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Part I

Wim van Binsbergen

homepage | index page 'Íslamic myth' | Part II

1. Introduction[1]

The interpretation of myths, and the relative weight that should be attributed to mythical materials in historical reconstructions based, partly or wholly, on oral evidence, has been a bone of contention ever since Jan Vansina presented a comprehensive statement on methodology in this field (Vansina, 1965). In the domain of Central African history, which has been Vansina’s main interest, this debate has been carried on by such scholars as Luc de Heusch (1972), Joseph Miller (1976), Roy Willis (1976) and Thomas Reefe (1977). Scholarly opinion has oscillated between the rather literalist early views of Vansina and the dismissively structuralist approach of de Heusch (which would read myths uniquely as timeless statement of dominant symbolic themes in a culture). As the body of available data expanded, and experience in the handling of such data accumulated, we have seen the emergence, of more relativist approaches, best exemplified by Willis’s work, which try to specify the conditions under which what aspects of what sorts of myth become amenable to what types of historical interpretation.[2]

                         Central Africa can be regarded in several aspects as the cradle of modern oral history and in my recent work on religious change in that region (1979 and 1981), I have had occasion to tough upon these problems. In the present article, however, I shall draw upon materials from North Africa collected during fieldwork in the Khumiriya[3] highlands of North-Western Tunisia in 1968 and 1970.[4] The myth I shall focus upon is that of [5] Mhammad, a local saint venerated in the area where the foothills of the cool, forest-covered Khumiriya mountains (which reach their summit near the town of cAin Draham, a colonial creation) give way to the luscious, wide-open plain of the Wad al Kebir. This plain receives its name from a major river which stretches over fifteen kilometres, from its confluence with the Wad Ghanaka, northward to the age-old harbour-town of Tabarka. After presenting the myth[6] and briefly indicating the relatively a historical elements it has to offer to a cultural and structural analysis, within the simplifications enforced by an essay of limited length I shall build up a framework which opens out the historical content of this myth for analysis. This framework is informed, first by an analysis of the social and religious organization of contemporary rural society in this region (such as it was at the end of the 1960s) and, second, by the historical evidence derived from other oral sources in the locality.

                         My argument will thus add a footnote to the religious anthropology and history of the Maghrib. But my main purpose is more general. I aim to show how the historical interpretation of myths should not be attempted in isolation, but against the background of much more comprehensive information about the past and present of a society and of a region. While in this way we may manage to decode a myth’s historical message, it also becomes clear that the decoding procedure may be long, devious and uncertain. Finally, I shall demonstrate that, at least in the case of this one myth, the historical message may be carried over into later period where the myth no longer can be claimed to sum up, in a detectable form, events that were of primary significance in the shaping of the political and social structures of that later period. The myth of Mhammad will turn out to be nothing like the key to the local past. Exciting as the process of interpreting the myth of Mhammad may prove to be, the conclusion will come as an anti-climax. The historical events encoded within the myth will turn out to be rather trivial and commonplace occurrences in nineteenth-century Khumiri society.

                         This suggests that the great importance attached to the analysis of myth within the field of oral history may be somewhat exaggerated. Yet in many cases, particularly for the more distant past, and in the context of religious studies, a myth is all the evidence we have got. In such circumstance it would be a pity if we were forced tow holly fall back on the a historical structuralist alternative: and it is advisable for us to steer a middle course with the understanding that it would be dangerous to try to build historical reconstructions on mythical grounds alone.


