Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Shamanism: A Religious Phenomenon with Similarities to Sufism

A shaman in Peru, November 27, 2017. Photo: JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK / AFP

‘We are not alone, as human beings, in this world; there is a greater power than us and our bodies; and communication with such a power is what will enable us to rectify the human mind, heal diseases and bring happiness.’

These are the principles on which shamanism is based. Because these principles are shared with other ancient traditions and religious doctrines that value the power of spirits, the term ‘shamanism’ has become widespread. However, it is especially associated with the Mongols, where shamanic practice has been noted for centuries.

Described as a religious and ideological phenomenon, shamanism is also known by other names such as sangoma, which is practised by some inhabitants of South Africa who to this day rely on traditional medicines to treat diseases.

Anthropologist and mythologist Michel Perrin, in his book Shamanism: Philosophy of Life, defines shamanism as ‘a kind of philosophy that provides a special conception of mankind and the world based on a link between humans and God’. This link is centred on shamanic rituals.

The shamanic doctrine revolves around the balance between the inner forces of man and the spiritual external forces surrounding him. Shamans believe that the weakness of the human soul resulting from insufficient attention to its nurturing helps evil spirits and demons enter the body and control the body’s feelings and senses. Intervention by a shaman is needed to expel these sprits and demons. Treatment depends on the activation of inner forces to achieve balance with the cosmic forces.

This is similar to rituals practised by some Islamic sects. In these cases, treatment involves reading the Koran and saying prayers. This is detailed in the book Shamanism and Islam, a comprehensive overview of the assimilation of shamanistic beliefs and rituals into folk Islam, including healing rituals and the belief in communication with spirits.

Shamanistic belief holds that God created the first shaman and defined his abilities, and that he has multiple powers and abilities resulting from indoctrination experiences and knowledge of the spiritual system. Shamans are believed to be familiar with the spirits of the living and dead, gods and demons, and countless unseen faces that average humans do not see. Thanks to the experiences of shamans, humans learn all means of preventing evils and diseases and of defending their family or tribe members. Therefore, shamans can tolerate a ritual death, descend to hell and sometimes ascend to heaven.

Shamanistic rituals to treat diseases are similar to the rituals found in witchcraft and sorcery and associated manifestations and scenes such as dancing, music and amulets, which psychologically affect the receivers of the treatment. In 2015, the World Health Organization recognized traditional medicine, including shamanistic healing, as a complementary means of treating illnesses.

Similarly, Sufis, notably the Sufi Dervishes of the Mevlevi order, perform a ritual dance through which they seek to reach the source of all perfection by curbing their personal desires, focusing on God and spinning their bodies in repetitive circles, thought to be a symbolic imitation of planets orbiting the sun.

A shaman’s constant communication with the spirits also takes place during funerals. Exorcism starts by inviting the souls of family members using songs, because it is necessary to have previous spirits present at the moment a new spirit travels into the hereafter. This is followed by a ritual to free the departing soul of all bitterness, anger, resentment and evil.

Afterwards, shaman women set about restoring harmony to society after it has been troubled by death.

Despite many Islamic objections to the notion of communication with and possession by spirits, Islamic history details many situations when this took place. This includes Prophet Muhammad’s conversation with the spirits of members of the Quraysh tribe after the Battle of Badr, in which he addressed them by saying, “Are you pleased because you have obeyed God and His Messenger. We have found what our God promised us. Have you found what your God has promised?” Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second Muslim caliph, responded, “O Messenger of God, how is it that you are able to speak to soulless bodies.” The Prophet answered, “By Muhammad’s God, they can hear me more than you can, but they cannot respond.”

Shamanism is practiced around the world and its followers are estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands in Europe, Asia, especially China and South Korea, Africa and South America. Many people have turned to shamans for treatment in the hope of finding spirits that can cure them of mental and physical illnesses that conventional medicine has not.