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.
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!
‘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.’
One of the most fascinating sources that I came across in the course of researching and writing my dissertation was an Arabic text simply titled ‘Riḥla,’ which might be translated as ‘Travel Narrative’ though it has other connotations as well, written by an otherwise fairly obscure Kurdish author named Ṭāhā al-Kurdī who was born in on the night of December 11, 1723, in a small village in the vicinity of the town of Koy Sanjaq, about two hundred miles north of Baghdad and fifty north of Kirkuk, in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains. Then as now the region was predominantly Kurdish and while usually under the suzerainty of the Ottomans had a degree of autonomy, and was in some ways quite distant culturally and socially from the more urbane parts of the empire. Much of the population was nomadic or semi-nomadic, non-elite women played a much more prominent role in religious and cultural life than was typical in much of the rest of the empire, and the practices of sainthood- a major concern for Ṭāhā- in the region had their own distinctive aspects. At the same time, there was much that would have been familiar anywhere in the Ottoman world or indeed elsewhere in the vast Islamicate: Ṭāhā traveled to Koy Sanjaq as a youth to study in the madrasa there, learning various subjects in Arabic and Persian, perhaps, though he does not say so, using Kurdish glosses or helping texts initially. His relative mastery of prestige bodies of texts and learned, literate skills would serve him well in the coming years of his peregrinations around the empire, following routes that many learned Kurds took over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with scholars from other tiny towns and villages often playing outsized roles in Ottoman religious and intellectual life.
But even more important for Ṭāhā’s self-image and as an impetus for his travels was his love of the saints and his commitment to the practices and doctrines of sufism as transmitted and inculcated by the living friends of God of his day, beginning with his first and most important saintly shaykh, Darwīsh Muṣṭafā. The story from Ṭāhā’s Riḥla that I have translated below relates his first encounter with this saint, and it is a remarkably detailed and emotionally rich story, written in what we might today call a voice of openness and vulnerability, Ṭaha frankly describing his unsettled emotional state, with which I think most people can readily sympathize. We see in the story the way in which a local saint inhered in the social life of a rural community (and navigated its built spaces), and the sheer importance attached to him; we see the process, both in terms of inner states and emotions and in terms of practicalities and ritual actions, of becoming affiliated to such a saintly shaykh, and entering into the sufi ‘path.’ While Darwīsh Muṣṭafā is described as connected to the ṭarīqa of the famed saint and sufi eponym ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jilānī, there is no sense of institutional organization here or even a set of regularized practices. Instead the stress is on transmission of a saintly lineage from one saintly figure down to another, ending up at ‘Abd al-Qādir. Ṭaha is given a ‘personalized’ dhikr (ritual remembrance of God) to perform, which he finally succeeds in through the dream-intercession as it were of another saint, his shaykh’s shaykh, whose hagiography- which I have not translated here- picks up where the following passage concludes.
The deeply personal voice of Ṭāhā al-Kurdī is perhaps the most striking aspect of not just this story but the whole of his Riḥla; he does not simply narrate the exterior ‘facts’ of his life but is even more interested in relating his inner states and conditions, even when they are not especially flattering. In so doing he was not alone in the early modern Ottoman world, or the world more generally, as this sort of subjective turn is visible in many contexts- as for why this would be so, that is another story entirely and one that I do not think has yet been adequately answered. Certainly however we should not be surprised at this sort of subjective exploration given the emphasis in much sufi training on inner states and conditions; what is perhaps more surprising is its being written down and circulated (there are multiple copies of the Riḥla; I have worked from the one pictured below for the simple reason it’s currently accessible to me!). Regardless, this account is a wonderful view of the operation of sainthood and sufi discipleship in one corner of the rural hinterland of the Ottoman Empire, which, despite the predominance of literary production taking place in and focusing on cities, held the vast majority of the empire’s inhabitants, and no small number of the special friends of God who left their mark upon Ottoman space and society over the centuries.
