What is reality?

Professor Staub, in our first class discussion about Tuhami, you asked us, “what part of this book is real?” or maybe you said, “what part is true?” I answered you by asking, “what is reality?” or “what is truth?” As a Westerner, I am bound by my “reality” or “what I assume to be real” to think that all things magical are imaginary. Crapanzano discusses this concept in the Introduction of Tuhami as the “tension between ‘reality’ … and desire” (Crapanzano 7) and describes Tuhami’s storytelling: “It was often impossible to distinguish what was real from what was dream and fantasy, hallucination and vision. He contradicted himself… What I take to be real… is my assumption” (Crapanzano 14). We know from this that each person has their own reality and attempting to write someone else’s reality will bring up issues of subjectivity and opinion. Therefore Crapanzano’s introduction serves to tell the reader to “take it with a grain of salt.”

As Crapanzano discusses that Tuhami believed demons and spirits controlled his life, he relates it to Freud and the subconscious. For example, often times Lalla A’isha comes to Tuhami in dreams or when he is by himself in thought. These beliefs in demons and spirits are constructs created by the society in which he lived (the reason why Crapanzano believes that Tuhami is a good example of a typical Moroccan.) But I believe that anyone could believe those things if it were considered “normal.” I think Westerners often suppress subconscious thoughts and dreams because we write them off as “fantasy.” Children can believe in a lot more than we do, and have stronger and more vivid fantasies because they have not been fully molded yet to believe what we as society tells them is “real” or “true.”

In a related text, it would make sense then why Rabbi Ya’aqov Wazana would use children in his ceremonies. He asked them to look into the ink in their hands and tell him what they saw (Bilu Chapter 11). My Western interpretation is that any adult looking into the ink in their hand would think too realistically or be influenced by what they might want to see in their hand too much. A child might be hypnotized into that dream state more easily and be less influenced by external factors or previous experiences. Maybe if we as Westerners didn’t worry so much about suppressing our fantasies, and teaching children to do the same, we could experience the same realities as Tuhami or the children that Rabbi Wazana works with. However, I also believe that by not suppressing his fantasies, Tuhami created a world for himself that would have to be controlled externally. If he took more control of his life (to work in steady job for example), I think his fantasies would disappear because he would be forced to suppress them in order to maintain that job and his work without interruption. I think because he was involved in the world of spirits and demons for so long that he would not be able to work a steady job without interruption from spirits and demons and that was his reality.

How does this affect me? What can I learn about my own reality? I think these beliefs really call into question in my life why Jews believe in God. The God of the Torah performs miracles that I as a Westerner and a believer in science have trouble believing and might think of as “not real”. People believe in God and God’s miracles in blind faith, and other believers in science think of these miracles as a fantasy that Jews believe in. Over the years I have developed my own opinions about “God” and those opinions do not assume that every miracle that God supposedly performed was “real” by Western standards.  Reading both the Tuhami and Wazana texts have given me more faith that truth is subjective and we believe what we want and what makes sense to us. We use God, saints, demons, spirits and other supernatural explanations to describe what we don’t understand but it doesn’t matter if they actually exist as long as we can justify what happens to us and our responses based on our supposed truths. Despite my questionings of the Supernatural, I will continue to follow Jewish traditions because I like having explanations, structures, and proscribed truths by which to live.

Ethnography, Tuhami and Crapanzano

An outsider’s study and view of another culture is a hard field to not impose any biased judgments or preconceptions. Vincent Crapanzano’s observations and interactions of Tuhami is a perfect example of those who are conducting an ethnographic experiment and come across the problems of crossing borders and developing personal feelings. Although this book is produced to show the life of a Moroccan and his interactions with the saints and demons of the Moroccan culture, we are able to read about the author’s study and how he deals with the cultural differences and the process of his ethnographic experiment.

In my Crossing Borders English class, our goal for the semester is to create an ethnographic portfolio on a subculture that is unknown to us. I chose to study the bird watching community because there are many people in this area that take part of this culture. The past couple of weeks in this class we have learned the proper ways to emerge into our new environments, how to act, remain unbiased, interview appropriately and the proper way to take and record field notes. Since I am fully aware of what it takes to conduct an ethnographic experiment, I am able to see where Crapanzano is coming from and the difficulties and successes he has had with Tuhami and the Moroccan culture. I think that taking this English class while reading Tuhami has really helped me look past the stories and literature of Tuhami but to also observe the study that Crapanzano conducted and became a part of.

