Islamic Syncretism

Islamic Syncretism March 17, 2016

Andrew Walker’s “Eat the Heart Out of the Infidel” reaches deep into the history of African Islam to explain the rise of the murderous Boko Haram movement in Nigeria. The Islam of Western Africa was not a pure Islam, but a syncretic Islam that retained and adapted the preexisting animism. Drawing on the work of Arthur Treamearne, Walker writes, “What people believed in this part of the world before the coming of Islam would have been a cult-like belief, centred around a secretive priesthood who revered animal totems.19 Before the advent of Islam, it is thought that the leadership was believed to be responsible only to the animal totem of the community. The fate of the priestly monarch was linked intimately to the totem. In times of strife, when the monarch’s leadership was challenged, rites and sacrifices were made to the totem of the town, inviting it to a face-off with the community’s high-priest. . . . crocodiles were frequent totems of villages and the rites often involved the priest going out to sit among them by the riverside, perhaps overnight. If the man survived the encounter, then all was well. If he died, then one of the challengers would take his place. Depending on the community’s culture, these rites could also be on a cyclical basis, with a leader having an alloted period, after which he was ritually murdered in the name of the totem. But this was a practice that, even by the Shehu’s time, had mostly died out.”

Spirits known as boruruka (sing. bori) threatened from all sides all the time. And they were not merely external threats: “Once a bori had entered inside a human body, it would compete with spirits already living there for control. This included a struggle with the essential spirit—the equivalent to the soul—which entered the body at birth. Powerful bori would simply overpower the spirit and kill the body, much like we understand a disease to do.”

Wizards were feared but not only wizards. Ordinary people could unleash the power of a bori. For the Hausa, “human feelings of desire—like jealousy, envy and covetousness, are not only experienced in the mind or the soul of the person, they can make things happen in the real world. Although these powerful feelings could be damaging, they were accepted as a normal part of life; they were even anticipated..” Thus, a bori “could also be summoned by the desires and caprice of other people. Envious suitors were constantly on the lookout to rob people of their good fortune, their natural endowments, health or hard-won success.” Tremearne compared the bori to a bacillus, and Hausa fears of the bori to the Western fear of infection.

The Hausa set various sorts of traps for the boruruka: “Four cowrie shells tied in the hair of a child, for instance, were thought to snag spirits inside their jagged, toothy curls and prevent them from entering the body. The influence of the spirits could also be assuaged with parts of animals, like the teeth of a horse or the tusks of a boar, or parts of a crocodile or lion.”

When Islam arrived, it never completely eliminated this religious outlook. Rather than wiping out pagan belief and animistic practices, it “fused with it”: “for the Muslim who also wished to remain protected against the harsh old spirits, there were Islamically acceptable methods available to them. Verses of the Qur’an were sewn into a leather packet and worn around the body. Arabic script was also stitched into clothing, usually undergarments, or inscribed on jewellery and worn. Another form of protection was given when verses of the Qur’an were written in charcoal on a wooden board, the type used in Qur’anic schools to memorise suras. This board was then washed with water, carrying the charcoal with it into a vessel, from where it was drunk. The drinker was protected by literally ingesting holy words.” Tremearne, concluded that “there were not two separate belief systems, these rites substituted animal sacrifices with charms made of parts of the Qu’ran, but they were used to ward off the same spirits. For example the name given to the essential spirit in bori belief was called al baraka by Tremearne’s informants; this is also the name given to the concept of spiritual wisdom and the spiritsoul in Sufism.”

Such syncretism is an offense to purist Muslims, who aim to purge out the alien elements to form an Islam that is purely Islamic.

Browse Our Archives