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Popular Religion

Mark R. Woodward, Dale F. Eickelman, Charles C. Stewart, Rafiuddin Ahmed, John R. Bowen, Fred R. von der Mehden, Char Simons
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

    Popular Religion

    [This entry contains six subentries:


    The term “popular Islam” refers to the constellations of Muslim belief, ritual, narrative, and religious practice that flourish at particular points in time and space. They simultaneously Islamize indigenous culture and popularize scripture. In some instances elements of pre-Islamic practices are given Islamic meanings, while in others particular interpretations of elements of the textual tradition are employed in the formulation of narrative, ritual, and social practice.

    Popular Islams are as varied as contexts in which they are found, ranging from the austere, legalistic Islam of the Saudi Arabian Wahhābī sect to the ecstatic, charismatic cults of saints and Shīʿī imams characteristic of the popular Islam in South Asia and Iran. Despite this variety, popular Islams play similar mediating roles in Muslim religious life. They mediate between culturally specific patterns of social behavior and the idealized models for behavior expressed in the Qurʿān, ḥadīth, and sharīʿah; between the transcendentalism of Qurʿānic Islam and the deeply and widely felt need for direct and local access to the sacred; and between the limited, strict ritual requirements of textual Islam and the realities of human existence.

    Islam, Custom, and Culture.

    Scriptural Islam is more than religion. It is a detailed guide to human conduct, providing precise instruction in areas including personal hygiene, diet, dress, marriage, divorce, inheritance, taxation, and others. Particularly in the case of family law, the demands of the texts often clash with long-established cultural patterns. The problem is particularly vexing in matrilineal Muslim societies such as the Minangkabau of Indonesia. In many Islamic cultures a distinction is drawn between sharīʿah (Islamic law) and ʿādāt (custom). While ʿādāt is rarely recognized as entirely legitimate, many jurists tolerate deviation from sharīʿah, particularly in legal domains other than ritual performance. Others demand strict compliance with sharīʿah norms. The theoretical and highly demanding nature of sharīʿah has resulted in the recognition of a distinction between civil and religious law in many Islamic societies. See ʿāDāT and FAMILY LAW.

    Qurʿānic Transcendence and Popular Piety.

    The doctrine of tawḥīd (the unity of God) is among the central teachings of Islam. The absolute power and majesty of God is a major theme in the Qurʿān and subsequent textual traditions. While understandings of tawḥīd range from transcendent monotheism to pantheistic assertions that all is God, textual traditions push God to the limits of the cosmos or, in mystical texts, to the depths of the human soul. In either case God is the sole object of devotion. See TAWḥīD.

    Saint cults provide more direct, readily available access to the sacred and play important roles in most popular Islams. Saints are asked to intercede with God and are also sources of blessing (barakah). Pilgrimage to the tombs of saints (ziyārah) is among the most common Islamic devotional acts. They range from strictly local shrines to tombs of the founders of Ṣūfī orders and legal schools that attract pilgrims throughout the Muslim world. Muslims approach saints with requests ranging from desire for mystical knowledge to mundane problems of daily life. In Shīʿī communities imams and members of their families are the most important saints. Throughout the Muslim world, descendants of the prophet Muḥammad, religious teachers, and leaders of Ṣūfī orders are thought to be sources of blessing to whom devotees owe unquestioned obedience. Control of shrines and the equation of sainthood and kingship figure significantly in the legitimation strategies of many Muslim monarchies. See AUTHORITY AND LEGITIMATION; BARAKAH; SUFISM, subentry on ṢūFī SHRINE CULTURE; and ZIYāRAH.

    Ritual Practice.

    The five pillars of the faith (the confession of faith, the five daily prayers, fasting during Ramaḍān, alms, and pilgrimage to Mecca) are described in the Qurʿān and ḥadīth. Legal texts describe the relative merits and mode of performance of these rites in great detail. The formal, orthoprax ritual system was devised by an urban scholarly elite, and its concern with ritual purity and the strict requirements for the fast of Ramaḍān make it difficult for those who must toil in fields and factories to comply. Pilgrimage to Mecca is greatly valued, but relatively few Muslims can hope to perform it. Lax observance of the formal ritual requirements of Islam should not, however, necessarily suggest impiety or secularism. While sharīʿah provides exemptions for those who find orthoprax ritual impossible, it does not provide alternatives. Popular Islamic practice fills this gap in the religious lives of many of the world's Muslims. See PILLARS OF ISLAM.

    The comparative study of popular Islamic practice is underdeveloped. It has been largely ignored by Islamicists, and with few exceptions anthropologists have been reluctant to engage in comparative studies. Comparison of studies conducted in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia reveals several common elements. Many of these are based on textual sources, particularly the ḥadīth, but adapt them to specific local contexts. Others are derived from the ritual systems of Ṣūfī orders, which played major roles in the conversion of non-Arab peoples to Islam.

    The mawlid al-nabī that commemorates the birth and death of the prophet Muḥammad is celebrated from Morocco to Indonesia and is frequently an element of Muslim imperial cults. Qurʿānic recitation, reproducing the speech of God, is performed at funerals, marriages, and other rites of passage, to cure the sick, to exorcise demons, and for numerous other purposes. The written text of the Qurʿān is used in charms and amulets. Modern developments include tape-recordings of famous Qurʿānic reciters and national and international recitation contests. Dhikr (remembrance of God) is the patterned recitation of Qurʿānic passages and the names of God, often involving the use of rosaries. Oral and written narratives concerning the lives and adventures of the prophet Muḥammad, members of his family, and other famous figures from Islamic history as well as saints and jinn circulate widely. Jinn, particularly those believed to have accepted Islam, are invoked for numerous magical purposes. Jinn and shaiṭān (devils) are often thought to be responsible for miraculous or unusual events. Ritual meals and the distribution of blessed food are especially common in the popular Islams of South and Southeast Asia. See DHIKR; MAGIC AND SORCERY; MAWLID; and QURʿāNIC RECITATION.

    In the closing years of the twentieth century there were significant changes, many related to improvements in communication and the ongoing modernization of Muslim societies. Ṣūfī orders now have Web sites. Travel agencies organize pilgrimage tours to Saudi Arabia and to local saint shrines. Traditional healers place ads in newspapers, hold regular office hours, and charge regularized fees. The have also expanded the range of ailments they treat, reflecting global medical change. These now include HIV/AIDS, cancer, and sexual dysfunction. The Jakarta, Indonesia–based Barzakh Foundation offers HIV/AIDS treatment over the Internet. A particularly significant development is the emergence of the tomb of Bahādur Shāh Zafar II, the last of the South Asian Mughal emperors, as an important international pilgrimage site. Zafar was exiled to Rangoon, Burma, following the Indian Mutiny/War of Independence of 1857. The exact location of his grave remained unknown until 1991. When it was discovered it quickly became an important shrine for South Asian Muslims including political leaders. India and Pakistan contest the privilege of caring for the shrine.

    Puritanical Sects as Popular Islam.

    Owing to their insistence on the primacy of scripture, Wahhābī and other fundamentalist and puritanical sects would appear to be exceptions to this view of the mediating function of popular Islam. Most fundamentalist programs include a deliberate rejection of aspects of popular Islam, particularly the cult of saints. However, fundamentalists base their religious lives on restricted readings of the textual tradition and maintain that their particular modes of ritual practice are the only source of God's blessing and mercy. Bruce Lawrence (Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt Against the Modern Age [New York, 1989]) argues that fundamentalisms mediate between the demands of scripture and the intellectual and political contexts of modernity. In both senses fundamentalisms are contemporary popular Islams. See FUNDAMENTALISM and WAHHāBīYAH.

    Islamic and Western Views.

    There is an enduring tension between popular and scriptural Islam that exists within most contemporary Muslim societies and is deeply rooted in Islamic scholarship. Islamic scholarly views have ranged from the intolerance of Ibn Taymīyah to al-Ghazālī's acceptance of a variety of modes of Muslim piety. The rise of scripturally oriented reform and fundamentalist movements in the twentieth century has increased the level of tension. Those who condemn popular Islams and those who are devoted to them share a conviction that their own understanding of Islam is the proper way of submitting to God—which is after all the meaning and purpose of Islam.

    Western scholarship reflects this tension. Evaluations of popular Islams range from those of Orientalists who regard deviation from textual precedent as corruption or simply non-Islamic, to that of Reinhold Loeffler (Islam in Practice: Religious Beliefs in a Persian Village [Albany, N. Y., 1988]) who argues that popular Islams are the means through which people who cannot possibly meet scriptural demands adapt the faith to local conditions. Most recent studies avoid questions of orthodoxy and corruption and focus instead on the ways in which Islam is understood and practiced in local contexts.

    See also SYNCRETISM.


    • Antoun, Richard A.Muslim Preacher in the Modern World: A Jordanian Case Study in Comparative Perspective. Princeton, N.J., 1989. Life history of a Jordanian village preacher.
    • Barzakh Foundation. www.all-natural.com/sufi.html
    • Campo, Juan Eduardo. The Other Sides of Paradise: Explorations into the Religious Meanings of Domestic Space in Islam.Columbia, S.C., 1990. Explains the sacred character of domestic space in contemporary Egyptian Islam, including detailed references to the Qurʿān and ḥadīth.
    • Delaney, Carol. The Seed and the Soil: Gender and Cosmology in a Turkish Village Society. Berkeley, Calif., and Oxford, 1991. Study of popular Islam in Turkey focusing on issues of gender, fertility, and domestic life.
    • Eickelman, Dale F.Moroccan Islam: Tradition and Society in a Pilgrimage Center. Austin, Tex., 1976. Study of the social and religious roles of Ṣūfī saints in Moroccan Islam.
    • Geertz, Clifford. Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia. Chicago and London, 1968. One of the few comparative studies of popular Islam, this work also considers the impact of modernity on Islamic civilization in North Africa and Southeast Asia.
    • Geertz, Clifford. The Religion of Java. Glencoe, Ill., 1960. The most comprehensive account of popular Islam and its relationship to scriptural tradition and culture in Southeast Asia.
    • Lewis, I. M., ed.Islam in Tropical Africa. Bloomington, Ind., 1980. Collection of essays by leading Africanists and Islamicists concerning the popular Islams of Sub-Saharan Africa.
    • Martin, Richard C., ed.Approaches to Islam in Religious Studies. Tucson, Ariz., 1985. Collection of articles by leading Islamists combining theoretical approaches to the study of popular Islam with case studies of conversion, ritual, veneration of the prophet Muḥammad, ritual uses of the Qurʿān, and other topics related to popular Islams.
    • Metcalf, Barbara D.Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860–1900. Princeton, N.J., 1982. Study of one of the most important Islamic educational institutions in South Asia and its impact on Islamic thought and practice.

    Mark R. Woodward

    Popular Religion in the Middle East and North Africa

    “Popular” Islam—the term used for the variations in belief and practice in Islam as they are understood and observed throughout the Muslim world—is also public Islam. Religious leaders and spokespersons talk of the unity of Islamic belief and practice, but as in other religions, there is considerable local variation and intense debate over what is Islamic thought and practice. In the past, Muslims often implicitly assumed that their local beliefs and practices were inherently Islamic because they were central to local tradition. Today, with the spread of mass education, the greater ease of travel, and the rise of new communications media, large numbers of people, not just an educated political and religious elite, want a say in how their faith is understood and practiced.

    Traditionally-educated religious scholars (ʿulamāʿ) and self-appointed contemporary Islamist spokespersons sometimes dismiss as non-Islamic or “incorrect” local practices that they believe conflict with their idea of Islamic truths, even though the people who maintain such traditions consider their practices authentic. Religious scholars usually pass over these understandings in silence unless they are held by members of weak or subordinate groups. Such practices include participation in religious brotherhoods. These beliefs include a special respect for people who claim to be descendants of the prophet Muḥammad, the veneration of saints or “pious ones” (al-ṣāliḥūn), possession cults (zār), participation in religious brotherhoods (ṭarīqahs), and commemoration of the Prophet's birth (mawlid al-nabī; Turkish, mevlûd) in which women play dominant roles.

    The “Pious Ones.”

    A ṣāliḥ is a person, living or dead, who serves as an intermediary in securing God's blessings (barakah) for clients and supporters. In earlier centuries, lineages of “pious ones” tied tribes to Islam and mediated disputes, and they are still thought to be particularly efficacious for those who have maintained long-term ties with them. In French contexts these saints are often called “marabouts” (murābiṭ, literally “tied one”). The term ṣāliḥ is much more common in North African Arabic because it does not imply that God has intermediaries, a notion at odds with Qurʿānic doctrine although implicit in local beliefs. Shrines associated with these saints are the focus of local pilgrimages and annual festivals. Some offerings—such as sacrifices at the annual festival—are annual obligations that ensure that the social groups involved “remain connected” with the saint to secure his blessings. Annual festivals for major saintly figures attract tens of thousands of clients. At the same time, public collective recitations of poetry in praise of the Prophet Muḥammad composed by some of the “pious ones”—people from many different walks of life, from the politically powerful to humble shopkeepers—are very popular events that reinforce community ties and bring blessings to the reciters and their audiences see BARAKAH.

    In addition to offering collective sacrifices to “remain connected,” individuals give gifts or sacrifices for specific requests. For instance, it is common for women to go to certain shrines to ask for a saint's help in becoming pregnant. A woman may tear a strip of cloth from her dress and attach it to the door of a shrine as a reminder to the pious one. If the request is granted, she and her spouse give the promised payment. For a North African who implicitly accepts such beliefs, the main issue is not the existence of pious ones—that is taken for granted—but whether particular pious ones will exercise their powers on one's behalf. They are more likely to do so if a client can claim “closeness” (qarābah) to a pious one or his or her descendants. Offerings and sacrifices create a bond of obligation (ḥaqq) between the pious one and the supplicant see SAINTHOOD.

