In Twilight of the Saints, James Grehan has set out ‘to persuade readers to reconsider what they think they know about religion’ (p. ix). He lays out, eloquently and meticulously, ways in which people in the past—this book addresses Syria and Palestine primarily in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—inhabited ‘a different mental universe’ from our own (p. 3). In particular, he shows that in history we cannot neatly map religion onto community onto praxis as modern ways of thinking about religion might trick us into believing possible. The book grapples with the thorny problem of defining popular religion and settles on ‘agrarian religion’ as the best term for the cultural milieu under study (pp. 6, 14). The overarching thesis is that outside of urban centres in pre-modern Syria and Palestine virtually nothing having to do with religious faith worked the way we might expect. Among a largely illiterate populace, there was wondrous diversity but also convergence. It is telling that throughout the book differences between communities’ rituals or beliefs, say those of Muslims and Christians living in the same village, must be flagged rather than assumed. Twilight of the Saints is an engagingly written treasury of anecdotes, the first of which is a governor’s demand that Sufis draw water from a sacred well to summon a magic bird in order to mitigate a plague of locusts in 1747. This is an auspicious start to an academic study, even if it appears that the Sufis did not succeed. Grehan has written an accessible book, opting for simple transliteration and clear translation from Arabic, drawing stories out of what was a substantial textual archive of both narrative materials and Ottoman census documents. Grehan describes his method as mining sources for off-hand anecdotes relevant to the themes under discussion (p. 17). As any scholar who has tried to follow this method knows, it requires broad and sensitive reading because generally the passages of most value to the historian held no particular significance for their authors. It also requires sustained reflection on the production of the sources, namely how the perspective of literate elite writers shapes our access to the non-elite circumstances they happened to record. Grehan has succeeded in recovering the logic of rural sacred life both from the preconceptions of contemporary sources and from modern expectations. The book is organized around several thematic case studies. An introduction and conclusion explain the stakes of the project, namely taking religious experience on its own terms and trying to assess its underpinnings. Chapter 1 discusses religious infrastructure such as Friday mosques, and argues that there did not seem to be much emphasis on normative religious ritual outside of urban areas. Indeed, there were few religious educators or preachers in the countryside. Chapter 2 considers the saints themselves, a diverse group whose claims to sainthood were varied. The cult of saints was shared by all the communities in the region. Chapter 3 addresses the role of tombs in rural religion. A lack of religious buildings like churches and mosques meant that shrines functioned as places of worship, and were even frequently sites of quasi-judicial proceedings. Chapters 4 and 5 consider sacred and haunted landscapes, respectively. Spirits, both beneficent and malevolent, were a normal part of the sacral landscape. Chapter 6 discusses practices of worship, reiterating the claim that religious practices had very little respect for the doctrinal boundaries now assumed. Although Grehan does not invoke any scholarship on South Asian Islam, his method fits with the dominant framework in that field, which is better known to this reviewer. In the South Asian context, scholarship on Islam for the last forty years has been concerned with the local instantiation of religio-cultural practices which seem at odds with a perceived Arab, legalistic, normative Islam. The model of acculturation once favoured by Orientalists, namely that features of Islamic practice and belief in the Subcontinent can be best explained by incomplete transmission of the faith, has been overturned by many scholars, including Richard Eaton, Shahid Amin, and more recently Anand Taneja, to pick some of the luminaries. They have concluded as Grehan has, that the key anachronism in scholarship has been the assumption that Islam was a homogenous, bounded tradition for which it made sense to speak of a ‘complete’ or ‘incomplete’ transmission. In Twilight of the Saints, it is fascinating to see that even in the Arabic-speaking lands under the Ottomans, which are often thought of as being populated by model Muslims, factors like class and geography radically affected religious practice. Grehan argues that it was a pre-modern global norm for there to be flexibility in identity and practice wherever there was illiteracy and an absence of ‘official’ religion (p. 192). This certainly rings true for South Asia. This reviewer would be remiss not to offer two criticisms, one minor and one more substantial. Though the book’s simple Arabic transliteration scheme is a strength, one mystifying typographical choice was to represent ʿayn as a straight inverted comma floating in white space on either side. Though this makes no practical difference—except apparently to cause a short-circuit in the present reviewer’s brain—it is hard to excuse that kind of typographical sloppiness from a university press that has handled thousands of books with transliterated Arabic text. The more substantial frustration with this book is the fit between its different parts. Grehan is critical of substituting intellectual history for social history (p. 6) but then perhaps zooms out too far. For the non-specialist reader, there are few recurring narratives, chronologies, characters or places to hold on to. The only real through-line to the many fascinating observations in the book is an abstract one, namely that they are unexpected from the perspective of modern religion. The introduction and the first chapter concretely explain the analytic framework and summarize the geography. This highly readable and thought-provoking opening stands on its own. The remaining chapters (as summarized above) address specific topics thematically, but they provide additional evidence in support of an argument that was convincingly settled within the first few pages of the book. That is, each chapter is excellent as analysis but overall the effect of much of the book is that of a gazetteer. This feeling is amplified by the appendices, which are tabulations of the number of mosques per area and so on. The later chapters might have done more work for the field as individual articles. The problem here has perhaps more to do with the academic monograph as a format for presenting certain kinds of knowledge than with this book in particular. Twilight of the Saints is a substantial piece of scholarship. With overwhelming evidence, it reshapes our understanding of how religion was experienced in a region that more than most places in the world is imagined as a perpetual conflict zone between religious communities. To the present reviewer, one of the most important tasks of intellectual or social historians of the non-West is to describe the possibilities for human coexistence inherent in pre-modern fluidity and to come to terms with what has been lost since then. The spread of modern ideas of citizenship and social organization, which is to say enumeration and standardization, eliminated various forms of organic, non-elite cosmopolitanism. It is worth drawing on the past to imagine alternatives to our way of classifying groups and thus to pierce the veil of ignorance that leads us to suppose that we live at the end of history. © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Journal of Islamic Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 28, 2018
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