Earlier this week in class we discussed what is religion, what defines religion? As a class we looked at two definitions, one from Geertz and another from Bruce Lincoln. These two definitions vary in perspective and time period given.   Though after reading and analyzing both perspectives on what they believed the definition of religion was, I soon realized that I personally didn’t understand what religion was myself.

Geertz defines religion as a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing those conceptions of such an aura of factuality that the mood and motivations seem uniquely realistic. That definition in itself made my jaw drop. The idea of symbols as not just physical symbols of a religion, but looking at the religious vocabulary and concepts as symbols. Geertz explains how religion gives us structure to life and has a place for each and everyone, not just on earth, but also in a cosmetic realm. Overall Geertz perspective is a sociology perspective of religion.

On the other hand Lincoln called Geertz definition, “too protestant”. He defined religion in three domains; (1) discourse whose concern transcend the human, temporal, and contingent, and that claims for itself a similarity transcendent status. (2) Set of practices who’s goal is to produce proper human subjects. (3) Community whose members construct their identity with reference to a religion discourse. (4) Institution that regulates institutions and practices. This definition was closer to my original definition of religion. Being a somewhat dedicated catholic and going to church and listening to the Pope, I could easily relate to the institution aspect and regular practices and the idea of the community shaping an identity. One concept that stood out to me was Lincolns idea how religions keep changing but still stays the same. Religion is not static its dynamic. The change is in a radical way but still religion keeps its traditional ways. But my overall question is how so? How can we have change in our religion, adapting to our modern ways without it changing? Pope Francis is a traditional guy with new ideas; new ideas on the church and its views on teaching and promoting the religion. I am sure there are many other examples but this is one I am personally familiar with. In conclusion I am left with one question. Religions experience change; change is constant, so how does religion not change?

The Evil Eye: Pop Culture and Popular Religion

Growing up in a modern, Western, Christian context my first encounter with the evil eye came about while watching Rogers & Hammerstein’s “The King and I.”  When one of the British diplomats come to visit Siam his monocle is confused for the evil eye by the King’s wives.  Shortly thereafter, my understanding of the concept was framed in a Middle Eastern context related to curses and amulets from various other pop culture sources.  However, none of the aforementioned sources explained the cultural and religious significance of the evil eye in the Middle East and North Africa.

The evil eye does not exist in a world relegated to old movies and fiction.  Instead the tradition began, according to Raphael Patai, in the times of the Assyrians and lived on in folk religion(154).  Moreover, the evil eye also found its way into the popular religion of Jews and Muslims alike.  The ancient foundation syncretized with the two religions and created a series of traditions to rid sufferers from the curse of the evil eye.  For Muslims the “hand of Fatima” and for Jews the “he” amulets acted as protection against the curse of the evil eye (154-155).   The mixture of hebrew and arabic on amulets warding off the evil eye points out another connection between the shared belief in curses.  The common rituals and protections amongst the Jews and Muslims of the Middle East and North Africa represent one of the many commonalities between both religions.

The similarities between the protection and treatment of the evil eye in Judaism and Islam highlights the importance of looking into the shared historical and regional context of both religions.  The Middle East and North Africa contained (and still contain) significant populations of Jews and Muslims coexisting and trading cultural beliefs.  Furthermore, the shared region also emphasizes the ancient nature of the evil eye.  Jews and Muslims adopted an ancient and non-official tradition and combined that concept to fit into their understanding of the spirit world and curses.  The evil eye, when examined academically, yielded much more nuanced understanding of culture and belief in the Middle East and North Africa than what I observed in “The King and I.”

Early Muslims and the Creation of a Distinct Religious Identity

In reading Berkey’s “The Formation of Islam,” what I found most surprising about early Muslim history was the Arabs’ aversion to allowing others to convert. Considering the Qur’an’s clear disapproval of nonbelievers (“Do not follow the unbelievers, but struggle against them mightily”), it seems uncharacteristic of Islam to allow Christians to keep their religion (Berkey, 74). Not to mention, wouldn’t converting as many people as possible be ideal when undergoing the enormous task of building an empire?

After finishing Berkey’s reading, I recognize that the reason for this most likely resided in the aspiration to consolidate a Muslim religious identity. At this time, the Arab empire was still a tribal confederation, not quite an “umma.” The Muslim community still identified as Arab, and Islam still had not distinguished itself from Christianity and Judaism. In order to truly unify and create a distinct identity, Muslims had to separate themselves from other cultures and focus on identifying with a Muslim—as opposed to tribal—identity.

