Religion often serves as a guide for an individual’s choices in many aspects of their life. The degree to which it guides differs from religion to religion, and also depends on the aspect of the human experience. Typically, I don’t tend to have an issue with the aspect of control religion offers on someone’s life, but I took slight objection to some of the ideas presented in Fred Astren’s “Depaganizing Death: Aspects of Mourning in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Islam.” The general idea which I dislike is presented early in the article; “In Islam and Judaism anything having to do with cults of the dead is understood to be nonmonotheistic, that is, idolatrous and pagan” (183).To begin with, I concede that my objection is personal, and it is on the matter of spirituality as opposed to organized religion.
It occurred to me when reading phrases like “…they emphasize ‘correct practice’ or outward behavior…” which are “…emblematic of belief and inner experience” (183) that there appears to be very little room for real expression. It is a commonly understood fact that all people express grief and work through emotional pain differently, yet the rulings presented in the article, regarding excessive mourning, limit what ways people are allowed to mourn. This could potentially generate the paradox of wanting to be a follower of a religion, but not being able to be fully yourself at the same moment.
Again, this is just a personal appeal to the position that religion holds in human decision making, but why should something as innocent as eating a meal by the graveside be outlawed? Symbols are often used in most religions, so why does a religion outlaw using the location of a meal from being a symbol for the memory of a loved one? Since, in Islam, “…the break with idolatry is remembered as a signal definitive characteristic of the religion…” (189), it becomes very important to abandon the shirk (idolatry). The difficulty arises when so many aspects of pre-Islamic Arabian life were defined to be Pagan, and outward behavior and correct practice indicate your belief. What sort of traumatic dilemma does this produce in someone who believes genuinely, but does not feel able to deny any “excessive grief” (189). To me, this feels like a performance, where official doctrine becomes your script, not your scripture.
The world of the jinn was explained though the readings: The Jinn in the Quran and the Sunna, aswell as in Religion Among The Folk in Egypt. The jinn has sparked my interested the most this semester and these two reading I believe gave me the most insight. Throughout these readings the the jinn is comparative to many supernatural beings that where a part of my life growing up. such as ghost and the chupacabra(boogeyman).
The Jinn in the Quran and the Sunna written by Mustafa Ashor, gave the “who, what, where” outline of the Jinn. The reading commences with “who” are the Jinn? Ashor describes the jinn as a creation of Allah living between the angel and human world, however invisible to the human eye. Then moving on to, “what” are Jinn? Stating, “Allah… has created the jinn from fire” (Ashor 5). In my interpretation, this does not necessarily mean that by coming in contact with a jinn you with be burned but more as a metaphor for how a jinn could be beneficial or negative to ones life. For example jinn like fire could be beneficial in the sense of providing light or direction, or negative in that fire could be destructive like if a person where to cross a jinn incorrectly that jinn could ruin your life. Ashor then moves on the “where”. Although jinn are found everywhere and at anytime could be stepped on without awareness, “they are found mostly in deserts, ruins and places of impurity like dunghills, bathrooms and grave yards” (Ashor 25).
After reading Religion Among The Folk in Egypt by Hasan M. El-shamy. The ideas of “Who, What and Where” That Ashor explained prior to my reading of Religion Among The Folk in Egypt where reinforced with more detail. El-shamy. describes the jinn as “though less powerful than angels, are more powerful than humans” (El-shamy). A jinn is believed to have many power including the ability’s to “fly, dive, go through solid barriers, and undergo metamorphosis or shape shifting at well”(El-shamy). El-shamy’s description of a jinn’s power is comparative to my idea of a ghost living between earth and heaven. With the exception of a ghost being the spirit of a deceased human and jinn being born a jinn. I also found it interesting how the Jinn is used as for disciplining, for example if a person doesn’t brush there teeth the “She Sniffer” will come leave a sore on their mouth. Much like in a Hispanic society a child is told that if they dont behave the Chupacabra will come for them. The difference between the two is that not only the children of the society believe in the jinn, but the adults do as well.