    Use of the term “pious one” instead of “marabout” or “saint” evokes the multifaceted nature of the concept in North African thought. Those who honor pious ones or seek their support are aware of the disapproval of some religious elites, but they nonetheless regard their vision of Islam as realistic and appropriate. Shrines dot the landscape throughout North Africa, and the significance of pious ones is formally acknowledged in a variety of ways. In the Maghrib it is common for people going on the pilgrimage to Mecca first to visit local shrines or sanctuaries and to do so again on their return. Such ritual activities suggest that believers have an integrated vision of local religious practices and more universally accepted rituals such as the pilgrimage to Mecca. The Arabic word for pilgrimage (ḥajj) is not used to describe such local visits; the pilgrimage to Mecca is conceptually a separate phenomenon.

    Religious Orders and Movements in the Modern World.

    Religious brotherhoods (ṭarīqahs) and lodges (zāwiyah; Persian, khānqāh; Turkish, tekke), associated with mysticism, also figure in popular religious practices throughout the Muslim-majority world. As with the North African regard for pious ones, these orders are seen by many Muslims as complementing and enhancing the vitality of the Muslim community, although this view is the subject at times of vigorous internal debate. In Iran, radical Islamist groups such as the Fidāʿīyān-i Islām (Devotees of Islam) incorporate Ṣūfī practices into their observances, and in Morocco “fundamentalist” or Islamist groups adopt stylistic elements derived from Ṣūfī brotherhoods—and defend them against “modernist” interpretations of Islam that downplay Ṣūfī thought and practice—as a means of securing popular legitimacy. Even in Algeria, the scene of violent clashes between the government and Islamic radicals from the late 1980s until the late 1990s, some opposition groups have links with religious orders and local marabout families thought to have lost influence because of their suspected compromises with the French during the colonial era, but who by the 1980s formed a backbone for protest against state excesses.

    Popular religious expression often reflects social differentiation. In North Africa, for instance, the Tijānīyah order—and today the Būshīshīyah in Morocco—had numerous government officials among its adherents, as did the Bektāshīyah order in Turkey. Other orders were associated with particular crafts or trades. Some were considered highly respectable; others, such as the Ḥamadshah and the Ḥaddāwah in Morocco, were associated with the use of drugs, trances, and other marginal activities.

    Until the 1920s the majority of adult urban males and many villagers in most parts of the Middle East belonged to some brotherhood. A popular saying was, “He who does not have a Ṣūfī master as his guide has Satan to guide him.” In recent times some orders are enjoying a revival as religious traditions become “re-imagined” and integrated into modern life. This is the case particularly in the newly independent states of Central Asia and in Cairo where, alongside the rise of Islamic radicalism, “neo-Sufism”—essentially a re-imagined tradition of Islamic mysticism purified of “non-Islamic” practices—has emerged as a significant religious force.

    Zār Cults and the Birth of the Prophet.

    Sometimes popular religious practices are dismissed as little more than an affective complement to the formal side of Islamic practice and belief and are thus thought to be practiced more by women than by men. Such characterizations can be highly misleading. For example, zār cults are prevalent throughout Egypt, Sudan, and East Africa and are associated with certain North African religious brotherhoods and some groups in the Arab Gulf and Yemen. Because women often play a major role in these practices, some observers have speculated that they compensate for the often subordinate social status of women. More recent studies suggest, however, that the elaborate array of spirits called up by participants in zār cults, in which both men and women participate, offer a conceptual backdrop against which villagers and others can imagine alternative social and religious realities, much like the veneration of saints, the “invisible friends” of early Latin Christianity.

    Women also predominate in the ceremonies that mark the birth of the prophet Muḥammad, the mevlûd in Turkey, while men predominate in activities that take place in mosques. Rather than seeing the mevlûd as primarily a women's activity, it is best to see it as complementary to mosque activities and an integral element of the way Islam is understood locally and practiced by both women and men acting as households.

    Ritual and Community.

    Popular elaboration of ritual also distinguishes communities within the Muslim world. The ritual cycle of mourning for the betrayal of the Prophet's grandson Ḥusayn (d. 680) provides Shīʿī Muslims with a sense of self-renewal and victory over death and strengthens a sense of sectarian identity. On ʿāshūrāʿ, the tenth of the month of Muḥarram, funerary processions in Shīʿī communities throughout Iran, Afghanistan, southern Iraq, Pakistan, and Lebanon reenact the last episodes of Ḥusayn's life and his burial. Central to these occasions is a mourning play (taʿzīyah) about his martyrdom, its many versions varying according to local circumstances. Since the audience knows the play well, the drama does not rely on suspense but on the acting of the scenes. Anachronisms abound; in some versions, European ambassadors rather than Sunnī Muslims betray Ḥusayn, and Old Testament figures are introduced. The final scene involves a procession with the martyr's coffin (or a severed head) to the court of the Sunnī caliph. On the way, Christians, Jews, and Sunnī Muslims bow before Ḥusayn. The intensity of such public performances, especially when they accompany other religious events, provides Shīʿī leaders with a means of mobilizing public opinion. In Iran, for example, during the last years of the shah's rule, political demonstrations were often planned to coincide with the cycle of Shīʿī religious activities. Shīʿah in Iraq and southern Lebanon are limited only by changing public attitudes toward the public enactment of taʿzīyah ritual, but in Saudi Arabia the authorities strictly prohibit public displays of reverence for Ḥusayn among the kingdom's Shīʿī minority.

    The Alevi (Arabic, ʿAlawī) Muslims of Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon illustrate another dimension of popular religious understanding, one which requires more elaboration than other examples of popular religious expression because Alevi religious beliefs remain less well known. Until the mid-twentieth century the Alevi were primarily villagers and thus lacked a tradition of the formal religious scholarship and jurisprudence that produces the “authoritative” discourse that justifies a sect's divergence from other Muslim groups. Most Alevi villages in eastern Turkey lack mosques, and ritual practices also differ markedly in the interpretation of the “five pillars” of Islam. Alevis, like the Shīʿah, emphasize the role of ʿAlī, the prophet Muḥammad's son-in-law, as much as they do the oneness of God and the prophecy of Muḥammad. Sunnī Muslims of the region's prevalent Ḥanafī school pray five times daily, with a total of forty bowings (rakʿahs). Alevis believe that two bowings annually in the presence of their spiritual leader (dede or pir) suffice. Sunnīs fast for the entire lunar month of Ramaḍān; Alevis consider this a fetish and fast instead in the month of Muḥarram for twelve days in memory of the twelve imams. They call this fast yaʿs, or “mourning” (for the martyrs of Karbala), not ṣawm, as the Ramaḍān fast is called. Alevis consider the pilgrimage to Mecca “external pretense”; for them the real pilgrimage takes place in one's heart.

    From a Sunnī or Shīʿī perspective, Alevi interpretations of the Muslim tradition are unacceptable. Most scandalous of all from a Sunnī perspective is the Alevi feast of Ayini Cem (the gathering for worship). This feast is as important for the Alevis as the Feast of Abraham (ʿĪd al-Kabīr; Turkish, Kurban Bayrami) is for Sunnī Muslims.

    Like the Shīʿah, the Alevis practice taqīyah, the dissimulation of their beliefs and practices, and the Ayini Cem, at least in Turkey, takes place when outsiders are not present. This is when community disputes are resolved, often with the mediation of the dede. Members of the community approach the dede in pairs, hand in hand, kneeling and crawling on all fours to kiss the hem of his coat. The only obligatory annual Alevi prayer is performed on this communal occasion. Music for the sema, a whirling dance performed by men and women, is accompanied by a saz, a sort of long-necked lute. Some dancers go into trance. Villagers recite mystical poetry commemorating the martyrs of the Alevi community; in Alevi gatherings outside Turkey, especially in Germany, the event is used to re-create or “re-imagine” Alevi history in line with contemporary claims to identity, making their doctrines more explicit and thus “parallel” to “mainstream” Muslim beliefs. The climax of the festivity is the “putting out of the candle” (mum söndürmek): villagers throw water on twelve burning candles, representing the twelve imams and martyrs.

    Alevi practices have thrived in western Germany because there the Alevis need not be concerned about government interference. Alevi migrants have been able to establish community-wide networks more easily in Germany than in Turkey, where state authorities have been suspicious of regional gatherings because many Alevis are Kurds. Since the 1970s these wider networks in the diaspora have also facilitated a greater sense of collective Alevi political identity, and Alevis since the 1990s also have community centers in Istanbul.

    The Alevis may be regarded as an extreme example of the range of diverse practices among Muslims, but one consequence of their greater public visibility is the rise of efforts among Alevi intellectuals and educated community leaders to explain how these village practices are compatible with prevalent majority views of Muslim faith and practice. Similar ranges of popular perception and misperception prevail between the Sunnī and Shīʿah, between the Ibāḍīyah of Oman and North Africa and with their neighbors, and—more fragile—with the Aḥmadīyah in Pakistan. Indeed, after major riots against the Aḥmadīyah in 1953, an official government committee of inquiry concluded that the country's religious scholars were unable to agree on a definition of what is a Muslim. Such particularistic interpretations are not waning or being homogenized in the face of modernization but are maintaining their vitality through adaptation. “Tradition” is never static but is constantly reframed to accommodate modern circumstances see ʿALAWīYAH.

    The Particular and the Universal.

    Followers of a religious tradition often adhere to practices and beliefs that religious authorities, intellectuals, or scholarly observers see as contradictory because they cannot be reduced to a cohesive set of principles. The late Fazlur Rahman (1919–1988), a leading Islamic scholar and reformer, dismissed the mystical and popular understandings of Islam that predominated in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa after the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as ideas and practices perpetrated by “charlatans” and “spiritual delinquents” who deceived the ignorant. An alternative view is that popular religious expression involves both explicit discussion and debate, and an implicit reimagination of belief and practice, which together contribute to a continuing reconfiguration of religious thought throughout the world of Islam. In one sense, opposing (or complementary) conceptions of Islam are particularistic and are significantly intertwined with the local social order. They often strengthen commitment to Islam. Thus the theologian Ibn Taymīyah (d. 1328) condemned all celebrations of the Prophet's birth as a harmful innovation (bidʿah). Many other theologians, however, tolerate it as an acceptable innovation (bidʿah ḥasanah) because it promotes reverence for the Prophet. In other regions, including villages in the Chitral region of Pakistan's North-West Frontier province, austere and rigid Wahhābī-inspired representations of Islam clash with a lively tradition of Ṣūfī-inspired poetry and music recitals that balance the formality of public ritual.

    Other conceptions of Islam are more universal and amenable to generalization and application throughout the Muslim world, such as the pilgrimage to Mecca and ritual prayer. Some ideological expressions of Islamic doctrine, such as those characteristic of reformist Islam and the beliefs of many educated Muslims, tend to be universalistic in that they are explicit and more general in their implications. These complementary universalistic and particularistic trends are in dynamic tension with each another. Ṣūfī practices, thought to be on the wane in the late twentieth century, have enjoyed a major comeback in North Africa, Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere.

    Islam's “New” Intellectuals.

    A major development in the popular understanding of Islam is associated with the rise of mass education and the new media. Traditionally-educated religious scholars (ʿulamāʿ) now compete for public space alongside media-wise preachers and others who capture a public audience and suggest to a wide public how to live Islamic lives in the modern world. Not all Muslims regard the authoritative voice of an established man of learning as a prerequisite to legitimate religious knowledge. Increasingly, the carriers of religious knowledge are those who claim a strong Islamic commitment, as is the case with many educated urban youths. Freed from traditional patterns of learning and scholarship, which have often been compromised by state control, religious knowledge is increasingly interpreted in a directly political fashion. Photocopied tracts, Web blogs, and the clandestine dissemination of sermons on cassettes and CDs have begun to replace the mosque as the vehicle for disseminating visions of Islam that challenge those sanctioned by the state.

    The ideological spokespersons of most radical Islamist movements have received education in secular subjects, not religious ones. In the poorer quarters of Cairo or in the provincial capital of Asyūt in Upper Egypt, the leaders of activist groups rely on pamphlets, books by journalists such as Sayyid Quṭb (1906–1966)—executed by Nasser and since then a resource for radical ideologues—and sermons on cassette, CDs, and the Internet rather than on direct study of the Qurʿān, ḥadīth, and other elements of the formal Islamic tradition.

    In the hands of Muslim thinkers such as Morocco's ʿAbd al-Salām Yāsīn, the militant argument provides an ideology of liberation. Yāsīn argues that contemporary Muslim societies have been de-Islamicized by imported ideologies and values as well as the monarchy, which he views as enabling social and moral disorder. Muslim peoples are subjected to injustice and repression by elites whose ideas and conduct derive more from the West than from Islam. His argument is circumspect on how Muslims should liberate themselves from present-day unjust polities. His overall aim is to set coreligionists on the “right path” to a new era, not directly to confront the state.

    The content of Yāsīn's sermons and writings and those of other new religious intellectuals (see, for example, www.nadiayassine.net) suggests that their principal audience is educated and younger and already familiar with the imported, secular ideologies against which they argue. Their key terms, derived from Qurʿānic verses and religious slogans, are more evocative for their intended audience than are the language and arguments of secular political parties. Unabashedly uncompromising and violent, the video propaganda of al-Qaʿida claims to invoke Islamic themes and to emulate the actions of the Prophet, but its appeals—even though keyed to dispossessed Muslim youth—are only tangentially based on Islamic tradition as it is more universally understood. Such competing voices, however, have profoundly altered the competition over who speaks for Islam throughout the Muslim majority world and has caused a transformation in the way governments throughout the Muslim Middle East represent themselves, with many now stressing their religious credentials.



