A Day in the Life of an Early Modern North African Scholar-Farmer

17th century Moroccan Tile V&A 1718-1892
17th century Tunisian tile with floral motifs (V&A 1718-1892)

[‘Alī bin Yaḥyā al-Salaksaynī al-Jādīrī, d. 1564] would spend his daytime fasting, teaching ‘ilm all day long, not stopping from his teaching except during the times of the ritual prayers and the call to prayer, and if he wanted to deliver the call to prayer a reciter who was with him reading out texts with him in his cell would accompany him on the way, coming and going, reading out loud, and he would give the call to prayer, and so maintain the duties of his position as imām. He was, God be pleased with him, extremely avid about teaching ‘ilm, and was an imām in the Ajādīr Masjid wherein he taught ‘ilm until late morning, then he depart and go down to his plot of land by Wādī al-Ṣafṣīf, which he cultivated by hoe. His students would go out with him, he teaching coming and going along the way. When he reached his plot of land he would get down off his mount, unload manure, remove the packsaddle from his mount, and tether her in place by his own hand, no one else being able to tether her but he. He would take up his hoe and set to cultivating his plot of land, the reciter still reading out loud, and [‘Alī bin Yaḥyā] giving exegesis until he was done with his work. Then he would remount his beast of burden, the reciter on his right or left—this was his custom!

When he was young and in the maktab [somewhat equivalent to an elementary school] he struggled with memorization, until one day a man came passing by and took from him his tablet and wrote upon it more than what the teacher had written out to be copied, which did not make the teacher happy, but he was unable to speak to the man about why he had written those things. A few days that man came to Sīdī ‘Alī bin Yaḥyā and commanded him to come out to him, which he did, and the two of them to the wādī named Būyaḍān. The man said to Sīdī ‘Alī, ‘Ride on my back!’ Then he forded him over the wādī and prayed for him- and from then on he was able to memorize [what was written on] his tablet.

Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad ibn Maryam, al-Bustān fī dhikr al-awliyā’ wa-al-ulamā’ bi-Tilimsān


When we read biographical accounts such as this, we can read them a bit against the grain in that we are as much interested in what would have been ordinary and uninteresting things to the original author(s) and readers as we are those matters that stood out at the time. In the first of these two vignettes, it is ‘Alī bin Yaḥyā’s sheer dedication to teaching that is of course exceptional: the man is kind of a machine! We can understand from this description that such dedication was unusual, which is not surprising (one also wonders if all teachers’ students would have been dedicated enough to follow behind their instructors’ donkeys out to the fields). For us in the present, who are far removed from early modern North Africa, one of the more interesting details is that ‘Alī bin Yaḥyā supplemented his income from teaching and work as an imām with small-scale farming, either on land he owned (which would be my guess) or which he held on lease. Either way, his farming- which based on the description here would no doubt have been a sort of market gardening, as we would say now- was something he himself did, every day at the same time, with his own hands, including dumping manure for compost.

Such bivocationalism comes as little surprise: indeed, probably the vast majority of pre-modern Islamic scholars (as well as scholars and associated identities in other traditions) had usually not one but multiple ‘side hustles,’ their incomes being derived from many sources patched together, often shifting over time. Farming or, better, market gardening was perhaps not the most frequent such supplementary (or in some cases, primary) source of their income, but it was not rare either, or at least that is my impression from years of reading biographical accounts of saints and scholars across the Islamicate. Because virtually all cities, with a couple of exceptions, in the premodern Islamicate world interfaced very directly with semi-rural or fully rural hinterlands, it was rarely very onerous for a scholar to make the walk from his madrasa or sufi zawiya to his field, and for rural sufis orchards and fields might be immediately adjacent to one’s home. There are a number of interesting take-aways from this situation, but one I want to suggest here and which I should at some point develop in a more formal manner is that the widespread existence of scholar-gardeners helps to explain the popularity and intended audiences of the Islamicate agronomy handbook tradition. To be sure, many of the users of manuals of filāḥa were no doubt estate owners who rarely or never got their own hands dirty; but I suspect not a few were like ‘Alī bin Yaḥyā, highly literate individuals who took up the hoe along with the pen. Continue reading “A Day in the Life of an Early Modern North African Scholar-Farmer”

