The Cult of Saints among Muslims and Jews in Medieval Syria

The Cult of Saints among Muslims and Jews in Medieval Syria

The Cult of Saints among Muslims and Jews in Medieval Syria

The Cult of Saints among Muslims and Jews in Medieval Syria

Synopsis

This accessible study is the first critical investigation of the cult of saints among Muslims and Jews in medieval Syria and the Near East. Josef Meri's critical reading of a wide range of contemporary sources reveals a vibrant religious culture in which the veneration of saints and pilgrimage to tombs and shrines were fundamental.

Excerpt

Cairenes flock daily to the shrines of Ḥusayn, Sitt Zaynab, and other saints for blessings and intercession. On the anniversaries of saints' deaths, they celebrate mawlids, which are accompanied by great pageantry. Syrian, Iranian, and Central Asian pilgrims descend upon Damascus's Small Gate Cemetery, where they make the circuit around the tombs of the members of the Prophet's household and his Companions. in stark contrast to their ancestors who performed pilgrimage on foot and beast, today busloads of Iranian pilgrims converge upon Damascus with cameras in tow, while vendors peddle cameras, Iranian cloth, assorted baubles, fragrances, posters, and postcards. Collection boxes are affixed to shrines where pilgrims deposit their vows. a Damascene caretaker at the shrine of the medieval Sufi saint Ibn al-ʿArabī rebukes a visitor for depositing money in the glass case surrounding the cenotaph. in Cairo, aggressive women vendors dressed in black pounce on visitors to shrines, peddling miniature booklets containing verses from the Qur'an, fragrances, and plastic goods. in Galilee Jews visit the tombs and shrines of the Talmudic sages and in the Negev and elsewhere Jews of North African descent visit the tombs and shrines of Maghribi saints. Such scenes typify today's pilgrimage culture. It is a material culture far removed in its conception, form, and enactment from that of medieval devotees. Or is it? There is something almost ethereal and museum-like about a number of Damascene pilgrimage sites, where the cenotaph is protected by green cloth, glass panes, and transparent vinyl covers. The

a mawlid also commemorates the birth of the Prophet Muḥammad. See F. de
Jong, 'Cairene Ziyāra-Days: a Contribution to the Study of Saint Veneration in
Islam', Die Welt des Islams, ns 17 (1976–7), 26–43 and H. Fuchs and F. de Jong,
'Mawlid', ei(2), 6. 895–7 and more recently concerning the mawlid of Sitt Zaynab
in Cairo, N. Abū-Zahra, The Pure and Powerful: Studies in Contemporary Muslim
Society
(Reading, 1997). For the medieval context cf. B. Shoshan, Popular Culture
in Medieval Cairo
(Cambridge, 1993).

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