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.

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.


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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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”

Nothing But You Have I

ردوا علينا ليالينا التي سلفت و امحوا الذي قد جرا منا

Return to us the nights that have been lost to us,
And erase, by Your favour, that which has been issued from us.

فكم زللنا و انتم تصفحوا كرمآ و كم اسانا و نزجو حسب عفوكم

How much we have sinned, yet out of generosity You forgive!
How much we have erred, yet we still hope for Your good pardon!

ما لي سواكم و انتم حزني و قد جهلت و ما لي غير ستركم

Nothing but You have I- You are the recourse of my sorrow,
I have been ignorant, and possess nothing but Your indulgence.

لو كان الف لسان لي يبش بها شكرآ لم يقم يومآ بشكركم

Were to have a thousand tongues with which to express
Thanks to You, I would not stop thanking You for a single day.

Abu Madyan, Qasida in Mim

Comparative Spaces, Sounds: Frogs, at Fes and at Seven Islands


The road here passes alongside the big green liminal space that lies between Fes al-Bali- the oldest part of the Old Medina- and Fes al-Jedid, the rather newer (fourteenth century) construction that once housed the Sultan and Fes’ Jewish community. Today the King still has a residence but all that remains of the Jewish community are a couple synagogues and the white-washed cemetery.

The region between the two halves of the city is mostly covered in green space, with the old water channels- the restructured pieces of the streams that made Fes a desirable city in the beginning. Now they are home to at least a few frogs, who start to show up as spring evenings warm and lean towards summer. I passed through one evening as the crowds along the avenue were thinning out and the frogs starting up, down in the warm, mucky green water of the canals, fresh and vigorous against the late medieval bulwarks behind. I thought- here, at the edge of the desert (the dust was already starting to intrude, coming in through the open window of my bedroom, and the shopkeepers beginning their war upon dust in the streets), under the weight of the centuries of the city, are frogs, singing, as they have no doubt been singing under these walls for centuries, as the mulberries come into leaf. Kids run by, one chasing a ball (maybe they are the same kids I would see climbing the mulberries gathering fruit and leaves?); a single car mumbles by, the crowd moves along, laughing, calling, the snatches of Maghrebi Arabic ring in my ears. Frogs, children, the vigorous clip-clip of Maghrebi, spring over all- life, wonder, the ancient, the eternal, what I know, and what I can only listen to, and feel.

Frogs, near Fes al-Jedid. Spring, 2008.




A few weeks ago the weather briefly- it’s now turned back cold- warmed, the sun came out, and the weeks of bitter cold passed into memory. It was warm enough that, for a few days at least, the frogs came out along the banks of the French Broad River at the Seven Islands Refuge, a Knox County park east of town. I was coming down the big limestone ridge towards the river when I heard the frogs singing, filling up the still wintry looking woods and fields. I scrambled down to the edge of the little flood-water pond, its quiet waters having swallowed up part of the trail and the clumps of weeds and brush. This also is a sort of liminal space, stuck between the wooded ridge behind and the river banks beyond, the pond precarious and temporary, the frogs unexpected- frogs in February? Where did they come from- I suppose frogs hide in the mud during the cold- what woke them?

The frogs seemed to be spread out in a line up and down the little pond, rising and falling in their song. I squatted beside the water and listened, closed my eyes, breathed the spring, the return to life, the womb of water and the song, all things bright and beautiful and alive.

Frogs, Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge. February 2009.


Swept Under the Rug

I was changing trains on the Madrid Metro when I noticed a large advertisement splashed across the tiled walls of the subway tube. There are, of course, numerous ads of all sorts on the Madrid Metro, but this particular one caught my eye: it portrayed a European- Spanish perhaps- woman reclining on a couch, with a look of contented pleasure on her face. Well she would be- her couch was set in an airy-looking room of a vaguely oriental feel, with a view of the ocean out the windows, palm trees and sand dunes leading out to the azure sea. Coming from under the rug, behind the furnishings, and from the edge of the scene were brown hands, holding food, a telephone, clothes, and so on- all the comforts, I suppose, a well-heeled person needs whilst on vacation. The sign was advertising tourism to Morocco, the country I had only recently departed from. While I’ve forgotten the exact words that were splayed across the top of the picture, their gist was to describe an enchanting, comfortable Morocco- that is, not only exotic, but accessible, unlikely to jar or in any way disturb the average Western visitor. Finally, the ad was produced by a Moroccan tourism board- a government agency, if I remember correctly.

