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Followers of the Truth
Interview with Partow Hooshmandrad on the music of the Ahl-i Haqq in Iranian Kurdistan


Jahanshah Javid
April 7, 2005
Partow Hooshmandrad has won a prestigious award from the National Geographic Society to continue her research and conservation efforts on the cultural heritage of the Kurdish Ahl-i Haqq of Guran (see photos of musicians and life in Kurdistan).

Hooshmandrad holds a Ph.D. from the University of Californian, Berkeley. She has done extensive research on the cultural heritage of the Ahl-i Haqq (Yarsan). The title of her dissertation is Performing the Belief: Sacred Musical Practice of the Kurdish Ahl-i Haqq of Guran (a copy of the manuscript may be ordered from UMI, University Microfilms International, in a few months).

As a scholar/performer, she specializes in the sacred musical practice of the Ahl-i Haqq of Guran and Iranian classical music. She has won numerous awards for research on the Ahl-i Haqq and Iranian classical music including generous fellowships from the University of California, Berkeley’s Music Department, Hertz fellowship, Mellon grants, Humanities grants, University of California Center for Middle Eastern Studies Al-Falah grant, and a grant from the Kurdish National Congress.

Tell us about the Ahl-i Haqq?

Ahl-i Haqq (Yaresan) is a unique religion with the fundamental teaching that the power of God, following the original stage of nothingness or absolute oneness, manifests itself in a cyclic manner in seven layers. This sevenfold power of God is called the Haftan.

The first complete earthly cycle of the manifestation of the Ahl-i Haqq religion goes back to about eight hundred years ago when Sultan Sahak Barzanji revealed the faith in the Hawramanat Kurdish region.

Ahl-i Haqq respects all religious beliefs. However, even though it might share some universal ideas that are present in other spiritual teachings and religions, Ahl-i Haqq is a distinct faith.

A variety of original and sometimes borrowed terminology and ideas are employed to exclusively express their worldview. These include unique titles, unique objects, unique concepts, numbers, the letters of the alphabet, colors, flowers, fruits, fragrances and herbs, characters in Iranian mythology and history, elements from other religions, and other elements. Borrowed ideas from other sources are sometimes altered to one degree or another to help best express Ahl-i Haqq’s own teachings. Thus the objective in the use of ideas and entities is to correctly and clearly express their belief system in multiple ways through those concepts and entities.

Even though some Sufi and Islamic ideas and terminology (especially those of Shi’i Islam) are present in their sacred texts and in the culture of their daily life, the Ahl-i Haqq people are not Muslims or Sufis by definition [Sufism: A generic term used for various esoteric traditions within Islam (definition provided by Professor Hamid Algar of UC Berkeley’s Near Eastern Studies Department]. This statement is based on the opinion of the Khamushi and Yadegari Families of the Ahl-i Haqq of Guran, my own observation of their daily life and customs in the last 4-5 years, and most importantly the presence of abundant indications in the body of their Sacred Poems (Daftar).

The majority of the Ahl-i Haqq people are Kurds who live in the Kermanshah province in the Kurdish area of Western Iran. They are also scattered in other parts of Iran and of the world.

My research is based on the views of the Ahl-i Haqq of the Guran region in the Kermanshah province, with special concentration on the Khamushi and Yadegari Families (Khandans). These two Khandans are associated with the sacred figure A Sayyid Beraka Haydari (1795-96 AD/1210 HQ; Sultani, 2001-2: 38) who renewed the Ahl-i Haqq religion about two hundred years ago. Guran is known for maintaining the oldest tradition of Ahl-i Haqq practices, including the musical repertoire. I have not had the opportunity to work with the other respected Khandans of Ahl-i Haqq.

The Ahl-i Haqq people are among the most peaceful, generous, and humble people I have ever met in my lifetime.

What were your impressions of daily life, the neighborhood, surroundings, nature, and people you met during your time there. What personal stories can you share with us?

Life was quite peaceful in Kermanshah and surrounding villages. This is in spite of the tough economic times. People make time to see each other and enjoy an evening in the yard under the stars even if they have worked all day and commuted two hours driving to and from work. The sangak bread is given to you in the most generous manner with most kind facial expressions by amazingly hard-working bakers. The “refuse” workers smile in the morning and wish you well when you walk by. They often greeted me with gladness whenever I jogged in the streets of Kermanshah in the morning.

