The Aissawa (also Aïssâwa and Avestita) is a religious and mystical brotherhood and order founded in Meknès, Morocco by Muhammad Ben Aïssâ (1465-1526), best know as the "Chaykh Al-Kâmil" (translated as the Perfect sufi Master). The terms Aïssâwiyya (`Isâwiyya) and Aïssâwa (`Isâwa), came from the name of the founder, designate respectively the brotherhood (tariqa, litt. “way”) and its disciples (fuqarâ, sing. to fakir, litt. “poor”). In the beginning clearly orthodox, the brotherhood of Aïssâwa became a very complex social phenomenon, in frontier of crowned and the layman, the private and public spaces and the erudite and popular culture.
The Aïssâwa are known for their spiritual music characterized by the use of the oboe ghaita (syn. mizmar, zurna), of collective songs of religious psalms accompanied by an orchestra of percussions using polyrhythm. Their complex ceremony, which use symbolic dances bringing the participants to extatic trance, take place in the private sphere during domestic rituals nights ("lîla"-s), and also in the public sphere during celebrations of nationnals festivals (the "moussem"-s, which are also pilgrimages) and touristic (folk spectacles) or religious festivities (Ramadan, mawlid or birth of the Prophet) organized by the Moroccan and Algerian States.
In spite of their particularly fortifying music, the Aïssâwa don’t profit from the same passion as the gnaoua near the Western public. However, like them - or like the Hamadcha with which they are usually confused - the Aïssâwa are always disparaged and placed at the bottom of the confreric hierarchy. Two principal reasons with that :

* 1st reason : there are in the ritual of the brotherhood of Aïssâwa some non-islamic elements, which are appeared progressively along the centuries, like exorcism and trance dances.

* 2nd reason: the Aïssâwî disciples were recruited traditionally among the poors populations of the Maghreb, or disadvantaged and marginalized people of the urban areas.

In the Maghreb crossed by a conservatism form of modernity (political islamism) and a serious economic crisis, it’s easy to understand that this brotherhood crystallizes the tensions and contradictions of maghrebian societies because of the stigmatizing image that the majority opinion returns to her.

The founder of the brotherhood

The founder of the Aïssâwa brotherhood remains a somewhat enigmatic character whose genealogy is always prone to controversy. His hagiography sends to us the image of a sufi master and legendary ascetic of a considerable spiritual influence. His mausoleum is today in the Zaouia that he build himself in Meknès, holy house where today several people come to pray and to participe to mystical and religious acts of piety, individual or collective. Muhammad Ben Aïssâ was initiated with the sufism by three masters of the tariqa Shadhiliyya/Jazûliyya : `Abbâs Ahmad Al-Hâritî (Meknès), Muhammad `Abd Al `Azîz At-Tabbâ' (Marrakech) and Muhammad as-Saghîr as-Sahlî (Fès).

Spiritual doctrine

The spiritual doctrine of the Aïssâwa follows the mystical tradition historically preceding, the tariqa Shadhiliyya/Jazûliyya. Without going into details, this religious teaching, appeared in 15th century in Marrakech, is the most orthodox mystical method appeared in the Maghreb. The Aïssâwî disciples are held to respect the recommendations of their founder : to follow sunni islam and to practice additional psalms like the long prayer knowns under the name of “Glory to the Eternal” (Al-hizb Subhân Al-Dâ `im). The original Aïssâwa doctrine doesn’t mention extatics and rituals exercices (like musics and dances).

The mother-Zaouia of Meknes

The Zaouia of Meknes is the main spiritual center of Aissawa. It was founded by Muhammad Ben Aïssâ at the end of the 15th century. Construction resumed three centuries later by the sultan Mohammed ben Abdallah. Often renovated by the Ministry for Habous and the Islamic Affairs and maintained by the municipal services, the sacred place possesses a national and transnational confreric network. The site is open to the public every day of the year. It shelters three principal tombs today: the tomb of the founder "Chaykh Al-Kâmil", the tomb of his disciple Abû-ar-Rawâyil and the tomb of the supposed son of the founder, Aïssâ Al-Mehdi.

Geographical establishment

The brotherhood of Aïssâwa is always active today and its transnational swarming began at the 18th century. In addition to Morocco, the brotherhood is present in an institutional form in Algeria, in Tunisia, in Libya, in Egypt, in Syria and Iraq. Many disciples live in a way isolated in France, Belgium, Italy, Spain, in the Netherlands, in the USA and Canada.

