From the medieval period down to the dawn of modernity, sufi saints and the discipline of alchemy have had a long and often fraught relationship with one another, reflective of the sometimes positive, sometimes ambiguous position alchemy held in Islamicate societies (and elsewhere in the medieval and early modern world). To contend that a given sufi shaykh was an adept of the alchemical arts, or of other occult sciences for that matter, could be a form of praise or condemnation or caution. The delightful story I’ve translated below represents an interesting juncture in the relationship of alchemy and sufi saint: it comes from a source into which I’ve dipped several times now, the hagiography of the nineteenth century Ottoman Syrian saint Shaykh Muḥammad al-Jsir written by his deeply learned (in both ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ arts and sciences) son Ḥusayn. The context and ultimate message- the true alchemy is the practice of piety- would have been familiar to generations of sufi devotees before the nineteenth century, just as many a previous shaykh no doubt had to field similar requests for instruction in the arts of material transfiguration of the elements. There is however here I think a more marked sense of irony, the implication that alchemy isn’t just suspect for its occupation of the fringes of proper belief and practice but also that it is really no longer imaginable as a pursuit- which might have been true for Ḥusayn al-Jisr but was not necessarily true for all of his contemporaries, as the copying and presumable use of the treatise illustrated above would indicate. The subtext might well be that while alchemy is outmoded, the true and ultimately alchemy is not, and that devotional piety remains capable of transforming human beings in ways that neither the ancestor of chemistry nor other systems of knowledge could ever hope to do.
And from that is what my aforementioned uncle related to me also: he said: my barber, Shaykh Ḥusayn ‘Alwān used to say to me, ‘Your brother Shaykh Muḥammad knows how to do alchemy, so you ought to get him to teach you its art!’ So I went to your father one day looking vexed, and he said to me: ‘What’s with you O brother?’ I replied, ‘You know how to perform alchemy, so what’s keeping you from teaching it to me, your own brother?’ The shaykh laughed and said to me, ‘Oh Muṣṭafā, I’d like to spend the next three days alone at home in order to prepare an alchemical course—it’s your duty to turn away from me anyone who seeks me out.’ So I said yes, after which he stayed in his home three days, in the uppermost floor, and I made sure that anyone who came to see him was kept away from the shaykh, turning him away politely. And as the shaykh had withdrawn your mother into seclusion [with him] too I did not see her either, as she stayed with him in the upper floor. It was impossible that I go up and see what was going on; however, I asked a servant girl who was serving him and said to her, ‘What is my brother doing?’ She replied, ‘For a while he prays, then he recites taṣliya, then he reads books.’ I replied, ‘He’s not lighting any fire or asking for any specific amounts of substances from you?’ She said, ‘No.’ I was amazed at that and said to myself, ‘How does he perform this alchemy?’ All that was from the vain thoughts of youth.
Then, after the three days were up, I was in the market when the shaykh sent for me. I came quickly and found him sitting in the lower part of the house in the iwān, a satchel of riyāls in front of him. He looked at me and said, ‘O my brother, take them!’ So I took those riyāls, imagining that they were the product of alchemy, it not occurring to me due to the intensity of my happiness that alchemy doesn’t produce minted coin but rather bullion, or so they allege. Then the shaykh grabbed my ear and turned it, saying to me, ‘You and your barber ‘Alwān are nuts! O brother, our alchemy is blessing upon the Prophet, God bless him and give him peace! Don’t listen to the words of the like of this fellow!’ I paid heed to these words and learned that the shaykh did not perform alchemy at all as I had initially supposed, but rather had taken advantage of the secluded retreat of those days in order to be away from people and devoted to worshiping his Lord.
As anyone with even passing familiarity with Islamic history will probably be aware, Muslim scholars of the medieval and early modern periods produced a lot of texts, not a few of them of truly prodigious length. Many of these texts, across genres, included numerous citations of previous authors, of material from various hadith collections, even long passages or parts of entire books effectively ‘recycled,’ with or without attribution. The question naturally presents itself: how did these scholars manage with so many texts and such long texts? How did they find material, remember or record it, and then cite or otherwise reuse it? The enormity of such tasks is compounded by the fact that their textual worlds were entirely of the handwritten variety, not only predating digital texts and their relative ease of searching and copying, but also predating typographic print and things like comprehensives indices.
There is no single answer to the ‘how’ of pre-modern Muslim scholars (and others operating in similar circumstances both in the Islamicate world and beyond) and their textual activities. Methods of work varied from region to region, from period to period, and from scholar to scholar, dependent upon available infrastructure, scholarly goals, attitudes towards opinion and transmission, and so on. The story that I’ve translated here, of the text search and composition practice of one luminary of the late medieval into early modern Maghrib, Aḥmad ibn Yaḥyā al-Wansharīsī (c. 1430-1508), is only one possible approach, and probably not a terribly common one- otherwise it likely would not have been recorded! Aḥmad al-Wansharīsī is best known for his massive compilation of fatwas, al-Mi’yār al-mu’rib wa al-jāmi’ al-mughrib, though he produced other works as well dealing with questions of Islamic law. Here is how the biographer Ibn ‘Askar in his Dawḥat al-nāshir describes al-Wansharīsī’s daily work:
More than one person I met related to me that all of his books were loose-leaf, not bound into volumes, and that he had an empty lot which he walked to every day, having loaded a donkey with the pages of books, selecting two or three pages from each book. When he entered his lot he stripped down to only a woolen qashāba which he bound with a leather belt, his head uncovered (and he was bald). He arranged the loose pages one-by-one into two rows, stuck his inkwell into his belt, and, with his pen in one hand and a piece of paper in the other, he would walk between the two rows, writing down transmitted material from each page. Then when he was finished procuring material relevant to the given topic, he would write down what he had thought and what had been made manifest to him in terms of rebuttal and acceptance. This was his practice.
Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad b. ʿAlī b. al-Ḥusayn b. Miṣbāḥ Ibn ‘Askar, Dawḥat al-nāshir li-maḥāsin man kāna bi al-Maghrib min mashāyikh al-qarn al-ʿāshir (Rabat: Dār al-Maghrib, 1977), 47-48
Two things are especially striking about this account: one, Ibn ‘Askar’s language stresses the sheer physicality of such work- the pages must be selected (presumably each volume had either a container or was bound with twine, akin to chancery practices in some places), then loaded onto the donkey, then taken to al-Wansharīsī’s plot of ground (perhaps enclosed- the word can also mean a courtyard but clearly it was some ways distant from his house), then unloaded and distributed in the two rows on the ground. Only then could the proper scholarly work begin- that is, after al-Wansharīsī switched to his ‘work clothes,’ wearing nothing but a basic garment, a qashāba (usually known as a djellaba in Morocco, and still a common outer garment in North Africa). The image is one of a manual laborer, divested of the clothing typical of an esteemed scholar. Where the modern scholar carries out text search with a few key strokes, we see al-Wansharīsī literally pacing the ground examining the pages he has dis-aggregated, gathering material, which he can then synthesize with his own thoughts and composition.
Yet there is something very familiar to us in the digital age about al-Wansharīsī’s methods. Instead of slowly reading through a given book, taking notes or otherwise relishing its contents, his purpose here is to find and use material, information, perhaps scanning the pages for keywords or indications of particular passages he has in mind or is looking for. Presumably- it is a bit unclear to me- he had some sort of selection process beforehand, perhaps based upon whatever subject or topic he was tackling that day. The pages are to no small degree decontextualized, they become repositories of information al-Wansharīsī needs, not simply for recopying or regurgitation but some kind of critical engagement. Al-Wansharīsī modified the usual technology of texts in his world by unbinding (or never binding at all, as the case may be) the books in his library, which allowed him to do a kind of early text search, walking up and down among the pages scanning for the material he needed. No doubt other scholars did the same, driven by exigencies of their disciplines and social contexts. The nature of the book changed, too, well before the transition from manuscript to print. Continue reading “Fifteenth Century Text Searching with Aḥmad al-Wansharīsī”→
Dear reader, I’m aiming to have some more substantial posts here soon- our family has been in the midst of a move and the post-move work of getting our new house and budding (hopefully!) small farm up and running, while I have also been busy with my day-job work, elements of which I will cover in more detail on my Substack newsletter. In sharp contrast to all that busyness, I’ve translated the following story, which is related by Ḥusayn al-Jisr in his hagiography of his saintly father; it does not however directly relate to his father’s life, but is instead precipitated by an episode in the shaykh’s career that involved a large basket filled with tobacco and money, the latter fulfilling the need of one of the shaykh’s disciples. Ḥusayn al-Jisr does not tell us from whence he got this story, but it is part of a long tradition of sufi tales having to do with tawakkul, which might best be translated as ‘extreme trust in God.’ It’s also really quite funny, and could have come from a collection of popular stories, ḥikāyāt. Otherwise it is pretty self-explanatory- enjoy!
I have seen a similar story in a book concerning what happened to one of the people of pious trust in God. A man from among them was continuously present in a mosque when another man who prayed there noticed him, seeing that he did not leave the mosque nor did he have a job, so he came to him and said, ‘O brother, how do you manage to eat?’ He replied, ‘God, exalted is He, provides for me.’ The man replied, ‘You speak truthfully, but still God makes a means for everything—is He going to send your sustenance down in a basket?’ The man who put all his trust in God replied, ‘Verily God is able to do that.’
So the man invited him to his house, making him to believe that he wanted to honor him, but instead he seized hold of him and put him down in a well that belonged to him and left him there, saying to him, ‘Now we’ll see whether God sends a basket down to you or not!’ Then he went away to his shop stall. Now it so happened that the man’s wife and her maidservant really wanted some halwa, so they made some and were about to eat it when the man, her husband, knocked at the door, and the two were afraid of his displeasure over their making halwa, so they put it in a basket and in their alarm dropped it down in the well. The man who trusted in God who was down in the well took hold of it and began eating from its contents. The wife of the man opened the door and he came in to attend to some business of his, then he remembered the man who was in the well so he went to the brim of the well and called out to him, ‘Hey so-and-so, has God sent you a basket down yet?’ The man replied, ‘Yes, He sent me some halwa in a basket, in spite of you!’ So he took him out of the well, and, things becoming clear to him took admonition from this happening, honored the man and sought from him his forgiveness.
By definition the lives profiled in hagiography, of whatever religious tradition, are exceptional in some way as perceived by one or multiple audiences (or in some cases, only a single author attempting to make the case for wider public recognition). That said, as I have emphasized many times in my writings here and elsewhere, medieval and early modern hagiography, particularly within Islamic traditions, can shed a great deal of light on the lives and experiences of ordinary people and places, providing a richness of detail hard to find in other sorts of sources. Early modern North Africa is an especially rich source of hagiographical texts which allow us to peer into everyday life not just in urban areas but also- in fact perhaps predominately- in the vast rural ‘hinterlands’ of urban centers like Fes and Marrakesh and Tlemcen. The countryside of the Maghrib was a remarkably dynamic landscape in religious, cultural, and intellectual terms, with many of the major institutional sites of learning in the early modern Maghrib located within remote rural locations, zāwiyas- sufi ‘lodges,’ often with a shrine component, libraries, and teaching elements- existing high up in the Middle and High Atlas, in territory marked to this day by forms of seasonal transhumance.
The two lives I’ve translated here come from a sixteenth century Arabic work of biography and hagiography (most though not all of the figures therein are saints),Dawḥat al-nāshir, by one Ibn ‘Askar, its entries primarily focused on holy men and women from the Rif region of the Maghrib. Both of the men I’ve featured here would have been relatively unexceptional were it not for their piety and reputations for sanctity: one was a learned man who inhabited the countryside outside of the coastal city of Tetouan (a lovely place, by the way, well worth the visit if you are ever in northern Morocco!) who practiced subsistence agriculture as well as scholarship and sainthood. Calling him a ‘historian’ is a bit anachronistic though not entirely so, as while he would not have followed the canons of modern disciplinary history Ibn ‘Askar’s description suggests an interest in and deep knowledge of the wide spectrum of historical events and figures relevant to Islamic and Maghribi history; of course then as now it was hard to make a living on such knowledge and so Shaykh Aḥmad kept himself and his family going through his own practice of agriculture, practice which was, our author hints, blessed by divine intervention. Would that all historian-farmers, self included, were so fortunate!
