During my doctoral research on European Sufism between Milan and Paris, I employed photography as a tool to ease the elaboration of fieldnotes. The first change in my methodological and epistemological perspective is connected to the research on Mamma Schiavona and the femminielli, within the ANR Cirelanmed project, of which I will talk further on.

Mamma Schiavona is surrounded by many actors, connected by complex and multiple relationships focused on Catholic religion, popular traditions and LGBT issues; this, together, with the aesthetic richness of this religious and popular celebration, led me to reconsider the role of photography. I reflected on its characteristic of being a communication and dissemination tool, appealing to a wider audience to show an unknown and engaging phenomenon. In fact, contrary to the public opinion which often considers LGBT issues and religion as separate and opposed, Mamma Schiavona and the femminielli incorporate all this and more. In the end, photography allowed me to convey the aesthetic dimension of this celebration, infused with colours, music, and contradictions.

The second methodological change is currently ongoing, and deals with the use of photography as an active tool of comprehension and understanding, that is, as an heuristic tool: photography as hetero-graphy.

Photographic Exhibition Sufis: A Look at the Mystics of Contemporary Islam

vrijdag 25 oktober 2019 – 17:00
TOKO, Statiestraat 139, Berchem

Kif Kif, TOKO and the Arabic Studies department of the KULeuven present the beautiful photographs of Francesco Piraino. The aim of this exhibition is to show different facets of contemporary Sufism as a religious, cultural and human mosaic. You will (almost) not see a whirling dervish, but you will see the dhikr, the invocation and remembrance of the “most beautiful” divine names, and the zāwiyas (literally “angle” in Arabic), the places where Sufi meet, pray and study.

Commonly regarded as the “mystical branch of Islam”, Sufism has played a fundamental role in the history of Islam. Sufis have often been the custodians of the arts in Islamic societies, in music, poetry and calligraphy.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, Sufism was the object of a double attack. First of all, from the state institutions that regarded the Sufi brotherhoods as a possible threat to their authority and as an obstacle to the process of modernization. Secondly, by the Islamic reformists who regarded Sufis as irrational obscurantists complicit with the colonial powers and unable to face the challenges of modernity. This made some researchers believe that Sufism was a phenomenon ready to disappear in modern societies.

Nevertheless, Sufism experienced a period of renewal during the 20th and 21st centuries. New Sufi orders were born while others found new energies. In addition, during the 20th century Sufism spread in Western societies, partly thanks to the flow of migration but also attracting new converts to Islam.

In fact, another fundamental concept is the baraka, the grace or blessing that circulates among Sufi disciples and masters, thanks to rituals, but also thanks to these practices of everyday life. Sufism becomes a heritage to exploit, touristic places to visit, an image to sell and reproduce. That said, the relationship between Sufis and the media is not passive, because Sufis use the media to spread their doctrines and rituals, creating a virtual Sufism, which is expressed through technological tools. Moreover, in Sufi concerts / performances rituals are not simply staged, but re-elaborated somewhere between secular performance and religious experience. Finally, the Sufis have attracted the interest of the state powers in the Maghreb, who are in search of a religious legitimation in opposition to Islamism. Sufism and / or its image are used to better control the religious field. Hence, we will see the “participation” of the images of the King of Morocco Mohammed VI and former Algerian President Bouteflika in Sufi events.

Funding acknowledgements

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the grant agreement “Sufism, Ethics and Democracy”, Project ID 751729.



Some Preliminary Thoughts with Pictures on Sufi Festivals

Francesco Piraino, Festival des Musique Sacrées du Monde, Morocco 2018


Sufi festivals are mushrooming, influencing how Sufism is perceived both inside and outside Islamic communities. Some of them are financed by national states, others are independent, some express Islamic and Sufi orthodoxy, others represent a universal and de-Islamised knowledge. Hence, it is difficult to generalise about possible common trends. What is certain is that there is a lack of research on this subject.

The most important festivals are:
– Festival de la Culture Soufie in Fez (Morocco)
– Festival des Musique Sacrées du Monde (Morocco)
– Festival Soufi de Paris (France)
– Sufi Soul Festival (Germany)
– Sufi Festival (Scotland)
– Rencontres et musiques soufies – Samaâ (Morocco) (no website)
– Festival Gnaoua et Musiques du monde (Morocco)
– World Sufi Spirit Festival Jodhpur (India)
– Sufi Festival (Israel)
– Konya International Mystic Music Festival (Turkey)



Francesco Piraino, Festival de Musique Sacrées du Monde, Morocco 2018

In the last years of research on Sufism in the public sphere, I had the opportunity to attend some Sufi Festivals, such as the Festival des Musique Sacrées du Monde and Festival de la Culture Soufie, both organized in Fez, Morocco. My preliminary thoughts are based on these events and the accompanying pictures were taken there.