When religion seeks to establish a definitive identity, its doctrines for handling immensely significant rituals such as birth or death, become emboldened; seeing how these human occurrences are universal and highly emotional, such rituals provide an ideal opportunity for the structure of religion to provide “Do’s and Dont’s.” As spoken in class, death rituals are as “tenacious” as they are since they are not only inevitable, but drive to the core of religion, our own existential dilemmas and struggle for meaning. In this sense, even traditions which forbid once accepted occurrences (Pagan rituals of wailing, self-mutilation, tearing of clothes, ashes on the head etc) and give guidance of what should be done, still provide comfort since they point at proper procedure and the oneness of God.
I thought that the idea of the spirit was especially interesting, raising the question of once the physical body has died, what can we learn from the spirit, and has the spirit come to teach us something from another realm about our own? In this way, the deceased are not only remembered, but cease to be static altogether, even gaining a mystical sense of power that they have entered a realm other than our own. In this way, they live and those mourning can “actively” engage, despite the dead no longer being physically represented.
The transition of sacrifice in pagan tradition to something that can conform with organized religion and the subsequent rules of halalkhah and shariyah was interesting as well, considering that animal sacrifice was initially intended to feed the spirit and then became part of a more “refined” practice of a mourners meal, as we move from a pagan context into a more monotheistic one. This accompanies Astren’s notions of regulation and reformation, as pagan ritual is adapted and made suitable for honoring one God, and creating individual and community based rituals for believers to depend on in times of distress and tribulation, as epitomized in death ritual.
In my opinion, one of the most interesting aspects of this course is the examination of various modern folk beliefs and understanding how they came to be a part of lived religion, and in some cases, part of formal religion. In both Islam and Judaism, there are folk beliefs, such as the ideas of spirit possession, the existence of Jinn, and the evil eye, which, within societal culture, far predate the birth of either religion. To understand why these beliefs are so important within these cultures, the world view of the people living during this ancient time must be examined. Before these religions developed formally, the only way for people to explain natural phenomena, such as rain, thunder, sickness or death, was by attributing them to higher powers or supernatural forces. If a person fell sick, it was believed that it was because of these powerful beings or forces. If a drought swept through the region, killing plants and eradicating crops, the explanation was simply that these higher beings were unhappy.
With the advent of religion however, these ideas and explanations were incorporated into formal religion as a way of legitimizing the faith in the eyes of the people. It was a method that was used by both Islam and Judaism. In Islam, the incorporation of Jinn took place as follows: “…Jinn have their own world; it is a world of ether-like beings whose members may exist side-by-side with human beings but are invisible to human beings…” (El-Shamy 56). The religion even goes as far as to explain sickness and death as being direct effects of the Jinn and their interactions with humans: “…failure to do so (respecting the power of the Jinn) may offend the Jinn who would retaliate by causing physical illness, possession, or damage to property,” (El-Shamy 58). The idea that religions use folk beliefs in an attempt for self-legitimization is a key aspect of understanding how these folk beliefs have become a part of formal religion. Another important aspect of incorporation can be viewed through a functionalist perspective. Religions sometimes incorporate folk beliefs in order to solve social or cultural issues. For example, in Middle Eastern societies which promote close and nurturing care of children, the religion often promotes folk beliefs as a means to an end. In some of these societies, a belief is prevalent that babies, if left unattended, can be harmed by Jinn. In this case, as El-Shamy explains, Islam incorporated this belief in the powers of the Jinn as a way to promote an ideal child-rearing technique: “Jinn may also steal a healthy human infant and leave in its stead a sickly child of their own…therefore, parents in many quarters do not like to leave their infants unattended or let them cry. Consequently, as soon as an infant starts crying, it is immediately attended to so as not to draw the Jinn’s attention and allow them a chance to undertake/complete the substitution,” (El-Shamy 60). This is a clear example of incorporation being used as a method to promote an ideal among the adherents of a religion.
Religions are important to their adherents for many reasons, but for most people, religion and faith are ways to understand the world in which they live and ways through which to find comfort and solace in a world fraught with war, sickness, famine, death etc. Personally, I have quite a few problems accepting religion as an explanation of the world, but after these readings, it fundamentally makes sense to me that for many people, religion is a powerful framework through which to view and understand the world.
