Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Unit 3: Performing faith

Overview of the unit

3.1     The language of ritual

In this unit, we begin by exploring the principle that a faith consists of both belief and practice. Religious practices are an important dimension of all religions. They consist of worship, rites, rituals, festivals, ceremonies, and other devotional forms. In this section, we explore the special language of symbols reflected in religious practices, and the various roles rituals play in human societies.
3.2     Sacred relationships
In religious practices, believers express their relationship to what they consider as sacred. In Muslim cultures, prayers and practices reflect a rich variety of sacred relationships. This section explores the example of a prayer recited during the festival of Nawruz by the Bektashi Sufis of Turkey. On this day, they also celebrate the birth of Imam Ali. Through the Nawruz prayer, the Bektashi Sufis express their special relationship to the imam.
3.3     Conversation of the soul
Prayer forms a central part of religious practices. In all faith communities, prayer is an important expression of the relationship between believers and the sacred. We explore in this section the practice of prayer within Islamic traditions. Using the Ismaili dua as an example, we examine the special form of conversation used in prayer.
3.4    Enchanted words
We end this unit by turning our attention to devotional hymns as another important form of religious practice to be found in faith communities. We explore the devotional songs recited by women in Somalia as an example of religious poetry in a Muslim culture. We try to gain a greater appreciation of the diversity of devotional forms practised in Muslim communities around the world.

3.1 The language of ritual
Beliefs and practices
In the previous two units, we learned about the multiple aspects of a religion. We also considered the outer and inner dimensions of religion. We found that faith is expressed through both belief and practice. No faith consists only of beliefs. The Quran calls upon believers to perform Islam, rather than simply believe in it. Performing a faith forms a central aspect of all religions. Believers may express their faith in a variety of ways through moral actions, use of their minds and imagination, and religious practices. By performing their faith, believers are able to give a practical expression to their inner beliefs and commitment. They are able continually to reaffirm their relationship to the sacred: Religious practices lie at the heart of performing faith. We find a wide variety of religious practices or rituals in all religions: worship, rites, ceremonies, festivals and other devotional forms. Rituals are not specific to religious traditions only. They are to be found in all human societies. Rituals express the human need for pattern, order and routine. They also celebrate the special, the unique, and the extra-ordinary by breaking out of the pattern and routine of everyday life. Most rituals have evolved in human communities over long stretches of time. Some rituals are new and have their origins in the modern period. Rituals are not static but undergo change through varying conditions. Some rituals may become more important than others, while others may die away. Rituals may also become adapted as they pass from one culture to another.
The role of rituals
Rituals have proved to be a fascinating subject of study for researchers. They have been examined from many different perspectives and explained in a variety of ways. Thinkers in the past and in modern times have tried to explain the role of rituals for individuals and societies. The fact that no single explanation exists about the role of rituals shows that they are complex aspects of human life. 
One of the explanations put forward by sociologists is that rituals serve to create unity among a group of people. When people regularly perform the same actions together, the bond between them becomes stronger. Each individual in the group identifies closely with the rest of the members and shares a common feeling of unity.
Another explanation on the role of rituals is offered by psychologists. From their viewpoint, rituals have a deep effect on how individuals feel inside themselves. Individuals perform rituals so as to find inner strength, peace and comfort. Regular participation in rituals provides them with a source of continuity, stability and security in lives.
From a religious perspective, ritual: are a means of expressing the relationship between the human and the sacred. Rituals become the points of interaction between these two aspects. It is the point at which the sacred reveals itself to the human. Rituals are seen by religious believers to be a means by which they can constantly renew theirs commitments to the divine. Religious practices are a mean of strengthening their closeness to the sacred.
The performance of rituals
Religious rituals are special expressions of human life that are performing at special places and times. They may be performed alone by individuals or by group of believers. Some rituals may take place regularly. While others will be held only on special occasions. All rituals have an outer and an Inner aspect. The outer aspect is what is visible and shared among the believers. It refers to the setting in which the ritual takes place, and any objects that are used in the ritual. It may involve the recitation of certain words and the performance of certain gestures by believers. The inner aspect is what is personal to each believer. It includes the inner intentions, beliefs, feelings and experiences of the believer.
Ritual has a special language of its own which combines both the outer and inner aspects. It is based on the language of symbols. A symbol is any object, act or idea that points to something beyond itself. The colour red, for example, is a symbol of danger in some cultures. Religious rituals use symbols to point to the sacred that lies beyond human expression. The objects and experiences in our world suggest to us higher meanings. For example, the sun leads us to think of God as light.
Rituals use symbols in complex ways. It is often difficult to decipher what each symbol represents. One symbol may have many meanings, and these meanings may vary from one person to the next and from one community to another. The meanings of the symbols are also integrated into the actions of the rituals. When we watch a dance, it is difficult to identify the dance apart from the dancer. In the same way, it is difficult to isolate the ritual apart from the actions of the believers performing the ritual.
Food and fire as symbols in rituals
In Muslim cultures around the world, we find a wide variety of rituals. Some are to do with worship and devotional practices. Others are performed during festivals or to observe a rite of passage, such as when a child is born or a person dies. These rituals are rich with symbols, reflecting the culture in which they are performed. The symbols are often picked from the objects, images and ideas available to the people in their local environment. They may also form part of their myths or histories.
In the following passages, we explore two types of symbols in the rituals of Muslim cultures that are also found in other societies. The first symbol is based on food, and the second on fire. We begin by exploring food as a symbol first. The text for reading is adapted from a study about the Gayo people of Indonesia.
The Gayo people are Muslims who live on the northern part of the island of Sumatra. Most of them are farmers who live in small towns and villages. Many of their rituals are ancient and arise from their particular way of life, such as the rice they grow in their fields. Some rituals are based on a special meal of rice called kenduri that the Gayo prepare. The kenduri is a ritual meal that takes place to mark a special occasion, such as Prophet Muhammad's birthday Id al-aha, an important event in a person's life, or the beginning of the rice cycle. The meal is also held when a person goes abroad or returns to his or her home, when someone catches an illness or recovers from it, or when other special events take place.
In the following text, we learn about the 'kenduri of the four elements'.

