Going local

Although the peoples that we have studied throughout the semster subscribe to one umbrella religion–either Judaism or Islam–the diversity in popular religious practices within the same faith are a testament to the significance of deep cultural roots and regional  identity. Studying saint veneration in particular gave insight into the strength of regional bonds and practices. The Rosen article, for example, pointed out that on a micro level, Jewish and Muslim saint worship in Morocco look remarkably similar to each other, likely due to their regional commonality.

Looking at Saint veneration and cults of spirit possesion has gleaned an understanding of the dichotomous, yet also complimentary relationship popular religion has with the larger orothodox institution. The plurality of popular practice and interpretation can be a framework to understand how people (in general) form individual identities. The Middle East and North Africa provide a particularly interesting case study due to the communal nature of most societies in that region. Even as there is a communal emphasis, the exploration of the Hilulla in the Saint of Beersheba, for example, showed the enduring signifcance of  Moroccan and Tunisian regional identity–and, in a way, popular identity- even though they immigrated to Isreal to live among people the same religious, and ostensibly, cutlural identity.

As a religion major, I feel like I now understand the significance of studying religion on a regional basis, rather than just aiming to have a broad understanding of a particular faith. Localized and popular religious study exposes nuances of applied practice and belief that would otherwise go unseen.

Culture and Religion

This being my last blog post of my undergraduate career, I want to use it as a way to wrap up this class, and to reflect on how the themes of this class reflect the social atmosphere of the MENA region. Popular religious movements, especially the ones we have studied in North Africa reflect the social trend of these groups. In most cases we see movements that have elements that clash with what many in the region consider ‘true Islam’. The Zaar, the Janun, and the rituals that accompany these movements could be seen as polygamist, because they involve some aspect of a supernatural being’s power over the subject. In the area they are not though, because these rituals and traditions are seen as a continuation of the culture. This was evident in the movie that we watched as well. These communities hold on to these traditions very hard because they see them as an extension of the old country and their heritage.
The evolution of popular religion also shows a change in society. Entering into the modern era we see the differences of society through religion. We can see the need for women in the market place through the selling magic as well as advice in relationships. This also signifies the change in relationship dynamics. The woman now has the ability to control or find reason to voice dissatisfaction in relationship issues.
In this region it is very apparent that religion and culture go hand in glove. This class was not just a view into the rituals of popular religious movements, but the cultural development in the region.

Women in the Work Place

Religion in the Market place has actually been a machine that has allowed for transformation in the commercial sector of life. This is an important aspect of religion and how it advances society to address relevant social issues. Two of our readings dealt with this issue of women in the workplace, and their actions creating a niche where they are needed assets to the community.
What I think is interesting about this, is not necessarily the popular religion, but in a social need based sense. This is interesting in two different aspects, one is the need for extra income, and the other is the need for economic independence. Throughout the MENA region, household income is going static, while the financial needs of the family is increasing. Traditionally, the male of the house would be able to go out and make enough to support the family. This is not enough anymore; increasing cost of living, large families, and food have made it necessary for many members of the family to add to the income. The men cannot fill this role alone, and females have to start working to help. In a patriarchal society, this is very hard to do. In the MENA region, women sometimes see very harsh working conditions and rude employee interactions if they do get a job, but that is a battle within itself. These women in the article have found religious reasoning to have a job, and therefore have found a way to secure the respect in the role they play.
Another thing is the need for female economic independence. The divorce rate in the MENA region is generally hovering around 25 percent. Although this is nowhere near the rate in the west, many less people are getting married. Education is on the rise as well, and in most higher education programs, females are the dominant sex. This means the government and society need to be making policies and developing strategies to allow for newly divorced women and highly educated female college graduates to enter the work force. Religion can play a big part in doing this, as it helps to craft society’s view of normal. With popular religious movements leading the way on this topic, we could very well be seeing a transformation into this type of society.