    • Boddy, Janice. Wombs and Alien Spirits: Women, Men, and the Zār Cult in Northern Sudan. Madison, Wis., 1989. Rich, evocative account of possession cults and how they relate both to Islam and to ideas of gender and person.
    • Chelkowski, Peter, ed.Taʿziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran. New York, 1979. Standard, accessible account of the ritual mourning of the death of Ḥusayn among Iran's Shīʿah.
    • Çinar, Alev. Modernity, Islam, and Secularism in Turkey: Bodies, Places, and Time. Minneapolis, Minn., 2005.
    • Deeb, Lara. An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shiʿi Lebanon. Princeton, N.J., 2006.
    • Eickelman, Dale F.The Middle East and Central Asia: An Anthropological Approach. 4th ed.Upper Saddle River, N.J., 2002. Chapter 10 provides an extensive account of religious practices throughout the region.
    • Eickelman, Dale F.Moroccan Islam: Tradition and Society in a Pilgrimage Center. Austin, Tex., 1976. Thorough account of saints in a Moroccan context and the ambiguous tension between their veneration and other interpretations of Islam.
    • Geertz, Clifford. Islam Observed. New Haven, Conn., 1968. Classic account of how a world religion has taken root in Morocco and Indonesia.
    • Lauzière, Henri. “Post-Islamism and the Religious Discourse of ʿAbd al-Salam Yasin.”International Journal of Middle East Studies37, no. 2 (2005): 241–61.
    • Mardin, Şerif. Religion and Social Change in Modern Turkey: The Case of Bediüzzaman Said Nursi. Albany, N.Y., 1989. Fascinating study of a religious order that originated in late nineteenth-century Turkey and has emerged as a significant transnational movement.
    • Salvatore, Armando, and Dale F. Eickelman, eds.Public Islam and the Common Good. Leiden, Netherlands, and Boston, 2004. Discusses the role that Islam plays in politics and society throughout the Middle East, Turkey, and South Asia.
    • Schielke, Samuli. “On Snacks and Saints: When Discourses of Order and Rationality Enter the Egyptian Mawlid.”Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions135 (2006): 117–140.
    • Tapper, Nancy, and Richard Tapper. “The Birth of the Prophet: Ritual and Gender in Turkish Islam.”Man22, no. 1 (March 1987): 69–92. Remains one of the best accounts of the complementarity of men's and women's religious practices for the entire region.
    • Waugh, Earle H.Memory, Music, and Religion: Morocco's Mystical Chanters. Columbia, S.C., 2005.
    • Yalman, Nur.“Islamic Reform and the Mystic Tradition in Eastern Turkey.”European Journal of Sociology10, no. 1 (May 1969): 41–60. A useful account of Alevi belief and practice.

    Dale F. Eickelman

    Popular Religion in Sub-Saharan Africa

    For the past thousand years Islam, in the form of the practice of Muslims and outward expressions of Muslim consciousness, icons, and social organization, has widely contributed to cultural appropriations and adaptations across the African continent. Day names for the seven-day week, widespread in the languages spoken by Muslim and non-Muslim peoples, commonly come from their Arabic equivalent. By the same token Arabic texts have a sacred place among the objects critical to the success of African diviners ministering well beyond the confines of the ummah. During the nineteenth century, and to an even greater extent under colonial domination in the twentieth century, the velocity of Islamization picked up and it touched hundreds of African ethnic groups in West Africa, well into the forest zone and along the coast. Similarly, people in the interior of East Africa as far the Congo Basin and Malawi encountered Muslim merchants, and South Asian labor brought to South Africa contributed to a further expansion of Islamic influence. Previously many of these regions had had little or no direct contact with the Islamic world, but with the advent of Christian missionary activity Islam became a counterweight to European-inflected monotheism. Towards the end of the twentieth century, independent Africa was visited by yet another wave of Muslim influence in the form of non-governmental organizations mainly from the Arabian peninsula, that further differentiated Islamic practice in the heartlands from local praxis. One result of this long history is that popular expressions of piety in Islamized Africa exhibit rich diversity, both within individual societies and in developments across time, and cultural expressions of Islam extend into political arenas well beyond simple acts of conversion and opposition. Examples of popular religion in sub-Saharan Muslim societies are grouped below into three categories: culturally specific social behavior and religious ideas that include appropriations of Islamic motifs; the permeation of symbols of literacy, e.g. the Qurʿān, into everyday life; and ritual practice.

    Islam and Local Culture.

    The processes of Islamization south of the Sudanic belt across Africa that began during the nineteenth century and continue today are among the most dynamic in the Islamic world. Islamization in sub-Saharan Africa has been by no means systematic; it has affected some individuals and communities and left others untouched. Frequently it is Islamic dress that most effectively distinguishes converts from non-Muslims living around them. That dress is generally a variation on the jallabīyah and cap (kaffīyeh)—both sometimes bearing elaborate embroidery that may be an indicator of economic class—and ornament in the form of talismans in leather amulet pouches tied to the arm or hung around the neck, tasbīḥ (prayer beads), and, for the traveler, a rolled prayer mat and a kettle of water carried for ablutions. To be so equipped is to be identified as a Muslim in sub-Sudanic African societies where specific local customs relating to diet, marriage, divorce, or inheritance may conflict with Islamic law or where the full weight of orthopraxy may not be felt.

    The decorative arts of local cultures across Muslim Africa, like their music and poetry, reveal great local genius in the appropriation of Islamic symbols. Islamic designs pervade local arts, exemplified by crescent designs on post-independence cloth prints, late colonial calabash engraving incorporating symbols of modernity alongside stylized lawḥ (wooden copyboards for Qurʿānic memorization), or elaborate nineteenth-century fans inscribed with one of Allāh's ninety-nine names. Islamic symbols and elements of Muslim material culture have also entered African arts in such forms as elaborately woven prayer mats, amulet-case designs in metal or leather, jewelry, and ornament in mask designs. No single symbol so remarkably conveys this appropriation of the Islamic tradition into folk arts in West Africa as does al-Burāq, the winged horse said to have carried the Prophet to Jerusalem. In sculpture, cloth prints, amulets, masks, and drum stands, al-Burāq reappears across West Africa as one of the most enduring symbols of the mystical powers associated with the Prophet. Analogous to these representations in the arts are Islamic motifs in music and verse, woven into such diverse styles as Lagos juju music and—judging from the periodic denunciations by ʿulamāʿ—the unholy use of drumming as an integral part of Muslim marriage celebrations and performances on festival days. Local holy men and women become objects of visual veneration, perhaps most dramatically seen in the iconization of the single French administrative photograph of Senegal's Shaykh Ahmadu Bamba, now sacred to murīd (Ṣūfī disciples) communities abroad as well as at home.

    Distinctive Islamic dress and Islamic motifs in the arts of many sub-Saharan African societies are the result of centuries of contact with Muslim lands. In addition to material culture, local cultures have also appropriated certain popular Islamic beliefs, perhaps most dramatically illustrated by the Mahdist expectations that have swept Sudanic Africa during the past two centuries. The popular belief was that the Mahdī would come from the east, just as the Antichrist Dajjāl would appear in the west. At least nine Mahdīs are documented during the nineteenth century, from the Senegal Valley and Futa Jalon in the west to Omdurman and Somalia in the east, and a like number of Mahdīs appeared during colonial rule, as late as the 1940s. The Sudanese Mahdī Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd Allāh (1843–1898) was the most celebrated, inspiring a flurry of Mahdist claims (and colonial worries) during the opening decades of the twentieth century; well before this, however, each of the West African mujāhids was obliged by his followers to explain why he was not the expected Mahdī. Less well-known are the Muslim communities in Niger, Nigeria, and Cameroon at the end of the nineteenth century where the reappearance of ʿĪsā (Jesus) was awaited as slayer of the Antichrist, a role for which he competed with the Mahdī in some traditions. Mahdist eschatology was popularly professed throughout the Sudanese communities during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As late as the mid-twentieth century a Yoruba “Mahdī-Messiah” invented an amalgam of Christian and Muslim practice that inspired a thriving community of twenty thousand until his death in 1959. And in the early 1980s large numbers of the urban lower classes in northern Nigeria gave brief allegiance to a Cameroonian cleric from a Mahdist tradition, Mai tatsine, until the government forces annihilated the prophet and his followers.

    An integral part of historical and contemporary Muslim life in sub-Saharan Africa is spirit-possession cults such as sar (from Gondar, Ethiopian zar, “origins”) in East Africa, Sudan, and parts of North Africa, and its counterpart, bori, in Hausa-speaking West Africa and North Africa, sometimes seen as survivals of pre-Islamic practice. I. M. Lewis has argued persuasively that these cults—today largely urban, dominated by women and marginalized male migrant workers—hold special appeal to wives of the religiously minded who condemn the cults (“The Past and Present in Islam: The Case of African ‘Survivals’, ” 19 [1983]: 55–67). These cults, varying in precise form from culture to culture but retaining the sar or bori appellation, have thus become interwoven with orthopraxy, providing women and others alienated by locally constructed ideals of Islamic society with an avenue for participating in a counterculture whose definition is itself dependent upon Islamic orthodoxy.

    Qurʿān and Popular Piety.

    The most pervasive example of Qurʿānic transcendence in popular usage throughout sub-Saharan Africa is the talisman or amulet industry, the products of which adorn babies, children, and adults as well as protect many a home and car. Talismans are mainly utilized for their preventative or palliative powers, which underlines an important therapeutic attraction of Islam among peoples on the fringe of the Muslim world. The use of “washings” (typically inked or chalked verses from the Qurʿān, washed into a vial to be periodically drunk or dabbed on the body) to cure or at least mitigate a variety of ills has long been part of the repertoire of holy men and seers throughout Muslim Africa. In the same fashion talismans hung at a prescribed spot or worn on the body can serve a range of purposes: protection in armed conflict or everyday affairs, for individuals or whole communities; security for safe travel, avoidance of slander, or assurance of success or influence; advantage to cause, then protect pregnancies, cure disease, or promote intelligence; and punishment in the form of proactive measures against enemies. A common adornment for masks used in communal cleansing ceremonies well beyond the pale of Muslim communities are talismans with appropriate prayers or Qurʿānic messages to aid the process.

    Washings and talismans are at the juncture of medicine (ṭibb) and esoteric sciences (bāṭinīyah) in Islamic learning, and these specifically Islamic cures compete with other therapeutic remedies readily available in most African societies. Murray Last notes that in Hausa society some Muslim holy men are known today for their success rate in prescriptions for physical illness just as others become specialists in social problems (“Charisma and Medicine in Northern Nigeria,” in Charisma and Brotherhood in African Islam, edited by Donal Cruise O’Brien and Christian Coulon, Oxford, 1988, pp. 183–204). It is to those specialists in social problems that politicians and businessmen apply for formulas for success, and there are few heads of state, Muslim or Christian, who are not reputed to retain a personal mallam or marabout.

    Esoteric sciences that complement the efficacy of washings and talismans are numerology and astrology, both of which emphasize, in I. M. Lewis's phrase, the “mystical defense system” popularly attributed to Islam in this region. Indeed, numerology is frequently the main science utilized in talisman production, and the propitious alignment of stars is as carefully watched by specialists in Sudanic Africa as by astrologers in the West. The significance of these practices lies not in the sciences themselves, nor in the fact that Islamic remedies are popularly understood to compete favorably alongside non-Islamic medicines; rather, it lies in the symbolic power of the Qurʿānic scripture and the demonstrable function of the word in response to everyday needs.

    The Ṣūfī brotherhoods have long been the vanguard of Islamization in sub-Saharan Africa, and with them have arisen popular attachments to individual shaykhs, analogous to the special relation between shaykh and student in many other parts of the Muslim world. Pilgrimage to the tombs of saints may have therapeutic effects, most frequently for women to safeguard pregnancies. The desire for prayers of intervention on behalf of individuals has spawned a minor prayer industry for shaykhs. With this mediating role, most frequently played by Ṣūfī leaders, has come an iconization of both dead saints and living shaykhs. This is most vividly illustrated by the religious paraphernalia associated with the Murīdīyah in Senegal, where postcards and glass paintings commemorating events in the life of the patron saint Ahmadu Bamba (d. 1927) can be found at most corner dealers in religious wares as well as adorning taxis and trucks driven by followers, and in urban mural art in Senegal. Analogous marketing of local Tijānī shaykhs in Ghana, or of the Senegalese (Kaolack) Tijānī holy man al-Ḥājj Malik Sy in northern Nigeria, became increasingly sophisticated toward the end of the twentieth century and these icons have been exported, with the global expansion of West African labor, throughout Europe and the United States.

    The Ṣūfī shaykh as a conduit between the supernatural and the common folk has long been an important fixture in the moral economy of Muslim communities. As with therapeutic matters, the shaykh's possession of at least a rudimentary knowledge of Arabic certifies his authority to mediate between scripture and supplicant in societies where Arabic is not spoken and access to the Qurʿān is thus quite restricted. Whether he is a writer of simple talismans or an accomplished jurist, a shaykh's authority rests largely on his near-monopoly over the scripture, but his barakah (blessing) may also be sought for its own sake. Where a local Ṣūfī ṭarīqah institutionalizes exploitive relationships between shaykh and student, it also makes popular religion a commodity. The Qādirīyah and Tijānīyah in West Africa, the Qādirīyah, Shādhilīyah and ʿAskarīyah in East Africa, and the Qādirīyah, Sammānīyah, Khatmīyah, and Mahdīyah in Sudan, all fulfill analogous roles at one broad level of orthopraxy. Their ultimate meaning and local impact, however, depend heavily on individual shaykhs and their skills at mediating or manipulating the holy word. The title “al-Shaykh,” like the pilgrim's title “al-Ḥājji,” connotes local recognition of the religious, objects of veneration among their followers and subjects of snickers among their critics. In recent years inexpensive cassette tapes of sermons and readings by both pan-Islamic notables and local preachers have become available on national markets in sub-Saharan Africa, providing an electronic form of mediation and translation of the word in local settings that now competes with the scripture in the economy of popular piety. With the increased activity of Muslim non-governmental organizations and the return home from local students subsidized to study in the Hejaz at the end of the twentieth century there has come a new level of competition for the minds of the faithful between the shaykhs and “modernist” practice.

    Ritual Practice.

    Piety in most sub-Saharan African Islamic communities, as elsewhere in the Islamic world, is most publicly displayed at prayer and most effectively demonstrated on festival days. These are the occasions for new outfits for children, new gowns for adult members of the household, lavish displays of food for dependents, and generous dispensing of cash gifts—all widely accepted as indices of religiosity. Although the relative importance of individual festival days varies from region to region, ʿĪd al-Kabīr (widely known as “Tabaski” in West Africa) and ʿĪd al-Saghīr (or al-Fiṭr, also known as “Salla” in West Africa) at the end of Ramaḍān generally compete in importance; in East Africa ʿĪd al-Ḥājj replaces the first of these as a principal festival. Celebration of the Prophet's birth, the mawlid, is a minor holiday in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, although it has been appropriated by the Ṣūfī brotherhoods in many countries for an annual display of piety before saints’ tombs. Large followings of some local saints have spawned individual festivals, exemplified by the annual Grand Maggal (Wolof, “to celebrate”) in Touba, Senegal, when murīd followers gather by the tens of thousands to observe the anniversary of the death of Amadu Bamba in a festive atmosphere.