While conducting an ethnographic study, the outsider is supposed to interview those of the culture and if a topic is brought up that they do not agree with they are able to change the subject and avoid conflict. The goal is to immerse yourself in a culture that is different and interesting to you and not have an affect on individuals of the culture, but for them to influence you and change the way you are able to see this new culture. I feel that Crapanzano did not agree with some of the ideals and morals that Tuhami had in his life and in a way he wanted to change the way he looked at certain things. The way Tuhami lived his life and believed in the saints and demons was a personal and intercultural association and cannot/should not tried to be changed by an outsider because of their differences of thought. Crapanzano became frustrated with Tuhami for the way he went about certain things in life and an ethnographer and/or an anthropologist should only be influenced by their studies and not try to intervene and create change. One other thing that I was confused about was why Crapanzano chose to specifically interview Tuhami and basically only use him in his final production of his book. Usually an ethnographer talks with and observes many different people in the chosen culture. If they are particularly interested in one character they will incorporate him/her more but still mention the other citizens a great amount. It really interests me why Crapanzano was so infatuated with Tuhami, his daily practices, and past family life.



Briefly looking at the relationship between what the formal writings teach in a religion and the actual practices is similar to that of the philosophical concept of the ideal and our tangible reality. We have read how the formal religion is not followed verbatim and at times completely disregarded. In some ways this violates the religion. If people have the power to pick and choose what to practice and what to ignore then they are not the “ideal” or true followers. I understand that lived religion inevitably will change in time due to societal transformations.

It is apparent that writings in both the Quran and the Torah may be ambiguous for the sole reason to allow the religion to continue on for as many centuries as possible. I am struggling to understand how far can one stray from the teachings of a religion before you are no longer a follower of that religion. Why is there so much hate and disrespect between two religions steeped in commonalities? I assume each group defines itself from what it rejects. As we have read in the article the (Seed of Abraham) the two religions hold in common Saints, use of magic, dietary rules, and the ways in which people protect themselves from Jinn. Rational thinking would assume such glaring characteristics would create some sort of a bonding relationship? What would help clarify the animosity between the two religious groups?

In the article Jewish and Arab Folk culture Raphael Patai makes the case that religion should not be considered magic or superstition due to negative connotations of those terms, which I don’t understand. First off monotheism derived from Paganism a belief, which was submerged in magic. Secondly the belief in something that isn’t tangible should be known as magic. Magic was given a negative connotation because of its roots with paganism but we cannot forget that some fundamental beliefs in monotheistic religions are based in magic. Religion is intrinsically linked to the concept of Magic and superstition so why try and pull away from an essential part? Is it solely because monotheistic religions define themselves from the ideas it rejects?

Overstepping God

I recently made an incorrect statement/question in class asking the professor “why is it that contacting the dead is frowned upon by both Judaism and Islam since there is nothing stated against it in the Quran or Torah.” Once I re-read the article by Fred Astren, (Depaganizing Death: Aspects of Mourning in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Islam) I understood why my question was completely misguided. First off questioning whether or not this issue would be in the holy writings is irrelevant. As we have discussed in class and prevalent in our readings it is clear that there is a disparity between the formal religion and that of folk and lived religion. Regardless that the writings may have or have not mentioned contacting the dead is detrimental doesn’t mean individuals who are faithful will follow such beliefs.

I was looking at this question wrong at the beginning for I continually focused on the aspect that I did not see the correlation between contacting the dead and overstepping God’s power. The issue wasn’t that people were overstepping God more so the issue that in both religions they “emphasize correct practice” (Reeves, 183) Both Islam and Judaism being monotheistic religions strived to completely steer away from the original animistic religion Paganism. They saw Paganism as this ancient and obscene way of perceiving the world. They did this by putting much importance into order and rules thus creating a boundary between monotheism and Paganism. Through the creation of Shari’ah law in Islam and the Halakah in Judaism resulted in a major wall between the “acceptable and the reprehensible” (Reeves, 183)

In addition, as specifically stated by the readings “…attributing to the dead power or honor or seeking some type of communion with the departed are ways of belief and behavior that are to be reserved solely for God. ” Both religions do state that one shall not overstep God regardless that this is not followed in lived religion. I find it Ironic that monotheistic religions would fight so hard to shun Paganism while adapting some of their beliefs as customs.


