Baraka and Legitimacy to Rule

Rulers cannot rule by strength alone, they also need legitimacy in order for their subjects to obey them. By drawing on belief in the supernatural as bestowing power onto them, sovereigns have sought and gained legitimacy to rule.  They evoke the supernatural because it the highest form of power. People’s belief in their cultural mythology is steadfast and it is what they look to for guidance. If a ruler is able to harness this power and say that he possesses some of it, he is able to gain the respect and reverence of his people. The belief in the supernatural is generally a commonality shared between many people. This belief is something that can transcend other seemingly minor details of ordinary life and bring people together into one community. Thus, people come together in reverence of their ruler. An examination of sultans in Morocco during the early 1900s can further articulate this point.

Westermark writes about the how the sultans of Morocco claim to possess large amounts of baraka, which is “holiness or blessed virtue” (148). In doing so, the sultans are claiming to have a power that is elusive to most and thus puts the sultans into a spiritual realm above the common person. Because the ruler possess this baraka he is expected to be a good ruler. Westermark states that “it is on the Sultan’s baraka that the welfare of the whole country depends” (39). However, even while  the Sultan has holiness, it does not entail that he can shirk his responsibilities,  as baraka is also a measure of a good leader as well as what creates a powerful ruler.

The sultans of Morocco join a long parade of rulers who employ holiness to justify their rule. For example, Japanese emperors claimed they descended from the Sun goddess, Amaterasu, in order to validate their rule over Japan. The evocation of the supernatural and its power has established legitimacy to many rulers and has given citizens a leader that they can trust, often without question, because they have received power from the supernatural.

Saints and Jnun

In class we have been discussing the explanations behind saints and jinn.  In general, both are thought of in contrasting lights; saints being holy and filled with baraka while jinn are evil and utilized to frighten humans.  However, through dissecting the beliefs of each religion, we have discovered that all saints are not good and vice versa.  Each saint or jinn has good traits and negative attributes that can cause fear or positivity.  This shows a lot about the cultures at that time.  Although each saint or jinn was supposed to be completely good or evil, there was ultimately a lot of overlap between the two concepts.  The grey area conveys that each person could be good and bad, as opposed to just one.

A lot of the readings our class has gone over have also discussed the idea that saints and jnun could essentially explain mental or physical illnesses.  Utilizing these concepts was a way to explain the unexplainable.  Without modern medicine people could not explain why someone was ill or why someone acted the way they did.  It gave multitudes of power to saints and jnun, which also surprised me given the strain on monotheism in each different culture.

Overall, saints and jnun are very influential in the lives of Muslims and Jews.  They are useful to explain the culture of these two religions, and used to explain unfathomable ideas to believers.

The Impact of Saints- Judaism and Islam

These past few weeks we have read two different authors; Meri and Grehan, who both approach the concept of saints in their writings. Meri starts by categorizing saints in two categories; traditional saints and historical saints. Traditional saints are those who were prophets, patriarchs, and other figures from monotheistic traditions. Historical saints are those who are mystics, rulers, and others who generally lived in the Islamic period. These two definitions give us a fundamental base of our future definition of what makes a saint in the Judaism religion and Muslim religion. The overall arching theme of saints between theses religions we have study is that they provide people with a security blanket, its something they can pray to and hope for, each saint has different strengths and weaknesses that people relate to them.

Today when we hear the word saint we think of a charismatic individual who attains the Christian ideal of perfection in his or her lifetime. Usually these individuals go through the process of beatification and canonization as being worthy of veneration by the Catholic Church. The process of recognizing saints in Islam is much different. It is both personal and informal; nominations were often based on a popular census of the common people and their accounts of interactions with the saints. These saints are living and dead. Islam also has something called Baraka, which is a divinely inspired quality that makes saints holy. Baraka is a security force, though it can be very good, but one must be careful how they use it because it can be used for bad as well as good. In Judaism saints were regarded as miracle workers, all the prophets had different miracles they could perform. For example, Abraham depicted as a healer and Elijah was known for quickening the dead and able to multiple grain and oil. These saints they look to are long dead. Judaism also had strong beliefs in ancestry. ‘Merits of the Ancestors’ is the idea that one must have good ancestral merit and do good deeds to receive salvation of the soul. The overall Jewish cultural we see an absence of Jewish saints and more of a focus on the idea of righteous ancestors would look after the Jewish people.

Overall idea of saints is more influential in the Muslim religion than the Judaism religion. Saints are more involve in the everyday life- culture in an Islam society. Saints are a contemporary aspect to daily life.

