LURISTAN v. Religion, Rituals, and Popular Beliefs

LURISTAN

v. Religion, Rituals, and Popular Beliefs

The official religion. Since the accession of the first Safavid shah (1502), the official religion in Iran has been the Eṯnā-ʿašariya (Twelver) Shiʿism, one of the two main branches of Islam. A noteworthy point in this context is that the Lur society has been living within the framework of Islam, but under conditions and circumstances that encouraged rather than restricted a free display of popular traditions, such as the cult of local shrines, emāmzādas (descendants of the Shiʿite imams), and other sects, especially the Ahl-e Ḥaqq, as well as many aspects of supernaturalism. In areas where people did not speak or understand Arabic, or were mostly illiterate, as among the nomads of Luristan, the declaration of faith and especially performance of different prayers, were bound to take on a much more ritualistic value. Here, the need for oral interpretation and explanation of the orthodox faith was necessary if a completely unrestricted and free display of the popular beliefs and customs were to be avoided. 

Thus, at the beginning of the 19th century during the governorship of Prince Moḥammad-ʿAli Mirzā, the Lurs had gone so far astray from the orthodox path that a preacher of the higher religious classes, a mojtahed, was brought in from Karbala in order to “convert” the tribes back to Islam (cf. Rabino, p. 24; Minorsky, 1978, p. 823). It is uncertain to what degree this attempt was successful, but it is known that there was not normally any direct, authoritative, and powerful institution which could secure and defend the official and orthodox faith and conceptions in Luristan. Almost all the writers who have dealt with this theme, except Cecil John Edmonds (1922, p. 341), are unanimous in the view that the Lurs, although outwardly professing Islam, have had only a faint idea of the orthodox religion and to a large degree have been indifferent to the Islamic doctrines, while at the same time they have indulged in superstitious rites and have deep veneration for local pirs (spiritual masters) and prophets.  

Consequently, it is difficult to describe the impact of religion on the nomadic society of Luristan, where religious notions had become an integral part of life to such an extent that life itself, especially the modus vivendi of the nomads, was one big, yearly, revolving ritual, spaced by recurring seasons, migrations, births, festivals, and deaths. What a spectator might want to call the “religious” aspects had simply ceased to be perceived as anything separate or to hold any aspect of apartness for the nomads, a circumstance, which also means that any specific questions about “religion” are poorly understood, because religion in Luristan was an unconsciously integrated part of the cycle of life (Demant Mortensen, 2010, p. 12 ff.).  

Ahl-e Ḥaqq. Although most Lurs officially adhere to Twelver Shiʿism, with a sprinkling of Sunni Muslims, some adherents of the Ahl-e Ḥaqq (People of the [absolute] Truth) sect are found among the Lur and the Kurdish populations. Ahl-e Ḥaqq are often referred to in the literature as ʿAli-Elāhi or ʿAli-Allāhi (Minorsky, 1964, p. 306) and as having their roots in the heartland of Luristan 

There has been no central, uniform organization and no canonical scripture among the Ahl-e Ḥaqq, which has been traced within numerous tribal, ethnic, religious, and social groups. The cradle of the sect is definitely the area occupied by the Gurānis, which is now divided between the Iraqi and the Iranian Kurdistan, and also including some tribes of northern Luristan, for instance, the Delfān (Minorsky, 1964, p. 314; Halm, p. 635). Some authors refer to the Selsela and Delfān groups as originally being ʿAli-Elāhis, but also to the Sagvand and Pāpi tribes as being followers of this “secret religion” (Field, I, pp. 173-84; Minorsky, 1978, p. 823). In this context it is interesting that one of the subtribes of the Delfān confederation, the Chuwari, mentioned by Rawlinson (p. 107) as spending the winters in Holaylān and Kuhdašt and the summers in the plain of Ḵāva, is described by Freya Stark as “heretics”: “…these are Ali-Ilahis” (Stark, 1947, p. 34). 

The religious literature of the sect is mainly written in Gurāni, and two important shrines of the sect, the tombs of Bābā Yādgār in Zohab and of Solṭān Esḥāq (Sahhāk, Ṣohāk) in Perdivar, are both located in Gurān territory. The central dogma of the Ahl-e Ḥaqq is the belief in seven successive manifestations or incarnations of the divinity. These incarnations are compared to garments put on by the godhead (cf. the table in Minorsky, 1964, p. 307). The legends about Shah Ḵošin (or Bābā Ḵošin), one of the seven incarnations of the divinity (haftvāna), take place in Luristan and seem to represent an early phase in the development of the doctrine. Each manifestation is accompanied by a retinue of four helper angels. The name of one of those is Bābā Bozorg. Another of the angels of Bābā Ḵošin is the local saint and Sufi poet of Hamadan, Bābā Ṭāher. Apart from the “Four Angels,” several other groups of saints are worshipped by Ahl-e Ḥaqq (Minorsky, 1964, pp. 306-16; Edmonds, 1969, pp. 89-101; Gabriel, pp. 125-28; Halm, pp. 635-37; see Ṣafizāda, pp. 17-18, 65-68, 74-78, 85-86, 101-15, 127-32).  

