Islam knows both a formal religious hierarchy and a host of informal practitioners. Some of them are held in much awe because of their control of powerful human and non-human forces.
At a simple level of ability are the prayer-writers. Some more specialized prayer-writers, like the jadoogar, or village magician, of Iran, may also practice fortune-telling by the reading of omens.
The medicine man or his equivalent performs a variety of functions.
Diviners work in two major realms – they discover the causes of and cures for, sickness and they predict future events.
Exorcists play an important role in societies that see many human problems as the result of spirits’ interference. The male bakhshi of Afghanistan exorcises by entering a trance where he transfers the evil spirit from its victim to himself and then expels it.
In the world of magic and sorcery, practitioners of real power vie with one another for authority.
Pirs and marabouts, the holy men of Eastern and Western Islam respectively, have the role of practitioners among ordinary Muslims. In some of their various practices, and certainly in the devotees’ use of their baraka, many of the functions of popular religion realized.
The common stereotype of an Islamic community relegates women to purdah (seclusion), childbearing and menial tasks. Besides a general power in activities involving the supernatural world, women also hold authority in matters of folk religion. That authority rises to the surface at times of crisis, or in perpetuating some aspects of the various rites of passage.
The midwife is a major practitioner of the folk Islamic world. However, it is not the midwife but the female medium-healer who takes on the role of bridge to the world beyond.
A sorceress who specializes in love magic is known as sahhara in Algeria. A fee of $1,000 is not unknown for this kind of service.
The shawwafa of North Africa specializes in the matching of potential marriage partners.
The female shaykha who officiates at the zar ceremonies of the Arab world, and the female bakshi, who performs a similar function in Afghan Turkistan, hold much authority among women in the local communities. Such women have predominantly female clients, but their activities and instruction have indirect implication for the families and homes of those who seek their help.
Female washers of the dead are also seen as people of power. In Morocco they are generally feared as sorceresses.
The major criterion for recognition of practitioners in the folk-Islamic world is that of proven power. Men and women alike seek their help.
Whom seen to have power in Islam raises many issues. Alternate kinds of power seem more strongly differentiated in some situations, more strongly joined in others.
As one moves away from the intellectual centres of the faith, towards the villages, the more one sees greater involvement in the folk-Islamic world by all kinds of Muslims. As one moves away from the Arabic usage towards indigenous ways of expression, there is less likelihood of orthodox Islam having such a strong hold over people.
Moreover, as one travels from the centre towards the boundaries of ideal belief and practice, the very practitioners of that belief and practice tend to compromise their allegiance to formal Islam. For many of such village officials, existence is probably only made viable by the extra income derived from their practices of magic and charm writing, healing and so on.
In Turkey, the village hoca (religious leader) may well be the village sorcerer.
At the deeper levels of involvement within popular Islam, the functions are almost wholly performed by local, non-hierarchical practitioners. In such a way legends are born – at a long distance from the hierarchy of the formal faith.