Following the Objects: Seeing Religion in Egypt and Syria with Richard McGregor by Candace Mixon
Podcast with Richard McGregor (8/3/2021).
Interviewed by Candace Mixon
Transcribed by Savannah H. Finver
Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/following-the-objects-seeing-religion-in-egypt-and-syria/
Candace Mixon (CM) 0:06
All right, well, I am here today on the Zoom universe with Dr. Richard McGregor, and welcome to the Religious Studies Project. Richard, how are you doing today?
Richard McGregor (RM) 0:17
Thanks, Candace! Great to be here with you.
Good. Well, it’s my extreme honor to have Richard here, mainly because he was my undergraduate advisor when I was but a young scholar of religion at Vanderbilt University–first, completing the Islamic Studies minor at Vanderbilt. So, definitely a formative mentor, which is really special to reconnect with. So, he has a new book out, which is called Islam and the Devotional Object: Seeing Religion in Egypt and Syria, and it’s out on Cambridge University Press this year. Prior to that, you did a critical Arabic edition, an English translation, with Len Goodman, of The Case of the Animals versus Man: Before the King of the Jinn. And your first book was Sanctity and Mysticism in Medieval Egypt: The Wafa Sufi Order and the Legacy of Ibn ‘Aravi. So, definitely wonderful trajectory of scholarship, but today, we’ll really focus in on this most recent book. Sounds good?
Awesome. So, I was going to mention that in reading the introduction of this book, if I personally were teaching a, you know, Theory and Method in the Study Religion course or something, you know, kind of going over religious studies approaches and aesthetics, I could easily assign this chapter, this introduction. And I think I like it because it’s a really good overview of the sort of messiness–and theorists that we don’t always pair together and think through together–as an overview of these messy and incomplete tools. So, you’re bringing together [Henry] Corbin, [Mircea] Eliade, [Talal] Asad, [Russell] McCutcheon, [Clifford] Geertz, [Jacques] Rancière, [Immanuel] Kant, you know, they’re all coming into play here. And we’re also able to see some contributions in particular, you know, of potentiality of Islamic theories for religious studies theories. So, I wondered if you could introduce us a bit to, you know, why getting into the field of religion and aesthetics is helpful to introduce a book on Islamic devotional objects?
Right, well, there has certainly been, I guess–from the from the widest lens, right? There’s been a turn towards the image, you can say, maybe, in the humanities. I guess following the turn towards embodiment, right? So, this…sort of the inheritor of the linguistic turn, right, in the humanities, moving into embodiment, into questions around performativity, right? Around the senses, around experiences, right? So, somatic, haptic treatments of experience within the humanities. These are deep and wide evolving trends for us as humanists. So, within the context of Islamic Studies, right, that has been pushing us towards sort of finding…getting traction, right? Finding a ground between what we would call, sort of, history of ideas, the evolution of concepts and that as the practice of Islam. Somewhere between that and the material culture, right? Material history, right? And the related practices around embodiment and the senses. So, we’re still staking out that territory, I think, in the study of Islam.
In the comparative study of religion, right, we have had, you know, significant progress turning towards visual culture as the matrix for the experience of religion. And people, I guess like David Morgan, come up pretty quickly as impressive figures for helping us as religionists find that ground. So, David Morgan underlining religion as a visual practice, right? So, you know, as we move forward to unpack the material culture, Islamic notions of the sensory, Islamic notions of the body. These are the ways that we move forward with these concepts in the study of Islamic religion.
So, yeah, so this project certainly follows along those lines. And part of the thread, really, part of the way forward, the thread that this book clings to–and hopefully develops clearly enough all the way through, right?–is sort of the thread of following the objects. Well, first finding them. And I talk a bit about that, about how kind of magical it is to sort of find your object of study. But finding and following the objects might be the most concise description of the methodology of this book. Why, right? And so, what are the results? What does that method open up for us? Why not just do intellectual history? Why not just go and tell us, what were they thinking in the–I don’t know–Mamluk period, and what were they doing and thinking in the Ottoman period, right? Well, if we follow the objects, as it were, we end up telling a familiar, but different, story. We end up talking about these well-known religious discourses. We’re talking poetry, Sufism, Islamic law, history, theology, etc. But we ended up talking about those, or engaging with those discourses historically, in a rather different register, because we’re following the object. To tell the story of the object–of the religious object, of the devotional object–to tell that story fully, is going to take us to some familiar languages, right? And ideas, concepts, debates, within Islamic Studies, right? But it will do it in a novel way. And this is what was sort of surprising to me to be honest. It’ll do it–it will take us through them in new ways.
