IRSSC Closing Conference, 10-12 February 2022 – Every Ending Is a New Beginning

IRSSC Closing Conference, 10-12 February 2022 –
Every Ending Is a New Beginning

Authors: Judith I. Haug; Kamyar Nematollahy; Katja Rieck; Melike Şahinol; Esther Voswinckel Filiz

24 February 2022

After almost three years, the International Standing Working Group “Iran and Beyond: Breaking Ground for Sustainable Scholarly Collaboration” (IRSSC) held its final conference on 10-12 February 2022 in a closed on-line event that brought together researchers from Denmark, France, Germany, India, Iran Pakistan, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. The interdisciplinary gathering of over thirty scholars, entitled “Performance of Culture, Religion, and Body. Processes of Socio-Cultural Change in the Islamic Republic of Iran”, served to highlight some of the valuable research collaborations that the three participating Orient-Institut Istanbul research fields had built since the IRSSC’s establishment in May 2019. In this blog post the IRSSC’s principal investigators (PIs) and the project lead will recount some of the highlights of their respective conference panels. Although the worsening pandemic situation in Turkey and other parts of the world forced the organizers to make this an online event, discussions were engaging and new networks for future collaboration were created. Nonetheless, there was an acute awareness of the value of face-to-face interactions in in-person settings when it comes to building sustainable scholarly collaborations, a point that came up on several occasions in the discussions, as was to be expected, given that much of the IRSSC’s “lifespan” had been marked by pandemic restrictions.

Ziyāra Revisited: Explorations of the Multisensorial and Material Dimensions of Pilgrimage in Iran and Beyond
Voswinckel-Filiz, acting IRSSC PI, Research Field “Religious History of Anatolia”

The first panel, organized by the OII Esther Voswinckel Filiz, Katja Rieck and Robert Langer for the IRSSC participating research field “Religious History of Anatolia”, featured a selection of promising work from some of our network’s members: Smita Tewari Jassal (Middle East Technical University, Ankara), Ahmadreza Ahmadreza Asgharpourmasouleh (Ferdowsi University of Mashhad) Jabbar Rahmani, (Institute of Social and Cultural Studies, Tehran), Rasool Akbari (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) and Hasan Ali Khan (Habib University, Karachi).

Pakistan, India, Iran, and Turkey are home to thousands of rural and urban saint shrines. These places are part of religious landscapes with a longue duree that transcend national and confessional borders. Although pilgrimage to saint shrines (ziyāra) is a classical topos in the study of religion, only recently have scholars working on religion in Iran, and in the surrounding region, started to leave behind normativisms and established dichotomies, such as “orthodoxy”/ “folk religion”, in order to study phenomena of pilgrimage and places that are ritually visited in more holistic ways (and also in a geographical and historical continuum that extends from India through Iran and Anatolia to the Balkans.)

The panel thereby presented a forum for cross-regional comparisons that not only serve to gather ethnographic material but allow for critical engagements with concepts in the study of religion. For example, rather than clinging to established terms of comparison, such as pilgrimage (with its Christian and Western genealogy), we explored the multiple implications of ziyāra, a word that can denote both a practice (the act of visiting) and a location, and that may refer to places and persons, living humans, as well as grave sites. Ziyāra thus invites us to rethink common distinctions such as subject/object, place/person, or human/non-human.

The panel featured a variety of approaches towards ziyāra. In his contribution on dialogue in Shi’a pilgrimage, Ahmadreza Asgharpourmasouleh for example focused on forms of communication between Imam Reza and the visitors of his shrine in Mashhad. He drew attention to a particular kind of attentiveness, a refinement of the pilgrims’ senses towards even the smallest things and events, that is cherished in the act of visiting.

The shrine of Imam Reza was also the subject of Jabbar Rahmani’s presentation that dealt with ziyāra as a rite of passage in which sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste happen to matter one after the other. Also, Smita Tewari Jassal touched upon aesthetic and haptic dimensions in her comparative study of saint shrines in India and in Anatolia. By putting the notion of baraka (healing power) into the center of her analysis, she convincingly demonstrated how “processes in one setting may illuminate the transactional nature and materiality of baraka at play in another” (Jassal, conference abstract 2021).

What new devotional practices have emerged as a response to the closure of holy sites and mosques in early 2020? This question was thoroughly dealt with in Rasool Akbari’s contribution “Dimensions of Digital Religion in Iran during the COVID-19 Pandemic”.

Finally, Hasan Ali Khan’s presentation of work in progress among the Rifā’īyya in Southwest Asia, his video documentations of rituals and his discussion of relations between this Sufi order’s rites of self-mortification and neighboring Zār cults opened an even larger field of historical and contemporary relations, continuities, and differences in ritual from South Asia to the Balkans.

