Friday, September 19, 2014

James Grehan's "Twilight of the Saints"

James Grehan is Associate Professor of History at Portland State University. He received his doctoral degree in history from the University of Texas at Austin.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Twilight of the Saints: Everyday Religion in Ottoman Syria and Palestine, and reported the following:
If you open my book to page 99, you will stumble across peasants in Ottoman Palestine who are invoking "Abraham's Law"--i.e., their own customary law, which was the true law of the land throughout the countryside--or meeting at saint's tombs to settle disputes or swear oaths. Readers in our time will have certainly heard a lot about Islamic law and its Christian and Jewish counterparts. When they think of Muslims, Christians, and Jews, they will reflexively place them--very neatly and separately--in mosques, churches, and synagogues. So what were these peasants doing at tombs? And why did they bother with "Abraham's Law" instead of using their own religious law? These scenes, among many others in my book, draw our attention to religion as it was actually practiced in the not-so-distant past, not as we would like to imagine it today. My book takes us back to the Middle East before the onset of modern mentalities, exploring religious habits and customs from the late seventeenth through the nineteenth century. Readers will find themselves in cultural territory which is exotic, unfamiliar, and largely forgotten today. They will step back into a society where few people could read or write, and most communities had no official house of worship or trained religious experts to guide them. As a consequence, institutional religion tended to give way to more folkloric forms of belief and observance. My book opens the door onto this older religious culture, which, until its final disappearance in the twentieth century, transcended the formal doctrinal divisions of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. If you would like to go beyond standards accounts of religion in the Middle East--which really tell us more about our own obsessions and expectations than about people who lived several generations ago--you might very well enjoy taking a look at my book.
Learn more about Twilight of the Saints at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue