The Poor Woman of Āzzājn and the Shaykh

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.

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Folio from a copy of al-Jazūlī’s Dalā’il al-khayrāt, 16th century Maghrib (Harvard Art Museum 1984.464.9)

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.

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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.

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Discovering the Nature of True Alchemy

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An illustration from a text on aspects of literal alchemy (and quite a few other topics), Kitāb al-Burhān fī asrār ‘ilm al-mīzān, copied in the Maghrib in the mid to late 19th century (National Library of Medicine MS A 7)

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.

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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.

Ḥusayn al-Jisr, Kitāb nuzhat al-fikr fī manāqib mawlānā al-ʻārif billāh taʻālá quṭb zamānih wa-ghawth awānih al-Shaykh Muḥammad al-Jisr (Beirut: al-Maṭbaʻah al-Adabīyah, 1888), 132-133.

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A Basket of Halwa Sent by God

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Window with colored panes (not really visible in this view) from a house in 17th century Ottoman Damascus (Met. 93.26.15)

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!

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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.

Ḥusayn al-Jisr, Kitāb nuzhat al-fikr fī manāqib mawlānā al-ʻārif billāh taʻālá quṭb zamānih wa-ghawth awānih al-Shaykh Muḥammad al-Jisr (Beirut: al-Maṭbaʻah al-Adabīyah, 1888), 132-133.

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A Holy Historian and a Saintly Blacksmith

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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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.


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


[1] Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad b. ʿAlī b. al-Ḥusayn b. Miṣbāḥ Ibn ‘Askar, Dawḥat al-nāshir li-maḥāsin man kāna bi al-Maghrib min mashāyikh al-qarn al-ʿāshir (Rabat: Dār al-Maghrib, 1977), 20.

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

[3] Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad b. ʿAlī b. al-Ḥusayn b. Miṣbāḥ Ibn ‘Askar, Dawḥat al-nāshir li-maḥāsin man kāna bi al-Maghrib min mashāyikh al-qarn al-ʿāshir (Rabat: Dār al-Maghrib, 1977), 21-23.

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A Palestinian Saint of the Early Ottoman Era

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The Dome of the Rock, which served Shaykh Dajānī- like generations of Palestinians before and since- as a frequent oratory and not just destination of pilgrimage. Photo by the author, 2017.

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.[1] 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,[2] 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.[3]  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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] 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 (shifa) addressed to the Ottoman security patrol (sūbāshiyya)[9] and judges, which were always effective, the reader is assured.[10] 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.[11] 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.[12] Continue reading “A Palestinian Saint of the Early Ottoman Era”

Sīdī Aḥmad Takes Minimalism to a Whole Other Level

Interior view of the Miṣbāḥiyya Madrasa in Fez, Morocco, taken by me in 2008; the madrasa- the saint in the below biographical compilation entry’s ‘home base’- was built in 1346 and could accommodate some 140 residents.

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.

Continue reading “Sīdī Aḥmad Takes Minimalism to a Whole Other Level”

Sīdī Shaqrūn’s Loathing of Melons is Cured

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

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.

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), 122. Continue reading “Sīdī Shaqrūn’s Loathing of Melons is Cured”

The Funduq Saint of Fez: ‘Abd al-Majīd and His Exceptional Acts of Devotion

As far as I can tell, the ‘Abd al-Majīd Funduq is no longer extant; however, it may have resembled in general plan and ornamentation this early 18th century example, Funduq Ṣāgha, pictured here from my visit in the spring of 2008.

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 [1], from the region of the Banū Yaṭifat; he was of the Malāmatiyya, and dwelled in the funduq [2] 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 [3]. 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”

‘Abd Allāh al-Salāsī Escapes a Toxic Environment and Is Not Going Back

Concerning the pious master of uncontested miracles, Shaykh Abū Muḥammad ‘Abd Allāh ibn Aḥmad ibn al-Ḥasan al-Khālidī al-Salāsī (d. 1023/1614), known as Ibn Ḥassūn: his origin, God be merciful to him, was from Salās, a group of villages a day’s journey out from Fes; then he moved to Salé. The reason for his journey to Salé was that there was fighting and war among the people of Salās, and if the people of Sīdī ‘Abd Allāh’s village were victorious he rejoiced, but if they fled in defeat he was saddened. So he thought to himself and said: ‘Loving victory produces [in me] love of evil towards Muslims, and by God’s covenant I cannot stay in a place wherein Muslims are so divided and wish evil upon them.’