    The centrality of the visitation of saints’ tombs varies across Africa's Muslim populations; in northern Sudan such tombs are a chief source of barakah and popular sites of local pilgrimage. On the west coast, in southern Mauritania, gravesites are modestly marked even for holy men, and although visitations take place they are not yet ritualized. Between these extremes, hundreds of African Muslim societies integrate local custom, generally heavily tinged with veneration of ancestors, with Islamic burial ritual.

    Elements of life-cycle rituals in Muslim societies are popularly understood to be linked to Islamic prescriptions. In sub-Saharan Africa these focus on naming ceremonies (which frequently involve an imam or local shaykh and elaborate displays of hospitality), the acts of circumcision and clitoridectomy, the formalities and types of marriage (dowries, the degrees of proximity permitted in Islamic law, the number of wives, etc.) and divorce, and burial rites. In each Islamized society compromise is negotiated among local custom, scripturally sanctioned practice, and orthopraxy in neighboring Muslim communities and lands. It is generally with respect to Islamic laws of inheritance and in particular land that local custom has proven most intractable.

    Since the mid-twentieth century, as a result of increased communication between the Muslim heartlands and sub-Saharan Africa and also as a result of increasing numbers of African pilgrims traveling to the Hejaz, there has been a gradual but perceptible homogenization within national Muslim cultures. This is most noticeable in ritual life, where the political influence of religious leaders has been recognized by national authorities and ritual reinforcement of that influence has been encouraged (a contrast with the official wariness toward that same influence during colonial times). As a result, national Islamic political cultures have emerged in many countries. These tend to focus on annual rituals such as the mawlid, generally under the supervision of shaykhs in the local ṭarīqahs, whose mediating roles increasingly extend into the political sphere.



    • Bravmann, René A.African Islam. Washington D.C., 1983. Elegantly illustrated exhibition catalog with extended essays on the material culture of Muslim societies in sub-Saharan Africa.
    • Le Grip, A.“Le Mahdisme en Afrique noire.”L’Afrique et l’Asie18 (1952): 3–16. Remains one of the best brief surveys of Mahdism in Sudanic Africa during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
    • Lewis, I. M., ed.Islam in Tropical Africa. 2d ed.London, 1980. Twenty-five years after its first appearance, this study remains one of the most succinct and comprehensive surveys of orthopraxy and popular piety in sub-Saharan African communities; includes an updated introduction.
    • Nimtz, August H., Jr.Islam and Politics in East Africa. Minneapolis, 1980. Surveys Ṣūfī brotherhoods in East Africa (with particular reference to Tanzania) and their gradual involvement in national politics.
    • Owusu-Ansah, David. Islamic Talismanic Tradition in Nineteenth-Century Asante. Lewiston, N.Y., 1991. Detailed study of a set of over five hundred folios of instructions on the manufacture of talismans recovered from a non-Muslim state on the Gold Coast in the early years of the nineteenth century.
    • Roberts, Allen F., and Mary Nooter Roberts, with Gassia Armenian and Ousmane Guye. Saint in the City: Sūfī Arts of Urban Senegal. Los Angeles, 2003, distributed by University of Washington Press. This richly illustrated (274 color photos) museum catalogue narrates the development and diffusion of mainly murīd expressions of visual arts.
    • Saul, Mahir. “Islam and West African Anthropology.”Africa Today, 53 (2006): 2–33. Surveys the ways anthropologists have ignored the syncretism in West African societies that reflects the long-standing influence of Islam.
    • Tom, Abdullahi Osman el-. “Drinking the Koran: The Meaning of Koranic Verses in Berti Erasure.” In Popular Islam South of the Sahara, edited by J. D. Y. Peel and Charles C. Stewart, pp. 414–431. Manchester, 1985. This collection also includes six contributions that address aspects of popular Islam in Sudan, Nigeria, and Senegal.
    • Trimingham, J.Spencer. The Influence of Islam upon Africa. 2d ed.London, 1980.

    Charles C. Stewart

    Popular Religion in South Asia

    Popular religion in South Asia, incorporating beliefs, rituals, and practices not necessarily in conformity with the scripturalist tradition, is most commonly associated with the masses. These beliefs and rituals inevitably shape the religious views and lives of Muslim communities in different ways in different regional settings. Described as “deviations” from the “authentic” tradition, these are sometimes reflective, inter alia, of the human desire for finding tangible means of reaching and worshipping a God who seems a stranger and distant. Historically, all Muslim communities have inherited, borrowed, or innovated newer forms of worship, ideas, and rituals and integrated them into the main body of their religion either consciously or unconsciously, much to the consternation of the orthodox. Repeated attempts at “purification” have inevitably failed to create or restore a tradition that could be described as “pure” and “authentic.” But popular beliefs and rituals have existed not merely at the lower level of society, as is sometimes suggested, but have been common even at the level of higher, better educated society, such as those who generally espouse and propagate the ideals of orthodoxy, including the Islamic scholars themselves. This is evident from their conflicting fatwās (rulings on questions of Islamic law) on many matters, including what constitutes the dār al-Islām (the abode of Islam), and their various opinions and teachings on important religious questions, particularly on the status of the Prophet of Islam, glorifying him beyond recognition and making him comparable to the Christian concept of Jesus. These ideas and symbols, articulated in Islamic, or Perso-Arabian, terms, do give them an Islamic appearance, but the integrity of the scripturalist tradition is no less compromised by these “deviations” than by the more open adherence to popular beliefs and rituals by the nonliterate masses.

    Even among highly educated urban Muslims, traces of popular traditions were clearly evident as late as the early twenty-first century. These were particularly reflected in birth rites, wedding ceremonies, mawlid al-nabī (festivals), homages paid to pirs (spiritual guides) and shrines, and a host of other socio-religious ceremonies. The continued disputations and public debates among religious scholars on questions of bidʿah (innovations) demonstrate a lack of consensus on what constitutes innovation. Yet, sentiments are so strong among them against what they each perceive to be bidʿah that it can readily degenerate (and has degenerated) into violence on questions of minor interpretation.

    Roots of Popular Religion.

    South Asian Islam demonstrates the multifarious character of popular religion and its ability to survive the pressures of orthodox ban, fundamentalist hooliganism, and modern-day challenges. What generally sets South Asian popular religion apart from the austere faith that emanated from Arabia in the seventh century CE is the unique mixture of Perso-Arab customs, ideas, and ideals, not necessarily consistent with the scriptural tradition but generally accepted in the subcontinent as the basis of an “authentic” religion. Such a view not only overemphasizes the role of immigrant Muslims as the “standard bearers” of the classical tradition, it equally ignores their diverse social and cultural background, coming, as they did, mostly from central Asian and Afghan tribal regions with a smattering of Arabs, Iranians, and Africans. Naturally, they brought with them their own particular social and religious norms, values, and traditions, and could not have been the bearers of a unified Islamic tradition. Many different rituals, songs, stories, names, and nomenclature (e.g., Yusufzai, Mir, Mirza, Mālik, Khan, etc.) among the different tribes of the frontier districts in Pakistan and India bear testimony to this diversity.

    Once they settled down in the socio-cultural environment of the subcontinent, the conquering Muslims could not ignore the presence of the indigenous population, mostly Hindu, nor could they escape from the cultural influences of the newly conquered lands. Though politically dominant for several hundred years, the Muslim elite constituted but a very small percentage of the total population and had to rely heavily on educated upper-caste Hindus for state business, especially at the local level. Thus was initiated a process of interaction between the two which, despite strong criticisms by the orthodox ʿulamāʿ, have continued ever since. Many Muslims married into Hindu families; participated in local rites, rituals, and ceremonies; and even adhered to some of the social restrictions commonly associated with the Hindu caste system, which is evident from the rigid social differentiation that existed between the supposed descendants of immigrant Muslims and the local converts. This division is well reflected in the two broad categories into which Indian Muslims are generally divided, namely, the ashrāf (well-born) and the ajlāf (low-born). As late as the early twenty-first century, this dichotomous relationship existed in South Asian Islam with the tacit approval of the ʿulamāʿ, pirs, and members of the social elite, all of whom vied with each other in claiming foreign ancestry—often meaning an Arab, Persian, Central Asian, or Afghan origin—to bolster their respective claims of superiority over the local converts, with whom they preferred not to have any meaningful contact. Even the urban-based ʿulamāʿ never concerned themselves with the well-being of this large body of local Muslims, who were mostly converts from the lower social orders of the Hindu-Buddhist society and who continued to live in the same socio-cultural environment as before. It was the gradual emergence of a rural priestly class, the mullahs in the medieval period, centered around a few village mosques established by land grants, as mentioned by Eaton (1993), that brought many of those Muslims into contact with some kind of formal Islam for the first time.

    Mullahs, Pirs, and Shrines.

    Any picture of popular religion in South Asia would remain incomplete without reference to the rural mullahs and pirs who have historically played a crucial role in molding the socio-religious life of rural society since the medieval period. Neither the mullah nor the pir can be described as priests in the literal sense of the term. They are merely religious functionaries and perform certain functions without any specific authority under Islamic law. The majority of them are barely educated in the rudiments of their faith, deriving their support primarily from the ignorance and superstition of their poorer, nonliterate coreligionists. Indeed, many of the village mullahs cannot even read passages of the Qurʿān correctly, and do not understand its meaning or significance, although conditions have been improving lately because of the availability of a madrasah-based education for many of them. Their primary functions are to act as prayer leaders of local mosques, officiate at formal congregational prayers, teach the rudiments of the Qurʿān to young children, lead funeral prayers, and preside over birth and death rites. In the remote countryside, they also perform the ritual slaughter of sacrificial animals on different occasions in exchange for money and gifts. Their clientele go to them for talismans, charms, amulets, and various other occult aids to cope with the problems of their miserable lives.

    The mullahs often share an informal symbiotic relationship with local pirs, who are considered to occupy a level high in the in social hierarchy. But no formal relationship exists among the mullahs of different localities and regions, although attempts have been made in the past to bring them together under various umbrella organizations through political and religious networks, but these efforts have met with limited success. They remain scattered all over the countryside, issuing fatwās and counter-fatwās against each other on various issues affecting the lives of the ordinary believers, and continue to exercise a great deal of influence in the rural society.

    However, the most popular manifestation of nonscripturalist tradition in South Asian Islam is the notion of the pir, or spiritual guide. With no roots in classical Islam (simplistically, there is no p in the Arabic script), the pir is supposed to be a religious divine and a healer to ordinary Muslims. But educated and wealthier members of society also frequent the dargahs (hospices) of pirs.

    Claimed to be the inheritors of the Ṣūfī tradition and, therefore, a walī (beloved of God), the South Asian pirs act more as dispensers of talismans and community leaders than as learned divines. Surrounded by loyal devotees (murīds), mostly men (women live in separate enclosures), the modern-day pirs’ primary job is to deliberate on social and religious issues (waʿz-nasīhat) in public and private meetings, citing verses from the Qurʿān; real or putative stories, including stories from the life of the Prophet and his early disciples; and selected examples from Islamic history. Since they are not necessarily well-versed in religious literature and have limited understanding of the dynamics of Islam and its history, their conversations often seem to be didactic tales with little relevance to the scripturalist tradition. Fears of punishment in hell and a rosy picture of heavenly life after death (with fairies, women, and wine as the primary attractions) are the constant themes of these deliberations. Mesmerized by such images of heaven and hell, the devotees frequently burst into loud sobs out of fear and leave the hospices with troubled minds but with a redoubled admiration of the pir. An elaborate system of rituals and practices gradually takes place, centering around each of these pirs, sometimes imitating the Hindu-Buddhist practices of the guru-chela (preceptor-disciple) relationship. The position of pir is generally hereditary, without regard for education or training, and pirs thrive on the nazrana (gifts) of the devotees, which include cash and goods, as well as the sale of amulets and charms. A kind of special relationship, or brotherhood, develops among the disciples of individual pirs, many of them acting as local agents of that pir and creating a kind of informal network of contact between and among them. Sometimes this relationship degenerates into bitter partisanship between the followers of contending pirs, leading to tension and violence between them.

    Pirs are not mere religious and communal guides to people; they are considered almost semi-divine and possessed of powers to intercede with God. They command blind obedience from their disciples and are credited with miracles. This enables them to ply a lucrative trade in amulets and charms. An annual gathering (ʿurs) at the site of the pirs’ hospices or at the shrine (mazār) of a departed pir, attended by the devotees (murīd) with gifts and donations for the mazār, adds a new dimension to the popularity of the institution. This is particularly true of pirs who do not technically follow an established Ṣūfī order and who have an unconventional approach to religion. Referred to as irregular, or bi-sharʿ Ṣūfīs, these pirs have recourse groups that include dancing, singing, chanting of God's name in rhythm (dhikr), and even using drugs on occasion. A typical example is the maijbhandari brotherhood of Chittagong in Bangladesh, described by Bertocci as a “magico-mystical” movement (Bertocci, p. 25). Founded by one Ahmad Ullah in the middle of the nineteenth century, the annual ʿurs of the maijbhandaris witness night-long singing, dancing, and dhikr, often to the neglect of Islamic ritual prayers, and, finally, culminate in the ritual sacrifice of dozens of water buffalo and distribution of the meat to the devotees as tobarruk (a blessed object), which is somewhat reminiscent of the Hindu sacrifice of water buffalo on the occasion of the ritual worship of the goddess Durga, symbolizing her victory over the buffalo demon (Bertocci, 1996). Richard Eaton has similarly demonstrated in his pioneering study (Sufis) of Ṣūfīs in the Deccan that the rituals and practices at many Ṣūfī shrines tend to draw on local vocabulary, customs, music, and dance, thus creating a religious milieu that transcends the boundaries of orthodox Islam.