The Festival des Musique Sacrées du Monde was founded by the intellectual Faouzi Skali and the politician Mohammed Kabbaj in Fez in 1994. This could be described as the first Sufi festival that influenced all the others. At the beginning of the 1990s, this festival hosted a few concerts of musicians playing sacred music from all over the world; over the years the festival grew in importance, and starting from the 2000s it gained an international reputation, attracting famous artists and thousands of visitors, which has greatly contributed to the touristic development of Fez (Mcguiness).

The dissemination of sacred music was not the only aim of this festival. The political-cultural engagement of the organisers had different aims: on the one hand, the Festival fostered interreligious dialogue by inviting musicians and intellectuals coming from different religious traditions. For example, in 1996 the Philharmonic Orchestra of Sarajevo played their first concert after the Bosnian war. On the other hand, the Festival fostered also a critique of “globalisation” understood as neo-liberal politics and neo-colonialism, a critique that did not reject modernity per se, but called instead for pluralism, ethics and spirituality. The target public is both Muslim and non-Muslim, coming from both Europe and Africa.

I took the following pictures in 2018 at Festival des Musique Sacrée at Bab Al-Makina; the artwork projected on the castle’s walls was created by the Sufi artist Rachid Koraïchi.



Francesco Piraino, Festival de Musique Sacrées du Monde, Morocco 2018

Faouzi Skali directed the Festival for more than 20 years, while nowadays it is led by Abderrafih Zouitene. The causes of this separation are not known; they could be related to artistic, religious, or political disagreements or to organisational reasons. What is evident is that the new Festival des musiques sacrées without Faouzi Skali (from 2014 onward) is less focused on the spiritual aspect and more on the spectacular dimension of music.

This new Festival is described by Moroccan intellectuals close to Skali as a “socialite event” and as “a machine”, underlining how the cultural, political and spiritual engagement are all waning. The spiritual dimension “moved” to another festival, founded in 2007 by Faouzi Skali and held in the medina of Fez: le Festival de la culture soufie. Similarly to the previous festival, this Sufi festival is committed to the diffusion of Sufism among the Moroccan public with the aim of fostering another image of Islam in opposition to the “clash of civilisations”.



Francesco Piraino, Festival de la culture soufie, Morocco 2018



Francesco Piraino, Festival de la culture soufie, Morocco 2018

These festivals allow us to see Sufi and Islamic phenomena from a different angle. First of all, it is evident that nation state powers are interested in promoting Sufism and/or a certain image of Sufism. Sufism is represented as an apolitical, pacifist, and privatised aspect of Islam in opposition to a politicised and intolerant Islamism. A stereotypical representation that is rarely true. Secondly, Sufism is a powerful magnet inasmuch it is a touristic attraction in Morocco, Turkey, India. The “mystical East” attracts many European spiritual seekers, who are also tourists with an important spending power.

The following pictures depict how the state powers “watch over” Sufi events. In the first one, King Mohammed VI and in the second the former Algerian president Bouteflika are present “in absence”, overseeing the festivals as portraits.


Francesco Piraino, Festival de la culture soufie, Morocco 2018


Francesco Piraino, Sufi conference in Temacine – Algeria 2018

On the other hand, these Festivals develop social and doctrinal changes within Sufism. The most remarkable change is what has been called “post-confrerism” by Eric Geoffroy, that is, the collaboration of different Sufi orders that once were in competition. In fact, in these events we may find Sufis from different orders, such as: Naqshbandiyya-Haqqaniyya, Tidjaniyya, Alawiyya, Budshishiyya. This is probably due to a strong political pressure, both from the Salafis and Islamists denouncing Sufism as a heterodoxy, and from nation states that use Sufism to improve their political control of the religious field. Political pressures that favour a Sufi alliance are expressed also in the organisational aspect of these Sufi festivals.

The second change I would like to describe within contemporary Sufism is what I have called “Inclusive Universalism” (link). It implies the redefinition of the concept of kāfir, which no longer means the “unbeliever”, the “atheist”, the “polytheist”, or in the most exclusive interpretation all those who are not Muslims. The infidel becomes a state of mind; the infidel is the unthankful one: “whoever is not capable of gratitude, who refuses the divine dimension which dwells in all men. Considering oneself superior and better than others is the road to Shayṭān, the one who did not recognize the divine dimension in the human being”, as a Sufi disciple told me once.

