Animal Sacrifice in Morocco

Mohammed V University – Agdal
Faculty of Letters and Humanities – Rabat
Department of English
English Studies
Animal Sacrifice in Morocco
Between Islam and Pagan Rituals
Paper Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the
Degree of Licence in English Studies.
Module: Research Project
Seminar: Sacrifice, Punishment, and the Scapegoat, across Cultures
Supervisor: Professor Mohammed Ezroura Submitted by: Oussama Benayad
Spring 2018
Table of Contents
Abstract ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… ii
Acknowledgement ………………………………………………………………………………………………… iii
Dedication ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………. iv
Introduction …………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 1
Chapter I: Animal Sacrifice in History across Cultures ………………………………………………… 6
A. The Meaning of Animal Sacrifice …………………………………………………………………………………………… 6
B. The Function of Animal Sacrifice……………………………………………………………………………………………. 8
C. Animal Sacrifice in Ancient Times …………………………………………………………………………………………12
D. Animal Sacrifice and Religions ……………………………………………………………………………………………..19
E. Animal Sacrifice in Islam ……………………………………………………………………………………………………..23
Chapter II: The Moroccan Sacrifice Feast (El-Eid-Elkbir) as a Site of Cultural Tension …… 28
A. The Practice of the Sacrifice Feast (El-Eid-Elkbir) in Morocco …………………………………………………..28
B. Pre-Islamic Morocco and the Birth of Moroccan Islam ……………………………………………………………32
C. Reading El-Eid-Elkbir in the light of Moroccan Islam ……………………………………………………………….38
Chapter III: Animal Sacrifice in Healing Ceremonies: Gnawa as a Case Study ……………… 42
A. Gnawa and Islam in Morocco ………………………………………………………………………………………………42
B. Animal Sacrifice in the Gnawa Ceremony: Welcoming the Spirits …………………………………………..46
C. Sacrificial Practices in Other Healing Rituals …………………………………………………………………………..53
Chapter IV: Saints and Sacrifice in Morocco ……………………………………………………………. 59
A. The Saint in Moroccan Culture …………………………………………………………………………………………….59
B. Seeking Saints through Sacrifice …………………………………………………………………………………………..61
C. Sacrifice to the Powerful: Moroccan Islam Revisited ……………………………………………………………..65
Conclusion ………………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 69
Bibliography ……………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 74
In present-day Morocco, animal sacrifice still plays a major role in the lives
of many people, inasmuch as the social character of everyday life possesses, as
an important aspect, the religious one. In the context at hand, animal sacrifices
take place on more than one occasion, and contain underneath their layers a
miscellaneous battery of beliefs whose origins are historically and culturally
dissimilar. However, Sacrifice is an oft-marginalized practice that hardly occupies
a focal position in scholarly research. This paper examines the sacrificial
instances in Morocco, highlighting the reflectionist aspect of the practice. It
studies the cultural and religious interactions that have engendered the sacrificial
practice in its current form, and attempts to draw conclusions in relation to the
Moroccan belief system and the social status quo. Next, it explores the position
of the animal as a material as well as a symbolic entity within certain ceremonies
that make use of sacrifices, and interprets it in terms of the ceremonies’
dynamics and their spiritual and supernatural background. Reading sacrifice as a
text, this paper also ventures to shed light on the position of the saint and the
manner wherein he is represented in Morocco, in relation to the other sacred and
omnipresent figure in the Moroccan context—Allah.
This research would not have been conducted as properly as it has been had my
supervisor, Professor Mohammed Ezroura, not endowed me with his appreciable
assistance and valuable remarks. Words cannot suffice to thank him for all I have learnt
from him in the course of these two semesters I have been honored to be amongst his
Many thanks, also, to Professor Noureddine Amrous, whose generous assistance in
correcting the transcriptions and translations necessary for this paper have been
indispensable. I thank him once again for having taking it upon himself to lend a
helping hand in a subject he masters more than I do.
To four important individuals:
To my mother, whose love and care mitigate hardships.
To the one who’s changed life and living for me, Hanae…
To Driss Abooka, to Khemisset, and to our memories therein…
Above all, to my dearest father, who nearly lost his life in saving mine.
The relation between animals and humans has always been filled with
complexities. Humans feed on animals, take them as companions, sacrifice them to
supernatural entities, and make use of them in acts of superstition. In such uses, there
is present the aspect of survival and adjustment, insofar as in the aforementioned uses,
the animal is apportioned the task of mitigating humans’ adaptation to their spaciotemporal
circumstances, as well as that of ensuring the continuity of the human race.
Such conclusions lie dormant underneath the layers of the sacrificial practice, and are
fathomed through putting the latter under scrutiny. Thereby, such practices are
sufficient, when dissected, for the acquisition of appreciable insight into the past as well
as the present of the culture to which the practices belong, since they are begotten
through the accumulation of religious and spiritual beliefs that are the result of crosscultural
contact and exchange.
Situated in Africa, Morocco is a country where the theme of animal sacrifice is by
no means rarefied. The occasions on which animals are sacrificed in Morocco are
multiple, and the aim of sacrifice varies depending on the ritual that makes use of it.
When scrutinized, these practices are found to be the embodiment of historical
interactions and tensions, and are thus a lens through which the Moroccan belief system
and its historical evolution, as well as the nature of Moroccan spiritual life and the state
of the religious within the social, can be observed. Morocco possesses a heterogeneous
character, since, as Abdellah Laroui states, the country is “neither completely African
nor entirely Mediterranean . . . .”1 Thus, historical traces of other cultures, which are
crucial to an understanding of present-day Morocco, can be observed in the practices of
animal sacrifice prevalent therein.
Despite the existence of valuable Literature concerning Moroccan rituals and
practices, merely a meager number of works devote attention to the practice of animal
sacrifice. Instead, such practices are in many a case marginalized, and are referred to
only superficially. Therefore, this research paper is devoted to the study and analysis of
the instances of animal sacrifice in Morocco, the ceremonies within which the practice
takes place, and the social and historical specificities which have contributed to the
formation of the practice. In this vein, this paper attempts to put the practices under
scrutiny, unveiling, thus, the religious, social, and cultural connotations they bear, and
deducing from their analysis the nature of Moroccan social and religious life.
The first chapter in this paper analyzes sacrifice generally, through history and
cultures. It starts by attempting to provide a definition of sacrifice through observing
and drawing together relevant definitions taken from works in the same vein. Next, it
ventures to explore the functions which animal sacrifice may come to have in a given
society. In this respect, the function of sacrifice is divided into the supernatural and the
social, with the former denoting its function as a medium between the tangible world
and the intangible, and the latter standing for the influence sacrifice comes to exert on
society through influencing individual perception of the Self and the Other. Having laid
1 Loubna H. Skalli, “Introduction,” in Through a Local Prism: Gender, Globalization and Identity in
Moroccan Women’s Magazines (N.Y: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006): 2.
the ground for illustrations, the chapter provides a study of sacrifice historically and
religiously, ending, thus, with an analysis of Islam’s perception of animal sacrifice.
The second chapter marks the constriction of focus to Morocco, and examines the
Moroccan version of the sacrifice feast (El-Eid-Elkbir), in contrast with the standard
Islamic one. In the course of the examination, many disparities between the Moroccan
and the original version of the practice are detected, since the manner wherein the
sacrifice feast is conducted differs from one region of Morocco to another. In relation to
the Moroccan sacrifice feast, the notion of Moroccan Islam—the Moroccan adaptation of
Islam—is studied apropos of its birth and development. In this respect, the interaction
between Islam as a monotheistic religion and the polytheistic beliefs that were
widespread in pre-Islamic Morocco is a point of focus, as it is crucial to an
understanding of the nature of the Moroccan belief system. By reading the practice in
the light of the conclusions drawn hitherto apropos of Moroccan Islam, the very body of
the animal in El-Eid-Elkbir, and the practices that it is subjected to, reflect the
heterogeneous nature of the Moroccan belief system as well as its being a system
underneath whose surface pre-Islamic beliefs have managed to survive. El-Eid-Elkbir,
thus, is a ritual to whose construction many rituals have contributed, as its basis is
Islamic, whereas the reconfigurations it has undergone are the result of interaction with
local cultures and rituals that are based on the polytheistic belief system that
characterized pre-Islamic Morocco, which renders the sacrifice feast in Morocco a site of
cultural and religious tension, as two different systems of belief strive to be dominant.
In the third chapter, sacrifice within the ceremonies of healing, which include
Gnawa, Hamadsha, and Aissawa, is investigated as well as interpreted. Moroccan
culture is rich as regards its demonology, since many people believe in a number of
spirits (jnun) and in their power and capacity to possess a person. Thus, the
aforementioned groups are masters of jnun, and have the spiritual aptitude to tell by
which jinn the person is inhabited, as well as to offer the individual solutions to appease
the spirit. Gnawa, as a case study, hold a Lila in honor of all spirits, in the centre of
which resides sacrifice. In the case of this group, sacrifice is interpreted on the level of
the ceremony as well as on the level of the possessed individual. In the ceremony,
passage of the animal from life to death is the marker of the transition from the real to
the symbolic, from the world of the living to that of the dead, the ancestors of Gnawa.
On the other hand, the violence of death, symbolized by blood in the death of the
animal, awakens the Other—the spirit—within the primary self, inasmuch as most spirits
are violent, and are passionate about blood. The Hamadsha and the Aissawa are also
accounted for, as both organize a festival in honor of one or more founding saints.
Sacrifice, in this case, is offered to the spirit, but is also offered to the saint in order for
its protection to be obtained. The Aissawa, however, have a more particular
incorporation of animals, since in many a case, mourning the death of their founding
saint includes dismemberment of live goats or sheep.
The fourth and last chapter inspects through the frequency and meticulousness of
sacrifices to saints the position of the latter in Moroccan culture. By attempting to
determine the intention of sacrifice in this case, the chapter explores the transformation
of the saint in Moroccan culture from a position of simple mediation between Allah and
the subject to a position of power, in which the saint is an intermediary that possesses
independent Baraka. Insofar as sacrifices are offered in order for the saint’s Baraka to
be obtained and not only that of God, Allah is relatively marginalized, and the saint
comes to be a master of Baraka in his own right. The chapter also attempts to offer an
explanation for this partial shift of power through revisiting Moroccan Islam, a version of
Islam which has engendered what has been identified as the saint’s familiarity to the
Moroccan, and his worthiness of sacrifice, as certain malevolent spirits that the
Moroccans both believe in and are inhabited by are said to be under the control of the
saint. Sacrifice, thus, is offered to him as he appears to be of more use.
Chapter I – Animal Sacrifice in History across Cultures
A. The Meaning of Animal Sacrifice
In his article “The Significance of Sacrifice in the Old Testament,” Hermann Schultz
states that “[sacrifice] is as old as religious life in man, as the history of man. Its origin
lies beyond the period in which the religions of primitive peoples developed into distinct
types . . . .”1 As this definition makes lucid, the concept and practice of sacrifice with its
various forms started prior to monotheistic religions, and is probably amongst the oldest
practices to be known. Furthermore, there is not only one form of sacrifice, but rather
many, which include human and animal sacrifice, to state only the widely known ones.2
In order for the meaning of sacrifice to be clarified, various definitions need to be
brought together. Funk and Wagnalls College Standard Dictionary provides a lexical
definition, stating that sacrifice is “the act of making an offering to a deity, in worship or
atonement.”3 On the other hand, the work of Glenn M. Schwartz provides some
scholarly definitions. Schwartz mentions the definition given by Humphrey and
Laidlaw—themselves citing Maurice Bloch’s work Prey into Hunter—in which they
consider that “sacrifice entails the killing of a living thing, the offering of its life or life
energy to entities in the supernatural world . . . .”4 Following these definitions, animal
sacrifice entails an offering of the animal’s life—which is symbolic—rather than the
1 Hermann Schultz, “The Significance of Sacrifice in the Old Testament,” The American Journal of
Theology 4.2 (1900): 257.
2 There is also what Hubert and Mauss call Agrarian sacrifice. See H. Hubert, and M. Mauss, “The
Special Functions of Sacrifice,” in Sacrifice: Its Nature and Function, trans. W. Hall (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1946).
3 Funk and Wagnalls College Standard Dictionary of the English Language (US: Funk and Wagnalls
Company, 1948)
4 Glenn M. Schwartz, “Archaeology and Sacrifice,” in Sacred Killing: The Archaeology of Sacrifice,
ed. Anne M Porter, and Glenn M Schwartz (Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2012): 2
animal as a whole, to the intended supernatural entity. Also, animal killing is labeled as
animal sacrifice when it involves a ritualized destruction of this object of sacrifice
(Schwartz, 2). Hubert and Mauss contend in the same vein, stating that the ritual of
sacrifice can be regarded as a ritual of offering merely when the object is destroyed:
But if all sacrifice is indeed, an [offering], there are different kinds of
offerings. In some offerings, the objects offered are not destroyed; in
others, the offered objects are destroyed, e. g., animals. It is evidently
for offerings of the latter type that we ought to reserve the name of
Hence, the sacrifice is named as such when the aspect of destruction is involved.
When it is not, however, the sacrifice is deprived of its consecrating aspect, and is
merely a casual slaughter, insofar as supernatural entities mostly demand the
destruction of the victim. Such an aspect is not restricted to animal or human sacrifice,
as even in vegetal sacrifices, the destruction of the sacrifice can still be involved.
