Domestic Observances: Muslim Practices

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Owing to the segregation of the sexes and the belief that a woman's primary roles are as wife, mother, and manager of domestic affairs, the traditional Muslim home is largely the domain of women. Accordingly, many religious practices that occur within the home are performed exclusively by or facilitiated by women; these tend to be less formal and are often placed in the realm of folk practice. None of the five obligatory Muslim religious observancesthe profession of faith, daily prayers, fasting, the pilgrimage, and almsgivingis fundamentally bound up with the home. Indeed, public religious institutions and performances are generally the provinces of men. Women may attend the mosque and public religious gatherings, but their presence is seldom essential and frequently discouraged. They often remain onlookers or are relegated to separate areas where it is difficult to follow the central activity, such as a sermon, in any detail. Thus women's religious activities tend to take place in the home, where they can exercise some control and express their religiosity with a degree of freedom.

The Home Environment

Even within the home, a woman's behavior reflects on her family's reputation in the Muslim community. It is expected that she will be modest and circumspect in her dress and behavior, keep a good home, and be careful in performing her religious duties. Women are responsible for the protection of family health and well-being, which is achieved in part through vows and procedures to ward off the evil eye; both practices are popularly regarded as Islamic. Women are also charged with the care of young children and must see to their religious upbringing.

As managers of the home, women are responsible for creating and maintaining an environment conducive to proper Muslim behavior for all family members. Consequently, conventional domestic tasks take on religious significance. Ritual purity (ahārah ) is an essential precondition for acts of worship. Things such as blood, certain bodily fluids, wine, pigs, and dogs are regarded as ritually unclean (najis ). A person, place, or object that comes into contact with any of these must be properly cleansed in order to be ritually pure (āhir ). The state of ritual purity may be achieved by ritual washing (wuūʿ, ghasl) for personal cleanliness and by washing in running water or a sufficiently large body of water for objects. Women are themselves often considered ritually unclean because of menstruation, childbirth, and child care and must work hard at keeping themselves and their families, as well as their homes, appropriately clean. Clothes to be worn for prayer and other religious observances must be ritually pure. The vessels in which food and drink are cooked and served should be scrupulously clean as well. Some women devote a great deal of time and energy to these tasks: cleanliness is indeed next to godliness and often a prerequisite for it. In two adīth s (traditional accounts), the Prophet is reported to have drawn attention to the importance of ritual purity, saying "Purification is half of faith," and "The key to Paradise is worship [alāt ]: the key to worship is purification" (M. M. Ali, A Manual of adīth, Lahore, 1944, pp. 4142).

The preparation and consumption of food also have religious overtones. Bread, the archetypical food, is regarded as a symbol of God's generosity and must be treated with respect. Housewives take care not to dispose of uneaten bread with other scraps; rather, it is fed to beggars or animals or transformed into breadcrumbs for later cooking. Because certain foods are said to have been preferred or recommended by the prophet Muammad, their preparation has religious merit. In Iran dates are said to have been recommended by the Prophet as the first food to eat upon breaking the Ramaān fast. Other dishes are prepared as the result of vows to particular saints or, for Shīʿī Muslims, to the imāms; their distribution is regarded as a praiseworthy religious act. In addition, entire meals are prepared for religious reasons and served at home. These include evening meals during the fasting month of Ramaān, to which the poor may be invited, or ritual meals served in consequence of vows, such as the sufrah s in Iran. Women are expected to know when and how to prepare dishes that have religious significance: some Iranian women, for example, recognize a different dish as appropriate for each night of the month of Ramaān. The exact round of meals is a matter of local tradition, known to the women of a particular town or region. The careful avoidance of prohibited foods in cooking is equally important. As the primary guardians of their families' Muslim identity, Chinese Muslim women go to great lengths to avoid cooking with pork and pork products in the midst of the non-Muslim, pork-eating Chinese majority.

Hospitality is considered one of the hallmarks of a good Muslim, and the burden of caring for guests falls chiefly on the shoulders of the host family's women. Here too, this responsibility takes on particular importance in areas where Muslims are a minority and proper accommodations and food are hard to find.

Rituals and Ceremonies

Specifically religious domestic observances for which time is set aside and special preparations are made include Qurʾanic readings during Ramaān and special sermons at which women may officiate. In Iran and Iraq, Shīʿī Muslim women attend sermons combined with mourning for the martyred imāms, particularly on ʿĀshūrāʾ (10 Muarram), which commemorates the seventh-century ce martyrdom of Imam usayn and other men in his family along with the imprisonment and mistreatment of the women. The rituals may be sponsored by and for women; if sponsored by families and attended by men as well, separate areas are set off for the women.

Observances to mark regained health and answered vows may take place at any time of the ritual year. Auspicious days, such as the Prophet's birthday, are preferred. In Iran, ritual dinners (sufrah s) are often held on such occasions. A sermon commemorating the martyrdom of the imām or saint who answered the vow is followed by a dinner at which foods associated with the holy figure are served. Friends and family join in preparation of the dinner, then celebrate the answered vow and take home some of the remaining blessed food for their menfolk and children.

