The Language of Prayer

By Jack Stedman

What are we doing when we pray? So asks Niloofar Haeri ’77 in her latest book, Say What Your Longing Heart Desires: Women, Prayer & Poetry in Iran, in which she probes what it means to be religious, especially in the context of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and what that has done for a nation and its people.

The book delves into the lives of educated, middle-class women in Iran, who opened their homes to Niloofar to talk about their experiences with prayer and poetry throughout their days and lives. In the book, she explores the language of prayer through the mysticism of poets like Rumi, Hafiz, and Saadi; the use of Persian versus Arabic; and individuals’ intimate conversations with God.

For Niloofar, now a Professor of Anthropology and Program Chair for Islamic Studies at Johns Hopkins, this idea of language and how it informs what we do and who we are has long been at the center of her life.

“Tomorrow Will Be a Better Day:” Coming to Commonwealth and Learning New Languages

Niloofar came to Commonwealth from Iran at sixteen after learning about the school from her older sister, Shahla Haeri, who is now a professor at Boston University. Shahla’s then boyfriend and now husband, Rusty Crump, was a beloved art teacher at Commonwealth who recently retired. 

Niloofar was surprised and relieved that Charles Merrill—the founder of the school and Headmaster at the time—took a chance on her without knowing very much about her. At first, she struggled a bit as a non-native English speaker. She fondly remembers a moment in Mr. Merrill’s Bible class. Speaking about Job, he said, “As we all know, tomorrow will be a better day.” Niloofar, reticent but having been encouraged to speak up in class, responded earnestly, “But how do you know tomorrow will be a better day?” The class erupted in laughter, as she thought Mr. Merrill was stating a fact, not realizing it was just a colloquialism. It soon became a running joke. 

The miscues did not continue for long. Natural intellect and the support of many teachers and mentors at Commonwealth allowed Niloofar to quickly thrive. English teacher Eric Davis, for one, would meet with her and other students who were still learning English outside of class to work through texts, turning Niloofar’s questions and confusion about a book into wonder and insight. French teacher Jacqueline Martin, seeing Niloofar’s affinity for language, encouraged her to explore linguistics. Having Diane Chomsky ’77, daughter of the famed linguist Noam Chomsky, as her classmate kept the topic top of mind as well. 

Languages, it turned out, was Niloofar’s speciality. She pursued this course of study (though not Chomskyan linguistics) through a liberal arts education at the University of Pennsylvania, and it stuck. She stayed at UPenn for her Ph.D. and wrote a dissertation on gender and language, traveling to Egypt and learning Egyptian Arabic in the process. She accepted a job in the Anthropology Department at Johns Hopkins University in 1990, one year before finishing her dissertation. 

Her second book explored what it means to use Classical Arabic—widely viewed as sacred because it is the language of the Qur’an—for secular purposes, such as in mass education. Some of the questions unearthed during her research for that book lingered, reappearing in Say What Your Longing Heart Desires: What is special about poetry and prayer? What does their historical dialogue mean for what counts as “secular” and “religious” in Iran? And does that influence extend outside of the country?

“Deep-Hanging Out:” Field Work in the Homes of Iranian Women

While in Iran doing preliminary research on a potential project on modesty and the veil, Niloofar had a serendipitous conversation about praying and immediately started pursuing this thread of how individuals pray and what religion looks like. (She hopes, one day, to get back into the boxes of research from the modesty project, still taking up space in her office.)

For her field work on this latest venture, Niloofar practiced “Deep Hanging Out,” a term coined by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz. She would go into the homes of these Iranian women—educated, middle-class, born in the 1940s—and sit all day. This intimate and casual environment brought forth many conversations on what we do when we pray and what it means to be religious. (She was surprised to learn that at times spontaneous prayer for these women meant shouting at God and asking Him to account for His actions.)

“Women born in the 1940s became teachers, headmistresses, scientists and so on. They became economically independent unlike their mothers, so this generation has played a very important role in Iranian society,” Niloofar said. “It needs to be repeated that society does change as a result of what women do.”

