Reuters reports that “specialists” in prayer writing and ritual are doing a booming business in Iran. The whole business — or commodification of prayer — reminds one of the prayer and dispensation trade that existed in the Catholic Church for hundreds of years, and which so incensed Martin Luther:
In Islamic Iran where clerics rule, unofficial “prayer sellers,” who promise to intercede with the divine to solve all manner of life’s problems, are seeing their business boom.
Backstreet spiritual guides like YaAli are tolerated by the authorities and increasingly sought after by Iranians seeking help from on high.
“People from all walks of life — mostly young women — come here asking for prayers that can solve their problems,” says YaAli sitting on a chair in a crumbly old alley in Tehran.
Stroking his white beard, YaAli — a nickname he has been given by his customers — explains how each prayer must be used in its own specific way.
“There are lots of methods depending on the problems. Some prayers (written on a piece of paper) should be burned and some should be put in a bowl of water. You should follow the instructions.”
In a stark demonstration of the conceptual confusion that surrounds this trade, the article further notes:
Iran’s clerics also believe in the power of prayer but they advise people against using prayers that lack a religious basis. Magic and superstition are both illegal under Islamic law.
“Writing prayers quoting Shia’s immaculate Imams and receiving money for that has no legal obstacle,” said Grand Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpaygani when asked about the religious legitimacy of the prayer sellers.
“But referring to prayers written by hustlers without reliable sources is not permitted, and getting money for those kinds of prayers is (religiously) forbidden,” he told news website hawzah.net.
Magic and superstition are both illegal under Islamic law? At step one, this should mean that prayers are illegal. It is always interesting to note how groups define their particular practices as “religious,” whereas the same practices by others of different faiths constitute “magic and superstition.” This is a distinction without a difference. At step two, prayer selling raises doctrinal issues of legitimacy. This has long constituted the primary source of conflict — and endless debate — among peoples of the books.
Somewhere Stanley Fish is smiling. It would be nice to see him apply his interpretive theory to the thorny issue of legitimate and illegitimate prayers. The essay might be called: “Is There a Prayer in this Mosque?”