A Holy Historian and a Saintly Blacksmith

By definition the lives profiled in hagiography, of whatever religious tradition, are exceptional in some way as perceived by one or multiple audiences (or in some cases, only a single author attempting to make the case for wider public recognition). That said, as I have emphasized many times in my writings here and elsewhere, medieval and early modern hagiography, particularly within Islamic traditions, can shed a great deal of light on the lives and experiences of ordinary people and places, providing a richness of detail hard to find in other sorts of sources. Early modern North Africa is an especially rich source of hagiographical texts which allow us to peer into everyday life not just in urban areas but also- in fact perhaps predominately- in the vast rural ‘hinterlands’ of urban centers like Fes and Marrakesh and Tlemcen. The countryside of the Maghrib was a remarkably dynamic landscape in religious, cultural, and intellectual terms, with many of the major institutional sites of learning in the early modern Maghrib located within remote rural locations, zāwiyas- sufi ‘lodges,’ often with a shrine component, libraries, and teaching elements- existing high up in the Middle and High Atlas, in territory marked to this day by forms of seasonal transhumance.

The two lives I’ve translated here come from a sixteenth century Arabic work of biography and hagiography (most though not all of the figures therein are saints),Dawḥat al-nāshir, by one Ibn ‘Askar, its entries primarily focused on holy men and women from the Rif region of the Maghrib. Both of the men I’ve featured here would have been relatively unexceptional were it not for their piety and reputations for sanctity: one was a learned man who inhabited the countryside outside of the coastal city of Tetouan (a lovely place, by the way, well worth the visit if you are ever in northern Morocco!) who practiced subsistence agriculture as well as scholarship and sainthood. Calling him a ‘historian’ is a bit anachronistic though not entirely so, as while he would not have followed the canons of modern disciplinary history Ibn ‘Askar’s description suggests an interest in and deep knowledge of the wide spectrum of historical events and figures relevant to Islamic and Maghribi history; of course then as now it was hard to make a living on such knowledge and so Shaykh Aḥmad kept himself and his family going through his own practice of agriculture, practice which was, our author hints, blessed by divine intervention. Would that all historian-farmers, self included, were so fortunate!

The theme of agricultural involvement is a not uncommon one in Ibn ‘Askar’s hagiographies, not a few of his holy people growing their own food and offering the fruits of their lands to visitors and pilgrims and ‘sons of the road.’ Many seem to have practiced a sort of intensive gardening or intensive small-scale farming, though I am ignorant of the details of early modern Maghribi agriculture; it seems possible to me that the surprisingly abundant agronomical texts from the western Islamicate world might have found an audience precisely among such farming ‘ulamā’ and sufi shaykhs, people who possessed refined literacy but fully inhabited the rural, agricultural world.

Our second life is from a bit south of Tetouan, having to do with a pious blacksmith in the general vicinity of the famous, and indeed quite beautiful, town of Chefchaouen. This Aḥmad, ‘the Blacksmith,’ might have been literate to some degree given that he served as an imām in a rural mosque, but he certainly would not have been otherwise reckoned a member of the ‘ulamā’, making his living from a trade- a hot and dirty one at that! His ‘style’ of piety seems to have been rather improvised, as witnessed by the surprise expressed by our author. Yet this improvised rural piety of a working man is not disparaged in our text: instead, Aḥmad the Blacksmith gave a rather bold rebuke to our author concerning Ibn ‘Askar’s reliance on ‘book knowledge,’ a rebuke followed by a powerful prayer which Ibn ‘Askar credits with his own spiritual transformation. I’ve a bit more to say on this unexpected- to us at least- rebuke and prayer and what it suggests about the cultural worlds of the past versus our own present, but first here are the two entries in translation, my further thoughts following:

