Muslim Pilgrimage in the Modern World

By Babak Rahimi; Peyman Eshaghi | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SEVEN
Economies of Piety at the
Syrian Shrine of Sayyida Zaynab

EDITH SZANTO

Until 2011, when the Syrian Uprising began, the shrine of Sayyida Zaynab, just south of Damascus, was a popular destination for Muslims, especially Twelver Shiʿis from all over the Middle East and South Asia. Located at the center of large markets, where devotees could buy religious goods such as books and prayer beads, as well as clothing and jewelry, the shrine attracted shoppers and pilgrims of all ages and economic means. This chapter examines pilgrimage with regard to economic activities that occur at the destination— in this case, the shrine and town of Sayyida Zaynab. With regard to contemporary Shiʿi pilgrimage in Syria and Iraq, Mona Moufahim and Paulo G. Pinto have focused on gifting practices and the feeling of communitas, which arises from religious consumption.1 The following analysis augments their work by drawing attention to the ways in which sacred time and space influence these practices. Specifically, during its heyday, there was an important difference between the economic activities inside and outside the shrine, where non-Shiʿi participated in buying and selling Shiʿi merchandise. Inside the shrine, gifting took precedence, while outside the shrine, consumerism took precedence. During the annual commemoration of the Battle of Karbala, however, the sacred space of the shrine spilled into the streets. There, Shiʿi communities operated hospitality tents, which welcomed the visitors who poured into the shrine town. The notion that pilgrimage is a ritualized, formal visit that demands hospitality explains the centrality of these tents during Muharram. In short, by examining various pious “economic” activities in and around the shrine, this chapter contributes to a more nuanced understanding of the ways in which space and consumerism influence religious practices and consumer relationships, particularly in the case of the Syrian shrine town of Sayyida Zaynab.

This chapter first provides a brief history of the shrine town, especially with regard to the influence of religious figures and political developments in the region. Second, it examines the geographical distribution of economic activities in the shrine town. Third, it augments Mona Moufahim’s tripartite typology of gifting practices by comparing social relationships with

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