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POPULAR RELIGION. [To consider local beliefs and practices as they differ from mainstream Islamic traditions, this entry comprises six articles:

1-An Overview

2-Popular Religion in the Middle East and North Africa

3-Popular Religion in Sub-Saharan Africa

4-Popular Religion in South Asia

5-Popular Religion in Southeast Asia

6-Popular Religion in Europe and the Americas

The first considers the principal forms of Muslim belief, ritual, narrative, and religious practice that have lent themselves to local and regional variation. The companion articles describe diverse modes of Muslim piety in various parts of the modern world.]

An Overview

The term “popular Islam” refers to the constellations of Muslim belief, ritual, narrative, and religious practice that flourish at particular points in time and space. They simultaneously islamize indigenous culture and popularize scripture. In some instances elements of pre-Islamic practices are given Islamic meanings, while in others particular interpretations of elements of the textual tradition are employed in the formulation of narrative, ritual, and social practice.

Popular Islams are as varied as contexts in which they are found, ranging from the austere, legalistic Islam of the Saudi Arabian Wahhabi sect to the ecstatic, charismatic cults of saints and Shi` imams characteristic of the popular Islam in South Asia and Iran. Despite this variety, popular Islams play similar mediating roles in Muslim religious life. They mediate between culturally specific patterns of social behavior and the idealized models for behavior expressed in the Qur’an, hadith, and shari’ah; between the transcendentalism of Qur’anic Islam and the deeply and widely felt need for direct and local access to the sacred; and between the limited, strict ritual requirements of textual Islam and the realities of human existence.

Islam, Custom and Culture. Scriptural Islam is more than religion. It is a detailed guide to human conduct, providing precise instruction in areas including personal hygiene, diet, dress, marriage, divorce, inheritance, taxation, and others. Particularly in the case of family law, the demands of the texts often clash with longestablished cultural patterns. The problem is particularly vexing in matrilineal Muslim societies such as the Minangkabau of Indonesia. In many Islamic cultures a distinction is drawn between shad `ah (Islamic law) and `adat (custom). While `adat is rarely recognized as entirely legitimate, many jurists tolerate deviation from shari’ah, particularly in legal domains other than ritual performance. Others demand strict compliance with shari`ah norms. The theoretical and highly demanding nature of shari `ah has resulted in the recognition of a distinction between civil and religious law in many Islamic societies. [See Family Law; Adat.]

Qur’anic Transcendence and Popular Piety. The doctrine of tawhid (the unity of God) is among the central teachings of Islam. The absolute power and majesty of God is a major theme in the Qur’an and subsequent textual traditions. While understandings of tawhid range from transcendent monotheism to pantheistic assertions that all is God, textual traditions push God to the limits of the cosmos or, in mystical texts, to the depths of the human soul. In either case God is the sole object of devotion. [See Tawhid.]

Saint cults provide more direct, readily available access to the sacred and play important roles in most popular Islams. Saints are asked to intercede with God and are also sources of blessing (barakah). Pilgrimage to the tombs of saints (ziyarah) is among the most common Islamic devotional acts. They range from strictly local shrines to tombs of the founders of Sufi orders and legal schools that attract pilgrims throughout the Muslim world. Muslims approach saints with requests ranging from desire for mystical knowledge to mundane problems of daily life. In ShN communities imams and members of their families are the most important saints. Throughout the Muslim world, descendants of the prophet Muhammad, religious teachers, and leaders of Sufi orders are thought to be sources of blessing to whom devotees owe unquestioned obedience. Control of shrines and the equation of sainthood and kingship figure significantly in the legitimation strategies of many Muslim monarchies. [See Barakah; Ziyarah; Sufism, article on Sfifi Shrine Culture; and Authority and Legitimation. ]

Ritual Practice. The five pillars of the faith, (the confession of faith, the five daily prayers, fasting during Ramadan, alms, and pilgrimage to Mecca) are described in the Qur’an and hadith. Legal texts describe the relative merits and mode of performance of these rites in great detail. The formal, orthoprax ritual system was devised by an urban scholarly elite, and its concern with ritual purity and the strict requirements for the fast of Ramadan make it difficult for those who must toil in fields and factories to comply. Pilgrimage to Mecca is greatly valued, but relatively few Muslims can hope to perform it. Lax observance of the formal ritual requirements of Islam should not, however, necessarily suggest impiety or secularism. While shari`ah provides exemptions for those who find orthoprax ritual impossible, it does not provide alternatives. Popular Islamic practice fills this gap in the religious lives of many of the world’s Muslims. [See Pillars of Islam.]

The comparative study of popular Islamic practice is underdeveloped. It has been largely ignored by Islamicists, and with few exceptions anthropologists have been reluctant to engage in comparative studies. Comparison of studies conducted in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia reveals several common elements. Many of these are based on textual sources, particularly the hadith, but adapt them to specific local contexts. Others are derived from the ritual systems of Sufi orders, which played major roles in the conversion of non-Arab peoples to Islam.

