Yaresanism

The followers of Yârsânism, also known as the Yârisân, Aliullâhi, Ali-llâhi (i.e., "those who deify Ali"), Alihaq, Ahl-i Haqq ("the People of Truth") or Ahl-i Haq ("the People of the Spirit" [Hâk or Haqj), Sha Ytânparass (devil-worshippers), Nusayri ("the Nazarenes," i.e., Christians), etc-, are concentrated in southern Kurdistan in both Iran and Iraq. Their domain roughly coincides with that of the Gurâni (including the Laki) Kurdish dialect, with some major exceptions. The faith is loosely divided at present into two or three, very unequal sects.

1) The Ahl-i Haq have been increasingly identified with mainstream Shi'ite Islam, yet follow for their religious instruction the MYstic order led by Nurafi Ilâhi (himself a minor avatar, d. 1974) and his father Ni'matullah Jayhunâbâdi. Nurali llâhi is the author of the venerated book Burhân, which serves as the religious manual for the Ahl-i Haq. Despite Ahl-i Haq's apparent enthusiasm to at least appear to have merged with mainstream lmâmi Shi'ism (or claim that the religion is an independent Shi'ite sect), a short review of the Burhân and study of the discourses of Nurali llâhi and his father leave not a shred of doubt that this is only a pretense intended to protect the Ahl-i Haq from the wrath of their Muslim neighbors. As late as the 1920s, as Nurali relates, the Muslims were lynching and crucifying Yârsân followers.

2) The Tâyifasân have only recently begun to associate with the pragmatic approach and teachings of Nurali vis-a-vis Islam. However, they are not as enthusiastic about an open association with Shi'ism as Ahl-i Haq. Nurali claims the Tâyifasân to be his foflowers, not very different from the Ahl-i Haq. These two groups are the most urban and urbane of the Yârsân sects, and show the most influence from modern Iranian society. Their small branch in Irag follows their lead.

3) The traditionalists consist of the commoners and village folk, who constitute the overwhelming majority, and call themselves the Yârsân, but also on occasion the Nusayri or Aliullâhi. They are the most readily targeted for abuse by their Muslim neighbors, but they are also the ones who are the most faithful to the tenets of the ancient religion. They make no pretense to be Muslims. Since they constitute by far the largest group, the appellation Yârsân here is considered to represent this entire branch of the Cult of Angels. The name is believed by the Yârsâns to have evolved from yâr-i sân, "the companion, or people of the Sultan," i.e., Sultan Sahâk. This seems to be a folk etymology, and the true meaning waits to be discovered.

Yârsânism possesses an impressive body of religious cosmogony. It holds that the world was created when the Universal Spirit (Haq) who resided in Aza4 "Pre-Eternity," in (or as) a pearl, manifested itself in a primary avatar (Zâti Bashar) the Lord God (Khâwandagâr), and signaled the First of the Seven Epochs (Biyâbas) of universal life. The Lord God then proceeded to create the world. The Spirit further manifested itself in five secondary avatars (Zâti Mihtnân), to form the Holy Seven with the Spirit itself. And this was the original Epoch of Creation, the Sâjnâri, or "Genesis" (See Table below).

The First Epoch was followed by another six (one Zâti Bashar and five Zâti Mihmân). In each one the Spirit manifested itself in six new avatars, to form the seven for that epoch of the universal life.While the avatars of the First Epoch can be closely matched by name to the archangels of the Semitic religions, the avatars of the Second Epoch, which begins with Ali as the primary avatar, are all Muslim figures, except for Nusayr. Nusayr may be interpreted as referring to the "Nazarene," i.e., Jesus Christ, or as Nârsch, the minor avatar who later came to be known as Theophobus. The Third Epoch belongs to Shâh Khushin or Khurshid, "the Sun," that is, the God Mithras or Mihr and his cycle.

The Fourth Epoch begins with Sultan Sahâk, whose accompanying avatars are primarily jewish figures, like Moses, David, and Benjamin. The avatars of the Seventh Epoch bear names followed by the Truck honorific title beg, "master." These changes in the character and origin of the names of the avatars of each epoch may reflect the social and historical events that were occurring in the national life of the Kurds at the time. Possible influential events include the outbreak of the Mithraist movement (2nd century BC to 3rd century AD) in northern and western Kurdistan; the introduction of the Judeo-Christian tradition into central Kurdistan in the 1st century BC and in the rest of Kurdistan up to the 7th century AD; the coming of Islam in the 7th century; the Turkic invasions of the 12th-15th centuries; and the nomadization of Kurdish society in the 17th- 19th centuries.