Current situation

In theory the confreric network is led from the mother-Zaouia in Meknès by the direct biological descendants of Muhammad Ben Aïssâ. At their head there is Sîdî Allal Aïssâwî, teacher, member of the League of Oulémas of Morocco and Senegal, poet and historian.In Morocco, the brotherhood – the musicians, their ritual and their music - currently enjoy a vogue without similar. In this country the basic cell of the religious order is the tâ `ifa (“group”, “team”) which is presented in the shape of a traditional musical orchestra composed by fifty to twenty disciples. Appeared at the 17th century by appointment of the persons in charge for the mother-Zaouia, the groups of musicians are placed under the authority of a "muqaddem" (“delegate”). There are currently orchestras of the brotherhood in all Morocco, but those are in a number particularly high in the towns of Fès and Meknès, placed under the authority of the master [ Haj Azedine Bettahi] , leader and very famous sufi musician.

Being the leader of the "muqaddem"-s, [ Haj Azedine Bettahi] has under his authority the Aïssâwa "muqaddem"-s following:
*Haj Muhammad 'Azzam
*Haj Saïd El Guissy
*Haj Saïd Berrada
*'Abdelatif Razini
*'Adnan Chouni
*'Omar 'Alawi
*'Abou Lhaz Muhammad
*'Abdallah Yaqoubi
*Muhammad Ben Hammou
*Haj Hussein Lbaghmi
*Idriss Boumaza
*Haj 'Abdelhak Khaldun
*Muhammad Ben Chabou
*Mohcine Arafa Bricha
*Moustafa Barakat
*Nabil Ben Slimane
*Hassan Amrani
*Youssef 'Alami
*Youssef Semlali
*'Abdellah al-Mrabet
*Benaissa Ghouali
*Djamel Sahli
*Nadjib Mekdia
*Lounis Ghazali
*Djamel Blidi
*Essaid Haddadou
*Mustapha Ben Ouahchia
*Hadj Ali Al Badawi
*Cheikhuna Hakim Meftah Al Bedri All the Aïssâwa groups animate ceremonies mixing mystical invocations, exorcism and collectives dances of trance.

The Aïssâwa trance ritual : origin and symbolism

In Morocco, the ceremonies of the Aïssâwa brotherhood are domesticals rituals nights (called simply “night”, "lila") organized mainly by Imam Shiekh Boulila (Master of the night) at the request of the women sympathizers. In this country, the women currently make the principal customers of the orchestras of the brotherhood. The Aïssâwa being supposed to bring to people the baraka, the reasons to organize a ceremony are varied : celebration of a Muslim festivity, wedding, birth, circumcision, exorcism, search for cure or contact with the divine one by the extase. The ritual is proposed with identical phases by all the Aïssâwa orchestras and includes mystical recitations of Sufi litanies, songs of spiritual poems, an exorcism and a collective dance. The ludic aspects of the ceremony are current and asserted by the participants (laughter, songs, dances) just as the extatic body demonstrations (cries, tears). On the level symbolic system, the ceremony represents the initiatory advance of the Sufi : an ascending mystical voyage towards God and the Prophet with return on ground. The odyssey crosses at the same time the world of the Human beings and that of the demons jinn to culminate in the higher spheres, point of meeting of the human being and the divine one. According to Aïssawa, this ceremony was not established nor even practised by "Chaykh Al-Kâmil". Some of their think that it appeared at the 17th century under the impulse of an Aïssâwî disciple (Sîdî `Abderrahmân Tarî Chentrî) or at the 18th century under the influence of other Moroccan Sufi masters famous for their extatic practices (Sîdî `Ali Ben Hamdûch or Sîdî Al-Darqâwî). More largely, the actual trance ritual of the Aïssâwa brotherhood seems to have been establishes progressively through the centuries under triple influences : Sufism, animist beliefs from pre-Islamic age and urban Arab poetry, like Malhun.
In general Aïssâwa Morrocans stand out of deep intellectual and philosophical speculations about Sufism, they prefer to attach a great importance to the technical and esthetic aspect of their music, litanies, poetries and ritual dances. They like to consider their ceremony as a space of safeguard of various artistic elements, symbolic system, religious and historic of the Moroccan culture.

The professionalisation of the Aïssâwa musicians

Since the beginning of the 1990s appears in Morocco a professionalisation of the trade of ritual musician and a marketing of crowned, phenomenon maintained by the rather favorable attitude the authorities with the moonlighting and the parallel economy. In this context the Aïssâwa orchestras allow the Morrocans to stage to the actual difficult socio economic situation. Indeed, these confreric orchestras set up a moonlighting which makes it possible to define a collective interest and to solve new forms of assumption of economic and social responsibility. Today it’s by the commercial diffusion of the musical Sufi musics, songs, psalms (during weddings, festivals, commercials recordings etc) and the trade related to crowned (divination, exorcism etc.) that the Aïssâwa members live their social integration. This phenomenon causes, on the one hand, the appearance of new aesthetic standards (adaptation of the mysticals psalms from the point of view of commercial recordings and concerts), and, on the other hand, the loss of the original sufi doctrine. As, it is clear as the professionalisation causes a severe competition between the orchestras which deteriorates the social link between the disciples.