The theme of agricultural involvement is a not uncommon one in Ibn ‘Askar’s hagiographies, not a few of his holy people growing their own food and offering the fruits of their lands to visitors and pilgrims and ‘sons of the road.’ Many seem to have practiced a sort of intensive gardening or intensive small-scale farming, though I am ignorant of the details of early modern Maghribi agriculture; it seems possible to me that the surprisingly abundant agronomical texts from the western Islamicate world might have found an audience precisely among such farming ‘ulamā’ and sufi shaykhs, people who possessed refined literacy but fully inhabited the rural, agricultural world.
Our second life is from a bit south of Tetouan, having to do with a pious blacksmith in the general vicinity of the famous, and indeed quite beautiful, town of Chefchaouen. This Aḥmad, ‘the Blacksmith,’ might have been literate to some degree given that he served as an imām in a rural mosque, but he certainly would not have been otherwise reckoned a member of the ‘ulamā’, making his living from a trade- a hot and dirty one at that! His ‘style’ of piety seems to have been rather improvised, as witnessed by the surprise expressed by our author. Yet this improvised rural piety of a working man is not disparaged in our text: instead, Aḥmad the Blacksmith gave a rather bold rebuke to our author concerning Ibn ‘Askar’s reliance on ‘book knowledge,’ a rebuke followed by a powerful prayer which Ibn ‘Askar credits with his own spiritual transformation. I’ve a bit more to say on this unexpected- to us at least- rebuke and prayer and what it suggests about the cultural worlds of the past versus our own present, but first here are the two entries in translation, my further thoughts following:
Aḥmad al-Shā’ir al-Yachmī: ‘And from among them, Shaykh Abū al-‘Abbās Aḥmad al-Shā’ir al-Yachmī, from the Banū Yachm in the vicinity of Tetouan. He was, God be merciful to him, a blameless jurist (faqīh), a knower of God, exalted is He, and very pious and ascetic. He was a memorizer of history and was passionate about much study thereof, he was given to deep thought and contemplation. Every Friday he went by foot to the city of Tetouan in order to pray the congregational prayer therein, even though his home was in Bū Khalād some twelve miles away. He was committed to reliance upon God (tawakkul) and never practiced any fixed profession. Instead, he had a space in front of his house which he cultivated, doing the digging by hand, and from the produce of that cultivation he supported himself and his family. He also fed from it all those who stopped in the mosque (masjid) opposite his house, as a way of providing traveling exigencies to the sons of the road. Those who saw [his garden plot] were certain that it was not enough to feed even one person, yet he never took from anyone. When he went to Tetouan he carried with him a large basket in his hand so as to buy what he needed and carry the items in it, such that the trace of it was marked in his left hand. If anyone going along with him offered to carry it for him he forbade it, his face scowling. I learned from him, God be merciful to him, knowledge of history and of philosophical reflection, and all of the times that I met with him over the years he talked with me of nothing but the knowledge of history and of reports of the doings in the past of ‘ulamā, saints, kings, and others. When he was finished talking of such he would say, ‘Permanence belongs to God, surely to God will all things return, and all things are perishing except His Face.’ Then he would grow pale, and a spiritual state would take him and he would turn away. Many miracles were manifest through him and the people of his land were agreed upon his sainthood and virtue. He died between the ‘fifties and ‘sixties of this century, and was buried opposite his mosque, God be merciful to him. 
Aḥmad al-Ḥaddād al-Khumsī: And from among them, the holy man, the saint humble in the presence of God, the faqīh Abū al-‘Abbās Aḥmad al-Ḥaddād. He practiced the trade of blacksmithing, and was also an imām in the Masjid al-Shurafā’ in the territory of the Banū Faltwāṭ. He was a preceptor in asceticism, piety, night-vigils, and struggle in good works. I entered his home in the fifty-fifth year of this century, along with our shaykh Abū al-Ḥajjāj and a group of the virtuous. He greeted us and provided for each of us what he could of different kinds of food, serving us himself. When we were ready to depart to the mosque, he went before us to the door of his house and said: ‘I have made a covenant with God, exalted is He, that no one from among the folk of good should leave my home until he has placed his foot upon my cheek.’ He regarded us as worthy and desired to do so to us, and Shaykh Abū al-Ḥajjāj said, ‘Let us help him in his desire, as his intention is the humbling of his lower self and lowliness towards God, exalted is He.’ So [Aḥmad] put his head on the ground and each of us put our feet to his cheek. Then we went on to the Masjid al-Shurfāt, which is said to be one of the mosques built by Ṭāriq ibn Ziyād during his first campaign of conquest . When we reached the mosque a man brought us food which he had cooked with garlic. We ate it, but [Aḥmad] did not eat with us, excusing himself by saying that he did not eat garlic. When we went inside the mosque we asked him about his not eating garlic, and he replied: ‘On a certain night, in the middle of the night I came to this mosque and entered by way of the qibla door that is to the left of the miḥrab within. I had eaten garlic that night. When I entered I found two men from among the saints praying, their light filling the mosque. When they had given the greeting they stood and walked out through the eastern door. I went out following them, and when they were aware of me they stopped in a certain place’—he described the location—‘and I came before them and sought from them prayer. Then one of them said to me: ‘One who wishes to meet with other and to enter the mosque ought not eat garlic.’ So I said, ‘O Sīdī, I repent before God and will never eat garlic again!’ They gave me the greeting of peace and then turned and went. From that time forward I have never eaten it and will never eat it again.’