Although the panel was far too short to give due place to all questions and discussions of relevant methodological and epistemological matters, the conference sparked vivid conversations among the panel participants that have been continuing as email exchanges during the past weeks. The network will continue its meetings to work on joint projects including two planned publications.

Perform_Factur_ing /Healthy/ Wo_Man: Iran, Turkey and Beyond
Melike Şahinol, IRSSC PI, Research Field “Human, Medicine, Society”

The second panel, organized by Melike Şahinol, Burak Taşdizen and Gülşah Başkavak (Orient-Institut Istanbul) and chaired by Emine Öncüler Yayalar (Bilkent University), started with welcome remarks from the IRSSC project initiator and panel discussant, Raoul Motika (University of Hamburg) and from the co-PI, Melike Şahinol, who led the IRSSC sub-project “A Cartography of Hair:y_less Masculinities. A Comparison between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Republic of Turkey.” Bringing together scholars working on masculinities, health, and related issues in geographically, culturally, and academically diverse environments, it reflected on the socio-technical and socio-cultural circumstances of empowerment, (medical) technology, and the body. Questions concerning the management and experience of dis/abilities and health, media assemblages, and medicalization processes of masculinities were addressed from theoretical, empirical, and artistic points of view.

Two of the panel’s contributions dealt with masculinity in military contexts. The presentation “Military Disability, Everyday Experiences, and Masculinity” by Nurseli Yeşim Sünbüloğlu (Kadir Has University) discussed the construction of gendered, militarized disability among combat-injured Kurdish conflict veterans. She stressed the need to take into consideration the dynamics of exclusivity and commonality as well as to make sense of the everyday practices of military disability. Hence, the interaction between veterans and the general disabled population in Turkey follows a pattern whereby veterans distance themselves from the wider disabled population by virtue of their military identity (gazi), while recognizing commonalities with disabled persons with regards to everyday in bodily experience.

The contribution “The Post-Stoic Soldier: Managing Mental Health During Britain’s Psywars” by Alexander Edmonds (University of Edinburgh) focused on stoicism as a set of practices and moral standards that have until recently defined mental health and health treatment in Britain’s military communities.  Yet, since the early 2000s, a “post-stoic” military subject has emerged in the wake of Britain’s psywars that demands to speak about their mental health rather than suffer silently. Instead of seeing military subordinates as problematic patients, Edmonds suggested that they have insight into the psywar contradictions, which have significant ramifications for mental health care, military institutions, and future wars.

Karen Hvidtfeldt (University of Southern Denmark) introduced her ERC project Medicine Man: Media Assemblages of Medicalized and the outputs of her research group. This analyzes how everyday cultures and conceptions of middle-aged men’s bodies emerge as masculinity becomes increasingly both mediatized in popular culture, social media, news, and online health sites and medicalized. Today’s middle-aged men are subjected to rejuvenating treatments, modifications, and performance-enhancing substances. The research thus showed how masculinity emerges from both gendered and medicalized technologies, pointing to gender as performative and contextual and thus a research subject in flux.

In a paper co-authored with Mahtab Esmaeilipour Azam Naghavi (University of Isfahan) shifted the focus to the per_form_facturing of healthy womanhood in present-day Iran. In “Lived Experiences of Challenges of Love Among Iranian Girls with Physical Disability” the authors highlighted that one of the unmet requirements of Iranian women with disabilities is in intimate relationships such as love and sex. The failure to address this demand is set against a larger cultural backdrop in which frank discussion of love and sex is often frowned upon. As a result, people with disabilities are exposed to societal beliefs on love and sex that are improper, particularly for women, and this has detrimental psychosocial effects for this population.

The panel closed with a performance lecture by the independent choreographer Setareh Fatehi. In her performance-lecture titled “(i) the disabled IRL”, Setareh Fatehi explored the notion of ableism in the context of international gatherings and remote communication. The technologies that act as a bridge between distant bodies, which are incorporated in the devices and the behavioral patterns of those who use them, might obscure the cognitive difference between I and the Other, giving the impression that “they are the same”. Fatehi raised the question whether the framework of ableism would shed light on the issue from a different perspective.

In the final discussion, the online format of the conference was addressed. As scholars whose work scrutinizes disabilities, we are aware of the empowering potential of online formats for those individuals with limited physical mobility, or their impact in reducing the carbon footprint. Yet online formats cannot be taken for granted as a “remedy” that unequivocally equalizes access. Research is needed on how online formats contribute to or diminish the quality of gatherings and to understand the efficiency of knowledge production and circulation among semi-present bodies in different cultural settings. Shared, situated experiences and knowledge circulation, opportunities for informal exchange among the participants are often lacking, although these are important for sustainable cooperation. Artistic research and practices would bring forth a critical voice that is needed in academia to tackle its workings which are far from universal law.

