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Mohammedan Confraternities

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The countries where Mohammedanism prevails are full of religious associations, more or less wrapped in secrecy, which are also political, and which may prove troublesome at some future time. The oldest of them, the Kadriya, dat es from the twelfth century of our era, having been called into existence by the necessity of united counsels in order to make head against the Crusades. The name given to it was that of its founder, the Persian Sidi-abd-el-Kader-el-Djilani, who died at Bagdad in 1166. His disciples speak of him as "The Sultan of the Saints". One of the more recent associations, and a very aggressive one, is that of the Senoussiya, founded by an Algerian, Sheikh Senoussi (d. 1859). In contrast to the exclusive spirit of the other orders, this one has opened its doors to all of them, allowing them to keep their own names, doctrines, usages, and privileges. The rallying principle of this combination is hatred of Christians; it isolates them in anticipation of the uprising which, on the appointed day of the Lord, will drive them out of "the Land of Islam" (dar el Islam, as opposed to dar el harb. "Land of the Infidels", or literally, "Land of the Holy War"). Its motto is: "Turks and Christians, I will break them all with one blow". Those affiliated to the confraternities are called khouans (brethren) in North Africa; dervishes (poor men) in Turkey and central Asia; fakirs (beggars) in India; mourids (disciples) in Egypt, Arabia, and Syria. Since the conquest of Algeria by the French (1830) the reaction has resulted in an immense development of confraternities in all Mohammedan countries. Except among the wealthy and sceptical in the great cities, very few Mussulmans escape the infection of this movement, and M. Pommerol numbers the total membership at 170,000,000. Leaving aside the excellent administrative and financial organization of the confraternities, we will here discuss only their religious side.

As is well known, at the call of the muezzins every Mohammedan is bound to recite daily certain prayers at stated hours. The khouans are also bound to follow these prayers with others, peculiar to their association. Among the chief of these is a kind of litany called the dikr (repeated utterance), for which a chaplet is used. Fundamentally, it is the same for all the orders, but with slight variations, by which the initiated are enabled to recognize each other easily. In general it contains the Mohammedan symbol or Credo: "There is no god but the true God" (La ilaha ill' Allah, literally, "No god except God"), which is repeated, say a hundred times. Other terse phrases or invocations are added, such as: "God sees me", "God pardon", part of a verse of the Koran, or names of the Divine attributes, as "O Living One" a hundred times, or simply the syllable Houa (Him). When the recitation in chorus becomes accelerated, the syllables of La ilaha ill' Allah are gradually reduced to la hou, la ha, la hi, or even hou, ha, hi, or hou-hou. The phrase La ilaha, etc. must be repeated by the Kadriya one hundred sixty-five times after each of the five daily prayers; by the Kerzazya, five hundred times; for the Aissaoua, the daily total of repetitions is thirteen thousand and six hundred. Many of the confraternities have mystical tendencies, and make it their object to attain, on certain days and during certain moments, a profound union with God. This union (ittisâl), which is described by the Persian and Hindu sufi of the ninth century, resembles the Nirvana of the Buddhists. It is the annihilation of the personality by the identification (djam or ittihâd) of the subject with God. Sidi-abd-el-Kader-el-Djilani proclaimed that "happiness is in unconsciousness of existence". Sheikh Senoussi defined ecstasy as "the annihilation of a man's individuality in the divine essence" and Abd-el-Karim summed it up in two words, "unconsciousness and insensibility". Such teaching cannot shock Mussulmans, for they venerate madmen as saints, and believe that God dwells in empty brains, which explains why they allow demented persons a liberty which, to us, seems excessive. Sometimes the initiated person endeavours to obtain union with the founder of his order, whom he regards as a superior emanation of the Godhead and His all-powerful intermediary. In this way Refaya are made.

As to the method of arriving at this pseudo-ecstatic union: Sufism, which preceded the confraternities, and from which many of them are derived, was content to teach the moral method of renunciation-detachment carried as far as possible. This was the essence of primitive Sufism, which was simply a way (tariqâ), a method of sanctification, not a dogmatic system or an organization. The confraternities added special exercises, and in this lies the great difference from Christian mysticism. The latter confesses the impossibility of attaining a true mystical state by one's own efforts; God must produce it, and then it comes unexpectedly, whether during prayer or in the midst of some indifferent occupation. The Mussulman thinks otherwise; there is a physical process which consists in the manner of reciting the dikr in common, and which takes effect especially on Friday, the weekly holy day of Islam. There are various prescriptions as to how the breath should be held and its respiration prolonged. A more important detail is the exhausting bodily exercise which is enjoined to induce a kind of vertigo or hysterical intoxication, followed either by convulsions or by extreme weakness. Thus, among the Kadriya, says Le Chatelier, "the kouans give themselves up to a rhythmical and gradually accelerating swaying of the upper part of the body which superinduces congestion of the cerebro-spinal system. Under the double influence of this purely physical cause and the concentration of all the intellectual faculties upon the same idea, that of the majesty of God, the phenomena of religious hysteria are produced in many of the adepts. . . . They are much in evidence in the convents of that order" (p. 29). The founder had prescribed that the faithful should confine their recitation to "ha, turning the head to the right, hou, turning the head to the left, hi, bowing it, and prolonging each sound as much as the breath permits. It is easy to imagine the effect that may be produced on the most soundly constituted temperament by the repetition of these syllables accompanied with violent movements of the head" (ibid, p. 33). At the present time the Zaheriya go through the same movements with the formula, La ilaha ill' Allah, spoken in one breath, and sometimes as often as twenty-one times without a respiration. The Sarehourdiya, founded in the thirteenth century, repeat an indefinite number of times without interruption the phase La ilaha, etc., while raising the head from the navel to the right shoulder, and thus they fall into a dumb state of unconsciousness. The Zaheriya add the left shoulder. The Nakechabendiya sometimes help the process with opium and similar drugs. Among the Beioumiya the body is bent, at each invocation, down to the waist, while the arms are crossed; they are uncrossed while the body is raised again, and then the hands are clapped together at the level of the face.