2. The myth of Mhammad

The myth of Mhammad was known, in more or less elaborate form, to almost every adult inhabitant of my research are and adjacent localities. I managed to record as many as twenty variants of the myth. All agreed as to the basic narrative and only differed in the degree of detail that each informant spontaneously offered. On all occasions I recorded the myth as volunteered, without probing for more details. The variants could be aggregated so as to form one hypothetical version. I am aware of the fact that his version is an analytical construct; yet the high rate of agreement of convergence between the variants seem to warrant such treatment. Table 1 summarizes which informants (numbered i-xx) presented which elements of the aggregate version. It is the public, consensual content of the myth that shall occupy us in the course of my argument, and not the specific minutiae of verbal activity as exemplified in the individual informants’ presentations of the myth. I have not, therefore, attempted to relate systematically the differences (in length, precision, inclusion of certain elements and omission of others) to differences in sex, age, place of residence, descent group membership, etc., of the various informants. A more impressionistic inspection of these background variables, however, has convinced me that they had no significant effect on the distribution of variants. Variants of the myth that were recounted with third parties present did not differ significantly from those offered to me in private, and never gave rise to disagreement and critical discussion. This in itself suffices to place this myth, along with the other pious legends circulating in the region, in a class apart from other oral-historical statements in Khumiriya. For (as we shall see, particularly in relation to evidence on genealogies, residential history, and histories of clans and lineage segments) oral-historical statements in contemporary Khumiri society tend to be contentious, idiosyncratic, non-consensual and manipulative rather than collectively accumulated, shared historical images; and in this sense reflect the individual speaker’s transitory position in a shifting network of interest and relationships.

                         The aggregate version, then, of the myth of Mhammad runs as follows (the elements, numbered 1-28, correspond to those in Table 1):

Mhammad (1) was a herdsman (2) employed by Salima (3) of Ulad bin Sayid in the Khadayriya area (4). Mhammad took the cattle to graze in the immediate surroundings of what today are the hamlets of Mhammad, Mayziya, Tra’aya-sud and Tra’aya-bidh (5); various names of localities are specifically mentioned in this connection (6). There (implied or expressly: on the Hill-top[7] where later his main shrine would be located) he would sit down in order to sleep or to meditate (7). For that purpose he would take off some, or all, of his clothes (sometimes specified: his white burnous); towards the evening he would put these on again (8). The cattle he allowed to roam freely ((0 in those parts (various names of localities are again specified in this connection) (10). Partridges came and alighted on his body (11), in order to pick away the lice (12). At dusk Mhammad would call the cattle to return to him (various ways are specified: he clapped his hands; he waved a flap of his burnous; or he made a to-and-fro movement with his walking-stick, which had a particularly large head) (13). The birds left him (14). He returned home (with all the cattle unhurt) (15). Salima became aware of this unusual way of herding (various ways are specified in which this information reached Salima: he is said to have followed his herdsman in the morning to watch secretly if the latter was doing a good job; or Salima’s wife, or a passer-by, is said to have informed Salima of the strange ways of his herdsman) (16). From his own reflection on this matter, or at the suggestion from others) Salima now understood that Mhammad was a saint (17), and notably: one greater than Salima himself (18). There were other signs to the same effect (e.g. Salima’s wife noticed that Mhammad performed the Moslem’s obligatory prayers before he went to sleep) (19). Therefore, when Mhammad returned home once again, he was treated with all signs of respect (his feet were washed, he was offered a choice meal - either by Salima or by the latter’s wife but on his instigation) (20). Salima decided that the relationship of dependence between Mhammad and himself should be brought to an end (21). Mhammad settled on the Hill-top (22), which had been given to him (either by Salima or by some unspecified owner show may, or may not, have been Salima) (23) after Salima had urged him to name any gift that he might fancy (24). Good relationships, as between neighbours, continued to exist between Mhammad and Salima (25). Now everyone came to consider Mhammad as a saint (26). After his death he was buried on the Hill-top (27). And this was the origin of his present main shrine, called Mhammad al Kabir (the Elder) (28).




