Iranian mysticism and New Age spiritualities: faith or lifestyle?

It is frequent to come across the concept of ‘mysticism’ while reading a book, singing a song, studying history, or listening to a religious speech. However, sometimes it is hard to define what mysticism is exactly, placing it in a precise space and time and attributing it to a defined category of people. It is a common approach to life, sometimes practiced in respect of a god (Islamic, Catholic or Jewish mysticism), sometimes towards multiple gods, other times towards nature (Eastern philosophies).

Because of its religious connotation, mystics are sometimes labelled as heretics by the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran. ‘Heresy’ in Persian is ” ارﺗداد” (ertedād) and is an Arabic term meaning ‘rejection’ (of Islam). It is the term to indicate the conversion from Islam to any other religion. Instead, in order to indicate the converted or non-converted people who practice these New Age spiritualities, the Iranian government uses the words ” ﻋرﻓﺎﻧﮭﺎی ﻧو ظﮭور“ (erfanhaye nowzahoor), meaning ’emerging mysticism’, from ”ﻋرﻓﺎن“ ‘erfan’, which also derives from the Arabic, and means ‘knowledge’, ‘gnosis’.

There are many accusations and derogatory definitions for what concerns the new spiritualities belonging to young Iranians of New Age from 1986 until today. Terms such as ‘cults’, ‘sects’, ‘replacement religions’, ‘pseudo-spirituality’, ‘modern spirituality’, are used with negative connotations. Even the word ‘mysticism’ sometimes takes on a negative connotation. These new spiritualities are characterised by affinities with Shiite Islam and the fact that rely especially on the first Imam ‘Ali, on mystical figures like the poet Rumi or Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, have a hierarchical structure, own teachings and behavioural dictates, members and non-members are distinguished clearly, sometimes they classify their members according to the devotion and sometimes according to their financial investment, some of them reject the idea of a single truth. Usually those who belong to these schools of thought are people of middle and upper classes, mostly young people, the founder has a particular title and is a man, most of the times, sometimes they exalt the worldly life, they have a modern approach to religious propaganda, consider the individual important but also organise many group activities.

The most common New Age spiritualities are those who believe in astrology, that is the possibility that the arrangement and alignment of planets, satellites and stars affect the realisation of positive and negative events, those who believe in reincarnation in another identity after death, those who feel in connection with their deceased loved ones, those offering the power of thought as cure and alternative medicine to diseases.

The term ‘mysticism’ derives from the ancient Greek mnuo, which means ‘to conceal’, because in the Hellenistic world it concerned the secret religious rituals. During the early Christianity, it was referred to as hidden interpretations of Scriptures and to the hidden presence of Jesus at the Eucharist. Later, it became related to the direct experience of the divine. Therefore, there are both theistic and non-theistic mystics, and this difference leads someone to consider the mysticism a faith and some others a philosophy. Within the theistic mysticism, moreover, it can be differentiated between those who practice a spiritual approach to the divine and those who consider divine their inner life and strive to get in touch with it. The Encyclopaedia Britannica, in fact, defines mysticism as “the practice of religious ecstasies (religious experiences during alternate states of consciousness), together with whatever ideologies, ethics, rites, myths, legends, and magic may be related to them”. The types of mysticism are varied and difficult to be categorised. The British academic Zaehner (1913-1974) proposed the classification of theistic, monistic and panenhenic or nature mysticism. Richard King, professor of Buddhism and Asian Studies at the University of Kent, wrote that the use of the term ‘mysticism’ comes from the nineteenth century’s “ism” trend, as a definition of any movement throughout the history. Today it is often used as a synonym for ‘spirituality’, erroneously.

Although many studies about it sometimes lead to controversial results, it can be said that spirituality, as an estrangement from materialism, is the first step in the process of mystical experience. Moreover, from a linguistic point of view, spirituality comes from the Latin ‘spiritualitas’ and means ‘to breathe’. It is usually seen as something positive, while mysticism can impersonate also negative connotations.

In the centuries of Persian history, mysticism can be noticed in the various forms of art: it is a type of music, if we think of the contemporary tenor Shahram Nazeri (b. 1950) or the musician Davood Azad (b. 1963); it is poetry, with Rumi’s (1207-1273) love-based mysticism, Hafez’s (1325/26-1389/90) pleasure-based mysticism, Al-Ghazali’s (1058-1111) fear-based mysticism, Omar Khayyam’s (1048-1131) philosophical mysticism, Jami’s (1414-1492), Shams Tabrizi’s (1185-1248), Saadi’s (1210-1291/92), etc.; it is painting, if we look at the works of Rassouli (b. 1943), Iranian painter who emigrated to the United States, but also many Iranians more known as poets than as painters. Mysticism in Iran was born already from the pre-Zoroastrian epoch: the simurgh is a mythical bird whose name comes from the Middle Persian Pahlavi sēnmurw, which in turn is derived from the term mərəγō Saēnō, ‘the Saena bird’ in the Avesta. It was originally a huge hawk or eagle, with the head of dog or human, and the claws of a lion, that lived for so long that had witnessed the end of the world three times and that was a bridge between Heaven and Earth. Later on, it has become a character in various stories and legends, as in Ferdowsi’s Shahname and in Sufi poetry, as a metaphor for God. Even the Persian worship of the god Mithras is considered a “primordial” mysticism, which originated Mithraism and inspired Christianity.

Between the 11th and the 12th century, it led to a prosperous Persian literature in the mystical poetry. Attar, Shams, Molavi and Hafez were poets who belonged to that era. From the Safavid era onwards, Sufism saw a slow decline, although the members of this dynasty were originally Sufi. The literature of this period is full of attempts to demonstrate the Islamic nature of Sufism, which is the issue on which the ever present and active dispute between Shiites and Sufis finds its basis, regarding the orthodox manner to live the faith.

As claimed by the writer Ali Shirazi, a very likely cause of the popularity of these new trends can be attributed to modernism and its consequence: the importance of personal choice. Other causes may be the religious crisis of our time and the progressive disappearance of the values, or the crisis of political Islam and its religious ideology. The choice of faith today is like the choice of products at the supermarket: everyone seeks an answer with which people are already comfortable and easily recognise. Although the pharmaceutical research and industry are improving, the modern human being is still looking for a medicine to heal the spirit.

Last January, the Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei met a group of top Iranian students in Tehran and highlighted the importance of the combination of scientific values and pursuit of religious values and ideals of the Revolution. The leader believes that the high rate of suicides in the West and especially the United States, the crisis of the family institution, the increase in violence and corruption are directly due to the death of spirituality, with reference to new philosophical-religious trends. Mysticism is present in almost all the religions, therefore in Islam also, both Shia and Sunni. The element that is not permitted is the fact that you believe in something other than the Shiite dictates, or away from the monotheism of the three Holy Books of the revealed religions (Qur’an, Bible, Torah), or come at a time subsequent to the preaching of the Prophet Mohammed.

It is impossible to find the statistics concerning the different mystical religious groups, as there is much variety among them. These forms of mysticism were born in and outside Iran, have developed in this area and still exist in a latent and hidden way, as the etymology of ‘mysticism’ expected. However, a considerable fear remains in declaring an illegal belief, as the consequences could be multiple.



Featured Image: Painting depicting the work of Rumi, one of the best known mystic poets (

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