Image copyright Behnaz Hosseini Image caption A shrine in Kermanshah province, western Iran. The Yarsan faith emerged there in the 14th or 15th Century and is a fusion of beliefs and practices from several religions. Its central religious text, known as the Kalam-e Saranjam, is based on the teachings of Sultan Sahak
The Yarsan faith is one of the oldest in the Middle East.
Also known as Ahl-e Haqq (People of the Truth), it is estimated to have about three million followers in Iran, most of whom live in western, predominantly Kurdish provinces. Another 120,000 to 150,000 live in Iraq, where they are commonly called Kaka’i.
Behnaz Hosseini, a visiting research fellow at the University of Oxford who has studied religious minorities in Iran and Iraq, recently spent time with a Yarsani community during a three-day period of fasting that takes place each autumn.
Image copyright Behnaz Hosseini Image caption Yarsanis believe Sultan Sahak was one of seven manifestations of God. They also believe in the transmigration of the soul, with the soul achieving purification by passing through 1,001 incarnations. At religious ceremonies, Yarsanis play a sacred lute known as the “tanbur” and read sacred words, or “kalam”
Image copyright Behnaz Hosseini Image caption Yarsanis gather every month at places of worship called “jamkhaneh”. The meetings are known as “jam”. Everyone who enters a jamkhaneh must obey several rules, including wearing a special hat. They also sit in a circle, facing the Pardivar, which is the holiest place in the jamkhaneh
Image copyright Behnaz Hosseini Image caption Yarsanis are obliged to fast for three days during the Iranian calendar month of Aban, which begins in October and ends in November
Image copyright Behnaz Hosseini Image caption A jam is held each night in every community during the fasting period and the fast is broken collectively at sunset
Image copyright Behnaz Hosseini Image caption Special breads are baked for the meals breaking the fast
Image copyright Behnaz Hossein Image caption Pomegranates are a sacred fruit for Yarsanis and feature in many ceremonies
Image copyright Behnaz Hosseini Image caption The moustache is a holy symbol for the Yarsan community. Traditionally, Yarsani men let their moustaches grow and never cut them
Image copyright Behnaz Hosseini Image caption Iran’s constitution does not recognise Yarsanis as members of a religious minority, unlike Zoroastrians, Christians and Jews. The government instead often considers Yarsanis as Shia Muslims practising Sufism. Some members of the Shia clerical establishment in Iran view Yarsan as a “deviant faith”
Image copyright Behnaz Hosseini Image caption Members of the community told a UN expert in 2018 that they were unable to register their children as Yarsan at birth, were prohibited from constructing places of worship, could not organise burials in accordance with their religion, and could not print their holy book without fear of being charged with acting against the regime or insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Some individuals said their moustaches were forcibly shaved during military service
Photos courtesy of Behnaz Hosseini