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The Shaykh, the Physical Setting and the Holy Site: the diffusion of the Qādirī path in late medieval Palestine*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 December 2008


This article explores the local context of the prominence of Sufism and sanctity in the late medieval period (1250–1500) through an examination of the diffusion of the Qādirī spiritual path in the spatial frame of Palestine. The geographical spread of the major spiritual paths (ṭarīqas) and the emergence of their shaykhs as charismatic figures in the course of the late medieval period has received considerable attention by historians of Sufism. Although the study of the social historical dimensions of the universal evolution and its nuances and variations is in order, patiently asked questions remain open regarding the establishment of the ṭarīqas into locally embedded associations around charismatic shaykhs in particular historical and geographical settings, as well as the role local leaders of the ṭarīqas played in shaping a communities' life and space.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Asiatic Society 2008

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This article represents an extended version of a general discussion of the Qādiriyya in Chapter 3 of my recent work: Daphna Ephrat, Spiritual Wayfarers, Leaders in Piety: Sufis and the Dissemination of Islam in Medieval Palestine (Cambridge, Mass., 2008). I would like to thank the participants of the thematic conversation on re-describing the nexus of Sufism and society (MESA 07 Annual Meeting) for their insightful observations. My thanks also go to Hana Taragan for sharing with me her vast knowledge of the architectural history of the medieval Near East.


1 For a panoramic review of the expansion of Sufism and the evolution of sainthood during the late medieval period, see Hourani, Albert, A History of the Arab Peoples (Cambridge, Mass., 1991), pp. 153157Google Scholar. Bulliet, Richard W., Islam: The View from the Edge (New York, 1994), p. 174Google Scholar, pinpoints the twelfth century as a milestone in this development. The most recent and comprehensive work on the growth of the cult of dead Muslim saints as a fundamental aspect of Islamic piety in the late medieval period are Meri, Josef W., The Cult of Saints among Muslims and Jews in Medieval Syria (Oxford and New York, 2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Taylor, Christopher S., In the Vicinity of the Righteous: Ziyāra and the Veneration of Muslim Saints in Late Medieval Egypt, Islamic History and Civilization, Studies and Texts, Vol. 32 (Leiden, Boston, Cologne, 1999)Google Scholar. While focusing on Egypt (1200–1500), Taylor provides insightful observations for our understanding of the evolution of the saint phenomenon as a whole. See also his extensive bibliography on this field.

2 General discussions of the spread of the Qādiriyya in Syria include Trimingham, J. Spencer, The Sufi Orders (New York and Oxford, 1971), p. 43Google Scholar; Geoffroy, Éric, Le Soufisme en Égypte et en Syrie sous les Derniers Mamelouks et les Premiers Ottomans: Orientations Spirituelles et Enjeux Culturels (Damascus, 1995), pp. 225228Google Scholar.

3 Trimingham, who, in his The Sufi Orders coined the common translation of ṭarīqa as “order,” was also the first to describe a historical pattern that applies to the spread of all Sufi orders. Among recent studies directly challenging Trimingham vis-à-vis the history of specific orders and regions is Ernst, Carl W. and Lawrence, Bruce B., Sufi Martyrs of Love: The Chishti Order in South Asia and Beyond (New York, 2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, esp. Chapter 1: “What is a Sufi Order”. For another example of that kind of approach, see Le Gall, Dina, A Culture of Sufism: Naqshbandis in the Ottoman World (Albany, 2004)Google Scholar.

4 On the history of these two famous families, see especially Pouzet, Louis, Damas au viie/xiiie s. Vie et structures religieuses dans une métropole islamique (Beirut, 1988)Google Scholar, Chapter 4: The ascetic and mystic life in the 13th century, pp. 207–243.

5 On the history of the House of al-Jīlānī in Ḥama, see Zaïm Khenchelaoui et Theirry Zarcone, “La Famille Jîlânî de Hama – Syrie (Bayt al- Jîlânî)”, Journal of the History of Sufism 1–2 (2000). Special Issue: The Qâdiriyya Order. Dedicated to Alexandre Popovic. Theirry Zarcone, Ekrem IŞIN, Arthur Buehler (eds.) (Istanbul, 2000), pp. 53–77.

