Faith, rituals and theatre

Faith is at the core of all religious festivals, but they tend to follow discernible patterns in the way they are practiced. In cultural studies, there is no attempt to treat with the religion. This is an attempt to analyse some cultural elements of religious festivals, involving the way belief is played out in public ways. In this case the main interest is the theatrical aspect.

Muslim festivals have developed a reputation of not being flambouyant or ostentatious. This is in contrast to, for instance, some Hindu celebrations known for their vibrant colour and spectacle, such as Phagwah or Diwali; or even the Chinese Spring Festival (New Year) known for its vibrancy. But close examination of Eid ul-Adha does not entirely support that conclusion. It is a highly theatrical festival. It conforms to most of the patterns seen in religious festivals generally.  Eid ul-Adha or Eid al-Adha, or Eid ul-Azha seems to be most widely known as Eid al-Adha, particularly in Arabia and the Middle East, but is commonly called Eid in Guyana. The Quran describes Eid as “a solemn festival”. It is celebrated in majority Islamic countries as well as in the Indian diaspora, and definitely in Guyana and the Caribbean. It is no different from the religious festivals observed here that have many things in common.

Most of these celebrations are sacred – rituals of faith performed by believers. In the first place, they are inclusive, practiced by devotees in sacred places or at home. Some are entirely private, with rituals performed among devotees, often with invited guests and there is no public manifestation. Examples of these in the Caribbean are Shango (Trinidad, Grenada), Kumina (Jamaica) or Kumfa (Guyana). But most of the larger religions have private or exclusive devotions in addition to public manifestations – large public exhibitions which express the beliefs of the religion in a very public way.

These public manifestations are not always or necessarily evangelical, but they widely proclaim the principles of the religion. What is of interest here is that they do so in theatrical fashion, dramatising the beliefs or principles of the religion. They make use of literature, myth, theatre, drama, spectacle, symbols, music and rituals.

Another important element is that they grow from being sacred ritual to become other types of festivals in addition to the religious. Most religious festivals are also national, cultural, traditional, calendar, popular, and even commercial. Eid in Guyana is religious, cultural, traditional and calendar. It has minor popular elements because of extensions of the Qurbani. It makes use of literature, myth, theatre, symbols and rituals.

Eid is not as quite as represented in long-held impressions. It is quite highly theatrical. It is called the Feast of the Sacrifice or the sacrifice feast, and is observed by Muslims to celebrate the willingness of Ibrahim to sacrifice his son Ismaeel.  It is an illustration of his total devotion to God, and his preparation to sacrifice what he loves most in an act of obedience to the command of Allah.  This is the holiest of the Muslim festivals. It is a calendar festival because it is observed at a date according to the Islamic calendar. There is no regular date; it is fixed each year according to the sighting of the moon. This year it was September 1, but went into two or three days over the weekend. (Eid al-Adha is a holiday as long as 16 days in some Arabian countries.)

The festival is based on a story, which is quite similar to one found in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. Ibrahim (Abraham) was commanded by God to sacrifice his son Ismaeel (Ismail, Ismael or Ishmael, known to Christians as Isaac) and despite Ibrahim’s great love for his son, he was prepared to obey the command. However, just before he was about to do it, he was stopped by an angel and a ram was put to be sacrificed in Ismaeel’s place.

While father and son were travelling to the place of sacrifice, Shaitan (Satan) intervened several times in an attempt to thwart the process. He tried tactics including warnings to the boy that he was being taken to be killed. Ismaeel, however, had already been told by his father and did not heed Shaitan. Ibrahim drove the devil away with stones. There are variants in the story as to exactly how the boy was spared in the end and the ram substituted, but God was not interested in the sacrifice of the boy, but more in the devotion and obedience of his servants. In this festival, Muslims honour Ibrahim and dramatise the principles in that story.

 

Theatre and symbol are widely used. At the beginning of Eid, Muslims observe the Haj – a pilgrimage to Mecca, which has to be the largest and most theatrical religious ritual  known to the world. This visit to the sacred Islamic capital must be undertaken by every Muslim who has the financial means to do it at least once in his lifetime. In Nigeria, men who make the pilgrimage are given the title Alhaji (known elsewhere as Haji). One of the things done in the Haj is the dramatisation of the story. The celebrants are actually put to undertake a journey similar to that taken by the archetypal father and son, subjecting themselves to a series of deprivations. The most theatrical of the observances is the Stoning Wall. They cast stones at a wall to simulate a denunciation of the devil. In the story, Ibrahim stoned Shaitan. There are other dramatic observances, very much as in a play.

