contompary study on sudanese sufi zikr-- eyewitness

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Maciej Kurcz THE CONTEMPORARY DHIKR – DIFFERENT ASPECTS OF THE SUDANESE RELIGIOUS EXPRESSION* INTRODUCTION Despite the efforts to introduce in the present-day Sudan the orthodox, cen- trally popularised version of Islam, called by D. F. Eickelman “the radio Islam”, the popular, folk version of this religion is still alive, both in cities and villages of this country. Dhikr may serve as an example of this phenomenon. Originally the term dhikr (“remembrance”) was used in relation to the wor- ship of God. It is applied in this very sense in the Koran 1 . As time passed by, probably in the 8th century, it began denoting special way of praising God (Danecki 1998:12, 23). It consisted in different kinds of collective, ecstatic prayers, dances, chants or litanies, in which the name of God was repeated numerous times, and it aimed at putting the participants into a trance. Usually they were accompanied by the body movement, adequate breathing and music. In this shape dhikr was particularly popular among Muslim mystics and in the end it became the fundamental element of the liturgy of the most of the Sufi brotherhoods (Trimingham 1965:212-214, Kennedy, Hussein 1978:42, Danecki 1998:23). 67 AFRICANA BULLETIN Warszawa 2004 Nr 52 * I had the opportunity to observe the practices of dhikr several times during my two stays in the Northern Sudan in 2000 and 2001 when I carried out the research on the institution of the religious sheikh in the contemporary Sudan. This project was conducted in the collaboration with the Polish Joint Archaeological Expedition to the Central Nile Valley. 1 In one of the verses (33.41) the Koran says: “O you who believe! remember Allah”. Also one of hadiths points at benefactions coming to a man who practices this way of praising God (Danecki 1998:24).

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  • Maciej Kurcz



    Despite the efforts to introduce in the present-day Sudan the orthodox, cen-trally popularised version of Islam, called by D. F. Eickelman the radio Islam,the popular, folk version of this religion is still alive, both in cities and villagesof this country. Dhikr may serve as an example of this phenomenon.

    Originally the term dhikr (remembrance) was used in relation to the wor-ship of God. It is applied in this very sense in the Koran1. As time passed by,probably in the 8th century, it began denoting special way of praising God(Danecki 1998:12, 23). It consisted in different kinds of collective, ecstaticprayers, dances, chants or litanies, in which the name of God was repeatednumerous times, and it aimed at putting the participants into a trance. Usuallythey were accompanied by the body movement, adequate breathing and music.In this shape dhikr was particularly popular among Muslim mystics and in theend it became the fundamental element of the liturgy of the most of the Sufibrotherhoods (Trimingham 1965:212-214, Kennedy, Hussein 1978:42, Danecki1998:23).



    Warszawa 2004 Nr 52

    * I had the opportunity to observe the practices of dhikr several times during my two staysin the Northern Sudan in 2000 and 2001 when I carried out the research on the institution of thereligious sheikh in the contemporary Sudan. This project was conducted in the collaboration withthe Polish Joint Archaeological Expedition to the Central Nile Valley.

    1 In one of the verses (33.41) the Koran says: O you who believe! remember Allah. Alsoone of hadiths points at benefactions coming to a man who practices this way of praising God(Danecki 1998:24).

  • Two kinds of this ritual are known. The first one, of greater deference, butalso more complex, is performed only silently (dhikr khafi)2. The second one isthe loud dhikr (jali), said to be more common, vulgar and intended for those lessacquainted with the mystic philosophy of the brotherhood members(Trimingham 1965:212, Kennedy, Hussein 1978:44, Danecki 1998:23). Still, itis definitely more popular and it satisfies both an average participant and a spec-tator of this ceremonial (Trimingham 1965:212, Kennedy, Hussein 1978:44).

    As I mentioned, these practices are inseparably connected with the activityof Sufi brotherhoods. Each of these societies, like in the case of the offered mys-tical path3, has its own version of the ritual, although the difference may notbe significant and concerns the choice of texts and formulae and the way theyare recited (Trimingham 1965:213, Kennedy, Hussein 1978:44, Danecki1998:24).

    From the perspective of the classical Sufism it should be opened by chantsfor God, Prophet or a saint; moreover, by prayers consisting in reading specialKoranic verses or allegorical passages about the life of Prophet. Only after thisintroduction the proper dhikr should start, i.e. recitation and repetition of theformulae connected with God.4 The whole ritual is to transform gradually intoa more impetuous spectacle. The power and the rhythmic of the repeated formu-lae, followed by more and more vehement body movement, intensify. It is theway chants or recitation are intoned that is so characteristic of each brother-hood. Eventually the participants come to the edge of stamina but at the sametime attain the state of absolute excitement and exultation (wajd) (Danecki1998, Trimingham 1965:212-214).

