The Heat of the Divine Lights: The Story of a Rural Maghribi Majdhūb

17th century Moroccan Tile V&A 1718-1892
Scripts of sainthood weren’t the only things shared between the early modern world of the Islamic West and that of the Ottomans, of course. As discussed previously here, art motifs moved back and forth between the two regions, with Maghribi adaptations of Ottoman elements taking on distinctive local styles, such as this 17th century tile which incorporates distinctively Ottoman floral elements but in a quite different context. (V&A 1718-1892)

The following extensive hagiographic entry comes from an important eighteenth century compilation of saints’ lives from Morocco, the Ṣafwat man intashar min akhbār ṣulaḥāʾof the scholar, historian, sufi, and man of letters Abū ʿAbdallāh Muḥammad al-Ṣaghīr al-Ifrānī (c. 1669-1743 or 45), who was originally from the Draa region of southern Morocco, but who lived and traveled in Fes, Marrakesh, and various countryside zāwiyas. He forged ties with many saints of his native land, collecting accounts of holy figures from both his own lifetime and the generation before.

The saint featured here, Shaykh Abū al-Qāsim, lived in the Middle Atlas region south of Fes, then as now predominantly rural, many traces of which are visible in the life al-Ifrānī renders. Islamic Sainthood in Morocco, in medieval and early modern times, has often been centered in rural areas as much as urban ones, with a constant interplay between the two (al-Ifrānī probably learned the accounts of Abū al-Qāsim through one of the latter’s disciples, Sīdī Aḥmad al-Madāsī, a sometime resident in Fes whom al-Ifrānī would much later take as a spiritual master). While in the anthropological and sociological studies of ‘maraboutism’ that long dominated the study of Islam in Morocco, these saints and their devotees are often taken as examples of the exceptional, ‘syncretic’ nature of Moroccan Islam, we can in fact see connections with the wider Islamic world in these saints’ lives as well as the traces of long-standing debates and discussions within sufism and fiqh over the nature of sainthood, sufi practices, what constitutes a proper shaykh, and the nature of the knowledge of God. In this particular life, Abū al-Qāsim is described as a majdhūb, a divinely attracted saint, a type of saint that became increasingly prominent in both the Maghrib and the Ottoman world during this period, even if the mechanisms for those parallels are for now hard to determine. The reality of interconnections between ‘West’ and ‘East’ is alluded to in this life, in fact, by the saint’s dispatch of disciples to ‘the East,’ meaning for this period the Ottoman lands. I’ll note briefly some other parallels and some differences below, but first here is al-Ifrānī’s account of this sometimes quite shocking saint:

Abū al-Qāsim ibn Aḥmad ibn al-Lūsha al-Sufyānī: His companions called him Abū ʿAsrīya, because he used to do most things with his left hand, and he was, God be merciful to him, from among the ones distracted in love of God, and from among the folk of effusive states and lordly ecstatic utterances. His sainthood was firmly established among both the elite and the common, his distinctiveness being well-known in both the east and the west. Early in his life he was renowned as one of the brave young men of his tribe (qabīla) and among those of perfect horsemanship from among them. When the inrushings of gnosis began to flash upon him and the illumined beneficence draw him, he went about in the wild upon his face, distracted from his senses, becoming acquainted with wildness and familiar with solitude, such that knowledge of him was cut off from his folk for one or two years or more. They didn’t know anything of his dwelling nor location until there came a hunter or shepherd who mentioned to them his description, so they rode out in search of him, and when they brought him back he stayed with them a few days then returned to his former inclination, until his spiritual condition calmed down enough to settle down in his homeland, his spiritual states (al-aḥwāl) subsiding somewhat.

Then he began sitting with the fuqarā’, discoursing with them and imposing [spiritual disciples?] upon them, but when his spiritual state (ḥāl) would seize him, he would grab at them and they would flee from him. Among the remarkable things that befell him is that when the spiritual state would seize him, he would rend his clothes and remain totally naked, yet no one ever saw his genitals (ʿawra) [1], and whoever wished to gaze upon his genitals would not see them, no matter how much he strove to see them. The one to whom it was granted to see them would go blind from the very moment. A number of people went blind in such manner until it became well-known among the people and they began to protect themselves from such.

At the beginning of his career, he would stay at length in meadows, ponds, and creeks due to the intensity of what descended (mā nazala) upon him of the [divine] lights (al-anwār), which he would cool off from by means staying close to water until it stopped. In the latter part of his career his spiritual state became calm and serenity prevailed in him. He returned to his senses, now having control over his spiritual state. More than one trustworthy person has related to me that a group of his companions went to the East with his permission, living adjacent to Medina the Noble, and would sit opposite the Noble Room [of Muḥammad] and discuss stories and accounts of him [2]. One day they were doing that when a woman clothed in tattered old rags and of ragged mein stopped before them. She said to them, ‘Do not know other than Qāsim—rejoice, for my Lord has given him the station of the Quṭb today!’ They wrote it down that day, and when they returned to [Abū al-Qāsim] they learned that his state had become calm on the very day that the woman said to them what she said—God knows best! [3]

When word of him spread, the people hastened to visit him, eager to receive [blessing] from him, group after group seeking him out, going to him walking and riding. When he would go out to meet his visitors he would sit in the midst of them, they surrounding him on all talks and he talking with them. His speech had the aspect of spiritual indications, such that everyone understood from it what sufficed him, taking what was needful from his petition to him. Among his well known works of charism was that a man was burdened down with extensive debts, and he heard of [the saint], and sought him out. When he was getting ready to bid farewell, the shaykh took a handful of dirt and put it on the edge of [the man’s] garment. When the man returned to his house, he discovered that the dirt had become bits of ore, having been transformed by the power of God into gold! This story is well-known and sound. His acts of charism are more than can be enumerated.