Ibn Zakrī Has to Get His Mother’s Permission

Detail of a woven curtain from Tunisia, 17th or 18th century, postdating the time of Ibn Zakrī but perhaps in the vein of the sort of work he might have undertaken as a weaver in 15th century Tlemcen (Cleveland Museum of Art 1916.1361)

From among them the sign of the age, the shaykh of verification and precision, sea of knowledge, imām of the folk of understanding, Abū al-‘Abbās Aḥmad bin Zakrī al-Tilimsānī (d. 1492)…. At the beginning of his career he worked in the craft of weaving [in Tlemcen], being an orphan without a father, sending to his mother [earnings] that which would help her to maintain her daily sustenance. Now, there arose a disputed question between Shaykh Abū ‘Abdallāh Muḥammad ibn al-‘Abbās (or Abū ‘Abdallāh Muḥammad bin al-Ḥasan, I am in doubt as to which of the two it was) and his students, and the tumult around it increased and the debated question became so well-known that it began to circulate among the ordinary people. But Ibn Zakrī said, ‘This question that is so occupying the fuqahā’ is really easy to untangle!’ The weavers said to him, ‘How is that?’ So he began to explain it to them. A student overheard him and was impressed by his words, so he related it to the shaykh and he was amazed, so that the shaykh went to the weaving workshop with his students and presented himself before Ibn Zakrī and listened to his words. Then the shaykh said: ‘The like of this one is fit for nothing save the pursuit of knowledge!’ But Ibn Zakrī replied, ‘It’s not possible for me to enter myself into something save with the sanction of my mother.’ So the shaykh went to his mother and said to her: ‘How many dirhams does your son give you each day?’ She told him, and he replied: ‘That much will come to you from my own wealth for as long as you live, God willing! I will ensure that your son can totally devote himself to training in knowledge.’ She replied, ‘What love and generosity oh sīdī!’

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), 119-120.

Ibn Zakrī would go on to have an illustrious career as a scholar in many different fields, ranging from rhetoric to theology to sufism, and like many pious and ascetic ‘ālims of his day would be venerated as a saint during his lifetime and after his death.



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Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn’s Gifts for ‘Īd al-Fiṭr

The following story, from that seemingly inexhaustible source of late medieval hagiography, the Ṣafvat al-ṣafā of Ibn Bazzāz, seemed appropriate to translate and post today given that April 21 and 22 of this year marks ‘Īd al-Fiṭr, the feast at the end of Ramadan, for the world’s Muslim communities. The story below has to do with the festivities- or, more properly, the preparation for them- that continue to be a feature of modern celebrations. As with many of the stories concerning Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn, the main subject of the hagiography (though far from the only subject!), it is quite straightforward. The word ‘akhī’ in ‘Akhī Shādī’ (whose name occasions some punning in the Persian) requires some explanation: the akhīs were members of ‘fraternities’ of urban workers, especially workers in various crafts, drawing upon the canons of futuwwa for their identity and practices, sometimes exerting political power in cities of Iran and, especially, Anatolia, in which context they are best known. Akhīs appear not infrequently in Ibn Bazzāz’s work, perhaps as a reflection of his own origins in the world of craftsmanship and the urban marketplace. As is so often the case, scenes of everyday life and activity are preserved, as it were, within the format of a miracle story, giving us a nice glimpse of the practices and relationships of ordinary people in the late medieval Persianate lands.

L'épisode_du_sheïkh_de_Sana an_[...]Haïder_Me zoub_btv1b8415000w_71
In this detail from an early 16th century Safavid miniature, a depiction of a market stall selling bread, such as Akhī Shādī would have been preparing for the ‘Īd festivities (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Supplément turc 978)

Akhī Shādī of Ardabil said: At the end of Ramadan the Shaykh, may his secret be sanctified, sought for me, so I went. Pīr Ibrāhīm Kurd-i Chust came and took me by the hand and led me to the kitchen. I worked for two days, cooking the bread for ‘Īd [al-Fiṭr]. While cooking that bread my hand was burned. During the night, just before morning, the Shaykh, may his secret be sanctified, came to the kitchen, and I came before him so as to kiss his blessed hand. The Shaykh looked and saw that my hand was burned, so he took my hand in his blessed hand and vigorously rubbed it, and in that very moment it became better, the traces of the burn completely disappearing! I was overjoyed, and in the exuberance of this joy returned home. While performing the morning prayer of the day of ‘Eid, it suddenly entered into my mind: ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if the Shaykh sent me a plate of some saffron rice?’ An hour later I saw that a servant was coming, bringing a plate of saffron rice. He said to me, ‘The Shaykh declares that if Akhī Shādī has a friend who is sick he should give him this pilaf.’