One of my favorite pastimes when I wanted to take a break from work was to buy fresh sabzi khordan (“fresh herbs”) from Khayyam street, and take it to the wonderful Atefi family in Kermanshah. I was their guest for about seven months of my stay in Kermanshah. We would clean the herbs and chat with Marzieh Khanom (Azmun), the lady of the house, and a respected literature teacher, and the children, Khatereh, Atefeh, Farhang, and Behrang. We would have lunch together, and sometimes sing the poetic metrical formulas of Persian classical poetry with Mr. Atefi, also a respected literature teacher, and a literary scholar.... we had so much fun! Then we would nap for about an hour, get up, have our afternoon tea and fruit and wait for guests to visit the house.

The afternoon nap is never skipped! It is an amazingly refreshing practice if you want to have strength to work during the second part of the day.

In Kermanshah, women have their own mountain-climbing society, and there are many literary gatherings throughout the city. A culturally rich city indeed.

Kermanshah and its surroundings are most beautiful in the beginning of Spring, with the most amazing colorful flowerbeds stretched throughout the region.

Ahl-i Haqq people are among the most peaceful people I have ever met in my life. It was a real pleasure to spend time with my teachers and other Ahl-i Haqq families. They are kind, constant in their friendship, and most generous. They don’t speak very much. The Pir (“spiritual leader”), A Sayyed Nasr al-Din, almost never talks. When he speaks in his quiet voice, all ears are brought close to him to hear what he has to say. It usually does not exceed one sentence. It is always rich with kindness and wisdom.

Did a particular experience especially affect you during your research period?

Let me quote a segment from my dissertation: “It was the strangest bird cry I had ever heard in my life. It sounded as if an incredible spirit was weeping over the whole village. This was my first experience of sound in the sacred village of Tutshami around three or four a.m. one night during my first week of fieldwork. This “sound” was so overpowering that it embraced the whole village, moving beyond the persistent and intoxicating howling of hundreds of dogs until the closing of the night. The next day, I asked everyone whether they had heard the sound, trying to imitate its singing. Only the Pir had heard it. Impatient to hear it again and possibly to record it, I waited for this bird upon my various visits to Tutshami. The Pir would tell me of the bird’s presence around us, and I would hear the heavy yet quiet flapping of its wings, but never did I hear that strange singing again.”

This was the most amazing personal experience I had during my research.

How would you connect the daily life of the Ahl-i Haqq to their music and religion?

The Ahl-i Haqq’s life is constantly connected to the idea of the sacred through the presence of tanbur (tamura in Kurdish) in houses, the uncut mustache of men, pictures of sacred figures hung in homes, solo performance of the nazms (structured musical entities/ chants) of Ahl-i Haqq or group chanting, performance of the ritual of blessing of the food (Jam) and the presence of blessed food in the house, the presence of books of the Sacred Poems (Daftar) in houses, the sunset,...

Tell us about your research.

My research and performance studies were carried out over a two-year period of time in Kermanshah, Iran (2000-2002), with continuing consultation through short returns to Kermanshah and on the telephone until the present.

The work included weekly classes, and periodic interviews and group discussion sessions on the vocal and instrumental (tanbur) rendition of the nazms, the recitation and interpretation of the sacred texts, the rituals, various dialects of Kurdish used in the region including the liturgical language of the Ahl-i Haqq religion, Hawrami, and finally the daily life of the Ahl-i Haqq people.

For these endeavors I had the generous support and blessing of the esteemed Pir of the Guran region, A Sayyed Nasr al-Din Haydari, and the privilege to work with well-respected, knowledgeable, and active Daftar’Dans (“experts in the Sacred Poems”) and Kalam’Khwans (“lead chanters/tanbur players”) of the Guran region.

Among others, these respected masters include Ostad Asad Allah Farmani; Eskandar Khan Daniyali; Sayyed Barzu Daneshwar; Ostad Taher Yar’Waysi; Kaka’Berar Ostad; Sayyed Abbas Daman’Afshan; Sayyed Taymur, Sayyed Abed, and Sayyed Aziz Mehrabi; Sayyid Naser and Sayyid Khayal Yadegari; Jahangir Rajabi; Kaki Aziz Panahi; Kaka Latif Manhu’i; and the Kalam groups of Gahwarah and Tappa’Gula and Simani. I learned the spoken Kurdish dialect of the region with Moluk’Taj Pur’Awil. For a complete list of these respected teachers please see the acknowledgments section of my dissertation.

