The Calls of Islam: Sufis, Islamists, and Mass Mediation in Urban Morocco

The Calls of Islam: Sufis, Islamists, and Mass Mediation in Urban Morocco

The Calls of Islam: Sufis, Islamists, and Mass Mediation in Urban Morocco

The Calls of Islam: Sufis, Islamists, and Mass Mediation in Urban Morocco


Honorable Mention, 2014 Clifford Geertz Prize in the Anthropology of Religion. The sacred calls that summon believers are the focus of this study of religion and power in Fez, Morocco. Focusing on how dissemination of the call through mass media has transformed understandings of piety and authority, Emilio Spadola details the new importance of once–marginal Sufi practices such as spirit trance and exorcism for ordinary believers, the state, and Islamist movements. The Calls of Islam offers new ethnographic perspectives on ritual, performance, and media in the Muslim world.


It is not an exaggeration to say that the future of modern society and the stability of
its inner life depend in large part on the maintenance of an equilibrium between the
strength of the techniques of communication and the capacity of the individual’s own

—Pope Pius XII, quoted in Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

Religion is communication [al-Din ʿilam].

—Television producers for Amr Khalid, one of Egypt’s “New Callers”

OVER THE PAST decade in Fez, Morocco, and throughout the Muslim ecumene, young Islamist activists have produced and distributed videos of spirit exorcisms as part of an ongoing revivalist call to Islam. The videos are formulaic but nonetheless dramatic; a well-known video circulated by an Islamist association in the old city of Fez shows two leaders of the group performing an “Islamic exorcism” to cure a young Muslim man who feels “strange, like someone’s always with me.” “Pass me the microphone,” one exorcist commands the other, “and I’ll recite on him.’” Qur͗anic verse pours forth in crystalline voice. The possessed man’s shoulders heave and shudder, his mouth gapes and drools. Then Aisha, a legendary jinn in Moroccan popular Sufism, begins to speak from his cavernous mouth, identifying herself as a 350–year-old Jew. The audience gasps. The exorcists pass the microphone several times, their echoing Qur͗anic recitation eliciting defiant screams and then pathetic whimpers as they extract her conversion. She converts and flees as the patient jolts awake, disoriented and sweating before the camera.

Rituals of “Islamic exorcisms” or “legitimate curing” (al-ruqya al-sharʿiyya) and their video dissemination are recent developments, though not ones unique to Morocco. One finds them on YouTube, posted by “Islamic curers” (raqiyyin) in the postcolonial Maghrib and West Africa, Egypt, and South Asia. Across these different settings they demonstrate power and authority: to denounce and expel local, often Sufi, customs, and above all to call (yadʿu; daʿwa) their audiences to “legitimate” (sharʿi) practice. That is to say, they arise where Muslim rituals give visceral presence to competing sources of spiritual power—competing calls of . . .

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