Sacrifice, now including the aspect of the ritual, must have a sacrificer, and a
sacrificed object—sometimes, also referred to as a sacrifice.6 The former refers to the
individual or group who carry out the act of sacrifice—which includes destroying the
victim. Yet, when regarded under the light of the relation between the supernatural and
the earthly subject, the position of sacrificer also refers to the object upon whom the
useful effects of the sacrifice are to be bestowed. This is clearly expressed by Hubert
and Mauss as they contend:
5 Arthur Julius Nelson, “The Nature and Significance of the Ceremony of Sacrifice, according to
Hubert and Mauss (Continued)” The Open Court 1926.1 (1926): 39.
6 See the word Sacrifice in Funk and Wagnalls Dictionary.
By the sacrificer, we mean the subject that receives the benefits of
the sacrifice or submits to its effects. This subject is now an
individual and now a group : family, clan, tribe, nation, secret
society. When it is a group, it comes about that the group fills
collectively the office of sacrifice ; that is to say, it takes part in the
ceremony… the group fills the role of sacrificer: killing, tearing and
devouring the victim—sometimes it delegates one of its members to
act in its place. (Nelson, 38-39)
By the sacrificed object, what is meant is the victim—in the case of animal
sacrifice, specifically the animal—which comes to be “consecrated . . . to serve as a
mode of communication between the sacrifier [sic] and the deity, between the profane
[Man] and the sacred [Divinity]” (Schwartz, 4). Thus, animal sacrifice may be taken as
a ritual in which a sacrificer, who may be an individual or a group, comes to perform,
directly or through another person, an act of destruction upon a consecrated animal—
the scapegoat—with the aim of obtaining positive effects from a divine power.
B. The Function of Animal Sacrifice
Having defined the practice of sacrifice and its components, it is necessary to give
an account of the possible functions that animal sacrifice may come to have. E. B.
Tylor, in his work Primitive Culture, argues that sacrifices in primitive religions were
performed primarily as gifts to the Gods.7 However true this may have been, such a
practice cannot remain limited to a mechanical relation with the supernatural world
7 E. B. Tylor, Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy,
Religion, Language, Art, and Custom (London: John Murray, 1920): 357.
even in the time of primitive religions. Thus, there are two main realms wherein animal
sacrifice functions: the supernatural, and the social. The former denotes the functions
whose aim necessitates a connection between the earthly subject and the supernatural
world. As for the latter, it represents the functions which target or impact the social
system as well as individuals’ perception of themselves and of the Other. Before animal
sacrifice, or sometimes in parallel with it, human sacrifice used to be practiced in many
parts of the world. However, there had occurred a switch from the human to the
animal.8 In “The Book of Genesis,” there could be found the story of Abraham and
Isaac that embodies the aforementioned switch. As Abraham is commanded to
sacrifice his son, and after having told him, they both accept God’s will and set off to
make the necessary arrangements. However, as the sacrifice is about to be
accomplished, Yahweh interferes:
And He said, “Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any
thing unto him; for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou
hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from Me.” And Abraham
lifted up his eyes and looked; and behold, behind him a ram caught
in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram, and
offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son. (21st
Century King James Version, Genesis 22: 12-13.)
8 Judaism, for instance, forbade Human sacrifice, considering it to be murder, and, according to
Wikipedia, some Talmudic scholars assert that it was replaced by animal sacrifice. See Human Sacrifice.
Wikipedia. In this vein, Freud and Girard also consider it to
be a replacement of Human sacrifice.
As is clear in the verses, animal life comes to replace and to symbolize human life.
Thus, offering this life amounts to offering a human one. In this replacement, the
animal also comes to take upon it the vices and sins of the sacrificer, thus having its
blood play the role of the purifier in certain cases. This is expressed in “Rereading
Sacrifice,” as Janowitz, explaining the vision of certain priestly sources, states that
“[s]ome means of atonement for the inevitable disobedience of humans is necessary.
For these priests, the means of rectifying the error of disobedience centered on the
temple cult of animal sacrifice.”9 The animal, thereby, does not simply replace the
human, but comes to occupy various positions within the sacrifice, depending on what
is under spotlights: The animal’s life, or the animal’s blood, which is the “. . . ultimate
purifying agent” (Janowitz, 197). In other words, the animal becomes an
“intermediary”, to quote Hubert and Mauss’s term (Nelson, “The Nature and
Significance of the Ceremony of Sacrifice,” 39) between the human and the
supernatural within the ceremony of sacrifice that is the medium.
Although sacrifice has been for long related to religion, its causes and impacts
encompass religion and transcend it. Sacrifice, in fact, may in certain cases be a
reinforcement of religiosity. The prophet of Islam, in sacrificing a sheep on behalf of
those amongst his people who could not afford it, marked the start of a rite through
which the religious identity of the group is reinforced—in this case, the group as the
Muslim Ummah.10 In the case of the Muslim feast of sacrifice, for instance, the
slaughtering of the animal signifies not only obedience to God, but belongingness to a
9 Naomi Janowitz, “Rereading Sacrifice: The Semiosis of Blood” Signs and Society 2.3 (2015): 197.
10 For the full story of how Muhammad sacrificed in the aforementioned case, see
large group whose identity as a Muslim one is constantly reinforced and strengthened
through the sacrifice.
The ceremony of sacrifice, in the same pattern whereby it previously functioned
as a medium between the sacrificer and the supernatural, now functions as a means of
contact and identification between the sacrificer and the rest of the group. By
sacrificing, the sacrificer is integrated as part of the group whose members also take
part in a similar ceremony conducted for the same deity or purpose. Thus, taking the
individual as a sacrificer, for example, one may not simply see oneself as belonging to
the tangible community within which one lives, but as an active member who
contributes to the strengthening of a community that shares the same ideas. The
practice, thus, does not simply contribute to the creation of the Self, but also
determines the identity of Other. Therefore, animal sacrifice can be a major agent in
the process of territorialization, which N. George defines as follows:
“territorialization” refers to the stabilization and reinforcement of
the unity, coherence, and identity of the assemblage, through
increasing the internal homogeneity among the members of the
assemblage, strengthening the identification of those members with
the assemblage as a whole. . . .11
Hence, a Muslim living in a non-Muslim country comes to assert his belonging to
the Muslim community and to strengthen it—symbolically—through the feast of
sacrifice, as it reinforces his identity and determines his group. By contrast, not
11 Larry N. George, “Towards an Assemblage Theory of Scapegoat Sacrifices, Pharmacotic Violence,
and Fascism” International Studies Association Annual Convention (2010): 12
sacrificing may cause a sense of deterritorialization and cultural dislocation, since it
leads the Self to merge with the Other, the non-sacrificer.
C. Animal Sacrifice in Ancient Times
Throughout history, many civilizations were known for their numerous sacrificial
practices whose aims varied and whose methods differed. Thus, certain historical
illustrations may be of use, and may serve as examples of the previously-explained
meaning and functions of sacrifice.
Mesopotamia is an ancient civilization whose culture had been filled with sacrificial
practices and superstitious incorporation of animals. It is situated in the area between
the river of Euphrates and the river of Tigris, and encompasses “most of Iraq plus
Kuwait, the eastern parts of Syria, Southeastern Turkey, and regions along the Turkish–
Syrian and Iran–Iraq borders.”12 According to the British Museum, people who lived in
Mesopotamia had a highly agrarian lifestyle, as they depended mostly on keeping
animals and growing crops, thus on rainfall and river-water.13 It is also worth noting
that “Mesopotamia hosted some of the most important developments in human history:
the rise of a farming economy, the advent of proto-urban societies, the first cities and
empires.”14 However, prior to the shift from a merely agrarian lifestyle to a more
developed stage, the dependency on rainfall and rivers for food and for raising the herd
may explain the relationship that the Mesopotamians had with the supernatural world.
Mesopotamian people—during the aforementioned period, and even afterwards—were
12 Wikipedia, Mesopotamia,
13 The British Museum, “Mesopotamia,”
14 Catherine Breniquet, “Animals in Ancient Mesopotamian Art,” in A History of the Animal World in
the Ancient Near East, ed. Billie Jean Collins (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2002): 145.
dominated by superstitious beliefs. In certain cases, the animal did play the role of an
intermediary between the two worlds; yet, killing the animal was often unnecessary,
and for the most part this was the case with omens.15 However, animal sacrifice still
played an important role for the Mesopotamians. Before speaking of sacrifices that
took place on particular occasions and for particular purposes, animal sacrifice was
conducted daily; that is because the Gods, according the dominating beliefs of the
period in question, had to be nurtured daily through blood and meat. In such feasts,
“[t]he altar was the table of the [G]od where the meal was placed. Beside the altar
was the incense brazier which was to attract the [G]od’s attention . . . . The food was
shared between the [G]ods, the priest-king, and the attendants.”16 It must also be
mentioned as a point of caution that, as JoAnn Scurlock puts it, “[t]his was, of course,
only the everyday fare, not counting the [‘]monthly offerings[’] and the numerous
festivals that enlivened the ancient Mesopotamian calender [sic].”17
As was previously mentioned in passing, superstitious beliefs and their inclusion of
animals were widespread among the Mesopotamians. Evil spirits were for the most
part fancied as an admixture of human and animal traits, which meant that a spirit was
“. . . human in strength but essentially animalian in character . . . .” (Scurlock, 361).
This admixture of human and animalistic traits in one entity led the Mesopotamian
people to take the animals in their vicinity—both domesticated and non-domesticated—
15 For more apropos of this point, see: JoAnn Scurlock, “Animals in Ancient Mesopotamian Religion”
in A History of the Animal World in the Ancient Near East, Ed. Billie Jean Collins, 161-187 (Leiden,
Netherlands: Brill, 2002): 365
16 “Special Topic: Sacrifices in Mesopotamia and Israel and their Significance,”
17 JoAnn Scurlock, “Animals in Ancient Mesopotamian Religion,” in A History of the Animal World in
the Ancient Near East, Ed. Billie Jean Collins, 161-187 (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2002): 365
as patients upon whom the superstitious beliefs of the people were exerted. Scurlock
argues in this respect:
A slaughtered animal was a particularly good absorbing pad for
anger. A woman who had quarreled with her husband could bring
him round to talking with her again by touching the death wound of
a sheep while holding a magnet in her right hand and an iron boat
in the left and reciting the appropriate prayer . . . . This done, the
formerly wrathful husband would find her magnetically attractive,
his anger as dead and gone as the poor sheep (ibid, 372).
For the most part, the animal was an entity to which the evil—of any sort—would
be affixed. Then, the animal would be killed and buried, put into somebody’s grave, or
thrown into a river or wasteland.
In addition to the aforementioned sacrifices and forms of animal incorporation in
the superstitious practices of the Mesopotamian people, other types of animal sacrifice
took place for various purposes, and had a number of distinctive traits. In
Mesopotamia, illness was considered as a form of divine punishment, which entailed a
sacrifice from the part of the sick in favor of a deity in order for cure to ensue. In this
type of sacrifice as in most others, the typical animal to be sacrificed was a sheep; yet,
in certain cases which were by no means very few, a she-goat was also favorable
(Scurlock, 397). While this form of sacrifice is an offering to a supernatural entity,
there were other forms which diverged from the typical direct linking of sacrifice to
offering. A treaty sacrifice was widely practiced; and by definition, this form of sacrifice
referred to the sacrifice of an animal upon the signing of a treaty between parties, with
the dead animal symbolizing the fate of the party that dared to break the treaty in any
way.18 This sacrifice was not an offering because the aim of the sacrifice was social
rather than religious or superstitious. Nonetheless, this is not to say that there was a
total exclusion of the supernatural, for, as Theodor Lewis Puts it, “sacrifice is a social
act that brings humans into relationship with God and with each other.”19 Thus, to
wrap up, the close ties which Mesopotamian people had with animals and with the
supernatural were clearly manifested in their practices. Animals were held to be very
significant, and constituted an important part of their daily lives, not only as offerings
and pads for evil, but also as companions and omens.
Another civilization whose sacrificial practices are worthy of being observed is the
ancient Greek civilization. In Greek history, ancient Greece stands for the period that
starts with the Greek Dark Ages and extends to the end of Antiquity.20 The Greeks,
similar to many other nations during the period, were known for their ritualistic
practices which involved sacrifices. During this era, the shift from the human to the
animal in sacrifice had already occurred, and with it human sacrifice in Greece became
a fictitious reenactment that led all foci to the human body. However, in tandem with
this theatrical scene there was most of the time a sacrifice of an animal in favor of a
deity. In fact, Animal sacrifice in Greek culture “was performed as a ritual to
18 Glenn M. Schwartz, “Archaeology and Sacrifice,” in Sacred Killing: The Archaeology of Sacrifice,
(2012): 7.
19 Theodor J. Lewis, “Covenant and Blood Rituals: Understanding Exodus 24:3-8 Against its Ancient
Near Eastern Backdrop,” in Confronting the Past: Archaeological and Historical Essays on Ancient Israel in
Honor of William G. Dever, ed. S. Gitin, J.E. Wright, and J.P. Dessel (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns,
2006): 348.
