Ibn ‘Askar on Two Muslim Saints of the Early Modern Jbala

Detail of a length of fabric of plain cloth and silk produced in 17th or 18th century Morocco (Cleveland Museum of Art J. H. Wade Fund 1953.321)

The village of Jajouka, also transliterated as Joujouka or Zahjouka, lies at the edge of the Jbala region of northwestern Morocco, and is today best known as the home of not one but two musical collectives, both of which style themselves Master Musicians of the village, one using the transliteration Jajouka, the other Joujouka. The musical traditions of this village were famously ‘discovered’ by the Beats and others associated with the counter-cultures of the late twentieth century, going on to produce their own albums and artistic collaborations as well as tour around the world.

Before the music of Jajouka became globally famous, however, the village and the wider region around it was home to a range of early modern Muslim saints, some of which were profiled by the important Maghribi hagiographer and support of the Sa’idian dynasty Ibn ʿAskar (d. 1578), originally of Chefchaouen, in his Dawḥat al-nāshir. The profiles that I have translated here, of Abū Muḥammad ‘Abd Allāh al-Jābrī and Abū Bakr al-Srīfī, are notable for several reasons. The life of ‘Abd Allāh al-Jābrī embodies a way of life highly redolent of ‘deviant’ and ‘mad’ saints from across the late medieval into early modern Islamicate world, themselves building on older traditions. Already in Ibn ‘Askar’s time such saints were increasingly known as ‘majdhūb,’ divinely attracted, but this was far from being universally true. ‘Abd Allāh al-Jābrī also stands out for his role as a mediator of conflict among the people of the Jbala.

One qabīla over, the life of Abū Bakr al-Srīfī is interesting for his merging of typical rural life with the practice of sainthood, as well as for his friendly relationship with a wolf (or, more specifically, the African golden wolf, Canis anthus). Alongside his replication of what was probably orally transmitted hagiography, Ibn ‘Askar also includes an autobiographical story concerning the saint’s posthumous power, a story that also points to the complicated routes of power in rural 16th century Morocco. Visible throughout this account are indications of wider historical dynamics and historical particularities of the early modern Maghrib, which I have explicated further using footnotes.

17th century tile made in Morocco, perhaps indicating types of decorative architectural elements a tomb like that of Abū Bakr might have used during the period, in addition to the styles of tile better known from past and contemporary usage (V&A 1717-1892).

‘Abd Allāh al-Jābrī al-Rhūnī: the shaykh the saint Abū Muḥammad ‘Abd Allāh al-Jābrī, guest (nazīl) of the Rhūna qabīla [1], among whom is his tomb and among whom was his zāwiya until his death in the [nine-]thirties, God knows best. This man was from among the wonders of the age and the strangest of things, wearing a garment (kisā’) of wool and nothing else, a staff in his hand, and walked barefoot whenever he set out to accomplish some matter in accordance with the power of God. His miraculous actions were conveyed by multiple transmitters (tawātir), [2] and whenever conflicts (fitan) broke out among the qabīlas he would come out and call the people to reconciliation, and whoever pridefully refused him, in that very moment God in His power would manifest in that person chastisement, and so would no longer stand against him. When he become known for that ability, the people submitted to him and no one was able to contradict him or go against his intercession. [God’s] answering his supplication was like the breaking of dawn. He was ascetic, pious, humble, and his mode of life was one of silence, abstemiousness, and was free of pretension, depending upon God in all his conditions, singular among his peers. More than one from among the fuqahā’ and fuqarā’ [3] related wondrous things about him, more than can be enumerated, God be merciful to him.

Abū Bakr al-Srīfī: among [the saints], the saint, the pious, master of great miraculous signs, and beneficial interventions such that are not manifest through anyone save his states are upheld by God. Abū Bakr inhabited a village held by the Srīf qabīla. This man was a stranger there, of unknown lineage. Among his deeds was that he tended sheep while inhabiting a cave opposite in which he would practice acts of worship, the sheep tending themselves, no wolf ever attacking them. On Fridays he would go to the qaṣr [4] in order to pray therein the Friday prayer, leaving the wolf to watch the sheep. Trustworthy people have related from more than one person who witnessed the wolf keeping the sheep from browsing on people’s planted crops, interposing itself between them and the crops, instead driving them to a place with abundant vegetation. He would sit down on a raised spot until the shaykh returned. When word of these things spread and became well known, God constricted him and he was buried there, and wondrous miraculous deeds have not ceased to be manifest in his tomb up until now. People come from the east and the west of the land to him, seeking blessing by him, including those struck by the jinn, the crippled, and others. One comes to his tomb and does not depart from it save that God has given healing from that. The people pay pious visits to his tomb every day continually, women, men, and children.