The sect of the Ahl-e Ḥaqq was originally referred to by the European travelers of the 19th century and first of all by John Kinneir (p. 141). He reports with alacrity the information he has received about nocturnal festivals in the course of which “the garments of the fair sex” at a certain point are thrown into a heap and jumbled together. This done, the lights are put out and the clothes distributed among the men present. The candles are then re-lighted. He explains that it is a rule of the society “that the lady must patiently submit to the embrace of the person who has become possessed of her dress, whether father, son, husband, or brother.” When the lights have been put out once again “the whole of the licentious tribe pass the remainder of the night in the indulgence of the most promiscuous lust.” Obviously, a scandalous and exiting account like this was bound to create some interest at the time. Henry Rawlinson was the first to pass on somewhat more reliable information (Rawlinson, pp. 52-95, 110), and as the regiment he commanded on the march from Zohab was in fact Gurāni, most of his men in all probability were adherents of Ahl-e Ḥaqq. 

An especially noteworthy ceremony or institution is an initiation rite called sar-sepordan (the entrustment of the head; total commitment), in which the neophyte links himself to a spiritual master (pir). As a sign of this, a nutmeg is broken as a substitute for the head (Ṣafizāda, pp. 19-20). Other sacrifices, raw and cooked, bloody and bloodless, derived from dervish practices also occur, and during these sessions burning coals are sometimes handled and stepped upon. Rites of the Ahl-e Ḥaqq also include assemblies (jam) with women participation, in which music is played and could easily account for the extraordinary interpretation brought forward by Kinneir (quoted above), and also for the nickname of “extinguishers of light” (čerāḡ söndüren) given by outsiders to the adherents of the sect (Minorsky, 1964, pp. 308-9).  

The religion of the shrine. In an article concerned with the function of religion in (contemporary) Iranian society, Brian Spooner has made a useful distinction between what he calls “the religion of the mosque” and “the religion of the shrine” (Spooner, 1963, pp. 83-95). “The religion of the mosque” roughly corresponds to the official, literate religion, whereas “the religion of the shrine” is characterized by a hierarchy from the ordinary person through holy men, the imāms, and prophets, to God.  

In rural districts like Luristan, where “the religion of the shrine” was practiced, a mollā (cleric) or a ṭalaba (theological student) might pay a visit during the months of special religious significance. If there was no resident mollā, there might be a dervish, a doʿānevis or Qorʾānḵˇān.  There is often something mysterious about a dervish that seems to attract the attention of ordinary men, but a dervish has no specific religious function in the society. The doʿānevis writes doʿās (invocation to God), which are a very popular commodity in rural Persia; and the Qorʾānḵvān, although often illiterate, is able to chant passages from the Qur’an at funerals; he also sometimes washes the dead (Spooner, 1963, p. 85). Among the nomads and in the villages there are often quasi-religious persons or individuals attributed with certain religious qualities; they are either the descendants of the Prophet (sayyed) or people with the epithet Ḥāji, Karbalāʾi, or Mašhadi, signifying persons who have completed the pilgrimage to Mecca, Karbala, or Mashhad. The presence of such persons among the tribes of Luristan is attested by the inscriptions at tombstones from cemeteries in northern Luristan (Demant Mortensen, 2010, pp. 93 ff.). The descendants of the Prophet have no special religious function, but their sheer presence is a reminder of Moḥammad, to whom they are considered to be nearer and dearer than ordinary people, and thus they are also a memento of Islam in general. Moreover, they are believed to possess at least a minimum of baraka (blessing, divine grace), and they may be preferred by ordinary people for ceremonies intended to ward off the evil eye in which there is a widespread belief in most of the Near East (Donaldson, pp. 117 ff.; Kriss and Kriss-Heinrich, II, passim; Spooner, 1976, pp. 76-84). It goes almost without saying that Moḥammad and his descendants are believed to be especially endowed with baraka, and they may in their turn communicate some of it to ordinary people. A special feature is that baraka does not cease to exist or to be active at the death of a person. On the contrary, to deceased persons is attributed a very powerful baraka. This may help to explain the great significance placed by the Shiʿites on the pilgrimage to tombs and emamzādas and the extraordinary measures taken to be buried near a holy tomb (Demant Mortensen, 1993, pp. 121, 125). 

Shrines and emāmzādas.  Until recently there were no mosques in Luristan outside the few towns (cf. the distribution map in Kleiss, opp. p. 66). On the other hand, the tombs of local pirs and saints, the emāmzādas, are frequently seen in the landscape. They are the focus of a lot of attention and also of pilgrimage. The word emāmzāda may signify an individual as well as the shrine dedicated to him, in the same way as pir or piri (elder or holy) may be used about a person or his tomb.

The actual structure of a shrine, whether of an emāmzāda or otherwise, may range in size from anything comparable to a tiny house to a larger mosque. It is often square, whitewashed, with a domed roof and with or without a courtyard and a cemetery around it. In the center of the building is the tomb or cenotaph, as the case may be, which is the focal point of attention. It represents the deceased person and is considered full of his baraka

A number of shrines and emāmzādas are mentioned in the literature, but often just in passing (e.g., by Rawlinson; Stein; Edmonds, 1969; Minorsky, 1978; Haerinck and Overlaet; Demant Mortensen, 2010). The better known include Emāmzāda Šāhzāda Aḥmad, Emāmzāda Šāhzāda Moḥammed (or Solṭān Maḥmud), and Emāmzāda Solṭān Ebrāhim (or Bābā Bozorg), all alleged to be brothers of the eighth Imam (cf. Demant Mortensen, 2010, p. 21, n. 29; personal information from Khan ʿAbd-al-Ḥosayn Pur Abuḵadora, Hulian, 1974). According to Rawlinson, they are all included among the Haft-tan “Seven [dervishes]” by the Ahl-e Ḥaqq, and that is why they are of great sanctity (Rawlinson, p. 95; Edmonds, 1969, p. 89; Ṣafizāda, pp. 144-45, 147-48, 203-4). 

