Islamic & Ottoman History // Cultural & Political Critique // Poetry & Prose
PhD student in Ottoman religious history, Islamic and Middle Eastern history more broadly. Sometime poet. Husband, father, gardener. Eastern Orthodox Christian, traditionalist-radical, Tory anti-capitalist.
circling up the rising thermals off the mountain’s ancient slopes,
the vertical frozen march of time’s looming flows, river deltas
hardened into stone ramparts, jagged edged, heating the air overhead
in the patchwork of gray and blue coming and going under the sun,
the vultures, color of the play of dark and light, rise and circle, circle,
metaphor and thing signified, they loop and loop, eyes
wide and bright and focused, the days and nights together flow
into knowledge, wisdom’s course in creatures of carrion,
bound in their gyres to the circle of making and remaking, life—
dying and eating, things final, forever, and always becoming.
to the black old trees they return in silent knowing communion,
unhooded and free, custodians of the dead, unsung and unsinging,
time’s arrow and time’s cycle both they bear, providential care,
they roost over the flooded valley bottom, and watch for winter’s end.
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.’ Continue reading “Of a Lion, Dog, Shayṭān, and Snake: Sīdī al-Ḥasan Abirkān of Tlemcen”→
his oratory the high wide lands, stone and thin soil in the broad neolithic scape, scrubbed and sky dried. the heavens were closer there, thinner air, a world’s distance from the city-god drenched plain hard by the corrupting sea, the malarial reaches of power. in hand his shepherd’s crook, passed down from one hand to another a thousand generations, memory accumulating like the mounded tepes, lately transformed into a cruciform shape. so he spoke to his God, reading the words of the holy Book in the land, his flock spread out before him—wisdom! let us attend. he wept that he could not be more akin to the creatures under his care, heart burning with the great merciful weight of things. closing his eyes under the sheltering tree, Sozon the friend of God looked inward, was shown what would come to be: a martyr’s death awful to the telling, and a holy spring welling up at his feet, for the ages, watering the earth with his blood and with water. his spirit spread into the dolomitic cracks, up surged the water cold, mixed with blessing. dream and the mothering earth’s pure drink, portal and vision and life, the Cross tossed in the charging waters. he picked up his shepherd’s crook and set out. down from his hard and rough untilled garden, leaving his sheep in the care of another, down to the city and its viscous charms, exquisite violence and offal piles. up against the vain rage he came, and with his staff struck down the graven gold in the thronging temple, burst it into a thousand pieces, a fine loot and bold, gathered up, and gave it to the city’s poor. the roman concreted places rang out with the challenge, and the answer was iron against flesh, the singe of the sword, and then death upon a tree. still blood lusting and even more so full of fear, they dragged his holy flesh out to the edge of the city, lit a fire, in unknowing sign of the cataclysm to come, but the sky mocked them, the elements overpowered the small weak weaponed men, storm washed over them and washed out their flame. time and distance condensed in him, the heavens stayed their small fires, a greater flame burned still in his several parts, hot and holy. water, and blood, and the venerable body marked with the pain and the dislocation, set to earth, and still he shepherds us, drawn from the old soil, cut from the new cloth of salvation, old wine mingled with the new. Blessed Sozon, pray God for us, send us out from the unabiding city, and lay your staff against the idols yet. the wild old lands wait a returning.
The following is a story taken from the early modern Moroccan hagiographer Ibn ‘Askar’s Dawḥat al-nāshir, a mainstay in these parts- in no small part because Ibn ‘Askar’s saintly lives so often feature individuals and communities that we often imagine to have been (and in some cases truly were) marginal to early modern Maghribi society. The story here is no exception, and it subtly reveals both social presuppositions among both rural and urban people as well as ways in which those presuppositions could be challenged. But I don’t want to give the ‘twist’ in the story away, so here is the entry almost in full, starting with a brief introduction to the ostensible subject of the entry; my brief analysis follows.
