Patron Saints: “The Men of the land”, part 2

Dr. Mohammed MaaroufWhen the rain became scanty and the Moslems were worried about their harvest, they would gather and head for the shaykh Sidi Mohammed. They would ask him to come out with them for rain prayers. He would lead them to the shrine of Sidi l-Haj Budarham, his own master. Then, he would tell them: “give me some water!” when they gave him water; he would fill his mouth and blew water into the air [thus performing a ritual of sympathetic magic to influence the rain; the shaykh’s mouth imbuing water with baraka]. Then the crowd of supplicators would return home. During the night, the rain would fall heavily.

The theoretical assumption here is that in ‘less protected communities’ [where] there is no adequate scientific understanding of [the] … distressing and socially disruptive events…culture prescribes definite institutionalized ways of dealing with … them,” as Beattie maintains. In other words, in social contexts where scientific knowledge that may provide an empirical alternative is lacking, illness, death from disease, starvation and oppression may be dealt with in symbolic and expressive terms. This does not mean that ‘advanced societies’ operate only by scientific empirical beliefs. They may also have at least some magical beliefs embodied in their religious or political rituals. But in less protected communities magical activity may have a more important function. Misfortune may be averted or alleviated by recourse to magico-religious beliefs and rituals.

Correspondingly, Moroccans, in the face of disaster and oppression, have delved in magical activities and sought the protection of saints; they have used their own popular culture to find solutions to their problems facing the effects of the harshness of nature (droughts, famines, epidemics, etc.), the exploitation of the Makhzen, and the repression of colons.

Legends surviving to the present represent saints as sultans at a small scale in their own regions. A number of saints, as the mythic tradition states, rose against the Black Sultan (seltan l-khal) and defeated him. The Black Sultan was a symbol of terror and oppression in the popular mind –take the example of the Pasha al-Glawi whom the collective memory designated as the Black Sultan of the Haouz (Pascon, 1983). The expression seltan l-Khal was used by the commoners to refer either to the Marinid Sultan Abu al-Hasan al-Marini (El Ouaret, 2001; Hajji, 1988), or as my respondents in previous field research claim to the Alawite Sultan Moulay Ismail due perhaps to their black color or dark powers. There are ruins of a palace of the seltan l-Khal in Ras al-Hmar on the boundaries between Rhamana and Doukkala.

Up to now, the binary opposition – saints vs. Black Sultan – structures the worldview of the maraboutic society. Its legends convey the war between the Black sultan and saints. Sidi Mas‘ud Ben Hsin in the region of Doukkala, for instance, is said to have aborted the seltan l-khal’s attack by sending bees and stinging flies (nna‘ra) to chase him away. Ben Yeffu vanquished him by the magical aid of a black jinni with seven heads or by the divine Secret when he gave his orders to the invisible powers to rent the sultan off his horse and lift him to the skies.

The Black Sultan seems to be a mythic symbol of any Sultan whose rule has been oppressive in the history of Morocco. That saints can triumph over the Black Sultan expresses the symbolic protection they can offer to the subalterns, which elects saints to a higher social leading rank held in awe and veneration in their own regions; a political expression of sainthood whose historical roots we can still trace in Moroccan saints’ legends and maraboutic practices.

If one visits a saint’s tomb, like Ben Yeffu for instance, one may have the impression that one is in the presence of a real Sultan. Ben Yeffu, the Sultan of Jinn or the Green Sultan as he is locally named, has bequeathed to his children and ardent devotees sacred places metonymically associated with his baraka. There you discover a dome, the ruins of a palace, a cairn (kerkour), and a horse’s hoof print all endowed with mythic attributes. The ceremonial rituals performed by saint-goers at these sites mainly follow a schema of submission to the Sultan-saint. A variety of symbols, rituals and myths combine with each other to shape a mythic edifice of a sultanic institution.

*Dr. Mohammed Maarouf, Chouaib Doukkali University, Morocco