ELĀHĪ, ḤĀjj NŪR ʿALĪ (or ʿAlīšāh; 1895-1974; Plate I), innovative and charismatic leader of one branch of the Ahl-e Ḥaqq (q.v.) and author of several texts on its teachings.
Nūr-ʿAlī Elāhī was born in the village of Jeyḥūnābād, some twelve kilometers to the west of the town of Ṣaḥna on the road between Hamadān and Kermānšāh, where both his father, Ḥājj Neʿmat-Allāh “Mojrem” (1871-1920) and his grandfather, Mīrzā Bahrām, had functioned as masters of the Šāh-Hayāsī branch of the Ahl-e Ḥaqq. His given name was Fatḥ-Allāh, but he was known in the family as Kūček-ʿAlī. He is said to have manifested a prodigious talent for music (see part iii), and to have mastered the art of the tanbūr while still a child. At the age of nine, he is related to have begun a period of intense ascetic training under his father that was to last for twelve years. Two years into this regimen, Elāhī accompanied his father on a pilgrimage to the tomb of Solṭān Esḥāq, the putative founder of the Ahl-e Ḥaqq, at Pardīvar, and there fell suddenly and unaccountably ill, dying three days later. However, according to the hagiographical account developed by Elāhī’s followers, just as the child was about to be buried, a Kurdish Qāderī shaikh by the name of Ḥosām-al-Dīn sent word that Elāhī was about to return from the dead, infused with a new soul. The prediction came true, and from then on Elāhī was known as Nūr-ʿAlī, in recognition of the new soul housed in his frame (anonymous preface to Unicity, p. ix). The period of ascetic retreat came to an end in 1917, and Elāhī married soon thereafter. When his father died in 1920, he left the confines of his native village, and began to reside for extended periods in Kermānšāh and Tehran. In 1929, in preparation for a more thorough entry into the wider world, he cut the hair that had been permitted to luxuriate since he was six, trimmed his beard, and put on a suit (for a depiction of his hirsute state, see the frontispiece to Elâhî, L’ésotérisme). Three years later, he began working for the registrar’s office in Kermānšāh. In 1933, after completing his legal studies in what is said to have been a preternaturally short time, he entered the service of the Ministry of Justice and remained in its employ until his retirement in 1957. This choice of an administrative career is related to have been inspired by the wish to avoid becoming a financial burden on the following he had inherited from his father (Mokri, intr. to Elâhî’s L’ésotérisme, p. 34). Among the cities where he worked as judge or prosecutor were Ḵorramābād, Kermān, Jahrom, Lār, Qom, and Shiraz.
Retirement enabled Elāhī to devote the remainder of his life to writing on Ahl-e Ḥaqq doctrine. This he did in part by composing commentaries and glosses on his father’s works: Kašf al-ḥaqāʾeq, a commentary on Ḥājj Neʿmat-Allāh’s Forqān al-aḵbār (Minorsky, 1964, p. 310; both the original work and its commentary appear to have remained unpublished) and a series of notes to Ḥājj Neʿmat-Allāh’s Šāh-nāma-ye ḥaqīqat (Ḥaqq al-ḥaqāʾeq), compiled, it would seem, at the request of Henry Corbin (Ḥāšiya bar Ḥaqq al-ḥaqāʾeq, printed as an appendix to Šāh-nāma-ye ḥaqīqat, new ed., Tehran, 1363 Š./1984, pp. 433-70). In these notes Elāhī undertook not only to clarify chronological problems in the mythohistory of the Ahl-e Ḥaqq but also to present aspects of the sect’s doctrine as compatible or even identical with the teachings of Twelver Shiʿism. Thus the Ahl-e Ḥaqq belief in reincarnation is depicted as synonymous with the Shiʿite doctrine of rajʿat (the return to this world of certain sacred personages in advance of the general resurrection; pp. 443-46), and the affirmation of the divinity of ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭāleb is explained to mean that he received “a manifestation of the light of the divine essence” (p. 442).