But you think, well, I’ve kicked around, I don’t know, Sufism for 20 years, or, you know, I’m a specialist in qalam. But you’re going to engage by following the object. You shift your trajectory because you’re following the object. The object is marching through history, right? The object is marching through culture, right? It’s making its way–the object, the aesthetic, the image, is anchored, is negotiating, is moving through this as an Islamic object. And you’re just sort of moving along with it to try to keep up and trying to tell its story. So, yes, immediately, you are very interdisciplinary, right? You’ve got to be–wear a lot of hats to follow, to tell the story of the object as it moves.
And so, I wonder–you mentioned in the intro to the book, you sort of brought up this idea that a lot of cultural historians have favored and used–and religious studies folks, as well–of sort of object biographies, or the idea of the biography of an object. And I’m called to mind–Richard Davis has done quite a few things on this related to Hinduism, especially. And so, I’m wondering, how do you think that it’s a little different than maybe what you’re thinking of, of following the object, than maybe doing an object’s biography or using that language of an object? Or maybe how it’s different within Islamic studies?
So, people who are working in this area–I’ve heard it from a few colleagues that they work in tension–and I mean that in sort of a negative way–with Islamic art history. That’s not universal, but there is certainly sometimes a contested and defended line between art history and, let’s say, versions of the study of religion more widely.
So, here the biography of the object–talking about histories, recalling the histories of objects–has struggles in that contested space. The approach for this book was to anchor the…well, was to push more fully in the direction of what we would call aesthetics, right? Aesthetics: the capacity, right, of images and objects to communicate to viewers in ways that are not reducible to language. That’s sort of a, I think, an acceptable current definition of aesthetics, rather than “oh, aesthetics equals beauty.” That’s really kind of passed. So, aesthetics transform–for these more current purposes, becomes the focus for telling the story of the object in this book. So, what are the ways that we can engage that nonverbal communication that these objects and images are producing, that they trade in, that makes them what they are?
What are the ways? Well, it, by definition, can’t be reduced to language. So, it can’t be reduced to a narrative, right? So, we can’t just say, “oh, well, the provenance will tell us what it is.” No, that’s not what it’s “saying,” in scare quotes, as an aesthetic object or aesthetic phenomena. That is not what’s being communicated to the viewers, the devotees, or the commentators, or etc. These objects and images are communicating aesthetically. Now, how exactly does that work? Well, that’s a rather complicated picture. And there are sort of different approaches around getting at that. But the book is predicated upon chasing down that communication, that aesthetic communication that goes on.
So, how can we do that? Right? If we’re using language, if you and I are using language, and the objects and images are not using language? Well, in that sense, we tell their story, right? So, the history of the interaction with, right? The history of the evolution, of the function of an object. Those are the ways that we can get at what the object and image is saying, and what it is communicating. And in the book, I frame it out by talking about objects that resist. Objects that resist reduction. So, we will talk about the objects. Devotees will talk about the objects. They’ll celebrate them. They’ll write poetry about them, they’ll yell at them, right? And you and I will talk about what’s mamluk and what’s, I don’t know, what’s Sufi, and what’s not, etc. And all this talking will go on around the object. But the object, in effect, will resist, because none of us will say, “oh, well, I’ve nailed it,” right? “I can speak for the aesthetic communication.” You can’t; no one can, right? No one can by definition. But what can we do, right? The objects will resist discursive reduction, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not communicating. How can we get at that communication? Well, there’s lots of information. There’s lots…it’s saying many things in many places to many people. Now, you and I have to go out as scholars and just do the spade work. And just follow and dig and dig, right? And pull all of that, and pull together, right? And, sort of map out, in a way, or mirror somehow the aesthetic communication.