The various performances by large multitudes of men are exceedingly spectacular and are astonishing displays of mass theatre, according to the accounts of men who have done Haj.  Another of the rituals is the Qurbani. This is practiced in Guyana and many would have participated in it at mosques on Friday last. In dramatic and symbolic honour to Ibrahim, there are large-scale offerings of animals – cows/bulls, sheep, goats or rams are sacrificed during the pilgrimage in Mecca, millions of sacrifices to an unimaginable degree. In this country bulls/cows are the common offering.

This is quite a spectacle in several large mosques, and is the most popular part of the religious rituals. While Eid is not a popular festival and there is no follow-up in the popular culture as happens in Diwali and Phagwah, there is popular outreach and interest in Qurbani. Muslims sacrifice cows which are slaughtered in the halaal tradition. The meat is divided in three parts – one third for the family, one third for relatives and friends, and the other third is given to the poor and needy. This last is part of the charitable practices during Eid. As is customary, these are public extensions and expressions of the Islamic faith manifested in symbolic and theatrical forms.

 

Another very theatrical religious festival known to Islam is the Hose, sometimes called Hosein. This one, too, tends to contradict the notion that Islamic festivals and celebrations lack vibrancy and showiness. The Hose (pronounced hosay) is called Tadja in Guyana, but it is no longer performed in this country. There are no reliable accounts of when or why it ceased in Guyana.  Mangal Raghunandan also known as ‘Teacha Raghu’, a tassa drummer, drum maker, cultural practitioner and Fellow of the Institute of Creative Arts (ICA), has given accounts of Tadja that he witnessed. He insists that it was performed in this country much more recently than is commonly believed. He saw what he said was the last of it, performed by workers from La Bonne Intention Sugar Estate. Lawlessness, fighting, violence and rum drinking, he claims, caused its demise.

Hose is, however, still observed in Trinidad. Performances that I witnessed during the last 10 years, demonstrate the dominance of spectacle and theatrical performance. A few of the exhibitions known to have been practiced in the past were missing, as were the violence and rum drinking referred to repeatedly in history. In Trinidad today it is mostly confined to the St James area in Port-of-Spain and St Joseph some six miles east of the city.

This festival is religious, sacred to Muslims, but is a traditional, cultural and popular calendar festival. It commemorates the martyrdom of Hassan and Hosein, grandsons of the Holy Prophet Mohamed, (On Whom Be Peace). They were the heirs to the leadership of Islam after Mohamed, but were opposed by one faction in a long war of succession. They were eventually betrayed, deceived, ambushed and slaughtered by their rivals.  Accounts of this show unbelievable atrocities, including cutting off women and children from their water supply before the cowardly massacre.

Muslims commemorate this martyrdom by a large masquerade, a street procession, carrying large effigies and replicas of the mausoleums in which the martyrs were buried. They act out battles and stick fights and accompany the march with drums. Non-Muslims are known to join in the festival.

Also of note are the descriptions taken from historical records. Nineteenth century newspaper accounts are hostile to the culture and practices of the indentured East Indians, but they mention the spectacular costuming and effigies and floats “created by the coolies” of that time. Given the disapproval of the ruling class whose mouthpiece the newspapers were, to have paid such high compliment, speaks to the impact of the spectacle in the Hose. Where violence is concerned, while there were fights among different bands, the violence inflicted by the authorities was much worse.  Kevin Baldeosingh’s The Blood Stained Tombs document multitudes shot down and slaughtered by the law enforcers in the late nineteenth century.

Muslim festivals can therefore be dramatically theatrical, contrary to common notions. The Hoseins (Tadjahs) were very attractive to non-Muslims and were by no means quiet (including the violence and drinking). The overwhelming spectacle and theatrical stage-management of the Haj at Eid al-Adha upstages anything imagined anywhere in the world.

 

Acknowledgements/Sources

I am indebted to:

Naeem Nasir (late owner of Bakewell bakery and cafes)

Mujtaba Nasir (Imam of Prashad Nagar Masjid)

 

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