Cultural Mobilities and Political Spaces (Christopher Bahl)

Connecting Muslim Shrine Cities, 1400-1800

My postdoctoral project focuses on early modern shrines as places where mobilities intersect and communities are built through shared cultural practices and social interests. Shrines were (and are) expressions of Islamic piety and were visited by pilgrims from near and far. They became part of a diverse religious economy that served the personal needs of a local and transregional community. Recent scholarship has created an accumulative account of shrines from Anatolia to the South Asian subcontinent and a kaleidoscopic view of Muslim piety. However, the complex relationships and exchanges between these places of worship are rarely addressed. Yet, pilgrims and visitors of shrines often combined several places such as Medina, Najaf, Kerbala and Mashhad on one extended trip. The mobility of the pious and the learned that kept shrine cities alive fostered cultural connections and social networks between different shrine cities. By accommodating sociabilities of cultural exchange shrine cities and their communities had the capacity to create scholarly mobilities and forge political networks. Relating shrine cities in an interconnected framework and from a transregional perspective can enhance our understanding of their concerted social, cultural and political significances. Thereby, I am bringing my project into conversation with the larger research profile of the OIB on relations.

I intend to historicise the human movement between shrines to probe cultures of human mobilities, intellectual exchanges and forms of political association and community formation among interrelated shrine communities. A preliminary case study can serve to exemplify this. During my doctoral research I identified an academically almost unstudied and politically marginalised group of Ashrāf (‘descendants of the prophet’) in the holy city of Medina on the Arabian Peninsula. Their religious leadership repeatedly moved between shrine cities and courts and thereby began to develop a truly transregional cultural profile stretching to Iran and the South Asian subcontinent during the sixteenth century. Members of al-Sayyid Ibn Shadqam al-Madanī’s family lineage acted as political leaders of this community and custodians of the prophet’s grave in Medina. Concentrating on Ibn Shadqam’s transoceanic endeavours from Medina in the Hijaz, to Ahmadnagar in India and to Mashhad in Iran will provide new perspectives on intellectual exchanges between shrine cities, forms of patronage and the transregional implications of community building among politically marginalised groups.

This case study will zoom in on how a group of Ashrāf from Medina used their charismatic descent, courtly patronage and scholarly prestige on the move from shrine to shrine for intellectual and political pursuits during the sixteenth century. Empirically, this will be based on their writings in poetry, history and genealogy as a lens to study knowledge formation between shrine cities. This also means going beyond the textual analysis of narrative texts. I suggest approaching Ibn Shadqam compositions by focusing on how such texts were written in a transregional, inter-shrine and court context to have a social and cultural effect. More importantly, one can study the engagement of a larger readership with the manuscripts of these texts, how they were collected, inscribed with marginalia and further modified by copyists. The Shrine library in Mashhad and related scholarly collections can offer a rich historical record of such cultural engagements. This will enable me to trace a long-term dialogue between Ibn Shadqam and other composers on one side, as well as readers of the larger Shīʿī community, among whom these texts allegedly circulated, on the other. By tracing ‘marginal conversations’ about history, poetry and genealogy on manuscripts it will be possible to analyse intellectual exchanges and forms of political association by mobile groups.


Author: Dr. Christopher Bahl