And among them the great shaykh, the well-known saint Abū al-‘Abbās Aḥmad al-Ḥārithī, resident in Meknes. He, God be merciful to him, was from among the great ones who possess lordly disposition over things (al-taṣrīf). He accompanied Shaykh al-Quṭb Abū ‘Abd Allāh Muḥammad ibn Sulaymān al-Jazūlī and received knowledge from him. God guided a great community by him, and the shaykhs of sufism honored him exceedingly, praising him with abundant praise. They relate concerning him wonders of secrets; I heard our shaykh Abū al-Hajjāj bin ‘Īsā say: our shaykh Shaykh Abū al-‘Abbās al-Ḥārithī, God be pleased with him, his tongue was never absent remembrance of God. It was his custom to weave trays of straw and large baskets, and in the time it took to insert the needle and remove it he would utter the words ‘no god but God.’
I also heard [Abū al-Hajjāj bin ‘Īsā] relate about him, saying: “Shaykh Abū al-‘Abbās went to visit the Quṭb Abū Muḥammad ‘Abd al-Salām ibn Mashīsh al-Ḥasanī on Jabal al-‘Alām. He made his return passage through the village of Āzzājn, with his disciples, prominent citizens of Meknes, and others accompanying him. The lords of the village went out to meet him in order to treat him with hospitality. Then a poor woman stood up to him and implored that God the exalted make his stopping place in her home, and the shaykh desired to accede to her in that but the people of the village stopped him, saying, ‘Oh sīdī, this is a poor woman, she has no means for hosting the fuqarā’.’ So the companions of the shaykh inclined to their words and said to him, ‘Oh sīdī, it’s impossible for us to abandon these prominent villagers and go with this poor woman,’ so the shaykh acceded to their words. In the morning they set out and traveled until stopping after a day’s journey in Wādī Wirgha in order to spend the night there. Towards the end of the night the shaykh was gripped with intense contraction of heart, and said to his companions: ‘We must return to the village of Āzzājn!’ They said, ‘Why oh sīdī?’ He replied, ‘Verily God, exalted is He, has closed off from you the gates of good such that you ought to fear for your faith, on account of the woman who invited you by Him and out of love for Him but you instead preferred the lords of wealth over her.’
“So they with him returned from there, and when in the evening of the day they reached [the village], they found the woman watching for the shaykh in the middle of the road, and when she saw him she kissed the earth and covered her head with dust and said: ‘I thank you O God, O Lord, you who have answered my prayer, you who have made answering me part of your good pleasure!’ So the shaykh with his companions stayed with her for three days, and upon leaving his companions reported that she was indeed from among the saints.”
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), 75.
Several things stand out about this short but dense story. First, it’s striking that Ibn ‘Askar is notably sparse in his description of al-Ḥārithī: we might wonder about his relationship with the famous al-Jazūlī, the author of the early modern ‘best-seller’ prayer book Dalā’il al-khayrāt; it’s also clear just from this short biography that al-Ḥārithī was of some importance in Meknes, as his companions on his pilgrimage north to the shrine of ‘Abd al-Salām ibn Mashīsh (one of the major saints of the Rif, his shrine- the object of their journey- atop a mountain outside of Tetouan) are drawn from the prominent people of the city.
Second, it is notable that arguably the real subject of this entry is the anonymous ‘poor (miskīnah) woman’ who turns out to be from among the saints. Intentional or not, her life has been ‘hidden’ within the context of a male saint’s life, just as her sainthood was hidden within the combination of her gender, her poverty, and her rural station. In the story, al-Ḥārithī is the conduit for realizing her recognition as a friend of God, though in some respects she remains hidden- we are told the name of her village but not her name (and it should be pointed out Ibn ‘Askar does not shy from giving the names of female saints, others of which appear in his hagiographic compilation). Third, while her gender no doubt contributed to the shaykh’s companions not taking her request seriously, it does not ultimately prevent them from receiving three days’ worth of hospitality in her house. We can probably safely assume that this woman was older, perhaps widowed, though interestingly the text makes no such claims itself, and there is no indication that anyone was scandalized by the hosting- what they doubted was her ability to provide, not knowing her status as a saint of God and hence, the subtext suggests, able to miraculously provision guests beyond her obvious means. The men were guided by their cultural biases, divine intervention revealing the limitations of those biases and unveiling the reality hidden beneath appearances.
