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The Significance of Sufism in Algeria in the aftermath of Independence

By Dr. Sossie Andezian[1]

         Thursday, 12 December 2002



The politicization of Islam during the last decades has relegated the spiritual dimension of this religion behind the scenes. Research on Islam was focused on political analysis to the prejudice of historical, sociological and anthropological analysis. The political approach of Islam rests on an old postulate according to which Islam is “Din wa Dawla” (Religion and State). If the link between religion and politics has become an incontestable reality in contemporary Muslim societies, its importance was overestimated due to the international political context. This was particularly reinforced since September 11th.


The study of the political expressions of Islam gives us information about how religion is manipulated by the states or by organizations claiming for power or for social justice, but it says nothing about the place of this religion in the lives of individuals and social groups. My purpose is to shed light on the less obvious aspects of Islam, those which are not covered by the media, such as the expressions of Sufism in Algeria.


My relationship with Sufism goes back to a research I was conducting on the cultural life of North African migrants in France, mostly focusing on gender issues. I discovered a network of Algerian Sufi women among them, and after two years of fieldwork in France, I needed to go further into the topic and embarked on a study in Western Algeria in the area of Tlemcen, the hometown of most of them.


My relationship with Palestine came after being invited to a conference in Beit Jala in memory of Hilma Granqvist (A Finnish Anthropologist who did long years research in Artas), where I was invited to speak about the French travel-writer Isabelle Eberhardt, who lived in Algeria in the beginning of the twentieth century. A visit to the old city of Jerusalem arose in me the desire to undertake a new fieldwork there after ending my book about Algeria. I settled in Jerusalem in September 1999, where I have been working since then on the relationship to space through the religious rituals of the Christian churches.


Algerian Mysticism throughout time

As one of the major religious forms in North Africa (al-Maghreb), Sufism, which was associated to the worship of saints and dominated by ecstatic manifestations, took special features there. Also known as “Maraboutisme”, a term consecrated by French Orientalists[1], North African Sufism has favored the emergence of saintly personages or friends of God (Wali-s). Endowed with divine grace (baraka), legitimized or not by Orthodox Islam, they were either scholars or people known for their piety (theologians, men of law, founders of initiatic ways, local patrons, ermits), heroes, ancestors and chiefs of tribes, men and women madly in love with God. While integrated to social and political life, Sufism has given birth to religious organizations known as the “tariqa-s” or “spiritual ways” translated by French administrators and scholars by the term “ordres religieux” (religious orders) or “confreries” (brotherhoods), saintly lineages, tribes which claim maraboutic or prophetic descent (sharif-s)[2]. A polymorphous and polysemic phenomenon, Sufism has played a great role in spreading and enrooting Islam in the area, as well as in fighting invaders, such as Portuguese, Spanish, Ottomans and French. Thus, it has contributed to shape North-African identity until the very beginning of the twentieth century, where its role was challenged and supplanted by nationalist and reformist movements.   


The principal North African brotherhoods were founded between the 16th and early 20th centuries (‘Isawiyya, Tidjaniyya, Darqawiyya, Taybiyya, Rahmaniyya, ‘Alawiyya…). This affiliation was usually achieved by initiation, each brotherhood proposing a doctrine, a mode of organization and particular rites. Their role has not been limited on religious domains, and throughout the periods, circumstances and environment, some of them played a political role.


Just like anywhere else in the Muslim world, Mysticism was to be strongly opposed in North Africa by the reformist movement Salafiyya. Known as “al-Islah” in Algeria, the movement, initiated by a group of ‘ulama (‘Abd al-Hamid b. Badis, Bashir al-Ibrahimi, Tayyeb al-‘Uqbi) and supported by secular reformists, launched a struggle against the brotherhood chiefs. Right after Independence, the Algerian State adopted their ideology and excluded the latter from the field of religious power.


