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Documenting the Living Dead

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Biographies of Sufis—of which there are an immense number, spread throughout the world and over more than a thousand years—defy some expectations we may have of the notion of famous people. Consider, for example, the following description of a person proclaimed as someone worthy to be commemorated:

He had asked God to remove his good repute from the hearts of the world. When he was absent he wasn’t missed and when he was present no-one sought his advice, when he arrived in a place he was accorded no welcome and in conversation he was passed over and ignored…He suffered from a tied tongue and spoke only with great difficulty, but when he recited the Quran his delivery was excellent. His spiritual work was great and he earned his living as a henna siever (Ibn ‘Arabi, Sufis of Andalusia, 115).

While not all Sufis may have desired the degree of anonymity sought by this person, the general idea that a life pursuing closeness to God required limiting material desires and social relations has had wide currency among Sufis. And yet it is also the case that most forms of Sufi thought require that practitioners have guides who provide training through embodied performance. The double imperative—that great Sufi masters withdraw from the world while also acting in it as teachers and exemplars—gives Sufi recounting of the past a distinctive cast.

To get the measure of Sufi hagiography (saintly biography), it is necessary to attend to both the genre’s social underpinnings and the specificity of its representations. For the social side, hagiographies are created by disciples seeking to bolster the saintly credentials of people whom they regard as legitimizing their own practice. This means that these works are constitutionally partisan. When hagiographers know the persons being described, they ensure to bring themselves into the story as observers of special circumstances and receivers of blessings. When subjects are in a distant past, lessons from lives lived long ago are interpolated into the situation of authors’ present. Hagiographies are therefore always a mixture of biography and autobiography due to narrators’ deep religious investment in what is being described.

Hagiographical stories describing great Sufis follow patterns within and across narratives. They revolve around a fund of familiar tropes that create contrasts between apparent circumstances anyone can see and hidden truths available to the cognoscenti. For example, the outwardly unassuming, tongue-tied person described in the report I quoted above is meant to be understood as a man of great religious accomplishment. The hagiographer’s claim is that this person’s outward appearance belied his knowledge and, moreover, the hagiographer himself possesses the special knowledge to discern such people from the crowd.

In most cases, hagiographical descriptions point to Sufis’ shunning the world as a sign of their religious greatness. But the process can occur in reverse as well, when those who are successful in the world are shown to shun material trappings in their interiority. The key issue in hagiography, therefore, is special knowledge that characterizes the saintly figures being described and enables hagiographers to correlate between appearances and their hidden meanings.

To illustrate aspects of Sufi hagiography as a genre, in this section I describe a thirteenth-century work on southern Spain and North Africa, from which comes the description I have cited above. Entitled Ruh al-quds fi munasahat an-nafs (The Holy Spirit for Advising the Self), this is a work by Ibn ‘Arabi (d. 1240), a towering figure of Islamic intellectual history. Ibn ‘Arabi is known for his voluminous mystical writings, whose significance grew exponentially in the centuries after his death. He spent the first thirty years of his life in his native Spain, later traveling through North Africa, the Arabian peninsula, the Levant, and Anatolia. He died in Damascus, from where his disciples carried his works, full of literary and theoretical virtuosity, to many corners of the world. During the period 1300–1800, many aspects of Islamic intellectual life throughout Africa and Eurasia were conditioned by responses to Ibn ‘Arabi’s ideas. His imprint on intellectual cultures can be found in fields ranging between personal piety, cosmology, literature, art and architecture, and political theory espoused by empires.

The Hidden Spiritual Hierarchy

Fashioned as a letter to a fellow Sufi resident in Tunis, Ibn ‘Arabi’s Ruh al-quds was completed in the year 600 AH (1203–1204 CE) in Mecca. Its principal concern is the author’s complaint that Sufis in his own times were not living up to the principles of sincere practice and constant self-assessment. To correct this situation, Ibn ‘Arabi presents in the work a dialogue with his own self (nafs), trying to convince it of its wayward inclinations. The method he deploys is to present the self with life stories of exemplary individuals.