In that time there was dwelling in a place called Awājī—a village from among the villages around Koy [Sanjaq], three or four hours’ walk from there—the singular and proximate [to God] saint and master of evident miracles, gracious signs, and fame unsurpassed in that region, known as Darwīsh Muṣṭafā, God be pleased with him and with his land. He would come to town every Friday, and the people would gather around him like he was a prophet from among the prophets. He would stay in the house of Koy [Sanjaq]’s preacher (khaṭīb), the pious, sound, and knowledgeable Mullā Ḥusayn, God be merciful to him, whose house was close to the madrasa in which I was studying. I had a companion in study who was both older than me and more knowledge and better versed in fiqh, named Faqīh Ḥasan ibn Khāneh, God be merciful to both of them. He had pledged allegiance to the Shaykh in accordance with the ṭarīqa of the saintly axis and reviver of religion ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jīlī [i.e. al-Jilānī], God be pleased with him. He had mentioned to me several times the spiritual condition of his shaykh and his miracles and spiritual states and this and that, to the point that there arose in my heart love for encountering him in order to pay pious visitation and to pledge allegiance to him. So I said to my companion Faqīh Ḥasan, ‘When next Friday comes take me to his presence and tell him about my condition and what I desire and so act as a translator (turjumān) between me and him, and yours will be the reward with God!’
And so towards the end of the month of Sha’bān, six days remaining to it, in the year 1151 , Friday came and the shaykh arrived and stayed in the house of the aforementioned preacher. My companion said to me, ‘The shaykh has come—if you still want, stand and let’s go!’ So we went, but I saw the teeming assembly and I was deeply embarrassed before all the people. The shaykh was inside the house with lots of people before him, likewise outside the house. Still my companion went inside and told the shaykh about me, then he came back out and said to me, ‘I spoke to him.’ An hour later the shaykh had come forth and looked at me, and I had in my hand an inkwell with a tense firm cover such that it could be shaken to rectify the ink. When I saw the shaykh come out I kissed his hand and my companion said to him, ‘This is he,’ meaning me. I was dazed and embarrassed, I couldn’t see anything else save the shaykh stretching out his blessed hand and taking up the inkwell from my hand and saying to me, ‘What is this?’ I replied, ‘This is ink which can be well mixed through motion.’ He stopped for a while to talk with the people, then went back inside the house, saying to me, ‘With your permission—‘ and we entered the house together and sat down, I faced the shaykh with my head bowed for a while. Then he commanded me to come before him so I stood and sat upon my knees in front of him, the space quite filled up with those seated.
Then he said to me, ‘You wish to repent?’ I replied, ‘If God wills!’ He said, ‘Do not return to your sin,’ to which I replied, ‘If God wills!’ He said, ‘Repent from every sin!’ I replied, ‘I repent from all of my sins!’ Now there was to one side of the shaykh his companion, God be merciful to him, who was from among the folk of divine attraction (jadhb) whose state was evident and not hidden, named Mullā ‘Alī, from the people of Koy [Sanjaq]. He said to the shaykh, ‘This boy’—meaning me—‘from what does have to repent?’ He said this in joking manner to the shaykh, but the shaykh replied, ‘No, there is none who is free of sins great and small!’ I felt astonished, and in my heart there was shame over their mentioning sins, due to my own knowledge of my immoderation in regards to my lower self, so that I could verify in my own heart that the shaykh spoke the truth in what he said—this was the first miracle (karāma) manifest to me from him, God be pleased with him! Continue reading “Ṭāhā al-Kurdī Meets His Spiritual Master”→
While Islam has often been associated, for a complex and not totally inaccurate set of reasons, with urban life, the stress on Islam as ‘properly’ the religion of urban life ignores the many, many counter-examples of Islamic practice flourishing in rural settings. And while saints and sainthood have long been recognized by historians as central to many experiences of rural Islam, this reality has often been interpreted as due to the ‘syncretic’ nature of sainthood, or the lack of sophistication of rural religion, and the like. The saint profiled below, Shaykh Aḥmad al-Dajānī (d. 1562), is a good counter-example to such an overly simplistic story, as his life moved between the Palestinian countryside and the more urbanized and Ottomanized world of nearby Jerusalem. My discussion here is lightly adapted from my recent dissertation, wherein it comprises part of a sustained discussion of rural sainthood in the sixteenth century Ottoman world. While not entirely my original intention therein, Shaykh Dajānī’s story also speaks to the deep historical roots that present-day Palestinians have in historical Palestine, with the saint’s family a continuing presence today (with his shrine still standing, albeit after a great deal of struggle against various attempts to erase its intended function). Because quite a bit of Shaykh Dajānī’s hagiography focuses on protecting local inhabitants from the depredations of power, it seemed somehow appropriate to share a modified version of this section now, even if I have no illusions that my small intervention is liable to make much if any difference in the ongoing struggle of the Palestinian people in their ancestral lands. If nothing else this story (which, ironically, is based primarily off of a manuscript version of the saint’s manāqib which is held by the Israeli National Library) demonstrates that contrary to many propagandistic narratives the substantive historical ties of modern Palestinians go far back into history and take the land itself, with Jerusalem and its sacred precincts a major component in that historical identity and sense of place.
