Case Study

The ‘Deep Believer’ 30 Years On, 1926–2008

in Anthropology of the Middle East
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In my book Islam in Practice (1988), I showed the great variety of religious beliefs in Sisakht, a village of Luri-speaking tribal people in the province of Kohgiluye/Boir Ahmad in Iran. I gave one of the 21 men I presented, Mr. Husseinkhan Sayadi, the epithet ‘Deep Believer’ to reflect his firm belief in God and Shi'a traditions. We became close friends, and revisiting his life again 14 years after his death, I will continue to use his first name to reflect and honour our friendship.

In my book Islam in Practice (1988), I showed the great variety of religious beliefs in Sisakht, a village of Luri-speaking tribal people in the province of Kohgiluye/Boir Ahmad in Iran.1 I gave one of the 21 men I presented, Mr. Husseinkhan Sayadi, the epithet ‘Deep Believer’ to reflect his firm belief in God and Shi'a traditions. We became close friends, and revisiting his life again 14 years after his death, I will continue to use his first name to reflect and honour our friendship.

The Boir Ahmad tribe is one of six large tribes in the province of Kohgiluye/Boir Ahmad in the southeastern part of the Zagros Mountains in Southwest Iran. It had a paramount khan and consisted of several patrilineally organised sub-tribes headed by chiefs, called kadkhoda, who often feuded amongst themselves over land and power and demanded increasingly higher tributes from their tribesmen. These conditions and the fast-rising population exhausted pastures and arable land, degraded the brittle alpine environment, and kept most people in poverty despite their hard work (Loeffler and Loeffler 2022).

Husseinkhan was born around 1926 in Sisakht to a family of pastoralist-farmers, married a local woman, had several children, and lived there until he died in 2008. His family is part of an old, large kin group in the village that held land and rights to water and pastures. The local inheritance rule granted each brother an equal share of his father's property; thus, as land was divided among brothers, individual land holdings shrank from one generation to the next. Simultaneously, animal holdings were declining in Sisakht because of the deterioration of pastures, the increasing costs of shepherds and fodder, and declining profitability (Loeffler 1989). Husseinkhan had some additional income from his job as the miller in Sisakht, operating the mechanical wheat mill for a fee paid in kind by his customers. His children and grandchildren went to school, and three sons and several grandsons held salaried jobs besides tending to their small fields and orchards.

The Lurs of Boir Ahmad are Shi'a Muslims like the majority of Iranians. Sisakht had a resident mullah, an outsider, since the early twentieth century, and includes several Seyed families, who are purported descendants of the Prophet Mohammad. Occasionally, a literate man would teach some boys to read the Quran, like in a Quran school (maktab), and mendicant dervishes and preachers made a living by providing instructions in religion. Religious rituals concentrated on prayers and the cult of saints and of the dead, but people also had lively festivities around the Zoroastrian New Year and at weddings. Here, people enjoyed traditional music and women's circle-dances, which were disparaged as immodest by the Islamic government (Friedl 2020; Loeffler 1988). Most local people described themselves as good Muslims who observed obligatory rituals as best they could, kept the peace, co-operated when needed, and upheld the values and customs typical of small, interdependent communities. These values informed also Husseinkhan's world view and religiosity. He was thought of as a good miller and neighbour, a diligent farmer and one of the wise, esteemed men in Sisakht whom others listened to.

Husseinkhan's journey describes the spiritual development of many Persians, if not of many Muslims, if we take into account our own observations, anecdotal evidence and rare studies (e.g. GAMAAN 2021; Kolb and Yildiz 2019) on Muslims’ changing religiosity. In the Islamic Republic, governmental authorities demand conformity to rituals and laws and try to establish conformity in thoughts and beliefs according to their understanding of Shi'a Islam. However, it seems that they cannot stop trends in culture and behaviour inspired by global developments, modernisation and people's aspirational lifestyles, and cannot avoid people's frustrations with the unsuccessful stewardship of Iran's economy (Afary and Faust 2021; Loeffler 2011). Although there are reports on these developments, there are no ethnographic accounts of their effects on people's religiosity in Iran, and, as far as I know, none about the shape they take in individual people over a period of 30 years. I present this personal development here as an example of the changes of the inner life of a pious man who throughout his adult life was reflecting on his own life philosophy and his religious beliefs. Although others in the village were rarely as insightful, outspoken and critically aware as Husseinkhan was, most developed similar ideas and came to similar conclusions. Thus, his story facilitates not only further insights into the rich cosmology of a rural community in Iran but also stands for the path taken by many people of his generation.

