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15.10.49, Reid, Law and Piety in Medieval Islam

The Medieval Review

15.10.49, Reid, Law and Piety in Medieval Islam

A dominant narrative in the history of medieval Islamic societies is framed by the emergence of Sufism. An umbrella term for Islamic mysticism, it emphasizes connections between metaphysical ideas, devotional practices, and the development of communities of adherents or spiritual seekers. In this narrative, the rise of Sufi discourse and networks would appear to be one of the most distinctive characteristics of medieval and early modern Islam (and is one of its most well-studied dimensions). In a salutary move, Reid steps back altogether from the study of Sufism, and argues for a more nuanced understanding of religious life and experience in medieval Islam, one that appreciates the significant continuities with earlier ideas and practices and offers a richer and more precise description of the religious landscape.

Law and Piety in Medieval Islam examines what was one of the most important distinctions of any individual in early and medieval Islam: piety. Few characteristics proved more important for lending one authority among contemporaries or across generations. Reid argues that pious devotional practices preexisted and survived the rise of Sufism without being altogether absorbed (there were other options). She also argues that these devotional practices as well as the concepts undergirding them shifted over time. Delineating a few of these changes is one of the book's strengths.

Medieval devotional practices are available to the religious historian through the prism of texts whose nature is not exactly ethnographic. This is at least one way in which the "Law" component of the title is relevant. Reid mines a rich variety of textual sources which are mostly associated with the legal establishment of Ayyubid and Mamluk Egypt and Syria (1171-1260 & 1260-1517). The informality, complexity, and interconnectedness of this establishment with broader social practices makes it into a subculture of broad social implications. Reid thus looks at the development of certain aspects of devotional piety as can be traced in these sources, which include biographical dictionaries, manuals, fatwā or responsa collections, hortatory treatises and chronicles. The resulting study is an examination of the intersection of personal piety and Islamic legal culture of the late medieval period through the lens of the narratives of exemplary individuals. Instead of delivering a typology or concordance to the vocabulary of piety, Reid has focused on a series of narratives and descriptions of exemplars, on how these narratives change over a few key centuries, and on what these personalities and their actions may have meant in the context of Ayyubid and Mamluk religious and political life.

After laying out the conceptual and chronological contours of the study in the Introduction, four chapters explore different dimensions of devotional piety and their development. Chapter 1, "The Persistence of Asceticism", describes the continuity of asceticism from early Islam into the late medieval period, emphasizing the role of the body in making pious attitudes manifest and the subtle transformation of asceticism, including the subcategory of celibacy. Reid argues that these "changes in outlook can be explained by a growing preoccupation with the body and the belief in God's love of acts of devotion rather than a waning interest in severe asceticism" (31). Along with this was a change in meaning, away from a gesture of rupture with the world to one of unspoken criticism of peers as well as a demonstration (43). While asceticism became increasingly popularized, this did not mean that excessive or immoderate forms disappeared, as attested by many biographies. Moderate asceticism may have been approaporiate but would not make someone stand out as an exemplar. "It was through an unequivocal departure from moderation and normal conduct that medieval devotees and ascetics were able to distinguish themselves from the rest of society" (44). Reid acknowledges the existence of a criticism of asceticism in Islam--Ibn al-Jawzī's Talbīs Iblīs stands out as a prominent example. Biographies and anecdotes of holy men into the fifteenth century, however, point to the persistence and proliferation of extreme forms, even when nominally disapproved of, as well as to a clear contradiction in attitudes toward pious actions and their meaning. Women's bodies, moreover, being less available for certain kinds of bodily statements, expressed different forms of devotional piety. (One pious Meccan woman does not allow her husband to see her see her face for an entire year; another leaves the house just a few days a year to perform the hajj) (54).

