On a Thursday evening, in an unsuspecting house in Erbil’s working class Badawa neighbourhood, a group of Kurdish Dervishes prepare to carry out an intricate ceremony of tongue-lacerating, self-skewering and frenzied dance movements to the beating sound of daffs, a large tamborine made of goatskin.
The Kurds of Iraq are primarily Sunni Muslim, and while the majority follows a more traditional branch of the religion, Kurdistan’s Dervishes have opted for a mystical path, rooted in the search for humility and peace. Although some Muslims prefer to deny it, the Dervish religion is widely considered a branch of Islam, albeit an unorthodox one.
The late Iranian photographer Kaveh Golestan described the Dervishes’ path as “aimed at becoming one with God through self-education and love.
“Sufis have a particular way, or tariqa, that they must follow to attain the highest of mystical stages. A disciple in tariqa must pursue a strict regimen of hardships and self-denial that purify the soul, plus various religious exercises such as regular prayers, meditation, and education,” writes Golestan.
One of many religious minorities in Iraq that are vulnerable to persecution, this mystical branch of Islam has prospered in the country’s autonomous Kurdish Region, a safe haven for its relative stability and religious tolerance.
Shaker Sabir Kader, a senior member of the Qadiri Kasnazani order, welcomed us into the takia; “a place where one can eat, sleep and pray, unlike a mosque,” he said. The Kasnazanis are a sub order of the Qadiri Dervishes, founded by the Kurdish Sheik Muhammad Abdul-Kareem.
Kader’s balding head gave way to a grey ponytail, a common trait among Dervish males, whose long locks follow the swaying rhythm of their musical ceremonies.
He welcomed us with the warm enthusiasm that is so characteristic of Kurds, all the while keeping a respectable distance from me; the only female participant at the ceremony.
“The Dervish religion is one of the pillars of Islam,” explained Kader, slowly twirling a tasbih in his hand. He spoke softy, laughing from time to time, rarely looking me in the eye.
“I am close to God, this helps me to not be afraid when I use these tools on myself. When I use them on my body, I have faith that nothing will happen to me because God is protecting me,” said Kader in reference to the bodily harm they sometimes inflict on themselves during their ceremonies.
"A man holding two 12-inch skewers followed in line, impaling himself but showing no sign of pain"
His explanation was matter-of-fact, and through his composure transpired the kind of trust that religious faith often gives man. Only later did I understand where his tranquility came from; Kader had not been chosen to go through the physically gruelling and potentially life-threatening passages of the rite. Instead he stood safely to one side, microphone in hand, and preached the ways of the Kasnazanis.
Two men with long dark hair and chiseled features stood shoulder to shoulder under a golden frame containing the name of Allah; they had been chosen to skewer their cheeks and knife their heads.
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In a room replete with religious symbols and portraits of Islamic figures, three young Dervishes drummed softly on their daffs. Men swayed to the rhythm of the drums, locks of hair undulating from left to right, arms shooting upward and sideways, as the ceremony began to take on a trance-like atmosphere.
Khalifa Mohammad, the elderly leader of the rite, conducted the members of the congregation with authority. The drumming became increasingly stronger, as a crescendo of chants prompted the men’s swaying to gather momentum and shift from left to right to back to front in a tangle of arms and legs.
Following a series of chants of “there is no God but Allah,” one of the long-haired men hammered a knife into his head. Perspiring and seemingly uncomfortable, Wyria stood up and began striding up and down the room; displaying the two knives now protruding from his head and forehead.
I had heard tales of swords being driven through waists, light bulbs eaten and spikes hammered into heads; all in an attempt to momentarily transcend the physicality of life, and find God.
Wyria approached my colleague, and with a look of satisfaction asked him to remove the knife from his forehead. The weapon remained lodged in the Dervish’s head, as my colleague forcefully tugged on it to no avail.
When the knife came out, a single line of blood streamed down Wyria’s face and on to his chest, staining his immaculately white shirt.
“Our religion is against violence, these actions are for our guests, who ask to see God’s power, we only do this in the name of religion,” explained Wyria.
A man holding two 12-inch skewers followed in line, impaling himself but showing no sign of pain. The pieces of metal pierced through his cheek and neck, leaving only a hint of blood and two visible holes, like those of a piercing.
A bloody finale gave way to the night’s last display of faith, as a young man with sharp features scored his tongue with two knives, leaving a bleeding mouth, which he promptly opened wide for us to inspect. He walked away dismissively, as though a bleeding tongue was an every day occurrence.
The physical part of the rite lasted approximately twenty minutes and was followed by more instances of meditation. Khalifa Mohammad slowly wound down the ceremony, prompting the ecstatic men to kneel down and pray quietly, their heads gently touching the floor.
The chanting and the drumming had subsided, the wounds patched and the knives and skewers returned to their rightful place. The men gathered around us, eager to hear our thoughts, curious to know whether I’d been scared, and hopeful that we had understood the true meaning of the Dervish religion.
A faith presumably so strong that it drives men to inflict pain on themselves in an attempt to show their often faithless guests the extent of God’s power.
“God protects those who watch us, even our guests will receive God’s protection,” said the Khalifa. We walked out of the takia with God’s protection and a newfound sense of curiosity for this unorthodox branch of Islam.
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