The Holy Men of Medieval Tihâma

by Francine Stone
17 St. Margarets Road
Oxford OX2 6RU

Yemen Update 40:#3

Open at random a Yemeni chronicle from the medieval period -- al-Khazrajî's history of the Rasulid dynasty for instance -- and this would be a typical entry:

On the 21st of the former Jumada 794 (15th April 1392) the birth took place of the sons of the Sultan, his youngest children. At this date too, took place the flight of Ahmed the Seyrite; and on the first day of the latter Jumada the Sultan went down to Zebid, entering it on the 7th. At this date died the judge Burhanu'd-Din Ibrahim son of Ahmed the Tihamite, who was the last to execute the office of judge in his family. [Redhouse II, 205]

Open instead a book of biographies of Holy Men who lived at the same time and this is what you could read:

Two brothers lived in the village of Jarâjir, Shaykh Khalif al-Sa‘dafî and his brother Husayn, and one day their village burned down. It numbered 1300 huts. Shaykh Khalif said to his brother, "I'll help reconstruct the houses of the people and you take care of their possessions and their food", and the two did so. And in this village lived three poets of the Banî Abî Husayn. One was a bad poet but the other two were good and they composed poems about Shaykh Khalif's and Shaykh Husayn's good deeds after the burning of Jarâjir. Now one of the poets had two wives, one in Jarâjir and one in Suma‘. The wife from Suma‘ asked for a new dress to wear to a wedding party. So the poet got up from his Tihâma couch and went to his wife's house in Jarâjir to borrow one of her dresses that was embroidered with pearls. But this wife got angry when she realised what was happening and she smashed the largest pearl on the dress. The man ran away unable to face his wives, but the shaykhs found out what had happened and they offered the man another dress to get him out of his predicament. Shaykh Khalif decided to give it to the poet as a gift. [W80]

These two selections reflect the generic difference between national news and local news. One is history and the other is gossip. But do not dismiss gossip. Much information can be amassed from it. In this one passage about two religious shaykhs (shaykh here means a religious figure not a tribal leader), we have an indication of settlement density, a plan for local disaster relief, a glimpse at the quandaries of polygamous marriage, details of costume design and furniture, mention of two place names to add to the map of Medieval Tihâma, plus a short list for the Booker Prize for poetry in Jarâjir.

The proposal I want to put before you today is that the biographies of the Holy Men of Tihâma warrant close scrutiny, not just by students of mystical Islam, but by ethnographers, architectural historians, naturalists, medical historians, numismatists, linguists, ecologists, archaeologists, and geographers, to mention a few. While the focus of these works is spirituality, the anecdotal material therein rivals, if not exceeds, official chronicles for richness of information about everyday life. Through them one can colour in an otherwise black and white picture of what life was really like on the Red Sea coastal plain and foothills of Tihâma, in the medieval period.

So what are these biographies, Tabaqât series as they are known, and how do they work? In general they are the stories of the lives of famous men, and in a very few cases women, which have been collected, passed down, embellished and corrected by successive generations. Much of the material is repeated faithfully from one biographer to the next but in many instances the biographer will have a fresh slant or his own information to add. The process continues right up till today. Thus The Sufis of Tihâma (al-Tasawwuf fî Tihâma) is a series which Muhammad al-‘Aqîlî published in 1964 and it fits perfectly into the tradition. The biographers themselves can be said to be men with a profound respect for the spiritual life. In some cases they knew from personal experience the places, people, and events involved. One gets a sympathetic overall picture from the point of view of biographers who were very much a part of the tradition and the locale they were documenting.

Their subject matter, the men and women themselves, were mostly Sufi masters ashâb surrounded by other like-minded companions (salahîn); or they were religious leaders (mashâyikh), or teachers of religious thought (fuqahâ'), or scholars (‘ulamâ'), and jurists (qudâ'a) -- people of distinction (al-khawâss) that is. But it must be emphasized they were not necessarily of high station or born to privilege or even literate. Some came from the humblest of backgrounds - shepherds and carpenters. Some were vast landowners. Some were wealthy. Others possessed only one robe and no shoes. The main criterion for inclusion seems to be the attainment of spiritual powers that were manifest, exceptional, beneficial to others and long lasting. In short, miracles. You are right in thinking that these are very similar to the criteria on which canonisation in the Christian church is based, and for this reason one can call them "Saints", bearing in mind that the concept of canonisation does not exist in Islam.