So he traveled from there to Salé, and when he settled in Salé people from Salās came to him and attempted to induce his return to their land, urging him strongly to do so. But he took a drinking vessel and filled it with sea-water then set it down. He said to them, ‘Does not the water of the sea crash together, its waves constantly colliding? Why then is this portion of the sea in this drinking vessel still?’

They replied, ‘It is no longer in the sea.’ So he said to them, ‘Exile purifies and makes still.’ They understood his meaning and so gave up on trying [to get him to return].

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), 65-66.

(Image at top: Detail of a decorative mattress component, from the 17th or 18th century Rif region of Morocco, probably Chefchaouen, in the general vicinity of the region in which part of the below story takes place (Cleveland Museum of Art 1916.1226))

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A Saint’s Shrine is His Castle: Or, Cautionary Tales from the Ṣafvat al-Ṣafā

Harvard University. Fine Arts Library, Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts, United States FA515.156.4 PF Calligraphy
A lithographic reproduction of some of the spectacular calligraphy and tilework which illumines the exterior of Shaykh Ṣadī al-Dīn’s shrine complex; this lithograph- itself a fine piece of artistic and technical work- comes from Friedrich Sarre’s book Ardabil, Grabmaschee des Schech Safi (Berlin: E. Wasmuth, 1924), the field work and photographs for which were completed in 1897, though writing and publication stretch out over the next two decades.

Everything associated with the veneration of the Safavid eponym Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn (on whom see this post and those prior to it) is monumental, it seems: his shrine complex is one of the most spectacular in the Islamicate world, his ‘official’ hagiography, Ṣafvat al-ṣafā, is a sprawling beast of a text, and the Ṣafavī ṭarīqa which grew up around his memory and practices would have an impact on world history rivaled by few other entities, sufi or otherwise, of the late medieval world. But while the Ṣafavī ṭarīqa would become the most famous and arguably significant legacy of the shaykh of Ardabil, his physical shrine in that city played a huge role as a center of veneration and of the religious and political community that formed around it. What follows is an examination of how that shrine was constructed- not primarily in a literal sense, but in terms of how its sacred status and socio-cultural weight was built up over time.

The outlines for the shrine complex were already laid down before the shaykh’s death in 1334, with some structures already in place. However it would be the shaykh’s son Ṣadr al-Dīn who began building the shrine towards its current configuration, and socially and politically cementing the place of the sufi community that had grown up around his father. The following stories, which are but a selection from an extensive chapter detailing miracles of Ṣafī al-Dīn after his death and, in most cases, in connection with his tomb-shrine, illustrate some aspects of the construction of the shrine’s sanctity and of the political role of the community centered on that shrine. A central motif in these stories is the inviolability of the saint’s tomb and, extending out from it, of the sufi community devoted to the saint- those who transgress either the sanctity of the tomb-shrine or who oppress the community of the saint are liable to be punished, sometimes in quite violent and grisly fashion! Another theme that runs through these stories (and across the whole Ṣafvat al-ṣafā in fact) is the role of the saint’s tomb-shrine and of his community as a source and site (quite literally!) of stability. Such stability was in high demand in the tumultuous years after Ṣafī al-Dīn’s death: a mere year after the shaykh’s death the last Ilkhanid khān, Abū Sa’īd, died, with a long period of political disintegration and conflict following. Two of the major contending parties in Iranian Azerbaijan, the Jalāyirids and the Chūbānids, make appearances in the following stories, though other sources of conflict existed, ranging from predatory local strongmen to feuds between semi-autonomous villages. By reinforcing the sanctity of the tomb-shrine Ṣadr al-Dīn and ibn Bazzāz, our hagiographer, worked to render the saint’s shrine and community a sort of anchor in a stormy sea of political change, while also activity intervening in and shaping political events, economic activity, and socio-cultural life in Ardabil and beyond.

Aspects of this work of sanctification already appear in our first account rendered here, which explains why the spectacular tomb-tower, the centerpiece of the entire complex and the physical location of the saint’s tomb, was built in such lofty and monumental fashion:

Harvard University. Fine Arts Library, Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts, United States FA515.156.4 PF Exterior
The exterior of the tomb-tower as it appeared at the end of the 19th century.