The articles written by Yoram Bilu and Hasan El-Shamy each offer the reader a glimpse into Zar spirit practices from a unique point of view. In his piece, Dybbuk, Ashai, and Zar, Bilu approaches the world of Zar though the Ethiopian Jewish community. Conversely, El-Shamy writes about Zar from the perspective of the Egyptian Muslim community in his book, Religion Among the Folk in Egypt. Although significant similarities exist between the two perspectives, there are slight differences that may shed light on the vastly different cultural backgrounds.
Bilu and Shamy both describe a spirit cult with similar practices, which is rebuked by official religion, and is significantly undermined by modern medicine. The Zar belief differs from many other types of possession because it seeks to create an equilibrium where the possessed can live at ease with the possessor. Bilu writes that in Ethiopia “attempts are made to placate the spirit so that the host is able to maintain a stable, ongoing relationship with it” (353). Similarly, Shamy writes that in Egypt Zar practices “concentrate on appeasing the possessing spirit” (91). The specific practices of the Zar cults lie outside the healing and exorcism practices recognized by Judaism and Islam. Therefore, they have been openly rebuked by Jewish and Muslim religious officials. Bilu reports that religious leaders of the Ethiopian Jewish community do not endorse Zar practices (359). Shamy writes that a fatwa issued from Al-Azhar, a Muslim religious institution, states that “formal Islam condemns the Zar for being a cult which violates numerous sacred prohibitions” (101). The final similarity drawn from the articles is the impact of modern medical science on the Egyptian Muslim and Ethiopian Jewish Zar practices. This impact is best described, in each setting, by Shamy who wrote, “formal psychiatry has demonstrated western-bound inability (or reluctance) to account for local folk cultures” (100).
While it is clear that both authors describe the Zar beliefs and practices with a great deal of similarity, certain differences exist, such as the penetration of practice in the local population, the nature of the spirits themselves, which may be attributed to the different cultural nuances present. According to Bilu, Zar cultic rituals were practiced by Christians, Jews, and Muslims in Ethiopia (357). This account stands contrary to Shamy who reports that “Zar is not practiced by the Copts [Egyptian Christians]” (90). While Shamy admits that some Coptic Christians attended ritual ceremonies, his point is clear that the community as a whole did not take part. The most probable explanation for this difference between Ethiopian and Egyptian practices lies in the divisiveness of their respective societies. Given the turbulent relationship between Muslims and Christians in Egyptian history, it is easy to fathom that religious communities would largely stay to themselves. Both authors offer a description of the Zar spirit realm that is largely equal, except for one culturally significant detail. Bilu describes a spirit world that is “juxtaposed to the human world, without a significant carryover of past memories” (358). Shamy describes a similar spirit world but places a greater emphasis on the impact of cultural history. For example, Shamy notes that Turkish representation among Egyptian Zar spirits diminished with the decline of Turkish power in Egypt (96). The difference of emphasis placed on historical memory is surely based on the different histories of Egypt and Ethiopia respectively. Egypt has, throughout its history, been ruled by a long list of outside powers which explains the impact of cultural history on Egyptian Zar spirits. Conversely, Ethiopia has historically fallen outside the realm of dominating forces and therefore anti-hegemonic ideas were not as prevalent.
The studies on Zar practices by Bilu and Shamy are significant because they offer descriptions of a similar spirit practice influenced by different cultural environments. The authors give similar accounts regarding the practices of Zar believers, the dismissal by official religious leaders, and the marginalization by modern medicine. Although the author’s accounts share many similarities, significant differences are also present. Ethiopian Zar practices were carried out by Christian, Jewish, and Muslim people while Egyptian Coptic Christians were largely absent from Zar rituals. Ethiopian and Egyptian Zar spirits existed in a world that was congruent but invisible to humanity. However, the identity of Egyptian Zar spirits reflected a greater emphasis on cultural history.
In Meri’s introduction, he writes “Studies of saints in non-Christian contexts have all too often assumed the centrality of Christian paradigms” (Meri 5), a statement that I was particularly intrigued by, especially since this same false-reasoning was what led me to enroll in this course. Throughout our discussions and readings, we have repeatedly talked about how much influence the main three monotheistic religions have had on each other, specifically in the folk religions of Judaism and Islam. Through the reading for tomorrow, particularly the piece on burial rights in these religions, it is clear that the specific practices of Jews and Muslims concerning the dead often run contrary to what religious doctrine insists. For example, Astren writes “Muhammad’s wife, A’isha, denounces the Jews and Christians for utilizing the graves of their prophets as places of prayer” (Astren 192), which, as evidenced by the video we watched on the first day of class, is simply not the case. The veneration of burial sites and the dead becomes an important part of not simply religion, but also daily life.
