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Popular Religion in the Middle East and North Africa

“Popular” Islam is the term used to describe the variations in belief and practice in Islam as they are understood and observed throughout the Muslim world. Religious leaders and spokespersons talk of the unity of Islamic belief and practice, but, as in other religions, there is considerable local variation. Muslims often implicitly assume that their local beliefs and practices are inherently Islamic because they are central to local tradition or to a given subgroup of society. These beliefs may include a special respect for claimed descendants of the prophet Muhammad, the veneration of saints, possession cults (zar), participation in religious brotherhoods (tariqahs), or commemoration of the Prophet’s birth (mawlid al-nabi).

Traditionally educated religious scholars `ulama’ and self-appointed contemporary Islamist spokespersons often dismiss as non-Islamic or “incorrect” local practices that they consider not in accord with central Islamic truths, even though the people who maintain such traditions consider themselves Muslims. Religious scholars usually pass over these understandings in silence unless they are held by members of weak or subordinate groups. Such practices include participation in religious brotherhoods (tariqahs), zdr cults in the Sudan, Turkish celebrations of the birth of the prophet Muhammad (mevlud) in which women play dominant roles, and the veneration of saints or “pious ones” (al-salihun) in North Africa.

Saints. A salih is a person, living or dead, who serves as an intermediary in securing God’s blessings (barakah) for clients and supporters. In earlier centuries lineages of “pious ones” tied tribes to Islam and mediated disputes, and they are still thought to be particularly efficacious for those who have maintained long-term ties with them. In French usage, these saints are often called “marabouts” (Ar., murabit, literally “tied one”). Most North Africans use the more ambiguous term “pious one” (salih) because it does not imply that God has intermediaries, a notion at odds with Qur’anic doctrine but implicit in local beliefs. Many of the shrines associated with these saints are the focus of local pilgrimages and annual festivals. Some offerings-such as sacrifices at the annual festival of a saint-are annual obligations that ensure that the social groups involved “remain connected” with the marabout to secure his blessings. Festivals for major saintly figures attract tens of thousands of clients annually. [See Barakah.]

In addition to offering collective sacrifices to “remain connected,” individuals give gifts or sacrifices for specific requests. For instance, it is common for women to go to certain shrines to ask for a saint’s help in becoming pregnant. The woman may tear a strip of cloth from her dress and attach it to the door of a shrine as a reminder to the pious one. If the request is granted, she and her spouse give the promised payment.

Use of the term salih instead of “marabout” or “saint” evokes the multiplicity of the Moroccan concept. Participation in such a cult does not constitute evidence of an alternative, independent interpretation of Islam. Those who honor pious ones or seek their support are aware of the disapproval of some religious elites, but they nonetheless regard their vision of Islam as realistic and appropriate. Maraboutic shrines dot the landscape throughout North Africa, and the significance of saints is formally acknowledged in a variety of ways. In the Maghrib it is common for people going on the pilgrimage to Mecca first to visit local shrines or sanctuaries and to do so again on their return. Such ritual activities suggest that believers have an integrated vision of local religious practices and more universally accepted rituals such as the pilgrimage to Mecca. The Arabic word for pilgrimage (hajj) is not used to describe such local visits; the pilgrimage to Mecca is conceptually a separate phenomenon.

Belief in the efficacy of the salihun as intermediaries involves the implicit assumption that, whatever is formally stated about Islam, relations with the divine work in almost the same way as relations among humans. For a North African who implicitly accepts such beliefs, the main issue is not the existence of pious ones-that is taken for granted-but whether particular pious ones will exercise their powers on one’s behalf. They are more likely to do so if a client can claim “closeness” (qarabah) to a pious one or his or her descendants. Offerings and sacrifices create a bond of obligation (haqq) between the pious one and his client. [See Sainthood.]

Religious Orders in the Modern World. Religious brotherhoods (tarigahs) and lodges (Ar., zdwiyah; Per., khanqah; Tk., tekke), associated with mysticism, also figure in popular religious practices. As with the North African regard for pious ones, these orders are seen by many Muslims as complementing and enhancing the vitality of the Muslim community, although this view is subject at times to vigorous internal debate. In Iran, radical Islamist groups such as the Fida’iyan-i Islam incorporate Sufi practices into their observances, and in Morocco “fundamentalist” or Islamist groups adopt stylistic elements derived from Sufi brotherhoods as a means of securing popular legitimacy. Even in Algeria, the scene of violent clashes between the government and Islamic radicals since the late 1980s many radical groups have links with religious orders and local maraboutic families who have lost influence because of their suspected compromises with the French during the colonial era.

