Followers of the Truth
Interview with Partow Hooshmandrad
on the music of the Ahl-i Haqq in Iranian Kurdistan
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
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
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
Did a particular experience especially affect you during your
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
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)
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
The Kurdish community as a whole and the Kurdish community in
the Bay Area have also helped tremendously in educating me about
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
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
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,
and interrelated musical and textual language, as if one composer
composed them all with the texts and a clear devotional purpose
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.]
in her apartment in Walnut Creek, northern California
-- Musicians and
life in Kurdistan