Ali Ilahi

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The sub-sect of the Ali-ilahis, as they are called by their neighbours, or Ahl-i Haqq as they prefer to call themselves is a variety of Shi'ite extremism (ghulat) obviously forming a super-structure over an earlier primitive religion. What this was, we cannot yet determine. In any case it was neither Zoroastrianism, nor ancient Babylonian religion, nor yet Christianity. The Ali-ilahis themselves always like to advance the theory that their beliefs are the same as those of the Alawis (Nusayris) of Syria. This is extremely doubtful, however, and the case most probably is that the Ali-ilahis who claim such connection themselves have no idea of the Nusayri religious theories. What forms the common element in Ali-ilahisim and Nusayrism, and, in addition Druzism and Satpanth, is merely the Shi'ite extremist view point, and this is obviously not enough for these religions to be regarded as coming from one common stock.

There is, in fact, a substantial difference between Ali-ilahism on the one hand, and Druzism and Nusayrism on the other. While the last two Shi' ite sects are strictly confined to one nation, speaking one and the same language, and ethnically homogeneous, the case of Ali-ilahism is different. It forms the religion of various tribes and ethnical groups, speaking different languages, and scattered amongst the population belonging to different religions. Turkish, Kurdish, Gurani, Luri and Persian, are used by them in various parts of the country, but, although the sect is divided into many sub-sects or branches, the sense of unity is nevertheless in existence. Thus Ali-ilahism, and Satpanth, are not "tribal" religions, but are independent from ethnical and class affiliation. In Satpanth it is easy, to assess its Hinduistic and Tantric base because these two systems are still going strong and are well-known. In the case of Ali-ilahism such original base does not exist independently, and is entirely forgotten. We can only hope to find some information about it when Ali-ilahism is properly studied and all its non Islamic elements reliably traced and identified.

The greatest difficulty that faces the student of Ali-ilahism is the absence of original works of the sect. I was often told that the heads of the sect, whose headquarters are in the hills near Kerind, a town on the Kermanshah-Baghdad road, possess a library of Saranjam literature, the books of which are stored in rows (qatâr ba-qatâr). It seems, however, that this is pure imagination, and apparently the Ali-ilahis have no recognized and standard religious works from which one can obtain a complete idea of their religion. For the most part, it seems, just as in the case of Satpanth, religious knowledge is embodied in religious poems by different authors, and especially kalamsi.e. utterings of various saints or manifestations of the Divine Substance. These are just as polyglottic as the Satpanth gnans . Those books which like the text translated by V. Minorsky deal, in prose, with various religious subjects, are mostly the productions of people of scanty education who try to commit to writing, for memory only, what they have heard from their priests, who are supposed to be the real guardians of the oral tradition. These gentlemen are extremely jealous of their privileges and part with their knowledge only very unwillingly, perhaps not without accepting some tangible proofs of gratitude from those who are very keen to learn more about it. Therefore we have nothing but hasty records of various stories, mostly extolling the miraculous deeds of various incarnations of the Deity or different saints. The miracles, and stories about them, are predominantly of two types. One is intended to glorify the saints and their acts for didactic purposes, and the other explains the origin of this or that practice or custom in Ali-ilahi worship, the aetiological myths, ithbat . The uneducated authors of such notes, being absorbed with the story itself, very often concentrate on the dramatic contents of the tradition, not bringing out clearly the religious implications of the story and its purpose or simply disregarding them. Thus they turn tradition into all accumulation of religious fairy tales from which it is difficult to get any clear or useful idea of the system.

The basic theory of Ali-ilahism is that of the Shi'ite extremism in general, namely of the manifestation of the Divine Substance in human form in this world. "Manifestations of the Divine Substance", as well informed Ali-ilahis say, "were numberless." The one that occurred at the beginning of the Islamic era was in the form of Ali b. Abi Talib. Thus, although the terms Imam or Imamat are not mentioned, it appears that the idea is the same as in Ismailism, in its Fatimid interpretation, according to which the world cannot exist without the Imam.

It is also to parallel with other Shi'ite sects that manifestations of the Divine Substance, are always accompanied by the manifestations of several, in this case of four, associates, yârûn-i chahâr malak, as they are called, and in addition a female associate (which is not found in Ismailism) .This to some extent resembles a reduced programme of the Ismaili conception of religious history of the world which is divided into seven periods of millennial duration dawr) at the beginning of which an Apostle of God, Natiq is sent to humanity, accompanied by his Asas, or Wasi, and the latter followed by seven Imams, each accompanied by twelve hujjats .In tribal life, with its narrow limits of vision, such a grand progamme would surely have been excessive, and, perhaps, this is why the number of the associates has been reduced.