20 For a detailed study of the period, see: Wikipedia, Ancient Greece.
communicate with the [G]ods, heroes, and other divine beings. Such rituals were meant
to ask the divine recipients for favours, protection, and help, or to appease them.”21
The importance of animal sacrifice in ancient Greek culture is manifested in Greek
mythology as well, for in the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, Pygmalion sacrifices a bull
in the form of a burnt offering for Aphrodite in order for his wish to be fulfilled. Mark
Pizzato provides a meticulous study of the Greek rituals, in which animal sacrifice
constitutes an important aspect:
. . . [T]he festival of Dionysus, as primary setting for the
development of theatre, continued to involve rites of animal
sacrifice. In fact, the sacrificial altar was located approximately forty
yards behind the Skene (stage house) doors of the Theatre of
Dionysus in Athens . . . . “Here on the altar many bulls would have
been slaughtered . . . . The performance . . . is physically located
between the god . . . and the sacrifice in his honour . . . .”22
Although human sacrifice moved from reality to fiction, animal sacrifice in Ancient
Greece continued to function both as a replacement of human sacrifice and as a mode
of communication and wish fulfillment between the Greek and their Gods. This
ritualistic violence, thus, had to have certain aspects of the drama, as the sacrificer(s)
involved wore special clothing and ornaments, in addition to the animal, which itself
was decorated and transformed by, for example, covering its horns with gold ( Pizzato,
21 Ekroth, Gunnel, “Animal Sacrifice in Antiquity,” The Oxford Handbook of Animals in Classical
Thought and Life (Oxford, UK: Oxford Univ. Press, 2014): 1.
22 Mark Pizzato, “Blood Sacrifice in Ancient Greece and Aztec America,” in Theatres of Human
Sacrifice from Ancient Ritual to Screen Violence (N.Y: SUNY press, 2004): 22.
22). These rituals continued to be practiced by the Greeks throughout the period in
Ancient Egypt is yet another civilization where animals were involved in humans’
contact with the supernatural world. Old hieroglyphics show deities with both human
and animal body parts. In fact, nearly every animal was at a certain period associated
with a specific deity. These zoomorphic representations of Egyptian deities varied in
many ways. In this respect, Emily Teeter argues:
The mixed forms, perhaps the most characteristic and distinctive
feature of Egyptian iconography, usually placed an animal head on
a fully human body . . . . In rarer cases dating from the New
Kingdom onward, the god’s head could be replaced by an entire
animal, such as the scarab beetle, which emerges from the
shoulders of the god Khepri. In other cases (Selket and Hatmehyet)
the animal emblem of the deity (a scorpion and fish, respectively)
could simply rest upon, or be attached to the fully anthropomorphic
head. More rarely, a human head was placed on an animal body,
the best example being the androsphinx, which in the royal context
symbolized the king in his leonine aspect.23
This involvement of animals in divine representation consecrated most of the
animals of Ancient Egypt. However, this is far from saying that they were exempted
from being incorporated in sacrificial rites; since in religious rituals and festivals,
23 Emily Teeter, “Animals in Egyptian Religion,” in A History of the Animal World in the Ancient Near
East, ed. Billie Jean Collins (Leiden, NL: Brill, 2002): 336.
animals were frequently presented as a sacrifice.24 The deceased received offerings
from the living often in certain religious cults, and the offering mostly consisted of
“bread, beer, oxen, and fowl” (Teeter, 347). As Egyptian iconography often shows,
Egyptian culture during the period in question had high use of symbolism. Therefore, in
many cases, animals stood for certain deities and were sacrificed as part of a theatrical
representation, as is the case with Set and other Egyptians deities:
Rituals that celebrated the annual visit of Hathor of Dendera to the
temple of Horus at Edfu were accompanied by the ritual sacrifice of
a red steer or bull that symbolized Seth. A priest representing Horus
severed the foreleg to symbolize his victory over evil. The sacrifice
was followed by releasing four birds that symbolically proclaimed
the defeat of Seth, and by the ritual trampling of four fish . . . .
(Teeter, 347).
In such cases of sacrifice, the sacrificer did not simply wish for contact with the
supernatural world, but also wished to beseech forgiveness and to appease the wrath
of the gods. Naturally, the sacrificer remained the centre of the sacrifice, while the
animal, per se, continued to play its representational and symbolic role.
Thus, there could be seen that animals have always been regarded as related to
the supernatural world, which affected their position within society as well as their
effect on it. In certain cases as is with the Greeks, the ritualistic slaughter of the animal
replaced human sacrifice without transitioning the focus of sacrifice from the human
24 For further details, see: S. Ikram, “Sacrifice, Pharaonic Egypt,” The Encyclopedia of Ancient
History (2012).
body, which bestowed upon the animal its reputation of having close ties with the world
of the Gods. In other cases, however, the animal—both alive and dead, as is the case
of Mesopotamia and Pharaonic Egypt—possessed paramount significance, which is due
to the predominant beliefs of the era. It is worth noting, in addition, that religion had
much impact on the manner wherein people’s beliefs and, thus, sacrificial practices
were reconfigured.
D. Animal Sacrifice and Religions
The concept of sacrifice has been inextricably linked to that of religion, as most
sacrificial practices emanated from it. Thus, the idea that sacrifice is religion as
discussed by Schultz is important, as it highlights the degree to which a widespread
practice is related to a universal metanarrative.25 The sacrificial rites, in fact, change in
their nature, significance, and enactment, depending on the nature of the religion from
which they first emanated. Sacrificial practices linked to polytheistic religions, for
example, diverged in many aspects from those of a monotheistic nature, though they
may have converged on others.
In many a case, a term such as “paganism” is used pejoratively to refer to
polytheism. Simply put, polytheism refers to the belief in and worship of more Gods
than one (Funk and Wagnalls, 881). However, the belief in more than one God does
not necessarily entail an absence of the idea of divine unity, as Jan Assmann, in his
“Monotheism and Polytheism”, contends that “the unity or oneness of the divine is an
important topic in Egyptian, Babylonian, Indian, Greek, and other polytheistic
25 Hermann Schultz, “The Significance of Blood in the Old Testament,” p. 257
traditions.”26 In this vein, thus, divine unity refers not to the worship of one God, but
rather to “the structure and coherence of the divine world, which is not just an
accumulation of deities, but a structured whole, a pantheon,” (Assmann, 17). In these
ancient polytheistic religions, sacrificial practices were numerous, central, and
significant. In Ancient Greece, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, all of the previously-depicted
practices were of purely religious nature.27 In other words, the practices come either
from written religious manuscripts, or from wall-carvings. Furthermore, polytheism has
many distinctive characteristics. In Polytheism, the sacrifice may be in favor of one
particular God without the others, which was the case with occasional sacrifices in the
Mesopotamian Religion (Scurlock, “Animals in Ancient Mesopotamian Religion,” p. 395).
Generally, consideration of animals as sacred is yet another special characteristic in old
polytheistic religions, as certain animals were regarded to be favored by the Gods and
considered to be closely related to their world, which was the case in the ancient
Anatolian religion,28 and is still the case today with sacred cows in Hinduism.
Nevertheless, with the coming of monotheistic religions, many of the practices were
Monotheism marked a point of radical change in the history of ancient times.
While monotheism refers to the belief in and worship of one God only, its significations
and practices rest beyond this short definition. In many historical sites, monotheism
came with conquest. Egypt, for example, was first introduced to monotheism through
26 Jan Assmann, “Monotheism and Polytheism,” Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide
(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004): 17.
27 See in this chapter: C – Animal Sacrifice in Ancient Times: 7-14.
28 Billie J. Collins, “Animals in the Religions of Anatolia,” in A History of the Animal World in the
Ancient Near East, Ed. Billie Jean Collins (Leiden, NL: Brill, 2002): 314.
Christianity, which contributed to the reconstitution and reconfiguration of many a
polytheistic belief. With the Muslim conquest in 642 AD, however, Egypt was brought
under Muslim rule, and the monotheistic status of the Egyptian belief system was
consolidated afresh. Hence, it is safe to say that monotheism, in fact, constitutes its
identity through opposition to polytheism (Assmann, 1), but also, and most importantly,
through the reproduction of former polytheistic beliefs. In the same fashion, a
reconstitution of beliefs entails a reconfiguration of practices. Thus, with the alteration
in the relationship between humans and the supernatural, their sacrificial rites change
also, either through adopting novel practices, or by accommodating old ones to fit in
the new socio-religious situation.
To begin with one of the oldest monotheistic religions, Judaism is an Abrahamic
religion whose foundational text is the Torah. Being an old religion, it encompasses a
wide corpus of texts, practices, and theological positions29. As already mentioned, one
of the most important reconfigurations which Judaism is said to have initiated is the
replacement of human sacrifice by animal sacrifice. In addition, most of what is related
to the use of animal sacrifice is put forth in the book of Leviticus. There are, primarily,
three common usages of animal sacrifice, in all of which the animal is a carrier of
humans’ sins. On the one hand, sacrifice was conducted as a form of peace offering,
which stood for the act whereby an animal is offered to YHWH as a form of expressing
gratitude (KJV, Leviticus 3: 2-17). On the other hand, there are burnt offerings,
whereby an animal is burnt on the altar and presented as a gift to YHWH (Exodus 20:
24). A scapegoat—typically a goat—is also burdened with the sins of humans, and is
29 For further details, see: Wikipedia, Judaism.
driven away into the desert to perish on its own (Leviticus, 16). Furthermore, in order
for an animal to be chosen for the sacrifice, a meticulous examination should take place
to determine that the animal meets the necessary requirements. In Judaism, blood is
of huge significance as it represents life, and, in most cases, the meat is consumed by
the priests and, sometimes, by the sacrificer too.30
Christianity, on the other hand, came with fewer cases of sacrifice and less
emphasis than Judaism. Christianity is also a monotheistic religion, and is based on the
life, teachings, and miracles of Jesus Christ. One of the important distinctive features
of Christianity is the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which came as a way of replacement and
reconfiguration of the Levitical Sacrifices. According to Christianity, animal blood is not
sufficient as a method of atoning for humans’ continually committed sins. Therefore, a
far more significant sacrifice is needed, which is that of Jesus.31 However, there could
be found certain cases of animal sacrifice, such as that in which God demands a
sacrifice of a pair of doves and two pigeons (Luke 2:24).
In the same manner wherein Judaism came to reconfigure certain practices that
had existed prior to its coming, Christianity also modified the perception of the ritual of
sacrifice. Monotheism, therefore, did not simply reconfigure polytheism; it even
modified certain beliefs brought by previous monotheistic religions. This is the case—as
will be seen—with Islam’s perception of blood in particular, and of animal sacrifice in
30 Paul Rezkalla, “The Distinctive and Salvific Nature of Animal Sacrifice in Judaism,” Seminar, The
American Journal of Biblical Theology (2016).
31 “Jesus the Only True Sacrifice for Sin”
E. Animal Sacrifice in Islam
In Islam, animal sacrifice is widely practiced by the adherents of the religion, and
the most known case of animal sacrifice is the feast of sacrifice (Eid Al-Adha). What is
of importance, however, is that in Islam, every type of animal slaughter—which
includes sacrifice—has rules and regulations.
As is the case mostly, animal sacrifice in Islam is conducted primarily as an act of
showing gratitude and obedience to Allah. The feast of sacrifice (Eid Al-Adħa) is a ritual
of animal sacrifice that Islam considers to be of appreciable significance, as it is a
reenactment of Abraham’s sacrifice. This important event in the Muslim calendar takes
place on the 10th of Du-lHijja, during the period of pilgrimage (al-ħajj). Despite being a
reenactment of what is primarily Judaic, Islam made many changes in the perception of
animal sacrifice as a religious practice. For Islam, blood per se is of little significance,
and vacillates between purity and impurity. According to Moundir Al Amrani, when the
blood belongs to a martyr who died for the Islamic cause, it comes to be opulent and to
purify the soul and body to which it belongs. Otherwise, in sacrifices as well as
menstruation, the blood is considered as impure, and is to be disposed of.32 As an
important practice in Islam, the sacrifice feast is in essence both a way of showing
obedience and gratitude, and a type of charity (zakah), as part of the sacrifice should
be given to the poor.33 This is emphasized in the Qur’an: “[t]eir meat will not reach
Allah, nor will their blood, but what reaches Him is piety from you. Thus have We
32 Al Amrani, Moundir, “Signification of Blood in Religion and Magic Rituals in Morocco,” Journal of
Humanities and Social Science 20.3 (2015): 51.
33 The Holy Qur’an (22: 37)
subjected them to you that you may glorify Allah for that [to] which He has guided you;
and give good tidings to the doers of good.”34
However, this is not the only case in which the sacrifice is regarded as a charity,
since another occasional sacrifice whose aim is charitable takes place. When one’s
prayers have been fulfilled by Allah, when one has been saved from a fatal situation—
illness, accidents, or what is similar—or when one has been endowed with wealth and
offspring out of a sudden, one may decide to hold a sadaqa. The word is to be found
both in classical and Moroccan Arabic, and denotes, literally, charity. In this context,
this form of charity is both to cater for the poor and to express gratitude to Allah. This
sadaqa may include meals only; yet, in certain cases, especially when pecuniary
matters are not an issue, an animal is sacrificed, the poor is given part of it, and the
neighbors are invited for a religious feast. This sacrifice, according to Al Amrani, “has
partial bearing on [canonical] Islam,”35 since to its creation Moroccan culture has
Islam also demands a sacrifice in the case of childbirth, upon the child’s naming.
This form of sacrifice is referred to as (ɂaqi:qa). According to Sheikh Al-Albani, this
form of sacrifice takes place between seven to fourteen days after birth, and
necessitates financial capacity to sacrifice. In this case, the sacrifice is Sunnah, and is
both an expression of gratitude and a commemoration and celebration of the child’s
34 The Holy Qur’an (22:37).
35 Al Amrani, Moundir, “Signification of Blood in Religion and Magic Rituals in Morocco,” p. 50
36 Unknown, « Le sacrifice : Al-‘Aqiqa et ses règles, »
In addition, Islam specifies the types of animals that are accepted for slaughter
on the day of Eid-Al-Adha; they should be four-legged cattle, with no blemish, and of
appropriate age.37 Mostly, the preferable animal is a sheep, and “Mohammed is said to
have preferred rams with black rings around their eyes, as they resembled a bride’s
kohled eyes.”38 On the day of the sacrifice, it is of huge importance that the sacrifice
does not take place before the prayer; otherwise, the ritual is divested of the aspect of
consecration, and is simply a casual slaughter for mere consumptive purposes.
