The Scowling “Shari’a”:
Muslim Views on Prayer

Niloofar Haeri

Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash.

Do Muslims pray even when they are not required to by “shari’a”? Or is being a Muslim a matter of performing exclusively compulsory religious acts, punctually and “to a T,” lest one get punished by the dreaded, bearded, and scowling “shari’a”?1Because the word “shari’a” is hardly used in Iran to refer to Islamic law, and because of its variety of meanings for non-Muslims in particular, I have put the term in quotation marks throughout the article. Instead, Iranians use the word “fiqh” when referring to Islamic Jurisprudence or they use qanuun-e eslami, Islamic law. The translation of “fiqh” in Western scholarship as merely “jurisprudence” is inaccurate, however, as “fiqh” covers a wider domain of knowledge and can mean “science” as well. For reasons that we need not review here, outside of Muslim countries, we read and hear almost exclusively about a kind of Islam that can be summed up by what “shari’a” commands Muslims to do, so many times a day, just so, over a lifetime. In the United States, so much has been made of “shari’a” that some states have come up with bans on a potential establishment of “shari’a” laws.

Perhaps one of the best ways to illustrate what this approach misses is to examine debates among Muslims themselves on questions of the relative worth of religious acts with regard to legal validity. Questions such as: How should one assess the performance of a ritual that meets the requirements of legal validity, but lacks sincerity — often referred to as “presence of the heart”? What if one’s piety is too visible and ostentatious, being performed “in front of the eyes of people,” as they say in Iran? And if the performance of religious acts do not bring about the ethical behavior that they are to mediate, should they still be considered legally valid? I will compare two kinds of prayer, one that, according to Islamic law is obligatory, vajeb, and another that is not. This latter prayer is legally in the category of acts that are mostahabb, meaning that their performance would make the believer “favored” in the eyes of God, but not undertaking such acts has no sanctions. 

Between 2008 and 2016, I carried out fieldwork in Tehran with a group of middle-class educated Muslim women, most of whom were born in the 1940s. The majority had taught in public high schools, and by the time I met them, they were retired. In 2008, I chanced upon conversations on ritual prayer, not among the usual suspects such as male clerics or highly educated elites, but among people who have historically not been offered seats at tables of theological debate. The more I listened to these conversations, the more intrigued I became, both because they were intellectually quite interesting and because I was listening to debates with actual high stakes — stakes having to do with how women and men were to dress in public; about praying or not praying in prayer rooms that the state came to impose on public institutions; about whether a prayer without sincerity has much worth, even if from the point of view of religious law it is a valid prayer; and whether piety resides in the invisible heart or in the visible performance of religious acts in mosques and out in public. I had not expected to run into theological debates in the public sphere on such a massive scale and among non-clerics. 

Haeri, Niloofar. 2020. Say What Your Longing Heart Desires: Women, Prayer & Poetry in Iran. Stanford University Press.

The revolution of 1979 ended the monarchy of the Pahlavi regime and forced the Shah out of Iran. An Islamic Republic was established after a controversial referendum that was carried out in March 1979, and before Iranians could catch their breaths and scratch their heads about the implications of such momentous changes in their society, Saddam Hussein attacked Iran in September 1980 and the Iran-Iraq war began. This was a mutually devastating, 8-year war, and we will never know what trajectory the revolution would have taken had the war not started so quickly after the revolution. After the war, as daily life recovered some stability, Iranian society turned toward itself, initiating a renewed interest in the country’s cultures, history, religion, literature, and music. For that reason, and as public places of entertainment got increasingly curtailed, a whole slew of informal educational classes were formed, in people’s homes and in neighborhood cultural centers. 

Print media, television, radio, websites, and conversations at social gatherings all debated what constituted true Islam; who was a true Muslim; what kind of Islam should Iranians strive for; and what the ethics were of being a Muslim. The question of Islam moved into the public sphere because, after the revolution, Iranians ended up with an Islamic republic that wanted to tell people — and often coercively so — the correct way to be a Muslim, from what one wore, to what one drank, to how prayers were to be performed.