Food and ritual

Gayo people mark a special occasion by arranging a ritual meal known as a kenduri. A traveller may hold a kenduri to ask God for safety and health on a journey At an ancestor's grave, a couple might offer a kenduri in return for their child's health At a funeral, villagers ask God to send the blessings arising from a kenduri to the spirit of the deceased.
An important part of any kenduri is the set of prayers to God recited by a prayer leader. The prayer leader leads the guests in reciting one or mote short Quranic verses in Arabic.
At some kenduri, such as those held in fulfillment of a vow or on Prophet Mohammed's birthday, the collective recitation will be very short, consisting only of the opening verses of the Quran, al-Fatiha.
A kenduri of four elements is a meal made up of four types of rice. This meal is arranged in a fixed order. A prayer mat is rolled out on top of the coloured reed mat used for eating. The Gayo then place the following types of food on the mats:
1. A plate of puffed rice, four bananas and one egg         The puffed rice is made from glutinous rice. Four bananas, usually of a short, sweet kind, are placed around the rim of the plate, and a hard-boiled egg is placed in the centre.
2.    Seven cup-measures of glutinous rice:    The cooled rice is heaped up on one plate.
3. Fort four rice cakes    These flat cakes look like small pancakes exact number in the kenduri varies, but stipulated as forty-four in number.
4. One plate of cooked rice        The single plate of rice stands for the rest of the rice that will be shared among the villagers for the meal. Some people include meat and vegetables as part of the fourth plate.
Gayo people interpret the meaning of these foods o their religious understanding. Most consider the first three plates to be offerings to God and other spirits. The fourth plate of cooked rice stands for the meal itself.
Whatever the beliefs, most Gayo people agree that, four foods are made from rice and are of human origin, they are powerful symbols of human qualities.
The puffed rice is the main element, the head of the feast.' Puffed rice was the food of the prophets, and is the sole food of men or women who wish to become more spiritual. By including it in the kenduri they bring themselves closer to God.
The puffed rice is light. It is included so that the feast will also be lightened in some way. For instance, if a boy is not doing well at school, his parents sponsor a feast that has puffed rice. The teacher says some words over it and then has the boy eat it.
The second element, the seven cup-measures of sticky rice, tightens and unites the ties between the villagers and the spirit world.
The glutinous rice, because it is sticky, ensures that some quality will stick to a person. After a name is chosen for a child, the parents offer glutinous rice to the people conducting the ritual so that the name will sit well with the child throughout life. A student who acquires knowledge will sponsor a feast of glutinous rice so that knowledge will stick to him.
The rice cakes, the third element, are associated with God and with the spirit of a deceased person. The rice cakes are usually given as offerings. Gayo people often send a plate of cakes to the mosque on Friday for the worshippers to eat right after the service, with the hope that the donation will reach God and bring blessings to the donor.

  • cup-measure - cupful; the amount held by a cup
  • deceased- a person who has died
  • Donation - something that is contributed
  • elements – parts
  • fulfillment- carry out, complete
  • glutinous - sticky, like glue
  • offerings - things offered as a sign of devotion or as part of a religious practice
  • rim - edge, circumference
  • sponsor- a person who supports or pays for an activity
  • stipulated - laid down as a rule
  • vow - an important promise: an oath

Reflecting on the text

Why do you think rice forms an important part of Gayo rituals? How does rice act as a symbol in these rituals?
What four types of rice do the Gayo use in their kenduri ritual? How do the Gayo people explain the meaning of these different types of rice?
How is the selection of rice related to the type of occasion being observed?
What other rituals are performed during a kenduri?
What roles do you think the kenduri ritual plays among the Gayo?
Rituals Islamic or cultural

In recent times, there has been a growing debate in Muslim societies about which rituals are 'Islamic' and which ones are not. In the Gayo society, for example, some groups feel that there are some aspects about the kenduri ritual that are not Islamic.
There are two views which are in conflict here. One view claims that all Muslims. Wherever they live, should follow only one and the same set of rituals. These are the rituals which originated in (he time of the prophet in Arabia, The people who support this View feel that any deviation from these rituals is wrong and goes against the tradition of the Prophet.
Another view argues that the Prophet himself derived and adapted the Islamic rituals from the pre-Islamic Arabian culture. For example the rite of pilgrimage to Mecca was performed in Arabia before the coming of Islam. The Prophet took the form of this ritual and gave it a new meaning. In the same way, Muslim cultures in different parts of the world have adapted the rituals in their own environments to make them 'Islamic'.
Studies of Muslim communities around the world reveal that a wide variety of rituals are practised which did not originate in Arabia. Culture plays a very important role in the way different people express their Islam. A greater understanding is needed of how people come to express their faith in different times and places. We also need to gain insight into the inner meanings that Muslims as individual believers and communities give to the rituals of their culture in which they participate.

What role do rituals have In the life of religious communities, and how are they expressed?
• Religious practices


Examine some of the religious practices performed in your community. What kinds of symbols are used in these rituals?


Find out more about how food as a symbol in the religious practices of Muslim communities and in other religious traditions. What meanings are given to different types off offerings?

Examine in greater detail the meanings given to the word 'Islamic' in relation to religious practices. Discuss the viewpoints of those groups who want all Muslims to practice the same rituals, and those who see rituals as expressed in the cultural language of each community.

what is the relation between culture and faith? How do we understand these two aspects of life? Are they two separate dimensions, or are they closely integrated?


Rituals form an important part of the religious life of faith communities, and are expressed through a language of symbols.

Local cultures universal symbols

Food is a common symbol in rituals because it is an essential part of all human life. Another universal symbol is fire. Fire is a tool that humans discovered many thousands of years ago. It made human beings superior to animals by equipping them with warmth, light and protection. Fire was used in the preparation of food, and as a means of communication. It also proved a powerful weapon in battles and wars.
Fire is an ambiguous and complex symbol for human beings. It lends itself to multiple meanings. Fire assumes many forms, from the tiny spark of a matchstick to the blazing heat of the sun. It is both, a creative and a destructive force, a friend and a foe. It gives light and warmth, but it can also scorch. It can be controlled and tamed, and yet it can prove wild and ferocious. It can be pure and brilliant, or dark and smoke.
We find fire used as a symbol in all human cultures. It is a common image in the oral and written literature of people around the world. It also forms an integral part of the everyday culture of people. Candle and incense burners, for example are common objects in some religions and societies; the corpse is cremated in a pyre rather than buried. Firecrackers are a popular way of celebrating special
occasions. Bonfires and torch beacons also form part of the traditions of various cultures. The Olympic torch has become an important international symbol in recent times.
Fire as a symbol in Muslim Cultures