6 al-Dīn, Mujīr, al-Uns al-jalīl bi-ta'rīkh al-Quds wa'l-Khalīl, 2 parts, new edition (Baghdad, Maktabat al-Nahda, 1995), ii, pp. 184186Google Scholar (biography of Ibn Arslān); al-Sakhāwī, Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad, al-Ḍau' al-lāmi‘ li-ahl al-qarn al-tāsi', 6 vols. (Cairo, 1353 ah),i, pp. 282–287 (bio. of Ibn Arslān); al-Ghazzī, Najm al-Dīn, al-Kawākib al-sā'ira bi-a'yān al-mi'a al-‘ashira, ed. Jabbūr, J., 3 vols. (Beirut, al-Maṭba'at al-Amīr Kāniyya, 1945), i, pp. 7477Google Scholar (biography of Abū l-‘Awn al-Jaljūlī).

7 Mujīr al-Dīn, al-Uns al-jalīl, ii, p. 184; al-Sakhāwī, al-Ḍau' al-lāmi', i, p. 282.

8 Al-Ghazzī, al-Kawākib, i, p. 74.

9 Al-Sakhāwī, al-Ḍau' al-lāmi‘ i, pp. 282–283, 285.

10 Ibid., 1, p. 284.

11 For al-Ghazzī and his compilation, see Geoffroy's discussion of various sources for the study of Sufism in the Mamluk period, in Le Soufisme, pp. 23–24.

12 Al-Ghazzī, al-Kawākib, i, pp. 74–75.

13 Al-Sakhāwī, i, pp. 282–284.

14 Al-Sakhāwī, al-Ḍau' al-lāmi', i, p. 286. See also Mujīr al-Dīn, ii, p. 175, for a slightly different version of the story.

15 Al-Ghazzī, al-Kawākib, i, pp. 74–76.

16 Ibid., i, pp. 75–76, ii, pp. 240–242. Geoffroy relates to this story in Le Soufisme, pp. 115–116.

17 This conclusion is in line with recent studies that, while focusing on the world of religious learning, suggest a much greater degree of integration and acculturation of the Mamluks into Muslim society than is described by religious scholars and historians. The pioneering work on this subject is that of Haarmann, Ulrich, especially his “Arabic in Speech, Turkish in Lineage: Mamluks and Their Sons in the Intellectual Life of Fourteenth-Century Egypt and Syria”, Journal of Semitic Studies 33 (1988), pp. 81114CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 See N. Z. Davis's important suggestion on the need to examine the range of people's relations with the sacred and the supernatural, so as not to fragment those practices, beliefs, and institutions which for different segments of the community of believers constitute a whole: Davis, N. Z., “Some Tasks and Themes in the Study of Popular Religion”, in The Pursuit of Holiness, ed. Trinkhaus, C. (Leiden, 1974), pp. 312313Google Scholar.

19 Al-Ghazzī, al-Kawākib, i, p. 75

20 Ibid.

21 See especially, Amīn, Muḥammad, al-Awqāf wal-ḥayat al-ijtima'iyya fī Miṣr 648–923/1250–1517 (Cairo, 1980)Google Scholar; Leonor Fernandes in a number of articles and in her book: The Evolution of a Sufi Institution: the Khanqah (Berlin, 1988).

22 Relevant studies include the following: al-Dīn, Kamāl, al-‘Asalī, , Ma‘āhid al-‘ilm fī bayt al-maqdis (Amman, 1981)Google Scholar; idem, Wathā'iq maqdisiyya ta'rīkhiyya (Amman, 1983–89); Little, Donald P., “Jerusalem Under the Ayyūbids and Mamlūks 1187–1516 AD”, in Jerusalem in History, Asali, K. J., ed. (New York, 1989), pp. 177199Google Scholar; Y. Frenkel, “Political and Social Aspects of Islamic Religious Endowments (waqf): Saladin in Cairo (1169–1173) and Jerusalem (1187–1193)”, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (1999), pp. 1–20; Drory, Joseph, “Jerusalem in the Mamluk Period”, in Jerusalem in the Middle Ages, ed. Kedar, B. Z. (Jerusalem, Yad Izhaq Ben-Zvi, 1979): esp. p. 165 (Hebrew)Google Scholar.

23 For details, see Ephrat, Spiritual Wayfarers, Leaders in Piety, Table 3.2 Khānqās and Zāwiyas in Ayyubid and Mamluk Jerusalem and Hebron.