I reflected further on the ad’s message as I made my way south from the airport to the bus station, passing several more copies along the way. Perhaps my conclusion reads too much into the ad, but I don’t think so- rather, as so often happens, advertising and art (which seem to merge into one these days anyway) reflect the popular image, by defining and re-offering it in order to sell a product- in this case, a whole country. But here’s what I saw in the image:

There were Moroccans in the picture, to be sure- they were vital to the ad’s message- but they were utterly invisible, at least as real people. Each of the Moroccans depicted in the ad was nothing but an extended arm, offering a service to the wealthy tourist- services that merely existed as services, delivered by ‘natives’ hovering out of sight, who need not interfere with their particular personalities- all that was swept under the exotic-looking rug. Their existence is necessary, the ad implied, for without them Morocco would merely be exotic and not comfortable- but only so far as the natives both existed and were faceless, unobtrusive, offering whatever was needed. They were not even allowed to be a part of the scenery- not even as quaint natives in turbans or head scarves, dancing and playing music. Even this stereotyped role was denied the nameless, faceless servants. Not even bodies were allowed- only arms protruding from the dark. The message was clear: come to Morocco, and no native will disturb your experience. No threatening Other need disrupt your exotic vacation by intruding his presence. Our natives are only here to please, and only in a very particular and completely non-threatening, comfortable way. There is no room for, say, sexual tension, for cultural tension, of any sort- bodies, souls, all, are removed from the scene.

Is this image ‘true’? That is, does it represent the actual experience of the Western tourist to Morocco? I don’t know, to be honest- my traveling in Morocco was of the ‘budget’ sort, which meant I traveled and stayed, as a general rule, with Moroccans. Even if I had wanted to, I could not escape experiencing Morocco and its people, on some level, on the terms of the place and its inhabitants. I was- thankfully- hard up against the ‘real’ Morocco quite often, which was, as in any country, at times deeply satisfying and enriching, and at other times frustrating and wearisome. But Morocco never appeared faceless to me; the ‘natives’ were not background filler- and nor would I desire (or be able to afford!) such a thing. But perhaps for the tourist with greater financial leeway, the image has a good deal of truth: from the vantage point of the tour bus and the five star hotel behind walls and gates, Morocco- the flesh-and-blood Morocco- becomes a mere backdrop, a barely existent thing, that flashes by in a two-week tour of tourist sites and fancy hotels, flitting from airport to beach to Marrakech to Fez and back to the airport. The goal, perhaps, is to avoid unnecessary contact with ‘natives,’ except those few who are ‘presentable.’ Whether or not the individual tourist wants this, it is the pre-packaged experience, no doubt genuinely desired by many.

Perhaps this is an inevitable process for all places that are so deluged with the tourist industry: the ‘local’ is squeezed further and further into a proper role, or, as in the ad- and I daresay in all to many tourists’ actual experience in Morocco, and elsewhere- out of the picture altogether, except as a completely anonymous provider of services, and a blur out the window or at the edge of the tour group in the Medina. And if tourism tends to begin by making the native a part of the scenery, perhaps its culmination is to push him out of the scenery altogether. This has been the process in the creation of many a game preserve or national park, here in the United States and across the planet: the local must in the end be reduced to the background, non-existent at the centre, relegated- if at all- to the edge of the preserve, selling handicrafts and t-shirts, lest he spoil the view we pay to come and see.

That brings up one final, disturbing aspect of the ad in question: it was produced by Moroccans, albeit from an official agency of some sort. Indeed, all over the world, the imaginative and often times literal marginalization and exclusion of the ‘native’ is carried out, not by foreign conquerors or even business interests, but by the compatriots of the ‘natives.’ Why is this? Part of it, no doubt, is in fact a reflection of the ‘colonization of the mind’ spoken of by post-colonial theorists: the assimilation and application of European stereotypes and mentalities by the colonized themselves. But perhaps more often, it is simply an outworking of the realization by the powerful that this sort of marginalization can work to the benefit of pre-existing powerful interests, both in business and in the State. And it is defensible, particularly to the very Westerners one is courting: the guilty Western’s conscience can be salved by telling him that his tourism is somehow aiding the poor, developing the economy (lining tax coffers and supporting the bureaucracies as well, of course). Sure, the government ran poor farmers off of their land to build a national park for rich Westerners to admire endangered species in, but in so doing they’re protecting the Earth, preventing global warming no doubt. And besides, there is plenty of land elsewhere- what are a few disenfranchised poor people? With time they will disappear from the scenery anyway. If the State, as it does in Fez, seizes common ground in the Medina and uses its citizens money to host high-brow ‘cultural events,’ well, the common ‘native’ can’t appreciate such things anyway. And for many States, they would prefer that foreign visitors not pay much attention to the locals anyway, and certainly not listen to them- they might hear too much. Adopting and reinforcing the stereotypes of the West can be quite beneficial for the powerful few.

But coming back to the ad in the Metro: I think the faceless servers are ultimately indicative of the whole sweep of our globalized world. We managed to avoid so many faces: the worker who puts together our cheap goods, the high-school kid taking our order at Wendy’s, the telemarketer trying to sell us insurance, the commuter in the car next to us on the way home. It’s easier that way, Lord knows- less messy, as dealing with people to their face, even in our own comfortable cultural space, is difficult. How much more difficult in those exotic countries that we’d like to vacation in, if only the natives would be unobtrusive. Our neighbor at home is nearly invisible- it only follows that we would truly reduce our neighbor across the sea to invisibility. We avoid, mostly unconsciously, the faces of our neighbors, whether at home or abroad: and if do not even see our neighbor’s face, how are we to fulfill the command to love our neighbor?