So, I wonder with that, I was thinking of resistance. And I love in various places in the book, it comes up that the objects are resisting, or something along those lines. Or that these objects are exuberant, or these objects are, you know, offensive or whatever it might be, hard to face. And so, I love that kind of…both agency and just been pivoting there. So, I’m kind of ruminating over that. But in the meantime, speaking of resisting categories, there’s often been, and I myself have talked about this previously in the Religious Studies Project, the insistence on trying to police categories of images within Islamic arts, that include a sort of–I think you would agree–a false kind of category of, you know, the figurative and the nonfigurative, right? That the figurative communicates something that is meant to be decoded or understood. And the abstract, or the beauty of calligraphy, or the beauty of an arabesque design, or something along those lines, you know, evades that. It’s too abstract. So, I wonder if you could say a little bit–because you also push back against that kind of position, I guess, of, you know, let’s separate these two things out. And I wonder, you know, if you have connections to aesthetic theory there to maybe help us not make that binary so stark?
Right, yeah. So, there is a–I have a chapter devoted to inscriptions. And the object at hand is banners, religious banners. Which, the more I follow that object, the more slippery and strange and challenging and curious it became as an object. Looking closer did not bring it into better focus; scrutinizing the banner made it kind of bewilderingly evasive. So, the question–and banners and inscriptions are wonderful things, right? Because of course, they are discursive statements while also carrying an aesthetic communication, right? So, how an inscription is made, communicates, brings along with it, all kinds of aesthetic–there’s an important aesthetic dimension that’s mobilized with inscriptions.
So, religious banners became very quickly, to my eye, a fascinating object to study. And one of the most exciting parts of the phenomena of banners and how they communicate is sort of a technical thing, but it’s that banners are texts that, I argue in the chapter, are not really meant to be read, in the normal sense that you and I as moderns think about reading, right?
But they are writing, right? And they must be writing. They can’t be pseudo-writing to function. But they’re not there to be read in that sense of simply decoding the text. They are there to be seen, right? They are there to be glimpsed. And banners are to be carried by bodies through space. That’s a banner at its fullest expression. When it’s waving in the wind, and the camels, and the kids are yelling, and the whatevers are marching along with the banner. So, we say, well, what is the aesthetic communication of that script? Well, it’s huge, right? It’s firing on several different levels simultaneously, right, and communicating aesthetically as part of this devotional practice. So that chapter was to, right, was to identify the object, which took a long time. And then to follow through and untangle some of these–some of the depth of the various registers that are at play around the devotional use of banners.
Yeah, awesome. So, you know, thinking through the chapters as well, you kind of bring up objects that maybe other people resist as well, that are uncomfortable with–like reformers, or, you know, people that would say “no” to such banners, or such things that maybe are deemed as unessential to the practice of Islam. And so, I think it’s at the end of your intro, you mentioned that we can move away from analyses of religion that overstate the determining role of ideas and conceptual models in the history of Islamic practice. And that, you know, often legal reflections and theological discourses and whatnot are perhaps giving too much weight of creating the idea of the object or the the meaning of it. So, I wondered if you could talk a little bit more about it, because I really liked that idea and thinking through the limits of that overdetermination by people that ascribe meaning to such things.
That was particularly useful to me as a religionist. Right? Because it was sort of shocking for me to see how some of these very central, very important practices could change. And in the case of the mahmal for the hajj–the large palanquin that was paraded and went on the hajj–was discontinued as a practice. It was a central Islamic practice in Egypt and other centers for 700 years. Seven hundred years, right? And then it stops. As a religionist I’m like, “wait a minute, religion…important key phenomena don’t stop.” I mean, by definition they’re–I don’t know what. I mean, the tradition tells you why we have certain rights and why we have certain beliefs. And these things are not negotiable. And they’re not–and they don’t come and go. And that’s not part of the message of Mohammed, or whatever, of the revealed religion. And as a religionist, it’s a–yeah, it’s a window of conceptual opening, right to say “of course it does.” Right? Of course, that’s what the history of religions is all about. The history of religions is that religion, in fact, does change, right? And it changes dramatically over time. Although in its voice, Religion–capital R, right–never changes. It’s never changes. It’s universal. But the history of religions…it’s nothing but change.
