The formation of ‘modern spirituality’ in my country Iran, particularly among the youth and middle classes, has met with contradictory reactions. These modern or new forms of spirituality can be understood in the framework of ‘new religious movements’. They are also referred to as ‘cults’, ‘sects’, ‘replacement religions’, ‘pseudo-spirituality’, ‘modern spirituality’, ‘mysticism’ and so forth. The growth of a varied collection of new spirituality in Iran is born out of a combination of religious and social realities experienced in the last few decades and is therefore hard to attribute to one specific factor.
In reality, the birth and development of such phenomena were first experienced in the USA and Western Europe, then after the fall of the Soviet system in Eastern Europe and finally in countries such as Iran yet the question to answer has remained the same, ‘is the appearance of this phenomenon a logical consequence of modernity and the modernising process or is it a direct reaction to modernity?’ in the context of secularisation theories, ‘modern spirituality’ is assessed as humanising God or deifying humans; as such, religion or at least a form of religion cannot be eliminated from our modern world.
In Iran this phenomenon has manifested in various shapes or forms among the youth. In its organized form it is in contact with the public realm. In effect the ‘modern spirituality’ can be divided into two groups; one is the exactly in keeping with the western formula and the same has a branch in Iran like Transcendental Meditation (TM) or other branches such as Hare Krishna. Others work on a global level and have branches in Iran – their representatives are identifiable and known to many institutions and the security and disciplinary forces alike. They have official headquarters and charge hefty fees for their various types of self-awareness courses which they hold regularly. The first signs of such groups in Iran were witnessed around 1986/7 but reached its height in 1996. Since then they have expanded extensively and there is hardly any city without one of their headquarters.
Some of the principles and characteristics of this modern spirituality include: a combined mentality in a sense that they include selective measures of Shi’a Islam and rely heavily on characters especially on ‘Ali’ – the first Shi’a Imam; they are reliant on mystic figures and specifically on Rumi, the Persian mystic poet and philosopher; others are reliant on some eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism; they are institutionally structured; are hierarchal; have inner power structure; have detailed teachings and accepted rules of behaviour; have clear boundaries between members and non members; have layers in a sense that they recruit members and invest and deal with them according to their level of input and energy; sometimes one hundred per cent devotion is demanded and sometimes they classify members based on the level of their financial investment; some of the trends reject the idea of an absolute truth. Their types also differ according to social class but are predominantly of the middle and upper classes; some are exclusively made up of the youth but others include all ages; the founder or the beloved has a particular title and is mostly male but not exclusively so; interestingly, some pay particular attention to the mundane and daily life in contradiction to traditional mysticism; they are very modern in their approach in propagating their ideas and religious power is handled delicately; they are not exclusive and easy to join; unlike traditional religion one can be a member of several different groups therefore one can maintain an established religion while being a member; although they stress the importance of the individual they engage in group activity or in other words they breakdown the traditional barriers between the individual and the collective; they place a great deal of importance on mental and spiritual health.
Another feature which I would like to stress that applies to much of the ‘new religious movements’, ‘modern spirituality’ or even to religious ideology of the Iranian intellectual from 1961 onwards is that while they all reject ‘authority’, they readily accept it in these new forms. In other words they may object to the power of the father within the family or reject the clerical power as the official source of religion or stand up against the incumbent political power but in their created relationship they very clear obey a hierarchal authority which is never horizontal. Of course, this cannot be attributed to all modern spirituality but is true of most.
Why is it that we have witnessed the appearance of such phenomena in Iran since 1986? In my opinion, it firstly goes back to the modernisation of the society and one of its important factors, personal choice. This is not exclusive to the ‘new religious movements’ and can be witnessed in all new movements. Secondly, it is as a result of experiencing a fundamental crisis in our cultural values, of which a major part is religious. Certainly, its roots go further back than 1986, but it takes hold and spreads from then on. Thirdly, it is in the face of traditional institutionalised religion that is represented by the clergy which clearly lacks spirituality. Fourthly, it is a direct consequence of the crisis in political Islam and the religiousness of its ideology. In other words, as soon as religious ideology gained political power, the first generation of religious intellectuals were faced with a crisis of faith. Many who follow the ‘modern spirituality’ are followers of Dr Ali Shariati, the revolutionary religious sociologist. Many others are those who have turned their back on establishment religion. And finally, the attempts at the enforcement of religious morality by Islamic Republic’s political establishment was responsible for turning many towards new forms of spirituality.
The pathology of the movement identifies several points. The first point is the fact that modern spirituality is without the restrictions and austerity of traditional religion. The second crucial point is the weakness of religious epistemology. Another factor is the stress on disciple husbandry despite their claim and insistence on individuality and personal growth. Final point is lack of clarity in some of the organised groups. It is a case that the more organised they are the more closed they are and the more their financial affairs are shrouded in a cloud of secrecy – it may be that as a condition of joining, one may even have to assign one’s home and other belongings to the group.
In Iran today, more than ever before we are living in a society where we are faced with ‘supermarket religion’ syndrome – in the same way that we shop for food for our bodies, we now have the choice of shopping for spirituality off the shelf for our minds. This is how some choose to give meaning to their lives and search for their particular answers regardless of how right or wrong this may be.