Of a Lion, Dog, Shayṭān, and Snake: Sīdī al-Ḥasan Abirkān of Tlemcen

The walls of the village of Manṣūra outside of Tlemcen, 1870, by Sir John Baptist Joseph, 12th Baron Dormer (V&A SD.340)

That sainthood and social and cultural marginality have a tendency to go together, in Christian and Islamic traditions anyway, will hardly come as a surprise to anyone versed in such things: this is not the place for such speculations, but my personal working theory is that when we see Late Paleolithic burials of unusual individuals whose grave goods mark them as special, what we are seeing is a trace of something very much like sainthood. Regardless of the veracity of such speculatory reconstruction, it is quite clear from medieval and early modern hagiography in both Christian and Islamic traditions that while hardly a prerequisite for sanctity, difference, marginality, even outright societal opposition were all potential entryways into sainthood, not necessarily barriers. To discuss the reasons for this sustained relationship through time would require a book, or several of them (though, this is as good a place as any to mention that I have in various states of development not one but two such books in the offing, details to come!).

Instead, I want to introduce here an early modern- well, really, on that cusp between what we think of as medieval and as early modern- saint of the city of Tlemcen (in modern-day Algeria) who exemplifies inhabitation of both ‘centrality’ and ‘marginality,’ Sīdī al-Ḥasan Abirkān, as described by the late sixteenth century century hagiographer Ibn Maryam (d. 1605) in his al-Bustān fī dhikr al-awliyāʼ wa-al-ulamāʼ bi-Tilimsān. The saint’s name already identifies him as occupying two areas of identity sometimes indicative of marginality relative to scholarly urbane culture: ‘Abirkān’ is Kabyle Amazigh for ‘black’; J. M. Dallet’s dictionary gives the following definition: ‘Noir; noiraud; teint foncé, basané (nuance défavorable, dépréciative pour les personnes).’ And indeed Ibn Maryam, in giving Shaykh Abirkān’s genealogy, includes a couple of stories in which the shaykh is shown to be of a holy genealogy through his father and grandfather, without any trace of his ancestors’ apparent servility remaining. The suggestion of course is that the casual observer night take the shaykh’s skin color and evident ‘racial’ origin (not precisely the language a sixteenth century observer would have used, but close enough) as evidence of his inferiority. That this is the case is reinforced by a story that Ibn Maryam tells in which a young man who has come to Tlemcen to study initially disparages Shaykh Abirkān’s exoteric knowledge, but is urged to study with the shaykh in a dream, and in so doing finds the shaykh’s depth of knowledge confirmed. Overall, as is often the case in premodern Islamicate societies generally, racial origin and skin color were neither invisible nor were they totalizing facts about an individual; in Shaykh al-Ḥasan Abirkān’s case they were arguably part of his identity in a complex manner, both placing him somewhat at the margins but in a powerful manner, his being marked out as different both a feature of his sainthood as well as a sometime social stumbling block on the part of others.

That I have led with this particular saint’s racial background is very much indicative of our own contemporary concerns and interests; it is not addressed in Ibn Maryam’s lengthy treatment until well after many other stories and discussions. Instead, the picture that emerges, which I have tried to pick up in my translations below, is of a saint marked by both the scholarly and the, for lack of a better word, ludic. His encounters with animals stands out in this regard, with several of the stories below having to do with such interactions, all with creatures which were themselves generally seen as on the edge of human society if not an outright danger. I’ll discuss them a bit more after the text itself.

[Shaykh al-Sanūsī] used to say: ‘I have seen [many] shaykhs and saints but I have never seen the like of Sīdī al-Haṣan Abirkān!’ He was not absent from the presence of God for even an instant, and whenever he laughed his teeth would show. He was merciful towards the believers, solicitous towards them, rejoicing in their joy and feeling pain over evil inflicted on them. He had prayer beads from which he was rarely ever parted, for he was constant in remembrance of God. He was held in great esteem by the common and the elite alike. [He was] devoted to the Risālah of Ibn Abū Zayid, and whenever al-Sanūsī came to visit he smiled broadly and would open their conversation with theological discussion, [al-Sanūsī] saying to him, ‘God has made you to be among the God-fearing imāms.’ He was graced with many miracles and wonders, among them one that al-Sanūsī and his brother Sīdī ‘Alī described:

He was performing ablutions out in the wild desert one day when an enormous lion approached and knelt down over [Sīdī Abirkān’s] shoe. When he was finished with his ablutions, he turned to the lion and said to him three times, “May God, the most beautiful of creators, bless you!” The lion bowed his head to the earth as if were bashful, then arose and went on his way.’

Also, that which Shaykh al-Sanūsī mentioned, saying, ‘The illustrious saint Sīdī Sa’īd bin ‘Abd al-Ḥamīd al-‘Aṣinūnī related to me at his home in the Ouarsenis Mountains—he was from among [Sīdī Abirkān’s] oldest companions—saying, “I visited Sīdī al-Ḥasan one hot day and found him in great fatigue, sweat running down him, and he said, ‘Do you know why I’m so exhausted?’ I replied, ‘No, Sīdī!’ He said, ‘Yesterday I was sitting in this spot when Shayṭān entered in a particular form so I stood up to him and he fled before me, so I followed him and recited the call to prayer—he did not stop running from me, and he farted, as is mentioned in the ḥadīth, until he was hidden from me. And now I am just returned from pursuing him!’”’

