desecration of holy books

One of the most striking parts of Monday’s reading for me was the desecration of the Holy Book used in several of the magic rituals mentioned. Most notably, the slippering ritual, a black-magic ritual, requires the woman to walk on the Holy Book (El-Shamy 76). We’ve been speaking of the interplay and fluidity between ‘official’ religion and folk religion, but this instance is one that puzzles me more than others we have spoken about. This ritual uses a holy book, either the Qur’an or Bible presumably since both Coptic Christian and Muslim groups were mentioned in the reading, in such an openly sacrilegious way.

We spoke in an earlier reading about saints who would act in rather odd ways and would attract attention because of it (Meri 91). Going against cultural norms and still being considered religious, then, was certainly not unheard of. However, this ritual and others mentioned in the El-Shamy reading took breaking cultural norms a step further into the realm of sacrilege. This made me think of Tracy’s host sister in Morocco adamantly distancing herself from saint veneration and anything of the sort. Certainly Muslims who follow ‘official’ Islam would want to distance themselves even more from these openly sacrilegious sorts of rituals than even saint worship.

I wonder, though, how someone can consider herself to be a Muslim or Christian during and after this ritual. In the Catholic religion, though I am not sure about other Christian denominations, the Bible is never meant to even touch the ground. If it does, you have to pick it up, kiss it, and pray over it. Some very religious Catholics would even have it blessed by a priest as soon as possible. I wonder how a Christian or Muslim considers herself to still be a proper, practicing Christian or Muslim woman when she walks on a Bible or the Qur’an. It seems antithetical to her religious beliefs and so it seems incorrect to categorize this as a folk religious practice. Of course, saint worship is not part of the official religion of Islam or Judaism, but this practice is not so incompatible with official religion so long as the worshiper keeps G-d ahead of the saint. Any practice that involves walking on a holy book, though, seems too irreconcilable with any form of religion, official or folk.

This leads me to the conclusion that, although these rituals utilize some aspects of religion and religious rituals, black magic and rituals associated with it should really be considered more in the realm of a cultural practice influenced by religion rather than a religious ritual influenced by culture. This is a small but important difference. The former locates the ritual within the realm of, in this case, Egyptian culture and recognizes that religion does play a role in how the ritual developed. For example, the woman performing the ritual would use the holy book of her own religion and would pray in the manner her religion espouses. The latter, however, means that the ritual falls within the realm of religion, although folk religion rather than official religion, and is only partially influenced by the culture of the area. I know in the first week, we discussed how folk religion is a sort of intermingling of official religion and culture, but I still feel that because of the desecration of the holy book it would be a stretch to categorize this particular ritual as part of folk religion or, certainly, official religion.

One thought on “desecration of holy books”

  1. I think that magical practices, both white and black (but especially black magic), generally fall beyond the scope of folk/popular religion and are a category to itself. It’s not surprising that our material takes us into this domain, but just because we’re reading about it doesn’t mean that it falls within the same emic categories. As you pointed out in one of your other blogs, it’s important to figure out what are the categories from inside the culture (or subcultures within the culture, as magical practices are bound to be contested and controversial).

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