As Berkey points out, non-Arabs were later allowed to convert, but were nevertheless referred to as “mawali,” meaning they were still distinguished from Muslims (77). Some who did not convert were forced to pay a tax. This was interesting to me—I thought that early Muslim rulers sought to unify everyone under Islam, considering the Constitution of Medina stated that the Jews should form “one community with the believers” (64). Not to mention, Muhammad’s idea of an umma was a community that is defined by common beliefs and practices. This “umma” that was being formed after Muhammad’s death seemed more like a political state that was governed by Muslims—a state that was not “one community,” but a small mix of faiths living under the confines of Muslim rulers. Although Islam formed out of a mix of near east religious and cultural practices and was similar to the other Abrahamic religions, perhaps Muslims wanted to distinguish their religion, while simultaneously creating a strong political state. Overall, it seems Muslims wanted to maintain the distinction between non-Muslims and themselves, as opposed to creating a homogenous religious community.

The Differences of Shared Customs

In chapter 6 of the book The Seed of Abraham: Jews and Arabs in Contact and Conflict, Raphael Patai dissects the differences of the Jewish and Islamic religions.  Before I had read this chapter, I believed that although each religion had come from the same roots, they had vastly different traditions and ideals.  I was not aware that both religions had been adapted with very similar customs and beliefs, that also had much of the same practices that had been interpreted differently by each group of people.

To me, the section that interested me the most was about the Jinn.  This aspect fascinated me because of the strict rules I thought Islamic and Jewish people followed of only believing in the power of monotheism.  I had no idea that jews and muslims could believe in “the evil spirits and the resort to protective measures against them”, (The Seed of Abraham 151).  Not only is this a belief of very strict monotheistic religions, but it is a prominent aspect.  This belief is also across many different religions that have branched off of Islamic and Jewish traditions, which proves how important saints, demons and spirits are.

I believe that because of the folk culture that is embedded into these two religions shows the world a deep look into the people’s culture.  The cultural experience is closely related to the spiritual world, and now I understand the reasoning behind rituals and traditions that Muslims and Jews conduct. It is interesting that people in this religion that call themselves orthodox while worshipping spirits because of the strong faith in monotheism.


Religion of the People

I am finding this class to be extremely fascinating, and the aspect I have been most drawn to is the videos we watch.  Seeing and hearing people discuss their faiths and their religious practices is amazing, especially as an educational tool.  It is one thing to understand the basic, institutionally endorsed tenets of a religion; but it is entirely different to understand how the people live as believers.  That is why I was particularly drawn to Raphael Patai’s The Seed of Abraham reading, because it drew specifically from people and cultures to study how religion is actually practiced.

The most interesting example for me was ‘The Foreskin in Magic’ section.  I thought that I understood the ceremony of a bris.  We had gone to one for my cousin, and I remember being told that they were going to bury the foreskin, which I then took to be the standard practice for all Jews.  However, that was a very incorrect assumption based on the wide variety of practices detailed by Patai on pages 159-161.  There are many different reasons for certain people to swallow the foreskin, even people who may not be related to the child, in order to encourage fertility or love for the child or for the child to behave well later in life (160). I also would never have thought that the foreskin could be significant to the circumciser as well as the family.  I found the anecdote about R. David Prato to be unexpected and intriguing, not because he had kept the foreskins, for it had already been articulated that preserving them was a common practice, but because he said: “When I die, the string of foreskins will be hung around my neck, and so I shall be buried.  It will be my passport to the World to Come” (161).

Throughout that section, Patai also alternates regularly between the practices of Jews and Muslims revolving around the foreskin.  I had to reread it in order to understand which practice belonged to which religion because they are all so similar.  I have always felt that most religions have more in common than what is normally taught, if not in the ways that that worship, then at least in their basic teachings.  This passage and most of the others in The Seed of Abraham seem to reinforce this view point, and I am looking forward to learning more about how the religions and cultures of Jews and Muslims are similar in more ways than I could imagine.

More Similarities Than Differences

Before coming to this class I had very little experience or understanding with Judaism or Islam. To me they seemed like unrelated and distant from my upbringing of Catholicism. I was hoping that by taking this class I would be able to dive into these religions head first. Little did I know how true that would be. The first reading we did for the class, The Seed of Abraham, by Patai Raphael (a reading about the traditions in Jewish and Muslim folk culture) challenged everything I had expected from this course. When I started the reading I was confused and put off by the new terminology and unfamiliar subject material. I didn’t understand it because I thought that it couldn’t be related to my life in any way, but as I went on I started to notice the strong similarities between these popular religion practices and those of my own faith.