Such a ‘thickening’ of the meaningful landscape and of deep historical roots hardly began with Shaykh Dajānī. The rural Palestine of the saint was by the sixteenth century dense with holy places of either originally or adapted Islamic pedigrees, from the modest tombs of village shaykhs crowning hilltops to more spectacular constructions honoring a seemingly endless cast of ancient prophets of diverse provenance, most with traditional stories and rituals long associated with them. In central Palestine nomadic groups were generally fewer (though still present) than was the case elsewhere in the Ottoman’s Arabic-speaking provinces, with sedentary peasants the norm. At the heart of this landscape was the holy precincts of Jerusalem, al-Quds, with its rich array of holiness-drenched places and spatially rendered cultural memories.
The life and hagiographic traces of Shaykh Dajānī reflects a dialect of sainthood at once rooted in the life and landscape of rural Ottoman Palestine while also oriented towards the Holy City, drawing upon the venerable sources of sanctity embedded in the landscape, while also distinguishing the saint and his performance of sanctity from them. Not only did Shaykh Dajānī have to differentiate himself, as it were, from the many loci of sanctity around him, but he was also confronted with negotiating a new political order under the Ottomans and their exercise of authority and claims to saintly status. In what follows we will explore the particular dialect of sanctity manifest in the life of Aḥmad al-Dajānī and his work of sainthood, all within the context of his oscillation between an already sanctity-abundant Palestinian countryside and the holy precincts of Jerusalem (which, it should be recalled, was in this period a large, albeit spectacularly walled, town, with a decidedly rural ambience right up to and even within the walls). Despite being primarily connected in more modern memory with his family’s custodianship of the Tomb of David, we will see that earlier routes of memory, as reflected in the manāqib of the saint written by his grandson Muḥammad ibn Ṣālaḥ al-Dajānī (d. 1660), recalled Shaykh al-Dajānī to be just as much, if not more a saint of the countryside as of the city, both around Jerusalem and beyond the boundaries of its sancâk, his imaginal saintly territory encompassing much of Palestine as it is understood today. I will now briefly introduce the life of Shaykh Dajānī, his saintly repertoire and its particular dialect, followed by an examination of some of the ways in which his practice of sainthood tracked onto and dealt with the topography of both rural Palestine and of Jerusalem and its environs, both during his lifetime and, primarily in the context of his tomb-shrine in the Mamilla Cemetery, after his physical death.
While early Ottoman Jerusalem and the surrounding Palestinian countryside have received a considerable share of scholarly attention over the years, with works such as that of Amy Singer proving especially helpful in sketching the social and economic context of Shaykh Dajānī’s world, religious life among Muslims in Ottoman Jerusalem and wider Palestine has received comparatively less coverage, with the exception of synthetic works like Kan’ān’s classic volume or James Grehan’s recent study of rural religion in Syria and Palestine. Shaykh Dajānī receives but a single passing mention in Grehan’s work. However, Aharon Layish profiled Shaykh Dajānī in his analysis, some years ago, of another Palestinian rural saint, Ibn ʿAbdallāh al-Asadī, based outside of Safad, a discussion to which we will have recourse further along. My primary source for this saint of rural Palestine is Muḥammad al-Dajānī’s manāqib of his grandfather, a hagiographic treatment closely connected with another surviving trace of the saint, his much restored tomb-shrine located in what was formerly part of the Mamilla Cemetery in contemporary West Jerusalem. While it is today situated somewhat ingloriously in the corner of a parking lot and maintenance area for Independence Park—Shaykh Dajānī’s tomb-shrine and some remnants of Ottoman era tombstones the only surviving traces of this section of Mamilla Cemetery—the shrine is now in good condition and has been the main point of veneration for the saint for centuries. As such it forms a significant part of the saint’s manāqib, a text that appears to have had at least two goals: as Muḥammad al-Dajānī explicitly states in the introductory material, he feared that the oral circulation of accounts of his grandfather’s saintly career would ultimately come to an end, and wished to preserve that memory into the distant future. Second, like much seventeenth century hagiographic production Muḥammad seems to have had in mind puritanical attacks on the Friends of God and the need to defend them and particularly their performances of karāmāt. That said, Muḥammad’s foremost aim was clearly the perpetuation of his saintly forefather’s memory and the promotion of his cultus through the textual deployment (and almost certainly continued oral recitation, perhaps in the setting of the Mamilla tomb-shrine) of that memory.