Emāmzāda Šāhzāda Aḥmad is situated in Bālā Gariva, about 60 km south of Khorramabad, midway between Khorramabad and Dezful. Referring to this shrine, Edmonds recalls that one day he had a visit by four men wearing red turbans. A red turban is unique in Persia, at least in the western and central provinces, and is worn only by the guardians of Šāhzāda Aḥmad, the holiest shrine in Bālā Gariva (Demant Mottensen, 1993, Pl. 6.58; Izadpanāh, pp. 16-18). The red-turbaned guardians are known as the pāpi, but do not seem to be connected with the tribe of the same name (Edmonds, 1969, p. 354); however, Carl Feilberg, who has made a special study of this particular tribe, has several interesting and curious details to add (Feilberg, pp. 144-53). For instance, he states that there are no adherents of the Ahl-e Ḥaqq among the Pāpi, “who find them very bad mannered” (Feilberg, pp. 152-53). Minorsky, on the contrary, states that the Sagvand and Pāpi tribes are the followers of this “secret religion” (Minorsky, 1978, p. 823). Feilberg also mentions the red turbans of the guardians and supplies the information that a visit to the Emāmzāda Šāhzāda Aḥmad is known to be particularly helpful to infertile women.  

Not far from Emāmzāda Šāhzāda Aḥmad was another shrine, the Emāmzāda Pir Mār (Saint Snake) also of great sanctity. The saint was supposed to have been able to cure the bite of all venomous snakes, a power his descendants apparently had inherited (Rawlinson, p. 96).

The Emāmzāda Šāhzāda Moḥammad in the Holaylān valley is mentioned by Edmonds (1922, p. 451) as being a “pretentious building” with a great reputation for sanctity in the district and having a colony of sayyeds living in tents and huts around it. Various notables have contributed various parts, such as the bath and a golden ball over the dome. Aurel Stein (p. 242) refers to it as “the conspicuous new shrine marking the supposed resting place of Imamzadeh Shah-zadeh Muhammad, a much frequented place for pilgrimage for Lurs, with a clusted of Saiyid’s dwellings(cf. also Edelberg, p. 379; Demant Mortensen, 1993, pp. 128-29, Pls. 6.59-61).  

The shrine of Solṭān Ebrāhim, worshipped throughout Luristan under the name of Bābā Bozorg, is mentioned by Rawlinson (p. 100), who says that the tomb is situated on the northeastern face of the plain of Ḵāwa. He adds that this is “the most holy spot in Luristan; for the common Lurs have no idea of religion farther than the worship of this their national saint.” Stein (p. 302) confirms the position and calls it a “much frequented place for pilgrimage” (see also Izadpanāh, pp. 310-11 and Pls. 28-29 on pp. 344-45). 

The person said to be buried in an emāmzāda is often of a rather nebulous origin or descent, and quite often the same person is said to be buried, and is worshipped, in several different places. One example of this is in Luristan near Širvān, where the tomb of ʿAbbās b. ʿAli, the half brother of the Shiʿite Imams Ḥasan and Ḥosayn, is considered to be of great sanctity and receives much attention. People from all over Luristan go here on pilgrimage, although ʿAbbās b. ʿAli also is supposed to be buried at Karbala in Iraq (Rawlinson, p. 56). The most important point is, however, that it is advisable to visit these graves, because honoring an emāmzāda almost amounts to honoring the Imam himself, which by implication ultimately means honoring God, and this will hopefully lead to His intercession on the Day of Judgement.

In many cases the purpose of a visit to a shrine or an emāmzāda is to ask the granting of certain wishes or requests. The means of obtaining this goal are various and ingenious. Like the Kaʿba in Mecca, the tomb will often be covered by a cloth or surrounded by a latticework, which will be kissed. This is considered as a way of mollifying the emāmzāda and is not just a pious gesture. It is important to get in contact with the baraka of the person resting there. This may be achieved by touching something in the place, by rubbing oneself with the oil that has been deposited as a gift by previous pilgrims and has now accumulated some of the baraka, or by leaving behind one’s rosary (tasbiḥ) to be charged with baraka and collected at a later time. When visiting an emāmzāda, it is not unusual to bring along presents, for example, candles, oil, foodstuffs, or even live animals to be sacrificed on the spot. What was originally intended as a votive offering—to the holy personage supposedly interred there—at the present time more often ends up as a present for the warden of the place. In any case, it has now become more customary not to bring anything until the wish has been fulfilled. This rather pragmatic change from “I offer Thee this, and please may I have” to “If You grant me this, I will give You that” attitude, secures a minimum of waste and disappointment on both sides (Demant Mortensen, 2010, p. 21).

In Luristan people also seek out the shrines and emāmzādas for a number of other reasons, including oath-taking in legal cases, seeking cures for ailments, both physical and mental (Fazel, p. 234), pilgrimage, and the festivities at the end of Ramazan, the ʿid al-feṭr, and the processions and performances of the passion play (taʿzia) during the first ten days of Moḥarram in commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Ḥosayn and his family at Karbala in 680 CE (cf. Chelkowsky; Demant Mortensen, 1991).

