Mohamed ben Issa
Regions with significant populations

The Aissawa (also Aissawa, Issawa, Aissaoua, Issaoua) is a religious and mystical brotherhood founded in Meknes, Morocco, by Sheikh al-Kamil Mohamed al-Hadi ben Issa (or Aissa) (14651526), best known as the Shaykh Al-Kamil, or "Perfect Sufi Master". The terms Aissawiyya (`Isawiyya) and Aissawa (`Isawa), derive from the name of the founder, and respectively designate the brotherhood (tariqa, literally: "way") and its disciples (fuqara, sing. to fakir, literally: "poor").

They are known for their spiritual music, which generally comprises songs of religious psalms, characterized by the use of the oboe ghaita (similar to the mizmar or zurna) accompanied by percussion using polyrhythm.

Complex ceremonies, which use symbolic dances to bring the participants to ecstatic trance, are held by the Aissawa in private during domestic ritual nights (lîla-s), and in public during celebrations of national festivals (the moussem-s, which are also pilgrimages) as well as during folk performances or religious festivities, such as Ramadan, or mawlid, the "birth of the Prophet." These are organized by the Moroccan and Algerian States.

Founder of the brotherhood: Muhammad Ben Issa

Some details regarding Ben Issa remain unknown. He has a controversial genealogy and a hagiography that projects the image of a Sufi master and legendary ascetic of considerable spiritual influence. Ben Issa built his own mausoleum in the monastery or Zaouia in the city of Meknes. This is now a destination for his modern followers to visit and pray while participating in individual or collective acts of piety. Ben Issa was initiated into Sufism by three masters of the tariqa Shadhiliyya/Jazuliyya: Abu al-Abbas Ahmad Al-Hariti (Meknes), Abdelaziz al-Tebaa (Marrakesh) and Muhammad as-Saghir as-Sahli (Fès).

Spiritual doctrine

The spiritual doctrine of the Issawa follows the earlier mystical tradition of the tariqa Shadhiliyya/Jazuliyya. This religious teaching first appeared in 15th century Marrakesh and is the most orthodox mystical method to appear in the western region of North Africa known as the Maghreb.

Issawa disciples are taught to follow the instruction of their founder by adhering to Sunni Islam and practising additional psalms including the long prayer known as "Glory to the Eternal" (Al-hizb Subhan Al-Da `im).

The original Issawa doctrine makes no mention of ecstatic or ritual exercises such as music and dance.

The mother-monastery of Meknes

The Zaouia or monastery in Meknes is the main spiritual centre of the Issawa brotherhood. Founded by Muhammad Ben Issa at the end of the 15th century, construction resumed three centuries later under sultan Mohammed ben Abdallah. Often renovated by the Ministry for Habous and Islamic Affairs and maintained by the municipal services, this is the center of the brotherhood's international network. The site is open to the public all year round and is the location of the tombs of founder Shiekh al-Kamil, his disciple Abu ar-Rawayil, and the alleged son of the founder, Issa Al-Mehdi.

International growth

Issawa's international growth began in the 18th century. From Morocco, it has spawned organizations in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria and Iraq. Outside of these countries, Issawi practice without immediate access to Issawa institutions, as in France, Belgium, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, the USA and Canada. There is a building movement in the United States, focused primarily in Chicago.

Current situation

Theoretically, the brotherhood's network is led from the mother-monastery in Meknes by direct biological descendants of Muhammad Ben Issa. The leader is currently Sidi Allal al-Issawi, a teacher and member of the League of Oulemas of Morocco and Senegal, as well as a poet and historian. In Morocco, the brotherhood the musicians together with their rituals and music currently enjoy a particular vogue. The basic cell of the religious order in Morocco is the team (ta `ifa), which takes the form of a traditional musical orchestra with twenty to fifty disciples.

Since a decision taken in the 17th century by the mother-monastery, groups of musicians are placed under the authority of a delegate (muqaddem). There are currently orchestras of the brotherhood across Morocco, but they are especially numerous in the towns of Fes and Meknes, under the authority of the master Haj Azedine Bettahi, who is a well-known Sufi musician.

As leader of the muqaddem-s, Haj Azedine Bettahi has under his authority the following individuals:

All Issawa groups lead ceremonies that mix mystical invocation with exorcisms and trance-inducing group dances.

