Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Signs of Truth: Enchantment, Modernity and the Dreams of Peasant Women [*]

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Signs of Truth: Enchantment, Modernity and the Dreams of Peasant Women [*]

Article excerpt

This lecture is in three sections. The first discusses the role of classificatory practices distinguishing magic from religion in social life and in narratives of modernity. Concepts of enchantment have been reintroduced into theories of modernity as the Weberian notion of 'ridding the world of magic' has been questioned. The second part sketches some of the characteristic tensions in the Qur'an concerning the signs of truth in the Islamic community. The final section reflects on modern Egyptian denunciations and defences of the dreams of peasant women, dreams that are claimed as direct experiential proofs of the sacred. These dreams command visits to the shrines that are centres for mass ritual, social, and economic activity and whose powers are resistant to regulation by worldly authorities. Such dreams, and the denunciations of them by those self-perceived as religiously orthodox and modern, are part of continuing contests over state and patriarchal authority, citizenship, and exchange with the divine.

In the first part of this Myers lecture I want to discuss two closely related topics: the place of the religion-magic coupling in narratives of modernity; and the significance of conceptions of the disenchantment, and re-enchantment, of the world. I shall then offer some reflections on the problematic nature of Islamic signs of truth in theory and practice. In the final section, I shall turn to the practices of saints' days and the disordering power of 'the dreams of peasant women' in modern Egypt. The context of the denunciations of such dreams and deploring of what are held to be shameful mass spectacles of pilgrimage days is established in attempts by different authorities and institutions to produce and discipline the citizen, in part by eliminating 'the magical' and what is taken to be the self-evidently pre-modern.

There is a broader set of anthropological questions to be addressed concerned with the use or abuse of conceptions of religion, culture, and power. In the social sciences, even if the category of 'religion' is constantly in question, the kinds of phenomena which traditionally tended to be grouped within it have re-emerged from what had been a kind of theoretical and empirical marginality. That modernity entailed 'ridding the world of magic', with all that the Weberian phrase implied, has ceased to be plausible, at least in its standard interpretations. Derrida (1996), to take one recent example, has meditated on the 'return of religion' (which of course implies its departure), unfortunately but predictably with a particular eye on Islamic integrisme and violence.

Derrida's paradoxically Enlightenment project to think religion 'within the limits of reason alone' testifies to the recalcitrance of 'religion' to dominant modes of explanation and conceptualization (Smith 1998).

For those studying the Middle East especially, the difficulties in social science approaches to the study of religion, ideology, culture, and modernity; already the subject of much debate in the Marxist, Weberian, and Durkheimian lineages, were perhaps most glaringly revealed at the time of the Iranian revolution of twenty years ago. Sociologists and anthropologists have since then contributed notably to discussions of the relations of power and culture in the region. Zubaida (1993) and others have shown the ways in which figures such as Ayatollah Khomeini draw upon and initiate distinctively new forms of national and institutional powers in the name of eternal truth and tradition. Hammoudi (1997), on the other hand, has recently argued that the authoritarian nature of modern Arab regimes is to be understood more in the light of the long-existing 'diagram' of power and hierarchy found in the Sufi mystical brotherhoods, as well as in patriarchal institutions and the charismatic ruler.

As someone whose first steps in anthropology were in fact guided as much by the work of Weber as by that of Evans-Pritchard, I hope this lecture will contribute in a small measure to the dialogue between anthropology and sociology concerning problems in the study of religion. …

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