The Evolution of Tomb Dressing as an Islamic Ritual for the Dead


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Any survey of Egyptian Islamic devotional practices of the medieval period quickly encounters a wide variety of objects. Whether the rites and relics coming out of the elaborate Hajj observances, or the gatherings at saintly shrines, the material and visual records represent a rich source for study. Records from the Fatimid, Mamluk, and Ottoman eras show that believers’ contact with such images and objects took place within a web of competing significations. Fatwas were written attacking and defending several practices (Abduh’s were perhaps the most famous); sultans variously promoted and outlawed the yearly commemorations at saint shrines; and authorities banned certain popular elements of the Hajj celebration. Our current theoretical models for ritual practice are extremely diverse, with several mutually exclusive schools having evolved in the last three decades. A prominent line of theorists, including Talal Asad, J.Z. Smith, Catherine Bell, and Maurice Bloch, have pushed the study of ritual away from the decoding of static fields of signified meaning toward the more fluid concept of ‘ritualization’. I will develop a story of the evolving Islamic practices of venerating the dead through the production, presentation, ritual parading, and devotional gazing upon tomb coverings. The paper will focus on the rituals, many of which have their precedents in Egyptian Hajj rites, that developed to support and structure this devotional material and visual field. Drawing on historical chroniclers such al-Maqrizi, Ibn Iyas, and others, along with the surviving material preserved in museums in Egypt and elsewhere, I will present several case studies to illustrate the development of such dressing rituals.

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