MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Perhaps they should have seen it coming, but Afghanistan’s traditional fortune tellers are under fire from religious elders who have branded their ancient practice as backward and un-Islamic.
Dozens of fortune tellers were recently ejected from the surrounds of the beautiful Hazrat Ali shrine in the northern city of Mazar-I-Sharif after religious elders responsible for the mosque’s upkeep tired of their presence.
“Islam does not permit the practice of fleecing simple people,” said Qari Mohammad Qasim, the head of the shrine, adding that action was taken after numerous public complaints.
Part soothsayer, part mathematician and part letter writer, Afghanistan’s “fallben” are an irregular fixture outside mosques and shrines across the country.
Their fortunes have fluctuated for nearly 1,400 years -- since Islam was first revealed to Prophet Mohammed -- but the practice dates back to when Alexander the Great conquered the country with his army and its multitude of accompanying gods, most of whom required constant consulting, a role for the soothsayers.
Banned and persecuted under the rule of the Taliban, fortune tellers have made a comeback since the hardline Islamic group was ousted in 2001.
For many like Shah Agha, their talent has been a family business for generations. Others, like Sayed Rabbani, learnt their skills in India where astrologers and fortune tellers are respected members of the community and can command huge fees.
But Muslim scholars consider fortune telling to be blasphemy.
“Fortune telling is not permitted in Islamic law. It has been mentioned clearly (in the Koran) that this is against Islamic values,” said Mohammd Ihsan Seaqal, Imam of a Kabul mosque.
“Fortune tellers are misusing the sacred religion for their personal advantage,” he said.
Yet still the customers come.
“My daughter is 30 and she is getting old. No-one has proposed to her,” said 51-year-old Zobaida outside a mosque in Mazar-al-Sharif.
“I came here to tell her fortune and find a husband for her. Earlier, I had the same problem with my 23-year old daughter. I referred it to a fortune teller and he attracted a man to my daughter to marry her.”
Rabbani, who has been a palm reader for 15 years, gets to work.
With a magnifying glass, he studies the lines on Zobaida’s hand and then matches them with an old, tattered and densely printed book of diagrams of palms.
Each match corresponds to a mathematical formula which is calculated to provide an answer that points to a specific “sura,” “separah” and “ayat” of the Koran -- a bit like the Bible’s books, chapters and verses.
“You see we only provide answers that are given in the Koran,” says Shah Agha, a 31-year-old third generation fortune teller who plies his trade outside a shrine in Kabul.
Agha favors using dice rather than reading palms. His client shakes and throws two wooden dice inscribed with letters from the Dari alphabet which are then matched to ancient mathematical tables which also point to specific Koranic verses.
Once the appropriate verse has been revealed, the fortune teller copies it in flowery script to a piece of paper using a fountain pen filled with ink specific to the problem -- red for family, black for wealth, blue for education, green for health.
The verse is repeatedly folded over until it is a tight bundle, then wrapped in cotton thread before being given to the supplicant to keep next to their skin.
“Repeat these verses for a week when you say your prayers,” Agha tells his client, an elderly woman who lifts her burqa from her face and listens intently as he talks.
“If you truly believe in your heart, then, God willing, it will come to pass,” he concludes.
Fortune tellers say most of their clients are women or the elderly seeking guidance for problems affecting their families. Younger people tend to come only when all else has failed.
Sakina, aged 30, is a typical case. Weeping softly, she tells the fortune teller that she has marital problems.
“I have 4 children but my husband has left me and is going to marry another woman. Please do something to stop him.”
While Islam allows a man to take up to four wives if he is able to care equally for them, in practice men frequently re-marry without their first wife’s permission, diluting her influence and jeopardizing her children’s inheritance.
Nargis is a newlywed who has come to a fortune teller.
“It is two years I have been married to a boy, but still we do not have a child,” said the fashionably dressed woman. “A friend told me to come here and seek a solution.”
For those who consult the soothsayers, their problems are universal.
“My mother-in-law is not good with me,” said Shokriya, aged 23.
“I love a boy, but his family does not agree with our marriage,” says another young woman, giggling with her sisters as the fortune teller consults his tables.
The cost of a consultation depends on the largesse of the customer.
“If they can afford nothing, they give us nothing,” said one palm reader. “A richer person might give a dollar and then maybe more if their fortune comes to pass.”
While many scholars are seeking a formal government ban on fortune telling, others are more tolerant of some of their skills.
“Forecasting and foretelling is against Islam,” said Maulawi Qari Mohammad Qasim, the prayer leader of Hazrat Ali shrine from where the soothsayers were recently evicted.
“But if they recite the Koranic words (out loud) for the good of people without doing business, it is alright in Islam,” he said.
Additional reporting and writing by David Fox in Kabul; editing by Megan Goldin