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." An 1882 New York Times article, reprinting an account from Blackwood's Magazine, reports lycanthropy and self-injury during an Aissawa ritual in Kairouan:
One 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."
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.
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license