Working Paper 52

Competition and Exclusion in Islamic and Non-Islamic Societies: an essay on purity and power

Günther Schlee

Department ‘Integration and Conflict’

Year of publication

Number of pages

Working Paper 52

The link between purity and power in African systems of ideas can be direct: one may loose one's (ritual) power, for example, the ability to utter a potent curse or an efficient blessing, by not maintaining a standard of purity, for example by violating a food avoidance rule. Social hierarchies between clans with and without specific ritual or political powers and between professional groups of high and low status are constructed along such lines. In other contexts, the relationship between purity and power is not direct but mediated by moral notions: ritual compliance is seen as an indicator of a moral standard that qualifies a person for political power. Conversely, non-compliance leads to exclusion from power. Competition for the forms of power, which are legitimised in this way, may lead to the rapid rigidification of beliefs and ritual practice. Examples can be found in recent developments within Islam and Christianity. Purity tends to go along with rhetorical exclusion of the "impure".

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