The followers of the Yarsani faith are called by many names and scattered across at least three countries. The creation of this faith is often attributed to Islamic Sufism (the mystical branch of Islam) but the Yarsan themselves claim that their beliefs have always been and Islam is a heresy of Yarsanism. They are often called Ahl-e Haqq (people of the Truth) or Kaka’i, but refer to themselves as Yarsan — The Friends of God.
Creation and God
Yarsani believe in one god who created the earth and the beings in it. He then left the earth. However, he reappears occasionally in an incarnate form. There are six incarnations that all Yarsani are required to know — Benjamin, David, Mustafa, Sir Musi, Khatun-e Razbur, and Sultan Sahak. These incarnations spoke the true teachings of God. The latest and most closely followed teacher is Sultan Sahak.
Sultan Sahak was the son of Khatun-e Razbur, the only female incarnation. While she was sleeping under a pomegranate tree a bird came to eat the fruit. While it was eating, a pomegranate seed fell into Khatun-e’s open mouth. This seed grew into a baby. Thus the Sultan is virgin born. He is the founder of their faith and God’s premier incarnation.
The Inner and Outer World
There are two worlds according to the Sultan’s teachings. First, there is the material world that we can all see and experience. Everyone is aware of and functioning within this world. However, there is also a second “inner” world that is only revealed to the select few. This world can only be understood by the secret teachings of those who have come before and by the seekers only experience. The experiences and ‘visions’ of the chosen ones cannot be explained by those who are outside of the chosen group. They are serr, an impenetrable mystery.
It is because of this belief that many have draw parallels between the Yarsani and Islamic mystical orders like the Sufi, Druze, or Alawite. However, most of the Yarsani are very adamant that they are not associated with Islam at all. They are marked, in many ways, by their defiance of the majority Muslim culture that they live in. Yarsani try very hard to keep themselves separated from their Muslim neighbors. They don’t celebrate any Muslim holidays and often have established their villages in difficult to reach mountain areas. In general, they want nothing to do with the world outside of the Yarsani.
The most startling point of separation is that the Yarsani (like the Yezidi we mentioned before) believe in the transmigration of souls. In their teachings, each soul must migrate 1,001 times in order to become perfect. After it’s 1,001st migration the soul is made one with God. However, one may choose to come back to earth to teach those who have not yet reached perfection. Those who have done this include the six mentioned above, as well as anywhere from 40-200 others who are not remembered by name.
Reform or Heresy?
There is a group of Yarsani ‘reformists’ who are trying to associate their beliefs back with Islamic roots. They claim a descent from Ali (one of Mohammed’s successors) and want to get back to more ‘orthodox’ systems of belief. The reformists are mocked by the traditional Yarsani for giving into the ‘ways of the world’. A traditionalist would see this group as heretics and traitors of the worst kind.
A religion that bases most of its beliefs on the experience of its people doesn’t put a lot of worth in written scriptures. They would see it as trying to explain one greater world through the limits of the lesser world. There is a quality to the second world that simply cannot be contained in words, paper, and ink. They do have the writings of their Sultan, but these are generally not to be seen by anyone outside of the inner circle of adherents. These are referred to as Kalam-e Saranjam. They have not been translated or modified in any way since they were written in the 15th century. Some do not think that these writings even exist anymore, so rarely are they seen.
If they do exist, there are only a small handful of people within the Yarsani who are allowed to see them. This is the ruling class know as Sayyeds are believed to be direct descendants of Sultan Sahak. The Sayyed do not rule in the sense of being the tribal leaders. Their leadership is not passed from father to son but is a state of spiritual maturity that any man can come to. The Sayyed leads a group of followers that are considered his tribe. These “family relationships” go so far as to forbid marriage between followers and the family of the Sayyed. It would be like marrying your sibling. Each follower pledges to follow his Sayyed as a son to his father, promising to follow his teachings to discover the truth of the other world. These groups are known as khandan.
Within each of these groups there are four basic ranks of people. The first are those who have a preliminary knowledge of the teachings of the Kalam-e Saranjam. This basically covers anyone who is born Yarsani. The second rank belongs to those who are seeking after truth. They are striving to master or fully understand the teachings of the Sultan. Third are those who dedicate themselves not just to the “book learning” but begin to seek out the experiences of mysticism. The fourth and final rank are those who have reached the ultimate truth and are able to lead others along the way.
Equal Opportunity Spiritualism (for men)
Yarsani differ vastly from the other tribal systems around them because of these beliefs. They believe that any man can become a high ranking leader given enough time and dedication. They are not loyal to their biological families, but to the teacher they choose to follow. There is even a ceremony, when a child is about a year old, wherein the child is pledged or dedicated to the Sayyed. This also gives an explanation for how they as a people have managed to spread themselves out in secluded places over much of the Middle East. The Sayyeds seek to shield their followers from distraction, and the followers want to show their dedication to the Sayyed they have chosen.