The names of the avatars of the Fifth Epoch may also signify early medieval revolutionary movements within the Cult. The name of the primary avatar of the epoch, Qirmizi, meaning "the Red One," may be either Bâbak or Nârseh. The red clothing and banner of these revolutionarics have already been mentioned above. The element yâr, "companion, disciple," found in the names of the two secondary avatars of this epoch was commonly found in the given names of individuals in the early medieval period. A relevant example is Mâzyâr (Mâh Yazd Yâr, meaning "the companion of the Angel of Media"), the name of a Cult revolutionary who rose up simultaneously with Bâbak and Nârseh in the Caspian Sea regions (Rekaya 1973). There was, meanwhile, a secret society or brotherhood of plebeians and their revolutionary reformers operating in nearby Baghdad under the title the Ayyârs, "the companions."

The avatars of the Fourth Epoch and Sahâk himself are now held by the Yârsâns to have been the most important of the Spirit's manifestations after the First, and ethereal one, headed by the Lord God. The Alevis consider the Second Epoch and Ali to occupy this primary station, while the much-corrupted Yezidi cosmogonical tradition entitles Shaykh Adi and his avatars to that place of importance, even though it is not clear to which Epoch they are assigned.

Khâwandagâr, Ali, and Sahâk form a Supreme Three within the Seven for the Yârsâns; the Alevis have Khâwandagâr, Ali, and Bektâsh (see Sufi Mystic Orders); while Lucifer, Adi, and Yezid serve the purpose for the Yezidis. The Yezidis place Lucifer or Malak Tâwus among the avatars of the primary or First Epoch. On Table 6 this translates into Lucifer replacing Khâwandagâr himself, as otherwise Lucifer would not both fit in the First Epoch and have Adi as one of his primary avatars in the following Epochs. Each manifestation reincarnates into his or her successor in station in the next Epoch. Thus Khâwandagâr reincarnates into Ali in the Second Epoch, into Shâh Khushin in the Third, into Sultân Sahâk in the Fourth, and so on.

In each epoch there is a female avatar of the Universal Spirit, a reflection of the higher status of women in the Kurdish culture and tradition.

The greatest personage in Yârsânism, Sultan Sahâk, is with increasing frequency referred to as Sultan Is'hâq, i.e., an Islamicized form of Isaac, by some apologetic Ahl-i Haq and Tâyifasây. This title would obviously fit rather nicely with the other judaic names of the avatars of the Fourth Epoch. In his new garb, Sahâk, or "Is'hâq," is contended to have been born sometime between the 11th and 13th centurics in the venerated city of Barzanja, southeast of Sulaymânia (now the center of the Qâdiri Sufi order; see Sufi Mystic Orders. In fact Shaykh Mahmud, the Qâdiri Sufi master who following World War I led a 12-year-long revolt against the British administration in Iraq and subsequently proclaimed himself the "King of Kurdistan" (see Modern History) claimed to be descended from a brother of Sultan Sahâk in the twelfth generation. The traditionalist Yârsâns, on the other hand, believe Sahâk to have been superhuman, a supreme avatar of the Universal Spirit, who lived many centuries, possessed mysterious powers, and lives on as a protective mountain spirit in caves on the high peaks.

Sahâk is the much corrupted form of Dhahâk or Dahâk, which also served as the royal title of the last Median ruler, Rshti-vegâ Äzhi Dahâk (see Ancient History). The name is encountered in various versions throughout the classical and medieval periods in the Zagros region, and everywhere else that the Kurds happened to settle, including Armenia. There is a St. Sâhâk Bartev, an Armenian Catholicos who lived in the late 4th and early 5th centuries AD; there are many other luminaries in early medieval Armenia with this name. At the time Armenia was receiving a large number of Kurdish immigrants from the southeast (see Classical History and Historical Migrations).