As in other religious communities, fire is an important symbol in Muslim cultures, We find it used many times as an image in the Quran. In the religious literature of Muslims, fire is an important symbol that is presented in highly imaginative ways. It also plays a role in the rituals, festivals and ceremonies of many Muslim cultures.
To explore the use of fire as a symbol in Muslim communities, two passages have been selected for reading here. The first one describes the symbolism of fire in the culture of the Shugnanis, a people who live in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan. The passage is based on research that was conducted by a Russian scholar. We learn of the different ways in which fire is used as a symbol in the everyday life of the Shugnanis.
The second passage gives us a more detailed account of a ceremony known as chiragh rawshan or the kindling of the lamp'. It is part of a death rite that is performed by communities in Central Asia. The particular account given here describes the ceremony as it is performed by Badakhshani communities in Afghanistan. It involves the lighting of a wick while Quranic ayats are recited for the departed soul.
The symbolism of fire
The hearth is the most revered place in the house of a Shugnani. In all the major events of the stages of life, whether it is a wedding funeral or other ceremony, the blessed incense strakhm is burned on the hearth. It is not permitted to pass over the heath or step on the side of it.
During the construction of a house, the Shugnanis like other Pamirian people, invite a special master or expert (each village has its own master) to build the hearth. The hearth is built from in stone in the form of a cylinder. It is plastered from the outside, but for the inside they use mortar which is coated around the sides of the hearth ...
Once the plaster has dried, a special day is chosen, usually a Wednesday and the most respected woman in the village is invited to the house. She will kindle the first fire in the hearth ... The above ceremony is called kisorbithid (burning of fire') ...
The fire is present in all rituals of the life cycle (stages of life) of the Shugnan people. As part of the marriage ceremony, before going to fetch the bride, the sacred incense is lit on two sides of the hearth in the house of the bridegroom. The purpose of this ritual is to touch and please the spirits of ancestors and gods. The groom approaches the hearth and kisses a side of it ... [He] takes a little ash and inserts it in his shoes. It is believed that the ashes from the home hearth will protect the young man [from evil eyes] on the way to the house of the bride and while returning home with her.
... the same procedure will be repeated by the bride on leaving her house and coming to the groom's house. Before the bride enters her new home, groom's mother kindles the sacred incense ... the bride [steps] inside the threshold of the house for the first time in under the sacred smoke ...
[The symbolism of fire is found] in the funeral ceremonies of Shugnanis as well. For three days following the death of a person, they place lighted candles on a ledge in the house. At present, they are replaced by the [burning] of sacred incense ... The lit candles were intended to illuminate the road for of the soul of the deceased on its way to heaven.
... during and after a funeral, fire was kept in a special container and all the family members and relatives would come close to it and bow to the fire. Moreover, even neighbours attempted to come close to the fire. It is believed, even at present in
Shugnan, that these actions promote the 'burning' of ills and frees a person from fear, which one may experience upon seeing [the body of] the deceased.
There is another ritual [carried out] among Shugnanis during the Muslim holiday Kiirban –Bairam kindled chips [of wood] are put on the graves of relatives. Thereafter, a special sacrifice is performed for the souls of the ancestors ...
The fire has maintained its significance for Shugnanis ... there is a saying among the people: yos mo thid ('May fire strike me!) This oath is considered to he one of the most firm and unbreakable among the Shugnan people ...
The rite of jumping over the fire is of special interest ... On the last Wednesday of the month Safar, jumping over the fire is organised after sunset. All the villagers gather together, and when jumping, they say: 'Payghambari Khudo, Salawot bar Muhammad'
('O Prophet of God, Praises to Muhammad!'). In Shugnan, this day is known as Balopatewd or Balovewd ('throwing or burning of impurity') ... [The name of this ceremony suggests that] people jumped over the fire in order to cleanse themselves from sins. . .

The Shugnan people have preserved a range of beliefs and rites which involve ashes.... When the ashes are taken from the hearth, they are thrown in a place called thirjand which is inaccessible to domestic animals ... Abundance of ashes indicates the well-being of the family. And, if in contrast, someone were to say, 'Thir to chidand natakhst' ('In your house, even the ashes do not smoulder'), it is a reproach for being poor . . .

Some signs and superstitions related to fire have also been preserved. For example, if a fire in the hearth intensifies, it is a sign of disturbance and discord it the area; if the fire doubles in the hearth, [it means that] two armies are going to stand against each other; and an evenly burning fire is a sign of a stable and peaceful life.
  • discord - disagreement, conflict
  • hearth - fireplace in a home
  • illuminate - light up
  • inaccessible - not open to
  • incense - gum or spice producing a sweet smell when burned
  • intensifies - becomes stronger
  • kindle - light a fire
  • Kurban-Bairam - Id al-adha, the festival of sacrifice
  • mortar- a substance used for cementing stones or bricks
  • oath - a solemn promise
  • procedure - a series of actions
  • reproach - expression of disapproval
  • smolder - burn slowly without a flame
  • threshold - entrance
'The Kindling of the lamp'

The following account describes a ceremony known as chiragh rawshan (the kindling of the lamp). It is conducted by Badakhshani Ismaili communities in Afghanistan as part of their rites of death.
When a person in a family has passed away, the family members contact the Khalifa who arranges for the burial. During the three-day mourning that follows, relatives, neighbours and acquaintances visit the family to express their condolences and offer prayers for the departed soul.
In the evening of the third day, neighbours and relatives gather in the house of the bereaved family to take part in the chiragh rawshan ceremony.
The assistant to the khalifa takes a bowl with some wheat ted salt in it, over which prayers have been recited. He adds these ingredients to a large quantity of wheat which is being cooked with the meat of a sacrificed ram. This food is known as dalda, and it is distributed to the gathered people as tabarruk (blessing).
The assistant Khalifa brings another plate with a ball of cotton on it. He walks slowly towards the khalifa and recites prayers related to this specific act. The members join the assistant in chorus, reciting the salwat. Upon receiving the ball of cotton, the khalifa starts making the wick while reciting the prayers. He holds the front of the wick while the assistant holds the end. They spin and weave the cotton into a wick, continuing to recite the prayers as the wick increases in length.
The khalifa stops using more cotton when he finishes reciting the prayers, and folds the wick into a length of about thirty centimeters. He then cuts through the folded wick, separating its strands. The assistant twists all the strands together and places them in a lamp holder made of stone. He soaks one end of the prepared wick in the butter oil in lamp holder and leaves the other part hanging One strand of the wick is separated, which is the one the khalifa kindles first and with which the chiragh or lamp is lighted.
As the chiragh is kindled, the khalifa continues leading the participants in the prayers. They recite Quranic ayat and prayers in a poetic form. The assistant khalifa pours oil on the burning lamp to keep the flame to a required level.
When the prayers for this part of the ceremony come to an end, the assistant khalifa carries the burning lamp to the men seated on one side and then to the women's side. As he passes by the participants, they pass their hands over the flame of the lamp and express their respect. He finally places the lamp in a niche in one of the walls, and lets it burn till the wick and the butter oil are used up.
While the dalda is being prepared, the rest of the night is devoted to qasida khwani, the singing of devotional poems. The singing is accompanied by musical instruments that include the daf, rubab and tambur. The singing starts in a modest way by one of the qasida reciters and gains momentum as the night progresses. With each round of singing, the participants place money in front of the main singer. This money is distributed at the end among and the needy in the audience.
In some chiragh rawshan ceremonies, an elderly man may stand up and dance to the music of the qasida. The dance is a special part of the ceremony, and is performed only for a deceased person who has reached old age. The old man explains that there is something in the heart that cannot be expressed through the tongue. The only way to express it is through the movements of the dance. It is a mystical dance that reflects deep love for the Imam.
The dalda is ready before the break of dawn, and distributed as blessing. A big bowl of the dalda presented to the khalifa who distributes the food to singers and other participants. Some is also set aside for people who have been unable to participate in the ceremony. At this point, the ceremony comes to an end, and the khalifa prepares the berieved family to resume normal life.
The ceremony of chiragh rawshan forms a central part of the religious practices of the Badakhshan Ismailis. According to the oral history of Badakhshan, this practice was introduced by Hakim Nasir-i Khusraw and remains an important tradition today
One participant explains that the Badakhshanis light the chiragh because the Ayat-i-noor has deep meaning in the Ismaili faith. The chiragh is a symbol of divine light that has become manifest in Prophet Muhammad and imam Ali. He goes on to say that in the Ismaili faith the lamp is always present and ever lighted, referring to the light of Imamat.
According to Badakhshani tradition, the handling stick of the lamp is the eve of the chiragh, the wick is its soul, and the light is its love. The ten properties of the chiragh also stand for people of different ranks. The devotee is represented by the fire in the lamp, the pure by its energy, the truthful bv its light, the pious by the whiteness of the flame, the wise by its blueness, the martyr by its redness. the grief-stricken by its yellowness, the hypocrites by its blackness, the ignorant by the smoke, and the burned by the handling stick of the lamp.

