not written about and explored. But there is a great deal in common in the ways in which God is addressed and the kinds of relationships that are built through prayer with God. This is in particular the case with dua meaning voluntary prayer (as opposed to namaz), when believers just talk to God.

A general assumption in the social sciences is that repetition empties the meaning of words after awhile.  But in talking to these women about repetition, I realized that it offers an occasion for many different ways of engagement precisely to prevent it from becoming rote. Let us assume we know what it means to say the “meaning” of verses of sacred texts. In part, meaning can depend on what stage of life one is in. The words within the verses can index different things in their lives. Therefore, the significance of what is being said can change. One woman told me that al-Fatiha, the opening chapter of the Koran, “does not always mean the same thing.”

We think that we know what it is to be a follower of a religion, but I don’t think we do. We take so much knowledge that we don’t have for granted. So let's give ourselves some time and figure out what does it mean to be a follower of Islam, for example, in this moment in time, in Iran, for these women who grew up in this particular way. And let's be open to what we find out. Let's not say “in Islam” this matters or that matters, say, discipline is important but looking at self-reflection or “interiotity” is bad or inauthentic. Who says and why? I have come to abhor that expression— “in Islam”!

Q. How did poetry become a part of your research? 
Poetry unexpectedly entered my research when I was following these women around to their Koran classes, trying to get to know them better. I saw that they also attended regular weekly poetry classes at homes and in cultural centers. I attended those classes, and went to numerous gatherings where participants recite lines of poetry.

Poetry reading is an activity. It is, in that sense, like prayer. It is regularly quoted and cited. People get together. There’s a commitment. You meet every week. You read these texts. You talk about them. You argue about them. You try to understand what is it that this poet is trying to say. 

Gradually, I thought to myself, "Well, if I want to write about these women, am I going to just privilege what they do for religion, which is prayer, and then completely ignore all this attention they pay to poetry, all this time that they invest in it?"  

That would have implied that the world of poetry (I mean mostly classical poetry) that they have constructed sits separately from the world of prayer. But what they have been reading in poetry pretty much all their lives (as I describe in my book) is a neighbor of this other world—namely, prayer. So prayer and poetry are very much inspired by each other. At the same time, they challenge each other. I wanted to understand how poetry interacts with the kinds of religiosity that they have developed, the kinds of expectations they have of prayer, the kinds of conversations they want to have with God. What I realized is that these two worlds are very much interrelated and we cannot understand the subjectivity of these women without attention to both.

And so I show how similar poetry and prayer are as activities for these women. For example, you take the same verse of poetry from Hafiz and you read it over and over and over throughout your life.  You do the same thing with a verse of the Koran. You read it in the Koran class, and you talk about it. For these women, poetry and prayer are viewed as inexhaustible forms of knowledge. And the same verses mean different things at different stages of your life.

Q.  Why is it valuable to study this group of women?
It’s valuable to understand other people's thoughts, motivations for action, their values, the way they look at life, the way they look at themselves. This is what anthropology does very well, regardless of whom you're studying, a group of women in Iran or a group of teenagers in Papua New Guinea. The important thing is to be able to familiarize the unfamiliar for readers, to make sense of people. I think that's of great value—we need to understand each other.

I think it's important for people in particular outside of Muslim majority countries to have a sense of what it is like to be a Muslim—who is a Muslim? What does she think about? How does she see her own world and the world beyond? There are all kinds of Muslims in this world, just as there are all kinds of followers of any given religion. We need to get to know them up close based on the way they live and think.