These attempts at a rapprochement with Shiʿism, inherited by Elāhī from his father, received fuller expression in his first published work in Persian, Borhān al-ḥaqq. The Ahl-e Ḥaqq are, Elāhī proclaimed, Twelver Shiʿites (p. 10), and they uniformly follow the injunctions of the šarīʿat. If there are among the Ahl-e Ḥaqq those who fail to observe the devotional duties of Islam, it is because they have fallen under the influence of other communities with which they are intermingled in Kurdistan, notably the ʿAlī-Allāhīs (p. 2). A further cause of deviation was, he maintained, the lack of an authoritative and comprehensive text detailing the beliefs and practices of the Ahl-e Ḥaqq, a deficiency Borhān al-ḥaqq was intended to remedy. The Ahl-e Ḥaqq are in essence simply “one of the mystical chains derived from the Mohammadan šarīʿat,” i.e. something akin to one of the Sufi orders (p. 6). This claim of initiatic descent is bolstered by an interpretation of the expression “holders of authority” (ūlu’l-amr) in the Koran (4:59) to mean “the immaculate Imams and after them those who in every age, linked to that lineage in belief, attain the station of manifestation (maẓharīyat) and will (mašīyat); they become, that is, perfect humans and manifestations of the divine essence in such fashion that their will is identical to the divine will, beings who in the terminology of the Ahl-e Ḥaqq are called dīdavār and bāṭendār” (p. 15). A further linkage of the Ahl-e Ḥaqq to Shiʿite tradition is sought by attributing to Solṭān Esḥāq genealogical descent from Imam Mūsā al-Kāẓem (p. 42). It may have been these attempts at the “normalization” of Ahl-e Ḥaqq doctrine that caused another learned adherent of the sect, a certain Maʿbūdī, to write a refutation of Borhān al-ḥaqq (mentioned in Modarresī Čahārdehī, 1361 Š./1982, p. 109).
Borhān al-ḥaqq was followed in 1969 by Maʿrefat al-rūḥ, a work in which Elāhī attempted to distinguish between the Ahl-e Ḥaqq belief in the soul donning a series of “garments” (jāma or dūn) and the doctrine of transmigration of souls (tanāsoḵ) traditionally refuted by Muslim theologians. His published corpus in Persian was completed with the posthumous appearance in 1991 of Āṯār al-ḥaqq, a two-volume collection of his utterances thematically arranged. It may be significant that these statements, not originally made for purposes of publication, are not consistently marked by a concern for conformity with Shiʿite Islam. Thus, he remarks that the prayer and fasting prescribed by Islam are not intrinsically necessary, serving only the purpose of preserving the outer fabric of religion; “otherwise, tranquillity of the heart and prayer and supplications uttered in any language are quite sufficient” (I, p. 199). When asserting the simultaneous creation of Adam and Eve, as opposed to the fashioning of the latter out of the former, Elāhī goes so far as to observe, “I am not concerned with what is written in the Koran or books of Hadith; this is what I believe” (I, p. 322).
The most complete and coherent presentation of Elāhī’s understanding of Ahl-e Ḥaqq doctrine is to be found not in his Persian books, destined for circulation among Twelver Shiʿites and written with at least sporadic concern for their sensitivities, but in his unpublished writings in Gūrānī, intended to be read only by Ahl-e Ḥaqq initiates. As Moḥammad Mokrī, translator into French of some of these writings, observes, in Borhān al-ḥaqq the teachings of the Ahl-e Ḥaqq are presented as “a pure Shiʿite mysticism” and certain unorthodox aspects are passed over in silence “for extrinsic reasons” (introduction to L’ésotérisme, pp. 36-37). The work translated under the title L’ésotérisme kurde consists of 114 chapters of unequal length in which essential aspects of Ahl-e Ḥaqq doctrine are expounded in question-and-answer form: the sacred history of humanity; the principal theophanies of the Ahl-e Ḥaqq; reincarnation understood as the “changing of garments”; the offerings and sacrifices of Ahl-e Ḥaqq practice; and rites of passage and acts of devotion. In the chapter on the rank of Solṭān Esḥāq, Elāhī remarks: “Given that Solṭān is the founder of our religion and that we are Ahl-e Ḥaqq and his disciples, we must consider him superior to all the prophets. To put it differently, in the particular sense that we intend, he is for us God, although not the Creator” (p. 217).
