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