    i ii iii iv v vi vii viii ix x xi xii xiii xiv xv xvi xvii xviii xix xx
elements 1 + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +
2 +     + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +  
3 +     + + + + + + + +   + + + + + + +  
4 +       +     (+)     +           +      
5       + (+)   + + + + +   + + +     + +  
6       + (+)     +     +   + + +     + +  
7 +   + + +   + + + + +   +           +  
8         +       + +                    
9 +       +     (+) +                 + +  
10         +               +         +    
11 + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +     +  
12   +                   +                
13 +     + +       + + +   +   +     + +  
14 +       +                              
15 +     +         +                      
16 +     + + + + + + + +   +   +     + +  
17 +     + + + + + +             + (+) +    
18 +     + + + + + +             +   +    
19                     +                  
20       + +   +   + + +   +              
21 +       +           +               +  
22 +     + +     (+) +       +     +   + +  
23 +     + +   + +     +   +   +   + + + +
24 +     + +   +       +   +   +   + +   +
25               +   +                    
26 +                         + +          
27 +     + +       + + +   +   +     + +  
28       + +           +         +   +    

Table 1. Variants of the myth of Sidi Mhammad

Figure 1. The valley of Sidi Mhammad and surrounding areas (click on thumbnail in order to enlarge)


Figure 2. The valley of Sidi Mhammad: dynamics of shrines and cemeteries (click on thumbnail in order to enlarge)


3. The myth of Mhammad in the light of cultural and structuralist interpretations

It is perfectly possible to ignore any specific historical content in the myth of Mhammad; or to explain such content away as an accidental touch of couleur locale (allowing, moreover, for considerable free variation between the various narrators), of no consequence to the myth as a statement of cultural and symbolic structure. At least two lines of analysis are open then for such an a historical interpretation.

                         From the viewpoint of cultural analysis, the myth can be read as a particular combination of a number of hagiographic themes[8] which run through the Islamic cultures of North Africa and the Middle East, and which together serve to express the essence of sainthood as distinct from ordinary human existence. In these cultures the saint represents a distinct social category. He or she is characterized by an exceptionally close and harmonious relationship with God and with Nature; this enables the saint to circumvent the usual limitations of human toil and human social control, and instead to rely directly on divine grace (baraka). The saint reveals himself in various ways, ways which are often found in combination: through the ostentatious display of formal Islamic observance (in a cultural environment of popular Islam where very few people do perform the obligatory prayers, are sufficiently literate to have access to the Book, etc.); through wonder-working (karamat) and through the possession of material objects (such as stone cannon balls (kurra), or the white burnous) reserved for saints; and through a particular state of mind (niya) characterized by piety, humility and non-violence. Constitution a social category incomparable to that of non-saintly people, saints do not compete with ordinary human beings; on the other hand, the gradations of sainthood result in a saintly hierarchy which defines some saints as being subservient to others, but which precludes relations of dependence between saints whose baraka is at the same levels of excellence.

                         Considered in this light, the ‘rags-to-riches’ story of Mhammad is a restatement, cast in a local context, of what constitutes sainthood. Mhammad first appears as the essence of humility: a dependent herdsmen. His niya is further brought out by the fact that he keeps his saintly status a secret, and that he indulges in meditation or sleep unhindered by such social conventions as clothing and the behaviour expected from herdsmen. For herdsmen are supposed to remain alert in guarding the cattle entrusted to them against such accidents as may befall them on the steep and rocky forested slopes of Khumiriya. The saintly herdsman’s harmony with god and Nature is brought out by the fact that, even without the Conventional attention, the cattle wander unhurt and return at the herdsman’s first call, while partridges (like all birds, conventional messengers from Heaven) settle on his shoulders. the attempt on the part of a few informants to explain the partridges’ presence rationally by referring to the poor herdsman’s lice suggests that the divine symbolism of the bird has become lost on them. Anyway, as one would expect, Mhammad’s sainthood could not remain a secret for long, and once detected, the relationship of dependence is supplanted by one of equality, via ceremonial actions and gifts through which Sidi Salima makes up for his original oversight. Incidentally, some variants also highlight the typical role of women in popular Islam as being more involved in, and familiar with,the supernatural aspects of life than men. In these variants it is Salima’s wife who detects Mhammad’s sainthood - thereby typifying the role of the wife as the mediatrix between her rural household and others, including the supernatural: it is the wife who processes food, cooks for visitors, visits saintly shrines and takes offerings there.