Moreover, the sheep must be directed towards the Kaaba (Baytullah),39 and Allah’s
name must be spoken upon conducting the act.
Having given clear rules on how the sacrifice is to be conducted, Islam goes
beyond the feast of sacrifice to regulate animal consumption in general. If an animal is
slaughtered without Allah’s name being mentioned, or is a sacrifice to an entity other
than Allah, the animal is considered impure and is, hence, forbidden for Muslims. In
the same vein, the animal’s blood should not be drunk, and certain animals should not
be eaten due to their being considered impure and are, thus, allowed to be consumed
only in isolated cases of dire necessity. This type of limitations put forward by Islam
can be observed in the Qur’an, as Allah says:
He has only forbidden to you dead animals, blood, the flesh of
swine, and that which has been dedicated to other than Allah. But
37 Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, “The Ritual of Animal Sacrifice,”
38 Qtd in: Catherine Cartwright-Jones, Id al-Adha: The Ecological and Nutritional Impact of the
Muslim Feast of Sacrifice, and the Significance of Henna in this Sacrifice (Stow, Ohio: TapDancingLizard.
2001): 10.
39 The Kaaba is a building in Mecca, Hejaz, Saudi-Arabia, and is the most sacred location for
whoever is forced [by necessity], neither desiring [it] nor
transgressing [its limit], there is no sin upon him. Indeed, Allah is
Forgiving and Merciful (2:173).
Animal sacrifice, according to the teachings of Islam, has to be conducted
accordingly. Otherwise, the sacrifice is not accepted by Allah, and is considered as a
heretic act if it is slaughtered in the name of another entity. However, when comparing
textual descriptions of the sacrifice and its tangible manifestations, differences in
practice appear; something which can be attributed to the local accommodation of the
Islamic text.
Sacrifice, hence, had been a crucial constituent of ancient life, as well as an
effective mode of communication with the world of the supernatural. Amongst the
main characteristics of ancient life was dependence upon weather and climate for
survival, insofar as the agrarian lifestyle which was widespread reinforced this
dependency. Religion, thus, functioned as a coping mechanism by which the Gods—
being the ones controlling the uncontrollable—could be reached and communicated
with. Through offering sacrifices, the Gods were thought to be propitiated and
gratified, and humans were, thus, endowed in return with a flourishing harvest, good
health, and other benefits.
It is no wonder, therefore, that the practice managed to survive change and
evolution. In order for a practice as firm as sacrifice to be abolished, an alternative had
to be offered, as most sacrificial practices were buttressed by metanarratives that
ensured their continuity. For example, in order for human sacrifice to be substituted
with animal sacrifice, a figure of power had to interfere and impose the sacrificial
transition, as was the case with YHWH. On the other hand, sacrifice functioned as a
method by which the members of a clan come to reinforce their identity, which directly
influenced the way whereby one regarded oneself, as well as the manner wherein one
recognized the outsider.
Chapter II – The Moroccan Sacrifice Feast (El-Eid-Elkbir) as a Site
of Cultural Tension
A. The Practice of the Sacrifice Feast (El-Eid-Elkbir) in Morocco
The Moroccan feast of sacrifice belongs to the category of practices whose
complexity is due principally to their being founded on a multifaceted system of belief.
This system of belief is the result of an interaction between the Islamic belief system
and the pre-Islamic, polytheistic one. When such an interaction between the foreign
and the local takes place, no mechanical process of local erosion and elimination occurs.
What may transpire is, rather, a process that localizes the newly-introduced belief
system, attempting to merge it with the pre-existent practices and beliefs, and resulting
in practices whose nature displays a miscellaneous admixture of local and foreign traits.
This is an oversimplification of the question at hand, since this interaction begets
tensions, oppositions, and a predomination—without complete elimination—of either of
the systems of belief and their practices. Hence, similar to what De Bruinhorst
considers a tension between universal and particular “Islams,”1 understanding the feast
of sacrifice in the context of Morocco, and deducing from it the nature of religious and
social life therein, necessitate tackling the relations between the textual, original view of
the ritual of El-Eid-Elkbir—which has been discussed above—and its particular view and
practice in Morocco.
1 G. C. Van De Bruinhorst, “Introduction,” in ‘Raise your Voices and Kill your Animals’: Islamic
Discourses on the Idd El-Hajj and Sacrifices in Tanga (Tanzania); Authoritative Texts, Ritual Practices and
Social Identities (Amsterdam: Amsterdam Univ. Press, 2007): 33.
As a country wherein the vast majority consists of adherents to Islam, it is safe to
say that the feast of sacrifice in Morocco is an occasion regarded by many as an
opportunity of opulent social and religious significance. It has been practiced in
Morocco for centuries, and despite the wave of globalization from which Morocco was
not exempted, the practice is still conducted in urban as well as rural parts of Morocco.
The feast of sacrifice starts formally in the morning of the 10th of Dhu-lHijja,2 with
prayer initiating the ensuing events. However, in certain parts, the preparations for the
sacrifice may be observed the precedent days. For many people, fasting on the day of
Arafa (Nhar ɂarafa)—the day before the tenth—is of huge religious import, and is
Sunnah.3 For others, on the other hand, this act of fasting is associated with other
beliefs, which confers a completely new meaning on the act; this is particularly the case
for the tribe of Ulad Bu-Aziz, who believe, as Edward Westermarck observes, the
. . . [H]e who has been fasting on the day of ‘Arafa and on the
following morning and breaks his fast by eating part of the liver of a
sacrificed animal, and in addition to this says a hundred rek'[a]t
(forms of prayer), is thereby enabled to pronounce curses of very
great efficacy.4
In fact, the scope of divergence from the original limits of the sacrifice feast
transcends mere beliefs to actual practices that are conducted prior to and during the
2 In the Muslim lunar calendar, Dhu-lHijja is the last month.
3 Sunnah means whatever is said to have been done or has been a trait of the prophet Muhammad.
In this case, there are many a Hadith apropos of fasting the day of Arafa. See:
4 Edward Westermarck, “The Popular Ritual of the Great Feast in Morocco” Folklore (1911): 135.
sacrifice. In his book The Victim and Its Masks, Abdellah Hammoudi studies the rituals
of masquerade, which include wearing sordid rags, animal skins from El-Eid-Elkbir, real
skulls of certain animals, and other paraphernalia of which the individuals intending to
conduct the ceremony of masquerade make use. The masquerade, with each actor
representing a character, starts in a theatrical form, telling a story in a carnivalesque
manner.5 According to Auguste Mouliéras, “[t]he carnival takes place only once a year.
It lasts three days and coincides with the great Feast of Sacrifice . . .” (qtd in
Hammoudi, 17).
Such beliefs and practices, which are numerous, are but an initiation to the
pattern of beliefs and, thus, the acts that are linked to the ensuing parts of the
ceremony of sacrifice. In certain parts of Morocco, the animal is adorned, and for this,
Henna and kohl are often used for aesthetic purposes as well as purposes linked to the
world of the supernatural, inasmuch as these substances deter “the malicious and
polluting jnun, and enhance the attractiveness and fitness of the sacrifice” (Cartwright-
Jones, 10). Salt is also used profusely, since—according to the dominant beliefs—it has
the power to ward off jnun.6 It is used shortly before the act of killing the animal,
during the act, and after it, as Westermarck, in relating the process, demystifies:
. . . as soon as the fk[i] has cut the throat of the animal, he puts
some salt into the gaping wound and also throws some on the
blood which has fallen on the ground . . . . [S]ome salt and a piece
5 Abdellah Hammoudi, “Colonial Anthropology on the Sacrifice and the Masquerade in Search of a
Lost Religion,” in The Victim and its Masks: An Essay on Sacrifice and Masquerade in the Maghreb, trans.
Paula Wissing (Chicago, IL., University of Chicago Press, 1993): 15-17.
6 In Moroccan culture, jnun are spirits that one cannot see or hear in most cases, but which live
among people and, in certain cases, may come to contact with them.
of charcoal are thrown on the spot where the animal is going to be
slaughtered, as a protection against evil spirits . . . . (142-143)
As has been mentioned previously, blood in Islam is, in the case of sacrifice,
impure, and should not be used for any purpose whatsoever. Yet, this could not
obstruct non-Islamic beliefs from lingering in the new system of belief. In certain
regions, among rural tribes, women would rush upon the slaughtering to collect small
quantities of the victim’s blood, some of which would be sprinkled on the threshold,
another preserved for later use, while the continually gushing blood would be sprinkled
with salt to keep away evil (Hammoudi, 54). In the same vein, Cartwright-Jones
maintains that such a sacred blood of sacrifice is of great significance. Otherwise, the
blood in casual slaughter is discarded completely.7 Afterwards, the corpse may be hung
inside the house, as this act contains much Baraka,8 and keeps away malevolent spirits
(ibid, 11).
In this ceremony, thus, the animal comes to be a patient caught in a structure
underneath the surface of which there could be found a network of beliefs from
different origins. The acts to which the body of the animal is subjected, and the
practices that take place around and within the ceremony itself, are key elements that
provide paramount insight into the manner in which the practice has evolved in the
Moroccan context. Thus, understanding the historical background linked to the process
is crucial to understanding the evolution of El-Eid-Elkbir.
7 C. Cartwright-Jones, “Id al-Adha: The Ecological and Nutritional Impact of the Muslim Feast of
Sacrifice, and the Significance of Henna in this Sacrifice,” 11.
8 Baraka is a term from Moroccan and classical Arabic that stands for what could be considered
B. Pre-Islamic Morocco and the Birth of Moroccan Islam
The present-day system of belief in Morocco, which is dominated by Islam, is the
result of a complicated process of interaction and tensions, by which two
representational systems have been forced to coalesce.9 The inhabitants of pre-Islamic
Morocco, who were mostly pagan Berbers, were animists, and their religion was
polytheistic. This belief in animate as well as inanimate objects’ possession of a spirit is
what eventually developed to a belief in spirits as independent entities.10 For Moroccan
pre-Islamic Berbers, there were both benevolent as well as malevolent spirits, and due
to this belief, “people sought protection from the evil djinns with magical incantations,
petitions, offerings, animal sacrifices. . . .”11 In fact, this was not the only instance at
which animals were used as mediators between the tangible world and the
supernatural. As Raphael Njoku contends, malevolent spirits were also thought to be
capable of harm through sorcery:
One example of this belief is that the power of the djinns could be
used by an enemy to set others in discord with their families,
friends, or fellow workers. The ritual involves killing a black hen and
shaving its head with a razor. A charm containing names of djinns
is written on the head of the hen with its own blood. The head is
then thrown into the adversary’s house or workplace, and it is
9 By representational, what is denoted is that which shapes and gives meaning to the
representation of reality; e.g. religion.
10 Anas Farah, “Spirits in Morocco, the Evolution of the Belief in Spirits in Morocco as an Aspect of
Cultural Assimilation,”, p. 2.
11 Raphael Chijioke Njoku, “Religion and Worldview,” in Culture and Customs of Morocco (Westport,
London: Greenwood Press, 2005): 27.
believed that within three days the malevolent spirits invoked in the
ritual will set the targeted individuals or group against one another
(Njoku, 28).
Animals, hence, were thought to have contact with the supernatural world—not
necessarily with the Gods only, but also with spirits—and were thus subjected to
various acts. Such incorporations of animals were oft-violent instances, and
necessitated performing meticulous acts upon the body of the animal. During sacrifices
to the Gods, on the other hand, similar acts were performed on the body of the animal.
Thus, in sacrificing to the Gods of the sun and the moon, “[pagan Berbers] beg[a]n
with the ear of the victim, which they cut off and thr[e]w over their house: this done,
they kill[ed] the animal by twisting the neck. They sacrifice[d] to the Sun and Moon,
but not to any other god.”12 The Sun and the Moon were two major figures for the
Berbers, since they represented day and night; the day was filled with scorching heat in
Africa, but was also the time of work and prosperity, while night was the container of all
sorts of dangers. In such sacrifices, thus, the fears, sufferings, and conflicts caused by
day and night, as well as by everyday hardships, were symbolically mitigated through
the sacrifice, which functioned as a rite of passage. In other words, the ritual
represented a ceremony in which one’s internal sufferings and the subsequent violent
urges were put on and into the scapegoat that was ultimately destroyed, offering, thus,
a cathartic experience. Simultaneously, the scapegoat was an offering to the Gods of
day and night as an act of propitiation that was expected to bring about benefits.
12 Wikipedia, “Traditional Berber Religions,”
The way animals were regarded in pre-Islamic Morocco, together with the manner
in which they were involved in the sacrificial and superstitious practices known during
the period, make clear many aspects of pre-Islamic life. Being essentially an African
country, the system of belief in Morocco during the period was similar to that known to
exist in many African regions. The belief in spirits (jnun)13 that was widespread among
Moroccan people may have developed, according to Robertson Smith, out of Totems,
which evolved to more complex entities called spirits (qtd in Farah, 2). However, the
Muslim conquest of North Africa managed to destabilize most of the Maghreb, including
The Arab conquest of North Africa in general started in the seventh century, and
quickly developed to manifest its serious effects on Morocco.14 With the coming of
Arabs, Islam was imposed on the inhabitants of Morocco, and a revolt carried out by
Berbers ensued.15 Nonetheless, Islam was not forgone; it was rather shaped to fit the
socio-cultural and religious contexts of Morocco at the time. In fact, this very
interaction between Islam as a new religion in Morocco and the pre-Islamic beliefs was
the catalyst of what Morocco now experiences as Islam, and what can be referred to as
“Moroccan Islam.” The reason it is so called, as will be illustrated, is its being a local
version, consisting of an admixture of pre-Islamic Moroccan beliefs and originally
Islamic ones.