I did have a friend who was grievously sick, such that we had all given up hope of his recovery, things reaching a point at which he was no longer eating or drinking, hope for his living becoming cut off. I brought that pilaf before him and said, ‘The Shaykh has sent this, eat it so that you can get better!’ He said, ‘I don’t have the strength [to feed myself], please place a portion of it in my mouth.’ So I put two or three bites of it in his mouth and he ate it, then said, ‘More please!’ So I gave him more, and he ate, saying, ‘Make a bigger portion!’ So I did, and in that moment he sat up and with me ate that plate of pilaf and was completely healed.

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 [1994]).

A delivery of food- perhaps pilaf?- in a detail from an illustration for another story from the Ṣafvat al-ṣafā (AKM264 (fol.376r))

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meditations at the K-Pg Boundary, Wahalak, Mississippi

the earth here is an unclosing wound, sedimented silence opening into
stomata gasping old air, the churn of a matrix of memory and bone.
see, in these hands, these eyes, and the strange curve of my thumb
the broken lilt of the words on my tongue and in my head, grasping and wrestling,
the flow and the give, shame and fear, and love, heady and heaving.
continents push and pull and spread, passive margins grow thicker.
repressed and repressing, geological strata come out stark and naked
layed and layered out flat and falling under the same sun, ancient oyster beds,
the lively ancient ooze of life hardened into a blistered substrate.
graves sink into the soft earth, cedars embrace, shadow, shadow, the dark blood
in our veins and coursing over the hard chalk undrunk, settling into
the lowest places. rich, and thick with snakes, the same venom runs in me.
they’ll lay me low in under the overlapping boundaries, thin lines etched
in everything, you cannot escape. there is no escape, even in death,
taphonomic processes come for you too. everything passes on, and everything
passes. sins of your mothers and fathers, tektites embedded in the stone,
the long slow and sudden inevitability of process and time.

for the vultures of Chattanooga Valley

circling up the rising thermals off the mountain’s ancient slopes,
the vertical frozen march of time’s looming flows, river deltas
hardened into stone ramparts, jagged edged, heating the air overhead
in the patchwork of gray and blue coming and going under the sun,
the vultures, color of the play of dark and light, rise and circle, circle,
metaphor and thing signified, they loop and loop, eyes
wide and bright and focused, the days and nights together flow
into knowledge, wisdom’s course in creatures of carrion,
bound in their gyres to the circle of making and remaking, life—
dying and eating, things final, forever, and always becoming.
to the black old trees they return in silent knowing communion,
unhooded and free, custodians of the dead, unsung and unsinging,
time’s arrow and time’s cycle both they bear, providential care,
they roost over the flooded valley bottom, and watch for winter’s end.

Of a Lion, Dog, Shayṭān, and Snake: Sīdī al-Ḥasan Abirkān of Tlemcen

The walls of the village of Manṣūra outside of Tlemcen, 1870, by Sir John Baptist Joseph, 12th Baron Dormer (V&A SD.340)

That sainthood and social and cultural marginality have a tendency to go together, in Christian and Islamic traditions anyway, will hardly come as a surprise to anyone versed in such things: this is not the place for such speculations, but my personal working theory is that when we see Late Paleolithic burials of unusual individuals whose grave goods mark them as special, what we are seeing is a trace of something very much like sainthood. Regardless of the veracity of such speculatory reconstruction, it is quite clear from medieval and early modern hagiography in both Christian and Islamic traditions that while hardly a prerequisite for sanctity, difference, marginality, even outright societal opposition were all potential entryways into sainthood, not necessarily barriers. To discuss the reasons for this sustained relationship through time would require a book, or several of them (though, this is as good a place as any to mention that I have in various states of development not one but two such books in the offing, details to come!).

