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  • Pilgrimage, Commodities, and Religious Objectification:The Making of Transnational Shiism between Iran and Syria
  • Paulo G. Pinto (bio)

Any visitor to the pilgrimage sites of Lourdes in France, Mashhad in Iran, or Varanasi in India is surely impressed by the crowd of pilgrims coming from various places in order to express their devotion and be in close, intimate contact with a source of sacred power. The same visitor is also sure to be overwhelmed by the market activities that take place near or sometimes inside the sacred shrines. Religious commodities of all sorts are sold in shops and bought by the pilgrims, who are usually avid consumers of religious memorabilia. Notwithstanding the fact that the commoditization of the religious tradition periodically attracts the wrath and condemnation of religious reformers, it is a constant feature of the pilgrimage systems that mobilize massive numbers of pilgrims through vast territories. Pilgrimages are a major feature of world religions, for they connect the local and the global—the particular and the universal—in a complex system of practices and beliefs, which allows them to create shared identities in a multiplicity of social and cultural contexts.

This article explores the links among pilgrimage, devotional practices, and the consumption of religious commodities in the production and organization of transnational forms of Shi'i Islam in the pilgrimage shrines in Syria. The general argument is that a connection exists between pilgrimage processes and the emergence of religious markets, meaning arenas of exchange where religious commodities are produced, sold, and consumed. The consumption of religious commodities structures channels of participation and articulates local identities in the translocal religious community created by pilgrimage.1

Pilgrimage is a central religious practice in the production of "orthodoxy" and "orthopraxy" in Islam, for it brings together members of different Muslim communities, who might be separated by language, culture, political boundaries, and geographic distance, and mobilizes them into one large ritual and devotional activity.2 The engagement of each pilgrim in the performance of the collective ritual practices that constitute pilgrimage produces the experience of what Victor Turner defines as communitas, meaning a diffuse solidarity that transcends social and cultural differences.3 However, beyond the creation of a shared sense of belonging to the communitas, the gathering of Muslims of different social and cultural backgrounds in the activities that constitute pilgrimage also reveals the doctrinal or ritual differences [End Page 109] that exist throughout the Muslim world. The consciousness of the local variation of the religious tradition entices among some Muslims the need to find the "pure" or "original" form of their religious tradition in order to restore the Islamic communitas, the umma.

The continuous re-creation of the religious tradition is done through the detachment of symbols, practices, and doctrines from their cultural context and their articulation as abstract systems that can be consciously presented as doctrinal and ritual models. This process was labeled by Dale Eickelman and James Piscatori as "religious objectification," for it allows religion to become "a self-contained system that its believers can describe, characterize, and distinguish from other beliefs systems."4 Pilgrims are constantly exposed to objectified forms of the religious tradition through sermons, images, and texts, which constitute the discursive and iconic universe of pilgrimage. They carry these codifications of the religious tradition back to their communities of origin as authoritative discourses and practices loaded with the holiness of the pilgrimage site.

Also, in the case of the Shi'i pilgrimage shrines in Syria, the process of the objectification of local religious traditions attracts the attention of political regimes, in particular those that incorporate religion into their system of governance or that have it as a domain to be controlled, such as Iran and Syria. The Syrian and Iranian states also aim to manipulate the process of religious objectification linked to mass pilgrimage in order to make it a channel for the diffusion of official constructions of orthodoxy. In this sense, the process of religious objectification unleashed by mass pilgrimage is invested by secular and religious states in order to create both the governance of religion and the mechanisms of governance through religion.

This analysis of the pilgrimage shrines in Syria reveals the complex web of...


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pp. 109-125
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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