The writings about Aïssâwa

Many past and contemporary researches were interested about Aïssâwa, this brotherhood seems to be of particular interest from the point of view of a study of contours of the religious in a Muslim society. The former writings on the brotherhood are in French and Arabic languages. The first Arab writings concerning Aïssâwa are biographical and hagiographic collections written between 14th and 16th century by the Moroccan biographers like Al-Ghazali, Ibn `Askar, Al-Fassi, Al-Mahdi and Al-Kettani. These texts, which can be handwritten or printed, inform us on the one hand of the genealogical and spiritual filiation of the founder of the order, and, on the other hand, the innumerable wonders supposed report to be realized by him for the benefit of his sympathizers. The contemporary Arab authors who studied the subject are Daoui, Al-Malhouni and Aïssâwî, which is the current "mezwâr" of the brotherhood in person. Those endeavour to put in perspective the Sufi order in the cultural and religious tradition of Morocco by the study of the biography of the founder, his spiritual doctrine and the poetic and liturgical texts. The first French writings on Aïssâwa appears in the end of the 19th century following the installation of the colonial administration in the Maghreb. The majority of the authors (at the same time anthropologists and sociologists) of this time are French. There were 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 of the Scientific expedition of the Administration of the Indigenous Affairs and their writings are published in the Moroccan Files and the Review of the Muslim World. Among all these French authors, let us note the presence of a Finnish anthropologist, Edward Westermarck, whose various works are devoted to the analysis of the system of belief and ritual in Morocco. Except these authors with the scientific approach, in Morocco and Algeria (there has not existed, for this time and so far, no study devoted to Aïssâwa in Tunisia), the ritual practices of Aïssâwa draw the attention and disturb considerably the 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 transmit texts to the always passion style to us where the contempt for this type of religiosity is recurring. The spiritual dimension of the brotherhood of Aïssâwa at that time is never approached, except by Emile Dermenghem in the famous "Le culte des saints dans l'Islam Maghrebin" (Paris, 1951). Let us recall that these texts of then can only very seldom be neutral. By allotting a non-"muslim" and "archaic" seal to some brotherhoods (like Aïssâwa but also Hamadcha and Gnaoua), these writings legitimate in a way the French prerogatives on the Maghreb.

Contemporary scientific researches

Some authors of religious history (Jeanmaire) and ethnomusicology (Gilbert Mullet, Andre Boncourt) are interested as of 1950s and until today in Aïssâwa. It is only after the independence of Morocco (1956) and Algeria (1962) that contemporary social sciences consider the subject. Very many articles (Belhaj, Daoui, Hanai, Nabti, Andezian) and thesis (Al Malhouni, Boncourt, Lahlou, El Abar, Sagir Janjar, Nabti) or ethnographic movies have studied the ritual practices of Aïssawa in Morocco.

New approaches and prospects

About the Aïssâwa brotherhood and Sufism in Algeria, the great work of Sossie Andezian is 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 réinvention of ritual acts in a context of sociopolitic movements in Algeria. Her reflexion 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, maintains with the official and textual religious institutions. Continuing the reflexion of Andezian, Mehdi Nabti conducted an investigation inside the Aïssâwa brotherhood in Morocco. His thesis of doctorate "The Aïssâwa brotherhood in urban area in Morocco. The socials and rituals aspects of modern sufism" appears like a significant contribution to the socio-anthropology on the current Maghreb. Nabti shows the complex modalities of the inscription of the brotherhood in a Moroccan society leaded by an authoritative government (which try timidly to be liberalized), an endemic unemployment, the development of tourism and the progress of political islamism. While immersing himself as ritual musician within the Aïssâwa orchestras, Mehdi Nabti renews the knowledges about sufism and brings invaluable facts on the structure of the brotherhood, the ritual and the diverses logics of affiliation to a religious traditional organization in a modern muslim society. His work, which offers a remarkable iconographic description, musical scores pointing esotericism symbolism and a DVD documentary, is the greatest sum of knowledge which we currently have on the subject. Mehdi Nabti is also the leader a music orchestra - Aïssâwaniyya - with brings togather french jazzmen and Aïssâwa musicians. The band plays in concert all over the world and gives masterclasses.