                         The second a historical line of approach to the myth would be that of symbolic anthropology or semiotics.[9] Despite much variation between individual authors and between schools, a consensus has developed over the past twenty years or so according to which a first step in the analysis of myth would be the application of fixed basic oppositions which, it has been argued, may be shown to underlie symbolic structures in a wide variety of cultures. Some of these oppositions are:

human non-human
nature culture
male female
high low (or, in general, vertical differentiation)
left right (or, in general, horizontal differentiation)

Table 2. Frequent structural oppositions in myth

Often, these oppositions turn out to be clad in oppositions between natural species (e.g. birds versus cattle) or types of natural environment (e.g. plain versus mountain). Through various logical operations (transformations) these oppositions are then shown to be connected to each other, and to form a deep structure revealing general features of human society and of the human mind.

                         Such a structuralist analysis of the myth of Mhammad would, I suppose, abstract even from the cultural model of the Islamic saint, and would instead stress the pairs of oppositions which are obvious in the story. In a somewhat diluted variant of the semiotic approach, the deep structure can then be related to fundamental formal aspects of the culture and the social structure in which it is found. Viewed in this light the myth contains much to please a structuralist’s heart. In particular, the myth can be seen as a concentrated statement of vertical and horizontal oppositions, of which the ‘rags-to-riches’ theme (the movement from social subordination and vertical differentiation to horizontal equality) is only one aspect. Salima lives in the plain, whereas Mhammad takes the cattle into the mountains, and finally settles there as an independent pastoralist. while the cattle roam about in space (essentially horizontally — despite the mountain slopes), birds descend and ascend, and Mhammad remains fixed in one place as some sort of nodal point where the tensions between all these symbolic axes are resolved. While the saint transgresses the rules of human Culture through nakedness and socially unexpected behaviour as a herdsman (through which, in his niya, he reverts to a purer state of Nature under its human aspect), non-human Nature yet becomes domesticized under the effect of Divine Grace: wild birds fondly interact with the saint, and the cattle return unhurt. The rhythm of day and night should not be overlooked, either: from the point of view of his employer the saint is a herdsman during the day, only secretly to indulge in his sainthood through prayers at night; however, from the point of view of Nature, of God, and of the saint himself, it is during his day-time meditations and intercourse with the partridges that his sainthood is most clearly revealed. As a sort of transformational, vectorial solution to these and other binary oppositions (I only indicate the more obvious ones), the logic of the story almost inevitable leads on to a permanent geographical displacement of Sidi Mhammad from the plains, where his one-timer employer dwells, to the mountains, where he now settles independently; from concealed sainthood expressed in interactions with non-human Nature, to an overt sainthood manifested in culturally patterned interaction with human beings (elements 26-8); and from a subordinate to an equal social position. That it should be a woman who, in some of the variants, forces this solution at crucial points is only logical, considering the symbolic ambiguities of women in Islamic rural cultures, along such axes as the opposition between Nature and Culture, subordination versus equality, and human society versus the supernatural.