The fact that it is the Imam who is here number one, and not the Prophet, is easily explained by the evolution common to all sects with extremist tendencies. Such beliefs are already attested by the earliest known heresiological works and, despite the strong opposition that they met in the Islamic society as a whole, they always indicated the tendency to further intensification. Not only Persian darwishes, but even orthodox lthna-'asharism has not escaped this.

From whence comes that strange term applied to the associates of the incarnation, malak , "angel"? At first it appears to be the influence of Christianity. We may remember, however, that there were "angels" in the Khattâbite doctrine as early as the first half of the second eighth c., although their functions were different. In the ideas of the various incarnations we find that the earliest set was headed by Sahabkar, i.e. God, accompanied by the Biblical and Coranic angels : Jabrail, Mîkâ'il, and others. It is difficult to find out whether this is merely a late addition, to add symmetry to the general scheme, and make subsequent incarnations manifestations of those original substances.

At the time of the manifestation of Ali, as an incarnation of the Divine Substance, we find the names of the "four angels" which show apparently a very late origin. The first is Salmân (Fârsî), that Persian national Shi' ite saint. Next to him comes Qanbar, a legendary Negro slave of Ali who is hardly ever mentioned in early Shi'ite tradition, but becomes a prominent person under the Safawids and later. Only the third place is given to Muhammed the Prophet. The fourth is reserved to Nusayr, probably on account of the tendency to make Ali-ilahism the same as Nusayrism. Apparently an original Ali-ilahi feature is the addition of a female incarnation, here Fâtima, the daughter of the Prophet. This development may be due to Christian influences and to the difference of the position of woman in tribal life compared with that in the towns, or, perhaps, even almost completely obliterated trace of some ancient cult of the Mother Goddess which flourished in Mesopotamia.

From all the stories which are accessible to us now it is not easy to see the real purpose of the incarnation of the Deity in human form. In the fragment edited here the Deity, before disappearing, appoints the four Angels and their associates "to carry on the preaching and guidance of men towards God" (da'wat wa hidayat kunand ba-suy-i Jawhar). Nothing is said of the Incarnation giving any law or introducing reforms. Vague references are incidentally made to a certain "unutterable mystery" which the Deity will reveal.

The names of the incarnations and their principal associates may be reminiscences of certain Ali-ilahi tribal heroes or saints. But it is quite possible that at least some, in the case of the incarnations of the Deity, as "Jawhar" here, are conventionalized surnames invented to camouflage their memory from the uninitiated. Apparently there is no chronology, and no "history" . Tribal existence is so monotonous in the struggle against want, nature, and interminable feuds, and the style of life is so stagnant that a century or two hardly makes any difference to the story.

The intensely tribal atmosphere of these fragments which are so far known make the problem of the origin of Ali-ilahism extremely difficult to solve. When and how had it become a religion independent of a community? What was the organisation which had brought about such unity of belief? Or, if in reality it was born as a tribal religion, what were the historical conditions which led to adoption by other peoples, speaking different languages? These and many other questions cannot be answered at present. We do not even know what exactly is the hierarchy and religious organisation of Ali-ilahism, because the ordinary adepts, for the most part illiterate people, know too little and have no intellectual keenness to ask themselves such questions. Their Sayyids, priests, are too concerned with guarding their traditional privileges, and are clever enough to do everything they can to preserve the illusion of their being the treasurers of some mysteries of extraordinary importance. They would be the last men to give reliable information, or especially hand over what they possess of their religious books.

The Ali-ilahis are subdivised into a considerable number of sub-sects, and it always so happens that the one to which the sectarian, with whom you happen to be talking himself belongs, is the oldest, the most important, influential and "orthodox". The names of such branches are differently given by different people, and the impression may be created that no-one knows anything for certain, always being ready to "improvise" the answer concerning matters of which he has no idea.

The religious practice of the sect consists of the usual items of Islamic worship, without, however, its Arabic shell. The most important un-Islamic feature is the jam', or community's meeting at which sacrificial blessed food is distributed. It is, in fact, a close parallel of the Satpanth ghat-pat . There are also fasts, payment of a religious tax, and so forth, which are technically called khidmat, "service." The number of the khidhmats is ten, and this number is apparently fixed. It is characteristic of the level of the religious education of the sect that despite my persistent inquiries at every opportunity of meeting any sectarian, I could never get a complete list of all ten. The text translated by Minorsky contains several aetiological myths of various khidhmats , but it is difficult to recognize them without knowing to what they refer.

The outlines given above will be sufficient to help the reader to follow the text of the fragment edited here. It would be a deplorable loss for the cultural history of Asia if the beliefs and literature of the sect were allowed to become extinct and forgotten without having been critically studied, because here we may trace important data that might serve as the keys to the solution of the problems of "sub-cultural" exchange and connections of wide masses.


 

 

 

 

 


 Page last updated: Friday, July 11, 2008 16:40:35 -0400