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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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Sharing a Pipe with the Shaykh

Abu Daood, Shaikh of the Coptic Quarter, in Cairo
A watercolor portrait, by the European artist Carl Haag, of a shaykh in Cairo, one Abū Dawūd; not a sufi shaykh alas (rather a shaykh in charge of an urban quarter, the Coptic one in this case), but displaying both 19th century dress and more importantly for the story below the sizeable nature of tobacco pipes! Painted in 1886 but based on observations from Haag’s 1858-9 visit to Cairo (V&A SD.462)

Apologies for the long delay in posting new material here- as is often the case many other things have intervened, the good and the bad as it were, and the several translations and short essays I had hoped to present here have been pushed back. Much of my ‘free’ time has been taken up teaching a course on modern Islam, which has entailed a great deal of secondary literature reading on my part given that my scholarly training focused pretty much exclusively on the pre-19th century world, with the exception of my recent work as a post-doctoral researcher examining issues in modern Arabic script book history. One of the happy benefits of my recent pivots towards the modern world has been getting to extend my exploration of saints and sainthood in the Islamicate world forward in time, particularly into the 19th century. Far from being marginalized by the developments of modernity, saints and sainthood remained- and in fact remain- vital forces in Islamicate history, in some cases becoming even more salient than in previous centuries. Movements such as the late 19th century Mahdiyya in the Sudan or the emergence of various millenarian and apocalyptic new religious movements like the Aḥmadiyya or the Bābīs are only really explicable within a framework of saints and sainthood.

That said, the saintly subject of the short story I’ve translated here did not herald any grand political movements or religious transformations, but rather can be seen as carrying forward older traditions of sufism and sainthood into the 19th century. We’ve encountered Shaykh Muḥammad al-Jisr (1792-1845) before (see this post for an introduction), and will be meeting him again in these digital pages no doubt, as his hagiography, penned by his scholarly son, is a wonderful source for exploring the transition of Islamic sainthood to the modern world. The story I’ve selected for today, set at some point during the 1830s (the period in which Mehmed ‘Alī’s forces occupied Ottoman Syria) reveals more in the way of continuity than change- while the 19th century would see many reformist and outright puritanical movements either begin outright or emerge into prominence from 18th century origins, here we see Shaykh Muḥammad continuing in a vein of saintly behavior exemplified by the late 17th to early 18th century ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī and others, including the unproblematic use of tobacco. It is also a lovely reminder of the aural presence of sufi ritual: in a world with considerably less noise pollution, and much more oriented around foot-traffic, nocturnal sufi practices such as vocal dhikr had no small aural footprint, attracting passerby such as the young man in our story, even if, as in the story, their reactions could vary in appropriateness!

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‘Shaykh Muḥammad Abū Khalīl Efendī Abāẓa the well known and trusted, whose recognition in the Syrian and Egyptian lands is such that he requires no introduction, said to me: ‘I was in Cyprus during the days of the Egyptian government’s dominion in the land of Syria. I was in the bloom of my youth and the mirth of my youthful inclinations and was not yet following the ṭarīqa, nor did I have an inkling of the spiritual states of its sons. One night I came upon the dhikr circle which your father led with his brethren in Cyprus, and it happened that all while I watched them seeing the effects of the dhikr upon the sons of the path caused me to secretly laugh. When the shaykh completed the dhikr he called to me and sat me down next to him, treating me kindly, then offering me his tobacco pipe from which he had been smoking, which I then returned to him [after smoking]. After the session concluded I returned to my lodgings and lay down on my bed, but it happened that every time I fell asleep I found that pope that the shaykh had offered me that night striking me upon my face! So I would awake with a start, then go back to sleep—and again find it striking me upon my face and I would awake, and so my entire night passed until morning dawned. I was most distressed due to lack of sleep and intensity of fear such that I worried I’d lose my mind! So I went ot the shaykh, God be merciful to him, and as soon as he saw me he started laughing. I bent down and kissed his hand and said to him, ‘Yā sayyidī, what sin is it that I did that caused you to act in such a way with me?’ He replied, ‘What is it I did to you?’ So I related to him the story of the pipe in the night, and he said to me, ‘What does that concern me? I didn’t do anything to you other than offering you my pipe!’

I began seeking his intercession, saying, ‘Yā sayyidī, I’m afraid I’m going to lose my mind! I desire your forgiveness!’ At that he said, ‘My son, for what? You stopped by our dhikr circle last night and began to laugh—we are dervish folk and you are a lordly man, it is most befitting to you that you mock and laugh at us.’ I replied, ‘Yā sayyidī, I did not intend to laugh at you, God forbid from that! But the state and levity of my youth are not hidden from you, so I hope you will forgive me!’ At that the shaykh, my God be merciful to him, was pleased with me, and so I set out on the Khalwatiyya ṭarīqa and so continued on from there.’

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), 99-100.

Shaykh Muḥammad al-Jisr and the Snake in the Wall

Egyptian characters, etc. Snake charmer, Cairo 2
A snake charmer at work in early 20th century Cairo, photographed by a photographer from the American Colony in Jerusalem; this is the sort of performer, increasingly associated with ‘the Orient’ in the 19th century, that Ḥusayn al-Jisr wished to differentiate his father from (Library of Congress LC-M32- 994 [P&P])
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!

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‘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.’

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), 82, translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, August, 2021.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.