I began conversations with Husseinkhan in 1976; these continued throughout my subsequent field seasons every two to three years until 2006. We spoke for many hours in his house and during walks in the fields and gardens above the village. He had a lively interest in the political and social history of Iran, in ethics, human behaviour, philosophical topics and theology. In our discussions about religion, Husseinkhan described his belief as ‘first khoda (God) and then din (religion)’. God for him was the ultimate creator of the universe, the cause of all happenings and the highest judge. Din, literally, ‘religion’, meant all the teachings and preaching of mullahs about eschatology, prayers, processions, religious festivals, as well as pilgrimages, petitions and offerings to saints. He thought that all this was important for leading a pious life, but he also emphasised that to honour God one had to be grateful for what He provided and, above all, one had to do right by one's fellow human beings.2 Together, khoda and din for Husseinkhan meant ‘Islam’.

This belief system changed fundamentally with the Islamic Revolution (1978–1979). While after the Revolution his belief in God remained as adamantly firm as ever, the whole complex of what he came to call din was falling away as he came to see it as made of constructions by the mullahs. He began to avoid the very word din, which now meant to him the conceptions propagated by the government and mullahs. He openly stated the reason for his reversal of attitude to be the changes that the religious authorities brought about after the Revolution.

In the following, I keep the interview format I had adopted in the earlier book, with the text comprising his own statements, in his own words, and a few editorial comments.

Your ideas have changed greatly since the 1970s. Why do you see things so differently now?

If Khomeini had stayed in Paris, my belief would not have changed. But when he moved on to lead the Revolution and we saw his actions, I came to realise that all he did and said was a lie. How much of an ass are people that they didn't recognise this?

With his lies, Khomeini incited boys and young men to join the battlefront, promising them the joys of paradise if they would be killed. He even gave them small plastic keys that would open the gates of paradise for them! How can this be? How could he know what would happen to them after death? If the mullahs (akhond) were so sure about the pleasures of paradise awaiting martyrs, why did not they themselves go to the front? So, they are lying to us. But people are indeed like donkeys: they follow anyone dumbly. To some, the lies of Khomeini seemingly were so pleasant that they took him for God himself.

The mullahs even tell us that by the blood of Hussein sins will be forgiven, and that the imams can work miracles and can intercede for us on the Last Day. Can this be? The imams were normal people like we are. How do they know there will be a Last Day? Already in earlier days I came in conflict with a good friend when I challenged his belief that when Hussein was killed his head talked from the lance on which it was impaled. And once, just before the Revolution, when a sheikh came to our mosque to make us better Muslims and kept talking about the Last Day as if he had been there, I could not hold back and burst out, ‘How do you know? How do you speak with such certainty about something none of you or us has ever seen?’

The mullahs’ insincerity once showed clearly to me when one of them ordered people to cut out from a carpet the spot soiled by a child. But when the mullah's wife did this in their home, he castigated her for being stupid, saying, ‘I only said that for the people’.

The mullahs also preached from high up that the Quran was sent down by God to Mohammad. Yet it is shown that it was written by Omar and Othman, ordinary men like you and me, and then ascribed to Mohammad. The mullahs also say that the meat of a boar is haram, untouchable, not to be eaten, although it weighs in at one hundred kilos of good meat. But to eat a sparrow which doesn't have any meat on its bones is declared halal, permitted. It makes no sense. We serve God by working hard and feeding our families, and God in his goodness created large animals like boars so that we can do that. Also, if God had made this rule about boars and sparrows, He would have given it to all people, not just to Muslims, as He did with stealing, which is universally forbidden. So I came to realise that what the mullahs had kept telling us over the years and what we took as din was made up by themselves. This means that religion is made by men. In fact, now I think that all religions in the world are made by men.

