Between The Magical and the Mundane: Holy Fools, the Homeless and Street-Dwellers in Contemporary Egypt

By Omar Omar
Submitted to Session P5013 (The Formation of the Secular Since Ottoman Times, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries; Comparative; Ethnography;
This paper examines the dynamics between the magzoub and the homeless individual in contemporary Egypt. The magzoub, literally derived from “he who is attracted to God” is a saint-like holy fool rooted in the Islamic tradition, traditionally understood to be imbibed with baraka, or blessing, and was often revered and sought out by common people for the magzoub’s purported otherworldly connection to God. Noted for their eccentric and often colorful speech, appearance, and manner, the magazib were sanctioned by a cultural tradition that accommodated them and their ways which shunned the traditional pillars of family and home, similar to the holy fools of medieval Europe or Hindu Sadhus of South Asia. Based on research drawn from various literary sources, these wandering ascetics seemed to be a salient feature of everyday life from the medieval to the modern period in Egypt. Today, they are mainly found at moulids, large festive religious gatherings associated with Muslim saints but historically were more ubiquitous. In recent decades, popular belief in the magzoub has fallen by the wayside, coinciding with the emergence of the street-dwelling musharrad homeless individual as a separate social category, associated with mental illness, social delinquency, and criminality, consigned to social exile. Street-dwellers in Egypt constitute an ‘invisible’ and marginal social category, existing outside of normative householder society in an unmarked and unbounded social space that functions as a “state of exception” where various rights and civil liberties normally conferred upon domiciled Egyptian citizens are suspended, in stark contrast to the treatment previously afforded the magzoub.
This research does not just attempt to collapse the distinctions between magzoub and musharrad, but rather to suggest that a paradigm shift that has taken place, transforming certain members of the itinerant poor associated with the divine into the vagrant homeless associated with profane street life. This paper argues that the magzoub is the precursor to the contemporary homeless individual and that this phenomenon far from being specific to Egypt has parallels in other historical examples around the world.
Based on fieldwork conducted for a research project on homelessness in Egypt, this paper engages with the anthropology of religion in Egypt as well as the anthropology of marginal social groups by examining a certain liminal social group that straddles two domains.