CHAPTER TWELVE

THE ZAR: EXORCISM OF DEMONS

"WITHIN only a comparatively short period of years," says Professor Macdonald, "quite easily within thirty years, I should say — we have come to know that practically all through the Moslem world there is spread an observance exactly like the Black Mass in Christendom. That is to say, it is a profane parody of a sacred service. Among the older travelers you will find no reference to this. Lane apparently knew nothing of it, nor did even Burton, in spite of his curious knowledge of the most out-of-the-way and disrespectable sides of Islam. What it travesties is the Darwish zikr ... Now, practically throughout all Islam there is a kind of a parody of this, in which the beings whose intervention is sought are what we would broadly call devils. Yet when we speak of Moslem devils, we must always remember their nondescript character and that they are continually confused with the jinn, and so come to be on a dividing line between fairies, brownies, kobolds, and true theological devils. Devil-worship, then, in Islam and in Christendom are two quite different things. In Islam there is no precise feeling of rejection of Allah and of blasphemy against his name. It is, rather, akin to the old Arab 'taking refuge with the jinn' (Qur. lxxii, 6), denounced, it is true, by Mohammed as a minor polytheism, but compatible with acceptance and worship of Allah. Perhaps it might be described most exactly as a kind of perverted saint-worship. But its form is certainly a parody of the zikr, though with curious additions of bloody sacrifice, due to its African Voodo origin."1 The exorcism of demons is a universal desire where the belief in their power and malignity is so strong as we have seen it to be in Moslem lands, but the particular form of this belief, called the Zar, is unique in other ways than those pointed out by Dr. Macdonald. Evidence continues to accumulate that we deal here with a form of Animistic worship which although so long and so often concealed from western, i.e., infidel observation, is found in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Tripoli, Egypt, the Soudan, East and West Arabia, Persia, Malaysia, and India. No direct witness to the existence of this superstition among Chinese Moslems has come from travelers or missionaries, but it would not surprise me to find it also in Yunan and in Kansu provinces.

"Three things good luck from the threshold bar — A wedding, a funeral, and the Zar"—

So runs an Egyptian ditty on the lips of suffering womanhood which links these together as a trinity of evil.

The origin of the word is disputed. Dr. Snouck Hurgronje says that it is not Arabic and has no plural.2 But in Eastern Arabia, especially in the province of Oman, the word has a plural and the plural form, Zeeran, is preferably used. Moreover I have been told that the word is Arabic and denotes "A (sinister) visitor" (zara yezuru) who makes his or her abode and so possesses the victim. "All Moslem nationalities in Mecca," he says, "practice the Zar. Even if they gave it another name in their own country they very soon adopt the word Zar, although the national differences continue."

The best account of its origin and character is that given by Paul Kahle, although he deals mainly with Egypt.3 To his account and the fuller experiences related by women missionaries in Egypt and Arabia I am indebted for the particulars given in this chapter. One of the best accounts of the actual ceremony is that given by Miss Anna Y. Thompson of the American Mission in Egypt.4 She writes:

"There are places where women go to have these Zar spirits appeased, but generally a woman who can afford the expense of the occasion will have the performances in her own house. Formerly, I thought that only hysterical women were 'possessed,' but men also may have demon possession, and even children. Indeed, in some parts of the city of Cairo the little girls have this as a performance in their play in the streets.

"There are different kinds of demons, and it is the business of the sheikhas to determine which sort (or sorts) are in their patient. Yawning and lassitude go with possession, also palpitation, a stinging sensation, and sometimes rheumatism and nausea. Instead of going to a doctor for medicine, the patient goes to a sheikh, who takes a handkerchief belonging to the sick person and puts it under her pillow at night. The sheikh or mashayikh (plural), who appear to her during the night, are those who are making the trouble. A day is appointed, a bargain is made about the kind and expense of the ceremony, and all friends who are afflicted by these particular demons are invited to assist in the festivities.

