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Islamic Reform: Politics and Social Change in Late Ottoman Syria.

The mind of Damascus revealed: Commins' study is one in which words are taken very seriously indeed, and real personalities emerge from the amorphous, faceless late-Ottoman period as social theory merged into Arab Nationalism. Commins has concentrated on three endearing ulama--the Qasimis--a father and his two sons, who lived relatively brief and nearly contemporary lifespans on the fringes of the elite, on the fringes of the empire, on the fringes of an intellectual awakening, and on the fringes of texts. The author seems quite literally to have read everything they read, everything they wrote, and everything that was written about them. And he did most of this while sitting in their living room in Damascus.

We learn of the arguments in treatises with titles such as "Removing the Affliction from the Entire Community"; "Warning the Gullible by Refuting Specious Arguments for Ritual Wine's Purity"; "Testimonies of Truth on Supplicating the Lord of Creation." And there are poems which include declarations such as:

I follow the truth and I am not

Satisfied with men's opinions.

I consider emulation ignorance

And blindness in all instances.

We follow the brain waves of these gropers as they wangle space on the new-fangled newsprint of the Ottoman world; finding expression, when silenced, in letters abroad; and discourse, when otherwise underemployed, around smuggled rags from Cairo. The wallflowers of medieval Damascene madrasas and zawiyas--until now known by little more than the pentagons, squares and diamonds on topographers' maps--began to listen and rub their eyes, and "more ominously, people began to speak darkly of an alleged secret agenda" from a group of ulama who dared to gather and discuss "Removing the Affliction" and had to pretend they weren't what they really were, namely, mujtahids. These were the days when one could ill afford to be branded soft on Wahhabism, the reform movement exciting Arabia and questioning the legitimacy of the Ottoman regime.

Religion was no longer just the route to a sinecure--they were all filled up anyway. Hardly stultifying and somber, as conventional wisdom would portray the late Ottoman period, these were heady times. Religion had a message not only for the summer and winter rooms of notables' urban palaces, but also for the suq, the baths and the pasha's entourage, including the Sultan's spies. Here are some of the paradoxes for contemporary Western sensibilities: kindly reformers and progressives proposed restoration of the sharia, while grim conservatives tolerated the drift towards secularism; reform grew out of Sufism (sic!) and Wahhabism (sic!!); islamicated moral economy found expression in a compendium of Damascene occupations (compiled by the Qasimis) just as the city panicked in holy terror of "its" peasantry (now increasingly direct wards of the state--at least according to state propaganda) who threatened to desist as a convenient route to economic independence for underemployed ulama (like the Qasimis). While the authorities threw banquets for ulama, they also threw some of the same ulama in jail. The Islamic reformers of this era observed that women should not be secluded, but should go out only with their husbands' permission, be taught the fundamentals of religion by their fathers, attend mosque to pray but government schools to be educated.

Volunteerism was the fashion and only marginally politically suspect, as was the activation of "laymen" (i.e., non-ulama) within religious institutions (and especially in helping with the effort to capitalize awqaf assets) to mount a more effective front against an increasingly bureaucratized and state-dominated religious establishment. The state fought back with its own religious fictions: an Ottoman caliphate, well-funded sufi revivals, fabrication of genealogical links to prophetic descent for local backers, exemption from military service and taxation, mosque-building campaigns in the countryside, and ulama-authorized military campaigns against rebellious peasants. Sound familiar?

It doesn't then surprise us to learn that these reformers only vaguely sided with the Young Turk movement against the Hamidian state, and as vaguely from there to an inevitable rupture with the Young Turks. About his treatment in the hands of the Hamidians, the younger Qasimi wrote to Rashid Rida, the qibla of Islamic reform from Syria who prosyletized from Egypt: "By God! What happened to me would gray children and shake heroes." But as he later "sat in the shade to eat ice cream and listen to speeches and poems eulogizing the martyrs of the constitution" at a Young Turk festival, taking refuge in this new wave rather than bearing the brunt of ostracism, Qasimi eventually grew disenchanted. Typhoid fever swept him off, however, before the irrevocable rupture between Arabs and Turks actually occurred. We cannot know how the crisis of secular nationalism would have occupied the thoughts of this devoted Muslim intellectual.

Strong on texts not context, personalities not social categories, voices not scenes, firm stands not processes, Commins' work is an intellectual historian's delight, full of direct quotes beautifully rendered into English. Here we have the thoughts, writings and pronouncements of communal leaders within the larger framework of the still poignant emergence of Arab social and political ideology.
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Author:Schilcher, Linda Schatkowski
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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