Islam and the Humanities

Conference 2019

Seema Golestaneh

Cornell University

The Shape of Texts to Come: Shifting Archival and Publishing Practices of a Shi’i Sufi Order in Iran

What is the relationship between form and transparency in the digital age? Throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries the Nimatuhllahi Soltanalishahi Sufi Order of Iran has adhered to formal and informal policies of secrecy (rozpooshi) in regard to the dissemination of their ideas. These ideas were delivered to rank and file Sufis either orally or written in small, self-published books, typically with the blue covers ubiquitous of self-published works in Iran. Eleven years ago, however, the Soltanalishahi Order published a website with an extensive digital archive of sermons, exegetical works, and more, such that these very texts which espouse theories of secrecy are now accessible online to all digital passersby. And yet, despite this move to greater transparency by the Sufi authorities, individual members continue to insist on the secret or private character of their home collections of printed works, many of which are now available online, taking pains to keep them hidden and insisting that the materials only be entrusted with a select few.

Based on anthropological and archival evidence, this paper analyzes how the question of form allows us to analyze texts and archives as material and semiotic objects. The varying forms that these written mystical works take, whether a guidebook given to them by their sheikh or a PDF downloaded in the privacy of their home, directly impact not only the way in which their content is perceived, understood, and circulated, but how they interpret the concept of secrecy (rozpooshi) as well.

Seema Golestaneh is the Assistant Professor of Iranian Studies at Cornell University in the Department of Near Eastern Studies, and received her PhD in sociocultural anthropology from Columbia University. Her research and teaching interests include the anthropology of Islam, twentieth and twenty-first century Iranian Sufism and Shi’ism, literary cultures, and aesthetics and mediation.  She is currently working on her first book, Unknowing and the Everyday: Sufism and Knowledge Production in Post-Revolutionary Iran, which examines the social and material life of gnosis for contemporary Iranian Shi’i Sufi communities.

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