Despite what is normally said, it is in fact easier to make sense of ancient, dead religions than live modern ones. Classicists tend to moan terribly about the lack of information they have on ancient rituals. What on earth did happen at the Roman ‘Lupercalia’, for example, or the ‘Lemuria’? But in my experience it’s much easier to build theories out of just one or two weird pieces of evidence, than it is when you know a lot -- most of which, inevitably, is contradictory.
How on earth modern anthropologists do it, when they are actually there witnessing what’s going on, I really don’t know. I certainly didn’t know what to make of the Whirling Dervishes we went to see in Omdurman (now part of Greater Khartoum).
These Sufi Muslims ‘perform’ every Friday evening outside the mosque/tomb of Hamd en-Nil. Over more than an hour or so, in a circle surrounded by onlookers, with beating drums and chanting, they apparently work themselves up into an ecstatic state – and that involves the spinning around (‘whirling’) that gives them their popular title. When darkness starts to fall, they go into the mosque for prayers.
Beyond the textbook line that this is a way of reaching a heightened state of religious awareness, I couldn’t say what it was all about, and was not much the wiser for having been there. That said, there was plenty in the ceremony that helped me think about how ancient religious rituals might have been.
For a start it was very much a family affair. The dervishes may have looked strange, ‘out-of-it’, and a bit frightening to me. But the local kids didn’t seem to think so. Certainly the under tens (male), in their US baseball T-shirts (so much for sanctions) joined in with gusto and seemed hugely to enjoy a bit of ‘whirling’ themselves. Ecstatic or not, the proper dervishes kept an eye out for their junior imitators and seemed to make sure – ironic, this – that they didn’t get ‘really’ out of control, and even guided them back to Dad if they were going a bit far.
Second, it was a spectacle that worked on many different levels and with many different audiences in view. It wasn’t a show put on for tourists. There aren’t really any tourists in Sudan, and anyway there appeared to be only a handful of foreigners in the crowd of several hundred who were watching (including us and a graduate student from Princeton working on modern Sudanese history). But there were clear gradations in the local ‘audience’ who formed a circle round the ‘performance space’.
The front row were active participants in what was going on. They didn’t whirl, but they chanted and stamped and breathed in the smoke of the incense that was brought round by the dancers. Behind them stood the likes of us, and those locals who had come to watch rather than participate. Many of them had brought their cameras, and photography was positively encouraged by the dervishes – who seemed very well aware of the power of the gaze. One man with a camera was even welcomed into the middle of the dance.
For me (thinking of ancient religious rituals), it was a good lesson about the permeability of ritual participation – and the fuzzy boundary between the ‘participants’ proper and the ‘spectators’.
But it was also fun talking to the other onlookers, so far as our bad Arabic and their better English allowed. Also watching was the head of Sudanese ‘Animalcare’, which has links with the RSPCA. And there was a man next to me, who helped me up to a convenient perch on a mud-brick wall and was keen to know if British Muslims had ceremonies like this – and also wanted me to explain what went on in a British cathedral (of which he’d seen pictures).
I confess that my description of Holy Communion seemed a little dull compared with what we were watching.