  • acquaintances - people whom one knows, but not too closely
  • bereaved - those deprived of a family member or elative by death
  • condolences - sympathy expressed to a family in which someone has died.
  • chorus - singing together in a group
  • daf- a tambourine; a round drum covered only at one end
  • deceased - a person who has died
  • grief-stricken overcome with deep sorrow or suffering
  • hypocrites - people who pretend to be what they are not.
  • Kindling — lighting a lamp
  • martyr- a person made to suffer or put to death for a cause in which, he or she firmly believes
  • mourning — deep sorrow expressed for the death, of a person
  • oral - transmitted by mouth, verbal
  • ram - a male sheep
  • rubab, thambur- stringed instruments similar to the guitar
  • salawat - prayer to God to send His blessings on the Prophet and his family
  • wick - a strip of material feeding a flame with fuel in a lamp or candle
Reflecting on the texts

Give some examples to show how the symbol of fire is a part of the way of life of the Shugnanis.
List some of the ceremonies of the Shugnanis in which the symbol of fire plays an important part.
What are some of the meanings that the image of fire conveys for the Shugnanis?
Describe in your own words the ceremony of the kindling of the lamp?
What part do the recitation of Quranic ayats, prayers, and devotional songs play in the ceremony?
How does the food serve as a means of bringing the people together?
What meanings do the Badakhshanis give to the kindling of the lamp ceremony?

Light water and blood as symbols

Food and fire arc two symbols used in the religious rituals of faith communities. Another important symbol is light. In many religious traditions, light stands for God, the divine or the sacred. In the Quran, God is described as the Light of the heavens and the earth. In Shia Islam, the concept of light links God, prophet hood and Imamat.
Another common symbol in rituals is water. In religious traditions, water is used to signify spiritual purity. It stands as a symbol for the cleansing of sins. Water is also viewed as a symbol of spiritual life. Some rituals use water to signify the beginning of a new life of faith for a person.
Blood is another symbol that can be found in the rituals of different cultures, in the Muslim context, Id al-adha
is one of the festivals in which the symbolism of blood is reflected. In this festival, God's command to Prophet Ibrahim to sacrifice his son, Prophet Ismail, is remembered. On this day, Muslims communities and families in some regions of the world may sacrifice a ram or sheep to commemorate this event.

Find out mote about how the symbols of fire, light, water and blood are reflected in the religious practices of different traditions. What other symbols ate used in these practices?

Some people argue that rituals belong to past societies and are not necessary in the modern world. Other people feel that rituals act as a source of deep meaning for human beings, regardless of the times in which they live. Discuss both these views in terms of the arguments used to support them.

What are some of the similarities and differences between rituals performed in religious and non-religious contexts?

In societies and communities all over the world rituals are an important way of expressing meaning through the use of a wide range of symbols

3.2    Sacred relationships
Ritual and mediation
Religious ritual can be viewed as an intersection between the sacred and the human. Through rituals, religious believers enter into a special relationship with the sacred. They feel themselves to be in the presence of the sacred. In performing rituals the believers glorify and sanctify the sacred. They appeal to the sacred for guidance, help and support, and seek forgiveness. And they reaffirm their commitment to their faith. Ritual becomes an important means through which believers communicate their innermost thoughts and feelings to the sacred.
The sacred takes different forms for believers of different religious traditions. For some, the sacred may be that which is beyond all human comprehension. For others it may take the form of a loving and merciful God.
Other believers will view the sacred as the mediation of angels, spirits, saints, or other spiritual beings. In Christianity, for example, the believers may call upon the help of the Virgin Mary to intercede for them before God. In the Hindu faith. Saints play an important role as mediators between the human and the divine. Buddhists too appeal to great souls for help and enlightenment.

The sacred takes many forms in the religions of the world.
Sacred relationships in Muslim traditions
In Muslim traditions, the sacred has many forms for the believers. In the Quran, God is described through ninety-nine different attributes. Muslims remember God in different ways, depending on their circumstances. In times of trouble, they may call upon God as the Protector. When they ask for forgiveness, they call upon Him as the Most Merciful.
In many Muslim communities, the Prophet is also remembered in religious practices, prayers, and festivals. Muslims may seek the help of the Prophet to act as a mediator for them on the Day of Judgment. They may call upon him for help and guidance and to lead them towards God.
The Quran also mentions angels and jinns as spiritual beings who worship God. In some Muslim communities, these spiritual beings form an important part of their faith. The believers in these communities may invoke their help on special occasions. The angel Jibril, for example, is believed to act as a mediator between God and human beings.
The Ahl al-bayt in shia and Sufi traditions
For shia and Sufi Muslims, the Ahl al-bayt form an important part of' their faith. For Shias, the Ahl al-bayt is Prophet Muhammad, Imam Ali, Hazrat-Fatima, Hazrat Hasan, and Hazrat Husayn. The Ahl-al bayt also include the Imams who are the direct descendants of Imam Ali and Hazrat Fatima. In Shia and Sufi prayers and practices, the believers remember the names of God, the Prophet and Imam Ali. They also invoke the names of other members of the Ahl al-bayt, and the Imams who are directly descendants of the Prophet's family. In the same way as the Prophet is called upon to mediate between God and the believers, the Ahl al-bayt too act as intercessor. For example, in some Shia and Sufi prayers the believers seek the help and guidance of Imam Ali. They ask the Imam to guide them towards the right path, and to lead them to a higher understanding of God. In some Muslim communities, it is Hazrat Fatima or Imam Husayn who mediate on behalf of the believers.
The Nawruz prayer of the Bektashi Sufis
The Bektashi Sufis of Turkey provide us with an example of how the Ahl al-Bayt are remembered in the prayers of Muslim communities. The Bektashi follow a mystical interpretation of Islam. Like other Sufi groups, they are organised into tariqas or orders. Their main beliefs are closely linked with Shia Islam. They give a high place to the Ahl al-bayt in their religious practices and follow the twelve Imams of the Ithna Asharis. They have played an important role in the history of Ottoman Turkey.
In the following text, we read a prayer that the Bektashis recite during the festival of Nawruz, the Persian New Yean. Shia Muslims believe that this is also the day when Hazrat Ali was born. In the prayer, the birth of Imam Ali and his relationship to the Prophet are remembered.
The prayer calls upon God to bless the Prophet and his family. It mentions events that took place in the Prophet's household when Imam Ali was born. It also refers to the many Sayings of the Prophet regarding Hazrat Ali. The second half of the prayer describes the light of guidance that God gave to Prophet Adam, and which passed through the prophets to Prophet Muhammad and Imam Ali. The prayer ends with a reminder to the believers of 'Imam Ali's role as a gateway to knowledge and the guide to
A prayer for the New Year

May god give his blessing, O friends
Nawruz the faithful
has come,
That is the anniversary of the king of kings,
of palace and of the brightness of day,
The wisdom of God has now become evident - -

The high mercy of God becoming manifest,
Verily all earth and heaven became filled with light.

The light of Divine Reality
has covered all the world.
Heaven scattered light like the dawn.
An angel came and saluted me,
He raised my fame above the exalted ones,
He said: "This night the king of religion
is being born,

The dweller in the highest throne is awaiting'

  The trust Gabriel gave the good news,
Heaven and earth, and east and west grew merry.

His pure name is Ali Murtaza ...

At that hour was born the lion of God,
Heaven and earth were filled with light.

'O God bless our lord Muhammad
and the family of Muhammad.'

