Academic journal article Journal for Islamic Studies

Fragile Bodies and Sensuous Spirits: Performing Womenly Virtues in a Contemporary Egyptian Brotherhood

Academic journal article Journal for Islamic Studies

Fragile Bodies and Sensuous Spirits: Performing Womenly Virtues in a Contemporary Egyptian Brotherhood

Article excerpt

It was 2006 when I first arrived in Cairo as a guest of an Italian couple who had converted to the Burhaniyya, which is an Egyptian-Sudanese brotherhood1 present in Europe since the nineteen-eighties. I had carried out nine months of fieldwork on this movement's Italian branch for my master's thesis. Asia and Abdul Rahim, which are my Italian hosts' Islamic names, introduced me to the Cairene branch of the brotherhood so that I could start my new fieldwork for my PhD and, from their point of view, begin my path towards Islam. This outcome indeed seemed quite likely, from their point of view, given that many of the Italians, who had first approached the Burhaniyya for research and study reasons, had then converted to Islam. Preserving this hope for my conversion, for a long time during the course of my fieldwork in Egypt my interlocutors treated me as a possible convert and for this reason entrusted me to the cares of Heba, a Burhani sister in her forties who was renowned for her virtue, for her commitment and her good service to the Burhaniyya.

Heba welcomed me within her family, in her own house, as soon as Asia and Abdul Rahim departed and, during the six months I spent there, I was proffered all the attention that every European Burhani disciple receives. Soon a friendship matured between us, making me part of Heba's everyday life and I had the chance to observe the different contexts and modalities in which she enacted her faith. When I first met her, Heba announced that she would introduce me to the beauty of Islam and to the life of a modern Sufi woman. Indeed within the tariqa, she was considered to be an example of womanly virtue. In the Burhani vocabulary, she was a woman committed to the cultivation of riqqa, or literally 'frailty,' intended as an emotional and spiritual sensitivity.

Indeed, in the Burhani discourse on spirituality, riqqa is a specifically female talent giving access to the alam al-khayal, the esoteric-batini world of spiritual imagination: an innate talent that every woman should cultivate and discipline following brotherhood rules, in order to become a virtuous Muslim in everyday social life, the zahiri-exoteric and contingent dimension of existence.2 The degree to which a woman is able to conduct a virtuous social life in the zahiri-exoteric world is a proof of her being riqqa and testifies to her connection with the saints and spirits populating the alam al-khayal. Heba's successful social and spiritual life were indeed evidence of her being raqiqa (adjective of riqqa) and testified to her commitment to brotherhood life; and indeed this was one of the reasons why she had been chosen to be my guide.

Towards the end of my stay at her home, however, certain events occurred and, as a result, Heba's reputation for virtue suddenly declined. She experienced a tension between her commitment to the spiritual path and her social and religious status within the brotherhood.

In the following review I will argue that such discontinuity and tension in her life should be understood in relation to the indeterminateness entailed by the performance of riqqa, and for that matter, by the nature of the performance itself. I use the term 'performance' in the sense of a scene of interaction: a relational interaction that carves discursive meanings, such as the normative concept of riqqa, into the social and cultural material of everyday life.3 Discursive and performed meanings are not always, if ever, consistent since the latter are subject to the unpredictability and multiplicity of everyday circumstances and contexts.4 The meaning of riqqa, intended as a virtue to which Burhani women should commit, is shared by all Burhanis. The practices linked to its cultivation are set through a normative discourse that rests on the mystical tradition and that refers to the distinction between the esoteric-batin and the exotericzahir dimensions of life. The cultivation and enactment of such a talent in a woman's life involves diverse performances whereby women have to come to terms with daily changes, social and material constraints, and respond to a multiplicity of concrete discursive arenas and relational contexts. …

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