Moḥarram processions and the taʿzia.  In Iran, Moḥarram processions and recitations existed side by side for about 250 years, and both became more and more complex and refined, until the middle of the 18th century, by which time they were fused (Chelkowski, pp. 4 ff.). The result was a new dramatic form called taʿzia-ḵvāni or just taʿzia, in which the siege of Karbala was still the core, but as time went by, separate plays around individual heroes were also developed. The taʿzia thus is a compromise between the moving procession and the stationary recitation, and as such it was first staged at open squares or street intersections but soon moved into the courtyards of bazaars, caravansaries, emāmzādas, or even private houses. 

Each of the first ten days of Moḥarram featured its own special event commemorating the suffering of Imam Ḥosayn and his party, culminating with the big processions of the 10th of Moḥarram, the Āšurāʾ, as a conclusion (see, e.g., Massé, pp. 122 ff., tr. pp. 117 ff.).

An Āšurāʾ procession might consist of several groups following hard on the heels of each other and all acting some part of the tragedy at Karbala. For example, riderless, saddled horses illustrate in the funeral procession the horses of the martyrs who are now dead. In the case of only one riderless horse in the procession, it signifies Imam Ḥosayn’s horse (Ḏu’l-janāḥ). Often there will be fastened to the saddle some objects emblematical of Imam Ḥosayn (e.g., see Kippenberg, figs. 1-4). When the riderless horses are brought forward in the funeral procession, it is a sign that the illustrious owners are now dead, and a great moan from the crowd watching goes up in the air. There may be flags carried along, with the names of Ḥosayn and other martyrs embroidered on them, and banners (ʿalam) representing in the towns different quarters or guilds, and in the country different emāmzādas. There may also be long sticks or poles (kotol) hung with pieces of cloth and surmounted by a metal hand (panja). The open hand, which is identified by the Sunnites as the hand of Fāṭema and is used as an amulet to ward off the evil eye, bears a quite different meaning for the Shiʿites. In the Moḥarram processions, it commemorates the fact that at Karbala Ḥosayn and his companions were prevented from drawing water, and when ʿAbbās, Ḥosayn’s half brother, tried to fetch some water from the river, his hands were cut off by the enemy. ʿAbbās then tried to hold the gourd between his teeth, but it was immediately pierced by an arrow. Everybody gets the message instantly when the water-sellers at the Moḥarram processions carry a gourd and cry: “Drink to the memory of the martyr of Karbala!” Many other incidents were commemorated in this way, and groups representing the martyrs with, for example, limbs amputated, an axe sunk into the body, arrows sticking out everywhere, all combine to create the most perfect illusion of reality. Usually there would be a man or a boy disguised as a lion, covering the supposed body of Imam Ḥosayn in the procession or at the taʿzia, and representing the miraculous lion that is reported to have kept watch on Imam Ḥosayn’s body and protected it from further profanation after the massacre at Karbala (see below). 

Around 1930 the taʿzia was banned by the government for socio-political reasons, but, a renewed interest in it was raised during the post-World War II period (Chelkowsky, pp.. 262 ff.). It lived on in distant villages and isolated areas such as Luristan, but due to the lack of written sources it is not possible to know with any certainty to what extent the Moḥarram rites were celebrated in Luristan over the last 200 years. However, a few people who have been in Luristan for longer periods of time have left descriptions that might suggest that the tradition was kept alive all along. For instance, Arnold Wilson relates how the evenings during a stay with a local khan were spent, listening to a blind storyteller, who was an inexhaustible source of local politics and history, Lur songs, and extracts from the Šāh-nāma of Ferdowsi, holding the listeners around the fire spellbound for hours by the dramatic modulations of his voice (Wilson, pp. 63-65). He was succeeded by a sayyed, who first conducted the assembly in prayer and then followed with a prose narrative of the sad fate of the patron saint of Persia, the martyred Husain, which reduced many of the audience to genuine tears, though it is not yet the month (Muharram) in which his death is called to mind” (Wilson, p. 64). 

Carl Feilberg (pp. 144-46) remarks that there is a queer, agitated feeling in the air during Moḥarram, which is more noticeable or conspicuous since there are not many signs of religious fanaticism, but rather a certain degree of tolerance. On the occasion of the “Ḥosayn festival, mollās bring forth banners (ʿalam) from an emāmzāda. The people circle around the banners, the poles of which are covered in red cloth, while they sing and beat their breast three times, and take their heads in their hands repeatedly. Someone reads the story of Ḥosayn from one end to the other, if possible every hour of the day. A man with a sword is excited to the point of cutting his head. Pieces of cloth are hanging down from banners. Every time someone pays a few coins to the mollā, he receives a shred of the cloth.”

Another observation was made inside the Emāmzāda Šāhzāda Moḥammad in the Holaylān Valley in 1963 (Demant Mortensen, 2010, p. 29). People had come from far away and assembled in the courtyard of the emāmzāda, where on the 8th day of Moḥarram a taʿzia was being performed for hours on end, continuing into the night of the Āšurāʾ. Earlier a procession of flagellants went across the valley floor, from tent camp to tent camp, which at that time of the year (June) was spread over the plain.