As we discussed in class on Thursday, many of these folk religions and superstitions actually become reasons to not do certain things in real life. For example, a Muslim may say a jinn lives in the local water supply if it’s polluted to convince people to not drink the water. Astren comments “we see the psychological response to death is of primary concern, and the human value of compassion is the basis for limitation. Mourning through fear of the dead…pragmatic concern for the continuation of human life after fulfilling proper mourning practice” (Astren 187), implying that the basis for these stipulations on mourning is to protect the mourner. This basic assumption is that too much grief eventually negatively impacts a person. This trend, toward compartmentalizing and minimizing the impact of mourning, becomes much of the reason for these funeral rites, such as: “to erect a canopy over the bier for [the] dead…suspend various food from it” (Astren 185).
Throughout the Atsren reading, he repeatedly mentions the “dissociation of legitimate prayer from the grave” (191), a gesture toward the over-arching theme of lived religion v. formal religion that constitutes much of our class discussion. However, in this article we also see the added element of how the fear of paganism effects this divide. For many rabbis and imams in these formative time periods, the constant presence of pagan influences was something that had to be combatted. This battle took place in the areas of lived religion, and often resulted in a combination of scriptural elements with folk remedies, such as an amulet to ward off the evil eye that contains a line from scripture. In regards to the burial of the dead, this can be seen in the “prohibition against building a place of prayer over a grave [which] continues the dissociation of the normative place of prayer from the death rites” (Astren 191). The disconnect here comes from the formal religious aspect of going to a specific place (a mosque or temple) to pray as opposed to venerating the dead at their grave, a pagan practice that many Muslims and Jews picked up. The tacit implication here is the concern felt by the clergy regarding a loss of formal worshippers and authority: if people realize they can pray at the graves of the dead, what is the impetus to go to a formal religious service? Many rabbis and imams saw how the pagan religions eventually died off, which must have served as a reminder to how impermanent even the most obstinate religions can be; not wanting to go down the same road, these prohibitions and regulations about all aspects of life ensured both the health of the practitioners and the longevity of the religion.
In Fred Astren’s article, “Depaganizing Death: Aspect of Mourning in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Islam,” the complicated relationship between the old and new practices of emergent religion is again highlighted. Through the course so far we have discussed in depth how aspects of folk religion are either adopted or rejected in the eyes of the formal religious structure, however, we have not yet discussed the rational behind which practices are allowed to continue and which are condemned. In the Astren reading, paganism comes to the center of debates over which rituals became accepted in Judaism and Islam. Naming the polytheistic practice of paganism as the antithesis to the rising monotheistic faiths of Islam and Judaism, any practices that could be linked to pagan ritual were expressly prohibited from the new religious order.
Viewing paganism as the indefinite “other,” the religions of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity created a binary between polytheism and monotheism by adopting religious doctrines that set up boundaries between the ancient practices of folk religion and what would be accepted by the new concrete religious order. Evident in the Astren article, the divisions made up between paganism and monotheism were created on a rather arbitrary basis. The rules around the ritual of death in Judaism were created strictly to combat their association with the pagan cult of death. Viewing “excessive grief” as a practice of paganism, the Jewish ritual was constructed to limit the outward expression of grief delineating the length of accepted “weeping” time in line with the experience of human compassion. In this, there is a strange divide between what is conceived as mourning for the sake of the person and seeing mourning as a celebration of death. By limiting the time periods that is acceptable to show outright emotion, rabbinic law sought to reinforce the focus on appreciating life rather than wallowing in death. Creating a psychological dimension to the mourning process, enforced religious code in Judaism not only worked away from the pagan cult of death, but also serves a functional purpose for mourners reminding them of the continuance of life.
