Ever since the mullahs appeared in Iran as a distinct profession in the 19th century, they have developed paraphernalia of devices and contraptions linked to their trade. These include a range of rosaries with 30, 90 or 180 beads, prayer mud-cubes (mohr) made from the soil of Karbala and, of course, items of clothing with different functions including a flowing cape with pockets in which one could hide a book, a loaf of bread or, in more dangerous and recent times, a Colt.45 with a silencer.
One favourite item in that paraphernalia has always been a lengthy piece of cloth attached to the mandatory turban and designed to close one’s jaw in a way to make speaking difficult.
In Persian, the item is known as “chanehband” (literally: jaw-shutter) but most mullahs prefer the Arabic term: taht al-hanak which means under the jaw. One attaches the taht al-hanak to the back of the turban and, when needed, unwinds it around the neck, then knotting it under the chin to force the lower lip against the upper one, making speech difficult.
In the good, or if you wish, bad old days, mullahs used the contraption when they entered “cheleh”, a 40-day withdrawal from the pubic in which they read the first 30 surahs of the Koran, maintained a vow of silence and, presumably, tried to discover the deeper meaning of things.
Mullahs wore taht al-hanak when they were supposed to be deep in thought and/or at prayer. However, they often wore them when they didn’t wish to answer questions from their murids (followers). In the early 1900s when some Iranians had mastered enough courage to lampoon the mullahs, the satirist poet Iraj Mirza, today banned in the Islamic Republic, sent a taht al-hanak to Sheikh Fadlallah Nuri, a militant pro-Russian mullah who opposed the advent of constitutional rule in Iran. The poet wanted the mullah to shut his mouth and engage in prayers rather than making political statements.
Judging from photos in the media and TV footage, few political mullahs in Iran today appear to possess a taht al-hanak. And this explains why some of them seem to be struck by logorrhea, unable to stop talking about everything under the sun as long as it has nothing to do with their original business which is theology.
Take “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei, for example. He should enter the Guinness Book of Records for the number of speeches made in a single year and the amazing variety of topics; everything except religion and theology. He has also published six books ranging from how to destroy Israel to how to write Islamic poetry, the secrets of a successful marriage, rules of a healthy diet, a pseudo-Chomskyan linguistics to stop the rising influence of the English language, and, more recently, how the late Ayatollah (or Imam) Khomeini revived Islam before he died.
Khamenei isn’t alone among mullahs to properly budget his vocal sorties. In any case he is more of a politician than a theologian and thus could be excused if he demonstrates an inordinate thirst for talking.
But think of other ayatollahs, say my favorite Hussein Alam Al-Hoda from Mash’had or the older Nasser Makarem Shirazi from Qom who seems duty-bound to comment on everything under the sun with a view to providing catchy headlines based on outlandish slogans. The better-educated ones, let’s say Muhammad Khatami, who served as president for eight years, dish out the same nonsense by talking of Hegel, Nietzsche and Hobbes as a prelude to blaming modern civilization for mankind’s ills.
Don’t take me wrong. I think mullahs have as much right to talk about whatever they wish as do academics, columnists, taxi-drivers and grave-diggers. The problem is that the outside world regards Iran as a theocratic regime in which mullahs constitute the ruling elite, meaning their views reflect the official position of Iran as a nation-state. In the same way in a country where the military hold power, any statement by officers, even lower-ranked ones, attracts special attention.
However, because nothing about Iran is ever simple, the cliché that is “mullaharchy” isn’t as straight forward as it might seem. In fact, only a minority of political mullahs, people like Khamenei or Makarem, are involved in the confused and confusing power game that has been playing in Tehran since Khomeini, helped by his Marxist and Stalinist allies, seized power in 1979.
The Khomeinists failed to destroy Iran as a nation-state but managed to create a parallel reality based on the hodgepodge that is their ideology. Thus we have two armies, two judiciaries, two bureaucracies and economies reflecting Iran’s split personality as an ancient and proud nation-state and as a vehicle for a sick new ideology.
The talking mullahs represent this second Iran while the overwhelming majority of Shi’ite clerics, including all the top theologians, have always distanced themselves, and still do, from the Khomeinist system. Thousands of them have paid the price for that position by suffering prison, house-arrest, exile, de-frocking and even execution.
The damage done to Iran is the work of a minority of political mullahs who talk too much, setting Iranians against one another, insulting minorities, threatening critics, inciting violence and terror at home and creating enemies abroad with their loose, cheap and, at times, revolting chatter magnified by state-controlled mass media.
Iran would benefit from a real “cheleh”, 40 days of silence by the chattering mullahs. (One dare not hope for permanent silence by them!) These chattering mullahs urgently need the taht al-hanak.
Coincidentally, the other day I learned that the best taht al-hanak, made of pure double-woven silk, as well as the finest turbans, pointed slippers, abayahs and rosaries are supplied by an exclusive shop in London’s Knightsbridge where some of our chattering mullahs have maintained accounts for decades. The trouble is that they don’t order any taht al-hanak. They should. It would do them a lot of good, and a lot of good to Iran, too.