PUNK, PIETY & POLITICS: Sufism in Contemporary Iraqi Kurdistan

17 Feb 2015


Edith Szanto
Assistant Professor of Social Sciences, American University of Iraq, Sulaimani

“The Rockstars” was the CIA’s codename for the Kasnazani Sufis following the 2003 American war in Iraq because they sport long hair, which they swing from side to side during their biweekly ritual gatherings. Though members of the Order can be found all over Iraq and even beyond, their largest lodge is located in the Kurdish city of Sulaimani, where Dr. Szanto has been conducting ethnographic research since 2011. They are famous for two reasons. First, they perform self-mortification rites, such as piercing their cheeks, cutting their tongues, and stabbing knives into their skulls. Secondly, they are known for the political involvement–and corruption–of their leaders, Shaykh Muhammad ‘Abd al-Karim al-Kasnazani and his three sons. Notably, the corruption of the shaykh and his sons has neither undermined their charismatic religious authority, nor has it lessened the appeal of the Order among Iraqi Arabs and Kurds. This presentation argues that that has to do with concepts of power, masculinity, and healing, which underpin Kasnazani piety. Working-class Sufi men perform ecstatic rites either for important guests or on special occasions to display their courage and loyalty. Self-mortification inscribes the power of the shaykh upon the bodies of his followers and advertises his authority. Moreover, by claiming that the rituals bring about communal healing, the Order justifies what could be described as an act of violence. What might look like a carnivalesque practice is thus better understood as an antinomian form of pious self-cultivation, which ties Sufis to a sovereign shaykh.

Edith Szanto received a PhD in Religious Studies from the University of Toronto (2013) and an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Texas, Austin (2004). She is completing a book manuscript on “Transgressive Traditions: Violence, Healing, and Magic in Twelver Shi‘ism” in Syria and continues her work on ritual and violence in Iraq. Dr. Szanto is a finalist for a position on Islam in the Department of Religious Studies.


Event Date: 
Tuesday, February 17, 2015 - 3:00pm to 4:30pm
Sponsored By: 
Sponsored by the Department of Religious Studies, Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, University of Pittsbur
3703 Posvar Hall (History Lounge), University of Pittsburgh
Target Audience: 
Higher Education
Presenter Type: 
Visiting Scholar/Faculty