    Although condemned by the orthodox ʿulamāʿ and the fundamentalist movements alike as bidʿah, such rituals and practices survive with all their colors all over South Asia in different forms and in different manners, and have become a constant source of tension between the pirist tradition and that of orthodoxy and fundamentalism. Early twenty-first-century developments in Bangladesh, where the fundamentalist Jamāʿat-i Islāmī was in frequent conflict with the traditional pirs and mullahs, polarizing the society into two opposing camps, amply demonstrated this tension, though it is essential to point out that Jamāʿat-i fundamentalism remains the creed of a small minority of Muslims in that country.

    The pirs themselves do not consider their activities contradictory to the precepts of the sharīʿah and invariably look upon themselves as the custodians of “true” Islam. Despite their tension with the orthodox ʿulamāʿ and the fundamentalists, it is not always possible to make a sharp distinction between them and the latter. Nor is the position of the orthodox ʿulamāʿ essentially consistent on many matters concerning popular beliefs. Thus, although the nineteenth-century Islamic revivalist movements, commonly (but wrongly) known as Wahhābī, persistently challenged the pirist tradition, in the end they too compromised their position on many matters, many of them even allowing the use of the title pir for themselves on occasion.

    Closely associated with the devotion to pirs is the veneration paid to the shrines (mazārs) of pirs and of saintly personages, both real and mythical. Like the living pirs, these shrines are generally considered to be connected to the divine world through the spirit of the saintly persons who are buried there. Presided over by a caretaker (khādim), the shrines are maintained by land grants or contributions from devotees, or both. Almost every locality in South Asia has its own shrines devoted to saintly people, genuine or mythical. Susan Bayly mentions that in a southern Indian coastal town twenty such shrines are believed by local people to contain the remains of actual companions (sahābah) of the Prophet of Islam and are held in high esteem (p. 109). Of the well-known Muslim shrines in South Asia, the most notable is that of Khwājah Muʿīnuddīn Chishtī (d. 1235) in Ajmer. For centuries, it has attracted people from all over the subcontinent and beyond. Known for his piety and peaceful missionary activities, Chishtī settled in Ajmer immediately before or during the establishment of Muslim rule in India and came to be recognized as a man of extraordinary zeal and compassion. Even members of the royalty, including the great Mughal emperors Akbar, Jahāngīr, and the rigidly orthodox Aurangzeb, among others, paid homage to the shrine. Over time, a whole network of activities and services developed around the shrine, attracting people from all over the subcontinent, including both Muslims and Hindus. Even in the early twenty-first century, it was one of the most popular shrines in the Muslim world. There are many other shrines in the subcontinent, such as those of Khwājah Nizāmuddīn of Delhi and Shah Jalal of Sylhet, which are equally frequented by the rich and the poor. Devotees visit the shrines for a variety of reasons, seeking the intercession with God of the departed saints in finding cures for illnesses, warding off malevolent influences, fullfilling cherished desires, or gaining ultimate salvation. A visit to one of these shrines will not fail to impress any observer with the love and devotion that characterize the devotees’ offerings. They come with offerings of flowers, candles, sacrificial animals, and cash, and pray at the shrines, seeking the saints’ blessings. Although the idea of worshipping the shrines may not be present in their minds, some of the rituals performed there, such as obeisance, lighting candles, and offering flowers, do raise questions about the boundaries of the sharīʿah.

    Agrarian Context of Popular Culture.

    The buffalo sacrifice is, perhaps, rooted in the agrarian context of Bengal's Muslim culture. But so are many other popular beliefs and rituals at the level of rural society all over South Asia.

    True to the traditions of peasant societies, the religious beliefs and rituals of, especially, the rural Muslims often reflect a concern for immediate problems. This is partly manifested in the unusual reverence paid to the village exorcist, who might be either a Muslim or a Hindu, to the shrines of holy personages, and to mythical figures who are known to have fought against demons, ghosts, and spirits. To the ordinary Muslim peasant, boatman, fisherman, or woodcutter, whose survival depends on the mercy of mysterious and often cruel nature, belief in the miraculous powers of exorcists, pirs, faqīrs, and sometimes even Hindu deities is but one way of seeking protection against disaster. Thus, in the coastal districts of Bengal, Pir Badr, legendary patron saint of sailors, has been venerated for centuries by both Muslim and Hindu sailors, much as many Sindhi Muslims observe the cult of Khwājah Khidr. In South India, many Muslims believed in malignant spirits, fairies, Narasinha (the lion incarnation of Vishnu), and the Mother-goddess. A host of other cults—including those of Zindah Ghāzī, Mobrra Ghāzī, Shah Madar, and Panch Priyas—formed part of the popular mythology of South Asian Islam and continue to play a role in the lives of millions, despite a sustained campaign against such popular beliefs and practices since the late nineteenth century. A whole range of hymns, spells, rituals, and observances condemned by the reformists as un-Islamic continued to survive sometimes under new, and more appropriate, Perso-Arabian names.

    Acceptable Innovations.

    The ambivalent position of the ʿulamāʿ towards certain popular religious traditions is demonstrated by their attempts to define certain practices as good traditions and others as bad. Those, such as the remnants of the Hindu caste system, considered overtly un-Islamic are openly condemned, whereas those that are perceived to be connected to certain Arab or Persian traditions, though not necessarily Islamic in origin, are generally considered acceptable.

    The mawlid al-nabī, the commemoration of the tragedy of Karbala during the month of Muḥarram, and the offering of fātihah (literally, the recitation of the first chapter of the Qurʿān), usually at shrines (mazārs), are typical examples of such practices. The mawlid al-nabī is ostensibly a celebration of the birthday of the Prophet of Islam, in which hymns recited in praise of the Prophet bestow on him an aura of divinity and suggest elevating him to a status almost rivaling God. The devotees’ perception of the Prophet thus takes on the character of a divine being; he becomes the intercessor as well as the protector.

    Popular literature on mawlid al-nabī, designed to educate the ordinary believers on the importance of the occasion, reflects a similar perception. Likewise, the Muḥarram ceremony, commemorating the martyrdom of the Prophet's grandson, Ḥusayn, is reflective of the popular tendency of hero worship. Despite its Shīʿī origins, Muḥarram has been equally popular with Sunnī Muslims of South Asia. The tragedy at Karbala in the seventh century C.E., when Ḥusayn was brutally murdered by the forces of the Umayyad caliph Yazīd, has always appealed to Muslim sentiment—both Shīʿī and Sunnī. Until recently, elaborate commemorative festivals in which non-Muslims also participated were held during the first ten days of the first month of the Islamic calendar. Although it was not as widely and wildly celebrated by the Sunnīs in the early twenty-first century as before, it was still an occasion for remembrance marked by festivities. The extreme veneration paid to Ḥusayn is equally reflected in the homage paid to his mother, Bībī Fāṭimah, the Prophet's daughter. The idolization and glorification of both Ḥusayn and Bībī Fāṭimah probably have nuances that go far beyond the boundaries of Islamic orthodoxy. The ceremony of fātihah is yet another occasion in the category of “good” tradition. Presided over by a mullah, and held on specific occasions seeking special favors of God, the ceremony includes elaborate rituals and offerings, including lighting of candles and slaughter of sacrificial animals, and raises similar questions on its relationship to doctrinal Islam.

    Popular tradition in South Asia similarly features various other rituals and practices, often with the tacit approval of the ʿulamāʿ, though not necessarily in conformity with scripturalist Islam. These include birth rites, circumcision, and marriage. The birth of a child is usually followed by a period in which the mother is regarded as unclean. Although basically similar to local Hindu custom, a similar attitude prevails in many Middle Eastern societies. The canonical ceremony of ʿaqīqah (naming of the child and seeking Allāh's protection for him or her by animal sacrifice), when observed, includes elaborate rituals, dancing, and singing. Circumcision of male children performed either by a low-class Muslim or the village mullah is equally an occasion for merrymaking and has little to do with religion, although the presence of the mullah theoretically serves to sanctify it.

    It is the wedding ceremony that displays some of the most distinctive features of popular religious culture. Although the actual marriage contract (nikāh) is administered “Islamically” by the qāḍī (judge; the marriage registrar), a whole range of rituals and practices that precede and follow the nikāh transform the wedding ceremony into a nonreligious, social event with customs and practices showing resemblances to non-Muslim and local popular traditions. The occasion is usually characterized by the giving of a large dowry by the bride's parents to the bridegroom, which is rigorously negotiated (frequently by pressuring the bride's family) between the parties before the wedding takes place without any regard for religious opinion. The occasion is also marked by exchanges of sweets and gifts, singing, dancing, and feasting, often at the expense of the bride's parents. Many other practices associated with weddings—such as welcoming the bride with offerings of rice or wheat in certain localities and the ceremonial procession of festively attired women carrying gifts to the bride's or bridegroom's house—are common inheritances shared with many other communities in the region, and not in any way Islamic. Muslims from affluent social classes, however, make every effort to wrap an Islamic cloak around these ceremonies while denouncing any such practice in the poorer society. Ironically, it is at the level of the affluent society that such practices are more widespread than at the lower level, for purely financial reasons.

    Recent Themes.

    A growing tendency among religious scholars and the educated elite at the beginning of the twenty-first century was to (over)emphasize literalist Islam as the representative tradition of South Asian Muslims, dismissing the popular rituals and practices as superstitious and un-Islamic. Publications on Islam in local languages similarly emphasize the purist and fundamentalist point of view. Often written in complex prose styles interspersed with long Arabic quotations from the Qurʿān and the ḥadīth, they generally fail to make any impact on the nonliterate or, at best, semiliterate people in the countryside. Even the madrasah-educated rural mullahs have shown increased signs of intolerance towards practices and traditions that go against their literalist interpretation of religion, although their understanding of the Islamic scriptures remains as doubtful as ever. These changes in attitudes can be directly linked to the rise of political Islam in the early twenty-first century, which considerably affected the worldview of the ʿulamāʿ, the secular-educated Muslims, and even the village mullah, to an extent. This, of course, does not imply any fundamental change in the realities of life. The new trend purposely ignored the fundamental fact that popular religion in South Asia is deeply rooted in the heritage of the people themselves, derived from their own experiences, their attitude towards life, and their yearnings for mundane and spiritual salvation. Rituals and practices, whether defined as “good” or “bad,” cannot be judged solely in the context of the boundaries of formal faith. Experiences of material existence often induce people to crave new ideas or borrow from older traditions, sometimes unconsciously. The purpose is to make life as meaningful as possible and to establish a connection with the divine world in as many ways as possible. Rituals and innovations thus become symbols of a continuous struggle for self-realization. This explains the pervasiveness of “alternative manifestations” of Muslim belief and practice in South Asia despite all attempts at modification and purification. The mullah, pir, murīd, mazār, and the traditions associated with these, thus continued to inspire the spiritual quest of millions of Muslims in South Asia and beyond.

    See also BIDʿAH; MULLAH; and PIR.


    • Ahmad, Aziz. Studies in Islamic Culture in the Indian Environment. Oxford, 1964. Seminal work on the nature of interaction between Islamic and Indian cultures; essential for an understanding of popular traditions in South Asia.
    • Ahmed, Rafiuddin.The Bengal Muslims, 1871–1906: A Quest for Identity. New Delhi, India, 1981. Focuses on popular traditions in Bengal in the later nineteenth and early twentieth century and the impact of the Islamic reformist movements on them.
    • Bayly, Susan. Saints, Goddesses, and Kings: Muslims and Christians in South Indian Society, 1700–1900. Cambridge, U.K., 1989. Valuable work on the growth and development of Islamic society and culture in South India.
    • Bertocci, Peter J.“A Sūfī Movement in Bangladesh: The Maijbhandari tariqa and its followers.”Contributions to Indian Sociology40:1 (2006). The first serious study on the Maijbhandari tarīqah that has come to my attention.
    • Eaton, Richard Maxwell.The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204–1760. Berkeley, Calif., 1993. A seminal work exploring the agrarian roots of Bengal's Islamic culture.
    • Eaton, Richard Maxwell.Sufis of Bijapur, 1300–1700: Social Roles of Sufis in Medieval India. Princeton, N.J., 1978. So far the best study on the Sūfīs in the Deccan, with a useful discussion on their roles in propagating and popularizing Islam in South Asia.
    • Ewing, Katherine P.“The Sūfī as Saint, Curer, and Exorcist in Modern Pakistan.”Contributions to Asian Studies18 (1984). Highly imaginative essay on the modern-day roles of pirs in Pakistan.
    • Mujeeb, Muhammad. The Indian Muslims. London, 1967. Essential for an understanding of the growth of Islamic culture in a non-Arab setting.
    • Roy, Asim.The Islamic Syncretistic Tradition in Bengal. Princeton, N.J., 1983. Excellent work on how the exogenous Islamic culture adapted itself to the requirements of a specific situation, with a good deal of information on popular traditions in medieval Bengal.
    • Titus, Murray T.Islam in India and Pakistan (1929). Reprint, Karachi, Pakistan, 1990. One of the earliest comprehensive surveys of Islam in South Asia.

    Rafiuddin Ahmed

    Popular Religion In Southeast Asia

    Nearly all Muslims in Southeast Asia form part of the Malay cultural region. This Muslim community is the largest in the world. It includes about 88 percent of Indonesia's 225 million people, about 11 million people in Malaysia, and over 8 million in the southern Philippines. Underlying the many local differences in practice and belief are certain shared cultural features, including the use of Malay-Indonesian as a language of religious communication, forms of dress, food, and art associated with Islam, and a conception of gender relations that is more balanced than that of sharīʿah.

    Since the late colonial period, Southeast Asian Muslims have also developed a Malay-language network of schools, publishing houses, and newspapers that crosses colonial and postcolonial boundaries throughout the archipelago and peninsula of Malaysia. This network lends coherence to scholarly discussions occurring throughout the region, and these debates and exchanges among scholars have been brought into everyday dialogues about religious matters. For this reason, there is no clear demarcation between scholarly and popular forms of Islam in Southeast Asia, and “popular” is henceforth taken to mean “as locally practiced.” This article focuses on the main ideas that have animated religious practices, interpretations, and debates among Muslims in Southeast Asia.

