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Robert W. Hefner
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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Syncretism is the phenomenon by which the practices and beliefs of one religion fuse with those of another to create a new and distinctive tradition. By the terms of this definition, all religions, and most certainly all those that have come to be known as world religions, can be regarded as syncretic in their origins, because each was shaped in dialogue with other faiths. In modern scholarship, however, the concept of syncretism is usually restricted to those religious syntheses that take shape after the initial consolidation of a religion; syncretisms thus diverge from the parent religion's core or ideal expression. Equally important, however, even as they diverge from normative ideals, syncretisms in believers’ eyes maintain a residual identification with the parent faith. The actual degree of identification varies widely, however, with the result that it is often difficult to distinguish syncretism from simple religious innovation. These analytic problems suggest that the concept of syncretism is closely linked to that of “normative” religion and to the standards of belief and practice whereby believers determine what is and what is not allowable within the faith.

As with all other world religions, Muslim understandings of the normative core of their religion have varied over time and place. This means that any effort to delineate that which is truly Islamic from that which is syncretistic inevitably raises delicate problems of value and judgment. What some believers regard as syncretistic others may hold to be suitably Islamic. This controversy has been a recurring source of debate in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Islam, as standards as to what is and what is not properly Islamic have changed.

In the face of these analytic difficulties, it is useful to distinguish two different variants of syncretism within modern Islam: those whose followers still identify themselves as Muslim and those who so thoroughly distance themselves from normative Islam as to embrace an extra-Islamic identity. For analytic purposes, the second of these two variants is most easily distinguished as syncretic, while the first type is syncretic only in light of an orthodox ideal that syncretists themselves may reject.

Sycretic Movements.

In modern times, some of the most dramatic examples of openly syncretic movements have been found in West Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and other parts of the world where Muslims have lived alongside non-Muslims in a social environment strongly influenced by non-Muslim ideals. In West Africa, for example, the expansion of Islam was associated with the development of trade networks and, later, the rise of powerful trading states under the influence of Berber and non-Arabic African rulers. Caravan routes in the region had already been established by the tenth century ce, and the movement of goods and people facilitated the diffusion of elements of Muslim culture well in advance of any full-scale Islamization. In the tropical forest and coastal regions of what are today Ghana, Benin, and Nigeria, non-Muslim peoples looked to Muslim traders and craftspeople to provide religious amulets, antiwitchcraft spells, fertility treatments, and a host of other services loosely based on Muslim magical prototypes. In using these items non-Muslims acknowledged Islam's spiritual power, but regarded it as just one among many available spiritual resources.

In nineteenth-century Ghana, the pagan king of Ashanti depended on Muslim traders to serve as intermediaries in the caravan trade and as experts in the manufacture of powerful talismans. The talismans consisted of sentences from the Qurʿān inscribed on paper and wrapped in fine cloth. They were worn around the body for everything from treating illness and warding off the evil eye to deflecting the blows of enemies in combat. During times of drought, warfare, and other afflictions, the pagan king called on local Muslims to offer prayers to their God, whom he recognized as the most powerful of deities, alongside the sacrifices to native divinities performed by the king's own priests. Among the pagan tribes of the southern Sudan, circumcision—elsewhere identified as a symbol of adherence to Islam—appears to have been adopted because of its high esteem among neighboring Muslim populations. Though an important ritual of male passage, for these practitioners the rite did not imply a commitment to Islam.

In these and other instances, the syncretism at issue is nominal, involving little or no identification with Islam. Nonetheless, historical and ethnographic studies have shown that in many parts of Africa this syncretistic diffusion contributed to the perception of Islam as a source of mystical power. By acclimating people to the rituals and habits of Islam, it also prepared the way for the conversion of some to Islam.

Syncretistic preadaptations appear to have played a similarly important role in the conversion of South Asian Hindus to Islam. A significant proportion of the Muslim population of premodern India consisted of Muslim immigrants from Persia, Afghanistan, and other northern portions of the Indian subcontinent. In a few areas, most notably Bengali-speaking regions of what is today Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal, however, the great majority of Muslims are not the descendants of invaders, but of Hindu converts, primarily from the lower classes, peaceably converted to Islam in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries.

