Twilight of the saints

Vale of Nablus 1890s

This is a book review I wrote for the American Historical Review, which I’m republishing here with permission (and some pictures). A full citation for the published review follows at the end. As ever, I’m struck by how the formal tone of an academic review jars in the context of a blog, but there it is.

JAMES GREHAN. Twilight of the Saints: Everyday Religion in Ottoman Syria and Palestine. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. x, 341. $74.00.

In 1747, when a plague of locusts threatened the harvest, the Ottoman governor of Damascus dispatched a delegation of Sufis to an enchanted spring in Persia. The water they drew there, carried carefully back to Syria, would lure a magical black bird – the samarmar – to consume the locusts. Their return was greeted with parades and popular celebration.

Well of the Samaritan 1890s
The Samaritan’s Well, Nablus, 1890s

The bird never appeared. But the fact that everyone thought it would, including Ottoman state officials and urban religious elites, is the starting point for James Grehan’s richly detailed historical ethnography of everyday religion in Ottoman Syria and Palestine. Grehan argues that histories of religion, especially in the Middle East, have focused excessively on textual traditions. They have overemphasized the salience of religious difference in everyday life, and the ability of religious institutions (the main generators and guardians of textual sources) to determine everyday religious practice. Attempts to go beyond this by studying “popular religion” have only helped up to a point: the dichotomy between “popular” and official religion still grants normative status to text-based orthodoxies, and cannot account for the prevalence of “popular” practices among educated urban elites.

Grehan sets out to offer a more nuanced account of what he terms “agrarian religion”: everyday religious practice in a predominantly rural and illiterate society, where “even the towns” – and their literate elites – “were sunk in an essentially agrarian milieu” (15). His local and western sources include topographies, travel narratives, memoirs, and (for the later part of the period) Ottoman statistical surveys. The scholar and Sufi Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi (1641–1731), whose writings figure often, is a particularly genial guide.

Nablus, new mosque 1940
The new mosque at Nablus, 1940

Common to all religious traditions in Ottoman Syria and Palestine was a weak infrastructure of sacred buildings and educated personnel outside the towns. Ottoman state surveys from the late nineteenth century show that mosques, churches, and synagogues, ulama, priests, and rabbis were all concentrated in towns; where villages had them, they were large ones like Jenin or were close to larger towns. Having established the weakness of institutional religion, Grehan explores the everyday religious life of the population through five thematic chapters looking at saints, tombs, sacred landscapes, the spirits that haunted the land, and the magic of blood and prayer. The chapters focus on the countryside, but return often to the towns and cities whose own religious culture was profoundly connected to that of the rural hinterland. Sunni Islam provides the richest body of evidence for Grehan’s account, but there are frequent references to other Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities. These furnish ample material to support his argument that the lines of sectarian difference, however sharply defined in normative religious texts, were blurred to the point of indistinctness in daily life.

Saints, living and dead, were venerated by everyone. It was not uncommon for a holy man to be revered beyond his own faith community: Christians as well as Muslims would stop to kiss the hand of Ali al-Umari, a renowned Sufi in nineteenth-century Tripoli (63). In a landscape where religious buildings were rare outside towns, the tombs of saints provided a focus for religious practice, both as social institutions – places of sanctuary or mediation – and sites for worship. Different religious traditions often shared the same sites, though they sometimes disagreed over the attribution of the tomb, and even educated townsmen like al-Nabulsi saw no contradiction in reporting uncertainty over the identity of a tomb’s resident saint while praying at the site. Tombs were important in towns, too, like the shrine of Ibn al-Arabi in Damascus: there was no doubt about the identity of the person venerated there, though the actual site shifted over time (113).

Joseph's tomb 1930s
Joseph’s Tomb, Nablus, in the 1930s

Tombs belonged to a sacred landscape where stones, caves, springs, and trees were also imbued with religious meaning. Caves often became the nucleus of a church or mosque; saints’ shrines often featured holy trees, but whether the tomb or the tree was the original focus of veneration remains moot. Sacred sites generated scriptural justifications to domesticate them within one tradition or another, but nature itself was “more compelling than scripture” (116). The spirits that haunted these landscapes were familiar to all: talismans, charms, or icons could mediate human interactions with them, and dreams and visions grant more direct access to a spirit realm. Blood sacrifice and prayer offered ways of gaining saintly intercession, and not just for peasants at the limits of the state’s reach: when the Beirut–Damascus railroad was opened in 1895, “religious officials presided . . . with the usual sacrifices” (174).

Agrarian religion “pervaded everyday piety, paid only lip service to orthodoxy, and casually embraced customs and beliefs that had no warrant in scripture or law” (165). Grehan’s argument for dispensing with notions of “popular” religion is persuasive; his argument against the salience of sectarian divisions deserves to be taken seriously, too, particularly in public rather than historiographical debate, though in regard to the latter, more explicit engagement with recent scholarship on sectarianism (189 n. 126) would have been welcome. There are other points of criticism: Grehan argues that agrarian religion’s “immense stability” also permitted “discreet adaptation and invention” (16), but – because he explicitly decides not to reconstruct these patterns of change – the picture presented here is one of timelessness, though it covers two and a half centuries. Gender is not considered in any depth, nor is the survival into the present (as I have witnessed myself) of many of the beliefs and practices Grehan describes. On the editorial side, a list of images would have made the fine illustrations more accessible.

