A Self-Taught Shaykha in Early Modern Fes

Detail from a swathe of embroidered silk textile, seventeenth or eighteenth century Morocco, with the word Allāh rather faintly visible running in a band near the center. The polemicist author described below might have had such colorful textiles in mind in castigating women in Fes for their material exuberance in following their female shaykha. (Cleveland Museum of Art 1916.1236)

The place of women in early modern Islamicate societies varied greatly depending on particular place, general cultural norms, social status, prevailing madhhab, and many other intersecting factors. Far from being static, the role and status of different sorts of women often fluctuated over time, and was frequently contested, particularly during periods of change such as marked much of early modernity in the Islamicate world as elsewhere. Of a particularly contentious nature was the question of women’s public religious life, a question that for Muslim communities entailed tension between (albeit limited) recognition in Islamic tradition of female religious authority, beginning with hadith-transmitting wives of Muḥammad himself, and prescriptions on women’s authority and public mobility and visibility. The historical reality of female saints and even masters of sufism added extra dimensions to such tensions. In the Islamic West- the Maghrib- from the medieval period forward highly restrictive attitudes towards women’s public participation in religious life existed alongside prominent, and outspokenly public, female saints such as Sayyida ‘Ā’isha al-Mannūbiyya (1199–1267). The anonymous woman who is described in the below text suggests other possibilities, which were accepted by some but strenuously rejected by others, as we will see.

The text below comes from a major eighteenth century bio-hagiographic compilation, Ṣafwat man intashar min akhbār ṣulaḥāʾ al-ḳarn al-ḥādī ʿashar, written by a scholar whose family was originally from the Draa region in the far south of Morocco, Abū ‘Abdallāh Muḥammad al-Ifrānī (also spelled al-Īfrānī and al-Ufrānī). Born in Marrakesh around 1670, al-Ifrānī eventually settled in Fes, where he would live and work as a scholar, sufi, and author, becoming particularly well known for his historical works, dying in either 1743 or 1745. His Ṣafwat man intashar provides important insight into the shape of early modern Maghribi sainthood as well as many other social realities of the period, including in the vast and often autonomous countryside, as seen in a previous selection from this work translated here.

The following selection comes from the life of a scholar and saint, originally from the town of Ksar el-Kebir but who settled permanently in Fes after his course of studies there, Abū Muḥammad Sayyidī ‘Abd al-Qādir (d. 1680). ‘Abd al-Qādir embodied a form of sainthood that had once been common across Islamic societies but by the early modern period was largely a Maghribi phenomenon: that of the ‘exoteric’ scholar whose vigorous personal asceticism, scrupulosity, and careful adherence to the sharī’a were acclaimed as evidence of sainthood. His karāmāt- miracles or charismatic signs- were many, al-Ifrānī tells us, his saintly status no doubt helped by the fact that his son wrote not one but two manāqibs- hagiographic accounts- of his father’s life. Unlike many of his contemporaries, ‘Abd al-Qādir did not produce in books or compilations; instead, his followers compiled his sayings and fatwas into their own compilations. The passage I have translated here comes from such a compilation, and is reminiscent in form of a fatwa although it is not presented as such:

Another fā’ida: [Abū Muḥammad ‘Abd al-Qādir] was asked about a woman who recited the Qur’an for women, and they would gather around her and take her as their shaykha. He answered with the following: ‘He, peace and blessings of God be upon him, said: “A people ordered by a woman will not know success,” as well as “Hinder them as God has hindered them,” and “They are deficient in reason and religion.” It is not permissible that a woman act as an imāma or shaykha, and as for what the women do on the day when they gather together in the woman’s presence and take her as their shaykha, that is not permissible either, and is an aspect of corruption and evil in the earth due to various reasons: among them, that women pilfer from their husbands and take it to her; and that each of the women dresses in finery, beautifies herself, and goes out into the streets, that being ḥarām and not allowed. And perhaps she leaves without her husband’s permission or pleasure in that, it becoming a cause for anger and division, with things that cause such being ḥarām.

Also, she presides over the reading of books and fatwa collections concerning the religion (dīn) of God, but is without knowledge (‘ilm), not having received that from an ‘ālim, there being things in the books which are comprehensible and things which are not [to those not instructed by a scholar], ‘ilm not being received save from the mouths of scholars. Taking it from books and pages is ḥarām, and all which she receives [in terms of material things] from that is illicit and one ought not eat of it, such that her livelihood is pure ḥarām.

And indeed when she was young she abandoned her husband and busied herself with gathering together women in her presence, all of which is diminishment of religion, her object being corruption (al-fasād) and accumulating worldly goods and consuming the property of the people through falsity. That is error and wrong which requires correction on the part of the one who is so authorized.

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), 314.