    The place, the time and the frequency of the service depend basically oneach brotherhood and on the attitude of the local people. In Sudan dhikr can beorganised in a local mosque or in a zawiya, a box of the sheikh, each Monday


    Maciej Kurcz

    2 Two varieties of it can be distinguished. The first one is available to everyone and it con-sists in worshiping of God silently and in expressing the worship through rhythmic leaning. Thesecond one, termed as dhikr of personality, is intended only for those who mastered the secrets ofthe esoteric art.

    3 This term stands for a way of doing something and conveys the notion of following a path(tariqah) which is the doctrine of the Sufi school.

    4 Formulae: la ilaha illa`llah, subhana llahi, al-hamdu li-llahi, Allahu akbar, astaghfiruLlaha (There is no God but Allah, God be praised, Glory to God, God is the greatest, I beg Godfor forgiveness); words: Allah or its attributes like Al-Hayy i.e. Alive (Danecki 1998:23,Trimingham 1965:213).

  • and Friday evening or occasionally on one of these days. In the case of somegrand event in the life of an individual (e.g. child birth) the ceremonial takesplace in the yard of an ordinary farmstead, and its participants are the membersof the family and the immediate neighbors. Basic occasions, however, when thisservice is solemnised are the religious feasts, both those resulting from the pre-cepts of the orthodox Islam and those of the folk origin (Kennedy, Hussein1978:45). On these occasions the ritual has the greatest setting and attracts themultitude of people. The scenery for this great solemn dhikr is predominating-ly the tomb of some local saintly man and the surrounding cemetery.

    Those that take part in this ritual are called dhakir forming a communitycalled majlis al-dhikr5. All adult male members of the community may take partin it and occasionally small boys, whose participation in celebrations is per-ceived as an element of the religious upbringing. Each of the participants isobliged to ritual purity, both in the literal, physical sense and in the spiritual,mystical one.

    Like in the case of Muslims in other countries, dhikr became for theSudanese the way of practicing Islam much the same as the Friday prayer in themosque. The only difference is that it is expressed in a very vehement, vivid andemotional manner. For its many followers these very elements are undoubtedlythe most important; more important than its hidden mystic ideology aboutwhich the considerable majority simply has no idea (Trimingham 1965:214).

    The causes of the lasting popularity and strength of this ritual should also betraced in its non-religious properties. Undeniably it fulfills important sociablefunctions being a pretext for revelry and meetings of the local society. It is alsonot a rare case when it turns out that the ritual becomes a commercial feastattracting nearby merchants and craftsmen on the ceremonial place (Blackmann1927:252-257).

    Moreover, for many of the participants the ritual is also a form of cominginto being in the society, in which day by day they pass unnoticed, if notdespised (Dzigiel 1992:154). This matter seems extremely well visible in thecase of dervishes. In brief, its multifacetness reminds of mediaeval indulgencesin memorial of the Christian saints.


    Contemporary Dhikr

    5 That is why the term majlis (assembly) is sometimes used in relation to dhikr (Kennedy,Hussein 1978:45).


    I participated in this service on Friday afternoon twice at the cemeteryHamad el-Nil in Omdurman. The necropolis is connected with the Arakiyyabrotherhood (a Qadiriyya faction), the progenitor of which is buried in this veryplace.6

    The ceremonial did not began at some particular point in time. Between 4and 5 p.m. the cemetery gradually started to fill up. Those who arrived went tovisit tombs of sheikhs first. After they had took off their shoes, they entered thequbba7. Then, what one could hear were salutations and prayers; some of thevisitors undoubtedly informed the saints about their own problems and present-ed requests. Eventually each of them went around the sarcophagus decoratedwith a green linen and leaned at the special slit to take a handful of sand fromthe inside of the grave or kissed the green linen (kiswa)8. After visiting thesheikhs tomb one could have a cup of coffee or tea at a special stall, smoke acigarette or simply sit down and talk. There was also a considerable group ofpeople who mobbed at one of the qubbas, the sheikhs receiving chamber. Theycame there not because they wanted to talk to him, as only few have this hon-our, but because they could see him or stay near him for a while. These whocame there with a problem could be heard by one of the companions of the mas-ter who received people on a mat at the chamber. At the back of the tomb on afield grille there was meat provided a moment earlier by a woman as a sign ofgratitude for the received grace. When it was ready the whole was given to thepoor ones. Others spent the time before the service at the graves of the familymembers.

    Although the real dervishes came a minute before the service (their arrivalmarked the beginning of the ceremonial), some of them had already been there9.


