The modern war against folk religion

26 02 2009

India Kashmir Festival

I see the stigmatization and destruction of traditions like the Last Wednesday as manifestations of a fundamental and (in my eyes) very sad shift in the history of Islam. This shift first of all came to be due to a process of defining Islam as a uniform, static and stagnant fixed (cultural-religious) “identity” which did not yet exist in the so called classical times and then, under political domination of exploiting powers, privileging the culture, traditions and interpretations of affluent Muslim social elites in close contact with colonial institutions over the culture, desires and perspectives of the “common people”… Stigmatizing Folk Islam, in my eyes, is not a natural outcome of our search for “the Truth”, be it Islamic or otherwise. It is not a natural outcome of a wish to establish better spiritual standards in the lives of human beings. It is… a voluntary and deliberate choice for a cultural/class based chauvinism and a step towards a methodology of pure destruction, and I deem both to be antithetical to any possible conception of better spiritual standards and a search for “the Truth”.

Leyla Jagiella

I have made this point at times on this blog, and from what I am told by Muslim acquaintances, it is the Salafi/Wahhabi trend in Islam (one of the tendencies that in its extreme form likes to declare jihad and blow up “infidels”) that pulled / is pulling a “Vatican II” in the Muslim world. These are the same people who tear down the shrines of the saints, condemn the use of talismans against the evil eye, and seek strict interpretations (which are in reality historically conditioned) of Islamic law in order to create a purer religion. It is driven by the paranoia of a reactionary ideology hemmed in by modernity which seeks to attack modernity with its own hermeneutic tools.

In Catholicism, however, the tendencies at play are a bit more nuanced than in the Muslim situation. On the left, in places like Latin America in particular, you are often confronted with attitudes that range from patronizing acceptance to outright hostility to popular religion, as I have documented elsewhere. Popular religion is either seen as a series of backwards superstitions that impede the struggle of the opressed classes, or they are seen as instruments to be manipulated by a progressive clerical vanguard to help form a militant class consciousness. On the official moderate level, many see folk religious elements as either being somewhat edifying, neutral, or contrary to the spirit (and sometimes the letter) of the official Catholic aggiornamento. At best, these clerics and intellectuals will see them as innocuous and “inessential” customs that need to be supplemented by “essential” doctrines and updated liturgical praxis. The traditionalists, in spite of their name, are often hostile to folk religion in the way that the Muslim fundamentalists are; the modern breach in the continuity of traditional praxis often results in the creation of an ethos not present in the “old religion”. I am thinking here specifically on the cultural and liturgical trends of the traditionalist movement that at times can create a Catholic Wahhabism: rejection of television and other modern media, condemnation of modern women’s fashions (i.e. wearing pants), flirtation with fascism and other right-wing political movements, etc.

What remains to be done in the modern context is a thorough examination by scholars of the evolution, significance, and value of folk religion. To merely condemn or ignore it as an atavistic throw-back can often have disasterous consequences. The important task for contemporary religious thinkers is to find the essence and internal logic of popular beliefs that may appear to us to be “superstitions”. In that way, we will be looking into the human soul to see the relationship between spontaneity, tradition, and change. Any other path will only lead to a totalitarian ideology into which we read our own prejudices of an idealized and intolerant past.




6 responses

14 12 2012

The interesting thing is that the tearing down of Folk religious practices is deeply unorthodox—just yesterday the devotional message from Pope Benedict was “the Truth does not destroy; it purifies” in reference to Our Lady of Guadalupe and the pagan images that came before her. The Church has a long, long history of incorporating folk practices and I think you hit the nail on the head when you say that the war on folk religion is a fundamentally modern ideology.
But don’t bash the right-wing Catholics; they’re the ones that care about Folk. It’s the liberation theologians and fundamentalists (taking pages from the apocalyptic Protestants’ and iconoclastic Spaniards’ books) that are destroying the Folk practices. Rejection of modernity (especially modern media) is about preserving Folk! The reason traditionalists see media as evil is because it is neither high culture nor folk culture; it neither raises one up to a higher level, nor ties one closer to their community. It is universal without being refined; it is base without being owned. This is the basis of their rejection of media and ‘fashion,’ not a fundamentalist Wahabism.

6 03 2009
Neil Gaiman Nails The Neo-Pagans « A Mule In The Chapter House

[…] As an aside, Arturo Vasquez deftly captures something of what I want to say in a post of his, The Modern War Against Folk Religion. Take what he has to say to heart, all you people with the highly developed frontal lobes, the next […]

6 03 2009


This something that happens over time in Islam. There were arab purists who attempted to purify the Turks of their folk traditions, and when you had more cosmopolitan Ottoman Sultans (even Mehmet II) there were purists who were scandalized and attempted to quietly suppress his reforms. I recall a history professor saying that a cleric claimed that Mehmet blasphemed the prophet when he spoke in Latin.

Moreover in the Cordova caliphate, successive rulers swayed back and forth between the purists and the folk practices of the people, and at times they destroyed great treasures. When the Almohadi came over from North Africa they were scandalized by the luxury and the culture of the ruling caliphate, and often killed them along with the Spanish Christians, to the point that when El Cid defended Valencia from them, the Muslims fought with him because they new the Almohads would kill them too.

27 02 2009

Interesting parallel. This is why I also tie modern, literalist, Fundamentalist religion together with modern liberal religion. But holding Islam in the mix reminds me of the series “The Power of Nightmares” which parallels the rise of Neocons in the USA and UK with the Taliban (etc).

26 02 2009
Leyla Jagiella

Arturo, thank you very much for these thoughtful elaborations on my post.
There are two more points that I´d like to ad:

1. Something we should not forget is that both Vatican II. and Wahhabism/Salafism have indeed some important positive points to make, that some very intelligent thinkers were involved with it and that both do mean freedom and spirituality to at least some people on this planet.
In the modern western context that seems more obvious with regards to Vatican II. than with Salafism/Wahhabism but that impression can be easily turned upside down when looking at populations in the miscalled “developing world”.

That is something that makes the reactionary character of these ideologies even more problematic!

2. Furthermore, todays modernized, elitist, reactionary and other re-formations of religion are only a very natural outcome of a long process that, in my opinion, started with some problematic intellectual decisions taken in both the Christian and Islamic worlds at roughly the times of the Crusades.
In many ways they are only very logical reflections on what has happened in the cause of the last few centuries.

Any “thorough examination by scholars of the evolution, significance, and value of folk religion” needs to be aware of these two points. It should not backlash into a glorification of folk religion and a demonization of modernist religiosity.
We need to aknowledge that both have an essence and an internal logic, despite the fact that due to good reasons we personally might prefer one over the other .

26 02 2009
Alice C. Linsley

Arturo, This is my perception of Wahabi Islam also. I’m glad to read your similar assessment.

Strangely, this puts this radical form of Islam into the same bed as Western empiricism which also wages war on traditional religions. Strange bed fellows indeed!

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