Episode 62: Sunni and Shi’a in Medieval Syria

Host: Christopher Rose, Outreach Director, Center for Middle Eastern Studies
Guest: Stephennie Mulder, Assistant Professor of Art History and Middle Eastern Studies, UT-Austin

After the decline of the Fatimids, the medieval Middle East entered a period called the Sunni Revival, in which Shi’ism was officially discouraged and Shi’i institutions were closed and replaced with Sunni institutions. Or, at least, that’s what the official chroniclers tell us. The buildings themselves tell us a different story–one that tries to bring decades of conflict to an end by accommodating different beliefs.

Art Historian Stephennie Mulder has spent the past decade working in Syria and shares a new look at history of Sunni and Shi’a in Syria during the medieval period; and how both histories are threatened by ISIS and the Syrian Civil War.

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You have recently published a book called The Shrines of the ‘Alids in Syria: Sunnis, Shias and the Architecture of Co-existence–this episode ties into a series we’re doing on the origins of sectarianism in Islam.  The word “coexistence” doesn’t tend to pop up a lot when we talk about Sunni and Shi’a these days, so can you briefly tell us what the book is about, and then we’ll get into more specifics?

The book is really trying to make a type of intervention into this conflict, which is the usual relationship that we hear about when we discuss the sectarian relationships within Islam. What I attempted to do, because there’s a problem of sources in the medieval period–there are not so many sources that tell the history of Shi’ism with the kind of depth that we would like, partly because Shi’i sources were destroyed–for several reasons this is the case. What I thought would be useful would be to tell the history of Shi’ism using architecture, because in fact there are a very large number of buildings that remain in what today would be considered Sunni territories but in fact are extremely important for the Shi’a. But, as I argue in the book, they’re also always very important for the Sunnis and trying to tell the story of these buildings enables us to see that, despite a lot of rhetoric of conflict that is part of our source material, in fact there was also a kind of pragmatic tolerance that was the norm in peoples’ every day lives.

Since you’ve mentioned this gap in the available literature, you’re using architecture as a primary document and, as I mentioned before the interview I have several teacher friends who have told me that the first time I get an art historian into the studio, I have to ask how one uses architecture as a primary document. So, what are you looking for when you look at a building?

That’s a great question, and I’m really glad that you asked it. There are a couple of ways that you can approach a building when you’re trying to do architectural analysis or the kind of analysis that art historians use. We often call it formal analysis. One approach that you can use is one that really looks at the building in terms of its siting within the city, its location and the kinds of visual effects that were meant to be produced. So, in other words a kind of aesthetic and visual look at the building. So, you would ask yourself questions like: where is it located? What other kinds of buildings is it in communication with? How does it interact with other spaces that surround it? Is it an open space? Is it a closed space? What kind of visual effect does that produce for the person who experiences the building?

You can also ask yourself questions about the way that you move through a building – do you move through a building in a very orchestrated kind of way, or is it an open, kind of free-flowing space? Think, for example, about the difference between a church and a mosque. A church is a space that reflects the heirarchical nature of Christianity, which had a pope at the top and a series of people very heirarchically organized beneath him, and it also represents the heirarchical relationship between the local pastor or priest who is interacting with the congregation, and with the people themselves who see him as a kind of guide or intercessor. He’s the one who leads the liturgy every week, he dispenses the sacramant, he does a whole series of things that are essential for their salvation. So, a church is set up kind of a stage set in some sense, or a theater, where you have an elevated area up front where consecrated, important people carry out important rituals, and everyone else observes and participates ocasionally but it’s mostly passive.

A mosque, by contrast, is a large open space whose primary purpose is to provide a covered sheltered for one of the primary ritual duties, which is to assemble as a community in prayer, and to be able to face in one direction, which is the direction of Mecca. So, it doesn’t have a heirarchical nature, it’s kind of a vast open space with one wall that’s been highlighted so that you know which direction to turn in prayer. Because Islam itself is not a very heirarchical structure, that is actually reflected in the architecture itself.

So, you can draw conclusions about culture and history based on the way in which the building is laid out.