In Islam, excessive mourning is also considered “idolatrous.” Astren writes, “The new instructions for mourning and grieving create a boundary in time between the jahiliyyah and the time of Islam” (189). In this, the creation of rules for the Islamic death ritual sets up the functional division in the timeline of the development of Islam. In Islam, the breaking away from idolatry practices marked the definitive emergence of Islam as a new religion. Making the “abandonment of shirk [idolatry practices],” a vital step in becoming Muslim, the Islamic faith directly addresses the need to condemn the pagan practices of past folk religion. Viewing mourning as a direct violation of accepting God’s will, adopting rules for the death ritual that require the individual to show little emotion fundamentally redefines the human experience with death. Similar to the Jewish practices, the Islamic measures taken to remove pagan associations from death create new psychological experiences with mourning, “prohibiting against wailing instructs a new reaction to the shock of loss due to death” (189).
The social practice of mourning and adopted rituals of death can be seen across religious boundaries, however, in this article we see the creation of laws and boundaries surrounding specific death rituals as mechanisms to assert the validity of individual monotheistic practices. Drawing lines between how the mourner experiences the death of a loved one creates the need to restructure the psychological reactions of the individual. In this, the rules made around the personal experience with mourning are used to validate and assert the dominance of religion in the life of the individual. In modern American culture, mourning is viewed as a very personal experience, allowing for expressions of grief in many different ways. While codifying the expression of mourning seems strange in the context of modern American worldviews, from Astren’s article it seems that these practices have very practical values. By limiting the time period that a mourning person can focus on the death of their loved one, these practices promote a sense of hope to help the individual deal with loss. Rather then enabling the mourning to fall into a state of depression over death, using the will of God as rational for the death, religion becomes a sort of coping mechanism. Using the pagan idea of the cult of death to signify for the crippling effects of depression due to death, the rules of Islam and Judaism effectively help to counsel the mourner through the experience of loss.
Whether one is a devout religious practitioner or a steadfast atheist, the concept that religion has a distinct purpose in human society is fairly universal. The difference in philosophy arises when the purpose of religion is to be defined: is religious doctrine truth that brings one to an afterlife or level of higher understanding, or is religious doctrine simply codes of conduct for how to interact with the world put into a poetic, story like format? Dietary practices is just one example of a motif of religion which seem to overlap these two categories. With these examples in mind, a suggestion that religion (through the lens of folk and doctrinal Judaism and Islam) contains components of both philosophies that interact in complex ways is made.
As discussed in the class Wiki, both doctrinal Judaism and Islam contain dietary guidelines which dictate what types of food cannot be consumed, how foods must be prepared, and how animals fit for eating must be slaughtered. The dietary restriction specifications are laid out in the religious texts of the respective religions, the Torah and the Sunnah respectively, but show an intersection of what could be viewed has entirely divine in nature and what could be viewed as having a worldly functionalist purpose. Purely divinity related dietary practices include the idea that the blood of the animal connects it to its psyche and must be drained, the requirement to say a prayer over the animal prior to its slaughter, and in Islam, the requirement to recite the names of God before hunting an animal. But these are not the only aspects of dietary law. They interact with aspects of the dietary law that would seem to have a worldly function. Consider the prohibition in both religions to consume the flesh of scavenging animals. This makes sense from a functionalist perspective because eating an animal that has eaten other animals leaves more room for contracting some sort of disease from another infected animal making it unsafe, not only in a religious context, but in a physical context as well, for the human consuming it. The Jewish and Muslim laws which prohibit the consumption of unhealthy animals and animals which were not freshly killed also hit on this idea that it is physically unsafe to consume sick animals for risk of contracting a disease. Furthermore the prohibition of alcohol and other mind altering drugs (specific to Islam) would seem to have a functional purpose as well, namely, maintaining a sober community to prevent disturbances caused by the reckless effects of these substances. Ultimately, dietary law is an excellent example in both Judaism and Islam of how divine teachings and functional practices overlap.
Overall, religion has many aspects that combine divine teachings with practical advice for life. One such aspect is the dietary laws of Judaism and Islam. These rules have a divine nature in that they are to be done in reverence to God and with prayers however there are other attributes that have practical ramifications for daily life such as not eating scavengers, sick animals, or consuming alcohol and other mind altering drugs. These attributes reflect a mix that is found throughout religious teaching: the intersection of the worldly and the divine.