In the name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate,

On whom be praise and peace:
'Ali is my brother in this world and in the other.

You are to me like Arron to Moses,
except that there will be no prophet after me.'
The Apostle of God speaks the truth ...

  O God, bless and grant peace and blessing

to our master and our support and our Apostle

Muhammad, and Fatima, and Hasan and Husayn,

and his virtuous children,
and his honourable household ...

In the name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate.
Said the Prophet:
'You are to me like the head of my body.
I and Ali are two lights from the light of God.'
The Apostle of God speaks the truth.

[Fatima] took the new-born one
and brought him to her house.
Astonishment came over all the neihhours,

When Abu Talib saw him, he was content,

For he had not seen a boy like his own son.

  All the relatives and acquaintances came,
They offered their congratulations for the new-born.
In the home, his arrival was a good omen,
They talked much about this matter.

Muhmmad Mustafa came to show honour,
Ho took the child confidently in his arms.

He said to him: 'Welcome, O best of children;

welcome, son of Fatima, daughter of Asad;
Welcome, Onewly-appeared pure light.
Welcome, O you cup-bearer of the pure cup ...

[The Prophet] said: 'He is to be strong—handed,

he is a lion, Haydar';
Another human is not to be found with this fate ...

Take refuge in Haydar with your heart and soul.

  Greet and praise the best of men;
And in the secrets of Ali who is of exalted nature ...


  • anniversary of the king of kings - celebration of the birth of Imam Ali
  • becoming manifest- being revealed, appearing
  • compassionate - kind, merciful
  • evident - plain, clear
  • exalted - of a high or noble position
  • honourable - worthy of high respect
  • omen – sign
  • refuge - a place or person offering protection from trouble or danger
  • virtuous - goad, pure, righteous

  His parents ended their lives,
He was left alone at the age of ten.
The excellent Mustafa became his guardian,
Murtaza was brought up in his [home]
He gained favour and approval,
And became the son-in-law of the prophet

of God's greatness.

The Apostle said: 'Your body is my body.'

Attain to the meaning of this symbol
through (mystic) knowledge;
two buds of a
hundred-leaf light
Made their appearance out of the tree
of the Rose-garden of divine manifestation ...

Let us praise greatly the Apostle of God
and his family.
Drink this milk and sherbet so that your spiritual

Benfit ... may always increase.

(At this point sherbet is drunk).

Speak, O tongue of the secret of God,
For the light of guidance to the world is born.

Give life anew to the people of faith.
With mirth like the nightingale, speak subtleties;

From the abode of your beloved
bring pleasant odour,
Be merciful, O you soul-expanding breeze.
Give us news of the birth of the lion of God;

Make all souls and all the world happy.

When there was no 'tablet and no Pen,
no heaven or earth,
(When) there were no prophets or saints,

God took a handful of His light.
He said: O light, be Ali al-Murtaza ....
From this light, all the divinely decreed things

Were created and became visible and flourished.

After that God, the Lord, created Adam,

So that what was sought might come into being

from him.
The holy light of Murtaza, God, the Absolute,

Made known in the face of Adam.
It remained in Adam for many years,

After that it was
transferred to Eve,

After that, the glorious holy light

Came to Seth's forehead and gave beauty.

It came to Ibrahim Khalil with

It became very important in the world.

Also the honoured sacrifice Ismail

He made the highest in creation.

In this way, that light, the mirror of God,

Filled with light many a holy person.

Whoever it reached first, at once
Honour and fame in that person would appear
Until it came to Abdul Muttalib,
By the grace of God it found in him two ways.
At that instant the one light split into two,
They came to two persons by the command of God
One of them made its dwelling place in Abdullah
The other became a refuge to Abu Talib,
One is Ahmad Muhammad Mustafa,
One is Haydar Ali al-Murtaza

[the Prophet said:]
'I am the city of religious learning,

Ali has become its gateway.'...
'To whomsoever I may be a lord,

Mawla Ali also has become his lord,

this is manifest.
Whosoever loves Ali loves me
Ali is my brother in the two worlds ...

All is the guide on the road of right guidance.

Who praises him is the beloved of God.


  • abode- home
  • decreed – ordered
  • flourished - prospered
  • guardian- protector
  • mirth - joy, merriment
  • Mustafa - a title of the Prophet: 'the chosen one'
  • Murtaza - a title of Imam All; the favourite'
  • nightingale- a bird known for its its song, usually heard at night
  • odour- fragrance
  • sherbet- a drink of sweetened fruit juice
  • subtleties - meanings that are difficult to understand
Reflecting on the prayer
How does the prayer link the celebration of Nawruz with the birth of Imam Ali?
Find all the sayings of Prophet Muhammad in the prayer regarding his relationship to Imam Ali.
How is the metaphor of light used in the prayer? What other images can you find in the prayer?
What are some of the ways in which Imam Ali is addressed in the prayer?
How does prayer link the physical birth of Imam Ali with his spiritual status?
What does this prayer reveal about the status that the Bektashis give to the Ahl al-bayt in their religious practices?
Relating to the sacred
In religious rituals, the relationship between the sacred and the human takes many forms. This relationship changes from one religion to another and from one culture to the next. It also takes different forms according to the occasion. For example, the relationship of believers to the sacred will be expressed differently during a joyful occasion, as compared to a time of trouble or sorrow.
The relationship with the sacred is also something that is very personal. It takes different forms from one believer to another. It may also be expressed in many different ways by one single individual. A person's relationship to the sacred may change markedly from a young age to when that person becomes old. Different circumstances in an individual's life will influence the way in which that person relates to the sacred as a religious believer.
The faith of a person, or a group of people takes many forms and is expressed in many different ways. That is why there is a rich diversity of communities in each religious tradition, and there are different religions in the world.
Study more examples of poems and prayers from religious traditions which reflect different kinds of sacred relationships. What do we learn about the nature of the sacred from these examples?
In monotheistic religions, we find the belief in the one God. At the same time, we find a diversity of ways in which 'God' is understood. Discuss both these aspects by referring to differences between and within faith traditions.
What are some of the ways in which the sacred is understood in your community? What does the sacred mean for you?
Religious practices in Muslim communities are based on a diversity of relationships between believers and the sacred.

What are some of the ways in which the relationship between believers and the sacred is expressed in the religious practices of Muslim communities?


  • Ahl al-bayt    Nawruz    Id al-milad al-nabi

  • 7th century CE: Imam Ali bin Abi Talib

Review the life story of Imam Ali, in both the Meccan and Madinan periods. What was the relationship between Prophet Muhammad and Imam Ali?