This openness concerns also atheists, who are considered capable of right behaviour and pious actions, even in the absence of religious faith. Following this perspective, Islam is a universal message of liberation from idolatry, a message of openness to the Other. On the other hand, this does not imply the absence of Islamic particularism, that is, the characteristics that mark Islamic identity and religious norms. In a few words, unlike other forms of Sufi universalism (cf. Idries Shah or Sufi Order International), this universalism does not imply a process of de-Islamisation.

Of course, this “inclusive universalism” is not shared by all the actors that participate in the Sufi Festivals, in fact, there are also some intellectuals and religious authorities that have more conservative views on alterity. Having said that, the most representative intellectuals and religious authorities that attend these festivals would probably fit in the aforementioned category (Shaykh Khaled Bentounes – religious authority, Alawiyya; Faouzi Skali – Moroccan Intellectual, Budshishiyya; Éric Geoffroy – French intellectual, Alawiyya; Abd Al Malik – French artist, Budshishiyya; Abd El Hafid Benchouk – religious authority, Naqshbandiyya; Bariza Khiari – politician, Budshishiyya; etc.).

This inclusive universalism and pluralism is reflected also in the concerts organised, both of religious and “secular” music. The following pictures show the concert of the Moroccan-Jew Gerard Edery in the synagogue of Ibn Danan (Fez) and the jazz concert of the Tunisian Dhafer Yousef with “Sufi influences”.


Francesco Piraino, Festival des Musique Sacrées du Monde, Morocco 2018

My last thought on these festivals concerns the spectacularisation of Sufi rituals. The dhikr (repetition of God’s name), the samāʿ (Sufi music), the haḍra (ecstatic dance) are performed on scene. It would be too easy to describe this as the commodification of religious practices; in fact, I consider this phenomenon to be more complex than that. The artists / Sufi disciples with whom I talked do not describe these performances as “normal” rituals, nor do they consider them as pure shows for tourists. They represent a liminal religious experience, between the performance and the ritual.







Francesco Piraino, Festival des Musique Sacrées du Monde, Morocco 2018

A Short Algerian reportage: Sufis of Temacine

These pictures depict the story of my trip to Temacine (Algeria), a small town and oasis facing the Sahara, in the South-East of the country. In January 2018, I spent 10 days with the Tijaniyya Sufi order, which is among the most important orders in the world, especially influential in Maghreb and West Africa.

The founder of the Sufi order, Abu al-ʿAbbās Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Tijānī (1735–1815), is considered by his disciples a saint of his time. His legacy is shared by Fès (Morocco), where he is buried, Ain Madhi (Algeria), where he was born, and Temacine, where one of his most important and influential disciples was based.

Shaykh Mohammed al-Aïd Tidjani (previous picture) is the leader of the Sufi order in Temacine, where he recently hosted a winter school focused on Sufism.

The town of Temacine is centred around the Sufi order, which manages the mosque, the quranic school, the mausoleum of the Sufi Tidjani masters, and a library.

In sociological terms, the Tidjaniyya order could be described with the idealtype of the church. In fact, its disciples are present both among the population and the political and economic elites. The order is embedded in the local society, and its religious, social and cultural activities have a meaningful impact on the public sphere.

Shaykh Mohammed al-Aïd Tidjani studied physics at the university in France, then became full professor, but lately left the academic environment. He followed his father’s steps and became the leader of the Sufi order. His heterogeneous route led him to believe that the religious knowledge is woven together with social and natural sciences. For this reason, the library in Temacine hosts many religious texts, but also social essays and science works.

Mamma Schiavona

Mamma Schiavona

Mamma Schiavona, literally ‘‘Mother Slave,’’ is an icon of the Virgin Mary situated in the sanctuary of Montevergine, near Avellino in the southern Italy. Mamma Schiavona is celebrated on 12 September—the Feast of the Holy Name of Mary—and on 2 February—Candlemas, the presentation of Jesus at the Temple—with the iuta , that is, the climb to the sanctuary.

Mary of Montevergine, who is a black Madonna, is called Mamma Schiavona by believers; unfortunately, it does not seem to be possible to retrace the etymology of this name. What is certain is the participation of groups of femminielli  (similar to homosexuals and transsexuals) in the worship of this icon.

According to Ceccarelli (2008), this worship appears to date back to the early seventeenth century, but it could possibly be traced back even earlier, according to some founding myths.

The importance of Mamma Schiavona and her fascinating history go beyond the borders of local popular religion. In fact, this icon inspired Pasolini (1971), who used the femminielli ’s chorus in his movie ‘‘Il Decameron’’ and De Sica (1954) who did the same in his movie ‘‘L’oro di Napoli’’ (Niola, 2014).

For the full reportage please visit