                         It would not be difficult to relate this tentative and somewhat amateur structuralist reading of the myth of Mhammad to significant aspects of the social organization of the region. The Khumiri mountain-dwellers are linked to the plain through economic ties (Tabarka has been a regional market for millennia), marital relations and pilgrimage (the Wad al Kebir plain contains some major saints’ shrines). In terms of supra-local relations, such as that between the plain (which for centuries has been economically and politically integrated in the international and intercontinental structures of the Mediterranean world) and the remote, somewhat inaccessible mountains (which, for example, in the nineteenth century defied beylical control and taxation), the myth of Mhammad could even be read as another restatement of the irony of the maghrebine local saint: as a stranger carrying elements of formal Islam into remote parts, he is soon encapsulated there so as to form, with his tomb, legend and baraka, a corner-stone of popular Islam, and a focal point for local, particularist social and ritual organization (cf. van Binsbergen, 1980). the horizontal/vertical deep structure of the myth reflects a symbolic accommodation of status differences, a dominant theme in the society of Khumiriya and other parts of North Africa. In these societies we find on the one hand specific relations of interpersonal dependence (such as analysed by Favret, 1968), of which the institution of the stranger herdsman is but one example. On the other hand, the social process in these societies hinges on notions of honour on shame[10] which imply a potential equality between adults of the same sex. the myth of Mhammad and Salima can be read as a statement both of this contradiction and of its possible solution. It is perhaps significant that the act of quietly sitting on the Hill-top, at the intersection as it were of all these oppositions, conveys a suggestion of firm, legitimate individual ownership of land (mulk) and in this respect the herdsman’s unusual behaviour (in which he denies being someone else’s herdsman) anticipates the outcome of the story. Again, another major theme in Khumiri society is, inevitably, the division of labour between the sexes in a context of reproduction and production; and a representation of this theme, the symbolic opposition between male and female, comes up in at least some of the variants.

                         In Khumiriya saints only service symbolically, as a cultural category explaining local shrines as places where saints living in the past have been buried. Unlike other parts of the Maghrib, contemporary Khumiriya no longer has saints: the most recent actual encounter with a living saint as recorded in my oral-historical data took place in the 1910s. this might be all the more reason to consider the myth of Mhammad as a timeless symbolic statement for social organization or experiential referents, of whatever kind. The possibilities of relating the myth, and its deep structure, to the contemporary social organization in the region, without attributing any specific historical content to the myth, are many. Yet in the remainder of this paper I shall explore the limited sense in which the myth does convey a historical message.


4. Mhammad and Salima as contemporary shrines

The inhabitants of the region have good reason to familiar with the myth of Mhammad. His shrine is still there. For anyone travelling from Tabarka to cAin Draham, the modest, square, white structure, with its domes roof (qubba) and horned ornaments on the four corners, can be seen across the Wad al Kebir for about ten kilometres of the journey. In fact the saint, and his shrine, have given their name to entire valley south of the Was Ghanaka, consequently called hanshir (patrimony of) Mhammad. In this valley, comprising the hamlets of Tra’aya-sud, Tra’aya-bidh, Mhammad, Mayziya, Ramal al cAtrus and Fidh al Missay, three more shrines of the same saint can be found: another qubba right in the centre of the hamlet Mhammad; a hut-like structure (kurbi, consisting of a roof of arboreal material (branches, leaves, cork) on a foundation of large rocks laid out in the form of rectangle) next to this qubba, and another kurbi between the hamlets of Mhammad and Mayziya. The qubba in the centre of the hamlet of the same name is called Mhammad al Wilda (the Son) to distinguish it from the shrine on the Hill-top, designated al Kabir (Elder). the collective celebrations during the massive festival (zarda), which is held twice in year in honour of Mhammad, take place almost entirely around the qubba of Mhammad al Wilda. Mhammad al Kabir’s main function is that the valley’s major cemetery is situated around this shrine. Hundreds of pilgrims (particularly women who, born within the valley, have married outside and who are under an obligation to visit the shrine) make the pilgrimage to Mhammad al Wilda on the occasion of the zarda and throughout the year; however, on the same day, these pilgrims will also visit the adjacent kurbi as well as Mhammad al Kebir (cf. van Binsbergen, in press). These three shrines are attended by a shrine keeper (ukil), who looks after the key to both qubbas, collects pilgrims\ gifts, and performs a short ritual at all three shrines on Thursdays and Fridays. No such regular service exists for the kurbi half-way towards Mayziya, whose roof, however, is repaired twice a year by the inhabitants of that hamlet. The cemetery of Mhammad al Kebir serves the hamlets of Mhammad and both Tra’ayas. Mayziya buries its dead at a separate cemetery, Sidi Rahuma. The hamlets of Fidh al Missay and Ramal al cAtrus bury their dead near Sidi Bu Qasbaya in Fidh al Missay. This again is not the only local shrine of that name: in the western part of the hamlet of Sidi Mhammad, near a large farmhouse that during the colonial era (1881-1956) accommodated the only European presence in the valley, three more shrines bearing the name of Sidi Bu Qasbaya can be found. The inhabitants of Fidh al Missay and Ramal al cAtrus do participate in the festival at Sidi Mhammad al Wilda; but they also have, on a much more modest scale, their own festival for Sidi cAbd Allah, represented by tow kurbis, one in each hamlet.

