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Inner Truth and Outer History: The Two Worlds of the Ahl-i Haqq of Kurdistan

  • Ziba Mir-Hosseini (a1)

A principal belief of the Ahl-i Haqq, an esoteric sect centered in Iranian Kurdistan, is that the Divine Essence has successive manifestations in human form. The Ahl-i Haqq religious universe comprises two distinct yet interrelated worlds: the inner world (ʿālam-i bāṭin) and the outer world (ʿālam -i ẓāhir), each with its own order and its own rules. We as ordinary human beings are aware of the order of the outer world, but our life is governed by the rules of the inner world, where our ultimate destiny lies.

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Author's note: I thank the Economic and Social Research Council and the British Academy for grants in support of the field research during 1992 upon which this article is based. An earlier version of the paper was presented in a seminar at the London School of Economics; I am grateful to Maurice Bloch and others for their comments. The anonymous reviewers for IJMES and David McDowall also made helpful suggestions. Above all, I am indebted to Richard Tapper for his support and comments on various drafts of the article.

1 Although ʿAli is not the major character in the Ahl-i Haqq religious schema, his veneration is the main criterion for including them among the Shiʿi extremist sects. Present-day Ahl-i Haqq are indeed sensitive about being known as “Ali-Ilahi,” which implies a belief in the divinity of ʿAli, and is the name by which they were (and still are) referred to by their Shiʿi or Sunni neighbors. Another name for the Ahl-i Haqq is Yarsan, “the land of yār” (lit., friend, but in the sect's terminology it denotes Ultimate Truth). They also refer to their religion as din-i yāri (religion of yār).

2 “Ahl-i Haqq” is generally used by Sufis to refer to themselves, and here haqq has a wider implication than “truth,” as it denotes God in His attribute of Ultimate Truth. It appears that the term was also used by Persian Nizari Ismaʿilis; see Ivanow, W., The Truth-Worshippers of Kurdistan, Ahl-i Haqq Texts (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1953), 1.

3 A very recent instance of this occurred in spring 1992; in a national television program, a popular religious character condemned the Ahl-i Haqq dogmas and invited their youth to rise against their fathers’ archaic beliefs and become true Muslims. The episode caused a great uproar and much dismay within the sect.

4 This is certainly an exaggeration, but it is important to note that there are large pockets of Ahl-i Haqq populations in many parts of Iran, in both urban and rural zones. Their principal locations, apart from Kermanshah, are in Luristan, Azarbayjan, Shiraz, Tehran, Qazvin, and Mazandaran.

5 See Minorsky, V., “Ahli-Hakk,” Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd ed. (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1960), 1:9.

6 For instance, see Mazzoui, M. M., The Origins of the Safawids: Shʿism, Sufism and the Culat (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1972).

7 One reason for this can be the very marginality and isolation of the Ahl-i Haqq communities, although the inward focus of the sect must have played a role here, as will become clear later in this article.

8 Although there is no accurate information, it seems that this happened in the 18th century. The oldest manuscript known is the one found by Minorsky, dated 1843. Since then, other kalām have found their way into the hands of outsiders. Among them, two are prominent: Ivanow, W., a Russian scholar who in 1953 edited and published a number of Ahl-i Haqq texts under the auspices of the Ismaili Society; and Mokri, M., an Iranian scholar of Kurdish, but not Ahl-i Haqq, origin, who acquired some collections of kalām in the 1940s, many of which he has edited, translated, and published under the auspices of Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris.

9 For instance, see Nivishtahā-yi Parākanda dar Bāra-i Yārsān: Ahl-i Ḥaqq (Scattered Writings about the Yarsan, i.e., the Ahl-i Haqq; with a list of Gurani words) (Tehran: ʿAtaʾi, 1982); Daura-I Haftvāna: Juzvī az Nāma-i Mīnavī-yi Saranjām (Heptad Cycle, Part of the Ethereal Letter of Saranjam) (Tehran: Tahuri Press, 1982);Daura-i Bahlūl: Yakī az kuhantarīn Mutūn-i Yārsān (Ahl-i Ḥaqq) (Bahlul Cycle: One of the Oldest of Yarsan [Ahl-i Haqq] Texts) (Tehran: Tahuri Press, 1984).