What do you now think about vows to saints (imams)? Are they also part of man-made religion?

Imams are descendants of the Prophet, but they are just people. Sometimes a person makes a vow, a nasr to a dead imam, promising to donate food or money to the poor to secure God's blessing for something he wants. I think that the only benefit of a nasr is that maybe that way some poor people get something to eat. An imam is just a person like we are, and people have no power to intervene in God's Will.

I also don't believe any more that the gun accident that crippled my hand was because a nasr had failed to reach an imam. It was just an accident. I have told you that my parents, having lost three sons before I was born, made a vow to an imam that if I lived they would dedicate to him – to the dead imam at his shrine – one quarter of all I would produce in my lifetime. Then this thing happened with a gun that went off and made my left hand useless, which reduced my productivity by exactly one quarter. So I speculated that for one or another reason the nasr likely had not reached the imam. But now, after I saw and heard all that the mullahs were saying and doing, I no longer believe what mullahs say about nasr and imams. What happened to my hand was simply an accident caused by my own negligence.

I also thought that the talk of people (zabun-e khalq) can cause great harm. We say: ‘The tongue of people is the scourge of God’ (zabun-e mardom taziune khoda). When I was building my new house, it so happened that a snake bit me. For a day or two, I was in severe pain, and thank God the doctor here had the right drug for an injection that saved me. At the time, I believed that this accident happened because people passing my new house talked about it with envy. Now, I no longer believe this. In any case, it was God's Will that I live.

However, I still think that people's talk may be beneficial. When a group of people stand together at a funeral and say about the dead person ‘He was a good man, and may God have mercy on him (khoda biamorzesh)’, God will listen and will be merciful.

Continuing the discussion about vows to saints, what are your thoughts about pilgrimages?

People make pilgrimages; they visit (ziarat) the tombs of imams in the belief that the imams and their descendants (Imamzadeh) have more abru (prestige) before God than they themselves have, and that, therefore, God will listen to the imams’ intercession. There is no proof that this is more effective than if a person honestly were to ask God directly for a favour. If the person's wish is fulfilled, there is no evidence that this was caused by the imam's plea, and there is no evidence that a direct petition would not have been as effective. If these imams really had such power, why couldn't they have saved themselves? They were Arabs who couldn't assert themselves, were defeated by their enemies and had to leave their country. It was the people, their followers, who made them big, not their own might. There are 12 Imams, but the mullahs tried to make up a thirteenth Imam, the Ayatollah Khomeini, to serve their own interests. One person earns his bread from work, another from stealing, and still others with lies and swindles.

Ziarat in fact doesn't mean to go visit saints – saints were just people as we are. Ziarat means to stay with God and do good and help others, just as your wife helps old women. This is more valuable and true to the meaning of ziarat than is a pilgrimage to Mecca.

What good did the imams actually do for us? Nothing. But the people who make electricity and light so that by merely flipping a switch the house is lighted – this is service to people. Or take modern medicine: the imams had nothing to do with this. Some time ago, I was hit by pains in the lower abdomen so severe that I felt like dying. The same trouble had affected other men in the village in the past, and they died of it. But since then, a young man of our village had studied medicine and learnt how to do surgery. He operated on me, and I was well again. This is service to people. It had nothing to do with imams. Of course, God willed that I live. Another man of our village had the best doctors in the city [and] yet he died. It was God's will.

Again I say, that all this tells us that what the mullahs preach to us about imams, vows, and paradise – all that we had been taking as din – has been made up by the mullahs themselves, not sent down from God.

But there is God? God exists although din is made up?

If I said ‘There is no God’ – istafr allah! (God pardon me!) – there would be nothing for me. There is absolutely no doubt that God exists. After day, night will follow, and there will be day again. No human can do this. We sow seeds and wheat grows. We plant a seedling and a tree grows and bears fruit. This shows that God exists. No human can achieve anything like that. All people together cannot produce a single day or create any form of life. Even the best doctor will die. God created everything for us people. Why else should He have made all this? And why else should He have made us human beings? What other purpose should all this have? Look at a simple peach. No man can make anything like this.