"One of our Bible-women was permitted to attend a Zar in one of the houses where she was accustomed to read the Bible, so a number of the missionaries went with her to the place, which was an old building near the Bab-el-Shaa'rieh quarter. Women were sitting round on mats in the court, and the first part of the performance was the Nass-el-Kursy, or preparation of the high, round table which had a large copper tray on it. Different kinds of nuts were brought and spread on the outer part, and some of each were given to us. Then followed parched peas, sesame seed, parsley, coffee in a paper package, two heads of sugar, two bowls of sour milk, two pieces of soap, a plate of oranges, one of feast cakes, another of Turkish delight, candy and sugared nuts, cucumbers and apples, all of which were covered with a piece of red tarlatan. Three small candles (an uneven number) were brought, and two large ones were placed on the floor in tin stands. These were all lighted, and the woman (after a bath) began to dress for the performance which casts out Sudanese spirits. The woman was dressed in white, and she and others were ornamented with blue and white Sudan charms, silver chains, anklets, bracelets, etc., which had cowries or shells that rattled. One woman said to me, 'All these are a redemption for us.' Then the sheikha and her women began to get their musical instruments ready, by heating them over a few burning coals in a little earthenware brazier. They had two darabukka, or wedding drums, two drums the shape of sieves and one barrel drum.

The demon in one person of the family is a Christian demon, and the possessed woman wears a silver cross and crucifix to keep him happy.5 If she were to take these off she would suffer. She also wears a silver medallion with bells on it, and silver rings on each finger, one having a cross on it. Her child danced with the drums. A curious thing was that this woman spent a few months in a mission school years ago, and she promised to send her daughter to be educated by us in the same building.

"The performance began when the patient was seated on the floor, by the sheikha drumming vigorously and chanting over her head. One elderly relative, who was standing, began to sway back and forth, and was followed by the patient and others. After a period of rest, during which some smoked, the woman was told to rise, and the sheikha held her head, then each hand, the hem of her dress, and each foot, over the incense which had been burned before the food on the tray. Ten or fifteen others had the incense treatment in the same way. This was after the sheikha had called on all the mashayikh, or demons, and had repeated the Fatiha about five times, during which the drums played and all the company chanted; at a given signal on the drums, each one covered her face with a white veil. The patient rose and around the table, followed by others. When a performer was too vigorous, an onlooker would take a little flour or salt and sprinkle it over her head, following her around the circle to prevent her falling. In the midst of all the din, some of the women gave the joy cry. Two white hens and a cock, which were to be sacrificed the next day, were brought in and flew about the room. The patient at last sank down panting, and the sheikha took a large mouthful from a bottle of rose water, and spattered it with force over each performer.

"The flour and other things are intended to make peace between the patient and the Asyad (ruling demons). 'Do not be angry with us, we will do all we can.' At the beginning of these performances, the sheikha, with the incense in her hand, and all the others standing around the table, repeated the Fatiha6 after which she alone recited: 'To those who belong to the house of God, may they have mercy on you by their favor, and we ask of you pardon, O Asyad. Have pity on us and on her in whom ye are, and forgive her with all forgiveness, because those who forgive died pious. Forgive, forgive, in the right of the Prophet (hak-en-nebi), upon him be prayers and peace.'

"The second round was in the name of others. After the Fatiha, 'To those who are of the house of God, the people of Jiddah, and Mecca, and the Arabs, by the right of the Prophet Mohammed upon him be prayers and peace.'

THE FATIHA

"'To the mashayikh, Ahmed the Soudanese, all of them Sayyidi Amr, and Sayyedi Alimed Zeidan.'

THE FATIHA

"'To the mashayikh of the convent, all of them, and Amir Tadrus and all those about him, and those who belong to the convent.' (Coptic.)

THE FATIHA

"'To the four angels, and the Wullayi, and Mamah, and Rumatu, and all the mashayikh.'

THE FATIHA

"'To those in the sea (or river), Lady Safina swimming in the river, and those of her household, and all those who belong to her.'

THE FATIHA

"'To Merri, the father of Abbassi, and sheikh-el-Arab, the Seyyid el Bedawi and Madbouli, and all the honored mashayikh. Come all, by the right of the Prophet, upon him be prayers and peace.' "After the first round the sheikha put incense on the coals in the brazier, and with varied voices and gestures called on these personages to appear, the standing company joining in a low voice in the Fatiha. Then the incense was waved over the different articles on the table, then before the patient, the sheikha inclining the head of the woman toward the incense, afterwards her hands, feet, etc., and thus for all who wished it.