The Tabaqât works are arranged in a variety of ways. Some proceed alphabetically by the person's name. Some are more loosely organised by family or genealogy, and still others are grouped by region. The narrative style tends to be rambling and disjointed, but fortunately the biographical genre ensures that at least some attempt is made to give a notion when the person lived, if in fact his exact dates are not known. Some are collections of biographies of Holy Men from all over Yemen and some concentrate exclusively on Tihâma, the coastal plain which is my field of study. None as far as I am aware have been translated into English.

A number of Tabaqât works are in the public domain. During my fieldwork on Tihâma I have been given access to private collections and manuscripts. These are owned by sayyid families or local historians fuqahâ' or by keepers of the tombs of their saintly ancestors, the manâsib. They are very jealous of their libraries and the manuscripts are often fragmentary, in poor condition and still being added to. The published works which are available, it must be said, are often indifferently edited and almost always devoid of adequate indices. For this reason, it is necessary to sift through them over and over to extract their riches.

A typical entry will first name the holy person and set out his salient qualities, praising him for his learning, his piety, and his powers. Next comes the chain of transmission by which he obtained his religious authority. His teachers and the people who influenced him are given. Often it is his father or uncle who trained him, but it can just as well be a vision or a dream which sets him on his path, or contact with a charismatic individual. It is a feature of these texts that the tarîqa or Sufi Order of the individual is never named, and I tend to believe this is because the information was not relevant, rather than it being a matter of secrecy. If the individual is not local to the place where he exerted his influence, we are given a brief history of his origins, and how he arrived at the locality in question. There then follows a recital of the best remembered stories about his life, the ruwâyât. These often contain quotations from his religious thinking. But equally they include what were believed to have been his miracles, his karâmât. These usually contain the juiciest gossip as we shall see. Finally the place and date of his death are recorded if these are known and we are told where he is buried and whether his tomb is visited in the belief that it will confer blessings baraka on those making the visitation (ziyâra). There then follow details of his posterity. If the person had off-spring of renown, their stories are recounted, using the same arrangement of material. When it comes to the genealogical and geographical details, several of the biographers take pains to spell out the personal names and the place names beyond doubt and to locate them for the reader if they can. These details are a boon for editors and a gold mine for geographers and historians, as you can imagine.

What I want to do is share with you a selection of the stories concerning these remarkable people to demonstrate the practical of information they contain. I am discussing the exoteric information, not the esoteric, and so my apologies to those who want to deepen their appreciation of Sufi practice on Tihâma.

Let's begin with the earliest biography which I have found, first to give a better sense of the genre and secondly because this one like so many others contains a range of valuable information. I paraphrase from several sources. The man's name is Sawd ibn al-Kumayt and he was one of the great shaykhs and masters of enlightenment and miracles. The story goes that when he was a little boy he went out in the night to fetch water with a bucket and while he was drawing it up three beings appeared. Then two of them threw the third violently onto the ground. The one who was being attacked called out "oy, oy, give me water" and the others refused. So the boy offered the man on the ground a drink but the poor soul said he couldn't take it. When the boy asked why, he replied that he was a dead man who had sinned against his community and when he died God assigned two angels of death to torment him day and night from east to west. The boy fainted and when he revived there was no trace of the man or the other two apparitions. From that time Shaykh Sawd turned to a life of good works and deep learning. The village where he lived was called al-Fâshiq, meaning the Cloven Place, because it was there that he miraculously cleaved the rock. He was abstemious and only took his meals at the mosque with his companions, not at his house. He owned 10,000 measures (mu'âd) of land which gave him cotton, says one source, firewood (hatab) says another, that garnered him 70 camel loads (himlân) per annum, all of which he dedicated to charity. His lands were exempted from the jurisdiction of central government, the dîwân, and anybody else, and his heirs own it still, says one source written in the late 9th/15th century. One biographer says he was born in 316/928 and another states he died in 436/1044; a third source assures us he lived for 120 years. He was descended from Qahb b. Râshid b. Bawlân of ‘Akk b. ‘Adnân. Related to him are two family lines which produced holy men of note and whose biographies are given cross referenced elsewhere in the sources.

There is an inference that this Sawd b. al-Kumayt was a Zaydî, which would indeed be very interesting. His tomb lies east of Qanâwis and the site has intriguing features. He is known locally as Walî Sûd -- walî being a term of veneration, usually acquired posthumously. Here we have a story which is not only generous in agrarian detail but contains strong pre-Islamic echoes in the tale of the lost soul. Furthermore it offers an explanation for some unusual aspects of the archaeological site which I found when I went there.