Man is created to work hard. If man doesn't take trouble, if he does not exert himself, then there wouldn't be anything. Then man would be like a boar or another animal that doesn't work and produce things. The purpose of our work is that it makes the world abad (livable), as Zardosht (Zarathushtra) has said. Work and exertion are necessary for the world to turn, for the world to be habitable, so that the world won't be an empty place. Without exertion, nothing will be accomplished. Why this should be so only God knows. But anything that serves that end is good: to produce for oneself, for one's family, for others; to share and to do things for others; to cooperate.

The mullahs don't contribute to this system. They don't give anything away. If a mullah falls into ditch and you want to help him out and say ‘Give me your hand’, he will frantically wave his hands and refuse. But if you tell him ‘Take my hand’, he will most readily grab it. Mullahs will never admit a mistake either. Their skin is so thick (pusteshun iqadr koloft), that no criticism touches them. The mullahs create a religion for themselves: the Quran, paradise, prophets, imams, prayers, miracles, rules about what we should eat and wear and do – everything. How can it not be obvious that all that is called ‘religion’ is made by man? Every cow sees this!

I also doubt that all humans are descended from Adam; if this were so, all people should speak the same language, but they don't. So, people emerged in different parts of the world, and every group has fashioned a different religion for themselves.

To know God, in essence, means asayesh ve mardom (comforting people), that is, to give to people who are poor and needy, to help those who are sick and debilitated, and to share when we have something special. No mullah is needed to tell us that. If one only prays from morning to dusk, as the mullahs tell us, he has at most done something for himself but nothing for others. If, however, someone gives me a good spade with which I can plant a new tree that will produce fruit: how many people will benefit from it? Many! This is what God approves. We do good out of our common humanity. One knows from personal experience that getting help from others is pleasant. We also think that it pleases God when we help each other because He sends rewards for it already in this world. If I help a neighbour, I may be doing so because he is my relative or he will help me in return, but nevertheless it also has religious merit, savab, because I ease his work. When we do good, we think it is of our own doing; it certainly is, but we do it by the grace of God (az lotfe khoda).

God creates but also kills all living beings. He kills man in different ways. One simply falls asleep, another dies slowly over many years, getting sick and sicker. It is not known for what reason God wills a slow death. But it is a challenge to the mind seeing a peasant, who has done so much good all his life, toiling to grow food which is the best work in the world because it keeps people alive, caught at the end of his life in long, painful suffering. It seems unjust for this to happen. When God sees so many people suffering, why did He create human beings as vulnerable as that?

People say we cannot know why but simply have to bear what God sends and be grateful for everything, no matter how difficult it is. Of course we, too, are responsible for our suffering. I have done a lot of things that harmed my body, such as carrying heavy bags of wheat on my back across the Denā Pass to our village when drought destroyed our crops. This certainly caused damage, as did my hard work for long hours in cold and snow, going without food for days. We did not know what this would do to me in old age, and neither did we have a choice but to work so hard to feed our families. To have neglected this duty in favour of saving our health would have been an insult to God.

But can't one say that ailments may also be a punishment from God?

Sure, for example, in the case of our former kadkhoda, Ali Agha Nikeqbal, who is now struck down, lying in his own dirt with a little bread thrown to him like to a dog: his suffering and humiliation are obviously punishment for his pride, ingratitude (nashokri) and misdeeds. He caused immense suffering for the people of this village. His oppression was so severe that people left the village, abandoning fields and houses in search of a place with a more benevolent chief. He robbed us of our food, even killed people, and violated our women.

When I asked Mr. Nikeqbal himself about his reputation, he smiled in pleasant memory and said: ‘The women I had! The best women they were! Sure, people say things about me. These people! I had to beat them to make them build their houses. I took care of them. One of my men got so ill, he was about to die and I took him to a doctor in the city. He cut him open and sewed him up and he got well’. This form of patronage endured between former chiefs and their servants in the form of occasional mutual assistance even after the chiefs had lost their power, such as when, for example, a former servant accompanied a kadkhoda's son on a hunting trip or brought him a pot of honey.

