A Self-Taught Shaykha in Early Modern Fes

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Detail from a swathe of embroidered silk textile, seventeenth or eighteenth century Morocco, with the word Allāh rather faintly visible running in a band near the center. The polemicist author described below might have had such colorful textiles in mind in castigating women in Fes for their material exuberance in following their female shaykha. (Cleveland Museum of Art 1916.1236)

The place of women in early modern Islamicate societies varied greatly depending on particular place, general cultural norms, social status, prevailing madhhab, and many other intersecting factors. Far from being static, the role and status of different sorts of women often fluctuated over time, and was frequently contested, particularly during periods of change such as marked much of early modernity in the Islamicate world as elsewhere. Of a particularly contentious nature was the question of women’s public religious life, a question that for Muslim communities entailed tension between (albeit limited) recognition in Islamic tradition of female religious authority, beginning with hadith-transmitting wives of Muḥammad himself, and prescriptions on women’s authority and public mobility and visibility. The historical reality of female saints and even masters of sufism added extra dimensions to such tensions. In the Islamic West- the Maghrib- from the medieval period forward highly restrictive attitudes towards women’s public participation in religious life existed alongside prominent, and outspokenly public, female saints such as Sayyida ‘Ā’isha al-Mannūbiyya (1199–1267). The anonymous woman who is described in the below text suggests other possibilities, which were accepted by some but strenuously rejected by others, as we will see.

The text below comes from a major eighteenth century bio-hagiographic compilation, Ṣafwat man intashar min akhbār ṣulaḥāʾ al-ḳarn al-ḥādī ʿashar, written by a scholar whose family was originally from the Draa region in the far south of Morocco, Abū ‘Abdallāh Muḥammad al-Ifrānī (also spelled al-Īfrānī and al-Ufrānī). Born in Marrakesh around 1670, al-Ifrānī eventually settled in Fes, where he would live and work as a scholar, sufi, and author, becoming particularly well known for his historical works, dying in either 1743 or 1745. His Ṣafwat man intashar provides important insight into the shape of early modern Maghribi sainthood as well as many other social realities of the period, including in the vast and often autonomous countryside, as seen in a previous selection from this work translated here.

The following selection comes from the life of a scholar and saint, originally from the town of Ksar el-Kebir but who settled permanently in Fes after his course of studies there, Abū Muḥammad Sayyidī ‘Abd al-Qādir (d. 1680). ‘Abd al-Qādir embodied a form of sainthood that had once been common across Islamic societies but by the early modern period was largely a Maghribi phenomenon: that of the ‘exoteric’ scholar whose vigorous personal asceticism, scrupulosity, and careful adherence to the sharī’a were acclaimed as evidence of sainthood. His karāmāt- miracles or charismatic signs- were many, al-Ifrānī tells us, his saintly status no doubt helped by the fact that his son wrote not one but two manāqibs- hagiographic accounts- of his father’s life. Unlike many of his contemporaries, ‘Abd al-Qādir did not produce in books or compilations; instead, his followers compiled his sayings and fatwas into their own compilations. The passage I have translated here comes from such a compilation, and is reminiscent in form of a fatwa although it is not presented as such:

Another fā’ida: [Abū Muḥammad ‘Abd al-Qādir] was asked about a woman who recited the Qur’an for women, and they would gather around her and take her as their shaykha. He answered with the following: ‘He, peace and blessings of God be upon him, said: “A people ordered by a woman will not know success,” as well as “Hinder them as God has hindered them,” and “They are deficient in reason and religion.” It is not permissible that a woman act as an imāma or shaykha, and as for what the women do on the day when they gather together in the woman’s presence and take her as their shaykha, that is not permissible either, and is an aspect of corruption and evil in the earth due to various reasons: among them, that women pilfer from their husbands and take it to her; and that each of the women dresses in finery, beautifies herself, and goes out into the streets, that being ḥarām and not allowed. And perhaps she leaves without her husband’s permission or pleasure in that, it becoming a cause for anger and division, with things that cause such being ḥarām.