I sat with him, God be merciful to him, once in Chefchaouen and had begun talking with him about the art of sufism and the way of spiritual gifts, and I had memorized a great deal, saying to him ‘Shaykh So-and-So said,’ and ‘It is related from Shaykh So-and-So.’ But he said to me, ‘For how long will speak of ‘So-and-So said and related, and I related from So-and-So? When will you say “I and you”?’ I replied to him, ‘O Sīdī, pray to God for me!’ So he said for me, ‘Give us sustenance O God, with you is understanding! And give us knowledge, with You is knowledge that gives benefit!’ From that day God opened for me the gate of understanding and I knew of myself the answer to his prayer, benefiting greatly from his supplication, God be merciful to him.
He had many well-known miracles in answer to his supplications. He studied under Shaykh Abū Muḥammad al-Ghazwānī and from Shaykh Abū Muḥammad al-Habṭī. He died, God be merciful to him, around 68, and was buried opposite the Mosque of the Sharifs from the Banū Falwāṭ. 
What is so striking to me about Ibn ‘Askar’s interactions with Aḥmad the Blacksmith- interactions with many an analogue in the early modern Maghrib and elsewhere- is the degree to which a humble (somewhat extravagantly so in fact!) blacksmith could participate in the discursive culture of the literate elite, of which Ibn ‘Askar and many of his shaykhs were indeed a part. It is hard to imagine similar interchanges occurring in the present-day on the same scale, as the discursive worlds of people of my class- the hyper-educated denizens of academia and academia-adjacent realms- have if anything grown further apart from the contemporary analogous discursive worlds of a Riffian blacksmith. There is precious little interaction between various discursive realms within academia itself: humanities scholars and researchers in the hard sciences, for instance, struggle to communicate effectively if they even note the existence of the other. Our interactions with ‘the public’ tend to be limited to those sectors with maximum exposure and formation within higher education and its analogous and connected institutions in wider society.
The many disconnects and discontinuities that mark contemporary American (and, arguably, global) society are all the more striking given that in our world, unlike in Ibn ‘Askar’s, we are beholden to and shaped by ideologies which officially at least proclaim the equality and inteconnectivity of, if not all people, at least all members of one’s own nation-state. Whether one presents one’s self as a citizen of a politically constituted nationality or as a ‘citizen of the world,’ some kind of equality and shared identity and heritage is implied. By contrast, in the early modern Maghrib as elsewhere no such ideas existed; religious identities provided the most universal forms of identity, but in practice identity and belonging were much more dispersed, into all sorts of localized identities and affiliations, some of a global nature (affiliation to a given saint or sufi ṭarīqa, for instance), others perhaps shared only with people in one’s village or rural district. In a world with quite limited literacy the rather kit-bashed piety of Aḥmad the Blacksmith was more often than not the norm, even if a universal or at least universalizing set of doctrines and practices provided a more over-arching framework (though the exact application of the universalizing sharī’ah was often highly localized, the sharī’ah itself and its infrastructure possessing mechanisms for some degree of localization in fact).
There are many reasons for why the kind of interaction and role inversion we see in Ibn ‘Askar’s encounters with Aḥmad the Blacksmith are rare in our world, but the decreased salience of religious faith in much of the ‘developed’ world is certainly a major component. Shared religious faith and practice meant, to varying degrees of extent to be sure, a shared discursive and epistemic world; a pious blacksmith could through his asceticism and other forms of bodily-practiced piety become an ‘expert’ in the ‘sufi arts,’ taking what he learned aurally and distilling it into potent guidance for someone well versed in textual knowledge. Of course exclusion and exclusivity existed in Ibn ‘Askar’s world, and command of elite, literate discourse and practice were powerful means of material advancement. That said, in many ways the cultural sphere inhabited by the literate elite was more open, not less, to those without the blessing of elite formation and education, there was more of a common world and shared sense of meaning and value than is usually the case in our, despite our formal commitment to equality and egalitarianism. We can take such early modern examples, not as precise models of course- those worlds are gone and cannot be retrieved even if we should want to do so- but as inspirations and suggestions for how things can be otherwise in our own world.
 Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad b. ʿAlī b. al-Ḥusayn b. Miṣbāḥ Ibn ‘Askar, Dawḥat al-nāshir li-maḥāsin man kāna bi al-Maghrib min mashāyikh al-qarn al-ʿāshir (Rabat: Dār al-Maghrib, 1977), 20.
 That is, during the early 8th century AD.
 Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad b. ʿAlī b. al-Ḥusayn b. Miṣbāḥ Ibn ‘Askar, Dawḥat al-nāshir li-maḥāsin man kāna bi al-Maghrib min mashāyikh al-qarn al-ʿāshir (Rabat: Dār al-Maghrib, 1977), 21-23.
While we in the twenty-first century live in a world of staggering material abundance- it is genuinely hard for us to grasp just how abundant stuff truly is in our world- humans have been making, using, accumulating, and thinking about and with material objects since quite literally the dawn of human history. Symbolic meanings attached to shaped objects are almost certainly visible in artefacts from the Upper Paleolithic, and probably precede that stage. Meaning-making with objects has continued since, and persists in our world, even as, ironically, we have arguably become less attuned to the material realities around us, and less likely to attach symbolic meanings to made objects. Modern industrial capitalism is heavily predicated on disposability, at a pace unknown before the twentieth century, and the sheer abundance of things that fill our homes, workspaces, markets, dumps, and even recent geological strata tends to cause many of them to become mere background. Yet special objects persist, including material goods that would otherwise be thrown away: the desk at which I am sitting as I write this is adorned with fossils, a handful of icons, some notebooks, a dictionary, and a small plastic toy dinosaur I found on a sidewalk over a decade ago and have toted about, talisman-like, ever since. All of these material things, manufactured or not, have some special significance to me, even as I rarely give a second thought to most of my stuff.
