In Franz Kafka’s short story “In the Penal Colony,” an explorer visits such a colony, in which a strange machine inscribes the crime of the condemned on their bodies as capital punishment. The inscription process, which produces intense pain through its many needles, tortures the condemned over a twelve-hour period, six hours into which they become deeply aware of their crime. But the condemned are not allowed to defend themselves in court, nor are they even afforded a trial. In fact, they are entirely ignorant of their sentence. When the explorer expresses incredulity at this procedure, the officer who was in charge of administering the punishment defends it by saying: “There would be no point in telling him [his sentence]. He’ll learn it on his body.” Despite the officer’s zeal for the machine, by the time of the explorer’s visit it was quickly falling out of favor with not only the new military superior, the Commandant, but also the general public, who no longer came out in droves to witness the executions.Footnote 1
In light of Kafka’s provocative short story, what might the branded, tattooed, or otherwise forcibly inscribed bodies of suspected and condemned criminals tell us about the history of judicial torture and punishment? At first sight, we, like the explorer in the story, may find the text inscribed on the criminal’s body to be indecipherable and the logic behind its judicial procedure inscrutable. Only by learning the complex signs these bodily inscriptions represent can we understand their legal functions throughout human history. Much like branding as judicial torture, the machine, and by implication the pain it inflicted, was intended to render the truth of the crime legible. This legibility, like branding as punishment, was targeted at an audience that could read its pronouncements. Similar to the machine, branding and forced tattooing were thought of as “old” technologies of biopolitics—the control, surveillance, and sovereignty over subject bodies. By the mid-nineteenth century there were people, even in European colonies, who viewed such technologies of torture as “primitive” and “barbaric” that needed to be replaced by “new” modern penal measures that left no visible scars.
Instead of focusing on the disappearance of forced branding, tattooing, and bodily inscriptions, though, this article seeks to understand branding’s functions, meanings, and practices by examining from a host of primary sources ranging from chronicles, letters, government reports, diaries, and religious and ethical texts to Persian poetry, Mirrors for Princes, Islamic jurisprudence, newspapers, and legal codes. While my emphasis is on branding in nineteenth-century Iran, a comparative lens is maintained through an engagement with secondary literature on branding and tattooing in other societies so as to highlight parallel meanings and functions, and avoid the pitfalls of seeing this phenomenon as somehow unique or specific to Iran or Muslim societies generally.Footnote 2
To contextualize the meanings associated with branding, I begin with a discussion of branding as a marker of ownership, both of humans as slaves and of animals, and then turn to Islamic religious attitudes toward bodily inscriptions, including tattooing and branding, and their symbolic significance in the afterlife. Then, I explore the rich semiotic linkage of branding with human and divine love in Persian poetry. Having laid this foundation for understanding branding’s meanings, I turn to its use in judicial torture in nineteenth-century Iran. Judicial authorities considered the pain generated by branding as an effective means of delivering truthful and incriminating utterances by suspects who were hiding secrets. While this torture was usually done outside of public view, it involved a process of disclosure in which the hot brand was the instrument of truth-telling. Branding featured prominently in two types of cases: first, those involving Babis, Baha’is, and those suspected of being affiliated with them who were accused of seditious or heretical activities; and second, murder cases involving multiple suspects and conspirators. Despite the stated goal of attaining the truth, the brand rarely produced a genuine confession to the crime or knowledge of its details. Far more common were false confessions or betrayals of associates. Finally, I examine the two levels on which branding as a punishment typically operated: shame and identification. As a marker of shame, branding was a means of symbolically casting out the criminal from the rest of society and communicating the stigma of their crime to others. Branding as identification, on the other hand, was primarily about tracking convicted criminals who might otherwise escape imprisonment.
Branding as a Marker of Ownership
Branding has been a marker of ownership and sovereignty since antiquity. Persons, tribes, or empires branded slaves and animals to signify subjugation and to identify them in case of escape. Cuneiform tablets from the ancient Near East suggest that slaves were branded or tattooed as a sign of human or divine ownership.Footnote 3 In ancient Mesopotamia, the main function of marking private slaves was “to render them trackable so as to prevent escape.”Footnote 4 Parthian slaves who worked in royal mines were branded in a distinctive manner that expressed imperial sovereignty.Footnote 5 In seventeenth-century Burma, a local king used an elaborate system of tattooing “to minimize [the] physical and social mobility” of palace servicemen, especially within the army.Footnote 6 Similarly, Thailand’s early Chakri Dynasty (1782–present) tattooed royal servicemen to prevent them from switching status and evading state duties.Footnote 7 In the United States prior to abolition, stigma symbols on slaves, such as branded initials or cropped ears, communicated “ownership by a particular master.”Footnote 8
In Persian, branding was associated with slavery, and recaptured runaway slaves were branded with a “slavery mark” (dagh-i ghulami) to hamper their future escape.Footnote 9 Similarly, one with a “branded face” bore a “mark of servitude.”Footnote 10 The “possessor of a mark” could refer to a slave or simply one who was branded, spotted, blemished, or perverse.Footnote 11 Finally, a person born into slavery and thus stigmatized was “they who are born with a brand on their face.”Footnote 12 The association between societal stigmatization and face branding was fully consistent with meanings found in religious, poetic, and everyday practices in Persian-speaking societies.
Branding was used in similar ways to denote human dominion over animals, especially among nomadic communities. Bedouins, who had branded camels since antiquity, identified their camels through a specific brand (wasm) in case the animal strayed, was stolen, or was in a congregate setting where differentiation was required.Footnote 13 The brand potentially signaled ownership by a tribe, a group within a tribe, or even a subgroup.Footnote 14 Among the Oghuz Turks, branding animals with a special insignia (tughra or tamgha) marked them as belonging to a specific tribe.Footnote 15 Similar practices were used for camels in Iraq, where a crescent (hilal) was a mark of ownership for a specific tribe, while elsewhere camels were branded with crosses.Footnote 16 Consistent with these practices, in Iran camels were branded with “letters of the alphabet, words, numbers, and combinations of two or more single marks,” including on the rump, neck, or head, depending on the animal.Footnote 17
In Muslim empires, branding became a means of identifying royal military horses. Under the ‘Abbasids, the supervisor of payments to the army (‘arid) registered men in the military and “animals branded with the mark of the prince.”Footnote 18 This involved noting the physical features of soldiers and the brands of mounts “to prevent intruders or substitutes entering the ranks or good horses being switched round or removed from the stables.”Footnote 19 Medieval and early modern South Asian empires continued the practice. Sultan ‘Ala al-Din Khalji (d. 1316) was credited with first introducing the practice of horse branding, while Emperor Akbar (d. 1605) of the Mughal Dynasty revived it to ensure that horses were not swapped by members of the imperial bureaucracy. In this latter system, known as “branding and verification” (dagh u tashihah), horses were branded, and detailed descriptions of soldiers’ faces were recorded.Footnote 20
The Safavid Empire had similar branding practices, with a Shi‘i twist. Royal horses were branded on the left thigh with “five marks” (dagh-i panjah), an allusion to the Prophet Muhammad, his son ‘Ali, his daughter Fatimah, and his grandsons Hasan and Husayn.Footnote 21 Horses owned by ordinary people were branded on the right thigh.Footnote 22 The branding of ‘Ali’s name on royal horses continued into the nineteenth century in Iran as did simple symbols like a circle with a horizontal line drawn through it.Footnote 23 A mid-nineteenth-century Iranian military code stated that riding horses belonging to the army should be branded in a distinctive manner to differentiate them from horses owned by ordinary subjects.Footnote 24
The branding of animals and slaves demonstrates it operated as a marker of ownership, identity, and often royal dominion over those branded. The royal dominion over men and animals was particularly evident in military contexts. The owner’s subjugation of the owned is crucial for understanding branding’s association with shaming punishments that involved bestialization.
