Middle East Notes and Comment: The Great Awakening
March 24, 2006
Imagine a rapidly growing city filled with young people from the countryside, looking for work and shirking the strict codes of their rural communities. Imagine them crowding into uniformly poor urban quarters, as the wealthy decamp downtown for newly created suburbs.
Imagine as well, a growing piety taking root. Religious charities spring up, and religious networks provide economic capital to the young strivers. Alcohol stocks are destroyed as liquor emerges as a symbol of moral decay. Pious men and women rise to leadership positions in their communities. Most dramatically, there is a surge in personal proselytization, especially among women, as one-by-one family members become more engaged in a life of faith and observance. Religious politics do not follow far behind, as the newly faithful seek to make their votes align with their faith, and politicians embrace religious language, imagery, and outward piety.
While the city described here could be Riyadh, Cairo or Casablanca. It could be Damascus, or Zarqa or Fes. Instead, it is Rochester, NY in 1831, during a period of massive evangelization and religious revivalism called “The Second Great Awakening.” What happened then in Rochester sheds insight into what we are seeing in Muslim communities around the world today.