An interesting aspect of popular religion in the twentieth century is the nation-building aspect of the movement. Both Kosansky and Ben-Ami mentioned the popular aspect of these rituals and how they became necessary to build and create a national identity.
Kosansky speaks about the elite and colonial administrators using the pilgrimage as a political tool, used by the French to exercise authority over the protectorate. They did this by using the holy sites as mouthpieces of administration in some aspects because the largest crowds would be in attendance. After the 1930’s Ben-Ami explains, these pilgrimages became national events, which melted many different social groups together. The King, who came in after the French were deposed, also used these traditions as a nation builder, and to increase his legitimacy and give authority to his title ‘Commander of the Faithful’.
When I was in Morocco, and during the course of my research, I have come into countless examples of this practice still happening. As I mentioned in one of my earlier posts, part of the king’s reform package was liberalizing a parliament, on the condition that he was given control of the Ministry of Religion. This is an example of how important religion in the country is to his legitimacy. This is also accompanied with his highly publicized visits to religious shrines and mosques. He has managed to keep his piety in the view of his people, even after he transformed familial law from Sharia based, to a Swiss/French based system secular system.

Religious Sites in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

I would like to continue a discussion started by Noah Segal regarding the status of the shrines of Jewish and Muslim saints and religious leaders. He mentions the turmoil surrounding the shrine of the Prophet Ezekiel in Iraq. I would like to extend this discussion to a site that I visited in the West Bank city of Hebron, the Machpelah (המכפלה), the tomb of the patriarchs, the site where the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Abrahamic religions are buried. This site, along with the neighbourhoods in which it is situated, is one of the most contested locations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The site, which is a large building maintained as a mosque by an Islamic waqf, is located on the edge of Hebron’s Jewish community, which is in itself a contested site. Both the neighbourhood and the tomb have sparked countless protests from both the Palestinian and the Jewish settlers, and the site was the location of the mass shooting by Baruch Goldstein in 1994 which killed 29 Muslims during prayer, and caused riots which killed 35 others. While the waqf maintains the building and what lies within its walls, the Israeli Defence Forces control the perimeter and maintains a checkpoint for those entering, and ten days of the year, Palestinians and Muslims are barred from entry to the site, allowing for Jews to access the entire building, while normally they are only allowed into a small portion.

Whenever one of the religious groups wants to modify the building in any way, it sparks protests, with both sides claiming that the other is attempting to devalue and take away from the religiosity of the site. After the Israelis seized the West Bank after the Six-Day War in 1967, Defence Minister Moshe Dayan sent a small girl into the burial caves under the structure to examine them, for the entrance was too small for anyone larger to enter. While this discovery was made due to the Jewish desire to visit the site of the fathers of their religion, this caused controversy amongst Palestinian residents of Hebron, as they thought the Israelis were attempting to de-sanctify the mosque.

I travelled to the site during one of the weekends that Jews are allowed access to the entire building, the Shabbat Chayei Sarah, or the Death of Sarah. While in Hebron, I was surrounded by both Orthodox Jews coming to pray at the site as well as Jewish residents of Hebron. In listening to their side of the story and the way they speak of their Palestinian neighbours, I understand why there is so much tension between the two sides. The Jewish settlers speak of Arab residents of Hebron, who are separated from the Jewish community by IDF soldiers and a no-man’s land consisting of entire streets on the Palestinian side of the fence, as if they were evil and had no right to live there. They felt that the Jewish settlers should force all Palestinians from Hebron, and the way they actively, and often times violently, protested against removal of Jewish settlers from the city showed me that they were unwilling to accept the dual history that the building and the site has to both Judaism and Islam. These protests make me wonder what the future holds for the safety and religiosity of the site.

Final Thoughts: On Orientalism and Religious Studies

Since our last class today and between procrastinating over the second integrative essay, I’ve been ruminating on my impressions of “Saints and Demons” and what I will I really take away from this educational experience. Will it be the specificities of baraka transmission among the Sidis of Morocco? (Probably not.) Will I recall a performance study analysis of hillulot in the coming years? (It’s doubtful.) One of the lessons that will endure in my mind, though, will be a seemingly obvious, yet often overlooked, one: simple things are much more complicated than they appear.

Here I’d like to invite Edward Said, literary theorist and writer, to my reflections. Said’s contribution to the field of post-colonial theory has been monumental: in his masterwork Orientalism, Said examined the West’s discourse of Eastern cultures, and the way in which the “East” is constructed by a set of ethnocentric, exotifying concepts imposed by Westerners. Euro-Americans, he posited, believed that their sources of information on the East stood in aggregate for all that the East could be (sources that came from colonizers, capitalists, and combatants), and that this area stood as some monolithic, static Other that the West could know, and therefore dominate. Eastern cultures, then, were perceived as perpetually backward, hopelessly oppressive, and in need of (white) intervention.