Many ceremonies marking rites of passage are held at home, and women play a major role in preparing for them. Among the ceremonies marking important stages in Muslim life are the formal naming of a child, circumcision, wedding contract ceremonies, and the reading of the Qurʾān over a body before it is taken away for washing and burial.

In Ethiopia, Egypt, the Sudan, and the Arabian Peninsula women participate in zār ceremonies. Zār refers to both the belief in possession by spirits (jinn; sg., jinni ) and ceremonies designed to alleviate illness caused by spirits. The ceremonies, which involve dancing and trance, often take place at the homes of afflicted women. Women who attend do not feel that belief in the zār and its effectiveness conflicts with Islam. Jinn are mentioned in the Qurʾān and are popularly identified with the spirits that can possess and trouble people.

The extent to which a woman is willing and able to participate in group religious activities depends on her socioeconomic status, her education, the attitudes of senior men and women in her family, and her stage of life. For more observant and less traditional women, legitimate religious activity is determined by formal interpretations of religious law and includes formal religious education. Highly educated or strictly observant Muslim women may regard certain rituals, such as the sufrah or zār, as non-Islamic and avoid them. Denigrated practices are often viewed as vestiges of pre-Islamic rituals. Iranian Shīʿī sufrah s, for example, somewhat resemble sufrah s displayed in Zoroastrian ritual contexts. Women bearing heavy responsibility for the care of young children, food preparation, and housework have little time to attend religious gatherings.

Women perform essential services to their families and define themselves as good women in discharging their duties as Muslims, but the opportunity to socialize with other women in preparing for and celebrating religious occasions doubtless constitutes part of the rituals' attraction as well. By participating in individual and group religious observances at home, women are able to express their religious sentiments in ways that suit them personally and are socially acceptable. As women move into the public world of education, paid employment, and politics, circumspect behavior at school and in the workplace is added to their responsibilities as representatives of their families and their faith.

See Also

ʿĀshūrāʾ; Folk Religion, article on Folk Islam; Islamic Religious Year; Rites of Passage, article on Muslim Rites; Worship and Devotional Life, article on Muslim Worship.


An excellent introduction to the religious practices of Muslim women, with particular attention paid to women in Iraq, can be found in Robert A. Fernea and Elizabeth W. Fernea's "Variation in Religious Observance among Islamic Women," in Scholars, Saints, and Sufis, edited by Nikki R. Keddie (Berkeley, 1972), pp. 385401. Women in the Muslim World, edited by Lois Beck and Nikki R. Keddie (Cambridge, Mass., 1978), is a useful collection of articles; part 4, "Ideology, Religion, and Ritual," includes information on women in Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Iran, and China. Further material on the status, responsibilities, and views of women in contemporary Muslim societies is presented in Women and the Family in the Middle East: New Voices of Change, edited by Elizabeth W. Fernea (Austin, Tex., 1985).

A detailed explanation of ritual purity is provided under "Taharah" in the Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam, edited by H. A. R. Gibb and J. J. Kramers (Leiden, 1953). For information on food preparation and hospitality, see Aida Sami Kanafani's Aesthetics and Ritual in the United Arab Emirates: The Anthropology of Food and Personal Adornment among Arabian Women (Beirut, 1983), esp. chap. 2, "Food Rituals," and chap. 10, "Islam, Rites of Hospitality and Aesthetics." See also Bess Ann Donaldson's The Wild Rue: A Study of Muhammadan Magic and Folklore in Iran (1938; reprint, New York, 1973). Women's religious practices in Iran are discussed in two articles in Unspoken Worlds: Women's Religious Lives in Non-Western Cultures, edited by Nancy Auer Falk and Rita M. Gross (San Francisco, 1980). Erika Friedl's "Islam and Tribal Women in a Village in Iran" (pp. 159173) provides an interesting contrast to the material on urban women in my article on sufrah s, "The Controversial Vows of Urban Muslim Women in Iran" (pp. 141155).

Lucie Wood Saunders describes the involvement of two Egyptian village women in zār ceremonies and includes references to other articles on the zār in "Variants in Zar Experience in an Egyptian Village," in Case Studies in Spirit Possession, edited by Vincent Crapanzano and Vivian Garrison (New York, 1977), pp. 177191. Fatimah Mernissi's "Women, Saints and Sanctuaries," Signs 3 (1977): 101112, offers a compelling discussion of women's visits to local shrines in Morocco. Patricia Jeffery's Frogs in a Well: Indian Women in Purdah (London, 1979), one of the few works on Muslim women outside the Middle East, studies the domestic life and religious responsibilities of the women of sayyid families who administer a shrine south of Old Delhi.

Elizabeth Fernea has also worked on a number of films that vividly present the role of religion in Muslim women's lives. In particular, A Veiled Revolution, by Fernea and Marilyn Gaunt (1982, distributed by Icarus Films, New York), addresses the issue of veiling in contemporary Egypt, and Saints and Spirits, by Fernea and Melissa Llewelyn-Davies (1979, distributed by Icarus Films, New York), portrays personal dimensions of religious experience among Moroccan women. Some Women of Marrakesh, by Llewelyn-Davies and Fernea (1977, Granada Films, London) provides a finely detailed look at the lives of traditional women in Morocco.

Anne H. Betteridge (1987)

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