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 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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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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Sīdī Shaqrūn’s Loathing of Melons is Cured

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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”

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”

Arguing Ibn ‘Arabī and Astrology in the Aq Qoyunlu Lands

Folio from a Shahnama (Book of kings) by Firdawsi (d. 1020)
While this miniature is meant to depict a scene from the Shāhnāma, it was produced for the Aq Qoyunlu court (as part of the so-called ‘Big Head Shāhnāma‘) and can give us an idea of what Aq Qoyunlu elites in the immediate orbit of the court would have looked like, their clothing and adjacent material objects reflective of their status; for a sufi such as Ibrāhīm-i Gülşenī there was always a certain ambiguity involved in politically positioning one’s self vis-a-vis such luxury and wealth. (Freer and Sackler S1986.172)

Claims to knowledge and authority are almost always contested, whatever the period or society, but in the often politically and culturally tumultuous Islamicate lands of the 15th and 16th centuries- the pivot point between ‘medieval’ and ‘early modern’- conflict and contestation were particularly vigorous and wide-ranging. Different models of religious authority- some centered on sainthood, others on exoteric scholarly acumen, with many grades within and between- as well as often sharply divergent versions of political authority and justification, to name but two categories of conflict, circulated and clashed from the Maghrib to Inner Asia. Advocates of one epistemic position or source of authority often sought political and culturally advantage, working to ‘cancel’ their adversaries, to use contemporary parlance.

In the massive Ottoman Turkish hagiographic work Menākıb-i İbrāhīm-i Gülşenī by Muḥyī-yi Gülşenī (d. 1605), which describes the life, travails, and practices of the founder of the Gülşenī ṭarīqa, Ibrāhīm-i Gülşenī (d. 1534), we find many valuable snapshots of such conflict in the Ottoman lands- where Ibrāhīm ended up and where his hagiographer Muḥyī lived most of his life- as well as in Ibrāhīm’s native territory, the Aq Qoyunlu domains (which covered parts of what are now Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Turkey). I have selected two such instances that are chronologically close together, both set in the waning days of the Aq Qoyunlu dynasty in the late fifteenth century: in the first, we see conflict over the works of Ibn ‘Arabī, the famous (or infamous according to some) medieval sufi theologian and philosopher whose works and ideas would have a massive impact well into our own day. The second excerpt has to do with conflict between Shaykh Ibrāhīm and court astrologers attached to Sultan Ya’qūb’s court. We begin with the conflict over Ibn ‘Arabī; the accusation of the ẖalīfes (appointed delegates of a sufi shaykh) being ‘Fuṣūṣīs’ is in reference to one of Ibn ‘Arabī’s most famous works, Fuṣūs al-ḥikam:

It is related that when the ẖalīfes of Dede [ʿUmar Rūshanī, Ibrāhīm’s precepting shaykh] Efendi dispersed in order to instruct the Turkmen of Qarabāǧ, while the common people were lovingly engaged with zikr and meditation, certain students of ‘ilm in that region, having conversed with them, became envious and accused them if infidelity, saying, “These are Fuṣūṣīs!’ They gathered together and came before Dede [Efendi], said some worthless things, then took [copies] of the Fuṣūs and piled them up. The venerable Dede said, “I am not Shaykh Ibn ’Arabī’s trustee, but there are portions of the noble Qur’an therein, and burning [them] would be a sin.” He having said this, they all rushed together and bore the venerable Dede off to Tabriz for examination (teftīş). Coming before Qāḍī ‘Īsā they acted very impolitely (bī-adablik).

When Shaykh Ibrāhīm received report of this, he immediately found a mount and came to Qāḍī ‘Īsā. He saw that some hundred immature [literally, ‘not cooked,’ nā-puẖte] students (suẖte) had assembled. He inquired about their condition. When they answered, the shaykh said: ‘It’s a wonder— every time that you brought to us any need of yours, we would fulfill it, but now what is this shamelessness? If you are envious of offerings, tithes, and charity, then come and go to your proper place. The fuqarā’ are not seekers of this world below, and those who act with impropriety will receive their lot.” So saying he broke up the assembly. While the shaykh was together with Qāḍī ‘Īsā, they arranged it such that coming to Sulṭān Ya’qūb they conveyed him to the venerable Dede, and coming to the venerable Dede the sultan entered, made ziyāret, and asked his prayers. Qāḍī ‘Īsā then summoned the ‘ulamā’, and Shaykh Ibrāhīm called the venerable Dede to a feast, saying, “All is at your disposal!” Not wishing to be at odds with Shaykh Ibrāhīm or Qāḍī ‘Īsā, all of the ‘ulamā’ kissed the venerable Dede’s hand, asked his supplicatiom, and sought his forgiveness. Mevlānā ‘Abd al-Ghanī and Mevlānā spent seven days withdrawn in the venerable Dede’s service, and reaped much benefit thereby. [1]

