- The Shrines of the ʿAlids in Medieval Syria: Sunnis, Shiʿis and the Architecture of Coexistence by Stephennie Mulder
Shrine architecture has recently received greater scholarly attention – yet, as ever, there seems to be a palpable bias towards the Middle East and South East Asia to the detriment of other Muslim and predominantly Muslim regions where Sufism reigns albeit under the increasing threat of Islamist currents. Mulder’s volume on the ʿAlid shrines of Syria fills a significant lacuna in the study of Shiʿa architecture, itself a fairly shadowy realm within the broader discipline of Islamic art and archaeology. That having been said, this monograph succeeds other works whose prime focus is Shiʿa monumental expression, curiously absent from Mulder’s otherwise comprehensive bibliography, namely, Sussan Babaie’s Isfahan and its Palaces: Statecraft, Shiʿism and the Architecture of Conviviality in Early Modern Iran and Raya Shani’s A Monumental Manifestation of the Shiʿite Faith in Late Twelfth-Century Iran.
Mulder’s monograph differs from these in several respects: her aim is to study a substantial number of ʿAlid shrines by compiling a broad survey largely based on historical sources; her focus on the mediaeval period necessitates reliance on historical, primary sources. Nevertheless, as she makes clear throughout the book, contemporary practice cannot be circumvented for the sake of being ‘historical’. Indeed, she claims in the introductory chapter to make use of a vast swath of disciplines, including anthropology. The latter discipline would have benefitted from greater use particularly with reference to the main actors in the shrines: the pilgrims themselves.
In this otherwise well-researched and meticulously referenced study, the author surprisingly omits a preface where elements from the conclusion would have been better placed. Although not claiming the study to be exhaustive, the lack of admission that there could be oversights seems to imply otherwise. The question of aesthetics, for [End Page 518] instance, receives a cursory mention in the final chapter: ‘[…] another goal of this research has been to develop a methodology for the study of buildings that, despite their demonstrable social, pious or political importance, do not fit into traditional aesthetic categories’ (269). What ‘traditional’ aesthetic categories might be is left unanswered.
One important omission is a glossary for the Arabic terms rather than the occasional rendition in brackets which are sometimes over-descriptive: barakah gives us ‘sacred emanations’ when ‘blessings’ would do just as well. We have to wait for the final chapter to have a definition of mashhad (defined as ‘a place of witnessing significant events’, later simple ‘commemorative structure’) (263); and maqām (sites of battles, miracles, healing, etc.) (263); mazārāt (175) has no definition. Another omission is the lack of reference for a quote from Ibn Jubayr on page 132. Further on, the author mentions the Mamluk sultan Baybars who ‘left his mark […] in the form of his name and his personal herald: two lions rampant, blazoned on each side of the door’. (143). An illustration would have been useful for one; secondly, an allusion to ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib’s association with the lion (asad Allāh) might have been made.
The elephant in the room was the omission of one of the most pertinent and interesting questions related to shrine visitation: the question of gender. Indeed, the entry ‘women’ does not even make it into the index. As a female scholar, this seems like a missed opportunity, not least a scholarly oversight. In a partial attempt to redress this imbalance, the author introduces some imaginary pilgrims, ‘perhaps women from Iran or Pakistan’ (188), and these are miraculously transformed into an anonymous, singular female pilgrim (‘our pilgrim’, 201), presumably the fictional alter-ego of the author. Why no mention of female pilgrims or the lack of them in the historical sources? Why not let at least one of the numerous female pilgrims photographed have a voice of her own? Of course there is no reason why the author...