Orientalism is such an important concept even today, for this process still takes place–orientalism is not a relic of the past, but a real force in East-West relations and conceptions in the present. A look at how Islam is portrayed in the mainstream media, France’s recent banning of the hijab in schools and government places, or the so-called War on Terror serve as but a few of the many contemporary examples. Perhaps inadvertently, perhaps subconsciously, “Saints and Demons” has personally contested such orientalizing forces as a learning experience. The course was founded on an examination of Islam and Judaism, on offering the whole range of complexities that comes with the religious experience, on a deconsctruction of what we thought these religions to be.

Josef Meri introduced our class to readings on sainthoods and the construction of holy intermediaries among Muslims, a practice that flies in the face of official Islamic teaching and blurs the boundaries of what qualifies as that faith. Ben-Ami and Weingrod taught our class about hillulot for Jews in Morocco and Israel, which has become an act of ethnic reaffirmation for North Africans there and a challenge to the majority Ashkenazic understanding of what counts as valid worship in Judaism. Sh’chur further documented the tension between Sepharic popular religious practices that Moroccan Jews brought to Israel and the often negative reactions they invites from European-origin Jews. Who knew that Sufi brotherhoods existed in Islam, and existed to such a diverse degree? Based on Western-furnished mindsets, could we have expected the rich interplay between jinn in Islam and Judaism?

Through this class, I’ve reaffirmed that Islam is not a monolith. It is not a giant zone of conformity, where all believers worship and express devotion in the same manner. Conversely, Judaism is not a common ground on which all Jews stand, but a terrain of different practices and experiences from communities all over the world. There is incredible diversity within these faiths; there are stark similarities between them, too. Must they be cohesively united into tidy ‘Islam only’ and ‘Judaism, please’ boxes? Or is the religious experience more about the people around you and their influence on your cosmology; does it involve, rather than what a name  indicates,  the interactions and traditions of your ancestors–whether they were sharifian saints or a zar priestesses?

The answers to these questions, and the observations I present here, hold real implication for our thinking and for how the world works.  There are shared elements of Islam and Judaism that unite them in certain ways, as this class has affirmed. At the same time, Islam and Judaism each contain such a mélange of sects and beliefs and characters and concepts that they couldn’t possibly be reduced to a one-size-fits-all, all-inclusive lens of study. Perhaps realization of these implications will change the way members of each faith interact; maybe this knowledge will cure some of the Orientalist ignorance that afflicts many in the West. At the very least, these implications imbue “Saints and Demons” with plenty of significance–and lots of bold value in the academic study of religion.

Zar and women’s transgressive behaviors

One theme that I have noticed is the reoccurrence of people turning to popular religious customs and beliefs in order to fit into society’s official religious expectations. While this could be seen in many readings with males, the most interesting example of this concept for me was in the recent readings about Zar, which is a structure mainly for females.

In some of the Muslim societies that we have been reading about, women are supposed to conform to a certain lifestyle. They are to be chased and to produce numerous offspring (especially sons) among other things. Not doing this readily leads to possession, which is kind of like a safety when women cannot or will not conform to everything that is expected of them. However, in being possessed to conform to society, women are behaving in a transgressive manner. While Zar and Jinn come from the same basis, Jinn are allowed and recognized by authoritative Islam and Zar is not. This is because the Zar is a locus of female power and gives women an active role in a society and culture that is trying to stay away from that. It is almost like the banned female counterpart to male Sufi Brotherhoods and other male oriented ceremonies.

What is ironic and somewhat confusing to me about Zar being outlawed by Islam is that women are usually participating in these rituals and ceremonies to take control of their own lives in order to conform into their religious society. In a way, they are being transgressive and breaking rules so that they comply with and follow other (and arguably more important) ones. For example, if possessed, women have the opportunity to become a bride. Becoming a bride provides a sense of purity for a woman, even though they are breaking rules (acting impure) to gain this sense of purity. Zar as a female specific ceremony, enables women to take control of their own religious observance, and in some ways allows them to strengthen their connection to more official structures, even if that means breaking some rules to get to that point.

