Monasticism and pilgrimage in early Islamic Palestine c.614-950

Dr. Daniel Reynolds

The transition to Arab rule in the 630s is often viewed as a period which initiated a process of immediate devastation and decline for Palestine’s monastic and pilgrimage network. This interpretation, framed by traditional caricatures of Arabs and Muslims as inherently destructive and hostile towards Palestine’s Christian population, is increasingly unsustainable in view of a growing corpus of archaeological, epigraphic and literary material.

The integration of monastic communities into localised elite power networks throughout Palestine continued to facilitate their role as venues where sacred and temporal power converged– a relationship which fostered continued financial investment into monastic communities into the 8th century.

Contrary to popular perceptions, which tend to stress early Islamic hostility to Christian shrines, a growing corpus of epigraphic and papyryological data indicates the presence of Muslims at shrines under the custody of monastic communities during the formative phases of Islamic rule.

But this situation did not remain unchanged. The accelerated rate of conversion to Islam over the course of the 9th-10th centuries, alongside more localised socio-economic factors, prompted rapid monastic abandonment across the region. Monasteries experienced an abrupt cessation of patronal intervention and a progressive process of impoverishment.

Whilst this paper will explore these changes between the 7th-10th centuries, it aims to interpret them as the culmination of a complex process of transition in elite social, patronal and devotional preferences in the Islamic world rather than a trend initiated by oppression and hostility. Furthermore, it will address the factors which enabled some monasteries and pilgrim sites to endure this transformative cultural shift and propose that we reconsider approaches to monasticism and pilgrimage as homogenous institutions and social groups. Acknowledging their respective complexities may elicit a more nuanced appreciation of their diverse response to Islamic rule.