These few examples will suffice to show how important aspects of the religion were being taught by illustration and performance among the nomadic population of Luristan. The mental images evoked at a Moḥarram procession, at a rawża-ḵvāni (mourning ritual commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Ḥosayn) or a taʿzia performance are so strong and potent that this kind of “illiterate religion,” as it might conveniently be termed, adds another dimension to the metaphor phrased by Umberto Eco that “images are the literature of the lay-men” (Eco, p. 41).

Nomadic cemeteries with pictorial stelae and tombstones.  The nomadic cemeteries of Luristan are nearly all placed near shrines or along old migratory routes. Their inscribed and decorated tombstones and stelae turn them into an important source for the mapping of tribal migrations during the 19th and early 20th century and for our understanding of certain aspects of the religious beliefs and ritual actions of the nomads.

Allusions to the tombstones of Luristan and the motifs they represent include incidental observations by travelers passing through the country in the 19th and early 20th century (e.g., Rawlinson, pp. 53, 57-58; Herzfeld, p. 59; Stark, 1932, p. 504). The topic has later been dealt with by Feilberg (pp. 137-41, figs. 128-31), Wilhelm Eilers, Jørgen Meldgaard, Clare Goff, Leon Vanden Berghe (pp. 19-20 and Pl. VII, figs. 1-2), and Houchang Pourkarim (pp. 54-57, photograph on p. 25). Starting during 1974-77, an extensive, systematic study of nomadic cemeteries in northern Luristan was carried out by a member of the Danish Archaeological Expedition (Demant Mortensen, 1983, 1991, 1996, and 2010).

It seems that most of the nomadic cemeteries in northern Luristan, along with the tribes that they represent, can be traced back to the late 18th or early 19th century. The earliest known nomadic tombstone, dated 1209/1794, is in the cemetery of Kazābād in the Holaylān valley (Demant Mortensen 2010, p. 167). In a historical context, the emergence of the tombstones coincide with the withdrawal of the viceroy governor (wāli) and his retinue from Khorramabad into Pošt-e Kuh in 1796, a move that was occasioned by the attempt of the first Qajar shah to reduce and weaken his power and authority. By the end of the 1920s and the early 1930s, there is a dramatic decline in the number of nomadic cemeteries, a picture clearly reflecting the drastic changes forced upon the nomads of Luristan by the policy of Reżā Shah (r. 1924-41). Starting early in the 1920s, Reżā Shah and his army attempted forcibly to “civilize” (taḵta-qāpu), that is, to disarm and settle, the nomadic tribes throughout the country. By the mid-1930s this policy had resulted in an economic, social, and cultural breakdown of the old tribal structures of Luristan and in a partial cessation of nomadic migrations and of memorial stelae and obelisks at the cemeteries. The latest known pictorial stele, dated 1354/1935, has been registered at the cemetery of Pela Kabud in the Holaylān valley (Demant Mortensen, 2010, pp. 73, 148, fig. 98).

At the cemeteries the graves were usually marked by a horizontal tombstone lying within the frame of stones marking the outline of the grave. In addition, an obelisk or a stele depicting in lively scenes animals and human beings was sometimes erected at the head of the grave (e.g., see Demant Mortensen, 1993, pp. 134, 138, Pls. 6.64, 6.66). These extraordinary pictorial stones, unique in an Islamic context, were carved and used by the nomads. Like the horizontal tombstones, they were erected for men as well as for women, although more frequently for the men.  

The flat-lying gravestones bear an inscription stating the name of the deceased, the name of his or her father, and the name of the tribe to which he or she belonged (Figure 1). The time of death is always mentioned by year, according to the Islamic lunar calendar, and occasionally also by month. The rank or title of the deceased may also be recorded. In rare cases, a few lines from a poem may be incised along the edge of the tombstone, but apparently never a quotation from the Qurʾan. This would be inappropriate, since people might step on the stones, and sheep and goats and other animals crossing a cemetery might soil the tombstones.  

At the base of the stone there is nearly always a field with pictorial symbols that are characteristic of men and women respectively. With unfailing certainty they will indicate whether the deceased was a woman or a man. In the case of women, the symbols will include a comb, a mirror, and a pair of scissors, a symbol designating a carpet, and in a few cases a kohl-pin. On a man’s tombstone is most often depicted a prayer stone, a string of prayer beads, a washing-set consisting of a ewer and a bowl, and a man’s comb, characterized by its half-circular shape. It appears that the symbols characterizing a woman on the gravestone to all intents and purposes reflect her profane, daily life. In contrast to this a man is characterized on the gravestones with symbols full of religious connotations meant to turn the thought towards his pious purity: a washing-set, a rosary, and a prayer stone. This emphasis upon the religious aspects of life depicted on the men’s tombstones in a subtle and subconscious way perhaps reflected the Lur’s conception of the role and status in real life, where the men were the external providers and protectors, while the women lived in the private sphere. Obviously, there is a great difference but it does not follow automatically that there was an evaluation in terms of status attached to the different roles within the tribal community. Wilson (p. 156), who lived a long time among the Lurs, wrote a eulogy of the Lur women, who bear the burden of the day in most senses of the phrase, in the following words. “ without a wife a man is as helpless and useless as half a pair of anything else— and [he] knows it.” 

