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Cherstich, Igor (2013) Libyan secrets : sufism, esoterism and the state in the Jamahiriya. PhD thesis. SOAS University of London. DOI:

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My research is based on a fifteen months field-work carried out in the city of Tripoli. In particular, my thesis focuses on the Issawiya, a Libyan Sufi brotherhood that has often attracted the curiosity of western observers due to the spectacular nature of its ritual performances. For centuries Libyan Issawis have made use of a specific secret knowledge that has allowed them to perform karamat (“miracles”). These miraculous exhibitions involve acts of self-harm aimed at demonstrating a prodigious invulnerability, and supernatural actions carried out through the acquisition of the strength of animals. Even though these miraculous performances are attested both in the colonial literature and in local narratives today the majority of the Issawis dismiss karamat as outdated practices that are in contrast with the dictates of the Qur’an. Bearing this in mind, one would be tempted to say that the Issawiya has embraced a more ‘disenchanted’ approach to Islam. In my thesis, however, I challenge this assumption. More specifically, I demonstrate that Issawis have not lost their belief in miracles, but only changed their attitude towards secrecy. Though still very much concerned with divine manifestations and supernatural phenomena, Issawis feel the need to distance themselves from the secret practices of the past in order to demonstrate the ‘transparency’ and orthodoxy of their religiosity. In order to understand why the brotherhood has ‘lost’ its secrets, I contextualise the Issawiya within the broader scenario of Gheddafi’s Libya, paying particular attention to the impact of the regime’s religious rhetorics on Sufism. In doing so I demonstrate that Libya’s political framework has forced Issawis to re-articulate the role of secrecy in their practices, but I also identify some internal dynamics of the brotherhood that have contributed to this ‘loss of secrets’.

Item Type: Theses (PhD)
SOAS Departments & Centres: SOAS Research Theses
Supervisors Name: Gabriele Vom Bruck
DOI (Digital Object Identifier):
Date Deposited: 03 Aug 2020 09:27

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