The premodern, pre-industrial world was quite different. Simply put, stuff was more precious, more valuable, on almost every level. Something I am always at pain to communicate to undergraduate students when studying any period of premodern history is the significance and value of textiles and clothing: without industrial scale agriculture churning out cotton, and massive factories worked by a vast global proletariat class, obtaining clothing was not a matter of dropping a few bucks at a big box store for some t-shirts and pants. All clothes and textiles had some value, and were used to their maximum, while luxury clothes were among the most costly stores of value around. Other categories of object were similar, and in some historical contexts cultural norms or ecological particularities further constrained how much stuff one’s home might contain. In the early modern Ottoman period, for which we have good records of household inventories, the sparsity of belongings and furnishings still comes as something of a shock to me when I read such lists- even the quite well-off had homes that we would have found strangely empty.
Partially, I think, as a result of that relative scarcity of material goods, objects and goods (including biological ones, with similar logics of relative abundance in a world before fossil fuel powered industrial agriculture and its yields) could signify and matter in ways that are perhaps less likely or less legible in our own world. For instance, the three stories that I’ve translated below, taken from what has now become a familiar source here, the late medieval hagiography of Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn, the eponym of the Safavids, come from a section of the manāqib devoted to miracle stories having to do with material things. This section comes after stories focused on humans, then on animals, and encompasses both made objects and things in nature, including plants. The stories often suggest a sort of special linkage, an ontological connection, between the saint and the object, with particular things- such as the prayer rug in the first story- seeming to take on a proverbial life of their own. There is an ontological heaviness to objects in the view of the world visible here (and in many other sources from the medieval and early modern periods); things certainly have their utilitarian uses but they are more than dead capital or matter subsumed into human will and intentionality. In the hands of the saint objects take on especial power.
As you read, pay attention to the different ways in which inanimate things- a prayer rug, the land itself, and clothing- carry significance and become, as it were, animate under saintly power. I would suggest that while the central meaning is the divinely granted power of the saint to work marvels, there is an underlying view or logic of the world displayed here, in which these objects already have a potency for action, they are in a sense alive already. This applies to texts as well, and in the near future I hope to explore this theme further: words, letters, even the dots of specific letter-forms, were understood to have vital ontological realities of their own, not just as signifiers of distant mystical realities but as actually participating in and constituting those realities. I suspect that we can only fully understand manuscript culture and the arts and uses of the book with these things in mind, and fully capturing them takes no small leap of imagination for us drowning in the seas of anthropocene stuff. We also stand the chance to learn something of great importance in reflecting on premodern object ontologies- but that is another route of inquiry for another day! For now enjoy these manāqib tales:
Story: Shaykh Ṣadr al-Dīn, God perpetuate his baraka, said: Once Amīr Dawlatshāh, who was known as Dawlash—requested a prayer-rug from the shayh, God sanctify his secret, and the shaykh wanted to give him one. There were two prayer-rugs in the house: one of regular wool and one of coarse wool. The shaykh wanted to give him the one from regular wool, but his wife—the daughter of Shayh Zāhid—God be merciful to her, wanted to give him the prayer-rug of coarse wool. The shayhk however said, ‘No, do not give away this prayer-rug made of coarse wool, I have a special interest in it.’ They asked him, ‘What is that interest?’ He replied, ‘Once I had performed my ritual ablutions. I wanted something so that I could perform two rak’as of the prayer of ritual ablution in accordance with the sunnah, and this prayer-rug was in the corner of the zawīya of the house. Of itself from that place it rose and dropped itself before me so that I could perform the prayer!’
Story: Mawlānā Yūsuf the khaṭīb of [the village of] Nevdīh said that the shaykh, God sanctify his inner secret, once gave a quantity of lentils so that the community of Nevdīh could plant them. They planted them, but did not watch over them. Nothing came of it. The shaykh, God sanctify his inner secret, was disturbed by this. For the next seven years that land produced nothing. Nothing that they planted in that land grew, until after seven years the shaykh, God sanctify his inner secret, came and alighted on that land. The community said, ‘Shaykh, it’s been seven years since we’ve tried to cultivate this land but nothing has born fruit! The shaykh, God sanctify his inner secret, commanded them, ‘Sow it,’ and waved his blessed hand. They sowed it that year, and so much grew and fruited that it was impossible to adequately describe!
Story: He, God perpetuate his baraka, related that once in Sultānīyeh the most esteemed Qāḍī Sayf al-Dīn, God be merciful to him, gave a garment off his own body to the shaykh, by way of transmitting the nobility of the clothing to the blessed body of the shaykh. Now [the qāḍī] was a man of considerably tall stature, and his clothing was fitted to his stature, while the shaykh inclined towards shortness of stature. But when he put that garment on it fit his stature perfectly, as if there were nothing additional [so as to make it too loose-fitting]. Then the shaykh, God sanctify his inner secret, gave a piece of clothing off of his own body to Qāḍī Sayf al-Dīn. As a means of gaining blessing he put on that piece of clothing and it fit perfectly to his tall stature, just as if nothing were missing [that would make it too tight]!
Ibn Bazzāz Ardabīlī, Ṣafvat al-ṣafā: dar tarjumah-ʼi aḥvāl va aqvāl va karāmāt-i Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn Isḥaq Ardabīlī, ed. Ghulām Riẓā Ṭabāṭabāʼī Majd (Tabriz: G.R. Ṭabāṭabāʼī Majd , 1373 ), 612, 626, 635.
Apologies for the long delay in posting new material here- as is often the case many other things have intervened, the good and the bad as it were, and the several translations and short essays I had hoped to present here have been pushed back. Much of my ‘free’ time has been taken up teaching a course on modern Islam, which has entailed a great deal of secondary literature reading on my part given that my scholarly training focused pretty much exclusively on the pre-19th century world, with the exception of my recent work as a post-doctoral researcher examining issues in modern Arabic script book history. One of the happy benefits of my recent pivots towards the modern world has been getting to extend my exploration of saints and sainthood in the Islamicate world forward in time, particularly into the 19th century. Far from being marginalized by the developments of modernity, saints and sainthood remained- and in fact remain- vital forces in Islamicate history, in some cases becoming even more salient than in previous centuries. Movements such as the late 19th century Mahdiyya in the Sudan or the emergence of various millenarian and apocalyptic new religious movements like the Aḥmadiyya or the Bābīs are only really explicable within a framework of saints and sainthood.