    Spirit Transactions and Ritual Meals.

    Many of the practices that have lent a distinctive shape to Southeast Asian Islam involve exchanges or transactions with spiritual agents, including place-spirits, ancestors, prophets, and God. The debates taking place over the last century among Muslims in the area have often turned on the legitimacy of certain transactions: appeals to spirits to heal, bless, or protect; sacrifices or offerings made to strengthen these appeals; or innovations in worship practice that have been made in the interest of clearer communication with God or to induce a benefit from God.

    This emphasis on communicating with God and with diverse spirits has historically been supported by Ṣūfī teachings concerning the enduring ties between humans and God, by practices of meditation and the imitation of death, and by an emphasis on remembering spiritual ancestors. These ideas underlie the Ṣūfī orders in the region, but they also shape popular ideas of the power of speech and contribute to certain general cultural orientations such as the Javanist (Hindu-influenced) or abangan (syncretic) practices in Indonesia.

    Central to most Southeast Asia Muslim cultures is the ritual meal, called selametan on Java and kenduri elsewhere in Indonesia and Malaysia. Participants at these meals generally burn incense, set out special plates of food that symbolize values of spirituality and purity, and deliver petitionary prayers to God, the prophet Muḥammad, and various spiritual agents. Meals are held for a wide range of events, including life-crisis rituals of birth, circumcision, marriage, pregnancy, and death; annual celebrations of the Prophet's birthday, the completion of the fasting month (ʿĪd al-Fiṭr), and the Feast of Sacrifice (ʿĪd al-Aḍḥā); and occasional events such as leaving home, erecting a house, completing a recital of the Qurʿān, or resolving a dispute. Healing the sick and managing the agricultural cycle also involve special series of ritual meals.

    Most such meals feature the recitation of one or more Qurʿānic verses, most commonly al-Fātiḥah or al-Ikhlāṣ. Special foods consumed at such meals include puffed rice (symbolizing the light qualities of spirituality), glutinous rice (symbolizing the strong ties among participants or with God), and small, flat pancakes called apam (usually associated with the dead). (Many of these elements are also found in South Asia.) Usually four, seven, or forty-four items are offered; the same numbers determine the intervals between the successive ritual meals held after a death.

    Ritual meals give a religious meaning to a wide variety of events. They also provide a locally meaningful framework for interpreting broader Islamic ritual obligations, and many Southeast Asian societies observe Islamic feast-days and life-crisis rituals in the form of the kenduri or selamatan see ISLAMIC CALENDAR AND RITES OF PASSAGE.

    The Power of Speech.

    Throughout the region Muslims have drawn on the powerful words of the Qurʿān to shape the world. Whether classified as spells or prayers, the speech forms usually called doa (Arabic, duʿāʿ)—also called donga or jampi—are used to heal or bewitch, to protect or attack, and to fortify or weaken other people, spirits, or objects. The substance of doa may range from the simple quotation of a Qurʿānic verse to a combination of Arabic verse, vernacular instructions, and semantically opaque syllables. Doa may be accompanied by accounts of how they came to be effective; thus, the power of a common doa designed to ward off iron is understood as resulting from an original compact between God and iron. Speakers may also invoke the special qualities of a prophet, as by mentioning David's voice in a doa designed to attract a spouse. People may acquire the power to use a doa through meditation, possession, or visitation by a spirit or angel, or the words themselves may be sufficient to obtain the desired effect.

    Many of the region's Muslims have regular recourse to particular verses of the Qurʿān as sources of help and strength in everyday life, but they may disagree about the effect of the verse: does it bring about immediate, automatic aid, or does it serve to strengthen one's heart against a difficulty? These beliefs and questions about the power of speech are not simply pre-Islamic remnants; often they are the topic of local commentaries that draw on Ṣūfī intellectual traditions identifying material reality as emanations from God and thus as susceptible to change through religiously inspired mental imaging and powerful speech.

    The widespread use of Malay in the region also has meant that oral and written forms designed to transmit religious ideas have had wide distribution. These forms include historical works in verse or prose, such as the Hikayat Raja-Raja Pasai (History of the Kings of Pasai) and the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals); verse forms, especially the syair quatrain, which, born in sixteenth-century Aceh, became a major vehicle for the spread of Ṣūfī writings; and didactic texts, until this century written in the Arabic script and used across the region as basic texts in religious education. These texts have supplemented basic training in reading and reciting chapters of the Qurʿān. Children who complete their study of the Qurʿān are in many areas recognized at a khatam Qurʿān ceremony see MALAY AND INDONESIAN LITERATURE.

    Popular Islam is not limited to oral means of learning, nor is it a fixed tradition. Muslims throughout the region have learned elements of Arabic, the Qurʿān, Islamic history, and ritual practice from shifting combinations of oral traditions, handwritten books of prayer and knowledge, and published texts on ritual practice, spells and prayers, and esoteric topics.


    Powerful speech is particularly important in healing. Southeast Asian healing practices may draw on ideas of possession (or “shamanism”) or ideas of the susceptibility of spirits to direct control. Healers in many parts of Malaysia, for example, make frequent use of trance and spirit possession to investigate the nature of an illness. Malay séances are a form of public dramatic art in which shamans draw on Islamic prophets (some Javanese Muslims recognize a number of prophets, including those of other faiths), spirits, and histories to explain an illness and to cure the patient of it. Although labeled non-Islamic (or pre-Islamic) by many Malay ʿulamāʿ, these practices draw on Islamic images and knowledge for their coherence and for their therapeutic effectiveness.

    Other regional healing systems depend on the direct control of spirits. Sumatran Gayo healers, for example, speak directly to afflicting jinn and may then drive them out of the patient, but they never act as mediums. They expel spirits from persons by creating two parallel series of events: one series in the outer or manifest (lahir or zahir, Arabic ẓāhir) world, where a rock smashes a citrus, and another in the inner (batin, Arabic bāṭin) world, in which the spirit has been captured in the citrus and is then expelled from it. Gayo reliance on a private form of exorcism, in contrast with Malay public séances, is consistent with their general social and cultural tendency to avoid public confrontations.

    Most healing systems in the region share ideas of balance that derive from Islamic humoral theory. Jinn are held responsible for a wide range of illnesses, and imbalance between external and internal jinn or between qualities in the body may cause illness. Prophets, in particular al-Khidr, are called on to remove impurities from the body, such as those resulting from childbirth see MEDICINE, subentry onTRADITIONAL PRACTICE.

    Caring for the Dead.

    Of all the life-crisis rituals, the ways of caring for the dead have been of the greatest importance for Southeast Asian Muslims, possibly because of the importance of secondary burial in Southeast Asia before the coming of Islam. Regional scholarly debates beginning in the 1920s reflect a sharp conflict between local emphases on continued communication with the spirit after death and objections to those practices by modernist scholars. Several Islamic practices have become foci for these arguments. One is the talqīn, the catechism read to the dead after burial; another is the set of recitation sessions held on successive evenings after a death.

    Recitations take the form of tasbīḥ (prayer for the glory of God), ṣalāḥ (prayer for blessings on the prophet Muḥammad), dhikr or tahlīl (repetition of “there is no god but God”), and istighfār (request for God's pardon), along with the shorter Qurʿānic verses. Recitation leaders may deliver long prayers that include sections of the Qurʿān considered to be especially powerful, such as the Throne Verse (2:255) or the sūrah Yā Sīn. They learn these prayers by studying the pamphlets on prayer available throughout the region and by learning from older adepts.

    Recitations are intended to create merit that can be transferred to the dead to aid the spirit's passage from the community to the afterworld. Both objectives are shared with non-Islamic funeral practices in the region, and both Islamic and non-Islamic funerary ritual complexes feature a regular progression of feasts, with special weight placed on a feast held seven days after death. But the Islamic practices (especially the talqīn and dhikr) are also found elsewhere in the Muslim world. It is thus likely that similarities between Islamic and non-Islamic practices in Southeast Asia are in part the result of a convergence around quasi-universal ideas of death as transition, and not simply the result of the survival of pre-Islamic practices into the Islamic present see DHIKR; FUNERARY RITES; and QURʿāNIC RECITATION.

    Variations on Mainstream Rituals.

    Overreliance on an a priori distinction between official and popular religion risks obscuring the way in which mainstream religious forms become part of local religious systems. Worship ritual (ṣalāt), for example, although an obligation of all Muslims, is also used as a way of distinguishing particular religious orientations. Because worship is considered prescriptively open to all who wish to attend, attempts to use it to create boundaries invariably occasion protest. In the 1970s, Muslim groups in Jakarta that wished to maintain a higher degree of personal purity sought to exclude all others from their worship services; these attempts at exclusion—rather than any differences in ritual form—led to popular protests and suppression of the group. On a more everyday level, some stratified societies, such as the Bugis of South Sulawesi, assign places in the mosque rows by social rank, thus reproducing a set of local distinctions through the medium of a generalized ritual form.

    There are important resemblances among the ways other mainstream rituals are carried out across diverse Southeast Asian societies, and these resemblances may serve broadly to distinguish the region as a whole from South Asia or the Middle East. In much of Indonesia and Malaysia, for example, the sermons and symbols associated with the ʿĪd al-Aḍḥā emphasize the value of ihklāṣ, sincerity (in giving something away), as the central meaning of the ritual, rather than the sacrificial killing stressed in some other Muslim societies. Also throughout the region, this feast day has historically been given much less emphasis than has either the ʿĪd al-Fiṭr or the celebration (mawlid) of the birthday of the prophet Muḥammad. The latter is celebrated in a wide variety of ways, from elaborate social visiting to royal processions see ʿĪD AL-Aḍḥā; ʿĪD AL-FIṭR; and MAWLID.

    Personal Authority.

    The social organization of much Islamic practice in Southeast Asia is shaped by the idea that some persons are closer to God and therefore serve as channels to the divine. The idea of closeness is conveyed by the general term walī (saint) but is realized in different forms. It is also shaped by older ideas of Malay and Javanese kingship, with the king at the ritual center of a sacred territory and occupying the highest social rank.

    A religious order (tarekat; Arabic, ṭarīqah) may be centered on a founding ancestor. Orders are found throughout the region. Local orders often identify themselves as Naqshbandīyah, and sometimes as Qādirīyah or Khālidīyah. These orders may have a single ritual center and more or less tightly knit networks of founders and disciples. Babussalam in West Sumatra is an example. Founded in 1883 by Syaikh Abdul Wahab Rokan, the village now serves as the center for a network of eighteen syaikhs (Arabic, shaykhs) throughout Sumatra and Malaysia. Their followers attend an annual celebration at the founder's tomb. On Java, orders may also be affiliated with the religious schools called pesantren; the important pesantren center Tebuireng in East Java, for example, is also the center for the Naqshbandīyah and Qādirīyah orders. The Javanese kiyai (Islamic scholar or teacher) combines the prestige of the teacher with the spiritual authority associated with a genealogy, and prestigious kiyai offices are often handed down from father to son see PESANTREN and SUFISM, subentry on ṢūFī ORDERS.

    Throughout the archipelago graves or other sites associated with powerful ancestors define a sacred geography. Often these are the graves of men or women who founded a lineage or village, great healers, or teachers who founded religious orders. The sites may be the goal of regional pilgrimages or for regular visits by those seeking advice or assistance. (In this respect, Javanese practices of grave-visiting and meditation may be seen as accentuations of regionwide elements rather than as distinctly Javanist.) Throughout Indonesia, the most powerful sacred gravesites are often those of men who brought Islam to the region, such as the Walī Songo on Java, or Syech (Syaik) Abdurrauf (Shaykh ʿAbdurraʿūf ibn ʿAlī) in Aceh. These sites may become the center for quasi-orders, loosely organized networks of adepts who venerate the tomb of the founder and consider themselves affiliates of an established tarekat. For example, the tomb of the late nineteenth-century figure Habib Muda in West Aceh is considered by his followers to be the “pole” (quṭb) for the west coast of the province. The founder's tomb is circumambulated each year on the tenth of of the month of Dhū al-Ḥijjah (literally, lord of the pilgrimage), as a “little ḥajj.”

    Messianic figures have occasionally appeared throughout the region, particularly in Malaysia, where Ṣūfī-like cults have combined meditation and trance dances with the veneration of a leader, sometimes referred to as the Mahdī. These cults may also encourage the practice of Malay martial arts (silat), an art form regionally associated with Islam that often incorporates worship or dhikr recitations.

    Islam and Adat.

    Muslims everywhere conceive of a sphere of local custom designated by ʿurf or adat (Arabic plural, ʿādāt) or other terms. But it is especially in Southeast Asia that adat has been developed as an alternative set of rules alongside sharīʿah. Adat is not merely local custom or practice; it is also worldview and culture, and in some places a legal code.

    Southeast Asian Muslims by and large view the relation of adat to sharīʿah from two perspectives. From one perspective adat and sharīʿah appear as distinct, complementary spheres of social life—as tradition or custom contrasted with religion. Ideal constructions of Minangkabau (Sumatra) and Negeri Sembilan (Malaysia) societies, for example, link adat to the values of community and matriliny, and sharīʿah to the values of individuality and patriliny. Such holistic constructions also characterize the many descriptive and prescriptive pamphlets published in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia on the adat of various Muslim peoples in the region, in which adat is typified by images of dress styles, marriage customs, and house forms.

    From another perspective, however, adat and sharīʿah appear to provide distinct sets of norms governing the same events: marriage, the transmission of property, and death ritual. Their relation may be complementary in some instances—sharīʿah stipulating the payment of a mahr (gift given by the groom to the bride) at marriage, and adat elaborating on its form—but it may also be conflictual. Adat and sharīʿah may, in practice, provide conflicting ways of evaluating the same problem: how to divide an estate, how to celebrate a child's coming of age, or how to celebrate a wedding. Such conflicts are particularly evident in the Malaysian adat law codes, but they also persist beneath the formal accommodation of the two systems elsewhere in the region. Of special importance have been conflicts over the division of an estate. Local adat norms may stipulate that all children (or all children remaining in their natal village) receive equal shares, or that males (or females) receive all the agricultural land, and they may allot to the village or lineage residual rights over land. Accommodations between sharīʿah and adat over this issue include considering some property transfer as a gift or as a kind of waqf (religious endowment), and thus as distinct from the shares of the estate see ʿāDāT.