In the last few decades, we have been reading and hearing from those in the media, as well as in academia, that the revolution in Iran was an utter failure; that it took Iranian society “backward” instead of forward toward enlightenment and progress. It is not that some of these kinds of characterizations are false. Rather, it is that they prevent us from discovering changes set in motion that are crucial to understanding contemporary Iran. Avoiding this either/or approach opens the door to discovering unexpected developments.

What the revolution brought forth — along with increases in literacy, availability of sources, and informal classes — was the entrance of non-elite people, the laity historically called the awam (as opposed to the xawass) into the debate about true Islam. In fact, the revolution helped blur this boundary between the elite and non-elites and greatly decreased its historical starkness. Among the many questions being debated was one that continues to receive endless attention: What is the status of any religious act if it is not done with sincerity and with “presence of the heart”? What good is it to pray and fast if one then goes on to lie and cheat, as can be seen in the behavior of some officials? 

These questions are not new. They have been with Muslims (of different denominations) for centuries. But the revolution greatly raised the stakes of what particular answers the state and various groups of citizens would give to such questions. The many impositions of state institutions could have resulted in an entirely polarized population: pro-regime and anti-regime, pro-Islam and anti-Islam, and so on. But instead, across class and gender lines, diverse groups of people began to engage with one another by going to informal classes, exchanging with others, and finding ways of forming their own ideas of who is a true Muslim. They did not cede the grounds of religion to the state. Instead, the question became an existential one as the republic set out to produce homo islamicus — a visibly pious citizenry that accepts the state’s version of Islam. Perhaps the reflexive turn and the coercive response of the state came to be in some ways two sides of the same coin. Of course, there was also disengagement and outright rejection, and I do not mean to imply that everyone participated in the same kinds of exploring and searching. But many did and continue to do so.

One might well ask with what conceptual and terminological resources did the laity, the awam, engage in these debates? One of these resources, which I describe in my recent book Say What Your Longing Heart Desires: Women, Prayer & Poetry in Iran at some length, is the vast body of mystic writing in Iran. Usually, people become familiar with mysticism or erfan as it is called in Iran through poetry and songs. While they might also read various philosophers and theologians, it is mostly through the hearing, reciting, and learning of poems where Iranians learn concepts and vocabulary with which to construct arguments about the nature of true piety. The poetry is also taught at various levels of education in secondary school and later on. Textbooks for Persian literature from about 1959 — when my interlocutors in this study were in high school — to the 2000s are full of poems, including those of Rumi and Hafez. I suggest that mystic poetry has been a companion to the world of prayer in the cultural history of Iran for centuries, and that the relationship exists also in the lives of many Iranians, including the women that I worked with. Classical poetry is viewed as a source of inexhaustible wisdom and knowledge that remains accessible to various degrees to non-specialists. The major poets of this tradition are alive and present — hayy o hazer, as I was told repeatedly by my interlocutors. 

Namaz: Ritual, Obligatory Prayer 

Earlier, I mentioned hearing conversations that focused my attention on debates about Islam. One of the most frequent debates had to do with the ritual prayer namaz (salat in Arabic). These are prayers that believing Muslims must perform five times a day, at dawn, noon, afternoon, evening, and night. Shi’a Muslims generally perform noon and afternoon at the same time and do the same with the evening and night prayers, hence three prayer times as opposed to five. As was mentioned earlier, namaz is vajeb — it is compulsory — and for that very reason, it is a frequent subject of conversation. I heard women talking about how they are “not satisfied” with their namaz. Or, at times, that some particular session of namaz had gone well. 

These characterizations of namaz puzzled me. How could a ritual prayer go well or badly? A ritual is a scripted act. The performer is not the author; she is told what to say and do, and that’s about it. And also, what is a ritual when performed alone? What is it like when, to borrow from Virginia Woolf, it is performed in “a room of one’s own?”