While there were many interesting aspects in the Shamy article, one area that struck me and we did not really get a chance to talk about was the idea of harnessing the powers of the jinn for good or evil purposes, and the dichotomy therein of “white magic” and “black magic”. In some of their aspects, these two categories are linked to either holy or profane acts. However, this dichotomy seems to be only partially congruent with what forms of magic would be recognized as permissible in formal Islam.
“White Magic” or shihr rasmii seems to be command of the jinn and magical forces through the use of sacred means. The person who preforms it is called a mashayikh, not a sahir (sorcerer), and it is not referred to as sihr (sorcery). In this sense, this form of magic could be viewed as a practical application of formal religion and not something outside formal religion, and Shamy states that this form of magic is often derived from actual or perceived religious dogma. White magic appears to rely on the ilm al-haruf or “science of letters”, a belief in the power of writing, with the stipulation that this power is given with the permission of God. Shamy describes white magic as being in the form of written “works” prepared by a mashayikh that request the permission of God to command certain servants, either jinn or angels, to preform a charm, or predict the outcome of an event. Another ritual that Shamy addresses is the fath al-madal, an oracular ritual that seeks not to predict the future, but to actually discern information about past events by consultation with the jinn, usually through a young girl or boy using a focus such as a small cup of liquid. (jinn are said to have a greater understanding and insight into human events, and are more knowledgeable in general; although they can make good predictions about the future clairvoyance is not a power that they have explicitly). Shamy does mention that some of these rituals share aspects with Coptic christian belief, and therefore may have predated Islam.
Contrary to the divinely inspired power of white magic, sihr-sufli or “nether/black-magic” derives its power from a low power, either Satan himself or an infidel or evil jinn. These rituals are preformed by a sahir (sorcerer) who is viewed as having allied himself with these powers by comitting cardinal sins such as desecrating the Qur’an or engaging in fornication and adultery. Shamy recounts how de-frocked monks are reported to be some of the most popular (and predatory) sorcerors, who require their clients to have intercourse with them or allow themselves to be sexually violated in order to invoke their powers. Another ritual that Shamy desribes is the “milking of the stars” which allows a young woman to achieve an irrisitable hold over a targeted male. The ritual apparently involves the woman laying naked under the stars and washing with donkey’s milk in order to gain the power of the stars. Another ritual involves the hitting of the genitalia with a slipper, which is thought to be a sinful act that can grant power against against a man. Furthermore, Shamy lists a few rituals that, while not involving sinful acts, would be considered black magic because of there evil purpose, such as invoking a curse of impotency against a man.
There appears to be a sort of polar religious logic at work in these ideas of white and black magic. It seems to be that if you want some good fortune to happen, or want to gain some sort of insight into events, the logical way to do so is to seek God’s help in gaining power from good jinn or angels. These rituals, Shamy mentions, require the performer to be in a state of ritual purity as would be necessary for prayer, and involve invoking the Qur’an. However, if one wants to use magic for some evil purpose, one has to instead enlist the power of Satan, who is pleased not by purity or the Qur’an, but the exact opposite, and so these rituals are by design sinful and impure. This is almost a form of folk religious pseudoscience in that it defines the logical ways to gain the assistance of high and low powers. Additionally, eroticism seems to inextricably linked to black magic; sexuality – particularly female sexuality – appears to be very powerful, but it is a necessarily ungodly power.
