Everyday Modernity and Religious Inoculation

Iranian modernity was not an abstract philosophical attitude or mindless imitation of the West; it was a life-changing search for solutions to unavoidable everyday problems. During its inaugural phase, through an effort to combat contagious diseases the Qajar state, which was largely confined to the court in the early nineteenth century, was forced to take up the vital task of promoting public welfare (malslhat-i ‘ammah) and public health (hifz al-sihahah). Viewing contagious diseases as products of miasmas (‘ufunat-i hava), the state sought to eradicate these diseases by building public toilets, sweeping streets, collecting garbage, and paving roads. Cemeteries (qabristan), slaughter houses (qasabkhanah), and tanning and finishing houses (dabbaqkhanah) were moved out of urban living quarters. These state-initiated measures for freshening the air of public spaces concurred with the fundamental juridical concepts of “purity” (taharat) and “filth” (nijasat).
The Pasteurian paradigm challenged the efficacy of the clerical knowledge that regulated the everyday conducts of practicing Shi‘i Muslims. Concern with hygiene prompted the desacralization and rapid transformation of practices of private life, a process that is fully manifesting itself in contemporary Iran.
The failure to reconceptualize the notion of taharat in light of spreading national epidemics made the Shi‘i clergy the target of sustained public ridicule and criticism. “Over-sexed clerics” were only interested issues “below-the-naval” (zir-i naf).
Invigorated by the efforts of the intelligentsia who had asserted Islam’s full concord with reason and science, the Iranian mujtahids in the 1940s began a campaign for the assertion of religious values in the public sphere. With a radical transformation of the concept of religious revolution as articulated by the intelligentsia in the 1920, the clerics began to view themselves as the vanguards of a “spiritual revolution” (inqilab-i rawhani) in a morally and spiritually diseased society. This medicalization of social problems was best captured by the popular concept of Occidentosis (gharbzadigi), which was defined by Jalal Al-Ahmad as a plague emanating from the West. In the emerging Pasteurian Islamic discourse, “sin” (gunah) was transformed into a social illness that could be cured only through religious inoculation and revolution. It was this dynamic that guaranteed the establishment of the Islamic Republic and the institutionalization of vali-yi faqih as the guardian of a religiously and spiritually “minor” nation.
محمد توکلی طرقی*
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