10 The examination of this new trend and the way it has been received by the various branches of the sect are the main themes of a book in preparation, which also gives a fuller account of recent Ahl-i Haqq history and sociology.

11 The distinction is ignored in studies of Ahl-i Haqq; these show a kind of “kalām bias” that is somehow the extension of the dominant textual bias in studies of Middle Eastern religious beliefs and practices. This is even the case in recent, more sociologically oriented works such as those of Beik-Baghban, H., Religion de verité”: Enquête de sociologie religieuse chez les Ahl-e Hakk dlran (Thfèse de doctorat d'état, Université des Sciences Humaines de Strasbourg, France, 1975); Hamzehʾee, M. R., The Yaresan: A Sociological, Historical & Religio-Historical Study of a Kurdish Community (Berlin: Klaus Schwarz Verlag, 1990). Exceptions are Bruinessen, Martin Van, “Haji Bektash, Sultan Sahak, Shah Mina Sahib and Various Avatars of a Running Wall,” Turcica 21–23 (1991): 5573; idem, “Satan's Psalmists: Some Heterodox Beliefs and Practices Among the Ahl-i Haqq of the Guran District” (unpublished manuscript).

12 Kermanshah (pl., Kermanshahan) is the name by which the province is commonly known and is also the name of the provincial town center. After the Islamic Revolution, the names of the province (Kermanshahan) and its center (Kermanshah) were both changed to Bakhtaran (lit., the West), in line with changes in many other Iranian place names containing the word “shah.” The new name never gained currency, however, and its usage remained confined to the official level. During the last parliamentary election (April 1992), the province's name became a campaign issue: one candidate pledged to restore the true identity of the province by reinstating its original name. He was elected, and he was also to fulfill part of his promise: the provincial center has regained its original name, Kermanshah, although the province is still officially referred to as Bakhtaran. Here I follow the popular usage and refer to the province as Kermanshah. (In 1993, the province too was officially renamed Kermanshah.)

13 The Ahl-i Haqq of Azarbayjan belong to the Turkish tradition of the sect, and a large majority of them are Azari speakers. For a monographic study of an Ahl-i Haqq village there, see Sāʿidī, G. H., Ilkhichī (Tehran: Amir-Kabir Press, 1978; 1st ed., 1964).

14 Kermanshah used to accommodate substantial Christian and Jewish minorities; a large majority of the latter have migrated to Israel, and the former to the West.

15 For the list of these khāndān and their formation, see Hamzehʾee, , Yaresan, 205–15. In Kermanshah, the following khāndān have the largest number of followers: Shāh Ibrāhīmī, Atashbīgī, Yādgārī, Khāmūshī, and Shāh Hayāsī.

16 Kalām-khān these days are also kalām-nivīs, or kalām-writers. An ambiguous position is that of dalīl (lit., guide) whose status is hereditary—they come from the seven families chosen among the seventy-two pīr by Sultan Suhak. Their presence supposedly is necessary in initiation ceremonies; in practice, they are usually replaced by others—I witnessed this, as did Van Bruinessen (“Satan's Psalmists,” 19).

17 I came across two dervishes who were sayyids—both were women.

18 Whereas Ahl-i Haqq is the name by which the sect wishes to be known by outsiders, ṭāyifa is the name used among its members, although it does not include sayyids, whose status is always distinguished from the commoners.

19 For the different cycles of manifestation, see Minorsky, , “Ahli-Hakk,” 10; and for the notion of cyclical time in Ahl-i Haqq tradition, see Mokri, M., Le chasseur de Dieu et le mythe du roi Aigle (Dawraye Dāmyarī) (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1967), 4753.

20 This notion can be traced to the reformed post-Nazari Ismaʿilis, when in 1164 Hassan II, the Ismaʿili leader, proclaimed himself as the deputy of the Hidden Imam and freed his followers from the rules of the Shariʿa; see Moosa, M., Extremist Shiites: The Ghulat Sects (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1988), 186–87.

