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Folk Religion: Folk Islam


The dichotomy implied by the terminology of "folk" or "little" versus "orthodox" or "high" religious traditions has been challenged in various ways by folklorists, sociologists, and historians of Islam and other world religions. In recent decades folklorists have argued that all religion, at the point of enacted belief, may be considered "vernacular" and "oral." Yet at the same time, both within and across religious traditions and academic disciplines, debates rage on about the viability of terms like "folk" and "orthodox." The manifest vitality of abundant local variations on religious practice, and the debates that ensue among believers about their authenticity or permissibility, continue to fuel concern beyond the academic.

South Asia, more particularly India, provides a poignant example. Imtiaz Ahmad in the 1970s and early 1980s produced a series of volumes documenting and arguing the indigenous "Indianness" of South Asian Islamic belief and practice. His ethnographic approach was criticized by the religious historian Francis Robinson for being unduly synchronic and thus missing an overall, gradual trajectory of "Islamicization" (also noted by anthropologist Clifford Geertz) from more localized or "syncretic" practices and beliefs toward "perfection" in the form of closer adherence to a "high" religion as articulated in the entexted and canonized law, sharīʿah. Robinson further argued that the eighteenth-century decline of Muslim states (for example, Mughal in India, Ottoman in southwest Asia and North Africa) itself inspired the major Islamic revival movements active down to the present, which moved the believing community away from local "folk" practice toward greater orthodoxy even in the face of the weakening of Islamic state institutions. Robinson in turn was engaged by Veena Das and Gail Minault, arguing against an overly monolithic model of religious practice. Though this debate took place in the 1980s, it deserves new attention in the face of Hindu religious nationalism, which like Robinson's vision of Islam, develops a concept of religious orthodoxy that would reject arguments like those of Imtiaz Ahmad for the indigenous nature of South Asian or other regional Islam(s). Robinson criticized Ahmad as harboring a political motive for arguing the indigenous nature of South Asian Islam, reflected in its abundant vernacular or "folk" practices, with their rapprochement to Hindu devotional forms. Robinson was concerned that Ahmad's vision of South Asian Islam, arguing for an equilibrium between transnational orthodoxy and local practice, was weak on history. In the ensuing twenty years, however, the emergence of the Hindu right wing in India has made abundantly clear the lethal potential for politicization of essentialist distinctions among religious traditions as well.

More recently, and also with specific reference to South Asian local religious practice, Tony Stewart and Carl Ernst (2003) have mounted a trenchant general criticism of the whole notion of syncretism in religious discourse. They reject the concept of syncretism (a pejorative view of borrowing, mixing, or hybridization across distinct religious traditions) as founded on an untenably essentialist concept of discrete religious traditions in general, for "on examination, every 'pure' tradition turns out to contain mixed elements" (p. 586). The idea of the canonical or orthodox, they argue, entails a historically untenable concept of a pristine, clearly bounded, originary or primordial form to which later enactments strive to conform. Local or folk practice and belief are then implicated in a pejorative concept of syncretism or "mixing" to the extent that the local deviates from this timeless and placeless ideal.

While academic debates continue to swirl around critiques of essentialism and relativism in studies of the "folk," vernacular, or local belief and practice over against the canonical or orthodox, it is fair to say that within believing communities, reform movements operate along parallel lines of debate over the pure and the mixed, the authentic and the "tainted." Insofar as religious thought is based on a mythic vision of an illud tempus in which the terms of human existence were established, whether by act of creation or by prophetic revelation, it is hard to avoid some form of originary or essentialist logic. Folklorists simply grant this sense of the ideal to all believers, holding that all who believe find their beliefs to be legitimate and orthodox. This is not to say, however, that beliefs are not malleable through experience or critique. In religious belief and practice, as for the general notion of tradition held by contemporary folklorists, tradition is not fixed but dynamic, consisting of the creative responses of individuals in communities to the preexisting culture-specific materials of their received knowledge base, in dynamic interaction with the emerging conditions of their physical lives. Thus, the same person, over the course of a lifetime, without necessarily experiencing a definitive crisis of faith, may radically change her interpretation of her own spiritual experience: "Mādar her," whom I met as a woman of twenty-eight in Afghanistan in the mid-1970s, attributed an earlier episode of severe psychological distress in her life to the interference of jinn who had seen her and become interested in her. Eighteen years later, she attributed the same period of mental illness (divanegi in Persian) to stress and at least in part to the stern constraints of purdah imposed on her by her husband at that period of her life. Nonetheless, while her idea of the etiology of her illness had changed, both at the time of her illness and more than two decades later she considered that the appropriate cure for such illnesses was religious, through the prayerful intervention of an effective local saint (pir ). Islam, whether orthodox or mystical, recognizes that human understandings of religious truths are partial and emergent, such that intention (niyat ) or sincerity is the touchstone of true religion and acceptability to God, over and above the state of knowledge (ʿerfān ) one has attained.