Ibn ‘Arabi begins with companions of Muhammad, representing a past that was six centuries old at the time of writing (Ibn ‘Arabi, Ruh al-quds, 14–45). This is followed by the work’s longest part, which consists of fifty-five great men and women, mostly residents of Iberia, whom he had met personally and who had been his guides and companions on his own Sufi journey (46–85). The work’s final part is an enumeration of the blessings God has bestowed on, first, all human beings, and second, the spiritual elect (94–107).

Like the first two parts, the section on blessings is also a conversation involving Ibn ‘Arabi’s own experiences, trials, and triumphs. Overall, this work underscores that under Sufi prescriptions, establishing an upright society and properly cultivated selves requires documenting the acts of religiously special persons. For the author, this includes people alive many centuries ago, those whom he had met personally, and his own self put to interrogation and testing.

I focus especially on Ibn ‘Arabi’s description of the great Sufis he had encountered. His account is predicated on seeing the world as being seeded with a hidden spiritual structure. This understanding derived from the Sufi idea, well established by the time he wrote, that God’s guidance for human beings was constantly present in the world through the purported existence of a pyramidal hierarchy of spiritual adepts. This hierarchy was structured such that there were tens at the wide base, while at the top was a single person called the Pole (qutb).

The exact number of levels and individuals in the pyramid varied between schemes posited by different authors. Whatever the number, the structure was always in motion since the physical death of any one person required the shifting of others. For example, if the person who was the Pole died, someone from the second level moved to the top, triggering further shifts all the way down the lowest level, where a new person would be inducted into the hierarchy.

The hierarchy of saintly figures worked on the presumption that those higher up had greater knowledge than the ones below, including identifying who belonged where. The Pole, for example, might see the whole hierarchy spread around the world, while an ordinary person, not part of the hierarchy, would likely not identify a single member. For someone wishing to be a part of the system, the crucial indication of having acquired enough knowledge was to start identifying members of the hierarchy who were otherwise invisible to common observers. Authors of hagiographical narratives took up this mantle, pinpointing those who are the hierarchy and exemplifying the general principles for how one might identify them correctly.

Ibn ‘Arabi’s Ruh al-quds includes the notice for a man named al-Ashall al-Qaba’ili who is identified as the Pole. The way this is explained shows how knowledge operates in this context. Ibn ‘Arabi states that he knew Qaba’ili personally and would interact with him at gatherings where they discussed the Quran. Then one night he was told in a dream that he was the Pole. The next day, when he was about to tell others about the dream, Qaba’ili asked him to not identify him to others in public. Ibn ‘Arabi acquiesced, but then as they parted company, Qaba’ili said, “It is no longer good for me to stay in this town, now that you know who I am” (Ibn ‘Arabi, Sufis of Andalusia, 153). Ibn ‘Arabi then never saw the man again. This pattern repeats in other places where Ibn ‘Arabi reports first becoming privy to people’s identities as members of the hierarchy and then loses contact with them as they die or disappear.

Ibn ‘Arabi’s hagiographical account in the Ruh al-quds is a game of identifying points of the hidden spiritual hierarchy as they occasionally protrude out into the visible world. The identification is born of the hagiographer’s own special knowledge. This always remains partial since the protrusions are prone to melting away back into the unknown. However, the conceptual framework at work makes writing about saintly figures a crucial part of the religious system. Without the hagiographer, there would be no way to assert that the spiritual hierarchy exists as a cosmic understructure below the surface of ordinary reality. Moreover, the hagiographer’s laudatory comments on the people being described are always a reflection on the author’s own special access to the hidden world.

Interior of building with intricate carving on pillars and facade.

The Alcázar of Seville, Spain, used as the royal palace by Muslims and Christians in succession.


Photo © Shahzad Bashir (2019)

Witness to Miracles

Most people Ibn al-’Arabi describes in Ruh al-quds are not placed explicitly in the hierarchy of saints. Their special qualities are instead made evident through describing miraculous acts of the mind and the body. Miracles are, in fact, the common coin of Sufi hagiography. They occur in a vast variety of forms, ranging between relatively simple instances of knowing the past or the future, and spectacular performances that can transform the material world.

