The Iranian Balochistan – a curious intersection of religious influences and cults

The Iranian Baloch and Balochistan

(Account given by an ex Iranian high official who served in Balochistan under Shah’s regime)

According to the official Iranian statistics, the Baloch represent only two percent of the population of the country, which amounts to a million and a half persons. It is the same as the Arabs of Khuzestan but three times less than the Iranian Kurds. Their history remained ill-known despite the size of their territory and the complexity of their social organization until the western powers came into contact with them from 17th century onwards. Curiously, it’s only from this period that the majority of the population of what is now called Balochistan started being identified as Baloch.

Iranian historical accounts dating more than a thousand years ago mentioned “Kooch and Baloch”. After the fall of Kerman in the hands of Seljouks in the 11th century a large migration of Kooch and Baloch took place towards the region. After the Mongol conquests two centuries later Balochistan became what it has tended to be in the later centuries: a region of refuge, for which it is ideally suited due to its natural environment. It’s from this period that the Baloch tribal chiefs started looking for political support in Iran and India for their unending battles of influence. In a certain manner they filled a political vacuum at the junction of great empires.

What is Balochistan from the historical point of view? It’s an immense circle of caravan stopovers, which extends from Bandar Abbas in west to Kerman in the east, from the delta of Helmand to Sistan, and from Qandhar up to Sind. In this vast area, outside the big cities, all territory is Baloch. This is an arid zone which is only suitable for sheep, goat and camel breeding and small-scale farming in the rare pockets where it is possible.

The terrain in the whole area is uneven with spectacular variations between highlands in the west, rising up to 1000 meters, semi-deserts interspersed with volcanic peaks rising up to 4000 meters in the central region, and a coastal plain in the south with tropical climate as much deprived of water as the hinterland. The IranianBalochistan is divided into two clearly differentiated parts: in the north the Sarhad plain with cold nights and cold winters; to the south the low lands of Makran, hotter and more humid, where the population depends for its subsistence on small-scale fishing and trade.

Divided into small communities of farmers and cattle-breeders moving between vast semi-deserted zones, the western Balochs did not accept for a long time the fiscal control of the state. It was only from 1843 during the rule of the Qajar king Mohammad Shah that forces started being regularly sent into the region.

The Islamic revolution of 1979 changed lots of things. First of all there was a fantastic rise in urbanization. More construction took place in Balochistan during the first two years after the proclamation of the Islamic republic than during the preceding two decades. What type of construction? Big residential areas made of concrete blocks for the large number of Iranian functionaries coming from other provinces. The local Sunni population was fast disenchanted. It found itself marginalized. It could not compete for government jobs because of the religious (Shiite) content of the different competitive examinations. The access to the universities became harder for them. As compared to it, towards the end of Shah’s regime, Sunni Baloch students were allotted 40% of the seats in the University of Balochistan in Zahedan and in the University of Chabahar. This was done in order to stop their mass migration to Pakistan and the Gulf countries.

Sunni Madrasas started mushrooming in the post-revolution scenario. Actually it was Shah’s regime which hadfirst authorized and actually financed more or less directly the creation of Madrasas in Balochistanin order to discourageBaloch religious students from going for education to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. But this policy paved the way for the penetration of Wahabi influence. It’s estimated that more than a thousand Baloch Taliban were killed fighting alongside Afghan Taliban between 1996 and 2001. Since then the tide has stemmed

During Shah’s time, the administration was technocratic. The religious affiliation of the administrators was of as little importance for the local people as that of the sardars, who played a pivotal role in the relations between the country’s capital and the region. Subsequently, the place of sardarswas taken by religious leaders, who from their pulpits declared war against the Shiites and the profane west.

The Persians and the Baloch
(Account given by a Persian trader in Zahedan)

It was the Qajar king Mohammad Shah who started, around 1840,a long tradition of military expeditions toBalochistan. Most of the time the governor of the region based in Kerman or Bam took upon him to establish a semblance of order between quarrelling sardars by sending troops. Up to this day Baloch mothers scare their children by telling them that if they do not finish their meal ‘Ghajar’ – Baloch pronunciation of Qajar – will come and eat it.

The Pehlavi dynasty replaced the Qajars after the Second World War. During the First World War under the British occupation of the south east of Iran, the influence of the Balochsardars had increased. When the British left, some sardars had become more powerful than the others. Previously there were three main sardars, and then there were two and finally only one, the famous Dost Mohammad Khan who ruled over the entire Iranian Balochistan. When Reza Shah took over he occupied the region in 1928 with an army which was much better equipped than before. This army has never gone back since then. Before Dost Mohammad Khan, there was the famous Nasir Khan, the Khan of Kalat. But Kalat is more to the east (at that time under British rule and presently in Pakistan). His rule never reached up to here. With Dost Mohammad Khan the ideal of a viable Baloch state on this side of the frontier was attained although on a much reduced scale than Kalat. Before him nobody had succeeded in imposing his rule on all tribes. His rein lasted hardly a decade. After him Persians were settled in large numbers in the region. In the wake of his troops, Reza Shah sent settlers, merchants, functionaries etc. For these newcomers constructions were made. Before that Zahedan was called Duzzab – “carried away by water” inBalochi – because of the mountain torrents which flooded it very often. It’s then that Baloch people started inhabiting it. Zahedan became their capital.

