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Annihilation in God & Living in the World: Sufi Devotional Song in Morocco

Based on extended ethnographic fieldwork in Morocco I document and analyze Islamic Sufi gatherings where Muslims listen and move their bodies to the sounds of sung devotional poetry. “Annihilation in God” refers to a sought-after state in the context of these gatherings in which one temporarily loses their sense of self in order to have a direct and true experience of God. Striving toward this state of annihilation through sound, word, and movement is a process. It involves a full range of experiences from everyday relaxation to spiritual advancement and serves a variety of social functions from entertainment to religious ritual. While these practices are often described as “mystical Islam,” I focus on the ways that they provide opportunities for people to engage in ethical subject formation as they attune themselves and their communities to be pious Muslims, politically engaged Moroccans, and citizens of the world.

I draw on Moroccan history and politics to contextualize contemporary Sufi devotional practices. While many Moroccan authorities in the 20th century considered Sufism to be an impediment to a modern nation, the current king and his government have begun to prioritize it in the 21st century as an antidote to forms of Islam that are deemed to be a threat to their authority. In this context many Moroccans are engaged in a process of recontextualizing private Sufi ritual for public performance as part of efforts to educate Moroccans on the proper forms of official Moroccan Islam.

I contribute to recent scholarship on the state sponsorship of Sufism in Morocco and argue that Sufi vocalists are a vital, if overlooked, part of this project to make Morocco a Sufi nation. The bulk of my work comes from my experiences working with Sufi vocalists and musicians in the Moroccan cities of Fez and Essaouira. I describe how they have been initiators and innovators in efforts bring Sufi ritual to wider publics. Sufi vocalists today are like “birds who sings in many trees,” as one prominent vocalist stated, operating in many contexts, private and public, ritual and stage. As ritual masters and master performers, they negotiate religious authority and artistic virtuosity in order to attune individuals and retune Islam in Morocco to align with officially sanctioned Moroccan Islam.

While Sufism is often described as the “religion of love,” due to notions of tolerance and the prevalence of Sufi poetry dealing with spiritual love, it has also contributed to patriarchal and authoritarian forms of leadership in Morocco. Sufi performance in the 21st century holds a number of possibilities for shoring up traditional forms of authority on one hand, and for opening new possibilities on the other. Today many Moroccans who have been disempowered by their race, class, or gender, are taking the opportunity to engage with Sufi performance in ways that empower them and their communities. My most recent post-dissertation work for example, deals with woman Sufi singers and their ensembles who are beginning to make inroads into the male dominated realm of Moroccan Sufism and Sufi performance.

Hajj Muhammad Bennis leading a janaza (funeral ritual)

This is a short selection from a janaza (funeral ritual) held for Said Chraibi on July 6, 2018, in Fez, Morocco. Hajj Muhammad Bennis is leading a group of munshidin (vocalists) who are singing devotional poetry as a way to ask that the Prophet Muhammad intercede for the deceased on the Day of Judgement. This footage is from the end of the janaza, around one o’clock in the morning (of July 7, 2018) during the ḥaḍra (translates to “presence”), in which men form a circle and strive to annihilate themselves in God through sound, words, breath, and bodily movement. This is an ethical subject and community forming practice in which participants temporarily annihilate themselves through a powerful experience of the oneness and unity of all things in God. They are restored to their sense of self after the ḥaḍra and gain a renewed sense of piety, faith, and community.

Poetic images of intoxication are key sensorial triggers during the ḥaḍra. This particular poem is by the 13th century Andalusian Sufi poet Abu al-Hasan al-Shushtari. Here is a translation of the words heard in this video:

Have Pity for My State!

My passion for my beloved is well-known. / Have pity for my state!
All the people of love are drunk, / O, wine-pourer
You teach this remedy / in celebrations.
Each man has what he intends / when the secret has been revealed.
And me, my ardor, / with my impoverishment, is famous.
My passion for my beloved is well known. / Have pity for my state!
(translation by Carl Davila and Philip Murphy)