From the medieval period down to the dawn of modernity, sufi saints and the discipline of alchemy have had a long and often fraught relationship with one another, reflective of the sometimes positive, sometimes ambiguous position alchemy held in Islamicate societies (and elsewhere in the medieval and early modern world). To contend that a given sufi shaykh was an adept of the alchemical arts, or of other occult sciences for that matter, could be a form of praise or condemnation or caution. The delightful story I’ve translated below represents an interesting juncture in the relationship of alchemy and sufi saint: it comes from a source into which I’ve dipped several times now, the hagiography of the nineteenth century Ottoman Syrian saint Shaykh Muḥammad al-Jsir written by his deeply learned (in both ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ arts and sciences) son Ḥusayn. The context and ultimate message- the true alchemy is the practice of piety- would have been familiar to generations of sufi devotees before the nineteenth century, just as many a previous shaykh no doubt had to field similar requests for instruction in the arts of material transfiguration of the elements. There is however here I think a more marked sense of irony, the implication that alchemy isn’t just suspect for its occupation of the fringes of proper belief and practice but also that it is really no longer imaginable as a pursuit- which might have been true for Ḥusayn al-Jisr but was not necessarily true for all of his contemporaries, as the copying and presumable use of the treatise illustrated above would indicate. The subtext might well be that while alchemy is outmoded, the true and ultimately alchemy is not, and that devotional piety remains capable of transforming human beings in ways that neither the ancestor of chemistry nor other systems of knowledge could ever hope to do.
And from that is what my aforementioned uncle related to me also: he said: my barber, Shaykh Ḥusayn ‘Alwān used to say to me, ‘Your brother Shaykh Muḥammad knows how to do alchemy, so you ought to get him to teach you its art!’ So I went to your father one day looking vexed, and he said to me: ‘What’s with you O brother?’ I replied, ‘You know how to perform alchemy, so what’s keeping you from teaching it to me, your own brother?’ The shaykh laughed and said to me, ‘Oh Muṣṭafā, I’d like to spend the next three days alone at home in order to prepare an alchemical course—it’s your duty to turn away from me anyone who seeks me out.’ So I said yes, after which he stayed in his home three days, in the uppermost floor, and I made sure that anyone who came to see him was kept away from the shaykh, turning him away politely. And as the shaykh had withdrawn your mother into seclusion [with him] too I did not see her either, as she stayed with him in the upper floor. It was impossible that I go up and see what was going on; however, I asked a servant girl who was serving him and said to her, ‘What is my brother doing?’ She replied, ‘For a while he prays, then he recites taṣliya, then he reads books.’ I replied, ‘He’s not lighting any fire or asking for any specific amounts of substances from you?’ She said, ‘No.’ I was amazed at that and said to myself, ‘How does he perform this alchemy?’ All that was from the vain thoughts of youth.
Then, after the three days were up, I was in the market when the shaykh sent for me. I came quickly and found him sitting in the lower part of the house in the iwān, a satchel of riyāls in front of him. He looked at me and said, ‘O my brother, take them!’ So I took those riyāls, imagining that they were the product of alchemy, it not occurring to me due to the intensity of my happiness that alchemy doesn’t produce minted coin but rather bullion, or so they allege. Then the shaykh grabbed my ear and turned it, saying to me, ‘You and your barber ‘Alwān are nuts! O brother, our alchemy is blessing upon the Prophet, God bless him and give him peace! Don’t listen to the words of the like of this fellow!’ I paid heed to these words and learned that the shaykh did not perform alchemy at all as I had initially supposed, but rather had taken advantage of the secluded retreat of those days in order to be away from people and devoted to worshiping his Lord.
As anyone with even passing familiarity with Islamic history will probably be aware, Muslim scholars of the medieval and early modern periods produced a lot of texts, not a few of them of truly prodigious length. Many of these texts, across genres, included numerous citations of previous authors, of material from various hadith collections, even long passages or parts of entire books effectively ‘recycled,’ with or without attribution. The question naturally presents itself: how did these scholars manage with so many texts and such long texts? How did they find material, remember or record it, and then cite or otherwise reuse it? The enormity of such tasks is compounded by the fact that their textual worlds were entirely of the handwritten variety, not only predating digital texts and their relative ease of searching and copying, but also predating typographic print and things like comprehensives indices.
