These web pages were prepared by Dr Simone Tarsitani during a Leverhulme Trust Visiting Fellowship (November 2008 – September 2009) at the Music Department of the Open University, drawing on over ten years of research on the Islamic rituals performed in Harar, Ethiopia. The main purpose of the work has been to develop a comprehensive analysis of the performance of the rituals, based on the large body of audiovisual documentation collected during previous fieldwork.
Zikri is the Harari word for the Arabic “dhikr” and refers to an exercise (typical of Sufism), which consists of the repetition of the name of God in order to receive his blessing. The rituals performed in the city of Harar, important centre of Islamic learning in Ethiopia, are derived from the influence of Sufi orders, widespread in the Islamized areas of the Horn of Africa. However, the cult of saints in Harar developed particular beliefs and rules that go beyond the discipline of Sufi orders and zikri rituals can be considered an original expression and one of the unique elements of the culture of this town. The wide repertoire of texts written in the local language, the sung melodies and their rhythmic accompaniment, the ritual and social function of their performance developed distinctive characteristics. Historically and contemporaneously, zikri rituals have permeated Harari life and the repertoire of songs has expanded beyond its origin of liturgical hymns, to become one of the facets of Harari identity.
View of Harar
Zikri is a devotional activity characterized by hymns praising Allah, the Prophet and the Saints. The singing usually follows a responsorial structure lead by a shaykh and accompanied by drums (karabu) and wooden sticks (kabal). The term zikri in Harar means not only the chanting and its ritual context, but also the single devotional song performed in the zikri ritual. What is commonly referred to as ‘zikri ritual’ can comprise slightly different kinds of practices. The most common features consist in the reading of suras from the Quran, recital of prayers, singing of zikri songs, prolonged consumption of khat leaves, tea and coffee, all concluded by a shared blessed meal. Great importance in Harar is given to the Mawlūd, a sacred book widespread in Islamic world, which contains the poetic narration in prose and verses of the birth of the Prophet. In Harar there developed a peculiar ceremony (here described as Mawlūd recital) for the reading of this sacred text, which includes the performance of zikri songs.
Shaykh during performance of a zikri ritual
Cultural, historical and religious considerations can highlight the role that this practice has today. In recent history, the ritual traditions have been challenged by the restrictions imposed by the Christian Empire and later by the ruling Derg military regime. More recently the reformist action of Wahabiyya, especially influent during the 1980s and 1990s, accused the ritual activities at the shrine of being un-Islamic and promoted to establish more orthodox customs. Despite all the historical vicissitudes, Harari rituals are still practiced and, over the last ten years, has been revived in the daily life and especially in the major festivities collective celebrations, becoming, more than ever before, a major symbol of the cultural identity of the community.
Participants and drum players during a zikri ritual
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