13 According to Chijioke Njoku, the similarity in name “Djinns or Jnun or Jinn” is probably due to
centuries of cross-cultural exchange between North African and the Middle East (Njoku, 27).
14 For detailed information on this point, see: Wikipedia, “Early Islamic Morocco (c. 700 – c. 1060),”
15 In 740 AD, the native Berbers revolted against the ruling Islamic group, which resulted in small,
independent Berber states who shaped a local version of Islam.
After certain early opposition in Morocco, Islam was accepted as a religion and
started being practiced by the locals. This acceptance of the monotheistic religion
poses questions concerning the reasons for which it had been accepted, as well as the
aspects of Islam that made of it a religion with which Berbers of Africa—Morocco in
particular—could identify.
A strong underlying motive for this acceptance was, predominantly, the similarity
between the two systems of belief as regards the spiritual side of both systems.
Despite the monotheistic nature of Islam, it contains many beliefs resembling in their
nature those of pre-Islamic Morocco. While spirits were for Berbers many,
individualized, and malicious; Islam did not deny their existence, and even elaborated,
by considering them to be many, among which there were both benevolent and
malevolent ones. Islam went on to the construction of narratives apropos of the origin
of these spirits (also called in Islam jinn), their nature, and other aspects. Islam started
by establishing the existence of a chief of evil spirits called Iblis,16 and by confirming
the ability of the malevolent spirits to cooperate with sorcerers. After having reinforced
the existence of what Moroccans of the period resented, Islam offered an
unprecedented solution for the malevolence of the spirits by creating a shift of power
from spirits to humans through giving the possibility of reducing the malevolence of
these spirits through citing verses from The Holy Book of Islam (The Quran) (Anas
Farah, Saint and Spirits in Morocco, p. 8). Islam, therefore, approached Moroccan
people from a fragile spot, which rendered the religion more—but not totally—
16 Njoku, Culture and Custom of Morocco, p.28.
identifiable, and reduced the Berbers’ perception of Islam as foreign. In this vein,
Moundir Al Amrani maintains a similar stance:
The coming of Islam was supposed to mark a break with the
practices it considers as non-Islamic and pagan; however, although
Islam forbids the practice of magic, it does not deny its existence,
which, in a way, explains the way Islam was adopted as a religion.
Islamic teachings forbid many practices and beliefs that it considers
unreligious and blasphemous, and this means that a big chasm
existed between Islam as it is and the social makeup of Morocco at
that time. Therefore, Islam put on its mystical garment to get to
the people of Morocco.17
This mystic garment with which Islam was enabled to permeate the belief system
of Morocco made possible, in turn, the assertion of Islam’s dominance within a
polytheistic belief system. Nevertheless, the success of Islam in wedging its way into
Moroccan society could not have obstructed the persistence of certain pre-Islamic
beliefs and practices; neither could it have preserved the Islamic practices and beliefs
introduced to Morocco from becoming seasoned with pre-Islamic ones, and this was
due to certain reasons. First, the point which must have escaped view was the fact
that people of Morocco, like all others, were not completely passive, and the interaction
with Islam had to lead to reconfigurations of practices, or to various understandings of
sacred texts. Second, many Berbers inhabited the difficult-to-reach parts of the
country, which are mountainous, deserted, and dangerous. This enabled Berbers to
17 Moundir Al Amrani, “Signification of Blood in Religion and Magic Rituals in Morocco,” p.52.
keep their usual lifestyle, as well as to engage in sacrificial ceremonies and other types
of practices as a mechanism of coping with their harsh surroundings, while most Arabs
at the period remained in the urban parts (Njoku, pp. 26). Thus, Islam could not
maintain its grasp over isolated areas as much as it could in urban Morocco. The
Islamic conquest of North Africa, hence, may have had as its aim the erosion of local
beliefs and the total assertion of Islam and its specificities; yet, such a task was nearly
impossible in a society that was in dire need of its own beliefs which had been
constructed to fit its geographical position and its living conditions, offering, thus, an
escape. In fact, for Elaine Hagopian, Islam was embraced in Morocco specifically due
to and in its mystical form, as its integration was not difficult and did not entail major
social changes that would have been far-fetched and resisted in the Moroccan context
(Al Amrani, 52). Thus, Islam in its mystical garment did not threaten the practices
which the Berbers regarded to be important, and was subsequently accepted.
The sacrificial practices were practices of survival, as they ensured communication
with the Gods, and were means of contact with the supernatural in general.
Furthermore, sacrifice was a spiritual tool whose function it was to assist the Berber in
tolerating the hardships of their day-to-day life. In Girard’s view, the animal in such
sacrifices was the scapegoat in whose killing the tension and inner conflicts were
released.18 With the coming of Islam, the sacrificial practices it offered were adopted
and configured to fit in, without immediate relinquishing of the pre-Islamic sacrifices of
18 Antonio Cerella, “Politics, Violence, and the Sacred: Exploring René Girard’s thought in Security
and International Studies,” conf. (UK: Univ. of Lancashire, 2013).
Morocco, leading, thus, to practices reflecting in their form the hybridity of the
Moroccan belief system.
C. Reading El-Eid-Elkbir in the light of Moroccan Islam
At this point in the analysis of the sacrifice feast as practiced in the Moroccan
context, it has become clear that it is not simply conducted differently according to
regional specificity, but also incorporates practices and sets of beliefs that have no
bearing on Islam, and originate in the pagan beliefs of pre-Islamic Morocco. El-Eid-
Elkbir, as it is referred to in Morocco, is a signifying practice which, once regarded in
the light of its locality—in this case, Morocco as a local context—ought to be considered
a problematic. The surface structure of the sacrifice (El-Eid-Elkbir) reflects
predominantly the idea that it is an Islamic commemoration of an event important in
the Muslim Calendar. Even when discussed in the context of Morocco, the sacrifice is
directly linked to its origin—Islam—with partial or complete neglect of the influence of
the context, whereas the context, in fact, is crucial. In speaking of the notion of
context, Hammoudi contends that:
“Context” . . . does not merely mean the addition of a sociological
code, when such a thing exists, to the interpretation of the
message of the rite or myth that is hidden and revealed in various
codes. On the contrary it reflects an attempt, on the one hand, to
discern in the ritual, religious, and mythological codes the echo of
the debates stirring the group and . . . record what this group says
about itself and its relationship with anything that is not part of it . .
. . 19
This context, in fact, is what renders former statements—mainly that the sacrifice
and its ramifications in the Moroccan context are simply a combination of Islam and
paganism—no longer sufficient. When considering the deep structure of such an
ancient practice that is extant in Morocco, many questions arise: Does the sacrifice
feast in Morocco reflect Moroccan Islam as being a homogeneous or a heterogeneous
combination of Islam and paganism? Did Islam and paganism assimilate, as one may
think, or did Islam intend to annihilate paganism and failed? Also, can one point out
where Islam ends and where paganism starts within this combination? All of these are
questions for which an attempt to provide answers is needed.
In the abovementioned examples of the sacrifice feast, there could be noticed
that most of the areas in which the feast is practiced with inclusion of pagan beliefs and
practices are rural. This cannot be a coincidence, and, in fact, can be explained in
terms of what has been considered previously as the inability of Islam to maintain its
control over rural regions of Morocco, enabling them to keep their normal lifestyle,
which involved pagan practices, and leading to what Edward Doutté considers to be
pagan survivals that brought about the necessity of compromise from the part of the
new religion (Hammoudi, The Victim and its Masks, 28). The point made clear in this
statement is the presence of resistance, for survival implies opposition and resistance
from the part of Moroccan paganism, as much as it implies will of replacement and,
thus, erosion from the part of Islam. This also implies the continuous presence of
19 Abdellah Hammoudi, “Theoretical Approaches,” in The Victim and Its Masks, p. 104.
power-relations within the totality of Moroccan Islam, as the latter vacillates between
success of paganism to linger in the practices of rural areas, and its partial failure in
urban ones. Moroccan Islam, thus, is a heterogeneous whole, for homogeneity entails
willingness to be absorbed and dearth of fierce resistance, which is hardly the case at
This, however, is far from considering it possible for a clear line to be drawn,
marking the point at which Islam ends and paganism commences, since they are in
continuous tension and dynamism. Heterogeneity in this case is, hence, reflective of
the mentality of Moroccans at the time, as their acceptance of the new religion could
not reduce their reluctance to relinquish the practices and beliefs they utilized as
mechanisms to cope with their harsh surroundings. This ambivalence is what led to
begetting what Robert Park names a popular religion, a religion which attempts to
merge the two despite the possible ambivalence and uncertainty of the Berbers.20
Thus, the Moroccan sacrifice feast has been, since its introduction to Morocco, a
site of cultural and religious tension. The reconfiguration of Islam and the injection of
pagan beliefs that were widespread in Morocco may strike one at first to be a sign of
cultural assimilation—which, had it been the case, would have omitted the possibility of
resistance. The spiritual, supernatural side of Islam enabled it to conquer the existent
system of belief, and to render itself the new religion of Moroccans. However, it had to
accept reconfiguration and involvement in a continuous battle over dominance. The
body of the animal in El-Eid-Elkbir, with the sets of acts it undergoes and the variations
20 Robert E. Park, “Ritual and Belief in Morocco by Edward Westermarck,” rev. American Journal of
Sociology 32.5 (1927): 833.
in the nature of these acts, are sufficient to connote the existence of more than one
system of belief under the surface structure of the practice—a structure which, if not
dissected, may be unclear. In Moroccan, pre-Islamic sacrifices as much as in El-Eid-
Elkbir, the projection of violence onto an outsider—a scapegoat—embodies, for Muslim
Arabs as for Moroccan Berbers, a catharsis, a manner of ridding oneself of internal
conflict and violent urges that are inevitable. However, with the interaction of the two
systems, neither Islam nor Moroccan paganism was ready to be completely absorbed,
resulting in Moroccan Islam, which consists of two systems of belief that have been
forced together, and whose continuous interaction results in everlasting tension.
Chapter III – Animal Sacrifice in Healing Ceremonies: Gnawa as a
Case Study
A. Gnawa and Islam in Morocco
Discussing the various instances of animal sacrifice in Morocco entails a discussion
of the healing ceremonies prevalent therein. This is due, principally, to the fact that
such ceremonies involve complex assortments of beliefs and underlying circumstances
that have made possible the persistence of these practices. During the Gnawa
ceremony, the animal is slaughtered at a moment that corresponds to the summoning
of the spirits and the beginning of the trance (Lħadra). Prior to sacrifice, the animal
undergoes purificatory acts that prepare it for its eventual slaughtering. In the Gnawa
ritual, the body of the animal resides in the nucleus of a practice whose origin is not
Islamic, but rather pagan, and which has undergone a reversed blending, in relation to
the sacrifice feast, between the sacred and the profane.1
Having been brought to Morocco as slaves, the Gnawa have been in Morocco for
centuries, and their presence dates back to the pre-Islamic era.2 The word Gnawa
dates back to the eleventh century, henceforth which period it has come to denote
“black” and “black people.”3 Despite the colossal distance which separates North and
West Africa, Moroccan culture is appreciably rich as regards Central and West African
culture and heritage. The reason for this is the centuries of trans-Saharan trade, which
1 In this sense, it is the Islamic discourse, not the pagan one, which penetrated the practice. This is
due to the fact that the practice of Gnawa ceremony is originally pagan, as opposed to the sacrifice feast
which is originally Islamic.
2 Anas Farah, “Saints and Spirits in Morocco,” p. 6.
3 Chouki El Hamel, “The Gnawa and the Memory of Slavery,” in Black Morocco: A History of Slavery,
Race, and Islam (NY: Cambridge University Press, 2013): 274.
enabled cross-cultural exchange. In central and west Africa, the slave trade was
amongst the most important trade routes, as war captives and many others were
transported to many parts of the world, enabling the persistence of slavery which had
been prevalent during the pre-Islamic era, and was still at work with the coming of
Islam and afterwards4. From this, Morocco was not cast out, as many parts of the
country were known for transporting as well as receiving large numbers of slaves. In
this respect, Maisie Sum maintains that:
Though not all Gnawa have sub-Saharan roots or a history in
slavery . . . . their concentrated distribution along (and near) the
trade routes of caravans coming from the sub-Sahara by land or
sea at the end of the sixteenth century (e.g., Essaouira, Marrakech
. . .), not to mention in the imperial cities where a black slave army
guarded the sultan from as early as the eleventh century (e.g.,
Marrakech, Fez, Meknes, and Rabat), suggests a significant
percentage did at some time in history.5
As a minority group that had been stigmatized through the years of slavery by
both Arabs and Berbers, Gnawa have been marginalized and discriminated against.
However, this could not prevent their spiritual music from permeating Moroccan culture
and society.
4 Wikipedia, “Atlantic Slave Trade,”
5 Maisie Sum, Music of the Gnawa of Morocco: Evolving Spaces and Times, diss. (University of
British Columbia, 2012): 10.
