Academic journal article Ethnology

Reincarnation, Sect Unity, and Identity among the Druze

Academic journal article Ethnology

Reincarnation, Sect Unity, and Identity among the Druze

Article excerpt

A belief in reincarnation is atypical within Islam, although exceptions exist with a few small sects. This essay analyzes the role that reincarnation plays in maintaining a sense of unity and identity among the Druze, an Islamic sect residing primarily in the Levantine Middle East. It also describes the necessary conditions for reincarnation according to Druze doctrine and as evidenced in reincarnation stories. Reincarnation is of great social significance for the Druze, regarding family and village relations, and the Druze community at large. There is, however, some resistance within the community to a belief in reincarnation. This resistance is due in part to image management in the political context of Syria, and also because a belief in reincarnation is a stigma for a group in the Islamic Middle East. It also works against Druze efforts to present itself to the world as modern. (Islam, Druze identity, reincarnation)

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A belief in reincarnation is atypical for Islam. There are, however, some Islamic sects that believe in reincarnation, including the Druze and Alawi who are most numerous in Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey. These minority groups hold a tenuous position among Muslims, in some measure due to their belief in reincarnation, and are often considered by their mainstream Sunni or Shi'a co-religionists as heterodox or even heretical. Druze and Alawi differ in several particulars regarding how they describe the workings of reincarnation, but this essay focuses only on the Druze.

The Druze believe that reincarnation occurs among all humans at all places and times, and that some remember previous lives but the majority do not. There is, however, no blanket agreement among Druze regarding reincarnation. There are many who are skeptics about the phenomenon and dismiss it outright. At the same time there are many others who circulate stories and maintain a curiosity and openness about the phenomenon. On both ends of the spectrum there is a guardedness associated with talk about reincarnation because of sensitivity to outside perceptions.

A complicating factor is that the Druze sect is esoteric and secretive about most aspects of its religious tenets. As such it is difficult to ascertain much regarding how reincarnation fits into Druze doctrine. This essay, however, is less concerned with Druze reincarnation as religious doctrine and practice, and more as a social phenomenon that enhances sect unity and identity despite the fact that reincarnation is not uniformly accepted among Druze. The genre of concern here is reincarnation stories that may have roots in religious doctrine but exist and proliferate in everyday informal talk.

Fieldwork for this research took place in two locales in southern Syria, Jeremana, and Suwayda. Jeremana is a densely populated urban neighborhood in southern Damascus with a large Druze population; Suwayda is a rural provincial capitol about one hundred kilometers south of Damascus and the villages in this province are almost exclusively Druze. Research consisted of participant observation, living among informants, and interviews. Reincarnation was not a major focus of research at first, but the topic arose frequently and it became clear that reincarnation was tied to notions of Druze identity. Reincarnation stories were recorded on audio tape.

The relationship between reincarnation and sect unity and identity is illustrated with examples from three stories--those of Abu Qasim, Areal, and Saeed (1)--collected during fieldwork in Damascus and Suwayda, Syria. (2) The first story is of Abu Qasim, whose older brother Marwan died in a fanning accident when Abu Qasim was a boy. Several years later, an adolescent named Shafiq approached Abu Qasim's family claiming to be Marwan reincarnated. The second story is about Amal, a woman living in Damascus who, at the age of eighteen, lost her mother at home in an electrocution accident. Approximately five years later a girl named Lamis, who lived in a distant village, was thought to possibly be Amal's reincarnated mother. …

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