Focusing on these women was both pragmatic and symbolic: Pragmatic in that Niloofar could sit for hours in their homes, something that she could not do socially with men she did not know. Symbolic because spotlighting the unexplored experiences of women has been a theme throughout Niloofar’s work. In her dissertation on language and gender in Egypt, Niloofar sought to answer the question of who leads language change: men or women. She found it to be women. 

Through her research, Niloofar disproves assumptions that her interlocutors were just sitting in their private corners of their homes practicing private religion. “Actually, these women participated quite fully in the wider debates and the questions that were on the table everywhere. You could hear the same questions debated on radio, television, in newspapers, on websites,” she said. “That really attracted me because I thought that this is a way of trying to understand this contemporary moment in Iranian society through what these women do.”  

Niloofar also studies mysticism and the role of poets like Rumi and Hafiz, whose writings about false piety, lack of sincerity, hypocrisy, and outward displays of religion have influenced Islamic discourse for centuries. The cultural clout of poetry in Iran, she highlights, is equivalent to the importance of film in America.

“Poetry teaches you how to be in this world. It talks about everything.”

Take, for example, Rumi’s poem “Moses and the Shepherd.” As it goes, Moses finds a shepherd praying to God. Moses scolds the shepherd for talking casually and informally to God as if He was his uncle. God, upset with Moses’s policing of prayer, sends a revelation, asking why Moses has separated Him from His own. (It’s worth noting here that in the Persian language, God is not gendered.) 

Niloofar introduces this story in the early pages of her book to show how religion is approached and the issues that have been debated through poetry and elsewhere. On a broader scale, pro-regime clerics in Iran dislike this message from God to Moses, because they want to interfere in people’s personal prayer and tell them how to be Islamic. Such are the stakes of prayer in Iran since the overthrowing of the Shah during the Islamic Revolution. 

“Bible as Bible, Bible as History:” How We Study Religion

Niloofar brought this discussion of religion, and all its personal and societal ramifications, back to Commonwealth as an assembly speaker this past spring. Many of the students present had the benefit of taking Modern Islamic Societies, a course taught by history teacher Barbara Grant, giving them familiarity with many issues about which Niloofar writes. This course wasn’t around when Niloofar was a student at Commonwealth, but she did take a course that exists to this day and remains a favorite among current students and alumni/ae of all eras: “Bible.” 

Formally known as “Bible as History, Bible as Bible,” the long-standing history elective was first  taught by Charles Merrill (who was Niloofar’s teacher) and asks students to use their skills as a reader of primary documents to uncover the competing social and religious concerns revealed by a complex text whose date of completion is in question.

“I had rarely seen religion taught in that way. The kind of classes on religion we had to take in Iran were the most boring classes in the world,” Niloofar said. “Charles Merrill taught it really well.” (History teacher Melissa Glenn Haber ’87, who teaches the elective now, refers to the Bible as one of the “great human epics,” whose stories can “punch us in the gut.”)

The name of the course aptly conveys its goal: to allow students to study the Bible as both a religious text and an historical document. It brings together the personal and the societal—practicing religion and prayer in your own way and the religious impact on politics and society past and present, whether in Iran or the United States. Niloofar sees this as a crucial endeavor.

“What was really eye opening for me is that you can take a religious text and open it up in ways that allow everyone to participate. People can talk about how they understand the text, how it is potentially relevant to our times and to their own private lives,” Niloofar said. “That was a very important experience for me. You don't have to hear only from clerics about religion; you can hear from someone who can make you think about it and make you ask questions in ways that you are not used to.”

Even in an increasingly secular U.S. society, Niloofar thinks Commonwealth’s “Bible” course is still relevant. Religion, she posits, is often our first foray into intellectual thinking. From a young age, we may hear about God and begin to ask all these big “why” and “how” questions about life. Don’t dismiss religion, she urges—though it can be tempting to do so in a modern world.

“What does it mean to be religious? You don't know that until you get to know people who are religious, right? There really isn't so much superiority in terms of intellectual endeavors between those who are religious and those who are atheists. Many religious people think in very philosophical and intellectual ways.” 

To find those philosophical, religious, and political arguments woven together, one only has to wonder what we are doing when we pray, and then dive into Niloofar’s latest book. 

Jack Stedman is the Communications Assistant at Commonwealth School.

This feature appears in the Summer 2021 issue of Commonwealth Magazine.