Shaykh Muḥammad al-Jisr and the Snake in the Wall

Egyptian characters, etc. Snake charmer, Cairo 2
A snake charmer at work in early 20th century Cairo, photographed by a photographer from the American Colony in Jerusalem; this is the sort of performer, increasingly associated with ‘the Orient’ in the 19th century, that Ḥusayn al-Jisr wished to differentiate his father from (Library of Congress LC-M32- 994 [P&P])
As anyone who has followed my work here and elsewhere will be aware, until recently my scholarly research was focused all but exclusively on the early modern and medieval worlds, with a rough cut-off date of 1800 beyond which my expertise thins out considerably. Over the last couple of years since completing my PhD and assuming a post-doctoral research position my interests and research responsibilities have diversified considerably (a diversification which comes with its own risks, I might note), running backwards and forwards in time from the periods with which I am most familiar and comfortable. On the one hand I have taken up a much greater interest in the study of deep time and possible ways of integrating perspectives from paleontology, geology, climatology, archeology, and paleoanthropology into the kinds of historical study and teaching I do located within the ‘shallow’ past. Running in the other direction, on the other hand, I have become much more involved in nineteenth and twentieth century topics, some quite new to me, such as the history of technology and communication, others continuations of my long-standing interests such as saints and sainthood.

I learned about the subject of this week’s essay and translation (and who will certainly figure in future posts over the next month or so) by way of Marwa Elshakry’s book Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950, an exploration of the complex and often quite surprising ways in which Ottoman and post-Ottoman Arab thinkers dealt with the emergence and elaboration of Darwinian evolutionary theory and the permutations that engagement underwent vis-a-vis other concerns and political developments. Shaykh Muḥammad al-Jisr’s son, Ḥusayn al-Jisr, was one of the many thinkers, Muslim, Christian, and otherwise, who grappled with evolution and other aspects of the biological sciences, threading a path that was at once critical and open to scientific insights while also remaining very committed to ‘traditional’ Islam (though in ways that would have been unfamiliar even to his own father in the decades prior), remaining largely critical of evolutionary theory but suggesting that given sufficient proof nothing in Islam prevented acceptance of evolutionary theory provided God was understood to be the first and final cause- materialism was Ḥusayn al-Jisr’s primary foe.

Ḥusayn al-Jisr’s position on evolutionary theory in relation to theology is actually related to the work of his translated here, a hagiography, written in 1888, of his father Shaykh Muḥammad al-Jisr (1792-1845), a Khalwatī teaching shakyh and widely acclaimed saint active in Syria and Palestine (though due to political instability he also spent time in Cyprus and Constantinople). Ḥusayn’s account of his father- who died shortly after Ḥusayn’s birth- is striking for the way in which the author engages in extensive epistemological and other routes of analysis and digression, with much of the introduction devoted to tracing Ḥusayn’s own journey from relative skepticism about his father’s sanctity to embracing it, based on the accumulation and weighing of oral and written evidence, including from non-Muslims. These traces of modernity, as it were, continue throughout, even as the world of sanctity and sainthood revealed is not very far from that of early modernity- it is the framing and the tone that has changed, though certainly not into a voice of disenchantment or skepticism. As such it is a good example of the complex ways Muslims and others have constructed their own ‘modernities’ not necessarily along the lines of a neat trajectory of ‘secularism’ and ‘disenchantment that have so often been seen by many as normative and either automatic or only avoidable by ‘relapsing’ into some form of reaction and obscurantism.

I have selected the following short story mostly because it’s memorable and in the voice of the shaykh’s sister, but also because it captures part of Shaykh Muḥammad’s own saintly charisma- his connections with axial saints of the past, including Aḥmad al-Rifā’ī, and his interventions in everyday life- as well as possible objections that were more likely to arise in the modernizing milieus of the late nineteenth century, with Ḥusayn al-Jisr confronting such objections directly with an explicitness unusual within the genre. We will see other interactions of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ in future installations from this saint’s life, so stay tuned!

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‘And from what the aforementioned sister of the shaykh related to me about him: she said: “After the incident I told you about before, among the things that happened to me in that house is that there came to us from Beirut a covered basket of zucchinis, and when I opened the basket up to take the zucchinis out, a snake that had been hidden within came out and slithered into a hole in the house. I was very frightened and resolved to flee the house, but when I came into the presence of the shaykh, your father, I related the story to him and revealed my fear. He said to me, ‘Don’t be afraid!’ Then he came and stood in front of the hole into which the snake had entered and said, ‘Yā Sayyidī Aḥmad! Yā Rifā’ī! My sister is afraid of snakes!’ In that very moment I had barely blinked when the snake came out of the hole and the shaykh killed it, and my heart was calmed thereby.”

This happening points to the administrative power (taṣarruf) of the shaykh and his close relationship with the venerable Shaykh al-Rifā’ī, God sanctify his inner secret. If it is said that the snake charmers do the like of this deed, we say, yes, but the action of the snake charmers is of the nature of a trick, but that which is related here is the action of a man from among the people of piety and sanctity, who sought the aid of a spiritual axis (quṭb) from among the spiritual axes of the age, one would not deny his virtue save one who is utterly effaced of vision. The one who knows what the learned in religion have written about the distinction between prophetic sign (al-mu’jiza) and saintly miracle (al-karāma) and between bewitchment and the art of persuasion, with all being things outside of the ordinary, such foolish doubt will not trouble his heart.’

Ḥusayn al-Jisr, Kitāb nuzhat al-fikr fī manāqib mawlānā al-ʻārif billāh taʻālá quṭb zamānih wa-ghawth awānih al-Shaykh Muḥammad al-Jisr (Beirut: al-Maṭbaʻah al-Adabīyah, 1888), 82, translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, August, 2021.

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

One thought on “Shaykh Muḥammad al-Jisr and the Snake in the Wall

  1. Pingback: Sharing a Pipe with the Shaykh – Thicket & Thorp

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