The first and strongest similarity I encountered during my reading was that of the Jinn and ghosts/demons. Both are being similar to humans, but are unseen. They can interact with humans and even take possession of them. Because of this both cultures have developed ways to protect themselves against these evils.

In class we learned about some of the protections these popular religions use. They also have counterparts in the Catholic faith. For example, when faced with Jinn or a demon both religions ask for protection in the form of prayer. For Jinn one recites the Quran and adhkaar. For the Catholic faith uses the “Circle of Light Prayer” or prays to Saint Michael. Another folk religion protection against evil is the Khamsa. This hand is often made into decorations and jewelry as a way to protect oneself or give good luck. This reminded me of the Catholicism’s use of the cross. The cross is also hung in homes used to ward off demons and also to brings luck to those who wears it.

These similarities helped me connect better to the reading. By the end I found myself eager to learn more about folk religion and its similarities to my own religion which I had once assumed was so different. This focus on comparison and similarities let me break down the walls I had built about folk religion being completely different from myself and my religious beliefs. Now that I have broken down this barrier between myself and popular religion I think I will be able to be more open to new ideas during class and when I do readings.

There is More to Religion than Meets the Eye

Religion is typically defined as a set of beliefs and values that dictate people’s lives. However, did you ever think about what religion means, its origins, even how it gives structure? For example, examine Judaism, a monotheistic religion developed 40,000 centuries ago by Abraham when he took his people to the promised land [Israel] (Gafni, 223). However, it needs to be understood that Judaism’s organization did not happen once the people reached Israel, but through establishing self-identity and shared ideas among community members (Gafni, 224). Religion is a term with many different facets and does not have a truly “wrong” interpretation. To break down the complex nature, religion and sociology scholars examine different definitions and ideas derived from the term.

A method of defining religion is as a “cultural system” according to Clifford Geertz. This ideology emerged in 1996, which was recognized as the period that information became more easily accessible. His definition refers to aspects that contribute to the function of culture creating a national identity. He defines the term in five domains: creation of powerful views and shaping human behavior, symbol associations (physical and language), cosmic understanding, seeking truth, and internalizing religion’s meaning.  There were two domains that enriched my understanding of religion’s significance.

The first point that Geertz makes is that “religion creates powerful views and shapes how people behave,” meaning that religion is considered valuable to one’s life and influences their actions. From a psychological perspective, that thought process is extremely powerful. It almost gives the impression that individuals hold on to these views and are reluctant to re-shape them when presented with new information that might be interesting to explore.

For the second point, symbolism, it interesting to see that the symbol of jinn (denoting evil spirits) could be physical or language based and present in the three common religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Patai, 151). Despite the fact that this symbol is shared in all three of the religions it is understood in different contexts. The different contexts should not suggest the idea that one religion is superior to another. It is not about one method of warding away jinn being right or wrong. However, the right or wrong phenomenon becomes a key component in another definition of religion devised in Bruce Lincoln’s work the Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11, 2003.

Contrarily to Geertz’s position, Lincoln has a more stringent , structuralist approach for defining religion. He indicates that four criteria must be met in order for a collection of ideas to be considered a religion. When thinking about his definition in theory, it refers to the idea of the origin of religion. In Islam, it derived from Arabian culture and evolved from popular regions in the Near East (Berkley, 41). Eventually, the set of Islamic practices were spread by the organized communities of Muslims led by Muhammad Ali. Muslims followed the Koran and paid respect to the powerful God Allah. Similarly to the Pope, Muslim religious leaders regulate the community and make changes to modify beliefs. Consequences for not following Islamic law, the individual would be viewed as unfaithful.

When reviewing all material and class discussions, I already noticed that my perspective on Judaism and Islam was changing. I initially thought that those two religions were in a sense completely different from one another. The only overlap I noticed between Islamic and Jewish culture prior to the beginning of class was that those two religions’ birthplace was Jerusalem. I was unaware of the similar historical contexts between both religions and the numerous shared practices of protecting against jinn and the Evil Eye.

Monotheism and the Supernatural

I have always been curious about the ways various religions view the idea of the supernatural. Therefore, the section about jinn and the evil eye in Chapter 6 of The Seed of Abraham caught my eye. I thought the development of the view of jinn from Muslims and Jews was particularly interesting. Although they initially viewed evil spirits as jinn, the Koran calls Iblis (“the Koranic equivalent of Satan”) a jinni in one passage and an angel in another (pg. 151). The idea that jinn assume many different forms and exist in a world parallel to humans and can interact with them is fascinating as well. I am also interested in learning more about good vs. bad jinn, and if one holds more power than the other does. Are humans more at risk from contact with one type of jinn than with another? Furthermore, the garin, or spiritual counterpart of a person, reminded me of the idea of a guardian angel in Christianity. While a guardian angel is typically a loved one that has passed away, the role of the guardian angel and the garin in protecting the person and accompanying him or her throughout life is similar.