Instead, I want to introduce here an early modern- well, really, on that cusp between what we think of as medieval and as early modern- saint of the city of Tlemcen (in modern-day Algeria) who exemplifies inhabitation of both ‘centrality’ and ‘marginality,’ Sīdī al-Ḥasan Abirkān, as described by the late sixteenth century century hagiographer Ibn Maryam (d. 1605) in his al-Bustān fī dhikr al-awliyāʼ wa-al-ulamāʼ bi-Tilimsān. The saint’s name already identifies him as occupying two areas of identity sometimes indicative of marginality relative to scholarly urbane culture: ‘Abirkān’ is Kabyle Amazigh for ‘black’; J. M. Dallet’s dictionary gives the following definition: ‘Noir; noiraud; teint foncé, basané (nuance défavorable, dépréciative pour les personnes).’ And indeed Ibn Maryam, in giving Shaykh Abirkān’s genealogy, includes a couple of stories in which the shaykh is shown to be of a holy genealogy through his father and grandfather, without any trace of his ancestors’ apparent servility remaining. The suggestion of course is that the casual observer night take the shaykh’s skin color and evident ‘racial’ origin (not precisely the language a sixteenth century observer would have used, but close enough) as evidence of his inferiority. That this is the case is reinforced by a story that Ibn Maryam tells in which a young man who has come to Tlemcen to study initially disparages Shaykh Abirkān’s exoteric knowledge, but is urged to study with the shaykh in a dream, and in so doing finds the shaykh’s depth of knowledge confirmed. Overall, as is often the case in premodern Islamicate societies generally, racial origin and skin color were neither invisible nor were they totalizing facts about an individual; in Shaykh al-Ḥasan Abirkān’s case they were arguably part of his identity in a complex manner, both placing him somewhat at the margins but in a powerful manner, his being marked out as different both a feature of his sainthood as well as a sometime social stumbling block on the part of others.

That I have led with this particular saint’s racial background is very much indicative of our own contemporary concerns and interests; it is not addressed in Ibn Maryam’s lengthy treatment until well after many other stories and discussions. Instead, the picture that emerges, which I have tried to pick up in my translations below, is of a saint marked by both the scholarly and the, for lack of a better word, ludic. His encounters with animals stands out in this regard, with several of the stories below having to do with such interactions, all with creatures which were themselves generally seen as on the edge of human society if not an outright danger. I’ll discuss them a bit more after the text itself.

[Shaykh al-Sanūsī] used to say: ‘I have seen [many] shaykhs and saints but I have never seen the like of Sīdī al-Haṣan Abirkān!’ He was not absent from the presence of God for even an instant, and whenever he laughed his teeth would show. He was merciful towards the believers, solicitous towards them, rejoicing in their joy and feeling pain over evil inflicted on them. He had prayer beads from which he was rarely ever parted, for he was constant in remembrance of God. He was held in great esteem by the common and the elite alike. [He was] devoted to the Risālah of Ibn Abū Zayid, and whenever al-Sanūsī came to visit he smiled broadly and would open their conversation with theological discussion, [al-Sanūsī] saying to him, ‘God has made you to be among the God-fearing imāms.’ He was graced with many miracles and wonders, among them one that al-Sanūsī and his brother Sīdī ‘Alī described:

He was performing ablutions out in the wild desert one day when an enormous lion approached and knelt down over [Sīdī Abirkān’s] shoe. When he was finished with his ablutions, he turned to the lion and said to him three times, “May God, the most beautiful of creators, bless you!” The lion bowed his head to the earth as if were bashful, then arose and went on his way.’

Also, that which Shaykh al-Sanūsī mentioned, saying, ‘The illustrious saint Sīdī Sa’īd bin ‘Abd al-Ḥamīd al-‘Aṣinūnī related to me at his home in the Ouarsenis Mountains—he was from among [Sīdī Abirkān’s] oldest companions—saying, “I visited Sīdī al-Ḥasan one hot day and found him in great fatigue, sweat running down him, and he said, ‘Do you know why I’m so exhausted?’ I replied, ‘No, Sīdī!’ He said, ‘Yesterday I was sitting in this spot when Shayṭān entered in a particular form so I stood up to him and he fled before me, so I followed him and recited the call to prayer—he did not stop running from me, and he farted, as is mentioned in the ḥadīth, until he was hidden from me. And now I am just returned from pursuing him!’”’

