EGYPT: Religion and Folk Cosmology: Scenarios of the Visible and Invisible in Rural Egypt

Article excerpt

Religion and Folk Cosmology: scenarios of the visible and invisible in rural Egypt, by El-Sayed el-Aswad. Westport, CT and London, UK: Praeger, 2003. xii +177 pages. Maps. Tables. Bibl. to p. 195. Index to p. 206. $63.95.

El-Aswad's book is an expedition into a world, or perhaps more precisely a world view. This is the thought world of Egyptian peasants as articulated by themselves, and as seen in the context of more erudite versions of the same ideas on the one hand and anthropological and philosophical theory on the other. The peasants in question live in a Beheira village called el-Haddein, where the cultivated land of the Delta gives way to the desert, not far from Kom Hamada. The early chapters give some idea of the locale and history of this village, in the context of the cultural construction of this setting. The data were collected over a number of years in the 1980s and 1990s.

El-Aswad has organized the material, taken from the imponderabilia of every day life, according to his categories. Topics include the village in its context, the understanding of the cosmos or the world outside the village, the person and the microcosm, the implications of the assumptions of worldview for health and healing, life and death and the afterlife, and the ability of people to think multiple words simultaneously. In general, the author argues that the critical distinction is between the visible and the invisible. The invisible includes the power of God, but also all the heavens but the nearest one, the components of the person except the body, and in general a sense of a parallel world which interacts with and influences the visible one. In this duality, events in the visible world can be explained with reference to the invisible. There are thus individuals who claim the ability to penetrate the separation between the two, and discover information that can be used in the visible world. Similarly, there can be multiple non-human, invisible actors in the visible world, such as jinns, souls, saints, or doubles. El-Aswad also argues that there is a hierarchy of concepts, so that there is always a better and a worse, a top and a bottom. The structure of the items in this construction of the world respect organizing principles. This is striking in the discussion of the symbolism of gender, but is present throughout. …