One god, one or more recognized prophets, a preoccupation with female sexuality — are we talking about Islam? Not this time. Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East is a religion-nerd’s tour of “disappearing religions” such as those of the Iraqi Mandaeans or the Zorastrians of Iran. Some, it must be said, are less monotheistic than others.
Written by Gerard Russell, a former British diplomat-turned-policy wonk, Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms is a journalistic survey of ancient religions that might likely be crushed by the Islamic State (like the Yazidis) or by other Muslim fundamentalism (Egypt’s Coptic Christians or the polytheistic Kalasha people of the Aghan-Pakastani boder).
Or they may all end up in Michigan — except for the Yazidis, whose chief immigrant home is Lincoln, Nebraska. There is a reason why the final chapter is titled “Detroit,” since that metro area has attracted many Middle Eastern immigrants.
In the course of fourteen years as an Arabic- and Farsi-speaking diplomat, working and traveling in Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon, I enountered religious beliefs that I had never known of before: a taboo against wearing the color blue, obligatory mustaches, and a reverence for peacocks. I met people who believed in supernatural being that take human form, in the power of the planets and stars to steer human affairs, and in reincaration.
He visits and interviews the Mandaeans, who trace their religious lineage to John the Baptist (a “greater miracle worker than Jesus”), people who lived in Iraq since biblical times but who have now mostly fled.
The Yazidis. whose recent persecuation by the Islamic State made headlines, follow “an esoteric religion that has superficial similarities to Islam but is very different from it. . . . Yazidis believe in reincarnation, sacrifice bulls, and revere an angel who takes the form of the peacock.”
But they have also been frequently accused of “devil-worship,” with predictably bloody results. They might have a root in the ancient worship of Mithras, whose cult was important in imperial Rome as well, brought home by legionaires who served in the Middle East.
He briefly visits some Alawite Muslims too, “technically Shi’a [but with] as little in common with orthodox Shi’a as Unitarians . . . with evangelical Protestants,” who may share a religious lineage with the ancient inhabitants of the city of Harran, who themselves long kept up a sort of Neoplatonism by convincing their Arab conquerors that they were somehow “people of the book,” i.e., fellow monotheists.
Zoroastrians, followers of the ancient Persian religion, hang on in small numbers, celebrating the winter solstice with watermelons and pomegranates. (Their way has enjoyed a small revival lately among the Kurds, who were part of the Persian empire.) They gave us the word “magic.” And they like dogs better than cats, as their scripture tells them:
“When passing to the other world, the soul of a person who has hit a dog “shall fly howling louder and more sorely grieved than the sheep does in the lofty forest when the wolf ranges.” A man who kills a dog is required by the Avesta to perfomr a list of penances eighteen lines long. One of the penances is to kill a thousand cats. Because Muslims preferred cats over dogs, which they think of as uncean, disputes over the treatment of dogs often led to fights between Zoroastrians and Muslims.
(Can’t we be ecumenical here?)
The few hundred Samaritans, living in Israel and Palestine, were the Hebrews who never accepted the consolidation of the cult of YWHW, with Jerusalem the only official temple site. Like the Druze, they marry only within their own group. The Druze themselves, Russell suggests, carry on some of the teaching of Pythagoras and Hermes Trismegistus — but living in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel, have often formed their own armed factions in the region’s wars.
Until the 19th century, meanwhile, a few indigenous Pagan tribues lingered in “Kafirstan” (now Nuristan), a mountainous region at the northern edge of British India. They were freedom-loving, warlike, and prone to raids and blood-feuds. In 1895, the Muslim amir of Kabul, whose troops had guns, conquered most of them.
In the 1950s, the British travel writer Eric Newby was shown a stone red with the blood of those who chose execution [over conversion to Islam.
One group the “Iron Amir’s” troops missed was the Kalasha, numbering just a few thousand, celebrating their festivals, worshipping their gods, and being less obssessive about sexual control than their Muslim neighbors — for instance, women can request a divorce without penalty and walk around with their faces unveiled. That freedom influences a sort of Pakistani sex-tourism, however:
I was told that the summer festival attracted many Pakistani tourists who were as intrigued as those from Greece or countries even further afield . . . some came with the wrong idea: they expected that because Kalasha women did not wear veils and were not Muslims, they would be available for sex. [A Kalasha prohibition on sex during the festival] does not stop prostitutes from coming from other parts of Pakistan to exploit the legend by dressing as Kalasha women, though, trading on this desire for the exotic.
There is a special connection between the Kalashas and the Greeks — maybe — it has at least led to some privately funded Greek foreign aid.
Many of these groups, who survived by living in remote places or by making accomodations with Islamic rulers, now are being ground between fundamentalist Islam and increasing bureaucratic efficiency of nation-states. Consequently, many have left: Chaldean, Iraqi, Egyptian, and Palestinian Christians in particular are fleeing.
As late as the 1990s there were still 1.4 million Christians in Iraq. Now . . . probably only a third of that number remain, or even fewer.
Druze and Mandaeans live in Boston; Yazidis, as mentioned, have congregated in Lincoln, Neb., and some other places. But the negative propaganda follows them:
The one thing that upset the family about American culture was the way their religion was represented. Abu Shihad said he had heard a CNN reporter describe the Yazidis as “the most hideous religion in the world.” I found this hard to believe, but he was very sure he had heard it.
The tragedy, Russell suggests, is that since many of these groups have been keeping their doctrines secret and marrying only in-group according to complicated rules for so long, once transplanted to North America they find it impossible to carry on as before.