The Issawa trance ritual : origin and symbolism

In Morocco, the ceremonies of the Issawa brotherhood take the form of domestic nightly rituals (known simply as "night", lila), organized mainly by Imam Shiekh Boulila (Master of the night), at the request of women sympathizers. Women are currently the principal customers of the orchestras of the brotherhood in Morocco.

As the Aissawa are supposed to bring to people blessings ("barakah"), reasons for organizing a ceremony are varied and include celebration of a Muslim festivity, wedding, birth, circumcision, or exorcism, the search for a cure for illness or to make contact with the divine through the extase. Rituals have standardized phases among all the Aissawa orchestras. These include mystical recitations of Sufi litanies and the singing of spiritual poems along with exorcisms, and collective dances.

Ludic aspects of the ceremony are attested to by the participants' laughter, songs, and dances, alongside ecstatic emotional demonstrations, which may feature crying and tears. At the symbolic system level, the ceremony represents the initiatory advance of the Sufi on an ascending mystical voyage towards God and the Prophet, then the final return to Earth. This odyssey passes through the world of human beings and that of the jinn to culminate in the higher spheres, where the human meets the divine.

According to Aissawa lore, this ceremony was not established nor even practised at the time of Chaykh Al-Kamil. Some members of the brotherhood believe that it emerged in the 17th century at the instigation of Aissawî disciple Sîdî `Abderrahman Tarî Chentrî. Alternatively, it may have appeared in the 18th century under the influence of Moroccan Sufi masters Sîdî `Ali Ben Hamdûch or Sîdî Al-Darqawî, who were both well known for their ecstatic practices.

More broadly, the actual trance ritual of the Aissawa brotherhood seems to have been established progressively through the centuries under the three influences of Sufism, pre-Islamic animist beliefs and urban Arab melodic poetry such as the Malhun.

Aissawa Moroccans generally avoid deep intellectual and philosophical speculations about Sufism, preferring to attach greater importance to the technical and aesthetic aspects of their music, litanies, poetry and ritual dances. They like to consider their ceremonial space as a safe haven for various artistic elements, for their symbolic system, as well as for the religious traditions of Moroccan culture.

Professionalization of Aissawa musicians

Genres Ritual, sacred, trance

The early 1990s saw the professionalization of ritual music, which affected both the musicians and their market. This change was possible because the authorities looked on moonlighting and the underground economy favorably. In this context, the Aissawa orchestras exhibit trends that are otherwise difficult to spot in the Moroccan economy. The brotherhood orchestras' moonlighting created a network which makes it possible to define a collective interest, and to test new assumptions regarding economic and social responsibility.

Today, through the commercial diffusion of Sufi music, songs, psalms (including during weddings and festivals as well as commercials recordings) and the trade related to crowned divination and exorcism, the Aissawa members establish social integration. Although this phenomenon causes the appearance of new aesthetic standards through more commercial adaptations of mystical psalms, it also leads to the loss of original Sufi doctrines through severe competition between musicians which in turn degrades the social link between the disciples.

Commentaries on the Aissawa

Many past and contemporary researchers have shown an interest in the Aissawa, particularly from the point of view of studying the religious contours of a Muslim society. Former commentaries on the brotherhood were written in French and Arabic with the first Arab examples being biographical and hagiographic collections compiled between the 14th and 16th century by Moroccan biographers such as Al-Ghazali, Ibn `Askar, Al-Fassi, Al-Mahdi and Al-Kettani. These texts, which may be handwritten or printed, provide information on the genealogical and spiritual affiliations of the founder of the order, while at the same time enumerating the numerous wonders he realized for the benefit of his sympathizers. Contemporary Arab authors who have studied this topic include Daoui, Al-Malhouni and Aissawî, who are the current mezwar of the brotherhood in person. These endeavour to put in perspective the Sufi order in the cultural and religious tradition of Morocco through the study of the biography of the founder, and his spiritual doctrine alongside poetic and liturgical texts.

The first French writings on the Aissawa appeared at the end of the 19th century following the installation of colonial administration in the Maghreb. The majority of the authors, who were also anthropologists and sociologists, were at that time French and included Pierre-Jacques André, Alfred Bel, René Brunel, Xavier Depont and Octave Coppolani, Emile Dermenghem, Edmond Doutté, George Drague, Roger Tourneau, Louis Rinn (chief of the Central Service of the indigenous Affairs to the Government General in Algeria at the end of the 19th century), Louis Massignon and Edouard Michaux-Bellaire. These last three authors were military officers with the scientific expedition of the Administration of Indigenous Affairs and their writings are published in the Moroccan Files and the Review of the Muslim World. Among all these French authors, there was also the Finnish anthropologist Edward Westermarck, whose various works are devoted to an analysis of the system of belief and ritual in Morocco.