    Whereas the scholarship of the 1940s and 1950s generally portrayed Southeast Asian Islam as an overlay on a distinct, pre-Islamic substratum, more recent work has emphasized the Islamic character of many local practices, including those labeled as “pre-Islamic” by local ʿulamāʿ. The central research activity has in effect shifted from distinguishing between Islam and non-Islam in popular religion to analyzing the debates within each society about the religious character of specific ideas and practices. In recent decades the influence of these elements of popular religion has decreased under the impact of religious education, an expanded role for mass media, and the growth of orthodoxy brought about by the Islamic revival.



    • Bowen, John R.Muslims Through Discourse: Religion and Ritual in Gayo Society. Princeton, N.J., 1993. Detailed ethnography of rituals, and debates about their propriety, in a Sumatran Muslim society.
    • Dobbin, Christine. Islamic Revivalism in a Changing Peasant Economy: Central Sumatra, 1784–1847. London, 1983. Superb history of religious and social change in an Indonesian society.
    • Ellen, Roy F.“Practical Islam in South-East Asia.” In Islam in South-East Asia, edited by M. B. Hooker, pp. 50–91. Leiden, Netherlands, 1983. Insightful overview of the history of Islam and of colonial policies toward Islam in Southeast Asia.
    • Geertz, Clifford. The Religion of Java. Chicago, 1960. Classic, detailed study of Islam, culture, and society in Java.
    • Hefner, Robert W.Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia. Princeton, N.J., 2000. Good analysis of the interplay of religion and politics in contemporary Indonesia.
    • Hefner, Robert W.“Islamizing Java? Religion and Politics in Rural East Java.”Journal of Asian Studies46, no. 3 (1987): 533–554. Valuable update of Geertz's account.
    • Ibrahim, Ahmad, Sharon Siddique, and Yasmin Hussain, eds.Readings on Islam in Southeast Asia. Singapore, 1985. Useful collection of readings from past and present.
    • Laderman, Carol. Taming the Wind of Desire: Psychology, Medicine, and Aesthetics in Malay Shamanistic Performance. Berkeley, calif., 1991. Includes material on Islamic sources for shamanism.
    • Lombard, Denys. “Les tarekat en Insulinde.” In Les ordres mystiques dans L’Islam, edited by Alexandre Popovic and Gilles Veinstein, pp. 139–163. Paris, 1986. Insightful contrast of several orders in Indonesia.
    • Nagata, Judith. The Reflowering of Malaysian Islam: Modern Radicals and Their Roots. Vancouver, B.C., 1984. Good on older religious practices and the contemporary daʿwah movement.
    • Siegel, James T.The Rope of God. Berkeley, Calif., 1969. Excellent study of changing social contexts for religious ideas in Aceh, Indonesia.
    • Snouck Hurgronje, Christiaan. The Achehnese. Leiden, Netherlands, 1906. One of the best early accounts of religious life in a Muslim society. Originally published 1893–1894.
    • Woodward, Mark R.Islam in Java: Normative Piety and Mysticism in the Sultanate of Yogyakarta. Tucson, Ariz., 1989.

    John R. Bowen Updated by Fred R. von der Mehden

    Popular Religion In Europe and the Americas

    More Muslims are living in non-Muslim countries than at any time in the past. Already the second largest number of adherents of any world religions after Christianity, Muslims are expected to outnumber non-Muslims in Europe by 2050. In the United States, Islam is poised to become the second largest religion after Christianity and to replace Judaism as the main minority faith. This growth is accompanied by a growing Muslim identity, increased visibility of Islam in the public sphere, and political mobilization of Muslims.

    Although accurate figures are difficult to come by because most Western countries do not track religious affiliation in census data, Islam is the fastest growing religion in Europe and the United States. Still, percentages of Muslims compared with overall populations are small. Muslims in Western Europe total ten to fifteen million, or less than 3 percent of the total population. In the United States, an estimated two to six million Muslims make up 1–2 percent of the population. As in the rest of world, the majority are Sunnī.

    The growth of Islam in the United States and Europe is resulting in heightened interest in the religion, as well as increased hostility and suspicion by non-Muslim individuals and institutions. Tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims long predate the current era of global terrorism. Remnants of European medieval beliefs about Islam as a false religion spread by the sword have been revived. Since the inception of the movie industry in the early twentieth century, the vast majority of Hollywood films with Arabs and Muslims depict them as Bedouin bandits, submissive maidens, sinister sheikhs, and gun-wielding terrorists. The U.S. media, in particular, still tends to view Islam through the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran and the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Furthermore, the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s has led to identification of Islam as the new political “other” and threat to the West, frequently articulated as the “clash of civilizations.” A counterargument is one of fusion, and the many scientific advances from the eighth through seventeenth centuries under Islamic empires stretching from present-day Morocco through the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and on to western China. Translation of Greek, Chinese, and Indian advances into Arabic coupled with new scientific discoveries led directly to the European Renaissance.

    Violent attacks carried out by extremist groups, often Arabs, in the eastern United States on September 11, 2001, and subsequent bombings in London and Madrid led to a resurgence of daily media and government reports of the “Islamic” threat from within. Yet relatively little coverage has been devoted to fundamentalist Christian communities who view September 11 as holy retribution against what they view as a too-permissive society. The attacks resulted in increased government surveillance of Muslims, as well as a growth in hate crimes, with more than four hundred reported in the week following september 11 in the United States alone. There is also the unprecedented use of illegal detentions, rendition flights, torture of prisoners, and other violations of civil liberties against Muslims, and particularly Arabs who make up only about one-quarter of the country's total Muslim population. Although such activities claim to be done to deter terrorists and secure nations’ safety, they deepen feelings of marginalization, rejection, and discrimination within Muslim communities in the United States and Europe.

    Contemporary developments and emerging trends in Islamic communities in Europe and the United States are:

    • 1.  institutionalization of Islam, with a growing number of mosques, schools, and Islamic centers
    • 2.  emergence of religious leaders as a voice of the community, replacing secular and left-wing leaders, particularly in Europe, and
    • 3.  resurgence of Islamic identity among Muslims, regardless of country of origin.

    Muslims in Europe.

    The percentage of Muslims in Western Europe remains small, despite immigration as a result of economic strife and political conflicts. Muslim populations range from just under 10 percent of the population in France to 1.4 percent in Italy. Muslim populations in the Balkans are much higher, ranging from 30 percent in Macedonia to 70 percent Albania, and is a result of centuries-old conversions under the Ottomans, not recent immigration.

    European countries are guided largely by their historical experiences with Islam, which centered on the Crusades, Ottoman expansion, and the colonial eras. Resulting stereotypes have led many Europeans to view Islam and Muslims on the continent as a threat and problem. European countries also have diverse histories with Muslims and attract distinct Muslim populations as a result. The largest nationality groups in Europe are Turks, Algerians, Moroccans, and Pakistanis. Countries with the highest Muslim concentrations are France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. In some countries such as Spain, Muslims have a long historical legacy and presence, dating back to the eighth century. In the United Kingdom, Muslims began settling in the nineteenth century. In other countries, such as Sweden, Muslims began arriving after World War II to fill labor shortages. Two countries with the largest Muslim populations, France and the United Kingdom, have long colonial legacies, whereas Sweden has none. As a result of low birth rates among indigenous Europeans, Muslims will be the majority in schools in many major cities in the coming decade, if they are not already.

    Muslims in Europe, as in the United States, tend to either assimilate, integrate, or remain apart from mainstream society. While creating a more multiethnic, religious, and cultural Europe, many Muslims confront regular discrimination, prejudice and ignorance, ranging from the struggle to maintain a ḥalāl diet and avoid pork to wearing the ḥijāb, or headscarf. European Muslims, more than their American counterparts, are also concerned with their status as Europe's underclass, representing the lowest incomes and largest families statistically.

    Generally in Europe, Muslims have the right to observe major faith practices, seek knowledge of Islam, found religious organizations, form representative bodies, and appeal to the law. However, various models of Islam-state relationship exist, including recognition, tolerance, indifference, and hostile separation.

    Why Muslims immigrate to Europe has changed dramatically since the 1960s, when European labor shortages brought legions of guestworkers, mostly from the former Yugoslavia. Today, economic and political refugees fleeing war, political unrest, and poverty dominate the Muslim immigrant landscape. They bring with them the intention of permanence, thus establishing umbrella organizations to coordinate goals of local groups, create a national voice, and seek official recognition of Islam as religion, which would make Muslims eligible for state subsidies and legal protections as other religious groups.

    Increased visibility and civic participation by Muslims is slowly resulting in elections to political offices. As of the early 2000s, a handful of Muslims had been elected to high political offices, including Britain's House of Lords and House of Commons, the Dutch Parliament, and the German Bundestag. By contrast, no Muslims have been elected to the Assemblee Nationale or Senate in France, the country with the highest percentage of Muslims in Western Europe.

    Policies and accommodation of minorities in general and Muslims in particular vary greatly within Europe. Britain and the Netherlands have the most extensively developed political and social systems to accommodate Muslims and minorities in general. Germany is described as ten years behind the Netherlands, which gave immigrants without Dutch citizenship the right to vote and stand for election as early as 1986, and it has long been easier to obtain Dutch citizenship than German. Still, undercurrents of Islamophobia run deep in both liberal and conservative societies, such as widespread opposition to building of mosques. Yet mosques are not new to Western Europe. The first was built in the twelfth century by Moors in Andalusia, southern Spain. La Grande Mosquée de Paris was completed in 1927, a gift from the king of Morocco. Newer large mosques are located in major cities, such as London and Rotterdam, and are often funded by Arabian Gulf countries. Smaller mosques are typically funded by local communities and often cater to specific ethnic groups.

    Muslims throughout Europe often form neighborhoods and affiliations by ethnic group rather than religion, suggesting that Islam is not the unified force it is sometimes perceived to be by non-Muslims. There is not one but many Islamic communities in Europe with distinct ethnic characteristics. Not all Muslims practice the religion, which, as in other religions, ranges from fundamentalist to mainstream to secular interpretations. Nor is religion always a barrier to integration. For example, only 3 percent of Muslim immigrants to Spain named religious culture as the biggest obstacle to integration into Spanish society. Country of origin concentrations differ, and often trump Islamic identity. For example, the largest Muslim communities are North Africans in France, Turks in Germany, Pakistanis in England—where a considerable number of Gulf Muslims, Algerians, and Moroccans also reside—Iranian, Iraqi and Kurdish political refugees, and Muslims from former Yugoslavia residing in Scandinavia.

    In addition to divisions by country of origin, generational divides further splinter Muslim communities. Older Muslims tend to have been born in their home countries, whereas younger generations were born in Europe. The difference in origin frequently leads to creations of new divisions within families as members negotiate identities and struggle whether to adapt or adopt to European cultural standards. This issue plays out in various ways. One is the wearing of the ḥijāb, or headscarf, by women and adolescent girls. In 2004, France banned the wearing of ḥijāb from public schools. The controversial law that drew much protest among Muslims is seen by some as a battle of individual freedom and religious expression, and by others as a threat to state unity and political neutrality.

    Media and new technology are giving greater visibility to Muslims. Online imams with Web pages in several languages have built followings among young, technologically savvy European Muslims. Local cable television and radio call-in shows are venues for Muslim communities to discuss issues of importance and for Islam to attract new followers. Satellite TV makes available direct broadcasts from home countries, such as Turkey and the Arabian Gulf. Even cell phones and SMS play a role. They were used in the Netherlands in 2001 to get around non-Muslim opposition to broadcasting of calls to prayer five times a day from mosque loudspeakers. Muslim cell phone users could log on and provide their cell phone numbers to receive message for the call to prayer. The sunset call to prayer was particularly popular during Ramadān, signaling the end of the daily fast.

    Muslims in the United States.

    Muslim influence in the United States dates back at least to the nineteenth century. One example is the development of that most American of musical genres—rhythm and blues. The musical roots come from Muslim slaves from West Africa (about 30 percent of slaves in the United States were Muslim), many of whom spoke Arabic. Despite being pressured by slave owners to Christianize, many retained Muslim spiritual practices and beliefs. Their musical instruments were of African origin. Drumming, favored by slaves from the Congo and other non-Muslim lands, was banned by slave owners. However, the stringed instruments of Muslim slaves, such as the ʿūd and other forerunners of the banjo, were acceptable to slave owners because of their similarity to European instruments. Resembling closely the note changes and melody, voice quivers, and shakes, dramatic changes in musical scales and nasal intonation of the Muslim call to prayer are songs such as “Levee Camp Holler,” an early blues song sung by slaves on the Mississippi delta when building dikes, dams, and other irrigation works.

    Fast-forward more than 150 years to Barack Hussein Obama, Democratic nominee and subsequent winner of the 2008 presidential election. Obama's father was a Muslim from Kenya, although Barack is a Christian. Barack Obama's political ascendancy—and popular urban legends questioning his patriotism because of his Muslim heritage—illustrate the fascination, acceptance, and distrust that marks relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims in the United States.

    Islam's new political visibility also stretches to the U.S. Congress. The first two Muslim members of the U.S. Congress were elected in the 2006 and 2008. Both are African American converts to Islam and Democrats, one from Minnesota, the other from Indiana.

    The lack of Muslim visibility in politics, and support of particular candidates and parties appears to be changing. Muslims are at a point where they are beginning to assess their interests and place in U.S. society. Still, identity and political issues frequently constrain Muslims from unifying and cooperating across national, sectarian, and class lines. Divisions are reflected in professional associations, universities, and mosques where national and sectarian backgrounds often determine attendance and participation. Divisions carry over into politics, where immigrant Muslims are sometimes more active in the politics of their home countries or in pan-Muslim issues, such as the Palestinian–Israeli conflict, than in U.S. political issues. Many are disenchanted with what they see as a double standard in U.S. foreign policy that promotes democracy and economic dominance through use of war, sanctions, support of repressive regimes, and unbalanced diplomacy in, for example, Israel/Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Pakistan, and Chechnya. They also see other deep policy contradictions, such as support for the Jewish state of Israel, while opposing and, in some cases, interfering with results of elections in Palestine, Iran, and Lebanon. They wonder why it is acceptable for a U.S. president to call for implementation of Christian values while denouncing efforts to build a just and moral Islamic society.