It may also be mentioned that according to Saeed Khan (p. 34), Elāhī wrote tristichs in which he identified Benyāmīn, the master of the Ahl-e Ḥaqq covenant (pīr-e šarṭ), with Christ and asserted that only through the law of Christ can the truth be known.
Elāhī died on 27 Mehr 1353 Š./18 October 1974 and was buried at Haštgerd, a small town 70 kilometers to the west of Tehran. The conical structure built over his tomb was destroyed in 1982, presumably by opponents of the Ahl-e Ḥaqq. Elāhī’s devotees claim that the tomb itself escaped desecration because his corpse had miraculously absconded (Unicity, p. xx). The structure was in any event rebuilt in 1984.
Elāhī was succeeded as leader of his particular branch of the Ahl-e Ḥaqq by Šayḵ Jānī, an elderly sister living as a recluse in Jeyḥūnābād. Infinitely more visible, however, has been his son, Bahrām Elāhī, a pediatric surgeon living in Paris, who has claimed on behalf of Elāhī that he elaborated an “exact science of spiritual advancement,” a “path of perfection” that summarizes the shared esoteric essence of all religions. Bahrām Elāhī’s two books embody simple ethical maxims and moral pronouncements, with only rare mention of specifically Ahl-e Ḥaqq themes such as “past lives.”
See also J. During, Musique et mystique, Paris and Tehran, 1989, pp. 293-519.
B. Elahi, The Path of Perfection. The Spiritual Teaching of Nur Ali Elahi, Shaftesbury, 1993.
Idem, The Way of Light. The Path of Nur Ali Elahi, Shaftesbury, 1993.
N.-ʿA. Elāhī, Borhān al-ḥaqq, Tehran, 1342 Š./1963.
Idem, L’ésotérisme kurde, tr. M. Mokri, Paris, 1966.
Maʿrefat al-rūḥ, Tehran, 1348 Š./1969. Idem, Āṯār al-ḥaqq, 2 vols., Tehran, 1370 Š./1991.
V. Minorsky, “Ahl-i Ḥaḳḳ” in EI2 I, pp. 260-63.
Idem, “The Sect of the Ahl-i Ḥaḳḳ,” Iranica. Twenty Articles, Tehran, 1964.
N. Modarresī Čahārdehī, Ḵāksār wa Ahl-e Ḥaqq, Tehran, n. d., pp. 158-59.
Idem, Sayr-ī dar taṣawwof. Dar šarḥ-e ḥāl-e mašāyeḵ wa aqṭāb, Tehran, 1361 Š./1982.
M. Moosa, Extremist Shiites: the Ghulat Sects, Syracuse, NY, 1988, pp. 233, 249.
M. Mokri, “Les songes et leur interprétation chez les Ahl-i Haqq du Kurdistan iranien,” Contribution scientifique aux études iraniennes, Paris, 1970, pp. 161-73.
Saeed Khan, “The Sect of Ahl-i Ḥaqq,” The Moslem World 17, 1927, pp. 31-42.
Unicity. A Collection of Photographs of Ostad Elahi, Paris, 1995
The central focus of Elāhī’s thought is on recognizing the underlying essence and common principles of all religions as a reality that can only be discovered through spiritual practice. His own writings (in Persian and Kurdish; see above) developed his ideas within both learned theological and popular mystical traditions of Islam. However, his oral exposition of those ideas in later years, for those who came seeking his guidance from many faiths and nationalities—a teaching recorded in the two volumes of Āṯār al-ḥaqq —provides a more direct, systematic, and universal treatment of spiritual truths focusing on their practical implications and foundations.