Since the idea of Jinn in the Muslim religion was introduced the other day, it has been on my mind. I believe that this is a very interesting idea and sometimes I feel as though I have even disturbed Jinn. After doing the readings, one sentence stood out to me and caused me to think about where Jinn reside. The sentence was “Jinn live all over the earth, although they are found mostly in deserts, ruins, and places of impurity like dunghills, bathrooms, and graveyards”(Ashour 25). This sentence caused me to ask; if Jinn mostly reside in places that are un-pure does this mean that they stay away from pure places like churches, mosques, temples, and other holy sites.
Is there a safe haven from Jinn, an area of the world that they cannot enter? I believe that there has to be. Whether they cannot enter do to the purity of the area or just do not like being there. There must be some place on earth that is free of Jinn. My best guess would be that since Muslims believe in Jinn, one of their spiritual sites would be the safe ground from these creatures. Whether it is in a mosque or in Mecca, or some other holy land. If this place does exist, do saints reside there? Is there a place where one could go and be positively possessed by a saint?
This topic is very interesting to me and I believe that if there are places where Jinn love to reside than there must be places that they try to avoid. I am curious to find out if this is the case or not.

Formal and Lived Religion

The other day in class we talked about the differences between formal and lived religion. We discussed how the followers of any religion had their own personal traditions, which were slightly different than core religious practices. This discussion caused me to think deeper about my own personal religious practices and why it was that people would fluctuate from their core beliefs. I never once realized how much my personal traditions changed from my religion.
I am a following Catholic but do not go to church every single Sunday. In my religion Sunday is a holy day and going to church is one of our religious obligations. I feel as though the way I live my religion was passed down from my parents and they have shaped the way that I practice Catholicism in my every day life. If you look back through my family you can see that everyone does something different, whether it is the amount they go to mass, read the bible, or how they pray. Their social surroundings and their experiences in life have shaped their personal traditions.
I believe that religion is a constantly evolving entity, and the only values and traditions that will remain the same are the ones that the religions were founded on. I also think that one day it will be very hard to tell what the original religions are because of all the different variations that have broken out in different communities all over the world.
One question that came to my mind while thinking about this was will there be a day when we only have one super religion. Where all of the other religions have grown so far apart that they merge together into one common religion. I think that this is entirely possible but I think that the more possible outcome is the downfall of religion as a whole. People are becoming lazy; I am a personal example of that. I have changed my values and skip church on Sundays because it gives me more free time to sleep in or do what I want. If everyone continues to do this than I believe that religion could disappear.


Judaism and Islam confronted pagan practices in virtually every culture they spread to. Due to their monotheistic belief systems, the religions could not allow many of the pagan practices to continue in their original form. The incorporation of these practices into the official religion was a long and multi-step process that varied over different time periods and cultures. The success of incorporation lay in the creation of boundaries between the ‘new’ recognized practices and their pagan precursors.

There are many examples of pagan practices which were incorporated into Islam and Judaism throughout the assigned readings. Bilu wrote about the incorporation of spirit possession and exorcism into certain official interpretations of Judaism. Siedel told of Jews in Egypt who created amulets to ward off evil spirits. Meri gave a detailed account about the incorporation of ziyara into the official Hanbali school of Muslim belief. The most revealing account of incorporation is Astren’s study of the incorporation of pagan death practices into Judaism and Islam. These examples have been dissected in class and need no further explanation here. However, the boundaries created by these incorporations deserve a closer look.

First, these boundaries were successful because they were created by the religion and not the practitioners. This is significant because it grants the religion the ability to revisit the practice and redefine the boundary if necessary. This is evident in Meri’s explanation of the Hanbali condemnation and later acceptance of pilgrimages. Originally, Hanbali theologians classified pilgrimages as heretical and polytheistic (Meri, 127). However, after it became clear that Muslims continued to make pilgrimages, the Hanbali School revisited its boundary and redefined it to allow certain types of the practice (Meri, 130). If this ability had not existed, the Hanbali School would have, over time, lost significance due to its perceived inability to control its followers.

Secondly, boundaries facilitated successful incorporation because they allowed the monotheistic faiths to maintain their core beliefs and remain relevant to their believers. Astren’s essay, Depaganizing Death, exemplifies this idea.  Jewish theologians recognized that the pagan ritual of graveside feasts ascribed an importance and power to the soul of the dead that must be reserved for God (Astren, 184). Although the Jewish faith forbade these practices in scripture, like many other pagan holdovers, they persisted. In order to remain relevant to the Jews who took part in these practices, Jewish theologians had to create boundaries that removed the focus from the spirit of the dead but still allowed Jews to continue, in some capacity, their centuries old practice. This boundary was achieved through the creation of the Mourner’s Meal (Astren, 194). The emphasis was removed from the soul of the dead, because the dead were now with God, and placed on the care and nourishment of the community that survived.