21 Tutshami is still a sanctuary; its takiya provides refuge and offers hospitality to all who go there.During the last stages of the Iran-Iraq War, the takiya housed and fed the fleeing Iranian soldiers, although the Ahl-i Haqq at the time were under pressure from the authorities.

22 This is an abbreviation and amalgamation of accounts given me by two kalām-khān of Tutshami: Ka Karim, who is now retired, and his successor Dervish Alimir. The legend, known by all the villagers, is also the founding legend of the village.

23 This episode is alluded to in an epilogue to the volume containing the kalām of Nauruz as an explanation for some omissions. The actual passage, which is dated 1935 and written by a scribe, reads as follows: As heard from the elders, at the time of Sayyid Baraka a certain dervish came to his house and after a while disappeared, stealing the kalām of the following dervishes: Nauruz Surani. Rustam Babajani, Haydar Kuchak-Bali Guran, Ibrahim ʿAbbasvandi and ʿAbbas Kerendi. Despite all efforts neither the above-mentioned dervish nor any of these volumes could be traced. All opinion had it that the dervish had the mission [from the world of bāṭin] to do what he did and the consequences [of the mission] will emerge in due time. Nauruz's kalām were rewritten in his presence, the larger part of them are in the blessed handwriting of Sayyid Baraka; from the other volumes only a few kalām have survived, memorized by people.

24 For a selection of these kalām, see Alqassi, M., Majmūʿa-i āyīn va-Andarz va-Ramz-i Yārī (Iran: privately published, 1979). I found his work most valuable; although he himself is an Ahl-i Haqq, he neither mystifies nor conceals the faith, which is not the case in other works written by those with inside knowledge. Some verses of Taymur's kalām were also translated into Persian by a well-known poet, Adib al-Mamalik Farahani, who became a sympathizer after he came into contact with the notables of the sect in Tehran in the 1950s; see Dastgirdī, V., Dīvān-i Kāmil-i Adīb al-Mamālik-i Farahānī-i Qāyimmaqāmī (Complete Collection of Poetry of Adib...) (Tehran: Farvardin Press, 1976), 669–83.

25 For an account of his life and his reforms in Kermanshah, see Davānī, A., Vahīd-i Bihbahānī, 2nd ed. (Tehran: Amir-Kabir Press, 1983), 274331.

26 For further accounts, see the following: a biography of Sardar Kabuli, a learned man of Afghan descent who was the contemporary of Aqa Mamdali, in Samīʿī, K., Zindagānī-yi Sardār-i Kābulī (Life of Sardar of Kabul) (Tehran: Gilan Press, 1983); Malcolm's account of Sufism and Aqa Mamdali's views and his part in the murder of some popular Sufi personalities, in Court, M. H., Malcolm's History of Persia (Modern), ed. and trans. Hairat, Mirza (Lahore: Civil and Military Gazette Press, 1881), 150, 152, 158; and the third volume of a well-known book depicting the life of Sufis contains many accounts of Aga Mamdali's atrocities toward the Sufis: Shīrāzī, M. M. (Maʿ ṣūm ʿA1ī Shāh), Ṭarāʾiq al-Ḥaqāyiq (Paths of Truths), vol. 3 (Tehran: Sanāʾ ī Press, n.d.).

27 Sipihr, Mīrzā Muḥammad Taqī Lisān al-Mulk, Nāsikh al-Tavārīkh: Salāṭīn-i Qājāriyya (Chronicle of the Qajar Kings), vol. 3 (Tehran: Islamiyeh Press 1974); also see Minorsky, V., “Notes sur la secte des Ahle-Haqq,” Revue du Monde musulman 43, 1 (1921): 2079, 205–302.