Excepting those authors with a scientific approach, in Morocco and Algeria (to date there has been no study devoted to the Aissawa in Tunisia), the ritual practices of Aissawa drew the attention of and considerably disturbed western observers at the beginning of the 19th century. The brotherhood is evoked here and there in medical works, monographs, schoolbooks, paintings, tests or accounts of voyages. These various writings show a recurring passionate contempt for this type of religiosity. Spiritual dimensions of the brotherhood of Aissawa at that time were never examined, other than by Emile Dermenghem in his acclaimed Le culte des saints dans l'Islam Maghrebin (Paris, 1951). Other texts were only very seldom neutral. By attaching a non-Muslim and archaic label to some brotherhoods (such as the Aissawa but also the Hamadcha and Gnaoua), these writings served to legitimize French prerogatives in the Maghreb.

The New Encyclopedia of Islam reports that "the scholar of religions, Mircea Eliade, guided by Van Gennep, wrote the observation that the Aissawa are in fact a Maennerbund, that is, a lycanthropic secret society. In other words, werewolves."[1] An 1882 New York Times article, reprinting an account from Blackwood's Magazine, reports lycanthropy and self-injury during an Aissawa ritual in Kairouan:

[O]ne of the Tunisian soldiers ... seized a sword and began to lacerate his stomach. The blood flowed freely, and he imitated all the time the cries and movements of the camel. We soon had a wolf, a bear, a hyena, a jackal, a leopard, and a lion.... A large bottle was broken up and eagerly devoured.... Twenty different tortures were going on in twenty different parts of the hall."[2]

Contemporary scientific research

Some authors of religious history (Jeanmaire) and ethnomusicology (Gilbert Mullet and Andre Boncourt) became interested in the Aissawa in the 1950s and remain so to this day. It was only after Moroccan (1956) and Algerian (1962) independence that contemporary social scientists began to consider the subject. Many articles (Belhaj, Daoui, Hanai, Nabti and Andezian) and theses (Al Malhouni, Boncourt, Lahlou, El Abar, Sagir Janjar and Nabti) as well as ethnographic movies have studied the ritual practices of Aissawa in Morocco.

New approaches and prospects

An analysis of the work by Sossie Andezian regarding the Aissawa brotherhood and Sufism in Algeria, is considered essential and impossible to circumvent. In her book The Significance of Sufism in Algeria in the aftermath of Independence (2001), Andezian analyzes the processes of reinvention of ritual acts in the context of sociopolitical movements in Algeria. Her reflection leads to a dynamic vision of the religious and mystical rites while highlighting the evolution of the links that people, marginalized in the religious sphere, maintain with the official and textual religious institutions. Continuing the reflexions of Andezian, Mehdi Nabti conducted an investigation inside the Aissawa brotherhood in Morocco in his doctoral thesis entitled The Aissawa brotherhood in urban areas of Morocco: the social and ritual aspects of modern sufism, which is considered a significant contribution to the socio-anthropology of the current Maghreb. Nabti shows the complex modalities of the inscription of the brotherhood in a Moroccan society led by an authoritative government (which try timidly to be liberalized), endemic unemployment, the development of tourism and the progress of political Islamism. While immersing himself as a ritual musician within the Aissawa orchestras, Mehdi Nabti casts new light on knowledge of Sufism and brings invaluable facts on the structure of the brotherhood and its rituals as well as the diverse logic behind affiliation to a traditional religious organization in a modern Muslim society. His work, which offers an iconographic description of musical scores pointing to esoteric symbolism and a DVD documentary, is the greatest sum of knowledge currently available on the subject. Mehdi Nabti is also the leader of the Aissawaniyya Orchestra, which brings together French jazzmen and Aissawa musicians. The band plays concerts all over the world and also conducts master classes.


  1. Cyril, Glassé (2008). The New Encyclopedita of Islam. Lanhan, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 34–35. ISBN 0-7425-6296-4. Retrieved November 4, 2009.
  2. "The Aissaouia--Their Horrible Rites; Kairwan" (PDF). New York Times. New York: The New York Times Company. February 12, 1882. p. 4. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved November 4, 2009.

Further reading

Arabian language bibliography

French language bibliography

English language bibliography

External links

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