After introductory eulogistic praise of Aḥmad al-Dajānī as the ‘quṭb of his age, the walī of God’ followed by a brief explanation from Muḥammad al-Dajānī of his reason for writing, the manāqib commences with a karāma-story that reveals some of the intersecting spatialities of the saint’s life, aspects of his position vis-à-vis the Ottoman authorities in Jerusalem, and central aspects of his saintly repertoire. This first story opens with mention of Shaykh Dajānī’s practice of writing down notes of intercession (shif‘a) addressed to the Ottoman security patrol (sūbāshiyya) and judges, which were always effective, the reader is assured. However, there was one judge who did not accept Shaykh Dajānī’s intercession and who in fact wanted to kill him, having discovered the saint’s practice while reviewing the performance of the subaşı (here meaning the head of policing functionaries) of the city, who presented him with a ‘sack-full’ of intercessionary notes. When the judge asked who they were from, the sūbāşī replied, ‘From the venerable Shaykh al-Dajānī—they’re intercessions for those I’ve accosted, and it’s not possible for me to contradict him!’ Enraged with the revenue-costing shaykh the judge asked where he could find him. Learning that he was then in the settlement of Ra’s Abū Zaytūn, the judge at first wanted to send someone to bring the shaykh in, but was told, ‘This is a man from among the saints of God, from the masters of unveiling and gnosis, you won’t be able to make him come to you.’ Instead, he was told the judge would need to intercept Shaykh Dajānī when he came to al-‘Aqṣā for Friday prayers. Here our hagiographer adds that all this was before the shaykh took the Tomb of David ‘from the Franks,’ and that he was at this time dwelling in a place known as Ra’s Abū Zaytūn, which he himself established, building a masjid (also functioning as a zāwiya) and a qubba for his saintly mother who died there. Ra’s Abū Zaytūn is about thirty miles from Jerusalem, and seems to have served as Shaykh Dajānī’s base of operations before he moved permanently to Jerusalem (a move, as I will discuss below, that curiously figures hardly at all in the saint’s recorded manāqib), making visits to al-Ḥaram al-Sharīf not prohibitively difficult though not daily affairs either. Instead, the hagiographic record suggests that Shaykh Dajānī divided his time among a range of places, including his zāwiya on Ra’s Abū Zaytūn, various other rural locales in Palestine, and the Dome of the Rock.Continue reading “A Palestinian Saint of the Early Ottoman Era”→
The subject of this entry [Abū al-‘Abbās Sīdī Aḥmad al-Būs’īdī al-Hashtūkī, d. 1046/1636] was exceptional in his age in asceticism and piety, only wearing of the clothing of this world the very least necessary to humans, to the point that he had no more than one garment, and if he wanted to wash it he would go out to Wādī al-Zaytūn [a former watercourse on the north end of Fez] and tear his garment into two halves. He would wrap himself in one half and occupy himself with washing the other half; once it had dried he would wrap himself with it, then wash the other. Then when it had dried he would stitch the garment back together as it had been before. He only took sustenance from the seed that he sowed with his own hand on land which someone from the folk of good and religion had gifted him. He would make a round loaf of dough and place it in the fire, and content himself with that—such was his habit. He kept this up even though people sought him out from distant horizons, bringing abundant gifts and generous alms, yet he paid not attention to that, such making no impression on his mind. It is related that one of the elite of Fez was struck with a sickness which thwarted the doctors and wore out the enchanters, so someone suggested to the sick man that he pay a pious visit to the subject of this entry. So he sought him out in his room in the Miṣbāḥiyya Madrasa and described his present sickness to him. Then the shaykh took some of his flour and made a tincture for him, then commanded him to drink it. He drank, and immediately he was better. The shaykh said to him: “That which is ḥalāl is a theriac for the severest of sicknesses! When a sick person eats a bite of something ḥalāl it is as if he has been released from bondage.”