The problems of the Baloch people
(Account given by a secular Baloch intellectual working in a government organism in Zahedan)

The greatest problem is that the Baloch are not allowed to write their history. All the books on Balochistan that you will find in the libraries here were written by Persians from Sistan. Sistan is the old region adjacent toBalochistan. It is culturally different from us. People there speak Persian and theirs is not a tribal society. When Reza Shah decided in 1830 that the Balochwill no more be administered from Kerman, he created the province of Sistan&Balochistanin order to governBalochistan through Sistanis. This situation continues till this day even after the Islamic revolution. Many Baloch intellectuals raise their voice for the region to be separated from Sistan so that the Baloch can administer themselves. This objective is difficult to be attained in the present situation. In the past there was a powerful separatist movement in Balochistan. This movement had strong roots in the local elite. The nationalists aspired for greater Balochistan. This movement subsided due to the repression under the Shah’s regime and then the advent of the Islamic Republic. Reza Shah the First executed Dost Mohammad Khan, the main Balochsardar, in 1932. The next king used all his force to eliminate the Baloch nationalists, most of whom were influenced by Marxism. To the two Pahlavi kings, we owe the disappearance of our intellectual elite and its replacement by religious figures. At the same time the social influence of sardars has waned to the benefit of Sunni Molvis. The Islamic revolution completed the work started by the Shah of Iran by eliminating what was left of the Baloch intelligentsia. Madrasas are mutltiplying in the region. There are more than 300 of them in Sistan&Balochistan. We have lot less of high schools and universities. Madrasas are the new centers of exercise of authority.

Another problem comes from the TablighiJamaat, which is spreading its influence since last many years. It now dominatesthe religious scene in the region. The small local communities living in the deserts have withdrawn into their shell. The rural areas have emptied due to the development of the means of transport, the attraction of the new cities, and the acute draught since the last eight years. The Tablighis have taken advantage of this. Now they can easily reach the people by radio. TV, mobile phones and internet. They try to suppress all types of religious practices which do not suit them. Take Sufism for example. Tablighis will tell you that it has disappeared fromBalochistan. But if you go to the rural areas you will see that Sufism is very much alive. You will find there Sufi ‘Khankhas’ with their mystical music and all the rest. They have not yet met the fate of Zigris. In fact Zigris have lot in common with Sufism. Like the Sufis they believe that the union with God can be achieved through ‘zikr’. The main Zigri concentration was inMakran in places like Qasr-e-Qand. It’s there in 1936 that MullaAbullahSarbaz, who had been educated in Deoband and headed a Madrasa in that region, declared Jihad against the Zigris. There was a real battle between his followers and Zigris in Djikigour, a small city on the route leading to the Oman sea coast. It left seven dead among Zigris. The government in Teheran intervened but the Zigris quit the region to establish themselves in their spiritual capital of Turbat in what was then British Balochistan and is now the province of Balochistan in Pakistan. It’s the son of the same Mulla Abdullah,MaulanaAbd al Aziz, who founded the Makki Madrasa of Zahedan.

A visit to the Makki Madrasa of Zahedan

In Zahedan on one of the main arteries there is the immense “House of Knowledge”, generally known as Makki Madrasa. . It is a vast concrete edifice with on one side a very tall minaret under-construction. It’s a Friday with the time of prayer approaching. Prayer mats are being carried out on hand-pushed trolleys onto the road outside. Worshippers have started coming: Dark-complexioned men accompanied by smiling adolescents. Mats are spread out across the road. The first rows are formed. Loud-speakers start blaring out the sermon of Sheik-Ul-Islam of Zahedan, who is also the head of the Makki Madrasa. Before hurrying out I buy some books from a book stall in the premises. All the books are in Persian, many of them translations of sermons of Pakistani ulema. Even the only anthology of mystical Baloch poetry is in Persian.

