Water: The Practical and the Spiritual in Medieval Islam
Water, essential to every form of life, is arguably one of the most contentious issues of the twenty-first century. This is particularly true of the arid Middle East. Aridity is characterized by high variability in precipitation. The rains are unpredictable, with long dry spells being interrupted by short-lived torrential floods. Water engineering and management skills have been vital for human existence since early times. Impressive examples abound from medieval Islamic times in general and Yemen in particular, where I have conducted field research for the past years. However, in a world where the rains needed to feed the engineered systems are totally unreliable, people usually do not trust technology exclusively, but tend to complement it by magical practices in the hopes of ensuring a secure water supply.
Magic, the attempt to influence the course of events by calling upon a superhuman force, is deeply interwoven with religion. At the core of this union in Islam lie the special properties, secret powers, of such things as Koranic verses and the name(s) of God. Water is mentioned in the Koran in a great variety of contexts and with complex connotations. While water is given to humans as a divine gift, it may also be taken away from them as punishment. Lack of water has as devastating an effect as too much of it. Water can imply vitality and purity, but it may also have mysterious and evil associations. My research will focus on humans’ ambiguous fascination with water, and on tracing the spiritual and magical aspects of water in the material culture remains (mostly derived from my field research in Yemen) and link them to the Classical Arabic sources.
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