Nevertheless the systematic attempts of reformists to ban the brotherhoods have partially succeeded. This period witnessed the birth of a new brotherhood, namely the ‘Alawiyya brotherhood in Mostaganem (1920), whose founder entered into a competition with the ‘ulama on religious debates. In independent Algeria, Mysticism had still its adepts, although less numerous compared to the previous centuries and more isolated. Its institutions (qubba-s, zawiya-s) have not completely disappeared and some of them still constitute places of reception and gatherings for the faithful, places for pilgrimage (in most cases), and in some cases places for religious teaching (for example the zawiya Rahmaniyya of el-Hamel in south Algeria, the zawiya ‘Alawiyya of Mostaganem)5. As to the brotherhood chiefs, the majority followed their activities as spiritual leaders or healers. Some members of brotherhoods constituted choirs of sacred songs which perform during familial ceremonies or cultural events. But most of them have continued practising the Sufi rituals, namely the prayer of dhikr.


The post-Boumediene period was more favorable to them. Some zawiya-s which were functioning at a lower pace, have resumed their activity (for example the zawiya of the Qadiriyya in Relizane in the western part of Algeria) ; regional branches of brotherhoods which had no connection since several decades, got in touch with each other (such is the case with the ‘Isawiyya of Constantine and those in Tlemcen) ; some brotherhoods which were accused for having been allied to the colonial power (Tidjaniyya), or for having tried to destabilize the government after Independence (‘Alawiyya), were rehabilitated for their role in the diffusion of Islam in the world, in Africa for the former and in Europe for the latter, where it runs numerous conversions. The recognition of mystic currents within the State was attested by the organization in June 1991 of a “National seminary on the zawiya-s”, where 300 chiefs of zawiya-s gathered and established the “National Association of the Zaouias”. After having been banned for sixty years by reformism, the chiefs of the zawiya-s were rehabilitated in their spiritual, educational, religious and social functions. This change in the attitude of the State regarding the brotherhoods is usually interpreted as a strategy of manipulation to face the rise of Islamism. However, in reality, it is the global socio-political changes which explain the visibility of brotherhoods, particularly the evolution of religious policy of the State since the Independence.


Mysticism, a religion of memory

The role of Mysticism in the Algerian society has changed anew under the effect of Islamism. This religious form was at the core of identity issues that have divided the Algerian society in the late eighties. Besides the regular followers of the mystic brotherhoods, there have been numerous intellectuals who have sympathized with this religious current. Contrary to the thirties that witnessed a condemnation of Mysticism in the name of reason, this form was viewed as one of the expressions of Algerian identity. The choice of this popular and symbolic code enrooted in the history of North Africa (al-Maghreb), as opposed to Islamism associated with the East (al-Mashrek), is said to result from its less constraining character and for its more expressive dimensions. But it is probably its capacity to give a meaning to new social and political contexts that makes Mysticism a source of identity in times of crisis.


I will focus on the significance of the practice of Mysticism in the Algerian society after Independence. My purpose is not to emphasize the permanence of ancient religious forms, but rather to shed light on the relationship between institutional religion and diverse expressions of religiosity in a society that had undergone profound structural modifications, and where Islam, becoming an issue of power, happens to be the object of controversial reinterpretations. I don’t aim to stress on religious particularities as much as to focus on how the universal principles of Islam are put into practice within determined social and historic contexts. As in the rest of the Muslim world, the expressions of Islam in Algeria come in multiple forms, Mysticism being one of these expressions, itself multiple in its manifestations.


If the policy of the Algerian state determined the situation of brotherhoods after Independence, other factors contributed in their functioning. In order to exist, each brotherhood needed a local institutional infrastructure: a sacred territory, a chief and active affiliated groups. Most importantly, the reemergence of brotherhoods in Algeria was made possible through the actions of individuals and social groups, which have maintained this mode of religious sociability and continued to practise a form of religiosity which always proved to be efficient. An evidence of this is the reattachment of numerous young people in the brotherhoods, following the track of their parents and grandparents. Thus, Mysticism, as a historic religious form, seems to intervene in the process of construction of individual and collective identities at times of crisis.