A couple of interesting things stand out: first, this passage reminds us that whereas in the early modern period Ibn ‘Arabī would be increasingly universally received, including among the ‘exoteric ‘ulamā” as a saint and master theologian (though hold-outs rejecting or critiquing him would certainly persist), in the 15th century deep divides still remained, with many Islamic scholars rejecting al-Shaykh al-Akbar as not just incorrect but as an infidel [2]. Dede ʿUmar’s own position is itself a bit ambiguous here, as he disavows being the ‘trustee’ of Ibn ‘Arabī, and defends his works rather lamely (though perhaps this was temporary exigency). Ibrāhīm-i Gülşenī, by contrast, was a much more vigorous defender. In this account he teamed up with a close ally in the Aq Qoyunlu administration, Qāḍī ‘Īsā, to effectively shame the opponents of Ibn ‘Arabī into submission, unabashedly utilizing his close connections with the Aq Qoyunlu elite to do so. The opponents are also an interesting lot: in the Ottoman context the ‘suẖte,’ meaning there students in the medrese system, would become notorious at a later period for social unrest. Here their profile is less clear, but Shaykh Ibrāhīm’s rebuke suggests aspiring ‘ulamā’ who had not secured elite patronage and for whom Ibn ‘Arabī-quoting sufis were direct competitors for authority and physical patronage.

LJS 434 Jadāvil-i ikhtiyārāt
Astrologers were common components in late medieval and early modern ‘knowledge economies’ across the Islamicate world (and beyond), often in the service of political elites; the astrological work from which this colorful schematic came was produced under Timurid rule in eastern Persia, almost contemporaneous with the story below of astrologers in the service of the Aq Qoyunlu sultan Ya’qūb ibn Ūzūn Ḥasan. (University of Pennsylvania, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, LJS 434)

Competition for epistemic authority and, closely intertwined with that authority, sultanic patronage and attention appears in our second story, too. This brief account takes place shortly after the above report, and is part of a much longer description of a campaign undertaken by Sultan Ya’qūb; Shaykh Ibrāhīm has come out on campaign, too, and offers a very different prognostication than that given by the court astrologers:

The sultan’s astrologers, each of whom received from the sultan as part of his employment a regular stipend of a hundred thousand akçes, said to the shaykh: “Now then! We are compelled to go [on campaign], but why are you coming voluntarily? For that the sultan is going to be utterly routed is determined, we have learned it from our examination and observation of the stars.” The shaykh replied, “I rather have witnessed in the divine astrolabe that Bāyindir H̱an will be killed, and the sultan victorious and triumphant, so that the hadith Every astrologer is a liar will be shown true.” Yet in accord with their beliefs they continued to hold forth, and the shaykh said, “If your words prove false, ought not your stipend be cut off?” Humbling themselves the astrologers pleaded, saying, “Woe is us! Don’t say such to anyone, and let it not be thus, for the sake of your sacred head!” The shaykh replied, “If your knowledge is not completely cut off, still it will not be hard for it to be [rendered] doubtful and ambiguous.” [3] Continue reading “Arguing Ibn ‘Arabī and Astrology in the Aq Qoyunlu Lands”

The Cow, the Wolf, and the Talking Rocks

A shaykh in the countryside, cattle busily engaged in agriculture and not pursued by wolves, as depicted in 1487 in a manuscript of ‘Aṭṭār’s Manṭiq al-ṭayr, produced in Herat a few years before the Safavid conquest (Met. 63.210.49)

The hagiography of the Anatolian Muslim saint Ḥācım Sulṭān (first introduced here) captures various snapshots of a major transitional period in the region’s history, in which over the course of the fifteenth and early sixteenth century the frontier polities that had proliferated in the post-Mongol period were being incorporated into the rapidly expanding Ottoman Empire. Ottoman expansion took place in a world in which nomadic and semi-nomadic Turkic-speakers had spread widely in Anatolia and further west into the Balkans, part of a general cultural and social flux marked by the disappearance of the Byzantine Empire and an increasingly complex and diverse articulation of Islam in town and countryside. Given that Ḥācım Sulṭān’s hagiography dates from somewhere in the fifteenth century- almost certainly after the incorporation of Germiyan, the polity in which much of the action occurs, into the Ottoman realm- we can usefully read it as a window into some of the realities and cultural attitudes typical of the start of the Ottoman period. The Ottoman polity itself is not mentioned, nor is any other higher-level polity. Instead, authority operates at the very local level, invested in strongmen in towns, in town and village qāḍīs- such as the one in the following story- and in the sometimes competing, sometimes cooperating saintly dervishes wandering the countryside or dwelling in saints’ shrines.

