A devil of a discourse
spots a study that spells good news that the spirits of our departed beloved ones bring physical healing
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'The spatial world image is essentially limited to the narrow strip of the Nile Valley, including the home village of the Upper Egyptian fellah. To the east and west stand the hills of the desert. The desert is alien and forbidding to him, and since he cannot cultivate it he is indifferent to it. Thus his world image is limited' The late Hans Alexander Winkler
This is stern and steadfast stuff. Modern man is often haunted by a metaphysical question. Untouched by the flux of modernity, what is the intrinsic value of time-tested superstitions among predominantly non-literate societies? The universe of spiritual existence touches the very essence of peasant cosmology. Unlike traditional Christian belief as articulated in Jesus' saying that his kingdom is "not of this world", the peasants of Upper Egypt are convinced that communication with the spiritual universe can cut through the fear that they can be victimised. As such, spiritual possession is a liberating force.
Another culture-changing potential knocks on the portal of human reasoning in this age of awe-inspiring technological advances. What is spirit possession? Is it a figment of the imagination? What is crystal clear is that this is not merely an interesting little snippet of information from the backwaters of Upper Egypt. The impact of the possessed on the spiritual wellbeing, the religious and social life of the peasants of Upper Egypt is nothing short of profound.
A trip from hurt to healing is undertaken by rakbu afrit (Ghost Riders) -- a uniquely Egyptian expression to describe the indescribable. The encounter with the expression of a departed loved one is eerily intriguing, and it is a phenomenon that is not confined to the peasants of Upper Egypt.
However, in the Egyptian expression of this metaphysical phenomenon, familiar spirits carve a special niche within the community and participate in the here and now as mercurial players in the drama of village communal life.
The rider is traditionally the ghost of a deceased member of society and the mount is a living possessed person, the recipient of the ghost of the deceased. In that sense the possessed is "ridden" by the "possessing spirit" in much the same way as a rider mounts a horse in the peculiar vernacular tongue of the Upper Egyptian peasantry. The burning question is whether "spirit mediumship" is an affront to Islam, whether it is indeed sanctioned by the Islamic religion since it is so prevalent a pastime in Muslim lands. The truth, I suspect, is that illiterate and poverty-stricken peasants resort to spirit mediumship in a desperate bid to combat disease in the absence of readily available medical care. Otherwise, how can one explain why the long-suffering peasants invest so much valuable time and thought on the drama of spirit possession?
For a sense of the cultural landscape that Hans Alexander Winkler depicts so graphically, the intrinsic values of the peasants of Upper Egypt are animated in palpable form. What to them has ultimate value? Where do they turn for solace and succour? They trust not in physical and ephemeral beings, but in enduring spiritual ones.
People, family and friends, are here today and gone tomorrow. But, are they really lost forever? The peasants trust in an afterlife, and lasting values lie in their seeming superstitions. "The thoughts of a people on the matters of the far side are everywhere various and of diverse origins," the author muses. There is a lesson in all this for contemporary Egyptians.
Yet the message in this slim volume is at best equivocal. The past few decades have been a convincing demonstration that religious conviction cannot always be relied upon to get things right. "Many ideas from distant antiquity survive alongside recent ideas, some from abroad combine with old indigenous ideas."
Valuing spiritual truths has down-to-earth consequences for ordinary peasants. They may feel nudged to explore the spiritual dimensions of their existence. Insights of this sort make us ponder the mysteries of immortality.
For these simple peasants, true value is all about the Almighty, Allah. The spirits that possess the living constitute the solid and tangible evidence of an unseen universe, Eternity. The beneficial blessings are not beyond our understanding. Yet, the loved ones that have left our familiar world speak to us from beyond the grave. Are these concepts contrary to Islamic teachings? This is a question that Winkler's work ingeniously explores.
"The religious outlook of Upper Egyptian peasants appears quite different from that proposed by Muslim theology. It might seem that the fellahin have accepted Islam only very superficially, as though the old and local persist in uncontrolled freedom."
The phrase is resonant. What precisely is the "uncontrolled freedom" of spirits and what is it they wish to communicate? Apparently, they only answer questions that are asked of them. The impoverished peasants have numerous needs -- spiritual needs, social needs, physical needs, psychological needs and financial needs.
Sufficiency is prerequisite on where the peasants' sense of value is. Their interpretation of spiritual perception is the subject matter of Winkler's work. Such concepts of the poor peasants may appear out- of-sight to the Western sense of material things. To the possessed peasants such unseen things constitute the centrepiece of their lives, the beneficial effects are clearly visible. The key concept for the peasants is that the intermediaries between this world and the afterlife and the thoughts they communicate cause them to shed their instinctive tendency to overvalue material objects. All their deficiencies are answered through spirit mediums and familiar spiritual beings through a divinely-provided sufficiency beyond human comprehension. In that sense, the peasants' superstition does not contradict the tenets of Islam.