Qashqa'i - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. The Qashqa'i are Shia Muslims, members of the dominant religious group in Iran. Until the revolution of 1979 and the establishment of the Islamic Republic, few Qashqa'i expressed any interest in the formal institutions and learned practitioners of Shia Islam, but, since 1979, they have had to adjust to the presence and power of the new Islamic state and the many agents who are connected with Islamic and Islamic/state institutions. Before 1979, few Qashqa'i said daily prayers or fasted during the month of Ramadan, and few observed other Islamic rites or ceremonies except for the Feast of Sacrifice (Id-e Qorban). They considered themselves good Muslims, and they often compared the sincerity of their basic religious beliefs with those of the men who held power over them—such as the ostentatiously pious merchants and moneylenders who, although praying and fasting as Muslims are required to do, also routinely violated Islamic law by engaging in usury and theft.

Religious Practitioners. Throughout their history, the Qashqa'i have had had no formal religious practitioners of their own. Most groups had one or two men who could recite Quranic passages at funerals and write marriage contracts. The nomads and villagers relied on itinerant dervishes and others (all non-Qashqa'i) who dispensed prayers and fulfilled vows. Their only contact with Muslim clerics was in the city, when they sought to have their marriage contracts certified. With the establishment of the Islamic Republic, a few young Qashqa'i men have entered theological schools, and most of them intend eventually to provide services to their own groups. The ritual specialists and the musicians and circumcisors who were once associated with each Qashqa'i tribe have been curtailed in their activities since 1979.

Ceremonies. Wedding celebrations are the ceremonial highlights of Qashqa'i life and are virtually the only occasions for large gatherings of Qashqa'i people. Usually three days long, they are festive affairs hosted by the groom's parents at their camp or village. On the third day, a delegation collects the bride from her parents' home. Since 1979, the ceremonial center of these rites—the public dancing of men and women, the traditional music played on oboes and skin drums, and the stick-fighting game performed to music—has been declared immoral and anti-Islamic by the new regime. In the early 1990s some Qashqa'i groups took advantage of loosened restrictions and again invited oboe players to perform at their weddings. When a young married couple decides to form an independent household, they invite their closest kin and their group elders to participate in a small celebration to commemorate the event. Group elders oversee the transference of property from the husband's parents to the new household. The birth of a child, especially a son, is marked by a small celebration of close kin. The circumcision of young boys, usually around the age of 3 or 4, is also accompanied by a small celebration.

Arts. The Qashqa'i say that they receive aesthetic pleasure from their freedom of movement, the sight of the surrounding mountains and the vast expanse of uninhabited territory, the process of weaving and the beauty of their woven goods, and their music and storytelling. Two Qashqa'i artists, Bijan Kashkuli and his son, Siroos, are well known in Iran for the watercolor depictions of "traditional" Qashqa'i life, and several Qashqa'i men are beginning to experiment with writing and publishing the short stories that customarily had only oral expression. Because Qashqa'i Turkish is not a written language, they are forced to write in Persian.

Medicine. Until the 1980s, the Qashqa'i relied mainly on their own forms of medical treatment, a system based primarily on the plants and minerals that they collected in the vast territories through which they traveled. Certain individuals had special interests and abilities and were sought out for help, but every household had its own collection of curative substances. The nomads' intimate understanding of natural causes, derived from their reliance on nature, has given them confidence in their own treatments. With the expansion from the 1970s of what passes in Iran as "modern" medicine, Qashqa'i people have come to rely more heavily on urban doctors, hospitals, and pharmacists.


Death and Afterlife. When a person dies, close relatives wash and prepare the body for burial. Men carry the body, wrapped in cloth, to a graveyard or other secluded place. The body is placed in the grave so that it faces Mecca, and, after the grave is filled with dirt, someone in the group recites passages from the Quran. On the seventh and fortieth days after the death, family members gather at the tent or house of the deceased to mourn and to visit the grave site. Beginning in the 1980s, many Qashqa'i have added a ceremony at the nearest mosque, at which a clergyman recites from the Quran. The Qashqa'i believe in heaven as they have heard it described by villagers and urbanites.

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