The Mawlid al-Nabi that commemorates the birth and death of the prophet Muhammad is celebrated from Morocco to Indonesia and is frequently an element of Muslim imperial cults. Qur’anic recitation, reproducing the speech of God, is performed at funerals, marriages, and other rites of passage, to cure the sick, to exorcise demons, and for numerous other purposes. The written text of the Qur’an is used in charms and amulets. Modern developments include tape-recordings of famous Qur’anic reciters and national and international recitation contests. Dhikr (remembrance of God) is the patterned recitation of Qur’anic passages and the names of God, often involving the use of rosaries. Oral and written narratives concerning the lives and adventures of the prophet Muhammad, members of his family, and other famous figures from Islamic history as well as saints and jinn circulate widely. Jinn, particularly those believed to have accepted Islam, are invoked for numerous magical purposes. Jinn and shaitan (devils) are often thought to be responsible for miraculous or unusual events. Ritual meals and the distribution of blessed food are especially common in the popular Islams of South and Southeast Asia. [See Mawlid; Qur’anic Recitation; Dhikr; Magic and Sorcery.]

Puritanical Sects as Popular Islam. Owing to their insistence on the primacy of scripture, Wahhabis and other fundamentalist/puritanical sects would appear to be exceptions to this view of the mediating function of popular Islam. Most fundamentalist programs include a deliberate rejection of aspects of popular Islam, particularly the cult of saints. However, fundamentalists base their religious lives on restricted readings of the textual tradition and maintain that their particular modes of ritual practice are the only source of God’s blessing and mercy. Bruce Lawrence (Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt Against the Modern Age, New York, 1989) argues that fundamentalisms mediate between the demands of scripture and the intellectual and political contexts of modernity. In both senses fundamentalisms are contemporary popular Islams. [See Wahhabiyah; Fundamentalism.]

Islamic and Western Views. There is an enduring tension between popular and scriptural Islam that exists within most contemporary Muslim societies and is deeply rooted in Islamic scholarship. Islamic scholarly views have ranged from the intolerance of Ibn Taymiyah to al-Ghazali’s acceptance of a variety of modes of Muslim piety. The rise of scripturally oriented reform and fundamentalist movements in the twentieth century has increased the level of tension. Those who condemn popular Islams and those who are devoted to them share a conviction that their own understanding of Islam is the proper way of submitting to God-which is after all the meaning and purpose of Islam.

Western scholarship reflects this tension. Evaluations of popular Islams range from those of Orientalists who regard deviation from textual precedent as corruption or simply non-Islamic, to that of Reinhold Loeffler (Islam in Practice: Religious Beliefs in a Persian Village, Albany, N.Y., 1988) who argues that popular Islams are the means through which people who cannot possibly meet scriptural demands adapt the faith to local conditions. Most recent studies avoid questions of orthodoxy and corruption and focus instead on the ways in which Islam is understood and practiced in local contexts.

[See also Syncretism.]


Antoun, Richard. Muslim Preacher in the Modern World: A Jordanian Case Study in Comparative Perspective. Princeton, 1989. Life history of a Jordanian village preacher.

Campo, Juan Eduardo. The Other Sides of Paradise: Explorations into the Religious Meanings of Domestic Space in Islam. Columbia, S.C., 1990. Explains the sacred character of domestic space in contemporary Egyptian Islam, including detailed references to the Qur’an and hadith.

Delaney, Carol. The Seed and the Soil: Gender and Cosmology in a Turkish Village Society. Berkeley and Oxford, 1991. Study of popular Islam in Turkey focusing on issues of gender, fertility, and domestic life.

Eickelman, Dale F. Moroccan Islam: Tradition and Society in a Pilgrimage Center. Austin, 1976. Study of the social and religious roles of Sufi saints in Moroccan Islam.

Geertz, Clifford. The Religion of Java. Chicago, 1960. The most comprehensive account of popular Islam and its relationship to scriptural tradition and culture in Southeast Asia.

Geertz, Clifford. Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia. Chicago and London, 1968. One of the few comparative studies of popular Islam, this work also considers the impact of modernity on Islamic civilization in North Africa and Southeast Asia.

Lewis, I. M., ed. Islam in Tropical Africa. Bloomington, 1980. Collection of essays by leading Africanists and Islamicists concerning the popular Islams of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Martin, Richard C., ed. Approaches to Islam in Religious Studies. Collection of articles by leading Islamists combining theoretical approaches to the- study of popular Islam with case studies of conversion, ritual, veneration of the prophet Muhammad, ritual uses of the Qur’an, and other topics related to popular Islams.

Metcalf, Barbara D. Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900. Princeton, 1982. Study of one of the most important Islamic educational institutions in South Asia and its impact on Islamic thought and practice.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/popular-religion/

  • writerPosted On: June 27, 2017
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