What was life like for a Sufi intellectual in seventeenth-century Morocco? While that wasn’t what al-Ḥasan al-Yūsī set out to tell us in The Discourses, composed in the 1680s CE, the book nonetheless gives us a picture of his life and time:
By M Lynx Qualey
The peripatetic al-Ḥasan al-Yūsī was in his fifties, and arguably the most influential and well-known Moroccan intellectual of his generation, when he found himself sent by Moulay Ismāʿīl to live near the ruins of the Dilāʾ Sufi lodge. It was in this moment, when he was under quasi–house arrest by Morocco’s second Alawite ruler, that the scholar set down The Discourses, the first volume of which has now been edited and translated to English as a “labor of love” by Justin Stearns, Associate Professor in Arab Crossroads Studies at NYU Abu Dhabi.
Although al-Yūsī is remembered foremost as a logician and a saint, The Discourses presents other sides to the seventeenth-century Sufi intellectual, offering up his culinary and digestive opinions, his thoughts on composing poetry, a number of amusing anecdotes, and tips for parents who are dealing with late walkers.
This wide-ranging, digressive seventeenth-century account is largely inward-looking; it’s almost entirely uninterested in Europe or in al-Yūsī’s contemporaries in Cairo or Baghdad. And yet it also fluidly weaves history from the seventh through tenth centuries of the Arab East with the Morocco of his times.
In this first of a two-part discussion, supported by the Library of Arabic Literature, Stearns answers a few questions about his own long journey with al-Yūsī, including how he met al-Yūsī, how he situates this work, and why he thought, “If there was ever a book I’d run into that should be translated, this was probably it.”
So how did you arrive at this point with al-Yūsī (d. 1691 CE), of editing and translating The Discourses?
Justin Stearns: I first met al-Yūsī when I was working on my book on plague and contagion, Infectious Ideas. Maribel Fierro in Madrid said, “Hey, you should really have a look at al-Yūsī, he’s always interesting.”
At this point, I’d never heard of al-Yūsī. I was focused on the history of al-Andalus, and suddenly I was handed this Moroccan scholar from the seventeenth century. I started paging through, and I thought, “His whole way of writing about contagion is new, fresh, innovative.” So that was twenty years ago.
And what did you find fresh and innovative, in that moment?
JS: The book that I wrote was on Christian and Muslim attitudes to contagion—contagion being an issue that’s of special relevance right now—and it’s also an issue that took up a lot of time for Muslim scholars. There was a project of trying to reconcile things that the prophet had said, some of which seemed to be against the idea of the transmission of disease, and some of which seemed to support it.
So it’s a scholarly problem, and it crops up over a thousand years, and a lot of people write about it in different ways. Al-Yūsī wrote about it with an exceptional degree of subtlety, and that grabbed my attention right off the bat, as an intellectual historian.
The passage on contagion appeared in this much longer work, The Discourses, about which I knew nothing at the time, and I started looking at it more closely, and then reading about the work, and then came the realization that earlier scholars—Jacques Berque among them—had highly valued this work. So I was curious.
It was a couple of years later that I met Phil Kennedy and learned about the LAL project, and then I thought: If there was ever a book I’d run into that should be translated, this was probably it.
What do we know about al-Yūsī? I read him as a conservative, self-assured, with a knack for vivid anecdote and detail. But after spending so much time with his prose, how would you describe him?
JS: He’s Amazigh, he’s not Arab. He doesn’t make even a slight attempt to claim that he’s descended from the Prophet Muhammad at a time when all the power has just shifted—and will again shift, in his lifetime—toward a dynasty that makes those claims. And yet he comes in and demonstrates this massive ability with the Arabic language and the Islamic scholarly milieu.
He tells us his father was illiterate, and thus he’s coming from a relatively socially humble background. And yet he’s able to assert himself in these Sufi lodges, and to excel in them to such an extent that he expects recognition and honor from the scholarly aristocracy of Fez when he comes there in the 1660s, and then he writes dismissively of the scholars of Fez when he does not receive it.
He’s unwilling to justify overthrowing power. He’s quite comfortable with political injustice — while at the same time speaking out against abuses — because he believes that’s the way of the world.
…although he does make it clear we shouldn’t oppress others.
JS: We shouldn’t. But ultimately, for al-Yūsī, any kind of a social breakdown that would come along with an attempt to overthrow an unjust ruler is undesirable, because it would bring about more suffering.
Purify yourself, focus on your relationship with God, and don’t get caught up in all this ego stuff. Don’t go off and be a revolutionary.
While this is certainly not an autobiography, there seems to be a lot of al-Yūsī in the text. He explicitly notes that it’s become important for a writer to identify himself, and he tells us who he is, who his family was, where he’s been, where he’s studied with, which people pleased with him, and much more.
JS: Yes, that’s what made me feel that this text could be of interest to people who are not just interested in seventeenth-century Moroccan intellectual history, but more broadly—because of the degree of the autobiographical that comes in. There’s almost a Tristam Shandyesque slipping from one thing to the next, and you’re not really sure what’s coming. At any point you could open the page and you’re not sure what you’re going to get: a detailed citation of pre-Islamic poetry, or contemporary Moroccan political history, or a little story about someone he met.