Figure 1: A Slave Market. Marrakesh, Morocco (1903).6
However, in their marginalization, the Gnawa community of Morocco has managed
to secure an unshakable position in Moroccan society. Due to their long presence, the
African slaves managed to establish their own subculture within Morocco, which,
however Islamic it may have been, was still inclusive of various pagan practices and
beliefs. In this sense, the emancipated Gnawa “. . . w[ere] free to Africanize the
religion” (El Hamel, “Gnawa and the Memory of Slavery,” 294). What may have been
an underlying incentive for this Africanization of Islam is, according to Anas Farah, a
gradual integration of Islamic specificities—Allah, the prophet, saints, and other Islamic
icons—into their songs and rituals, which may have been a result of interaction with
Sufis, who also praise Allah and the prophet in their spiritual ceremonies (Anas Farah,
“Saints and Spirits in Morocco,” p. 5). In fact, according to Deborah Kapchan, “[t]he
predominant influence of Sufism and saint worship that characterizes Moroccan Islam
6 Alamy Stock Photo. Slave Market, Marrakesh, Morocco.
has become part of Gnawa ritual.”7 Nevertheless, however effective the integration of
Islam and the contact with Sufism may have been on the development of Gnawa’s
rituals in Morocco, it remains insufficient as explanation for their position in Moroccan
culture, insofar as Gnawa’s integration of Islam could not bring Islam’s hostility towards
it to a halt.
The crucial factor which may be the reason for the acceptance of the group
despite their marginalization, therefore, is their songs’ reflection of a reality with which
Moroccans as much as Africans from the centre and the West are familiar, and their
provision, hitherto, of a form of escapism of which people are in dire need. As has
been discussed previously, Morocco, characterized in various regions by its harsh
weather and its dangerous geography, made it necessary for the inhabitants of these
areas to construct rituals and ceremonies which would provide the much-aspired-for
emotional assistance necessary for survival. In addition to this cruelty of nature, the
social conditions of Moroccan society, which have been a struggle in desolate villages as
much as in the urban regions for the lower classes, beget the aspiration for spiritual
and emotional escapism.8 Gnawa’s music, which, in many ways, reflects black people’s
own suffering throughout history, has therefore bestowed upon Moroccans, according
to Vincent Crapanzano, a form of transcendence and visceral escapism from the
hardships of their day-to-day life.9 The trance, regarded thus, “. . . functions to heal
7 Deborah Kapchan, Traveling Spirit Masters (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2007): 26.
8 Not long after the Muslim Conquest of the Maghreb, Moroccan society was destabilized in many
an aspect. Later, with the shift into industrialization, the shift itself created and helped in magnifying the
existent social disparities. Slavery was still practiced in Morocco by the early years of the 20th century.
9 Vincent Crapanzano, Tuhami, Portrait of a Moroccan (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1985): 35.
social illnesses and disparities and serves a dual purpose of therapy and protest . . . .
[T]he trance remains a ritual of remembrance and a narrative of suffering, healing, and
coping,” (El Hamel, “Gnawa and the Memory of Slavery,” p. 284). Through trance,
sacrifices, and indulgence in spirituality, the Gnawa enable the Moroccan, as Nietzsche
observes on music and dancing, to express themselves “as a member of a higher
community: he [she] has forgotten how to walk and talk, and is about to fly into the
heavens.” 10 The recourse to Gnawa music, their animal sacrifices, and their trance
music, gives way to the world of jnun (Crapanzano, 35), and proffers a therapeutic
experience, after which one’s situation can be mitigated. Thus, investigating the
position of animal sacrifice within the ceremony of Gnawa is of considerable
significance, as it is at the heart of the practice, and is one component with which
Gnawa’s Lila (night) cannot dispense.
B. Animal Sacrifice in the Gnawa Ceremony (Lila): Welcoming Spirits
When the music stops, the possessed woman once again falls, this time
backward into the arms of the mqaddema who begins to speak with the
possessing jinn . . . . “Do you want a sacrifice?” The girl’s head nods a
barely perceptible “yes.” “Who are you?” the mqaddema continues, “Who
are you? Are you Aisha [Qandisha]?” Another affirmative nod from a head
with glazed eyes, vision unfixed . . . . (Kapchan, 72).
Contact with the world of the supernatural and a meticulous distribution of roles
are amongst the most prominent traits of Gnawa’s Lila. The word Lila exists both in
10 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music, trans. Shaun Whiteside, ed.
Michael Tanner (London: The Penguin Group, 2003): 18.
Moroccan and classical Arabic, and means, literally, “night,” whereas in Gnawa’s
terminology, the word denotes the whole ceremony. In the Lila, there are two major
figures: The mɂallem, who is the master of the ceremony and the one playing the main
musical instrument, the hajhuj (lhajhʊj); and the mqaddema, who is considered the
overseer of the ceremony. The ceremony is also divided into various parts, with the
first part functioning as an overture to the subsequent parts, of which ftʊħ rraħba is the
most important séance, since it marks the start of invoking the spirits (El Hamel,
“Gnawa and the Memory of Slavery,” p. 284). The significance of Lila resides in its
capacity to invoke and appease the spirit or spirits that inhabit a person. In this vein,
Gnawa recognize a wide range of spirits, who are called lmluk (lmlʊk), both male and
female, and are “the powerful and dangerous entities of the sub-Sahara” (Sum, 15).11
The male spirits are referred to using Sidi—with the exception of Basha Hammu, who is
referred to both as Sidi and as Basha. The females, on the other hand, are referred to
as Lalla, and include Lalla Aisha (Qandisha), Lalla Mira, Lalla Malika and Lalla Mimuna.12
Each of these spirits has its own color, and these colors are used in the Lila as a way of
showing veneration and respect, as well as to invoke a spirit.
Figure 2: Colors and leaders of Lmluk and Saliħin. (Sum, 46).
11 Maisie Sum differentiates between “Lmluk” and “Salihin”, with the latter signifying the Islamic
and Berber saints which are not malevolent. See: Maisie Sum, Music of the Gnawa of Morocco.
12 C. J. Witulski, Defining and Revising the Gnawa and their Music through Commodification in
Local, National, and Global Contexts, diss. (University of Florida, 2009): 51.
Once a person senses the presence of more selves than one within them, which
may happen through visions, dreams, or an inner voice—or voices—addressing the
individual, the person has to seek a mqaddema, since the latter has the ability to tell
which spirit inhabits the patient. Whoever the spirits may be, the Lila generally ensues,
inasmuch as most spirits demand the ceremony, which must include a sacrifice done in
the proper way; a sacrifice of a sheep, a black he-goat, or even a bull in certain remote
cases, and a black rooster, accompanied by incense, and trance.
Being a major part of spirit-summoning, animal sacrifice takes place at a specific
moment during the Lila and encompasses a number of different acts which, if not done
properly, would annul the sacrifice. The animal which is to be sacrificed has to undergo
specific rituals. It is purified first through having some of its parts washed in a manner
that resembles Islamic ablution, through being sprinkled with certain substances, and
by fumigated with incense.13 It must be noted that failure to purify the sacrifice
renders it unacceptable completely or partially by the spirits. Al Amrani argues that
“[p]rior to its slaughter, the animal is given milk to drink and is sprinkled with flower
distill before the leader of the sect [not the mɂallem, but a Gnawi slaughterer] cuts its
Although giving milk to the sacrifice is not common in Gnawa’s ritual, ablution,
incense, and sprinkling with flower are almost always existent in the sacrifice. Once the
animal is slaughtered, some blood is preserved; the mqaddema is marked with this
13 Unknown, Ftouh Rahba Maalem Paco, (2010):
14 Al Amrani, “Signification of Blood in Religion and Magic Rituals in Morocco,” p. 55.
blood as well as the hajhuj and the other instruments in act that is taken to be one of
consecration, insofar as the first drops of the victim’s blood are sacred.
Animal sacrifice is of huge significance within Gnawa’s ceremony, and this is
manifest in three aspects. First, the very act of sacrifice is what marks the transition
from the light part of the ceremony, which is merely introductory, to its major part, in
which Lmluk are summoned and trance commences; one may even argue that “[t]he
whole ritual culminates in the slaughtering of the sacrifice” (ibid, 55). Second, the
necessity of, and obsession with, animal sacrifice can be read in a number of Gnawa’s
spiritual songs, and a paramount illustration is the song of Basha Hammu, wherein the
sacrifice, the sacrificer, the possessed, the spirits, and the tool of sacrifice are
mentioned. This can be observed in the following extract:
ha: lɂar a mʊl lgʷrna We beg you, O slaughterhouse master.
ha: lɂar a baʃa ħmmʊ We beg you, O Basha Hammu.
wa debħʊli nʃʊfʊ dəmmʊ Do slit its throat for me, so that we see its blood.
arawli dak lxnƷr Do hand me that dagger.
arawli dak ƷƷnwi Do hand me that knife.
walmalkni lbaʃa lħmr O my possessor, the red Pasha.
ja ʃrif mʊl lxnƷr O saint, owner of the dagger.15
For Gnawa and other healing groups, many spirits are thought to be highly fond of
slaughter in general, and of the sacrifices that are for them in particular. Sidi Hammu,
the spirit addressed in the aforementioned verses, is regarded as a dangerous and
15 Both the transliteration and the translation are mine. From: The transcription is based on the pronunciation heard in the
video. The chorus has been used only after the first verse and has been omitted in the remainder.
violent spirit (jinn). This is due to his being the master of slaughterhouses. In other
words, a spirit that is “particularly fond of blood . . . and is said to have a particularly
intimate relationship with butchers.”16 It is for these characteristics that whoever is
inhabited (mskʊn) by Basha Hammu ought to sacrifice an animal and participate in
Figure 3: A mqaddema leading the initiatory ecstatic dance (jedba), (1997)17
16 Vincent Crapanzano, “The Theory of Therapy,” in The Hamadsha: A Study in Moroccan
Ethnopsychiatry (California: University of California Press, 1973): 146.
17 Photograph by Ariane Smolderen, “Gnawa Ceremony, Marrakech, Morocco, 1997” ANDROPHILIA
The spirits’ acute passion about sacrifice brings forth the third and most important
aspect because of which animal sacrifice is crucial to Lila, and due to which it is a
healing ceremony. By marking the transition from the light part of the ceremony to its
central part, animal sacrifice also marks the transition from the real to the symbolic.
What is denoted by the real in this context is the entirety of the tangible phenomena
and entities. In this sense, the persons, the acts they carry out, and the spatial setting
are the real; in contrast to the symbolic, which is the object of the ceremony, and is
that which sacrifice mediates, which is the summoning of the Saliħin, and the
awakening of Lmluk within those inhabited. In this sense, sacrifice is clearly a medium.
However, the nature of this mediation is rather complex. On the level of the ceremony,
sacrifice is a medium in a system that makes use of more than one medium between
the real and the symbolic. The passage of the animal from life to death, and from the
lucid to the transcendental, functions as medium in that it expresses the passage of the
ceremony from the material world, as El Hamel argues, to that of Gnawa’s ancestors,
who, in return, invoke the supreme God (El Hamel, “Gnawa and the Memory of
Slavery,” 278), reaching, thus, the apotheosis of the ceremony. On the other hand, the
very act of sacrifice is the marker of the transition from what Kapchan calls “the self
that is inhabited” to the “inhabited or possessed self.” In being inhabited, there is a
sense of dual personality. Since the spirit that inhabits a person is given a name by the
mqaddema, there is begotten “a verbal economy where subjectivities are redefined[,]”
(Kapchan, Traveling Spirit Masters, 74). In other words, by naming one’s possessing
spirit to be one of Lmluk, there is born a dichotomy between the Self and the Other,
with the self being the primary Self that existed before possession and naming, and the
Other being the new one that has been summoned, and who is engendered through
and in the Lila ceremony of Gnawa. This Other, hence, is an admixture of the Self and
the spirit, and is awakened merely through sacrifice and trance. It is the inhabited self.
Therefore, in this sense also, sacrifice is a medium between the Self and the Other,
since the very act of sacrifice triggers the Other within the Self—the spirit—due to
spirits’ attraction to fluids which flow into and out of the body—in this case, blood
flowing out of the very body of the animal.18 Thus, the function of sacrifice in the
ceremony between the real and the symbolic, and within the person between the Self
and the Other within the Self, can be represented as follows:
Figure 4: Sacrifice as first-stage medium in the ceremony.19
Figure 5: Sacrifice as medium between the primary and the inhabited selves.
As has been explained, the Gnawa ceremony relies on animal sacrifice and derives
its primary power from it. The spirits, both benevolent and malevolent, demand and
are gratified through a sacrifice that is done properly. This renders animal sacrifice
crucial to the practice, and central to creating the spiritual atmosphere of the ceremony.
18 Kapchan, Traveling Spirit Masters, p. 91.
19 The charts are mine. The second-stage medium is that in which the ancestors are medium
between the Gnawa and Allah.
Real Sacrifice Symbolic
Primary Self Sacrifice Inhabited Self
Hence, it is important to explore other Moroccan healing groups, whose ceremonies,
similar to the Gnawa’s, have animal sacrifice as a crucial aspect.
C. Sacrificial Practices in Other Healing Rituals
Notwithstanding Gnawa’s being a group with deep roots in Moroccan culture and
beyond, there exist other similar groups whose practices involve conducting healing
ceremonies wherein trances and sacrifices take place. As such, the ceremony which a
possessed person conducts can be one of Gnawa, Hamadsha, or Aissawa. This trinity
encompasses the widely known groups whose specialty incorporates trance and
mastery of spirits.