In Ibn ‘Arabi’s descriptions, some Sufis have knowledge acquired without recourse to schooling. His very first entry is for a man named Abu Ja’far al-’Uryani of Loulé on the coast of Portugal, who “although he was an illiterate countryman, unable to write or use figures, one had only to hear his expositions on the doctrine of Unity to appreciate his spiritual standing. By means of his power of concentration he was able to control men’s thoughts, and by his words he could overcome the obstacles of existence” (Ibn ‘Arabi, Sufis of Andalusia, 63). Similarly, another man, from Córdoba, had a presence that could be felt even before seeing him. He once had someone convert to Islam, without words, by entering his mind and creating the sense of an urge coming from within (123). A saint who was only ten or eleven years old when Ibn ‘Arabi met him had such presence the author felt ashamed of his own station in front of him (126).

A woman from Seville named Nuna Fatima claimed to derive her capacities from the first chapter of the Quran. She said, “I was given ‘The Opening’ and I can wield its power in any matter I wish.” Once during a festival night, a muezzin hit her with a whip, making her extremely angry. But when she heard him give the call to prayer, she asked God not to punish him because of his vocation. Later, this man acted above his station and tried to accompany scholars when invited by the local court. When the ruler found out, he was thrown out of the company. Fatima heard about this and said, “I know about it, and if I had not prayed for leniency for him he would have been executed” (143–144).

In some cases, a saintly person’s knowledge could be administered through another being. One man from the Aljarafe region had a black cat that would sleep in his lap and not tolerate anyone else’s touch. The explanation for this was that “God had made the cat a means by which to recognize the Saints.…The apparent shyness in her was not an inborn trait, for God had made her very joyful in the company of God’s Saints. I myself saw her rub her cheek against the legs of certain visitors and flee from others” (81).

Some saints did extraordinary things with their bodies. A woman from Seville named Zaynab al-Qal’iyya kept company with many other great people and traveled to Mecca. When she performed religious exercises, “she would rise into the air from the ground to a height of thirty cubits” (155). A slave girl of great religious accomplishment who lived in Mecca “was unique in her time and had attained the power to cover great distances quickly. When she was away on her wanderings she would commune with the mountains, rocks and trees, saying to them, ‘Welcome, welcome!’” (154). A man from Salé, Morocco, would have light shining from his body as he slept at night (127). And when during a gathering some people lamented that one of their friends was not there to share the food, a man from Morón made it so that the food that went down his throat conveyed the taste and satiation to the absent person far away (102).

At one level, the miracle stories described in Ibn ‘Arabi’s Ruh al-quds require the reader to buy into the religious system to be believable. We may think this now, many centuries removed from when they were told, but plenty of people within Ibn ‘Arabi’s own times were outspoken skeptics. The very impetus of writing the Ruh al-quds involves this issue since Ibn ‘Arabi claimed that those who called themselves Sufi in the day lacked sincerity and true knowledge.

On the question of credulity, however, Sufi miracle stories are little different from politically oriented chronicles that claim vast power for the rulers and dynasties sponsoring them. In both cases, claims of special powers are ensconced within lexicons and discursive patterns that constitute the overall experience of social life.

To believe in the miracles does not require taking every claim on face value. It is, rather, to be invested in certain kinds of possibilities pertaining to ideas as well as material reality that affected one’s ideas about self and society. The great Sufis’ distinction was that their actions defied ordinary causality in all shapes and forms. Narratives that describe them constitute a literary form in which stories from the past were the very crux of the religious argument.

As seen in hagiography, the Sufi religious system is utterly predicated on the past’s narration. But the form of history we encounter in Sufi works contains a particular relationship between narrative and causality. It is positivist in its framing since the reader is expected to understand that the events being described definitely happened. In the granular details of the events, however, what occurs defies ordinary causality such as in the case of the work I have discussed: a ten-year-old boy and illiterate adults become the height of knowledge; bodies levitate, exude light, and travel long distances instantaneously; and experiences replicate between bodies not in contact.

The miracle story collapses the past into the present and the future, its message being made urgent by hagiographers’ moral exhortation to those presumed as hearers or readers. The existence of the Sufi community—in both specific groups interacting at particular times and as an Islamic form spread across time and space—is therefore utterly coextensive with the telling of tales pertaining to miracles of great Sufis of the past. Most often built around miracles, the exemplary Sufi biography is a distinctive temporality that permeates the web of Islamic history.

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