Healing Rituals Across Islam
I was just 15 years old, and one day my grandmother found me. Left by a rebel at the side of the road my, grandmother knew. She knew by the fear in my eyes that I had just been raped. When she saw me she cried, and took me inside for no one to see me. She then went to the bush to find country medicine, and then she used it to clean me up. After a few days I had 'gone mad' as they say, and that is when she took me to a Mori-man (a man specialized in Muslim medicine and divination). I was left in his house for 7 days where he washed me in a big basin with warm water and a native soap. I was then covered in a piece of cloth and the Quran was read over me. Nasi was prepared (holy water, also called lasmami) and I drank it. For the whole seven days I was there the Mori-man remained. He slept on the floor and prayed for me. Other girls I knew of that experienced the same abuse would perform a ceremony known as Sara. This is where they made sacrifices of food or clothes in order to get something in return. For those who were sexually abused it was a way to get rid of spirits that were not allowing them to rest.
As Hawanatu Sessay recalled her experiences during the eleven year civil war in Sierra Leone that left over 50,000 people dead, I became interested in knowing how memory and ritual functioned in a post-war society. Did it serve as a purpose to heal? Was reliving what happened a way to unite with other women that had similar experiences in an attempt to heal oneself or possibly the nation? Her answer: "My personal experiences reveal that spirituality and religion function as vital sources toward recovery for women in Africa."
Boothby, Crawford and Halperin demonstrate this experience is far from unique, citing nonprofit sector research indicating over a quarter-million child soldiers deployed across the world circa 2005 (88). Fortunately, intervention is increasing to prevent such practice but the question remains how to re-integrate those children invariably scarred by conflict encountered through active participation or across the regions they were born into like Hawanatu Sessay. Boothby, Craword and Halperin performed a longitudinal study tracking child veterans from Mozambique for 16 years and found that "activities that instilled a sense of social responsibility and promoted safe codes of conduct, self-regulation and security seeking behaviour were helpful" (89). Among these activities were traditional ceremonies, which "play a central role in the lives of rural Mozambicans," which are "at the core of their culture and the customs carry tremendous significance: for the outcome [of] people's lives: whether a person will have good fortune, find a spouse, be able to bear children and so on" (Boothby et al. 96). These pre-colonial ceremonies "accompany every life stage and are important for the maintenance of family bonds, ancestral relationships and personal strength" (Boothby, et al. 95-96). Atrocities such as those committed during war bring the risk of retribution by the souls of the victims, which can interfere with the life of the entire community, as well as the individual and until purged through traditional ritual.
Thus individuals achieve a "chance to be 'cleansed' from their acts during the war" and prevent "ancestral rebuke" from descending on the community (Boothby, et al. 96). Interviews revealed that these ceremonies helped accomplish reintegration into the community and prevented social conflict, while for the child soldiers themselves, "cleansing those that came home 'contaminated' from the atrocities of war," but also were " reported by the former child soldiers' family members and neighbours to be vital for rebuilding community trust and cohesion" (Boothby, et al. 96). These cleansing ceremonies marked a transition from the battlefield back into human society, "described as 'a door to pass through the house' for the child soldiers returning from the war. They were the first critical step towards psychological recovery. After the ceremonies, people generally reported that they became 'sane' and that their minds were restored to 'this world'. Traditional practices helped to 'clean the souls' of those who have been 'altered from war'," Boothby et al. report (96). Traditional, pre-colonial cleansing ceremonies allowed these young adults hardened by premature exposure to war to close off that past and re-enter community free from carrying those burdens into the future. Communities were also able to reintegrate these scarred youth even after they had transgressed deep social mores against for example killing elders or commanding peers to kill (Boothby, et al. 97). Other researchers have also corroborated that "purification ceremonies create a spirit of communal tranquillity because community members see themselves as being protected" (Maussee, 1999, cited in Boothby et al. 97). Sixteen years later, these...
Soon entire classes of young women at local schools and those women who came in contact with the afflicted began to display symptoms of the "Sumbuka disease" across the city of Kano. Some residents of the city recognized this case of mass possession from yan bori spirit-cult performances, which challenged administrators and local officials beholden to Islamic religious law condemning such spiritualism as heretical, at the same time local social mores stigmatized the particular cult whose practices could allegedly exorcise the possession, with illiteracy, poverty and moral license (O'Brien 224). Young women had insulted their elders and now their possession was spreading through the community, but while there was a solution, this would have condemned them to stigma and violated Islamic law. While many Muslim Hausans apparently acknowledge the presence and intervention of spirits in the perceivable world, interacting with them remains the realm of either the very poor and outcast or elite Sufi shaman, and the majority of Muslim Hausa would rather avoid public perception of such engagement even while acknowledging such spirits as creations of Allah (O'Brien 224). The solution was to call in Sufi malamai to practice exorcism based on esoteric but established canonical Islamic rukiyya rituals practitioners claim date to the birth of Islam (O'Brien 224), but were seldom employed in mainstream practice as they involved counter-possession and negotiation with supernatural spirits.
The success of this treatment became so renowned that the result was an exorcism industry in the city of Kano, which ultimately transformed into "the institutionalization of rukiyya practice into a clinical format, with standardized fees and intake forms that documented the symptoms, treatment, and outcome of each patient's illness" (O'Brien 225) at the same time the cult practitioners, including presumably the elder originally offended by the students, continued to receive disapprobation by the community and religious authorities. On the other hand the Sufi malamai, acting within the "trappings of Islamic piety and learning...began to reconfigure established belief and practice" between humans and the spirit world in Kano, eventually turning their success toward politics, to the degree "their stated goals were even more ambitious, as they touted their capacity to regulate both public health and the moral or ethical underpinnings of social behavior through their control of the spirits" (O'Brien 225).
O'Brien then connects this to fundamentalist, internationalist Wahhabi reformation deployed against older, localized Islamic practice as a way to reinstate discipline over permeable female bodies vulnerable to spirit penetration (226). Only through "corporeal discipline" can Muslim women prevent such attacks, along with liberal doses of malamai authority (O'Brien 26). Hence the proliferation of the Wahhabi-influenced Sufi elite in Kano, in reaction to the indigenous Nigerian mainstream individualized practice of Islam. Yet O'Brien cautions against reading this as a conflict over gender dominance within evolving perceptions of orthodoxy, because the mass demand for rukiyya both supports and "reinscribes" assumptions surrounding male and female Islamic ritual practice, with the result necessitating an unprecedented and in many ways uncomfortable revision of the role of "gender, modernity and Islamic orthodoxy in northern Nigeria" within and between both groups men and women (O'Brien 226)
What both of these research examples demonstrate, along with the primary case study interviews performed in the field for this report, is the dynamic interplay between the institutions of orthodox Islam and their performance, adaptation to and syncretization with indigenous, pre-Islamic and postmodern cultural beliefs through the individual practice of healing and cleansing ritual. Healing and cleansing rituals present an interface between the individual and religious doctrine throughout the Muslim world, and this paper explores the drama of characterization, enactment, personification and evaluation in a charged atmosphere of hope and uncertainty, where exigency drives…
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