By a specialist of “popular” religion in the Fergana Valley, this important article is based for the most part on the detailed notebooks of personal fieldworks made in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the southern part of the valley. It also provides the transcription of a short conversion held in 1990 between V. N. Ogudin and a local school teacher, an initiator himself, and the author’s intermediary among local female practitioners—this transcription being interesting, as we shall see, by the author’s questions as much as by his interlocutor’s answers.
The article deals with the local practice of magic (Arabic and Persian: sihr سحر) seen as the common faith in the possibility to exert a direct influence over the natural and social milieu, whether through the supernatural power of words (recitation of special or standard orisons, du‘a) or through that of specially created items (Arabic and Persian: talsamat or tilism, English talisman). The author first briefly refers to the opinions of the jurists of Islam, and to their subdivision of magicians into ‘legal’ practitioners (who reach their goal through appeal to God for help) and ‘forbidden’ ones (who appeal to jinns). Postulating a distinction between two kinds of magic in traditional Islam as it was practiced in the past in the Fergana Valley, the author establishes a clear distinction between two opposite protagonists: (1) the bakhshi (translated by ‘shaman’) experiencing “shamanic diseases” induced by demonic forces (the jinns), and asking for continuous attention and communication during healing and prophecy sessions; (2) the duokhon (Persian دعاخوان, lit. ‘orison-teller’) “free in his/her choices as he/she is not subject to shamanic disease, practices healing and study secret knowledge by his/her own will.” In a couple of historical paragraphs, the former is introduced as a successor to the ancient Iranian parikhwan, to the pre-modern Persian falbin (lit. ‘soothsayer’, also known in Central Asia under the diversely Turkicised forms palbin, falchi, and palchi), and as a synonymous to the ancient Turkic kam (shaman). If the author assumes the well-known positions of V. N. Basilov on the deep Islamised character of the medieval and modern bakhshi, he also stresses the latter’s opposition with the ‘orison-teller’ of the specifically Islamic occultism as it continuously developed in Central Asia since at least the tenth century CE. At the same time, V. N. Ogudin postulates their mutual rapprochement and fusion in the course of the twentieth century—numerous contemporary bakhshis using the reading of the Qur’an (Uzbek: dam solish), though female practitioners happen to forbid the presence of a mullah in specific rituals.
Observing the multiplication of the number of bakhshis in the Fergana Valley since the early 1990s and, as a result, their relatively young age, the author also suggests that their entrance in the career—vividly depicted through the annotations of fieldwork notebooks—corresponds to traditional, almost canonical modes: A single jinn originating from some remote place (e.g., Hindustan, Arabia, or Mecca itself) selects an individual (usually a young adult, between twenty-five and thirty-five years of age, often originating from an unprivileged section of the population), has him/her experience serious illness, brings him/her to apply to a ‘master [ustadh]’ who sends him/her to the chilla-khana for a period of retreat, after which the selected person embarks on a career of healer of fortune-teller, with permanent support of his/her original jinn, often joined by about forty—usually forty one—male spirits (chiltan) and predominantly female angels (maykal, from Arabic mu‘akkal, guardian angel). Those in quest of magical knowledge (‘ilm-i jabbur: knowledge of the Powerful, al-Jabbar, one of God’s names) must be of a great spiritual purity, and sojourn regularly in the chilla-khana. The author also observes a specialisation of the bakhshis, and the appearance of narrower profiles: the kinnachi (from Uzbek kinna, ‘evil eye’), who with the uses of ashes moves away the evil eye; the alaschi who uses fire as a means of purification of his/her patient; the tufchi (from tuf: spit) who recites the “Yasin” sura of the Qur’an making whistling noises “kuf-suf”; the damchi who has recourse to bites of snakes or venomous insects, etc. The author also evokes the Wednesday sacrificial rituals in honour of the chiltan, a significant part of which is implemented by the bakhshi alone, in a specific room of her house where she regularly stays in seclusion (chilla). Very interestingly and astutely enough, the author has observed the diffusion into specific means of some bakhshis’ practice (called by some ‘ilm u ‘amal: lit. ‘knowledge and action’) of European everyday magic as it was practiced in the cities of the Fergana Valley during the early 1990s—a period marked in the former USSR by the unprecedented mode of the “ekstrasensy”. The author provides a series of examples of this magical practice, with the help of specific items (a thread, a lock with its key, a piece of soap, needles, bread baking, etc.).
The article’s second half is devoted to the still extremely understudied figurehead of the du‘okhon, often confused with other types of healers, and assimilated by the vox populi as well as by Soviet scholars (e.g., M. S. Andreev in 1928) with sorcerers (Persian: jadugar). Contrary to the bakhshi’s practice, the orison-teller’s is centred on the recitation of suras of the Qur’an (the fatiha or the “Yasin” sura) and of qasidas (odes) invoking the Prophet Muhammad, written for the most part not in Arabic language as asserted by Andreev in 1928, but in Persian. The author stresses in particular the significance of abjad (the numerological value of letters of the Arabic alphabet) in the pre-modern practice of “licit” magicians, and in the current making of amulets (Persian tumar طومار, the word also exists in Uzbek language, though as the author suggest, the term duo is often preferred in this meaning, sometimes in the form duo tumor). The orisons are suras and ayas from the Qur’an, Qur’anic names of God, or special formulas containing the name of God or of some prophets. A combination of words from ciphered orisons sometimes enters into the composition of magical squares (Arabic: murabba‘) of circles (Arabic: lawh). Otherwise these figures are filled with characters and figures symbolising God virtues. Interestingly, in the course of the Soviet period the oblivion of the Arabic alphabet has led to the appearance of magical circles and squares filled with non-alphabetical signs, or with Cyrillic characters. The article’s last chapters more shortly deal with the obligation of retreat for both bakhshis and duokhons, and with the practice of “magic without magicians,” in particular with prodigies that happen at holy places (mazars).
The links of transmission of magical knowledge remain a mystery, deepened by the involved persons’ reluctance, both bakhshis and duokhons, to speak on their initiation and apprenticeship, even when the master is perfectly identified (confirmed by the reviewer’s own inquiry beside a renowned female du‘a-khwan, the great-granddaughter of a leading figure of the Qadiriyya mystical path in the higher Zerafashan Valley, in Istrawshan, northern Tajikistan, in the early autumn 2007). One paradox at least should have appealed the attention of ethnographers: the strictly genealogical character of the transmission of power among duokhons (at least in present times), and the more open choice of a master among the bakhshis. This is all the more deplorable that the rituals involved and their respective items partake of a highly normative, if essentially oral, knowledge—a “high culture” of its own. Besides, the career of the bakhshi cannot be reduced to the Shamanic disease and the service of supernatural forces, as is suggested in the present study (p. 70). As to the informants’ considerations on the “non-Muslim” character of the bakhshi’s work is induced, in fact, by the author’s questions (p. 67), which casts a crude light on the essentially normative view of Islam among ethnographers in general, most particularly among those exerting in the former Soviet space. Last and also regrettably, as it remains quite usual among Russian ethnographers no parallel is ever drawn with current research on magic and sorcery in pre-modern and industrialised Western societies.