Moroccan Sufism and the Literature of Miracles

William Young

Realm of the Saint: Power and Authority in Moroccan Sufism
By Vincent Cornell
Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998

Religious studies arouse our interest by illuminating key moments in our everyday existence. In even the most mundane endeavors – painting a wall, filing paperwork, washing the dishes – we choose between maximizing personal gain (or, at least, minimizing effort) and "doing things right."

At the moment when we choose "the right way," we do not ask ourselves why; our fingers leap to the task, unbidden. But later, when we add up the costs of "doing things right" in terms of time and effort, we search for a justification. Some feel that such sacrifice is worthwhile because, in a small way, it gives everyone a chance to become the heroic personality that he wants to be. Unfortunately, the standard of private heroism may not be set very high, or the satisfaction derived from "doing a good job" may not be enough to prevent discouragement.

To compensate people for their good works, we could add the reward of public opinion. Public figures, however, will testify to the fickleness of popular sentiment. They often look to the future, instead, for their rewards: "let history judge." The rest of us, wary that these rewards for our sacrifices may prove ephemeral, trust in God.

Vincent Cornell explores some Islamic models for "doing things right" (salah) in his recent book, "Realm of the Saint: Power and Authority in Moroccan Sufism" (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998). He demonstrates that, in premodern Morocco, faith in a divine reward for good action was inextricably tied to hopes for divine release from suffering, that is, faith in miracles (karamat).

Once again, the issue of human suffering and salvation is not an exclusively religious concern. We all entertain hopes that something (modern medicine, political revolution, winning the lottery) will relieve our suffering when we find ourselves without recourse. In Morocco, however, faith in political, technological, and economic solutions was not separated from religious faith. The signs of God’s favor and his power to rearrange the world in favor of the oppressed often came through his instruments, that is, the "saints."

Many saints were vigorous political figures who combined their legal and textual expertise with resistance to tyranny. Cornell relates the story of ‘Abd al-Jalil ibn Wayhlan, who lived in a village near Marrakesh during the Almohad siege of the city (1143 A.D.). The Almohad caliph, who wanted to commandeer the village houses for his troops, ordered the villagers to evacuate them. Out of respect for ‘Abd al-Jalil he made an exception in his case, but ‘Abd al-Jalil preferred to submit to the same unjust order that would expel the other villagers from their homes.

This put the caliph in a quandary; his effort to separate the saint from his followers had failed, and now his order seemed to be directed against one of God’s agents. So he tried another tactic, summoning the saint to his headquarters but allowing the villagers to stay in their houses temporarily. The saint did not (and could not) resist the summons by force of arms; he merely asked for a delay of a few hours, until the afternoon prayer.

By the afternoon, however, the saint had died, and was now making his way in his shroud to the caliph, carried through the streets in a funeral procession. Even more miraculous than this saintly mastery over death, perhaps, was its effect on the caliph. He rescinded his orders, leaving the villagers in peace.

Reading this book will not convince the non-believer that such miracles actually happened (although many other examples, based in the manifestation of extraordinary knowledge rather than supernatural powers, seem more credible). The book will, however, deepen the reader’s understanding of Moroccan Islamic practice.

Cornell shows that many of our conventional distinctions (between Sunnis and Sufis, spiritual leadership and temporal leadership, local "Islams" and the universalistic Islamic tradition, and even Europe and North Africa) cannot easily be applied to Moroccan realities. Cornell’s real mastery of Moroccan religious, intellectual, and social history shows through on every page. He excels in tracing links between local and general developments in Islamic doctrine and practice and does a fine job of placing these developments in political context.

The result is a detailed portrait of Islam in Morocco from the 6th through the 16th centuries. Specialists in Islamic studies and the history of North Africa will find it indispensable. The more general reader may find the technical and historical references hard going, because this work demands more than a little background knowledge. Although written in an accessible style, it is not for everyone.

This article appeared in Al Jadid Vol. 5, No. 27 (Spring 1999)

Copyright © 1999 by Al Jadid

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