Zar refers to a type of spirits, the afflictions such spirits may cause, and the rituals aimed at preventing or curing these afflictions. It is one of the most widely distributed "cults of afflictions" in Africa and the Middle East. Its diffusion owes much to the slave trade and to the migration of people associated with the pilgrimage to Mecca. Zar spirits and zar practices are found throughout eastern North Africa and in areas of East Africa and the Middle East, including Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Sudan, Ethiopia, Egypt, Somalia, Arabia, Iran, and Israel. The zar cult has also influenced other possession practices in East and West Africa. Little is known of the cult's origins, but its presence has been documented in the Sudan since the mid-nineteenth century and in Ethiopia since at least the eighteenth century. Etymologically, most scholars consider the term zar to derive, not from Arabic, but from Persian or, more plausibly, from Amharic.
Popularly, however, the word is believed to originate from zara, "he visited," an Arabic word that was later corrupted. The geographic distribution of the word zar has led researchers to consider the many cults of spirit possession in northeast Africa as part of a single, historically connected phenomenon. While zar practices exhibit considerable variations from place to place, it is nonetheless possible to identify some shared characteristics of the spirit-host relation. Involvement with the zar generally follows a period of illness, during which all medical options have been exhausted. Eventually, the sufferer is diagnosed as being afflicted by a spirit. Treatment involves initiation into the zar cult during a propitiatory ceremony in which the initiate will ideally enter a trance, allowing the spirit to possess her or his body so as to affirm its identity and reveal its requirements. Once initiated, devotees must continuously negotiate the terms of their relationships with the possessing spirits. They express their commitment to intrusive zar by attending ceremonies, making offerings, and fulfilling ritual, moral, and social requirements. Getting well thus becomes a lifelong exercise, much of which is part of daily experience rather than being restricted to dramatic ritual.
In many areas, the zar cult has retained pre-Islamic or pre-Christian features. It has strongly been influenced by these two religions, and has influenced them, in turn. The complex and creative ways that zar has simultaneously competed with, adapted to, and borrowed from Islam or Christianity often means that spirit devotees see no incompatibility between their commitment to the zar and their identities as Christian or Muslims. To them, possession is part of a wider religious enterprise.
Not everyone agrees with this assessment, however. Some see zar as being antithetical to Islam or Christianity. Such divisions often follow gender lines. Thus, for northern Sudanese women, zar falls squarely within the purview of Islam, whereas their male counterparts find that relinquishing control of one's body to a possessing spirit is simply sinful and un-Islamic. Despite such condemnations, zar has continued to thrive in both rural and urban areas; in the latter it often provides supportive social networks for newcomers.
Men may criticize their wives' practices of assuaging the spirits, but they rarely interfere when their womenfolk stage a propitiatory ceremony. While they may want nothing to do with zar, men implicitly acknowledge the spirits' role in the preservation of fertility and prosperity. Though in some areas, men can become initiated, it is women whom zar most afflict, mainly with infertility. The preponderance of women has traditionally been explained as a strategy of redress for marginalized or powerless individuals in male-centered cultures. From this perspective, zar is nothing but a means to bring public attention to one's plight and achieve momentary power.
More recent interpretations have pointed to the multiple ways in which zar participants distill the lessons of history, reflect upon their subordinate status, and assess the relevance of cultural values by conjuring up images of amoral, foreign, and powerful spirits. Far from constituting a refuge from oppressive reality, zar is seen as a cultural resource that transcends the context of illness and is drawn upon by people to make sense of certain problems and experiences of everyday life.
Boddy, Janice. Wombs and Alien Spirits: Women, Men, and the Zar Cult in Northern Sudan. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.
Lewis, Ioan M.; Al-Safi, Ahmed; and Hurreiz, Sayyid, eds. Women's Medicine: The Zar-Bori Cult in Africa and Beyond. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991.
Messing, Simon D. "Group Therapy and Social Status in the Zar Cult of Ethiopia." American Anthropologist 60, no. 6 (1958): 1120–1126.
Young, Allan. "Why Amhara Get Kureynya: Sickness and Possession in an Ethiopian Zar Cult." American Ethnologist 2, no. 3 (1975): 567–584.