    Maciej Kurcz

    6 I was informed that this brotherhood was originally related to one of the tribes living in theGezira region. In the 1960s the brotherhood was moved to Omdurman by sheikh Hamad el-NilIshaq, the father of the today sheikh. The tomb came to be surrounded by the entire necropolisand on Friday afternoons at the very place the dhikr ritual began to be celebrated.

    7 A dome tomb, the most characteristic form of the Sudanese saints burial. 8 As I was informed this linen is to symbolise jallabiya of the saint, touching of which is said

    to have magical properties.9 Dervishes usually do not belong to any brotherhood. They do not pass through initiation and

    they do not devote themselves to religious studies. They serve a saint rather that a living leader ofthe brotherhood. Although they are commonly called dervishes, they stress that are disciples

  • One could not miss them. They looked funnily wearing green, thick robes withcolourful patches on them, pointed hats with colourful strings (tamina), pen-dants and rosary hanging here and there from the hat. Nevertheless, their out-fit is to express a deep sense. Apart from the significance of the green colour,also the patches have their meaning, namely they symbolise poverty and ascet-icism. They point at their simple, pious and far from luxurious character of life.Older interlocutors explained that once their outfit used to be less sophisticatedas far as colour and composition is concerned and that the today fashion is dueto their ambition to achieve the greatest originality possible. Each of them hada very intriguing equipment; there were swords, knives, lashes or even a dummyof a machine-gun as well as objects I was not able to identify. As far as theappearance and the behaviour are concerned, they were far from being normal.Many of them were undoubtedly physically or psychically disabled, others triedto look as such. The dervishs face was usually covered with significant anduntidy stubble and the head with a bushy and unkempt coiffure. While talkingto somebody they were alternately friendly and aggressive; calm and noisy. Itshould also be added that each of them represented his own style when it comesto both appearance and behaviour and later their ecstatic dance10.

    After about an hour first musicians appeared; these were two men wearingwhite robes and turbans and having instruments resembling tambourine (tar). Anumber of spectators surrounded them at once and one by one, singly or inpairs, they entered the circle and started dancing. Their dancing displays, rhyth-mical walk took on average no longer than one encirclement after which theyleft a money contribution to the musicians and returned to the audience.

    Then, out of the blue, a bus appeared. Everything has died down, the partici-pants turn their faces towards the vehicle. Dervishes in their characteristic clothesas well as some notables smartly dressed in white jallabiya and turbans get out ofthe bus. Immediately a procession is formed; dervishes, who with green banners


    Contemporary Dhikr

    (tilmidh) or sheikhs sons (ash-sheikh). Their religious mission is satisfied by the dhikr service orsitting and watching at the place of burial of their saint as well as performing different kinds ofmagical practices for the local people. It is often a case that these people come from the marginsof society and being a dervish is a form of their social existence. They are often insane to a degree,which is interpreted as their complete devotion to God (Kennedy, Hussein 1978:43).

    10 Majdhub, literally charmed (by God); that is how the strange behaviour of dervishes orinsane people is explained. In the case of Sufism their state is said to result from a preternaturalbeing or spirit of a saint. This term relates also to participants of dhikr who got into trance(Trimingham 1965:213).

  • go on before, are followed by elegantly dressed elders. Other dervishes as well asmusicians close the procession. All go towards the mob gathered in front of thequbba singing in the rhythm of music. The procession stops at the entrance to thetomb where everyone salutes the sheikh that was buried there. Then mutual salu-tations reverberate. Once more a kind of circle (halqa), this time a more spaciousone, is formed. Only then I am able to see a dervish of impressive posture with acosh in his hand. He turns out to be a guard. As I was told, this instrument servesto restore order in case of some unexpected explosion of religious emotions. Onlythe dervishes and the musicians enter the circle; all the others remain outside.Front rows are occupied by men followed by women and children. The properpart of the service began; one can hear monotonously repeated formula, half-recit-ed, half-sang. The audience accompanied by drums (noba or darabuka), tam-bourines and instruments resembling small cymbals starts swaying rhythmically.It is different from what the dervishes are doing. One begins twirling where hestands, the second hurries along in the circle, the third starts running and shout-ing from one place to another. Some of the dervishes, swaying and reciting,parade in a group along the surrounding mob. After a moment a short breakcomes. Soon the chants and recitations are undertaken; only the music is faster.Dancing movements of the participants are more and more dynamic, chants moreand more vehement. Gradually the dervishes seem to loose contact with reality.Shouts reverberate, someone fells down. Dynamic movements raise a cloud ofdust and it is hard to grasp what is going on. Suddenly the music abates but onlyfor a moment. It returns with even greater strength. The stimulated and enthusias-tic mob is joined by sheikh. In the centre of events he and the elders form tworows vis--vis each other. The sheikh sways and moves with them rhythmically,back and forth. The longest and the greatest part of the ceremonial starts. Somedo not dance anymore and lie curled up on the sand. One of the dervishes who haskept on twirling and drilled a hole in the sand starts running from one place to theother and shouts. The chants are joined by shouts and laments. The characteristicjoyous screech of women is definitely best distinguishable. There is so much dustin the air that it is impossible to recognise the situation. There is the scent ofincense in the air. After a moment one can see a dervish walking with an incenso-ry in his hand. He approaches everyone and people try to incense themselvesdirecting the smoke with their hands11. Suddenly everything subsides, there is