Bodily Markings, Tattoos, and Branding in Islamic Texts
The Quran, prophetic traditions (hadith), and works of Islamic ethics and jurisprudence provide further context for the symbolic meanings of tattoos and branding in Muslim societies. Bodily markings, especially on the face, were meant to communicate something about their bearers’ extraordinary identities. Tattooing was prohibited, an unacceptable form of permanent body alteration, especially for women as a form of beautification or for illicit magic. Branding of either humans or animals was prohibited as excessively cruel and was reserved as an otherworldly punishment for unbelievers and Muslim sinners.
Hadith referred to facial inscriptions as revealing the person’s moral condition. For instance, the Antichrist (dajjal) was said to have the word “unbeliever” (kafir), or the letters k-f-r connoting disbelief, “written between his two eyes.”Footnote 25 The Prophet Muhammad, by contrast, was described as having a brow mark caused by his prostration on the earth during prayer—a mark of piety rather than disbelief.Footnote 26 A third hadith made a striking connection between bodily inscription, slavery, and redemptive sin. Before entering paradise, Muslim sinners in hell (jahannamiyyun) were purified in the river of life with the words, “These are the manumitted by God,” written between their eyes.Footnote 27 In all three instances, facial inscription communicated the bearer’s identity, as an unbeliever, prophet, or redeemed sinner.
Islamic texts prohibit tattooing for several reasons. Similar to the Jewish tradition, it is believed God made the human body in his image and so its willful alteration was prohibited.Footnote 28 Tattoos were generally prohibited by Muslim theologians based on a Quranic verse in which Satan commands his followers to change what God has created. In the hadith, tattooing (washm) is prohibited, specifically by female tattoo artists and for women, possibly because of its connection with pre-Islamic Arabian forms of beautification.Footnote 29 Hadas Hirsch argues that this gendered prohibition was “a declaration that women should not resemble animals that have to be marked with a tattoo as a proof of ownership.”Footnote 30 The Islamic prohibition of tattooing may also have been due to its links with magic.Footnote 31 For instance, tattoos appear to have had a talismanic function in warding off the evil eye.Footnote 32 A Shi‘i hadith indicates a more specific reason why both tattooing and magic were prohibited: in it, Satan’s science was magic, his recitation was poetry, and his inscription was the tattoo.Footnote 33
One prominent nineteenth-century Shi‘i jurist, Murtaza Ansari, prohibited tattooing despite its widespread practice in Iran, in accordance with certain hadith. He prohibited tattooing as a trade because it was a deceptive form of female ornamentation.Footnote 34 Despite this, nonelites in Iran, especially nomads and other social marginals, practiced tattooing as both a means of beautification and a talismanic protection. Women had their faces tattooed, including their eyebrows, chins, and lips, and their feet, hands, and breasts. Common images included “garlands of flowers, trees, and birds” or “a deer drinking water.”Footnote 35 The tattoo as a talisman, either as words or image, warded off the evil eye and protected its bearer.Footnote 36 Some men had the words “Oh ‘Ali, help!” (ya ‘Ali madad) tattooed on their arms, while others, especially victorious wrestlers, got lion tattoos.Footnote 37 Similarly, prostitutes in Kerman were tattooed “with a tree guarded by two chained lions” on “the front part of the body.”Footnote 38
Unlike tattooing, branding appears to have been prohibited for its connotation of excess pain. Hadith generally prohibited the branding of humans and animals. In one hadith, the Prophet prohibited “branding on the face and striking (it).”Footnote 39 Animals were specifically included in this prohibition, although it likely extended to humans as well.Footnote 40 In Islamic jurisprudence, both unnecessary cruelty to animals and the sanctity of the human face when inflicting punishment were emphasized in a manner consistent with these texts.Footnote 41
In hadith commentaries and works of ethics, branding is primarily mentioned as an otherworldly punishment. A Quranic passage describing the punishments awaiting unbelievers states that God “brands them on the snouts,” possibly a reference to the face.Footnote 42 In an often cited hadith, the inhabitants of hell undergo all manners of burning tortures, including being branded by “molten metal.”Footnote 43 Hadiths vividly describe the face, sides, and back as spots that will be branded in hell.Footnote 44 Variants of these hadith appear in Persian works of Islamic ethics with little commentary, such as those of the medieval theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali (d. 1111) and the Shi‘i jurist Mullah Ahmad Narraqi (d. 1829), yet a more elaborate discussion appears in a Safavid-era hadith commentary that provides further details as to the meaning of branding as divine punishment.Footnote 45 It mentions that the “possessor of gold or silver” would be repeatedly branded on the face, side, and back with “scrolls” or “books” heated by the fires of hell for fifty thousand years, until a final judgment could be made as to whether they would enter heaven or hell.Footnote 46 The hadith commentator, ‘Abd al-Baqi Sufi Tabrizi, explained why the rich (presumably those miserly toward the poor) would be branded in these three places for their sin. Each time they saw a poor person, the rich person scrunched up their brow (in disapproval), turned their back, and emptied their sides (refusing to give charity), which meant that their foreheads, backs, and sides deserved branding.Footnote 47 The otherworldly punishment by branding was reminiscent of an ordeal by fire in which a wrongdoer must endure torture before possibly being granted redemption in a way that paralleled its function in judicial torture.
While the worldly practices of branding and tattooing were prohibited in a range of Islamic texts, the symbolism of bodily inscription and branding stood out as powerful ways of conveying the exceptional status of their bearers. Branding was seen as a legitimate otherworldly punishment for unbelievers and Muslim sinners.
The Poetics of Branding
Building on the meanings of branding as ownership and otherworldly punishment, Persian poetry also makes ample allusions to it as a metaphor for love, cruelty, and pain. The dominant themes of such poetry include the relationship between God and humanity, slavery, the stain of human sinfulness, and branding as a punishment. At the center of this poetry often stands a beloved (worldly or divine) who is notoriously cruel and whose brand torments their lover.
