The fourteen essays in this volume by experts on various aspects of the subject provide between them a wonderful and learned overview of a widespread form of religious syncretism: the assimilation of shamanistic beliefs and rituals into folk Islam. The book predictably focuses on the Turkic-speaking peoples of Central Asia, Siberia and the Middle East: the occurrence of the term ‘shaman’ in the volume’s title already points to such an orientation, since the word comes from the Evenk language of Siberia and most synonyms (kam, bakhshi, etc.) also tend to originate in Central and Eastern Asia. The bulk of the essays examine, in part through case studies, shamanistic elements in the culture of Turkic peoples (Kazakh, Kirghiz, Turkmen, Anatolian Turks) and others influenced by them (Persian-speaking Arabs of northern Afghanistan, Muslim gypsies in Bulgaria). The title’s mention of ‘the Muslim World’ is justified by the inclusion of several chapters looking beyond the world of Turkic-speaking ethnic groups. These studies present probably unrelated but analogous practices and beliefs among other Muslim peoples (Persian speakers of African ancestry in southern Iran, Senegalese immigrants in Paris, the Touareg in Algeria and the Javanese in Indonesia). Only one chapter, that by Roberte Hamayon, makes a foray beyond the Islamic world, exploring shamanism among non-Muslim peoples of south Siberia and thus providing background to the concept itself. But what precisely is shamanism? In the editor’s introduction, Thierry Zarcone appropriately notes the vagueness of the term, which begs quite a few questions. For instance, are possession cults ‘shamanistic’ rituals? (The inclusion of the topics of Iranian zār cults and Tuareg spirit cults seems to suggest so.) Can all types of folk healers properly be called ‘shaman’? The answer depends on one’s definition of the key term. An example of the uncertainties is the Bektashi-Alevi ‘dance of the crane’ (turna oyunu), which is strikingly reminiscent of certain shamanic rituals, if only in its outward features, yet the question of how best to interpret it remains anyone’s guess. A vestige of shamanism reiterpreted in the context of Sufism? A Sufi tradition displaying vague shamanistic reminiscences? Fittingly then, both the volume’s editors (explicitly) and contributors (mostly implicitly) prefer an indeterminate usage of ‘shaman’, which I find preferable to a (futile) focus on terminological precision. As I note below, the definition of what precisely constitutes ‘Islam’ is hardly more straightforward, although awareness of, and reflection on, this fact are far less prominent in the work reviewed here. The volume owes its fundamental concept of ‘Islamised shamanism’ to the research of Vladimir Nikolaevich Basilov (1937–1998), to whose oeuvre the volume pays due homage in a memorial chapter as well as in many references by the individual contributions. Building upon this concept, the volume proposes a further nuancing of it based on a difference already observed by Basilov. The varying forms of syncretism between shamanism and Islamic influences constitute a continuum, with shamanistic elements perhaps predominating among the Kazakh, the Kirghiz and other nomads of the northern steppe belt (north of the Syr Darya river) and Islamic elements appearing more prominent among the sedentary peoples (Uzbek, Arabs, Tajik) of lands to the south. This led some of the contributors of the volume to make a distinction between ‘Islamised shamanism’ and ‘shamanised Islam’, which, even though the matter is patently one of degree, seems to be a valid heuristic tool. Taken together, the contributions strongly suggest that the passage of shamanistic practices and ideas into an Islamic environment tends to lead to certain characteristic developments. One is the increasing ‘medicalization’ of the shaman’s craft: instead of being consulted as a religious leader, he or she will be consulted as a medical specialist, a healer, a role apparently far from being predominant in the original, non-Muslim Siberian variety. Since Islam aspires to be an all-encompassing religious system, it is hardly surprising that ritual specialists associated with non-Islamic practices will strive to stress the non-religious nature of their practices and present themselves as good Muslims. Another result of the encounter with Islam is a notable change in spiritual geography: spirits in the Islamized variant of shamanism are firmly located in Nature, whereas the shamanism of non-Muslim peoples typically conceptualizes spirits as inhabiting Supranature (to use the terminology advocated by Patrick Garrone in his chapter). One of the natural interfaces between shamanism and Islam is Sufism. A pliable form of religiosity stressing the internal aspects instead of the formal requirements of religion, Sufism lends itself easily to absorbing various influences, including shamanistic elements, when these are not in direct contradiction to Islamic doctrine. It is also natural that the antinomian and heterodox Sufi groups (Qalandar, Bektashi, Abdal) should prove the most accommodating to shamanistic practices and notions. The result is that in many regions the shrines of prominent Sufi saints are the primary loci of the practice of Islamized shamanism, Sufi saints are often integrated into the army of the helper spirits of shamans, and traditional shamanistic healers frequently adopt typical Sufi methods (such as the muṣāfaḥa ceremony) as their craft’s initiation ritual. A pertinent example is the case of the contemporary Kazakh bakhshis described by Anne-Marie Vuillemenot, who term their