Story: [Ṣadr al-Dīn ibn Ṣafī al-Dīn], may his baraka be perpetuated, said: initially the illumined tomb-shrine (mazār) of the Shaykh, God sanctify his secret, was a small poor affair which we had constructed. The tomb-shrine lay below a ceiling with four vaulted walls above it, with small windows fronting the garden within the walls. The atmosphere of the tomb contained by the four walls was dark and gloomy. The ked-khudā [1] named Badr al-Dīn Ṣānūbī saw the Shaykh, God sanctify his secret, in a dream vision, with his blessed hands extended out from the blessed tomb-shrine, saying, ‘I am not contained within the two worlds, yet they have left me here in this gloomy place!’ On a following day he relayed these words to Ḥājjī Nakhjavānī.

When he, God perpetuate his baraka, came out of the zāviya, Ḥājjī Nakhjavānī repeated to him the gist of the dream to him, with Badr al-Dīn Ṣānūbī present. So he asked [Badr al-Dīn Ṣānūbī] about it, and he said the same thing. In that moment he, may his baraka persist, ordered that the intermediate ceiling of the tomb-shrine as well as the ceiling of the four vaulted walls both be raised, and the high-up windows be expanded to allow for more illumination, and that the door fronting the courtyard where Qur’an reciters and pilgrims sat be widened and increased in size; surrounding this door would be written honorifics of the Shaykh and something noting the date. Mavlānā ‘Azz al-Dīn Khaṭīb oversaw the calligraphy there; he had a nephew named Muḥammad, a young man, who worked on the calligraphic inscriptions with him. As was the custom he stood on the wood scaffolding, but occupied himself with ribald speech and inappropriate behavior, and while they were resting he would not listen [to his uncle?] until at one point he let out an enormous laugh, so that the plank he was standing on rebounded and he fell, was sorely injured, and died three days later.

The tomb-tower of Shaykh Ṣafī is indeed quite distinctive- while vaults and verticality were hardly unknown in shrine architecture, this particular tomb-shrine stands out for its height and its calligraphic-decorative scheme. The story suggests that the scale was meant to reflect the ‘scale’ of Shaykh Ṣafī himself: here is a saint whose ambit is not meant to be confined to one city or province, but has much greater ambitions, as it were. The story also reinforces a key logic to tomb-shrines such as this: actions done to the physical material of the shrine, and the configuration of the space within the shrine, are also done to the saint himself. Honor bestowed upon the shrine translates to honor bestowed to the saint, which ultimately translates to honor bestowed upon God. The second half of the story continues this logic, but in another, rather more punitive direction: the young apprentice working on the shrine’s exterior fails to respect the sanctity of the place, even as it is under construction.  The deadly serious sanctity of the tomb-shrine and its adjacent structures (at this point, primarily the zāviya or sufi ‘lodge’) is highlighted in our next account:

Harvard University. Fine Arts Library, Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts, United States FA515.156.4 PF Interior
The saint’s cenotaph, with a number of finely wrought metal candle-stands arranged before the cenotaph, some lit and supplementing the natural light streaming in from above- copious illumination, just as Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn had stipulated some centuries before!

[Another] Story: Amīr Kulāhdūz Ardabīlī was, by appointment of Amīr Shaykh Ḥasan Jalāyir, supreme governor (ḥākim-i muṭlaq) in Ardabīl. It was the custom of the murīds and the students of the Shayhk, God sanctify his spirit, that they would exert themselves in forbidding and hindering that which was forbidden and reprehensible, reckoning among their most important daily tasks the commanding of the good, in particular forbidding people from intoxication, games of chance, and [presence in] the house of ill-repute [2]. Amīr Kulāhdūz’s mind was disturbed by this, and he set to speaking against this community (ṭā’ife). He established a house of ill-repute in Ardabīl, and said, ‘I am going to the ordū [3], but when I return I am going to build alongside the blessed [sic.!] zāviya a [house] of ill-repute and will set up a tavern, and will give the so-called sufis the lute to play and to which to dance!’ It was impossible by means of polite forbidding to raise or redirect this idea from him, and so having said this he set out to the ordū, with [the saying] the intention of doing evil is worse than its commission stamped in his brain. Continue reading “A Saint’s Shrine is His Castle: Or, Cautionary Tales from the Ṣafvat al-Ṣafā”