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 Discoursescomposed in the 1680s CE, the book nonetheless gives us a picture of his life and time. Here, the second part of a discussion with al-Yūsī’s English-language translator, Justin Stearns:

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 DilāʾSufi 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 second 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 his sometimes-contradictory takes on the topics of genealogy and women, belonging to the Amazigh community, the trustworthiness of saints, and…lice collars.

The Discourses starts out with a long and seemingly contradictory section on genealogy. What are we supposed to do with all this at the end? What do we get out of it?

Justin Stearns: There are a couple interesting moments in the genealogy section. One is where he says that people forget where they come from, once they’ve settled in cities. It’s hard not to think about Ibn Khaldūn when reading that, but it’s all al-Yūsī. He’s referring back to the Arab grammarians of earlier periods to think about where people come from.

And then, yes, he presents contradictory information. He presents beautiful quotes of poems on people who pride themselves for where they come from, but then he presents people who want to be remembered for who they are. And he has these great anecdotes. A prince, for instance, says he wants to hire a guy as his vizier, and the guy says, But I don’t have anybody in my family who comes from that background, and the prince says, Well I’m going to make you the origin.

I do think al-Yūsī on the one hand is very respectful of people who come from noble origins, but at the same time is also very aware is that what matters in the end is the reputation you create for yourself. And he’s balancing those two things.

While working on this, it was difficult for me not to think about the importance of genealogy in the Moroccan political and social landscape of that time period. It’s not just a question of Sharifian origins and who has the right to rule and who has the right to prominence. In the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, we see the rising importance of Sharifian descent. But there’s also this fascinating question of people of Jewish descent who’d converted to Islam, and there was a question in this century about whether they were “as real” Muslims as people who’d converted earlier.

Did you get a sense that he felt an anxiety about his place with Moulay Ismail, and over what the new rulers would feel about The Discourses? Or that he was inserting himself into the political times?

JS: I’m sure he was conscious of it. One of the interesting things about the Alawites is that they were big fans of the Dilāʾis before they became political rivals. Moulay Rashid spent time at the zāwiyah before he raised and army and razed it. Al-Yūsī has those great anecdotes of joking around with Moulay Rashid at court, after he gets dragged off to Fez, talking about what’s the best remedy for diarrhea. But he never comes across, to me, as if he’s terribly worried about what they’re going to think about him; then again, it’s hard to get at that through the literary aspects of what he’s doing.

I don’t get the sense that he’s writing it for a political purpose. I think it’s more that he’s thinking it through intellectually within the framework in which he works.

It’s worth pointing out that this framework for him is profoundly Eastern. For someone who has no interest in what his colleagues have to say in seventeenth-century Cairo, al-Yūsī is remarkably interested in everything that’s going on in the East between the seventh and the tenth centuries. He’s very interested in showing us that genealogy is something that’s been prominent in the Arabic tradition for a thousand years.

Although Amazigh people were also interested in genealogy, I’ll have you know! And they are nothing like goats. Al-Yūsī says:

JS: That’s such a weird passage! Dude, did you have to go ask to find out about that?

I mean, didn’t he…grow up Amazigh?

JS: Yes, exactly. I still don’t know what to make of it. Perhaps it’s a performative moment, as if he’s become so Arabized that he’s distanced from his own people. But that doesn’t seem to be a necessary thing to point out.

He also doesn’t seem to be ashamed of being Amazigh. I thought he might be writing that for the non-Amazigh Arabophone reading community, putting himself in their place?

JS: It’s important to remember that the majority of his readers are also going to be Amazigh. At almost all of these centers of learning, these other scholars are like him.

Okay then maybe he heard it from one person—Amazighs don’t have a sense of genealogy—and he’s rebutting that one guy he met out on the road…

JS: Al-Yūsī does witness a moment of debate in Moroccan society about what a person actually has to know to be a Muslim, and how much detail you have to be able to get into as a member of the common people.

It doesn’t fully come across in The Discourses, that this is a wide-ranging debate with historical roots that’s been going on for a while in North Africa. But in al-Yūsī’s case, the protagonists are these zealots who come in and say: If you don’t get everything right, then we’re not going to eat the food that you’ve slaughtered, and we’re not going to sit with you. This movement only gets wiped out by the plague—it doesn’t get resolved through the massive work that al-Yūsī writes on this, Mashrab al-ʿāmm wa-l-khāṣṣ min kalimat al-ikhlāṣ.

So that’s the context.

In some ways, these linguistic and ethnic tensions do have this contemporary saliency in Morocco. Things have changed radically over time, but they continue to be intelligible as potential points of tension.

I found some parts wonderfully present and salient. I mean, there’s an old man sitting in Marrakesh telling funny stories…

JS: Yes! Hard not to think of Jemaa al-Fnaa.

 In the same vein as genealogy, I felt there was contradictory information about whether it was ever okay to trust a pretty woman. But on the other hand, there’s a woman student at §33.25, who it seems perfectly okay to trust.

