Sayyida Zeinab in the Egyptian Imagination and Practice


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This paper is about how Egyptians experience the presence of Al-Sayyida Zaynab in their lives and how they live their devotion in multiple cultural arenas and through different social practices. This study is based on anthropological research carried out between 1984 and 2014. Al-Sayyida Zaynab or Umm Hashim, is the protector of ahl al-bayt (members of the house of the Prophet Mohammad). Every year, on the last Tuesday in the Muslim lunar month of Rajab, more than a hundred thousand devotees congregate to celebrate her birthday or festival. Al-Sayyida Zaynab is the patron saint of women in distress, but most importantly she is the head of an imaginary council consisting of saints. This council rules an invisible parallel world that mediates between people who seek justice and resolution to their problems and provide them with support and judgement (hukm). People may access al-Sayyida Zaynab and share their grievances with her directly in her shrine or through a variety of linguistic and devotional practices. These may include dreams or visions, prayers, supplications, sacrifice and zikr (remembrance). Not only do people visit her shrine and mosque complex in Cairo, but they also perform their devotion in symbolic shrines scattered all over Upper Egypt. Following Bourdieu, I will describe the habitus of devotion to al-Sayyida Zaynab, not only during visitation in her actual mausoleum, but also in two other shrines in Upper Egypt. I will also describe through ethnographic vignettes, from Cairo and Upper Egypt, how people see her in dreams and how she is manifest in everyday conversations and linguistic practices. I will argue that the saint—as an important conduit of madad (divine help) in the Egyptian popular religious imagination—is part of the tools of resistance and survival for people in difficult circumstances to achieve justice and resolve their grievances.

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