Oddcast episode

Alireza Doostdar on ‘Metaphysical Religion’ in Contemporary Iran

Iran since 1979 has proclaimed itself an ‘Islamic Republic’, and is often viewed from the outside as a religiously-monolithic society in which the fatwas of the clerical class are all that counts in spiritual matters. Alireza Doostdar’s field-research, conducted in the early twenty-first-century in Tehran, reveals a different picture: not only is the Islamic consensus in Iran itself constantly evolving, and not only are the traditional practices of Islamicate esoteric religiosity alive and well at various societal levels, there is also a creative and constantly-evolving landscape of experimental spirituality in Iran. This landscape includes practitioners of various forms of ‘metaphysical religion’, sometimes influenced by movements such as Spiritism/Spiritualism, Theosophy, New Age belief, and other European currents of modern esoteric spirituality, sometimes framed as ‘scientific’, and at other times folded into Islam as understood by practitioners. Jinn-exorcisms coexist with speculations about ‘quantum healing’. Reincarnationism negotiates with Islamic eschatology. Hollywood movies may be reliable guides to the worlds of unseen powers. And all of this evolution coexists (or fails to coexist) with the political pressures from the Islamic Republican institutions, which are themselves in flux as administrations come and go.

Interview Bio:

Alireza Doostdar is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies and the Anthropology of Religion in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. He has an Academia page with lots to read. His first book, The Iranian Metaphysicals: Explorations in Science, Islam, and the Uncanny (Princeton University Press, 2018) received the 2018 Albert Hourani Book Award from the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) and the 2020 Vinson Sutlive Book Prize from the Anthropology Department at William & Mary. His next book will be a study of the theology of Satan in Iran since the Islamic Revolution.

Works Cited in this Episode:


The Exorcist, dir. William Friedkin, 1973.

Şeytan, dir. Metin Erksan, 1974.

Constantine, dir. Francis Lawrence, 2005.

Mulk-e Suleyman, dir. Shahriar Bahrani, 2010.


Ata Anzali. From Ethnic Nationalism to Cosmopolitan Mysticism: The Life and Works of Hossein Kazemzadeh Iranshahr (1884-1962). Iranian Studies, 55(1):61-112, 2022.

Alireza Doostdar: Haunted Ramadan: Ghosts, Devils, and the Soul of Iranian Television.

Egyptian spiritualist tafsīr: The Sheikh’s name was Tantawi Jawhari. There’s a bit about him here.

Khomeni’s Kashf al-Asrār: see the Wikipedia page, which leads to the Persian text. No known English translation.

Kutluğhan Soyubol. In Search of Perfection: Neo-spiritualism, Islamic Mysticism, and Secularism in Turkey. Modern Intellectual History, 18(1):70-94, 2021.

Özgür Türesay. Between Science and Religion: Spiritism in the Ottoman Empire (1850s-1910s). Studia Islamica, 113(2):166-200, 2018.

Muḥammad Farīd Wajdī’s Encyclopedia of the Twentieth Century: see Jansen, J.J.G. 2012. “Muhammad Farid Wadjdi.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, edited by P. Bearman et al. 2nd ed. Brill Online.

Recommended Reading:

A curated list from Prof Doostdar.


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