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Religious Discourse and Identity Construction

Session XIII-15, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, December 4 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
  • This paper will explore the impact of writings and reports of Orientalists and Western scholars in shaping the Yarsan identity, a marginalized ethno-religious group, as a branch of Shi’ism by representing them as believers of the divinity of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (‘Ali-Allahis). Western explorers who traveled to the western regions of Iran during the Qajar dynasty have documented cultural and religious information about various ethno-religious groups living in the region, including the Yarsan. Even though these travelogues and reports provide vast information about this group’s tradition, beliefs, and daily life routines, they are overburdened by Eurocentric ideologies, presumptions, and prejudices. Looking at the relationship between Orientalism and Eurocentrism, this research will delve into the writings of Orientalists such as Arthur Gobineau (d. 1882), Henry Rawlinson (d. 1895), and George Curzon (d. 1925) to show how these scholars either advertently or inadvertently influenced later Iranian scholars in their representations of the Yarsan as Shi’ite groups, and particularly as Shi’ite exaggerators (ghulat). Furthermore, by using textual analysis methodology and unpacking the conceptual constructions that underpinned the interactions between Orientalists and the Yarsan, my aim is to challenge the idea that Western knowledge production on the Orient was conducted in isolation. I will argue that the Yarsan identity formation as a Shi‘ite group was a joint enterprise between Orientalists, Iranian scholars, and the Yarsan themselves. This approach shows the nuanced and varied conceptual apparatus that creates several dynamic forms of Othering of the Yarsan as People of the Truth (Ahl-i Haqq), ghulat, and Shi’ite mystical groups. These constructed identities have been constantly reproduced and reinvented from the nineteenth century onward to enable a variety of relations, from equal to subordination, and a variety of treatments from discrimination, assimilation, to toleration. While Orientalists are often positioned as the dominant authority in the Yarsan identity formation discourse, the Yarsan themselves have played a dynamic role in shaping their identification as a Shi’ite population by outside observers.
  • Dawud al-Ta’i (d. 165/781-2) was an ascetic of Kufa who studied under Abu Hanifa and other members of the generation of tabi‘un. In the intellectual pedigree of the early Sufi movement he was a vital link, and a cultural icon in his own right, as attested in the numerous biographical reports collected by Abu Nu‘aym al-Isbahani and others. Reports of Dawud emphasize his aversion to society and his dedication to private isolation (‘uzla) as a way of life. In these reports, which are full of detail about Dawud’s household finances and cost of living, domestic slavery is a recurrent motif. Reconciling this figure's relationship to slaveholding with his ascetic withdrawal from society is the work of this paper.
  • An attempt is made to examine Shīʿī Iranian clerical self-representation and participatory networks as medium of authority. The analysis traces how such networks are enacted through social media technologies, focusing in particular on the photo-video sharing app, Instagram. In theoretical terms, this case study understands digital media technologies as a phenomenological performance that makes religious identity formation possible as a distinct social practice. I argue that since the 1990s, Shīʿī clerical authority has undergone a performative network transformation with digital technology playing a key role in the process. The term “performative network” refers to the complex repertoire of (self) representations that signal the confluence of repeatable and transferable frameworks, where the boundaries of “private” and “public” spheres blur into emerging social networks. Through ties that constitute diverse relations, Shīʿī clerics engage in diverse modes of authorial performances by carving out new spaces of public presence—an alternative landscape where self-representation becomes, despite physical absence, accessible, spreadable, and inherently more visible. Within the pathways of this network, the emergence of social media connectivity underlines what sociologist Scott Feld has described as a community marked by “foci” as the basis of distinct associations that interact in digitally mediated domains. These online communities are personalized around certain performatives of self-presentation by male clerics of diverse age, most of them seminarians from mid-ranking status groups across Shīʿī dominated regions of Iran. The result, I finally argue, is the creation of new bridges between social networks that go beyond conventional notions of state-society relations, many of which include mundane practices of clerical authority that are framed in everyday life.