Such popular practices often reflect social differentiation. In North Africa, for instance, the Tijaniyah order had numerous government officials among its adherents, as did the Bektashiyah order in Turkey. Other orders were associated with particular crafts or trades. Some were considered highly respectable; others, such as the Hamadshah and the Haddawah in Morocco, were associated with the use of drugs, trances, and other marginal activities.

Until the 1920s the majority of adult urban males and many villagers belonged to some brotherhood in most parts of the Middle East. A popular saying was, “He who does not have a Sufi master as his guide has Satan to guide him.” In recent times some of these orders are enjoying a revival, as religious traditions become “reimagined.” This is particularly the case in the newly independent states of Central Asia and in Cairo where, alongside the rise of Islamic radicalism, “neo-Sufism”essentially a re-imagined tradition of Islamic mysticism purified of “non-Islamic” practices-has emerged as a significant religious force.

Zar Cults and the Birth of the Prophet. Sometimes popular religious practices are dismissed as little more than an affective complement to the formal side of Islamic practice and belief, and thus they are thought to be practiced more by women than by men. Such characterizations can be highly misleading. For example, zdr cults are prevalent throughout Egypt, the Sudan, and East Africa and are associated with certain North African religious brotherhoods and some groups in the Arab Gulf and the Yemen. Because women often play a major role in these practices, some observers have speculated that they compensate for the often subordinate status women have in society. More recent studies suggest, however, that the elaborate array of spirits called up by participants in zdr cults, which include both men and women, offer a conceptual screen against which villagers and others can imagine alternative social and religious realities, much like the veneration of saints, the “invisible friends” of early Latin Christianity.

Women also predominate in the ceremonies that mark the birth of the prophet Muhammad, the mevlud, in Turkey, while men predominate in activities that take place in mosques. Rather than seeing the mevlud as primarily a women’s activity, it is best to see it as complementary to mosque activities and an integral element of the way Islam is understood locally and practiced by both women and men acting as households.

Ritual and Community. Popular elaboration of ritual also distinguishes communities within the Muslim world. The ritual cycle of mourning for the betrayal of the Prophet’s grandson Husayn (d. 68o) provides Shi’i Muslims with a sense of self-renewal and victory over death and strengthens a sense of sectarian identity. On the tenth of Muharram, funerary processions in Shi’i communities throughout Iran, Afghanistan, southern Iraq, Pakistan, and Lebanon reenact the last episodes of Husayn’s life and his burial. Central to these occasions is a mourning play (ta’ziyah) about his martyrdom, its many versions being keyed to local circumstances. Since the audience knows the paradigm of the play, the drama does not rely on suspense but on how the scenes are enacted. Anachronisms abound; in some versions, European ambassadors rather than Sunni Muslims betray Husayn, and Old Testament figures are introduced. The final scene involves a procession with the martyr’s coffin (or a severed head) to the court of the Sunni caliph. On the way, Christians, Jews, and Sunni Muslims bow before Husayn. The intensity of such public performances, especially when they are elaborated in the context of other religious events, provide Sh-N leaders with a means of mobilizing public opinion. In the last years of the Shah’s rule, for example, political demonstrations were often planned to coincide with the cycle of Shi’i religious activities.

The Alevi (Ar., `Alawi) Muslims of Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon illustrate another dimension of popular religious understanding, one which requires more elaboration than other examples of popular religious expression because Alevi religious beliefs are less well known. Until the mid-twentieth century the Alevi were primarily village-based and thus lacked a tradition of the formal religious scholarship and jurisprudence that produces the “authoritative” discourse that justifies a sect’s divergence from other Muslim groups. Most Alevi villages in eastern Turkey lack mosques, and ritual practices also differ markedly in the interpretation of the “five pillars” of Islam. Alevis, like the Shi’is, emphasize the role of `All, the prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, as much as they do the oneness of God and the prophecy of Muhammad. Sunni Muslims of the region’s prevalent Hanafi rite pray five times daily, with a total of forty bowings (rak’as). Alevis believe that two bowings annually in the presence of their spiritual leader (dede or pir) suffice. Sunnis fast for the entire lunar month of Ramadan; Alevis consider this a fetish and fast instead in the month of Muharram for twelve days in memory of the twelve imams. They call this fast yas, or “mourning” (for the martyrs of Karbala), not sawm, as the Ramadan fast is called. Alevis consider the pilgrimage to Mecca “external pretense”; for them the real pilgrimage takes place in one’s heart.