The first group, the Hamadsha, is a brotherhood that has taken as its specialty
the task of healing those who are demon-struck. The origins of the group can be
traced back to the brotherhood’s founding saints Sidi Ali Ben Ħamduch, and Sidi Aħmed
Dghughi whom the Hamadsha highly venerate, and from whose shrine they derive their
Baraka.20 As a whole, the brotherhood is referred to as a foqra, while each of the
divisions which exist within the brotherhood is called taïfa (Crapanzano, The Hamadsha,
5). In studying the Hamadsha, one ought to notice certain parallels with Gnawa. The
Hamadsha also recognize Lmluk seen in Gnawa’s demonology, which creates an
intersection, since one that is possessed by a spirit may require various forms of
sacrifices, and a ceremony performed by Gnawa, Hamadsha, or another brotherhood.
20 “Les hamadcha de Fès contes, musique et rituels soufi,” http://www.hamadchafez.
com/dossier.pdf, p. 2.
Figure 6: The Hamadsha with a bull for the ceremony (Fes, 1968).21
In the ceremonies of the Hamadsha, animal sacrifice is crucial. Inasmuch as they
attempt to heal the possessed or alleviate possession through appeasing the spirit,
animal sacrifice and its function for the Hamadsha diverge from and converge with the
other brotherhoods. The Hamadsha organize a yearly festival (mʊsəm) wherein,
through trance and visits of the saints, the possessed—and the sick in general—seek a
cure. In this contact with the intangible world, sacrifice must take place, insofar as it
assists in gratifying both the saints and Lmluk. The Hamadsha are known for violent
manifestations during the trance (Lħadra), which includes head-slashing and laceration
of various parts of the body. Sacrifice, in fact, generally takes place during these
violent manifestations, or shortly prior to them, and is generally demanded by a spirit in
order for cure to ensue. Crapanzano, in this respect, gives the example of Aisha
21 Unknown. “Enregistrement très rare des Hamadcha de Fès.” http://musique.arabe.overblog.
People claim that whenever and wherever the Ḥamadsha perform
their lḥadra, ‘Aïsha Qandisha is under them in the earth. She is
particularly fond of blood, and often requires her followers to make
sacrifices (dabiḥas) to her. Black and red chickens are her most
common demands. She also makes certain that her followers slash
their heads when they hear her special riḥ . . . . (Crapanzano, The
Hamadsha, 145).
When the spirits are invoked during the rituals of the Hamadsha, it is of
importance to yield to all of what the spirits demand. Most spirits are fond of blood,
and, thus, most spirits demand a sacrifice, which ought to be fulfilled, since in failing to
meet the needs of the spirits, repercussions may ensue. When one is demanded to
sacrifice during the Hamadsha’s trances and fails to sacrifice properly or to sacrifice at
all, extreme rage from the part of the spirits may ensue. Any attempt to postpone the
sacrifice, or any similar act, may lead to illness, other similar repercussions (ibid, 157),
or even a catastrophe.
The role of animal sacrifice in the rituals of the Hamadsha is, thus, at once unique
and standard. Whereas in the rituals of Gnawa it is the animal that is in the centre of
the independent Lila, the ceremony of the Hamadsha, though it does not render the
animal peripheral, is itself merely part of a whole festival. This festival is held in honor
of the Hamadsha’s founding saint, and in its course the sacrifices that take place may
be a medium between the visitors and the spirits, or the visitors and the saint. The
concept of the festival, however, is not reserved only to the Hamadsha, as the Aissawa
also have a festival.
The Aissawa is another group whose trances include in certain cases violent
manifestations and outlandish forms of animal sacrifice and animal killing. The origins
of this brotherhood can be traced back to sixteenth-century Meknes, in which period
the Aissawa brotherhood was founded by the patron-saint (wali) of Meknes Al-Hadi ben
Aissa, or the Perfect Saint (Sheikh al-Kamil).22
Similar to the Hamadsha and to Gnawa, Aissawa specialize in healing ceremonies,
and whoever is possessed may come to organize their own ceremony. The Aissawa
organize an annual festival in favor of their founding saint as well as nights outside of
the festival. Lmluk are recognized by Aissawa as much as they are by the Hamadsha;
yet, they still “give the Gnawa, the possession genre par excellence, credit for naming
the jinn.”23
The violent trances of Aissawa may incorporate violent uses of animals. An
example can be found in V. Crapanzano’s Tuhami, in which he relates that a woman
“joined the ‘Isawa brotherhood and fell into their most violent trance.” Crapanzano
recounts that the woman will throw herself on live sheep and goats, tear them apart
with her hands and teeth, and gorge the raw flesh (p. 36). Such acts, at first, seem
incomprehensible, since their cause is unclear. However, such an outlandish practice
contains in its core a legend that has helped it survive:
22 Wikipedia, “Aissawa,”
23 Kamal Feriali, Music-Induced Spirit Possession Trance in Morocco: Implications for Anthropology
and Allied Disciplines, diss. (University of Florida, 2009): 66.
Not too far from where the Sultan’s remains are jealously guarded,
stands the less imposing, but much more heavily frequented, shrine
of Al-Sheikh Al-Kamel whose disciples, legend holds, were so
distraught at his death that they went into a violent trance during
which they lacerated their bodies and devoured a live lamb and a
goat (Feriali, 51).
The practice of tearing a live animal in a hysterical trance, thereby, is the
reenactment of a legend, and is part of a ceremony in which the Aissawa mourn the
death of their founding Saint and Master. Such a practice is accompanied by fervent
trance and spiritual songs.24 In addition, a sacrifice that is dedicated to a spirit takes
place during special nights that are demanded by the spirit itself.
However, the three groups that have been observed have in common the
virtuosity of trance and music, and contact with spirits. At the heart of their
meticulously structured ceremonies, animal sacrifice plays a crucial role which renders it
a pillar in the practice. Gnawa cannot dispense with sacrifice, for it embodies the very
point at which passage from world to world, and from stage to stage, occurs. It is the
very passage of the animal from life to death, from the tangible to the intangible, and
the very death throes the animal experiences amidst the violence of its death, that
symbolize the transition from the real to the symbolic, which awakens the violent spirits
that inhabit the possessed. Whereas Gnawa have no specific shrine that is linked to a
founding saint, the Hamadsha and the Aissawa have saints for whose honor they
24 Footage of this ceremony, including graphic tearing apart of the animal, is available. See:
organize an annual festival during which various sacrifices for different purposes take
place. Still, within this trinity, animal sacrifice is a central component without which the
ceremony is deemed incomplete.
Chapter IV – Saints and Sacrifice in Morocco
A. The Saint in Moroccan Culture
The saint is a figure of notability in Moroccan culture, which is clearly seen in the
number of saints’ sanctuaries and shrines that exist in various parts of the country, as
well as in the number of visitors they receive. In order for the reasons that underlie
this notability to be unveiled, the way in which the saint is viewed in Moroccan culture
should be put under scrutiny.1
By definition, a saint is almost always linked to spirituality and the intangible
world, since during their lifetime, “saints are known for their sincere commitment and
devotion to their religion and good deeds.” Sometimes, a saint may have also been
known for his wisdom and wide knowledge.2 Such a holy person is referred to as
siyyed—meaning master—or Saliħ—meaning virtuous—among other names, and has a
shrine where people may come and visit him for Baraka. For Moroccans, the saint as a
figure possesses more than one quality. In certain cases, the saint is said to be a
descendant of the prophet (sherif ) and is thus worthy of being venerated for this very
reason,3 while in others, a saint is regarded as a person who, during his lifetime, was
highly religious and virtuous, and is thus considered to be close to the world of the
divine. In this latter sense, the saint’s Baraka emanates from his being Allah’s close
1 The famous saints in Morocco are male saints, thus the use of the pronouns “he” and “him” when
referring to a saint and his shrine. However, there are arguments on the existence of female saints who
are not as famous, but who do exist nonetheless. For insight into such arguments, see: A. Ouguir,
Female Religious Agents in Morocco: Old Practices and New Perspectives, diss. (Amsterdam School for
Cultural Analysis, 2013).
2 Moundir Al Amrani, “Signification of Blood in Religion and Magic Rituals in Morocco,” p.54.
3 Edward Westermarck, “The Moorish Conception of Holiness (Baraka),” review, African Affairs
29.61 (1916): 84.
friend, or, to state it more clearly, “Allah’s Protégé.”4 Furthermore, the creation of the
saint in this sense entails a separation—at the very moment of the transition from
normality to sainthood—“from this world[,] and the production of signs of such divine
proximity [such as healing a sick person] . . . .”5 When a saint is regarded thus, he
comes to be venerated for possessing Baraka that is derived from his being close to
Allah, which renders him a provider of a path to an entity considered to be the ultimate
master of Baraka: Allah. Thereby, in this formula, the saint is, indeed, venerated, but is
never an independent object of devotion, since Allah maintains that position.
In other cases, Allah may be, to an extent, cast out from the formula, rendering
the saint an object of veneration and the master of both good and evil. Among
numerous sects, groups, and orders, such as the Aissawa, and even among typical
devotees, the saint comes to represent “an object of devotion in his own right and the
source of power for their miraculous feats.”6 Therefore, the saint comes to be the
master of Baraka, and is even said to have mastery over malevolent spirits,7 which
bestows upon him much power, inasmuch as he can opt for helping his subjects. In
having Baraka, the divine aspect which consecrates the saint becomes peripheral, since
he comes to reproduce his own Baraka. Thus, the saint’s power comes, as E. Doutté
argues, to endow the saint’s shrine and descendants with curative powers—curative in
the word’s general sense.8 Hence, in order for the saint’s blessing to be obtained, the
4 Malika Zeghal, “On the Politics of Sainthood: Resistance and Mimicry in Postcolonial Morocco,”
Critical Inquiry 35.3 (2009): 589.
5 Ibid, 589.
6 V. Crapanzano, The Hamadsha: A Study in Moroccan Ethnopsychiatry (1973): 2.
7 V. Crapanzano, Tuhami, Portrait of a Moroccan (1985): 69.
8 Qtd in: Keller, Richard C., “Spaces of Experimentation, Sites of Contestation,” in Colonial
Madness: Psychiatry in French North Africa (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007): 112.
devotees often tend to offer a sacrifice whose aim and function differ depending on
what one wishes to obtain.
B. Seeking Saints through Sacrifice
The occasions on which one may opt for offering a sacrifice to a saint are
numerous, and vary depending on the situation. Most often, a sacrifice connotes the
existence of an underlying motive, and is rarely offered as a generous gift, and when
the case is so, the devotees may have offered it while considering the benefits they
may obtain in the long run.
As has been discussed, the saint’s power and Baraka, in certain cases, encompass
his shrine and descendants. In other cases, this power and Baraka may encompass
other objects, lands, and the like, which are located in the vicinity of the saint. Thus, in
desiring to obtain a benefit, one may sacrifice to and at any of these objects that are
considered to possess the saint’s Baraka. Evidence for such a claim is noted by E.
Westermarck in Ritual and Belief in Morocco, in which he says:
In the sea there are forty saints, or the sea itself is a saint . . . .
Offerings and sacrifices are made to the sea. The young wife in
Andjra [a tribe in the east of tangier] who takes a bath in the sea to
prevent barrenness throws a loaf into it as an offering. At the
mouth of the river Tensift, in the Shiáḍma, I was told by the
fishermen whom I found on the shore that before they commence
the fishing . . . they sacrifice there [on the shore] one black goat,
and two others at two shrines close by.9
The sea in this case is possessive of many saints’ blessing, and is thus offered
sacrifices in the name of the saints who own it. Like the Greek God Poseidon, the sea
resembles a divinity; in order for one’s desire to be fulfilled, one has to sacrifice to the
sea, or at the shrine of the saint or saints who have control over it. However, this
process of sacrifice for fulfillment has other facets, insofar as sacrifice does not
necessarily take place at the moment when one desires to obtain a benefit.
As one can sacrifice instantly to a saint and await the saint’s Baraka, one can also
promise a sacrifice after one’s desire has been fulfilled. Such a type of sacrifice is
widespread, and in making such an oath, it appears, the saint is more encouraged to
satisfy the subject’s desire, since the satisfaction of the desire, as well as the ensuing of
the sacrifice, function in this case as provisos, without whose existence the pact is
annulled. However, opting for such a form of sacrifice has its own repercussions.
As much as the saint can protect, cure, and fulfill wishes, he can also cease to
protect, and may become the cause of illness and misery, if one does not fulfill one’s
promise once what the person has come for has been realized by the saint. Saints, like
spirits, can be extremely malevolent once offended, which may be done by not
sacrificing when one promised to sacrifice, and by swearing in the saint’s name in bad
faith. In such cases, the malevolence of the saint becomes apparent, as “[h]e could
9 E. Westermarck, “The Baraka, its prevalence,” in Ritual and Belief in Morocco, 1926 (Oxon,
England: Routeldge, 2014): 90.
unleash terrible super-terrestrial calamities . . . .”10 One of these calamities can be
illness, and in this vein, an example may be given of a woman whose failure to offer the
sacrifice she had promised resulted in the illness of her infant.11 The reason for this is
that those who fail to fulfill their oath “. . . become vulnerable to the demons, for the
saint will remove his protection if indeed he does not incite the jnun to attack.”12 The
saint’s seriousness, therefore, is unarguable, which serves to reinforce his position and
power over his devotees.
The majority of the widely known and venerated saints in Morocco have a special,
individual festival held for them, in the course of which various sacrifices are offered to
the saint as a symbol of devotion, in order to obtain benefits, or to repay debts. In
certain cases, a spirit’s grotto may be located near a saint’s shrine, which is the case
with Sidi Ali, next to whose shrine, under a fig tree, is located the Grotto of Aisha
Qandisha (Crapanzano, Tuhami, 68). Thus, in this case, a person who is possessed by
Aisha Qandisha may come to sacrifice an animal to the saint, hoping, in so-doing, that
the saint will appease the spirit and protect them from its malevolence.
