The Laity and the Clergy: Culture and Economy Combined

  October 03, 2021   Read time 3 min
The Laity and the Clergy: Culture and Economy Combined
Central to the embedding of religious elements in Iranian cultures and communities were exchanges of goods and services between religious specialists and others in those communities.

At the core of relationships between the ‘ulama (the learned men of religion) and other Shi’a Muslims were payments made by village, merchant or artisan groups to such men. By the nineteenth century, Shi’a ‘ulama had established rights to receive the zakat and the khums. The former was a ‘poor-rate’ levied on believers for charitable purposes, and the latter the ‘fifth’ levied for the support of the prophet Muhammad’s descendants and needy persons, half of which the Shi’a saw as the ‘Imam’s share’ – the ‘inheritance’ of ‘Ali, the first Shi’a leader, and his successors from ‘Ali’s uncle and father-in-law Muhammad. These dues were paid to the mujtaheds, those ‘ulama whose learning, reputation, expertise and piety gained them the right to issue judgments and interpretations that were authoritative for their followers. They supported religious institutions and specialists (schools, madrasehs [seminaries], tullab [religious students], prayer leaders and lesser ‘ulama and the entourages of leading ‘ulama), and gifts to the sick and poor. Since they were voluntary and based on the ability of the ‘ulama to convince believers to continue payment, it linked ‘ulama closely to the communities from which they drew funds and to whom they provided services.

Their services ranged from leading prayer and marriage or funeral rituals, to settling legal and commercial cases over property, inheritance and business dealings, placing ‘ulama close to the daily concerns of many households and communities. Provision of welfare and patronage by affluent and powerful ‘ulama to the poor and dependent, or the reliance of religious specialists and tullab on material support from urban entrepreneurs, underpinned business, legal and educational activities. Tullab drew on the resources of those with money and property, on payments for their services, and on the expertise and patronage of established ‘ulama; traders and craft producers involved religious specialists in their working lives; urban and rural families and communities turned to them for ritual and educational needs, marriage and inheritance transactions, or welfare, providing payments in return.

These exchanges combined the practicalities of education, money, marriage or business with cultural meanings and relationships. The role of urban groups and ‘ulama in these activities met important material needs, and also expressed the cultural meanings of family, piety and community, establishing personal links of power, intimacy, conflict or co-operation between religious specialists and the wider community. These links played a part in family and neighbourhood life and popular culture. They were formative cultural influences on behaviour, expressing concerns with prosperity, respectability, power and survival. The entwining of religious elements in everyday activities and relationships linked religious specialists to households, workshops and merchant groups, shaping collective identities. Contacts among ‘ulama, artisans, traders, itinerant preachers, peasants, tullab, darvishes or teachers provided religious dimensions for many basic features of daily life. Religious meanings were woven into the rituals of the life-cycle (childbirth, marriage, mourning), the annual cycle of Shi’a celebration, the rhythms of working life, and the uncertainties of health and fortune. The use of mosques, shrines and public spaces for religious activities, or of religious specialists’ skills in teaching, divination or writing of prayers for amulets and talismans, regularly enacted such meanings.

The densest presence of diverse religious resources was found in urban settings. Mosques, maktabs (Qur’anic schools), and centres for religious celebration, like the use of streets and bazars for religious activity, provided physical links between religion and communal life. Madrasehs and mosques, located at the core of urban settlements, were bases for religious education and ritual, and a focus for meetings between religious specialists and members of the community for legal, ritual or charitable purposes. The physical proximity of commercial, religious, residential, manufacturing and educational premises in urban centres sustained personal and cultural connections.