Carla Bellamy’s extraordinary thick ethnography conducted in a Sufi shrine in India turned out to be nothing I expected as an anthropologist studying Sufism. That is, it is not about a typical Muslim tariqat with a murshid and his murids observing a discursive Sufi tradition to maintain God consciousness and achieve spirituality on daily basis. Rather, it is about Sufi shrines of deceased saints, which have become multi-religious centers of healing. In a nutshell, possessed by malevolent spirits (prets or jinns), people join the dargah in which they are exorcised in time by the grace of the saint. The battle between the bad spirit and the good saint which takes place in the body of the host is called haziri. There are many different levels of rituals such as incensing the smoke of labon, bathing in the dirty waters, or in the healing waters of the gardens (rauza), as well as a long process of learning the parables of Sufi saints and prophets in Islamic history, which would provide a template for the experience of the possessed. However, this paper focuses mostly on Bellamy’s theoretical approaches to the very rich ethnographic data she collected during her fieldwork.
Both Muslims and non-Muslims seek help and “justice” from the saints in Husain Tekri shrines for their inflicted souls, which are victimized by malevolent spirits. Bellamy asserts repeatedly that these healing centers, dargahs, are neither Islamic, Islamicate, nor syncretic:
Dargah culture is properly understood as a religious culture in and of itself, rather than a culture that draws its forms of authority and practice from Hinduism, islam, or a syncretic combination of the two. Rather than “Hindu” or “Muslim,” Indian dargah culture is South Asian (6).
Syncretism may have negative connotations invoking a sense of hodge-podge image, as Frank Korom informs; however, viewing dargahs as a new South Asian religion without referencing to its Islamicate, if not Islamic, foundations is not convincing, especially given the fact that such dargah phenomena, at least of very similar sorts, are widespread in the Middle East.
Bellamy delineates these dargahs as informal courts where the victims voluntarily ascribe to its painful healing processes during the “interrogation” of the malevolent spirit who resides in their host bodies. In other words, dargahs “possess a symbolic authority that lacks an institutionalized relationship with actual political authority” (11). Such an authority can only be acknowledged only in places where people’s cosmological beliefs include the existence of spirits, benevolent or malevolent, while their social worldviews recognizes the potential jealousy among themselves, which can cause harm via those spirits. In a sense, then, Bellamy is right to state that this is a South Asian phenomenon, highlighting the contextual “conditions of possibility” of such dargahs. She further asserts that healing is always actualized in social forms:
“healing…is conceptualized and experienced through relationships with immediate and extended family members….social integration seems to be a major measure of one’s level of recovery;…recovery is only real when it is recognized and accepted by others” (58).
Although situating the practice along with its motivations, causes, effects, processes, implication, and outcomes in the cultural setting of South Asian is well documented and analyzed by Bellamy, it is still astonishing to see her dismissal of any psychological interpretations. She does not find any psychological anthropology theories applicable in her case study, which has so many similarities with the case studies of Obeseyekere, Csordas, Cropanzano etc. She asserts that:
“Healing in haziri develops out of displacement rather than from any sort of enduring self-assertion on the part of the women themselves…. its power comes from time and place rather than persons or personalities” (154).
Although it is undeniably a social/cultural phenomena, another layer of analysis through psychological theories may have indeed enriched Bellamy’s data analysis on healing processes in dargahs. As Arthur Kleinman suggests, analyzing such phenomena, which are simultaneously social and personal, an interactional model should be employed between cultural and psychological theories.
Bellamy also resists treating dargah rituals as typical spirit possessions, which are widely studied phenomena in anthropology. Due to people’s lifelong commitment to dargahs, she claims the discourse of healing in these shrines can be best defined as everyday life rather than a sacred ritual. She explains that the salient narrative of “I came, I prayed, I got better” in such healing centers does not really account for the complexity of the experience. She states that:
“Pilgrims…experience life as a chronic illness. Recurrent visits to one’s chosen dargah, whether to offer thanks, seek blessing, offer respect, or request help for an old or new problem, are necessary to keep the illness in remission” (29).
In other words, what elevates dargah culture into the status of religion on its own, according to Bellamy, is the lifelong commitments to a given Sufi shrine by Indians regardless of their creed. She further suggests that paradoxically it is the diversity of its practitioners that provides the efficacy of the healing. She says, “Husain Tekri is an otherness-centered culture” in which the other is not only the source of danger and ambiguity but also healing and companionship. It is hard to understand Bellamy’s resistance to call this diverse community under the same roof of the shrine as an example of Turnerian “communitas.” To me, it is a perfect example of a Turnerian liminal space in which the actors suspend their actual lives, roles and responsibilities and constitute a community of its own, and will potentially either reintegrate to their social group at the end, or resist it all together with an unpredicted or unintended, newly acquired identity (i.e. by converting to Islam).
In conclusion, Bellamy presents us a very thick description in her ethnography that one wants to pause in each section and reflect upon the details, all of which are impregnated with new potential analyses. This short review paper does not do justice to its actual depth, complexity, and richness of both its ethnographic data and theoretical analyses.
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