There is no single answer to the ‘how’ of pre-modern Muslim scholars (and others operating in similar circumstances both in the Islamicate world and beyond) and their textual activities. Methods of work varied from region to region, from period to period, and from scholar to scholar, dependent upon available infrastructure, scholarly goals, attitudes towards opinion and transmission, and so on. The story that I’ve translated here, of the text search and composition practice of one luminary of the late medieval into early modern Maghrib, Aḥmad ibn Yaḥyā al-Wansharīsī (c. 1430-1508), is only one possible approach, and probably not a terribly common one- otherwise it likely would not have been recorded! Aḥmad al-Wansharīsī is best known for his massive compilation of fatwas, al-Mi’yār al-mu’rib wa al-jāmi’ al-mughrib, though he produced other works as well dealing with questions of Islamic law. Here is how the biographer Ibn ‘Askar in his Dawḥat al-nāshir describes al-Wansharīsī’s daily work:
More than one person I met related to me that all of his books were loose-leaf, not bound into volumes, and that he had an empty lot which he walked to every day, having loaded a donkey with the pages of books, selecting two or three pages from each book. When he entered his lot he stripped down to only a woolen qashāba which he bound with a leather belt, his head uncovered (and he was bald). He arranged the loose pages one-by-one into two rows, stuck his inkwell into his belt, and, with his pen in one hand and a piece of paper in the other, he would walk between the two rows, writing down transmitted material from each page. Then when he was finished procuring material relevant to the given topic, he would write down what he had thought and what had been made manifest to him in terms of rebuttal and acceptance. This was his practice.
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), 47-48
Two things are especially striking about this account: one, Ibn ‘Askar’s language stresses the sheer physicality of such work- the pages must be selected (presumably each volume had either a container or was bound with twine, akin to chancery practices in some places), then loaded onto the donkey, then taken to al-Wansharīsī’s plot of ground (perhaps enclosed- the word can also mean a courtyard but clearly it was some ways distant from his house), then unloaded and distributed in the two rows on the ground. Only then could the proper scholarly work begin- that is, after al-Wansharīsī switched to his ‘work clothes,’ wearing nothing but a basic garment, a qashāba (usually known as a djellaba in Morocco, and still a common outer garment in North Africa). The image is one of a manual laborer, divested of the clothing typical of an esteemed scholar. Where the modern scholar carries out text search with a few key strokes, we see al-Wansharīsī literally pacing the ground examining the pages he has dis-aggregated, gathering material, which he can then synthesize with his own thoughts and composition.
Yet there is something very familiar to us in the digital age about al-Wansharīsī’s methods. Instead of slowly reading through a given book, taking notes or otherwise relishing its contents, his purpose here is to find and use material, information, perhaps scanning the pages for keywords or indications of particular passages he has in mind or is looking for. Presumably- it is a bit unclear to me- he had some sort of selection process beforehand, perhaps based upon whatever subject or topic he was tackling that day. The pages are to no small degree decontextualized, they become repositories of information al-Wansharīsī needs, not simply for recopying or regurgitation but some kind of critical engagement. Al-Wansharīsī modified the usual technology of texts in his world by unbinding (or never binding at all, as the case may be) the books in his library, which allowed him to do a kind of early text search, walking up and down among the pages scanning for the material he needed. No doubt other scholars did the same, driven by exigencies of their disciplines and social contexts. The nature of the book changed, too, well before the transition from manuscript to print. Continue reading “Fifteenth Century Text Searching with Aḥmad al-Wansharīsī”→
Dear reader, I’m aiming to have some more substantial posts here soon- our family has been in the midst of a move and the post-move work of getting our new house and budding (hopefully!) small farm up and running, while I have also been busy with my day-job work, elements of which I will cover in more detail on my Substack newsletter. In sharp contrast to all that busyness, I’ve translated the following story, which is related by Ḥusayn al-Jisr in his hagiography of his saintly father; it does not however directly relate to his father’s life, but is instead precipitated by an episode in the shaykh’s career that involved a large basket filled with tobacco and money, the latter fulfilling the need of one of the shaykh’s disciples. Ḥusayn al-Jisr does not tell us from whence he got this story, but it is part of a long tradition of sufi tales having to do with tawakkul, which might best be translated as ‘extreme trust in God.’ It’s also really quite funny, and could have come from a collection of popular stories, ḥikāyāt. Otherwise it is pretty self-explanatory- enjoy!