For archaeologists, there is every reason to delve into these biographies for ancient history. One manuscript contains folklore about pre-Islamic Wadi Sihâm, the names of the kings of Wâqir and Jabal Dâmir and Jabal Bura‘ and the extent of their power and what bounty their lands were said to contain. While these are no more than legends by the Middle Ages, they contain wisps of fact that could help archaeologists interpret inscriptions and land use.

For historians who study the medieval period, matters are documented in the court chronicles that can be checked or expanded thanks to nuggets of fact embedded in the local gossip. The biographer Watyût, for instance, describes attacks by the highlanders, Mansûr ‘Abd al-Imâm and al-Sharîf Ibn al-Bakr, on the towns and villages of Wadi Sihâm in 770/1367-68, which Watyût himself witnessed and recounts for us with obvious distress. These events do not figure into al-Khazrajî's accounts at all. His records the pair's aggressions only in the year 791/1388 when Mansûr was killed in battle as he marched on al-Mahâlib and al-Mahjam. [W26 et seq. Redhouse II, 185-6]

If architecture is your interest, these biographies should be looked at for their information about both domestic and religious structures on medieval Tihâma. In one story, ‘Umar, the son of al-Faqîh Muhammad b. Ismâ‘îl al-Mukdish decided to build some houses which are termed in the text "square-shaped" murâba‘ . His father didn't care for them but refrained from interfering. The builder came from Jabal Bura‘ to construct ‘Umar's for him but complained that the log sirw wood (cypress/juniper?) was not good enough and he was about to go back home unless a proper specimen was provided. ‘Umar went to his father and told him what was happening. The faqîh decided to go and see what the matter with the sirw was; he touched it and miraculously it's defective crook was corrected and the builder was satisfied and recommenced work. [W30]

Several aspects of this story are noteworthy - here is evidence for the construction of rectangular plan house rather than the usual round hut (‘ursh). The suggestion is that this shape was becoming trendy in the period, the date of the story being mid 8th/14th century. Here too is information that the builders in this area came from Jabal Bura‘ -- the story takes place in Wadi Sihâm -- and that they might have used the Cupressus sempervirens for ridge beams and centerpoles. The only sirw I have encountered on Tihâma are two poles that are kept locked away and brought out once a year for use in an unusual ritual ceremony at the tomb of Walî Shamsî near Bâjil. They measure eighteen feet in length. I have always been told that Zizyphus spina-christii is the wood cut for spanning and supporting beams today.

As for religious architecture, there are comments which help us trace the evolution of vernacular styles, for example a 14th century brick and plaster mosque in al-Marâwi‘a which was built by the Faqîh Muhammad b. ‘Umar. His biographer says that it had even more light than the mosque of al-Faqîh ‘Umar b. Ibrâhîm al-Bâjilî in Shujayna that featured a style rather similar to mosques going up in the highlands at the time and was bigger than the Ka‘ba in Mecca. Faqîh Muhammad's mosque in al-Marîwi‘a, the writer continues, was filled with a quality of joyousness inside and it had a teak minbâr and wrought iron windows. Near it there was another mosque built by al-Faqîh Ahmad b. ‘Umar al-Ahdal's father that was both elegant and highly decorated, and unlike anything which the biographer had seen in the other Arab towns of Tihâma he knew. [W51 & W13].

Stories about the introduction of technologies crop up in the biographies. One walî on the coast is said to have introduced net fishing, for instance. In the region south of Wadi Sihâm known as Dhu‘âl, Shaykh Muhammad b. Abî Bakr al-Hakamî, a carpenter by trade, is credited with the innovation of the plough fashioned from the bifurcations of tree trunks which grew in abundance in his area. Al-Hakamî lived at the end of the 6th/12th century, and it is entirely possible that this story reflects a major advance in plough design which occurred in the Ayyubid period. [S264]

On the sociological level, hardly any contemporary documents I know are as elucidating as these works. Mores, social status, sexual behaviour, conflict resolution, tribal life, health management, funerary practices, ethnicity, perceptions about diet, dress, and much more figure into story after story. Let me demonstrate just a few of these.

First a tale involving a certain group with remarkably low social status in the society, from which one can recognise the Akhdâm, or "Sweeper" class of today.