The concept of the evil eye sounded like folklore to me at first since the khamsa and the eye have become very mainstream and even used as décor in U.S. culture. I didn’t know much about it, especially in a religious context. I was unaware that the Star of David, the khamsa, and certain phrases existed to protect against the evil eye. Additionally, its extensive history—both location and date-wise—helped me to understand the importance of the evil eye in Judaism and Islam. The fact that this concept has existed for so long through the development that these religions have experienced is evidence that despite cultural adaptations a religion may face, its values and traditions will still hold true. These factors are integral to the continuation of a religion.

While I’d previously believed that belief in the supernatural was frowned upon in many conventional monotheistic religions, such as Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, this reading and the discussion in class about lived religion vs. official religion allowed me to see otherwise. The cultural chasm makes it difficult to label a religion’s views on a topic because of all the variation that exists globally across the same religion, and these cultural customs end up outweighing the laws of the religion. However, the religion’s foundations still prevail throughout history. I am interested in learning more about how jinn and other seemingly supernatural factors such as the evil eye tie into monotheistic religions, and how different cultures vary in the way they view these spirits. I would like to lean more about God’s role in creating jinn and the difference between being spiritual and religious as well.

The Variability of Tradition

The Seed of Abraham gives a vastly different perceptive on religion than anything I have ever heard about or experienced. I always learned that religion was built around rules and traditions. In order to be a part of the religion, one needed to understand the origins of these traditions and integrate them into their own life. From the knowledge I perviously had about Judaism and Islam, it was always stressed that both religions are extremely monotheistic, and that the worshiping of other deities is strictly prohibited.

In The Seed of Abraham, I thought the section about the ‘saint worship’ was particularly interesting. “One of the most important tasks fulfilled by the living saint of both religions was to write charms,” (168). I was intrigued by this section in particular because of the combination of religious traditions discussed that seemed to contradict the formal teachings of both religions. Many of the individual’s involved in saint worship would probably still identify as orthodox individuals. Meaning, that they believe that they are participating in the day to day actions that make a devote Jew or Muslim.

I think that the integration of a variety of magic and folk culture into the traditional aspects of religion is important in understanding how culture shapes reality. Culture plays a huge role in how an individual interprets their experiences and the actions they take in response to those experiences. While orthodox religion is said to determine the level of religious devotion of an individual, I think that the guild lines that constitute orthodox can change depending on where you live and in what time period. Religion evolves and grows with the participation of new generations who adopt their own interpretations of the same words and teachings. This allows religion to grow and adapt, while always being rooted in the same stories.

The Jinn in a Muslim and Jewish Context

In chapter 6 of the book The Seed of Abraham: Jews and Arabs in Contact and Conflict, Raphael Patai examines different practices that are shared by Jews and Muslims. Although some of these popular practices are no longer active and the coexistence of Jews and Muslims have become more stressed, they show something other than the hard line doctrines that we here about in the news. The news stories make it seem impossible for Jews and Muslims to be neighbors and paint the perspective religions as opposites with no common ground. However, this chapter looks at the beliefs and practices that are shared and there are more similarities than I thought there would be.

The folk belief of the jinn by Jews, Muslims, and Christians, is what amazed me the most. The belief in the jinn is surprising because when I hear about “the evil spirits and the resort to protective measures against them”, (151) I usually think about religions that the mainstream monotheistic religions declare blasphemous. For example, when there was a large influx of Hmong to the United States after the Vietnam War, their belief in shamans and the spirit world was considered bizarre. Missionaries were sent to their houses to try to convert them from a belief system that the Christians believed would send the Hmong to hell. However, according to Patai, both Muslims and Jews believe that these jinn are complex just like other religions believe. The spirits could be men or women, some had bad intent and some good, and a person could even marry a jinn. In fact, “the world of the jinn closely duplicates that of man” (152) so much so that I believe that the idea becomes normalized. As much as many current believers would gawk at it now, the fact that the jinn world is so similar to ours and crosses over to ours makes the jinn another regular aspect of human life. There is no denying that the everyday aspect of the jinn is just as prevalent and important as prayer is.

The jinn brings these two religious together as they shared common ways to stop it. Amulets and other magical practices could be used in stopping the evil jinn. This mutual goal must have helped to bring societies closer together. Despite differences, in order to overcome a greater evil force, the Jews and Muslims were able to help each other in a way that shows the benefits of an inter-cooperative community.