So, following objects we can bump up into some of these transition periods rather dramatically. And it forces us to turn back and to reflect and to be a bit smarter and more aware around issues of the evolution of ritual, right? The evolution of visual culture, the evolution of devotional practices, right? Debates about licit practices, right? The impact of modernity; the impact of empire, whether it be premodern or contemporary empire, and the political machinations and changes that are going on. Sure, yes, they affect religious practice and important religious concepts. So, the mahmal was a wonderful object to follow in its evolution, in its rise, and the very, very central and important roles that it played as part of the hajj. It was a key component of what the hajj was, right, for Egyptians and various other regions. The mahmal was an important part of that visual and religious culture.
It evolved. And we have this dramatic denouement in 1953. We have the debates, we have the rise of pro-Wahhabi Salafist-inspired criticism that goes on in Egypt for 100 years around the mahmal. And the mahmal changes and some of the rituals change around it over that hundred years. And the debates go on and on. And Al Azhar was saying this and then, you know, others are saying that, and then the politicians are wading in right? And oh, ahah! And then the last chapter–I’m sorry, the end of that story is the end of the mahmal. Well, and the end of the mahmal, that chapter of the mahmal’s life, right? Because to chase down the object takes us from the public square, right, where people would gather to celebrate the hajj–the end of the mahmal takes us to where? To the museum.
Talk about, “welcome to the modern period,” right? Because it’s a museum, right? It’s the whole idea of “oh, what is the museum?” Well, it’s a very modern, and in this case, a colonial–literally–a colonial imposition parachuted into Egypt, right? And the museum becomes the space…becomes the next space for the mahmal. Right? So, right, it’s–these religious rites are shifting; the sensibilities are shifting, and then the object is going to find itself in this new environment. And it becomes an ethnographic object, or it becomes a sort of high art. Sort of high art. I mean, it becomes Arab art, right, an example of Arab art all of a sudden. And then it’s going to have its career as an object within those discourses and in with those spaces.
But also, again, on this theme, on this idea, of sort of chasing the object was this–like I say, right, following the objects takes you to sometimes these strange places. It forced me to make the connection and to take seriously this connection between hajj rituals and shrines. And I have worked on both previously and not connected them really. But this visual culture, this material culture story, forced or made these obvious connections. And there was clearly this overlap. And I call it in the book the “scattering” of the mahmal, right? So, the mahmal as an object, in this widest sense, sort of scatters. And what I’m trying to get at there is to account for the taking up of what we could call, for our purposes, mahmal practices in and around shrines, and saintly based shrines. So the funerary rituals and the use of funerary coverings, right? Again, inscriptions. And this practice of parading with a shrine mahmal in Egypt. The more I looked, right, the more I would find of these sort of mini versions of the hajj mahmal, but they were based on saint shrines throughout Egypt. So, Delta, Upper Region, etc. You know, the Mamluk–well, I mean, even pretty quickly, we go back into the sources in Ottoman, and we just don’t have sources in fine grained material. But I’m curious to imagine how far back this goes.
But I–anyways, in the chapter, I talked about the scattering of the mahmal, and these mahmal practices sort of take root throughout Egypt, but they’re not called hajj rites anymore at that point. They’re called moulid rites or, you know, the love of Ahram Beit shrines, and we’ve always paraded–see, the so and so’s–the covering of St. So-and-So’s shrine, we put it on the back of a camel. And it’s pointed like at the mahmal. And we go on that, you know, around the town, and we stop at the various places, just like the mahmal in Cairo. But we have these sort of small, regional versions of it. So, you know, how do we think about that? How do we make sense of this practice? Well, methodologically, this was the opening. It forced, right, these connections to be made, right? At least for this chapter, right? What happened to the mahmal? Well, in a sense, the mahmal scattered out through the landscape. And the mahmal idea and image and form and object lives. It lives on, but it lives on in this–in yet another, right, interesting and rather discreetly different chapter of its life.
