Attending a workshop on holy places in medieval Islam

Edinburgh banner

Calton Hill, Edinburgh’s romantically academic centerpiece.

Nothing gets me in a better mood at the start of a new school year than attending a conference in a beautiful city I have never visited before. Last year this happened in Lisbon (see post about urbanization in Africa). This year I was invited to Edinburgh to contribute to a workshop on holy places in medieval Islam: functions, typologies and narratives.

The two organizers of the workshop: Andreas Göerke and Mattia Guidetti, are bringing together an international network of researchers who study holy places in Islam. The Edinburgh conference of 2-4 September 2014 was the second of three such workshops. Part of their project involves creating a web-based data base of Muslim shrines. At the moment, the website is embryonic. They set it up principally to test possibilities for collecting and displaying data about the great variety of Muslim shrines, saintly tombs and pilgrimage centers past and present.

Edinurgh Surgeon's Hall

Surgeons’ Hall was the conference venue. Edinburgh’s College of Surgeons was established in 1505, though this neoclassical building was erected in 19th century.

I too decided to conduct a little test, comparing the descriptions of shrines in the pilgrimage accounts (rihlahs) of Ibn Jubayr (written in the 1180s) and Ibn Battûta (written in the 1350s). I wanted to see how the development of organized Sufi tarîqas, which really got underway in the 13th century, effected the distribution of shrines and their attractiveness for pilgrims. Ibn Jubayr’s rihla was written before the development of these tarîqas, whereas Ibn Battûta, a century and a half later, visited Sufi masters and tarîqa shrines wherever he traveled in the Muslim world.

The shrines in each rihlah were inventoried, located and categorized according to religious rationale (mapped below), types of buildings (mosques, mausolea, zâwiyas), ancillary elements (springs, wells, grottos, madrasas…), endowments, personnel, religious rites etc.

a Jubayr 1 rationaleb Battuta 1a rationale_centerWhile this inventory and mapping exercise doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, it did constitute a practical test of the kind of system we will need to set up if we really want to study Muslim shrines in the global longue durée.

What we need to do is create a proper GIS (Geographic Information System) shared among interested researchers (art historians, religious scholars, anthropologists, geographers…) where we can enter data and conduct statistical analyses. We will need to work out the variables we want to measure, the typologies, and even things like the spelling of toponyms and titles, before we program the GIS. We will then need to test run the system before proceeding with data entry–a task for graduate student research assistants. This will take several years and some serious funding, but it is both necessary to further research and quite urgent.


Unidentified shrine in Mosul, Iraq, being destroyed by ISIS (source: The Daily Mail Online, 7 July 2014)

The Taliban/al-Shabab/ISIS brand of Salifi Islamism is not only destroying human lives and entire religious communities, it is also destroying the spiritual and cultural heritage of Islamic civilization. Everywhere these self-appointed policemen-cum-judges-cum-execusioners have seized territory in recent years (in Somalia, in Afghanistan, in Syria and Iraq), they have systematically demolished shrines to prophets and saints as they believe these to be nasty innovations (bid’a) in Islam and a form of shirk (“association” of an entity with God). Their destructive acts are extremely violent (military ordnance) and public, posted on YouTube.

I do not want to leave readers of this post with such a violent image, so I will bring you back from Mosul to Edinburgh.

Edinurgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle

Suggested reading

  • Broadhurst, Roland (trans.) (1952). The Travels of Ibn Jubayr. New Delhi: Goodword Books.
  • Charles-Dominique, Paule (trans.) (1995). Voyageurs arabes : Ibn Fadlân, Ibn Jubayr, Ibn Battûta et un auteur anonyme. Paris: Gallimard.
  • Defremery, C. & Sanguinetti, B. R. (trans.) (1858). Voyages d’Ibn Battuta. Paris: Maspero (3 vols, 1982).
  • Meri, Josef W. (trans.) (2004). A Lonely Wayfarer’s Guide to Pilgrimage: ‘Alî ibn Abî Bakr al-Harawî’s Kitâb al-Ishârât ilâ Ma‘rifat al-Ziyârât. Princeton: Darwin Press.
  • Sourdel-Thomine, Janine (trans.) (1957). Guide des lieux de pèlerinage de Abû-l-Hasan ‘Alî b. Abî Bakr al-Harawî. Damscus: Institut français de Damas.

About ericrossacademic

Professor of Geography at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco
This entry was posted in conferences, map work, shrines and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Attending a workshop on holy places in medieval Islam

  1. Pingback: Attending a conference on Islam and peace in New York City | Eric Ross, academic

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