In branding poetry, the dominant figure (God, prophet, or worldly beloved) brands the lover as a sign of domination. The branded figure welcomes the mark left behind by this encounter and may even have gained an elevated status because of it. This inversion of the usual meaning of branding parallels and possibly informs later religious appropriations of branding as a sign of spiritual suffering in a righteous cause. Nizami Ganjavi (d. 1209) employs the imagery of branding as both a form of servitude and punishment. Referring to God’s relationship with humanity, Nizami writes, “Brand those with pure foreheads/Place a crown on the enthroned of the earth.”Footnote 48 Since branding was a common sign of ownership, God’s branding of humanity, by making them his slaves, is what elevates them to the status of kings, or “the enthroned of the earth.” Elsewhere, he alludes more directly to branding the face as a punishment for sin while retaining the connotation of servitude: “He cast the tresses of the earth upon the world/He stamped the mark (khal) of the sinner upon the face of humanity.”Footnote 49
In other poems, those branded are neither supplicant lovers nor suffering mystics, but evil figures who are either punished or infamous. Amir Khusraw (d. 1325) reserves the image of the branded forehead as a divine punishment for Satan in a manner reminiscent of hadiths about the Antichrist: “He (God) branded the forehead of Satan.”Footnote 50 The “brand of wickedness” conveys the stigma of infamy, as in the following couplet by the poet ‘Urfi (d. 1591): “You will never find a shaykh whose garment is pure/who does not have the brand of infamy upon their undergarments.”Footnote 51 In this line, the brand of infamy is hidden from plain sight, thus covering the shaykh’s hypocrisy.
As a metaphor for love, Persian expressions and poetry allude to how branding binds the lover and beloved. To tattoo the hand or to burn a tattoo with “blue paper into the hand of a lover” signifies a love token: a visible marker of the lovers’ bond.Footnote 52 Jalal al-Din Rumi (d. 1273) made a similar reference to branding in a couplet recounting a crime: “The color is your color, you are my dyer/you are the source of my crime, my calamity, and my brand (dagham) [here meaning both punishment or pain/suffering].”Footnote 53 The poet Hafiz (d. 1390) uses the metaphor of branding the liver in a line describing a broken heart.Footnote 54 He describes a “branded heart” as in need of calm or medicine.Footnote 55 For Hazin Lahiji (d. 1766), the lover metaphorically became the Prophet Muhammad’s slave: “I dwell in the sun because of my slave brand for you/your name became my insignia for I am without name and station.”Footnote 56
Persian poetry conveyed the idea of branding as ownership, an expression of social identity, a metaphor for human-divine and human-human love, and a punishment or stain of infamy. Neither religious nor poetic traditions associated the brand with what was most commonly used on humans during the Qajar era: judicial torture.
Branding as Judicial Torture
Judicial torture was distinct from torture as punishment. It occurred before criminal guilt was established and was an instrument for establishing the truth of a crime that would lead to a conviction. Talal Asad defines judicial torture as the “application of pain to the body of the accused or of a witness, in order to extract a confession.”Footnote 57 Crucial to such torture was the rendering of “secret thoughts” into “meaningful sounds” that had to be repeated willingly in court as a basis for turning court “suspicions” into “knowledge” that could serve as the basis of a conviction.Footnote 58 Several scholars have argued that judicial torture combined elements of the earlier practice of the ordeal, in which an accused party might be subjected to physical torture to prove their innocence, and the inquisitory mode of questioning by a judge to determine the truth of a case, which became more common in thirteenth-century Europe.Footnote 59 In this shift from an ordeal to a trial by judge, Michel Foucault argues, torturing the body became a legal ceremony meant to produce the truth of a crime.Footnote 60
But what status does judicial torture have in Islamic jurisprudence? In classical Islamic jurisprudence, the majority of jurists rejected its use because the rules of evidence generally required a freely given confession, consistent witness testimony, or in cases of injury and murder, an oath procedure to establish guilt.Footnote 61 In the hudud crimes, crimes requiring a fixed mandatory punishment, the existence of what Intisar Rabb has called a “doubt canon,” or the judge’s obligation to forego conviction if the evidence fell short of this high evidentiary bar, meant there was strong pressure not to prosecute.Footnote 62 The criminal suspected of harboring a secret, in this case a “bad” one, therefore enjoyed a level of inviolability.Footnote 63 This high burden of evidence for conviction became a legal barrier for government authorities intent on convicting criminals.
Beyond the classical position, there were two other broad views on judicial torture. The Shafi‘i jurist and political theorist al-Mawardi (d. 1058) believed that it was forbidden in an Islamic court but permissible for rulers and executive authorities. This position most resembles how judicial torture was practiced in Muslim societies historically, which included government and police officials use of branding as an “investigative technique.”Footnote 64 In the thirteenth century, the Mamluk scholar Ibn Taymiyyah articulated the doctrine of siyasah shari‘yyah, or shari‘ah-bound policies, which included for the first time a shari‘ah justification of judicial torture.Footnote 65 Several other late medieval Sunni jurists echoed this justification, although it is unclear if the doctrine was ever applied in actual criminal cases at a shari‘ah court.Footnote 66
Like its classical Sunni counterpart, Shi‘i jurisprudence viewed torture as an illegitimate means of extracting evidence for a criminal conviction. A Safavid-era Shi‘i jurist stated, “If a person confesses through force and torture (shikanjah), it [the confession] has no credibility.”Footnote 67 A voluminous and widely used mid-nineteenth-century textbook of Shi‘i jurisprudence echoed this position: in considering the example of “confession by beating,” the author considered it invalid because it was “confession through torture” (i‘tiraf ‘ala al-‘azhab).Footnote 68
From the mid-nineteenth century onward, Shahs and their Prime Ministers in Iran issued imperial rulings (farmans) banning the use of judicial torture by governors on similar grounds. Prime Minister Hajji Mirza Aqasi composed one such imperial ruling banning torture to gather evidence for crimes such as theft, murder, and other “ugly acts.” Judicial torture was described as both against the shari‘ah and “the necessities of justice and fairness (‘adl va insaf)”; governors were expected to rely instead on reliable documents (asnad) gathered from the parties involved.Footnote 69 This ban was renewed when Nasir al-Din Shah barred the use of judicial torture to make suspects confess to crimes or reveal hidden stolen property, this time appealing not only to the shari‘ah for justification but also to “chivalry” (muravvat) and personal imperial “opinion” (ra’i).Footnote 70
Despite the apparent consistency between Shi‘i jurisprudence and farmans in nineteenth-century Iran in rejecting judicial torture, it was regularly employed both by governors and by the Shah’s court in practice. Since circumstantial evidence, no matter how strong, was usually seen as legally insufficient for conviction, the torturer’s task was to render secrets public so as to approximate the ideal standard of evidence required to punish a criminal.