Al-Sanūsī also related that when [Sīdī Abirkān] returned from the East, he came across a Friday market village which had fallen into ruin, though it had once been inhabited by his forefathers. He decamped to Tlemcen but his thought reverted to returning to that village and revitalizing what had fallen into decay. He said: ‘So I went out to it and sat down contemplating its traces, how ruin had overtaken it and its inhabitants compelled to depart, when a dog came up to me and sat down next to me, looking sad and dejected like me. I thought to myself, “Will this village ever be inhabited again or not?” Then the dog lifted his head and said in clear speech, “[Not] until the day they are resurrected,” that is, it will never be inhabited again. When I heard what he had said to me I returned to Tlemcen.’ Continue reading “Of a Lion, Dog, Shayṭān, and Snake: Sīdī al-Ḥasan Abirkān of Tlemcen”

the life of St. Sozon: a retelling

his oratory the high wide lands, stone and thin soil in
the broad neolithic scape, scrubbed and sky dried.
the heavens were closer there, thinner air, a world’s distance
from the city-god drenched plain hard by
the corrupting sea, the malarial reaches of power.
in hand his shepherd’s crook, passed down
from one hand to another a thousand generations,
memory accumulating like the mounded tepes,
lately transformed into a cruciform shape.
so he spoke to his God,
reading the words of the holy Book in the land,
his flock spread out before him—wisdom! let us attend.
he wept that he could not be
more akin to the creatures under his care,
heart burning with the great merciful weight of things.
closing his eyes under the sheltering tree,
Sozon the friend of God looked
inward, was shown what would come to be:
a martyr’s death awful to the telling, and
a holy spring welling up at his feet, for the ages,
watering the earth with his blood and with water.
his spirit spread into the dolomitic cracks,
up surged the water cold, mixed with blessing.
dream and the mothering earth’s pure drink,
portal and vision and life,
the Cross tossed in the charging waters.
he picked up his shepherd’s crook and set out.
down from his hard and rough untilled garden,
leaving his sheep in the care of another,
down to the city and its viscous charms,
exquisite violence and offal piles.
up against the vain rage
he came, and with his staff struck down
the graven gold in the thronging temple,
burst it into a thousand pieces,
a fine loot and bold, gathered up,
and gave it to the city’s poor. the roman concreted
places rang out with the challenge, and the answer
was iron against flesh, the singe of the sword, and then
death upon a tree.
still blood lusting and even more so full of fear,
they dragged his holy flesh out to the edge of the city,
lit a fire, in unknowing sign of the cataclysm to come,
but the sky mocked them, the elements
overpowered the small weak weaponed men,
storm washed over them and washed out their flame.
time and distance condensed in him,
the heavens stayed their small fires, a greater flame
burned still in his several parts, hot and holy.
water, and blood, and the venerable body marked
with the pain and the dislocation, set to earth,
and still he shepherds us, drawn from the old soil,
cut from the new cloth of salvation, old wine
mingled with the new. Blessed Sozon,
pray God for us, send us out from the unabiding city,
and lay your staff against the idols yet.
the wild old lands wait a returning.

The Poor Woman of Āzzājn and the Shaykh

The following is a story taken from the early modern Moroccan hagiographer Ibn ‘Askar’s Dawḥat al-nāshir, a mainstay in these parts- in no small part because Ibn ‘Askar’s saintly lives so often feature individuals and communities that we often imagine to have been (and in some cases truly were) marginal to early modern Maghribi society. The story here is no exception, and it subtly reveals both social presuppositions among both rural and urban people as well as ways in which those presuppositions could be challenged. But I don’t want to give the ‘twist’ in the story away, so here is the entry almost in full, starting with a brief introduction to the ostensible subject of the entry; my brief analysis follows.

Folio from a copy of al-Jazūlī’s Dalā’il al-khayrāt, 16th century Maghrib (Harvard Art Museum 1984.464.9)

And among them the great shaykh, the well-known saint Abū al-‘Abbās Aḥmad al-Ḥārithī, resident in Meknes. He, God be merciful to him, was from among the great ones who possess lordly disposition over things (al-taṣrīf). He accompanied Shaykh al-Quṭb Abū ‘Abd Allāh Muḥammad ibn Sulaymān al-Jazūlī and received knowledge from him. God guided a great community by him, and the shaykhs of sufism honored him exceedingly, praising him with abundant praise. They relate concerning him wonders of secrets; I heard our shaykh Abū al-Hajjāj bin ‘Īsā say: our shaykh Shaykh Abū al-‘Abbās al-Ḥārithī, God be pleased with him, his tongue was never absent remembrance of God. It was his custom to weave trays of straw and large baskets, and in the time it took to insert the needle and remove it he would utter the words ‘no god but God.’