In some cases a panel with an enigmatic geometric figure may be found on the gravestones, interspaced usually between the fourth and the fifth line of the inscription (Figure 1). It shows a cross on a square background with a kind of step design on both sides, opening up into tiny “channels” leading out from or into the center. The simplest interpretation of this motif is that it is a purely decorative element. There is, however, one other possibility: the central motifs are almost identical to the central motifs in the great Persian garden carpets from the 17th and 18th centuries, and to similar motifs seen in many Caucasian carpets and tribal rugs. It is a characteristic feature of these carpet designs that the design is geometrical and that there are channels leading out of, or into, the central motif, precisely as in the medial panels of the gravestones. In the carpets these channels and pools symbolize the water channels in a garden, or by extension the Garden of Paradise (bāḡ-e behešt). The connection between real, geometrical garden plans, their reproduction in carpets, and the religious conceptions about the Garden of Paradise has often been demonstrated. Against this background and in a religious context, at nomadic cemeteries, it has been suggested that the geometric motifs of the middle panels on the tombstones, like the central figures of the garden carpets, not only fulfill a decorative purpose, but also contain symbolic connotations, which among the nomads of Luristan would direct the mind towards the Garden of Paradise (Demant Mortensen, 1996, pp. 176-78).

The stelae, which sometimes were erected at the head of the grave, usually have pictures on both sides, showing distinctly different themes (Figures 2-3). One side, facing the grave, shows scenes from the life of the deceased. A typical motif at a woman’s stele would be a vertical loom with a half-finished carpet, surrounded by two or three women each with a weft-beater in her hand (Figure 2). The men’s stelae would show a mounted horseman with a small shield over his shoulder, with a lance or gun in his hand and his sword attached to the characteristic high wooden saddle. The rider is often engaged in a hunt, accompanied by two or three tribesmen, each carrying a gun with a fixed bayonet (Figure 3a). The other side of the stelae shows a similar picture, but with marked differences in content. Here the representation is a reflection of rituals associated with death and burial. The horse is rider-less, and it is clearly tethered with a mallet at the head and at the hind leg. The weapons of the deceased, a gun, a sword, and a shield, are tied to the high wooden saddle. Below this scene three women are shown, their arms resting on each other’s shoulders (Figure 3b). 

The women are probably shown as participants in the funeral procession or doing čupi dance. Singing, wailing, and dancing were practiced by mourning women as part of the burial rites in Luristan throughout the 19th and most of the 20th century. An emotional incident reflecting these rituals is reported by Freya Stark, who in 1931 spent some time in the plains of Ḵāva and Delfān. She relates how Yusof Khan, a young leader of the Nur-ʿAlisbeloved by all the northern Lurs was taken and executed in Hamadan; his followers, including my guide, lifted his body from the cemetery and brought it to Kermanshah, and then carried it with high wailing dirges four days’ journey to its burial-place at Hulailan (Stark, 1947, pp. 27-32). 

The picture of a riderless horse seems to reflect an old Iranian tradition where the horse of the deceased was brought along in the funerary procession to the cemetery, with the deceased’s turban, his sword, bow and arrows, lance, and in general anything that might serve to identify his standing and strength. To lead a horse after the hearse or bier at a funeral seems to have been, if not a universal habit, at least a widespread custom also known from Luristan, a reflection, perhaps, of a belief in an afterlife in which the deceased will need the horse and the weapons that he used to have in his life on earth (cf., e.g., Tavernier, p. 722; Quenstedt, pp. 254-56; Demant Mortensen, 2010, pp. 84 ff.). 

There is, however, another possible explanation for the riderless horse as it appears on the Luristani stelae. An underlying meaning of the motif might be that the representation of a riderless, equipped horse on the tombstone in the same way as Imam Ḥosayn’s horse is represented in the ʿĀšurāʾ processions during Moḥarram reminds the passer-by of Imam Ḥosayn’s martyrdom, and thus his attentions would automatically be focused on the Day of Judgement and on pious hopes for the afterlife (Demant Mortensen, 1991, pp. 85-86). As a derivation of this, the intended message could also have been that the person interred in the tomb had been of a pious observation. This seems to be quite a probable explanation and association with the nomadic setting in Luristan in the 19th and early 20th century, as it is indirectly testified by the elegies sung by the wives of the Wāli Ḥosaynqoli Khan on the occasion of his death, ca. 1900 (cf. Mann, pp. 145-52).

Supernatural powers. Apart from the more or less orthodox religious notions, there seems to be a widespread belief in supernatural beings in Iran (cf. e.g., Donaldson, passim; Massé, pp. 351-68). There are, however, considerable regional variations in their occurrence, form, and attributes, and a supernatural being reported in one area may be unknown in another. As far as Luristan is concerned, the most extensive information on this topic has been provided by Amanolahi-Baharvand (pp. 142-78).  

According to this source, the Baharvand, and probably a major part of the nomadic tribes of Luristan, have had a dualistic concept of the soul and body. Without the soul the body was nothing, and the soul could leave the body at will, in the form of a flying insect, like a mosquito, with the nose as a passage. It was believed that, when a person is asleep, his soul is out, and when it returns to the body, the person awakes. It was also believed that everybody has an identical spiritual being in the sky. When someone dies, the soul enters this being or spirit, which descends from heaven into the grave. When the spirit has entered the grave, it will, together with the soul, find the way to the eternal world. On the way, there is a bridge, narrower than a hair, which has to be crossed. When the spirits reach the bridge, they will be met by the sheep that were sacrificed in this world, and these will be ready to carry them across the bridge. The good ones will have no trouble getting across the bridge, but the bad ones will have serious problems. On the other side of the bridge is the gate to the eternal world, and after Judgement the righteous will go to Paradise, while the wicked are sent to Hell. It was, moreover, believed that the coming of the Mahdi would mean an end to both of these worlds, because it would mean the creation of a completely new universe with freedom and justice for everyone (Amanolahi-Baharvand, p. 148). 