The past week we have read the chapter “Blood and Prayer” by Grehan. One key point that stood out to me was that people wanted their sacrifices to be offered to the saints, not God. This made me think why Saints and not God? Saints provide a more physical intimacy, where the worshipper can go to the saints shrine and be there. Saints are more personable than God. One has the opportunity to connect to the saint and get what they need.

After studying this material I am left with some questions; Why worship a God in general, when saints have such a strong impact on the people alone? How does one in a Muslim religion validate sainthood/ respect ones community’s choice of a saint if they oppose the individual? How does one become a saint that is recognized by Muslims all over the world? Why do ancestors play a more important role in Judaism than saints? These are just some of the questions I want to explore in my future paper regarding saints across these religions.

Shared Landscapes and the Worship of Saints

Today, holy sites in the Middle East are politicized spaces tied to different national identities. This was not always the case, however—holy sites used to be universally worshipped, regardless of religious or cultural identity (Meri, 3). In fact, many of our recent readings have discussed shared holy places, specifically shrines. From the 11th to 16th centuries, Jews and Muslims worshipped many of the same saints and thus, made pilgrimages to the same shrines. Similarly, many of their shrines were in fact a part of the natural landscape of the Middle East. As Grehan points out, the shared worship of these shrines was a product of the cultural practices deeply rooted in the land shared by Jews and Muslims.

These ingrained beliefs did not disappear with the emergence of different religions; rather, they overshadowed the official religious doctrines (Grehan, 117). While, in the 12th century Jews and Muslims were segregated by neighborhood, they were often united in the shrines at which they worshipped saints. It was common practice for both religions to make pilgrimages to the shrine of Ezekiel; even after a Mongol ruler built a Muslims mosque at the shrine, Jews continued to make pilgrimages there (Meri, 237). Likewise, both religions shared a belief that caves were holy and they often prayed in the same caves (Grehan, 128). This belief, so ingrained in the culture of Middle East societies, unified Muslims, Christians, and Jews.

Despite the fact that saint worship is not condoned by official doctrines, it has consistently been an important part of Jewish and Muslim life. In developing out of the same landscapes, the two religions maintained the universal sense of holiness associated with certain spaces. Over the years, as they lived side-by-side and faced the same weather, disease, and hardships, they continued to look to the same saints for answers and guidance.

Baraka and Saints

The belief in spirits has provided people more than just a belief system or answer to their problems, but they gave peoples lives meaning and understanding. Saints were the most holy and were looked at as gods. People who had Baraka were holy and became holy. Baraka is the blessing that each person carries with them. It is interesting to note that some people could have more Baraka then others, therefore being more holy or having a higher class.

There were saints who were considered to be in the upper class that have a higher level of holiness and Baraka which puts them above the community. These saints are put up above everyone else because of the excess Baraka. The saints that had exceptional amounts of Baraka and people looked to transfer some of the Baraka to themselves to give them blessing.(Westernmarck) A person with excess amounts of Baraka could be considered a saint because god had given them an amount of blessing more than a normal person. The saint could then use this Baraka in many different ways, either by transferring it to another person or using the Baraka for miracles.

I still try and make meaning of religion, especially now since I am taking this class, it is making me see connections of everyday life and I think back to all the Sundays I went to church and what I learned. It is kind of an uncomfortable feeling thinking about how dedicated, faithful and committed islam and jews were/ are to their religion, while I am not that religious. These peoples whole lives are dedicated to their faith. Religion is just so powerful and influential. The middle east during the saint veneration just had so much faith in their religion and I wonder why that is.


Defining Saints in Islam and Judaism

In class we have been discussing saints and the different levels of holiness and sainthood in both Judaism and Islam. One of the unique aspects of sainthood in Islam is the notion of Baraka, which is holiness. I found it particularly interesting that everyone in society possesses some level of Baraka, but that saints seem to surpass some threshold where they have enough Baraka to qualify as saints.

It is interesting that sainthood in Islam is much more informal than in Judaism. In Islam saints can be determined by society and there doesn’t have to be complete agreement necessarily about whether one qualifies as a saint or not. However, in Judaism there are fewer saints, and those who are considered saints are recognized more consistently. It seems that this is a key difference in the two religions that is exemplified through culture and religion.

Due to this contrasting understanding of saints, I found it interesting that historically Jews and Muslims worshipped each others saints. I would assume that since the two religions ideas of saints are so different, they would be opposed to each other’s understandings of saints, and in turn the saints they choose to identify. However, by participating in worship of saints together, there seems to be a mutual understanding and accepting of the determining of saints. This mutual understanding is what allowed Jews and Muslims to worship together, regardless of who identified the saint.

