Rice University: Islamic studies scholar Doostdar contemplates God and Satan in modern Shi’i thought

It was a chance encounter with a student-organized conference on Satanism at a university in Tehran while researching his dissertation that first led Alireza Doostdar to ponder the question: Exactly who or what is Satan within the context of Shi’i tradition and post-revolutionary Iran?

Feb. 17 at 5, Doostdar will deliver the third annual Kazimi Lecture in Shi’i Studies on this question, which is also the topic of his forthcoming second book. His widely acclaimed first book, “The Iranian Metaphysicals,” challenged common assumptions about Islam, rationality and the relationship between science and religion.

Doostdar is an associate professor of Islamic studies and the anthropology of religion at the Divinity School and in the College at the University of Chicago, as well as faculty co-director of the Martin Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion. Through the Kazimi Lecture series, endowed by the children of Syed Safdar and Samina Kazimi, the Rice School of Humanities brings in scholars such as Doostdar each year whose research promotes understanding Shi’i Islam in its many dimensions.

With his lecture, “God and Satan in Modern Shi’i Thought,” Doostdar will examine the nuances around the figure of the Devil (Iblis or Shaytan) and how those complexities have been deployed in political and cultural discourse by Iranian leaders from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini — founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran — to revolutionary sociologist Ali Shariati.

“Often when people think about the Islamic Revolution in 1979, one of the dominant themes is the revolutionaries’ attempt to bring the Iranian people closer to God and away from Satan,” Doostdar said.

There has been much scholarship made of the fact that the United States and Iran greatly demonized each other during this period, perhaps most famously in Khomeini’s 1979 speech describing America as “the great Satan,” a term which became immediately popular in Iranian revolutionary circles.

“But what I noticed was that nothing that’s been written about this idea — and the notion of Satan more broadly in Iranian revolutionary discourse — has really paid attention to what Satan means in that context,” Doostdar said.

“There’s been a presumption that we know what Satan means in the English language,” he said. “And perhaps we’re familiar with the biography of Satan as a kind of supernatural and theological figure in Christianity, so there’s a presumption that that same idea translates to the Islamic and Iranian context. But that’s not true at all.”

Unlike, say, the Western notion of Satan as hell’s head honcho or an eternal torturer of doomed souls, Shi‘i tradition holds Iblis as a character that Doostdar said is closer to John Milton’s idea of the devil in “Paradise Lost,” a conflicted Lucifer whose greatest fault is pride.

To assert yourself against God — the way that Iblis did when he refused to bow down before Adam at God’s command — is the ultimate form of arrogance, Doostdar said. But it’s also an action that demonstrates the possibility of asserting oneself against God in the first place; an action that puts “me” first. Being able to say “I” or assert our individuality is part of what makes us human, after all.

“​​Khomeini has this speech in the mid-1980s where he’s talking to members of the cabinet, addressing political infighting, and he says, ‘Whoever says I, that I is Satan,’” Doostdar said. “But then there are positive spins that have been given, as when Shariati talks about Satan as essentially teaching humans to be independent.”

For Shariati, humans couldn’t attain their full potential unless they learned how to be independent — and “full potential for Shariati is ultimately to become godlike,” Doostdar said.

“So to say ‘me,’ to say ‘I,’ is to be able to shake off all kinds of fetters, including the fetters of social expectation, the fetters of political domination and ultimately also the fetters of religious tradition,” Doostdar said. “In that sense, he sees Satan as a teacher, as an ally for humankind.”

Doostdar said he was honored by the invitation to deliver this year’s Kazimi Lecture and excited by the challenge it presented him: combining elements of anthropology with religious history, political history and intellectual history.

As an anthropologist, Doostdar approaches Shi‘i Islam as a dynamic tradition shaped in dialogue with other religious and secular formations. And as a West Asia specialist, he has conducted most of his ethnographic and archival investigations in Iran, including the past two summers he spent researching Iranian heavy metal music. He also studied anti-Satanist activism similar to what he witnessed years ago at the student-led conference in Tehran. This activism, he found, has its own Satanic influences, some of which has “very direct cultural borrowing from American evangelicals,” he said.

The American “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s engendered by U.S. fundamentalists also bears a resemblance to concerns taken up against heavy metal music in Iran, where it has been explicitly banned since 1979, even though bands do continue to make music and sometimes even perform live concerts with official approval. Iranian death metal band Arsames made headlines last year upon receiving a 15-year prison sentence for “playing Satanic music.” (They have since fled the country.)

Yet Satan, at least in the Islamic sense, is not always seen as the ultimate evil.

“The greatest fear is that Satan will lead you astray, working through insinuations and murmuring, and that you could be tricked in spite of yourself — even if you think you’re doing good,” Doostdar said. “The devil works with the material that is there.”

As with the story of Iblis, the great evil is pride.

“There’s this story about how a pious person has a dream about Satan,” Doostdar said. “In his dream, Satan has all these ropes in his hand, and this guy asks Satan, ‘What are all these ropes?’ Satan says, ‘These are the ropes that I use to pull people towards me and they’re all different lengths.’ This guy asks Satan, ‘So, which one is my rope?’ And Satan says, ‘Oh, you don’t need a rope, you just come along yourself.’”

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