That said, the saintly subject of the short story I’ve translated here did not herald any grand political movements or religious transformations, but rather can be seen as carrying forward older traditions of sufism and sainthood into the 19th century. We’ve encountered Shaykh Muḥammad al-Jisr (1792-1845) before (see this post for an introduction), and will be meeting him again in these digital pages no doubt, as his hagiography, penned by his scholarly son, is a wonderful source for exploring the transition of Islamic sainthood to the modern world. The story I’ve selected for today, set at some point during the 1830s (the period in which Mehmed ‘Alī’s forces occupied Ottoman Syria) reveals more in the way of continuity than change- while the 19th century would see many reformist and outright puritanical movements either begin outright or emerge into prominence from 18th century origins, here we see Shaykh Muḥammad continuing in a vein of saintly behavior exemplified by the late 17th to early 18th century ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī and others, including the unproblematic use of tobacco. It is also a lovely reminder of the aural presence of sufi ritual: in a world with considerably less noise pollution, and much more oriented around foot-traffic, nocturnal sufi practices such as vocal dhikr had no small aural footprint, attracting passerby such as the young man in our story, even if, as in the story, their reactions could vary in appropriateness!
‘Shaykh Muḥammad Abū Khalīl Efendī Abāẓa the well known and trusted, whose recognition in the Syrian and Egyptian lands is such that he requires no introduction, said to me: ‘I was in Cyprus during the days of the Egyptian government’s dominion in the land of Syria. I was in the bloom of my youth and the mirth of my youthful inclinations and was not yet following the ṭarīqa, nor did I have an inkling of the spiritual states of its sons. One night I came upon the dhikr circle which your father led with his brethren in Cyprus, and it happened that all while I watched them seeing the effects of the dhikr upon the sons of the path caused me to secretly laugh. When the shaykh completed the dhikr he called to me and sat me down next to him, treating me kindly, then offering me his tobacco pipe from which he had been smoking, which I then returned to him [after smoking]. After the session concluded I returned to my lodgings and lay down on my bed, but it happened that every time I fell asleep I found that pope that the shaykh had offered me that night striking me upon my face! So I would awake with a start, then go back to sleep—and again find it striking me upon my face and I would awake, and so my entire night passed until morning dawned. I was most distressed due to lack of sleep and intensity of fear such that I worried I’d lose my mind! So I went ot the shaykh, God be merciful to him, and as soon as he saw me he started laughing. I bent down and kissed his hand and said to him, ‘Yā sayyidī, what sin is it that I did that caused you to act in such a way with me?’ He replied, ‘What is it I did to you?’ So I related to him the story of the pipe in the night, and he said to me, ‘What does that concern me? I didn’t do anything to you other than offering you my pipe!’
I began seeking his intercession, saying, ‘Yā sayyidī, I’m afraid I’m going to lose my mind! I desire your forgiveness!’ At that he said, ‘My son, for what? You stopped by our dhikr circle last night and began to laugh—we are dervish folk and you are a lordly man, it is most befitting to you that you mock and laugh at us.’ I replied, ‘Yā sayyidī, I did not intend to laugh at you, God forbid from that! But the state and levity of my youth are not hidden from you, so I hope you will forgive me!’ At that the shaykh, my God be merciful to him, was pleased with me, and so I set out on the Khalwatiyya ṭarīqa and so continued on from there.’
two days of watching things fall,
the organizing markers in the substrate of my memory:
one was blue sky bright and clear, a fine day,
the first tips of autumn in the air,
the pines before our house were calm and unknowing.
the television billowed with the smoke and time stopped.
an exchange of horror with the postman, I remember,
the day lapse into stunned silence, collapsing
towers on an endless loop, bodies falling. we
could almost smell the smoke and breathe the dust.
everything tasted acrid, our false innocence
expiring under the towers’ broken beams.
the other was not blue sky and bright except in the central
moment as the eye passed over. it was looked for,
but we were not prepared, we did not yet know what
true power looked like, what it meant for everything to stop.
the pines moved in slow splintering rhythm with the skies,
twisting and cracking and bleeding into the driving rain
first the television went,
then the phones,
finally, the radio fell silent, the great tower on the ridge south
crumpled, the cables snapped. silence descended.
trees and towers falling, bodies swallowed up in the waters.
in the heat and decay afterward great insect swarms
moved upon the face of the riven earth, and
the sky was blue and clear and merciless.
As anyone who has followed my work here and elsewhere will be aware, until recently my scholarly research was focused all but exclusively on the early modern and medieval worlds, with a rough cut-off date of 1800 beyond which my expertise thins out considerably. Over the last couple of years since completing my PhD and assuming a post-doctoral research position my interests and research responsibilities have diversified considerably (a diversification which comes with its own risks, I might note), running backwards and forwards in time from the periods with which I am most familiar and comfortable. On the one hand I have taken up a much greater interest in the study of deep time and possible ways of integrating perspectives from paleontology, geology, climatology, archeology, and paleoanthropology into the kinds of historical study and teaching I do located within the ‘shallow’ past. Running in the other direction, on the other hand, I have become much more involved in nineteenth and twentieth century topics, some quite new to me, such as the history of technology and communication, others continuations of my long-standing interests such as saints and sainthood.