Aḥmad al-Shā’ir al-Yachmī: ‘And from among them, Shaykh Abū al-‘Abbās Aḥmad al-Shā’ir al-Yachmī, from the Banū Yachm in the vicinity of Tetouan. He was, God be merciful to him, a blameless jurist (faqīh), a knower of God, exalted is He, and very pious and ascetic. He was a memorizer of history and was passionate about much study thereof, he was given to deep thought and contemplation. Every Friday he went by foot to the city of Tetouan in order to pray the congregational prayer therein, even though his home was in Bū Khalād some twelve miles away. He was committed to reliance upon God (tawakkul) and never practiced any fixed profession. Instead, he had a space in front of his house which he cultivated, doing the digging by hand, and from the produce of that cultivation he supported himself and his family. He also fed from it all those who stopped in the mosque (masjid) opposite his house, as a way of providing traveling exigencies to the sons of the road. Those who saw [his garden plot] were certain that it was not enough to feed even one person, yet he never took from anyone. When he went to Tetouan he carried with him a large basket in his hand so as to buy what he needed and carry the items in it, such that the trace of it was marked in his left hand. If anyone going along with him offered to carry it for him he forbade it, his face scowling. I learned from him, God be merciful to him, knowledge of history and of philosophical reflection, and all of the times that I met with him over the years he talked with me of nothing but the knowledge of history and of reports of the doings in the past of ‘ulamā, saints, kings, and others. When he was finished talking of such he would say, ‘Permanence belongs to God, surely to God will all things return, and all things are perishing except His Face.’ Then he would grow pale, and a spiritual state would take him and he would turn away. Many miracles were manifest through him and the people of his land were agreed upon his sainthood and virtue. He died between the ‘fifties and ‘sixties of this century, and was buried opposite his mosque, God be merciful to him. [1]

Aḥmad al-Ḥaddād al-Khumsī: And from among them, the holy man, the saint humble in the presence of God, the faqīh Abū al-‘Abbās Aḥmad al-Ḥaddād. He practiced the trade of blacksmithing, and was also an imām in the Masjid al-Shurafā’ in the territory of the Banū Faltwāṭ. He was a preceptor in asceticism, piety, night-vigils, and struggle in good works. I entered his home in the fifty-fifth year of this century, along with our shaykh Abū al-Ḥajjāj and a group of the virtuous. He greeted us and provided for each of us what he could of different kinds of food, serving us himself. When we were ready to depart to the mosque, he went before us to the door of his house and said: ‘I have made a covenant with God, exalted is He, that no one from among the folk of good should leave my home until he has placed his foot upon my cheek.’ He regarded us as worthy and desired to do so to us, and Shaykh Abū al-Ḥajjāj said, ‘Let us help him in his desire, as his intention is the humbling of his lower self and lowliness towards God, exalted is He.’ So [Aḥmad] put his head on the ground and each of us put our feet to his cheek. Then we went on to the Masjid al-Shurfāt, which is said to be one of the mosques built by Ṭāriq ibn Ziyād during his first campaign of conquest [2]. When we reached the mosque a man brought us food which he had cooked with garlic. We ate it, but [Aḥmad] did not eat with us, excusing himself by saying that he did not eat garlic. When we went inside the mosque we asked him about his not eating garlic, and he replied: ‘On a certain night, in the middle of the night I came to this mosque and entered by way of the qibla door that is to the left of the miḥrab within. I had eaten garlic that night. When I entered I found two men from among the saints praying, their light filling the mosque. When they had given the greeting they stood and walked out through the eastern door. I went out following them, and when they were aware of me they stopped in a certain place’—he described the location—‘and I came before them and sought from them prayer. Then one of them said to me: ‘One who wishes to meet with other and to enter the mosque ought not eat garlic.’ So I said, ‘O Sīdī, I repent before God and will never eat garlic again!’ They gave me the greeting of peace and then turned and went. From that time forward I have never eaten it and will never eat it again.’

I sat with him, God be merciful to him, once in Chefchaouen and had begun talking with him about the art of sufism and the way of spiritual gifts, and I had memorized a great deal, saying to him ‘Shaykh So-and-So said,’ and ‘It is related from Shaykh So-and-So.’ But he said to me, ‘For how long will speak of ‘So-and-So said and related, and I related from So-and-So? When will you say “I and you”?’ I replied to him, ‘O Sīdī, pray to God for me!’ So he said for me, ‘Give us sustenance O God, with you is understanding! And give us knowledge, with You is knowledge that gives benefit!’ From that day God opened for me the gate of understanding and I knew of myself the answer to his prayer, benefiting greatly from his supplication, God be merciful to him.