    Maciej Kurcz

    11 The odour of the burning substance is said to have vital properties which makes the par-ticipants feel no fatigue during the ritual and makes others, who gave vent to their emotions,regain consciousness.

  • neither singing nor music. The cloud of dust slowly falls down. Now a noise ofgreetings reverberates; people felicitate and embrace each other. Certainly, thebiggest interest concentrates on the person of the sheikh, but he quickly leavesthe place of prayers and goes to his room. Before he enters the room he quicklygives his blessing to some chosen ones. Some woman desperately asks him to helpher daughter, who wishes to go to school. Sheikh charismatically spreads hishands, and pronounces some formula. The woman smiles, kneels down and kissesthe sheikhs hands. Later on the sheikh decamps. Most of the participants leavesjust after the end of the ceremonial. Rickshaws and taxis drive up. Others stay atthe qubbas to pray. The sun sets and there comes the time of the evening prayer.


    I had an opportunity to watch an completely different dhikr in the northernprovince of Sudan. The gathering took place in Old Dongola in the scenery ofa desolated Muslim village and a nearby cemetery. This area has been deso-lated for a long time and is entirely included in the scene of the desert. The near-est settlements are Ed Ghaddar, a village 5 kilometers north of Old Dongola,and Bukibul, a settlement about 5 kilometers south of Old Dongola. Still, deso-lated Old Dongola is alive in the mind and culture of the local people. This placeis surrounded by a dose of mystery and sanctity. The inhabitants still rememberits Christian magnificence. This is also the place where the first mosque in theregion and one of the first mosques in Nubia was founded in what used to bethe seat of Christian rulers. Finally, this is the place where a great necropoliswith monumental qubbas of numerous generations of sheikhs (many of whomare no longer known by name) is located. Old inhabitants of the region, ances-tors of villagers of both villages, rest in peace near them. This is probably thereason why Old Dongola is an exceptional place where a stranger cannot remainunnoticed. Natives come here to pray quite often and it is here that dhikr is cel-ebrated collectively. This ritual is performed here only on special occasions,twice a year when two great Muslim feasts take place. Dhikr that I observedwas on the occasion of Id al-Adha (Sacrificial Feast), also called al-Id al-Kabir (Major Festival), which in 2001 took place on March 5-712.


    Contemporary Dhikr

    12 As I was told the second so solemn dhikr takes place at the time of Al-Id as-Saghir (MinorFestival), also called Festival of Breaking Fast, that starts the last night of the fasting month ofRamadan.

  • Both the time of feasts and dhikr caused great stir and special preparationsin the two villages. Women mixed and applied henna, washed and ironed theirceremonial cloth. Men prepared animals to slaughter and being excited theytalked about coming dancing displays.

    For people who had to walk, the feast day started very early. We were luckyto have a car and we could have arrived just before everything began. On ourway we could look closer at all means of transport available to the local people.Most of them rode a donkey or a camel, others came by bus or car. This was thetime when the view of the desert watched from the direction of Old Dongolawas impressive. Usually deserted, now it was full of traveling people whoseclothes remained colourful in contrast with the desert scenery.

    About ten oclock everyone was on the spot gathering at the cemetery. Itstarted with visiting tombs of relatives and friends. Graves, usually gray in per-fect harmony with the desert were now decorated with green stalks of palms bywhich dishes with water were placed. One could hear prayers, and then the buzzof greetings and talks, everywhere. The atmosphere resembled to a great extentthe Polish All Saints Day. No need to say that qubbas of sheikhs enjoyed greatpopularity. The crowd at the entrance was enormous, and the most numerousones among people trying to get into the tombs were women. When the timecame, the visitor took off the shoes. After he got inside, he greeted the deceasedsheikh and proceeded to circle the sarcophagus. The sarcophagus, usually a pileof stones or a poor wooden construction, was specially decorated on the occa-sion of that day, namely it was covered with a green linen (kiswa) with a plen-titude of small knots13. In the air there was the scent of incense. After the ritu-al circling, everyone leaned to take some sand from the tomb. Some hid it, oth-ers tipped it after a while. Soon the visitor left the tomb as there were otherswaiting for their turn.