From a Sunni or Shi’i perspective, Alevi interpretations of the Muslim tradition are unacceptable. Most scandalous of all from a Sunni perspective is the Alevi feast of Ayin i Cem (“the day of gathering”). This feast is as important for the Alevis as the Feast of Abraham (Ar., `Id al-Kabir; Tk., Kurban Bayrami) is for Sunni Muslims. Like the Shi’is, the Alevis practice taqiyah, the dissimulation of their beliefs and practices, and the Ayin i Cem, at least in Turkey, takes place when outsiders are not present. This is when community disputes are resolved, often with the mediation of the dede. Members of the community approach the dede in pairs, hand in hand, kneeling down and crawling on all fours to kiss the hem of his coat. This collective occasion is when the only obligatory annual Alevi prayer is performed. Sema music, accompanied by a saz (a sort of long-necked flute), is performed, and the men and women dance. Some dancers go into trance. Villagers recite mystical poetry commemorating the martyrs of the Alevi community; in Alevi gatherings outside Turkey, especially in Germany, the event is used to recreate or “reimagine” Alevi history in line with contemporary claims to identity. The climax of the festivity is the “putting out of the candle” (mum sondurmek): villagers throw water on twelve burning candles, representing the twelve imams and martyrs.

Alevi practices have thrived in western Germany because there the Alevis need not be concerned about government interference. Alevi migrants have been able to establish community-wide networks more easily in Germany than in Turkey, where state authorities have been suspicious of regional gatherings because many Alevis are Kurds. Since the 1970s these wider networks in the diaspora have also facilitated a greater sense of collective Alevi political identity.

Alevi beliefs and practices and the disapproval with which they are viewed by many Muslims serve as a reminder that orthodoxy and orthopraxy-conformity to standardized ritual-are situationally defined and linked to prevailing notions of dominance and religious authority. They also suggest the ongoing internal discussion and debate among Muslims of what constitutes common belief and practice.

The Alevis may be regarded as an extreme example, but similar ranges of popular perception and misperception prevail between Sunni and ShM, between the Ibadiyah of Oman and North Africa and their neighbors, and with the Ahmadiyah in Pakistan. Indeed, after major riots against the Ahmadiyah in 1953, an official government committee of inquiry concluded that the country’s religious scholars were unable to agree on a definition of what a Muslim is.

The strength of the Alevi tradition and its capacity for self-renewal indicates the persistence of particularistic traditions within the Muslim community. The Alevi community, for the most part, lacks high scholarship and carriers of formal learning, but it compensates for this in the strength of shared local traditions and interpretations of Islamic belief and practice. These particularistic interpretations are not waning or becoming more homogenized in the face of modernization but maintain their vitality as much as do the Muslim traditions that have highly literate religious intellectuals to represent them. [See `Alawiyah.]

The Particular and the Universal. Carriers of a religious tradition often adhere to practices and beliefs that religious authorities, intellectuals, or scholarly observers see as contradictory because they cannot be reduced to a cohesive set of principles. Thus the late Fazlur Rahman (1919-1988), a leading Islamic scholar and reformist, dismissed the mystical and popular understandings of Islam that dominated in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa after the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as ideas and practices perpetrated by “charlatans” and “spiritual delinquents” who deceived the ignorant. An alternative view is that popular religious expression involves both explicit discussion and debate, and an implicit reimagination of belief and practice, which together contribute to a continuing reconfiguration of religious though throughout the world of Islam. In one dimension, opposing (or complementary) conceptions of Islam are particularistic and are significantly intertwined with the local social order. They often strengthen commitment to Islam. Thus the theologian Ibn Taymiyah (d. 1328) condemned all celebrations of the Prophet’s birth as a harmful innovation (bid’ah;) many other theologians, however, tolerate it as an acceptable innovation (bid’ah hasanah) because it promotes reverence for the Prophet.

Other conceptions are universalistic, more amenable to generalization and application throughout the Muslim world, such as the pilgrimage to Mecca and ritual prayer. Some ideological expressions of Islamic doctrine, such as those characteristic of reformist Islam and the beliefs of many educated Muslims, tend to be universalistic in that they are explicit and more general in their implications. Others, including North African saint cults, are particularistic, in that they are largely implicit and tied to particular social contexts. These universalistic and particularistic strains are in dynamic tension with each other.

Islam’s “New” Intellectuals. A major development in the popular understanding of Islam is associated with the rise of mass education and the decline of traditionally trained men of learning (`ulama’). Not all Muslims regard a long apprenticeship under an established man of learning as a prerequisite to legitimize religious knowledge. Increasingly, the carriers of religious knowledge are those who claim a strong Islamic commitment, as is the case with many educated urban youths. Freed from traditional patterns of learning and scholarship, which have often been compromised by state control, religious knowledge is increasing]y interpreted in a directly political fashion. Mimeographed tracts and the clandestine dissemination of sermons on cassettes have begun to replace the mosque as the vehicle for disseminating visions of Islam that challenge those sanctioned by the state.

