From ‘Islamism’ to ‘Spiritualism’? the Individualisation of ‘Religion’ in Iran

Thursday, 19 July 2018
Distributed Paper
Hossein GODAZGAR, Al-Maktoum College of Higher Education, United Kingdom
Shiva VELAYATI, Nabi Akram University, Iran
In the first four centuries of Islam in Iran, Mosques were arguably the only sacred places for Iranian Muslims to pray. It was only after the invasion of the Mongolians and the resulting expansion of Shi’ism and Sufism throughout the country that the tombs of some sacred figures (‘Maqbarahs’) became shrines and important sites for pilgrims. It is interesting that pilgrimage to both Imams’ shrines and Maqbarahs and its associated expressions and perceptions lie at the centre of Shi’ite experience of ‘religion’, although they are rarely mentioned in the relevant core sources of Shi’ism.

During the Islamic revolution of 1979, Mosques became the main ‘vehicles’ for the religio-political ideology of the revolution. Unlike Maqbarahs, they embraced dissidents from a variety of social classes ranged from emigrants from rural areas to educated liberals and intellectuals. Approaching the fortieth anniversary of the revolution now, the findings of our three-year research project illustrates that whilst the religious status of Mosques is decreasing, Maqbarahs as well as other apolitical venues are increasingly becoming the main ‘vehicles’ for the expression of more individualistic and spiritual sensations, rather than the manifestation of an established and institutionalised religio-political ideology.

Taking inspiration from a social constructionist approach, participant observation and thirty semi-structured interviews in three Maqbarahs in north-west Iran, this paper aims to partly report the findings of this project by focusing on the meanings of ‘religion’ (and of course ‘non-religion’) attached to Maqbarahs and their material culture as well as the changes our informants have experienced through time and space, particularly during the last thirty years.