That sainthood and social and cultural marginality have a tendency to go together, in Christian and Islamic traditions anyway, will hardly come as a surprise to anyone versed in such things: this is not the place for such speculations, but my personal working theory is that when we see Late Paleolithic burials of unusual individuals whose grave goods mark them as special, what we are seeing is a trace of something very much like sainthood. Regardless of the veracity of such speculatory reconstruction, it is quite clear from medieval and early modern hagiography in both Christian and Islamic traditions that while hardly a prerequisite for sanctity, difference, marginality, even outright societal opposition were all potential entryways into sainthood, not necessarily barriers. To discuss the reasons for this sustained relationship through time would require a book, or several of them (though, this is as good a place as any to mention that I have in various states of development not one but two such books in the offing, details to come!).
Instead, I want to introduce here an early modern- well, really, on that cusp between what we think of as medieval and as early modern- saint of the city of Tlemcen (in modern-day Algeria) who exemplifies inhabitation of both ‘centrality’ and ‘marginality,’ Sīdī al-Ḥasan Abirkān, as described by the late sixteenth century century hagiographer Ibn Maryam (d. 1605) in his al-Bustān fī dhikr al-awliyāʼ wa-al-ulamāʼ bi-Tilimsān. The saint’s name already identifies him as occupying two areas of identity sometimes indicative of marginality relative to scholarly urbane culture: ‘Abirkān’ is Kabyle Amazigh for ‘black’; J. M. Dallet’s dictionary gives the following definition: ‘Noir; noiraud; teint foncé, basané (nuance défavorable, dépréciative pour les personnes).’ And indeed Ibn Maryam, in giving Shaykh Abirkān’s genealogy, includes a couple of stories in which the shaykh is shown to be of a holy genealogy through his father and grandfather, without any trace of his ancestors’ apparent servility remaining. The suggestion of course is that the casual observer night take the shaykh’s skin color and evident ‘racial’ origin (not precisely the language a sixteenth century observer would have used, but close enough) as evidence of his inferiority. That this is the case is reinforced by a story that Ibn Maryam tells in which a young man who has come to Tlemcen to study initially disparages Shaykh Abirkān’s exoteric knowledge, but is urged to study with the shaykh in a dream, and in so doing finds the shaykh’s depth of knowledge confirmed. Overall, as is often the case in premodern Islamicate societies generally, racial origin and skin color were neither invisible nor were they totalizing facts about an individual; in Shaykh al-Ḥasan Abirkān’s case they were arguably part of his identity in a complex manner, both placing him somewhat at the margins but in a powerful manner, his being marked out as different both a feature of his sainthood as well as a sometime social stumbling block on the part of others.
That I have led with this particular saint’s racial background is very much indicative of our own contemporary concerns and interests; it is not addressed in Ibn Maryam’s lengthy treatment until well after many other stories and discussions. Instead, the picture that emerges, which I have tried to pick up in my translations below, is of a saint marked by both the scholarly and the, for lack of a better word, ludic. His encounters with animals stands out in this regard, with several of the stories below having to do with such interactions, all with creatures which were themselves generally seen as on the edge of human society if not an outright danger. I’ll discuss them a bit more after the text itself.
[Shaykh al-Sanūsī] used to say: ‘I have seen [many] shaykhs and saints but I have never seen the like of Sīdī al-Haṣan Abirkān!’ He was not absent from the presence of God for even an instant, and whenever he laughed his teeth would show. He was merciful towards the believers, solicitous towards them, rejoicing in their joy and feeling pain over evil inflicted on them. He had prayer beads from which he was rarely ever parted, for he was constant in remembrance of God. He was held in great esteem by the common and the elite alike. [He was] devoted to the Risālah of Ibn Abū Zayid, and whenever al-Sanūsī came to visit he smiled broadly and would open their conversation with theological discussion, [al-Sanūsī] saying to him, ‘God has made you to be among the God-fearing imāms.’ He was graced with many miracles and wonders, among them one that al-Sanūsī and his brother Sīdī ‘Alī described:
He was performing ablutions out in the wild desert one day when an enormous lion approached and knelt down over [Sīdī Abirkān’s] shoe. When he was finished with his ablutions, he turned to the lion and said to him three times, “May God, the most beautiful of creators, bless you!” The lion bowed his head to the earth as if were bashful, then arose and went on his way.’
Also, that which Shaykh al-Sanūsī mentioned, saying, ‘The illustrious saint Sīdī Sa’īd bin ‘Abd al-Ḥamīd al-‘Aṣinūnī related to me at his home in the Ouarsenis Mountains—he was from among [Sīdī Abirkān’s] oldest companions—saying, “I visited Sīdī al-Ḥasan one hot day and found him in great fatigue, sweat running down him, and he said, ‘Do you know why I’m so exhausted?’ I replied, ‘No, Sīdī!’ He said, ‘Yesterday I was sitting in this spot when Shayṭān entered in a particular form so I stood up to him and he fled before me, so I followed him and recited the call to prayer—he did not stop running from me, and he farted, as is mentioned in the ḥadīth, until he was hidden from me. And now I am just returned from pursuing him!’”’
Al-Sanūsī also related that when [Sīdī Abirkān] returned from the East, he came across a Friday market village which had fallen into ruin, though it had once been inhabited by his forefathers. He decamped to Tlemcen but his thought reverted to returning to that village and revitalizing what had fallen into decay. He said: ‘So I went out to it and sat down contemplating its traces, how ruin had overtaken it and its inhabitants compelled to depart, when a dog came up to me and sat down next to me, looking sad and dejected like me. I thought to myself, “Will this village ever be inhabited again or not?” Then the dog lifted his head and said in clear speech, “[Not] until the day they are resurrected,” that is, it will never be inhabited again. When I heard what he had said to me I returned to Tlemcen.’ Continue reading “Of a Lion, Dog, Shayṭān, and Snake: Sīdī al-Ḥasan Abirkān of Tlemcen”