The Funduq Saint of Fez: ‘Abd al-Majīd and His Exceptional Acts of Devotion

As far as I can tell, the ‘Abd al-Majīd Funduq is no longer extant; however, it may have resembled in general plan and ornamentation this early 18th century example, Funduq Ṣāgha, pictured here from my visit in the spring of 2008.

Early modern Islamic religious life across Afro-Eurasia was marked by many trends and developments with roots in the medieval period but which took on new and often surprising forms in the following centuries. One of the most important trends was the explosive growth of devotion to Muḥammad, growth both in terms of apparent overall popularity but also, and more objectively measurable, growth in the number of textual instruments, ritual practices, and social settings oriented towards Muḥammad-centered devotion. Alongside this growth in devotion was another trend that does not at first glance seem related, namely, the continued flourishing and adaptive transformations of ‘deviant’ mendicant piety, the sort exemplified in the late medieval period by the Qalandar and other types of ‘radical’ dervishes, and in the early modern particularly by the majdhūb. Such forms of ascetic practice and aspiration to sainthood often eschewed compliance with the sharī’a, or at the very least transgressed many social norms in a deliberate fashion.

The following saint’s life, preserved in a seventeenth compilation of outstanding holy or learned (or both) lives, comes from Morocco, Fez to be precise, and embraces both of the above trends in early modern Islamic religious life. The saint, Sīdī ‘Abd al-Majīd, was acclaimed a saint, at least according to our author al-Ifrānī, because of his incredible, indeed super-human, devotion to the Prophet of Islam. The first few paragraphs of his life, the entirety of which I have translated here, lay out his acts of devotion and his saintly inner states, including the curious detail that his ecstatic remembrance of Muḥammad took place even in the latrine- a detail which hints at a somewhat non-normative manner of life. It is in the following paragraphs that we are given further indications that ‘Abd al-Majīd was not universally admired and that his mode of life had many parallels with that of the ‘deviant’ dervishes better known from the Islamic East. But before we consider just what kind of a saint he was, it would be better to read his life as al-Ifrānī has described it:

Among them, the well-known saint and great gnostic Sīdī ‘Abd al-Majīd ibn Abī al-Qāsim al-Bādisī: he was originally from the Rif [1], from the region of the Banū Yaṭifat; he was of the Malāmatiyya, and dwelled in the funduq [2] associated with him north of the Qarawiyyīn Mosque, which is now known as the Funduq of Sīdī ‘Abd al-Majīd. He practiced numerous prayers upon the Prophet, God bless him and give him peace, constantly devoted to him and to prayers upon him, of immense affection towards him, enraptured in love of him, and of great love towards the Folk of the House [3]. And whenever he commenced with invocation of blessings upon the Prophet, God bless him and give him peace, he would begin with saying: ‘I take refuge in God from Shayṭān the accursed. In the name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate: verily, God and His angels pronounce blessings upon the Prophet—O you who believe, pronounce blessings upon him and ask for him peace!’ He would complete this arrangement in good order, letter by letter, then say: ‘O God, bless Muḥammad!’ then ecstasy would overwhelm him and he would simply cry out, ‘Muḥammad! Muḥammad!’ He did not cease remembrance of him standing or sitting, in whatever condition he was in, even in the latrine (bayt al-khalā’). It was said to him, ‘Do you mention him in the latrine?’ He replied, ‘It dwells, O brother,’ meaning, perhaps, love [of Muḥammad], but God knows best.

He never spit except into his clothes and never cast his spit to the ground, saying, ‘I will not throw out upon the ground saliva which has circulated alongside the mention of the Prophet, God bless him and give him peace!’ It was said to him, ‘From whence did these states befall you?’ He replied, ‘By God, not one grace has been bestowed upon me save due to the Messenger of God, God bless him and give him peace, giving me to drink of a cup of absolution—that is, filled up—until my thirst was quenched, and I have not ceased to love him body and soul.’ Meaning, that he partook from the Prophet, God bless him and give him peace, without any intermediary. It is said that he would pray the canonical prayer only in Mecca or Medina, as he himself reported, having been asked by two sharīfs [4] who adjured him by their ancestor, God bless him and give him peace, that he report to them where he prayed. He was silent for an hour, his face reddened, then he replied, ‘In Mecca or Medina.’ One of the two men listened to him and said, ‘By God, let us follow him so as to ascertain the truth of that.’

