Alternative Popular Religious Practices Essay
The history of the Middle East is rich in both variations in religious practices and conflicts, and that can only provide us with an idea of how important the role of religion was (and still is) in people’s lives. The influence of religion on people’s lives is greatly manifested in their need for a moral code by which they can be assured to live a good and pious life. This simple fact remains, to this day, the most important motif in religious practice. However, different in religious beliefs and the existence of different religious sects are not the only form of variation that is worthy of study as variations among people’s practice of the same religion exist too. One of the most important of those variations is the difference between popular religious practice by the common and that by the elite. Such variations, and sometimes conflicts, manifest themselves to this day in either adopting a dogmatic approach to a certain religious leader, or severely critiquing the practices and the moral judgments of the same leaders. It is still important to note that while the two groups may clash or co-exist, the sources from which their moral code are different. This paper is concerned with variations of religious practice among the common people and the intellectual elite, the manifestation of such differences, and whether they clashed or co-existed with each other. Insights on such differences may provide us with an idea of the important role religion play in the everyday life of Middle Easterns today.
Education plays an important role in setting up the criteria by which we can define the common man and the intellectual. While the former may only be concerned with the moral code, or the code of action, through which guidance in life is provided, the latter is more concerned with ideology, validity, and the compliance of actions and moral codes with the greater picture of a specific religious belief. This serves as a good starting point into understanding the rationale behind which each member of the two groups functions, and may offer an explanation to why they may clash. The intellectual elite’s position in governance gives political weight the decisions or Fatwas, which might clash with the popular understanding of religious practice by the common people. However, a problem arises in documentation when it comes to distinguishing differences between the two groups. On one side, the intellectuals are educated and able to document thought and what they perceive as proper religious practice, referencing primary sources. On the other side, the common less educated population virtually have no access to comprehending the complexity of religious thought. This is where alternative means to religious education become vital and important in understanding popular religious thought and practice.
In his paper, Christopher Taylor, argues that the practice of visiting (ziyara) the tombs of saints (awliya’ Allah) can provide us with insight into the “moral imagination” of the common population. By moral imagination we mean “the sum of collective social notions and sensibilities of right and wrong, more broadly of normative understandings of moral order, were both generated and transmitted” (109). This is essentially an alternative source through which one can gain insight on morality in Medival Islam. Taylor establishes the Ziyara as a religious ritual where people essentially tour the tombs and graves of those once perceived as “close to God” (awliya’ Allah) to listen to stories (qisas) of their moral actions. He states that “ in many Islamic societies the awliya’ Allbh, those special friends of God, the saints, come to provide another critically important and infinitely more accessible source of inspiration and edification for the faithful – the vast majority of who were illiterate and who had no direct access to the great legal texts of Islamic jurisprudence.”(115) Unlike higher intellectual documented thought, such practices are often transmitted orally “since there was no transcendent institutional framework to promote the cult.”(107) This, Taylor argues, is why such practices are important, as they provide rather lost information on an alternative morality that is hard to document. Taylor goes on to give examples of the qisas which people sought for moral guidance. He focuses on generosity as an essential value in Islamic practice and establishes Islam as an “orthopractic faith,” one that is based on morally driven actions. This becomes important when raising questions on the dynamic of moral imagination, and the orthpractic nature of Islam. It then becomes evident how the emphasis on moral actions calls for examples (i.e. qisas) through which the public can gain knowledge in what to do in certain situations or how the values of generosity for example are ought to manifest themselves in real life situations. The pious visits of those close to God, therefore, establish themselves are moral stories where the average Muslim can learn about the correct and proper manner of practicing Islam. Taylor states that “The stress placed here on the orthopractic nature of Islam, as an experienced religious tradition, is relevant because it is my contention that the emphasis on praxis in the Islamic tradition encourages the generation of models: examples of probity, wisdom, generosity – exemplars of piety and perfect submission to the will of God.”(115) Taylor lays out the possibility that the there may exist a heirachy through which these values are flitered and presented to the public in the form of “pious visits,” which is only a reflection of the important role of religious intellectuals (Ulama) in Medival Islam.
It is important to note that Pious Visits were not only a mere religious practice or ritual completely irrelevant to the social status of the visitor. The veneration of the practice is largely associated with members of the lower class, and the spaces around the graves were often used by merchants to sell goods. There were specific days for each saint (wali) and the visits were often followed by a Hadra where the public listens to the chants of the (Munshidin) (De Jong, 42)).
Coptic Nile festivals are another manifestation of popular religious practice. However, in this case a rather intellectual conflict takes over and the clash between the intellectuals and the public sphere become more evident. In her paper, Huda Lutfi emphasizes on the fact that Ibn Khaldun’s theory of of cultural hegemony falls short in explaining the dynamics of domination. Lutfi takes Coptic Nile festivals as an example of a declining religious practice and argues that such festivals were intellectually frowned upon and rejected by the Muslim community. This is where the ideological aspect, mentioned earlier, becomes evident and an actual force into shaping religious thought among the public. The concept of Bida’ (corrupt innovation), “one which seems to have become increasingly popular among powerful Sunni religious establishment,”(Lutfi, 255) is at the core of the conflict between the Arabo-Muslim culture and the Coptic one. Lutfi bases her argument on contrasting Maqrizi’s Suluk and Khitat. In the latter the Coptic Nile festivals are documented but the story is often revolving around “the theme of its decline” (258), while in the former omitted. It is important to put the sources in historical context as Lutfi argues that the Maqrizi’s Suluk documents the Mamluk era. The omission of the Nile Festival, she argues, is sign of powerful Sunni leaders deeming such festivals as Bida’. She states that “Maqrizi’s Suluk chronicle is notable for its omission in recording such Coptic cultural events” (257) and that ”the few times the celebration of Coptic festivals is mentioned, they are depicted negatively”(258). Such information can provide us with insight on the politics of the intellectual elite in Medival Islam, the power they possessed over popular religious practice. While qisas of pious religious figures did not constitute a threat to the state, the Coptic festivals represented a cultural and an ideological attack on Islam. Further influence on the public during the Mamulks era is evident in the mass conversion of Copts to Islam. The Ulama, constituting the governing elite, went far enough to put restrictions on the Copts that hindered their employment (Little, 555)
In conclusion, the previously presented examples provide us with insight on alternative popular religious practices that are exist to this day, such as pious visits, and others that have been completely diminished. Given the popularity of such practices, there is very limited detailed research on the subject of Ziyarat. The nature of the practice, and the social status of those who practice it, deem it difficult to document. On the other hand, we can see how the intellectual elite have interfered in cultural events such as the Coptic Nile festival and the role they played in denouncing such festivals. While both, pious visits and Nile festivals are not very different in nature, the politics of a specific era, with the help of religious leaders, can help in imposing one ideology of the other. The power that can lead to such a change, specialty with the common population, is only in the hands of the educated elite. The contract between the two practices can raise questions on contemporary issues of freedom of religion and may provide insight on the power dynamics of contemporary Egypt.
Jong, F. De. 1976. Cairene ziyâra-days: A contribution to the study of saint veneration in islam. Die Welt Des Islams 17 (1/4): 26-43.
Little, Donald P. 1976. Coptic conversion to islam under the bah.ri- mamlu-ks, 692-755/1293-1354. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 39 (3): 552-69.
Mouton, Jean-Michel, Thomas Philipp, and Ulrich Haarmann. 1999. The Mamluks in Egyptian Politics and Society. Studia Islamica(89): 203.
Taylor, Christopher S. 1998. Saints, ziyāra, qiṣṣa, and the social construction of moral imagination in late medieval egypt. Studia Islamica(88): 103-20.