Such an operating principle may in practice, if not in principle, admit of a wide variety of religious views and activities and facilitate a gradualist or accommodationist approach to missionary work, as has been observed in the adjustments to local and preexisting religious beliefs and social practices in the poetry and preaching of ūfī mystics and other lead missionaries on the frontiers of Islam, from South Asia to sub-Saharan Africa (Eaton, 1974; Horvatich, 1994; Lambek, 1990; Robinson, 1984). Yet even in the absence of an active reform movement, diversity of practice may also be the focus for pejorative group identifications, for religious blason populaire and scandalous migratory legends. One example is the "murdered saint" legend, ascribed to at least two local shrines in Afghanistan and Pakistan, respectively, alleging that the local population, hearing that a saint who had arrived in their midst would confer great blessings on the community in which he died and was buried, hastened to secure that benefit to themselves by killing him and building him a shrine. Another story, told as a joke to this author in Pakistan, is that of the "Pashtun sayyed," in which a Pashtun who has come to town advertising himself as a sayyed (a descendant of the Prophet, whose prayers and other healing interventions may be regarded as especially efficacious) is asked to bring a witness to his sayyed status. The witness he produces says, "Of course I can attest that he's a sayyed, I remember the day he became a sayyed." Thus, the ethnic slur takes the form of casting aspersions on the legitimacy of a Pashtun's religious status claim. A third, large class of such marginalizing discourses is anticlerical humor and folktales, in which clergy are alleged to be more avaricious, lustful, or stupid than the general run of humanity. The ambidexterous genre of Mullā Nar ud-Din jokes (Hodja Nasruddin in Turkish), in which the famous clergyman is a scapegrace, a greedy fool when interacting with those less powerful than himself, and a foolish-wise underdog and trickster when interacting with those more powerful, offers additional rich examples of popular ambivalence toward clerical and other authorities. However tenuously these humorous forms may seem to connect with serious matters of belief and religious practice, they articulate fault lines in both the concept of the ideal community of the ummah (the total community of believing Muslims) and the trustworthiness of others' religious views and practices.

Folk poetry may articulate differential or contested religious identity in more specifically theological terms. Hassan Poladi (1989, p. 134) quotes a folk rhyme in Dari (Afghan Persian) that is both a statement of orthodox Sunnī faith and directed against the Shīʿah Hazara, who are thought to deny the legitimacy of the first three caliphs who led the community after the Prophet's death and to see only Alī, the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law, as his legitimate successor:

Saram khāk-e rāh-e Chahār Sarwar,
ʿOmar, Abubakr, ʿOmān wa aidar,
Abubakr Yār-e Ghār, ʿOmar Mir-e Durrah-dar
ʿOmān Shāh-sawar ast, ʿAli Fat-e lashkar ast.
Har ki az in Chahār Yār-e Rāh khilāfa nadānad
Kamtarin-e khers wa khuk wa Yahudān-e Khaybar ast.

My head be in the dust of the path of the four Knights [the first four caliphs of Islam]
ʿOmar, Abu Bakr, ʿOmān and aidar
Abubakr, Friend of the Cave, the Prince who possesses the pearl,
Omān is the Royal Knight, ʿAli is the Victorious Warrior
Whosoever denies the caliphate of the Four Friends [of the Way],
He is less than a bear, a pig, or the Jews of Khaybar [who rejected the Prophet's revelation].

The Jews of Khaybar are cited as the archetypal recalcitrant skeptics but are nonetheless regarded by Muslims as "People of the Book," who received a revelation of their own in the legitimate line of prophecy. In a situation of Sunnī-Shīʿī tension in upland Afghanistan, where Jews were few and far between, the Shīʿah were portrayed as worse than the Jews for having rejected the worldly successors of the Prophet, but at another time, in urban Herāt, where both Sunnīs and Shīʿahs coexisted with an ancient Jewish community until the post-1948 migration of that population to Israel, Afghan Sunnīs and Shīʿahs may agree to portray Jews as trying to sow dissension between otherwise (notionally) solidary Sunnī and Shī'ī Muslims (Mills, 1990).

Yet in other instances, shared veneration of a religious personage may dramatically cut across sectarian lines, as in the case of the Bengali figure of Satya Pir, whose Muslim devotees regard him as a somewhat cantankerous saint while his Hindu devotees consider him a god. The competing origin stories for Satya Pir are copresent and available for comparison by his devotees, as is also the case for Skanda, the deity of the great Kataragama Buddhist shrine in Sri Lanka, who is revered as the Prophet Khizr by Muslims who can visit the mosque located on the site.