In the deltaic frontier of the Ganges River basin, local society was characterized by considerable geographic and socioeconomic mobility, all of which rendered the effective development of Hinduism's caste hierarchies problematic. In this only partially Hinduized context, Islam penetrated through the efforts of wandering Muslim (usually Ṣūfī) pioneers. Like their Hindu counterparts, these settlers first came to engage in trade and open the jungle to cultivation; in an area lacking established lines of authority, however, some eventually assumed leadership roles as pirs (spiritual guides) in a loose network of Ṣūfī believers spreading across the delta frontier. As Asim Roy has explained eventually the tombs of pir leaders became the nerve centers of Bengali Islam and the institutional foundation for one of the Muslim world's most remarkable syncretistic traditions.

Though drawing heavily on the symbolism of South Asian Sufism, the cult of pir worship and supplication came to include shrines not only to Muslim saints, but to non-Islamic pioneers, local divinities, and other old and new objects of religious veneration. Though preceded by an Islamic salutation, the propitiation at the heart of pir worship bore a strong resemblance to a popular Hindu rite, known as the vrata, performed to request favors from Hindu divinities. In some areas this syncretic blending was also apparent in Muslim participation in worship of non-Islamic pirs. Conversely, in nearby Assam and Burma, shrines to some of the most celebrated Muslim pirs attracted Chinese Confucians, Burmese Buddhists, and Bengali Hindus. Despite such remarkable syncretism, it is clear that for the most part pirism played a positive role in the conversion of Bengali Hindus to Islam. The theme of an evil Hindu raja defeated by a pious Muslim pir figured prominently in pir mythology, and pir shrines were open to low castes and untouchables denied access to Hindu temples or their Brahman priests. In the unsettled circumstances of frontier Bengal, such antihierarchical inexclusivity gave pirist Islam broad appeal.

The great literary traditions of Bengali Islam also displayed a syncretic countenance. Some Muslim writers reacted to the divide between the pious elite and the syncretist populace by repudiating their Bengali identity, claiming Arab or Persian ancestry, and refusing to utilize Bengali in religious writings. Others, mostly of Ṣūfī background, rejected such cultural segregation, however, and acted as cultural brokers, adopting Bengali as their language of proselytization and adapting Bengali myths and narrative styles to Muslim ends. The resulting narrative tradition projected Muslim historical figures into a landscape of fantasy and miracles intelligible to the Bengali populace because it was closely modeled on Hindu poetic forms. Though Persian and Arabic characters were also drawn into such narratives, the mythic geography in which they were represented was strongly influenced by Hindu ideals. Muslim saints did battle with deities from Hindu cosmology, although other devas were said to be prophets from the time before Muḥammad. Similarly, while affirming the importance of conformity to sharīʿah, divinity was often presented in immanent and monist terms in a fashion consistent with Hindu mysticism. In the twentieth century, Muslim reformers railed against such syncretistic concessions to Bengali culture, with the result that little of this syncretistic literature has survived to this day.

Complementary Elements of Disparate Religions.

Islam in modern Southeast Asia has experienced a similar tension between syncretizing concessions to local sensibilities on one hand, and reformist efforts to maintain the purity of the message on the other. As in South Asia, Islam in Southeast Asia at first confronted an already established political and aesthetic tradition. The indigenous aesthetic tradition had been strongly influenced by Southeast Asian variants of the Hindu Rāmāyana and Mahābhārata, and the raja-centered political system owed much of its pomp and ceremony to Indian precedents. In most cases, however, the Islamization of states in this part of the world did not involve the overthrow of existing dynasties. Islamization most commonly occurred through the ruler's conversion and the gentle reshaping of the structures and idioms of rajaship. The institution preserved many of the symbols and institutions of the pre-Islamic past, although it identified them in terms compatible with Ṣūfī mysticism and Persian-influenced models of rulership.

