A Day in the Life of an Early Modern North African Scholar-Farmer

17th century Moroccan Tile V&A 1718-1892
17th century Tunisian tile with floral motifs (V&A 1718-1892)

[‘Alī bin Yaḥyā al-Salaksaynī al-Jādīrī, d. 1564] would spend his daytime fasting, teaching ‘ilm all day long, not stopping from his teaching except during the times of the ritual prayers and the call to prayer, and if he wanted to deliver the call to prayer a reciter who was with him reading out texts with him in his cell would accompany him on the way, coming and going, reading out loud, and he would give the call to prayer, and so maintain the duties of his position as imām. He was, God be pleased with him, extremely avid about teaching ‘ilm, and was an imām in the Ajādīr Masjid wherein he taught ‘ilm until late morning, then he depart and go down to his plot of land by Wādī al-Ṣafṣīf, which he cultivated by hoe. His students would go out with him, he teaching coming and going along the way. When he reached his plot of land he would get down off his mount, unload manure, remove the packsaddle from his mount, and tether her in place by his own hand, no one else being able to tether her but he. He would take up his hoe and set to cultivating his plot of land, the reciter still reading out loud, and [‘Alī bin Yaḥyā] giving exegesis until he was done with his work. Then he would remount his beast of burden, the reciter on his right or left—this was his custom!

When he was young and in the maktab [somewhat equivalent to an elementary school] he struggled with memorization, until one day a man came passing by and took from him his tablet and wrote upon it more than what the teacher had written out to be copied, which did not make the teacher happy, but he was unable to speak to the man about why he had written those things. A few days that man came to Sīdī ‘Alī bin Yaḥyā and commanded him to come out to him, which he did, and the two of them to the wādī named Būyaḍān. The man said to Sīdī ‘Alī, ‘Ride on my back!’ Then he forded him over the wādī and prayed for him- and from then on he was able to memorize [what was written on] his tablet.

Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad ibn Maryam, al-Bustān fī dhikr al-awliyā’ wa-al-ulamā’ bi-Tilimsān


When we read biographical accounts such as this, we can read them a bit against the grain in that we are as much interested in what would have been ordinary and uninteresting things to the original author(s) and readers as we are those matters that stood out at the time. In the first of these two vignettes, it is ‘Alī bin Yaḥyā’s sheer dedication to teaching that is of course exceptional: the man is kind of a machine! We can understand from this description that such dedication was unusual, which is not surprising (one also wonders if all teachers’ students would have been dedicated enough to follow behind their instructors’ donkeys out to the fields). For us in the present, who are far removed from early modern North Africa, one of the more interesting details is that ‘Alī bin Yaḥyā supplemented his income from teaching and work as an imām with small-scale farming, either on land he owned (which would be my guess) or which he held on lease. Either way, his farming- which based on the description here would no doubt have been a sort of market gardening, as we would say now- was something he himself did, every day at the same time, with his own hands, including dumping manure for compost.

Such bivocationalism comes as little surprise: indeed, probably the vast majority of pre-modern Islamic scholars (as well as scholars and associated identities in other traditions) had usually not one but multiple ‘side hustles,’ their incomes being derived from many sources patched together, often shifting over time. Farming or, better, market gardening was perhaps not the most frequent such supplementary (or in some cases, primary) source of their income, but it was not rare either, or at least that is my impression from years of reading biographical accounts of saints and scholars across the Islamicate. Because virtually all cities, with a couple of exceptions, in the premodern Islamicate world interfaced very directly with semi-rural or fully rural hinterlands, it was rarely very onerous for a scholar to make the walk from his madrasa or sufi zawiya to his field, and for rural sufis orchards and fields might be immediately adjacent to one’s home. There are a number of interesting take-aways from this situation, but one I want to suggest here and which I should at some point develop in a more formal manner is that the widespread existence of scholar-gardeners helps to explain the popularity and intended audiences of the Islamicate agronomy handbook tradition. To be sure, many of the users of manuals of filāḥa were no doubt estate owners who rarely or never got their own hands dirty; but I suspect not a few were like ‘Alī bin Yaḥyā, highly literate individuals who took up the hoe along with the pen. Continue reading “A Day in the Life of an Early Modern North African Scholar-Farmer”