Even wall art, or something. Or, yeah, just paintings on the sides of buildings and things like that, you know? Just different formations of the same object. So, to kind of pivot back and maybe get ready to close this up shortly, I wondered, you know, just sort of thinking back to, you know, you mentioned your place as a religionist and a religious studies theorist. And so, I wonder if you could just kind of bring us back to how this type of inquiry–thinking through following through the objects–if there’s anything specific related to Islamic studies, that can kind of speak back to or inform conversations that we’re having in religious studies? You know, anxieties that we have in religious studies about the collapsing of departments and fields and things like that. And just what that interplay is between what you’ve learned over so many years of studying Islam and being in the field of religious studies, and how those work together, maybe?
Well, sure. I mean, as a religionist–as religionists, right, you and I–we straddle, we have a foot in the…we can call it “area studies” camp. And then we’re also religionists. So, we are thinking these big questions about the nature of the study of religion, and is there even an object for the study of religion, and insider/outsider? Is that, you know, are we still talking about that? And what is the study of religion, and what is theological thinking, right? And can we engage with tradition, with religious traditions, right? And how can we do that in constructive and stimulating and rigorous ways? And well, I am heartened by what I see; the research trajectories opening up amongst especially young scholars in the study of Islamic tradition around these very rich discourses–ongoing discourses, right?–across the humanities. These can and should be mined by us as Islamicists. Yes, of course, obviously, we need to be Islamicists and strong and careful in our work. But we are also humanists, and we’re religionists, so we draw on these rich, ongoing, stimulating discourses around us, right? So, issues around, you know, around gender, issues around embodiment and image. Pushing more directly around ethics, right? And ethics as a critical and comparative category rather than simply a received theological–is sort of a rich, exciting, emerging field. There are some interesting things around in textual studies. I’m actually launching out into a project on ritual, on Islamic ritual, and it is–
And is that what you’ll be doing–I wanted to also give you time to kind of mention your next thing. So, is that what you’ll be going back to Cairo for?
Actually, I’ll be going to Cairo on a more focused project which is an exploration of the bodily engagements with devotional texts. Marginalia, right? Think of the sort of devotional rubbings of texts. Tearing, tears, all of these sort of visceral engagements with devotional texts. Well, in the age of COVID, right, and the digital age, where we can do everything online, apparently, this project is a terrible idea. I mean it’s a wonderful idea, but it’s a terrible idea. Because it means you have to go. You have to go and physically encounter these objects up close in person.
And no one should be touching shrines right now, but nonetheless, you got to figure it out. So, thank you for that. And then, just briefly, is that part of something else related to ritual that you mentioned? Another project on ritual?
Right. So, the project on ritual is wider. And what it’s trying–what the project is doing is…ritual itself is, I think, literally a gigantic field. Right? I mean, it’s been worked on intensively for, I don’t know, 100 years. I mean, 120 years. So, yes, you could easily quickly drown in it. And we don’t want to do that. But we’re talking about sort of emerging trajectories in Islamic Studies. And I’m going to argue that there are a number that will come out of the study of good old ritual because the study of ritual phenomena will bring to bear many of these emerging, evolving methodologies and critical conversations. Yes, anchored in ritual phenomena, right, but not in this old reductive sense of decoding and then trying to define what are the boundaries of ritual? That’s pretty far past us. But ritual phenomena are still a puzzle. They’re still very puzzling, right? And very central to religious practice. So, this will sort of be the next chapter of that. What are some of the most exciting ways that we can get traction on this material in the study of Islam?
Awesome. Well, thanks so much. This is great. I’ve learned a ton, thought through a few more things. I taught one of the chapters of the book in my material religion class, but hopefully I’ll be teaching it again next year. And I look forward to thinking through this a bit more with this information in mind. So, thank you so much.
Very good. Thanks very much, Candace. It’s a pleasure to spend some time with you.
Richard McGregor. 2021. “Following the Objects: Seeing Religion in Egypt and Syria with Richard McGregor by Candace Mixon”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 8/3/2021. Transcribed by Savannah H. Finver. Version 1.0, 8/3/2021. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/following-the-objects-seeing-religion-in-egypt-and-syria/
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