I conducted my fieldwork between the years 1980 and 1990 in the area of Tlemcen. Holy shrines and zawiya-s are part of the Tlemcenian landscape. They are built on the supposedly-burial places of saintly figures, male or female, endowed with supernatural powers. The word “wali” which refers to saintly personages in Islam, is used in the area to designate as well the monuments which shelter them. What kind of relationship people in Tlemcen do develop with saints after the Independance ? How do they include saints worship in their religious, cultural, social and individual life ? What happens in the end of the eighties when radical Islam enters the public arena ?


I will examine the different ways of relating to saints in West Algeria, within this period. I will mainly focus on the changes which have affected the meanings of this once widespread phenomenon in Algeria, along with the changes in the political, social and religious field.


Tlemcen is a modern city which managed to keep its medieval character and its local traditions. Sunni islam (maliki) and Sufism succeeded in coexisting and melting, shaping a local North African Islam with reference to the classical arab and islamic culture. The region of Tlemcen was one of the great intellectual centers of North-African Islam. Sufism developed along with the Sunni Islam, first as an individual devotion to extraordinary men renowned for their piety, their religious knowledge or their singularity. Zawiya-s were built on the tombs of saintly personages and sheltered Sufi masters who gave classical religious teaching as well as they initiated to Sufism.


Named the “well guarded city”, for the great number of the mausoleums that it shelters, Tlemcen never stopped honouring those men who are said to have protected it against its numerous invaders. Most of the mausoleums can still be seen in the landscape of Tlemcen, small edifices with different shapes, in the plains as well as in the mountains, in the city as well as in the countryside. The qubba-s, which are cubical constructions whitened with chalk, are composed from one or several rooms with a funerary one, surmounted by one or several cupolas, the hemispherical and the octogonal ones being the most usual. Either isolated or integrated into a zawiya, the qubba can be part of a larger complex constituted of a zawiya, a mosque and a Koranic school. Sometimes it is limited to an enclosure or a simple heap of stones. The sanctuaries are remote from the inhabited areas, in places that one cannot reach easily, on the height of a mountain, at the far end of a ravine, in the forests, on the edge of the cliffs and in cemeteries. Their topography was modified with the reshaping of the national space after the Independence. Some of them which where on the periphery of the city are in the center. Others, which were built on a village heights, remote from the built area, are enshrined between houses.


Among the qubba-s mentioned in the books of the colonial period, those who were destroyed during the wars or by the political authorities are still in ruins, others were restored, either by the State for reconstructing the historical patrimony or by the followers of the saints. Whether they reside or not in the location, the followers take care of the place and welcome the visitors. The qubba-s which were nationalized are transformed into public places.


In the different backgrounds of the area of Tlemcen, whether feminine or masculine, rural or urban, the practice of Mysticism in the eighties, whether individual or collective, informal or organized, was performed in three contexts: individual visits to the shrines, feminine assemblies of the prayer of dhikr, groups affiliated to brotherhoods .


The relationship with the saints is characterized by the practice of the ziyara or visit, a term which refers to the system of relations that women and men entertain with supernatural beings or their representatives, in order to address them demands. Articulated around a spiritual meeting (hadra), the ziyara is practised on Monday (the day of the birth and the death of the Prophet), on Thursday afternoon and on Friday (the sacred day in Islam) and during the main Muslim holidays. It culminates on the occasion of the annual pilgrimage to the tombs of saints commemorating their birth or death. This ritual sequence, composed of acts of purification, of prayers, of offerings and sacrifices, is based on a circular principle of exchange among the visitors of saints : demand (talab) and supply (‘ata )-  offerings (ziyara). These exchanges are expressed in different languages: physical language (gesture, posture, production of trance and ecstasy), sign language (interpretation of extraordinary phenomena manifesting the divine presence or translating the necessity of entering into contact with the supernatural world: natural catastrophes, illness, rites of passage, dreams,…), liturgical language (prayer, from the meditation or the dialogue with saints to collective recitation of the dhikr through the recitation of different formulas of invocation, such as the prayers of du‘a and talab. Another series of exchange between visitors (exchange of words, of advice, of mutual aid, of sharing food), contribute in increasing the efficiency of the visit. The demands must be addressed with a pure intention or niyya.


All types of hadra comprise a sequence of dhikr mainly composed of panegyrics of prophets and saints. It starts with the recitation of the Fatiha, the first Sura in the Koran. This formula constitutes the introductory liturgical prayer of any ritual ceremony in North Africa, which places them under the protection of God. The repetition of the “Shahada” is another of the most frequently heard litanies. The prayer of dhikr strictly speaking consists of the rythmical repetition of divine names, most often limited to the repetition of the name “Allah”. Progressively, the letters composing this name are eliminated, so that only a moan is heard, while the bodies are shaken by the trance. The end of the dhikr is the most privileged moment as it is the time when the communication with the saints takes place. In brotherhoods affected by Reformism, this sequence is limited to the recitation of litanies in a seated position. In other cases, the recitation itself accompanies the phenomenon of trance, in which the manifestations are more or less spectacular: moans, crying, shouting, fainting and dances. These manifestations, which are equally observed in both male and female assemblies, seem more spontaneous and less controlled among women, whose emotional expressions of religious feelings dominate the other forms of exchange with God, the prophets and the saints. Besides the prayers, the gestures have the virtue of favoring the communication with saints: turning around catafalques, touching the sheets that cover them, hanging votive fabrics, lighting candles, burning incense. The incubatio (istikhara), which consists in sleeping one or more nights in the sanctuary, is a rite which facilitates the exchange with saints. The saints appear in the dreams, to guide and advise the people expressing demands. All granted vows are a call for new offerings and new visits. A cycle of exchange is then established between visitors and saints, which leads to a durable bond between the parties. Hence the numerous visits to the saints, as an expression of gratitude, loyalty and fidelity.


Mysticism versus Islamism

Now I will focus on the individual visits to the shrines and the problems this phenomenon faced with the rise of Islamism at the end of the eighties. I chose to analyze the individual ziyara, for it implies, more than the other types of visit, a personal relationship with the saints. And it is this personal relationship which remained permanent every time that the activities of the brotherhoods were prohibited or that the gatherings were forbidden. Unlike the assemblies of the prayer of dhikr, the individual visits do not necessitate a muqaddim or a muqaddima to organize and lead the group.


The figure of Abu Madyan is emblematic of saints worship in Algeria and its evolution throughout the centuries, under the effect of new religious systems or ideologies such as Reformism or Islamism. It exemplifies the complexity of this phenomenon which is not merely a popular religious practice. A great Sufi master, locally known as “Sidi Boumediene”, he becomes the patron saint of the city of Tlemcen. His memory is honoured by religious as well as by non religious people, by Fuqaha as well as by Sufis, by literate as well as by illeterate people, by men as well as by women, by the elderly as well as by the youth. He symbolizes the diversity of Algerian Islam which took specific features according to historical contexts. In the beginning of the nineties, where the Algerian religious scene was reshaped, the figure of Abu Madyan was at stake in the struggle which opposed different social and political forces for the control of the religious power.


Abu Madyan Shu‘ayb b. al-Husayn is one of the most important Sufi figures. He is the “Ghawth” (Great Help) and the “Qutb” (the Pole of the Saints ), which means that he is situated on the top of the hierarchy of Sufi saints. His spiritual path illustrates the itinerary of Sufis who traveled from West to East to achieve their initiation on the hands of Sufi Masters. He did not create a new Tariqa of his own, but his teachings, which were the synthesis of Andalusian, North-African and Oriental Sufism, were diffused by his disciples across North Africa as well as the Mashrek. Although Abu Madyan has never lived in Tlemcen, he is the patron of the city (mul al-blad). He died at the entrance of the city on his route from Bejaia to Marrakech (Morocco). As he fell ill and felt his end had approached, he asked to be buried in the village of al-Eubbad at the periphery of Tlemcen. His will was carried out and the population of Tlemcen adopted him as the new saint protector of the city instead of Sidi Dawdi. A qubba was soon built over his tomb which is visited since then. Later were added a mosque, a basin for the ablutions, a hammam and a madrasa.