Through these oral teachings Elāhī established a “spiritual university” (Dānešgāh-e rūḥ; Āṯār al-ḥaqq, sayings 15, 366, 1999) addressed to all human beings, of every culture and creed, based on his answers to the three fundamental metaphysical and ethical issues: the origin and nature of humanity, our rights and duties, and our ultimate destination (ibid., 178). His teachings provide a systematic practical account of all the stages, processes, and requirements for spiritual advancement (ibid., II, 1025). A key theological contribution in this teaching is his understanding of the role of divine manifestations (maẓharīyat;ibid., 29, 141, 388, 1356, 1589).
Elāhī’s teaching with regard to the spiritual nature of man (ensānīyat) focuses on the multidimensional nature of the human self and the indispensable educational role of the interplay between the angelic soul (rūḥ-e malakūtī) and the constant imbalance due to the carnal, imperious self (nafs-e ammāra; ibid., ch. 8-9). His rational exposition of the doctrine of “successive lives” clarifies the essential role of that reality in the soul’s process of spiritual perfection (sayr-e takāmmol). For Ostād Elāhī, spiritual maturity is not achieved by ascetically weakening the imperious self, but rather by strengthening the angelic soul and its will-power so much that the imperious self can no longer affect it (ibid., 841). Thus spirituality can be defined as the constant concern for equilibrium in all things (ibid., 94-96, 52, 849-51), a balance which must be attained and tested in the crucible of active social life (ibid., 158, 370, 435, 451, 1924). Only in society can we realize our true nature and perfect the characteristics of true humanity (ensānīyat; ibid., 729) within ourselves.
The teachings of Elāhī, restricted to a small group of Persian and French students at the time of his passing and promoting tolerance, unity, and peace, have spread—as he always insisted—above all through the practice and example of individual seekers. The publication of his recorded sayings (ibid., with translations of his other writings now in preparation) and several summaries of his teachings (B. Elahi, The Path of Perfection:The Spiritual Teachings of Nur Ali Elahi, Shaftsbury, Dorset, 1993; and Words of Faith. Prayers of Ostad Elahi, France, 1995; now translated into 12 languages, including English, French, Greek, Italian, and Polish) has also aided in the diffusion of his thought to much wider circles. His devotees arranged elaborate ceremonies of commemoration with UNESCO’s participation in Paris, New York, London, and Los Angeles, with the collaboration of a number of universities, on the centenary of his birth in October 1995. Their organization in New York is called Nour Foundation.
(J. W. MORRIS)
It was from his very childhood that Nūr-ʿAlī Elāhī began playing the tanbūr, the lute that traditionally accompanies the devotional songs (ḏekr; q.v.) and dances of the Ahl-e Ḥaqq and is considered sacred by them. Acknowledged as a virtuoso on the tanbūr by nine, he demonstrated an uncommon creativity which was expressed through the development of a new musical technique involving five fingers of both hands (rather than the customary 3 or 4 fingers), the enhancing of the aesthetic aspect through numerous rhythmic and gestural patterns, and the considerable development of ornamentation. He also modified the sound and expressive possibilities of the tanbūr by doubling the first string. Another of Elāhī’s achievements was his ability to transcend a musical tradition with a limited and scattered repertoire and raise it to the level of a classical art. He established a repertoire of approximately seventy-five melodic types and modes (called dastgāh) which provide the support for his improvisation, in addition to approximately a hundred brief melodies or sacred hymns (sarband) which he interpreted in his own ornamental style. The repertoire includes old sacred melodies as well as profane melodies from the stock of Kurdish folk music. In every instance they are original or personal versions arranged, developed, or recomposed by him in the spirit of a sacred art. Among melodies that are not found, or no longer found, in the traditional repertoires, sacred or profane, it is probable that a certain number were personal compositions. The inventory that he left includes the following tunes, categorized into four genres.
