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Focus:Mark of faith sparks debate

Zebiba, a small, permanently irritated patch of skin, has become a controversial topic in the Muslim world. For a minority, the distinctive 'raisin' is hailed as a sign of piety or a blessing, while those in the mainstream say its significance is merely skin deep.
Zebibas are common among the elderly after years of prostration.
Zebibas are common among the elderly after years of prostration.

Up close, it is easy to see the small blemish in the middle of Ibrahim Atiya Al Shami's forehead, but thoughts of cosmetic surgery could not be further from the mind of the 46-year-old Egyptian farmer. For Mr Shami, the mark is nothing less than a gift from God, a sign of piety that he would be happy to see grow into a larger, even more noticeable welt. This is his zebiba - "raisin" in Arabic; a small, permanently irritated patch of skin that is his reward for decades of at least 34 prayerful prostrations each day, not counting the extra, optional prayers. "The sign should come with respect," he says. "Just like the imam in the masjid, the person who has this sign deserves to be treated with respect because it is an earned sign of piety." A minority of Muslims, particularly some Egyptians, go further and contend that the mark is a blessing, or a sign of divinity. The mainstream Muslim community, however, is far from convinced. In fact, it dismisses such talk as hocus-pocus, the stuff of misinformed and uneducated folk belief. Nevertheless, the zebiba stands as one of the many cultural signifiers, such as the Arabic language itself, that meet in the Islamic ummah microcosm of the Arabian Gulf, where superstition, religion, modernity and tradition all collide. "These are mere superstitions," says H Abdullah, an Emirati who asks that her first name be withheld because of the sensitive nature of the subject. "Islam is free from these things. If this was truly a sign of religiosity, then many more people would have it and you would see it on women as well. I don't know where this mark comes from exactly, but I believe it is a skin issue, not a religious one." Whatever the true origin of Mr Shami's alaamet al sujood, or "mark of prostration", it is also a sign of a growing trend among younger Egyptian men to wear their faith on their forehead - and a sign with a suspiciously dark hue, not unlike that of a flesh wound. "The reason why we see a lot of younger people trying to get the mark is due to a sort of jealousy or aspiration to be like their elders," says Mr Shami. Until recently, the zebiba was exclusively the province of the elderly, upon whose ageing skin can sometimes be seen a small, soft discolouration, the product of decades of slight but repeated contact with prayer rugs. But, as The New York Times noted in a report from Cairo in December, "As Egyptians increasingly emphasise Islam as the cornerstone of identity, there has been a growing emphasis on public displays of piety". Among its more profound mysteries, the zebiba does not appear to be an equal-opportunities skin condition. Mr Shami's explanation is that the halaa, another term for the prayer mark, expresses itself differently on women. "Women get this mark below their knees and this is because women are set apart by their beauty and, as evidence of that, they don't get this sign on their faces," he says. He also has a theory for the equally tricky question of why the zebiba appears to favour Egyptians above all others. After all, regular prayer is an act of devotion practised from Morocco to Malaysia. "This is not restricted to Egyptians only, it is for anyone in the Muslim world," he says. "But, maybe, it could be an honour from God, as Egypt is mentioned many times in different verses of the Quran." This is not a view that meets with the approval of religious scholars in the UAE. According to a mufti at the official fatwa call centre, rather than being evidence of religious devotion, or even a spiritual sign, the zebiba is nothing more than an affected and, frequently, obviously artificial statement of piety. As for motives and methods, perceptions are that these range from the vain to the despicable - and mainstream Islam does not approve. Deliberately striking forehead to prayer mat with unnecessary force, for example, or even applying hot fried food to nascent callouses to make them more pronounced, are frowned upon. "There are some people I've heard of who place aubergine on their forehead, or anything that is warm, to try to get the mark. This is very wrong," says a mufti at the call centre. Some say that shopkeepers exploit their zebibas to elicit confidence from customers who might be more inclined to trust a pious salesman. "These people," says the mufti, "are trying to show themselves as trustworthy and to use it to their benefit by taking advantage of people's trust and belief in the religiosity of this individual. This is considered cheating and frowned upon. "Prayer is all about personal intention, it isn't for show. A true believer prays for God, not to try to get a mark that he can show off." Safwan Khraisheh, a dermatologist at the Gulf Diagnostic Hospital, says he sees the mark most often in Egyptians, but "it seems there is a genetic explanation for that". Most of his patients, he says, hope to erase the zebiba, not make it more pronounced. "Usually, this is what we call friction dermatitis, from the friction from when you put your head on your carpet," says Dr Khraisheh. "Repeated friction causes dryness to the skin and eczema. With treatment and ointment, that will clear up." Over time, he says, the callous can develop its own unique pigmentation, which becomes a permanent discolouration. In short, medical explanations for the zebiba leave little room for divine intervention. "I don't think this mark has anything to do with religion," says Mohammed Bahnasawi, a consultant in dermatology at Al Noor Hospital. He says the sensitivity of skin varies from person to person. "Everything has a source and this mark comes from repeated contact with the ground. This can happen too with kneecaps, elbows and feet." Others have their own ideas about the zebiba's apparent fondness for Egyptian foreheads; Hamid Ali, 33, an Egyptian accountant in Abu Dhabi, has a theory that the explanation is, literally, material rather than spiritual: "Usually old people in Egypt have this kind of mark because Egypt is a poor country and people there pray on rough carpets," he says. Those who do credit the zebiba with religious significance, however, point to specific passages in the Quran that appear to mention the physical manifestations of leading a prayerful life. One such passage, refers to marks as "the traces of their prostration". But while a few Muslims understand this to refer to the physical mark of prostration, more traditional Islamic thinking says that it references the noor, or radiance, that is said to appear on the faces of those who spend a significant amount of time in a state of religious reflection. "Alaamet al sujood ... is known in Islam, and in the Quran there is mention of it. It is thought that although it is dark now, on the day of judgment it will turn white," says Suhaila Ali, an Emirati student who studies Fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence. "More popularly, there is a brightness of an individual's face, a sort of radiance that is said to be associated with prayer." It is this radiance that Quranic scholars say will identify righteous people on the day of final judgment, or yawm al qayamah. But whether the zebiba owes its provenance to divine intervention, a lifetime of prayer or the diligent application of hot fried vegetables, for many Muslims such outward displays of faith do little to change the fundamental virtues of faithful living. Mahmoud al Sayed, an Egyptian baker who lives in Abu Dhabi and whose forehead sports an impressive zebiba, says he considers the mark to be of no religious consequence. It is, he says, nothing more than "a sign that someone has prostrated a lot. I don't care whether I have the mark or not, because this is not a sign of vanity. It's a personal matter." It is, says Shawali Noor Mohamed, a 55-year-old Afghan restaurateur who has lived in Abu Dhabi for more than a decade, "understood that people who pray outside the prescribed daily prayers have these things. Worship and good deeds are two different things. A person can do a lot of worship but they may cause people harm. You can't judge a person's character by worship alone." Nor by a mark on their forehead. "Everybody prays," he says. "God knows best whose actions are being accepted." @email:mbradley@thenational.ae * With reporting from Haneen Dajani, Hessa al Romaithi and Fatima al Shamsi

Updated: August 23, 2008 04:00 AM

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