A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Heterodox Muslim and Non-Muslim Sects of the Middle East: First of a Series

When the rise of the Islamic State led to extensive killings and enslavement of Yazidis (Yezidis, etc.) in 2014, the media was not only unsure how to spell it (which is in part as much about etymology as transliteration), but how to characterize the faith: is it an offshoot of Islam? A heterodox Sufi order? Are they "devil-worshippers" as many Muslims believe? Are they polytheists? A sect of Zoroastrianism? Arguments can be made that they are a little bit of all these things, but not defined by any of them. And the Yazidis are just one of a number of relic sects, mostly found in remote areas (the Kurdish or Syrian mountains, the Iraqi Marshes) where Islam largely left them alone. Most are secretive about their beliefs in part to avoid accusations of heresy. And unlike the equally varied Christians of the Middle East and the remaining Jewish populations, they have no obvious foreign patrons, other than small diasporas, to advocate for them.

There are many of these small sects, or separate religions, some with overlapping or similar beliefs, others unrelated. They range in size and prominence from the Syrian ‘Alawites, who dominate the Asad regime, and the Druze, who are prominent in Lebanon, Syria, and Israel/Palestine, to tiny groups limited to a few villages.. Both of the big sects tend to portray themselves as Muslim sects, the ‘Alawites more convincingly than the Druze.

The Middle East is a palimpsest of all the peoples and faiths that have passed through, and many have left traces. Many of these surviving small groups combine bits of extreme (ghulat) Shi‘ism, Sufi mysticism, gnostic elements of esoteric (batini) versions of Islam, ideas of emanations of the divine from Neoplatonism and orthodox and unorthodox Zoroastrianism, and concepts like metempsychosis and reincarnation. Christian elements also can be found. (Not all at once, of course.) And some, like the Mandaeans of Iraq and southwestern Iran, and the Druze, do not fit this generalization perfectly.

An example of this syncretism are the Shabak, a small ethnic group and sect found in the Mosul area. Theologically they have links to the Yazidis and the Ahl-i Haqq or Yarsanis. (No relation to the Israeli Internal Security Service known as Shin Bet or Shabak.) They make pilgrimages to both Yazidi and Shi‘ite shrines, including Najaf and Karbala. They practice a form of confession similar to Christianity. They venerate the Sufi poetry of Shah Isma‘il I, founder of the Safavid dynasty in Iran, and some historians believe they may be descendants of the Qizilbash movement that backed him.

Most speak either Kurdish or the Shabaki dialect of Gorani, itself close to Kurdish, though a few speak Arabic. Yet their holy book, the Buyruk, is written in Turkoman.

If you are confused, welcome to the club. Adding to the confusion is the fact that like similar groups, they have an elite class, the pirs, who are privy to the full secrets of the faith, not necessarily shared with the rank and file. In the days before modern anthropology, these groups were mainly known through medieval Sunni catalogs of "heresies," such as Al-Baghdadi's Al-Farq bayn al Firaq and Al-Shahrastani's Kitab al-Milal wa'l-Nihal. These interpret the sects through a Sunni lens usually beginning from the hadith that runs, "‘The Jews were divided into 71 or 72 sects as were the Christians. My Ummah will be divided into 73 sects." But few of these groups pretend to be Sunni, so the heresiographers concentrate on refutation rather than description.

Though there is much anthropological literature out there, the inherent secrecy of these groups raises questions of reliability. And the early history and evolution of these groups remains obscure.

I want to spend as long as needed to survey as many as possible of these groups. By looking at several categories that make it easier to deal with several at a time. I see this as a long-term series to introduce these small, somewhat fossilized faiths. And I have resisted the temptation to title the series The Joy of Sects.


jroddy said...

Looking forward to the series, and disappointed that you didn't go with "Joy of Sects" as a series title.

Glenn Meyer said...

Great idea for a series! I hope you don't mind a few beginners. Your introduction was, well, difficult for me to follow, about as dense a collection of subsects as I have run across. If there's a broad outline that you'd recommend as an introduction, I'd appreciate a reference. And thanks for the pun, even if you didn't use it as the series title.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

I don't, but will try todefine terms better in future posts.