Among the things that I have witnessed of his miraculous deeds is that I was dwelling in Zahjouka in the land of the Srīf until Sulṭān al-Ghālib bi’llāh Abū Muḥammad ‘Abd Allāh ibn al-Sulṭān Abū ‘Abd Allāh Maḥammad al-Shaykh al-Sharīf (d. 1574) appointed his qā’id [5] Mūsā ibn Makhlūf al-Jazūlī to the administration over the qaṣr and countryside of [the region of] al-Habaṭ, so he established himself there and remained for around two years. Then he turned to evil thoughts of his sultan and set about deserting [from his service]. The greater part of his scheming concerned hastening my expulsion from this land, as he thought that he would find no opportunity for what he intended unless I was no longer around. So he sent me his proposition, to which I replied, ‘How is it possible for me that I leave my home and my possessions for no reason?’ He replied, ‘This region (al-bilād) is my region, and two heads cannot come together in one shāshiya!’ [6] So I said, ‘I am a faqīh and you are an amīr, we’ve nothing in common!’ But he reiterated his command, and I said, ‘The command belongs to God, blessed and exalted is He.’

So I abandoned my house with what was in it and my family and I set out to depart, heading towards Fez. On the way out I passed by the tomb of the shaykh and paid pious visitation to him, myself and some of my family, and when I finished my pious visit I supplicated God against Mūsā ibn Maklūf while a woman from my household [7] said ‘Amen.’ Then I said, ‘Ya Sīdī Abū Bakr, I take you as my mediator with God concerning Mūsā ibn Makhlūf’s turning me out from my home unjustly and with enmity, so that I must abandon everything and depart for the land of safety—may God swiftly drive him from his house to the land of the Christians and so scatter him so that no foothold remains to him in this region!’

We passed our time in Fez, but not three months had elapsed from that day until Mūsā ibn Makhlūf’s condition grew bad and where things had worked out for him now they turned against him, and he was forced to flee [to Christian-held territory] by night with his sons, and while he sought to depart to Muslim territory they would not allow him to do so, he being under their rule and power, and so it has remained for five years up until now. [8] And so came the answer to my supplication like the breaking of dawn!

I am not certain of the date of [the saint’s] death, God be merciful to him, other than that he died during the tenth [AH] century.

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


[1] Qabīla is conventionally translated ‘tribe,’ though in the case of places like the Jbala or the Rif the term is perhaps better rendered ‘region,’ though tribal aspects- including sometimes contested authority between countryside elites and the center in Fes- are also in evidence.
[2] This term is more commonly applied to hadith it should be noted.
[3] That is, both jurists and sufi disciples, that is, everyone.
[4] In North African usage a qaṣr is a fortified village, or simply a village or town.
[5] Another usage typical of North Africa, qā’id here meaning a sort of governor appointed by the sultan in Fes.
[6] A hat commonly worn in North Africa and somewhat similar to the better-known in the West fez.
[7] The odd usage is Ibn ‘Askar’s- is it a polite way of referring to his wife (or one wife among several), or does it mean a slave or concubine? I am not sure.
[8] Spain and Portugal claimed and held and lost territory along the Maghribi littoral all through this period, the politics of the ‘Christian lands’ and the ‘Muslim lands’ often being mixed together in sometimes surprising configurations; Ibn ‘Askar himself would die at the famed Battle of Kser al-Kebir while fighting alongside his deposed master Sultan Muḥammad and his ally Dom Sebastian of Portugal.

17th century Moroccan Tile V&A 1718-1892
Another 17th century Moroccan tile, displaying Ottoman motifs (V&A 1718-1892)

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3 thoughts on “Ibn ‘Askar on Two Muslim Saints of the Early Modern Jbala

  1. Pingback: A Holy Historian and a Saintly Blacksmith – Thicket & Thorp

  2. Pingback: The Poor Woman of Āzzājn and the Shaykh – Thicket & Thorp

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