    Such questions elicit three general responses from Muslims in the United States: isolation from the dominant society; establishment of institutions, such as mosques, schools, and legal councils; and lack of concern with how Islam manifests itself in the United States.

    Estimates on the number of Muslims in the United States vary widely, as the U.S. Census Bureau does not collect data on religious identification. However, there are most certainly more Muslims in the United States than in Kuwait, Qatar, or the United Arab Emirates. About one-third are African American, one-third south Asians, and about one-fourth Arab. California, New York, and Illinois are states with the largest concentrations of Muslims, at 3–4 percent of the total population. Interestingly, although Michigan has the second-largest Arab community outside the Middle East after Paris, only about half are Muslim—the rest are Christian.

    Small-scale migration to the United States by Muslims began in 1840, with the arrival of Yemenis and Turks, and lasted until World War II. Most of the immigrants came from Arab areas of the Ottoman empire, immigrating to improve their standard of living and intending to return to their homeland. However, economic hardships in their countries of origin would have prevented them from prospering if they returned home. As a result, most immigrants settled in the United States permanently, primarily in Dearborn, Michigan; Quincy, Massachusetts; and Rose, North Dakota, where they largely integrated and assimilated.

    Today's immigrant Muslim communities reflect diverse national identities and varied socioeconomic classes. New immigrants, such as low-wage Eritrean laborers, are a sharp contrast to highly educated, English-speaking prosperous Egyptians. Less economically secure immigrant Muslims tend to opt for cultural assimilation, whereas Muslim professionals choose not to assimilate to a culture they regard as too materialistic, sexually permissive, and violent. Universities and prisons also tend to have concentrations of Muslims. The former draw international students from predominantly Muslim countries, whereas the latter, where 15–20 percent of inmates are Muslim, attracts converts, particularly among African Americans. They, along with Caucasian American-born converts to Islam, often cite congruence between their new faith and traditional U.S. ideas, such as commitment to family, community, education, and discipline.

    Mosques total about 1,200 in the United States. The oldest was built in 1915 in Maine by Albanian Muslims, but only around twenty had been founded before the 1960s. Most were nondescript converted buildings constructed by new and insecure Muslim communities. Eighty-seven percent of mosques in the United States were founded within the last three decades. These often include schools, community and recreational centers, and libraries. Mosque design varied, unlike in the old storefront days, with large ornate mosques funded by more prosperous communities. For example, the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., has architectural elements of Mamluk Cairo, Ottoman Turkey, and Andalusia.

    As in Europe, the building of mosques has been controversial. Opponents often cloak fears of Islam in their neighborhoods by citing concerns about increased traffic, noise, and zoning changes. Supporters claim legal protections of freedom of worship and assembly. The growth in the numbers of mosques has also led to debates regarding mosque leadership, and whether it should be homegrown or trained overseas where religious ideas are not always compatible with U.S. culture.

    Unlike in France where a ḥijāb ban in schools is national law, the U.S. ḥijāb debate has centered more around ideology, despite relatively isolated incidents of women and girls being forced to forego the ḥijāb in order to obtain a driver's license, play school sports, and so on. At issue is a minority community that insists on maintaining exclusivity and distinction while at the same time demanding equal treatment and equal access to resources. The ḥijāb debate typically pits Muslim women and their supporters against Western feminists, but also some journalists, academics, and politicians who view Islam as an oppressive, extremist religion that degrades women and relegates them to the home. Opponents to the ḥijāb view wearing it as admission that women are evil and must hide themselves from public view to prevent sin and anarchy. They also charge that Muslim women should work on restraining the few men who cannot control themselves. Muslim women respond that being responsible for men's actions is not an Islamic idea, that they don't cover to please men and won't uncover to please women, and that the ḥijāb frees women from constant attention to physical appearance and allows them to be judged by their intellect and personality.

    Unlike largely secular Europe, interfaith activities among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are increasingly a part of the cultural landscape in the deeply religious United States. Activities range from formal interfaith institutions and think tanks to individual congregations holding joint services on overlapping religious holidays, such as Ramadān and the High Holy Days of 2005–2007. The trend in interfaith activities suggests some movement of Islam from the outer fringe to the inner circle of acceptability and influence. Such activities still exclude non-Abrahamic faiths such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Taosim, and Confuscism practiced by billions around the globe. However, the growth of interfaith activities and dialogue in the United States among Muslims, Christians, and Jews suggest slow but eventual movement toward a society that is more inclusively Abrahamic, rather than just Judeo-Christian.

    Black Muslims.

    Islam around the world has historically adapted to local cultures. Perhaps the most dramatic example of how local Muslim belief and practice in the West differs substantially from orthodox Islam is African American Muslims. Once known as Black Muslims, the American Society of Muslims and its leader, Warith Deen Mohammed (d. 2008), are successors to the Black separatist Nation of Islam (1930–1975). Original Nation of Islam beliefs differed sharply from traditional Islam in that they did not recognize Muhammad as God's final prophet. In the early twenty-first century African American Muslims are adopting more traditional or mainstream Islam. Still, their interactions with immigrant Muslim communities challenge the ability of Muslim Americans to transcend divisions of race and ethnicity and point to entrenched divisions of race, class and ethnicity.

    The Black Muslim movement cannot be understood without understanding the cultural environment in which it took root. Islam, however improperly and dimly understood, provided a genuine link with an atavistic past in Africa. It also provided a legitimate idiom in the fight for civil rights. Thus, the movement became inextricably linked with the struggle for civil rights, the need to combat slavery and racial discrimination, and the desire to locate dignity and pride in the face of ugly and massive racial prejudice.

    Islam gave a coherent philosophy of life to some African Americans, and it provided a viable, ready-made role model in the form of the former slave Bilāl, one of the most ardent supporters of Islam in the seventh century and a great favorite of the prophet Muḥammad. Indeed, the Prophet appointed Bilāl as the first muezzin (Ar., muʿadhdhan; the person who calls people to prayer at the mosque). The early African American Muslims called themselves Bilalians; Islam gave them a sense of honor and dignity.

    However, there was much unorthodox thinking in the early Black Muslim movement. Although members of the Nation of Islam, founded in 1930 in Detroit, believed in the notion of one God called Allāh, they also believed that Elijah Muhammad was the last messenger of God. Heaven and hell were believed to exist on earth, and the number of stipulated prayers during the day was increased from five to seven. The month of December was fixed for fasting. Central Islamic beliefs, such as the finality of the Prophet, and accepted traditional practice, like the daily prayers or the month of fasting, were being challenged.

    The belief in black supremacy, that the white race is intrinsically evil, was a major plank of the Nation of Islam's platform and reflected the racial situation in the United States. This philosophy was consciously inverting the form of racism that the African American community faced, especially in the southern states. There, some believed that blacks were congenitally inferior, their brains were smaller, their morals looser, and so on. Islamic belief and practice provided black groups with social cohesion, a sense of moral purpose, and above all, much-needed dignity. Also, a strict code of dress and conduct sought to stamp out drug and alcohol abuse in the community.

    Hatred of white people, however, could not be justified in Islam. The Qurʿān emphasizes that all humanity—regardless of color—is equally the creation of God and among God's wonders. Indeed, this was conveyed in the last message of the Prophet at Arafat when he underlined that Arab and non-Arab, black and white, are all equal before God; only piety makes one person better than another.

    Any Black Muslim seriously wishing to learn about Islam would confront many Nation of Islam teachings as un-Islamic and therefore ask questions. This is precisely what Malcolm X, one of the most charismatic of the Black Muslims, did. One of Elijah Muhammad's most trusted lieutenants, he had risen from the slums, knowing prison and drug abuse.

    A pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964 opened Malcolm X's eyes to the true nature of Islam and changed his views dramatically. He expressed the change in his powerfully moving letters. He formally became a Sunnī and took the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. But by accepting orthodox Islam, he was challenging local belief and practice and therefore antagonizing his already-estranged group. Louis Farrakhan, once his friend, demanded his death. A few months later, in 1965, Malcolm X was shot.

    Spike Lee's 1992 film Malcolm X revealed the complexity and character of Malcolm X. It also revealed his continuing relevance to America. The first American Muslim martyr, Malcolm X, ironically, has of late been recognized as a modern popular icon—not just a marginal black leader.

    In the 1970s, important changes were taking place among the Black Muslims. After Elijah Muhammad's death in 1974, the succession of his son, Wallace (later Warith) Muhammad, the growth of the African American middle class, and the success of the Nation of Islam's chain of supermarkets, barber shops, and restaurants created a more relaxed community. Wallace Muhammad promptly dismantled the Fruit of Islam, the Nation of Islam's force of young men trained in martial arts and firearms use.

    Postwar Muslim migrants from the Middle East and South Asia were also organizing Islamic societies which interacted with the Black Muslims and further drew them toward global Islam. Most important, increasing contact with and awareness of other Islamic movements outside the United States brought Black Muslim belief and practice more in line with international Islam. This occurred during the late 1970s, a time of increased international awareness of Islam, the era of King Faysal (d. 1975), of Saudi Arabia, General Zia ul-Haq (d. 1977) of Pakistan, and Ayatollah Khomeini (d. 1989) of Iran.

    The pressures to reform split the Black Muslims in 1978 between Wallace Muhammad, who became head of the World Community of Islam, the U.S. component of which is the American Muslim Mission (present membership is about 150,000, but it has wide general support), and Louis Farrakhan, who revived the original Nation of Islam (membership about 50,000).

    By reappraising the role of Elijah Muhammad—as a great teacher rather than a messenger—and adopting an international approach, the American Muslim Mission has reconciled with Sunnī sentiment. This link is further strengthened by the fact that the American Muslim Mission sends some members to study in Cairo and Medina.

    Smaller groups, such as the Ḥanafī Muslims, whose leader, Abdul Khaalis, is accepted as an authority in about a hundred mosques, also split from the Black Muslims to move even more closely to mainstream Islam.

    The beliefs and practices of Wallace Muhammad and Louis Farrakhan remain opposed. The former opened membership to all races and moved toward the Sunnī position, the latter flaunts antiwhite sentiments, has recreated the Fruit of Islam, and rejects integration into the American political mainstream; indeed, he demands a separate African American state. Wallace Muhammad enjoyed a degree of respectability in the United States never enjoyed before by a Black Muslim leader, but Farrakhan remains a figure of controversy.


    • Cesari, Jocelyne. When Islam and Democracy Meet: Muslims in Europe and the United States. Palgrave MacMillan, 2004.
    • Curtis, Edward E. IV. Islam in Black America: Identity, Liberation and Difference in African-American Islamic Thought.State University of New York Press, 2002.
    • Donohue, John and Esposito, John eds. Islam in Transition: Muslim Perspectives. Oxford University Press, 2006.
    • Esposito, John L. and Francois Burgat eds. Modernizing Islam: Religion in the Public Sphere in the Middle East and Europe. Rutgers University Press, 2003.
    • Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck, and John L. Esposito eds. Muslims on the Americanization Path?Oxford University Press, 1999.
    • Malik, Iftikhar. Islam and Modernity: Muslims in Europe and the United States. Pluto Books, 2004.
    • Nacos, Brigitte, and Oscar Torres-Reyna. Fueling Our Fears: Stereotyping, Media Coverage and Public Opinion of Muslim Americans. Rowman and Littlefield, 2007.
    • Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Islam: Religion, History and Civilization. HarperSanFrancisco, 2003.
    • Ramadan, Tariq. Western Muslims and the Future of Islam. Oxford University Press, 2004.
    • Said, Edward. Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World. Vintage Books, 1997.
    • Samad, Yunas, and Kasturi Sen eds. Islam in the European Union: Transnationalism, Youth and the War on Terror. Oxford University Press, 2007.
    • Shaheen, Jack. Arab and Muslim Stereotyping in American Popular Culture. Georgetown University, 1997.
    • Shaheen, Jack. Guilty: Hollywood's Verdict on Arabs After 9/11. Olive Branch Press, 2008.


    • Me and the Mosque. Zarqa Nawaz, director. 2005, Canada, 52 minutes. Documentary of journalist and filmmaker Zarqa Nawaz's visits to mosques throughout Canada, and interviews with scholars, colleagues, friends, and neighbors about equal access for women. Using original animation and archival footage, discussions include the historical role of women in the Islamic faith and the current state of mosques in Canada. With deeply personal interviews, Me and the Mosque is a smart, self-aware, and whimsical story that documents the debates and presents the personalities on all sides of the issue.
    • Peace, Propaganda and the Promised Land: U.S. Media & the Israeli–Palestinian Conflict. Bathsheba Ratzkoff and Sut Jhally, co-directors. 2004, U.S., 80 minutes. Striking comparison of U.S. and international media coverage of the crisis in the Middle East, zeroing in on how structural distortions in U.S. coverage have reinforced false perceptions of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. This pivotal documentary exposes how the foreign policy interests of American political elites—oil, and a need to have a secure military base in the region, among others—work in combination with Israeli public relations strategies to exercise a powerful influence over how news from the region is reported.
    • Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. Sut Jhally, director. 2006, U.S., 60 minutes. Documentary dissects a slanderous aspect of cinematic history that has run virtually unchallenged from the earliest days of silent film to today's biggest Hollywood blockbusters. Featuring acclaimed author Dr. Jack Shaheen, the film explores a long line of degrading images of Arabs and Muslims, along the way offering devastating insights into the origin of these stereotypic images, their development at key points in U.S. history, and how such images reinforces public opinion and foreign policy.
    • Transparency. Osama al-Zain, director. 2002, U.S., 30 minutes. English. National Film Network. Is the ḥijāb a woman's expression of faith, political protest, cultural identity, or oppression? Muslims and scholars, both foreign-born and native, living in the United States, share diverse views and personal experiences.

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