Malang, Sufis, and Mystics
An Ethnographic and Historical Study of Shamanism in Afghanistan
Muhammad Humayun Sidky
Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 49, No. 2 (1990), 275-301
Homayun Sidky is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio. He holds a Ph.D in Cultural Anthropology and his areas of inerest/expertise are Ecological Anthropology, History, Theory of Anthropology, Anthropology of Religion, Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Easter Island.
Demographic and historical factors in Central Asia have produced an ethnic and cultural homogeneity, which overrides ecological diversity and artificial political boundaries imposed by nineteenth-century Western imperialism (KRADER 1963, 2). Ethnographically, Afghanistan belongs to the Central Asian region (Map 1), an area extending southward from the Siberian forest belt to the Iranian plateau, and south-eastward to the Pamir mountains of northern Afghanistan, the Tien Shan range, and the Hindu Kush. The last mountain range constitutes the " Great Divide " between Central and South Asia (FRASERTYTLER 1950, 3).1 From west to east, Central Asia includes all the territory from the Caspian Sea to the Mongolian steppes, including the Altai mountains (KRADER 1963, 1-4; OSHANIN 1964, 1-2).
The Concept of Shamanism
Pre-Islamic Elements in Afghan Cosmology
When Hazrat-i-Ali was murdered by the accursed Yazeed, the prophet's followers, in order to protect his holy corpse from desecration by his enemies, assembled five coffins, which were loaded on the backs of five white camels. One of these coffins contained the hazrat's body, the others were decoys. Each camel was sent off in a different direction, the one containing the blessed corpse of Ali being the one to reach Afghanistan. Here the prophet's body was secretly interred. This sacred spot remained hidden until God chose to reveal its location to the faithful in dreams.
The Shamanic Configuration in Afghanistan
They are holy men thought to be touched by the hand of Allah. Some go about naked, moving with the seasons; others dress in women's clothes; still others wear elaborate, often outlandish, concoctions of their own design. Usually Afghan, Iranian, Pakistani, or Indian Sufi Muslims, malang travel from place to place, fed, honored, at times feared by local populations, or at least held in awe. Often, they spout unintelligible gibberish, words they claim to be from Allah or a local saint. At other times, they quote the Qor'an, usually inaccurately.
The Role of Spirits (Jinnd) in Afghan Cosmology
The Initiation of an Afghan Malang
Abdul Wali, one of our townsmen, decided to achieve mystical powers by performing the qasida ritual. He shut himself in the burj [tower] of his father's qala [fort] and began to recite verses from the Koran. He did this for three days. On the third day everyone in the qala heard agonizing screams; it was Abdul Wali crying out that he was on fire. He said that a bearded dwarf, wearing a black turban, had come into the burj, pulled out a small piece of cotton from his pocket, and began to fluff it by tearing off pieces. The cotton seemed to increase by some devilish device (shaytanat) and soon filled the entire room. Then, scowling at Abdul Wali, this demon pulled out a box of matches and set the cotton on fire. Flames engulfed the burj. When the door leading to the burj was finally opened by Abdul Wali's uncle and brothers, there was no fire; but Abdul Wali was in a state of hysteria, beating his own chest and head as if to extinguish flames. The jinnd had beguiled the foolish man. Despite all efforts to calm him and stop him from running off, he broke loose and jumped out the window, shattering both his legs. The poor man rarely spoke any words afterwards, and was in a state of melancholia until he died a few months later. The doctor from Kabul was unable to determine why Abdul Wali had died.