24 See Frenkel, Y., “The Endowment of al-Madrasa al-Ṣalāḥiyya in Jerusalem by Saladin”, in Palestine during the Mamluk Period, ed. Drory, J. (Jerusalem, 1993), pp. 6485 (Hebrew)Google Scholar.

25 For examples of this blending in Mamluk Cairo, see Berkey, Jonathan, The Transmission of Knowledge in Medieval Cairo: A Social History of Islamic Education (Princeton, 1992), pp. 4750, 56–60CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On this subject generally, see also Fernandes, The Evolution of a Sufi Institution, p. 33 ff, pp. 97–108.

26 Al-Sakhāwī, al-Ḍau' al-lāmi', i, p. 283.

27 Mujīr al-Dīn, al-Uns al-jalīl, ii, p. 160.

28 Donald P. Little dwelled on the development of this distinction, summarising previous research on the nature and function of the various Sufi establishments in Mamluk Egypt based on the study of surviving buildings and their deeds of endowments. See Little, “The Nature of Khānqhās, Ribāṭs, and Zāwiya under the Mamlūks”, in Islamic Studies Presented to Charles J. Adams, eds. Wael Ibn Hallaq and Donald P. Little (Leiden, 1991), esp. pp. 93–96.

29 Mujīr al-Dīn, al-Uns al-jalīl, i, p. 34; ii, p. 144 (in his biography of al-Shāshī).

30 Fernandes, “Some Aspects of the Zāwiya in Egypt at the Eve of the Ottoman Conquest”, Annales islamologiques 19 (1983), pp. 12–14.

31 Al-Sakhāwī, al-Ḍau' al-lāmi', i, p. 284.

32 See the remarks of Thomas Head in his introduction to Medieval Hagiography: An Anthology, Head ed. (New York and London, 2001), pp. xxii-xxiii.

33 A recent study by Daniella Talmon-Heller provides a comprehensive picture of the growth of pilgrimage sites in Syria during the Zangid and Ayyubid periods: Talmon-Heller, Islamic Piety in Medieval Syria: Mosques, Cemeteries and Sermons under the Zangids and Ayyubids (1146–1269) (Leiden, 2007), pp. 184–198.

34 On the intense and deliberate policy of Islamisation of the Palestinian landscape initiated by Baybars in the second half of the thirteenth century, see Frenkel, Y., “Baybars and the Sacred Geography of Bilād al-Shām: a Chapter in the Islamisation of Syria's Landscape”, Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 25 (2001), pp. 153170Google Scholar.

35 For the contribution of Sufis to the cultural transformation of landscape of villages surrounding Jerusalem, see Luz, Nimrod, “Aspects of Islamization of Space and Society in Mamluk Jerusalem and its Hinterland”, Mamluk Studies Review 6 (2002), pp. 133153Google Scholar. See also, Ephrat, Spiritual Wayfarers, Part 3: Lodge and Tomb, for additional examples and analysis of Sufis as agents of Islamisation in this setting.

36 For examples, see Elad, Amikam, “The Coastal cities of Eretz-Israel in the Arab Period (640–1099) on the Basis of Arab Sources”, Cathedra 8 (1978), pp. 175176 (Hebrew)Google Scholar; Khalilieh, H., “Arsuf and the Defense Patterns of Jund Filastine during the Years 640–1099: Ribats and Mihrabs”, in The Encounter of Crusaders and Muslims in Palestine as Reflected in Arsuf, Sayyiduna ‘Ali and Other Coastal Sites, eds. Roll, I., Tal, O. and Winter, M. (Tel Aviv, 2007), pp. 135137 (Hebrew)Google Scholar.

37 On the development of the traditions about the sanctity of the frontier towns in early Islamic tradition, see especially Livne-Kafri, Ofer, “Jerusalem and the Sanctity of the Frontier Cities in Islam”, Cathedra 94 (2000), pp. 7588 (in Hebrew)Google Scholar. About the religious significance and attributes ascribed to murābaṭa, see M. Bonner, “Some Observations Concerning the Early Development of Jihad on the Arab-Byzantine Frontier”, Studia Islamica, 75, pp. 5–31; S. Bashir, “Apocalyptic and Other Materials on Early-Muslim Wars: A Review of Arabic Sources”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (new series, 1991), i/ii, pp. 173–207.

38 Muḥammad Amīn makes this observation in al-Awqāf wal-ḥayāt al-ijtimā‘iyya fī Miṣr 648–923/1250–1517 (Cairo, 1980), p. 111.