He had many well-known miracles in answer to his supplications. He studied under Shaykh Abū Muḥammad al-Ghazwānī and from Shaykh Abū Muḥammad al-Habṭī. He died, God be merciful to him, around [9]68, and was buried opposite the Mosque of the Sharifs from the Banū Falwāṭ. [3]


What is so striking to me about Ibn ‘Askar’s interactions with Aḥmad the Blacksmith- interactions with many an analogue in the early modern Maghrib and elsewhere- is the degree to which a humble (somewhat extravagantly so in fact!) blacksmith could participate in the discursive culture of the literate elite, of which Ibn ‘Askar and many of his shaykhs were indeed a part. It is hard to imagine similar interchanges occurring in the present-day on the same scale, as the discursive worlds of people of my class- the hyper-educated denizens of academia and academia-adjacent realms- have if anything grown further apart from the contemporary analogous discursive worlds of a Riffian blacksmith. There is precious little interaction between various discursive realms within academia itself: humanities scholars and researchers in the hard sciences, for instance, struggle to communicate effectively if they even note the existence of the other. Our interactions with ‘the public’ tend to be limited to those sectors with maximum exposure and formation within higher education and its analogous and connected institutions in wider society.

The many disconnects and discontinuities that mark contemporary American (and, arguably, global) society are all the more striking given that in our world, unlike in Ibn ‘Askar’s, we are beholden to and shaped by ideologies which officially at least proclaim the equality and inteconnectivity of, if not all people, at least all members of one’s own nation-state. Whether one presents one’s self as a citizen of a politically constituted nationality or as a ‘citizen of the world,’ some kind of equality and shared identity and heritage is implied. By contrast, in the early modern Maghrib as elsewhere no such ideas existed; religious identities provided the most universal forms of identity, but in practice identity and belonging were much more dispersed, into all sorts of localized identities and affiliations, some of a global nature (affiliation to a given saint or sufi ṭarīqa, for instance), others perhaps shared only with people in one’s village or rural district. In a world with quite limited literacy the rather kit-bashed piety of Aḥmad the Blacksmith was more often than not the norm, even if a universal or at least universalizing set of doctrines and practices provided a more over-arching framework (though the exact application of the universalizing sharī’ah was often highly localized, the sharī’ah itself and its infrastructure possessing mechanisms for some degree of localization in fact).

There are many reasons for why the kind of interaction and role inversion we see in Ibn ‘Askar’s encounters with Aḥmad the Blacksmith are rare in our world, but the decreased salience of religious faith in much of the ‘developed’ world is certainly a major component. Shared religious faith and practice meant, to varying degrees of extent to be sure, a shared discursive and epistemic world; a pious blacksmith could through his asceticism and other forms of bodily-practiced piety become an ‘expert’ in the ‘sufi arts,’ taking what he learned aurally and distilling it into potent guidance for someone well versed in textual knowledge. Of course exclusion and exclusivity existed in Ibn ‘Askar’s world, and command of elite, literate discourse and practice were powerful means of material advancement. That said, in many ways the cultural sphere inhabited by the literate elite was more open, not less, to those without the blessing of elite formation and education, there was more of a common world and shared sense of meaning and value than is usually the case in our, despite our formal commitment to equality and egalitarianism. We can take such early modern examples, not as precise models of course- those worlds are gone and cannot be retrieved even if we should want to do so- but as inspirations and suggestions for how things can be otherwise in our own world.

Detail of an 18th century ceremonial scarf with floral and vegetal patterns from Tétouan (Cleveland Museum of Art 1916.830)

[1] 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 (Rabat: Dār al-Maghrib, 1977), 20.

[2] That is, during the early 8th century AD.

[3] 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 (Rabat: Dār al-Maghrib, 1977), 21-23.


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