JS: I see two things going on here. On the one hand, there are passages in the text that are blatantly misogynist. There’s one passage about a bad wife being like wearing a collar of lice.

Yeah, the lice collar, that seems unpleasant.

JS: So it’s a relentlessly male text, in that way; it’s being written and spoken to a male audience.

But then you have these moments—and I think it’s part of the broader tradition of Sufi literature—of women who’ve achieved levels of spiritual prominence, where they are held up as models, but it’s also clear that these are the exceptions. The anecdote you cite is from ninth-tenth century Baghdad.

Here, they’re using the case of a woman, who—like Rābiʿah al-ʿAdawiyyah, or whoever else you want to choose—is the model here. But they’re a model almost because they’ve stepped out of all the other tropes of femininity. They’re now in a position beyond gender, so to speak.

Also, he has these touching moments with his wife.

Yes! There are two that I remember. One is when his wife wants to get pregnant, and there’s another when his little girl hasn’t walked, but then she visits a saint and walks.

JS: And notice how, in that case, they say, “The servants took her.” They don’t even go to the saints’ shrine themselves—they send the children with the servants. Which makes you then wonder, when he’s hanging out in the ruined zāwiyah, of what kind of entourage he has to prepare his food and to give him the domesticity that he needs in order to write The Discourses.  

It’s hidden from me. I don’t see where we can find that information.

What do we know about his family life? His father was illiterate but had powerful dreams. His wife was sad when she didn’t get pregnant, and she was pleased when she did. Being married to her is (probably) not like wearing a collar of lice.

JS: His sister misses him. He has a moment when he visits his sister, and she cries. It’s a whole “hello—goodbye” moment. As soon as she sees him, she’s crying since he’s about to leave.

I don’t find him talking about his son—the son who will then accompany him on hajj and write a whole book about it. That book has now been edited and printed; it came out a year or two ago in Morocco.

He doesn’t seem to leave a genealogical legacy, after his son. He leaves a legacy of students.

There are many instances where saints are real—such as where his daughter learns to walk. But I was surprised that al-Yūsī also admits to being fooled, such as when he rushed up and kissed the hand of a saint who turned out to be false. What is he doing here?

 JS: Usually, al-Yūsī stands out by not being taken in. But there is that moment where there’s a messianic pretender in Sijilmāsah, and he’s taken in by him. Messianism is in the air. He has this long and very critical section on Ibn Abī Maḥallī, the failed messiah who died about twenty years before al-Yūsī was born.

There are a lot of spiritual pretenders, and al-Yūsī is very wary of that. This points to his spiritually conservative nature, in a sense. He’s critical of Ibn Abī Maḥallī because he finds him too focused on achieving worldly gain, and al-Yūsī’s critical of many of these other saints because they’re taken in by their own egos, or they have alliance with djinn, or they’re Jews who are “pretending.” The anti-Semitism comes out clearly in some of the anecdotes.

How do you know if someone’s a real saint or if they’re pretending?

JS: There’s sort of a Screwtape Letters understanding here: How the devil comes in to tempt you to go astray just when you think you’re doing what’s right. That’s how Ibn Abī Maḥallī goes astray—he goes astray thinking he can do the right thing by reforming society. But really, it’s his ego that’s leading him along. And we can do the same if we want to do something, but we’re doing it for the wrong reason, since we’re listening to the ego that’s pushing us.

Al-Yūsī spends a lot of time talking about how the ego is not evil, but you have to control it. There’s a sense that—what is missing in terms of all of these people gone astray—is the need for spiritual and physical control.

I see this as a line throughout his depiction of Moroccan history: there have been these people who have gone astray, there have been these people who’ve been deluded. We, the conservative Sufi establishment, have to be wary of these outliers and the people they attract.

Gaining power through the employment of djinn is another, possibly effective, way of going astray.

JS: This goes back to the notion that the djinn are up there in the sky, basically listening in on heaven, with bad reception. They’re able to get some information, and then they can come back and report that to sorcerers. This is found widely in the hadith literature, and for al-Yūsī and his contemporaries, djinn are real, they’re part of the cosmology; it’s hard to say they’re not real when they’re in the Qurʾan.

Al-Yūsī has that great anecdote about a guy looking around at a mosque and then going and urinating in the corner in order to summon a djinn.

This goes hand-in-hand with the inability of Sufis to read the visions that they’re given. This is, again, a place where al-Yūsī is very conservative. He’s saying, okay, you’ve had a vision. But don’t be so certain that this is actually the truth, because you can be deceived.

He believes the visions are a real message, but that people can’t interpret them correctly.

JS: He agrees that if you see the Prophet in a dream, that vision is real. But the words you hear during the dream, those could be from Satan. So he’s underplaying a lot of the greater claims that ecstatic Sufism could get into. That’s where I see him, again, as what we might call conservative. This is really about a training of the soul and the self—not about having these wild spiritual experiences.

