June 2013


1
I made an opening
to reach through blind
into time, through
sleep and silence, to new
heat, a new rising,
a yellow flower opening
in the sound of bees.

2
Deathly was the giving
of that possibility
to a motion of the world
that would bring it
out, bright, in time.

3
My mind pressing in
through the earth’s
dark motion toward
bloom, I thought of you,
glad there is no escape.
It is this we will be
turning and re-
turning to.

Wendell Berry, ‘Planting Crocuses,’ in The Country of Marriage (1971)

The following is an excerpt from a seminal Moroccan hagiographic work, the Dawḥat al-Nāshr of Muhammad ibn ‘Askar al-Ḥassanī al-Shafshāwanī. In it, ibn ‘Askar presents biographies of various saintly figures from the course of the tenth century (A.H.), many of whom lived in Fes or in the Rif region, including Chefchaouen, the author’s hometown. This text would be followed with numerous other such literary works, many of which reference the Dawḥat al-Nāshr.

The stories that fill this work provide a fascinating glimpse into the life of sixteenth-cenutry Morocco, both in the cities and in the countryside, as exempified in this short excerpt. It is also a display of the seemingly ever increasing importance saints, living and dead, played in pre-modern Moroccan society (something that has endured, in fact, into the modern age, despite many contrary forces). The power deployed by the saint can be manifest in a variety of ways, in both the natural realm and within the social and political realm. Sometimes that power is subtle, dependent upon the spiritual capital the saint has accumulated and how he chooses to deploy it. Othertimes, it is more spectacular, as in the story below of the interconnection between one anchorite saint and the raw energy of nature. Saintly practice is not monolithic: in this entry, we see two brothers, both powerful saints, living very different sorts of pious, ascetic lives. One is very urban in orientation, both before and after his conversion to the ascetic life; the other is a seeming Islamic analogue of the anchorites of late medieval Europe. How they relate to wider social and political life thus varies: our anchorite rejects marriage and cuts himself off from normal social relations; his brother’s effacious prophecy, however, is driven by a concern for familial honour, a fundamental—and very public—basis of social relations.

This variety, and the variety of responses to saints, both within and without the hagiographic text, run throughout ibn ‘Askar’s work, and indeed in the larger world of Moroccan hagiography and saint-veneration, itself subject, not to stasis and homogeneity, but diversity, divergence, and important changes over time.

The Brothers ‘Abd al-Raḥman and ‘Alī ibn Raysūn

Among them, the two sublime shaykhs, Abū Zayd ‘Abd al-Raḥman and Abū Ḥassan, fathered by Abū Mahdī ‘Īsa al-Sharīf al-‘Alamī, from among the descendants of the Pole of the West, Shaykh Abū Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salām ibn Mashīsh, God be pleased with him.

As for Abū Zayd, he was devout, ascetic, and learned, austerity and reclusion from the world being predominant in him, and miraculous signs were manifest in him. The men of the Banū Rāshid present their daughters to him for marriage without obligation, but he did not accept one of them, but rather abandoned the people, and [abandoned] his possessions in the open space before his house, not resisting those who took and bore them away. His way was the heavens, and perhaps the heavens raised him up until oneness was bestowed upon him, and he became estranged from normal relations with the people until he saw neither closeness nor distance, and his house was always locked upon him, and his bedding was the rinds of oaks.

I saw him once when I was young, and he called out a greeting to me; my father was among his companions.

No one knew about his passing away until the wind whipped up that night in the summer, the darkness deepened, the thunder roared, the lightning flashed from every direction, and lightning  bolts struck, so that the people of Tazroute were frightened, and went out to the mosque, saying, ‘Let us seek this shaykh quickly that he might tell us what is going on!’ They then went to the house and it was locked, so they called out and he did not answer them at all, so they tried to open it but were not able until they smashed up the door. Then they found him, dead, lying upon his right side, facing the qibla, as if he were sleeping, God me merciful to him. When they entered his house, the winds calmed and the thunder ceased.

He passed away at some point in the ‘fifties of this century, and was buried in the cemetery of Tazroute around Jbel al-‘Alm, in the land of the Ghumāra.

As for Shaykh Abū Ḥassan, he had, during his brother’s lifetime, worked as a merchant buying and selling goods in the markets, but when his brother passed away he swore off the world, embarked upon pious devotion, and clung to the holy. He was joyful, outstanding, naturally inclined to have a happy countenance, noble virtues, and peace of heart. He was always immersed in litanies—his was a tongue that did not cease from recitation and remembrance for even an hour.

When Sultan Abū Ḥassūn al-Murīnī entered Fes in the ‘sixties, he seized hold of the Qā’id Muhammad ibn Rāsid al-Idrīsī. Fervent respect for kinship compelled Shaykh Abū Ḥassan to go and intercede on his behalf, but Abū Ḥassūn was not to be interceded with. So [Shaykh Abū Ḥassan] went to the Kairouan Mosque [in Fes], uncovered his head, and said: ‘By God! Abū Ḥassūn shall on no account remain in [Fes], and ibn Rāshi shall go forth safe and sound, through the effacious blessing (baraka) of the People of the House (ahl al-bayt).’ And it was as he said: Abū Ḥassūn died after a month, and ibn Rāshid was related and returned to his former state. [Shaykh Abū Ḥassan] passed away around the year 963, and was buried beside the grave of his brother. I accompanied him, God be merciful to him, for a long time, and I took the way of the people and benefited by him, God be merciful to him.

Muhammad ibn ‘Askar al-Ḥassanī al-Shafshāwanī, Dawḥat al-Nāshr

It has been some time since I have presented a translation of my own of a Syriac source here. To be honest, I had allowed my command of Syriac to become rusty through neglect, something I have begun trying to rectify. As part of this effort, I present here a translation of a Syriac scholia, or short selective commentary, on a passage from the book of Genesis. The author is Mar Jacob of Edessa, a prominent and productive Syriac Christian bishop and writer of the seventh century (A.D.). This text, while explicating a passage about Cain, the Bible’s first murderer, is really an examination of freedom of will and the mechanics of human wrong-doing, with the verse in question acting as a jumping-off place, and supporting evidence, for the centrality of human freedom in moral action.

*

 Behold! If you do good, I will accept you (Gen. 4:7a): And also, I am accepting of you if you do good. These are an evident indication that God wills the repentance of man, and receives his repentance. And He is longsuffering with him, and gives him also means that call him to this, because He wills his salvation.

But, if you do not do good—upon the door sin is crouching. You are turned towards it and it has mastery over you (Gen. 4:7b): These [words] point out that mastery of the house[1] and freedom of will belong to humans, and that one wills by his own will. One calls to sin that it come upon him and have mastery over his soul. If he does not will it, sin is not able to draw near to him. That is, it crouches upon the door of your mind, like a fierce animal outside of the gate of a house. If you turn towards this by your own will, and open up to it, it enters and has mastery upon you. And if you do not will, it is not able to enter against you.

By means of these you are clearly taught that Satan is not the sower of sin able to compel, or govern with force the rule of the house of the human mind, and sin is not the seed itself of evil. For this Cain was condemned, for he did not come to repentance of these things, though he opened the door to sin by his own will, and it entered and took mastery over him, as God said to him, and he murdered his transgression-less brother, from envy alone.

Mar Jacob of Edessa, Scholia on the Old Testament


[1] That is, mastery of the human body, or perhaps the soul: the exact meaning of the phrase, here literally translated, is a bit ambiguous.