The visits to the shrine take usually place on Thursday afternoon, on Friday and during the religious holidays. Until the eve of the War of Liberation, the brotherhoods would go there in procession during the holidays. During my fieldwork, these visits were done individually. The eve of the Mawlid, women who had prayed till dawn (when the Prophet is supposed to have been born) in the zawiya-s and in the mosques used to go there by groups. Leaning with their backs against the coffins, the visitors pray, meditate, cry, light candles, burn incense. Some of them sleep, hoping to receive in dreams the visit of Sidi Boumediene. As in any pious visit, the demands of favors concern as well the material as the spiritual life. During the Mundial in 1982, an old woman came and implored the support of the saint to the national football team. In all cases, this visit expresses faithfulness to the patron of the city. The visit lasts from a few minutes to several hours. From time to time, women exchange a few words. Some Fridays as well as during holidays, there are spontaneous hadra-s, accompanied by sacrificial meals in honour of the saint. The ritual of the ziyara ends with an offering (coins, fabrics, candles, incense, perfume, food…). Nobody leaves the sanctuary without drinking a cup of water from the sacred well.


After the Independence, the whole building was listed as a historical monument. The local authorities as well as associations for the preservation of the historical patrimony take care of it. Tourists who visit the city do not miss that place which is one of the most interesting cultural spots. The madrasa and the hammam do no more work as such. The mosque is one of the most prestigious in the city. On week days, only people from the neighbourhood come to pray. Worshippers from the surroundings feel as a duty to pray there at least once a year.


The significance of the shrine of Sidi Boumediene was particularly obvious in the late eighties, on a time of political, social and moral crisis, as he became a stake in the struggle for symbolic domination. Everyone projected on this figure his own representations. An incident which happened in late September 1990, a few days before the celebration of the Mawlid al-Nabawi (the Birth of the Prophet), was revealing of such a struggle which eventually resulted in civil war. Accused by the Islamists for encouraging the worship of the dead and for keeping the offerings of the visitors for himself, the muqaddim was handled roughly and hit. The access to the shrine was prohibited. Most of the Tlemcenians condemned this act and considered it as an attempt for erasing the city historical patrimony of one of his architectural masterpieces. The women were angered, for the shrine of Sidi Boumediene symbolizes an important aspect of local female religiosity. Since the burial of the saint, his tomb has been visited by women who, besides praying, have confided to him all their secrets, their joys and pains, their hopes and fears, their wishes and their desires. The visit to Sidi Boumediene’s shrine was an opportunity to go out for some fresh air. Sometimes, women did chain visits from one shrine to another. The older ones would recall their outings to the saints tombs with their children, to breathe and to relax. They would narrate the joy of the children running in the forest and their own pleasure to get rid of domestic tasks and daily burdens. They would stress that the place was so safe that they would sleep there all night. This was before the War of Independence, something unfeasible after Independence according to them, where the population of the city has changed with the rise of the number of the workers from the surrounding villages or other cities. In spite of the threat that the women would feel, they continued visiting the shrine in the afternoon with friends or relatives, after having finished their domestic tasks.


When the Islamists closed the zawiya a week before the Mawlid in 1990, the women were convinced that they did it at that point to prevent them to spend the eve of the Mawlid there. All the zawiya-s of Tlemcen remained closed that night, for everybody was afraid of the reaction of the Islamists who had won the municipal  elections a few months before.