I learned about the subject of this week’s essay and translation (and who will certainly figure in future posts over the next month or so) by way of Marwa Elshakry’s book Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950, an exploration of the complex and often quite surprising ways in which Ottoman and post-Ottoman Arab thinkers dealt with the emergence and elaboration of Darwinian evolutionary theory and the permutations that engagement underwent vis-a-vis other concerns and political developments. Shaykh Muḥammad al-Jisr’s son, Ḥusayn al-Jisr, was one of the many thinkers, Muslim, Christian, and otherwise, who grappled with evolution and other aspects of the biological sciences, threading a path that was at once critical and open to scientific insights while also remaining very committed to ‘traditional’ Islam (though in ways that would have been unfamiliar even to his own father in the decades prior), remaining largely critical of evolutionary theory but suggesting that given sufficient proof nothing in Islam prevented acceptance of evolutionary theory provided God was understood to be the first and final cause- materialism was Ḥusayn al-Jisr’s primary foe.
Ḥusayn al-Jisr’s position on evolutionary theory in relation to theology is actually related to the work of his translated here, a hagiography, written in 1888, of his father Shaykh Muḥammad al-Jisr (1792-1845), a Khalwatī teaching shakyh and widely acclaimed saint active in Syria and Palestine (though due to political instability he also spent time in Cyprus and Constantinople). Ḥusayn’s account of his father- who died shortly after Ḥusayn’s birth- is striking for the way in which the author engages in extensive epistemological and other routes of analysis and digression, with much of the introduction devoted to tracing Ḥusayn’s own journey from relative skepticism about his father’s sanctity to embracing it, based on the accumulation and weighing of oral and written evidence, including from non-Muslims. These traces of modernity, as it were, continue throughout, even as the world of sanctity and sainthood revealed is not very far from that of early modernity- it is the framing and the tone that has changed, though certainly not into a voice of disenchantment or skepticism. As such it is a good example of the complex ways Muslims and others have constructed their own ‘modernities’ not necessarily along the lines of a neat trajectory of ‘secularism’ and ‘disenchantment that have so often been seen by many as normative and either automatic or only avoidable by ‘relapsing’ into some form of reaction and obscurantism.
I have selected the following short story mostly because it’s memorable and in the voice of the shaykh’s sister, but also because it captures part of Shaykh Muḥammad’s own saintly charisma- his connections with axial saints of the past, including Aḥmad al-Rifā’ī, and his interventions in everyday life- as well as possible objections that were more likely to arise in the modernizing milieus of the late nineteenth century, with Ḥusayn al-Jisr confronting such objections directly with an explicitness unusual within the genre. We will see other interactions of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ in future installations from this saint’s life, so stay tuned!
‘And from what the aforementioned sister of the shaykh related to me about him: she said: “After the incident I told you about before, among the things that happened to me in that house is that there came to us from Beirut a covered basket of zucchinis, and when I opened the basket up to take the zucchinis out, a snake that had been hidden within came out and slithered into a hole in the house. I was very frightened and resolved to flee the house, but when I came into the presence of the shaykh, your father, I related the story to him and revealed my fear. He said to me, ‘Don’t be afraid!’ Then he came and stood in front of the hole into which the snake had entered and said, ‘Yā Sayyidī Aḥmad! Yā Rifā’ī! My sister is afraid of snakes!’ In that very moment I had barely blinked when the snake came out of the hole and the shaykh killed it, and my heart was calmed thereby.”
This happening points to the administrative power (taṣarruf) of the shaykh and his close relationship with the venerable Shaykh al-Rifā’ī, God sanctify his inner secret. If it is said that the snake charmers do the like of this deed, we say, yes, but the action of the snake charmers is of the nature of a trick, but that which is related here is the action of a man from among the people of piety and sanctity, who sought the aid of a spiritual axis (quṭb) from among the spiritual axes of the age, one would not deny his virtue save one who is utterly effaced of vision. The one who knows what the learned in religion have written about the distinction between prophetic sign (al-mu’jiza) and saintly miracle (al-karāma) and between bewitchment and the art of persuasion, with all being things outside of the ordinary, such foolish doubt will not trouble his heart.’
close your eyes and collect your heart, feel the pricks and pains and discomforts of your body the touch of your machine made clothes, smell far distant the sweat of the Bangladeshi worker, straighten your spine, breathe the heavy air. eyes now open, direct your gaze at the concrete before you, look for a breath and a half. eyes shut, review the landscape in your heart: sidewalk and building, road and powerlines, trees rooted under the asphalt, straining. move the clock forward, see the years pass, new oceans soon lapping at less distant shores, the asphalt cracks, the sparrows take to the fields, every edifice totters, o bring us the little foxes, your body and your civilization a-mouldering in the grave, tattered powerlines flying in the wind rags tied at an unholy tomb. these trees tumble, rot, and new trees grow, the foxes remain but the vineyard is gone, and muscadines tangle the new trees. feel your bones and the built up bones of this world below crumble to dust, taste the death dew heavy, let your heart feel I and all my works will perish. still the new trees grow
One of the most fascinating sources that I came across in the course of researching and writing my dissertation was an Arabic text simply titled ‘Riḥla,’ which might be translated as ‘Travel Narrative’ though it has other connotations as well, written by an otherwise fairly obscure Kurdish author named Ṭāhā al-Kurdī who was born in on the night of December 11, 1723, in a small village in the vicinity of the town of Koy Sanjaq, about two hundred miles north of Baghdad and fifty north of Kirkuk, in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains. Then as now the region was predominantly Kurdish and while usually under the suzerainty of the Ottomans had a degree of autonomy, and was in some ways quite distant culturally and socially from the more urbane parts of the empire. Much of the population was nomadic or semi-nomadic, non-elite women played a much more prominent role in religious and cultural life than was typical in much of the rest of the empire, and the practices of sainthood- a major concern for Ṭāhā- in the region had their own distinctive aspects. At the same time, there was much that would have been familiar anywhere in the Ottoman world or indeed elsewhere in the vast Islamicate: Ṭāhā traveled to Koy Sanjaq as a youth to study in the madrasa there, learning various subjects in Arabic and Persian, perhaps, though he does not say so, using Kurdish glosses or helping texts initially. His relative mastery of prestige bodies of texts and learned, literate skills would serve him well in the coming years of his peregrinations around the empire, following routes that many learned Kurds took over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with scholars from other tiny towns and villages often playing outsized roles in Ottoman religious and intellectual life.