    I noticed that in some distance from the necropolis prayers were still offici-ated. Those who prayed formed two groups; in each of them men stood in front,while women behind them. The prayers were officiated by local Imams andcompanions of the sheikh. The prayers were followed by so common on thatday felicitating and shaking hands.

    At about 11 oclock everything was coming to an end. Some of the peoplewent back home; however, a considerable part of participants moved towards a


    Maciej Kurcz

    13 This is simply a sign of contact magic practiced extremely often at the time of visitinggraves of saints.

  • homestead outside the cemetery, situated in the ruins of the desolated village.There was nothing characteristic of that building that would make it stand outof the whole antique complex except for a green banner. I had already seen it onmany occasions but now I was surprised to see it solemnly decorated. It wasloud and crowdy. Jugs (zir) were filled with fresh water, and one could smellsmoke as well as scent of infused coffee and tea issued from the inside of small,partly covered with sand rooms. Quite a number of women bustled nearbypreparing kisra, meet and other festal dainties. The biggest room was a place ofprayers. It was vast and oblong with two rows of columns supporting the roof.The floor was covered with sand. Light entered the room through several win-dows and clearances in the walls. It was obvious that this building is used onlyon the occasion of feasts, several times a year. Inside there was only a group ofmen sitting at the walls on mats. The sheikh and his entourage took a sit in thecentral place at the wall where vis--vis the entrance there was the mihrab. Allof them were of old age. The atmosphere there was also sociable. A man, spe-cially appointed to that job, served coffee and tea as well as savory toasts; onecould also smoke a cigarette there. The air was filled with the aroma and smokeof incense, burnt in the middle of the room.14 After a while the glasses were col-lected. Everyone got up and a couple of musicians with tambourines turned outin the centre. Al-Fatiha15 was read aloud and then the words of the declarationof faith reverberated: la ilaha illa Allah, i.e. There is no god but Allah. Theservice started. One man intoned the recitation of the Gods names. The musi-cians started playing and singing and soon they got up from the mat and startedcircling the room. Then, men from the mob, one by one, joined them. After onehad circled the room one time dancing his way, he returned to his place leavinga money dole for the musicians. This way almost everyone who gathered thereshowed off his solo dance. At some time, though the pace of the music remainedthe same, the sheikh got up and joined the ceremonial singing and clapping hishands in the rhythm. As it turned out later it was the culminating moment of theceremonial. Then the music abated and people started embracing others andwishing them all the best. And again there was the time to have a cup of tea orcoffee in other mens company. After a short rest, the festal dinner was finallyserved; it consisted purely of the animals slaughtered specially on this occasion.


    Contemporary Dhikr

    14 Burning incense is a practice of universal meaning; it expresses fear of God as well asrespect for Him and it has the power of magic and the power of miracle making.

    15 This is the first Surah of Koran, also called The Opening.


    Both services as we can see are a part of one and the same tradition elab-orated ages ago by individual leaders of religious brotherhoods. The essence ofeach of them is rhythmical and collective recitation of excerpts of Koran, reli-gious texts and names of Allah accompanied by music and dance. Particularstages, i.e. tilawa (recitation), Istighfar (request), the recitation of Al-Fatiha andthe declaration of faith (la ilaha illa Allah) are usually a constant element.

    Both of them seem to favor the loud dhikr instead of some other moresophisticated methods of meditating. However, it does not mean that the latterones were completely absent.16 More spiritual ways of praising God were usedby the sheikh himself and a few more people, undoubtedly from his most imme-diate entourage.

    Still, there were some differences between the rituals. It is quite naturalthat these practices being the concept of individual sheiks differ a little as far asthe degree of vehemence and the choice of additional texts and religious songsare concerned. These differences are quite obvious in the case of both abovedescribed versions of dhikr.