As our master the littérateur (al-adīb) Sīdī ʿAbdallāh al-Fāsī mentions in his book al-Iʿlām, [Shakyh Abū al-Qāsim] took [knowledge] from Sīdī ʿAbd al-Salām ibn Abū ʿAbīd al-Sharqī the previously mentioned pious saint. He writes: when [Abū al-Qāsim] was a small boy he was carried to Abū ʿAbīd who blessed him, then asked for a container of water, which he then let pour down upon him, and he said, ‘If we didn’t cool off this boy then the [divine] lights would burn him up!’

The subject of this biography would often call out to Abū ʿAbīd and shout his name, attributing everything that was manifest through him [that is, Abū al-Qāsim] to Abū ʿAbīd. The subject of this biography also met with Sīdī Yadīr in Fes. Many of the elite took [knowledge and blessing] from the subject of this biography, his baraka being manifest upon them, his solicitude encompassing them, his spiritual ardor (himma) guiding and instructing them. One ought not deny the benefit for the spiritual wayfarer in the majdhūb, for the majdhūb instructs through his spiritual ardor, and elevates others through his solicitude. Perhaps the majdhūb is in connection with God closer than the wayfarer, such that the benefit from him is more easily obtained, as the folk of the Way have written, even if some among the fuqahā’ are ignorant of this, they never having tasted anything from the knowledge of inner reality, and being marked only with exoteric knowledge, they broadcast denial to his companions, saying, ‘A majdhūb ought not act as a shaykh!’ Such discourse is from one who has not seriously pondered the books of the Folk nor intensively studied the knowledge of sufism… 

He died, God be merciful to him, in the month of Sha’bān in the year 1077 [A.H., 1666 A.D.], and was buried along the banks of the Wadi Arḍam [a tributary of the Baht River in the Middle Atlas], and a much frequented qubba was built over his grave. [4]

There is a lot that can be unpacked from this account, but I’ll focus on only a couple things. Some aspects of this saint’s ‘career’ have parallels among other early modern Islamic saints in the Maghrib and the Ottoman world, most notably the ‘divine attraction’ and its effects, particularly the period of solitude in the wild. It’s notable that both the people of his tribe and from around his part of the Middle Atlas- people we would probably identify as Berber and who may or may not have spoken any form of Arabic, though interestingly al-Ifrānī doesn’t feel such details are important (he does record such things in other accounts, though)- as well as eminent holy figures from elsewhere are show recognizing his sanctity. As was the case with the majdhūb saint in the Ottoman lands, it wasn’t a question of ‘popular’ and ‘elite’ registers of religion; learned scholars as well as nomadic herders might alike recognize a holy fool like Abū al-Qāsim, even if their exact interpretations would vary. And some details of Abū al-Qāsim’s life are distinctive. The blinding effect of his ʿawra, for instance, is notable, though there are eighteenth century Ottoman Turkish accounts of similar saints whose nudity, and people’s responses to it, are front and center. Perhaps even more striking is the sense that Abū al-Qāsim’s apprehension of divine gnosis was so intense, so visceral, that he literally had to cool his body off to avoid overheating! Perhaps other examples of such a saintly physiology exist, though I have not yet come across them.

Finally, I will note the interesting last section of this life, in which al-Ifrānī argues for the validity of a majdhūb saint’s spiritual guidance, his acting as a shaykh in other words. The question of whether a ‘holy fool’ or majdhūb could act as a shaykh was a long-running one in the theoretical literature of sufism, and, while it’s not noted here, the consensus had generally been that such a figure, while holy and blessed by God, ought not, indeed could not, serve as a precepting shaykh, since he had not himself traveled the ‘stages’ of the spiritual life but had rather arrived in holiness all at once, as it were, due to the inrush of divine attraction. Al-Ifrānī argues against such a position and for the more sweeping validity and role of the majdhūb, a theoretical elaboration and argument that certainly deserves more historical examination, and which is paralleled by some Ottoman sufis, such as Muṣṭafá al-Bakrī, who around the same time wrote a long stand-alone treatise on the majdhūb. Both authors seem to have arrived at similar positions, probably independently of one another, instead responding to shared concerns and patterns which transcended the geographical and other distances between them.

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Notes:

[1] The term ʿawra is one of those which is notoriously hard to translate, as it can entail everything from the genitals narrowly to the whole ‘zone of shame’ surrounding them, which is defined in different ways depending on the authority in question, with further differences depending on whether the subject is male or female. In this context ‘genitals’ seemed the most salient translation.

[2] As is often the case in Arabic, the referent to the pronoun here is ambiguous- is it Muḥammad, or Abū al-Qāsim, or maybe even both? I have left it ambiguous in my translation.

[3] This mysterious woman’s identity and role in the story is also ambiguous, and I am afraid I can offer no further explanation.

[4] Abū ʿAbdallāh Muḥammad al-Ṣaghīr al-Ifrānī, Ṣafwat man intashar min akhbār ṣulaḥāʾ al-qarn al-ḥādī ʻashar (Casablanca: Markaz al-Turāth al-Thaqāfī al-Maghribī, 2004), 275-277. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2019.

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