Mystical (ʿerfānī) tune. Šayḵ-amīrī (17 forms), Bābā-faqīhī, Šāh-ḵošīnī, Kākā-redāʾī, Bābā-sarhangī, Bābā-nāʾusī, ʿĀbedīnī, Yādgārī, Sayyed-moḥammadī
Traditional tunes. Bālā-dastān, Zīr-dastān, Šāh-ḥosaynī, Šowāna šowāna, Do balā, Karīm-ḵānī, Bārīa bārīa (or Bārgā bārgā), Šīrīn mayā ḵāl, Ḵoršīd-e ḵāvar, Saḥarī-e Sayyed Ḵāmūš, Ḡarīb hāy ḡarīb (or Ḡarībī), Ṣanam hāy ṣanam, Tārī tārī, Gel wa dara, Qaṭār, Mollā-moṣṭafāʾī, Naftīya, Hejrānī, Darvīš Allāh-waysī, ʿAbd-al-bāqī Khan, Kūča-bāḡī, Lāva lāva, Sārū-ḵānī, Ṭarz-e maʿmūlī, Haft ḵān-e Rostam, Ṭarz-e Arkavāzī, Ṭarz-e mūya, Ṭarz-e jaʿfarī, Ṭarz-e Ḵān Bābā Ḵān, Ṭarz-e Ā-Sayyed Berāka, Ṭarz-e Ā-Teymūr, Zamzama-ye ṭarz, Nakīsā o Bārbad, Šīn-e ṭarz, Forūd-e ṭarz, Šīrīn o Farhād, Rāz o nīāz, Sūz o godāz, Yār mobārak bād, Bādā bādā.
Dances (bāzī). Šān-jonbānak, Farangī, Jelow-šāhī, Jangārā, Savār savār, Saḥarī, Gol o ḵār, Pā kotakī, Šīrīna Leylāna, Amāna o yār, Fatā pāshā-ye gūrān, Fatā pāshā-ye kermānšāhī, Harātī, Čapī, Larzāna, Samā, Sangelī samā, Qara-čūpī, Ḵān-amīrī, Gardūna (or Geryān), Sejārān, Halpareka.
Outside mystical circles, many people, including renowned musicians such as Ruḥ-Allāh Ḵāleqī (I, p. 145) and Mūsā Maʿrūfī (p. 14) have attested to the originality of his music as well as its exceptional intensity and impact on the listener.
Elāhī did not play outside a devotional context and his musical performance had all the meditative, emotional, and kinetic characteristics of a ḏekr (ḵafī andjalī) and a samāʿ. Many of his musical sessions have been recorded by his relatives, some extracts of which have been published on compact disks (La musique céleste d’Ostād Elāhi, 2 vols. Le Chant du Monde, Paris, 1995; Iran. La musique céleste d’Ostād Elāhi, Le Chant du Monde, Paris, 1996).
J. During, Musique et mystique dans les traditions de l’Iran, Paris, IFRI-Peeters, 1991.
Idem, “Les dastgāhs sacrés des Ahl-e haqq du Kurdistan. Approche comparative et procédés de transformation” in J. Elsner and G. Jähnichen, eds., Regionale maqām-Traditionen in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Berlin, 1992.
R. Ḵāleqī, Sargoḏašt-e mūsīqī-e īrānī, 2 vols., Tehran, 1333 Š./1954.
M. Mokri, “La musique sacrée des Kurdes ‘Fidèles de Vérité’ en Iran,” in Encyclopédie des musiques sacrées, Paris, 1968, pp. 441-53.
M. Maʿrūfī, “Dar bāra-ye mūsīqī wa mūsīqīdān,” Majalla-ye mūsīqī-e Īrān, no. 97, 1339 Š./1960, p. 14.
(Hamid Algar, J. W. Morris, Jean During)
Originally Published: December 15, 1998
Last Updated: December 13, 2011
This article is available in print.
Vol. VIII, Fasc. 3, pp. 297-301