LUṬI, also luti (pl. alvāṭ), has a variety of meanings. The term was first mentioned by the tenth-century poet Kesāʾi, who equated the luṭis with catamites (tāzand mikyāz). For Jalāl- al-Din Rumi (13th century) and ʿObayd Zākāni (14th century) luṭis were pederasts, and the related word lavāṭi (sodomy) is still used as such. Not every text offers this negative sexual connotation. Nāṣer-e Ḵosrow (11th century) equated the luṭis with wine drinkers, thieves and whore-mongers, while Suzani warned that luṭis cannot be trusted in commercial dealings. Hence the modern- day use of the terms luṭi-bāzār or luṭi-bāzi, meaning ‘cheating,’ particularly in financial matters, and of luṭi-ḵurdan: ‘improvidence,’ ‘wastefulness.’ In the 16th century, and probably much earlier,the term was also used to refer to a group of destitute dervishes and dervish-like entertainers who used intoxicating substances (qalandarān-e bi sar o pāhā va lutiyān-e qalandarnamā luthā-ye bangiyāna bekār borda; Monši, I, p.117). Luṭi also referred to a jester attached to the princely court and to itinerant entertainers (acrobats, dancers, buffoons) who performed improvisatory comedy or who were accompanied by animals, typically monkeys, bears or goats that danced while accompanied by music and lewd songs (Floor, 2005, chap. 1). In the 19th century the term was also used to refer to Robin Hood-type bandits and thugs, in the tradition of the ʿayyār, who sometimes challenged oppressive governors, provided strong-arm support for local secular and religious leaders and bullied their fellow townsmen. Apart from this anti-social aspect, luṭis were also known for their luṭigari or javānmardi (‘chivalry,’ or ‘manliness’), hence the use of the terms luṭi-ye ḵodāʾi (‘godly luṭi’) and luṭi-ye allāhi (‘luṭi devoted to God’; both terms conveying the relationship of their activities to divine justice).
The etymology of the word luṭi is uncertain. Given the meaning of loose living, gambling, wine-imbibing, and pederasty, many have argued that the term was derived from liwāṭ (‘sodomy’), a derivative of the Arabic maṣdar of lāṭa or lāwaṭa, a denominative verb from LUṬ the prophet (EI², s.v. “Liwāṭ”). Otherscontest this. However, the occasional association of the luliyān (‘gypsies’), who stood for everything immoral, with the alvāṭ strengthens the case of the derivation fromLot (Muhạmmad Marvārīd, pp. 91, 175; Golestāna, p.337) as does the frequent mention of the prophet Lot in the works of Ḵāksār dervishes. The various immoral connotations of the term were further reinforced by the fact that luṭis were associated with the malāmatiya movement and its offshoot the qalandars, who held that all outward appearance of piety or religiosity, including good deeds, was ostentation. They were therefore known for their dissolute and immoral lifestyle, which the various meanings of luṭi describe. (Afšāri and Mir-ʿĀbedini, eds., 1993, pp. 44-47). Another possible, but highly unlikely, derivation is from the Persian word lut, meaning “food,’ or ‘viands,” and thus luti and lutiḵᵛāri (‘glutton,’ or ‘greedy’. In current usage, the term, apart from entertainer, means ‘rascal,’ or ‘vagabond.’
It thus would seem that the term luṭi primarily referred to dervishes and entertainers who were at the fringes of society. Because dervishes also were entertainers (storytellers, performers with snakes or scorpions) and the dervishes and regular entertainers performed together, the difference between the two groups was not always obvious. This was even more so given that both groups had a reputation for loose, immoral living (drinking wine, pederasty, using opium, and untrustworthiness). By extension, the term was used to refer to such behavior on the part of ordinary people that reflected the presumed lifestyle of luṭis.
We may distinguish two groups of luṭis, although many of their members may have overlapped. The first group was that of the dervishes and entertainers, all of whom belonged to the Ḵāksār order or its affiliated fotovvat movement. Although luṭis are not explicitly mentioned in Kāšefi’s Fotovvat-nāma (ca. 1500 CE), a major part of his book deals with entertainers, among whom he included acrobats, buffoons, storytellers, wrestlers, and strongmen. Moreover, in another fotovvat-nāma the ninth leader of the Ḵāksār is named as Ḥasan-e Baṣri, “from whom nine families of ʿAjam dervishes and the luṭi affiliation (selsela-ye luṭihā) originate” (Afšāri, 2003, p. 221). Also, in the nineteenth century, itinerant entertainers who were closely affiliated with the Ḵāksār order of dervishes were generally referred to as luṭi. Central to the Ḵāksār system of spiritual organization were the so-called seventeen holy guilds, one of which was sometimes listed as that of the luṭis (Afšāri and Mir-ʿĀbedini, eds., 1993, pp.339, 398, 400). Before starting a soḵanvari (oratory competition) session, the competing Ḵāksār dervishes referred to one another as ‘lover’ (salām-e ʿešq) to express their mutual respect; what is called in modern times dāš-mašdi and luṭi-maʾāb (Afšāri and Mir-ʿĀbedini, eds., 1993, p. 340). This link between the groups is further emphasized by the fact that the official in charge of sayyeds (people who claim descent from the prophet Mohammad, either in the male or female line), the naqib al-mamālek, also supervised the entertainers. In the nineteenth century, the luṭis were under the supervision of a luṭi-bāši who was appointed by the shah, while the naqib supervised only the Ḵāksār and Faqr-e ʿAjam dervishes. The luṭi-bāši received 10-15 percent of the income of the luṭis and in return, in case of interference by government officials in the performance of their activities, the luti-bashi would intercede for them and provide protection. There seems to have been one or more luṭi-bāši in each major town.