curing rites zikir (‘Sufi session’, from Arabic dhikr) and understand the proceedings as combining two types of travel, a shamanic journey and a Sufi spiritual quest for divine light. A particularly valuable perspective is provided by the contributors’ awareness of contemporary religious developments and their first-hand descriptions of many of them, such as the increasing absorption of Western influences (e.g. New Age-type religious practices, faith healers, ‘neo-bakhshis’, etc.), and even the highly unusual phenomenon of the conversion of Muslim (as well as Orthodox Christian) gypsies in Bulgaria to Pentecostal Christian sects. A somewhat neglected issue in much of the volume (although not totally unmentioned) is the contemporary fashion, driven by the rise of Salafism, of replacing traditional syncretistic healing with ‘Prophetic medicine’ and ‘Islamic’ ruqya. This is somewhat odd, given the influence of contemporary Islamic fundamentalism in so many walks of life. Given the obviously foreign origins (from a Middle Eastern Muslim point of view) of most shamanistic rituals, and their easy merging into local Sufi traditions, it is predictable that Islamized shamanism should be high on the list of the targets of Salafism and Wahhabism. The only weakness of the volume under review is the failure of some of the contributors clearly to distinguish Islam per se from Salafi interpretations of it. I strongly doubt that it is helpful, even implicitly, to assume that the sanitized ‘Islam’, devoid of any local variation, promoted by Muslim fundamentalists is the ‘pure’ variant and that all local accretions are to be understood as ‘impurities’. Thus it is odd to read, as a casual aside in one of the essays, that the only case of travel to Supranature in the Islamic tradition is the Prophet’s celestial journey (miʿrāj) ‘if we disregard the claims of Sufism’ (p. 39). But why disregard them? Is Sufism somehow not part of the Islamic tradition? Or is it somehow ‘less Islamic’ than modern fundamentalism? Garrone seems to think so, as in another passage he uses the bizarre expression ‘peripheral Islam, that is to say Sufism’ (p. 42). It is surely misguided to characterize as peripheral a tradition that for centuries claimed the allegiance of most of the world’s Muslim population and continues to be influential in many Muslim countries. Furthermore, I believe that Garrone’s conclusion that syncretism is only a transitory phase in the Islamic tradition is extremely dubious and is not adequately supported by the evidence in his essay, let alone its wider applicability to popular religion in the Muslim world. The ‘fleeting syncretism’ of popular Islam has lasted over a millennium in places like Egypt. Ironically, the next chapter (by David Somfai Kara) shows a contrasting, much more nuanced, approach to syncretism, and indeed directly contradicts Garrone’s statements (see esp. pp. 48–54) by observing that participants in syncretistic rituals consider their activity ‘pure Muslim tradition (musulmanchïlïk)’, and by urging that one should abandon the tendency, common in Soviet ethnology,1 to see these people as not ‘real’ Muslims. Somfai rightly rejects the ideological dichotomy between genuine and nominal Islam, and I totally agree with his suggestion that ‘[i]t is not the ethnologist’s task to judge whether people of an ethnic group are ‘real’ Muslims if they proclaim themselves Muslims’ (p. 49). Aurélie Biard’s discussion of controversies in Kirghizistan concerning the Islamic legitimacy of shamanistic healers (see pp. 88–92) also presents a complex picture which should serve as a warning against accepting the primitive dichotomy advocated by Salafi and neo-Hanbali discourse. The volume is admirably free of misprints and obvious factual errors, and it is only by way of a suggestion of minimal necessary corrigenda for (hoped-for) further editions that I record these few: ‘holy war’ (or more appropriately, ‘raid’) is not ghazza (p. xxiii) but ghazwa; the statement ‘[…] Fatima is associated to God and his sons’ (p. 183) is utterly blasphemous from a Muslim point of view—even in popular Islam—and should certainly be emended to ‘and her sons’, the more obviously so since the next sentence speaks of Ḥasan and Ḥusayn; and the most elementary fact-checking should have revealed that al-Bukhārī (d. 256/870), ‘the famous author of a compilation of hadith’ (pp. 184-5) lived in the ninth instead of the eleventh century (and his name was Muḥammad b. Ismāʿīl rather than just Ismāʿīl). All such objections and corrections are, however, insignificant in comparison to the consistently high scholarly standards of all the chapters. The sheer richness of the data as well as the insights provided by the book add immensely to our understanding of syncretistic phenomena in the Islamic religious tradition. Everyone with an interest in shamanism, religious syncretism, variety and change in Islam and the religious traditions of Turkic peoples will benefit enormously from reading this collection of learned essays and from keeping it on their shelf, preferably in a place easy to reach. Footnotes 1 It is a fine piece of irony to see contemporary Islamic fundamentalists concurring with Soviet ethnologists on how to define ‘real’ Islam; indeed, Salafists in this region actually do cite Soviet ethnologists on the un-Islamic nature of syncretistic rites (see p. 53)! © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: email@example.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Journal of Islamic Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 30, 2018
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