Nonetheless, this is an evocative, thought-provoking, and richly textured work. Grounded in the comparative history of religion as well as the history of the Middle East, it deserves a place on a wide range of postgraduate and advanced undergraduate reading lists.

Joseph's tomb pre-1914
Joseph’s Tomb, this time in the 1890s

Click images for links to originals,
which are all from the Library of Congress

JAMES GREHAN. Twilight of the Saints: Everyday Religion in Ottoman Syria and Palestine. 
Benjamin Thomas White
The American Historical Review 2015 120 (5): 1996-1997
doi: 10.1093/ahr/120.5.1996a

Images of refugees

Gruzinsky, The highlanders leave the village; Пётр Николаевич Грузинский, Оставление горцами аула при приближении русских войск
Pyotr Nikolayevich Gruzinsky, Оставление горцами аула при приближении русских войск (The highlanders leave the village as Russian troops approach)

I came across this painting last week, when I was searching for images to illustrate a lecture on the late Ottoman refugee crises. It’s the first proper lecture in an honours module I’m teaching on refugees and statelessness in world history, c.1900–1951. That ‘c.’ allows a lot of wiggle room: in this lecture I briefly go back as far as the Russian annexation of the Crimea—the first time round, that is—in 1783. But most of the lecture treats the fifty years or so from the consolidation of Russian rule in the Caucasus in the 1860s to the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913: a half-century when millions of Muslims left the Russian imperial borderlands, and the new Christian nation-states that had broken away from the Ottoman empire, and sought refuge in the empire’s truncated (but still extensive) territories. This painting is by Pyotr Nikolayevich Gruzinsky, a prince of the Georgian royal family, and therefore a member of the Russian imperial aristocracy, in the mid-nineteenth century. It surprised me somewhat for its sympathetic depiction of Muslim refugees being forced out of the Caucasus in the decades when Russia’s grip on the mountains was consolidated.

It’s striking how this painting prefigures the stereotypical image of forced migrants that appears in the print and then audiovisual media through the twentieth century and up to the present. I did a Google image search for ‘refugees’, and one of the suggested subcategories that came up was ‘refugees fleeing’—here’s what that click looked like:

Google image search for refugees
Google Images suggestions for ‘refugees fleeing’

There are a number of similar, and similarly ‘stock’, images on the Wikipedia page for ‘refugee‘. Here are the ones that show people trekking overland, on foot or on a cart:

Refugees fleeing from Kibati refugee camp to Goma refugee camp, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, 2008
Ostpreussischer Flüchtlingstreck 1945
East Prussian refugees in 1945
Russian refugees near Stalingrad, 1942
Russian refugees near Stalingrad, 1942
Palestinian refugees in 1948

Gruzinsky’s painting is a reminder that some such visual tropes have roots that long predate photoreportage and newsreels. It’s a nineteenth-century narrative painting, and if I was put on the spot and asked to trace its antecedents my first guesses would be artistic depictions, in the European tradition going back to the Renaissance at least, of the biblical exodus and the holy family’s flight into Egypt. There’s a contrast with most similar scenes in news photography, though, which is that the scale of the painting allows the figures to be depicted as individuals, clearly differentiated rather than trudging huddled masses. (The close-up image of refugees from Kibati, taken by a medical worker, is something of an exception: it was taken in a hurry, with the sound of gunfire not far away, and the person who took it was probably running too.) I wonder if Gruzinsky actually witnessed any of these scenes.

Click images for source
Apologies for any mad formatting, my laptop is playing up

A small start

I’ve managed—unexpectedly quickly—to do a reading list that repeats Sara Ahmed’s experiment by not citing any white men. It’s for a single class, so it’s a small start (and an easy win), but still.

Femme Algerienne 1960Later this term I’m doing a session for a master’s-level course entitled Gender, culture, and text, which I agreed to do a while back to get me out of my comfort zone. I could have done something on refugees—that’s what I do research on now—but as I’m the only person in the department with expertise on the Middle East, the course organizers were quite keen to have something on those hot-button topics, women and gender in Islam. This is one subject where the books that come to mind are not by white men, and nor (I discovered) are most of the books next to them on the library shelves. So I came up with a shortish reading list with titles by Leila Ahmed, Fatima Mernissi, Saba Mahmood, Fadwa El Guindi and others, including Katherine Bullock, an Australian-Canadian convert to Islam and proponent of veiling. The only book by a white man I consciously rejected was Douglas Northrop’s Veiled empire: gender and power in Stalinist central Asia, which does actually look really good, but I don’t know enough about central Asia to bring it usefully into the discussion anyway.

One white man does make an appearance, but in the list of primary sources: Marc Garanger, for the ID-card photos of unveiled Algerian women taken when he was an unwilling conscript in the French army in 1960. These are a pretty powerful back atcha to the white male gaze, though not a simple one, so I thought they could stay. But I’m also pointing the students towards Princess Hijab, the duo NiqaBitch, and Aliaa Elmahdy.* I considered using one of Elmahdy’s pictures in this post, but chickened out.

*Princess Hijab, who may have been a man, appears not to be active any more, and if their dormant—but not deleted—Twitter account is any guide NiqaBitch are defunct too. The internet bears their traces, however.

Click image for source