3.3     Conversations of the soul
Varieties of prayer
Prayer is one of the most common of religious practices found in every religion. Prayer is a special form of communication between religious believers and the sacred. It may be conducted individually or in a group, in a place of worship or an ordinary place. It may be carried out at special times, or without prior preparation. Prayer may form part of a wider set of rituals, or it might be conducted as a separate act on its own.
There are many forms of prayers that can be found in the religious traditions of the world. Formal prayers are usually conducted in a gathering of believers. They may take place at prescribed times and places, and follow a fixed set of rituals. Supplementary prayers may be recited by believers, in addition to the formal prayers, either in groups or individually. Free prayers consist of the personal worship of religious believers.
Prayers may take place in public or in private. They may be articulated aloud or recited silently. They may take the form of the recitation of verses from sacred books, the chanting of religions songs, the repetition of holy words, or direct conversation between a believer and what he or she considers as sacred.
The purposes of prayer
Prayer is a complex form of communication which reflects different kinds of relationships between believers and the sacred. Prayers may include one or more of the following aspects:
Petition: a request in a prayer for the fulfillment of a need or the answering of a problem. Penitence: asking for the forgiveness of sins.
Adoration and praise: expressing affection, devotion, and glorification of the sacred. Gratitude: the giving of thanks for life and its gifts.
Intercession: pleading for intervention on behalf of oneself or others.
Communion: seeking for closeness or union with the sacred.
Believers pray for many reasons. They may view praying as part of their religious duties. They may wish to belong to a faith community and participate in its religious life, they may also seek strength and meaning in the act of prayer.
Prayer lies at the heart of the religious life of a faith community. It unites the believers and creates a sense of solidarity between them. It provides a means through which believers can regularly reaffirm their commitment to their faith. And it creates a state of inner peace and spiritual nearness in the believers. Like religious rituals in general, prayer has many functions and can be interpreted in a variety of ways.
The central place of prayer in Islam
All Muslim traditions place great emphasis on the practice of prayer. The roots of all
Muslim prayers are to be found in the Quran. The Quran refers to prayer in many of its verses, such as in the following example:
'Surly, 1 am Allah. There is no god save Me. So serve Me and perform prayer for my remembrance. 2:14
The traditions of the Prophet also give importance to prayer. In one hadith, for example, the Prophet says:
'Each and everything has a face or purpose, and the face of religion is prayer.'
The significance of prayer is also referred to in the teachings of the Imams. The following quote is attributed to Hazrat Ali:
'Prayer is the support of religion. Among the works of man, prayer is the one that God sees first.'
We can find many forms of prayers in Muslim traditions, including salat, dhikr and dua. Salat is a Quranic term that refers to prayer in general. This term later came to stand for the daily ritual prayer. Dhikr means the remembrance of God. It involves the repetition of the names of God, the Prophet, and the Ahl al-bayt, and may be performed by believers at any time, individually or with others. Dhikr forms an important part of the religious practices of Sufis and other Muslim communities
The Ismaili dua
Dua means supplication, or 'to call upon', The Quran refers to dua as a form of prayer in verses such as the following:
'Call on your Lord humbly and secretly. He loves not wrong-doors.
In both Sunni and Shia traditions, we find many examples of dua. This type of prayer is recited as part of the tradition of communities, or on special occasions such as religious festivals. It is also recited during times of crisis, or to fulfill the needs of individual believers.
The Ismaili dua is an example of a form of prayer from a Shia Muslim tradition, recited in Arabic. It includes a series of verses from the Quran, together with passages that consist of invocation, praise, petition, and intercession. The dua is based on the remembrance of the names of the God, the Prophet, and the Ahl al-bayt. It calls upon for guidance, support, protection and help for the believers, as well as the forgiveness of their sins. Each of the six parts ends with a prostration to God.
The following is the English translation of the Ismaili dua,

The Ismaili dua
Part 1
In the name of Allah,
the Beneficent, the most Merciful.
All praise is due Allah, the Lord of Worlds,

The most Beneficent, the most merciful,

The Lord of the Day of Judgment.

You alone we worship and

You alone we seek for help.

Guide us to the right path,
the bath of those upon whom You have be3stowed favours,

Not of those cursed ones

And nor of those who have gone astray.
(Sura al-Fatiha)

I prostrate before You and I rely upon You;
from You is my strength and You are my protection,
O Lord of the worlds.

O Allah. let Your peace be
on Muhammad - the chosen,
on Ali - the favourite,
on the Imams - the pure,
and on the evidence of Your Authority -
the lord of the age and the time,
our present living Imam,
our lord Shah Karim al-Husayni.

O Allah, to You is my prostration and obedience.

Part 2

In the name of Allah,
the most Beneficent, the most Merciful.

O yon who believe obey Allah and the Apostle
and [obey] holder of authority from amongst you    (4:59)
And We have vested (the knowledge and authority of) everything in the manifest Imam      (36:12)

O Allah, O our Lord,
You are the peace,
and from You is the peace,
and to You returns the peace.
O our Lord, give us life of peace,
and usher us in the abode of peace.

Blessed You are, our Lord, the Most High,

O the Lord of Majesty and Reverence.

O Allah, O our Lord,
from You is my help and upon You is my reliance;

You alone we worship
and from You alone we seek support.
O Ali, help me with your kindness.
There is no deity except Allah,
Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah,

Ali, the master of believers, is from Allah.
Our lord Shah Karim al-Husayni
is our present living imam.

O Allah, to You is my prostration and obedience

  Part 3
In the name of Allah,
the most Beneficent, the most Merciful.

O Apostle, deliver (to the people),
what has been revealed to You from your Lord

and if not do so, then you have not
delivered His Message,

and Allah will protect you from people. (5:67)

There is no deity except Allah,
the ever living, the eternal

There is no deity except Allah,

the Sovereign, the Ultimate Truth, the Certainty

There is no deity except Allah,
the Lord of the Day of Judgment.

There is no hero except Ali,
and there is no sword except (his sword) 'Zulfiqar'.

Seek at the time of difficulties,
the help of your lord,
the present living (Imam) Shah Karim al-Husayni.

O Allah, to You is my prostration and obedience.

Part     4
In the name of Allah,
the most Beneficent, the most Merciful.

(O Prophet) Verily, those who give you their allegiance.
They give in to but to Allah (Himself)

Allah's hand is upon their hands.
Then he who breaks it, he certainly breaks it against himself
And he who fulfils what he has pledged with Allah,
[God] shall in return reward him plenty. (48:10)

O Allah, forgive us our sins,
and give us our bread,
and have mercy upon us,
in the name of Your chosen Messengers,
and Your holy Imams,
and in the name of our lord and our Imam,
Shah Karim al-Husayni.

  O Allah, to You is my prostration and obedience.


Part 5
In the name of Allah,
the most Beneficent, the most Merciful.

  O you believe, do not betray Allah and the Apostle,

and do not betray your trusts while you know. (8:27)

O our Lord, forgive us our sins,
and make our tasks easy,
and give us our, bread,
and have mercy upon us,

You are the Omnipotent.

O Ali, O Muhammad; O Muhammad, O Ali …

O Imam of the time, O our lord,
you are my strength, and you are my support,
and on you I rely.
O present, O living, O Shah Karim al-Husayni,

you are the true manifest Imam.

O Allah, to You is my prostration and obedience.

Part 6
In the name of Allan,
the most Beneficent, the most Merciful.

Say, He is Allah, the One and only;
Allah, the Eternal, Absolute,
He begets not, nor is He begotten,
and there none like Him. (Sura al-Ikhlas)

O Allah, in the name of Muhammad - the chosen, and Ali - the favourite, and Fatima - the radiant, and Hasan and Husayn.

[The recitation of the names of the Imams ]

And in the name of our lord,
and our present living Imam,
Shah Karim al- Husayni,

have mercy upon us and forgive us (our sins).

Verily You are the Omnipotent.
And all praise is due to Allah,
the Lord of the Worlds.

O Allah, to You is my prostration and obedience.