The fate of this kadkhoda demonstrates that such behaviour is bad and will be punished by God so that others won't commit such crimes. But many others have done nothing wrong and yet they suffer. Why? We cannot take God to task. The question as to why God permits a man to suffer is like criticising God and thus is like cursing Him. We don't know God's motive. One may say that maybe the father of an ailing man had done something really bad before his son was born and God is now punishing the son for his father's sin. But why the general suffering? Because of that some people even think that God does not exist. But who then has made all this, the whole creation? God must exist.

How can we understand someone like Mr. Nikeqbal, who caused so much misery to the people of his village and yet took good care of his own men?

In man, there are many strands or threads (reg; dar adam kheili reg hast). Each strand follows a certain command (har regi ye hokm dare), being ready to carry out a special function. Any reg may come in conflict with another reg.3 They will fight one another, and one will be the stronger. It's like students in a classroom: the teacher tells them all the same thing, but some students will learn it well and become successful, while others won't. So, when a person whose strand of reason (aql) is strong passes an orchard with fine fruit he will respect the owner's property or he will be ashamed (khejalat) of being caught stealing and will pass by. But if one whose aql is weak and whose reg for stealing is strong sees the fruit, he will sneak into the orchard and start stealing and may even berate the owner who takes him to task. This one is a thief and commits a sin. But is this not God's fault to have given reason to the one but not to the other? No. God does not create evil. God created every man with free will (ekhtiyar) and a mind to know right from wrong, and He rewards those who do good.

In 2001 after having worked hard breaking heavy soil for a new field, Husseinkhan suffered a series of painful attacks affecting mainly his right leg. They were so severe, he said, that he was rolling on the ground. His son took him to the doctor, who gave him medications that allayed the pain.

He was also nearly pain-free when I saw him soon afterwards in 2002. We walked up the slope to a spot beside the main irrigation channel, where we sat and talked. We had walked for nearly two hours. He walked well, though a bit slow and pulling his right leg by the hip, and no longer with the vigour that had carried him up to the foot of the Kuh-e Denā when checking on his beehives in 1998. He kept his hives up there during the warm season, because he felt that high up there the bees produced the best honey. Once, he brought back three glasses of honey as a gift for my wife, my daughter and me.

Unfortunately, his health did not keep up. When I returned in 2004, I found him huddled beside the stove, wrapped in a blanket with his old fleece jacket tucked around the ailing right leg. He could walk only around the courtyard, and even that was often interrupted by an attack of pain that felled him. The attacks came several times a day. They wracked him from the top of his head, he said, to the bottom of his feet. His feet felt so hot that although it was winter he walked barefoot in the courtyard.

What happened?

I had been working in the new field, breaking hard ground and shifting stones. In the afternoon, I walked back down to the village and joined a funeral in the cemetery. That night, I was struck by pains in my back and legs that were even more severe than previously. In the morning, I could no longer move. My family took me on a blanket to the car to see the doctor in Yasuj, but he could not help me. Over the next weeks, my son took me to doctors in Shiraz and Isfahan, and they did tests and each prescribed a bag full of medications, but the pains continued.

The son with whom he lived, dutifully took him from one doctor to the next though he had overwhelming worries of his own, as he was also taking care of an impaired child and an ill wife in addition to his own work and living near poverty. The doctor visits cost dearly.

Slowly I got better, and after many weeks I could walk short distances again, but now I can walk less and less each day. The attacks come day and night; sometimes they are so severe that I get weak and almost faint. The only thing that reduces the pain and discomfort is smoking a little opium at noon. No matter what the doctors say about how bad opium is for me, I need it to reduce the constant pain. What I had wished from God is that I never become mukhtaj, dependent on others to the point that they have to feed me and have to do my work. It troubles me that I am a burden for my son and other people, and I would rather that God would have killed me.