But even more important for Ṭāhā’s self-image and as an impetus for his travels was his love of the saints and his commitment to the practices and doctrines of sufism as transmitted and inculcated by the living friends of God of his day, beginning with his first and most important saintly shaykh, Darwīsh Muṣṭafā. The story from Ṭāhā’s Riḥla that I have translated below relates his first encounter with this saint, and it is a remarkably detailed and emotionally rich story, written in what we might today call a voice of openness and vulnerability, Ṭaha frankly describing his unsettled emotional state, with which I think most people can readily sympathize. We see in the story the way in which a local saint inhered in the social life of a rural community (and navigated its built spaces), and the sheer importance attached to him; we see the process, both in terms of inner states and emotions and in terms of practicalities and ritual actions, of becoming affiliated to such a saintly shaykh, and entering into the sufi ‘path.’ While Darwīsh Muṣṭafā is described as connected to the ṭarīqa of the famed saint and sufi eponym ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jilānī, there is no sense of institutional organization here or even a set of regularized practices. Instead the stress is on transmission of a saintly lineage from one saintly figure down to another, ending up at ‘Abd al-Qādir. Ṭaha is given a ‘personalized’ dhikr (ritual remembrance of God) to perform, which he finally succeeds in through the dream-intercession as it were of another saint, his shaykh’s shaykh, whose hagiography- which I have not translated here- picks up where the following passage concludes.
The deeply personal voice of Ṭāhā al-Kurdī is perhaps the most striking aspect of not just this story but the whole of his Riḥla; he does not simply narrate the exterior ‘facts’ of his life but is even more interested in relating his inner states and conditions, even when they are not especially flattering. In so doing he was not alone in the early modern Ottoman world, or the world more generally, as this sort of subjective turn is visible in many contexts- as for why this would be so, that is another story entirely and one that I do not think has yet been adequately answered. Certainly however we should not be surprised at this sort of subjective exploration given the emphasis in much sufi training on inner states and conditions; what is perhaps more surprising is its being written down and circulated (there are multiple copies of the Riḥla; I have worked from the one pictured below for the simple reason it’s currently accessible to me!). Regardless, this account is a wonderful view of the operation of sainthood and sufi discipleship in one corner of the rural hinterland of the Ottoman Empire, which, despite the predominance of literary production taking place in and focusing on cities, held the vast majority of the empire’s inhabitants, and no small number of the special friends of God who left their mark upon Ottoman space and society over the centuries.
In that time there was dwelling in a place called Awājī—a village from among the villages around Koy [Sanjaq], three or four hours’ walk from there—the singular and proximate [to God] saint and master of evident miracles, gracious signs, and fame unsurpassed in that region, known as Darwīsh Muṣṭafā, God be pleased with him and with his land. He would come to town every Friday, and the people would gather around him like he was a prophet from among the prophets. He would stay in the house of Koy [Sanjaq]’s preacher (khaṭīb), the pious, sound, and knowledgeable Mullā Ḥusayn, God be merciful to him, whose house was close to the madrasa in which I was studying. I had a companion in study who was both older than me and more knowledge and better versed in fiqh, named Faqīh Ḥasan ibn Khāneh, God be merciful to both of them. He had pledged allegiance to the Shaykh in accordance with the ṭarīqa of the saintly axis and reviver of religion ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jīlī [i.e. al-Jilānī], God be pleased with him. He had mentioned to me several times the spiritual condition of his shaykh and his miracles and spiritual states and this and that, to the point that there arose in my heart love for encountering him in order to pay pious visitation and to pledge allegiance to him. So I said to my companion Faqīh Ḥasan, ‘When next Friday comes take me to his presence and tell him about my condition and what I desire and so act as a translator (turjumān) between me and him, and yours will be the reward with God!’
And so towards the end of the month of Sha’bān, six days remaining to it, in the year 1151 , Friday came and the shaykh arrived and stayed in the house of the aforementioned preacher. My companion said to me, ‘The shaykh has come—if you still want, stand and let’s go!’ So we went, but I saw the teeming assembly and I was deeply embarrassed before all the people. The shaykh was inside the house with lots of people before him, likewise outside the house. Still my companion went inside and told the shaykh about me, then he came back out and said to me, ‘I spoke to him.’ An hour later the shaykh had come forth and looked at me, and I had in my hand an inkwell with a tense firm cover such that it could be shaken to rectify the ink. When I saw the shaykh come out I kissed his hand and my companion said to him, ‘This is he,’ meaning me. I was dazed and embarrassed, I couldn’t see anything else save the shaykh stretching out his blessed hand and taking up the inkwell from my hand and saying to me, ‘What is this?’ I replied, ‘This is ink which can be well mixed through motion.’ He stopped for a while to talk with the people, then went back inside the house, saying to me, ‘With your permission—‘ and we entered the house together and sat down, I faced the shaykh with my head bowed for a while. Then he commanded me to come before him so I stood and sat upon my knees in front of him, the space quite filled up with those seated.
Then he said to me, ‘You wish to repent?’ I replied, ‘If God wills!’ He said, ‘Do not return to your sin,’ to which I replied, ‘If God wills!’ He said, ‘Repent from every sin!’ I replied, ‘I repent from all of my sins!’ Now there was to one side of the shaykh his companion, God be merciful to him, who was from among the folk of divine attraction (jadhb) whose state was evident and not hidden, named Mullā ‘Alī, from the people of Koy [Sanjaq]. He said to the shaykh, ‘This boy’—meaning me—‘from what does have to repent?’ He said this in joking manner to the shaykh, but the shaykh replied, ‘No, there is none who is free of sins great and small!’ I felt astonished, and in my heart there was shame over their mentioning sins, due to my own knowledge of my immoderation in regards to my lower self, so that I could verify in my own heart that the shaykh spoke the truth in what he said—this was the first miracle (karāma) manifest to me from him, God be pleased with him! Continue reading “Ṭāhā al-Kurdī Meets His Spiritual Master”→