Finding Meaning Through Saints

Throughout our study and analysis of popular religion, there has been a prevalence of repeating patterns and ideas that have shown up over different periods of time, locations, and religions. Through saint veneration and Baraka, the people of the Middle East shared a common goal of finding meaning to their lives, organizing their societies, and explaining why things were the way they were.
Saints allowed the people in these areas to form an intimate connection with the higher presences of the world. Instead of a God that the people could not see, touch, or hear, saints provided a physical being with whom people could connect with, ask for guidance, and worship. In Grehan’s article, he refers to food offerings that people made to saints and their shrines. He states that some poor people didn’t have the money to sacrifice highly sought after foods, so instead they simply gave what they could give. In this, the sincerity of the offering to the saint was more important than the offering itself, leading back to the intimate relationship between the saint and those who worshipped him or her (Grehan 178).
Explaining the unexplainable was a major role of saints and Baraka in this society. In particular, medicine and health was a huge role the saint had in the Middle East. Science was not practiced often in these areas and sicknesses still needed cures. Many saints acted as doctors in towns. They would perform rituals and concoct remedies to cure any and all illnesses. According to Westermarck, Saints would spit on a wound or a sick part of the body and soon after the individual was cured (Westermarck 181). Saints created a sense of peace of mind in those that worshipped them due to their abilities to help the people.
Through deeper analysis of both Grehan and Westermarck, it can be seen through these patterns over time and across religions that popular religion, saints and Baraka in particular, was a means for people of these societies to find meaning and explain the unexplainable through intimate, personal relationships between humans and the higher presences of the world.

Fear of Jinn: Protection from a Nasty, Brutish Life

Popular religion serves many functions, one of which is to protect its practitioners. Whether from a shape-shifting evil creature or a highway robber, danger was prevalent in pre-modern and early modern society, and the Middle East and North Africa were no different. In Muslim folk culture, jinn are the children of Adam and  Eve, and they can take many different forms or remain invisible (Grehan, 143-4). They are the spirits that most closely resembled humans, and as much variety existed within their race as within that of humans (Grehan, 143). Belief in jinn (jnun) served to keep people safe during this time, both in a literal, physical manner and also in a moral and spiritual sense.

Jinn in both Morocco and Syria were associated with the countryside and underground dwellings (Grehan, 144; Westermarck, 204). Travelers in the countryside rarely moved off of the established path or road, especially at night, out of fear of “blunder[ing] into some otherworldly lair” (Grehan, 145). In addition to a greater prevalence of jinn in certain environments, certain people were more susceptible to a jinn‘s mischief. Small children in general, and newborn infants in particular, are at a particularly high risk (Westermarck, 273). While the dangers of strange roads at night and high infant mortality were often attributed to the jinn, it is also probably just generally good practice to avoid traveling unfamiliar territory at night and to not leave your newborn child alone.

Literal country roads and travelers aside, a fear of jinn also kept the Muslims of Morocco and Syria on the correct moral and spiritual paths. People in Morocco who were easily frightened or angered were believed to be more susceptible to be attacked by a jinn (Westermarck, 273). In order to protect themselves from jinn, people armed themselves with charms and talisman, the most powerful of which contained words the Koran or another scripture (Grehan, 154). The threat of jinn kept people behaving properly (i.e. not being anxious or angry), and it also reinforced the idea that God and religion were the only routes to being saved.

Life in the early modern era was, as Thomas Hobbes characterized it, “nasty, brutish, and short,” and the Muslims of Syria and Morocco found ways to help their people make their lives a little bit kinder and longer, and one of these ways was through a belief in jinn. Fear of jinn kept people out of dangerous situations, such as unfamiliar roads at nighttime, and it also kept them acting in a calmer manner and believing in God, partially out of necessity. It kept people safe from life’s uncertainties by cloaking them in the guise of the often malevolent jinn.




Before taking this course, I thought that saints in religion were extremely religious people with a following who had died. While reading chapter two in Twilight of the Saints and the chapters on baraka in Ritual and Belief in Morocco, I learned that there is a lot more to saints than what I’d believed. Although I found the concept of upright/sober saints familiar since I thought that saints were similar to prophets, the concept of ecstatic saints with majdhub was completely new to me. I thought it was very interesting how these two different types of saints complemented the other; while sober saints showed ecstatic saints a more pious and religious side to sainthood, ecstatic saints showed sober saints “how to better express their inner inspiration before the people” (Grehan, 64). Furthermore, the idea that ecstatic saints would harm people purposefully if they felt they were not being treated properly was new to me. For example, some saints would “cause diseases to those who arouse their anger” (Westermarck, 155).

I think there are a lot of similarities between saints and jinn. First, both have an ambivalent relationship between official Judaism and Islam. There is a conflict between monotheism’s relationship to saints and jinn since they are also believed to be omnipotent and omnipresent. Moreover, there is the question of whether or not saints and jinn can do things God cannot control. Like jinn, some saints can also interact with humans. Both can also assume different forms—jinn can take over humans or live in a parallel existence to humankind while saints can be living or dead. I would like to learn more about the similarities and differences between saints and jinn. Do they ever interact? If so, what is their relationship?