The ideological spokespersons of most radical Islamist movements have received education in secular subjects, not religious ones. In the poorer quarters of Cairo or in the provincial capital of Asyut in Upper Egypt, the leaders of activist groups rely on pamphlets, books by journalists such as Sayyid Qutb (1909-1966)–executed by Nasser and now regarded as a leading radical ideologue-and sermons on cassette rather than on direct study of the Qur’an, hadith, and other elements of the formal Islamic tradition. These understandings of Islam have become an important component of popular thought.

In the hands of radical Muslim thinkers such as Morocco’s `Abd al-Salam Yasin, the militant argument provides an ideology of liberation. Yasin argues that contemporary Muslim societies have been deislamicized by imported ideologies and values, which are the cause of social and moral disorder. Muslim peoples are subjected to injustice and repression by elites whose ideas and conduct derive more from the West than from Islam. His argument is circumspect on how Muslims should liberate themselves from present-day polities, except to propose (ironically) that the state should allow militant Muslims (rijal al-da’wah) the right to speak to compensate for state-sponsored violence against them. His overall aim is to set coreligionists on the “right path” to a new era, not directly to confront the state.

The content of Yasin’s sermons and writings and those of other new religious intellectuals suggests that their principal audience is educated and younger and already familiar with the imported, secular ideologies against which they argue. Their key terms, derived from Qur’anic verses and religious slogans, are more evocative for their intended audience than the language and arguments of secular political parties. This language, in turn, has caused a transformation in how governments throughout the Muslim Middle East represent themselves, with many now stressing their religious credentials.

[See also Islam, article on Islam in the Middle East and North Africa; Sufism.]


Boddy, Janice. Wombs and Alien Spirits: Women, Men, and the Zar Cult in Northern Sudan. Madison, Wis., 1989. Rich, evocative description and analysis of “possession” cults and how they relate both to Islam and to ideas of gender and person.

Chelkowski, Peter, ed. Ta’ziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran. New York, 1979. Standard, accessible account of the ritual mourning of the death of Husayn among Iran’s Shi’ah.

Eickelman, Dale F. Moroccan Islam: Tradition and Society in a Pilgrimage Center. Austin, 1976. Thorough account of saints in a Moroccan context and the ambiguous tension between their veneration and other interpretations of Islam.

Eickelman, Dale F. The Middle East: An Anthropological Approach. ad ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1989. Chapter 10 provides an extensive bibliographic description of “popular” religious practices throughout the region.

Fernea, Elizabeth W. Guests of the Sheik. Garden City, N.Y., 1965. Classic, accessible discussion of the mourning for Husayn during the lunar month of Muharram among the Shi’i of southern Iraq pp. 194-208).

Geertz, Clifford. Islam Observed. New Haven, 1968. Classic account of how a world religion has taken root in Morocco and Indonesia. Gilsenan, Michael. Saint and Sufi in Modern Egypt. Oxford, 1973. Good account of a modern Sufi order.

Kepel, Gilles. The Revenge of God: The Resurgence of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism in the Modern World. Translated by Alan Braley.

Cambridge, 1994. The chapter on “The Sword and the Koran” offers insight into the “new” Muslim intellectuals and their appeal. Mandel, Ruth. “Shifting Centres and Emergent Identities: Turkey and Germany in the Lives of Turkish Gastarbeiter.” In Muslim Travellers: Pilgrimage, Migration, and the Religious Imagination, edited by Dale F. Eickelman and J. P. Piscatori, pp. 153-171. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1990. Its account of how the Alevi Turks in Germany are regarded as more “progressive” than the Sunni Turks can be usefully read in tandem with Yalman’s earlier account (see below).

Mardin, Serif. Religion and Social Change in Modern Turkey: The Case of Bedruzzaman Said Nursi. Albany, N.Y., 1989. Fascinating study of a religious order that originated in late nineteenth-century Turkey and has become a significant transnational movement.

Reeves, Edward B. The Hidden Government: Ritual, Clientelism, and Legitimation in Northern Egypt. Salt Lake City, 1990. Excellent account of contemporary context of the veneration of saints in Upper Egypt.

Tapper, Nancy, and Richard Tapper. “The Birth of the Prophet: Ritual and Gender in Turkish Islam.” Man 22.1 (March 1987): 6992. Provides one of the best accounts of the complementarity of men’s and women’s religious practices for the entire region.

Yalman, Nur. “Islamic Reform and the Mystic Tradition in Eastern Turkey.” European Journal of Sociology 1o.1 (May 1969): 41-6o. Although relatively inaccessible, this article remains a standard account of Alevi belief and practice.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/popular-religion-middle-east-north-africa/

  • writerPosted On: June 27, 2017
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