I have seen a similar story in a book concerning what happened to one of the people of pious trust in God. A man from among them was continuously present in a mosque when another man who prayed there noticed him, seeing that he did not leave the mosque nor did he have a job, so he came to him and said, ‘O brother, how do you manage to eat?’ He replied, ‘God, exalted is He, provides for me.’ The man replied, ‘You speak truthfully, but still God makes a means for everything—is He going to send your sustenance down in a basket?’ The man who put all his trust in God replied, ‘Verily God is able to do that.’
So the man invited him to his house, making him to believe that he wanted to honor him, but instead he seized hold of him and put him down in a well that belonged to him and left him there, saying to him, ‘Now we’ll see whether God sends a basket down to you or not!’ Then he went away to his shop stall. Now it so happened that the man’s wife and her maidservant really wanted some halwa, so they made some and were about to eat it when the man, her husband, knocked at the door, and the two were afraid of his displeasure over their making halwa, so they put it in a basket and in their alarm dropped it down in the well. The man who trusted in God who was down in the well took hold of it and began eating from its contents. The wife of the man opened the door and he came in to attend to some business of his, then he remembered the man who was in the well so he went to the brim of the well and called out to him, ‘Hey so-and-so, has God sent you a basket down yet?’ The man replied, ‘Yes, He sent me some halwa in a basket, in spite of you!’ So he took him out of the well, and, things becoming clear to him took admonition from this happening, honored the man and sought from him his forgiveness.
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. 
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 . 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 68, and was buried opposite the Mosque of the Sharifs from the Banū Falwāṭ. 
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.
 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.
 That is, during the early 8th century AD.
 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.
While we in the twenty-first century live in a world of staggering material abundance- it is genuinely hard for us to grasp just how abundant stuff truly is in our world- humans have been making, using, accumulating, and thinking about and with material objects since quite literally the dawn of human history. Symbolic meanings attached to shaped objects are almost certainly visible in artefacts from the Upper Paleolithic, and probably precede that stage. Meaning-making with objects has continued since, and persists in our world, even as, ironically, we have arguably become less attuned to the material realities around us, and less likely to attach symbolic meanings to made objects. Modern industrial capitalism is heavily predicated on disposability, at a pace unknown before the twentieth century, and the sheer abundance of things that fill our homes, workspaces, markets, dumps, and even recent geological strata tends to cause many of them to become mere background. Yet special objects persist, including material goods that would otherwise be thrown away: the desk at which I am sitting as I write this is adorned with fossils, a handful of icons, some notebooks, a dictionary, and a small plastic toy dinosaur I found on a sidewalk over a decade ago and have toted about, talisman-like, ever since. All of these material things, manufactured or not, have some special significance to me, even as I rarely give a second thought to most of my stuff.
The premodern, pre-industrial world was quite different. Simply put, stuff was more precious, more valuable, on almost every level. Something I am always at pain to communicate to undergraduate students when studying any period of premodern history is the significance and value of textiles and clothing: without industrial scale agriculture churning out cotton, and massive factories worked by a vast global proletariat class, obtaining clothing was not a matter of dropping a few bucks at a big box store for some t-shirts and pants. All clothes and textiles had some value, and were used to their maximum, while luxury clothes were among the most costly stores of value around. Other categories of object were similar, and in some historical contexts cultural norms or ecological particularities further constrained how much stuff one’s home might contain. In the early modern Ottoman period, for which we have good records of household inventories, the sparsity of belongings and furnishings still comes as something of a shock to me when I read such lists- even the quite well-off had homes that we would have found strangely empty.
Partially, I think, as a result of that relative scarcity of material goods, objects and goods (including biological ones, with similar logics of relative abundance in a world before fossil fuel powered industrial agriculture and its yields) could signify and matter in ways that are perhaps less likely or less legible in our own world. For instance, the three stories that I’ve translated below, taken from what has now become a familiar source here, the late medieval hagiography of Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn, the eponym of the Safavids, come from a section of the manāqib devoted to miracle stories having to do with material things. This section comes after stories focused on humans, then on animals, and encompasses both made objects and things in nature, including plants. The stories often suggest a sort of special linkage, an ontological connection, between the saint and the object, with particular things- such as the prayer rug in the first story- seeming to take on a proverbial life of their own. There is an ontological heaviness to objects in the view of the world visible here (and in many other sources from the medieval and early modern periods); things certainly have their utilitarian uses but they are more than dead capital or matter subsumed into human will and intentionality. In the hands of the saint objects take on especial power.