Some confraternities deserve special mention for the intense nervous paroxysms attained by their members. First, among the Kheluoatiya, founded in the fourteen century, the members from time to time retire into deep solitude (whence their name, from kheluoa, retreat); thus separated from the world the disciple can communicate with others only by signs or in writing; he fasts from sunrise to sunset and takes only such nourishment as is strictly necessary. By the use of coffee, he reduces his sleep to two or three hours. He recites certain sacred words, such as Houa (Him), Qayyoum (Immutable), Haqq (truth), which have to be repeated from 10,000 to 30,000 times a day, according to the directions of the initiator. "The upper eyelid is briskly pressed down on the lower, to produce a titillation of the organ of sight which acts on the optic nerve, and, through it, on the cerebral system. . . . The word Qayyoum is recited, say, 20,000 times, while the disciple sways and bows the head, with closed eyes. The rapidity of repetition cannot exceed once in every second, and the duration of such a prayer is from five to six hours. Supposing that the candidate is given three names to repeat in this way, it must take him eighteen hours a day. . . . The teachers of the order compare the Kheluoa initiation to a deadly poison when taken in too large doses at first, and which can be assimilated by progressive use. . . . All the members who make frequent retreats, even if the duration is not prolonged, are seriously affected in mind. Emaciated, haggard-eyed, they return to ordinary life still retaining the traces of their harsh trials. . . . An extreme exaltation, then, is the characteristic of this order, and it, more than any other, may be regarded as the focus of an intense fanaticism" (ibid, 62 sqq.). Another very remarkable confraternity is that of the Aïssaoua, founded in the fifteenth century by Sidi-Mohammed-ben-Aïssa. The dikr takes the shape of raucous cries, "to the cadence of a muffled music in rapid time. Inclinations of the body down to the hips, increasing in rapidity, accompany each of these cries, or circular movements of the head, which are also calculated to shake the nervous system. The nervous crises thus superinduced are soon expressed in cerebral intoxication and anæsthesia variously localized in different subjects. As these phenomena are progressively recognized by the practiced eye of the presiding sheikh, the khouans, at a given signal, pierce their hands, arms, and cheeks with darts. Others slash their throats or bellies with sabres. Some crush pieces of glass between their teeth, eat venomous creatures, or chew cactus leaves bristling with thorns. All, one after another, fall exhausted, into a torpor which a touch from the moqaddem (presiding initiator) transforms, in certain cases, into hypnosis" (ibid., 101).

In another confraternity, that of the Refaya, founded in the twelfth century by Refai, a nephew of Sidi-abd-el-Kader, most of the devotees faint when the hysterical intoxication intervenes; others "eat serpents or live coals, or roll themselves about in burning braziers. They accustom themselves, moreover, to casting themselves down on the points of darts, to piercing their arms and cheeks, and to being trodden under foot by their sheikh" (ibid., 204, 206). The howling and the whirling dervishes, who give public exhibitions at Constantinople and Cairo, belong to the Refaya. Their ceremony begins with shouting accompanied by oscillations and leaps keeping time to the beating of drums. "Forming a chain", writes Théophile Gautier, "they produce, from deep down in their chests, a hoarse and prolonged howling: Allah hou! which seems to have nothing of the human voice in it. The whole band, acting under a single impulse, springs forward, simultaneously, uttering a hoarse, muffled sound, like the growling of an angry menagerie, when the lions, tigers, panthers and hyenas think that their feeding-time is being delayed. Then, by degrees, the inspiration comes, their eyes shine like those of wild beasts in the depths of a cave; an epileptic froth comes at the corners of their mouths; their faces become distorted and livid, shining through the sweat; the whole line lies down and rises up under an invisible breath, like blades of wheat under a storm, and still, with every movement, that terrible Allah-hou is repeated with increasing energy. How can such bellowings be kept up for more than an hour without bursting the osseous frame of the breast and spilling the blood out of the broken vessels?" (Constantinople, xii). The whirling dervishes, founded in the thirteenth century, are Mauolaniya, also called Mevlevis. "They waltz with arms extended, head inclined on the shoulder, eyes half-closed, mouth half-opened, like confident swimmers who are letting themselves be borne away on the stream of ecstasy. . . . Sometimes the head is thrown back, showing the whites of their eyes, and lips flecked with alight foam" (Constantinople, xi). At last they fall on their knees, exhausted, face to the earth, until the chief touches them, sometimes having to rub their arms and legs. No beholder, without previous information, would suspect the religious significance of their physical exercises of the howling and whirling dervishes, or that they constitute a process for arriving at union with God. This union does not consist, as with the saints of Christianity, in a higher knowledge and love of God, attained in silence and repose. In the orders which affect ecstasy, the khouan, on the contrary, is satisfied with the preposterous notion of using violent means to produce physiological effects which bring on intoxication to the point of unconsciousness.


RINN, Marabouts et Khouan (Algiers, 1884); LE CHATLIER, Les confréries musulmanes (Paris, 1887); DE PONT and CAPPOLANI, Les confréries religieuses musulmanes (Algiers, 1897); POMMEROL, Chez ceux qui guettent (Paris, 1902); PETIT, Les confréries musulmanes, an excellent summary (PARIS, 1902).

About this page

APA citation. Poulain, A. (1911). Mohammedan Confraternities. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Poulain, Augustin. "Mohammedan Confraternities." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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