                         Sidi Mhammad is clearly considered the major saint throughout the valley. In addition to the festivals, pilgrimages and burials near his shrine, all households regularly dedicate meals to him, to be consumed in his honour. The few people who can afford it irregularly sacrifice sheep, goats or a head of cattle for him. In everyday conversation, in the houses as well as the men’s assembly grounds (which deliberately have been located so that the two qubbas can be seen from there), the name of Sidi Mhammad is frequently invoked to render force and credibility to a statement. And while a large number of saints and demons may be invoked in the course of the ecstatic dances in which over 20 per cent of the male population of the region specialize, the dancers (faqir, plur. fuqra) in the valley of Sidi Mhammad tend to concentrate, in their song (triq), on that particular saint.

‘My ancestor Mhammad

You who sleep under the fig-tree

Mhammad with the partridges,

You who sleep under the hawthorn,

Mhammad, assist me.’

Nor is it only during the ecstatic dances that Sidi Mhammad is fondly called jaddi, ‘my ancestor’, ‘ my grandfather’. This is also what the women keep exclaiming in near-ecstasy, when they visit the shrines together, touch and kiss the walls and sacred objects inside, and dance near the tomb. this is how people in the valley choose to refer to their major saint. But so too are the scores of lesser saints, whose shrines (seldom more than a few large rocks piled on top of each other: mzara) abound in the valley, referred to as jadudna: ‘our ancestors’. And when asked why people visit these local shrines, the answer Jadudna!! is generally considered to constitute sufficient explanation.

                         Sidi Salima is still a shrine near the confluence of the Wad al Kebir and the Wad Ghanaka, where the myth of Sidi Mhammad locates the homestead of Sidi Salima. Sidi Salima has not managed to impose his name on an entire valley in the same way as Sidi Mhammad has. Instead, the wider area (a chiefdom)[11] is called Khadayriya, and the place immediately around Sidi Salima is known as Ulad bin Sayid; the latter is a clan name which is traditionally associated with the Drid tribe. Segments of the tribe can also be found scattered in other parts of Tunisia, including elsewhere in Khumiriya, as we shall see below (cf. Souyris-Rolland, 1949: p. 135; Bel , 1938: pp. 378ff.; Miedema, 1967; p. 19; Cuisenier, 1962; Hartong, 1968; and van Binsbergen, 1970: pp. 93f).

                         The shrine of Sidi Salima is of a somewhat unusual shape, but is rather reminiscent of the rectangular structures of large rocks that form the foundation for kurbi shrines. It consists of a shallow pit surrounded by a rectangular wall (about 7 x 7 metres) built from large rocks each about 40 cm in all dimensions. An ancient olive-tree stands at the edge of the pit. Behind the tree, at the other side of pit, a less heavily constructed inner wall about 80 cm high, connects two opposite sides of the outer wall. There is a suggestion that it is a Roman ruin.[12] The bottom of the pit is covered with hundreds of clay candle-sticks (musba), clay saucers on which incense can be burned (tassa), and paper wrappings on contains incense — the usual pious gifts that also abound in all the other shrines in the region. The edges of the pit are fringed with myrtle shrubs, a vegetation typically found in Khumiri cemeteries. For like Sidi Mhammad al Kebir, the shrine of Sidi Salima is surrounded by a vast cemetery.