The story excerpted and translated here is set in a village, to which the saint has come for a time (the central story arc of the first third or so of the hagiography is Ḥācım Sulṭān’s quest for the designated place of his future āstāne and shrine). He tends, with the helps of his miraculous black bull companion, the village herds, occupying a rather ambiguous position: he is referred to here and at other points in the story as being a ‘dīvāne,’ a polyvalent word literally meaning ‘crazy’ but also connotative of a wandering dervish. The characters in this story use it in a decidedly negative way, pointing to a reality that Ḥācım Sulṭān’s hagiography does not try to obscure: not everyone accepted his sainthood, and the towns and countryside of earliest modern Anatolia had many claimants to sanctity, not all of whom received universal acclaim. It is also worth noting that here and in many other stories in this vilāyetnāme women feature prominently, both as supporters of the saint and as members of a sometimes skeptical audience in need of convincing.

Finally, alongside depictions of everyday life in the countryside- putting cattle out to pasture, the threat of wolves, and the like- we also see a local qāḍī, or judge, at work. The question of who appointed him and from whence he draws his salary is of no interest to our narrative; what counts is his responsiveness to the villagers’ request for an investigation and his willingness to accept Ḥācım Sulṭān’s proofs of sainthood. Already in this period we get the sense that the norms of Islamic jurisprudence were known to some degree even deep in the countryside, an important foundation for the effectiveness of the Ottoman scholarly-legal bureaucracy and hierarchy already being formed.

Nomads tending to their cattle, from the c. 1400 Divān of the poetry of the Jalāyirid ruler Sulṭān Aḥmad Jalāyir (d. 1410). (Freer and Sackler F1932.34)

Another vilāyet of Ḥācım Sulṭān: there was a little elderly woman who had a single cow (ınek). She would bring the cow out to pasture. Then one day Sulṭān Ḥācım said to her, ‘Mother, by God’s command a wolf is going to eat this cow! Do not pasture her.’ But the woman did not listen. She put the cow out to pasture. Now [Ḥācım Sulṭān] gathered all the cattle [of the village] gathered together and moved them along, but this poor woman’s cow separated from the rest of the cattle and went to another place. With God’s permission a wolf came forth and ate the cow up. Evening fell. All of the animals returned to their homes, but the woman’s cow did not come. For a while they searched but did not find [it]. Finally, the woman’s sons were at a loss. Then about it they said, ‘That crazy one (dīvāne) has palmed off this cow! At any rate let’s go and find him.’ So they went and asked Ḥācım Sulṭān, ‘What did you do with our cow?’ He replied, ‘Your cow was eaten by a wolf in such-and-such a place in the vicinity of such-and-such.’ To which they replied, ‘Surely you are talking nonsense! Come, let us go to the qāḍī and you give [him] answer.’ Ḥācım Sulṭān replied, ‘Let us go!’

So from there they went to the qāḍī. The sons complained to the qāḍī, saying, ‘Efendi, this crazy one watched over our cattle—or, rather, he himself didn’t, his big black bull did. Now, ask this careless one what he did with our cow!’ So the qāḍī asked, ‘Crazy one, what did you do with these young men’s cow? Let us see how things stand.’ Ḥācım Sulṭān replied, ‘I warned this aged mother that she ought not put the cow out to pasture as with God’s permission as a wolf would eat [it]. She did not listen, added [the cow] to the grazing herd, and the wolf ate [it].’ Continue reading “The Cow, the Wolf, and the Talking Rocks”

Ibn ‘Askar on Two Muslim Saints of the Early Modern Jbala

1953.321_print
Detail of a length of fabric of plain cloth and silk produced in 17th or 18th century Morocco (Cleveland Museum of Art J. H. Wade Fund 1953.321)

The village of Jajouka, also transliterated as Joujouka or Zahjouka, lies at the edge of the Jbala region of northwestern Morocco, and is today best known as the home of not one but two musical collectives, both of which style themselves Master Musicians of the village, one using the transliteration Jajouka, the other Joujouka. The musical traditions of this village were famously ‘discovered’ by the Beats and others associated with the counter-cultures of the late twentieth century, going on to produce their own albums and artistic collaborations as well as tour around the world.