Al-Sanūsī also related that when [Sīdī Abirkān] returned from the East, he came across a Friday market village which had fallen into ruin, though it had once been inhabited by his forefathers. He decamped to Tlemcen but his thought reverted to returning to that village and revitalizing what had fallen into decay. He said: ‘So I went out to it and sat down contemplating its traces, how ruin had overtaken it and its inhabitants compelled to depart, when a dog came up to me and sat down next to me, looking sad and dejected like me. I thought to myself, “Will this village ever be inhabited again or not?” Then the dog lifted his head and said in clear speech, “[Not] until the day they are resurrected,” that is, it will never be inhabited again. When I heard what he had said to me I returned to Tlemcen.’


Among the miraculous things reckoned to his father, Sīdī Makhlūf, God be merciful to him and pleased with him, is that he had a garden which no thief was able to snatch anything from neither by day or night, for if a thief entered it, a massive snake would come out against the thief and he would be unable to repel it, so the thief would flee in order to save himself, well before he could take anything. When Shaykh Sīdī Makhlūf or his household or children entered the garden the snake would remain in its abode and would not bother any of them. The shaykh related that one Friday he was with his father Sīdī Makhlūf in the aforementioned garden. He said: ‘I was a young boy, and when the time of the Friday ṣalāt approached my father, desiring to go to the ritual prayers, ordered me to remain in the garden until the prayers were concluded and he would return. When he left and I remained in the garden alone, there entered a man from among the rogues among the nomads, with perdifery in mind, but the snake was sedate due to his previously having sensed Sīdī Makhlūf and his son in the garden,’ said Shaykh Sīdī al-Ḥasan. ‘When that thief entered the garden I resolved to try and prevent his wrong-doing even though I was quite young. When he noticed me he came at me and lifted me up into the air, intending to strike me against the ground, but instead he fell down and I sat down upon him. He stood a second time with great anger and lifted me up again into the air in order to strike me against the ground, but again he instead fell down and I sat down upon him—he was incapable of doing anything against me. Then he stood again and lifted me up a third time and it all played out again with me rising above him just like the last two times. When he saw that he understood that this was a divine matter outside of the norm, and great fear overtook him. He threw off his garment and raced to leave so as to save himself, but the snake blocked him, so he fled in the other direction, and he saved himself from the snake only with great trouble!’

Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad ibn Maryam, al-Bustān fī dhikr al-awliyāʼ wa-al-ulamāʼ bi-Tilimsān


There are any number of things worth noting in these excerpts, but surely one of the most remarkable is the relationship of Shaykh al-Ḥasan Abirkān and his family with their enormous guardian snake. It is an unusual detail in the annals of Islamic hagiography, to be sure- while I am pretty confident I have encountered snakes a few times in other texts, I do not recall seeing one with such a prominent role, as a de facto protector of a saintly family and their land and produce. My immediate reflex is to think of stories of sacred snakes from across the Sahara: snakes featured prominently in many religious and political systems in the Sahel and down into West Africa, and I do wonder whether we ought to see some kind of relationship. Or not- these issues of ‘influence’ and ‘genealogy’ are notoriously complicated. What matters here is that our hagiographer, at least, is not bothered by the presence of a benevolent (well, in most cases!) giant snake guarding the land of a holy family of Sub-Saharan African origin, he simply relates it as he would any other story detailing the powers of sanctity.

The other feature to note in this story is the very literal inversion that takes place: a young Shaykh Abirkān effortlessly foils the obviously older and physically stronger (and, it would seem, ethnically Arab) invader, not once but three times, with the guardian snake joining the action after the young saint has dealt with the thief. What begins as a very threatening episode of potential violence- with, I think though I am not one hundred percent confident, intimations of sexual violence, intimations I do not think my translation quite captures- ends up being rather comic, with the figure of the burly thief rushing about trying to extradite himself from the garden and the pursuit of an angry snake!

Humor features most prominently in the anecdote of the saint chasing Shayṭān: far from being a frightening figure, Shayṭān is here, as in the original hadith, cast as a rather ridiculous character, who begins farting as he is chased, hardly a distinguished look for the spiritual enemy of humankind. Strikingly, the shaykh exerts himself bodily- he is panting and sweating from his chase- and not through spiritual power per se. And, as the immediately following story indicates, his power is not limitless. He and his canine interlocutor reach the same conclusion, it is suggested, through divine inspiration, concerning the recoverability of the ruined village. Some things, it would seem, are beyond even a saint as powerful and striking as Shaykh al-Ḥasan Abirkān.


A depiction by S. Fabrizi, in 1881, of worshipers- of evident African descent, like Shaykh al-Ḥasan- in the mosque of one of the ‘foundational’ saints of Tlemcen, Sīdī Abū Madyan, a saint who is described as helping Shaykh al-Ḥasan defend the city against an invader. (V&A SD.374)


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




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