Also, she presides over the reading of books and fatwa collections concerning the religion (dīn) of God, but is without knowledge (‘ilm), not having received that from an ‘ālim, there being things in the books which are comprehensible and things which are not [to those not instructed by a scholar], ‘ilm not being received save from the mouths of scholars. Taking it from books and pages is ḥarām, and all which she receives [in terms of material things] from that is illicit and one ought not eat of it, such that her livelihood is pure ḥarām. Continue reading “A Self-Taught Shaykha in Early Modern Fes”

Sayyida ‘Ā’isha Shuts Down a Hater

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Folio from a Qur’an, North Africa- possibly Ḥafṣid Ifraqīya where ‘Ā’isha lived- displaying the distinctive Maghribi script used in this region. (Met. 37.21)

Sayyida ‘Ā’isha al-Mannūbiyya (1199–1267) is one of the, if not simply the most important and best-known female Muslim saints in North African history. Born in the village of al-Manūba close to Tunis, she moved among many different worlds and identities, inhabiting aspects of both rural and urban sainthood, violating social conventions, including regarding gender norms, as part of her enactment of sainthood. She participated in the Shādhiliyya ṭarīqa, and was linked in later memory to the great saints, male and female, of the Islamic past. Her hagiography (manāqib) reveals a bold and confident saint, laying claim to spaces and practices generally reserved for men such as mosques, as in the short story I’ve translated here, in which she is questioned about her knowledge of the Qur’an and rebuffs her critic in rather spectacular fashion. She proved a popular and powerful saint not only in life but long after her physical death. Despite a 2012 attack on her shrine by Salafī militants (one of many attacks on saints’ shrines in post-revolution Tunisia), she remains a popular figure of veneration and supplication.

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Sayyid Uthmān al-Ḥadād, known as Būqabrayn, said: ‘One day I was stopping by the Muṣallī Mosque in the company of Sayyidatī ‘Ā’isha, and she was reciting God’s words, As for the foremost and the first from among the emigrants and the helpers and those who follow them in doing good, God is pleased with them and they are pleased with Him. And He has prepared for them gardens under which rivers flow, in which forever to dwell— that is the great victory! [1], to the end of the surah. Then Sayyid Muḥammad ibn Sālim ibn ‘Alī al-Huwārī, one of the fuqahā’ [2] of Tunis, one of those who used to related hadith of the Messenger of God, upon whom be peace and blessing, in the Zaytūna Mosque [3], heard her reciting the Qur’an so he went in to her, and said to her, “Under whom did you learn Qur’an recitation?” She replied, “ cuckold (dayyūth)! I studied the Qur’an under my Lord! [The angel] Michael and Khiḍr [4] came to me, and in their hands was a filled vessel from the Garden. The two of them said to me, ‘Drink, ‘Ā’isha, Mannūbiyya!’ So I drank in that draught knowledge, clemency, certainty, pious submission, humility towards God, divine blessing, compassion, chastity, and divine protection.”’

God be pleased with her and benefit us by her in both worlds! Continue reading “Sayyida ‘Ā’isha Shuts Down a Hater”

Early Modern Campaign Life: Through the Eyes of Margriet Van Noort

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Detail from The Siege of Alesia by Melchior Feselen: painted in 1533, this massive painting, from which this detail and the one below is taken, depicts a battle from antiquity but does so in a thoroughly anachronistic fashion, instead showing in great detail the workings of sixteenth century warfare, including the presence of soldiers’ families as described in the passage below.

The excerpted text below comes from the autobiography of Sister Margaret of the Mother of God, born Margriet Van Noort in 1587. Before her death in 1646 she wrote a range of autobiographical pieces of literature, at the behest of her confessor at the convent of the Discalced Carmelites in Brussels in the Low Countries. This passage describes aspects of her childhood, one spent out on campaign alongside her father, a soldier fighting under the Habsburgs during the Eighty Years’ War. Margaret provides a powerful and moving look into what everyday life was like for the families of the soldiers, families that, as in many other early modern wars, went on campaign as well, sleeping in tents, dodging bullets, and contributing to combat in various ways, including, as Margaret later describes, digging trenches. Margaret’s mother sought to give her children some semblance of normalcy, Margaret notes, even if her children could not avoid being swept up in the chaos and danger of an early modern army on the move, as Margaret’s account of her three days separated from her family suggests.

