Twilight of the Saints: Everyday Religion in Ottoman Syria and Palestine

By Commins, David | International Journal of Turkish Studies, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Twilight of the Saints: Everyday Religion in Ottoman Syria and Palestine


Commins, David, International Journal of Turkish Studies


JAMES GREHAN, Twilight of the Saints: Everyday Religion in Ottoman Syria and Palestine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014). Pp. 360. $74.00 cloth.

According to a secular conceit, religion is a vestige of the past, timeless and immune to historical change. That conceit is embedded in narratives about how the Middle East has been the scene of religious conflict for thousands of years, and therefore today's savage sectarian strife is natural, even inevitable. Twilight of the Saints offers a refreshing antidote to these clichés by offering a rich account of the religious practices and beliefs of ordinary villagers and townsmen in Ottoman Syria and Palestine, from the late 1600s to the early 1900s. By comparing the everyday religion of that era to present conceptions of religion, James Grehan shows that religion underwent such extensive transformation in the twentieth century that few monotheists today would recognize the beliefs and practices of their ancestors as belonging to their religion. Or, perhaps, modern monotheists would regard their ancestors' ways as corruptions of the original faith, caused by illiteracy and ignorance.

In Grehan's first monograph, Everyday Life and Consumer Culture in 18th-Century Damascus (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007), he demonstrated impressive diligence in assembling diverse literary and archival sources to depict diet, dress, and housing, and to place them in comparative context. One of his conclusions was that toiling for subsistence dominated lives and minds far more than religious concerns. By turning his attention to such concerns, this book picks up where the last one left off. To explore religion in the Syrian countryside, he draws on Muslim chroniclers and biographical dictionaries and on the accounts of Muslim and Western travelers from the late seventeenth to the early twentieth century. Those sources represent the outlook of an urban, literate minority. Therefore, they tend to skew our understanding of what religion was like for most people before deep social change, most saliently mass literacy, reshaped conceptions of religion. By deliberately seeking out testimony to practices rather than prescriptions for practices, Grehan reads the sources against the grain to produce a picture of religion very different from the one literate specialists considered a true expression of monotheism.

To illustrate the limited reach of the influence wielded by educated men of religion before the twentieth century, Grehan opens the book with an inventory of buildings for worship (mosques, Sufi lodges, churches, monasteries, and synagogues) and a survey of the spatial distribution of specialists in the Sunni and Twelver Shiite scriptural traditions. For religious structures, he relied on the Ottoman yearbook for 1870/71. For Muslim religious specialists, he utilized biographical dictionaries of the twelfth and thirteenth hijri centuries. The survey reveals concentrations of structures and specialists in the cities and major towns. (The main text includes summary tabulations of religious structures and specialists, illustrated by maps; four appendices provide a detailed tabulation to the level of rural subdistricts.) Traces of literate religion were absent in vast stretches of the countryside because villagers were too poor to spare the labor and material for elaborate religious buildings, and they lived too close to the margin of subsistence to afford the luxury of schooling to attain literacy. Hence, the rural majority-eighty to ninety percent of the population-were outside the orbit of ulama, priests, and rabbis.

Having put the guardians of the textual tradition in their place, so to speak, the main chapters catalog holy places associated with prophets, saints, and spirits, as well as the beliefs and practices that dominated the countryside, prevailed among the illiterate majority of townsfolk, and formed part of the understanding of literate religious specialists. …

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