Chapters 2 and 3 take up two dimensions of the bodily performance of piety involving food and the abstention from eating. Chapter 2, "Devote Yourself to Deeds You Can Bear: Voluntary Fasting and Bodily Piety", like the previous chapter, points to the persistence of an ascetic practice in spite of its nominal rejection by mainstream or majority theological and legal positions. The first part of the chapter describes supererogatory fasting and the seldom noted statements or narratives of abstention from classes of foods (or even from all classes baring one, such as barley bread) (67). The second part of the chapter takes up an extreme form of fasting (the ṣawm al-dahr or perpetual fast), posing the question of why such forms of perpetual fasting remained attractive in spite of scriptural and physical challenges (there was a question over whether the Prophet had disapproved of such practices and the bodily harm it caused). Several objects for the pursuit of extreme fasting are discussed, including as a means to resist corruption, as self denial, as a feat of worship, and as a means of living in a state of bodily alteration (96). Chapter 3, "Charity, Food, and the Right of Refusal", explores ascetic refusals of specific kinds of foods, the provenance of which, Reid argues, is the key factor (i.e., who pays for it rather than what it is). Lists of what individuals refused to eat and with whom points to the emergence of a critique of political and economic power. Anxiety over the source of patronage and charity (for endowments of teaching institutions, for example) appears in the specifics of individual anecdotes. Reid interprets this as a kind of cultural critique of the iqṭā' and waqf systems and of the web of relations implied in these forms of patronage and of their ethically deleterious or corrupting influence on institutions of religion and justice. "Ethical asceticism," she concludes, "which dominated so many pious food practices in this period, was not a retreat from the world but a way of engaging with it" (143).

Chapter 4, "The Devil at the Fountain: Problems of Ritual", turns away from food to questions of purity, ritual purity, and cleanliness. It perhaps best highlights how certain concepts, encoded in the behavior of ascetic figures, evolve subtly over time. The chapter is mostly concerned with late medieval forms of obsessive or excessive concerns and practices of cleanliness and purification, what the sources term al-waswās fī'l-ṭahāra. These went from excessive concerns over the source and purity of water for ablutions (taking it only from midstream), to repeating ablutions over nagging doubt of missing an impurity (sometimes submerging the entire head or body), to self-inflicted harm through over washing (the inside of the eyes, for example). Reid does a good job situating her study within existing literature on ritual purity. Her reading is, again, socio-cultural rather than spiritual or psychological. She highlights the disagreement over the meaning of such behavior as it evolves from what is seen as an "innovation" inspired by "devilish whisperings", into an almost positive scrupulosity about purity and cleanliness (and to the two being combined): "The apparent rehabilitation of the term [waswās] toward the end of the thirteenth century is a fascinating commentary on medieval notions of bodily piety and pious acts, a development not unlike the increasingly positive outlook on the perpetual fast that developed over the same century" (180).

The Conclusion considers the popularity of figures who transgress the norms of piety (the muwallahūn), engaging in behavior opposite that described in the previous chapters: going about in dirty clothes eating publicly during the day in Ramadan. Reid argues that the key point about such figures is their ability to question. Transgression is not merely a matter of substituting the wrong for the right but of questioning the relation between the two. There "lay the muwallah's source of holiness" as well as their social importance in questioning or challenging "the authority to decide how to proceed with self-defined forms of worship" (210). Reid concludes by underlining how late medieval forms of Islamic piety were not solely or even mostly guided by Prophetic sunna but rather out of "each individual's personalized relationship with Islamic ritual law" (212). Models and exemplars of pious behavior were so plentiful that combinations and recombinations of ritual pious behavior emerged. The book includes a brief glossary and a helpful index.

This is an engaging study of religious life in the Ayyubid and Mamluk periods, which will hopefully inspire more detailed and thoughtful work on the rich religious culture of late medieval Islam. Reid skillfully parses the sometimes dry and sometimes bizarre descriptions of individuals in their biographies and biographical entries (in which individuals of particular learning, legal, or spiritual genealogies are mapped and compared on the basis of piety, knowledge, and prestige). From the perspective of the non-specialist, the author does not account for the choice and importance of the time period in question. The Ayyubid and Mamluk periods, indeed, constitute an extraordinary moment in the evolution of the religious culture of the region (this could have been elucidated a bit more). And, from a more theoretical perspective, the literary and historiographical career of the individuals as character representations was also not entirely acknowledged or explored. Reid touches on this problem in the introduction under the subtitle "Biography and the Challenges of Hagiography" where she makes the important point that extraordinary actions, even when fictive, represent real attitudes and have social significance beyond the merely hagiographic. The bulk of the book reads the stories and figures, however, within a socio-cultural framework when, at least to this reader, there would seem to be equally important historiographical and/or literary ones. But this question is not really the result of a shortcoming but rather of the success of the book in putting forward compelling points that deserve more attention.