Al-Yūsī has this amazing habit of coming back and giving these little moments which are delightful, these little slice-of-life pieces about himself, about his contemporaries. The stories that he relays from his teacher, about al-Maqqarī in Cairo for example, are just priceless. I haven’t seen this material anywhere else, and it’s just these great stories that, for instance, al-Maqqarī sent somebody around every morning to go through the streets of Cairo to find out the day’s news and report to him. Where else do you get those kinds of little slice-of-life moments? For historians such as myself you don’t get them in chronicles, you never really get them in letters, you only get them in these little moments, these asides.
It’s not quite the same as a purely autobiographical text, but it’s almost more interesting for that. They’re more like mini-essays. I do think that the work, for that reason, can be read by people who aren’t interested in seventeenth-century Morocco.
What do we know about how he would’ve composed it? It does seem to have this shambling structure, attacking whatever subject was of interest to him in that moment. He wrote it over several years, in his favorite zāwiyah (or Sufi lodge).
JS: It’s kind of a weird moment. Moulay Ismail, the second major ruler of the Alawites, embarks on basically a 50-year project to pacify Morocco, and during the process sends al-Yūsī to the Dilāʾ lodge.
Here, I’m reminded a little bit of how the Moroccans dealt with the scholar Aḥmad Bābā from Timbuktu after they toppled the Songhay empire in 1591. What do you do with prominent members of a community of whose political loyalty you are unsure? Essentially, you put them on house arrest. In Aḥmad Bābā’s case, they grabbed him and then brought him to Morocco for forced exile. In al-Yūsī’s case, Moulay Ismail went through the tribes of the Middle Atlas, trying to make sure that everybody’s in line, and he basically said: Okay, al-Yūsī, you go and sit over there for a couple years.
I don’t think it’s so much that he didn’t trust al-Yūsī, but al-Yūsī was prominent enough in his own social group that he was seen as a potential source of danger.
Essentially, that’s how al-Yūsī gets to this place. And it’s hard not to think that there’s a little bit of salt being rubbed into wounds here, that Moulay Ismail forces him to go and hang out in the ruins of the zāwiyah that Rashid, the first Alawite ruler, had razed to the ground. I wish we knew more. I don’t really know what it means to live in a destroyed Sufi lodge, because it doesn’t sound like fun. It sounds cold and miserable, and you don’t have your books, not to mention I wonder where the food comes from.
So The Discourses would’ve been composed in possibly somewhat trying circumstances, in terms of just the practicalities of life, but also one in which he had some time and distance to reflect.
And although he travels a great deal inside Morocco, when he writes this, he’s never yet traveled outside the country.
JS: Al-Yūsī does not live a terribly long life; he dies when he’s 60. The Discourses is being written when he’s in his 50s, the decade before he passes away. He’s lived through a tumultuous period of Moroccan history, and he’s traveled the country extensively. He has not left Morocco at this point. After he finishes The Discourses, he will briefly go on pilgrimage to the East, and his son, who accompanies him, writes about his journey on the hajj.
But, from what we know, al-Yūsī wasn’t terribly interested in talking to people outside Morocco. He didn’t do the traditional thing of going to Cairo, meeting all the greats, so that everyone would greet and praise him. He seems to stay more to himself. Then he returns home and dies almost immediately thereafter.
So it’s in this period of exile that al-Yūsī has time to think back and to compile all these things. And from his notes, it seems he may not have had everything with him. At least not when it comes to his poetry.
He does say most of his poetry had been lost.
JS: I don’t fully understand that. We have copies of his diwan, which has now been edited. It may be rhetorical, or it may be that there was a lot of his poetry that he never really fully set down.
I particularly enjoyed his passages about composing poetry, how he referred to it as a halal magic. But he’s not remembered for his turns of phrase?
JS: One of the people who’s done a lot of interesting work on al-Yūsī lately is Khalid El-Rouayheb, and he’s looked at al-Yūsī almost entirely as a logician. What we do know, in terms of al-Yūsī’s legacy, is that—outside of Morocco—his legacy is chiefly that of a logician.
After his death, al-Yūsī’s students traveled to Cairo and further east, and they were able to transmit a kind of revival of logic, which Khaled El-Rouayheb sees al-Yūsī contributing to in Morocco. Thus the central Arab lands of the Ottoman Empire are revivified through the margins in the seventeenth century, and that’s the role that al-Yūsī plays.
But although al-Yūsī is, according to one of his teachers (who he quotes), a “a spring from which the people of the East and the West can drink,” he doesn’t seem to be writing for the people of Cairo or Damascus.
JS: I think he’s writing for his people, and his people are from Morocco, and his people are largely from an Amazigh background. He’s thinking of the rural Sufi lodges. That’s the other thing I find so striking about this—how much of Moroccan scholarship at the time is rural, and how much is being carried out in what we might consider nontraditional centers of learning. These centers become firmly established under the Saadis in the sixteenth century, and then after the Saadis collapse, the intellectual infrastructure has now been set up, so that they can flourish.