The process—or lack of—of becoming a saint was interesting to me as well. I didn’t know that “sainthood was an open social category” for “the entire social spectrum” (Grehan, 66). Westermarck’s definition of sainthood, “a person who possesses baraka in an exceptional degree,” was relatively vague as well (Westermarck, 35). At first, I wondered why there was a hierarchy of baraka possession if sainthood was supposed to be open to everyone. However, Grehan states that no one questioned the legitimacy of sainthood because it was such an integral part of society, which explained the hierarchical system. Religion and society were extremely intertwined during this era, and because of the social hierarchy, a religious hierarchy had to exist as well. The hierarchy of saints in terms of baraka possession really emphasized the importance of the relationship between religion and society to me.

Magic Men Twilight of the Saints

Anthony Amitrano

Professor Staub

Saints & Demons

Blog Post #3


In James Grehan’s book Twilight of the Saints, Grehan describes the different characteristics and the nature of sainthood in his second chapter Magic Men. I found this chapter to be the most interesting chapter because he explains how different saints have different types of qualities that identify them as saints. He describes two different types of saints; upright saints which are sober, notable, and extremely godliness, and the ecstatic saints who are known to be bizarre with their antics. Two examples that demonstrate their bizarre behavior are one how they sometimes steal from local shops, and two how they run around naked in front of sacred shrines to show a sign of worship. The reason this chapter interested me most is because my grandmother knew a Catholic saint, Padre Pio. As a kid she grew up in the same area as him and when she moved to America she held onto his gloves. Years later my aunt was diagnosed with ALS, and every time she would go to the doctors her and my grandmother would bring the gloves along with them for good luck. Upright saints are the saints who I am more familiar with because they are more concerned with law and prayer, and at this specific time in Grehan’s book they were mostly Sufis. Grehan’s characteristic description of upright saints supported my belief that saints are good and that they help good people who are in need.

In chapter 2 Grehan mostly talks about the different ways saints are recognized and how they operate in sainthood. When I think of saints I think of people who were and are extraordinarily faithful to their religion, as well as having a positive influence towards their followers. However, Grehan describes the different characteristics of sainthood that I never thought would qualify as sainthood worthy. An interesting fact Grehan pointed out is how saints could be anyone, and that they did not have to be the most notable or scholarly religious leader. Saints can be hereditary, poor, rich, educated, or non-educated. I enjoyed reading this section of the chapter because it showed me how all-good people are equal and that even the less superior being’s have the opportunity to be called into sainthood. It showed me that all people are equal, similar to the American culture today. The American culture practices the belief of equal opportunity, and I found this interesting because it still plays a similar role in our present world.

A lot of the time sainthood finds one specific person and that person does not have the decision on whether or not he or she is a saint, sainthood finds them. Some saints were hereditary, “In its tamest form, sainthood was deemed heritable. It could pass from father to son like other physical and psychological traits.” (Grehan, p.70) Sainthood is an extremely complicated and dense part of religion. However, Grehan generally describes in this chapter how there is not a defining answer or an official way to becoming a saint, but usually sainthood is inherited or God declares someone into sainthood. In my opinion, the ecstatic saints that run around naked are extremely bizarre to be labeled into sainthood, but Grehan provides insight on how sainthood was characterized after the fifteenth century.

Grehan addresses another interesting element of saint veneration that relates to people trying to acquire saint blood so they can use it on themselves or other people to cure sicknesses. “One of the most compelling powers that saints wielded, and that contemporaries most appreciated, was their mastery of the arts of healing.” (Grehan, p. 78) Here Grehan describes how saints were given the power to heal others, and this relates to my earlier comment regarding my aunt and grandmother taking saint Padro Pio’s gloves to the doctors every time she had an appointment. Grehan is showing how saint’s posses this sense of comfort and security amongst their believers because people feel their relationships are on a more personal level. A lot of the time saints were dead, but often time’s saints were alive and it allowed for people to feel a personal connection and relationship with a saint in comparison to God, whom many feel is an intangible being.

One of Grehan’s fundamental ideas is the way people view saints as good, but also bad because saints act on their own wills. Saints can use their miraculous power for positive impact on people, but they also can be seen as dangerous and turn against people if they are not treated appropriately. This brings up an interesting argument in Grehan’s book between the friction of Saints and Gods and who controls the primary source of power. The chapter is titled Magic Men because it describes saints being in control of a lot power that can be positive, dangerous, influential, or helpful to people of faith.