MESA Book Awards
The University of Chicago
2018 Albert Hourani Book Award Winner
The Iranian Metaphysicals is an erudite but rollicking book. Alireza Doostdar provides an elegant anthropological analysis of contemporary Iranian metaphysical pursuits and their relationship with science, state orthodoxy, and politics. The “religious” life he presents defies easy categorization. Doostdar’s interlocutors are adepts and consumers of occult practices such as fortune telling, exorcism, and the séance. These practices bring together local traditions and figures of divination with elements from European and American movements like Scientology, Theosophy, and Native American shamanism. Science and rationality play a key role for many of these practitioners by providing a framework of authority through which they understand and justify what they are doing. Doostdar insists upon the connections of these scientific domains with the occult, as well as with other social fields such as entertainment and aesthetics. In this way, his book not only investigates a surprising and overlooked area of contemporary Iranian society, but also advances an innovative study of modern social discourses as people fashion and experience religion, individually, in everyday life. Among the exemplary features of Doostdar’s book is its refusal either to conflate modernity with liberal rationalism or to dismiss his interlocutors’ practices as anti-modern reactive or residual tendencies. The Iranian Metaphysicals provides a salutary model for moving beyond outdated and distorted conceptions of modernity in ways that are as relevant for Western countries as they are for a country like Iran, and that have comparative import beyond Islamic studies, too. The Committee is proud to recognize the excellence and originality of Alireza Doostdar’s The Iranian Metaphysicals by awarding it the Albert Hourani Book Prize.