Self-mortification: dervishes of Kurdistan

with a note on Tibetan spirit mediums in Amdo

dervish

Leading on from my post on Yazidi culture, here I consider a distinctive kind of ritual activity among the Kurds—mainly through a fine documentary from 1973.

Suffering in the quest for union with God is a universal theme, such as among the Uyghur ashiq, or indeed the Bach Passions. An extreme instance is the controversial yet widespread practice of tatbir ritual self-mortification by such acts as flagellation and skewering the body. Practised quite widely through the Islamic world, mortification of the flesh is a theme in other ritual cultures too, including Christianity: it was practised by Lutherans and Methodists, and among Catholics, rituals continue in Spain and Italy. It seems rare in China, though spirit mediums perform self-mortification at extreme northwest and southeast regions: Tibetans in Amdo, and Hokkien in south Fujian and Taiwan. [1] As ritual performers in the public domain, they are male (see here).

As to Kurdistan, dervishes—broadly members of a Sufi tariqa lodge/order/fraternity, sometimes also religious mendicants—perform dhikr (zikr) ecstatic devotional acts, commonly in the form of litanies, but also in rituals of self-mortification. Of course, as in other cultures, this is only one among many manifestations of faith. Beyond sensationalist voyeurism, one hopes for a more sober ethnographic approach—like the documentary

  • Kurdistan: the mysterious dervishes (André Singer and Ali Bulookbashi, 1973, in the series Disappearing world).

It shows the daily lives and religious practices of a dervish community in the Kurdish village of Baiveh on the border between Iran and Iraq, at a time when the two countries had cut diplomatic ties. Many were refugees from Kurdish areas of Iraq; a major source of their economy was contraband. They were dervishes of the ecstatic, mystical Qadiri cult. The film explores the spiritual and temporal power wielded by their leader Sheikh Hussein. By serving him the dervishes consider that they are also serving God. He presides over rituals in which they have the power to carry out acts which would normally be harmful, such as having electricity passed through their bodies, eating glass, and skewering their faces.

It is the less privileged members of the community who seek to enhance their status through performing such acts of subservience—demonstrations of loyalty, as much to the Sheikh as to God. The film also includes explores the tensions with the local mullah, representative of orthodox Islam; but it is the complex of modern secular values that pose a greater challenge to the ways of the dervish, and to the Sheikh’s feudal power.

Here’s the film—not at all for the faint-hearted:

A restudy would be interesting.

This more recent French documentary also features extreme scenes:

The resilience of tradition in troubled modern times is also shown in the revival of ritual pilgrimages, again often featuring tatbir (on the revival since the fall of ISIS, see e.g. here). The ancient battle of Karbala is commemorated in the Arba’een pilgrimage to Karbala that marks the end of the Ashura festival.

As ever, the commodified urban dervish performances for tourists that are often featured in the media—invariably cast as “whirling”—are a world away from local rituals—though they too are a proper subject for ethnographers.

Tongren 1

Qinghai 2

Tibetan self-mortification, Rebkong: source here.

[1] For trance mediums in Amdo, see here. For the 6th-moon Klu-rol festival of Tibetans in Rebkong (Tongren), Qinghai, note
Charlene Makley, “Rebgong’s Klu rol and the politics of presence: methodological considerations” (2013), perceptively situating the event within the changing politics of the area as it has become a tourist attraction since 2001 (as you can see from online videos). And now she has published The battle for fortune: state-led development, personhood, and power among Tibetans in China (2018).
Among several other articles, see e.g.
Kevin Stuart, Banmadorji, and Huangchojia, “Mountain gods and trance mediums: a Qinghai Tibetan summer festival”, Asian folklore studies 54 (1995);
Cao Benye 曹本冶 and Xue Yibing 薛艺兵, “Renshen gongwu: Qinghai Tongren liuyuehui jishen yuewude diaocha yanjiu” 人神共舞: 青海同仁六月会祭神乐舞的调查研究, in Cao Benye (ed.), Zhongguo chuantong minjian yishi yinyue yanjiu, Xibei juan 中国传统民间仪式音乐研究, 西北卷 (2003, with DVD).
For more, see Isabelle Henrion’s extensive Western-language bibliography on the Tibetan performing arts, §10.

For self-mortifying mediums in south Fujian, note Ken Dean’s fine film Bored in heaven; for Taiwan, see Donald Sutton, Steps of perfection (2003), Margaret Chan, Ritual is theatre, theatre is ritual; tang-ki: Chinese spirit medium worship (2006), and Patrice Fava’s 1995 film Mazu la déeese de la mer, réalité d’une légende.

For a broader treatment of self-inflicted violence in the imperial history of Chinese religion, see Jimmy Yu, Sanctity and self-inflicted violence (2012).

7 thoughts on “Self-mortification: dervishes of Kurdistan

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