Before the music of Jajouka became globally famous, however, the village and the wider region around it was home to a range of early modern Muslim saints, some of which were profiled by the important Maghribi hagiographer and support of the Sa’idian dynasty Ibn ʿAskar (d. 1578), originally of Chefchaouen, in his Dawḥat al-nāshir. The profiles that I have translated here, of Abū Muḥammad ‘Abd Allāh al-Jābrī and Abū Bakr al-Srīfī, are notable for several reasons. The life of ‘Abd Allāh al-Jābrī embodies a way of life highly redolent of ‘deviant’ and ‘mad’ saints from across the late medieval into early modern Islamicate world, themselves building on older traditions. Already in Ibn ‘Askar’s time such saints were increasingly known as ‘majdhūb,’ divinely attracted, but this was far from being universally true. ‘Abd Allāh al-Jābrī also stands out for his role as a mediator of conflict among the people of the Jbala.

One qabīla over, the life of Abū Bakr al-Srīfī is interesting for his merging of typical rural life with the practice of sainthood, as well as for his friendly relationship with a wolf (or, more specifically, the African golden wolf, Canis anthus). Alongside his replication of what was probably orally transmitted hagiography, Ibn ‘Askar also includes an autobiographical story concerning the saint’s posthumous power, a story that also points to the complicated routes of power in rural 16th century Morocco. Visible throughout this account are indications of wider historical dynamics and historical particularities of the early modern Maghrib, which I have explicated further using footnotes.

2010EB8074_2500
17th century tile made in Morocco, perhaps indicating types of decorative architectural elements a tomb like that of Abū Bakr might have used during the period, in addition to the styles of tile better known from past and contemporary usage (V&A 1717-1892).

‘Abd Allāh al-Jābrī al-Rhūnī: the shaykh the saint Abū Muḥammad ‘Abd Allāh al-Jābrī, guest (nazīl) of the Rhūna qabīla [1], among whom is his tomb and among whom was his zāwiya until his death in the [nine-]thirties, God knows best. This man was from among the wonders of the age and the strangest of things, wearing a garment (kisā’) of wool and nothing else, a staff in his hand, and walked barefoot whenever he set out to accomplish some matter in accordance with the power of God. His miraculous actions were conveyed by multiple transmitters (tawātir), [2] and whenever conflicts (fitan) broke out among the qabīlas he would come out and call the people to reconciliation, and whoever pridefully refused him, in that very moment God in His power would manifest in that person chastisement, and so would no longer stand against him. When he become known for that ability, the people submitted to him and no one was able to contradict him or go against his intercession. [God’s] answering his supplication was like the breaking of dawn. He was ascetic, pious, humble, and his mode of life was one of silence, abstemiousness, and was free of pretension, depending upon God in all his conditions, singular among his peers. More than one from among the fuqahā’ and fuqarā’ [3] related wondrous things about him, more than can be enumerated, God be merciful to him. Continue reading “Ibn ‘Askar on Two Muslim Saints of the Early Modern Jbala”

Around the Late Medieval World with Abū Isḥāq al-Kāzarūnī and the Sacred Soil of His Tomb

Salting Mihrab
Fig. 1. A c. 1300 mihrab tile made in Kashan, which once decorated a tomb, perhaps of a saint. Abū Isḥaq’s shrine is no longer extant, but it might well have at some point in its existence featured tilework such as this. (V&A C.1977-1910)

The late medieval Islamicate world was filled with saints’ shrines and communities of sufis and other devotees oriented around those saints and their physical place of burial. Devotion to saints was, in the medieval as in the early modern world, more often than not a local phenomenon, centered around the saint of one’s village or neighborhood. In other cases, a community of devotees came into being that was spread out over an entire city, a region, an empire, or, in some cases, all or most of the Islamicate lands. One such saint with near-global reach was Shaykh Abū Isḥaq al-Kāzarūnī (d. 1035), whose tomb complex once stood in the town of Kāzarūn (modern Kazerun, Iran), until its destruction by the Safavids in the early 1500s (being no longer extant we cannot say what precisely it looked like, but surviving tombs and decorative components, such as those in fig. 1, help in imagining a reconstruction). The community of dervishes that arose around the saint, institutionally maintained in part by numerous khānaqāhs (structures in which sufis might live or visit, and which often provided travelers with lodging too), stretched from China to the Ottoman lands, lasting in the latter at least into the eighteenth century. How did a sufi saint from a relatively minor city in the Iranian lands obtain such a global reach? Abū Isḥaq himself, who in his lifetime seems to have emphasized preaching, charitable works, and jihād on the frontier, only left Kāzarūn once, living and teaching and dying there. It would be his successors who built up a network of devotees oriented around the saint and his tomb-complex, using a wide range of means to do so.

