Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Way of Abu Madyan

In honour of the presence of 2 eminent Islamic scholars in town this week, of whom I have had the privilege of having personal intimate discourses and hearing them at public lectures, I have decided to put up some entries related to them. The first of which relates to a book entitled: The Way of Abu Madyan.

This book was written by Professor Vincent Cornell, currently an Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Middle East and Islamic Studies at Emory University, USA. Vincent Cornell is a summa cum laude graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. He received his Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1989. Professor Cornell has taught at Northwestern University (2 years), the University of Georgia (1 year), Duke University (9 years), and prior to his current appointment, at the University of Arkansas, where for the past 6 years he served as Professor of History and Director of the King Fahd Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies. He was also the Chair of Studies in the Programme of Religious Studies at University of Arkansas. He has lived and worked in Morocco for nearly 6 years, and has spent considerable time both teaching and doing research in Egypt, Tunisia, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Professor Cornell's pre-modern interests cover the entire spectrum of Islamic thought from Sufism to philosophy and Islamic law. He has published many books, some of which are: The Book of the Glory of the Black Race: al-Jahiz’s Kitab Fakhr as-Sudan 'ala al-Bidan (1981), a translation of a short treatise on the virtues of the blacks over the whites by the premier Arabic literary figure of the ninth century C. E.; The Way of Abu Madyan: Doctrinal and Poetic Works of Abu Madyan Shu'ayb ibn al-Husayn al-Ansari (ca. 509/1115-16—594/1198) ( 1996), the first detailed study of a highly influential Sufi of the western Islamic mystical tradition; and Realm of the Saint: Power and Authority in Moroccan Sufism (1998), the first study of Muslim sainthood utilizing the methodology of the sociology of sainthood, and the first detailed historical study of the Moroccan Sufi tradition. Recent works includes: Introduction: Questioning Religion, Problematizing Violence, Affirming Life (2006), Evil, Virtue and Islamic Moral Thoelogy: Returning The Good In A Globalized World (2007) and Voices of Islam (2007).

Professor Cornell has also published a number of journal articles and book chapters, including most recently "Ibn Battuta's Opportunism: the Networks and Loyalties of a Medieval Muslim Scholar," in Miriam Cooke and Bruce B. Lawrence, Editors, Muslim Networks from Hajj to Hip Hop (2005); "Practical Sufism: An Akbarian Foundation for a Liberal Theology of Difference," in Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society (Vol. 36, 2004); and "Listening to God through the Qur'an," in Michael Ipgrave, Editor, Scriptures in Dialogue: Christians and Muslims Studying the Bible and the Qur'an Together (2004). He is currently working on a book length monograph of the North African Sufi Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili, a work on Hermetic philosophy in Islamic Spain, and a history of Islamic moral philosophy.

The Way of Abu Madyan is the first English translation of works attributed to Abu Madyan, a seminal figure of Sufism in Muslim Spain and North Africa. The Arabic text accompanying the English translation also represents the first scholarly edition of these works in the original language. The variety of Abu Madyan’s oeuvre, which includes doctrinal treatises, aphorisms, and poetical works in the ode, qasida, style, provides a unique opportunity for students of Arabic and Sufism, as well as the interested layman, to experience several of the most important genres of religious writing in the Islamic Middle Period.

Abu Madyan Shu’ayb ibn al-Husayn al-Ansari, 1115/16-1198, poet, teacher and Sufi mystic, was born in the town of Cantillana near Seville in Muslim Spain and is buried at al-Ubbad outside the city of Tlemcen in Western Algeria. After spending many years of his life learning from the most famous Sufis of Morocco, he settled in the Algerian city of Bijaya, where he spread his particular brand of orthodox mysticism to Sufi adepts and the general public alike. Called ‘Shaykh of Shaykhs’ and ‘the Nurturer’, al-Ghawth, by his contemporaries, Abu Madyan was the most influential Sufi of the formative period of mysticism in North Africa and had a profound influence on the eventual Qadiri and Shadhili Sufi traditions.