During a saint’s festival, devotees sacrifice more frequently at the saint’s shrine or
nearby, as during such a period the saint is more welcoming and is more likely to
accept the sacrifice, conferring upon the sacrificer his protection. In the festival of
Dukkala, for instance, “[t]hose who take there an animal or a fowl kill it close to the
back wall of the shrine, so that the blood touches the wall” (Westermarck, Ritual and
10 David M. Hart, “Trial by Collective Oath,” in Tribe and Society in Rural Morocco (London:
Routledge, 2000): 67.
11 Qtd in Richard Keller, Colonial Madness: Psychiatry in French North Africa (2007): 113.
12 V. Crapanzano, Tuhami, Portrait of a Moroccan (1985): 17.
Belief in Morocco, 177). In order for the slaughter to be named a sacrifice, the animal
has to be slaughtered in an area purified by the saint’s Baraka. In the process of
sacrifice, the blood that touches the wall of the shrine—which is affected by the saint’s
Baraka—comes to consecrate the very entity out of which it flows, rendering it, thus,
highly valuable. In this sense, the saint’s shrine resembles in its function the altar of
pagan rituals. While in many cases the altar was regarded as the table of the Gods, the
shrine is regarded as the saint’s house, where he is considered to be conscious and
capable of performing miraculous acts.
Figure 7: Animal Sacrifice during Sidi Ali festival, (2014).13
The relationship between the saint and the Moroccan visitor is, thus, mediated
mainly through gifts, of which sacrifices are the opulent ones. The Moroccan saint is an
edifice in the Moroccan belief system, and the occasions on which Moroccans sacrifice
13 Photograph by Fadel Senna, source: “Au Maroc, un festival hors du commun où islam et
sorcellerie se côtoient” (2014),
to him are innumerable. As in healing ceremonies, the animal has to undergo specific
rituals, among which being sacrificed in specific locations is significant. Such an
intricate sacrificial system entails the accumulation of well-constructed beliefs which
have enabled the position of the saint to transform from a relatively powerless medium
between the individual and the God, to an intermediary that comes on many occasions
to be the object of veneration. In being, on occasion, the center of worship, the saint
is attained through sacrifices in a Muslim society that is expected to consider sacrifices
to entities other than Allah unacceptable. Thereby, the animal sacrificed comes to be
caught between two powerful figures in the Moroccan context: The Saint and Allah.
C. Sacrifice to the Powerful: Moroccan Islam Revisited
In sacrificing to an entity, the entity is proffered a position of superiority, since
through the sacrifice there is an enforcement of positions whereby the sacrificer is
necessarily less powerful and inferior to the entity that receives the sacrifice and which
becomes superior through its being the object of reverence. In the context at hand,
the various saints’ position of superiority is reinforced through the multiplicity of
occasions on which sacrifices are offered to them. In being an intermediary between
Allah and the subject, the saint is offered sacrifices without affecting the position of the
ultimate supreme God, since the sacrifices function merely as a material reward for
mediation. However, many cases of sacrifice to saints make clear that the intended
entity from which benefits are expected to be obtained is the saint per se, which
relegates Allah to a peripheral position, and names the saint, be it only for a limited
period, the powerful entity and the master of Baraka. In order for this to be further
demystified, the phenomenon needs to be studied in the light of Moroccan Islam, since
the answer to this shift in sway and focus lies there.
The primary reason for which the saint obtains, on occasion, a position of power
in Moroccan religious life is his familiarity, and his control over what Moroccans are
familiar with and frightened of. Pre-Islamic Morocco, as has been made clear
previously, was characterized by Animism, which came to be crucial to the relationship
between the saint and the Moroccan. E. Westermarck gives the example of a man
who, upon starting a trip by sea through the gales, promises to sacrifice to the sea once
returning intact (Westermarck, Ritual and Belief in Morocco, 91). In pre-Islamic
Morocco, due to Animism, most objects, entities, and lands have spirits which control
and inhabit them. The sea, specifically, is said to have been worshipped by pre-Islamic
Berbers, and “itself is a saint.”14 The last statement can be explained in terms of saints’
Baraka encompassing various objects, which leads to the saints’ being substituted with
“sacred springs, trees, and mountains.” (ibid, 91). On the other hand, such a
phenomenon can be observed elsewhere, inasmuch as Greek deities, for instance, ruled
over lands, sea, or the sky as is the case with Zeus. Thus, the dangerousness and the
fatality of the sea, and the peculiarities which Moroccans do not manage to grasp, are
overcome through considering them as being controlled by the saint, a figure the
Moroccan grasps well and is familiar with, whose protection can be obtained through a
medium, which is the sacrifice, and whose power is, according to the prevalent beliefs,
unshakable. In Moroccan Islam, thus, spirits and Moroccans’ previous perception of
them persist, and saints provide on occasions a more lenient path than Allah. The saint
14 E. Westermarck, Ritual and Belief in Morocco, p. 91.
is regarded mostly as a spirit who has control over the other spirits and as a deceased
human being who is alive in his shrine (Crapanzano, The Hamadsha, 76), and not as a
transcendental entity as distant and complicated as Allah. Hence, the saint is capable
of easily intervening in ordinary human life and performing miracles (Crapanzano,
Tuhami, 76), unlike Allah.
In cases of childbirth, it is still Allah to whom people sacrifice. However, in
paranormal ordeals as much as in illness, it is the saint that comes to the Moroccan
mind. In the saint’s shrine, sacrifice is offered to the saint and not to Allah. The body
of the sacrificed animal comes to be consecrated through being slaughtered within the
reach of the saint’s Baraka, and is a medium between the subject and his saint, with
considerable relegation of God, since it is the saint which has proven to be of use to
Moroccans in a milieu filled with spirits and their malevolence.
In contrast to sacrifice to Allah, a sacrifice to saints is a sacred act within the
profane, as Islam regards such sacrifices as expressions of heresy and as deviations
from its principles. Sacrifice to the spirits and to the saint, thus, is the expression of
Moroccans’ conception of the sacred, to whose construction traces of the various
interactions with all the cultures that harbored in Morocco have been added. There are
no better instances at which the meaning of Moroccan Islam can be observed all too
clearly than in the instances of saint sacrifice in Morocco. Through sacrificing to the
saint, resistance to the strict rules of fundamental Islam is expressed. Moroccans are in
need of more than one figure of power and divinity. At least, there is dire need of a
more familiar one, one that is constituted of humans like themselves, and of spirits with
which they have had to coexist for ages. The saint corresponds to this figure, since he
is a deceased human being who has come to represent a paternal spirit. Sacrifice is,
therefore, the expression of the partial shift of power from God to the saint. Thus, two
sacred figures are forced to coexist; Allah is compelled to share power and Baraka with
Sidi Ali. The sacrifice is also the expression of the Moroccan mindset, one that rejects
choice, and embraces, depending on what is needed, both the sacred and the so-called
Sacrifice is a practice as ancient as humanity itself, and is one which has proven
its capacity to survive through the passing of time and the alteration of space.
Focusing on the Moroccan context, in which sacrifice is a practice of high significance
and frequency, corroborates that the sacrificial practice is a text within whose lines one
reads the development of the Moroccan system of belief, and by which one comes to
fathom the way whereby the Moroccan distinguishes between the real and the
symbolic. While many parts of the world have ceased to perform sacrifices, the
Moroccan is adamant. They refuse to let go of a ritual through which the religious
aspect of their Moroccanness is expressed, since it is the only clear marker of the oftconcealed
fusion of the sacred and the profane which characterizes Moroccan religious
life, and which bestows upon the Moroccan the prism through which to perceive reality.
In ancient times, almost every civilization made use of animals, as they had
always been a sacrifice of which deities were very fond. In ancient Greece, animal
sacrifice replaced human sacrifice, and became part of a theatrical ceremony wherein
the forces of the Dionysiac were expressed through the death throes and spasms of the
sacrificed bull. In Mesopotamia, the agrarian lifestyle of the people made necessary the
construction of sacrificial rituals by which the deities were to be propitiated in order for
the desired benefits to be obtained. Egypt, also, was a nation where animals were both
worshipped and sacrificed during their religious ceremonies. Such cultures experienced
both polytheism and monotheism, which affected their sacrificial practices, since each
religion perceived and made use of sacrifice in a specific manner that was an
adaptation and modification of other predating beliefs.
Morocco had not been cast out from experiencing polytheism as well as
monotheism, which influenced its sacrificial practices. Inasmuch as religious practices
are the material accumulation of various beliefs, sacrifices in Morocco are the result of
many beliefs that were reconfigured with the coming of Islam. Pre-Islamic beliefs in
Morocco emanated from Animism, by which almost every object, land, or entity was
considered to have its own spirit. Such beliefs, together with the harsh geography of
Morocco, necessitated sacrificial offerings to the deities they believed in, as well as to
the spirits that inhabit the lands and objects such as trees, valleys, and rivers. With the
coming of Islam, reconfigurations had taken place, by which some practices vanished,
while others emerged. The Moroccan sacrifice feast, which is a practice originally
Islamic, has undergone various modifications in the Moroccan context. When studying
the very body of the animal in the sacrificial practice, and the acts to which it is
subjected, variations from the canonical version become apparent. In certain areas of
Morocco such as the tribe of Ulad Bu-Aziz, blood is preserved as it is considered to
possess Baraka, whereas in other parts, certain ceremonies within which pagan aspects
can be observed take place. In Morocco, the interaction between the pre-Islamic pagan
beliefs and Islam gave birth to Moroccan Islam, which is a totality of paganism and
Islam, and which assists in reading the sacrifice feast as practiced in Morocco. The
body of the animal is subjected both to pagan and Islamic practices, which reflect
beliefs and cultural traits that are in continuous tension inasmuch as the one attempts
to dominate and erode the other. El-Eid-Elkbir is, hence, a site of cultural and religious
tension, inasmuch as the heterogeneity of the totality of beliefs is to be observed in the
The spiritual aspect of the practice of sacrifice, which is its engine, is in many a
case buttressed by narratives that are an admixture of the prevalent cultures and subcultures,
narratives that have for long permeated the Moroccan mentality, and which
serve to reinforce the position of the practice and ensure its persistence. This is the
case with Gnawa, as many of the pre-Islamic beliefs of Morocco originated in West and
Central Africa, and were brought by slaves who laid the ground for their own subculture
to be constructed in Morocco. A person that is inhabited by jnun (devilish
spirits) is often expected to hold a Lila ceremony and to sacrifice, since the spirits
demand them. The importance of sacrifice for the Gnawa can be seen both in their
songs as well as in Lmluk’s passion about blood, especially when offered to them.
Thus, the ceremony which Gnawa hold is the embodiment of the ritual instant, to use
Sartre’s term, in whose centre resides the ritual killing of the animal. Within this
ceremony, animal sacrifice is always a medium. First, it mediates the real and the
symbolic, which is depicted by the animal’s transition from the tangible world to the
intangible, and its passage from life to death. Second, the sacrifice functions as
medium between the Self and the Other within the self, with the latter being the Self
that is produced by and through the knowledge of being possessed by a demon, and
which is awakened through blood, since the spirit within the Self is fond of blood, as all
of Lmluk are said to be. The Hamadsha and Aissawa, on the other hand, have a dual
function, inasmuch as their sacrifices are at once for healing the possessed and for
gratifying the saint.
At this stage, the cases of sacrifice in Morocco make clear the nature of Moroccan
Islam, which is revisited afresh through examining the saint in Moroccan culture. The
saint is taken to be a figure of power and Baraka, since he can heal the sick and the
possessed and protect the devotees from the dangers of the natural and the
supernatural forces. In sacrificing to the saint, Allah is relegated to a peripheral
position, and the saint is endowed with much power. The saint is a figure to whom the
Moroccan relates directly, since he represents what the Moroccan understands, and
embodies what can assist in mitigating the effect of what the Moroccan dreads, such as
devils (evil spirits) and natural phenomena; or what Moroccans find difficulty in
understanding, such as fertility and barrenness. Sacrifice, thus, is the key to a figure
that is closer to the Moroccans and their perception of the real and the symbolic and
that is, hence, less transcendental than Allah. Thereby, sacrifice has been the witness
of a partial shift in power from one entity to the other. Allah, thus, has not been totally
eliminated, nor has the saint been completely deified. Rather, the saint has come to be
regarded as a powerful intermediary, an intermediary who possesses Baraka of his own.
From all of the above, sacrifice is a complex practice, and is a historical process of
development as well as of adaptation to spacio-temporal circumstances. Morocco is an
intriguing context in which to study the practice, since the rich belief system gives way
to the development of more sacrificial practices than one. In attempting to form a clear
vision of what lies underneath the surface structure of animal sacrifice in Morocco, one
cannot dispense with the purely cultural aspects, nor can one do so with the entirely
religious ones, insofar as both interconnect to form what the Moroccan experiences as
Temporal constrictions amongst others have not allowed for this research to be
based upon genuine fieldwork. Hence, going into various regions of Morocco and
observing the practices of animal sacrifice therein may be of significance insofar as that
will adduce new evidence of social and cultural change in an era during which the
global and the local interact, resulting in reconfigurations of the practice of animal
sacrifice in Morocco. In so-doing, one will not simply be examining a practice of
present-day Morocco. It is the process by which the future of Moroccan societal and
cultural life is begotten that one will be observing.
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