It was a Friday, and the subject of this biographical entry set out, the man following him, and they went until [the time at which] the flag was lowered from the minaret, and [‘Abd al-Majīd] entered the chamber of ablutions, the man following him; [‘Abd al-Majīd] went into an ablution stall, and the man stopped in front of the door, watching for his coming out, but after waiting for a while, he pushed open the door to see what he was doing, and found the stall door to be like a mountain—he was unable to move it at all. He was in the midst of trying to open the door when the shaykh came in through [the outside] door of the ablution chamber, and said to him, ‘The people have already prayed, God cut your hand off!’ The man comprehended the permissibility of the punishment upon him, and he set to seeking from [‘Abd al-Majīd] forbearance and relinquishment, manifesting contrition and repentance over his sin. So he said to him, ‘Hasten away from me—otherwise you’ll lose your head instead!’ When the full realization of this threat dawned, the man said, ‘Ya Sīdī, if it is to be, can it at least be my left hand?’ He replied, ‘Yes.’

Some time passed, and the man was accused of having stolen oil from the lamps of the Qarawiyyīn Mosque, so the judge ordered that his hand be cut off, and he besought the people that they cut off his left hand, so they did. Then the after that his innocence in the matter was revealed, and the actual thief was caught, the threat having been realized—we take refuge in God from the displeasure of His saints!

In a similar vein was that which passed between him and the qāḍī Sīdī ‘Abd al-Wāḥid al-Ḥamīdī, that being that the aforementioned qāḍī passed the subject of this biographical entry on the street while he was sitting opposite the minaret of the Qarawiyyīn, the people seeking his blessing. The qāḍī said to him, ‘Stand up you mule! All of the people are praying while you are not, yet they make pious visitation to you!’ So he, God be pleased with him, look straight at [the qāḍī] and replied, ‘You are dismissed.’ A day or two after that a letter arrived from Marrakesh from Sulṭān Abū al-‘Abbās al-Manṣūr [d. 1603] deposing the aforementioned qāḍī; he had sent the letter to him by a rider upon the camel named al-Hayyirī, [a camel] designated to deliver [the sulṭān’s] judgments as quickly as possible, and that camel spanned a ten days’ journey in one day, so that the qāḍī realized that it had come on account of Sīdī ‘Abd al-Majīd. He waited until the evening of that day upon which he was deposed, then he and his young sons went [to the saint], he sending them in ahead of him to supplicate for his entry into [the saint’s] room in the funduq wherein he dwelt, seeking his forbearance and forgiveness. He said to him: you are returned to your judgeship.’ The next day another letter came from the aforementioned sulṭān by camel-rider, announcing his reinstatement and return to his post.

It is recalled that the aforementioned sulṭān said that he deposed the qāḍī because he had seen in a dream a man ordering him to do that, menacing him lest he do so, and that he reversed his decision after seeing the same thing again.

Also from among his karāmāt: that a man from among his companions accidentally hit himself with a key that was in his hand, and happened to hit his eye so that its fluid poured out or from its vicinity, and going along as the days passed his eye became infected, so he sought out the shaykh, who came to him and placed his hand over his eye and said, ‘No more! Nothing, then something!’ No sooner had he lifted his hand than the eye had healed and had returned to the same condition as the other eye.

And from among them: there was a man who also lived in the same funduq as ‘Abd al-Majīd, who one day had two other men over with the intention of spending the night drinking wine. When they had prepared the wine, [the saint] came and knocked on their door, then entered, they have put away their wine-cups out of shame. He sat with them for an hour, saying over and over, as was his custom, ‘Muḥammad, Muḥammad!’ Then he arose and left. They stood and barred the door, but he came after that again two or three times, every time they intended to drink their wine he would come. When after yet another time he departed again, one of the men set to warning his companions, saying, ‘Aren’t you fearful of this sīdī who knows what you are doing?’ But the two men ignored his prohibition and rejected him. The next day the two men passed by the governor of the region, and he commanded that they be executed and they were, but the man who had warned them remained safe and sound.