I also heard [Abū al-Hajjāj bin ‘Īsā] relate about him, saying: “Shaykh Abū al-‘Abbās went to visit the Quṭb Abū Muḥammad ‘Abd al-Salām ibn Mashīsh al-Ḥasanī on Jabal al-‘Alām. He made his return passage through the village of Āzzājn, with his disciples, prominent citizens of Meknes, and others accompanying him. The lords of the village went out to meet him in order to treat him with hospitality. Then a poor woman stood up to him and implored that God the exalted make his stopping place in her home, and the shaykh desired to accede to her in that but the people of the village stopped him, saying, ‘Oh sīdī, this is a poor woman, she has no means for hosting the fuqarā’.’ So the companions of the shaykh inclined to their words and said to him, ‘Oh sīdī, it’s impossible for us to abandon these prominent villagers and go with this poor woman,’ so the shaykh acceded to their words. In the morning they set out and traveled until stopping after a day’s journey in Wādī Wirgha in order to spend the night there. Towards the end of the night the shaykh was gripped with intense contraction of heart, and said to his companions: ‘We must return to the village of Āzzājn!’ They said, ‘Why oh sīdī?’ He replied, ‘Verily God, exalted is He, has closed off from you the gates of good such that you ought to fear for your faith, on account of the woman who invited you by Him and out of love for Him but you instead preferred the lords of wealth over her.’

“So they with him returned from there, and when in the evening of the day they reached [the village], they found the woman watching for the shaykh in the middle of the road, and when she saw him she kissed the earth and covered her head with dust and said: ‘I thank you O God, O Lord, you who have answered my prayer, you who have made answering me part of your good pleasure!’ So the shaykh with his companions stayed with her for three days, and upon leaving his companions reported that she was indeed from among the saints.”

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), 75.


Several things stand out about this short but dense story. First, it’s striking that Ibn ‘Askar is notably sparse in his description of al-Ḥārithī: we might wonder about his relationship with the famous al-Jazūlī, the author of the early modern ‘best-seller’ prayer book Dalā’il al-khayrāt; it’s also clear just from this short biography that al-Ḥārithī was of some importance in Meknes, as his companions on his pilgrimage north to the shrine of ‘Abd al-Salām ibn Mashīsh (one of the major saints of the Rif, his shrine- the object of their journey- atop a mountain outside of Tetouan) are drawn from the prominent people of the city.

Second, it is notable that arguably the real subject of this entry is the anonymous ‘poor (miskīnah) woman’ who turns out to be from among the saints. Intentional or not, her life has been ‘hidden’ within the context of a male saint’s life, just as her sainthood was hidden within the combination of her gender, her poverty, and her rural station. In the story, al-Ḥārithī is the conduit for realizing her recognition as a friend of God, though in some respects she remains hidden- we are told the name of her village but not her name (and it should be pointed out Ibn ‘Askar does not shy from giving the names of female saints, others of which appear in his hagiographic compilation). Third, while her gender no doubt contributed to the shaykh’s companions not taking her request seriously, it does not ultimately prevent them from receiving three days’ worth of hospitality in her house. We can probably safely assume that this woman was older, perhaps widowed, though interestingly the text makes no such claims itself, and there is no indication that anyone was scandalized by the hosting- what they doubted was her ability to provide, not knowing her status as a saint of God and hence, the subtext suggests, able to miraculously provision guests beyond her obvious means. The men were guided by their cultural biases, divine intervention revealing the limitations of those biases and unveiling the reality hidden beneath appearances.



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Discovering the Nature of True Alchemy

An illustration from a text on aspects of literal alchemy (and quite a few other topics), Kitāb al-Burhān fī asrār ‘ilm al-mīzān, copied in the Maghrib in the mid to late 19th century (National Library of Medicine MS A 7)

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.

Ḥusayn al-Jisr, Kitāb nuzhat al-fikr fī manāqib mawlānā al-ʻārif billāh taʻālá quṭb zamānih wa-ghawth awānih al-Shaykh Muḥammad al-Jisr (Beirut: al-Maṭbaʻah al-Adabīyah, 1888), 132-133.



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Fifteenth Century Text Searching with Aḥmad al-Wansharīsī

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Other Maghribī scholarly textual practices on display: a page with marginalia from the grammatical text Awḍāḥ al-masālik fī sharḥ Alfiyyat Ibn Mālik, copied c. 1700; note the prominently sized words used in dividing the text and making more conventional forms of browsing/searching easier. (BnF, Département des manuscrits, Arabe 7323)
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”