As with South Asian Islam, however, the development of Islam in this region was also characterized by bitter disputes over the question of how far Muslims could go in accommodating local customs. Rather than denouncing them as polytheism, most nineteenth-century Javanese and Malays reinterpreted the Hindu deities of the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata within a flexibly syncretic cosmology. Bhatara Guru, Brahma, and Iswara were lowered out of the Hindu firmament and reconceptualized as distinctive Muslim jinn or as prophets who had lived before Muḥammad. Islamized in this fashion, the Hindu dewa were also made accessible to human appeal and came to figure prominently in village-based healing cults of exorcism and soul-purification. Though some pious Muslims rejected these practices as polytheistic, others—probably the majority of Malay and Javanese Muslims in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century—continued to regard appeals to devas as fully compatible with Islam.

Throughout the Malay world during this same period, the majority of village communities institutionalized the Islamic requirement for almsgiving not as charity for the poor, but as an annual rite of invocation and offering to guardian and ancestral spirits. Presented with sadaga (alms) of festive foods, dance, and other entertainments (in which villagers shared), the spirits of the village were enjoined to watch over the fertility and well-being of the community for another year. Allāh was regarded as a transcendent and unapproachable being; village spirits, by contrast, were seen as spirit-familiars easily susceptible to ritual and moral appeal.

As in Africa and the Indian subcontinent, some natives of Southeast Asia interpreted these syncretistic traditions in such a way as to refuse outright affiliation with Islam. In nineteenth-century Java, for example, there were still a few pockets of Buda (the term used for the religion of pre-Islamic Java) settlement, where local ritual and mythology sought to incorporate Islamic influences but resisted full-scale conversion to Islam. One influential tradition identified Ajisaka, the much-loved culture hero of Javanese folklore, as Muḥammad's equal, and insisted that the two figures had reached an agreement to allow Buda and Islam to live as one. In a model of dualistic complementarity owing much to pre-Islamic concepts of cosmological harmony, Muḥammad and Ajisaka were related to each other, it was said, as male is to female, day is to night, sun is to moon, and earth is to sky. Both religions would prosper, it was implied, by respecting this fertile duality. With the development of movements of Islamic reform in the late nineteenth century, such notions of syncretic harmony are today widely rejected. Elements of their syncretizing vision survive, however, in the sheltered meeting halls of mystical sects (kebatinan) popular among a portion of the urban middle class.

As these examples illustrate, it would be wrong to assume that syncretism consists primarily of non-Islamic survivals, although this is the preferred explanation of the phenomenon among Islamic fundamentalists. In some instances, such as the Bengali pir or the Javanese cult of Ajisaka, it is clear that elements of the syncretic tradition draw on pre-Islamic prototypes. Many syncretic movements are, however, best regarded not as survivals, but as new, dynamic efforts to reshape local traditions in the face of Muslim reformists’ efforts to narrow the range of allowable beliefs by introducing new criteria as to what Islam comprises. In India, Java, and West Africa, some of the boldest syncretic movements in the modern era emerged as responses to Muslim reformists’ repudiation of local understandings of Islam. These reforms jeopardized social relations with non-Muslims and delegitimized customs long regarded as compatible with the faith.

Spirit Cults.

This same tension appears to have played a role in the development of new forms of religious expression not only at the periphery of the Muslim world, but in its heartland. Since the first decades of the nineteenth century, numerous spirit cults, the most famous being the so-called zār, have spread through Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt, Somalia, East Africa, and even the Arabian peninsula and southern Iraq; similar cults of spirit possession (the holey and the bori) have spread from West Africa into North Africa.

