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Scientific sessions in 20th century Iran


In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, people in many parts of the world were adjusting to rapid scientific progress, trying to figure out how they reconciled with religious and moral systems. Iran was no different. As religious scholar Alireza Doostdar writes, one form this took was the adoption of “scientific” spiritualism – conducting experiments by talking with the dead, in a manner similar to its Anglo-American counterpart, spiritualism.

According to Doostdar, whether or not the Iranians who participated in these mind-seeking experiments consider themselves Muslims, their behavior fits well with many ideas and practices of the Persian Islamic tradition, which has long considered knowledge to be the key to moral perfection.

The man largely responsible for introducing spiritualism to Iran was Mirza Khalil Khan Saqafi, a physician, educator, diplomat and writer. Early in his life, he was also a committed Muslim who wrote a set of moral instructions for children that called on them to obey God and “great men of religion”. Khalil Khan traveled to Paris to continue his medical training in 1895. There he encountered the French spiritualist movement, whose followers attempted to communicate with the dead and explored other mysterious psychic phenomena. Like the Spiritualists, he viewed this as a scientific enterprise.

Khalil Kahn returned to Tehran in 1899, where he became personal physician to the country’s new monarch, Mozaffar al-Din Shah. In the elite military and bureaucratic circles he led there, there was great interest in Spiritualism, with many adopting its “scientifically proven” principles.

In the mid-1920s, Khalil Khan founded the Society of Experimental Spirit Science, which met weekly and included some of Iran’s top military leaders. Often these meetings included a seance in which Khalil Khan hypnotized a frail young woman, who transmitted moralizing communications from the spirits of the dead in the “fourth dimension”. On one occasion, those gathered heard of the spirit of accomplished Prime Minister Mirza Taqi Khan Amir Kabir, who explained that he was born 5,000 times before living a perfect life on Earth and moving on to an afterlife. comfortable death. On the other hand, the 14th century poet Hafez expressed remorse for his debauched and drunken life.

“According to Kalil Khan and other spiritualists”, reports Doostdar, “the moral principles derived from conversations with the souls of the dead amounted to positive knowledge as good as any other scientific fact”.

Khalil Khan and his colleagues hoped that systematic scientific inquiry would produce a universal moral system based not on the varied traditions of the world, but on objective facts. With his conversion to Spiritualism, Khalil Khan had abandoned all reference to Islamic tradition. Yet her views as a spiritualist were entirely consistent with the teachings of the religion.

“Spiritism enabled these intellectuals, like many of their fellow travelers in Europe and elsewhere, to base their religious cosmologies on what they saw as universal modern science,” Doostdar concludes.

Over time, Spiritist practices spread beyond the network of hired scientists into the mainstream. By the late 1960s, “spirit-summoning” was such a common activity that Muslim critics considered it an epidemic and set out to refute the idea that seances could enable communication with the dead.

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By: Alireza Doostdar

Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 58, no. 2 (April 2016), p. 322 to 349

Cambridge University Press