During the dynasty of al-Malik al-Mujâhid [721-764/1322-1363] there was a nobleman of al-Mahjam who was out walking one night and saw some of the khâdima, a group of people who were among those who eat the flesh of dead animals. People have no respect for them. They play the drums (tabûl) and dogs eat alongside them. The man saw a woman among them he quite fancied and he decided to ask her parents for her, although his friends advised against it. People were shocked when the marriage took place between a nobleman and a woman of that ilk. But the woman behaved very well. After a time the man grew tired of her and wanted to rid himself of her. Such was his intention when he took her along on one of his trips and set upon her, stabbing her in the abdomen with a knife and leaving her for dead. A shepherd came along, however, and saved her life, giving her shelter and milk to drink, nursing her until she was able to go back to Yemen in secret. The nobleman had returned home and did not even go to make some excuse to woman's parents because their social status was considered too low to warrant it. One night he happened to catch sight of the woman but he thought it was her sister because he believed the girl was dead. The mother of the girl came one day to call on him to convey her daughter's greetings to her ex-husband. He questioned the mother to know if her daughter had told her anything about what had happened. She said no. Evidently she had not mentioned a thing. Upon hearing this the man was ashamed of himself and of what he had done. [W71]

The story goes on to tell how he began to investigate and discovered that the woman who comported herself so nobly had been sired by a knight who had had his way with her mother, and that the nobleman's real father was a base servant with whom his mother had slept in order to get pregnant to avoid divorce when her marriage proved childless. The point of the story being that the apple never falls far from the tree. But the significance of the story for us is that it demonstrates the presence in the 14th century of a social stratum which is very much a part of Tihâma today, giving us an insight into some of its characteristics and how it was regarded.

There are delightful stories, typical of the Tabaqât works, which illustrate common human aspirations to be found at the time. In one, al-Faqîh Muhammad b. Ismâ‘îl al-Hadramî was reading out loud to a group of pious men and his son-in-law Abû Jamâl al-Dîn was providing the explanation and also present were a man from al-Kadrâ' in Sihâm, some one from Bayt ‘Atâ' and a man from al-Ghusn. The Faqîh Muhammad concluded the reading and then said, "It's now time for answers to your prayers. You may ask for anything you like." Jamâl al-Dîn was the first to speak saying, "O God, I ask that my son becomes renowned among scholars." And the man from al-Kadrâ' said, "O God, I ask you to give me back the field the Emir took from me." And the man from al-Ghusn said, "O God, my cousin Leila is getting married to a trader, and tomorrow is her wedding day. I implore you not to let her marry anybody else but me." Lastly the man from Bayt ‘Atâ' said, "O God, I ask to be near you, not far from you." And every one of them had their wishes granted. [W62]

In another tale, this one from the life of the great shaykh of al-Dâhî, al-Faqîh Ismâ‘îl b. Muhammad al-Hadramî, a very wealthy man is about to enter the Sufi order and he asks Shaykh Ismâ‘îl to tell him what he regards as life's pleasures. Ismâ‘îl replies "Following God's recommendations, a biddable wife, a good mount, and a piece of land that's not too far from the house." Now the rich man had a very beautiful wife whom he proceeded to divorce, also giving the shaykh a piece of land near al-Dâhî and a donkey. But the Faqîh Ismâ‘îl berated the man soundly, presumably for having taken him too seriously.

In fact Ismâ‘îl al-Hadramî's sense of humour was well known. A spicy remark made by the Faqîh to his sons turns up in all the biographies. He warns his sons not to marry girls from Zabîd unless they are virgins because he says he had had so many wives from Zabîd, his sons might find themselves taking up with a woman their father had already enjoyed.

While sexual appetite was clearly not something to disqualify a person from the ranks of the pious, there are plenty of examples of behaviour which define the limits of moral acceptability. One such was the son of the holy man ‘Alî b. ‘Umar al-Bâjilî. This son was a drunkard who kept unsavoury company with those named only as ghuzz, an oblique term which seems to mean petty thieves and sexual offenders. One night when drunk this son took a gang of his friends to the house of a neighbour and shamelessly misused his wife. At the time when his father was dying, the son came and beleaguered him for money, knowing it would be the last hand-out. The old man acceded only by giving him leave to recoup from another man money which was owing to the family. The person who owed the debt made the son wait three years for the principal, but he repaid it in the end with interest. The story is a sorry one, frankly told, and from it we can judge where these rural people drew the line. [W10]