This somewhat diverging version of the official eschatology existed alongside a belief in several kinds of personified supernatural beings to which human emotions and feelings were attributed. Above all there is God (Ḵodā), followed by various religious personalities such as ʿAli, Moḥammad, the Imams and emāmzādas, and the local saints and prophets in Luristan. ʿAli is the strongest of all, almost comparable to God, and certainly greater than Moḥammad (Amanolahi-Baharvand, p. 150).

The belief in predestination stems from the concept that God determines the destiny of every human being and all other creatures of the universe, so everything that happens is the will of God. He is the absolute ruler and owner of the universe. He can make people sick, poor, rich, crippled, and blind. He is omniscient and omnipresent, and He has it in His power to destroy everything in an instant if He so wishes. Although supernatural power or ability is attributed to God and all prophets and Islamic saints, they are in a different category from the other supernatural beings. God is held responsible for death and disease as well as for everything else. But there is nevertheless, at the same time, a distinction made between natural and supernatural causes of such misfortunes. This seemingly contradictory, and totally irreconcilable, assertion will just have to be accepted, in the same way as those diseases and misfortunes that cannot immediately be understood are attributed to supernatural forces (cf. Amanolahi-Baharvand, pp. 150 ff.). 

Dangerous supernatural beings include malakat, which is a local derivation from Arabic, meaning angels (e.g., malak al-mawt, the Angel of Death, often used in the Qurʾanic vocabulary). The Luri concept is somewhat different. It was believed that malakats have all the characteristics of human beings, except that they are invisible and also have the power to change form. This means that they can and will turn themselves into, for example, a human being, a cat, or a piece of wood. They never die, and they may be found in many places, such as ruins, mountains, and dark corners. They were feared because it was believed that they had the power to make people ill or insane. Sometimes they fell in love with a woman and caused her to behave abnormally. The malakat might take a person and replace him with an identical malakat. The same might happen with a corpse, so if a body remained unburied overnight, it had to be guarded every minute. If someone is behaving crazily, it is believed that she or he might be possessed by a malakat, and a mollā (cleric) may try to capture it by torturing the afflicted person and thus drive it away (Amanolahi-Baharvand, p. 154).

Other groups of dangerous supernatural beings include the ḡuls and the divs (demons). In folktales the div is described as looking more or less like a human being, only larger and with the capacity of changing its form; it sleeps most of the time, and is often found at the bottom of wells. Among the Baharvand in Luristan, it is believed that the div no longer exists, but that it has been replaced by another type of demon, which is extremely dangerous. This is a human-like creature, which may inflict injuries and illnesses resulting in death upon a person. In these cases it is beyond the powers of a sayyed or a mollā to help.

The Tofangči (rifleman) is the name given to an invisible hunter with male characteristics. If sudden unexpected deaths take place, it is believed to have been caused by the Tofangči, and if any of the herds were struck, the nomads would immediately migrate to another campsite.  

Yāl, otherwise referred to as āl (cf. Donaldson, pp. 28-31; Massé, pp. 44, 356, tr., p. 348), is a supernatural being with the attributes of a female, a kind of witch, often described as four-footed, and with a tail. She is very dangerous for women in labor and is wont to snatch away babies. In Luristan she is known to have only two legs and no tail, but she is very tall and has large teeth. If a woman is attacked by yāl, a yāl-catcher will beat her with a stick in order to tell where the yāl is, and a sheep will be killed and its liver and heart taken to her.  

To counterbalance the feared influence of all the malevolent, supernatural demons there is also a belief in a few benevolent creatures. For instance every person is believed to have a baḵt (lit. fate), which is the supernatural guardian of every individual (Donaldson, pp. 175-76). The baḵt is supposed to be identical with its owner, and it protects his land and property. If someone’s baḵt is active, everything is prosperous for the whole family, the herds increase, and so on; but a baḵt may fall asleep, in which case it takes the form of an animal. If that should happen, all sorts of misery starts, and it is almost impossible to find and wake up the baḵt. If a man is unlucky and, for instance, is losing herds or even children, he may say that his baḵt has fallen asleep. 

Another well-known group is the fairies (pari), who are the most beautiful of all supernatural beings and look just like humans. They may marry among themselves and have a social organization and even a king of their own, Šāh-pario, but they may also marry human beings. If this happens, it must be kept a secret; otherwise, the pari will escape. Many people claim to have seen the paris dancing and singing, and it is possible to capture them when they are bathing in a river, but one must be very quick, jump into the river, and insert a needle into the hair of the pari before she becomes invisible. When the needle is inserted in the hair, the pari becomes the wife of the captor and will always be near him, but at the same time invisible to others. It is possible for such couples to have children, but they are also invisible, except for the father (Amanolahi-Baharvand, pp. 158-60). 

It is in the same somewhat shady and ill-defined border area between religion, superstition, and folklore that one may find some impersonal, supernatural forces at work. They might for the sake of clarity be divided into “powers” and “matters” of supernatural character. 