Arabic bibliography

* Al-Ghazali, "Al-Mukhtassâr"Fact|date=January 2008 (1550)
* Ibn 'Assâkir : Dawhat Al-nâchir li mhâssin man kana bi Al-maghrib min machâykh al-garn al'âchir. Ed : 2. Rabat. 1976. (On the excellent virtues of the sheikhs of the Maghreb in the 10th century, translated in French by A. Graulle, 1913)
* Abd al-Rahman al-Fasi (1631-1685), "Ibtihaj al-qulub bi khabar al-Shaykh Abi al-Mahasin wa wa shaykhihi al-Majdhub"
* AL-MAHDI, "Mumatî’ al-asmâ"Fact|date=January 2008 (1336)
* Al-Kettani, "Salâwat al-anfâs" (1898)
* DAOUI, "Mawassim Chaykh al-kâmil baïya al-aws wa al-yawn" (1994)
* AL MALHOUNI, "Adwae ‘ala tasawwuf bî al-maghrib : tarîqa al-Aïsssâwiyya mamuzâjan. Min khilâl chi’r al-malhûn, al-hikâya cha‘biya sufiya, al-muradadât chafâhiya, ‘awayd turuqiyyin." (2003)
* AISSAWI AL-CHAYKH AL-KAMIL, "Sîdî Muhammad ben Aïssa. Tarîqa wa zâwiya wa istimrariyya' (2004)

French Bibliography

* ANDEZIAN, "Expériences du divin dans l’Algérie contemporaine" (2001)
* ANDRE, "Contribution à l'étude des confréries religieuses musulmanes " (1956)
* BEL, " La religion musulmane en Berbérie : esquisse d'histoire et de sociologie religieuses" (1938)
* BELHAJ, "La possession et les aspects théâtraux chez les Aïssaouas d’Afrique du Nord" (1996)
* BONCOURT, "Rituel et musique chez les 'Isawa citadins du Maroc" (1980)
* BRUNEL, "Essai sur la confrérie religieuse des Aïssaouas au Maroc" (1926)
* DEPONT & COPPOLANI, "Les confréries religieuses musulmanes" (1897)
* DERMENGHEM, "Le Culte des saints dans l’Islam maghrébin" (1954)
** Essai sur la Hadra des Aïssaoua d’Algérie" (1951)
* DOUTTE, "Magie et religion en Afrique du Nord" (1908)
* DRAGUE, "Esquisse d’histoire religieuse au Maroc. Confréries et Zaouias" (1950)
* ELABAR, " Musique, rituels et confrérie au Maroc : les ‘Issâwâ, les Hamâdcha et les Gnawa" (2005)
* JEANMAIRE, "Dionysos" (1951)
* LAHLOU, "Croyances et manifestations religieuses au Maroc : le cas de Meknès" (1986)
* LE TOURNEAU, "Fès avant le protectorat : Étude économique et sociale d'une ville de l’Occident musulman, 1949. La vie quotidienne à Fès en 1900" (1965)
* MASSIGNON, "Enquête sur les corporations musulmanes d’artisans et de commerçants au Maroc" (1925)
* MICHAUX-BELAIRE, "Les confréries religieuses au Maroc" (1927)
* NABTI, "La confrérie des Aïssâwa en milieu urbain. Les pratiques rituelles et sociales du mysticisme contemporain." (2007)
** "Soufisme, métissage culturel et commerce du sacré. Les Aïssâwa marocains dans la modernité" (2007)
** "La lîla des Aïssâwa du Maroc, interprétation symbolique et contribution sociale" (2006)
* RINN, "Marabouts et Khouan, étude sur l’Islam en Algérie" (1884.)
* ROUGET, "La musique et la transe, " (1951)
* SAGHIR JANJAR, "Expérience du sacré chez la confrérie religieuse marocaine des Isawa : contribution à l'étude de quelques aspects socio-culturels de la mystique musulmane", 1984.
* WESTERMARCK, "Les cérémonies du Mariage au Maroc" (1921)
**"Survivances païennes dans la civilisation mahométane" (1935)

English Bibliography

* ANDEZIAN, "The Significance of Sufism in Algeria in the aftermath of Independence" (2001)
* ROUGET, "music and trance" (1951)
* TRIMINGHAM, "The Sufi orders in Islam" (1998)
* WESTERMARCK, "Ritual and belief in Morocco" (1926)


* Some of the researches oh Mehdi Nabti about the Aissawa in Morocco : [ Aissawa Brotherhood]
* Muhammad "Bel Haj" Ben Guaddane (Aissawa of Meknes) on Myspace []
* Aissawaniyya on Myspace []
* The official website of the Aïssâwa brotherhood in Algeria : []
* Aissawa Music Streaming Collection in Morocco : [ at]

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