I come back to the Madrasa the next day. At the interior there is a succession of recent constructions. I am desperate to get some clues about the past and the present of Baloch people and the Sunnite revival in the region. I am met by two Pakistani young men from TablighiJamaat who greet me in English and conduct me to a largehigh-roofed room where something similar to a court audience is underway. On a wall to wall carpet on one side are seated three turbaned jurisconsults- the president flanked by two assistants – with small desks in front of them. On the other side are seated young bearded students dressed in white. The president of the session gestures me to sit down. Two men in grey shalwar-kamiz are introduced into the room. They have come all the way from the far away Hormozgan on the Persian Gulf coast. They have come seeking a fatwa in order to solve a dispute. On hearing the query, the jurisconsults consult between themselves. A book is taken out from the shelf which lines one side of the room. The solution is found and the verdict read out. My young Tablighi from Lahore, who conducted me, informs me that this Madrasa is the only institution in Iran, which issues fatwas for all the 4 Sunni schools of Fiqh. For example the Baloch are Hanefites, but Kurds are Shafeites, each of them gets a fatwa according to his Fiqh, with which he goes to the authorities for pleading his case. The session is closed. I am briefed by the president about the Madrasa. It follows the Saudi system of four years of study for becoming a rural Imam and a further seven years for becoming Molvi. The Molvis were previously trained in the Indian sub-continent, first in India and then in Pakistan after the partition. They are now trained locally. In the past the religious scholars in Balochistan used to come from Afghanistan. After19th century the Baloch started going to Deoband in India. The first Baloch returned after studies in Deobandtowards the end of theQajar period and the start of the Pahlavi era. They set up the first Madrasa of Iranian Balochistan in Sarbaz. After the partition of India in 1947, the region was cut off from India. Another effect of the partition was that with the influx Indian Muslims, Karachi lost its Persian links. Then the Baloch students in religion started going to Saudi Arabia. It was in this context that the “House of knowledge” was established in Zahedan in 1969. It was set up by the second generation of indigenous BalochMolvis. It followed that of Sarbaz. It was founded by Maulana Abdul Aziz Makki, the son Mulla Abdullah who had founded the Madrasa of Sarbaz. It was called MakkiMadarasa after his name. It’s a history which spans three generations. After the death of Maulana Abdul Aziz in 1987, his son-in-law Maulana Abdul Hamid took over as the Imam of the mosque, the head of the Madrasa and Shaikhul Islam of Zahedan.

I got to meet Maulana Abdul Hamid at his residence in the evening. He is a charismatic figure, full of energy. He knows how to be friendly but when it comes to condemning the impious west he can be full of verve. According to him the Islamic revolution of Iran has not solved all problems but it has more advantages than disadvantages. It has anyway allowed the development of Islamic learning as well as the establishment of a certain Islamic order. With the abolition of monarchy, it has become possible to express oneself more freely on social and political issues. One can even criticize the government. He omitted to mention that his father-in-law, Maulana Abdul Aziz, voted in 1979, as Member of Parliament elected from Zahedan, against the granting of full powers to Imam Khomeiny. He also voted against the constitution of the Islamic republic, declaring it un-Islamic. On the question regarding his relations with the Ialamic republic he was rather evasive, saying that his Madrasa has a cultural mission. The important thing is that we have become self-supporting. Previously our students used to go to India, Pakistan, Gulf countries and even Afghanistan for studies. I myself studied in Pakistan. Now on the contrary everybody studies here. We now have students from other countries. We have students from Afghanistan, Central Asia and even Pakistan. Our Madrasa is not related with any country, any regime or organization.

According to the assistants of my host, the founder of the Madrasa, Maulana Abdul Aziz, was an exceptional person. He graduated from Madrasa Aminia in Delhi. His authority was not only religious but political as well. His father, Mulla Abdullah, had prepared the Baloch for the Jihad against the Zigris. He evicted them from Balochistan. Regarding my question about the Balochi language, my host said that our students are from different regions. If we taught in Balochi, most of them will not understand. Zahedan is a mixed city and Persian is the common language between all its inhabitants

Visit to a Sufi shrine – (a disciple of LalShabazQalandar ?)

At last I got to visit a Sufi shrine near the city of Sarawantowards the south of Balochistan. This is the shrine of LalShabazGalandar (Baloch pronunciation of Qalandar), According to the persons present there it’s a place which belongs to the Chistiasilsala. Regular musical incantations with drums are carried out here. There is recital of poetry as well. Most of the ‘Wajas’of the Chistyasilsala were great poets. Their verses are recited during the musical concerts. On my question as to what is a Waja,I am told that by it we mean a teacher, a head of a Sufi silsila. I am told the story of one Waja Musa, who apart from being a mystic was also a judge. He was so conscientious that whenever he committed an error, his shadow quit him. As for Waja Muhammad, he performed miracles. Not surprising for a ‘galandar’. This is the highest grade among the Sufis. Waja Muhammad had predicted all these problems with the Wahabimolvis since they emerged in Arabia two centuries ago. One day Waja Muhammad was travelling in desert with his son. All the while they were playing music. Suddenly Waja Muhammad disappeared into the earth. His son had to continue playing music otherwise the Waja will never come out. Therefore, the son continued playing music without stopping for even an instant. Two weeks passed and after exactly fourteen days and fourteen nights, WajaMuhammad came out of the earth.