The Judicial Torture of Babis and Baha’is
During the Nasiri era (1848–1896) in Iran, government officials repeatedly branded suspects to elicit confessions or names of co-conspirators. The court of Nasir al-Din Shah favored branding in cases of suspected sedition, whether the suspects were members of the royal family, Babis, or Baha’is. In provincial centers such as Shiraz, governors employed branding in murder cases in which there was insufficient evidence to convict suspects. The branders were typically the head-attendants (farrashbashi) of the Shah or a provincial governor, and/or their executioner (mir ghazab).
One of the best-documented episodes of branding as judicial torture emanated from a Babi plot to assassinate Nasir al-Din Shah in the early 1850s. One would-be assassin, Mullah Muhammad ‘Ali Nayrizi, sought vengeance for the branding of his twelve-year-old brother; Nayriz’s governor had the brother repeatedly branded in front of his mother so she would transfer her property legally to him, and he eventually died. Nayrizi made common cause with several others.Footnote 71 The attempt on the Shah’s life failed and most of the plotters were subsequently subjected to judicial torture.
Most of the main would-be assassins involved in this episode were branded to extract the names of their accomplices. For example, Mullah Fathullah Qummi underwent branding (dagh va dirafsh) but revealed no names.Footnote 72 The most prominent of the group was Shaykh ‘Azim. The Shah ordered his Farrashbashi, Hajj ‘Ali Khan Hajib al-Dawlah, to torture him, and he had the executioners under his command brand him two hundred times. Despite this, Shaykh ‘Azim incriminated no one.Footnote 73 If the torturer understood branding as a means of summoning the body to speak truth, the tortured who endured it, and their supporters, understood it as the righteous body remaining silent in its truth.
Not all those subjected to branding torture remained silent. In the late summer and early fall of 1852 (1268 H.), Nasir al-Din Shah strongly suspected that his half-brother, the governor of the city of Qum ‘Abbas Mirza (later Mulk Ara), had conspired with the group of Babis involved in this same assassination attempt. Since his half-brother was of royal status and a relative, the Shah likely hesitated to order his torture. Instead, his close associate, the Babi head shrine guardian (mutivallibashi) of Qum, Mirza Husayn Mutivallibashi, was chosen to provide the sought-after evidence. Royal guards detained the shrine guardian and brought him to Tehran, where he was handed over to the Shah’s Farrashbashi for interrogation. The Farrashbashi handed a document to Mirza Husayn Mutivallibashi which stated that he and the other Babis had been instructed by ‘Abbas Mirza to kill the Shah. The Mutivallibashi refused to sign the statement, claiming that it was filled with lies. At this point, the Farrashbashi told him that he would either sign it or be branded. Shortly thereafter, a fire was brought, and the Farrashbashi branded the Mutivallibashi on the chest and back. According to one account, he was branded in this manner eighty times before he revealed several names. Out of pain and fear for his life, he stamped the document, which was then taken to the Shah and used as the legal basis for detaining, imprisoning, and later exiling ‘Abbas Mirza for the crime of conspiring to kill the Shah. Ironically, the Farrashbashi had been branded during the previous Shah’s reign because of ‘Abbas Mirza, so he may have relished the opportunity to repay the deed.Footnote 74
The use of branding to judicially torture Babis, especially after the plot to kill the Shah, continued well into the 1860s despite shifting European and colonial norms away from branding specifically and judicial torture generally. The best-documented example was the branding of Mirza Buzurg Badi‘, an eighteen-year-old follower and messenger for the exiled Baha’u’llah, the Prophet-founder of the Baha’i Faith and an early follower of the Bab. Badi‘ traveled from ‘Akka in the Ottoman Empire to Iran on foot to deliver a special tablet (lawh) of Baha’u’llah’s that was addressed to Nasir al-Din Shah in 1869 (1268 H.). He approached the hunting grounds of Nasir al-Din Shah outside of Tehran to present it directly to the Shah. Although he managed to do so, given the suspicion of Babis (the distinction between Babis and Baha’is was not well-known at the time), the Shah ordered his Farrashbashi, Kazim Khan, to torture Badi‘ for the names of his contacts. The torturers stripped off his clothes, “put the iron rods to the fire,” and proceeded to brand his back in a tent which became engulfed with the smell of burning flesh. When the torture did not elicit the desired information, the executioners became angry and plunged the iron rods across his chest, drawing two lines across it from right to left and then left to right. On neither occasion did Badi‘ buckle, at which point the Shah ordered that he be photographed before he was eventually executed. In both Baha’i and Muslim accounts, Badi‘ showed no signs of pain, nor did he beg for mercy from his torturers; he smiled and laughed. The Farrashbashi eventually ordered another attendant (farrash) to pound Badi‘’s head to a pulp with a pounder meant for iron pegs, while another account stated that his head was smashed by the butts of rifles.Footnote 75 In Baha’i hagiography, he stood out as a martyr whose endurance and silence in the face of torture exemplified the strength of his conviction. In fact, the silence of the body when it should have spoken under the pain of torture was seen as proof of its truth: “But, torture, brand, and torment him as they might, they saw naught but steadfastness and silence, and found naught but dumb endurance [on his part].”Footnote 76 Instead of merely seeing this episode as a failure of judicial torture, those who memorialized the tortured read it as an ordeal by fire that vindicated its truth, an inversion of meaning common in branding punishments.
The judicial torture of Babis and Baha’is assumed the existence of a wide underground network of conspirators. Often, those tortured were assumed to be front-persons for more prominent masterminds. Through the infliction of searing pain on the body, usually the chest and/or the back, the torturers hoped to ascertain a hidden truth. For those who managed to survive the ordeal of judicial torture without incriminating themselves or others, the meaning of torture was reversed, and became to a sign of vindication and righteousness in the face of pain and death.
Investigative Torture in Murder Cases
Investigative torture was also employed in murder cases. Much as in early-modern France, Qajar-era branding was often intended to implicate an associate rather than the tortured as the murderer or criminal mastermind.Footnote 77 In some cases women were also threatened with branding. When a confession or incriminating testimony was offered, especially before branding took place, suspects sometimes received leniency in return.
In the 1884 murder of a dervish in Shiraz, local government authorities used branding as a means to extract a suspect’s confession. The city magistrate (biglarbigi), Muhammad Riza Qavam al-Mulk, appointed Hajji Aqa Farrashbashi and twenty farrashes to track down the murderer. When a witness provided them with two names—‘Abd al-Husayn and Sayyid Mirza ‘Ali—the Farrashbashi raided the home of the former and proceeded to interrogate him. He denied all involvement. They had him beaten with sticks and branded for three days, but he refused to confess. The other suspect, Sayyid Mirza ‘Ali, was similarly investigated. Although he endured being beaten by a stick, he agreed to confess when he saw the branding rod put into the flame. He told his torturers: “Do not brand me and also promise that you will not kill me so that I will tell you the truth about what happened.” In front of his friend, ‘Abd al-Husayn, Sayyid Mirza ‘Ali narrated what had transpired after receiving his assurance. He admitted to holding down the murder victim while ‘Abd al-Husayn mutilated him and murdered him. The case ended with ‘Abd al-Husayn being mutilated and then executed. Sayyid Mirza ‘Ali’s hand was cut off for his role.Footnote 78 The threat of branding led Sayyid Mirza ‘Ali to confess to a joint crime, and he thereby averted a death sentence for himself but provided the proof required for conviction.
