The following is an excerpt from a seminal Moroccan hagiographic work, the Dawḥat al-Nāshr of Muhammad ibn ‘Askar al-Ḥassanī al-Shafshāwanī. In it, ibn ‘Askar presents biographies of various saintly figures from the course of the tenth century (A.H.), many of whom lived in Fes or in the Rif region, including Chefchaouen, the author’s hometown. This text would be followed with numerous other such literary works, many of which reference the Dawḥat al-Nāshr.
The stories that fill this work provide a fascinating glimpse into the life of sixteenth-cenutry Morocco, both in the cities and in the countryside, as exempified in this short excerpt. It is also a display of the seemingly ever increasing importance saints, living and dead, played in pre-modern Moroccan society (something that has endured, in fact, into the modern age, despite many contrary forces). The power deployed by the saint can be manifest in a variety of ways, in both the natural realm and within the social and political realm. Sometimes that power is subtle, dependent upon the spiritual capital the saint has accumulated and how he chooses to deploy it. Othertimes, it is more spectacular, as in the story below of the interconnection between one anchorite saint and the raw energy of nature. Saintly practice is not monolithic: in this entry, we see two brothers, both powerful saints, living very different sorts of pious, ascetic lives. One is very urban in orientation, both before and after his conversion to the ascetic life; the other is a seeming Islamic analogue of the anchorites of late medieval Europe. How they relate to wider social and political life thus varies: our anchorite rejects marriage and cuts himself off from normal social relations; his brother’s effacious prophecy, however, is driven by a concern for familial honour, a fundamental—and very public—basis of social relations.
This variety, and the variety of responses to saints, both within and without the hagiographic text, run throughout ibn ‘Askar’s work, and indeed in the larger world of Moroccan hagiography and saint-veneration, itself subject, not to stasis and homogeneity, but diversity, divergence, and important changes over time.
The Brothers ‘Abd al-Raḥman and ‘Alī ibn Raysūn
Among them, the two sublime shaykhs, Abū Zayd ‘Abd al-Raḥman and Abū Ḥassan, fathered by Abū Mahdī ‘Īsa al-Sharīf al-‘Alamī, from among the descendants of the Pole of the West, Shaykh Abū Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salām ibn Mashīsh, God be pleased with him.
As for Abū Zayd, he was devout, ascetic, and learned, austerity and reclusion from the world being predominant in him, and miraculous signs were manifest in him. The men of the Banū Rāshid present their daughters to him for marriage without obligation, but he did not accept one of them, but rather abandoned the people, and [abandoned] his possessions in the open space before his house, not resisting those who took and bore them away. His way was the heavens, and perhaps the heavens raised him up until oneness was bestowed upon him, and he became estranged from normal relations with the people until he saw neither closeness nor distance, and his house was always locked upon him, and his bedding was the rinds of oaks.
I saw him once when I was young, and he called out a greeting to me; my father was among his companions.
No one knew about his passing away until the wind whipped up that night in the summer, the darkness deepened, the thunder roared, the lightning flashed from every direction, and lightning bolts struck, so that the people of Tazroute were frightened, and went out to the mosque, saying, ‘Let us seek this shaykh quickly that he might tell us what is going on!’ They then went to the house and it was locked, so they called out and he did not answer them at all, so they tried to open it but were not able until they smashed up the door. Then they found him, dead, lying upon his right side, facing the qibla, as if he were sleeping, God me merciful to him. When they entered his house, the winds calmed and the thunder ceased.
He passed away at some point in the ‘fifties of this century, and was buried in the cemetery of Tazroute around Jbel al-‘Alm, in the land of the Ghumāra.
As for Shaykh Abū Ḥassan, he had, during his brother’s lifetime, worked as a merchant buying and selling goods in the markets, but when his brother passed away he swore off the world, embarked upon pious devotion, and clung to the holy. He was joyful, outstanding, naturally inclined to have a happy countenance, noble virtues, and peace of heart. He was always immersed in litanies—his was a tongue that did not cease from recitation and remembrance for even an hour.
When Sultan Abū Ḥassūn al-Murīnī entered Fes in the ‘sixties, he seized hold of the Qā’id Muhammad ibn Rāsid al-Idrīsī. Fervent respect for kinship compelled Shaykh Abū Ḥassan to go and intercede on his behalf, but Abū Ḥassūn was not to be interceded with. So [Shaykh Abū Ḥassan] went to the Kairouan Mosque [in Fes], uncovered his head, and said: ‘By God! Abū Ḥassūn shall on no account remain in [Fes], and ibn Rāshi shall go forth safe and sound, through the effacious blessing (baraka) of the People of the House (ahl al-bayt).’ And it was as he said: Abū Ḥassūn died after a month, and ibn Rāshid was related and returned to his former state. [Shaykh Abū Ḥassan] passed away around the year 963, and was buried beside the grave of his brother. I accompanied him, God be merciful to him, for a long time, and I took the way of the people and benefited by him, God be merciful to him.
Muhammad ibn ‘Askar al-Ḥassanī al-Shafshāwanī, Dawḥat al-Nāshr