Thursday, May 31, 2012

Islamic healing and Bori spirit possession in Kano

How does Islam encounter traditional beliefs in Kano? The following is taken from Susan O'Brien's PhD thesis Power and Paradox in Hausa Bori, published by the University of Madison, Wisconsin in 2000.

It is a transcript of a discussion between a Malam -an Islamic healer- and a number of spirits dwelling inside a young girl called Fatima. She has been divorced and has had trouble finding a new husband, she also suffers from headaches and bad dreams. She has come to the clinic of the Malam and he and two assistants have read out verses from the Holy Qur'an to draw out the spirits.

A spirit "appears on Fatima", O'Brien says. He identifies himself as a Sarki (king) called Sarkin Duna.
Mallam: Are you a Muslim?
Duna: No
M: So you are an unbeliever.
D: Yes, of course.
M: I want you to accept Islam.
D: In Islam, there is no power.
M: You can retain your power if you become a Muslim, nobody will stop your leadership.
D: I want to become a Muslim but in Islam there is no wine and women, and these are my favourite things. I cannot do without them.
M: Of course there is no wine nor women in Islam, but if you accept Islam, God will provide you with something more sweet than alcohol and women. Islam is a simple religion. God created Adam and the spirits so that they could worship him, and that is why we want you to accept Islam. Accept Islam and you will become our brothers and we will forgive you all of your sins.
The Malams convince Duna to convert and he takes the Muslim name Umar.
M: I am very happy to hear that Umar is an important name in Islam. Now Umar your religion will not be complete until you stop what you are doing?
Duna/Umar: What am I doing?
M: You see your presence in the body of this woman is not good because you are causing her to suffer and prevent her from getting married. Therefore we want you to leave the body of this woman.
U: It is a difficult thing.
M: It is simpler than accepting Islam and when you accept Islam. If you leave her body, God will provide you with something better than her body.
U: I swear it is difficult.
M: Why did you enter into her?
U: I saw her and fell in love with her.
M: Now how old are you?
U: I am forty years old.
M: Umar, please, how many are you in her body?
U: We are seven.*
Not all of these kinds of exchange are as lucid, O'Brien says, some of these exchanges are done with the supplicant emitting only growls, howls or cries. I presume that this exchange is done in Fatima's voice. This exorcism continues and Umar is persuaded to leave. At one stage O'Brien describes what happened to Umar as a "beating". Fatima herself reports no memory of the exchange. During the next two hours the other spirits who reveal themselves include Duma's daughter, then a sun-worshipping spirit called Sanusi who lives in Fatima's left leg and a spirit called Saudatu who lives in Fatima's back. Saudatu confesses that she is in the habit of "inviting our men into her [Fatima]" a revelation that shocks the Malams. A Muslim spirit called Mero tells the Malams he causes her to "do whatever she wants". Eventually, a spirit of a christian preacher called John reveals that Fatima's susceptibility to spirits is caused by her aunt, who cursed her before she was born by concealing charms in her father's well.

O'Brien's work on this subject explores the way the Islamic healing practice of rukiyya, or recitation of the Qur'an sanctioned by Wahabbi scholars, has met the Hausa belief in bori spirits. I read it as a kind of compromise that has provided what she calls a "narrative of inclusion" for people who may have transgressed societal regulations or drifted into societal marginalisation due to their spirit possession.

This is particularly important for women, who live perpetually in what O'Brien says is a near impossible situation of being a good Muslim woman in northern Nigeria.  

* O'Brien, S Power and Paradox in Hausa Bori, University of Madison Wisconsin, 2000, page 259.

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