Islam / Popular religion /
Shrine in popular Islam, and principally in North African.
These shrines are found in vast numbers all over North Africa, and is a central part of popular Islam, and do in some cases challenge the position of mosques, and in some other cases, zawiyyas and mosques coexist inside the same building. Some zawiyyas have even been turned into mosques. In towns and cities, many mosques are built around zawiyyas, or a zawiyya has been built in or next to the mosque.
With the zawiyya, many pre-Islamic cults have survived. In some cases a zawiyya is the continuation of an older shrine or temple, to which a legendary Muslim figure has been associated.
In some cases the zawiyya's pre-Islamic functions have survived under the guise of a historical person, who may or may not have been a Muslim, but who is remembered as a Muslim.
In the remaining cases, a zawiyya is truly based upon the life and the tomb of an historical Muslim figure, but in some of these cases, motives and cults of former religious systems have been added in varying degrees. In only a few cases, may zawiyyas be understood as purely Islamic in motives and cults.
Form and Structure
The zawiyya is built around the residence or the grave of a holy man, waliy or woman, waliya. A clear majority of zawiyyas are simple in their shape and interior, normally in order to reflect the ascetic lifestyles of the holy man or woman commemorated.
Zawiyyas are almost always white chalked, and when alone in the landscape, they are easy to spot. There is a strong architectural similarity, as they in most cases are domed. The dome is either shaped as a perfect circle, or it has a phallic shape.
It is generally believed that the zawiyyas represent a continuation of pre-Islamic religion, where the roof is actually modelled after the male sex organ a symbol to fertility and strength. The true dome, may equally be understood as a symbol of the female breast, reflecting the centrality of the zawiyya in female religion.
Holy men and women
Zawiyya are found both in the countryside and in cities. Many of the holy men and women searched for seclusion, while many others worked with other people. The people for whom the zawiyyas have been built have been ascetics, sufi leaders, teachers, people who have returned from pilgrimages (like hajj), learned men, people with whom a miracle is connected or former rulers.
While a majority of these holy men and women were ordinary people, some of them were also the real leaders of their times. In general we can say: anyone who represent a positive or important value that stands out from the ordinary could become revered to the point that a zawiyya was erected around a place that reminds people of him or her (principally the tomb, but not always).
Central with the zawiyyas, is that both the building and the person that is being commemorated, have the strong and positive power called baraka. People from the neighbourhood and sometimes far away to visit the zawiyya, so that they can take part in the baraka.
Once there, people perform a long range of activities. Central in all of these, are either the attempt to get rid of a negative power or a problem, or to enhance the chances of collecting a benefit or a positive power.
A clear majority of the people that perform actions with a zawiyya, are women. The activities around the zawiyya, has often been presented as a female parallel to the masculine Sufism. While there are some exceptions to this, yet the connection is often very clear: In the same area, women can be performing their cults, while the men perform Sufism next door. Sometimes the two cults mix. But there are some cases where women or men cross over: women participate in Sufism (but this is rare), and men in cults with zawiyyas (roughly 5% of all zawiyya actives are men).
Diseases, pregnancy and finding a husband are three subjects that often are central to the prayers and ceremonies performed inside the zawiyya. The explanation for most of the problems people face with such problems and other problems, are the actions of jinns, where jinns possess a woman so that it weakens her sane health, happiness, the ability to become pregnant or virtually any problem.
As the case is with Sufism, the cults around zawiyyas are losing ground in the modern society. With the great success that modern medicines and hospitals have, more and more find the zawiyyas redundant. This is clearly reflected in the increasing average age among the actives around the zawiyya.