The two main ones are the Nāṣirī zāwiyah in Tamegroute and the Dilāʾ zāwiyah in the Middle Atlas, and those are the two that al-Yūsī is most prominently affiliated with, and they’re the ones that he returns to throughout The Discourses.
I also think a reader from elsewhere in the region might have a hard time grasping the geography; he talks a lot about specific sites inside Morocco.
JS: That’s why I was very happy that Martin Grosch put together the map at the beginning of the volume, in order to try to get at that. I think that people who don’t take a little bit of time to familiarize themselves might be lost, and I try to do a little of that in the introduction.
The Discourses also works as a counterweight, because LAL doesn’t have any other Moroccan works from the Muslim West (with the possible exception of Bruce Fudge’s translation of A Hundred and One Nights, which is solely extant in Maghribi/Andalusi manuscripts), to remind people of this amazing text. It’s interesting that, in the academy, if you work on North Africa, that’s its own thing. If you don’t work on North Africa, you can be profoundly unaware of anything that happens in the West.
Where did this manuscript travel, and where can you find it today? It seems you worked solely with manuscripts held in Morocco?
JS: It’s widely available in the (Moroccan) National Library. They have many, many copies. When I went to the Süleymaniye (in Istanbul) for other reasons, to look at other things, I did not see any copies of The Discourses, but I haven’t looked in Dar al-Kutub (in Cairo) and other places, nor traced out its geographical extensions. That would be interesting to see.
My impression is—I’d be surprised if it were widely read outside of Morocco.
After his death, his students traveled with his teachings but not his texts?
JS: We know that al-Yūsī’s commentaries on Sanusi, the famous fifteenth-century Algerian theologian and logician, traveled back East. But as far as I know, that was the limit of al-Yūsī’s influence—they came through his works on logic. Less his works on theology, or his works on poetry. That does not seem to have had a broad impact.
And al-Yūsī’s legacy inside Morocco?
JS: On the one hand, we can look at people a hundred years later such as al-Turunbati, who writes a taxonomy of knowledge, and who cribs extensively from al-Yūsī. I think he cites him once, and then he copies a lot of other stuff. And then [al-Mahdi] al-Wazzani, when he’s writing at the start of the twentieth century, quotes al-Yūsī extensively.
So, on the one hand, in Moroccan scholarship, I don’t think al-Yūsī ever goes away. On the other hand, al-Yūsī doesn’t get edited until the 1970s, and al-Muḥaḍarāt is the first text of his to be edited, by the amazing Moroccan historian Muhammad Hajji. Over the last twenty years, Hassan Hamani, who is a descendent of al-Yūsī, has made it a personal mission of his to edit everything else that’s extant. So now almost all of al-Yūsī’s extant works have been edited, but that’s a relatively recent phenomenon.
One of my favorite anecdotes about his legacy comes from outside Sefrou. During the late 1960s, Sefrou was a hub of American anthropologists in Morocco, including Clifford Geertz and Lawrence Rosen. Geertz’s student Paul Rabinow ended up in a small town that happens to be al-Yūsī’s hometown, near Sefrou. Rabinow didn’t read Arabic, and he wasn’t interested in the classical tradition. Everything Geertz knew about al-Yūsī—who he used in his work—he got from Jacques Berque. And so they don’t have any connection to the classical tradition, but also Rabinow wrote, at the end of his reflections on fieldwork, that the people in the village had lost their connection with al-Yūsī. He was a prominent saint, but they didn’t have any connection to his other world; his theological writing, his letters.
On the scholarly side, for many people he never went away. But those are people who are reading the manuscripts.
So he’s a saint and he’s a logician. But he’s not remembered for his humor or his poetry?
JS: In the broader Moroccan reception, I don’t think so. Even if you look at Abdelfattah Kilito, and how Kilito writes about al-Yūsī, we come back to the “speaking truth to power” moment. It’s all about the politics. That’s what he’s interested in, because that’s what he can use to riff on in terms of the contemporary relationship of the Moroccan intellectual to power.
There’s another funny story about a guy who had no teeth.
JS: I’m not sure if he just thinks they’re funny, or if he’s giving us stories to keep us reading? What I do know is that they’re unusual. At times, when reading through the biographical literature, you can find moments like this. But they’re few and far between.
A favorite one of mine is when we’re in Tangier. This is one of the very few moments when a European Christian pops up. Much of the scholarship about seventeenth-century Morocco in my field is about the connections with Europe, and generally al-Yūsī is not interested in that world at all. So when it does come into the narrative, I was struck by it. The basic point is that the European is critical of Moroccan food.
Those are great little stories, but what point do they have? Why do we want to know what Moulay Rashid and al-Yūsī were talking about when it came to drinking a draught of basil against diarrhea?
Every time when I felt like I was never going to get through this—and now I’ve started on the second volume—those moments made me feel like it was fun.
Next Thursday, the discussion continues with a discussion of al-Yūsī’s sometimes-contradictory takes on the topics of genealogy and women, belonging to the Amazigh community, the trustworthiness of saints, and…lice collars.
This series is supported by the Library of Arabic Literature.