When on my arrival in 2004 I had found Husseinkhan in such a miserable condition, I asked the local doctor to come and see him. I also talked to virtually all the doctors in the village, and they gave me educated diagnoses and they prescribed medications. But Husseinkhan's trouble was not resolved. Back in the United States I asked my daughter, Agnes, a pathologist, about the case. She read my notes and said that in all probability Husseinkhan had suffered spinal damage caused mainly by his heavy work. The herniated disk pressured the nerves, causing the excruciating pains and loss of sensation in the leg. The condition would have necessitated surgery. In the absence of surgical intervention, the nerves deteriorated. Eventually, the pain subsided somewhat, but the injury left him permanently disabled.

I saw Husseinkhan again after two years, in 2006; he was in his mid-80s then. He still suffered attacks of pain but they were not as severe as earlier. The long suffering had weakened him so that he could only step out into the courtyard for a short while to smoke his pellet (nakhod) of opium. In the evening, he listened to the BBC Persian Service as usual, critical of politicians. (By the time they agree on something, he said, ‘kah be kah raft va dun ve dun’, referring to winnowing, ‘chaff went to chaff and wheat to wheat’, denoting the end of the issue.) He continued to talk about God's creation:

People say that God made humans and animals from earth. But who knows? Who knows anything about the working of God? One just has to say something. It is also said that God made man to live for a while in this world so that he will be tested for paradise. Paradise? That also has been made up for the deception of people. Yes, once I had a very strong belief in those things, and if Khomeini had not come I would still today have this belief. But now I have seen examples of their doing. The prayers the mullahs are saying benefit no one. Once I told our mullah that he is not producing any livelihood. He answered: ‘The Prophet has kissed the hands of workers’. Had the mullahs grown some wheat, it would have been of benefit to people.

I am no longer seeing doctors. How many times my family has taken me to them! No one could help me. They only want money. There are many old men like myself: ailing, crippled, lame, unable to work, a burden to their families. So, is God an oppressor? No. God is good. He will not do anything bad, yet my suffering is from God. God causes everything. So He also causes my suffering. But this cannot be said because God is good and will not cause harm. So why? Everything decays, even hard rocks are worn down by water, the softest of things. But God should not permit man to get so old that in the end he will be caught in misery. It is the will of God that this is happening to me. I don't know why God is doing it to me. I don't think it is a trial to test me for the Last Day as the mullahs say. So, why all this suffering for the past four years? Whether there is God or not – what do I have in hand to say no to God? I just have to say: ‘Yes, God exists’. Whatever happens is caused by the will of God. But He should have had pity and not make me so old that I am now caught in this misery, where every day is like a thousand days.

Notes

1

Various stages of the research underlying this article were supported by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, The Social Science Research Council and Western Michigan University. I thank these institutions for their support, the people of Sisakht for their co-operation, and Kati Loeffler for her editorial assistance.

2

Such emphasis on the common good over ritual obligations is reminiscent of another miller, the famous sixteenth-century Italian Menocchio, who during his trials by the Roman Inquisition insisted that God expected people's gratitude and submission but was most gratified by kindness, co-operation and assistance amongst people (Ginzburg 1980: 39). Seen as heresy by the religious authorities, this brought Menocchio a martyr's death in 1599.

3

For comparison, I refer to a wider literature: the ethologist Konrad Lorenz (2002: 77) called a chapter in his book On Aggression ‘Life Is a Great Parliament of Instincts’; Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had Faust say: ‘Two souls, alas! are dwelling in my breast’ (2014; Act 1, Verse 2, Line 307). Sophists in Rome could ‘prove’ a different, contradictory point on any subject. The diverse ‘reg’ may also be voices such as in ‘to follow the voice of one's heart’ or may be felt as contradictory wants as in ‘I want to have my cake and eat it too’.

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  • Loeffler, R. L. and K. Loeffler (2022), Our Toil and God's Blessing: The Culture of Progress in an Iranian Tribal Village (Bloomington, IN: Archway Publishing).

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  • Lorenz, K. (2002), On Aggression (London: Routledge).

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