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Since my father was a soldier, my mother always followed him with all the children; there were seven of us. We went with him in every campaign where we suffered hardships of every kind, as you can imagine, from heat and other trials. We often lacked food, and even when we had money there was often nothing to buy. At times when we had no money, we would that a horse might be shot so that we could have something to eat. One time we ate meat with no bread because we did not have any; we could not even find a loaf to buy. Other times we would eat raw meat because we had no time, fire, or proper conditions for cooking. And we usually slept four or five months of the year in our clothes on the ground with a bit of straw for a soft bed. Our home was a tent, but my mother took pains to keep us all gathered together as if we were in a house. There we recited our devotions, did our handwork, and read religious books, to which I was always greatly devoted. We never missed Mass when it was said. It was in a tent set up in the open countryside and there were thousands of people who attended. The enemy would shoot artillery and the bullets would fall in the middle of all those people. No one was ever hurt.

About the age of nine, I had a desire to stay in a monastery of the Order of Saint Bernard that was near where we were garrisoned. But my father did not want me to because he said that Friesland was sure to revert to heresy, and so I stayed with my parents. My mother saw that I was quite a young lady at eleven years old, and she had me make my First Communion. At twelve, my father had contracted marriage for me with a young man from a good family; but he was a military man and he died in battle, and I was very happy.

We used to go every summer on a campaign that sometimes lasted until Christmas with a lot of snow and cold. I was very fond of walking and since my parents had carts and horses in which to carry us, when I would see other soldiers’ small children crying so and dying of cold, I would ask my mother to allow me to walk so a little girl could ride in my place. Sometimes she would scold me and tell me that I was going to get lost among the crowds and it happened just so. I had walked all day and at nightfall the companies split from each other with each company camping together. I stayed seated by the road where I thought our people would be passing. But only the Walloons came. I began to ask if the Germans were not passing by there also, and they told me no. I was very distressed and started to cry like a girl of thirteen would. And God willed that a good man might pass by, a captain who asked me why I was crying. I told him of my trouble, that I had thought my father would have come by there. And God willed that this good man should console me, and he took me with him and pampered me, and I spent three days with him while he took care of me as if I were his daughter. He was a captain of the Wallons, and he asked me my father’s name. I said he was an ensign with a German regiment and his name was Sebastiaan Van Noort. Finally my mother came searching for me with two other people. On the third day the companies were reunited and my mother and everyone was very happy that I was found. After that, I always stayed with them.

Margaret van Noort. Spiritual Writings of Sister Margaret of the Mother of God (1635-1643). Translated by Susan M. Smith. (Toronto, Ontario: Iter Academic Press, 2015). 66-67.

Ottoman Women and the Lives of Saints, ii.: Money Trouble and a Sleep-Talking Son

Like any major urban area, eighteenth century Istanbul was inhabited by people from a seemingly endless array of walks of life, from the sultan and his entourage and sprawling staff down. The neighborhood in which the sometimes fiery, sometimes tender sufi saint Hasan Ünsî lived, while it stood hard by the walls of the sultan’s palace, the Topkapı, was a world away from that rarefied atmosphere. In the houses and workspaces and places of worship ordinary people, men and women, lived and toiled and prayed and plotted and did their best to get by. Şeyh Hasan was for some inhabitants a source of comfort and repose, while for others he was a source of humor or of potential easy money. In the two accounts which I have translated and lightly annotated below, we see two different women’s interactions with the saint, as well as glimpses into their everyday lives, glimpses that are quite valuable in reconstructing the diversity of ordinary women’s lives in this period and place. There is a lot that could be said about these stories and the contexts relevant to them, but I will limit myself to a couple of remarks.