  • abode - home
  • allegiance – loyalty
  • astray - out of the right way
  • begets - glues birth, has children
  • begotten - born
  • beneficent- kind, good
  • bestowed - granted
  • deity – god
  • evidence - proof
  • fulfils - completes
  • holders of authority - Imams
  • manifest- revealed
  • omnipotent – all powerful
  • pledged - promised
  • prostrate - bow down in submission
  • prostration - submission, obedience
  • reliance – trust
  • reverence - deserving of deep respect
  • sovereign - supreme ruler
  • trusts - people with whom one is in a relation of trust
  • ultimate - last, final
  • usher- guide
  • vested - granted
Reflecting on the prayer

Choose one of the verses of the Quran included in the dua. Find out more about its meaning. Why do you think it has been selected in the dua?
Identify the phrases in the dua where the names of God, the Prophet and the Imams are mentioned. Which of these phrases reflect the concept of intercession?
What are some examples of petition in the dua? What types of requests are being made by the believers?
How does the dua help an Ismaili to reaffirm his allegiance to the Imam of the time?
What aspects of the dua make it a Shia form of prayer?
Compare the Ismaili dua with the prayer recited by the Bektashis on the occasion of Nawruz. What are some of the similarities and differences between the two prayers?

A prayer between I and You

In the dua, we find many examples that reflect the close relationship between the believer and the sacred, The believers or supplicants are referred to in the dua in the first or second person as 'I' or 'We,. They address the sacred directly in a very personal way. The sacred is also addressed directly and personally as 'You'.
The duo contains many lines where the 'I' and the 'You' form part of a special conversation between the believers and the sacred. For example:
'I prostrate before You and I rely upon You

From You is my strength
and You are my protection.
0 Lord of the worlds.'

Through the dua, the believers enter into special form of communication with the sacred. They seek for help and support from the sacred. They ask for strength and protection, and for forgiveness and mercy. They also pray for peace and guidance.
The believer's acknowledge their dependence on God. They feel their helplessness and weakness before the strength and power of God. Through the Prophet and the Imams the believers call upon God to support and guide them.

Study more examples of prayers from Muslim traditions and other religions. What are some of the common features that you find in all prayers?

Scholars of religion understand prayer as serving many functions within a faith community. Discuss some of these functions in the context of your community.

At the individual level, prayer can hold many meanings for a believer. Think of your own experiences of prayer. What meanings have you found in act of prayer?


As in other religions, prayers in Muslim traditions are a special form of conversation between believers and the sacred.
Religious poetry, hymns and songs
In addition to prayer, religious worship can take many other forms. One of these is reciting religious poetry in all religious traditions; poetry forms an important part of the devotion of believers.
Religious poetry is often sung as hymns and songs. It may be accompanied by musical instruments. The singing may take place individually, in small groups, or in large gatherings. Some religious songs may be chanted, through the repetition of special words or phrases. Others may take the form of a chorus. Yet others may be accompanied by dance or some kind of movement of the body.
Religious poetry may consist of verses from sacred books and writings. It may also be composed by religious believers. Some forms of religious poetry and music are very old, and were composed hundreds of years ago. In recent times, religious music has become more popular than ever through the use of radio, television, and other media. Every year, new poetry and songs are composed all over the world by believers of different religious traditions.
The devotional experience
Like prayers, religious poems and songs are a special way in which believers express their relationship to the sacred. They are used to express thoughts and feelings which ordinary language cannot convey. They allow believers to express a very close relationship with the sacred.
As in other forms of poetry, religious poems use language in a highly creative way to refer to the sacred. These poems are full of similes, metaphors, paradoxes, analogies and other features to capture that which lies outside human experience. The poetry communicates meanings to believers through a play of both form and content.
In reciting religious poems or songs, the believers enter into a state of mind that lifts them from their ordinary experience of the world. They feel a heightened sense of the sacred that evokes deep emotions within them. The poetry enables them to express their love, devotion, loyalty and commitment to the sacred with meaning that ordinary language cannot fully capture.
Religious poetry and songs in Muslim traditions
In Muslim traditions, we can find a wide variety of practices that involve the use of religious poetry, music, and dance. From Morocco to Indonesia, and from
Bosnia to Kenya, we come across Muslim communities whose practices reflect the use of religious poetry in one form or another.
One of the most widespread forms of practices in Muslim traditions is dhikr. It involves the repetition of the names of God the Prophet, and the Imams. In some Sufi tariqas the dhikr is accompanied by rhythmic movements and mystical dances.
Another popular practice in Muslim communities is poetry in praise of the Prophet, the Imams and other religious figures. This may take the form of qasidas, manqabats, nats and other types of poetry. During Id al-millad al-nabi or Mawlid, the Prophet's birthday, this form of poetry is recited in mosques as well as festival processions.
In Shia Ithna Ashari communities, the recitation of marthiyas takes place during the month of Muharram. Marthiyas are elegies in remembrance of Imam Husayn. They commemorate the sacrifice of the lives of the Imam and his family in the battle of Karbala. In Ismaili communities, qasidas, manqabats. ginans, and other religious poetry represent an important part of their practices. A central aspect in this poetry is the concept of Imamat as interpreted in the Shia tradition of Islam.
Somali women's devotional songs

In this section we explore the religious songs of Somali women which are recited in special sessions called sittaa. In these songs, the women remember the 'mothers of the believers' whom they consider holy in - Muslim tradition, such as Hazrat Hawa or Eve (the wife of Prophet Adam), Hazrat Khãdija (the first wife of Prophet Muhammad) and Hazrat Fatima (the daughter of the Prophet).
The Somali women pay special reverence to Hazrat Fatima. 'I'hey ask her to mediate on their behalf before God. They seek her help and guidance and express deep love and affection fpr her. She is special to them because she was the daughter of the Prophet, the wife of Imam Ali, and mother of the Prophets two grandsons, Hazrat Hasan and Hazrat Husayn.
The sittaat is performed on ordinary days as well as on special occasions. The following account of the sittaat ceremony is described by an America researcher who travelled to Somalia to find out more about this religious practice.
It was 4.00 p.m. on Monday afternoon when Omar stopped by to take Mariam and me to something new to both of us, a sittaat session. The Djibouti sun was still beating down as we entered the densely populated area of low-level housing ... Djibouti's 'uptown', or former European quarter . . . lay behind us at about a mile distance. Our way this afternoon led from the house of my host family . . . into the warren of narrow, unpaved, and sun-drenched alleys towards the house of Luula Saalix, the eldetly leader of the sittaat sessions ...
As only women attend sittaat, Omar took us only as far as the house of a middle-aged acquaintance. Amina was expecting us and took us the rest of the way. A charcoal burner with incense marked the entrance to the premises where the sittaat were held. Inside we found about ten other women, many of them in their fifties or early sixties, sitting on mats and pillows in a circle on the ground.
Amina introduced us to the group which, as I understood later, consisted of regular attenders and experts in sittaat, who gathered weekly between the afternoon and evening prayers ... The women ... made room for us in the circle.
Luula Salix . .. was seated on the ground behind a round, low, and wide drum ... surrounded with various kinds of eau de cologne, perfume, cadar (a dark and sweet Somali Arab perfume), incense, and incense burners. A small heap of money (each participant contributed one hundred Djibouti francs expenses) lay next to her.
Luula's female assistants served in rapid succession qudbi
(a herbal tea, drunk with milk and sugar), orange syrup, coffee. popcorn, and Turkish delight ... The various bottles of perfume were passed on to us, for the religion encourages cleanliness ... We perfumed ourselves. Then Luula asked us to cover our heads and, the singing started ...
Although Luula's sittaat has some Arabic songs in its repertoire, most sittaat are in Somali . .. Already during our first session, Mariam and I caught on to some of the refrains and were encouraged to sing along.