    Even an observer unacquainted with Sufism matters would notice thatdhikr from the Hamad el-Nil cemetery, filled with emotions, was definitelymore vehement. At a glance course of events seemed almost completely unpre-dictable. For many of its participants the ecstasy was the most important as itgave them a religious satisfaction. There were no restraints while dancing. Theecstatic atmosphere spread to each of the participants of the ceremonial. Thedervishes excited because of the enthusiastic mob, while the mob was excitedbecause of the image of the dervishes. In Old Dongola it was entirely different;the ritual proceeded in a fairly different atmosphere. The service was static andstill. There were no shouts, madness or a clear moment of ecstasy. The musichad no noticeable changes of rhythm, the formulae were sang audibly and withveneration. In comparison to Omdurman, neither women nor children partici-


    Maciej Kurcz

    16 Undoubtedly sheiks were the ones who tried to fulfill traditions of dhikr performed quiet-ly. The religious leader in Omdurman joined the ceremonial at the culminating point. Before thathe was to meditate in his room. In Dongola the sheikh participated in the ritual, but he tried topronounce all the formulae quietly. Moreover, it seemed that both saintly men were taken off bytheir immediate entourage, i.e. companions and local dignitaries.

  • pated in it17. As a result the service made an impression of a more statelyone18.

    Undoubtedly one of the causes is otherness of Sufism traditions in thesetwo places (although both sheikhs are said to be related to qadiriyya). The factis that the ethnic and cultural background of both areas is different. In the caseof Omdurman, the cultural mosaic of Sudan, different characteristics of indige-nous African origin interfere. In the North of Sudan, unlike one could presume,in many respects the country seems to be far more conservative.

    The other source of differences are probably religious brotherhoods andtheir dervishes, as well as a group of trained people traditionally responsible forthe course and the setting of these ceremonials. In Omdurman there was awhole body of them. One can even say that they were professionals (this is whatthe informers maintained and what was twice verified). Each of them performedclearly defined functions, like the above mentioned guard. The ceremonial wasalso attended by a group of people who were not dervishes. They were theimmediate company of the sheikh; his companions, pupils, and undoubtedly aconsiderable group of local notables and elders; to be brief, full right membersof the religious brotherhood. These people, in fine white robes and turbans andwith smart walking-sticks, conducted the ceremonial and surrounded the sheikhall the time.

    In Dongola there were hardly any people that one could call dervishes ormembers of the Sufi brotherhood. Most of the participants were inhabitants ofnearby locality. The peak of the social ladder was represented by the village eld-ers and the religious authorities. There was, though, a kind of personnel thatlived in the vicinity of the cemetery and is famous for rendering different kindsof magical and healing services (e.g. making charms); they consider themselvescustodians of sheiks tombs. They constitute a separate group of people and, likethe most of the dervishes, they also physically or psychically disabled to adegree.

    In both ceremonials musicians played a key role. In Omdurman there wasalmost an orchestra that consisted of people playing drums, tambourines,cymbals and rattles. To reinforce the sound of the instruments a modern sound


    Contemporary Dhikr

    17 At the Hamad el-Nil cemetery women did not take part in dancing. Still, they could watchthe ceremonial and it was clear that they also imbibed the ecstatic atmosphere.

    18 Quite a similar dhikr was observed and then described in Upper Egypt by B.W. Blackman(1927:81-83).

  • equipment was used. In Old Dongola there were only two musicians whoplayed tambourines. Certainly, there was neither place nor need to have a big-ger band or an impressive musical setting. In both cases they were profession-als famous for accompanying at such ceremonials. Usually, each region has itsmusicians but they do not need to be from the sheikhs entourage or a religiousbrotherhood (Nawal 1978:80). Only the most saintly ones can afford them.These people usually have a normal life and, with their music, they add splen-dor to both religious and secular ceremonials. Their services are said to be freebut during the above mentioned dancing displays each of the dancers left thema money dole. At the time of some private dhikr or other family ceremonial theyare usually rewarded with a gaudy meal.

    As far as the sheiks are concerned, they both honored the funcions. InOmdurman the sheikh joined it at the moment of climax when people wereabout to explode because of emotions. Then, applauded by the mob and thedervishes, surrounded by companions, he danced swaying rhythmically andmoving back and forth in the centre of the spectacle. His movements, however,were more stately and orderly. Likewise, his face was full of dignity and medi-tation and no sooner did a smile appear on it than the music and motion ceased.He wore a long white robe and a turban and he still had his smart, woodenwalking-stick.

    Sheikh Babikir from Old Dongola participated in the function from the verybeginning as he conducted the recitation. Still, he did it sitting on an elegant matat the mihrab it in the same pensive pose. Perhaps, once more we deal here withan example of dissimilarity as far as Sudanese Sufism is concerned. In OldDongola dhikr was more stately. It did not behove the sheikh to recite aloud orto participate in dancing displays. His status prevented him from reacting in asimilar manner to that of simple participants. His reaction was subdued butexplicit and his thoughts seemed to be distant and concentrated on God. In bothcases the sheiks clearly distanced themselves from the mob emanating dignityand devoutness. They both seemed to accomplish the ideals of the mysticexultation.