In 1901, two Russian subjects, Sattar and Muhsin, murdered an Ottoman hide merchant in Shiraz. The apprentice of the murdered man, along with his father, reported their suspicions as to the identity of the murderers to the Biglarbigi. After two or three days, the government’s investigatory council determined that the two Russian subjects were likely guilty. The Biglarbigi then summoned the wife of Sattar, who was threatened with the brand if she did not “reveal” what happened. The threat of torture was effective: she told the entire story to the Biglarbigi, including where the body could be found.Footnote 79 An irrigation expert was called in to recover the corpse from a nearby well. The Biglarbigi had the body buried and Sattar, Muhsin, and the wife of Sattar were all arrested.Footnote 80 Because those involved were foreign subjects, the case ultimately ended in a settlement rather than a punishment, but it is noteworthy that their status as foreigners did not protect them from the threat of torture.Footnote 81
In the Fall of 1847, the murder of the prominent Shi‘i scholar Hajji Mullah Taqi Baraghani in Qazvin led to the threat of branding for the purpose of collecting evidence. Executioners threatened the servant of the Babi female leader, Qurrat al-‘Ayn Tahirah, if she did not implicate her master in the murder. A heavy door was placed on her hands while the executioner heated rods to brand her outside of the interrogation room. The threat did not lead any of the accused to confess, and the branding was avoided only because an excited crowd had gathered, saying “the murderer has been found,” announcing that another man had claimed responsibility for the crime.Footnote 82 Here again, the threat of branding was directed against a woman and appears to have been intended for her hands rather than her back or chest, suggesting a gendered difference in branding practices.
Finally, as in the 1852 assassination attempt on the Shah’s life, in which one accused assassin had been motivated in part by a previous branding, the man who succeeded in killing him in 1896, Mirza Riza Khan Kirmani, had been on the receiving end of judicial torture by branding in the early 1890s. The governor of Qazvin, Vakil al-Dawlah, and the son of Nasir al-Din Shah, Kamran Mirza Na’ib al-Saltanah, had extracted confessions by stripping down Kirmani and branding him. These confessions implicated him for mobilizing people during the Tobacco Protest movement (1890–1892).Footnote 83 The humiliation of being branded and otherwise tortured at least partially motivated Mirza Riza Khan Kirmani to assassinate the Shah, whose name, for his opponents, had become synonymous with torture.
Judicial torture through branding was meant to yield confessions or testimonies implicating others in crimes. There was often a gap, though, between the intention of torture—the production of credible evidence—and the desired form of conviction. In some cases, the branded suspect refused to implicate anyone else and even laughingly goaded their inquisitors for their efforts to inflict pain. In other instances, the threat or reality of pain led suspects to sign testimonies that they thought untrue, but which served the objective of an official in charge of the investigation. In several murder cases, local officials already had what they felt to be compelling evidence of criminal guilt, but they used branding to extract a confession from suspected accomplices to provide a stronger legal basis for conviction. Branding as judicial torture almost always appears to have occurred outside of public view, attended by only government officials, such as the governor, city magistrate, attendants, and executioners. And while the intent was to generate a public declaration or signed testimony or confession, the torture itself and its effects were usually concealed from outsiders since they were not meant as punishments.
Branding as Punishment: Identification and Shame
Unlike judicial torture, branding or tattooing as punishments communicate criminal status to others. While the act of branding may not have been performed in public, the brand mark was usually intended to be visible. The favored spot for branding as punishment was not the back, chest, or even the hand, but the forehead. In a number of societies across diverse geographies and ages, the offenses singled out for branding included theft, sexual immorality, heresy, and military desertion. Also sometimes branded were those condemned to life imprisonment. The message of facial branding appears to have operated on two levels: as a way to identify and capture repeat offenders likely to escape incarceration, and as a means of shaming. The mark could be a symbol, a letter, a word, or even a phrase.
It is tempting to approach a “branding society” by castigating it as “culturally deficient, irrational, violent, and dangerous” and to take an “ameliorist perspective,” like that of Norbert Elias, in which punishments like branding are aberrations of modernity that will disappear as “civilization” takes hold.Footnote 84 For Pieter Spierenburg, a historian inspired by Elias’ ideas, the shift away from branding paralleled a change in the history of emotions in Europe, in which the people came to feel disgust at the sight of public violence.Footnote 85 Certainly, such changes in emotions did occur across many segments of society, but this does not explain branding’s cultural meanings and legal functions, or the persistence of torture and even branding after such changes took place.
Sovereignty often lies at the juridical core of branding as a punishment. Jane Caplan argues that the branding and marking of slave bodies and the foreheads of criminals embodied sovereign authority through the “involuntary and painful infliction of power.”Footnote 86 Employing the insights of Gorgio Agamben, Patricia Skinner reads “extreme acts,” including branding and tattooing the face, as permitted to the ruler as part of the sovereign’s “constituting power” that operated “outside the law.” This “potential use of force” was therefore exceptional and “only used and visible when forced upon the ruler by the transgressor.”Footnote 87
Branding also functioned as a form of social exclusion, castigation, and visual differentiation of the “deviant.” Esther Cohen has succinctly captured two central functions of “physical marking and mutilation”: “The pain they caused was both purifying and retributive, but the long-term result was to set the criminal apart from society for life….”Footnote 88 Building on these insights, Paul Friedland considers branding as involving a ritual “casting out of the condemned” through a “visible mark of their difference” in a way that parallels mutilation and banishment.Footnote 89 Banishment itself often involved branding or mutilation to differentiate “the condemned from others in the community” in case they escaped or broke their pledge to live elsewhere.Footnote 90
The branded and mutilated body was meant to communicate a permanent message of ejection, making social reintegration next to impossible. Those branded or otherwise mutilated were, in medieval Europe, “labelled for life as criminals and marginals.”Footnote 91 As Geltner observes, branding enforced a “long-term measure” in which offenders were forced to “roam the earth, excluded from all activities relating to the Law.”Footnote 92 Seen from a semiotic perspective, branding not only hurts but “indexes varieties of social otherness.” The altered body thus “comprises rather than symbolizes a penal act” in which the intention is to eliminate ambiguities in normative boundaries.Footnote 93
The ejection of a person from normative society by branding was violent, dehumanizing, and bestializing.Footnote 94 This marginalizing process is captured in a word of Greek origin, “stigma,” which today means “symbol of disgrace.” But for much of its history before the eighteenth-century, stigma meant tattoos in a number of European languages. Branding and tattooing involved forcibly transforming someone from “normal” to “stigmatized” through “an act of violence and a gesture of domination.”Footnote 95 Erving Goffman defined stigma as “bodily signs designed to expose something unusual and bad about the moral status of the signifier,” such that these signs advertise “that the bearer was a slave, a criminal, or a traitor—a blemished person, ritually polluted, to be avoided, especially in public places.”Footnote 96 Lisa Silverman, similarly concerned with the public message of branding, considered the branded shoulders of the condemned in early modern France as indicative of how the streets became a “theater in which identity was performed” and “the body was its stage.”Footnote 97 In nineteenth-century Czarist Russian law, branding was one of the “most serious forms of punishment” since “general opinion concerning branding maintains that it inspires loathing [of] those who are so marked and visits upon them shame.”Footnote 98
At another level, branding not only maintains social boundaries but also constructs social identities through “visible marks.” It was intended as a penal measure to keep “fugitives and vagrants” from contesting the Russian state’s “rigorous status system.”Footnote 99 As a British penal policy, the tattoo became a method of policing and deciphering criminal identity, especially among the “dangerous” and laboring classes.Footnote 100
From the top down, forcible branding and tattooing were sometimes used to assert authority over subordinated criminal bodies. Viewed from a community perspective, it was an act of ejection, exclusion, and visual stigmatization. Bodily inscriptions were intended to erect a permanent boundary between the normal and the abnormal, the fully human and the bestial. Branding constituted and maintained social categories, and so lent itself to government projects of policing and surveillance.
