The Social Life of Gnosis: Sufism in Post-Revolutionary Iran

Seema Golestaneh

Deposited 2014

Abstract
My research examines the social and material life of gnosis for the contemporary Sufi community in post-revolutionary Iran. In contrast to literatures which confine Sufism to the literary and poetic realms, I investigate the ways in which gnosis (mystical epistemology) is re-configured as a series of techniques for navigating the realm of the everyday. In particular, I focus on the ways in which mystical knowledge (ma'arifat-e 'erfani) is utilized by the Sufis to position themselves as outside of the socio-political areana, a move that, within the context of the Islamic Republic, in and of itself possesses vast political and social repercussions. I approach gnosis in two ways: both as object of study but also as critical lens, utilizing the Sufis' own mystical epistemology to guide me in understanding and interpreting my ethnographic case studies. In my dissertation, I address the following questions: What is the role of the Sufis, a group positioned on neither side of the orthodoxy-secular divide, within post-revolutionary Iran? How does a religious group attempt to create and maintain a disavowal of the political realm in a theocracy? More broadly, what is the role of mysticism within late modernity, and how might such a question be answered anthropologically?
At the heart of my dissertation is the analysis of four ethnographic case studies. In each instance, I illustrate the way that the Sufis' own concept of mystical knowledge may be used to interpret topics as varied as the relationship between commemorative (dhikr) rituals and national identity to the negotiation of state interference to the practice of youth-organized poetry readings to the spatial organization of meeting places. I trace the affective and sensory dimensions of gnosis as it influences the mystics' understanding of the body, memory, place, language, and their socio-theological position within Iranian modernity more broadly. By analyzing the question of the "apolitical," my dissertation intervenes into the presumed distinction between the aesthetico-epistemological and the political divide, tracking a group that favors not direct resistance or outright evasion, but a more elusive engagement. My dissertation may be utilized by those interested in questions of knowledge production, aesthetics and affect, and alternatives to the religious-secular divide.