Namaz begins with this sura, or chapter, of the Qur’an:

Al-Fatiha (The Opening)

In the name of God
the Compassionate the Caring
Praise be to God
lord sustainer of the worlds
the Compassionate the Caring
master of the day of reckoning

To you we turn to worship
and to you we turn in time of need
Guide us along the road straight
the road of those to whom you are giving
not those with anger upon them
not those who have lost their way

Translated by Michael Sells, Approaching the Quran (2007:42).

After the Opening that starts each prayer, other similarly short suras follow, though only the Opening is required, and various suras can be chosen by the reciter. One of the main reasons women gave for not being satisfied with their namaz had to do with their inability to concentrate due to conditions that distracted them. Sometimes the distractions lasted only briefly, but other times, they became sources of estrangement from God. On the other hand, what characterized a good namaz was the ability to concentrate, communicate to God what was on their mind, and feel a connection. 

And yet, the clerics that I interviewed, as well as others whose websites discuss such matters, do not agree that “presence of the heart” or feeling connected to the divine is necessary for a namaz to be “legally valid.” As long as one correctly utters the intention formula and recites the suras, that prayer is valid. One ayatollah who has both a seminary education and a doctorate from a European university told me that ordinary people, the awam, should just get this prayer done — that’s it. It is what he called isqat-e taklif, or “getting the obligation done,” saying: “There is no need for them to feel a connection in order for the prayer to be acceptable and legally valid.” 

The women that I discussed such matters with over several years strongly disagreed. One of them, a retired chemistry teacher in her early seventies, said:

“I do not think that I am obliged to pray [muqayyad nistam] in the morning, noon and night and to be frank it has been years that I no longer have this belief [bāvar] because in general I feel that it is me who has the need to pray, it is not the great God [khoday-e bozorg] that has any need for my praying. I like very much to begin my day, whenever I wake up, 8 or 5 in the morning, to say bi-ism allah al-rahman al-rahim and do my namaz.”

She then quoted a line from Rumi’s story of Moses and Shepherd:

“Do not search for manners and rules
Say What Your Longing Heart Desires.”

The line is used to this day to convey that what is important is the heart and not the formalities of the act. 

Another woman, a housewife in her fifties, said:

“You go forward with namaz, I go through some periods when I don’t do namaz. But then I miss it and I go back to it. It does not stay one thing, its meanings little by little become deeper and find a place in our hearts. It helps us to become better persons; I mean it should do that.”

As these remarks demonstrate, “shari’a” does not seem to be a major concernwith regard to this prayer. Even when believers are “shari’a-minded,” prayers, recitations, and other acts come to be appropriated gradually and in different ways by individuals with distinct life conditions and social backgrounds. In my interview in the summer of 2015 with Mohammad Mujtahed Shabestari (b. 1936), one of the best-known, prolific, and original thinkers among contemporary Muslim “religious intellectuals,” as they are called in Iran, Shabestari said:

After the revolution, there was a lot of boghz [pent up anger, grudge, rancor] but religious ideas came to be hotly debated. The time has passed when they would bring some [authority] and he would say this is the way things are and that would be it. The heart of our society has many diverse ideas, even in sunnati [traditional] groups. [People] say, “Well, such and such ayatollah has said what he has said but that does not necessarily mean anything.”

Do’a: Non-Ritual Prayer

Do’a is another kind of prayer, one that is voluntary , having no fixed form. A spontaneous conversation with God, the prayer is in Persian. It can be done anywhere, anytime, and not performing this kind of prayer carries no religiously defined sanctions. In legal terms, it is not vajeb but mostahabb. However, I never encountered a believer who said that for that reason, they don’t do do’a. In fact, many talk to God every day, often several times a day. A major occasion for do’a follows right after namaz, when believers are sitting on their prayer rugs and begin talking to God. I asked my interlocutors to describe their do’a and whether there are some do’a sessions that have turned out to be somehow or other unforgettable. Curiously, many of the examples they gave were of times when their relationship with God had become strained, or had even seen a complete rupture. I summarize the reply of one of my interlocutors:

“My husband was at the hospital and I had lost my job. It was a really vulnerable moment in my relationship with God. I was feeling so terrible on that day. I was walking down the street and I suddenly saw a mosque. I decided to go inside but it was locked. So I started banging on the door. Eventually the caretaker came out and said, “khanum [Madam], what is going on, what do you want?” I said, “Open the door of the mosque, I want to go in. A mosque is the house of God, you have no right to close its doors.” So he opened the door and I went into the shabestan [prayer hall]. He let me be alone. I started shouting and crying: “God, what is going on? What are you making me go through? Please help me, I need help, I am pleading with you.” I think in that moment, I really had lost my mind, I was not in control and was ranting.”

How is it that God can be addressed in such intimate terms? One of the verses of the Qur’an that is explicitly taught to Muslims since childhood and repeatedly quoted is that God is not born nor has He2In Persian, the pronoun for third person singular has no gender. In translation, I am obliged to choose the masculine pronoun for God as is customary. given birth (112: 4). He is a completely different being to humans. Were it the case that she thought of Him across that utter ontological divide, would she have talked in that way? What I found is that in do’a, God is addressed as being close and within earshot of one’s emotions, including anger. I argue that this in part is a result of how God has been talked about, addressed, and conceptualized in mystic poems where he is referred to as “the beloved.” And, being the beloved, he can be asked to explain himself. A second interesting aspect of do’a is that it often exceeds existing theological categories. The content cannot be easily characterized as, say, gratitude, praise, or petitionary. Instead, do’a meanders and becomes unpredictable, even to the reciter. Of course, people can and do talk to God with certain aims in mind, but often — especially when they become adept at addressing Him — the conversation goes in unexpected directions difficult to name and maybe even to tame. 

Are these questions and ways of relating to God and to religious acts due to a kind of soul-searching prompted by the revolution of 1979? Yes and no. Muslims have been debating these kinds of questions for centuries, but the revolution greatly increased their relevance because of the formation of a government that identified as Islamic. There are countless lines of poetry on prayer in Persian classical poetry. Here are three examples from different centuries on sincerity, legal validity, piety and ostentation:

What God accepts from you are love’s transports
But prayers said by rote He won’t admit.

(Rudaki d. 941)

It is the key to the gate of hell that namaz 
That you perform in front of others.

(Saadi 1de. 1273)

Is the prayer of the drunken,
tell me, is this prayer valid?
For he does not know the timing
and is not aware of places.
Did I pray for two full cycles?
or is this perhaps the eighth one?
And which Sura did I utter?
for I have no tongue to speak it.

(Rumi d. 1291)
Translated by Annemarie Schimmel, I am Wind You are Fire. 1992


It is clear from this brief discussion that the importance of “shari’a” has been overblown, making it appear equally relevant for all times and all places without delving into intra-Muslim debates that, again, are centuries old. And further, this unfounded stress on “shari’a” makes Muslims appear to be unidimensional worshippers who merely think about what is obligatory, what is not, and what “shari’a” says about how they ought to worship God. The late scholar of Islam, Shahab Ahmed, refers to this approach to Islam as “legal-supremacist,” where legal considerations entirely take over one’s analysis. This approach is ahistorical and lacks empirical bases. Religious acts constitute material that believers work with, shape, interact with, and eventually make their own. Prayers, recitations, and other acts are not inert, and they don’t remain intact upon being performed by believers. The specific ways in which “shari’a” enters ideas and practices about religious acts should be shown in their historical, cultural, social, political, and individual contexts rather than taken for granted. ♦

Niloofar Haeri is professor of Anthropology and Program Chair in Islamic Studies at Johns Hopkins University. She is a Guggenheim Fellow. You can learn more about here work on her personal website:

Recommended Citation

Haeri, Niloofar. “The Scowling ‘Shari’a’: Muslim Views on Prayer.” Canopy Forum, March 23, 2021.