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The Ruins of Hierarchy: Shifting Powers of Person and Place in a Fassi Religious Rite

Abstract of paper to be presented by Emilio Spadola, Colgate University, at the conference "Fez, Morocco, Crossroads of Knowledge and Power: Celebrating 1,200 Years of Urban Life"

In hidden rooms of Fez Medina, old Qur’anic teachers (fuqaha’) write secret talismans to summon invisible spirits (jinns). Meanwhile, on public stages and popular videos, young Islamic revivalists with microphones recite the Qur’an to exorcize the same jinns as an act of da`wa or Islamic outreach. This paper examines the differing spatial logics and social relations embedded in these two curing rites: What historically and socially specific formations of person, space, and authority are invoked by the hidden, silent and exclusive knowledge of old scholars?  What distinct logics of person, space, and authority are announced in public calls and vocal performances of knowledge?

Drawing on observations and artifacts of the rites—the written “hijabs” based on medieval spirit sciences (al-`ilm al-ruhaniyya), the video exorcisms grounded in contemporary Islamic reform and revival—the paper describes the distinct social histories embedded in the practices and the distinct social positions of their practitioners.  Second and more fundamentally, the paper identifies these rites with differing socio-political conceptions of space and place in Fez, that is, with religious traditions of public performance and authority, with hierarchical or egalitarian orders of person and collective.  These differences can be explained, in part, by generational differences in these curers’ educations (from mosque to mass schooling) and communicative habits (from written and face-to-face encounters to electronic contact).  Their significance, however, must be elaborated. I propose that their differing claims and techniques map out the social conditions of an historical encounter: between an older Moroccan hierarchy which binds authority to specific and exclusive sacred persons and places—bearers of baraka, saints’ tombs, and mosques—and a newer Islamic revivalist egalitarianism which maps the sacred into a putatively unified social field comprising all city dwellers and formed by the broadcast call.

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