Whatever its precedence in pre-Islamic religion or contemporary African possession cults, in most of the areas to which it has spread, the zār cult is an intrusive institution, having developed over the past century and a half. The cult's diffusion has thus been more or less contemporaneous with the rise of modern Islamic reform. Most commonly, zār possession afflicts married women. Though opposed by Muslim leaders as an unacceptable innovation, the zār has survived in part because, in many people's eyes, it can be rationalized in Islamic terms. Thus the zār spirits are said to be a special category of Islamic jinn, capricious in their behavior, hedonistic in their tastes, and predatory (though never life-threatening) on their human hosts. Diagnosis of the affliction requires the services of a female curer (the shaykhah), who in urban areas operates a full-time zār business but in rural settings usually performs only as demand requires. Once afflicted by a zār, a woman can never fully sever the relationship. At best, she is obliged to sponsor intermittent ceremonies in which the spirit (or spirits, since zār possession may involve several spirits) is invoked and, speaking through the mouth of its female host, its wishes are voiced and then satisfied. Affliction is thought most common during times of physical or mental hardship, when a woman's spiritual guard is lowered and the afflicting spirit can more easily invade its host. In this roundabout way, the cult mobilizes social and material resources for women during periods of stress. It also allows women to make forceful, if oblique, appeals for attention, in a manner that would be otherwise unthinkable in a male-dominated environment.

The spread of zār cults contemporaneous with Islamic reform has led many observers to see in them an assertion of feminine dignity and authority in the face of social trends that have greatly restricted women's public activities and excluded them from prestigious religious roles. Whatever their complex social psychology, the cults are a reminder that Islamization often involves not only the diffusion of Qurʿānic piety and sharīʿah-mindedness, but an extensive assortment of magical, astrological, and spirit-cult lore. These spirit cults also testify to the ability of Muslims to develop new forms of religious expression in the face of changing needs and social circumstances. This same dynamic has motivated the development of intra-Islamic syncretic movements throughout Islamic history.

The modern popularity of the zār cult is also a cautionary reminder that judgments as to the syncretism of different beliefs or practices are often deeply value-laden. Application of the term to specific practices and beliefs must be done with great care and, more specifically, with an understanding of the varied and sometimes contradictory ideals through which Muslims in different times and places have given shape to their vision of the faith.



  • Boddy, Janice. Wombs and Alien Spirits: Women, Men, and the Zār Cult in Northern Sudan. Madison, Wisc., 1989. Rich ethnographic study of the zār and its implications for men's and women's divergent understanding of spirits, Islam, and gender.
  • Brakel, L. F.“Islam and Local Traditions: Syncretic Ideas and Practices.”Indonesia and the Malay World32, no. 92 (2004): 5–20.
  • Golomb, Louis. An Anthropology of Curing in Multiethnic Thailand. Urbana, ill., and Chicago, 1985. Insightful ethnographic study of syncretic healing cults among Buddhists and Muslims in southern Thailand.
  • Hefner, Robert W.Hindu Javanese: Tengger Tradition and Islam. Princeton, 1985. A historical and ethnographic study of syncretism and Islamization in modern Java.
  • Holý, Ladislav. Religion and Custom in a Muslim Society: The Berti of Sudan. Cambridge, 1991. Detailed ethnography of the tensions between Islam and customary tradition in the northern Sudan.
  • Hooker, M. B., ed.Islam in South-East Asia. Leiden, 1983. Collection rich with insights into the interaction of Islamic traditions with Southeast Asian literature, philosophy, law, and politics.
  • Kennedy, John G.Nubian Ceremonial Life: Studies in Islamic Syncretism and Cultural Change. Cairo, 2005.
  • Laderman, Carol. Taming the Wind of Desire: Psychology, Medicine, and Aesthetics in Malay Shamanistic Performance. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1991. Beautifully evocative ethnography of a syncretistic shamanistic tradition in modern Malaysia.
  • Lewis, I. M., ed.Islam in Tropical Africa. 2d ed.Bloomington and London, 1980. Excellent sourcebook on the dynamics of Islam and local tradition in Africa.
  • Lombard, Denys. Le Carrefour Javanais. Paris, 1990. Exhaustive study of the interaction between Islamic, local, and occidental influences in Java and the Indonesian archipelago.
  • Nadel, S. F.Nupe Religion: Traditional Belief and the Influence of Islam in a West African Chiefdom. New York, 1970. First published in 1954. Classic study of a traditional African religion on the eve of its Islamization.
  • Roy, Asim. The Islamic Syncretistic Tradition in Benga. Princeton, 1983. Richly detailed historical study of popular and literary syncretism in premodern and modern Bengal.
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