The supernatural “powers” reckoned with in Luristan include baraka, bahra, rišarr and časm-e bad (Amanolahi-Baharvand, pp. 160 ff.). Baraka, or blessing, has already been described above, and bahra has something of the same inherited quality. A person could have the bahra, that is the property or capacity of hunting or capturing certain personified, supernatural beings, or curing disorders caused by these. In that case he will nearly always be successful in these matters. Like baraka, it is a good quality, which cannot be used against other people. The words riḵayr and rišarr are combinations of Luri and Arabic, and they signify a good or benevolent face and an evil face, respectively. Thus it is believed that some people have a “good face” (riḵayr) and they will cause prosperity wherever they appear; on the other hand, if someone on a journey sees an “evil face” (rišarr), he will worry that the journey will be fruitless or even dangerous (Demant Mortensen, 2010, pp. 20-21, 36). 

This idea seems to be closely related to the notion of the bad or evil eye, in which there is a widespread belief in most of the Near East (see ČAŠM-ZAḴM). Three main types of evil eyes are recognized in Luristan: čašm-e šur (“envious eye,” lit: “salty eye,” normally permanent), čašme-e nāpāk (“dirty eye,” normally temporary), and čašme-e bad (“bad eye,” normally momentary). It is a problem that a person with an evil eye may unintentionally cause danger and disaster. The number of causes and cures enumerated, and the amount of time spent in anxiety, fear, and inconvenience caused by this belief is quite striking. Supernatural power may also be obtained through certain acts either of piety or of ceremonial sacrifice of animals. Certain sayyeds were believed to have obtained supernatural power, partly through their descent from the Prophet, and partly through their own acts. Those who had obtained this status were regarded as next to holy, and with a supernatural power to cure both physical and mental illnesses. People would make an oath by the turban of such a person, or by his copy of the Qurʾan, which was believed to be much more powerful than an ordinary copy (Demant Mortensen, 2010, pp. 36-37). 

This is leading to the other category of supernatural forces, that of “matter” or “substance.” The Qur’an itself is believed to posses enormous supernatural forces, which would keep at bay the many malevolent supernatural beings, and also illnesses. Objects related to emāmzādas, especially pieces of cloth from banners (ʿalam), protected the bearer from snake bites, harmful supernatural beings, and other dangerous creatures, and every year during Moḥarram the guardians literally took their ʿalams to pieces and distributed them among the people, who would sew them on to their clothing. Also some trees were regarded as sacred and invested with supernatural power, possibly a concept of pre-Islamic origin. Often, but not always, they are found close to a shrine, such as the Emāmzāda Šāhzāda Moḥammad in the Holaylān valley (Stein, p. 242). Hundreds and hundreds of pieces of cloth may be seen hanging on such trees “in greater profusion than leaves” as de Bode puts it (I, p. 283), each representing a vow or wish uttered. While others might silently wish upon a falling star, these rags of cloth each denote a “visible wish” as it were (Demant Mortensen, 1993, pp. 122-23, Pls. 6.56-57).  

In order to remain on friendly terms with the personified supernatural beings surrounding them, and at the same time to protect themselves from all the malevolent powers lurking everywhere, the Lurs employ a complex set of ancient local ceremonies and adapted Islamic rituals, which are almost impossible to disentangle. Most of the nomads in Luristan would have only a superficial knowledge of Islam, and many religious acts are mixed with older traditions, the origin of which remains obscure. Sacrifices are normally made either to Imam ʿAli or to the local shrine or emāmzāda, but not directly to God. Sacrifices are made for different purposes; for instance, at the birth of a first child (son), or people make a vow that they will make a sacrifice if a wish be realized, or if they recover from an illness. A special kind of animal sacrifice is performed when a person dies (ʿaqiqa). The animal has to be a sheep and more than six months old. An Arabic formula is whispered in its ear before it is killed. Then it has to be boiled, and the bones buried unbroken. None of the immediate family of the deceased can take part in this meal, as it is believed that the deceased in the next world will be carried across the bridge by the sheep to the gates of the eternal world. In Luristan a special offering (alafa) is also made to the dead annually a few days before the New Year (Nowruz). The offering consists of sweetmeat (ḥalwā) and bread, and during the preparation of these foodstuffs the names of those deceased in whose memory the meals are being prepared must be mentioned, and they will then receive the sacrifice (Amonolahi-Baharvand, pp. 170-76; Demant Mortensen, 2010, pp. 36-37). 

Epilogue. Fredrik Barth (p. 146), following his description of some ceremonies, rituals, games, and beliefs among the Bāṣeri tribe in Fars, reaches the following conclusion about religion: “In general, I feel that the above attempt at an exhaustive description of the ceremonies and explicit practices of the Basseri reveals a ritual life of unusual poverty. The same verdict has been passed by almost everybody who has expressed an opinion on this matter as far as the Lurs are concerned. It is hoped, however, that the observations in the preceding pages might help to build a case for the opposite opinion. There was no ritual or religious poverty among the Lurs; on the contrary, the atmosphere was positively crowded with images of supernatural and other beings. The belief in them reflects truly religious notions, although these do not always conform to official doctrines. 

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(Inge Demant Mortensen)

Cite this article:

Inge Demant Mortensen, "LURISTAN v. Religion, Rituals, and Popular Beliefs," Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 2015, available at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/luristan-05-religion-beliefs (accessed on 03 April 2015).