Branding and Forced Tattooing as Punishment in World History
Beyond expressing ownership, branding slaves functioned as a punishment in its own right. In ancient Mesopotamia, branding runaway slaves who had been recaptured was a way of robbing them of control over their bodies.Footnote 101 This was embodied in the words branded on their foreheads, “Runaway! Seize (me)!” which were repeated almost verbatim in marks used on Roman runaway slaves several millennia later.Footnote 102 According to Orlando Patterson, branding in the Americas was primarily used for identification until the second half of the eighteenth century, but after that it was used as a “punishment on runaway slaves and insubordinate slaves.”Footnote 103 In the mid-nineteenth century, states including Kentucky and South Carolina allowed the branding of slaves as punishment.Footnote 104 In Georgia, slaves convicted of crimes were flogged and branded with the letters A for arson, B for burglary, and M for murder.Footnote 105 The Barbados Code of 1688 stated that slaves should be branded with a hot iron as punishment.Footnote 106 Runaway slaves in colonial Brazil who formed maroon communities inverted the meaning of being branded with the letter F by viewing it as a badge of honor.Footnote 107
In the ancient Mediterranean and Asia branding was used to punish a host of other crimes. Branding was a common punishment in the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1600–1046 BCE).Footnote 108 The Buddhist law code (second or third century BCE) employed images in its branding punishments: illicit sex with an elder’s wife was represented by a vagina icon, drinking liquor in a tavern, theft with a dog’s foot, and killing a Brahmin with a headless man.Footnote 109 The Code of Hammurabi (ca. 1755–1750 BCE) called for a false accuser to be branded on the forehead.Footnote 110 In a case from Achaemenid Iran, a judge threatened to stigmatize a woman as being of ill repute by branding her when a man attempted to marry her without her father’s consent.Footnote 111 A portion of the Avesta, the Zoroastrian holy book, prescribes branding as a punishment for theft and identifies “suitable places for branding.”Footnote 112 The Greek philosopher Plato argued that a slave or foreigner caught stealing from a temple should be punished by having the crime written on their hands and face.Footnote 113 The ancient Greeks, who likely learned to use tattoos or branding as a punishment from the Persians, passed on this practice to the Romans, who used it especially for runaway slaves.Footnote 114 The bishop Macedonius, under the rule of Constantinus, occasionally branded heretics on the forehead “with a hot iron as infamis.”Footnote 115
In medieval Europe, the list of crimes punished by branding was expanded to include not just heresy but also blasphemy, theft, and giving false testimony. Heretics were sometimes branded on their forehead or cheek in a continuation of the late antique practice.Footnote 116 Louis IX branded blasphemers on the face and included this punishment in his legal customary compilation, Establissement (ca. 1254).Footnote 117 Much like in the case of Brazilian maroon communities, certain Christians gave a positive mystical connotation to stigmata, which came to mean a metaphorical “mark of disgrace or ridicule … for participation in Jesus’s suffering.”Footnote 118 The Lombard king Liutprand’s laws of 726 included branding on the forehead as a punishment for theft.Footnote 119 The Assizes Codex of the Lusignan Kingdom of Cyprus assigned branding as punishment for people testifying for gain and first-time thieves.Footnote 120
European states continued branding into the early modern period, albeit in less visible ways. William Shakespeare’s plays include passages considered to be references to branding as a punishment for prostitutes.Footnote 121 In France, those condemned to work in the galleys were branded with the fleur-de-lis, and had their nose and ears cut off.Footnote 122 A 1724 French royal declaration replaced this symbol with V for thieves, GAL for those sentenced to the galleys, and double V for female criminals.Footnote 123 This shift from symbols to letters may indicate increased literacy. As late as 1810, the French Penal Code included an article on branding criminals with the letter R.Footnote 124 Spierenburg notes that by the early modern era in Amsterdam branding had become less visible: the shoulder, or sometimes the ear, or the ball of the thumb, were the body parts chosen for branding. He views this shift as significant since, hidden beneath clothes, the brand was less public.Footnote 125 Only by the first half of the nineteenth century was branding abolished in England, France, and other parts of Europe.Footnote 126
Branding and tattooing were also culturally legible punishments in the Middle East and South Asia. The eleventh-century Saljuq vizier Darguzini was branded before being put to death in a spectacular fashion on the gallows.Footnote 127 The Ottoman Sultan Bayazid II’s legal code, Kanunname, included multiple branding punishments. A woman who willingly was abducted or ran away from her house was to be punished by branding on the vulva.Footnote 128 A second situation which warranted branding, this time on the forehead, was a pimp involved in procurement.Footnote 129 After the mass executions of Shi‘is during the reign of Sultan Selim, the remaining known Shi‘is were purportedly branded on the forehead as a stigma mark.Footnote 130 In early nineteenth-century Egypt, the reformist governor Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha furthered his goal of population control by branding criminals publicly.Footnote 131 An eighteenth-century Armenian-Iranian law code designates branding and nose-cutting as punishments for those convicted of incest with in-laws, aunts, uncles, step-children, or step-parents.Footnote 132
British-rulers of India continued earlier practices of local Muslim governments of using public shaming rituals as punishment, but later employed tattooing as a way to identify runaway prisoners. In eighteenth-century Bengal, the name of the criminal and their offense took the form of a tattoo (godna) on their forehead as a part of the publicizing (tashhir) punishment.Footnote 133 Colonial Indian governments continued tattooing as a punishment but with a renewed focus on identification rather than as a shaming ritual. The English East India Company tattooed thugs in Central India; they were often marked with English letters when they were given transportation for life but vernacular letters when sentenced to local imprisonment.Footnote 134 The main purposes here were criminal identification and deterrence of convict escapes.Footnote 135 The East India Company only abolished the practices of branding or marking convicts in 1849, much to the chagrin of the Andaman Islands penal settlements, which, as late as 1870, proposed branding each convict’s right forearm before they took up residence there.Footnote 136
In nearby Thailand, face tattoos marked criminals who had in some way acted against the state.Footnote 137 A fifteenth-century Thai legal code outlawed same-sex relations among palace women, and violators were to be punished partly by being tattooed on the neck.Footnote 138 A Thai governor and his wife, convicted of having hired a magician to harm the king in 1896, were punished with lashes and life imprisonment, while the magician suffered a range of punishments that included having “his face tattooed to indicate his crime”Footnote 139 Similarly, two female recruiters convicted of abducting women from the Inner Palace of the Thai court both had their faces tattooed as a part of their punishment, which barred them access to the court forever.Footnote 140
From antiquity through to the nineteenth century, then, there was a semiotically rich set of associations between forced branding or tattooing and criminality. The mark could be a symbol, letter, word, or phrase that communicated the nature of the crime or criminal identity to a broader public. While the crimes associated with such bodily inscriptions varied, there was considerable overlap in their intended meaning across societies unlikely to have influenced one another directly.