And from among them: there was a man who had immense debt, and in his concern he said to himself, ‘I’ll go to Sīdī ‘Abd al-Majīd and seek his help,’ so he went and found him sitting beside one of the columns of the Qarawiyīn Mosque. The man sat down opposite him and began thinking about his debt but said nothing, so the shaykh pointed to him and said, ‘O brother who is burdened with debt! Every day ten thousand times pronounce blessings upon the Prophet, God bless him and give him peace, and verily the debt will be dissolved, by God.’ The man thought to himself, ‘How should I say the prayer—either “O God bestow blessing upon Muḥammad,” or, “Upon our master Muḥammad?”’ meaning, with the term of lordliness. So he said to him, ‘O brother, the lordliness is better.’ So he unveiled [his inner thoughts] twice and bestowed benefit upon him in two judgments.

His karāmāt, God be pleased with him, are more than can be enumerated. He died in the year 1004/1595 and was buried outside Bāb al-Jīsa [5], and there was built upon him here a chamber close by Sīdī ‘Abd Allāh al-Tāwadī. [6]

Several details in this account stand out as much for what they do not say as what they do. Most obviously, in the story of the qāḍī and the saint, we hear the accusation that despite his intense Muḥammad-centric piety, ‘Abd al-Majīd neglects the canonical daily prayers, a very serious transgression indeed. The story about his praying in Mecca and Medina and the serious repercussions visited upon the prying sharīf also points to such an accusation, and suggests ways that ‘Abd al-Majīd or his devotees may have resolved it- that is, his conspicuous lack of presence in congregational prayers was because he was miraculously praying in Mecca and Medina themselves!

The story about his intervention- if that is the right word- in the wine-drinking party is also curious, as it shows the saint simply showing up and hanging out with the imbibers, not trying to prevent their sin. Of course the implication is that his saintly power worked invisibly, without the need for physical intervention, or that perhaps it was simply meant to be a warning to the drinkers, which but one of them took, the other two suffering the consequences of not heeding a saint’s warning. Still, it is striking that the saint is shown socializing with what must surely have been not the most savory of characters in sixteenth century Fez. Indeed, living in a funduq would not be the most respectable location choice for a would-be saint.

What are we to make of these details? Was ‘Abd al-Majīd a ‘deviant,’ non-sharī’a compliant saint? It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that in some way he was, at the very least that his practices often ran counter to social expectations and conventions. Yet at the same time the core of his saintly self-presentation and identity was evidently his intense devotion to Muḥammad, a practice not usually associated with deviant piety (though its practices and practitioners would attract the censure of more puritanical ‘ulamā’ for other reasons). Perhaps it would be best to say that ‘Abd al-Majīd, and others like him, practiced ‘alternative’ piety, his sainthood distinctive, even at time shockingly so, but still recognized as legitimate and indeed divinely bestowed and powerful by many ‘respectable’ sharī’a-compliant urban Muslims of his time. The friends of God were not restricted to a single mold, and could take on unpredictable and even disruptive and strange forms- such was the thoroughly mainstream attitude of men and women across the early modern Islamicate world, from the Maghrib to the shores of the Pacific far to the east, and despite the presence and intervention of more ‘puritanical’ individuals and groups such openness to saintly possibilities would remain typical well into the nineteenth century.

Footnotes:

  1. The Rif is
  2. A funduq was akin to a khan or caravanserai further east, functioning as a sort of hotel and storage location for merchants- but also evidently as a place of residence for some people on a more permanent basis.
  3. That is, the descendants of Muḥammad.
  4. Also a term for a descendant (perhaps quite distant indeed) of Muḥammad, suggestive of a somewhat elite status in Moroccan culture.
  5. Bab Guissa, on the northwestern side of Fez, one of the oldest extant gates to the city.
  6. 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), 83-86.

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