According to Yârsânism, humans are the end product of the worldly evolutionary journey of the soul. The soul begins its journey by entering inanimate objects. Upon completion of that experience, the soul lives within plants, then animals. Eventually, the soul enters the body of a man or a woman. Thus he or she contains four natures: those of objects, plants, animals, and mankind. At the moment of entry into the human body, the soul begins a new transmigratory journey, which can last for 1001 reincarnations, equivalent in time to the 50,000 years allotted to the universe. This is called the Dun ba Dun stage (variously interpreted to mean "oblivion to oblivion," i.e., indicating movement from one mortal body to another, or "garb to garb," implying the same thing). At the end of this evolutionary journey, a man/woman reaches salvation and becomes a human, a holy, perfect being worthy of his/her new station in the high heavens and his/her total union with the Universal Spirit.

Salvation in Yârsânism is the responsibility of the individual. The community has no responsibility to help one reach humanity. Even the assistance provided by religious teachers and masters is voluntary guidance and not a duty. The presence or absence of this guidance at any rate has no bearing on the status of the soul of the pupil. Theoretically it is possible for man to reach the high station of humanity through a single life period of high endeavor. Conversely, it may require the entire cycle of 1000 reincarnated lives (the last life after the one-thousandth is the life of salvation and does not count in the Dun ba Dun). Sinning individuals may be reincarnated in the regressed form of an animal, the life of which is not then counted among the 1000 lives. Nor is

TABLE: COSMOGONICAL EPOCHS AND THE AVATARS OF THE UNIVERSAL SPIRIT IN YARSANISM.


Legend: *Conceived without a father
  ** Conceived without a mother
  ? Too many or no candidates

Sources: Khazâna, Shâhnâtna-i Haqiqat, and Burhân.

reincarnation into the body of a newborn who dies before reaching 40 days of age counted. If after the 1000 lives of Dun ba Dun or at the end of universe's 50,000 years (which ever comes first) a soul has not yet succeeded in elevating itself to the station of a human, then it will be judged, along with other failed souls, at the Final Judgment or Pardivari, "the bridge crossing."

Because of this strong belief in reincarnation, the dead are scarcely mourned by the Yârsâns, as they are expected to return soon, if not immediately, in the body of a newborn. Indeed, it was not uncommon until relatively recently for priests to try to identify the exact newborn to whom the soul of a deceased person had transmigrated.

Like other branches of the Cult of Angels, Yarsânism does not have a divine holy book as such. They possess instead a body of sayings, or kalâm, and traditions, or deftar, which they treat as their holy scriptures. These have been composed at various times and languages, each at an epoch-making turn in the long history of the religion. The most important kalâm is that of Saranjâm ("Conclusion") also known as the kalâm of Khazâna (perhaps meaning "Repositor)e'), and contains the sayings of Sultan Sahâk, his contemporary saints, and other Yârsân religious figures who preceded him. This is considered to be the paramount work and supersedes all others in authority. The work is in verse and written in the Awrâmani dialect of Gurâni. Other kalârns and deftars are in Gurâni, but also in Luri, Persian, and various Turkic dialects. Other major works are the Dawrai Bahiul, ascribed to the mysterious Bahlul Mâhi (Bahlul the Median) of the Sth century AD, written in verse in an archaic form of Gurâni. Shâhnâma-i Haqiqat, by Ni'matullah Jayhunâbâdi Mukri and the Burhân by Nurali Ilâl-ii, both are, on the other hand, written recently in Persian with a smattering of Gurâni and Koranic quotations in Arabic.

The center of Yârsânism is deep inside the Gurân region at the town of Gahwâra (or Gawâra), 40 miles west of Kjrmânshâh. The shrine of Bâbâ Yâdigâr, in an eponymous village 50 miles northwest of Gahwâra, now serves as one of Yârsânism's holiest sites. Two days before the festival of the New Year, or New Ruz (see Festivals, Ceremonies, & Calendar), believers visit the shrine and participate in chants that assume the form of a dialectic on the principles of Yârsânism. The religious teacher and master, or pir, recites a formula posing a question, which is answered by the believers by another formula. The tradition of dialectics in religious discourse and ceremoniel chants has deep roots in the Zagros region. It is also found in the Zoroastrian religious commentaries of the Zand-i Avestâ and the poetic style of all peoples inhabiting the Zagros chain. A ritual also practiced by the Yârsâns on this occasion is the sacrifice of a rooster. (To the Yezidis, the rooster serves as the venerated announcer of the Sun, so to them this Yârsân practice would be a sacrilege beyond all bounds.)