Diverse Perspectives, a Shared Goal
Judith I. Haug, IRSSC PI, Research Field “Musicology”
Kamyar Nematollahy, IRSSC Post-Doc Fellow “Musicology”

The musicology section presented in the IRRSC closing conference contributions both on Iranian classical music, as the major urban musical culture, and local music of various regions in Iran, as minor musical traditions. The presentations were organized in the format of one opening presentation, one musicology panel with two speakers, and a closing presentation.

Addressing an issue relevant to all humanities scholars from the perspective of translation studies, the opening presentation given by Reza Hosseini Baghanam (independent scholar, Tabriz), entitled “The Role of Translated History Books in Nation-Building“, focused on various levels of manipulation of original Arabic, Turkish, English, and French texts on Iranian history in Persian (re-)translations and the ways these manipulations have changed the outcome. The talk dealt with scholarly translation and its various implications for research and society at large as well as with questions of source access or the influence of colonialism.

The panel “Recent Developments in Iranian Music Studies” included two papers on current topics from different areas of Iranian music studies, with the aim of demonstrating the range of issues being investigated by scholars both in Iran and abroad in the field today. The first presentation, by Mahsa Pakravan (University of Alberta), was entitled “Soundscape and Sonic Memory: Dynamics of Jewish and Muslim Day-To-Day Social Interactions in Udlajan, Tehran”. Drawing a sonic map of Udlajan, a neighborhood of Tehran, this paper illustrated how the Jewish residents, despite aspects of their everyday lives being circumscribed, are not mute and powerless but exercise agency in appropriating, negotiating, and using public space. In an innovative “sensory studies” approach, Mahsa Pakravan created an interactive map in which buildings and places in the neighborhood can be clicked, revealing photographs and sound files. In the second presentation, “Eight Decades of Popular Music in Iran”, Maryam Gharasou of the University of Tehran discussed the collision of three main styles of music in Iran (classical, folk, and popular), taking into account the effect of propaganda and the support in society for popular music as well as the decreasing importance of ethnic music and even classical urban fields. She argued for the necessity of increasing research activities on the diversity of folk music traditions of Iran and appealed for more support for classical music.

Kamyar Nematollahy’s (IRSSC and University of Cologne) paper “Musicological Contributions to the IRSSC Project Since 2019” served as a closing report of the project, giving an overview over the musicological work done in IRSSC, evaluating research methods, contents, and outcomes, adding recommendations and a perspective for future research in Iran and cooperation with Iranian colleagues and institutions.

Since 2019, music research in the framework of IRSSC has contributed to the study of practical, theoretical, pedagogical, and social aspects of Iranian music as well as the relationship between Iranian music and online social media. The above-mentioned presentation titles reveal that this variety in subjects has been represented in the musicology presentations in the closing conference as well. Moreover, in this conference, we expanded the study scope from merely Iranian classical music to other genres such as popular and local music.

A key point in organizing this conference was that the speakers of the musicology section have been selected from various academic institutions, from different continents – Asia, Europe, and North America. This organizational approach not only resulted in the inclusion of diverse perspectives in Iranian music discussions but also contributed to the central aim of the IRSSC to establish sustainable scholarly networks with Iran. The questions and answers and exchange of ideas between these musicology scholars as well as the input of other experts from other humanities disciplines during the lively discussions enriched the sessions even more. This conference showed that organizing and holding such conferences regularly – also online – would potentially smoothen the way for effective and sustainable connections between Iranian and non-Iranian scholars of various disciplines in general and musicologists specifically.

Archaeologies of Turco-Persianate Ruins and Ruination – Salvaging Pasts, Connecting Presents, Unearthing Futures
Katja Rieck, IRSSC Project Lead, Head of Research Focus Iran

The conference’s final panel was conceptualized by Katja Rieck and Shahrzad Irannejad with Christoph K. Neumann (Ludwigs-Maximilian University Munich) acting as discussant. Taking inspiration from the scholar of imperialism Ann Laura Stoler’s analytical concepts of ruins and ruination, this session explored whether those concepts could reorder our attention to how historical formations connecting Iran to the territory spanning from the Balkans across Anatolia in the west to South Asia in the east persist and how they are refigured throughout time. These connections were marked by networks of exchanges that have affected language, religion, art, science, and politics. Even today, these areas continue to be variously intertwined, although the form and content of the linkages have in many respects changed. And yet, the establishment of academic disciplines that distinguish between “Middle Eastern” and “South Asian” or between Turkish and Iranian studies means that research has lost sight of such entanglements and interconnections. The panel thus set out to explore how the ruins of a Turco-Persianate historical formation are reappropriated and actively positioned in the politics of the present of how they persist as survivals of structures, sensibilities and things that people are left with as means to make claims on futures or as markers of a sense of irretrievability, of futures lost.

