Visiting the saints: Algeria's deep-rooted 'wa'adat' custom blends folklore and religion
In spite of the religious resurgence and societal shifts that Algeria has undergone in recent years -especially the younger generation which has increasingly turned away from old customs and traditions - visits to saints' shrines are still held in deep reverence by many, with the tombs of holy or mystical figures seen as sacred spaces holding a special status.
These visits are often accompanied by ritual celebrations, known in Algerian popular culture as wa'adat – annual ritual actions practised traditionally throughout North Africa through which a saint is honoured and commemorated.
Individuals may also seek their blessings and intercession for the fulfilment of their needs and to reach specific goals. Some view these ceremonies as a final resort for those who have lost hope, whether in their livelihood, marriage, or recovery from illness for themselves or their loved ones.
"When visiting the tomb of the saint Sidi Boumediene in Tlemcen we see many different rituals which go back many years - like knocking on the door of the tomb seven times in a row; entering with bare feet, and taking three steps while praying for a specific matter to be resolved"
To perform wa'adat, women usually prepare a variety of traditional foods which will be shared out on the day and the date for the celebration is announced in the period leading up to it at local markets.
This is to ensure the biggest crowds possible will turn out on the day – the entire community is encouraged to attend. Other traditional activities that also take place at these events include horse races and the collecting of donations. These may go towards the upkeep of the shrines; be donated for the sick, or contribute towards funding local projects in the community.
Women often dominate these ceremonial visits to the shrines of the "righteous saints", and come carrying luxurious and colourful (mostly green) handkerchiefs and cloths. Sometimes the women donate sheep as alms hoping to have their wishes answered. Others come with their husbands and pause at the front of the saint's tomb, before walking around it chanting prayers to God to fulfil their requests.
Shaqroun Abdulqader, a social activist and journalist from Tlemcen, western Algeria, says: "When visiting the tomb of the saint Sidi Boumediene in Tlemcen we see many different rituals which go back many years - like knocking on the door of the tomb seven times in a row; entering with bare feet, and taking three steps while praying for a specific matter to be resolved – [which is believed] to guarantee a response to the prayer."
He adds that most visits take place on Saturdays when crowds of people can be observed milling around the tomb – some for tourism – and others to pray or request the intercession of Sidi Boumediene, a revered Sufi mystic and poet who died in Tlemcen in 1197.
Sidi Abdelkader, Sidi El Houari, Sidi el Bachir and Sidi Hosni are other names on the long list of revered holy men and saints whose tombs have become sacred sites for Algerians. They have become especially frequented by those who are seeking help, for instance, those suffering from chronic illness who have given up on doctors, or couples struggling to conceive. While visitors come for many reasons, the shared goal is obtaining a blessing from someone believed to have found favour with God – and who therefore is able to act as a mediator, according to popular belief.
Straddling the border between the two provinces Aïn Defla and Tipazeh is the mausoleum of Sidi Abdellah Bouamrane. Here, a special celebration is organised twice a year, for which women come from all over the country laden with different traditional foods. They place candles and handkerchiefs close to the tomb, and chant prayers and requests for the sick to be healed, for rains to fall, and for the marriage of girls who have lost hope.
Fatima Hindi (70) says: "The people of the region didn't abandon these gatherings even during the ten black years during the nineties of the last century, despite the threats from terrorist groups… we are not being idolatrous, we are trying to gather on blessed days to meet loved ones and create a social atmosphere that reflects the solidarity between people of the region and everyone."
"The popular folk song "Sidi Boumedien, Jeytek", expresses wishes directed to the spirit of Sidi Boumediene to assist the heartbroken and those who have lost hope in recovery from mental illness"
Deep roots across society
Dr Ahmed Samh of Yahia Fares University in Medea conducted a study many years ago on the reasons that Algerians visit shrines and have great reverence for them. He says "The study showed that the people resorting to shrines and saints' graves are not confined to certain social groups, in fact, it includes intellectuals and statesmen who seek blessings to help them reach higher positions, or to deflect the evil eye and envy, as well as for achieving aims which doctors or sorcerers have not managed.
"There are many stories about the positive results after people have visited shrines, which creates the way people are encouraged to keep up with and continue the traditions of these visits, which means that they will remain prevalent […] and a deeply rooted custom in the society and will be difficult to abandon."
The huge importance some of the shrines hold in Algerian popular consciousness has even prompted songs to be written about them. For instance, the popular folk song "Sidi Boumedien, Jeytek", expresses wishes directed to the spirit of Sidi Boumediene to assist the heartbroken and those who have lost hope in recovery from mental illness, among other requests.
Neutral spaces for social gatherings
Primary school worker Salima Razouki says: "I don't hesitate to visit the shrine and seek blessings – every time things ease for me. I try to get my female colleagues to visit the shrine too. This is something which goes to the heart of our local beliefs and culture."
During the "Black Decade" (the Algerian civil war that raged from 1991-2002) armed groups, which opposed people visiting shrines seeking blessings, targeted and blew up several of them. They also stopped the inhabitants in some areas from holding celebratory feasts near the tombs. However, the phenomenon returned with greater force after the security situation stabilised, reflecting the popular view of these shrines.
This perception constitutes a kind of folk religion and considers these places neutral and their sanctity inviolable, especially in the wa'adat seasons where visits are frequent, which now also attract a kind of religious tourism. Likewise, some consider these sites social spaces which facilitate interaction between individuals, social groups, and families and even places where political figures can try to attract voters.
Yet while Algeria’s independence was globally celebrated, the 60th anniversary will likely be overshadowed by decades-long corruption, backdoor deals with the former coloniser, and political repression by the regime. @Abdel_Cheref explains more here 👇https://t.co/VlVaqbeiil— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) July 5, 2022
Religious establishment wary
While visits to saints' shrines remain a prevalent social and cultural tradition rooted in popular folklore going back hundreds of years, the official religious establishment in Algeria has long eyed the custom with suspicion, fearing that they could undermine local religious authorities and that Islamic values could become mixed up with notions of magic, superstition and deceitful practises.
Imam Abdulkader, an official at the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Wakfs says: "The religious ruling is clear in terms of not allowing a mediator to be placed between the servant and his Creator because it becomes 'shirk' (idolatry) - what people do during their visits to saints' graves is beg them and ask for their help; make votive offerings and sacrifices to get closer to them; and ask for needs from them such as healing the sick or returning the missing or asking for children and other things. These things are not permitted [in Islamic] law."
This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.
Translated by Rose Chacko
This article is taken from our Arabic sister publication, Al-Araby Al Jadeed and mirrors the source's original editorial guidelines and reporting policies. Any requests for correction or comment will be forwarded to the original authors and editors.
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