As you read, pay attention to the different ways in which inanimate things- a prayer rug, the land itself, and clothing- carry significance and become, as it were, animate under saintly power. I would suggest that while the central meaning is the divinely granted power of the saint to work marvels, there is an underlying view or logic of the world displayed here, in which these objects already have a potency for action, they are in a sense alive already. This applies to texts as well, and in the near future I hope to explore this theme further: words, letters, even the dots of specific letter-forms, were understood to have vital ontological realities of their own, not just as signifiers of distant mystical realities but as actually participating in and constituting those realities. I suspect that we can only fully understand manuscript culture and the arts and uses of the book with these things in mind, and fully capturing them takes no small leap of imagination for us drowning in the seas of anthropocene stuff. We also stand the chance to learn something of great importance in reflecting on premodern object ontologies- but that is another route of inquiry for another day! For now enjoy these manāqib tales:
Story: Shaykh Ṣadr al-Dīn, God perpetuate his baraka, said: Once Amīr Dawlatshāh, who was known as Dawlash—requested a prayer-rug from the shayh, God sanctify his secret, and the shaykh wanted to give him one. There were two prayer-rugs in the house: one of regular wool and one of coarse wool. The shaykh wanted to give him the one from regular wool, but his wife—the daughter of Shayh Zāhid—God be merciful to her, wanted to give him the prayer-rug of coarse wool. The shayhk however said, ‘No, do not give away this prayer-rug made of coarse wool, I have a special interest in it.’ They asked him, ‘What is that interest?’ He replied, ‘Once I had performed my ritual ablutions. I wanted something so that I could perform two rak’as of the prayer of ritual ablution in accordance with the sunnah, and this prayer-rug was in the corner of the zawīya of the house. Of itself from that place it rose and dropped itself before me so that I could perform the prayer!’
Story: Mawlānā Yūsuf the khaṭīb of [the village of] Nevdīh said that the shaykh, God sanctify his inner secret, once gave a quantity of lentils so that the community of Nevdīh could plant them. They planted them, but did not watch over them. Nothing came of it. The shaykh, God sanctify his inner secret, was disturbed by this. For the next seven years that land produced nothing. Nothing that they planted in that land grew, until after seven years the shaykh, God sanctify his inner secret, came and alighted on that land. The community said, ‘Shaykh, it’s been seven years since we’ve tried to cultivate this land but nothing has born fruit! The shaykh, God sanctify his inner secret, commanded them, ‘Sow it,’ and waved his blessed hand. They sowed it that year, and so much grew and fruited that it was impossible to adequately describe!
Story: He, God perpetuate his baraka, related that once in Sultānīyeh the most esteemed Qāḍī Sayf al-Dīn, God be merciful to him, gave a garment off his own body to the shaykh, by way of transmitting the nobility of the clothing to the blessed body of the shaykh. Now [the qāḍī] was a man of considerably tall stature, and his clothing was fitted to his stature, while the shaykh inclined towards shortness of stature. But when he put that garment on it fit his stature perfectly, as if there were nothing additional [so as to make it too loose-fitting]. Then the shaykh, God sanctify his inner secret, gave a piece of clothing off of his own body to Qāḍī Sayf al-Dīn. As a means of gaining blessing he put on that piece of clothing and it fit perfectly to his tall stature, just as if nothing were missing [that would make it too tight]!
Ibn Bazzāz Ardabīlī, Ṣafvat al-ṣafā: dar tarjumah-ʼi aḥvāl va aqvāl va karāmāt-i Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn Isḥaq Ardabīlī, ed. Ghulām Riẓā Ṭabāṭabāʼī Majd (Tabriz: G.R. Ṭabāṭabāʼī Majd , 1373 ), 612, 626, 635.