Abū ʿAbdallāh Muḥammad al-Ṣaghīr al-Ifrānī, Ṣafwat man intashar min akhbār ṣulaḥāʾ al-qarn al-ḥādī ʻashar (Casablanca: Markaz al-Turāth al-Thaqāfī al-Maghribī, 2004), 139.
The subject of this biographical entry [Sīdī Shaqrūn, d. 1028/1618/9] also met with the perfect shaykh Sīdī ‘Abd Allāh ibn Ḥusayn in Tameslouht [a village south of Marrakesh], and when he sat down in front of the shaykh, the shaykh gazed at him then called for some melon. Now, Sīdī Shaqrūn used to not eat melon, and wasn’t even able to smell its scent, loathing it with an innate loathing of which he could not disabuse himself, so he was bewildered by that but was not able to gainsay the shaykh. Then when the melon was placed in front of him [the shaykh] ordered him to eat it, he breathed out of his nose a powerful gust of air, to which the shaykh said: ‘That is his shayṭān hatching out,’ meaning, breaking out of his heart. Then he ate it in accordance with the shaykh’s command, and from that day forward he was able to eat melon without any problem, none of his innate aversion remaining.
Early modern Islamic religious life across Afro-Eurasia was marked by many trends and developments with roots in the medieval period but which took on new and often surprising forms in the following centuries. One of the most important trends was the explosive growth of devotion to Muḥammad, growth both in terms of apparent overall popularity but also, and more objectively measurable, growth in the number of textual instruments, ritual practices, and social settings oriented towards Muḥammad-centered devotion. Alongside this growth in devotion was another trend that does not at first glance seem related, namely, the continued flourishing and adaptive transformations of ‘deviant’ mendicant piety, the sort exemplified in the late medieval period by the Qalandar and other types of ‘radical’ dervishes, and in the early modern particularly by the majdhūb. Such forms of ascetic practice and aspiration to sainthood often eschewed compliance with the sharī’a, or at the very least transgressed many social norms in a deliberate fashion.
The following saint’s life, preserved in a seventeenth compilation of outstanding holy or learned (or both) lives, comes from Morocco, Fez to be precise, and embraces both of the above trends in early modern Islamic religious life. The saint, Sīdī ‘Abd al-Majīd, was acclaimed a saint, at least according to our author al-Ifrānī, because of his incredible, indeed super-human, devotion to the Prophet of Islam. The first few paragraphs of his life, the entirety of which I have translated here, lay out his acts of devotion and his saintly inner states, including the curious detail that his ecstatic remembrance of Muḥammad took place even in the latrine- a detail which hints at a somewhat non-normative manner of life. It is in the following paragraphs that we are given further indications that ‘Abd al-Majīd was not universally admired and that his mode of life had many parallels with that of the ‘deviant’ dervishes better known from the Islamic East. But before we consider just what kind of a saint he was, it would be better to read his life as al-Ifrānī has described it:
Among them, the well-known saint and great gnostic Sīdī ‘Abd al-Majīd ibn Abī al-Qāsim al-Bādisī: he was originally from the Rif , from the region of the Banū Yaṭifat; he was of the Malāmatiyya, and dwelled in the funduq  associated with him north of the Qarawiyyīn Mosque, which is now known as the Funduq of Sīdī ‘Abd al-Majīd. He practiced numerous prayers upon the Prophet, God bless him and give him peace, constantly devoted to him and to prayers upon him, of immense affection towards him, enraptured in love of him, and of great love towards the Folk of the House . And whenever he commenced with invocation of blessings upon the Prophet, God bless him and give him peace, he would begin with saying: ‘I take refuge in God from Shayṭān the accursed. In the name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate: verily, God and His angels pronounce blessings upon the Prophet—O you who believe, pronounce blessings upon him and ask for him peace!’ He would complete this arrangement in good order, letter by letter, then say: ‘O God, bless Muḥammad!’ then ecstasy would overwhelm him and he would simply cry out, ‘Muḥammad! Muḥammad!’ He did not cease remembrance of him standing or sitting, in whatever condition he was in, even in the latrine (bayt al-khalā’). It was said to him, ‘Do you mention him in the latrine?’ He replied, ‘It dwells, O brother,’ meaning, perhaps, love [of Muḥammad], but God knows best. Continue reading “The Funduq Saint of Fez: ‘Abd al-Majīd and His Exceptional Acts of Devotion”→