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Going Out into the Desert

John Zaleski Investigates the Syriac Ascetic Tradition

John Zaleski, a PhD candidate in medieval studies at Harvard, is currently a Tyler fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks. His research employs a comparative approach to examine the dynamic interactions between Christianity and Islam in the medieval Middle East. “Asceticism East of Byzantium,” his recent research report, traced his work with Syriac Christian and early Muslim ascetic literature from the seventh to ninth century.

Brief Q&A with John Zaleski

In your talk, you described the “spirituality of dehydration” and the act of denying oneself water. I’m wondering if avoiding liquids, and not just food, becomes a more potent aspect of this asceticism, and if it’s connected to any environmental factors, like a dryer climate, for instance.

Well, to start, it’s an idea that you see in later Syriac monastic sources. Generally, I’ve started to look at eighth- and ninth-century texts and the ways in which they talk about restrictions on food and water intake, and what I’ve found is that they do it in terms that are very similar to those used in the Greek monastic literature and in the commentarial literature. The basic idea is that by restricting food and drink, which of course are a constant source of temptation, you actually create physiological changes in your body which will help you attain the real goal, which is to overcome, or, more precisely, to redirect, your desires toward God. Now, whether it has anything to do with climate—I think there is sort of an indirect connection in the sense that early monasticism began in the desert, but it was as much an imaginary desert as a real one.

These monks—and this continues in the Syriac tradition—see themselves as, in their words, “going out into the desert.” The idea is that you leave society, you leave the city to go out into the desert, and that’s where you’re able to confront your own passions, as well as the demons that have been obstructing you. You’re battling both internal and external forces, and you have to go out into the desert to confront them. So it’s difficult to say, because quite literally they’re in a dry environment, but the desert is also an ideal, which they’re trying to internalize in their own bodies by “drying” out the lusts of the body. At the same time, I think we have to be careful of overplaying the desert environment aspect of it. I think it’s equally important to look at the ways these monks are interacting with people from the cities, the monasteries, and developing urban environments.


I was wondering if you could talk more about Muslim asceticism as an urban phenomenon, which you discussed in your talk.

Well, generally speaking, Muslim asceticism is an urban phenomenon, which stems from the fact that early Islam is predominantly urban. In Mesopotamia in the early Islamic period, for instance, the physical arrangement of the population demonstrates this. Again, Muslims are a minority, but they’re concentrated in cities, and the countryside is then primarily Christian, or pagan, or non-Muslim. You do have communities of Muslim devout that are set up away from the cities, but that’s the exception. Practicing piety, including ascetic piety, for the most part takes place within the cities, where Muslims are living.


Does that mean, with these urban monasteries, that you see less of an emphasis on production?

Not really. Production is still important—they become very important centers for wine production, for example. Now, just because Muslims aren’t supposed to produce wine, that doesn’t mean they don’t consume wine. It’s a common misconception that because it was against Islamic law that nobody was drinking wine. Quite the contrary, both Muslims and Christians go to the monasteries in order to drink wine. And then in the countryside you still have agricultural production going on—that continues to be important for eastern Christian monasticism.  


Why is it handier, or best, to work with the commentarial literature that springs up around these texts?

I think a lot of people have been interested in the connections between early Islamic and eastern Christian religious practices—theology in general, and asceticism and mysticism in particular. There’s a tendency, when people are interested in these comparisons, to compare early Islamic sources to the Greek and Latin ascetic materials that we’re more familiar with in more broad terms. The commentaries really teach us how to understand the Syriac ascetic and mystic tradition in relation to its Greek sources. In my view, Syriac asceticism, or rather monastic and ascetic Syriac authors, become by the seventh century very closely engaged with Greek traditions. Looking at how they’re explicitly commenting on, and interpreting, Greek sources allows us to talk about that, more so than if we’re just trying to talk about structural and thematic parallels between Syriac and Greek sources.

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