                         No other shrines bearing the name of Sidi Salima seem to exist locally, and certainly no festival is held for this saint. Instead, the people of Ulad bin Sayid have two festivals annually for Sidi cAbd Allah bu Karma (‘with the fig-tree’), whose shrine is located less than a kilometre from Sidi Salima.


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[1]       I am indebted to the following persons and institutions: D. Jongmans, Hasnawi bin Tahar, H. van Rijn, J. Boissevain, A. Hartong, J. van der Klei, M. Creyghton, A. Huitzing, C. Beeker, P. van Dijk, E. Gellner, K. Brown, M. Schoffeleers, the people of cAtatfa, the University of Amsterdam, the African Studies Centre (Leiden), the Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires (Tunis), the Free University (Amsterdam) and those mentioned in note 13, for various important contributions to my research and the present argument. Moreover, I am grateful to Michael Roberts for editorial suggestions, and to M. Zwart, Ursula Cornish and Anne Monten, who typed successive drafts of this paper. An earlier version appeared in Social Analysis (Adelaide, South Australia), 4, September 1980; pp. 51-73.

[2]       For a recent application of this debate to religious history, see Schoffeleers’ contribution to the present volume.

[3]       the rendering of place names poses a particular problem in scholarly writing dealing with the former French Maghrib. Distorted and unsystematic transliterations of the Arab names appear on maps and in the literature. For instance, the French called the highlands of North-Western Tunisia ‘La Kroumirie’. The name derives from a local saint, Sidi Bu Khamirra. I could not bring myself to retain the colonial place name, and instead invented the fake Arabization of ‘Khumiriya’. Another problem relating to place names in this article is that, for profound structural reasons which will become clear in the course of my argument, the same name may apply to a locality (valley, hamlet), a residential unit, a kin group, a saint and a shrine. The awkward repetitions in the text resulting from this could not be avoided. The other Arabic worlds used in this article are all rendered in the singular, with plurals loosely indicated by -s. The simple transliteration system that has been adopted after Gibb and Kramers (1974) inevitably obscures may orthographic and phonetic distinctions.

[4]       Cf. van Binsbergen (1970;1971a). A combined English version of these studies is currently being prepared (van Binsbergen, forthcoming). In this work one important omission of the present paper will be put right: the fact that the oral evidence of which I make use is not explicitly identified with names of informants, etc. I am grateful to the Free University, Amsterdam, for enabling me to revisit the area briefly in 1979.

[5]       Sidi (‘Lord’, ‘Saint’) is the conventional epithet for saints’ names in the Islamic world.

[6]       The distinction between myth and hagiographic legend is ignored in this study.

[7]       In Arabic: Raquba — a place commanding a wide view, hence a protruding hill-top overlooking a valley, the abrupt end of a mountain ridge and the open air, windswept men’s assembly grounds which are found in every Khumiri neighbourhood.

[8]       From the vast literature, I mention: Brunel (1926), Demeerseman (1964), Dermenghem (1954), Eickelman (1976), Geertz (1968), Gellner (1969), Marçais and Guiga (1925), Montet (1909), Westermarck (1926).

[9]       Cf. Lévi-Strauss (1958; 1964; 1966; 1973) and Leach (1967, 1976). For reflections on this approach, and an overview of the recent literature, see de Mahieu’s contribution to the present volume.

[10]    Cf. Bourdieu, 1965: Davis, 1977: pp. 89-101; Jongmans, 1968; Blok, 1979; and references cites in these works.

[11]    Although the petty administrator created by the colonial government was called by the title of honour shaykh, which is also the term used for religious leaders and for saints, I shall designate this secular office by the terms used elsewhere in Africa: chief, chieftaincy and chiefdom.

[12]    A suggestion corroborated by the ordnance map for the area: Institut Géographique National, Carte topographique 1:50,000 (La Calle, Paris, n.d. probably early 1960s).

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