The perfect place

Perfectionism in Iran

Simon Theobald

Society and culture | Central Asia

9 April 2019

What is a perfect place? Simon Theobald looks at the idea of perfectionism in modern Iran.

Mrs Hashemi was the matriarch of the Hashemi household, a septuagenarian mother of four, now with two grandchildren. She was a lifelong resident of Mashhad, Iran’s second biggest city on the border with Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, and the site of my fieldwork. Always somewhat hidden beneath her floral chador, she shuffled around the three-storey house the multigenerational family lived in, spending most of her time preparing food for the family or looking after grandchildren. Living beneath her and her family on the ground floor, my partner and I usually had little to do with them, but on this occasion, we had been invited upstairs to have lunch.

A typically Iranian affair, the collected generations – the four children and two spouses, Mr Hashemi, his brother, Mrs Hashemi – joined us on the floor around the sofreh, a tableclothlike spread, on which the food was placed. Having made our way through the main course of large meatballs in a thin soup, we sat backs against the wall picking lazily at the remains of salad, cheese, pickles and bread that always accompanied Iranian meals. Hamed, the eldest son nodded his head towards us and asked, “What do you think of Mashhad?”.

Hamed certainly was not the first person who had asked us this question. All too aware of negative media coverage in the West – coupled with a local perception that Iran was a ‘third-world country’, a term suffused with negative connotations – many of the people we had met during our 15 months in Iran were anxious to know our opinions, and eager to dispel what they understood as myths about the country.

“Everyone likes their own home best, for sure. But some places are better than other places. Iran is better than other countries, and Mashhad is better than other places in Iran. Mashhad is, well, like heaven.”

The questions “Why are you here?” or “How are you finding Iran?” were not then idle chitchat, but something more meaningful, queries suffused with a nervous apprehension. A tactful and gracious response was always necessary, but toeing the line between praise that was real and praise that was over-the-top, too effusive, was itself an art.

“We like it, it’s nice,” I responded, matter-of-factly, trying to avoid being brought into a discussion about the relative merits of the West or Iran.

“But where do you think is better?” Hamed urged on.

Uncomfortable offering such a comparison, I stumbled through some empty platitudes before Mina, the youngest daughter and friend of ours, stepped in.

“Everyone likes their own home best, it’s just how it is.”

Mrs Hashemi who had been silent for most of the afternoon, was suddenly animated, chiming in: “Everyone likes their own home best, for sure. But some places are better than other places. Iran is better than other countries, and Mashhad is better than other places in Iran. Mashhad is, well, like heaven.”

For all that Mrs Hashemi’s comments may seem like boastful interjection, I want to resist the temptation to read her comments as self-aggrandising, for two reasons. Firstly, because it does a disservice to what I think was her genuine incredulity that anyone could assume that Iran was anywhere other than the best place on earth. And secondly, because Mrs Hashemi’s statement was not altogether exceptional, but rather part of a broader social pattern that characterised life in Mashhad – a particular concern for things ideal and possible pathways to reach perfection, not as mere abstraction, but rather as a real effort broadly entered into.

Why the concern for perfection?

My aim in this piece is to unpack some of this concern for perfection, or more accurately, the concern for realising perfection in the here and now. Perfection (kāmel budan) in Mashhad was serious business, not just some abstract concept bandied about, but a meaningful ideology worth exploring, debating, and pursuing. My conversations with colleagues and friends during my fieldwork demonstrated a persistent curiosity about things that were understood to be perfect. These were refracted through a constellation of overlapping metaphors and terms like ‘best’, ‘complete’, and ‘ideal’. Shia Islam, the Arabic language, women’s hijab, human nature and human society were all examples of things that were perfect or perfectible. I turn now to unpack the historical roots of Iranian perfectionism.

Perfection, Islam and Iran

From its inception, Islamic theology offered a radically different understanding of human nature and the possibility of perfection. In the Christian world, Adam and Eve’s consumption of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, their fall from grace and their expulsion from Eden left an indelible mark on humanity, ensuring that humans could never obtain perfection, forever hampered by the error of their primal forefathers. In the Islamic narrative however, although Adam and Eve erred by taking the fruit, they repent and are forgiven by the divine. As such, there is no original sin that forever blights and makes unworthy the believer as it does in Christianity, instead leaving open at least the possibility of realising perfection in this life.