    In both cases dhikr took place at a cemetery. It is definitely about the nobleof milieu of qubbas. In the Omdurman necropolis it was mainly the qubba ofthe sheikh Hamad el-Nil, while in Dongola the whole number of them. In mostof the cases the ritual of dhikr is above all a form of remembering and reveringof the saints. It is of particular importance to religious brotherhoods which inthis way can express their identity. During most of this kind of ceremonials a


    Maciej Kurcz

  • special excerpt from Koran, referring to dead sheiks, is read aloud. Additionallythe name of a saintly person is repeated and sometimes even the man himself,his life and his wonders are remembered. Finally, this is the best time for thesaint to bestow his might to those who gathered at his sanctuary. Because of theplace where the ritual is performed it is also an opportunity to honour other deadones, relatives or friends. every dhikr, dancing displays, feasting in the sceneryof the cemetery seems to support in a way a kind of bond between the livingones and those who passed away.

    As I mentioned at the beginning, the cemetery is not the only place of cele-brating this kind of ceremonials. Dhikr is often performed in the sheikhs seator in the village mosque. Religious services are organised also in ordinaryhomesteads, either solely for family in the atmosphere of privacy or for the vil-lage community in order to commemorate some religious event.

    Dhikr is predominatingly organised on the occasion of all kinds of religiousfeasts, which are the best time for it. They may arise either from the fundamen-tals of the Muslim orthodoxy or from the folk religiousness. Most often theyinclude the local Mawlid (birthday of a saint) or Mawlid an-Nabi (birthday ofMahomet) that fall on the 12th day of the rabi al-awwal month. In Old Dongoladhikr is performed twice a year, during Id al-Fitr and Id al-Adha. Manyinformers maintained that in the vicinity this ritual is performed on the occasionof the Mahomets Assumption, i.e. laylat al-Miraj celebrated on the 27th of therajab month. The service commemorating one of these events is said to have thegreatest importance, therefore it needs to have the most excellent setting. Thewhole community participates in it; on this occasion even pilgrims from otherregions may come. This is the best time to make requests and render thanks toa saint. Almost exclusively a cemetery and a qubba of some saint is the settingof these dhikrs (Kennedy, Hussein 1978:45-49).

    Dhikr can be performed also on other days and in other periods. Friday isquite popular. Like it was the case of the Hamad el-Nil cemetery, it can be cel-ebrated regularly every week on that day. It is usually the case of religiousbrotherhoods for which this very service is the basic form of religious practices.Informers from the Jezira region maintained that also Monday is a good day fordhikr since, as they explained, that is when Mahomet was born.

    Finally, all kinds of events from the individuals life such as child birth, cir-cumcision, wedding or funeral can be an occasion for this ritual. In the case ofa wedding or a birth dhikr can be performed each day of the entire ceremonialperiod. In the case of a death, it can be performed after the funeral or every


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  • anniversary of this event. This dhikr may take place at a saints qubba, in ahomestead or in a mosque. Basically, time and, to a lesser degree, also placedepend on local version of Sufism and on the attitude of the local people.

    The sense of dhikr constitutes an inexhaustible subject. Moreover, it is a dif-ficult subject since dhikr is often connected with very intimate matters or withones far from orthodox way of understanding religion. Nevertheless, almost allinterlocutors stressed that dhikr is one of forms of practicing their religiousness.Some pay special attention to regular praying, others to religious fundamentals,and finally there are those who pay attention to participation in dhikr. The wor-ship of saints, the ritual of dhikr is the essence of the Sudanese Islam.Undoubtedly even those who maintained that they do not participate in it at thepresent time spoke about it with great veneration and respect and only some-times they would criticise some of its varieties.

    The above described varieties of this ritual perfectly illustrate basic contextsin which it is practiced in Sudan. In Omdurman weekly dhikr performed atsheiks tombs was connected with the activity and practices of a particular reli-gious brotherhood. It expressed the nature and the identity of the brotherhood,and it supported the bond between its members. The Dongola dhikr constitutedabove all the best of all possible settings of a great religious feast. It did not resultfrom some Sufi calendar, but it expressed inhabitants devoutness showed in atraditional way. It was irrevocable, climax point of the festal period.

    More open interlocutors revealed to me to a degree the supernatural advan-tages of this service. The most important thing is to take part in it, especiallythrough dancing and ecstasy. People who could bring their feeling to a climax,were treated as semi-gods. A shake of their hands or any other contact with themhad great power. Women believe that touching a dervish, especially right afterdance exultation, will provide them with fertility. The same power is assignedto the smoke of incense that is burnt during the service or to consumption ofmeals prepared for this occasion. However, many people did not care aboutIslam or esoteric experiences. The most important was a mere fact of participa-tion in such a ritual and a chance of receiving a sacred grace.

