#4 Vernacular religion in the Middle East

Merchants having their merchandise blessed on the stone of unction (Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem) ©MvdB

James Grehan, Twilight of the Saints: Everyday Religion in Ottoman Syria and Palestine (OUP 2014)

Searching out the #baraka of the holy man or woman, visiting their tombs to pray for your relatives, sleeping overnight in a sanctuary to seek the blessing of motherhood, wearing a talisman with sacred scripture, gathering water from a sacred well and bring it home to use in times of illness, hiding pictures of a holy men under your children’s mattresses to ensure his protection over what is most dear to you, sacrificing an animal to fulfill a vow, and afterwards handing out the meat to the poor of the community.

It is these practices that form the core of Grehan’s great book on what he prefers to call ‘agrarian religion’ in the Ottoman Middle East. Little of that is specific to one of the major religions of the region, #Judaism, #Christianity or #Islam. In fact, it is often impossible to deduct from the practice as such to which big tradition the believer belongs. It is that common ground between as much as within these religious traditions that Grehan has reconstructed from contemporary sources. Through his detailed and sympathetic description of these practices and the world view that supported them, #Grehan makes three important claims, the first two of which I share. The third, as far as I am concerned, would need some further thinking.

The first is what I’ve more or less summarized above: concerning the region that for many is characterized by its strong opposition between various religious traditions, especially Islam vis-à-vis Christianity and Judaism, Grehan insists on the existence of a common religious practice that not only is found within the various religious traditions, but very often is also actually shared. The tombs of holy men are often honored by those belonging to different religious communities, the holy water is generously shared among whoever is in need, and the evil eye is feared by all. This, in fact, is also true for holy places, persons and practices that as such could be considered firmly within one specific tradition, like the deep veneration of Mary by many Muslims, or the acceptance of Christian baptism in case a child needs extra protection in his or her early years. Grehan’s assumption (though not really spelled out) is that of a common religious stratum that has not lost its importance after the rise of the much more formalized religions, a worldview and a set of practices that informs and guides much of what people in the Middle East have been doing in the realm of what we tend to call ‘religion’.

His second claim, which I share as well, is that contrary to what the term ‘popular’ religion (that is often used for this kind of practices) might suggest, its practice is not at all limited to the uneducated, the poor or the simpleminded. Much of his sources come from descriptions by religious scholars (Islamic/Christian) who described the practices that they encountered, often with much more sympathy than we might expect. They often even are part of it, also visiting the tombs and fearing the evil eye, with some of them, as experienced scribes, functioning as the producers of the amulets, or, in various ways and differing levels of holiness, being holy men and women themselves. For that reason he introduced the term ‘agrarian religion’: not so much to suggest it is not present in the cities, but to emphasize its close connection to the outside: the tombs, the holy trees, the holy water, the caves, with most of its ritual intrinsically connected to the yearly cycle of spring, summer, autumn and winter.

His third claim, however, should open up the debate about what I think is one of the most pertinent questions about religion and religious change over the last two centuries. The basic assumption of Grehan’s book seems to be that this type of agrarian religion disappeared, albeit rather gradually, over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, as part of the modernization process that, slightly later but just as pervasively as in Europe, changed everything we thought about religion, putting religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam on a new footing, firmly rooted in personal conviction and faith, in books and theology that distinguished these traditions from each other, rather than in shared practices and worldviews. Whereas I certainly agree that much changed in the way we perceive and experience religion (see Adam Becker’s book for a description of that), at the same time it seems that we have to admit that however way we look at it, much of the pre-modern agrarian mind set is among us. Perhaps a little bit less agrarian and more urban, perhaps also with more knowledge about the requirements of official religion (depending very much on where you are, it seems), but at the same time, very much present – not only because the first paragraph above could be read as a description of today (some of it is informed by recent ethnographic work on religious practices in Lebanon by Rima Nasrallah), but also because it often seems to me that what changed over the last century or so, is much more about what we ‘think’ and ‘write’ about religion, than what we do. What we think might be much closer to the thinking of the big traditions, including their tendency to mutual exclusiveness. What we do, often is something rather different – to the ire of those who feel that thinking and doing should make a perfect match.

Perhaps we should compare the relationship between everyday religion and the big traditions to the way spoken vernaculars relate to the formal written languages – in their fluid position in between and through the big traditions, in their ability to disregard formal boundaries between languages, but if need be also to conform to the prescriptions of the stronger traditions. And in the importance of script and writing as the most important tool of the formal traditions, enabling precise and strong communication – with orality and its accompanying flexibility keeping things grounded and providing the much needed practical translation for things to actually happen. And like with the vernaculars vis-à-vis the written languages, it seems likely that everyday religion will remain stronger and more pervasive among those with little access to learning and script, to power and money – but then, also among the learned, the text almost never captures the full story of life …

And to end, just one other example from the Middle East, as to how this type of vernacular religion is among us: Edmond Bower, Exorcism in Cairo.

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