  • Twelver Shi‘is in twentieth and twenty-first century Syria and Iraq have seen a great deal of turmoil and change and this is reflected in their theology. Prior to 2003, Twelver Shi‘is constituted a proverbial “underdog” in Iraq and in Syria they were, at best, a marginalized community. Barely two decades later, the situation has changed drastically and at least in Iraq, Shi‘is are now in power. The argument the proposed paper seeks to make is that changing political and socio-economic circumstances also influence the semantic fields and conceptual maps found in local theologies. Religious “healing” (or shifa’) is no exception. How is “religious healing” different from other forms of healing? It encompasses a broader field of meaning. It can include physical healing, psychological, social, economic, and political forms of restoration. Michel Foucault has argued in “Madness and Civilization” that in Western Europe mental health has been redefined over time such that during the Renaissance, madness was seen as a form of mysterious wisdom, during the Classical Period as moral failure, and as the inability to function efficiently as part of the economy during the Modern Period. In the Arab world, classical Sunni works on Prophetic medicine (tibb nabawi) have emphasized the connection between the spiritual and the physical realms. This connection is preserved in contemporary Twelver Shi‘i books on medicine and healing, however, there are additional aspects and this paper seeks to explore those as well. Drawing on extensive ethnographic fieldwork in Syria and Iraq between the years of 2003 and 2019, as well as popular pamphlets bought in Syria and Iraq on healing, this paper points out that Shi‘i notions of healing often include theurgic elements (i.e. falakiyya) in addition to physical and psychological approaches. Moreover, as indicated above, political events have shaped popular notions of restoration, such that eschatological deliverance became a focal point during the American war in Iraq following 2003. During that time, Shi‘is prayed for individual and communal healing by beseeching God for political and economic restoration. The emphasis shifted towards social justice and equity following the rise of Daesh in 2014 and then pivoted towards physical health during the global Covid-19 pandemic. In short, the proposed paper will trace changes in the meanings of “healing” among Twelver Shi‘is in Iraq and Syria by contextualizing hermeneutic shifts.
  • Recent studies in the anthropology of Islam have shown that ambivalent observance or conscious negligence is characteristic of the religiosity of many self-identifying Muslims. In Debevec’s work (2012), for example, we see women who continue postponing their daily prayers until a later time in life. During fieldwork with Muslim Iranian women in London, Spellman (2005) encounters women who participate in religious rituals but also dance at a ceremony in the same day, and frame their behavior as being “too weak” to follow all the mandates of religion. Schielke’s work (2009) talks about young Muslim Egyptians who are not concerned with being observant year-round except in certain times that have a more religious significance, like in Ramadan when they say daily prayers or stop drinking or watching porn. Similar orientations towards religious practice are noted in Beekers and Kloos’ "Straying from the Straight Path", which addresses practitioners’ admission of failure/negligence in observing religious rules(2017). In this paper, I demonstrate the distinction between this sense of failure/straying from the path that “occurs where there is a choice and where practitioners make a wrong choice knowingly” (Sunier 2017: 110), and the feeling of not having strayed at all based on a redefined notion of observance. Relying on the ethnography of several Quran study gatherings in Southern California, I address this distinction by analyzing Iranian-American Muslim women’s reformulation of the very idea of observance. Many women I worked with had at least in some way openly strayed from practices traditionally associated with Islamic orthodoxy—observing hejab, saying daily prayers, observing halal laws, going to hajj, and the like. However, for many of them, a lack of continuous observance was not framed as “straying from the path” or an admission of failure or negligence in observing religious rules. It was rather considered the proper mode of observance based on an unmediated interpretation of the Quran, achieved by women in the space of their own Quran study groups. In other words, women questioned and negotiated the validity of the very religious mandates they were allegedly straying from. I show how women draw on different narrative forms as sources of “vernacular authority,” generating “informally aggregated communal wisdom” (Howard 2013: 81) in response to the institutional mandates of Islam as well as etic understandings of their faith. Approaching faith as a realm of choice and negotiation, these women create new parameters within which to situate themselves as proper Muslims.
  • This paper grapples with two entwined topics. First, it explores the centuries-old burial ritual that persisted among Shiʿa Muslim communities in the nineteenth century Caucasus under the Russian imperial control. The ritual entailed deliberate abeyance of burial and the storage of dead bodies of Shiʿa Muslims for a period ranging between several months to several years. The bodies were stored in the specially constructed crypts or basements of mosques. . When the relatives of the deceased deemed the timing right, a decision that hinged on a variety of personal, political, and financial factors, the corpses were brought out and transported in the specially assembled caravans to be taken for the final burial in the cemeteries of Karbala, Najaf, Qom, or Mashhad, which pious Shiʿa Muslims hold sacred. Second, this article argues that the imperial government’s reluctant consent to allow the movement of hundreds of corpses outside of the Caucasus, a decision that contradicted imperial sanitary laws, demonstrates its broader efforts to manage Islam and cultivate political loyalty of Muslims living in the region. To illuminate the history of the Shiʿa funerary pilgrimage as it unfolded in the nineteenth century Caucasus under Russian imperial control, I examined a broad range of primary and secondary sources. Of particular significance is the collection of petitions written in the Persian language seeking the permission of Russian authorities to exhume and transport corpses outside of the South Caucasus. These documents reveal crucial information like the names and places of residency of the petitioners, the circumstances of people’s passing, the number of corpses that an individual wished to transport, and the ultimate destination of the caravans carrying the dead.