Oral v. Written Storytelling

Throughout the semester, we have looked at many texts that site information from oral accounts and story telling, but we have also looked at texts that draw from written storytelling. Because it is already hard for me to decipher and understand some of the information and miracles that we read about, it makes it even harder when the aspect of having to figure out what information is true and what is an exaggeration or in some cases potentially missing parts of the truth. How do I know that the things that I am reading are not just made up folktales or large exaggerations of the truth? How do I know that sources are not too official that they are leaving out information pertaining to popular religious traditions?


I realized that this was a question that I needed to start thinking about after reading the Stillman passage “Saddiq and Marabout in Morocco”. Although we had spoken about how there could be falsities within the oral stories told by people cited in works such as Bilu’s Without Bounds, I did not know how different accounts from oral sources could be from written sources until I read the work of Stillman. Stillman’s main sources were written and not oral. While reading, I could tell a definite difference because the reasons for Saints being venerated more for their lernedness and piety rather than their miraculous abilities. In the first chapter of Without Bounds, Bilu walks into a cave and hears people telling great stories about miracles. These are two completely different perspectives about the same subject.


This difference makes sense when I thought about characteristics of a good oral storyteller versus the characteristics of a good writer. Writers emphasize things that they value most. To tell a good story orally about a saint, one has to speak with excitement, and possibly exaggeration. The nature of oral story telling is more what people find interesting and fascinating and is more at a popular level because it is what people are actually talking about. A good writer who is telling the accounts of someone’s life usually tells more of an official and factual side of things. In regards to religion, the more official parts are usually not the same as the most exciting parts that would be included in oral accounts. In this way, I saw a different perspective about the characteristics of Jewish saints and rabbis from Stillman than I did from Bilu. However, even after analyzing the different types of sources and their connotations, my question still remains: How do we know what is true, and what is missing from or being exaggerated in these accounts? This remains an unanswered question that only complicates the works that we are reading, but nonetheless it is still important to consider.

Thoughts on Sh’chur

Like many Israeli films I have seen, Sh’chur has the unique characteristic of depth on so many different levels.  This movie left me dumbfounded when it first ended.   I could not stop thinking about it and, as time passed, I was able to process Sh’chur’s many messages—from fitting into modern society to dealing with family members who aren’t quite normal.   Like Waltz with Bashir, the last Israeli film I viewed, I was thoroughly impressed with Sh’chur.

I viewed this film through the lens of a Dickinson student who has had some exposure to the Middle East and Israel through my studies and travel.  Thus, I was able to recognize some of the social commentary that the producers of the film were making on Israeli society.  One of the themes that I think that the director conveyed beautifully was the desire of the younger generations of Israelis to be modern, not tied down to the past.   We see multiple instances of Cheli’s frustration with her superstitious family and the rituals that they use throughout the movie.  She so desperately wants to break away from her family’s traditionalism, and that theme continues even until the very end of the movie when she denies her mother’s attempts to perform a ritual to keep her safe before leaving for boarding school.

The film delves even deeper into the issues that immigrants had with integrating into Israeli society.  On the one hand, they are expected to assimilate into Israeli culture.  On the other hand, immigrants like Cheli’s mother are unwilling to depart from the archaic and superstitious traditions of the past that are a part of their culture.  As a result, the family lies in a sort of no man’s land—clinging to the past, like Cheli’s mother, and desperately wanting to move forward into modern life, like Cheli.   This tug of war between old culture and a homogeneous Israeli identity has been a contentious issue in Israeli society since Israel became a nation.

Another aspect of the film that I was impressed with was the director’s ability to portray the protagonist so that the audience can identify with her. It wasn’t until today that I noticed how much of a foul character she actually is throughout the movie, when one of my colleagues pointed it out.  In comparison to the “blind, abusive father, a deadbeat son–in addition to the superstitious mother and disturbed older daughter,” Cheli seems relatively normal.[1]

Throughout this course, we have studied and discussed popular religion in Morocco and practices and rituals that seem to be a thing of the past.  However, these practices and rituals are still observed today by people such as Cheli’s mother.  In a symbolic way, Sh’chur demonstrates how these practices and rituals are caught between the past and the future and leave open the question of whether modernity will make them extinct.



[1] Slattery, Christina. “‘Sh’chur’ Groundbreaking.” The Harvard Crimson. The Harvard Crimson, 9 Oct. 1995. Web. 03 May 2013.