Suffice to say, ‘Abd al-Qādir himself was not at all pleased with this unnamed shaykha- and we will examine his logic in a moment. But it is also clear from this report that whatever ‘Abd al-Qādir’s sentiments (no doubt shared by others in Fes), they had done nothing to restrict this woman’s religious career, nor to cut off the flow of women seeking her out and forming a veritable devotional community around her. While a clearly hostile depiction, we learn that this shaykha was not just literate but had access to a range of books, transmitting that knowledge to her female followers and drawing upon it for her own authority. She was also a Qur’an reciter, a not uncommon position for women to take elsewhere in the early modern Islamicate world (‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī notes, without any approbation, such reciters at the tomb of Sayyida Nasīfa in Cairo, for instance). ‘Abd al-Qādir’s appellation of shaykha suggests as well that this woman led her followers in sufi practices, and may well have herself been viewed as a saint, particularly since she is described as having ‘abandoned’ her husband early in their marriage and having set about building a religious community. Strikingly, while ‘Abd al-Qādir argues that the shaykha’s followers were ‘pilfering’ from their husbands in order to support their shaykha with money and material, the fact that this was an ongoing reality and that the shaykha had made a career out of her activities argues for tacit acceptance on the part of those husbands and other male authorities. For the women who gathered around their shaykha, she was a source of both religious knowledge and of blessing, requiring proper decorum in visiting her- hence their careful attention to dress and bodily cleanliness which so irritates ‘Abd al-Qādir. What did the women study and practice in their shaykha’s presence? ‘Exoteric’ religious knowledge is implied, as they are shown reading together ‘books and fatwa collections,’ presumably with the shaykha presiding over the same sort of reading circles typical of male scholars during this and other periods. Qur’an recitation and communal prayer- the shaykha also serving, it is suggested, as an imāma- seems to have taken place, perhaps along with various sufi or other devotional practices (such as invocations upon Muḥammad).

Unfortunately, so far as I know, we do not have any corresponding sympathetic reports about this woman and her community, nor anything in her own voice- reflecting the generally low survival rate of such women’s voices from early modern Islamic contexts. While women’s voices do survive from their own compositions- there are Ottoman and Mughal examples, albeit in small numbers- more often the lives and practices of religious women such as these must be reconstructed using incidental sources, whether sympathetic, neutral, or outright hostile. A good parallel case to our shaykha of Fes, from sixteenth-century Ottoman Aintab, is that of one Haciye Sabah as discussed by Leslie Pierce in her book Morality Tales, drawing upon court records and hence hostile reports though of a somewhat different sort (and reflecting different and somewhat more capacious conceptions of allowable female religious authority).

A page from a sixteenth or seventeenth century Maghribi copy of Dalā’il al-khayrāt, a book that our anonymous shaykha might very well have owned or otherwise had access to given its ubiquity, abundant copies, and relative ease of use. Harvard Art Museum 1984.464.86.

Finally, ‘Abd al-Qādir’s logic in condemning this shaykha and her followers is worth considering. At first glance we may be tempted to dismiss it as so much misogyny or simple Mālikī conservatism, both of which no doubt are operative. After listing hadith which limit women’s religious authority and downplay their abilities, ‘Abd al-Qādir argues against the public visibility and mobility that this female religious community entailed. The women involved were not quietly remaining at home out of the public eye, but were instead parading out in the streets of the city in their finery, attracting attention, and in the process draining wealth from their homes, removing both their bodies and their money and material possessions from male supervision, transferring them to a female-dominated (indeed female-exclusive!) space.

‘Abd al-Qādir takes further issue with this shaykha, however, with criticism that goes beyond issues of gender and hits at some deep faultlines in the early modern world broadly: the question of the relationship between knowledge and written texts. What constitutes true knowledge, and how is it to be acquired? A global increase in written productions and access to texts, both in print and manuscript cultures, meant that many ‘unauthorized’ persons in the early modern world had access to texts, knowledge, and even textual production, in ways that generally had not been true in the medieval period. Different attitudes towards learning, reading, and the use of texts were emerging, in which older ways of transmitting knowledge and authority were pushed somewhat to the background. ‘Abd al-Qādir argues for the centrality of orality and face-to-face transmission of knowledge, whereas for many others in his world such mediation was seen as less and less necessary (see this post for a further discussion of other aspects of this transformation). Our anonymous shaykha appears to have been largely self-taught, acquiring and reading texts, which she then led other women in reading and digesting (how she obtained such literacy is not mentioned, unfortunately). Standing outside the scholarly hierarchy and system of formation she probably also gave her own personal interpretive cast to these texts, which ‘Abd al-Qādir dismisses as a lack of understanding. While such interpretative freedom is often seen in an Islamic context as a particular issue of the digital age, something similar was going on in early modernity, provoking not dissimilar anxieties as a result.

‘Abd al-Qādir himself actually embodied the tension between traditional orality and emerging text-centered cultures. His refusal to write down his teachings is marked by al-Ifrānī as a significant feature, something that set him apart, in a world rich with textual production (‘Abd al-Qādir’s son’s writing multiple manāqibs about his father is an ironic case in point!). Yet we also learn that ‘Abd al-Qādir, rigorous that he was, refused payment for his teaching, instead subsisting on money from selling copies of books, particularly the Ṣaḥīḥ of al-Bukhārī, which presumably could have been commissioned or purchased by anyone with the money. Perhaps even the anonymous self-taught shaykha could have purchased a hadith compilation copied out by ‘Abd al-Qādir, using some of the ‘pilfered’ money extracted from patriarchal oversight by her beautifully-arrayed devotees- quite the ironic scenario!

An embroidered silk sash, 18th century Morocco. V&A T.170-1929.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Support this blog, if you’d like. But mostly, just keep reading!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s