Re-membering the Holy Family in Islamic Cairo


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This paper examines the veneration of the Prophet Muhammad’s Holy Family, both historically and today. The paper draws upon affect theory and trauma studies to move beyond questions of historical/textual criticism to consider what ‘visiting’ the Holy Family means to their audiences. Affect theory compels us to imagine what bodies (both individual and social) experience, feel, and emote in story-telling and ritual performance within sacred space. Trauma studies likewise accentuates what bodies experience and feel, especially in deeply distressing physical or psychic struggles. Trauma studies, particularly, encourages us to focus on the power of ‘story’ in shaping individual (and social) identities, recognizing that, in many ways, we are a product of the stories we tell ourselves (and those society tells us). When approaching the Holy Family with these questions in mind, I consider (more specifically): what attracts practitioners and pilgrims to sacred spaces dedicated to broken bodies, and what do they experience therein? To answer such questions, I begin by surveying early medieval hadith and hagiographies that describe the Family’s lives and legacies, paying particular attention to al-Sayyida Zaynab and al-Husayn (the Prophet Muhammad’s grandchildren). I consider a variety of pilgrimage (or ‘visitation’) rituals, including story-telling and emotional elegies that ‘re-member’ the Family’s traumas, recognizable by most human beings as lived by mothers, fathers, sons, sisters, and kin groups. I also consider embodied ritual performances that link practitioners with the Family’s own bodies/relics through full sensory engagement (smelling, tasting, and feeling). Finally, the paper complements historical investigation (primarily hagiographies and pilgrimage journals) with recent fieldwork conducted at al-Sayyida Zaynab and al-Husayn mosques in 2019 and 2021. Through interviews and observation, I consider the embodied ritual performances within the shrine rooms that often disrupt traditional gender expectations.

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