The second group of luṭis was formed by urban Robin Hood-type bandits. They were members of the neighborhood fotovvat association and they were not supposed to submit to anyone who did not abide by their code of javānmardi (‘manliness’), in other words, they constituted a penti. This meant that they were supposed to work for their living, help others, and defend their neighborhood and town. They were variously referred to as luṭi, dāš, and mašti and like the Ḵāksār dervishes with whom they were affiliated, they wore distinctive clothing but more stylishly, with obligatory objects such as a chain made in Yazd, a brass bowl from Kerman, a silk handkerchief from Kāšān, a knife made in Isfahan, and non-obligatory items such as a cherry-wood pipe, canvas shoes (giva) and a shawl; hence also the meaning ‘swell,’ ‘dandy, or ‘fop’ (Afšāri and Mir-ʿĀbedini, eds., 1993, p.338). They had games and pastimes that were peculiar to them such as pigeon flying, cock and ram fighting, athletic contests, and gambling, and they also used a kind of secret argot among themselves. With luṭis of other city quarters they had friendly bouts (gol-e košti) in the zurḵāna (traditional gymnasium; lit. “house of strength”) as well as unfriendly fights in the streets, partly as a result of their affiliation with the Ḥaydari and Neʿmati (see ḤAYDARI AND NEʿMATI) urban moieties, and partly due to their association with local politicians. They had their own habitual café or pātuq for drinking, gambling, and other amusements, as well as the Emāmzāda Dāvud in Tehran which they in particular visited to perform their devotions. During the months of Moḥarram and Ṣafar they played a major role in the mourning processions and the chanting of nowḥas (songs of religious lamentation or dirges). The zurḵāna was used to learn and practice wrestling, and being a wrestler (pahlavān) was a mašti’s ideal. To rise in the group, one had to excel in javānmardi behavior, in poetry skills, and in physical contests.
The best of this type of luṭis were those who actually tried to live up to the ideal of the Robin Hood-bandit, i.e. to be a javānmard, meaning an exemplary chivalrous person in both spiritual and material matters. This meant they had to be truthful, to hold to their promises even when doing so was not in their own interest, to be wise, generous and full of esprit, and maintaining a broad-minded bohemian outlook on life. These lutis were known for their luṭigari or chivalry and commanded great respect in their quarter. Even penti or thugs showed them humility and respect and avoided confrontation with them. Sadeq Hedayat eternalized such a luṭigari in the person of “Dāš Akol” (q.v.; or “Dāš Ākal”=“Dāš āqā kačal” [“Mr. bold brother”]) in a short story of the same title, just as Sadeq Chubak did with the luṭi or wandering player with animals in his short story “Antari keh luṭi-aš morda bud” (“The Baboon Whose Buffoon Was Dead”).
Because of their fighting skills and local connections, luṭis were utilizedby secular and religious leaders in their towns. These leaders often vied for power using the luṭis as proxies and also used them to keep their townspeople in line. This made it difficult to do away with the luṭis, because many secular and religious leader[s] needed them. Luṭis sometimes took control of a city, which led to chaos and anarchy, such as in 1841 when the Emām-e Jomʿa (the Friday prayer leader) of Isfahan, Moḥammad Bāqer Šafti, unleashed his luṭis to oust his political rival. Moḥammad Shah had to come in person with an army to put down the turmoil, hanging a few score of luṭis but not Šafti, who had been the cause of the disturbances. These Robin Hood types had no particular social philosophy except to seek self-gratification and aggrandizement, and ʿAbd-Allāh Mostowfi, e.g., wrote that there were more penti than luṭis. The most famous luṭis in Qajar Iran were Sattār Khan and Bāqer Khan (see BĀQER KHAN SĀLĀR-E MELLI), who backed the constitutional forces in Tabriz during the civil war of 1908-1909. As a matter of course, the luṭis of rival city quarters opposed them; similar divisions also occurred elsewhere such asin Tehran and Dezful.
In the 19th and 20th centuries these luṭis were often referred to as roughs (owbāš), knife-wielders (chāqu-kešān), or thick-necks (gardan-e koloft) and were used to organize ‘spontaneous’ demonstrations, even participating in opposing demonstrations on consecutive days. The most famous example was the demonstration led by Šaʿbān-e Bimoḵ that toppled premier Mosaddeq in 1951. In 1963 luṭis led by rivals of Bimoḵ helped mobilize the demonstrations against the shah’s reform program that had outraged the ulema and the landowners. Subsequently, because of the government’s efficient control, the role of luṭis remained mostly limited to wrestling and running protection rackets in the bazaars and neighborhoods. Luṭis seemed to have outlived their political usefulness, and it was therefore a surprise that both the shah and the opposition tried to use luṭis in mobilizing support for their respective camps in 1978. This lasted a short time, as genuine revolutionary sentiments provided the impetus for the people’s mobilization. However, the role of violence in political life and the relationship of thugs with secular and religious politicians survived the Islamic revolution. Many of those who in the past would have joined the ranks of the luṭis have now become official agents of the government in the guise of members of the basij(paramilitary revolutionary forces).
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Originally Published: March 15, 2010
Last Updated: March 15, 2010