"We left at the end of the third round, but returned when they were in the middle of the tenth round. Some new women had taken the places of those who had become tired and who now sat chatting."

Miss Thompson, however, did not see the concluding ceremony, the climax of the Zar-ritual, namely, the sacrifice and the drinking of blood. She is not the only writer who omits the subject. Klunzinger7 says nothing at all of a sacrifice, nor does Plowden. His account is one of the earliest we have:

"These Zars," he writes, "are spirits or devils of a somewhat humorous turn, who, taking possession of their victim, then cause him to perform the most curious antics, and sometimes become visible to him while they are so to no one else — somewhat after the fashion of the 'Erl-King,' I fancy. The favorite remedies are amulets and vigorous tom-toming, and screeching without cessation, till the possessed, doubtless distracted with the noise, rushes violently out of the house, pelted and beaten and driven to the nearest brook, where the Zar quits him and he becomes well. As for defining the nature of a Zar more accurately, it is difficult ... as it also is to state wherein the functions of a Zar differ from that of a Ganeem (jinn), save that the Zar is a more sportively malicious spirit and the Ganeem rather morose in his manners. The Zar is frequently heard, indeed, singing to himself in the woods, but woe betide the human eye that falls on him."8

The close connection between the Galla country and Oman since the Zanzibar Sultanate and the days of the Arab slave-traders make it probable that the Zar came to Muscat very early, if it was an imported superstition. Here the blood sacrifice is the main thing in exorcism.

"They have their houses of sorcery," writes Miss Fanny Lutton of the American Mission, "which have different names, and have different ceremonies in each one. The largest and most expensive one is called 'Bait-e-Zaar.' If one is afflicted with madness, or it may be some serious or incurable disease, she is taken to this house and the professionals are called; and the treatments sometimes last for days. The money extorted from the patient is exorbitant, and so, as a rule, it is only the rich who can afford to undergo this treatment. The poor are branded with a hot iron or suffer cupping (blood letting), which does not cost so very much. In these houses animals are slain and the sufferer is drenched with the blood and must drink the hot blood as it is taken from the animal. And then the devil dancing is performed by black slave women, and the patient is whirled around with them until she sinks exhausted."

In Egypt, the preparation for the sacrifice is closely related to one part of the ecstatic Zar dance. The sick person is dressed in white and ornamented with special charms, while the room is also prettily decorated. The kursi (chair) in the middle of the room is in fact an altar, which has been decorated with flowers, burning candles and various sweets, as a mark of honor for the spirits. These gifts and the burning incense are supposed to attract the spirit and cause him to appear; or drive away other demons. The animal sacrifice consists of sheep or fowls; sometimes a fowl is sacrificed in the beginning, and afterwards a sheep. Kahle is of the opinion that in former times only fowls were sacrificed, the sheep sacrifice being introduced later on, without, however, displacing the sacrifice of the fowl. According to Borelli, a black fowl is sacrificed in Abyssinia. In Luxor a brown or white cock is offered, and in Cairo one cock and two hens, which may be black or white. In Abyssinia the contact between the spirit and the sacrifice is performed by swinging the fowl several times around the head of the patient. Afterwards it is thrown on the floor, and if it does not die very soon, the sacrifice is considered to have been in vain. In Cairo, according to one report by Kahle, the animal is killed by the sheikha above the head of the Zar bride, who must open her mouth and drink the warm blood, the remainder running down her white garment. The theory is that it is not she who drinks, but the spirit in her. In Luxor one drop of the blood is placed on the forehead, the cheeks, the chin, the palms of the hands and on the soles of the feet. Probably the blood has to be drunk also. The claws and feathers of the fowl are laid aside carefully as a special gift to the spirit.