Branding Punishments in Nineteenth-Century Iran
Branding as a worldly punishment appears to have no foundation in Islamic jurisprudence. According to Rudolph Peters, Islamic law justified punishment as “deterrence, retribution, rehabilitation and … the idea of protecting society by incapacitating the offender.”Footnote 141 The hudud punishments included cutting off hands (or fingers in Shi‘ism) and feet, beheading, crucifixion, lashing, beating, stoning, imprisonment, and banishment.Footnote 142 Muslim jurists did not categorize these bodily punishments as torture. For example, the Shi‘i jurist Najafi argued that dismemberment of fingers as a hadd punishment should be carried out with a single blow rather than repeated ones since the latter constituted torture. He concluded by stating, “The intention (al-gharad) of implementing a hadd punishment is not torture (min ghayr ta‘dhib).”Footnote 143 In reference to dismemberment, the term dagh appeared in a Shi‘i legal compendium not as a punishment but as cauterization to stop the bleeding.Footnote 144 Shi‘i jurists disagreed as to whether or not there were limits to discretionary punishments (ta‘zirat): some argued that “it had no limit” (haddi nadarad), while others claimed it had to be less than a comparable hadd crime.Footnote 145 Other punishments in jurists’ manuals included throwing someone from a high tower or mountain, parading them through town, and shaving their head.Footnote 146 Certain jurists put limits on where lashing punishments could be administered on the body, especially on the face and genitals, which were considered inviolable.Footnote 147
Qisas, or legal retribution for injury or murder (known in the Roman legal tradition as lex talionis), often operated on the logic of equivalences. Here, the issue of branding becomes murkier, because forms of disfigurement that would otherwise be prohibited as punishment—such as cutting off the ears, lips, nose, or penis—became legal as talion. Footnote 148 Perhaps this is why a rare mention of branding in a nineteenth-century Persian Shi‘i legal compendium was in the context of qisas for murder, which involved branding in the lead up to retaliatory execution. Its author argued that branding and other forms of torture before qisas were valid if it mirrored the injury or murder. Thus, the convicted individual could not claim retaliation for similar injuries inflicted upon them prior to execution.Footnote 149
Nineteenth-century Persian ethical treatises and Mirrors for Princes rarely mentioned branding, despite its contemporary practice. In medieval Mirrors for Princes, the sovereign’s use of capital punishment, sometimes cruelly and without mercy, was commonly justified on the basis of expedience and the common good rather than the shari‘ah.Footnote 150 In a similar vein, the Qajar-era man of letters, Rustam al-Hukama, enumerated the types of punishments due to sinners, including lashing, branding, enchainment of the neck, and fines. He did so in the context of advising the Shah against taking executions, disfigurements, and disabling criminals lightly, and to only order them when deemed necessary by God’s command.Footnote 151 Drawing on the medieval philosopher Nasir al-Din Tusi, Sayyid Ja‘far Kashfi Darabi, author of a wide-ranging ethics treatise, discussed an unchaste woman with a “branded back” who was one of five types of women that a man should avoid in marriage.Footnote 152 Whenever the husband of such a woman was absent from a gathering, the people of that gathering would mention the unchaste woman and thus place a “brand on the back of that man” as well.Footnote 153 The metaphoric brand on the back of the husband was a marker of shame, and that it was done on his back suggests that it was back-biting, or perhaps more aptly “back-branding,” which shamed him in a manner visible to all but himself.
Outside of the Islamic legal context, a nineteenth-century book of laws composed by Baha’u’llah included provisions for punishing thieves with a stigma mark on their forehead, in a manner reminiscent of Zoroastrian branding penalties for thieves. In his Kitab-i Aqdas Baha’u’llah states, regarding recidivist thieves, “Exile and imprisonment are decreed for the thief, and, on the third offence, place ye a mark upon his brow (fi jabinihi ‘alama) so that, thus identified, he may not be accepted in the cities of God and His countries.”Footnote 154 This added an extra level of exclusion to mere banishment since the condemned would struggle to live a normal existence even in a new community. Baha’u’llah himself had been imprisoned in the Siyah Chal, Tehran’s most notorious dungeon prison, and may well have encountered branded criminals there since he said his fellow prisoners had included roughly 150 “thieves, assassins, and highwaymen.”Footnote 155
Just as he formally banned judicial torture, Nasir al-Din Shah also banned governors from inflicting torture punishments. In response to European criticisms, the official Qajar newspaper stated that the government never implemented harsh punishments without first proving guilt, nor did the Shah condone “the pain of torture” in such punishments.Footnote 156 Similarly, a detailed imperial decree in 1871 banned the use of torture as punishment and commanded that all punishments be subject to imperial review before implementation. Like earlier farmans, it considered torture to be “outside of the shari‘ah” and blamed some governors for torturing innocent people. On closer inspection, however, the ban may be read as an effort to circumscribe the discretionary authority of governors, who often branded subjects without the Shah’s knowledge or authorization.Footnote 157 Two years later, the Shah’s courtier, Mustawfi al-Mamalik, penned an administrative manual for provincial governors in which branding, torture, disfigurement, and extractive fines were banned and labeled as “barbaric acts,” possibly a nod to European civilizational discourse.Footnote 158 In practice, the Shah did chastise governors for carrying out excessive punishments, such as Saham al-Dawlah, the governor of Bujnurd, who had cut off the beards of criminals and threw them off rooftops in 1885.Footnote 159 In response to a petition of five or six subjects who had been branded as punishment (siyasat) in a village close to Malayir, the Shah expressed outrage, asking, “What is this branding and torture?” before ordering further investigation.Footnote 160 These sources do not explicitly ban the Shah from commanding the use of torture. Since he had the authority to issue such a ban by decree, he probably viewed himself as exempt from it. In all likelihood, the Shah intended to monopolize the legitimate use of corporal punishments for his court while curtailing the authority of governors whose excessive use of branding may have reflected poorly on him.