Excerpt - Introduction

The man who was to become the most influential figure of the developmental period of North African Sufism, Abu Madyan Shu’ayb ibn al-Husayn al-Ansari, who was called by later biographers the ‘Shaykh of Shaykhs, Imam of the Ascetics and the Pious, Lord of the Gnostics, and Exemplar of the Seekers’, and who remains known to posterity as ‘Abu Madyan the Nurturer’ (al-Ghawth), entered the world in inauspicious circumstances. Born around the year 509/1115-16 at the fortress of Cantillana in the region of Seville (Ishbiliya) in Muslim Spain, the future shaykh was orphaned early in life by the unexpected death of his father and suffered cruel treatment and exploitation at the hands of his elder brothers. Fortunately, Abu Madyan’s own account of the often difficult, formative period of his intellectual development is available to the modem student of Sufism via the efforts of a near contemporary, the Moroccan biographer Abu Ya’qub Yusuf ibn Yahya at-Tadili (d. 627/1229-30), who reproduced many of the shaykh’s autobiographical comments in his Kitab al-tashawwuf ila rijal at-tasawwuf, written a short time after the latter’s death:

I was an orphan in al-Andalus. My brothers made me a shepherd for their flocks, but whenever I saw someone praying or reciting [the Qur’an], it pleased me. I would come near to him and found a sadness in my soul because I had not memorized anything from the Qur’an and did not know how to pray. So I resolved to run away in order to learn how to read and pray.

I ran away, but my brother caught up with me, spear in hand, and said, ‘By God, if you do not return I will kill you!’ So I returned and remained for a short time. Then I strengthened my resolve to flee by night. I slipped away at night and took another road [from that which I had originally followed]. My brother [again] caught up with me after sunrise. He drew his sword against me and said, ‘By God, I will kill you and be rid of you!’ Then he raised his sword over me in order to strike me. I parried him with a piece of wood that was in my hand and his sword broke and flew into pieces. When he saw [what had happened] he said to me, ‘Oh my brother, go wherever you wish’.

Upon leaving the region of Seville, the young Abu Madyan traveled south for three or four days, until he reached a hillock near the sea, upon which he found a tent. An old man (shaykh), wearing nothing except what was necessary to cover his nakedness, emerged from the tent and walked toward him. Thinking that the younger man was a captive who had fled from a Christian raiding parry, he asked Abu Madyan about his situation. When told of the young man’s desire to learn the fundamentals of Islam, the shaykh allowed him to remain in his company for a few days.

Then he took a rope, tied a nail to its end, threw it into the sea, and pulled out a fish, which he cooked so that I could eat it. I stayed with him for three days, and whenever I was hungry he would throw that rope and nail into the sea and pull out a fish. Then he would cook it and I would eat it. After [three days had passed] he said to me, ‘I see that you covet honor (amr). Return to the city, for God is not [properly] worshipped except with knowledge.’

Heeding his ascetic companion’s advice, Abu Madyan returned to Seville, from whence he proceeded to Jerez (Sharish) and Algeciras (al-Jazira al-Khadra’). From Algeciras he crossed the Straits of Gibraltar to Tangier (Tanja) and went from there to Ceuta (Sabta), where he labored for a time in the employ of local fishermen. Impatient to gain the knowledge he so earnestly desired, with the little money he had earned Abu Madyan next traveled to Marrakesh (Marrakush), then the rapidly growing capital of the Almoravid state.

Upon arriving in Marrakesh, Abu Madyan was recruited by these mercenaries and drafted into the regiment of Andalusians that was charged with defending the Almoravid capital. The shaykh apparently suffered further exploitation during the period of his military service, for he mentions that other, more experienced soldiers would regularly steal his wages, leaving him only a little with which to provide for his needs. Finally, someone said to him, ‘If you want to devote yourself to religion, go to the city of Fez (Fas).’

So I turned toward [Fez] and attached myself to its mosque-university (the famous Jami’ al-Qarawiyyin), where I learned to make the ablution and the prayer and sat in the study circles of legists and hadith specialists. I retained nothing of their words, however, until I sat at the feet of a shaykh whose words were retained firmly within my heart. I asked whom he was and was told, ‘Abu’l-Hasan [Ali] ibn Hirzihim’. [I went to this shaykh] and told him that I could memorize only what I had learned from him alone and he said to me, ‘These [others] speak with parts of their tongues, but their words are not worthy [even] to call the prayer. Since I seek [only] God with my words, they come from the heart and enter the heart.’

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