Afghan Fortune Tellers Branded as 'Un-Islamic'

MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan – Perhaps they should have seen it coming, but Afghanistan's traditional fortunetellers are under fire from religious elders who have branded their ancient practice as backward and un-Islamic.

Dozens of fortunetellers were recently ejected from the area around 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 the Prophet Muhammad – 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, fortunetellers have made a comeback since the hard-line Islamic group was ousted in 2001.

For many like Shah Agha, their talent has been a family business for generations. Others, like Sayed Rabbani, learned their skills in India, where astrologers and fortunetellers are respected members of the community and can command huge fees.

But Muslim scholars consider fortunetelling to be blasphemy.

"Fortunetelling is not permitted in Islamic law. It has been mentioned clearly [in the Quran] that this is against Islamic values," said Mohammd Ihsan Seaqal, Imam of a Kabul mosque.

"Fortunetellers 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-I-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 fortuneteller, 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 a tattered, 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 Quran -- a bit like the Bible's books, chapters and verses.

"You see, we only provide answers that are given in the Quran," says Shah Agha, a 31-year-old third-generation fortuneteller, 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 Quranic verses.

Once the appropriate verse has been revealed, the fortuneteller copies it in flowery script to a piece of paper using a 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 his 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.

Fortunetellers 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 fortuneteller 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 remarry without their first wife's permission, diluting her influence and jeopardizing her children's inheritance.

Nargis is a newlywed who has come to a fortuneteller.

"It is two years I have been married to a boy, but still we do not have a child," said the woman. "A friend told me to come here and seek a solution."

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."