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The challenge of what this book has been calling the devotional object is not a new one. The solutions I’ve developed, such as the “resisting” object, or the “scattered subject” that violates material and temporal boundaries, might sound novel, but the paradigm and its challenges were recognized long ago in medieval Islam. One elegant and provocative statement on the matter came from the mystical philosopher Ibn ‘Arabi, who in the late twelfth century traveled from Islamic Spain, through Egypt, and settled permanently in Damascus. Despite his prodigious literary output, his lifelong obsession was the puzzle of the one and the many, or in more Islamic terms, the paradox of creation emanating from God, yet somehow remaining substantively independent. For Muslim mystics who came after him, Ibn ‘Arabi’s vast reflections on this paradox were a fertile place to explore issues such as the relation of the self to truth and to God. When the issue has been framed around the problem of an existence shared between the Creator and creation, the boundaries between knowing the self and knowing God seem to falter. Dancing across borders, Ibn ‘Arabi also turns toward the challenge of the devotional object. In his discussion of the prophet Elijah, Ibn ‘Arabi emphasizes the dual nature of truth, which extends beyond the transcendental to include the immanent. Employing a provocative technique, which remains controversial today because it does not shy away from pointing out the faults of some of God’s prophets, he focuses on the limitations of Elijah’s mission. After returning from his mystical vision, Ibn ‘Arabi tells us Elijah had lost his ability to lust, retaining only his intellect. Rather than taking this as the perfection of the prophet’s soul, finally having risen above the lower human appetites, Ibn ‘Arabi claims that complete wisdom is now impossible for the prophet. The fullest realization includes not only the intellect, but also the mute knowledge of the passions, which Ibn ‘Arabi at one point calls becoming “pure animal.” Building beyond the Aristotelian identification of a rational faculty peculiar to humans, the provocative lesson for us is to seek the wider embrace of all “things in (both) principle and in form” (bi-usuliha wa suwariha).
One stubborn issue in the study of religion is that of location. The question is where do you locate the meaning of the phenomenon you have chosen to explore? Puzzled by this question, you quite reasonably might wonder what your options are. Let me propose that you have two. Indeed, the entire history of the study of religion seems to have divided itself into two camps on this issue: one side holds that meaning is found “elsewhere,” removed from the context that produced the phenomena in the first place – while the other side insists that meaning remains anchored at the original site, and thus the place that holds a phenomenon up for us to consider is also its site of meaning. The first position I will simply call that of the reductionist, someone who deftly jumps the chasm separating the phenomena from the disciplined thinking that will supply distance, perspective, and ultimately meaning. The other, here perhaps awkwardly named the non-reductionist camp, insists on the uniqueness of each phenomenon, and distrusts relocation to an abstract, detached, and perhaps even obfuscating realm of meaning. So, reduction as I’m using it here isn’t an interpretation that lessens the significance of phenomena. On the contrary, we might say that reduction actually seeks to expand or fully unfold the relevance of data, reaching wider understanding thanks to extensive conceptual structures that stand apart from those particulars. In contrast, the non-reductive forgoes such gestures, confident that either an internal logic or a self-sustaining structure simply awaits the eye of a careful observer. The seesaw between these two positions, like any good game, is never resolved fully in favor of one player over the other. In fact, this whole debate is significant not because one side will overcome the other, but rather together their conflict is the stage upon which a greater struggle is being waged. It is a struggle with an anxiety about the entire study of religion, with each side representing the unease of the other. I will return to this below, but first let us turn our attention to one camp, that of reduction, and its side of this seesaw.
Explores the contested status of pre-Islamic objects, and their possible lives within Medieval Islamic visual culture. Argues that colonial notions of cultural purity erased a uniquely regional Islamic aesthetic.
In this book, Richard J. A. McGregor offers a history of Islamic practice through the aesthetic reception of medieval religious objects. Elaborate parades in Cairo and Damascus included decorated objects of great value, destined for Mecca and Medina. Among these were the precious dress sewn yearly for the Ka'ba, and large colorful sedans mounted on camels, which mysteriously completed the Hajj without carrying a single passenger. Along with the brisk trade in Islamic relics, these objects and the variety of contested meanings attached to them, constituted material practices of religion that persisted into the colonial era, but were suppressed in the twentieth century. McGregor here recovers the biographies of religious objects, including relics, banners, public texts, and coverings for the Ka'ba. Reconstructing the premodern visual culture of Islamic Egypt and Syria, he follows the shifting meanings attached to objects of devotion, as well as the contingent nature of religious practice and experience.
Wahhabi-inspired criticism aligned with the colonial museum led to the official demise of kiswa and palanquin devotions. Argues for their rich afterlives as both relics and evocations through rituals centered on saintly shrines and processions.
A survey of relics, and their wide variety of media and signification. Argues the relic’s framing, which continuously keeps it “out of place,” allows it to act as an index of both human frailty and transformative love.
Focusing on religious parades and banners, an argument emerges for a form of textuality that is designed to resist reading. The unread text remains visible, and plays an essential role in the theatre of the religious processions.
Traces the ritual lives of the kiswa dress of the Ka‘ba and the elaborate palanquin that paraded with it. The entanglement of aesthetics and politics – as inscribed upon these objects – is explored as key to the local practice of the Hajj.