While in the field in Kermanshah I also had a great honor bestowed on me. I was requested by the Pir to edit a book on their religious worldview, titled Rah-i Rahruvan-i Yaristan [The Path of the Wayfarers of Yaristan] by Sayyid Barzu Danishwar, published by Chishma-i Hunar va Danish publications of Kermanshah in 2001/2002 (spelling provided here is according to the romanization system of the Library of Congress). This small book is now cataloged in several well-known universities in the United States, including the University of California, Berkeley.

The Kurdish community as a whole and the Kurdish community in the Bay Area have also helped tremendously in educating me about Kurdish culture and languages. Among these individuals I would like to especially acknowledge Shayee Khanaka, the head of the Middle Eastern section of UC Berkeley’s library system. She is my first Kurdish teacher and educator in Kurdish culture, to whom I also owe my reading skills at the formal written Kurdish, which is extremely important for using Hazhar’s Kurdish-Persian dictionary with ease. I would also like to thank my kind and generous teachers Farah Shahabi and Mohammad’Hosayn Mofti with whom I have been studying the spoken Hawrami dialect of Kurdish in the U.S.

What is the focus of your work?

The central objectives of my work are to show the integrated nature of elements and practices in the Ahl-i Haqq religion and their function for realizing a level of spiritual purification that invokes the presence of the Divine King, Sultan. Among others these include the sacred musical instrument tanbur, the sacred and non-sacred vocal and instrumental musical repertoire, the sacred texts, and the rituals, at the heart of which is the sacred ritual of blessing of the food, Jam. The spiritual meaning of Jam is the presence of the Divine King, Sultan. The meaning of Jam has been discussed fully in the dissertation.

In order to put into perspective the thesis material and the place of the musical practice and its bond with all other aspects of the religion, I present an overview of the concept of ritual in the Ahl-i Haqq religion in Chapter 1, with particular focus on the ritual of Jam. The tanbur and the texts are discussed in Chapters 2 and 3 respectively.

In Chapters 4, 5, 6, and 7, I present the sacred musical practice of the Ahl-i Haqq of Guran with special emphasis on an analytic discussion of the text-music relationship in the repertoire of the nazms (structured musical entities/ chants). I present the nazms the way they are perceived: as melodies and the prescribed manner in which the texts fit those melodies, rather than as modes. These nazms are not seen as models for composition and improvisation; little variation is permitted.

Having analyzed the formulaic way the text fits the melody I have suggested that this finite collection represents a unique, consistent, and interrelated musical and textual language, as if one composer composed them all with the texts and a clear devotional purpose in mind.

In order to demonstrate the musical and textual details that are necessary in understanding this musical repertoire as a unified entity, in my presentation I have written from a “performer’s” point of view. That is, I present the point of view of the Kalam’Khwan (“the lead chanter”), the Kalam’Wa’Sinayl (“the group chanters”), as well as my own point of view as a musician while I was learning and practicing this musical repertoire.

For the purpose of this musical analysis and with conservation aims in mind, complete transcriptions of all the present nazms of the Guran region have also been presented. In order to offer models as close to the correct renditions as possible the transcriptions have been based on careful choices based on listening to many performances of the nazms in the last four years of my research.

Clearly a student of this music must learn the tanbur and vocal renditions of the nazms with qualified and active teachers through many years of study in order to remain faithful to the essence of the nazms. The transcriptions may be used as a reference tool for students and teachers.

Is any other kind of music played on the tanbur?

Although the Guran people believe that only the nazms of tanbur, i.e., the finite repertoire of solo and group sacred nazms and solo non-sacred nazms, may be played on the tanbur and sung, the Pir treats those musicians who move outside of this restriction courteously. Nevertheless, he does not approve of change or addition to the traditional tanbur repertoire.

These nazms are not considered as “raw material for composition and improvisation.” This music along with the texts that are used (especially with the sacred portion of the repertoire) is regarded as revealed from the Divine Realm. Although the non-sacred portion of the repertoire is never performed in a chanting session (with or without Jam-the ritual of blessing of the food-), it is also revered highly. Indeed, some senior Daftar’Dans and Kalam’Khwans believe that the non-sacred nazms of tanbur can at any moment become sacred, especially if the sacred poems of Ahl-i Haqq are sung with them.

Compared to other musical traditions in the world, what makes Ahl-i Haqq music unique?

Tanbur as the sole sacred instrument; unique musical repertoire (including instrumental and vocal renditions); its definite and tight connection with the Ahl-i Haqq religion; its bond with the ritual of blessing of food, Jam, and group chanting session (Kalam); and the belief that the sacred segment of the repertoire is a Divine revelation.

