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cult of saints in North African popular Islam

THE CULT OF SAINTS IN NORTHWESTERN TUNISIA

An analysis of contemporary pilgrimage structures

Wim van Binsbergen

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In this chapter I shall present a description and analysis of the cult of local saints, as major aspect of contemporary popular religion in the highlands of Khumiriya, north-western Tunisia. This paper is therefore a contribution to the ethnography of religious behaviour in general and that of rural North Africa in particular. As is the case in much of religious anthropology, studies of popular Islam have tended to concentrate on systems of belief and symbolism, with excursions into the relation between religion and the wider social, economic and political context in which that religion occurs. The behavioural aspect of religion has been somewhat neglected, and as a result for some of the most pertinent questions of contextual religious analysis we have had to content ourselves with tentative answers largely founded on intuition and persuasion; the necessary empirical data have often been lacking. A major problem in this connexion is that an empirical, quantitative description of religious behaviour — such as I shall offer towards the end of this chapter — remains meaningless without an adequate discussion of the symbolic and social-organizational aspects of such behaviour.

            Having elsewhere dealt with the historical aspects of saintly cults and the interplay between popular and formal Islam in the Khumiri region, I shall here largely limit myself to the contemporary situation concerning pious visits (zy„ra) to shrines associated with named local saints — touching on local history only in so far this helps to explain the nature of territorial segmentation today, and refraining from a discussion of such significant aspects of Khumiri religion as: the veneration of trees and sources; veneration of saints through other rituals than pious visits; the ecstatic cults that are loosely organized in religious brotherhoods and that, although implying saints, form a popular-religious complex somewhat distinct from zyara; the symbolic deep structure of such key concepts as sainthood and baraka; and finally the formal Islam of the Qur’an, the mosque, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Even so the ethnographic argument will be too lengthy to wallow for a more than cursory discussion of the many wider theoretical implications of the Khumiri data.

 

Part I:
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1. INTRODUCTION
2. REGIONAL AND HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
3. SEGMENTATION IN KHUMIRIYA TODAY
4. SHRINES IN KHUMIRIYA
5. SAINTS AND THE LIVING

Part II:
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6. SEGMENTATION AND TYPES OF
ZYARA
7. LOCAL
ZYARA IN THE VALLEY OF SIDI MHAMMAD
8. ORIGINAL AND PERSONAL
ZYARA IN THE VILLAGE OF SIDI MHAMMAD
9. CONCLUSION
REFERENCES

 


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