39 An extensive discussion of the Mamluk sea policy and the political history of the coast is Albrecht Fuess, Auswirkungen mamlukischer Seepoltik auf Beirut die syro-palästinensische Küste (1250–1517) (Leiden, 2001).

40 On the origins of this tradition, see especially Bonner, Michael, Aristocratic Violence and Holy War: Studies in the Jihad and the Arab Byzantine Frontier (New Haven, CT, 1996), pp. 34107Google Scholar.

41 In the Mamluk period, in addition to its function as a castle built on the shore to protect the coastal town, served its residents as a mosque where they could perform their religious rituals. On the definition of the term, see Muḥammad Amīn, al-Muṣṭalaḥāt al-m'māriyya fī l-wathā'iq al-mamlūqyya (Cairo, Dār al-Nashr, nd), p. 21. It is also possible that with the passage of time the building developed into a mosque named Ibn Arslan after the shaykh and standing up to 1948. On Ibn al-Arslān (or Raslān) mosque, see Mayer, L. A., Pinkerfeld, J., and Hirschberg, J. W., Some Religious Buildings in Israel (Jerusalem, 1950), p. 34Google Scholar.

42 Al-Sakhāwī, al-Ḍau' al-lāmi', i, p. 284.

43 Mujīr al-Dīn, al-Uns al-jalīl, ii, p. 72.

44 About the history of the shrine, see Mayer, L.A., Saracenic Heraldry (Oxford, 1933), pp. 310314Google Scholar; Petersen, Andrew, “A Preliminary eds. Report on Three Muslim Shrines in Palestine”, Levant 28 (1996), pp. 103108CrossRefGoogle Scholar; idem, “The Tomb of Benjamin and Other Old Testament Figures”, in Egypt and Syria in the Fatimid, Ayyubid and Mamluk Era III, eds. U. Vermeulen and J. Van Steenbergen (Leuven, 2001), pp. 365–366.

45 Mujīr al-Dīn, al-Uns al-jalīl, ii, p. 72.

46 On the architectural development of the site, see the Taragan, Hana, “The Tomb of Sayyidunā ‘Alī in Arsuf: the Story of a Holy Place”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Vol. 14, Part 2 (July 2004), pp. 83102Google Scholar.

47 Mujīr al-Dīn, al-Uns al-jalīl, ii, p. 73.

48 See Taragan, “The Tomb”, about the three periods in the development of the site: the burial of ‘Alī b. ‘Alīm (474/1081), the visit of Baybars to the site (663/1265), and the renovation of the mashhad (886–890/1482–1485).

49 Mujīr al-Dīn, al-Uns al-jalīl, ii, p. 73.

50 Sara Hamilton and Andrew Spicer make these comments in the introduction to Defining the Holy: Sacred Space in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, eds. Sara Hamilton and Andrew Spicer (Aldershot, 2005), pp. 1–2.

51 Daniella Talmon-Heller makes this observation in Islamic Piety in Medieval Syria, p. 207. In Egypt, the first organised-group ziyāra took place in the first half of the thirteenth century. See Taylor, In the Vicinity of the Righteous, pp. 62–63.

52 Mujīr al-Dīn, al-Uns al-jalīl, ii, p. 72.

53 Ibid., ii, p. 73.

54 Ibid. p. 72.

55 Al-Ghazzī, al-Kawākib, ii, p. 77.

56 For a detailed view of the site as surveyed around the mid-twentieth century, see Mayer, L. A., Pinkerfeld, J., and Hirschberg, J. W., Some Religious Buildings in Israel (Jerusalem, 1950), pp. 2729Google Scholar. See also, A. Petersen, “Ramla after the Crusades”, in Vermeulen and Van Steenbergen, Egypt and Syria, pp. 351–352.

57 For the notion of persona and its performing character, see Goffman, E., The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York, 1959), pp. 1776Google Scholar; Mauss, M., “La Notion de Personne, Celle de Moi”, in Sociologie et Entropologie, 6th edition (Paris, 1995), pp. 333362Google Scholar. For charismatic performances in contemporary Sufi communities, see P. G. Pinto, “Performing Baraka: Sainthood and Local Spirituality in Syrian Sufism”, in On Archaeology of Sainthood and Local Spirituality in Islam: Past and Present Crossroads of Events and Ideas (Yearbook of the sociology of Islam 5) (Bielefeld, 2004), pp. 195–211.

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