Godfather of Nutmeg
When the men these groups meet together for teaching and the singing of sacred songs it is known as a jam. These jam sessions (sorry, I couldn’t help myself!) must be presided over by the Sayyed as he is the only one who knows the holy prayers. The jam is held in a circle, with the participants facing one another. This symbolizes their equality and that the divine presence is at the center of the meeting. Each man must be purified, dressed for travel and have his head covered. This conveys readiness to serve and respect for the divine.
When a jam is convened and called to order, no one is allowed to leave or even shift from their seated position. They must all remain perfectly still until the session is completed. The exception is the man (and his helpers) whose job is to distribute the food among the followers. Each one is brought an equal portion before what is left is distributed to those outside the jam (generally women and young children). A prayer is said and they all eat. Once the eating is finished and the remnants of the meal cleared away, a pot of clean water is brought in. Each participant drinks from the pot. The water is supposed to have healing powers straight from heaven. Then another prayer is recited and the meeting breaks up.
While the food is being divided up and passed around, holy songs are sung to the accompaniment of the lute. All sing and play in complete synchronization. It can be a very compelling scene. (Watch this video to see what I mean). Many are brought into a state of ecstasy by the divine words. At the very least it produces a feeling of unity and equality among the group.
Often the food provided for the jam comes in the form of a sacrifice given by one or more of the followers. The sacrifices can be divided into three main groupings. The first is the niyaz or supplication offering. This can be anything eatable that has not been cooked. Sugar lumps, fruit, nuts and raw vegetables for example. This sacrifice can be given in order to ask for something (usually health or further enlightenment) or as a thanks for things given (a bountiful harvest or healing of a sick member)
The second sacrifice, qorbani, is given to fulfill a vow made in a time of distress. Qorbani can be “bloodless” in the form of pomegranate, fish, nutmeg, ceremonial bread, or grains roasted with sugar. Or it can be a blood sacrifice in the form of an unblemished male chicken, ox or goat that is less than a year old.
The third sacrifice is called khedemat and is only made on special occasions. It consists of three kilos of rice prepared with ghee and a blood sacrifice. Both of these sacrifices (qorbani and khedemat) must be given with a sufficient amount of bread. The bread is usually made by women while everything else must be prepared by the men. All food designated as a sacrifice is considered sealed until the Sayyed prays over it during the jam. Only then can it be eaten.
Pilgrimage and Fasting
There are two other events that all Yarsani males must participate in. The first is a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Sultan Sahak. This can be done at any time. The other is a three day winter fast. This fast is done in remembrance of the days that the Sultan was under siege from his own tribe. The Sultan had three half brothers who refused to give him the inheritance from his father. He asked for only three thing: a pot, a sofre (which is a kind of picnic mat), and a carpet. Little did his brothers know that these three things held the blessing, nobility, and religious leadership of the family.
When the brothers discovered this the Sultan Sahak had already been given the divine blessing from Benjamin, David, and Musi. These four were now hiding from the brothers in a cave. The brother brought all of their tribe against the four and kept them trapped. Then David took some dust and blew it out upon the gathered army. For three days a dark storm covered the land and the army began to fight and kill each other. During this time the imprisoned four fasted and held a jam. On the third day Sultan Sahak, Benjamin, David, and Musi emerged victorious they broke their fast with chicken and rice prepared by an old woman. The day after the fast was broken is also considered a holiday.
Isolationism Hasn’t Protected the Yarsani
Yarsani have much the separates them from those around them. They tend to physically separate themselves as well as ideologically. One thing they do have in common with the surrounding culture is the marginalization of women. Women are not allowed to learn any of the secrets of the faith, or be active participants in the jams (although women do play music sometimes in larger performances). They function primarily as a support system for the men. They are not valued or given any special roles or rights, in spite of the belief that one of the divine incarnations was a woman. Generally, women are the most ignorant of the teachings of Sultan Sahak.
The Yarsani and a secretive and likely dwindling group. They are scattered by persecution and wiped out by genocide. Their fierce fighting spirit and desire to be left alone by the outside world can only protect them for so long. They, along with the Yezidi, have felt the effects of ISIS, though the number of their losses is even more difficult to track. Some have chosen to be absorbed into Muslim society while still practicing their religion privately. Many others have died for their faith. This is truly, a rapidly disappearing group of people.
Read the introduction to this series on mystery religions here!
Then Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 on the Yezidi!
Help support those displaced from their homes in Northern Iraq.
“The Other Spiritualities of the Middle East” by Muhammed Al Da’Mi
“Kurdish Culture and Identity” by Philip Kreyenbroek and Christine Allison (Ziba Mir-Hosseini)