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Prof. Dr. Nahid Mozaffari

Senior Research Fellow


Areas of interest

  • modern Middle Eastern history
  • modern Iranian history
  • social history in the Middle East

A history of secularities in modern Iran

Due to the commercial, scientific, industrial, and military advances of the West (and colonialism), the model of Western modernity and its attributes, including a monolithic understanding of the association between modernity and secularism, have often been considered applicable to the whole world. However, if we set aside the tradition/modernisation and religion/secularisation paradigms and dichotomies, and historically contextualise the coexistence of “realms of religion” (shar) and “realms of custom” (urf) or non-religion in the pre-modern period, and in relation to different articulations of modernity in different cultural milieus (Iran and the Middle East in my case), the co-existence of “multiple modernities” and “multiple secularities” is plausible.
Following my previous studies and those of Talal Asad, I believe we should consider “the secular” as an epistemic category. In constitutional Iran, the secular was presented by some intellectuals and activists as a rational, humanist principle that would not deny the right to religious belief but would restrain its intolerant tendencies with the eventual hope of relegating it to the private sphere. This view was contested by most but not all religious scholars or ulama. In previous research, I dealt with secularity as an intellectual concept and did not address its relation to materiality or “spheres of action”. In this project, I would like rearticulate this historical inquiry as a thematic investigation of sociocultural realms of secularities coexisting with realms of official and non-official religion and the relation between secularities and materiality. In the case of Iran, one would have to investigate the processes of boundary demarcation between the religious and other spheres, and the plurality of secularities in different periods. Such demarcations existed in the pre-modern period in Iran; in the modern period, we ascertain these boundaries according to vastly differing conceptions of modernity (Qajar period, Pahlavi period, Islamic Republic). I would like to focus on spaces in each period where secularities were functionally practised by different segments of the population. The questions I will pose for each period will include whether and in what capacity (and what elements in society) the religious/secular binary existed in the different historical contexts. I will also consider whether and how societal groups resisted the binary when it was state-imposed as was the case in the Pahlavi and Islamic Republic periods.

Relevant Publications

  • Mozaffari, Nahid. “Portrait of Iran, Where Revolution Is Ideological and the Costs Are Human: Nazila Fathi’s ‘The Lonely War’ Is a Memoir of Iran.” The New York Times, January 1st, 2015.
  • Mozaffari, Nahid. “Historical Preface,” in Afro-Iran. The Unknown Minority. By Mahdi Esaei. Heidelberg, Berlin: Kehrer, 2015.
  • Mozaffari, Nahid. “Civic Piety: Visions of Secularity in Constitutional Iran,” in Religion and Secularity: Transformations and Transfers of Religious Discourses in Europe and Asia. Edited by Marion Eggert and Lucian Hölscher, 155–73. Leiden: Brill, 2013.
  • Mozaffari, Nahid. “An Iranian Modernist Project: Ali Akbar Dehkhoda's Writings in the Constitutional Period,” in Iran's Constitutional Revolution: Popular Politics, Cultural Transformations and Transnational Connections. Edited by Houchang Chehabi and Vanessa Martin. London: I.B.Tauris, 2010.
  • Mozaffari, Nahid. “Mohammad Ali Jamalzadeh: Life and Works,” in Encyclopedia Iranica, vol XIV. Edited by Ehsan Yarshater, 439–53. London, Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 2008.
  • Mozaffari, Nahid. “Culture and Resistance: Writing Back to Power,” in Targeting Iran. Edited by David Barsamian, 125–88. San Francisco: City Lights, 2007.
  • Mozaffari, Nahid. “Review of: Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran by Roya Hakakian; Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing up Iranian in America and American in Iran by Azadeh Moaveni; Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi.” Women’s Studies Quarterly, 34/1-2 (2006): 516–27.
  • Mozaffari, Nahid. Strange Times, My Dear: The PEN Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2005.