The early history of Islam, particularly the Prophetic period of Muhammad’s rule at the city of Medina, also provided a blue print or vision of what an ideal society might look like. As the early Muslim caliphs spread into the Greek-speaking regions of the Middle East, they encountered Platonic philosophy, and a generation of philosophers emerged who tried to blend Islamic theological principles with the Hellenic learning. The outcome was an intellectual flowering, with Iranian Muslim philosophers like Al-Farabi penning works such as Al-Medinat al-Fazileh, or On the Perfect State, Farabi’s own take on Plato’s The Republic.

The other keystone in the development of a distinctly Islamic concept of perfectionism comes with the emergence of Shi’ism as a tradition separate from the majority Sunni belief. Unlike their sectarian cousins, Shi’ites held that infallibility and perfection was present, not just embodied in the person of the Prophet, but also in his descendants. His daughter Fatemeh, his nephew Ali, and the 11 Imams (making 12 in total) who followed him, collectively constitute what Iranian Shi’ites refer to as the ‘Fourteen Infallibles’, those who acted totally in unison with God’s will, and who, while having the capacity to sin, never did so. It is hard to underestimate the degree of importance that the figures of the 12 Imams have in Iranian religious life. Their birthdays and commemorations of their martyrdoms are celebrated in an endless cycle throughout the year, and stories from their lives are taught in schools, held up as the supreme figures to emulate. My point here is that, perhaps more so than most countries, modern Iran is heir to multiple, overlapping traditions of perfectionist thought that, rather than existing in the realm of abstract philosophy, continue to meaningfully influence daily life and with it beliefs about the perfectibility of places, people and moments, in a multitude of ways.

From January 1978 to February 1979, millions of Iranians took to the streets demanding the overthrow of the Shah. Forcing the last Iranian monarch to finally take flight was a ‘critical conjuncture’ of leftist and Islamists.

The revolution as a critical juncture

From January 1978 to February 1979, millions of Iranians took to the streets demanding the overthrow of the Shah. Forcing the last Iranian monarch to finally take flight was a ‘critical conjuncture’ of leftist and Islamists. Certainly, their vision was not alike. Iranian communists like the Tudeh and its other leftist allies held to a classically Marxist vision of a classless society in which each was accorded to their needs. The Islamists, by comparison, began shaping the groundwork for Khomeini’s vision of the velayet-e faqih, or ‘Guardianship of the Jurist’, his idealised theocratic state. Yet both groups shared a teleological and progressivist view of history that ultimately saw the arc of the human story culminate in an ideal society. So, rather than reading the overthrow of the previous imperial government and its replacement with an Islamic theocracy as simply the creation of another government, such an attempt is better understood as an effort to replace a mundane system of government with one that was perfect. Rooted in the dual (and often duelling) visions of leftists and Islamists, the Revolution was a process that was meant to usher in a perfect moment. Even today – when criticism of the Islamic Republic both domestically and abroad is vibrant and many have taken to the streets demanding a radical change, if not a total end of the system – that Revolutionary sense, pregnant with meaning and potential, continues to remain and to shape, albeit in subtle ways, contemporary Iranian society.

What does perfection mean?

So how should we understand perfectionism in Iran? I do not think we should attempt to find linear linkages and one-to-one correlations between the utopian moment of the Revolution and contemporary life. That is, we should not expect to find all people in Iran saying their society is perfect (although, as the ethnographic vignette at the beginning of this piece suggests, there are those who do) or that Iran is a utopian place. Rather, it is instead more useful to think about how this idea is refracted through society in various ways, existing as a ‘current in the social’, influencing ideas and behaviours in subtle ways.

In this way, I do not want to define a clear-cut utopian vision. Rather, I argue that it is better to think about perfection in Iran as a convergence of meanings and concerns that weigh heavily on the social lives of my interlocutors. In this sense, perhaps it is best to think of this as informing a kind of commitment to and concern for being visionary – the belief that perfection, rather than being outside the realm of the possible or an abstraction, is in fact tangible and achievable, and that even the mundane ought to be suffused with questions of the ideal, the exceptional, and of ultimate concern.

This is a piece from paradigm_shift: Perfection, a collection of essays from the ANU College of Asia & the Pacific on the concept of perfection, and how it shapes lives and ideas in Asia and the Pacific. You can read the essays for free here.

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