Genies, sorcerers, and exorcists are back in the Iranian political debate a decade after then-President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's associates were accused of practicing witchcraft and summoning supernatural creatures, claims that he denied.
The debate about the alleged influence of sorcerers and clairvoyants on state officials was renewed this week when a member of the powerful Expediency Council -- a body that advises Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- said some Iranian politicians have consulted with people who claim to be able to summon genies.
Ahmad Tavakoli made the claims last weekend in a story published on the news site Alef.ir, in which he said genies and fortune-tellers have been involved in “mysterious, inefficient, and corrupt” decisions by "some officials and dignitaries."
According to Islamic mythology and Iranian folklore, genies live in a parallel world and possess extraordinary powers, including the ability to take different shapes and forms.
Tavakoli said several cases of politicians involved in such things are being investigated by the anti-corruption group Justice and Transparency Watch, which he heads.
Tavakoli’s comments followed a controversial claim by Tehran’s interim Friday Prayers leader, Ayatollah Kazem Seddiqi, who said in a television interview in early January that a deceased cleric, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, a spiritual father of hard-liners, had “opened his eyes and smiled kindly” while undergoing the ritual washing of his body before his burial.
The claim by Seddiqi, who quoted the person who had washed Mesbah's body, was met with criticism and mockery, including by those who accused the cleric of attempting to take advantage of people’s beliefs and others who said jokingly that Ayatollah Mesbah must have been buried alive.
Seddiqi later said the person who performed the bathing ritual on Mesbah -- who died on January 2 at the age of 86 -- may have imagined the incident. Seddiqi expressed shame for repeating the claim.
In his piece, Tavakoli named Mesbah’s body washer, Reza Matlabi Kashani, and said he is “a [major] investor who has many financial ambiguities” and ties to “senior officials and prominent clerics.”
Tavakoli said the rich businessman performs the washing ritual on the dead bodies of prominent clerics at his house.
University graduates are missing from the decisions and management of the country’s affairs.... We’re witnessing people with magical thinking making decisions.”-- Former reformist lawmaker Dariush Ghanbari
His claims were met with criticism by hard-liners, including by a former lawmaker who blasted him for suggesting that a man who had been accused of financial fraud had washed the body of “master” Mesbah, a claim the son of the cleric denied.
Others said Tavakoli’s revelations highlighted the state of affairs in the Islamic republic where many elderly clerics with outdated ideas and no special expertise sit in powerful bodies.
In a commentary published online, former reformist lawmaker Dariush Ghanbari said Tavakoli’s remarks showed that educated Iranians do not have much of a say in the country’s affairs.
“University graduates are missing from the decisions and management of the country’s affairs," Ghanbadi wrote, warning that ultimately Iranians pay the price of such “unscientific practices.”
"We’re witnessing people with magical thinking making decisions,” he said.
Tavakoli later said his comments were only “the tip of the iceberg.”
Belief in genies, which has origins in Islamic mythology and Iranian folklore, is widespread in some segments of society whose members consult about important life decisions with people claiming to be in contact with an unseen world.
Accusations of Iranian politicians contacting sorcerers and engaging in paranormal activities peaked under Ahmadinejad, who at one point claimed a halo of light had surrounded him during his speech at the United Nations General Assembly in 2005. He later denied the episode, which had been videotaped, while his aides said the video had been doctored by his opponents.
Ayatollah Khamenei, who has the final word on all state affairs in the Islamic republic and is deeply suspicious of the West, mentioned genies in a speech in March when he cited a Koranic verse and suggested a supernatural creature and Iran’s enemies were working together to undermine Iran.
“There are enemies from among both genies and human beings, and they help one another. The security services of many countries work together against us,” Khamenei said in remarks that raised many eyebrows.
Some media reportedly removed the genie reference from Khamenei’s comments in an effort to prevent criticism. His website later interviewed a cleric, Ayatollah Ahmad Abedi, “to clarify” the unsettling comments made by Iran's supreme leader.
But Abedi, who was introduced as a professor at seminaries and universities, not only confirmed Khamenei’s odd claim but even went a step further by accusing Israeli intelligence services of using sorcery.
“The Jews, in particular the Zionists, pursue metaphysical matters to a large extent. Their intelligence service, Mossad, undoubtedly does such things,” Abedi was quoted as saying by Khamenei.ir.
The anti-Semitic claim has been used by several extremist clerics in the past.