As a historian, what essential conflicts of al-Yūsī’s time do you see playing out in these pages?  

JS: One of the main things that was under debate was the spiritual responsibility of the masses. What do they need to know to be Muslim. That’s one we hear a lot about from al-Yūsī; he talks twice about dealing with groups of people who seem to be well-intentioned, initially, who studied with the same people that he did—in part—but then go to extremes in setting the bar really high for believers and being really obnoxious about it.

The seventeenth century is also part of what’s called the Great Tobacco Debate. Do you smoke? Do you not smoke? Tobacco arrives in Morocco at the end of the sixteenth century, it comes from West Africa, and there are some prominent jurists who say it’s forbidden, and you have other jurists who say, No it’s not, it’s permissible. And it’s a firestorm. Everybody weighs in on it. Al-Yūsī weighs in on it. Not in this book, but in other places, he says: I don’t think you should smoke.

That’s not very surprising.

JS: Other social conflicts are about issues of authority. For instance, what do we do if someone is head of a Sufi lodge and they pass things on to their ne’er-do-well son, who then wants to aggrandize himself with the spiritual power he’s now received? Al-Yūsī is very critical of that.

There’s also the fact that we live in a fallen world.

“Every era is succeeded by a worse one.”

JS: This is a standard trope of decline in Arabic literature. You move from the days of the Prophet, and it gets worse and worse and worse until you get to the end of time. But al-Yūsī has this great moment where he says: Every age has always said that it’s the worst. So this is the moment when you realize: Oh, I’m reading al-Yūsī. He has an awareness of the trope, and a willingness to bring in counter-evidence.

I think one of the reasons why it’s fun to read al-Yūsī: there’s an awareness both of the major tropes of the classical tradition and of the ways in which they are undermined and turned on their head.

I was struck how he often invokes God’s protection of Marrakesh, in the text, but not other cities.

JS: Al-Yūsī’s orientation, and Morocco’s orientation at the time, was toward the south. It’s something that we don’t think about today. When you’re in Morocco, at least in my experience, you don’t think of what’s on the other side of the Atlas as tremendously important, intellectually speaking. And yet, during al-Yūsī’s century, Sijilmāsah is there, and that’s a center of learning for both the Saadian and Alawite dynasties. Also the Nasriya zāwiyah is there, and there’s the anti-Atlas—the lodge at Iligh—and then Tarundant itself, which is a huge center at that time period. All of this puts the focus of Morocco’s intellectual, social, and political centers much more to the south than it is today.

That does not answer the question about why he asks for God’s protection on Marrakesh and not about cities in the north, but Marrakesh did have a greater political importance at the time and of course it had been the capital of the Sa’dis.

So al-Yūsī knows about the Christians to the north, and the lands to the East, but he is focused on Morocco. How does he sit in the constellation of other seventeenth-century authors?

JS: There are moments when I think about situating al-Yūsī against other seventeenth-century authors, in other parts of the world, who are also writing in this time period. He holds up fairly well, I think.

For another author in the LAL series, there’s al-Shirbīnī.

JS: That’s a clear parallel, in some ways, although al-Shirbīnī has a very thematic focus that this does not. This is much more rambling.

Yet as a historian of the medieval and the premodern, I do think we have to develop certain types of patience in our reading strategies, when we deal with texts that come from a different time period. When I think about reading al-Yūsī against Thomas Browne, in seventeenth-century England, these texts are both strange and difficult, and there’s a resistance that we experience when we first approach them. Then, over time, they can become much more familiar. Or think of Basho, who’s writing The Narrow Road to the Deep North at roughly the same time. I know nothing of Japanese literature, but there’s something of how both Basho and al-Yūsī use poetry to structure their narratives which is strangely suggestive to me.

Much of the fun of reading al-Yūsī for someone in the Arabic classical tradition is seeing how he does treat the earlier Eastern heritage as classical and weave it into the Moroccan contemporary, so you’re seeing him create a continuum of seventeenth-century Morocco with eighth- and ninth-century Arabia.

But generally, our understanding of the time and the place and the history is obscured because there’s so much of this that is still in manuscript, that we don’t have access to. We largely can’t do intellectual history of the type that my colleagues working on Europe can. We just need to get a lot of stuff edited and translated so we aren’t talking about the Moroccan seventeenth-century author, but placing al-Yūsī against four or five other people. Right now, we can’t do that.

Also read:

ArabLit: Al-Yūsī’s Discourses: Situating a Sufi Scholar in a Vivid 17th-Century Morocco

The Discourses: Reflections on History, Sufism, Theology, and Literature—Volume One, edited and translated by Justin Stearns

Gretchen Head: Space, Identity, and Exile in Seventeenth-Century Morocco: The Case of Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥasan al-Yūsī

This series is supported by the Library of Arabic Literature.