Parallel practices may be less obvious to practitioners, as is the case with votive activities distributed across Muslim and Hindu southwest and south Asia. The votive offering called nāir in Arabo-Persian has a complex history in Shīʿī Iran, apparently connected also with Zoroastrian (pre-Islamic Iranian) practice (Jamzadeh and Mills, 1984). In local women's practice, the votive activity may involve the ritual performance of various kinds of oral narrative from legends of Shīʿī saints (called rowzeh ) to international folktale variants (Betteridge, 1980; Mills, 1982) and be seen as marginal by clergy and by orthodox-aspiring women alike. Not all Muslim nāir rituals entail narrative recitations; from the data at hand this seems more common among Shīʿī than Sunnī nāir offerants. Indian Hindus have parallel practices in votive rituals called vrat katha ("vow stories"), conducted by women as domestic rites or more formally by male Brāhma priests, which indeed require the ritual performance of origin stories articulating the rite's relationship to the deity addressed (Wadley, 2003). While Muslims and Hindus share certain shrines in South Asia (as do, or did, Muslims and Jews in North Africa; see Ben-Ami, 1983), it is not clear that either the practitioners or the scholars have dwelt on the specific parallels in narrative-based nāir and vrat katha. Within Islam, the veneration of saints and shrine pilgrimage, a pervasively popular practice that is not limited to women, though often attributed primarily to them as religiously marginal, comes in for criticism from some of the orthodox, specifically as a form of shirk (worshiping personages other than God, which violates a basic tenet of the faith), whereas in Hinduism, vrat katha is a staple of worship.

Both nāir (with or without narrative) and vrat katha also involve a food offering or charity food distribution. In foodways in particular, one can see regional or local practices most closely tied to local ecology. In a wide belt from Anatolia across Central Asia to northern Pakistan, the staple grain is wheat, and wheat products are featured as the blessed elements in ritual meals. In particular, sprouted wheat porridges or fudgelike halva s figure in Spring New Year rituals predating Islam on the Iranian plateau but now included as part of Muslim festival cycles from Kurdish Turkey across Iran to Central Asia and the Karakorum. For several of these dishes, wheat must first be ritually sprouted, then dried and ground into flour and cooked to make a naturally sweet (because malted) ritual food called samanu or samanak in Persian (and by other names, for example, shoshp in the Khowar language). In many nāir rituals outside the context of the Spring New Year, various kinds of wheat bread are the sanctified food, sanctified before it is cooked because the saint is believed to visit and touch wheat flour laid out in advance for the rite if the offerant's petition is acceptable. Among Thai and Javanese Muslims, for whom folk ritual feasts are prominent as part of death memorial ceremonies, and as such also to some extent contested by the orthodoxy, the central ritual food, not surprisingly, is rice (Burr, 1983; Woodward, 1988).

An overview of the vast topic of folk Islam or Muslim vernacular religion can at best offer snapshot views both of actual devotional activities and of articulations of perceived differences in practice and belief within the community, that is, of Islamic folk religion and of Muslim folklore, through which Muslims reflect on being Muslims by alleging practices and beliefs of others that may or may not actually occur. Such differences only partly fall along sectarian lines. Gender and ethnicity also figure in Muslims' perceptions of insider and outsider, orthodox and heterodox, and differences in religious practice within the confessional community that defy the doctrinal ideal of equality before God for all pious believers. Vernacular practice provides scope for personal devotionalism, some of it of a highly local nature, for members of the community who may be otherwise marginalized (for example, women, who are not expected or encouraged to be regular mosque attendees in some Muslim communities). Perceptions of solidarity, of difference, or even of apostasy may be cast in absolute and ideal terms, but they also can be observed to vary dramatically at different times and places and to reflect and in part constitute political relationships or rifts that are in turn susceptible to community critique. As with other forms of folklore, vigorously held "folk" beliefs and practices may not be perceived as local or idiosyncratic by their adherents, or, on the contrary, they may indeed be espoused as part of local identity work, as in the case of the many instantly recognizable, locally distinctive, elaborated versions of modest dress for both men and women. Further, this identity work, a staple of folk process, may be viewed as benign, or as antireligious if it divides the community in the face of some perceived external threat. Not only practices but also the interpretations put upon them are emergent in terms of consciousness as ties and schisms among Muslims or between Muslims and non-Muslims wax and wane. Academically speaking, the jury remains out as to the overall and longer-term trajectory of universal Islamization (the goal of Islamic reform movements) versus the elaboration of local practices. From the viewpoint of non-Muslim venues, the globalizing trends of a new orthodoxy appear more influential at present, but on closer inspection, local vernacular (also known as "folk") practices (such as conventions and styles of women's modest dress) appear to thrive, to be invented, reinvented, and often enough, contested, even in diaspora populations.

See Also

Domestic Observances, article on Muslim Practices; Islamic Religious Year; Oral Tradition; Rites of Passage, article on Muslim Rites.


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Margaret A. Mills (2005)

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