There were many holy men with a dark side to them, as their miraculous powers included the ability to curse and harm and even kill those who offended against them or more often against others who were defenseless. From the many stories about these fearful powers, we get a picture of how curses were administered, for instance by laying the finger of the right hand over the finger of the left three times, in this case to deal with a man who had been sent by the village people to bait a certain holy man with insults to see in fact if his powers were real. The taunter soon found himself afflicted in the eye, the arm and the leg. It was considered acceptable to use prayer to punish enemies or even surly attendants, like the camel driver (masâh) who couldn't be bothered to do one faqîh's bidding in the hot noonday scrub and was taken up in a whirlwind along with his donkey to teach him a lesson.

The power of prayer (du‘â') to heal, of course, provides us with a catalogue of afflictions prevalent on Tihâma at the time. Scorpion stings, skulls split in accidents, thorn infections, snake bites, infertility, fevers, mange (jarib), loss of pigmentation (bars), a skin disease known as al-zawm where the skin rots and stinks like dishwater: these were all torments which holy men were reputed to heal. One holy man suffered from menstrual periods like a woman and he was overly thin, but this was taken as a sign of his exceptional piety.

The power of prayer to right wrongs and resolve disputes gives us hundreds of case studies about social inequities like theft, over-taxation, extortion, unfair justice, unpaid debts, abuse of water rights, fear of the authorities, crushing penury. We read about the deferral of student fees, costs of maintaining fields, subsistence strategies in times of drought and famine, to list but a few of the situations which the shaykhs were called in to alleviate.

As for the status of women, one finds mention of women poets, a famous female singer, religious luminaries like the daughter of Ibn Jâbir who was a shaykha in her own right. In one anecdote from the first half of the 7th/13th century, a young man asks a faqîh for the hand of his daughter in marriage. The faqîh refuses saying that the youth is unsuitable for his daughter because she is a scholar and he is not. Disappointed the youth goes off to Ta‘izz to learn the Quran and to study Arabic. He eventually composes a book in rhyme and presents it to the holy man who is sufficiently impressed to allow the marriage to take place. The couple set themselves up in the market town of al-Basît in Wadi Rummân where they form a poets' circle so highly thought of that the Sultan al-Muzaffar attends. [W55]

Lexicographers can profit from reading the saints' lives. The less sophisticated the biographer, the richer the documents are in vernacular. Words like masâha meaning taxes, and al-zarî, defined as an Arab term for that which surrounds a village, have not yet found their way into Piamenta's Dictionary of Post-Classical Yemeni Arabic. Words like khafûsha (a sorghum cake), qutayb (curds), and dahlîz (a domestic unit of which a village in comprised), as well the coinage uwqîya, the verb ghagha (to howl or clamour) -- these are all refreshing to meet as they are generally too colloquial to find their way into more formal texts.

Alas, time does not permit me to tell you more and there is so much more to tell. I haven't mentioned the mobility of ordinary people on Tihâma, the intellectual debates of the period, the power sharing between the religious shaykhs and central government, the supernatural and how it was integrated into normal existence. It was a remarkable time, the Middle Ages on Tihâma -- full of flux and innovation and spiritual adventuring. It was dynamic. It was self-aware. It was ideal for the men and women to flourish who could champion their age, guide it morally and spiritually and hence never be forgotten.

Through these sources, I have come to know at least dozens of good men and women of medieval Tihâma. I know what made them tick and what wonders they wrought, what they dreamed, what they wore, how they comported themselves, how and when they departed this earth.. I know how to make buttermilk so it is not too sweet and not too sour. I know all about Shaykh ‘Alî al-Ahdal's cat, Pearl. I know how annoyed the Faqîh Ahmad al-Haradî got with a fakir from India who pestered him for years to let him teach al-Haradî how to fly. I know why even today it is the custom in Bayt al-Faqîh, after the sunset prayer has been said, to offer a prayer for newborn babies.

Most of all I have a real understanding of what constituted a good human being on medieval Tihâma. And this knowledge grounds me in my work. Perhaps you too will sense how much we have to learn , at every level, from the lives of the Sufis and the saints, and you will sit down and start reading their biographies, if you haven't already. Nafa‘a Allâh bikum.

[This is the long version of a paper delivered at the British Museum, October 11, 1997.]

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