In the early nineteenth century, European observers noted that branding was used to punish several crimes, including theft and desertion, as a means of shaming, exclusion, and identification. The practice of branding thieves dates back to the Safavid era.Footnote 161 By the early nineteenth century, Qajar authorities punished swindlers and pickpockets by branding their foreheads with a hot iron.Footnote 162 In the 1830s, deserting soldiers from troops in Urumiyah were said to have their foreheads branded and their houses burned down.Footnote 163 Closer to the middle of the century, criminals, too, were branded on the forehead and their dwellings were torched.Footnote 164
In one notable 1826 case, Fath ‘Ali Shah presided over the branding and execution of an upstart local claimant to sovereignty in Isfahan. Unlike other known instances of branding, either as judicial torture or to permanently mark an individual who would go on to live, Fath ‘Ali Shah used this branding as a spectacle of punishment. The upstart in question, Hajji Hashim, already found guilty, was dragged before the Shah bound in fetters. After being exposed to the rack, his beard was shaved off with a blunt razor without water, and he was then paraded through the streets with a rope passed through his nose, bastinadoed and blinded, and had his ears cut off and “his body branded with red hot iron.”Footnote 165 Judicial torture generally occurred beyond plain view, as did the branding of foreheads, although in the latter case its mark was visible and instantly legible. In this case, however, Fath ‘Ali Shah was concerned primarily with inflicting pain via a hot iron rod as a deterrent lesson for others.
Nasir al-Din Shah’s son and minister of war, Kamran Mirza Na’ib al-Saltanah, served the court both in cases of judicial torture, such as that of the aforementioned Mirza Riza Kirmani, and in ordering and carrying out punishments. Branding was central to his investigatory and punitive toolbox. In a remarkable undated letter from Na’ib al-Saltanah to Nasir al-Din Shah, he mentions having constructed an iron mold following wishes expressed in a previous imperial decree. The iron-mold had “the mark of life imprisonment,” which probably means that the words “life imprisonment” were written in Persian. The Shah had commanded that this iron mold be stamped on the brows of thieves who had previously run away, before they were thrown into the “imperial prison.” Na’ib al-Saltanah then stated that he would keep the iron mold for future use on those sentenced to life imprisonment.Footnote 166 That the Shah ordered the production of an iron mold for stamping the foreheads of repeat offenders and life convicts suggests he was aware of past Qajar (and possibly Safavid) punishments for thieves and their branding of recidivist criminals who were flight risks. This type of branding was intended to identify and catch runaway prisoners sentenced to life and to stigmatize them in a manner such that anonymity and reintegration into society would be next to impossible.
This brand may have been used in a case involving five runaway thieves from Tehran’s imperial prison. In a telegram to the governor of Qum, Na’ib al-Saltanah provided detailed descriptions of each thief, their height, build, distinct facial hair, and even dismembered fingers. One of them, named Yusuf, was of medium height and had a red face, blonde hair, two dismembered left-hand fingers, and a brow that “bore the mark of branding.” Na’ib al-Saltanah ordered the gatekeepers of the city and government officials to keep an eye out for these men and to capture them.Footnote 167
Despite its dubious status in shari‘ah as a punishment, the nineteenth century saw repeated cases of thieves being branded, and to a lesser extent, army deserters. The motivation behind branding, again, was to ensure that those so punished led a marginal existence, condemned to be outsiders with no possibility of anonymity or societal reintegration. Branding appears to have continued into the Constitutional Revolution (1906–1911), although further research would need to be done to determine its prevalence into the Pahlavi era (1921–1979).Footnote 168 Sadiq Hidayat, a fiction writer and folklorist, mentioned branding among the tortures and punishments under the heading “shari’ah and tribal laws,” which ethnographers should collect from local subjects in the mid-twentieth century.Footnote 169 After the 1979 Revolution in Iran, the executed corpses of political opponents and “heretic” Baha’is were branded or inscribed with words such as “God is Great, Khomeini is our leader,” or “enemies of Islam,” which suggests that far from withering away with modernity and changes in emotional sensibilities, branding has continued to have resonance.Footnote 170
To return to “In the Penal Colony,” Kafka’s short story condenses the various judicial and penal meanings of bodily inscriptions and pain into a single illuminating event. Instead of torture producing a confession which then leads to punishment, the process is inverted: the suspect is punished by painful bodily inscription through which the reality of the crime is revealed without interrogation, trial, or defense. Instead of pain-generating speech, the body remains silent until well into the inscription process; the machine ensures that all can read the crime on the body without the suspect having to say a word. As Elaine Scarry has noted in her landmark study, torture involves “the dissolution of the boundary between inside and outside” through physical pain and an “almost obscene conflation of private and public.”Footnote 171 It is this process which translates “all of the objectified elements of pain into the insignia of power.”Footnote 172 Branding, too, embodies this conflation of private and public, which translates into a literal “insignia of power.”
In nineteenth-century Iran, government authorities regularly employed branding as both judicial torture and punishment. Judicial torture was a means of forcing a suspected criminal to confess to a crime or to name accomplices. It was meant to make the body speak its secrets through the infliction of intense pain. This publicness involved the victim articulating through speech the secret of the crime they committed or abetted. In contrast, branding as a punishment usually involved the body speaking not through vocal articulation but through inscribed signs. Here, the body was orally silent but textually articulate: people could read its signs and understand its crimes without mediation. In both cases, branding was intended to rob its recipient of autonomy and control over their body. Branding was one of several methods of prolonging the suffering of a criminal during public punishment, often before an eventual execution. Finally, and closely related to its use as punishment, branding, especially on the forehead, signaled that a repeat offender should be readily and publicly identified as infamous for their crimes. Unlike in judicial torture, the branded person remained silent—it was their bodies that spoke.
This article is dedicated to the memory of my beloved uncle and survivor of Evin Prison, Farshid Besharati (1960–2021). I thank my research assistant, Sayeh Khajeheiyan, for her assistance in obtaining a rare Persian manuscript and for her transcriptions of archival materials. I would also like to thank the anonymous CSSH reviewers, and Serpil Atamaz, Aomar Boum, Arash Khazeni, Abbas Mahvash, and Nathan Wilkinson for their productive comments and critiques on earlier drafts. Thanks also to Janam Mukherjee for the suggestion to think about bodily inscriptions through Kafka’s enigmatic short story, “In the Penal Colony.”