    As I already mentioned, the ritual of dhikr, due to its magical power, accom-panies actually all important moments of life of the Sudanese. It is performedon the occasion of childs birth, circumcision and wedding or a funeral. Forexample it is believed that after a child is born the ritual of dhikr allows dismiss-ing bad spirits, protects against evil eye and expresses parents gratitude. Asfar as mourning is concerned one believes that dhikr will facilitate the dead to


    Maciej Kurcz

  • get to paradise and that it will protect mortals against anger of the dead. It iseven said that the ritual can ban death away from the family. Therefore theparticipation in the ritual or its organising may arise from an individual intentor request. It is very often the case that sheikhs advise participating in dhikr topeople suffering from severe and mysterious disorders. Then such a persondraws attention with a special dance or partly covers the cost of the ceremoni-al. By and large, dhikr can be ordered in the case of different family and person-al problems.

    On all these occasions dhikr is also a part of social life. It is accompaniedby revelling and common feasting. Many people treat their participation indhikr as an occasion to be seen and to show off. Dance interpretation and recita-tion displays created always an opportunity to comment and make remarks. Inconsequence getting the best opinions was a reason to be proud of oneself.Moreover, a dole given to the musicians proved generosity and wealth of thedonour. Undoubtedly, organising private dhikrs for a family or for neighbourscarries the same dimension. It bespeaks about the prestige of the family andabout its social and religious manners.

    The ritual has also a great economic meaning. In most cases the cost of it isborne by all inhabitants of an area or its participants. A large part of funds,though, comes from individual donours, who wish to fulfil their promise givento a saint (nadr). I was also said that many sheiks often organise such practicescovering all the expenses themselves, which is broadly.

    In spite of that dhikr is one of a few occasions within a year when all theinhabitants can revel, irrespective of their descent or wealth. There must beenough food for everyone. For the majority of villagers it is a rare occasion dur-ing a year when they can eat to the hearts content and relish meat meals (Nawal1978).

    Unfortunately, modern times did not remain without impact even on thissphere of Sudan culture and influenced its intensity and character, at least in theway described by Michael Gilsenan (1973) in the context of Sufism in Egypt.Changes, though slower than in other Muslim countries, take place also inSudan (Kennedy, Hussein 1978:56). Professional politicians, land-owners, jour-nalists and teachers consist a potential threat for all those traditional leaders andfor practices offered by them. Basically, these changes are stimulated by twofactors: the omnipresent process of westernisation and the increasing signifi-cance of the orthodox Islam. In consequence, practices of broadly understood,popular Islam, inter alia the ritual of dhikr, are set aside. They are organised


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  • more and more rarely and not in all those places where they used to be organ-ised. In the country critical opinions about dhikr are not a rare case. People,influenced by aforementioned processes, realise dhikrs incorrectedness andopposition in relation to the true Islam; in consequence they simply cease par-ticipating in it and, whats more, severely criticise it in public, treating thesepractices with embarrassment.

    Other threats to such practices are plans of the Sudanese government con-nected with construction of a new dam lake over Nile between the FourthCataract and the vicinity of the Abu Hamed town (Hamdab Dam Project). Thisproject implicates the action of resettlement, which in consequence may lead toobliteration of the culture of people who inhabit these areas to a degree similarto that of Egyptian Nubia after Naser Lake was built (Kennedy 1979).

    Dhikr, which I had an opportunity to watch at the Hamad el-Nil cemetery inOmdurman, is threatened also by tourists. Every year more and more tourists,attracted by stories of savagery of these practices, come on Friday afternoons tothe Hamed el-Nil cemetery. Their presence, against presumptions, usually doesnot irritates dervishes or simple participants. On the contrary, savage dervish-es pose when being photographed or filmed almost like film stars. It is quiteobvious, however, that they will ask for money in return. It is a rule that eachtime such a dole is given to companions or to the leader of a brotherhood dur-ing an audience specially arranged for this purpose.

    Everything which might be defined as commercialisation lowers the valueof this ritual. Its religious atmosphere, spontaneity and honesty vanish and arereplaced by, one could say, a film scenario where everything happens accordingto a scheme and is subjected to needs of a spectator. Fortunately in Hamed el-Nil it is still a combination of pleasant and useful. The original meaning ofthe ritual is still clear and the negative, commercial dimension has not yet dom-inated the spectacle. Nevertheless, one can never be sure if soon dervishes especially in these big cities visited by tourists will not start dancing andwhirling just for money in an air-conditioned venues of some hotels.


    Maciej Kurcz


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