The first contribution, presented by Shahrzad Irannejad (Orient-Institut Istanbul), provided an overview of her IRSSC project “Bodies of Knowledge facing Epidemics: (Islamicate) Humoral Medicine vs. Prophetic Medicine”, which drew on both historical (philological) and contemporary (ethnographic/sociological) methods in an innovative way. Her work carefully analyzed how classical Arabic texts of Graeco-Arabic humoral medicine debated the concept of contagion, ultimately rejecting it on theological grounds and thus excluding it from the canonical encyclopedic works. The more recent revival/formation of Islamic/Prophetic and Persian traditional medicines (PM and PTM respectively) against the backdrop of critiques of modern (“Western”) medicine and a globalized movement for complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) has gone hand-in-hand with the historical “debris” of this impossibility of contagion as a concept in the Islamic/Prophetic and Persian medical knowledge traditions. Shahrzad Irannejad’s presentation closed by discussing how this epistemological “debris” in the Islamicate knowledge tradition has recently achieved new relevance in the context of COVID-19 pandemic as agents of knowledge are challenged once again to reconcile empirical observations of the phenomenon of contagion with the resistance of Graeco-Arabic humoral medical paradigms to the full integration of contagion into their conceptual framework.

The second contribution “The Qajar’s Mirrors for Princes Literature and Its Legacy on the Iranian Constitutional Revolution”, presented by Denis Hermann (IFEA / CNRS), shared new research being done on important, but still largely unstudied, original treatises written by ulama during the Qajar period that deal with the legitimacy of absolute monarchy. These treatises can be read as part of the long tradition of “mirrors for princes” written mainly in Persian, Arabic and Turkish that was rooted in a pre-Islamic Persianate literary tradition and further developed and disseminated throughout the Islamic world after the eighth century. The more recent texts written in the 19th century until around 1906 being studied by Denis Hermann are proving to be central to salvaging largely forgotten aspects of the history of political culture in the Iranian and Shi’i context as well as to shedding light on the history of political thought during the constitutional revolution, and even on constitutionalist thought itself.

The closing discussion showed that while concepts like debris and ruination can open spaces for thinking about historical and continued present-day interconnections, we still struggle with the boundaries of academic specialization and concomitant pre-defined objects of inquiry such as “Shiism” or the Iranian nation-state. Nonetheless, the panel did also encourage the imagination of new lines of inquiry, such as the continued relevance of the aktar (herbalist shops in the Islamicate medical tradition) to everyday healing practices in Turkey, Iran and other parts of the Islamicate world. Other comments pointed to the continued existence of “hybrid” religious practices, particularly in connection with shrines, with suggestive similarities spread across Anatolia, the Iranian Plateau into South Asia.

Final thoughts on fragility and sustainability in scholarship and scholarly collaboration

The conference closed with some final remarks on the COVID-19 pandemic situation, which had beleaguered the project during much of its duration. Echoing the interventions made by Setareh Fatehi in her performance-lecture, it reflected on the differential effects of online events on researchers at different career status levels and different stages in their life trajectories. While online events have been hailed as ways to make academic and other events more accessible to those with physical or bureaucratic/political mobility restrictions, they can generate other vulnerabilities in the research context, especially during phases when researchers or young scholars must find mentors, build new networks of scholarly contacts, or begin new research. As a recent study [
uploads/attachment_data/file/1054323/S1513_Viral_Evolution_Scenarios.pdf ] has suggested that COVID-19 related risks and restrictions may continue for another 2-10 years, face-to-face meetings and events will continue to entail risks. At the same time, in-person meetings must be made possible in some form, or a whole cohort of young researchers and post-docs will be forced to leave academia for lack of access to mentors, key contacts and research sites. Yet it was also pointed out that the individualization of fragility must be avoided – i.e., the tendency to avoid the issue by casting the problem as one faced by only certain individuals (those with health conditions, vulnerable family members, those engaged in certain kinds of research, those unfortunate enough to be at a precarious time in their careers etc.). The final plea was to avoid seeing the fragility of scholars and collaborative relationships as the result of situations specific to individuals but to confront it as a collective challenge to address institutional blind spots that leave researchers vulnerable. The sustainability of our research and research collaborations depends on this.

Citation: Haug, Judith I; Nematollahy, Kamyar; Rieck, Katja; Şahinol, Melike; Voswinckel Filiz, Esther, IRSSC Closing Conference, 10-12 February 2022 – Every Ending Is a New Beginning, Orient-Institut Istanbul Blog, 24 February 2022,

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Islamicate world; Iran, Turkey, India, Pakistan; 16th-21st century; research project; material religion; gender; masculinities; disability; pilgrimage; Iranian music; Persian medicine; mirrors for princes literature; ulema; OII-IRSSC


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