28 There are some parallels between Taymur and the Bab (Mirza ʿAli Muhammad Shirazi). Both sought to change the status quo by the power of bāṭin, although Taymur's appeal was confined strictly to the Ahl-i Haqq. My impression is that the parallel drawn by the author of the quoted text, who was an official chronicler, more than anything else explains the vali's hasty decision and the uncertainty surrounding the early years of Nasir al-Din Shah's reign. For an account of the Babi movement, see Browne, E. G., A Traveller's Narrative Written to Illustrate the Episode of the Bab (London: Cambridge University Press, 1891), 2:184; on mistaken speculations concerning relations between Taymur and Babism, see Minorsky, , “Notes sur la secte,” 275–78.

29 I am grateful to Muhammad Sultani who gave me a copy of this letter. It is from Mirza Nizam Mafi to Sayyid ʿAbdul Husayn Sultani who was the director of education in Kermanshah between 1925 and 1927. The letter is dated 1925 and includes a translation of some of Taymur's kalām.

30 There are some kalām implicating Shah Ibrahim, a companion of Sultan Suhak who founded the sect, and himself the founding ancestor of the Shah Ibrahimi khāndān upon the death of Baba Yadgar, the most revered Ahl-i Haqq character (the incarnation of Husayn, the first Shiʿi martyr). In this way the rivalry between sayyids of different khāndān also found expression in Ahl-i Haqq kalām; see also Bruinessen, Van, “Satan's Psalmists,” 2627.

31 There are several versions of the Sahneh account, two of which have been written down by Ahl-I Haqq sayyids. The first is to be found in an introduction to Taymur's kalām in S. K. Nīk-Nizhād, Mukhtasarī az Sharḥ va-Ḥāl-i Ḥazrat-i Taymūr (A Brief Account of Taymur's Life and State) (privately photocopied and distributed, 1970). The second was distributed while I was in the field: see S. A. Shāh-Ibrāhīmī, Sharḥ -i Zindagāni va-Aḥwālāt-i Janāb-i Taymūr-i Bānyārāni va-āqā Taymūr-i Sānī Mulaqqab bi-Fataḥ (An Account of Life and State of Taymur of Banyaran and Aqa Taymur the Second Known as Fatah) (privately published, 1985). The latter is a compilation of the stories narrated by those who were among Taymur's close associates.

32 Remembering one's previous lives is evidence of access to the world of bāṭin. This is in some ways a literal understanding of one of the Sufi maxims: self-knowledge is the path to God-knowledge. The Ahl-i Haqq believe that when the soul approaches perfection it then becomes aware of the various stages of its development, that is, it recalls the human forms, or the various garments (dūn) it has put on in the course of its journey to the Divine.

33 There are other versions of this. In one, Taymur is seen to walk away carrying his head under his arm; in another, the Jews take a short nap, and when they wake up they find that Taymur's body has disappeared.

34 The book was edited and published by Mokri, M., Shāh-Nāma-ye Ḥaqīqat Le livre des Rois de Verité”: Histoire traditionelle des Ahl-e Haqq, vol. 1, Bibliothèque Iranienne 14 (Tehran/Paris: 1966).

35 See Weightman, S. C. R., “The Significance of Kitab Burhan Ul-Haqq: Additional Material for the Study of Ahl-i Haqq,” Iran: British Journal of Persian Studies 2 (1964): 83103.

36 The present leader of the reformist group and his recent efforts to introduce further changes have met with a great deal of opposition and resulted in a number of violent clashes between the two groups, starting shortly after the revolution in 1979. I discuss this in “Redefining the Truth: Ahl-i Haqq and the Islamic Republic” (unpublished manuscript).

37 Leach, E., “Virgin Birth,” in his Genesis as Myth (London: Cape Editions, 1971), 102.

38 The pattern described here has parallels in other Muslim societies, particularly outside the Arab world; for some examples, see Bruinessen, M. Van, Agha, Shaikh and State: The Social and Political Organization of Kurdistan (London: Zed Press, 1992), 221, 233; Roy, O., Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 42; Barth, F., Political Leadership among Swat Pathans (London: Athlone Press, 1959), 19, 3536. The variables involved are obviously many and complex and cannot be explored here. Apart from Sunni versus Shiʿi, they include different configurations of relations between tribal chiefs and various kinds of religious leaders and the state.

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International Journal of Middle East Studies
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