The Making of a New Religious Movement in Iran: the Case of "Inter-Universal Mysticism” (‘Irfan-i Kayhani)

As a theocracy, the guardians of Shi’ite orthodoxy in Iran have been quite diligent in making sure that organized deviance from the state sanctioned religious norms is not tolerated. Sunni Muslims, Bahais, Sufis, and other religious minorities are often subjects of persecution and discrimination. At the same time, a deep sense of discontent with the state religion has been growing among middle/upper class Iranians have created an urge to read Shi’ism, Islam, and religion in general in a new way. Disenchanted with what they perceive as a disastrous and failed mix of politics and religion shoved down their throats for decades, many have started looking for alternative frameworks of religiosity and spirituality. The purpose of this paper is to introduce and offer a preliminary analysis of one such alternative.
As an indigenous Iranian New Religious Movement (NRM), the School of Inter-Universal Mysticism (IM) was founded by Muhammad-Ali Taheri (1956 – present) purportedly around the same year that the revolution happened but the movement only grew in popularity and became a socially visible actor in the 2000s. This, until its founder was prisoned, tried, and found guilty of “insulting Islamic sanctities.” IM continues to grow underground in spite of state hostility. For the purposes of this study, I will focus on two tasks: First, I will offer a brief account of IM’s theology from a comparative perspective, parsing out various traditions – the Shi’ite-Islamic, the rational-scientific, the Sufi-New Age – that have been brought together in an innovative blend to construct a syncretistic religious worldview. Second, I will focus on some central tenets of this worldview and try to offer an analysis of the reasons behind their appeal to constituents with a particular profile (in terms of class, education, and gender) among Iranians in the political, cultural, and social context of life in the Islamic Republic. I will end with some remarks about the potential implications of the study of this movement for broader debates in the study of NRMS.