The gendered nature of this black/white magic dichotomy is another aspect of it that cannot be avoided and I believe merits further inquiry. Why is it that while the white magic seems to be male-dominated or at least gender neutral, all of the black magic rituals that Shamy discusses involve women commiting sins in order to gain power? There are several ways we could interpret this. This gendering could be an artifact of gender relations as Islam imported pre-existing pagan rituals. While a man consulting with jinn in order to predict the future and a woman seeking to gain the power of the stars are both pagan rituals in their own way and probably existed before Islam, because of the superior position of men within the religious establishment, the men’s ritual became permissible and islamized while the women’s ritual was condemned as pagan and evil. The consciously sinful aspects of the ritual could then be interpreted as internalization by the performers of this outlook – if you’re going to perform a ritual you’ve been told is pagan anyway, you might as well do it in as illicit and ungodly way as possible in order to get the most from the evil powers. Conversely, the rituals could have arisen after the advent of Islam in light of gender relations. Shut out from the-male dominated rituals that are seen as good, women were forced to seek power from an alternate source, and in monotheist logic the only source of power besides God and his servants is Satan and his servants. This might explain why a man could cast a love charm on a woman by invoking the names of archangels, but the reverse could only be accomplished through a genitalia-abusing ritual that sought to please Satan and gain his power over men. Another explanation is that women are less involved in formal religion, and so more vulnerable to unscrupulous, predatory “magicians” such as the former coptic monks that Shamy describes. These explanations are not mutually exclusive and could certainly have acted in concert, though without more evidence it both are really only conjecture.
Another aspect of magic that I find interesting is its relationship with formal religion. While the logical correlation is that white magic is recognized by religion while black magic is condemned, this does not seem to be the case. In fact, Shamy relates that the to religious scholars the most important aspects of magic is whether or not the magician promulgates beliefs that would make him an unbeliever, not whether or not the magic is good or evil. Based on what I know about Islam, I would assume the the critical aspect is whether or not the magic and magician claims to derive powers from an entity other than god. In formal Islam, the tawheed or oneness of God is a central tenet; in this sense, Islam might be called the most uncompromising monotheistic religion – God is unique in his power, and all other powers flow originally from him. So, magic which sought to gain power from sources other than God could easily be seen as shirk or denying the oneness of God, which is a cardinal sin in Islam. This would predict that any ritual seeking the power of not only Satan or infidel jinn, but also good jinn or other sources, would be seen as unbelief. However, according to Shamy, this is not the case. He relates that there is a rationalization involved that God grants power to lesser beings, believing and unbelieving, for specific purposes. Magic that does not constitute explicit unbelief is not seen as inconsistent with formal religion, but seen as outside of or eccentric to formal religion. Magic is not normal, but not atypical, occupying a religious space that Shamy calls “normal abnormality” but might be more accurately called “acceptable eccentricity”.
In the Firestone reading he discusses how in the beginnings of Islam, the religion was so closely tied to the beliefs and customs of surrounding areas. Firestone explains, …The Sira, the Quran, and other early sources all openly acknowledge the major impact of Jews and Judaism on early Islamic history.” It seems that in the begging there was an open connection between Islam and Judaism, but as the religion began to develop concrete laws and social practices Islam started to draw a distinct boundary with Judaism. This can be observed in the dietary practices in both religious. In both Islam and Judaism dietary laws the animal is killed when a sharp knife is quickly drawn across their necks. Even though this practice in the same Jews and Muslims most will not eat each other’s meat.
Also in the Firestone article he explains how Muhammad, “…believed, the large Jewish Arab community, which had a long history of prophets and Scripture, would naturally flock to his divine revelations and prophecies.” Muhammad thought that the Jewish community would embrace him, but instead must did not follow him. Instead for supporting Muhammad the Jews in this period began to feel threatened by his rising power in society. It is interesting that instead of embrace Muhammad the Jews pushed him away. I wonder what would have happened in the Jews did begin to follow Muhammad and except him as one of their own. I think that if they had done this Judaism might have been a very strong force in the Middle East.
Although most of the Jewish community did not except Muhammad I found it interesting that before the boundaries between the two religions were set in stone many Muslims reached out to Jews to him understand the meanings of what Muhammad said. Firestone used to example of Ka’b Al-Ahbar. Ka’b was a scholarly Jewish man who came to Medina, a predominately Muslim town. After spending two years in Medina he converted to Islam. His conversion was questionable at times, because he still followed some Jewish traditions. During his first few years in Medina he used to Torah to teach inside the mosque. Ka’b would look to the Torah to explain verses in the Quran. I found it very interesting that after the formation of Islam, when people were still trying to understand the meanings of the Quran, the Muslims looked to Jews to help understand the messages. As Islam began to solidify as a strong empire they began to turn their backs on Jews. It seems that as the empire expanded Muslims did not want to have such great ties with Judaism. The Muslims began to forget how close of a relationship their religion had with Judaism.