How did you become interested the Ahl-i Haqq culture?

I would definitely say it was destiny. It was the sound of the tanbur. The first time I heard this sacred instrument I was smitten. I thought this sound was from another world, and I knew immediately in my heart that I had to work on this instrument and its musical tradition. Back then I had no idea this instrument was the sacred instrument of Ahl-i Haqq and a manifestation of one of their Haftan (the seven sacred spirits of Ahl-i Haqq religion).

What challenges or obstacles did you face as a woman doing this research alone in a remote area?

I think most people recognized that I had good intentions in doing this research. So I really did not experience many difficulties as a woman. Also because of the blessings of the Pir and the generousness of my teachers, I only received kindness and respect. The most difficulty for me was adjusting from the rules and expectations of one culture to another. That did not take long. The funny thing is that I was friends with whole neighborhoods. I knew all the store-keepers on the streets and would often stop for a few minutes to chat and say hello. In addition to the people of Kermanshah and the village of Tutshami, the people of Gahwareh and Tappa’Gula and Simani were especially kind to me.

I must also add that in the cyclic view of the world in the Ahl-i Haqq religion, bodies are merely molds for spirits. Even Daftar (the body of Sacred Poems) points out “the sacred spirits accepted to appear in the form of woman and man.” One of the Haftan, Ramzbar, regularly appears in the form of a woman (in addition to entities that contain the “Divine Secrets”). Other members of the Haftan also sometimes appear in the form of a woman. Therefore, in the religion itself, the appearance of a woman or man should not make a difference.

What are your plans for the future?

To continue my research on the Ahl-i Haqq’s cultural heritage and other sacred musical practices in the world. I also plan to learn more about Kurdish culture and languages. In general, I hope to be able to create a balance between research, performance, and teaching in my working life.

I will probably be giving a lecture/demonstration on the musical practice of the Ahl-i Haqq of Guran in the annual meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology in November of this year in Atlanta for those who might be interested.

What do you like more than anything in life?

Sunny windows and lots of trees! Tea with freshly crushed cardamom. White delicate china cup and saucer with golden rim. Health. Peace and delight in my heart. Happiness of others. Sound judgment. Being surrounded by family and kind friends. Prayer. Awareness. Learning. Serving. Tanbur. Daftar (Sacred Poems of the Ahl-i Haqq), and happiness of children. That pretty much covers it.

The last we saw you in performance (setar) was in a benefit concert for San Francisco Symphony alongside great musicians such as Mahvash Guerami and Golnoush Khaleghi. Have you remained active in your performance?

In the last few years I have been particularly preoccupied with the Ahl-i Haqq research and writing. They have been rather quiet years, although tanbur has always been my sounded and sometimes silent companion throughout this period. I do plan to perform more often in the near future.

Anything else you would like to add to our conversation?

Only that I am grateful for this gift and I hope to have served in some small way in trying to preserve the cultural heritage of the Ahl-i Haqq Kurds. Their heritage embraces profound otherworldly wisdom that has so far been hidden and inaccessible to all. They are now gradually beginning to open to the outside world. Nevertheless, now that it is being generously offered to the outside world, the Ahl-i Haqq’s concern is that this gift be handled with care and utter respect.

Also, I would like to add that I could not have done this work without the generousness of A Sayyed Nasr al-Din Haydari, my Ahl-i Haqq teachers, the people of Ahl-i Haqq, my mentor Professor Bonnie Wade (UC Berkeley Music Department), Professor Benjamin Brinner (UC Berkeley Music Department), Professor Mary McGann, RSCJ (Graduate Theological Union), among other professors, my family, my friends, the Kurdish community in the U.S., and the generous grants mentioned earlier.

Thank you very much for talking to us! This has been illuminating. And thank you for helping to preserve an important part of Kurdish culture and Iranian culture as a whole.

Thank you for this opportunity to talk about the Ahl-i Haqq of Guran and my research.

* Music: (1) (2) (3) (4) (5)
[A group chanting session by the respected Kalam’Khwans of Guran in five tracks. Field recording by author. Computerized version by Cuco Daglio (UC Berkeley Music Department) and Javaneh Khodabakhsh.]
* Pictures:
-- Hooshmanrad in her apartment in Walnut Creek, northern California
-- Musicians and life in Kurdistan

For letters section
To Partow Hooshmandrad



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The Art of Persian Music
Lessons from Master Dariush Safvat
(Book and CD)
By Jean During et al

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