In the first story, we meet a woman- who, interestingly, is named here- about whom we have but a few tantalizing details. Described as being Bosnian, we might guess that she had ended up in the city- perhaps her husband was or had been a military man posted in Bosnia?- and had fallen on hard times (the main point of the story). While I have not come across any other descriptions of her particular line of work as a sort of handywoman, it seems likely that such services would have been appealing to ordinary households without the luxury of slaves or hired servants. The rest of the story is relatively self-explanatory, though, as in the previous installment, note the ease with which Uzun Havvâ comes into the şeyh’s presence and interacts with him.

The second story introduces in greater detail the mother of the menâkıb‘s author, Ibrahim Hâs. The ‘set-up’ is that Ibrahim is telling how he came to ‘repent’ at the saint’s hand and take up a dervish life under his tutelage- which happened while he was still a young man living at home. Here we learn that his mother was herself effectively a saint, practicing immense austerities at home (modeled to some degree after Şeyh Hasan, who also tended to remain at home), even as she maintained a close relationship with the saint. We know from the survival of a dream-diary and correspondence with her Halvetî şeyh by a woman in Skopje, described by Cemal Kafadar in an article on Ottoman self-writing, that it was not unheard of for a woman to send her dreams to a saintly şeyh for interpretation. Here, however, Ibrahim’s mother goes directly to the şeyh, as opposed to writing to him, something that we are given to understand she did on a regular basis, and in so doing helped to give direction and greater meaning to her own ascetic pursuits and identity.

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A 17th century Ottoman yastik, or pillow cover, a typical feature of domestic spaces (Boston MFA 77.256)

1. There was a poor Bosnian woman, named Bedümli Uzun Havvâ, who lived in a rented room below my home in the Hocapaşa quarter. For a fee she would look after the daily affairs of her neighbors. One day a neighbor came to her with a sick child. [The neighbor lady] said, “Go and take this child to Şeyh Hasan Efendî in Aydınoǧlu Tekke and have him recite a prayer, and put these pâras [1] down in his presence,” giving the Bosnian woman some pâras.

Taking the child and the pâras, the woman went to the venerable Şeyh. After having pocketed two of the pâras she had been given to present to the Şeyh for his prayer recitation, she put the rest before the venerable Şeyh. He said to her, “Look now, what of the other two pâras?” But the Bosnian woman said, “Only this much were given, only this much!” The venerable Şeyh replied, “Ah, but there are two pâras in your right pocket—did I not see how many pâras were given to you? And do I not know whether in taking the pâras you wanted to deceive me or to try me?”

As he said this, fearful the woman took out the pâras she had taken and placed them before the venerable Şeyh. He said to her, “You did this on account of your poverty, but take care not to speak untruthfully and do not try (imtihân) anyone. Be patient in the midst of poverty, and God, exalted is He, will provide you with the necessities of this life below!” Having said this he gave the woman forty pâras, then gave her the two pâras [she had pocketed]! The woman said, “My sultan! I took those pâras, thinking, ‘The Şeyh won’t know.’ And indeed by poverty is great such that as of tonight they would have been my entire livelihood. But now you have done such good!”

The venerable Şeyh gave her some further good counsel, and the woman, having kissed the Şeyh’s noble hands, departed. She returned the child home, then went home herself. This poor one [the author] learned of this story from the telling of his mother and from her neighbors living there.

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Woman and boy on their way to the hammam, from an early 17th century costume album depicting various people one might encounter in Ottoman Istanbul (BM 1928,0323,0.46.122)

2. It happened on the 15th of Ramadan, 1117 [December 31, 1705]. Up till then, I [Ibrahim Hâs] only attended the tevhîd sessions [2] and busied myself with the discourses of the venerable Şeyh. I slept a lot during the daytime [3]. One day while sleeping alone I began talking in my sleep. My mother came to my side and listened to what I was saying, and when I awoke, my mother said to me, “While you were sleeping you said some wondrous and strange things!” I replied, “What did I say?” My mother then repeated back to me one by one the things I had said [4]. Continue reading “Ottoman Women and the Lives of Saints, ii.: Money Trouble and a Sleep-Talking Son”