Fantasies of Reason: Science, Superstition, and the Supernatural in Iran

Thesis Type:

PhD dissertation


This dissertation examines uncertainties about the supernatural among members of the urban middle class in Tehran, Iran. In particular, I attend to the ways in which the category of the supernatural (mavara) has become, for some people, an object of potential scientific ('elmi ) inquiry that must be distinguished from approaches usually ascribed to the rural, the uneducated, and the poor, often deemed as either superstitions (khorafat) or parochically religious (dini). By examining a range of encounters with the supernatural – such as attempts to explain communications with the souls of the dead, make sense of spirit possession, and differentiate real magic from charlatanism – I highlight the varied modalities through which perspectives and forms of reasoning imagined to be rational and scientific are brought to bear on matters that are understood to lie, at least partially, within the purview of religious knowledge. I situate such supernatural encounters against a backdrop of state disciplinary and coercive measures, thereby illuminating important shifts in Iran's politico-religious landscape in the past two decades, such as the waning of the religious authority of the Shi'i ulama among certain sections of society. This declining authority does not necessarily imply a weakened interest in Islam (although this is sometimes the case). Rather, it has opened up a space for reception and deliberation of a multiplicity of sources of religious knowledge, both Islamic and non-Islamic. These include forms of Western-imported spirituality and occultism that have been entering Iran for over a century, with their most recent wave consisting of translated texts of New Age spirituality, self-help success literature, and popular psychology that have gained popularity since the end of the war with Iraq. The metaphysical models on offer through these spiritual systems are usually promoted and understood as scientific rather than religious. That is, rather than being seen as contradicting Islamic notions, these formulations are often viewed as parallel to them. By attending to such notions and their everyday manifestations, my project brings into focus various hybrid forms of religious-scientific knowledge, experience, and discourse that have largely been ignored in the study of modern Muslim societies.

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