The victory of the FIS in the elections reactivated the debate around the legality of the practice of the ziyara and the dhikr. The discussions revealed that the FIS was not censoring only the religious rituals. It was censoring the customs too, acting then as a muhtasib who riddles every behaviour, the private as well as the public ones: spoken language, such as the way a husband and his wife address each other, clothes, celebrations…


As soon as the qubba reopened, the women rushed to the shrine on Friday to visit their cherished saint. As their were waiting for the muqaddim to open the door, two Islamists got out from the mosque and shouted at them. “What are you doing there ? Are you coming to see a man who died centuries ago ? Stop with your practices of ignorants and go home!”  The women tried to resist but to no avail. They gave up and walked slowly back home, cursing those men whom they called “fake muslims” and humming an old song praising the saint, rearranged by a Tlemcenian singer, Nouri Koufi. Here are a few verses: “Sidi Boumediene, I come to you with a purpose, come in my dreams to cure me… Sometimes I cry for my country, sometimes I cry for exile, sometimes I cry for the mosques where no taleb and no imam reads… O Ghawthi, don’t forget me… O Boumediene, I want to see you in my dreams with my own eyes…  Tlemcen is praying so you remove all disease and affliction from the people…”



For its adepts, Mysticism evokes notions such as authenticity and liberty as opposed to hypocrisy and alienation, and which, they say, characterizes radical Islam. It is described as an internal movement, expressing depth of history, but, especially, depth of senses that animate the body and transport the spirit beyond social limits. If it resisted the test of time, it is because it has been cultivated out of the sight, in the secrecy of sanctuaries, houses and inner lands. To express itself, Mysticism has fit in local culture. More than the reference to religious law, it is the reference to the experience of the adepts and that of their ancestors who confer its legitimacy. The attachment of women in this religious form was undoubtedly facilitated by their exclusion of the public religious space and by the confinement of their religious life within the private space, outside the arena of political power.


The reemergence of Mysticism within the Algerian religious field during the eighties brought back the debate, which was more than millenary, rotating around the legality of ecstatic rituals. The status of body in Islam, particularly that of women, constituted the core of the debate. The adepts of ecstatism engage the totality of their being, body and soul, within their spiritual acts.


As any other Algerian local religious system, Mysticism has witnessed inevitable changes. It could seem paradoxical to speak about the changes affecting local forms of Mysticism, condemned by the partisans of Algerian Islamic reform as being archaic. In reality, the observed modifications, whether in the representations or practices of Algerian Mysticism, are not inscribed in a linear evolutionary course. Historically, they have been characterized by the tension between permanence and innovation. The permanence of the conception of religion as an experience of divinity, equally associated with the figure of djinn as with that of saints, Prophet or God. The permanence of the Koranic language while addressing the experience of divinity and the variations of the different modalities of this experience. The permanence of Sufism as a religious system of reference and the diversity of its rituals. The permanence of Sufi institutions related to the zawiya-s and brotherhoods, and the modifications of their roles and usages. This tension has been particularly strong towards the end of the eighties, when Algerian Islam radicalized and attempted to annihilate local religious expressions. In the region of Tlemcen, the practice of Mysticism, in its collective forms, has been freezed the last ten years, which had been the case with the War of Liberation. However, a few signs of reawakening have been revealed here and there. In the year 2000, the ‘Isawiyya brotherhood reorganized the annual pilgrimage to the regional zawiya, which had been interrupted since 1992. Members of the brotherhood living in France were glad to be able to participate in the event, which was considered as a very important one in their life. Additionally, the extinction of local expressions of Mysticism, announced since the beginning of the twentieth century, seem to be postponed for yet another phase. As they cannot confide their fate to politicians who have proved to be unable of breaking violence, the adepts of saints turn towards these supernatural men as an attempt to find a sense out of the chaos which pervades in the country.



‘Ata: donation.

Baraka: divine grace; a supernatural force originating wonderous facts.


Bid‘a: a blamable innovation in regards to the Koranic law. In popular usage this has come to mean heresy. The accusation of fatalism associated with this term is obviated by the presence of the classifications of “good” innovations that were in accord with the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet (A Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, Newby).


Dhikr: literally remembrance. Also pronounced zikr or zekr it is the ritual utterance of the name of God or God’s praise. In Sufi usage it is the litany that is the core of worship (A Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, Newby).

Djinn: spirit, whether good or bad.

Du‘a: prayer of invocations.

Fatiha: the first Sura in the Koran.

Hadra: literally presence; divine presence; ritual ceremony composed of invocation prayers, psalms, songs and dances.