Despite the impressiveness of what remains of the religious beliefs and tradition, much more has been forgotten, garbled, and fabricated in all branches of the Cult of Angels. The most important religious terminologies, cycles of events, and pivotal points of the religion are derived from popular etymologies, common superstitions, pseudo-histories, and plain fabrications by the imaginative minds of the Yârsân religious masters, the pirs. The important cosmogonical events of Sâjnâri and Perdivari are celebrated and venerated with very little knowledge of even their literal meaning beyond a flimsy popular etymology.

The striking physical attribute of the followers of Yârsânism is the tradition among men of not cutting or trimming their mustaches. In fact, they are allowed to grow to extreme sizes. The beard, on the other hand, is always shaved. The habit is prohibited by Islam (according to which the mustache must always be kept very short) but became the outward hallmark of the extremist Shi'ites, who adopted it from the Alevis. The faces of the Safavid kings, clean-shaven other than their great bushy mustaches as they are recorded in the paintings of the period, could be those of any of the followers of the Cult of Angels as seen today. The habit is no longer practiced by the mainstream Shi'ites because it is disallowed under Islam. The practice has thus once again become the exclusive habit of the followers of the Cult of Angels, particularly the Yârsâns and the Yezidis.

The followers of Yârsânism are now found in one large concentration in southern Kurdistan and many secondary concentrations outside Kurdistan proper, in the Alburz Mountains, Azerbaijan, and Iraq (see Table 5). The famous medieval poet Bâbâ Tâhir and the 19th-century poet Adib al-Mamâlik were adherents of this faith. (In fact, Bâbâ Tâhir is among the secondary avatars of the Third Epoch.) The Sârili, the Kâka'i, and the Bazhalân (also known as the Bajalân and the Bajarwân) Kurds, occupying in separate pockets the area between Qasri Shirin, Kirkuk, and Mosul, practice some variations of Yârsânism as weil. Presently the followers of Yârsânism constitute roughly 1 O- 1 5% of the Kurds.

Furtber Readings and Bibliography: V, Minorsky, "Ahl-i Haqq," in The Encyclopaedia of Islam; Mohammed Mokri, Le Chasseur de Dieu et le mythe du Roi-Aigle (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1967); Shâh-Nâma-ye Haqiqat, French commentary and partial translation by Mohammad Mokri (Paris: Institute Fran@ais d'lranologie, Bibliothéque Iraiiieiine, 1971); Robert Canfield, "What They Do When the Lights Are Out: Myth and Social Order in Afghanistan," paper presented at the ACLS/SSRC Joint Committee on the Near and Middle East Conference on Symbols of Social Differentiation (Baltimore, 1978); Reza M. Hamzeh'i, The Yaresan: A Sociological, Historical and Religio-Hi5torical Study of a Kurdish Community (Berlin: Klaus Schwarz Verlag, 1990); W. Ivanow, The Truth-Worshippers of Kurdistan: Ahl-i Haqq Text5 (Leiden: BriH, 1953); V. Minorsky, "Notes sur la secte des Ahlé Haqq," Revue du Monde Musulman 40-41 (1920 and 1921); Mohammed Mokri, Recherclics de kurdologie: Gontribution scientifique aux études iraniennes (Paris: Klincksieck, 1970); Dale Eickelman, The Middle East. An Anthropological Approach (Englewood Cliffs: PrenticeHall, 1981); Henry Rawlinson, lourneyfrom Zohab to Khuzistan (London, 1836); Henry Rawlinson, "Notes on a march from Zohab," Journal of Royal Geographic Society (London, 1839); John Macdonald Kinnier, A Geographical Memoir of the Persian Empire (London, 18 13); John Macdonald Kinilier, Journey through Asia Minor, Armeiiia and Koordistati, III the years 1813 and 1814 (London, 1818); Edith Porada, "Of Deer, Bells and Pomegranates, Iranica Antiqua vii (1967); Mohammed Mokri, LEsotérisme kurde (Paris, 1966); Matti Moosa, Extremist Shiites: The Ghulat Sects (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1988); M. Rekaya, "Meâr: Résistance ou integration d'un province iranienne au monde musulman au mdieu du IXe siécle ap. J.C.," Studia Iranica 2 (1973).

 

Sources: The Kurds, A Concise Handbook, By Dr. Mehrdad R. Izady, Dep. of Near Easter Languages and Civilazation Harvard University, USA, 1992