Judaism and Islam were forced to confront and incorporate many different pagan practices. This was a difficult task because each practice that was incorporated had the potential to distract from and down play the core tenets of the belief systems. The boundary lines drawn between the ‘new’ incorporated practice and its pagan predecessor made this process successful. Because the boundaries were created by the religion, they were flexible and able to change over time. The ability to draw the lines around a reinvented explanation of the practice allowed Judaism and Islam to reconcile the pagan practice with their core beliefs and remain relevant in the lives of their followers. The class readings show that this process has occurred in Judaism and Islam since their creation and, as long as these boundaries are set by the religion, will continue to be successful.

Counter-Spirits/ Sibling Jinn

El-Shamy writes of lifelong counter-spirits (spouse or Qarin) jinn or sibling (Ukht) of the opposite gender that stays with humans. “Some […] claim that every male child has a sister (ukht) among the jinn, and every female child a brother (akhkh)” (El-Shamy 83). Parents and children work hard to maintain good relationships with these jinn-siblings. A jinni that is the same sex as a human is threatening. For example, his jinn sister would threaten a human boy’s actual sister. El-Shamy believes that women to women relationships are full of tension due to the position of a woman in a man’s family. But having an opposite sex jinn protects the human.

This concept made me think of a midrash that I read about Jacob’s sons that each of them actually had a female counterpart (probably in response to a confusion as to how he could have so many sons and no daughters). The midrash might have come about from the idea that it said that Jacob had twelve children, but we know that he had at least thirteen since later we hear the story of Dinah. Since Dinah is not counted in the original twelve, we can wonder if there existed other daughters that are just not written about, or we can wonder if she is a real person or if she is a spirit or an allegory. I wish that I could find the source of this midrash to look into it further. If, according to El-Shamy’s theory, each of Jacob’s sons had a jinn sister (or “twin” as it says in the midrash) that would threaten their real sister (Dinah, if she is not a spirit or maybe also if she was a spirit). The Supernatural sister is injurious to a human sister. This would apply to Dinah since she is raped and mistreated in the Bible. The folk interpretation of her mistreatment might be that the jinn did those horrible things to her but her brothers (the opposite sex protectorates) save her and exact vengeance for what was done to her.

Cross Cultural Jinn

A large bulk of our readings have focused on the cross cultural interaction between Judaism and Islam, as well as and in response to Paganism. One example of this phenomena that I find very interesting is discussed in Yoram Bilu’s “Dybbuk, Aslai, Zar: The Cultural Distinctiveness and Historical Situatedness of Possession Illnesses in Three Jewish Milieus.” The article talks about spirit possession, which is describes as “the notion that external entities with special ontological status are capable of taking control of humans by temporarily inhabiting their bodies and putting their ordinary selves in abeyance.” It goes on to discuss possession trance, or allowing one’s body to be temporarily inhabited by a spirit or a jinn, and how depending on the religious community that one belonged to, succumbing to an act of possession or trance had varied connotations.

What interested me about this article, and one of the points made it in which I think translates into the main discussion points of our class, is that although we now associate Jinn primarily with Islamic society, ancient Judaic communities in North Africa retained motifs of Jinn based tradition in their culture as well. In observing Muslim religious culture, they saw that the existence of Jinn provided an answer to questions that could not normally be answered under traditional Judaic practice. It is for this reason that we see elements of Jinn emerging into Judaic culture, with a Jewish twist. Jewish mythology discusses certain figures in relation to their religion and assigns them roles that Muslims had already assigned to specific Jinn characters. Examples include the Muslim demon Aisha Qandisha, who became associated with Agrat Bat Mahlat, also known as Lilith, the demon queen that was supposedly Adam’s first wife, and the Muslim demon king Shamharush with the Judaic Asmodeus, who, according to legend, was born out of wedlock when Agrat Bat Mahlat slept with King David.

2/23/12 Class Discussion

During this class we centered our discussion on the focus of “Universal” beliefs in connection to local or Cultural beliefs.  We discussed Explanatory, which describes disturbed individuals or those that suffer from mental illness. It provides a theory about the  “purity” of ones body and mind or if someone is mentally ill due to the Majnun, affected by Jinn.  We discussed the metaphors that help to explain how Jinn can posses a human.  Whether the person is being ridden like a horse or being worn by the Jinn like a coat.

Each provides a vernacular explanation as to how people act the way they do, similar to someone talking to themselves as the walk to an from a place.  This is explained by the vernacular idea that this individual is talking to Jinn and not just themselves.

The functionalist method is a very powerful method that establishes boundaries or folklore that teach followers valuable lessons.  We discussed in particular why a baby cries.  The baby is crying because is said to be in the presence of Jinn and if left alone the baby may become possessed.  Another common functionalist tool is the story that is similar to our “boogie man.”  This socialization of children helps to teach them good hygiene.  These vernacular ideas are present in most Monotheistic religions although they are not part of the taught scriptures.