– Who was the Sufi whose shrine this is?
– He was from Sistan. He left Iran for Hindustan. He was a real mystic. He sent one of his best disciples here.
– Isn’t it difficult in the present environment to hold musical concerts?
– It’s not easy. That’s why most of the shrines are now closed

Exorcising demons in Chabahar

Africans? Naturally you won’t see many of them in the center of the Iran. They constitute a dimension of the nation-state which the government in Teheran does not like to exhibit. Nor do the Iranians in general because their ‘Aryan’ identity prohibits it. The slavery was abolished in Iran only in 1929. Then the ports on the Gulf coast and on the sea of Oman coast found themselves with this surplus population which was brought here in the course of centuries from Zanzibar and other places. Even to this day they live in acute misery. They are Baloch, but a minority within a minority

I am in the sanctuary of SayyidGhulamRasul in Chabahar: A white dome somewhat in the pre-Mogul Indian style; a big green flag; a prayer room with high lateral windows. In the courtyard, there are ancient gravestones as in the cemeteries of North India. Towards the far end, there are a host of religious and mystical artifacts. Two tall staffs, 7 to 8 meters high, swaddled in cloth, one in red and white and the other in black. Multicolor festoons are tied on two tamarisk trees. After the prayer room there is the entrance of the tomb. I enter there. The hall is jam packed. The grave is covered with shining embroidered silk sheets. The walls are studded with false precious stones. At the grave-head there are buckets full of fresh flowers. All this testifies to the living nature of the cult of which the shrine is object.

A group of women pilgrims makes its entry. African women! They kneel in circlearound one young woman who seems to possess greater authority than the others. She starts a long monotonous chant. I understand neither its sense nor its language. I have to hurry out in order to make place. The chant keeps echoing at the interior. When the women come out I approach the young leader. My lady is Baloch. Despite her young age, she knows about Mama Zar, the legendary mother of Chabahar, the exorcist of all demons:

– Without Mama Zar and Baba SabirQadri (a Qadiria saint of Chabahar), we cannot fight against bad spirits. There is no ceremony without them whatever kind of spirits you want to exorcise.
– So they are of many kinds?
– Oh yes

A bearded oldBaloch dressed in white who was observing me all the while addresses me:

– These things interest you that much?
– Tell me what all these African women came for? Are they from this city?
– Yes, they live in nearby neighborhood.
– Do you know anything about the spirits?
– A little bit, not much
– It seems there are many kinds of them?
– Anybody could tell you that

We sit down on a bench. The old man continues:

– First of all there are those which are called Zar. There are about fifteen of them and come from the same family
– How do you recognize a Zar?
– There are different signs. Some among them even look like a Baloch
– Because they are Baloch?
– Some of them yes, but others no. In all cases, all of them are impious and with bad intentions
– They are cunning?
– Absolutely. They cannot be driven away from the affected persons except through special ceremonies. Some of them demand a proper banquet
– With chants and dances in all cases?
– Oh yes, in all cases
– Hum…
– Then there are spirits which are called ‘bad’. There are about a dozen of them. Almost all of them are Muslim
– That makes a hell of a difference
– Yes and no. There is one among the Muslims, which feeds on sea-water only. You imagine carrying a bed-ridden person to the beach to make him drink sea water.
– The bad, are they like the zar with both Baloch and non-Baloch among them.?
– Sure, many of them are purely African. They strike only blacks or the persons travelling to Africa. Most of them, anyway, are found only in Africa or Arabia, in Muscat also. The African bad demand very elaborate ceremonies. There are those which are purely Baloch, like Bellu that you will find only in Chabahar or in the desert
– What these women were singing was it in Balochi?
– Oh, non, most of the time these are made-up phrases without any meaning
– Who was this SayyidGhulamRasul?
– I think nobody knows for exact. What is sure is that he lived in Chabahar; he was an Arab whose ancestors had migrated here. It is said that in the evening of his marriage he suddenly disappeared and this shrine was constructed at the spot where he disappeared. Every year people come here from far and wide to celebrate his anniversary. His miracles are countless. The people of the region consider him as the surest protection

Séphane A. Dudoignon is a Senior Research Fellow in the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) of France and a Lecturer at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS) of Paris. His major theme of interest is the history of modern-day Islam in the former Russian Empire and in the Middle East, with special interest in the connections and exchanges between the Iranian and Turkic worlds and South Asia. He has recently edited Allah’s Kolkhozes: Mass-Migration, De-Stalinisation, Privatization and the Muslim Congregations in the Soviet Realms (1950s-2000s), Berlin: Klaus Schwarz, 2014 and written Marginal Hegemons: The Baluch, Sunnism and the State in Iran, from Riza Shah to Khaminayi (1928-2013), forthcoming.

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