Rituals of zar and dikr in Abū al-Ġaiṭ. Ritual, music and memories of oppression

This lecture aims at exploring and analyzing the historical, social, religious and musical conditions that allowed the continuous shifting from ḏikr to zār and vice versa; addressing music and ritual performances, and cultural and religious syncretism. The findings are the partial results of ethnographic research implemented in Cairo and Delta (2021-2022) and are supported by audio-visual documentation, music and textual analysis.


Abū al-Ġaiṭ is a village north of the Egyptian capital Cairo on the borderline between suburbs and the countryside. Here, a group of musicians is carrying on Dikr, a central part of the ritual practice of the Sufi brotherhoods, and Zār, a ritual known in great parts of the Arab world and in many African countries. While Dikr is performed in a male-dominant context, Zār is particularly addressed to women, and it aims at healing by making peace between the individual and the spirits.

The zār practised here, the zār of Abū al-Ġaiṭ, is a result of the meeting of African possession rituals with Muslim mystical practice into a unique model of cultural, religious and music syncretism. This particular genre of zār developed between the XIX and XX centuries in the Delta of Egypt from the Sudanese and Upper Egyptian zār cult, and it is carried on today by a sufi brotherhood founded by the dervish šayẖ Ḥassan Abū al-Ġaiṭ, who first combined the ḏikr (sufi mystical exercise) with the zār practices. Despite his popularity in Cairo and Delta, the little information we have about his life is evicted by a song, orally transmitted exclusively in sufi and zār contexts. Behind the stories of his miracles and anecdotes mentioned in the text, we can collocate Ḥassan Abū al-Ġaiṭ’s character in a specific historical context in which many sufi personalities and unofficial sufi brotherhoods supported and shared the ‘Urābī – Egypt nationalist - insurrection in 1879. The condition of oppression and marginalization is in fact a topos common to many other songs used in ḏikr and zār rituals, as well as it reflects the social environment in which zār and ḏikr are taking place in Cairo and Delta. Today, the musicians of the brotherhood are still keeping the zār tradition alive performing sufi textual and music repertoire with zār and ḏikr rhythms, along with instruments belonging to the Egyptian religious tradition.