Strong Beliefs

When recently reading with growing interest Patricia Crone’s latest book about The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran – Rural Revolt and Local Zoroastrianism (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2012) I came across a most unlikely reference, Reinhold Loeffler’s interviews of Boyer Ahmadian tribe villagers in the southern Zagros mountains in the early and mid 1970s (Islam in Practice – Religious Beliefs in a Persian Village. State University of New York Press, New York 1988). Crone noted  (p. 210) that,

“in a tribal village in the southern Zagros mountains studied in the 1970s there were still people who believed the duration of the world to be 50,000 years; others dismissed this as an erroneous idea of the mullahs (sic), claiming that it was the Day of Judgement that would last 50,000 years, a well-known popular view in Iran. Among the adherents of the erroneous idea of the mullahs was an old trader, who said that there were 50,000 years from Adam to the Day of Judgement, of which 11,380 years had already elapsed; but there had been another kind of men before Adam, and before that as well, for the world had never been empty and never would be; after the day of judgement God would make another creation. The cycles postulated by this man, a devout person who served as the model of orthodoxy in the village, were not limited to seven, and he was not a believer in reincarnation, but apart from that he was unwittingly perpetuating a tradition first attested for the followers of Abdallah b. Muawiya.”

(Abdallah b. Muawiya was a cousin of the fourth Shi’a imam’s son, Zayd ibn Ali, who revolted in Kufa in 739/40 against the Umayyads. Abdallah and the Harbiyya rebelled in western Iran after Zayd had been killed in the battle in Kufa and his son Yahiya was killed in Jawzjan in Khurasan in 743.)

Reinhold Loeffler and his wife Erika Friedl had settled and lived with the people in the remote village altogether for more than seven years. They became friendly with Loeffler and Friedl so that both, besides their fieldwork as anthropologists, were able to record  intensive and quite intimate talks with inhabitants of the village. Loeffler’s account comprises altogether 21 interviews about religion (“world views”) with a cross-section of the male villagers with quite different backgrounds, the mullah, teachers, traders, an orthodox, a fundamentalist, a doubtful etc. There is remarkable consonance when it comes to the core (as the villagers understand it) of Islam, demanding strive for pleasing God by working hard, caring for people avoiding day-by-day temptations and sins, emulating Ali, Husayn and the other Imams (not to forget the Prophet). About which sins will be forgiven and when and how. And tiny but interesting differences as regards cosmology, the Day of Judgment, and what happens with the soul during one’s demise and the coming of the former.

After 40 years (and 33 years into the Iranian Islamic Revolution), this world appears to be gone now, although I am not sure as regards the century (millennia?)-old religious beliefs of the common people in Iran’s countryside. When reading Loeffler’s series of interviews a disdain for the mullah in particular and the ulama in general is striking (while the shah’s dictatorial rule over Iran was, in general, regarded benevolent, even agreeable to God). A large number of folk-beliefs which are expressed in the interviews would not really please the  Ayatollahs presently ruling Iran. It would be interesting to further assess whether Karl Marx’ statement, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people” does really apply here. These settled tribesmen still live in accord with nature which might at time be utterly cruel. But nature doesn’t oppress, although it needs to be comprehended and controlled in order to avert harm, illness, or destitution; to meet some of the basic aspirations in life, health, marriage, children and their well-being. Few of these, well, superstitious beliefs expressed here are actually based on orthodox Shi’a Islam as imposed on the Iranians after 1979.

Both Loeffler and Friedl do author each of a chapter about the Boyer Ahmadi (supplemented with a few rare pictures taken in the 1980s by Nasrollah Kasraian) in Richard Tapper’s and Jon Thompson’s The Nomadic Peoples of Iran (Thames & Hudson, London 2002) about which I had written before, see here.

July 21, 2012 @ 11:15

Last modified July 21, 2012.

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