Of course the sacrifice must be an excellent animal. The possessed person is seated on its back and rides seven times around the kursi. If a sheikh leads the performance, he kills the beast immediately afterwards: if a sheikha is in charge, another person must do it instead, because it is unusual for women to kill sheep. The animal is slaughtered according to Moslem ritual, with its head toward Mecca, while the onlookers say the "Bismillah." Then the sick person is addressed as follows: "May God comfort you in this which has come upon you." If he is a man he stands near by and catches the warm blood in his mouth. In the case of a woman, the blood is poured into a bowl and given her to drink. With the remainder of the blood the hand and feet of the patient are stained. Almost the same ceremonies are observed at the sacrifice of both a fowl and sheep, and so separate mention is unnecessary.

While the meat is being prepared, parts of the exorcism are repeated, the meal forming the closing act of the whole festival. The Zar bride, the sheikha, and her servants may eat only the inner parts (heart, stomach, etc.) of the animal and its head.

The charms which are given to the Zar bride during the performances must never be removed, or the spirit will return at once. These charms consist of silver ornaments and coins, worn on the breast beneath the dress, a ring with special inscriptions, or some other article. I have in my possession the following ornaments worn at the time of exorcism by the sheikh: First, a head-dress made of beads and cowrie shells with a fringe six inches wide, and a threefold tassel. It is called takiet kharz. A belt of the same beadwork, green and white beads mounted on a red girdle with border of cowrie shells. In addition to these, two small amulets are worn of the same material; one square and containing Koran passages and the other circular of the same character with other potent material against demons.

The sheep or goat which is the sacrifice also has a special ornament on its head similar to those worn by brides in the villages. It consists of two palm twigs, two feet long, bound together in the shape of a T cross. Each twig is covered with colored paper and tinsel ornaments, and the whole is so adjusted that it can be tied to the head of the sacrifice.

Finally the woman who rides on the sacrificial sheep is armed with a cane forty-two inches in length. This is entirely covered with beadwork, brown, white, green, red, and has three chaplets of cowrie shells at equal distances from the top of the handle. In Morocco, when a man or woman is possessed with the "devil" or jinn the people, including men and women, gather in a zeriba or mat hut where the proceedings are commenced by dances, chants, etc. Some chickens, or else a goat, are strangled and are afterwards boiled without salt. Some of the water that the animal has been boiled in is smeared all over the walls and floor by way of exorcism while the meat is eaten by those present; including the "possessed" one. ("Villes et Tribus du Maroc," Casablanca, vol. I, p. 64; Paris 1915.)

A fuller account of this sacrifice to demons as practiced in Arabia, "the Cradle of Islam," is given by Mrs. D. Dijkstra,9 as follows:

"The great feast ordered by the zeeraan is called 'kabsh,' meaning ram, and is so called because a sacrifice must be offered and this sacrifice is always a ram. The room for the kabsh is always a very large room. The meeting begins in the evening with a general dinner, but which is as a rule not an elaborate one. After the dinner the leader begins to chant, 'La illaha illa allah wa Mohammed rasul allah,' all the others joining in chorus, and this exercise is kept up for about an hour, and all the while their bodies are swaying back and forth in rhythm to the chant. After this is ended the whole company get down on their knees and go through a crawling, grunting exercise which is kept up until they are exhausted. After a little rest the musicians begin their playing and do not stop until the next feature in the program, which is riding the ram by the party who is visited by the zar. Sometimes this is done at midnight if, as they say, the zar is not a very proud one; but if he considers himself very important this exercise takes place at dawn. The ram to be ridden is decorated with mashmoum (green twigs) and the rider is the one in whom the zar is. The rider goes around the circle three or four times. This is seldom accomplished except with great cruelty to the poor beast, which is pulled and prodded in a most unmerciful way, and it is a mercy that it is killed later, for it is usually injured in this exercise.