Imam: man of religion.

Islah: Algerian reformist movement.

Istikhara: a rite which consists in sleeping in the sanctuary or its neighborhood in order to receive the visit of saints in dreams.


Madrasa: Islamic religious establishment for teaching, Koranic school. “A place of study, a school or college, usually for religious education. A madrasah was both a place of study and a residence for students and teachers. It was often subsidized by the charitable endowment and was the foundation of Islamic learning, teaching literacy through the study of Quran and Hadith”.As part of Islamic education, the mosque started as a center for Islamic learning, particularly those mosques that were not the central, congregational mosques”. They soon were subsidized and took on a permanent character of centers of learning and places of worship attached.


Mrabit: saint ; a man of saintly descent. Marabout in French: A term used primarily in North Africa for an ascetic sequestered and trained in a garrison called a Ribat and who attained spiritual and military prowess. The term can refer to a “saint”, either male or female, who can perform miracles, and it can be passed as an epithet to the descendants… (A Concised Encyclopedia of Islam, Newby).

Mawlid Nabawi: The birthday celebration of the Prophet (A concise Encyclopedia of Islam, Newby).

Muqaddim, muqaddima: responsible for a group of those affiliated in a brotherhood; guardians of a sanctuary.

Niyya: the pure intention, the sincere faith.


Qubba: sanctuary. The tombs of saints and other holy places are locations of spiritual power and significance in Islam. As such, they are the destinations of pilgrimage and the locations of supplication and worship. While worship practice varies by location, the rites often involve performing prayers, circumambulation, and sacrifices or offerings of food. In many locations where there are mixed religious groups, the shrines are shared by all the worshippers (A Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, Newby).

Salafiyya: of salaf, a reform movement in the Muslim world.

Sama‘: spiritual concert.

Shahada: Profession of faith

Shari‘a: Koranic law. Refers to God’s law in its divine and revealed sense

Sharif: descendent of the Prophet’s lineage.


Shaykh: mystic master, chief of a brotherhood.

Shirk: The sin of associating another deity with Allah, the most sever sins mentioned in the Qur’an. Polytheism is the one sin that cannot be forgiven, according to the Qur’an (A Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, Newby).

Sidi: Literally my master; deference formula addressed to the men of the family, systematically utilized while addressing saints.


Sufism: The origin of the term Sufi is disputed as is the exact meaning of who is a Sufi. In the West, it is generally referred to as Islamic mysticism. As with mysticism in other religious traditions, Sufism transcends many of the usual categories, so cannot be used as a sectarian toerm in opposition to either Sunni or Shi’i. Sufi orders, Tariqahs, are an important expression of personal piety and social organization (A Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, Newby).

Talab: prayer of demand.

Taleb: religious scholar, Koranic master.

Tariqa: spiritual way, by extension mystic brotherhoods.

Tasawwuf: Sufism, Islamic mysticism.

‘Ulama: religious scholars.

Wali: saint

Zawiya: a mausoleum that supposedly contains the body of a saint; a place where brotherhood chiefs or chiefs of religious lineages reside, and also the location of reunion for groups of adepts.

Ziyara: literally visit; visit to the tombs of saints; it also means the offering made to the saints including the visit of brotherhood chiefs to those affiliated to them.

[1] Anthropologist of Religion, currently working at CNRS (French Natioanal Center for Scientific Research), author of “Expériences du divin dans l’Algérie contemporaine. Adeptes des saints de la région de Tlemcen”. Paris, CNRS Editions, 2001

1 The origin of this term, which is obviously the transliteration of the Arabic word “murabitun” is not clearly established. French Orientalists refer to this term when speaking of the dynasty of al-Murabitun (Almoravid), or when referring to the  “people of the ribat-s”, which were military and religious institutions in medieval Islam, and were known for sheltering fighters and later preparing them for djihad.


2 Sharif-s: this kinship,  most often fictitious, serves to legitimize the exercise of the political and/or religious power.

5 The latter follows up the editorial activity of its founder, while notably publishing prayer books.



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