I want to ask a question about the title of the book, which is The Shrines of the ‘Alids, and we’ll get into the shrines in a second, but I want to ask about the use of the term ‘Alid as opposed to Shi’i. What’s the difference, or, why in the particular time period that you’re discussing did you use that term?

Partly it’s because Shi’ism is not something that had clearly coalesced in the earliest years of Islam, right? But what was very clear was that there were descendants of the Prophet Muhammad who were referred to as the ahl al-bayt, or the family of the Prophet, or also referred to as those who descended through the family lineage of Ali as the Alids. These figures, I refer to them as the Alids because what I was interested in was the inter sectarian relationships–the relationship between Sunni and Shi’a. I’m actually not talking about the history of Shi’is, I’m talking about the history of both Sunnis and Shi’is and the ways that they related to these holy figures who were revered by both sects. They were revered for difference reasons, of course, because they’re much more prominent in the pious practice of the Shi’a, but they’re also extremely important for the Sunnis.

Also, the next part of the title is “medieval Syria.” What’s going on in Syria at the time that these shrines are built? What’s going on in the political environment?

Well, there’s a couple of things that are pretty intense and pretty fascinating that are going on. One is that the Islamic world has been under the rule of a Shi’i dynasty for almost two centuries at this point. If we begin our story in the 11th/12th century, the Shi’ite dynasty of the Fatimids has been ruling the Syria/Palestine area from Cairo and, also at certain times the holy cities of Mecca and Medina from the tenth century. So, for about two centuries the central Islamic lands have been under the rule of a Shi’i dynasty.

Now, this Shi’i dynasty, of course, is co-existant at the same time as the Sunni Abbasid dynasty ruling from Baghdad and then some of its Sunni successors–the Seljuk sultantate most prominent among them. In the 11th and 12th century there is a movement to overthrow the political sovereignty of the Shi’i dynasty, which we refer to as the Sunni Revival, which peaks in the 11th and 12th century. Its greatest figure is probably well known to western audiences, it’s Saladin. He was the one who finally overthrows the last Fatimid Shi’i ruler in Cairo and installs once again a Sunni caliphate.

So, the story has been often told that Sunnism was really ascendant at this point and it was really interested in suppressing Shi’ism, but what I’ve found by looking at the architecture is that, by looking at the fact that there were many Shi’is in Syria at this time and, given the fact that once Shi’ism had been overthrown as a political entity it was no longer seen as quite the threat, later Sunni rulers really adopted a pragmatic in propitiating and sometimes even supporting their Shi’i populations. So, that’s one thing that’s going on, the sectarian conflict.

The other thing that’s happening, of course, is the Crusades, which are happening at exactly the same time and that’s an important link via Saladin. His two greatest achievements were the overthrow of the Shi’i dynasty of the Fatimids, but also the eviction of the Crusaders from the Holy Land and the recapture of Jerusalem.

So, getting more into the meat of your book, so to speak, what do shrines reveal about these practices, these pragmatic accommodations as you refer to them?  What kinds of shrines are you looking at, and what are you able to tell?

Well, I’m looking a whole host of different types of buildings, which was a challenge. I had to use a whole series of methods in order to uncloak the realities behind these types of architecture. One of the methods I use is archaeology, because I’m also an archaeologist, so we excavated one of these shrines over the last decade at a site in northern Syria, a place called Balis. I’m also using the kind of formal analysis that we were talking about earlier. You can also, of course, read a building by reading its actual texts because many buildings, especially in the Islamic world but also in other places, actually literally speak to us. They tell us what they’re about and why they’re important and what they’re trying to communicate. And then I also use a larger kind of analysis which pulls back and looks at the entire landscape of shrines that was created in this period.

So, I looked at several kinds of buildings. There are some that are really masterworks of medieval architecture in northern Syria, in the city of Aleppo. And then there are a group of much smaller shrines that, until now, have been completely ignored by art historians because they’re not particularly architecturally prominent. But, what I discovered is that you could reveal an enormous amount about their significance in this period by getting down to the nitty-gritty of their periodization and their construction and their relationships to other buildings, and also their textual history–what we know about them from the sources.

What are these buildings speaking to you about? What story are they telling us?