"After this first riding the company all take some rest until an hour or two after daybreak, when the second riding takes place, in the same way as the first. Immediately after this the ram is killed. This is done by the 'abu' or 'um,', as the case may be, assisted by the zar, as the possessed one is called, and a third party. The head of the ram is held over a large tray or dish, for not a drop of blood must be spilled or wasted. When the beast is killed, a glass is filled with the blood and into it is put some saffron and some sugar and the zar drinks while the blood is warm. Three or four others of the company then strip the zar and give her the 'blood bath.' The zar is then dressed and put to sleep for an hour and after that is bathed to remove the blood and dressed in new clothes and new ornaments or decorations. In the meantime the sacrifice has been preparing. As with the blood so with the body; not a hair or bone or any of the entrails must be spilled or thrown away. The entrails and feet are boiled separately, but the skin, turned inside out and tied, is cooked with the rest of the body, including the head. When all is cooked, a portion is brought to each table (the table is a large mat spread on the floor), and all the rest of the food is placed around the central dish. A stick, which has been bathed in the blood of the animal, is placed before the zar. When all is in readiness, the leader asks the zar, 'Is everything here that you want? Are all the bones here of your sacrifice? Tell us now if there is anything amiss and don't say later that this or that was not done right and that, therefore, you will take revenge on us by bringing upon us some accident.' The zar is commanded to answer and if he does not he is beaten with the bloody stick until he does." ...

In Cairo, the sacrificial ceremony was witnessed and described by Madame H. Rushdi Pasha.10 She tells how after the preliminary music, dancing, and feasting, incense is burnt and the one possessed is properly fumigated. During the process of fumigating no prayers are offered. When this is over the dancing begins. The one possessed then takes hold of the ram which has now been brought in. She makes the tour of the room three times, acting the while like a drunken woman, amid the shrieks of the other women in the room. The ram is then dragged by the possessed to the door where it is butchered. The possessed reŽnters preceded by the goudia who carries a tray filled with jewels covered with the blood of the ram. In fact everybody gets covered with the blood of the ram, still warm. Blood is everywhere. They roll about on the animal until they are quite covered with it. The air becomes hot with incense and smoke. And when at last the women fall down on the ground, the goudias go around touching them on the ears and breathe on them whispering words in their ears, presumably from the Koran. After a while they regain their places as if nothing has happened.

Dr. Kahle also states that the sheikha or leader of the performance is called "Kudija" (goudia) but gives no explanation of the word; its derivation is obscure. Zars which are performed near sanctuaries and not in private houses, have neither a kursi, with candles, nor sheep offerings. But in most cases the sheikha comes to the house of the sick person the following morning to kill the animal there. The name sheikha (the feminine of sheikh, elder) is given her, because she knows the method of casting out spirits. Her first task is to find out the right tune for a particular sufferer. If she knows the "Zar bride" from previous meetings, she at once begins the right one. The first time, one tune after another is tried (for Cairo spirits, Upper Egypt spirits, etc.), until the sick person becomes ecstatic, which proves that the right tune has been found and it is then continued. Each special tune requires special dressing, which, according to the sex of the spirit, may be that of men, women, boys or girls. The sick person herself acts as the incarnation of the spirit; sometimes, however, the sheikha speaks instead of the spirit.

The meetings for exorcising the Zar may be of short duration, or may continue for several nights. If the patient is rich, the feast is prolonged, and during the fourth night, called the "great night," the greatest feast is prepared. The sheikha and other visitors remain for the whole night with the sick person, and the following morning they have the solemn sacrifice, the supreme performance of the feast.11

Captain Tremearne in "the Ban of the Bori" and G. A. Herklots in his book on the customs of the Moslems of India, "Qanoon-e-Islam" (1832), relate similar practices prevailing in North Africa and India. In every land therefore, with variations due to local circumstances, the Zar must always be propitiated by three — incense, the Zar-dance with music and last, but not least, the sacrifice — all three of these are Pagan and repulsive to orthodox Islam and yet continue under its shadow. Between 1870-80 the practices spread to such an extent in Upper Egypt that the Government had to put a stop to them.12 During the past four years the Cairo press has published many articles demanding that "these infidel ceremonies" be abolished by law, but the custom dies hard.13 Not only is the superstition of the Zar degrading to morals and spiritual life judged even by Moslem standards but it is such an expensive bit of heathenism that families have been financially ruined through its demands.

"Sometimes a man will divorce his wife," says Mrs. Dijkstra, "because she has zeeran, or if he learns that the girl or woman he was going to marry has them he will break his marriage agreement. And the reason in all these instances is a financial one. People possessed by zeeran must give feasts at various times, and the women are prompted by their zeeran to demand from their husbands new clothing, new jewelry, and new house furnishings, and if these are not forthcoming the zeeran threaten that severe calamities will overtake them. So unless the husband is prepared to assume such burdens he very promptly rids himself of the cause, and families refuse to entertain the very idea of zeeran because of the constant drain upon their time and strength and money."

The Zar spirits (zeeran) are divided into numerous tribes and classes. In Cairo they have Abyssinian, Sudanese, Arab, and even Indian evil-spirits, for each of which a special ceremony is necessary at the time of exorcism. They are male, female, or hermaphrodites. They may belong to every class of society and different religions. In Bahrein, East Arabia, "the outward sign of being possessed by a Zar is the wearing of a signet ring, with the name of the Zar and of the person himself engraven on a red stone, and also the Shehadeh or witness, 'La illaha illa allah, wa Mohammed rasoul allah,' there is no god but God and Mohammed is the prophet of God. This signet ring must receive a bath of blood before it becomes efficacious, and so a fowl must be killed and the stone soaked in the blood."

Among the fetich-worshipers of West Africa, where Islam has not yet entered, the same kind of demon-exorcism is practiced as in Arabia or in Cairo, the intellectual capital of Islam! Indeed, we need not ask what is the origin of the Zar for we have an almost exact description of it from the Rev. Robert H. Nassau as he witnessed pagan exorcism among a primitive people:

"Sick persons, and especially those that are afflicted with nervous disorders, are supposed to be possessed by one or other of these evil spirits. If the disease assumes a serious form, the patient is taken to a priest or a priestess, of either of these classes of spirits. Certain tests are applied, and it is soon ascertained to which class the disease belongs, and the patient is accordingly turned over to the proper priest. The ceremonies in the different cases are not materially different; they are alike, at least, in the employment of an almost endless round of absurd, unmeaning, and disgusting ceremonies which none but a heathenish and ignorant priesthood could invent, and none but a poor, ignorant, and superstitious people could ever tolerate. ...

"In either case a temporary shanty is erected in the middle of the street for the occupancy of the patient, the priest, and such persons as are to take part in the ceremony of exorcism. The time employed in performing the ceremonies is seldom less than ten or fifteen days. During this period dancing, drumming, feasting, and drinking are kept up without intermission day and night, and all at the expense of the nearest relative of the invalid. The patient, if a female, is decked out in the most fantastic costume; her face, bosom, arms, and legs are streaked with red and white chalk, her head adorned with red feathers, and much of the time she promenades the open space in front of the shanty with a sword in her hand, which she brandishes in a very menacing way against the bystanders. At the same time she assumes as much of the maniac in her looks, actions, gestures, and walk as possible. ... In speaking of the actions of these demoniacs, they are said to be done by the spirit, and not by the person who is possessed. If the person performs any unnatural or revolting act,— as the biting off of the head of a live chicken and sucking its blood,— it is said that the spirit, not the man, has done it."14


We have ended our studies on Animism in Islam. It has been rather a voyage along the coasts than a survey of the vast areas yet unexplored in a continent of superstition. Enough, however, has passed before our eyes to show that no real fundamental understanding of popular Islam is possible without taking account of Animism.

Regarding the effect of Animism and the fear of demons upon the mind of the Moslem we recall words written by De Groot in his "Religion of the Chinese," pp. 60-61; the fact that he says it in regard to China and that the same phenomena have passed before us as existing in Islam, makes his statement the more striking: "A religion in which the fear of devils performs so great a part that they are even worshiped and sacrificed to, certainly represents religion in a low stage. It is strange to see such a religion prevail among a nation so highly civilized as China is generally supposed to be; and does this not compel us to subject our high ideas of that civilization to same revision? No doubt, we ought to rid ourselves a little of the conception urged upon us by enthusiastic friends of China, that her religion stands high enough to want no foreign religion to supplant it. The truth is that its universalistic animism, with its concomitant demonistic doctrine renders the Chinese people unhappy; for most unhappy must be a people always living in a thousand — a hundred thousand — fears of invisible beings which surround the path of life with dangers on every hand, every moment. If it is the will of God that man should have a religion in order to be happy, the Chinese religion is certainly no religion shaped by God." We likewise conclude that if it is the will of God that man shall have a religion in order to be happy and to have an assurance of deliverance from fear Animistic Islam is not that religion.


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