Apologies for the long delay in posting new material here- as is often the case many other things have intervened, the good and the bad as it were, and the several translations and short essays I had hoped to present here have been pushed back. Much of my ‘free’ time has been taken up teaching a course on modern Islam, which has entailed a great deal of secondary literature reading on my part given that my scholarly training focused pretty much exclusively on the pre-19th century world, with the exception of my recent work as a post-doctoral researcher examining issues in modern Arabic script book history. One of the happy benefits of my recent pivots towards the modern world has been getting to extend my exploration of saints and sainthood in the Islamicate world forward in time, particularly into the 19th century. Far from being marginalized by the developments of modernity, saints and sainthood remained- and in fact remain- vital forces in Islamicate history, in some cases becoming even more salient than in previous centuries. Movements such as the late 19th century Mahdiyya in the Sudan or the emergence of various millenarian and apocalyptic new religious movements like the Aḥmadiyya or the Bābīs are only really explicable within a framework of saints and sainthood.
That said, the saintly subject of the short story I’ve translated here did not herald any grand political movements or religious transformations, but rather can be seen as carrying forward older traditions of sufism and sainthood into the 19th century. We’ve encountered Shaykh Muḥammad al-Jisr (1792-1845) before (see this post for an introduction), and will be meeting him again in these digital pages no doubt, as his hagiography, penned by his scholarly son, is a wonderful source for exploring the transition of Islamic sainthood to the modern world. The story I’ve selected for today, set at some point during the 1830s (the period in which Mehmed ‘Alī’s forces occupied Ottoman Syria) reveals more in the way of continuity than change- while the 19th century would see many reformist and outright puritanical movements either begin outright or emerge into prominence from 18th century origins, here we see Shaykh Muḥammad continuing in a vein of saintly behavior exemplified by the late 17th to early 18th century ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī and others, including the unproblematic use of tobacco. It is also a lovely reminder of the aural presence of sufi ritual: in a world with considerably less noise pollution, and much more oriented around foot-traffic, nocturnal sufi practices such as vocal dhikr had no small aural footprint, attracting passerby such as the young man in our story, even if, as in the story, their reactions could vary in appropriateness!
‘Shaykh Muḥammad Abū Khalīl Efendī Abāẓa the well known and trusted, whose recognition in the Syrian and Egyptian lands is such that he requires no introduction, said to me: ‘I was in Cyprus during the days of the Egyptian government’s dominion in the land of Syria. I was in the bloom of my youth and the mirth of my youthful inclinations and was not yet following the ṭarīqa, nor did I have an inkling of the spiritual states of its sons. One night I came upon the dhikr circle which your father led with his brethren in Cyprus, and it happened that all while I watched them seeing the effects of the dhikr upon the sons of the path caused me to secretly laugh. When the shaykh completed the dhikr he called to me and sat me down next to him, treating me kindly, then offering me his tobacco pipe from which he had been smoking, which I then returned to him [after smoking]. After the session concluded I returned to my lodgings and lay down on my bed, but it happened that every time I fell asleep I found that pope that the shaykh had offered me that night striking me upon my face! So I would awake with a start, then go back to sleep—and again find it striking me upon my face and I would awake, and so my entire night passed until morning dawned. I was most distressed due to lack of sleep and intensity of fear such that I worried I’d lose my mind! So I went ot the shaykh, God be merciful to him, and as soon as he saw me he started laughing. I bent down and kissed his hand and said to him, ‘Yā sayyidī, what sin is it that I did that caused you to act in such a way with me?’ He replied, ‘What is it I did to you?’ So I related to him the story of the pipe in the night, and he said to me, ‘What does that concern me? I didn’t do anything to you other than offering you my pipe!’
I began seeking his intercession, saying, ‘Yā sayyidī, I’m afraid I’m going to lose my mind! I desire your forgiveness!’ At that he said, ‘My son, for what? You stopped by our dhikr circle last night and began to laugh—we are dervish folk and you are a lordly man, it is most befitting to you that you mock and laugh at us.’ I replied, ‘Yā sayyidī, I did not intend to laugh at you, God forbid from that! But the state and levity of my youth are not hidden from you, so I hope you will forgive me!’ At that the shaykh, my God be merciful to him, was pleased with me, and so I set out on the Khalwatiyya ṭarīqa and so continued on from there.’