On this Monday, the sittaat proper began, as always, with songs for Eve, whose status as 'mother of believers' and exemplary Muslim goes unquestioned.

After Eve, the sittaat address and honour Amina, thr Prophet's mother, Halima Sadiyya, his foster-mother, ... and Mary, mother of Jesus, asking them for their guidance and intercession in this world and the next. Next come the Prophet's wives, with preference given to Khadija, his first wife, and Aisha, his favourite spouse ...


  • eau de cologne - a kind of perfume
  • exemplary- outstanding, fit to be copied
  • foster-mother - a woman who adopts a child
  • intercession - help on behalf of another; intervention, mediation
  • premises - houses, buildings
  • quarter - a part of a town or city occupied by a particular group of people
  • refrains - phrases or lines in a song that are sung repeatedly
  • repertoire - a set or collection
  • session – meeting
  • spouse - wife (or husband)
  • sun-drenched alleys - streets or passages between houses exposed to the sun
  • Turkish delight - a jelly-like sweet flavoured with powdered sugar
  • uptown - a part of a town or city where people reside
  • warren - a densely populated area; like a network of rabbit burrows
After the Prophet's wives, the daughters of the Prophet form the next focus of devotion,
particular Faduumo (Arabic; Fatima), wife of the fourth Caliph Ali, in whose songs sittaat
sessions find their climax. In [the following] hymn, the Women of the sittaat group urgently call upon Fatima for help:
Madad, madad, Fatima daughter of the Prophet
Give us that for which we call upon you ...
That you take and welcome us,
daughter of the Prophet, for that we clamour
That you come and teach us how to walk
doughter of he Prophet, for that we clamour ...
You are one who opens the paradise,
give us that for which we call upon you
Through your good deeda God's light has overflown,
Give us that for which we call upon you ...

In contemporary Djubouti, women perform sittaat on three kinds of occasions. The first type of occasion is the informal and low-key one of the weekly devotional sessions described above. The objective here is to honour the first ladies of Islam and ask for their guidance.
On the second type of occasion, women gather to call upon the sittaat to come to the aid of a pregnant woman about to give birth ...
The third type of sittaat in Djibouti is their full-fledged, formal, performance in a public space, open to all women of the adjoining neighbourhoods, who may want to attend. Such sittaat sessions may be held during religious holidays, or whenever a group of women combines its forces and resources to organise them.
The public session I attended was held on 23 October 1989 ... It was a festive and formal occasion ... When I arrived, scores of women were preparing lunch in the courtyard outside . . . It was until 4.00 p.m. that that the drumming and singing began ... As the shadows grew longer, the atmosphere in the large room grew mote excited and emotional.
It was almost 6.00 p.m. when we started the actual sittaat, singing and clapping for Eve, Amina, Halima, Khadija, Aisha, and finally Fatima. By then, we were enveloped in a cloud of incense and perfume Some women, individually or in pairs, covering the heads and shoulders with a scarf, got up to dance.
These are some of the texts sung during these emotional moments:
You, new moon, mother; lightning that reached the earth,

Shining Fatima,, we need you urgently
You, new moon mother;
the mother whom we love best
I am disoriented for [love of] you
I am yearning for you
leader who is looking after our interest
fragrant plant, daughter of the Chosen One
noble lady, daughter of the Prophet
fragrant plant, inhabitant of paradise
the chain that will never be loosened from us
the light that will never be extinguished among us
mother of Hasan and Husayn...
Wife of Imam Ali
Who supported the party of Nur, the Prophet
a ladder for us that does not fall down
You new moon, mother,
light that will never be extinguished among us.


  • adjoining - next to and joined with
  • clamour - cry out loudly
  • climax- highest point
  • contemporary- present-day
  • disoriented- confused
  • extinguished - put out
  • festive - to do with a festival
  • formal - in accordance with rules, custom of ceremony
  • fragrant - sweet-smelling
  • full-fledged - fully developed
  • informal- everyday, without ceremony
  • low-key - not attracting attention
  • madad - 'help'
  • objective - aim, goat, purpose
  • resources - means to achieve something; money, time, energy
  • scores - a great many
  • yearning - longing deeply
Reflecting on the text

What is the sittaat ceremony and how is it performed? On what occasions does the sittaat ceremony take place?
Who participates in the ceremony?
Who do the Somali women consider to be the 'mothers of believers'? Why do you think they use this title?
Examine closely the two religious songs given in the text. What status does Hazrat Fatima hold among the Somali women?
How is Hazrat Fatima portrayed in these songs? What kinds of images are used in the songs to describe her?

What are some of the reasons why the sittaat ceremony is important to Somali women?

Special patterns and breaks in space and time

Rituals can be viewed as the regular performance of certain acts which are considered special by believers. They are performed on set days or times, and follow the same pattern of actions. For example, the Somali women meet every week to perform the sittaat.
Rituals are also a means of breaking out of our ordinary routines. They create a special environment which is different from the one in which we spend nest of out time. Believers enter in to a different space and a different time when they participate in religious practices.

Study examples of qasidas, nats, marthiyas, manqabats and ginans representing different Muslim traditions. Find out more about how they form part of the devotional practices of various communities.

Poetry and music are two means through which faith is expressed. Discuss what place these aspects should have in a religious tradition in the modern age.

In what ways are religious poems and songs different from ordinary forms of poetry and music?

Devotional poetry and music forms an important part of the faith and practice of Muslim communities.
Review of Unit 3: Performing faith

Review questions

3.1   The language of ritual
  • What is the relation between belief and practice in a religion?
  • What are rituals, and what forms do they take in religious communities?
  • What do the examples of the Gayo, the Shugnanis, and the Badakhshanis reveal to us about the language of ritual?
  • What is the relation between the culture of a community and its religious practices?
  • What role do rituals play in a religious community?
3.2    Sacred relationships

  • What are some of the ways in which the sacred is conceived in different religious traditions?
  • What forms does the sacred take in Muslim traditions?
  • How do rituals express the relationship between believers and the sacred?
  • What do we learn about this relationship from the Nawruz prayer of the Bektashis?
  • What place do the Bektashis give to the Ahl al-bayt in the practice of their faith?
3.3     Conversations of the soul

  • What is prayer and what forms does it take?
  • What importance is give to prayer in Islam?
  • What are some of the different forms of prayer in Muslim traditions?
  • What does the example of the Ismaili dua teach us about the language of prayer?
  • What are some of the special Features to be found in a prayer reflecting the Shia tradition?
3.4     Enchanted words

  • Why are poetry and music an important means through which believers of different religious traditions express their Faith?'
  • What are some examples of religious poetry and music in the Muslim context?
  • How do Somali women express their devotion for Hazrat Fatima in their religious practices?
  • Why is Hazrat Fatima an important religious figure for the Somali women?
To continue reading this book please click:   UNIT-4

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