Much of the transformation and ‘globalization’ of devotion to Abū Isḥaq and the community formed around him took place from the 1300s forward. One instrument of the community’s spread, and a crucial source for understanding it, is the Persian-language vitae of the saint, Maḥmūd b. ʿUthmān’s Firdaws al-murshidiyya fī asrār al-ṣamadiyya, completed in 1328, Maḥmūd drawing upon but also adding to a now lost Arabic manāqib about the saint. This work evidently circulated quite widely, being translated into Ottoman Turkish during the mid-seventeenth century by Çömezzāde Meḥmed Şevḳī (d. 1688). Below we will return below to one of the more interesting features of this vitae- an entire chapter devoted to the properties of the soil of the saint’s tomb- but first let us hear from the famed traveler Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, who visited the central shrine and khānaqāh in 1326:

I left Shīrāz to visit the tomb of the pious shaykh Abū Isḥāq al-Kāzarūnī at Kāzarūn, which lies two days’ journey [west] from Shīrāz. This shaykh is held in high honour by the inhabitants of India and China. Travelers on the Sea of China, when the wind turns against them and they fear pirates, usually make vows to Abū Isḥāq, each one setting down in writing what he has vowed. When they reach safety the officers of the convent go on board the ship, receive the list, and take from each person the amount of his vow. There is not a ship coming from India or China but has thousands of dinars in it [vowed to the saint]. Any mendicant who comes to beg alms of the shaykh is given an order, sealed with the shaykh’s seal [see fig. 2] stamped in red wax, to this effect: “Let any person who has made a vow to the Shaykh Abū Isḥāq give thereof to so-and-so so much,” specifying a thousand or a hundred, or more or less. When the mendicant finds anyone who has made a vow, he takes from him the sum named and writes a receipt for the amount on the back of the order. [1]

As is evident from Ibn Baṭṭūṭa’s report, the shrine of Abū Isḥaq had mechanisms for accumulating wealth, wealth which could then be distributed to travelers, the poor, resident dervishes, and the custodians of the shrine itself. The generators of this wealth- here merchants, but we know from other sources that local and Ilkhanid elite sponsored the shrine too- helped to spread devotion to the saint far and wide, in many places leading to the establishment of Kāzarūnī khānaqāhs, from Canton to Edirne. Crucial here was the ‘transportability’ of the saint’s power, his baraka. Vows, texts, and seals such as the one mentioned by Ibn Baṭṭūṭa and shown below were all means of making the saint’s power present far from his resting place.

Magical seal, cast bronze Iran; 14th century
Fig. 2. A 14th century bronze seal bearing the inscription ‘Abū Isḥaq, the Guiding Shaykh, God sanctify his spirit’- almost certainly the very seal to which Ibn Battuta refers in the passage below (David Collection Inv. no. 7/1996)

There was another means whereby that power was transmitted, one which Maḥmūd b. ʿUthmān thought important enough to devote an entire chapter to in his vitae of the saint (referred to repeatedly therein as ‘the Guiding Shaykh’): the power of the soil of the saint’s tomb. As the stories I have selected and translated in what follows suggest, soil gathered from above the saint’s grave was believed to transmit the presence and power of the saint himself, with only a small amount necessary, making it easy to collect and carry across the world in fact:

On the Virtue of the Soil of the Tomb of the Guiding Shaykh, God Sanctify his Saintly Spirit:

Know, God be merciful to you, that the special quality and virtue of the soil (gil) of the tomb (qabr) of the Guiding Shaykh, God illumine his tomb, has no limit such that one could describe it or be able to adequately speak of its virtue. It is well established and verified across the face of the earth among the children of Adam, elite and common, that whatever intention is brought [to his tomb], their needs are happily met. It is mentioned and well-known that when a ship, while traversing the midst of the sea, is in fear of sinking, the waves overwhelming, if they throw a handful of soil from the tomb of the Shaykh into the midst of the sea, in that moment the waves will become peaceful and safety return to view, due to the barakāt of the Guiding Shaykh, God sanctify his saintly spirit! The degrees and virtue of that are numerous, however, that measure of things which have come to the hearing of this deficient bondservant and which have been witnessed will be mentioned, towards good, God willing. Continue reading “Around the Late Medieval World with Abū Isḥāq al-Kāzarūnī and the Sacred Soil of His Tomb”