The story that they’re telling — well, let me say that the reason that I got interested in this topic is that when I was working in Syria, which I did for over a decade, I was working as an archaeologist there, and coming and going I noticed that everbody used these shrines. People would tell you–even the tour guides would tell you that these are Shi’i shrines, right? But I noticed that everybody went there–the local merchants from the neighborhood went there for daily prayers, everybody used them, so that made me curious about it. And what I found, going back through the Arabic textual sources, which is a really important thing to do as well when you’re doing architectural history – in a way you kind of have to use all the tools of an historian and then, in addition, use the tools of an art historian to get this really full picture. In looking at these buildings, I discivered that that was not unusual, that in fact what was most remarkable was to see that many of these buildings had been patronized by major Sunni rulers–in fact, the majority of their patrons were Sunni. So, to speak about these spaces as Shi’i spaces is a very kind of odd to thing to do  when you realize that they were built by Sunni rulers for the most part and they were visited also by Sunnis as well as Shi’is. They were really shared spaces.

In your book, you really do talk a lot about patronage. What was the significance of being a patron of a building or an institution?

Well, I think it’s always the same kind of story in any civilization. If you’re a person who really wants to make a name for themself, to have something to live on beyond your time, endowing a building is always a philanthropic gesture that will ensure that your name lives on because, of course, you’ll attach your name to it in some way. And all of these patrons did attach their names very prominently, usually over the entrance to the building so that you know–just in the same way that someone founding a building on the UT campus would do the same today. So that’s really kind of that basic human motivation.

But in this case, I think these patrons were in a very canny way, they were using architecture to promote an agenda of, “This sectarian conflict is not helpful right now.”  A way to kind of unify the polity using architecture. The most intriguing evidence for that is in the mashhad al-Hussein, which is a shrine to the prophet Muhammad’s grandson al-Hussein, located in Aleppo. It’s also the most spectacular of the buildings–easily as spectacular as some of th every famous medieval madrassas from this period. This building actually has a specific injunction from its patron that lists all of the 12 imams of the Shi’a, but also lists the four rightly guided caliphs of the Sunnis, who are often disparaged by the Shi’a, and at the end it said, “You are to revere all of the Companions of God’s Prophet,” really kind of clearly making the point that, “Guys, we all need to get along.”

I have to ask, wrapping up, as you mentioned you’ve been doing work in Syria for ten years and, things are not going well in Syria right now. What is the status of the sites you’ve been working on?

As far as I know these specific sites have not been damaged–yet.  I haven’t heard that they have been damaged, but, frankly, it’s extremely difficult to get any information about these archaeological sites. You may know that ISIS has been using archaeological sites to fund — they’re looting archaeological sites at a pretty terrifying rate in order to fund their campaign. They’re also destroying shrines and we’ve seen a number of instances of that in Iraq -the destruction of the Tomb of Jonah is the most prominent of those. So, it wouldn’t surprise me, actually, if they had already been destroyed or were on their way to being destroyed because, of course, Aleppo has been–parts of Aleppo have been under control of ISIS for some time.

That’s the grim reality.

The bright side is that now there are a number of initiatives under way that are actually designed to mitigate the destruction and also to start recording the losses so that we can get a better handle on what’s going on there. One of them is actually funded by the State Department and the other one is one that I’m involved in working with out of the Smithsonian Museum and the Penn Cultural Heritage Center. Both of these projects have two goals: one is to start mapping on the ground what has been lost, which is extremely challenging to do under the circumstances and relies very heavily on a group of very, very brave Syrian archaeologists and art historians and museum workers who are literally Syrian’s Monuments Men right now. They’re going out and photographing monuments under very dangerous conditions because if these groups find them doing this they could easily be killed. So, they’re kind of heroically trying to record the damage. Also, there’s been an initative, the first part of which was carried out last month in Turkey by the Penn Cultural Heritage Center and the Smithsonian Museum, to actually bring resources to those people in Syria, some of whom came out of Syria, attended a training course in Turkey, and then went back in with materials in order to preseve monuments and works of art. These are really brave people who deserve our recognition right now because it’s the only way that we’re getting any information about what’s happening to these sites.

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