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Majnūn: The Madman in Medieval Islamic Society$

Michael W. Dols

Print publication date: 1992

Print ISBN-13: 9780198202219

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198202219.001.0001

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The Holy Fool

The Holy Fool

(p.366) 13 The Holy Fool
Majnūn: The Madman in Medieval Islamic Society

Michael W. Dols

Diana E. Immisch

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The holy fool was an individual who outwardly behaved in an eccentric manner by the commonly accepted standards of his society; inwardly he pursued a religious ideal or was enlivened by mystical experience. Although holy folly is frequently encountered in many cultures, the ideal of cultivating a highly personal spiritual life to the disparagement of mundane existence is most forcefully displayed in the early Christian Church. The Christian promotion of the holy fool surely had its precedent in the Old Testament prophets, whose outrageous behavior came to be considered symbolic of their divine mission.

Keywords:   holy folly, mystical experience, spiritual life, Christian Church, Old Testament, divine mission

The world is a madhouse, and the people therein are madmen, wearing shackles and chains.

Abū ʽAlī al-Fuḍayl ibn ʽIyāḍ1

He felt it rising in himself through time and darkness, rising through the centuries, and he knew that it rose in a line of men whose lives were chosen to sustain it, who would wander in the world, strangers from that violent country where the silence is never broken except to shout the truth.

Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away2

(A) The Fool For Christ’s Sake

The holy fool was an individual who outwardly behaved in an eccentric manner by the commonly accepted standards of his society; inwardly he pursued a religious ideal or was enlivened by mystical experience. Although holy folly is frequently encountered in many cultures, the ideal of cultivating a highly personal spiritual life to the disparagement of mundane existence is most forcefully displayed in the early Christian Church. The Christian promotion of the holy fool surely had its precedent in the Old Testament prophets, whose outrageous behaviour came to be considered symbolic of their divine mission. Initially, the prophets shared popular derision and scorn with other crazy types but when their garbled messages were thought to be true, they were invested with the role of representatives of God in the wayward world.

  • The prophet is a fool,
  • the man of the spirit is mad,
  • because of your great iniquity
  • and great hatred. (Hosea 9: 7)
(p.367) This persistent paradox is an expression of the stark division in the monotheistic religions between the sacred and the profane, which at times was precariously bridged by the madman.

The beginning of the strong Christian tradition of the holy fool is usually attributed to Paul, who discusses holy folly especially in his letters to the Christians in Corinth.3 Paul was responding in his first letter to the Corinthians to serious theological and ethical problems that had arisen among the nascent Christian community in Corinth. One theme of the epistle is folly, and Paul played on it with his remarkable rhetorical skill. He uses folly, naturally, in apposition to wisdom, and he appears to argue against wisdom of two kinds: the sophisticated philosophical learning of the Corinthians, which had created dissension and conflict, and worldly values in general. As Paul stated succinctly: ‘if any one among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God.’4 In this perplexing reversal of ordinary values, Paul offers a spiritual truth—a belief rather than a closely reasoned argument. ‘We impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God,… None of the rulers of this age understood this.’5 This mysterious wisdom is far greater than what human effort can achieve, and it is incomprehensible to the ‘rulers of this age’, by which Paul meant the demonic powers that governed this world. The unspiritual or natural man could not understand the gifts of the spirit; to them, Christianity was foolishness (moria).6 Furthermore, to the Corinthian Christians, who seem to have been critical of Paul’s leadership and to have turned to other teachers, Paul makes a highly ironic statement in order to shame them. He tells them that they are rich and powerful, while he and the other apostles are treated like despised captives drawn behind a triumphant victory procession. In this context, Paul sarcastically asserts: ‘We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ.’7 If it is ironic, the statement can only mean that Paul and the other apostles are wise in the secret Christian gnosis and the Corinthians are foolish. Indeed, Paul proceeds to say that it is his example that should be followed: Christians should be inwardly rich in the spirit and outwardly humble and forgiving, steadfast and conciliatory.8

(p.368) This is hardly the guidance for holy folly that is conventionally attributed to Paul, nor was his general behaviour and his preaching characterized by irrationality, if we can judge from his letters and the Acts of the Apostles. Paul does call himself a ‘madman’ because of the great hardships that he endured as a missionary,9 but it is clearly meant metaphorically. He is also consistent in demanding of the Corinthians that they do not think him foolish;10 he boasts of his authority, which he calls ‘a little foolishness’, but it is really a defence against the claims of others to leadership of the Christian community in Corinth. Most clearly, Paul’s defence of his actions before Herod Agrippa II is not that of a holy fool; on the contrary, Festus, the Roman governor, declared, ‘Paul, you are mad, your great learning is turning you mad.’ To which Paul responded: ‘I am not mad, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking the sober truth.’11 The key to understanding Paul’s madness is the appeal that he, then, makes to Agrippa: ‘Do you believe the prophets?’12 For Paul saw himself as well as the other apostles in the mould of the Old Testament prophets, and his teaching—principally that Jesus and his resurrection were the unfolding of Jewish prophecy—was only insane to a malevolent world. It was a secret spiritual truth that appeared foolhardy to the unspiritual. If, then, Paul was not a holy fool in the medieval sense, where did the notion come from?

Paul was surely the most learned of the apostles, and he used his talents to give expression to his personal religious experience, which was, not unexpectedly, difficult to describe, and to expound Christian teaching, which was essentially irrational. Paul’s rhetoric, employing all the devices of classical locution, appears to have been interpreted with astonishing literalism by later Christians; irony and metaphor, allegory and paradox were flattened out and interpreted as statements of fact. The reason for this literalism was the disciples‘ earnest desire to be Christlike. Moreover, unlike the Old Testament prophets, Jesus’ life was to be imitated, not merely heeded, by his followers, who also expected to share in his charismatic powers. Thus, the notion of the Christian holy fool appears to go back directly to Jesus, whose unusual behaviour—by contemporary Jewish standards at least—created a model of Christian conduct; it was as formative in its way, particularly in the development of the holy man, as Muḥammad’s less idiosyncratic life, which set the direct and more practicable pattern for a devout Muslim life.

This Christian literalism and imitation of Jesus was greatly reinforced and redirected by the wave of Platonism that swept over the Church in (p.369) the second century. The ‘folly’ of Christian teaching became much more than a defence against the criticism of learned opponents, a description of a simple, unphilosophic doctrine or a hope and consolation for the downtrodden. The secret knowledge was folly. Having given up on saving mankind by His wisdom, God would save it by divine madness, which was dramatically represented in the madness of sending His son into the world and to his inevitable destruction. Jesus was mad—had not his own family recognized it?13 Paul was mad—had he not had his own ecstatic experiences?14 And didn’t the early Christians speak in tongues and prophesy?15 It was, of course, a ‘good madness’: the highest mystical rapture of the Christians was Platonic ecstasy.16

As we have seen, men’s greatest blessings, according to Socrates and reported by Plato, are supposed to come from charismatic manias sent by the gods: prophecy, mysticism, poetry, and love. In a frenetic state, a selected individual undergoes ekstasis, a state of being outside himself, or mental alienation, and his soul experiences a higher and more desirable reality. The organically insane were thought to share this experience with the ecstatics, and the merely mad and the divinely mad were believed to be intensely happy in their manias, like the medieval holy fool, who was often characterized as merry and joyful.17 Obviously, Plato’s theory relied on the dichotomy between the body and the soul, which significantly became orthodox belief in both Christianity and Islam during the Middle Ages. Accordingly, madness might be explained by the fact that the weakened body of the medically insane allowed the soul partially to escape; in the otherwise sane, the soul sought constantly to escape the restraints of the body and, exercising its inherent powers, to rise to its celestial home. ‘Whenever the soul succeeds in freeing itself somewhat from the body’s fetters—even through merely organic madness, but especially through the divine kinds—something divine may be glimpsed by it in its frenzied wanderings.’18 The insane might be inspired by good daemons, by love, or by the perception of divine beauty or truth. This grand philosophical design was carefully tailored to fit the central teachings of Christianity, with the obvious substitution of God for the pagan deities, the denial of the possibility of possession by good spirits—all classical daemons became evil demons, and all possession was demonic—and priority given to amatory mania. As we (p.370) shall see, this Platonic scheme of good insanity will reappear in Ibn Khaldūn’s explanation of the Muslim holy fool. Insanity itself gained in stature as well as in ambiguity in late antiquity; it might not be an evil possession that demanded exorcism or a natural illness requiring treatment, but the divine infusion, the privileged mania of the holy man.

Platonizing interpretations of the New Testament naturally lit upon the authoritative letters of Paul, who had spoken so often about madness—both God’s and his own—and who had had mystical experiences. An important passage in this regard is 2 Corinthians 5:13: ‘For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you.’ From the Platonic point of view, it was understood to mean that Paul was eminently sane on behalf of the faithful and reserved his ecstatic madness for God. Thus, Paul became the pre-eminent holy fool: ‘the supreme example of a privileged “madman”, who ecstatically loved God, happily and blessedly’.19 Neither possessed by evil spirits nor physically sick, the medieval holy fool was madly in love with God and, like most lovers, foolish in the eyes of the world.

Two closely related kinds of ‘folly for Christ’s sake’ are discernible in the early Church, ‘holy idiocy’ and ‘holy folly’, and they are often associated with the vigorous development of Christian asceticism.20 The distinction emphasizes the two aspects of holy madness: the accessibility of the unphilosophic truth of Christianity to all and the possibility of mystical madness to a few. The ‘holy idiot’ was a person who turned away from worldly affairs to adopt a solitary spiritual life.21 A consistent theme of holy idiocy was the self-oblation that Christian teaching enjoined on the true believer.22 It was this denial of self-will that the Christians said the world found foolish or absurd—not the non-Christians, who would probably have found other beliefs more ridiculous. In any case, complete self-abnegation was exceedingly (p.371) difficult for most people, and only a few—the holy idiots—could achieve it.

Palladius tells the story of Sarapion Sindonites, a vagabond ascetic, who wore only a loincloth and lived in utter poverty. He sold himself to a troupe of Greek actors, whom he later converted. He wandered from Egypt to Greece and Italy, and in Rome he met a female ascetic who lived in seclusion. To demonstrate that she was truly indifferent to worldly concerns, Sarapion commanded her to undress and follow him, similarly naked, through the streets of the city. The woman argued that it would cause a scandal and that people would accuse her of being insane and possessed by demons. ‘But what does that matter?’ Sarapion replied. Still, she refused. Then, he said to her: ‘ “See now, do not consider yourself more pious than the others, or dead to the world, for I am more dead in that sense than you are; in fact I will show you that I am dead to the world, for I will do this without shame and without feeling.” Thus he left her humbled and broke her pride.’23

The early female ‘fool for Christ’s sake’, a nun in the convent at Tabennisi, feigned madness. She was believed to be demented by the other women in her convent; she was held in contempt by the nuns and was poorly treated by them. ‘She wore a rag around her head—all the others had their hair closely cropped and wore cowls. … Not one of the four hundred [nuns] ever saw her chewing all the years of her life.’ The nun was satisfied with the crumbs off the tables and what she could scrape out of the pots and pans after the other nuns’ meals. Furthermore, she never showed any anger at her maltreatment; nor did she ever talk. Saint Piteroum, a famous Egyptian anchorite, however, was led by an angel to the convent, having been told that one of the nuns was a saint and more holy than he was. The holy man asked to see the whole community but could not find the saint. When he insisted that one must be missing, the women admitted that only the mad woman was absent. Piteroum demanded that she be brought to him, and they brought her from the kitchen. When the holy Cinderella entered, Piteroum recognized her as the saint, and he fell to her feet and asked for her blessing. ‘She also likewise fell at his feet and said, “Bless me, master.” They were all amazed and said to him, “Father, do not let her insult you; she is mad.” But Piteroum said to them all, “ You are mad. For she is your mother and mine … and I pray that I may be deemed as worthy as she on the Day of Judgement.’ The nun was, then, venerated by the other women, so she fled from the community.24

(p.372) In this short legend are encountered the common elements of the holy innocent: the incognito, self-abasement and ill-treatment, recognition and escape, and the moral lesson.25 The late Greek term used for the mad saint is sale; this was the word, according to Palladius, that was commonly used for a woman who was afflicted by demons (paschonsai), so that they beat her and humiliated her.26 Salos became the usual designation in Greek for the Tool for Christ’s sake’, and it became a recognized category of spirituality in the Eastern Church like ‘martyr’ or ‘virgin’. The New Testament term moros was not used, which suggests that holy idiocy did not arise directly from the teaching of Paul but within the context of early asceticism, which drew on the belief in demonic possession. Most likely, the early Christians were quite aware of the difference between moros and salos. Palladius’ citation from Paul (1 Cor. 3: 18), however, does show how the early hagiographer understood holy idiocy and defended the equation of the two terms.27

An example of simulated madness is apparent in the Life of Ammonas, who was Anthony’s disciple and successor in the monastic community that Anthony founded in early fourth-century Egypt. The event may be significant because it suggests that pretended insanity was one of the common practices of early Christian asceticism. Ammonas’ pretence was shaken by a contemptuous remark when some people came to him to be judged. A woman standing near Ammonas turned to her neighbour and remonstrated, ‘The man is mad.’ He heard it and rejoined: ‘How much labor have I given myself in the desert to acquire this folly and through you I have lost it today!’28

One kind of feigned insanity, which is also found among the later sufis, was the person who appeared publicly to be a lunatic but who undertook secretly a life of strenuous religious discipline.29 John of Ephesus (d. AD 586) tells the interesting story of Theophilus and Maria, who were ‘children of eminent men of Antioch, who despised the world and all that is in it and lived a holy life in poverty of spirit, wearing an assumed garb’.30 Although originally betrothed to one another, they were converted to celibacy and a life of holy folly by Procopius of Rome.

(p.373) Theophilus had seen Procopius clad as a beggar, standing in a pile of dung in his father’s stables, but with his arms outstretched in prayer and with a ray of light coming from his mouth. Subsequently, Theophilus and Maria dressed themselves in outrageous costumes—he as a mime-actor and she as a prostitute—and they went to Amida, where ‘they used often to perform drolleries and buffooneries, being constantly in the courts of the church like strangers, making fun of the priests and the people, and having their ears boxed by everyone as mime-actors’.31 John, however, discovered their true identities one day, when he followed them and observed them praying from the city wall.

The Life of St Alexius, the ‘Man of God’, represents another variant of this theme, the virtually undisclosed holy idiot. The numerous accounts of his life appear to go back to a late fifth-century Syriac version of the legend.32 In later, more developed forms of the story Alexius was the only son of a rich Roman senator; he fled his wife on their wedding-night and went to Syria, where he undertook a life of extreme poverty and lived near the Church of the Mother of God in Edessa. For seventeen years he lived in obscurity until the Mother of God revealed his sanctity to the people, whereupon he returned to his father’s house. His father did not recognize him but treated him with charity, giving him employment and a corner under the stairs in which to live. For another seventeen years he lived in this manner, ill-treated and mocked by the other household servants. Only at his death was his true identity revealed.33

Despite the possibilities for highly eccentric individual behaviour, holy idiocy was also well suited to the development of Christian monasticism. John Cassian (d. AD 435), in his Institutes for the coenobitic life, enjoined every monk to ‘become a fool in this world … in order to be wise’, which meant an uncommon obedience to the law of God and the direction of his spiritual director.34

The ‘holy fool’ was usually a holy idiot, but this person was foolish in the eyes of both the world and fellow-Christians, being doubly mad. The folly might be feigned, in order to conceal and to nurture privately one’s spirituality, or real, the divine madness of the enraptured, or both. We have mentioned a number of the early Christian saints who were thought (p.374) to be insane as a way of understanding healing in the early Middle Ages. From the inside, so to speak, these same figures represent various modes of saintly madness.

We have already recounted the lives of the mad trio, Andrew, Mark, and Simeon. Andrew the Fool represents best the ecstatic madman who was also endowed with supernatural powers.35 Mad Mark successfully feigned madness in the streets of sixth-century Alexandria until he was recognized. And Simeon Salos, the first saint to be venerated explicitly as a ‘fool for Christ’s sake’, most dramatically acted out the pretence of madness and used it for various reasons. According to Leontios, his biographer, Simeon’s primary objective was to save men from their sins and from the attacks of the demons. ‘The whole aim of this all-wise Simeon was this. First to save souls, either through visitations which he brought about in an absurd or ingenious way, or through wonders which he performed foolishly, or through instructions which he gave while playing the fool. Second, to keep his virtue secret, lest he become the object of praise and honour.’36 Simeon appears to have exploited the role of the holy fool to the fullest. Personally, his guise of insanity was a way to increase his faith and not to be tempted by spiritual pride; it was apparently a form of training in apatheia, passionlessness or insensitivity to material concerns, which would later so strongly characterize Muslim piety. Judging by his miracles, Simeon appears to have benefited from the blessings of divine madness as well. For he seems to have used his madness to convert Jews and heretics, to criticize the sinful with impunity or to punish them, and to heal the possessed. At the other extreme, the Life of Alexius suggests that holy idiocy was sufficient unto itself. It was one means of achieving sanctity while remaining within society but free from its constraints.

(B) The Fool For God’s Sake

The varieties of religious experience among Christian adepts were witnessed by the early Muslims in their conquered territories and, probably, beforehand in pre-Islamic Arabia. Although it is un-demonstrable in any quantitative sense that there were direct borrowings, it was quite natural that Muslim spirituality took similar, although not identical, forms to that of early medieval Christianity. Specifically, (p.375) Christian ascetics continued to exist in the Middle East after the Arab conquests and had contacts with Muslims, so that ‘Islam, during the first centuries, dared to learn, and in fact did learn, from Christian ascetic piety.’37 This asceticism was gradually reshaped and rechannelled by Muslims, according to their beliefs, into an accessible mystical piety.

(1) Ascetic Aesthetes

There can be little question that ‘holy idiocy’ was a common phenomenon in Islam. To be a ‘Muslim’ means to surrender oneself to God’s will; complete surrender or trust in God could easily appear foolish to the eyes of the worldly wise.38 A number of early Muslims appear to have pursued this ideal. They may have been uneducated but not necessarily poor; they may have been predisposed to an ascetic way of life but not necessarily an eccentric one. Thus, a Pauline view of a simple and sufficient faith, which defied the powerful and wise, is easily found in Islam and its exegetical literature.39

Thus, ascetic piety was an integral part of nascent Islamic society, and it furnished the background to the development of Muslim mysticism, which has largely obscured its origins. In early Islam, the pious, who were often poor, are represented by the largely legendary ahl aṣ-ṣuffa, the companions of Muḥammad who were sheltered in a vestibule (ṣuffa) of the Mosque of Medina, giving rise to another explanation for the term ṣūfī. When not fighting on behalf of the Prophet, they were said to have devoted their time to study and worship.40 Abū Naṣr al-Jahanī, ‘the afflicted’ (al-muṣāb) (d. 194/804—10), was a member of the ahl aṣ-ṣuffa; he is, perhaps, illustrative of an original ascetic piety, which was later compounded with mysticism.

Abū Nasr was reportedly a madman (majnūn); he was demented (dhāhib al-ʽaql) and would sit with the ahl aṣ-suffa in the back of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. If asked something, he would give a suitable and praiseworthy answer. To an interlocutor, he gave intelligent (p.376) definitions of honour, manliness (murūʼa), generosity, and avarice. When Hārūn ar-Rashīd visited (possibly in 173/790) the Mosque of the Prophet, he summoned the ahl aṣ-ṣuffa to him, which included Abū Naṣr. He admonished the caliph for his failings; in return, Hārūn offered him a large sum of money that he refused, and he urged that it be given to the people. In another episode, Medina was stricken by drought and locusts. Abū Naṣr prayed for aid, and the baraka of his prayer was given credit for the people’s relief. In the collection of tales about ‘wise fools’ by an-Naysābūrī, Abū Naṣr is the only person to whom baraka is attributed. But like the ‘wise fool’, Abū Naṣr was in the habit of going through the city on Fridays preaching to the people, reciting the following passage from the Qur’ān (2: 123): ‘and beware a day when no soul for another shall give satisfaction, and no counterpoise shall be accepted from it, nor any intercession shall be profitable to it, neither shall they be helped’.41

It is difficult to determine how much of the life of Abū Naṣr is legendary and how much is true. He appears in the medieval period as a composite figure made up of apparently contradictory attributes, but he symbolizes well the Muslim ideal of holy folly, which became a largely sufi notion. The author of a twelfth-century history of sufism, Ibn al-Jawzī, clearly claims Abū Naṣr and many other madmen as important figures in the early history of sufism. He labels them as ‘wise madmen’ (ʽuqalaʼ al-majānīn). It would appear that by the twelfth century this term had been taken over by sufis and was equivalent to ‘holy fools’. Earlier, ʽuqalāʼ al-majānīn did not invariably have the connotation of mystics; a ‘wise fool’ was an eccentric individual who only appeared to be mad and was definitely clever at criticizing, warning, or making fun of others, usually with a pious or moral intent, but there was always an element of uncertainty.

Thus, Ibn al-Jawzī gives a number of biographies of ‘wise madmen’, whom he clearly equated with ‘holy fools’, and he presented them in a very positive light as forerunners of medieval mysticism. Often such a figure is simply referred to as majnūn. Ibn al-Jawzī tells of one man who stood naked at the door of the mosque in Ruṣāfa repeatedly proclaiming: ‘I am the madman of God’ (anā majnūn allāh).42 Most of the individuals are described as having lost their reason (ʽaql), but they were not said to be ‘possessed’. One man named Sābiq was ‘an idiot (maʽtūh); lacking reason (dhāhib al-ʽaql), he had gone wild (tawaḥḥasha)’.43 Together with (p.377) Abū Naṣr, Ibn al-Jawzī described nineteen mad people.44 Aside from one itinerant, they are associated with cities in Iraq, Syria, and Palestine; eleven are named, and fourteen are men and five are women. The mad women include a girl who was confined within her family’s house, a slave-girl among the bedouin, a black shepherdess, and a hermit outside the wall of Jerusalem. All the figures are reportedly early, and many are associated with Dhū n-Nūn al-Miṣrī (d. 246/861), the cicerone of ascetic mysticism.

Dhū n-Nūn was an early mystic who had an appreciable influence on the development of sufism. Aside from books on magic and alchemy that are attributed to him, his mystical teachings, including prayers and poems, were transmitted by others. He was the first to expound the sufi doctrine concerning the ascetic preparation of the neophyte for his mystical progress.45 Symbolizing the bridge between early Muslim asceticism and sufism, he wandered through Egypt, Syria, and Palestine visiting anchorites, among whom he met a number of holy fools. Usually there was a brief conversation, in which the fool recited several verses or gave Dhū n-Nūn some pithy advice, whereupon the ascetic often died ecstatically at the end of the interview. The major theme of these encounters and, consequently, of Dhū n-Nūn’s teaching was the notion of the pure love of God.46

For example, Dhū n-Nūn met a gnostic (rajul min ahl al-maʽrifa) on Mt Lakām. Later, he encountered a group of pious men (mutaʽabbidīn), and he asked them about this man. They said that he was one of the madmen (majānīn). Dhū n-Nūn enquired how they recognized his madness. They replied that most of the time he was distracted (hā’imān) and absent-minded (sāhiyān); he spoke to himself and was unintelligible when he conversed with others. The gnostic wailed most of the time and cried. Dhū n-Nūn wondered about this madman and asked the pious to show him where the man lived, and they indicated a nearby river valley. Dhū n-Nūn searched for him there, and he heard someone reciting poetry about spiritual love. He found the gnostic gaunt and parched by the sun, and he was like the distracted (wālih) and confused (ḥayrān). The two men greeted one another, but the gnostic stared out into space (p.378) and recited more poetry. Then, Dhū n-Nūn asked, ‘Are you a madman (majnūn)?’ He answered, ‘I have been called that.’ Allowed to proceed with his questioning, Dhū n-Nūn enquired: ‘What is it that has endeared the solitude to you, cut you off from intimates and captivated you in these valleys?’ He answered: ‘My love for Him has enchanted me; my desire for Him inflamed me; and my passion for Him isolated me …’ ‘What do you find in your solitude?’ He replied: ‘The truth, His glory.’ Eventually, the gnostic observed that the speech of the majānūn pleased Dhū n-Nūn, and the latter conceded that it did, but it also troubled him. Then, Dhū n-Nūn asked him about the truth of his divine ecstasy (wijdān). The madman let out a great scream, so that the mountains quaked with his cry. And he proclaimed: ‘Thus is the death of the truthful.’ And he fell down and died.47

In the biographies of Ibn al-Jawzī, the lunatic typically lived outside a city, usually in a cemetery—the ‘dwelling-place of both the noble and the lowly’48—or in the never-distant wasteland. In such isolated places the narrator encountered and interrogated the insane, in a way reminiscent of the interviews conducted with the madmen in the hospitals.49 The elusive mad people are usually hermits (nussāk), living on nuts and herbs; they are usually melancholic, other-wordly, and anxious. The behaviour of a holy eccentric in Jerusalem was caused not by a madness (junūn wa wald) but by restlessness and separation—from God.50 Unlike the later saints, the extreme ascetics rarely worked wonders. Some are portrayed as rigorous in their devotions, often seeking refuge in a mosque, while others are oblivious to religious obligations, but the individuals are always Muslims in Ibn al-Jawzū’s account. They commonly wear a wool robe (jubba), the sign of the Muslim mystic.51 ‘Muḥammad Ibn Mubarak said, “I ascended Mt Lebanon, and there was a man upon whom was a stitched wool robe. On the sleeves was written: ‘It is not sold or bought.’ ” ’52 These mad sufis might recite poetry or extol spiritual virtues. For example, Dhū n-Nūn met a holy madman named Shaybān in a cave on Mt Lebanon. The madman declared that, to whomever God is near, He gives four qualities: ‘power without a clan and knowledge without learning, wealth without money and intimacy without society’.53 The goal is obviously the mystical one. Dhū n-Nūn met a female mystic in the river valley near (p.379) Jerusalem, and he asked an old woman who she was. She replied, ‘Have you not heard the wisdom of the distracted? She is my daughter, whom the people have believed for twenty years to be mad, but the yearning for her Lord has killed her.’54

(2) Feigned and Cultivated Madness

Al-Hujwūrū said that the gnosis of God was of two kinds—cognitive as well as intuitive. The rationalists of his time had argued that knowledge was intellectual and only a reasonable person (ʽāqil) could possess it. But to al-Hujwīrī, this doctrine was disproved by the fact that madmen in Muslim society were deemed to have gnosis, as were children, who were not reasonable. The sole cause of human gnosis is God’s grace and favour.55 On the basis of such reasoning, there developed within Islam a strong tradition of ‘holy folly’; indeed, it became the primary goal of the sufis.56 This Muslim ‘holy folly’ represents the mystical type of madness—the direct rapport with God and the subsequent benefits of divine wisdom—more than the conscious concealment of one’s spirituality from the unholy world that is found to predominate among the ‘fools for Christ’s sake’. Perhaps this was because the mystical goal was more accessible in Islam than in Christianity. In any case, the model behaviour for a Muslim holy fool was, of course, not Jesus or Paul, but neither was it usually Muhammad. Any accredited spiritual mentor could serve as an authentic guide, while the possibility of direct intervention by God might circumvent the power of any paradigmatic leader. Thus, both feigned and actual madness ‘for God’s sake’ became recognized forms of Muslim spirituality. The inflation of mysticism, or the familiar expectation of other-worldly experience, particularly from the eleventh century, seems to have made divine madness, both transitory and continuous, almost commonplace; consequently, it widened the bounds of social tolerance for unusual behaviour and ‘altered states’ of consciousness.

(p.380) The tradition of feigned madness was strong in Islamic religious life and served a number of purposes. Holy idiocy was a consistent element in the lives of the ‘sober’ as well as the ‘drunken’ or more exuberant mystics. Abū Yazīd al-Biṣtāmā (d. AD 874 or 877–8), a celebrated Persian mystic, is considered a founder of the ecstatic school of sufism because of the forceful expressions of his mystical union with God.57 He is said to have advised those who wished to attain this goal to walk in the markets distributing nuts to boys in exchange for slaps in the face, for ‘the most distant from God among the devout are those who speak the most about Him’.58 Abū Yazīd practised what he preached, and he acted upon the dangerous ambiguity between holy folly and heresy. For example, on a pilgrimage to Mecca, he attracted a large crowd; according to Farid ad-Dln ʽAṭṭār, he wanted ‘to expel the love of him from their hearts and to remove the obstacle of himself from their path’. Therefore, having performed the dawn prayer, Abū Yazīd looked at them and, perhaps feigning madness, said, ‘Verily I am God; there is no god but I; therefore serve me.’ The crowd cried, ‘The man has become mad!’ and they left him.59

The practice of simulated folly, as a mode of Muslim piety, is most clearly seen in the Malāmatīya, a mystical tradition that began in Nīshāpūr in the ninth century AD, where it appears to have arisen in reaction to effusive public demonstrations of religiosity and the pharisaism of the learned.60 The source of this tradition may be found in late Hellenistic thought; less remote, it may be traced to the Eastern Orthodox Church, in which the ‘sons of the covenant’ (benai qeyāmā) were pious laymen whose dedication to a religious life was characterized by a particular style of restrained asceticism. By their outward behaviour, they hid their virtuous deeds in order not to divulge their saintly condition, sacrificing their worldly reputation or honour while abandoning themselves to God. As in later Muslim mysticism, this form of asceticism might contain a strong element of self-reproach. Externally, their evidently unvirtuous lives would also attract the reproach of fellow Christians. The shitūtī, scorn or blame, that the Syriac Christian invited by his conduct might lead naturally to the belief that he was a fool (shatē).61

(p.381) The Malāmatī had antecedents too among the early Muslim mystics, as we have seen, and their mode of behaviour was not inconsistent with the ‘sober’ school of contemporary sufis. According to the teaching of the Malāmatīya, a Muslim should similarly conceal his chaste inner life, thereby avoiding the danger of hypocrisy that the conventionally pious encountered. The recorded teachings of this group of mystics ‘is not a closely reasoned internally consistent system, but rather a number of tenets which centre around the basic Malāmatī doctrine that all outward appearance of piety or religiosity, including good deeds, is ostentation. … In accordance with these tenets, the Malāmatī has to struggle continuously against his desire for divine reward and for approval by man.’62 Consequently, the Malāmatī did not participate in the obligatory devotional exercises or those of the sufi orders but prayed and fasted in secret. He did not dress differently from other Muslims or follow a solitary life; he adopted a despised vocation and refused a prestigious one; and he concealed his poverty, so as not to attract communal charity. The elimination of the conventional signs of piety from an individual’s life often left the impression that he was disreputable or impious and, therefore, the object of malām, blame or reproach.63

The Malāmatīs derived their name from the Qur’ānic passage that refers to the believers ‘who struggle in the path of God, not fearing the reproach of any reproacher’ (5: 57). Commenting on this passage in his discussion of the Malāmatīya, al-Hujwīrī recalled that some had reproached the Prophet with being a madman or merely a poet. He, then, states:

Such is the ordinance of God, that He causes those who discourse of Him to be blamed by the whole world, but preserves their hearts from being preoccupied by the world’s blame. … Therefore He hath set the vulgar over them to loose the tongues of blame against them, and hath made the ‘blaming soul’ part of their composition, in order that they may be blamed by others for whatever they do, and by themselves for doing evil or for doing good imperfectly. … The blame of mankind is the food of the friends of God.64

Al-Hujwīrī is clearly sympathetic to the Malāmatī point of view—as long as it does not entail breaking the law—and he points out the salutary spiritual effect of other people’s scorn.

(p.382) In this regard, al-Hujwīrī tells a story about himself. He was once unable to overcome a personal difficulty after many devotional exercises; he visited a saint’s tomb for three months and performed many ablutions. Unsuccessful in these endeavours, he departed for Khurasan and arrived at a village where there was a lodge (khānaqāh) for sufi novices. They admitted him but treated him badly. They put him on a roof and gave him old bread to eat, while they ate a savoury meal on a roof above him. The neophytes made derisive remarks to him and pelted him with melon rinds. Because they were sufis, al-Hujwīrī bore this ill-treatment. ‘And the more they scoffed at me the more glad became my heart, so that the endurance of this burden was the means of delivering me from that difficulty which I have mentioned; and forthwith I perceived why the Shaykhs have always given fools leave to associate with them and for what reason they submit to their annoyance.’65

In later centuries, some Muslims invited reproach and disapproval by behaviour that was offensive to others. This intentional transgression of social mores became the hallmark of the Qalandars, who adopted many of the teachings of the Malāmatīs.66 The Qalandarīya were eclectic, also being influenced by other religious traditions, notably Buddhism and Hinduism. They were usually quietists and antinomians, who wandered across the Islamic world, like modern-day hippies, outraging public opinion. Although attempts were made during the Middle Ages to distinguish between the true and false Malāmatī, the Qalandars came to predominate and to usurp the term.67

Nevertheless, some aspects of the Malāmatī orientation, especially silent dhikr, avoidance of public devotions, and ‘mental isolation’ from the world, while remaining physically engaged in it, were absorbed into the mainstream of Islamic mysticism and particularly into the teachings of the Naqshbandī sufi order. The Malāmatī ideal of religious piety was highly esteemed, especially by Ibn al-ʽArabī, who set the parameters of late medieval sufism.68

(p.383) Out of holy idiocy grew holy folly or the mystical experience of God, but they were inextricably intertwined. From the ninth century AD Muslim mystics articulated distinctive forms of spirituality that combined the elements of asceticism, quietism, and mysticism.69 Ibn Khaldun summarizes the early history of sufism succinctly: ‘The Sufis came to represent asceticism, retirement from the world, and devotion to divine worship. Then, they developed a particular kind of perception which comes about through ecstatic experience.’70 The differences in the modes of religious experience were significant. There were those who continued to seek a sober mystical life through asceticism, contemplation, and study, while others sought an exuberant spiritual life centring on the mystical experience itself. The latter assigned a positive value to mental alienation in addition to physical deprivation. This contrast in spiritual styles is epitomized by the figures of al-Junayd (d. AD 910) and al-Hallaj (d. AD 922) respectively. Al-Hallaj draws together many of the elements of early sufism—excessive asceticism, intense love (ʽishq) of God, and the mystic’s unitive experience.71 At the centre of sufism was implanted the expectation of a personal mystical experience, and its achievement became a clear sign of being a wālī. Furthermore, another type of mystic that survived into modern times was known as a majdhūb, or one who is spontaneously enrapt in the mystical experience; the term was often used to designate a holy fool, and this figure will be discussed in the following section.

The career of a typical sufi usually began with a religious crisis and recourse to a spiritual guide or master who supervised the neophyte’s spiritual training and development. This tutorship was ultimately crowned, if the student were suitable, by the investment of a patched frock (khiraq) on the novice; it marked the wearer as a recognized member of a brotherhood of sufis. Abū Saʽī;d ibn Abī l-Khayr (d. AD 1049), a famous Persian mystical poet, exemplifies the sufi’s ascetic striving toward mysticism, which in some people’s eyes was madness.72 As a novice, he said that he practised various austerities: fasting, night vigils, physical discomforts, and daily reciting of the entire Qur’ān. ‘In (p.384) my seeing I was blind, in my hearing deaf, in my speaking dumb. For a whole year I conversed with no one. People called me a lunatic, and I allowed them to give me that name, relying on the Tradition that a man’s faith is not made perfect until he is supposed to be mad.’73 After a time, the young Abū Saʽūd was recognized as a saint and was venerated, but the people of his home town, Mayhana, in Khurāsān, were fickle. They turned against him and accused him of being an infidel. ‘Once, whilst I was seated in the mosque, the women went up on the roof and bespattered me with filth; and still I heard a voice saying, “Is not thy Lord enough for thee?” (41: 53) The congregation desisted from their prayers, saying, “We will not pray together so long as this madman is in the mosque.”’74 Subsequently, Abū Saʽīd left Mayhana to study with other sufi adepts and eventually to establish himself as a teacher in Nīshāpūr and director of a large convent. He appears to have been the first sufi to draw up rules for the inhabitants of a sufi confraternity, marking the transition of Islamic mysticism from its individual orientation to that of affiliation to organized groups. In any case, during the first forty years of his life, Abū Saʽīd was an austere ascetic; in the later years he was a cheerful mystic, in which he apparently indulged in luxury and extravagance, especially the sufi samāʽ or ecstatic dance. His eccentric mysticism was marked by theopathetic statements (shaṭḥiyat), characteristic of Persian mystics. Typically, Abū Saʽūd survived as a saint, and he was credited with many miracles, particularly his ability to read other people’s thoughts. Although he formulated no coherent system of thought, he clearly expressed, by his teaching and preaching, the sufi’s goal of intentional mental disturbance and ecstasy: the achievement of disunion with this world and union with God.

Sacred mania in its stunning ambivalence is especially evident in the lives of the ecstatics al-Ḥallāj and his friend ash-Shiblī (d. 334/946). Al-Hallaj is famous for his outspoken declaration of the unitive experience and for his demands for moral reform that resulted in his execution in Baghdad. Al-Hujwīrī confesses that the later sufis were divided in their opinions about al-Ḥallāj. There was no doubt, however, about his spiritual sophistication and the authenticity of his experiences. His condemnation was the result of his behaviour. ‘Now, one who is banned on account of his conduct is not banned on account of his principles. Do you not see that Shiblī said: “Al-Ḥallāj and I are of one belief, but my (p.385) madness saved me, while his intelligence destroyed him”?’75 Ash-Shiblī’s conduct was often that of the conventional madman, which relieved him of responsibility for his mystical claims, whereas al-Ḥallāj was unconventional but quite sane in his profession of the mystical ecstatic experience.

In al-Hujwīrī’s opinion, ash-Shiblī was a great shaykh who led a blameless and spiritual life. He had been a chief chamberlain to the caliph, but he then turned abruptly to a spiritual vocation and was at one time a disciple of Junayd, the reputed founder of the ‘sober’ school of sufism. Reportedly, al-Ḥallāj also sought to join Junayd’s circle. Junayd pointedly replied: ‘I do not associate with madmen. Association demands sanity.’76 Yet, ash-Shiblī also befriended the ecstatic mystics, especially al-Ḥallāj, but he discreetly dissociated himself from al-Ḥallāj at the latter’s trial and execution.

Ash-Shiblī is representative of the holy man who feigned madness or was occasionally mentally disturbed, so that he escaped persecution. If ash-Shiblī simulated his madness, it would not be greatly mistaken to paraphrase al-Hujwīrī’s report of ash-Shiblī that it was his intelligence that saved him, whereas al-Ḥallāj’s madness destroyed him. If ash-Shiblī were genuinely deranged, he was not legally accountable for his actions. Madness was an excuse, perhaps the only possible excuse, for the unmeasured expressions of divine love and the unitive experience that the early sufis were expected to conceal, while maintaining an esoteric prudence. For ash-Shiblī and al-Ḥallāj, it was a matter of orthodox madness versus unorthodox madness.

Later medieval mystics recounted ash-Shiblī’s life and never questioned the sincerity or orthodoxy of his mystical attainments; his notoriety for eccentric behaviour became proof of his mystical rapture. As a clear sign that ash-Shiblī was mad, ʽAṭṭār recounts that he was judged to be insane by a judge and was put into a hospital. Reportedly, ash-Shiblī used to reward people with sugar and gold for pronouncing the name of God and, then, threaten to kill them. He also inscribed the name of God everywhere he could. ʽAṭṭār described ash-Shiblī in the following manner:

Peace and composure altogether deserted him. So powerful was the love possessing him, so completely was he overwhelmed by mystical tumult, that he went and flung himself into the Tigris. The river surged and cast him up on the bank. Then he hurled himself into the fire, but the flames affected him not. He sought a place where hungry lions were gathered and cast himself before them; (p.386) the lions all fled away from him. He threw himself down from the summit of a mountain; the wind picked him up and deposited him on the ground. His disquiet increased a thousandfold.

‘Woe to him’, he cried, ‘whom neither water nor fire will accept, neither the wild beasts nor the mountains!’

‘He who is accepted of God’, came a voice, ‘is accepted of no other.’

Then they loaded him with chains and fetters and carried him to the asylum.

‘This man is mad’, some shouted.

‘In your eyes I am mad and you are sane,’ he replied.

‘May God augment my madness and your sanity, that by reason of that madness I may be admitted nearer and nearer, and because of that sanity you may be driven farther and farther!’

The caliph sent one to care for him. The attendants came and by force thrust the medicine in his throat.

‘Do not put yourself to such pains’, Shebli cried.

‘This sickness is not such as will yield to healing by medicine.’77

In another version of ash-Shiblī’s behaviour, ʽAṭṭar recounts:

When Shiblī’s madness became excessive, he was bound in chains by force. A crowd of people came to him by chance and stood in the roadway looking at him.

Shiblū, the maker of words, said to them: ‘What kind of people are you? Come, tell me your secret.’

They all said: ‘We are thy friends, for we know of no way but that of friendship.’

When Shiblī heard these words from his friends, he began to pelt them with stones.

Seeing the stones, all his friends fled in fear thereof.

Then Shiblī opened his mouth and said: ‘Liars and misguided wretches that you are,

When you boasted to me of your friendship, you were not, O base ones, sincere. Who flees from the blows of a friend, for they are not blows after all but proofs of his loving kindness?’78

For ʽAṭṭar, ash-Shiblī’s stones, like God’s blows, should be welcomed. The enigmatic figure of ash-Shiblī, the intoxicated mystic, constantly reappears throughout the Middle Ages. If his surviving works are characteristic of his conduct, his pronouncements were studded by paradoxes, obscure illusions, and unusual imagery.79 A great amount of later sufi-inspired poetry and stories share these esoteric features, (p.387) while superficially they often appear nonsensical, immoral, and even blasphemous.

Émile Dermenghem, in his study of the saints of North Africa, singles out the life of ‘Chouzi le marchand de bonbon’, or ash-Shūdzī ‘the sweets vendor’, as an example of the typical holy fool.80 Ash-Shūdzī had been a respected judge in Seville during the Almohad dynasty (AD 1130–1269) in North Africa and Spain, and he probably died in the early thirteenth century. He apparently underwent a profound religious experience, for he abandoned his family and work in Seville and went to live in the Maghrib; according to Yahya ibn Khaldun, the brother of the famous historian, ash-Shūdzī ‘took flight and sought refuge in Tlemcen, giving the impression of being a madman (majnūn)’ Dermenghem concludes that it is impossible to determine precisely the extent to which ash-Shūdzī was naturally eccentric and to what extent he cultivated his extravagances as a way of maintaining religious fervour and spontaneity or, alternatively, as a means of combating spiritual rigidity and conformity. In some ways, he appears to have been the traditional type of Muslim mystic who periodically gave himself over to demonstrations of his divine inspiration. Ash-Shūdzī clearly led a self-effacing life in Tlemcen, centred on his spiritual awareness. He would go through the streets of the city with a tray of sweetmeats and sell them to the children; he, then, distributed most of the money that he earned as alms, while he led a very ascetic life. He became known as al-Ḥalwī, or ‘sweets-man’, and was well recognized in the city. An Andalusian theologian once recognized in him the signs of a mystic and followed him. The children drew ash-Shūdzī away and began to clap their hands and snap their fingers while the sweets vendor danced and sang, reciting poetry about divine love. The theologian, convinced that he was one of the saints, continued to watch and later saw him buy a semolina cake and give it to an orphan in rags. ‘Surely’, he said to himself, ‘this man is a wālī who hides his sanctity in selling ḥalwa.’ The two men eventually met, and the theologian became the disciple of al-Ḥalwi, studying with him the Qur’ān, ḥadīth, and belles-lettres. Ash-Shūdzī obviously had not completely given up his learning; in turn, his student became a well-known teacher. Eventually, popular legends accumulated around the life and death of al-Halwi, giving him the assured status of a martyred saint. The tomb and mosque of Sīdī al-Ḥalwī in Tlemcen, which was built about 754/1353, is today a major pilgrimage site in North Africa.

(p.388) (3) Mystical Madness

The involuntary holy fool was the majdhīb, ‘the attracted one’ or the individual chosen by God and given the mystical unitive experience gratuitously. Muslims call any person inspired by God whose ecstasy is due not to theosophical absorption but to spontaneous illumination, majdhūb. Thus, an historian81 reports of Yānus b. Yūnus al-Shaybānī, the founder of the Yūnusīya order: ‘He had no sheikh but was a majdhūb. He was rapt away (drawn away) to the path of good.’82 This passive type of mysticism was distinguished in medieval sufism from the more active, methodical forms of spiritual training undertaken by most students who strove for the same religious goal. The distinction was, however, not a rigid one but admitted of various combinations, for a man could not be a shaykh or sufi master in the later Middle Ages unless he had had both the training and the mystical experience.83 The difference between the two types of ecstatic union with God was described by al-Hujwīrī as ‘sound union’ and ‘broken union’. The first was the customary rapture of the mystic who returned to his daily obligations after the mystical experience. The second was such ‘that a man’s judgment becomes distraught and bewildered, so that it is like the judgment of a lunatic: then he is either excused from performing his religious obligations or rewarded for performing them; and the state of him who is rewarded is sounder than the state of him who is excused.’84 In the later Middle Ages, the term majdhūb appears to have been applied commonly to the mystic whose rapture was not conventional and whose judgement became distraught and bewildered for a prolonged period of time.85

The exculpating designation of madness was frequently given to religious ecstatics and, conversely, holiness was often attributed to the insane. By an ad hoc calculation, a deranged individual might be judged a holy fool, being distinguished from an idiot or secular fool (mahbūl) and from the possessed (majnūn); the first usually had little pretension to holiness and the second was the antithesis of the harmless majdhūb. In most closely knit communities or urban quarters, there was perhaps not much difficulty in assessing the condition of a disturbed individual (p.389) because the person was well known to the inhabitants. Even the spiritually sensitive mystic Ibn al-ʽArabī (d. 638/1240) had no difficulty in making a distinction between the sacred and the profane. In his biography of Abī ʽAbdallah Muḥammad ash-Sharafī, a pious shaykh of Seville who, incidentally, made his living from the sale of opium, Ibn ʽArabī casually remarked: ‘One day he [ash-Sharafī] came upon me while I was looking at the local madman. I didn’t notice him until he took me by the ear, pulled me away from the crowd and said, “Is this the sort of thing you indulge in?” At his words I felt very ashamed and went off with him to the mosque.’86 Yet, in doubtful cases, where it was difficult to judge by appearances, the usual presumption seems to have been in favour of sanctity.87

Conventionally, the holy fool was thought to have his mind or soul in heaven while his body remained on earth. This customary formula goes back to Hellenistic and early Christian mysticism; in the early Islamic era, Dhū n-Nūn frequently applied the following epithet to the perfected saints: ‘those whose bodies are present on earth but whose spirits wander in the heavens, in the Kingdom of God’.88 ʽAṭṭār presents this belief in an apocryphal story of the visit of Abū Bakr ibn Mūsā al-Wāsiṭī to a madman in a hospital. Because al-Wāsiṭī was a disciple of Junayd, ʽAṭṭār probably meant to suggest the superiority of mystical ecstasy, despite the hardships of the ecstatics, over the steady path of sober contemplation and al-Wāsiṭī’s acknowledgement of it:

There came upon Wāsiṭī a wakening of the spirit and early one morning he entered a madhouse.

He saw a madman crazy with excitement now giving a yell and now clapping his hands together.

Dancing he leapt for joy like rue seeds cast upon the fire.

Said Wāsiṭī to him: ‘O thou who art far from the road, subdued in heavy bonds. Since thou art thus shackled, why this joyfulness? Being a slave, why dost thou feel so free?’

The madman opened his mouth and thus addressed the shaikh: ‘if my feet are now in shackles,

My heart is not and that is the essential part of me: when my heart is free that is union with God.

Know of a certainty that it is a very difficult thing that my heart should be free when my feet are bound.’89

(p.390) In the latter Middle Ages, when sufism was pervasive in Islamic societies, the deranged holy man appears to have become a common figure. Sufi teachers and their literature that promoted the notion of the holy fool may have had an effect. Specifically, the mystical interpretation of Majnūn, which was highly commendatory of the madman, became predominant; such a cultural hero may have enhanced the status of this class of illiterate, crude, and sometimes very ‘nasty saints’.90 The conduct of such individuals was dangerous and certainly unbecoming in some people’s opinion. But there was no way of proving that these unusual men, whose eyes were ‘like two cups filled with blood’, were not genuine. And who was empowered to test their genuineness? If they were harmless, they enjoyed almost total freedom, being subject to no social or religious constraints.91

Was it not possible that such a madman was one of the hidden saints whose virtue prevented the world’s destruction and whose benediction brought fertility, healing, and hope? In a religion without sacraments, was the Muslim holy madman not a living expression of the divine? Was he not, from a Western point of view, the combination of the four or, at least, one of the divine madnesses of Socrates? Despite the disrepute of the holy madman in modern Islamic society and among modern commentators on sufism, divine madness, as articulated by Shiblī, al-Ḥallāj, and others, became an acknowledged form of Muslim spirituality, which was elaborated upon by their followers and admirers, as well as by story-tellers and poets.

A fund of aphorisms and maxims of holy fools was recorded, adapted, or created by entertainers, teachers, and writers for their own purposes and according to their own talents. Clearly, the madman became a literary fiction derived from historical figures and from authors’ personal experiences of madmen and madhouses. Buhlūl, for example, appears to have been an historical figure, but he rapidly became the archetype for the ‘wise fool’ in Islamic folklore and literature; he is also made to play the ‘holy fool’ in many sufi stories.92 Moreover, the madman was a convenient spokesman for an author’s point of view, especially if the view were ineffable or dangerous, esoteric or heretical.

In earlier Arabic literature, the insane were often visited by literati, and they reported the ‘inspired’ verses of the demented. For example, the (p.391) grammarian Mubarrad visited Dayr Hirqil on his way back to Baghdad, being summoned by the caliph Mutawakkil; in the monastery he listened to the poetry of the confined lunatics.93 Paradoxically, despite the irrationality of the mad and their speech, the pronouncements of the holy fools were believed to be especially meaningful or beautiful. Madness easily allowed for the articulation of esoteric, abstruse sufi doctrine and experience; it served as a natural stage for the picaresque genre, which explored the discrepancy between appearances and reality; and it also afforded a shield behind which a poet like ʽAṭṭār could express his criticism of the divine order.

The mystics visited the hospitals and talked to the patients, believing that the incoherent discourse of the insane contained some spiritual insight. It is reported that Ibn al-Qushāb said:

We saw in the hospital a greatly affected young man who cried at the top of his voice and awakened our interest. ‘Look at them,’ he said, ‘their brocaded clothes and perfumed bodies. They have made a commodity of lying; they have taken up madness as a trade. As for knowledge, they have completely renounced it; they are no longer men among men.’ ‘What do you know about knowledge?’ we asked him. ‘Everything. My knowledge is considerable. You can question me.’ ‘What is prodigal?’ ‘The one who gives you subsistence while you do not deserve the daily ration.’ ‘Who is the least grateful of men?’ ‘Whoever has avoided a misfortune, has seen this misfortune among others, and to whom that has not served as a warning to flee from what is futile.’ He broke our hearts, and we posed to him another question: ‘What are the most appreciable qualities?’ ‘The contrary of what you are!’ He began to cry, saying, ‘Oh my God, if you do not restore my reason, restore at least the liberty to my shackled hands, so that I can give to each of these men a good slap in the face.’94

Another man asked him who would be his neighbour in paradise. The madman told him that it would be a black woman who lived in Kūfa. This man went to Kūfa and learned that she was a madwoman who grazed her sheep by the side of the city cemetery. He found her alone praying while the sheep miraculously mixed with wolves. Typically, she knew who he was, and she explained her prescience. She also explained how the sheep and the wolves lived peacefully together, and she expounded on the virtue of retreat after mystical intimacy.95

It is within this context that we can, perhaps, best understand the episode in the asylum depicted by Badīʽ az-Zamān al-Hamadhānī (d. 398/1008) in his famous Maqāmāt.89 The Maqāmāt are a collection of (p.392) stories of the anti-heroic type.97 The narrator, ʽIsā ibn Hishām, wanders about the Islamic world in search of knowledge and constantly encounters his misleading teacher Abū l-Fath al-Iskandarī. The latter usually dazzles and deceives ʽIsā with his verbal pyrotechnics. Afterward, al-Iskandarī is recognized; there are reproaches, but the deception is justified. In this incident, ʽIsā relates his visit to a hospital in Baṣra in the company of a famous Muʽtazilī theologian Abū Bahr Muḥammad ibn ʽAbdullāh al-ʽAsharī, who had been the chief judge of the caliph al-Mahdī (AD 775–84) at Ruṣafa. The two men meet a madman who, learning their identity, launches into a violent diatribe against the doctrine of free will. After the madman has finished his elegant speech, ʽIsā and the theologian are thoroughly intimidated and leave the hospital. Yet, they are so disturbed by the madman’s tirade that they return to find out who he is, and, of course, the madman is al-Iskandarī.

Although al-Hamadhānī’s intent in this fictional colloquy is difficult to interpret, the mise-en-scène is quite familiar.98 As we have seen, mystics and intellectuals visited the Muslim hospitals to interview the insane, assuming that the mad possessed supernatural powers. Al-Hamadhānī’s madman is endowed with special divinatory powers; specifically, he knows about ʽIsā’s secret marriage arrangements. Moreover, elswhere in the Maqāmāt, madness is highly regarded: al-Iskandarī appears as a mad barber in a maqāma entitled ‘Ḥulwān’. ʽIsā is to be shaved, but the mad barber is so garrulous that he fails to shave ʽIsā’s head. Bewildered by the barber’s ‘fluency with his malaprop loquacity’ and fearful of his apparent madness, ʽIsā puts the razor-brandishing barber off and asks those present about him. They reply: ‘This is a man from the country of Alexandria, this climate has disagreed with him and madness has overtaken him, so that he babbles the whole day, as you observe, but behind him there is much excellence.’99 The bystanders give a common medieval explanation for madness: the ecological conditions of Ḥulwān, a town east of Baghdad, is conducive to madness. Still, he is a good man. In general, the author has al-Iskandarī praise folly and madness throughout the work; unreason deserves greater respect than reason. For example:

(p.393) Repel time with folly, for verily time is a kicking camel.

Never be deceived by reason; madness is the only reason.100

Al-Hamadhānī appears to have used commonly held views about madness for various purposes but, especially in the episode in the madhouse, to pose dramatically the theological conundrum of free will versus predestination. The traditional view that al-Hamadhānī was Sunnī appears to be correct, so that the diatribe of the madman in the asylum should be taken as expressing, albeit in an extreme form, the author’s own anti-Muʽtazilite sentiments.101 Yet, the author may have intended that no simple lesson should be drawn from the story of the asylum, or the collection altogether. Like a Muslim ascetic, al-Hamadhānī seems to present the world as degenerate, evil, and mad, and he demonstrates the inadequacy of any all-encompassing formulations of doctrine, settling instead for fragmentary truths. Thus, the madman’s harangue may be interpreted in either of two contradictory ways: the speech was actually on behalf of free will and a satire on predestination—only a madman possessed by the Devil would hold such extreme views,102 or it was a statement of orthodox Ashʽarite theology, being pronounced by a divinely inspired lunatic. More compelling is al-Hamadhānī’s nuanced presentation of the problem of God’s will and man’s volition as a tortuous paradox like insanity, fittingly posed by a duplicitous anti-hero playing a madman.

Encounters with the insane in hospitals became a not unfamiliar motif in Persian mystical poetry, and the purpose is more transparent than in al-Hamadhānī’s Maqāmāt. The dīwānegan, or madmen, in the poetry of Farīd ad-Dīn ʽAṭṭār are numerous, holy, and outspoken; they were used as vehicles to express freely and fully the reality of the mystical experience without fear of persecution. For example, ʽAṭṭār gives the following description of a madman communing with God, which highlights the central notion of the mystic’s unitive experience:

A certain madman who was bound in chains, was whispering a secret to God. Someone at once put an ear to his lips in order to discover that lofty mystery. He was saying to God: This madman of Thine had for a time shared a house with Thee.

But there was no room for Thee and me, for either Thou hadst to be in the house or I.

(p.394) And so by thy command I have left this house: since Thou art here I, madman that I am, have gone.’103

ʽAṭṭār’s holy fools also express terse religious truths or caustic social criticism.104 Unlike the saints, however, the mad virtuosi rarely performed miracles.105

Thus, to the stereotype of the dishevelled madman lurking in the cemetery and tormented by children was added a religious dimension, in which the holy fool might serve as the mouthpiece for various spiritual themes. The most common one was the madness of everyday reality, in which only the innocent, the ascetic, and the divinely inspired were sane.106 The holy man’s miracles and his criticism of society, particularly his upbraiding of rulers for their misrule and co-religionists for their irreligion, might alleviate the plight of some, or at least be a consolation to them. The holy fool might promote the rejection of this world and its values; the only reality was mystical madness, the absorption of oneself in the love of God. And the final alternative was that God was mad. There was no doubt that God existed, but there were doubts that there was a purpose for His creation, for which some holy fools rebuked Him.

The reproach of God appears to be an unusual aspect of the Muslim holy fool, although it is comparable to the pre-Islamic poets’ abuse of dahr, time or fate.107 This one-sided argument with God brings out many of the distinctive features of the divinely inspired madman. The subject has been well explored by Hellmut Ritter in his masterful study of ʽAṭṭār’s poetry.108 ʽAṭṭār was a master story-teller, who used a simple frame-story for his mystical epics in which were contained hundreds of short moralistic anecdotes and tales. The overarching point of ʽAṭṭār’s work is man’s exhaustive quest for God, who is ultimately to be found within himself, which, again paradoxically, must be annihilated through (p.395) man’s passionate, unconventional,109 and foolhardy love of God. Indeed, one who is monomaniacal about his love of God is a madman. This notion was not new with ʽAṭṭār; an earlier Arabic legend concerning ash-Shiblī emphasizes the fool’s exclusive love of God. Ash-Shiblī visited a lunatic asylum and saw there a black man; one of his hands was bound to his neck and the other to a pillar, while both were attached to leg-irons. Ash-Shiblī relates that, when the madman saw him, he said: ‘Oh Abū Bahr, tell your Lord: Is it not enough that Thou hast made me insane with love of Thee? Was it necessary also to chain me?’ Then, the madman began to recite the following verses: ‘He who has been accustomed to be near to Thee cannot bear being far from Thee. He whom love has made mad cannot live without being near to Thee.’ Ash-Shiblī fell down and became unconscious. When he recovered, he saw that the chains were broken, and the black man and his leg-irons were gone.110

Unlike earlier Persian poetry that centred on the courts and catered to princely tastes, the heroes of many of these small tales are drawn from the poorest and lowest strata of society: beggars, fools, and sufis. As with holy idiocy, the lowly are spiritually superior to the high and mighty. ‘There is no doubt that it is sufism that gave the lower classes a new self-consciousness, which allowed them to open their mouths and to speak, whereas before they were condemned to be silent.’111 ʽAṭṭār used such figures, especially the holy fool, to voice mankind’s frustration or anger with God. The predominant characteristic of sufism was, however, the ascetic ideal of riḍā, contentment or consent to whatever God wills. The mystic especially was expected to endure patiently whatever happened; the love of God was far more important than the transitory sufferings experienced in this world. To a mystic like Rābiʽa, who was quite aware of the impermanence and meaninglessness of the material world, this earthly life was a game to be played cheerfully before returning to the other world. The sufi who reached this stage of spiritual maturity did not criticize God’s creation but was pleased with it, even in its most unattractive aspects. ‘For the Muslims the prototype of this attitude is Jesus. He once walked with his disciples out of a village. On the road, they passed the stinking carcass of a dead dog with his mouth gaping widely. The disciples held their noses and complained of the (p.396) abominable stench emanating from the carcass. Jesus, however, said: “Look, how white his teeth are!”’112

Nevertheless, ʽAṭṭār is remarkable for using the saintly fools to express effectively, and in a frankly entertaining manner, fundamental philosophic and religious questions that had exercised previous generations of Muslim intellectuals. What is the meaning or purpose of creation? How does one reconcile human suffering and misery with a merciful and compassionate God? And why is there such apparent injustice and inequity among the faithful? The holy fool responds to such questions in clever ways because he was invariably endowed with spiritual insight that was not vouchsafed to the learned, although such insight was not the exclusive preserve of the saintly fools, for ordinary people in ʽAṭṭār’s tales often express similar wisdom. ʽAṭṭār’s objective is not so much a criticism of society, which is more common in the stories of the wise fools, as it is an anguished questioning of God’s ways among men. As Ritter has pointed out, the tone of this spiritual plaint is pessimistic, audacious, and often insolent.

Such boldness toward God was natural for a mystic, according to ʽAṭṭār. In his allegory of the mystical journey, The Conference of the Birds, the spiritual guide declares that there is no question of audacity for one who has reached with God the ‘subtle understanding none can teach’. As with the ardent lover or the madman, there is no discretion and no blame; for a person who is madly in love with God, there are surely no half-measures. To reinforce this lesson, ʽAṭṭār tells a number of tales, two of which are about holy fools:

  • In Egypt once a baleful famine spread—
  • The people perished as they begged for bread.
  • Death filled the roads; the living gnawed the dead.
  • A crazy dervish saw their wretched plight
  • and cried: ‘O God, look down from Your great height—
  • If there’s no food for them, make fewer men!’

And the crazy dervish who was deceived by a hailstorm:

  • A dervish suffered bruises and sore bones
  • From children who continually threw stones.
  • He found a ruined hut and in he stole,
  • Not noticing its roof contained a hole.
  • A hailstorm started—through the leaky shed
  • The hail came bouncing on the old man’s head.
  • (p.397) The hail was stones for all that he could tell—
  • He lost his temper and began to yell.
  • Convinced that they were throwing stones once more,
  • He screamed out filthy names, fumed, stamped and swore—
  • Then thought: ‘This dark’s so thick it’s possible
  • It’s not the children this time after all.’
  • A door blew open and revealed the hail;
  • He saw his error and began to wail:
  • ‘The darkness tricked me, God—and on my head
  • Be all the foolish, filthy names I said.’
  • If crazy dervishes behave like this
  • It’s not for you to take their words amiss;
  • If they seem drunk to you, control your scorn—
  • Their lives are painful, savage and forlorn;
  • They must endure a lifetime’s hopelessness
  • And every moment brings some new distress—
  • Don’t meddle with their conduct; don’t reprove
  • Those given up to madness and to love.
  • You would excuse them—nothing is more sure—
  • If you could share the darkness they endure.113

The familiarity of the poor and the mystic in speaking to God appears to have bred contempt for God among some sainted fools. The bold familiarity of the fool, like the saint, is possible because of his close intimacy with God; his reproaches are one side of a lovers’ quarrel.114 The outspokenness of the deranged was allowed superficially because they were simply foolish or because of their holy idiocy; more importantly, Islam acknowledged the privileged position of the insane. In their relationship with God, the recording-angels did not write down the deeds of madmen, as they did for the rest of mankind.115 According to ḥadīth, the mad man or woman is not subject to the punishments (ḥudūd) laid down in the Qur’ān.116

The acquisition of this special religio-legal position by the madman is poetically described in the biography of the holy fool Lūqmān as-Sarakhsī. He is said to have introduced Abū Saʽīd ibn Abī l-Khayr, whom we have encountered earlier, to his first sufi master and, consequently, to his mystical career. Abū Saʽīd is reported to have said:

In the beginning Loqmān practiced asceticism. Then the signs of insanity appeared in him and he gave up his former mode of life. When he was asked (p.398) about it, he would say: ‘The more service I did, the more remained to be done and at last I could not do any more. So I said: “My Lord, the kings have formed the habit of freeing a slave, when he has grown old. Thou art a great king, and I have grown old in Thy service. Do free me!” Then I heard a voice saying, “We have freed thee.”’ The mark of freedom was that God had taken away his reason. He was the freedman of God and thus exempted from the commandments and prohibitions of the law.117

Because of Lūqmān’s perfect loving union with God, he was a spiritual freedman. Like many such stories, ʽAṭṭār reshaped this account in the following manner, emphasizing the mystical union with God:

  • Loghman of Sarrakhs cried: ‘Dear God, behold
  • Your faithful servant, poor, bewildered, old—
  • An old slave is permitted to go free;
  • I’ve spent my life in patient loyalty,
  • I’m bent with grief, my black hair’s turned to snow;
  • Grant manumission, Lord, and let me go.’
  • A voice replied: ‘When you have gained release
  • From mind and thought, your slavery will cease;
  • You will be free when these two disappear.’
  • He said: ‘Lord, it is You whom I revere;
  • What are the mind and all its ways to me?’
  • And left them there and then—in ecstasy
  • He danced and clapped his hands and boldly cried:
  • ‘Who am I now? The slave I was has died;
  • What’s freedom, servitude, and where are they?
  • Both happiness and grief have fled away;
  • I neither own nor lack all qualities;
  • My blindness looks on secret mysteries—
  • I know not whether You are I, I You;
  • I lose myself in You; there is no two.’118

As a freedman of God, the holy fool is able to speak directly and candidly to God, often criticizing His governance of the sublunar world. The tone of this criticism is sometimes one of sullen melancholy or hopelessness; sometimes it rises from complaint and accusation to reproach and even menace. ‘And strange enough, in spite of all that, a peculiar and most vivid inner relation continues to exist between them and the Lord with whom they are quarrelling. Whatever happens to them is, in their eyes, always a direct action of God on their behalf.

(p.399) Always they have to deal with God directly. And this direct and intimate relation to God characterizes them as genuine mystics, as mystical fools, and distinguishes them from heretics and philosophers, who have become alienated from God altogether, like Ibn ar-Rāwendī and Abū l-ʽAlā al-Maʽarri.’119

At the heart of the matter, there was, for ʽAṭṭār, no apparent reason for God’s creation; it was an impenetrable mystery. In one of ʽAṭṭār’s stories, someone asks a dīwāne: ‘What is God really doing?’ The fool answers: ‘Have you seen the slate of the schoolboys? Like these boys, God now writes something new on the slate, then wipes out what He has written. With this and nothing else He is busy all the time. He has no other occupation than producing and annihilating.’120 In another of ʽAṭṭār’s works, God is a puppeteer who uses and, then, discards his puppets after their performance. Or God is a potter who makes fine pottery and, then, intentionally smashes the pots.121

According to the Qur’ān, God is said to have guaranteed the subsistence of men and animals, yet many live in poverty and die of hunger. How does one explain the extremely unequal distribution of wealth if it is predestined by God? In this regard, the stories of the madmen may be amusing, cynical, or bitter. For example,

  • A simpleton walked naked through the crowd,
  • And seeing such fine clothes he cried aloud:
  • ‘God give me joy like theirs.’ A voice replied:
  • ‘I give the sun’s kind warmth; be satisfied.’
  • He said: ‘My Lord, the sun clothes you, not me!’
  • The voice said: ‘Wait ten days, then you will see
  • The garment I provide.’ Ten days had gone;
  • A poor man offered to this simpleton
  • A ragged cloak made up of scraps and shreds.
  • ‘You’ve spent ten days with patches and old threads
  • Stitching this cloak,’ the madman said; ‘I’ll bet
  • You spoiled a treasury of clothes to get
  • So many bits together—won’t you tell
  • Your servant where you learned to sew so well?’122
And the following three tales make very much the same point. A madman was visited in a hospital by someone and was asked whether he could do anything for him. The madman replied: ‘I have not had (p.400) anything to eat for ten days.’ The visitor said: ‘I shall go and fetch you some bread, meat and sweets.’ The madman cautioned: ‘Speak carefully, God must not hear you, lest He prevent you from doing so. For if He hears you, He will not allow you to fetch me bread, but He will tell you to let me starve.’ Or there’s the story of a poor fool who lived next to a pious officer. The officer regularly sent him food to eat, but one day the officer had to leave the town by order of the king. The fool asked him: ‘Whom will you charge with provisioning me?’ The officer answered: ‘God’. The fool rejoined: ‘Don’t do that; He will be sure to keep me hungry.’ And the biting anecdote about the fool who begged a man for a piece of bread. The man said: ‘God will provide for you.’ The fool replied: ‘I have come to know that by my experience during the year of famine. At that time, the starving people were lying about dead and, nevertheless, He did not give me any bread.’123

The anger of ʽAṭṭār at the unfairness in the world is expressed in the following anecdote about a sainted fool:

A fool, who is very badly off, comes to Nishapur. On his way he passes a field with many cows in it. He asks: Whose are these cows? People say: The Governor’s. He walks on and comes to a steppe, where many fine horses are grazing. He asks: Whose are these horses? and gets the answer: The Governor’s. When he walks on, he meets a troop of young, handsome Turkish slaves clothed in rich garments. He asks: Whose are these slaves? He is answered: These are the favourite slaves of the Governor. Now he comes to the town and there he sees a magnificent palace. He asks: Whose is this palace? He is told: That is the palace of the Governor; don’t you know that? This is too much for the poor fellow. Rage seizes him; he takes his turban from his head, throws it towards Heaven and exclaims: There! take this turban too and give it to Thy Governor! As he is to have everything, let him have the turban too!124

Human suffering and injustice is a natural complaint for the holy fool. Ash-Shiblī is reported to have visited a hospital where a young madman begged him to ask God why He tormented him so much, why He has kept him in a place away from home, far from father and mother, hungry and shivering with cold. When ash-Shiblī was about to leave, however, the young madman cried out: ‘No, don’t tell God anything! Otherwise He will make it still worse. I shall not ask Him for anything. For nothing can impress Him. He is self-sufficient.’125 The world was a wretched place, and God was responsible for it, even for the vermin:

  • (p.401) A saintly fool lived in a squalid place.
  • One day he saw the Prophet face to face,
  • Who said to him: ‘In your life’s work I see
  • The signs of heaven-sent tranquillity.’
  • ‘Tranquillity! When I can’t get away
  • From hungry fleas by night or flies by day!
  • A tiny gnat got into Nimrod’s brain
  • And by its buzzing sent the man insane;
  • I seem the Nimrod of this time—flies, fleas,
  • Mosquitoes, gnats do with me as they please!’126

Medieval scholars gave thoughtful and often complex solutions to these theological questions. Moreover, they might lead to heresy and unbelief. Jahm ibn Ṣafwān (d. 128/746) is said to have been the first Muslim to criticize orthodox opinion; he denied the attributes of God and is reported to have taken his adherents to see the lepers and others who were afflicted. Then, he would say: ‘Look! Such things are done by the most merciful of mercifuls.’127 Whether or not this account is true about Jahm,128 he represented a point of view that was taken up by later Muslims, such as Omar Khayyam, who were explicit in their criticism of traditional beliefs, or in their quarrels with God.129

ʽAṭṭār shrinks back from such a direct confrontation with God, or with the religious establishment. Still, he expresses numerous aspects of man’s quarrel with God. One can threaten God and even try to deceive or outwit Him.130 The ultimate futility of man’s combat with God is vividly conveyed by the ludicrous image of the fool riding his hobbyhorse off to battle. In ʽAṭṭārʼs version of this motif, Lūqmān as-Sarakhsī mounts his stick like a boy, and with a staff in his hand, he rides off to the battlefield. A Turk seizes him, takes away his hobby-horse, and beats him. When he returns to town, abashed and covered with blood, one of the gaping crowd asks him: ‘Have you defeated your enemy?’ Lūqmān answered: ‘Look at my bloodstained clothes! I fought bravely. He did not dare attack me Himself, so He called in a Turk for help, and naturally I could not resist Him.’131 ʽAṭṭār makes the same point more soberly in his story of the madman who beat his head against the door of the Kaʽba in Mecca. After weeping before the Kaʽba all night, the (p.402) madman threatened to strike his head against the door until his head were broken and his heart relieved. A heavenly voice announced that another broken head made very little difference. Then, the pious man fell to the ground, his eyes running with blood. ‘Many a life can bleed away from such grief.—Since we cannot struggle with Him, it is useless to shout with a hundred lamentations.’132

Furthermore, God is sometimes portrayed by ʽAṭṭār as fighting against man, even persecuting him:

Mahmūd of Ghazna is taking the field with a big army and many elephants. A foolish saint sees the mighty army, lifts his eyes towards Heaven and exclaims: Here Thou might learn a king’s behaviour! Sultan Mahmūd, hearing his words, says: Don’t speak like this! The fool, however, says: When you take the field with your army and your elephants, do you then engage in battle with a beggar? No! You march against a king. A king fights with a king, not with a beggar. But He, who is up there, allows you to be king and meanwhile He is fighting day and night with a beggar like me. And He is stronger than I!133

Indeed, God could take some instruction from human beings on how to behave. ‘A merchant grew insane and became poor and miserable. One night he said to God: “If I were in Thy place, and Thou were in mine, I should keep Thee better than Thou keepest me.” ‘134 And on the central theme of mysticism itself, ʽAṭṭār relates this conversation, which, more gently than usual, inverts the relationship between man and God:

In the desert there was a madman who, when carried away by his madness, Would gaze up to heaven and would say, with anguish in his heart: ‘Oh God, it is not Thy practice to love, but I shall love Thee always.

Though there are many like me who love Thee, I love no one but Thee.

How shall I tell Thee, O Illuminator of the World? Learn for one moment from me what it is to love.’135

Still, ‘Aṭṭar’s madmen can defend God136 and be grateful to God—if God is good to them! ‘A fool who never performs the ritual prayer is found one day praying with great zeal. A man says to him: “Today you seem pleased with God, for you are praying so fervently.” The fool says: “Yes. I was as hungry as a lion, but today He has satiated me. He has been good to me; therefore, I am offering Him a good prayer. If He behaves properly, I too shall behave properly.” ’137 ʽAṭṭar adds, as usual, that a special relationship exists between the madman and God, so that their talk should not be misunderstood.

(p.403) Stories could be easily multiplied of mystics who were, in some degree or another, mad, and whose derangement confounded the reason of the sane. The spectrum of holy folly is evident in the voluminous biographical literature, particularly the sufi hagiography that flourished in the late Middle Ages. A good example of this literature devoted to holy men is the Risāla of Ṣafī d-Dīn ibn Abī l-Manṣūr ibn Ẓāfir (d. 682/ 1283), which has recently been edited and translated by Denis Gil.138 The Risāla provides a highly focused survey of Muslim spiritual life in thirteenth-century Egypt. It is a relatively detailed and trustworthy account of the lives of saintly men whom Ṣafī d-Dīn knew personally, especially the external manifestations of their holiness in karāmāt. Aside from the modesty of the work, it is particularly valuable because it does not deal with legendary figures and has no literary pretensions. The Risāla chronicles everyday mysticism.

Ṣafī d-Dīn was born in Fusṭāṭ and lived most of his life there. As an adolescent, however, he apparently accompanied his father, who was an Ayyubid vizier, on his official travels, and in Damascus the young boy had an important experience that he later recorded twice in his Risāla (fos. 22b–23, 50–50b). When Ṣafī d-Dīn was in the Umayyad Mosque, dressed according to his rank and surrounded by his suite, he was approached by a big man whose large head was covered by a torn felt skull-cap, and the strange man offered him a handful of apples. ‘Take them’, he said. Frightened by him, Ṣafī d-Dīn took refuge with his friends, whereupon the man drew back and threw the apples at them one by one and, then, left the mosque. A little later, two local religious notables arrived and listened with amazement at a recounting of this incident. Congratulating Ṣafī d-Dīn, they informed him that the peculiar person was ʽAlī al-Kurdī, the ‘fool of God’ (muwallah); in fact, he was considered to be the ‘pole’ of Damascus or Syria (quṭb ash-Sham), or the pinnacle of the living saints, whom the people of Damascus greatly venerated. The dignitaries said that he had come to offer Ṣafī d-Dīn a token of hospitality, which he rarely did for anyone. Consequently, Ṣafī d-Dīn hastened to overtake the saint; he greeted him and kissed his hand, and ʽAlī al-Kurdī laughed. More than a presage of his future life, Ṣafī d-Dīn believed that this gesture of hospitality (ḍiyafa) signified his first investiture or introduction to the world of the saints. Returning to Fusṭāṭ, Ṣafā d-Dīn embarked on a religious vocation by becoming a disciple of a sufi shaykh despite the opposition of his father.

(p.404) When Ṣafī d-Dīn later told his spiritual director about the encounter with ʽAlī al-Kurdī, he responded that the man was an imam of his time (fo. 51). In the Risāla, Ṣafī d-Dīn relates some of the miracles of ʽAlī al-Kurdī, and he tells of ʽAlīʼs meeting with as-Suhrawardī in Damascus. When as-Suhrawardī requested to see the holy man, he was put off by being told that he should not waste his time in seeing a man who did not perform his prayers and who often went about naked. But as-Suhrawardī insisted on meeting him. ʽAlī had dwelt in the Umayyad Mosque until another holy fool named Yāqūt installed himself there, and Ṣafī d-Dīn had seen him there. Since then, ʽAlī had left Damascus and had gone to live in the cemetery at Bāb aṣ-Ṣaghīr, where he remained until his death. He never returned to the city, in which Yaqut now held sway. When as-Suhrawardī looked for ʽAlī in the Umayyad Mosque, therefore, Yāqūt told him that he was in the cemetery, and as-Suhrawardī went out to that place and honoured him, despite ʽAlīʼs initial crude rebuff.139

Ṣafī d-Dīn naturally took a keen interest in the mystical experiences of the lives of the men and women that he chronicles; as signs of their spiritual virtues or of divine grace, such states appear even more essential than their karāmāt, which are usually only alluded to and, incidentally, rarely include miracles of healing. Ṣafī d-Dīn pays particular attention to those lives whose other-worldliness exceeded the conventional, and he appears quite uncritical of their behaviour, being expressions of authentic mystical experiences. The muwallah was ‘one driven crazy’—a term that was applied to either a man or a woman (e.g. imra’a muwallah)—by which Ṣafī d-Dīn meant someone driven mad by the love of God. As with the Christian holy fool, there was the muwallah whose madness justified his or her eccentricity and the violation of the Sharīʽa and the muwallah whose folly was a disguise for his deep spirituality. Aside from ʽAlī al-Kurdī and Yāqūt in Damascus,140 Ṣafī d-Dīn mentions a number of holy fools that he knew personally in Egypt. One man in Bilifiyā, a village north-west of Beni Swef, was a muwallah because of his illumination (kashf), although most of the people considered him an ordinary madman (majnūn).141 On the other hand, a pious man in the province of Bahnasā experienced numerous revelations, but the external manifestations of his mystical rapture (walah) did not prevent him from leading a life of great rectitude.142 Ṣafī d-Dīn also knew a pious shaykh in Alexandria named ʽAbd al-Qādir an (p.405) Naqqād. After his discipleship under a spiritual master, he was seized by mystical experiences. Under the influence of this holy madness (walah), he said astonishing things about his experiences, so much so that the local jurists were unable to endure him and had him confined to the bīmāristān, presumably the hospital erected by Saladin.143 His spiritual states, however, became more accentuated in confinement. Therefore, Abū l-ʽAbbās al-Munsī, a greatly respected shaykh, visited him and recorded what he saw and heard; he concluded, playing on the madman’s name, that: ‘This man is the servant of an almighty God (ʽabdu qādirin).’ This testimony was sufficient to prove his holiness.144

Among other ‘fools for God’s sake’,145 Ṣafī d-Dīn mentions Muḥammad, whom he observed on his pilgrimage to Mecca. Originally Persian, Muhammad may have been a jurist before becoming a holy fool. He was peculiar in his obsessive wandering and continuous invocations of God, day and night. He also acted like a wild animal when he was offered something to eat. Nevertheless, he had a handsome appearance and performed perfectly the obligatory prayers, although he appeared agitated when he performed the supererogatory prayers. He was subject to numerous mystical experiences.146 Furthermore, Ṣafī d-Dīn knew in Bilbais a holy fool named Ziyāda, who never asked for anything but lived on charity, disdaining money particularly. The amirs and rich people tried to deceive him by offering him ḥalwā in which they had hidden dinars, but when Ziyāda perceived what they did, he fled them as if they were scorpions or serpents’ heads. Like most of the holy fools, he also had supernatural powers: he had a remarkable gift of physiognomy (firāsa).147 And in Fusṭāṭ, Ṣafī d-Dīn knew a man named Ahmad, who resided most of the time in the muṣallās (places of prayer) of Fusṭāṭ and Cairo. He laughed a great deal, even during prayer, but he was preserved from silliness and nonsense. Although he needed nothing, he begged in order to conceal his state. His mystical raptures were frequent, and he had the ability to know other people’s thoughts.148 Similarly, a holy fool in Cairo who was a paralytic was famous in the capital for his prescience.149 Finally, Ṣafī d-Dīn knew a woman in Giza who was a holy fool; she stood for three years in a field of grass without ever sitting and without any protection. The serpents took refuge around her, and she was fed by whatever was given to her.150

(p.406) In only one instance does Ṣafī d-Dīn mention a majdhūb. The distinction between the majdhūb and the muwallah in Ṣafī d-Dīn’s work does not appear to be between occasional and permanent holy madness,151 but between one who was involuntarily driven mad and one who strove to achieve divine madness. The majdhūb was Mufarrij, who was a pious shaykh in Damāmīn, a village in Upper Egypt. Ṣafī d-Dīn says that he had been an Abyssinian slave, whom a merchant of Upper Egypt had bought as a servant, but ‘God had chosen him. For no known reason and without warning a great spell (akhdha) overcame him and took away his ordinary senses, and he remained in that condition for six months without eating or drinking, which he himself had told me.’152 His master became angry and beat him, but the blows had no effect. He thought that Mufarrij was possessed and ordered someone to whip him, so that Mufarrij would recover and take food. Mufarrij did not recover, so the man administering the beating tried to exorcise the jinnīya by commanding: ‘Depart!’ The shaykh said to him: ‘She has left!’ Mufarrij meant his soul, but the one who beat him thought that he meant his female demon. Then, they fettered and imprisoned him; they left him and returned later, but they found him outside of the prison, which was the beginning of his miraculous acts. At the end of his enchantment (akhdha), Mufarrij met an accomplished spiritual director who accepted him as a disciple; the director ‘devoted his attention to him, accepting his condition and acknowledging the authenticity of his mystical ravishment. He found rest with him. He [Mufarrij] was a majdhūb at the beginning of his spell, and he found peace with the shaykh when his consciousness [returned] and the shaykh used to testify to his holiness.’153 It is impossible to determine exactly why Mufarrij sought out a spiritual mentor after his mystical experience, beyond the need for emotional security; the association probably gave structure to his religious vocation and surely facilitated the eventual attraction of disciples to him, unlike most isolated holy fools. Eventually, his sanctity became so celebrated throughout Egypt that his name was written on amulets. Mufarrij became immensely popular with both the rich and the poor, and his illuminations continued to animate the rest of his life.154

The display of feigned madness is also evident in the work of Ṣafī d-Dīn, where its purpose was a licence to criticize others—a function that the holy man shared with the wise fool. For example, Ṣafī d-Dīn tells the story of Qaḍīb al-Bān (d. AH 570), a well-known mystic of Mosul. One day he entered the house of Abū n-Najā, another celebrated shaykh, (p.407) covered in rags and completely dishevelled. He asked where Abū n-Najā was, and his disciples replied that he had left. Qaḍīb was insulting, saying that he had left to do the work of the Devil. The students were shocked, and one of them replied that it was his Devil that told lies. Qaḍīb was infuriated and threw off his rags, and he stood naked beside the pool in the centre of the lodging, pouring water over his body. Then, he put on again his tattered clothing and departed. When Abū n-Najā returned, he asked what had happened in his absence, and his students related the unusual visit of Qadīb. Abū n-Najā remarked that Qaḍīb was right, for he explained that, at that moment, he had been with the governor of Mosul and they had both dissimulated. Abū n-Najā, then, asserted enigmatically that now God had informed him about the secret about the genitalia and why He had ordered them to be covered. After an hour, Qadib returned and was received by the shaykh with respect; he was neither mad (walah) nor crazy (khibāl) but had regained his equipoise, and the two men spoke of their spiritual lives and that of others. Ṣafī d-Dīn comments on two aspects of this anecdote. The shaykh agreed with Qaḍīb because he had spoken insincerely to the governor who had led him into hypocrisy (nifāq), despite the shaykh’s good intentions. This observation of the author is consistent with the general Islamic principle that spiritual leaders should not associate with princes because they would be corrupted. Second, Abū n-Najā understood but did not explain the meaning of nudity (ʽawra), which was such a common characteristic of the Muslim holy fool. Nudity signified sensuality (shahwa); without sensuality, there was no sense of nudity, like Adam in paradise before his shameful parts were formed. For Ṣafī d-Dīn, the fool’s indifference to nudity indicated his loss of sensuality and, therefore, the achievement of an Edenic innocence.155

But it was more than that. As in early Christianity, the story of Adam and Eve represented a man’s moral freedom—his freedom from social and sexual obligations, his freedom from tyrannical governments and conformist religion. Even more clearly in its Qurʼānic version, Adam, standing for mankind, is charged by God with the responsibility of being His viceregent on earth; it is his mission to create a moral social order. ‘We offered the trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, but they refused to carry it and were afraid of it; and man carried it’ (33: 72). The Qurʼānic passage concludes that, having untaken this ‘trust’, man was unjust and ‘foolish’ (jahūl) in his governance. Was not, then, man foolish, and the mystic who had opted out of the divine ‘trust’ sane? In (p.408) any case, the traditional Muslim holy fool, like the gnostic Christians, sought and claimed to regain—since there is no barrier of ‘original sin’ in Islam—his moral freedom through deeper knowledge or gnosis.156 The explanation of Qaḍīb’s insane behaviour—and the anecdote is clearly didactic—is that Abū n-Najā should not compromise himself by associating with the rich and powerful and should regain his personal freedom as a gnostic. In this sense, holy folly was a radical expression of one’s moral freedom to rule oneself.

In the later Middle Ages, the holy fool reached the acme of recognition. The notion of sacred folly was ‘canonized’ by Ibn al-ʽArabī (d. 638/1240), the foremost theoretician and expositor of Islamic mysticism. In his most famous work, al-Futūḥat al-Makkīya, he gives a systematic account of his mystical teaching. Predictably, human reason is severely restricted in his doctrine. In the introduction to al-Futūḥāt al-Makkīya, he divides knowledge (ʽilm) into three classes: what is attained through ordinary reason (ʽaql); what is known through sensory perception; and what is acquired mystically. The soul ‘blows’ this last type of knowledge into man’s heart; it is similar but superior to the wisdom provided by the first two types. This spiritual truth is partially acquired through revelations by prophets, especially the Qurʼān, but being divine, it is also accessible to men after intensive mystical training. The aspects of this special knowledge (maʽ ārif) are obviously not acquired by mundane reason. Truth depended on its source, not on logic, experimentation, or proof.157

The forty-fourth chapter of al-Futūḥāt al-Makkīya is devoted to ‘the fools and their master in folly’.158 The terms themselves of the title indicate that the legendary figure of Buhlūl had become synonymous with holiness; the buffoon had become a saint, and holy fools were elevated to imams or spiritual leaders. The elements of pious asceticism, mysticism, and sainthood were successfully blended together by Ibn al-ʽArabī. He begins with a commentary on the Qurʼān and ḥadīth, which naturally justify his point of view. According to Ibn al-ʽArabī, the mystical experience assails a person suddenly, and he loses his ʽaql; God speaks through the lunatic (al-muwallah), putting on his tongue wisdom and exhortation. The ʽuqalāʼ al-majānīn are God’s people; their madness is not caused by natural processes—the corruption of the temperament (mizāj) by physical causes. On the contrary, their madness is a divine (p.409) revelation (tajallin) in their hearts. This abrupt emergence of the truth takes away their understanding (ʽaqūl), being absorbed in God. ‘They possess understanding without reason!’ The most forceful example of such revelation to a human being was, of course, Muḥammad, who was initially dismayed and frightened by the experience.159 As for the ‘wise fools of God’, Abū as-Suʽūd ibn ash-Shibl al-Baghdādī was reportedly asked about them, and he said that they were ‘wits’ (milāḥun)—the wittiest of the wise. Then, he was asked how you could tell them from others, and he replied that traces of omnipotence (qadra) were evident in their condition.160

According to Ibn al-ʽArabī, there are three grades or steps (marātib) of divine revelation among mortals. In the first state, the individual loses all rational activity as long as he lives, although his ‘animal soul’ continues to function. These individuals are the ʽuqalāʼ al-majānīn. In the second condition, the distraction is not continuous; the recipient returns to society with his reason intact, and he manages his own affairs. Such men are the prophets and saints. And third, there are the occasional mystical experiences of the ordinary man or woman. Ibn al-ʽArabī adds that it was wrong to believe that the prophets freely dispose or control their mystical states while the saints do not.161

Ibn al-ʽArabī was acquainted with some of these wise fools and sought to learn from them. He states that he was particularly familiar with one of them and reports some of his pious exhortations about spiritual blindness. The author says that this man was one of the greatest fools (maʽtūhīn) that he ever met. When Ibn al-ʽArabī asked him what took away his reason, he replied that his questioner was the madman—‘If I had ʽaql, how could you ask me what destroyed my reason?’ It was a divine mystery. This holy fool desired to be left alone; he was tolerated by the people, and boys and others did not harass him in the city. He was very quiet, perplexed (mabhūt), and deferential; he constantly attended the mosque and prayed all the time. To Ibn al-ʽArabīʼs questioning about his devotions, the madman responded that it was God acting through him and not his own will.162

Ibn al-ʽArabī also mentions earlier ‘madmen of truth’ (majānīn al-ḥaqq); these fools (bahālīi) included Buhlūl, Saʽdūn, and Abī Wahab al-Fāḍil. Some of them were joyous and others sad. They varied according to the degree that their understanding was taken away, and Ibn al-ʽArabī names a number of men, whom he had known, that were seized by divine revelation. In conclusion, he confesses that he himself (p.410) had once experienced the station of divine folly (maqām al-bahlila) when he led the five prayers in the mosque. He did not remember where he was or what he had done; it was like a dream. It was a beatific vision. ‘From that [experience], I knew the authorizer [;mukallif ], the authorization [taklīf] and the authorized [mukallaf].’163 The ‘divine madmen’ (al-majānīn al-ilāhiyīn) were outward and visible signs of divine grace.

(4) Latter-day Saints

The inspired, freebooting madman was known from antiquity. Minucius Felix, a Christian writer of the third century, remarked to a friend on the unclean spirits and their relationship to pagan religion: ‘They are also responsible for the madmen, whom you see running out into the streets, themselves soothsayers of a kind but without a temple, raging, ranting, whirling round in the dance; there is the same demonical possession, but the object of the frenzy is different.’164 At the end of the Middle Ages, Pero Tafur visited Egypt and wrote the following vivid description:

There are men at Babylonia [Fusṭāṭ] who shave the head, the beard, the eyebrows and the eyelids, and they appear to live like mad people, saying that they do this out of holiness, and that for the service of God they eschew the world and its pomps, and for this reason also they shave themselves. Some go about wearing horns, others bedaubed with honey and feathered, and others carrying poles with lanterns and lights hanging from them; others have bows and arrows drawn ready to shoot, and thus in diverse manners they go about, saying that they are persecutors of the Christians. The Moors show them great reverence. One day I met a number of them and asked where they were going, and they said that they were about to enter the fire with the Christian dogs to see who would burn the faster.165

Madmen are conspicuous in the Ottoman period because of the increase of historical reports about them. Native authors as well as a growing number of foreign travellers wrote critically about them, particularly the reputed holy men. The prominent Egyptian sufi Abd al-Wahhab ash-Shaʽrānī (d. 973/1565) was keen to discriminate in his works between a holy fool and an unholy fraud. He seems to be the first writer of manāqib literature166 to include the lives of disreputable sufis and (p.411) charlatans alongside the biographies of law-abiding holy men, however contradictory that may be within the hagiographical genre. In any case, ash-Shaʽrānī was quick to criticize those dervishes whose behaviour he considered to be ‘absolutely repulsive’.167

Ash-Shaʽrānīʽs biography of Shaykh Barakāt al-Khayyāṭ, ‘the tailor’ (d. 923/1517), may be typical of this kind of false holy man, but it appears to betray also a measure of ambivalence on ash-Sha ʽrānīʼs part to such highly eccentric figures. Barakāt

wore striped muslin in the manner of a Christian, and was extremely filthy. He had a tailor’s shop, but people could not stop there, because he filled it with dead dogs, cats, and sheep. Shaʽrānīʼs shaykh, Nūr ad-Dīn al-Marṣafī, asked for Barakāt’s help when anyone was in trouble. They informed him of the matter by putting stones beside his shop, and he would then settle the problem miraculously. But he resented the fact that whereas he took all the trouble, the other shaykhs received presents as tokens of gratitude. An Azharite who believed in him convinced one of the muftis of al-Azhar, as well as other ulama, to visit Barakāt. Since it was a Friday the visitors wanted to pray with him, but he refused, saying that he was not accustomed to praying; then he performed his ablutions with water from a source where dogs drank, and thus insulted the Azharites. On another occasion he reported an innocent man to the authorities, charging that he had committed an offense against someone in private. After the poor man was badly beaten, Barakāt explained that he had mistaken him for another. Another time a high official who had threatened him was immediately dismissed from his post.168

While showing how sufism cut across the various strata of Egyptian society, the biography suggests the difficulty in distinguishing orthodoxy when the boundaries of sanctity were so wide.

Ash-Shaʽrānī tells many stories about the madmen of Cairo; he believed completely in the supernatural powers of the true holy man. For example, he mentions a man named Ibrāhīm the Naked, who called people by their names without knowing them; completely naked, he preached to the people in incoherent phrases, but his voice was reportedly so sweet that no one was able to disturb him or leave him. Another Egyptian was ʽAbd ar-Raḥmān al-Majghūb, who had emasculated himself at the beginning of his spiritual vocation. All year long he crouched in the sand and alternated every three months between silence and speaking; smiling, he spoke an infantile language and referred to himself in the third person.169

(p.412) In his biographies of sufis, ash-Shaʽrānī describes two types of ‘enlightened’ men whose behaviour was unusual: the majādhīb,170 those considered ‘natural saints’, and the men of ‘the divine states’ (arbāb al-aḥwāl). Some walked around naked, like Ibrāhīm, or wore unusual clothing; some dressed as Christians or lived with Christian monks. Ash-Shaʽrānī thought that it was dangerous to oppose them, even in one’s heart. Moreover, one should not seek their blessing because they might curse you instead, causing harm rather than good. The men of ‘divine states’, like the lunatics, were exempt from most moral and legal constraints. Ash-Shaʽrānī quoted Dashṭūṭī as saying that ‘the arbāb al-aḥwāl were with God in the state that existed before the creation of man and the revelation of religions. One should accept their supernatural powers but not follow their behavior.’171 Ash-Shaʽrānī does not seem to make a clear distinction between the two groups, but it appears to be between the involuntary and voluntary ecstatics.

The exemplum of true Malāmatī piety for ash-Shaʽrānī was the first caliph, Abū Bakr: ‘He calls for relentless soul-searching, self-reproach, and self-denial; he seeks to excuse bad behaviour in others, recommends doing good deeds in secret and attributing them to others, warns against pretensions to high religious states and calls for a struggle against hypocrisy.’172 On the other hand, ash-Shaʽrānī denounced the insincere Malāmatīs, who drank wine, used hashish, and kissed women and boys, as criminals and devils. Notably, the common people said: ‘These men are inspired (majādhīb). They do not see anything except God.’173

Some of these inspired fools were known for their ‘fight’ with God, blaming Him for their plight, as we have seen; others showed a contempt for conventions, a taste for shamelessness, and a propensity for heretical pronouncements; and most displayed an inversion of social values, particularly a masochistic enjoyment of being tormented or killed by God.174 The saving grace for such fools was their holy way of life but also, more commonly, their ability to work miracles. Ash-Sha ʽrānī, for example, tells the story of Abū Khūda, a contemporary Malāmatī fool. He was a peculiar man who dressed strangely and cuddled everyone he met on the street; he was a notorious homosexual and a friend of lurid black slaves. Once at Damietta, he sought to take a ship but was refused because of his bad reputation. But miraculously the ship was unable to (p.413) leave port. Despite his reprehensible behaviour, he was believed to be a holy man.175

The majdhūb has been an easy target for those hostile to Islamic mysticism. In the early sixteenth century Leo Africanus also observed the extreme manifestations of mysticism in North Africa and Egypt and was quite critical of the eccentric behaviour of its practitioners. He considered some of the sufi orders to be simply heretical. In the context of his discussion of the sufis in Fez, Leo Africanus mentions the rule of one sect, apparently the Malāmatīya, in which each of its members was supposed to live in the world without revealing his spiritual vocation, appearing as a fool, a great sinner, or a tabacchino (a man exercising an infamous trade). Under this pretext, numerous impostors and scoundrels wandered through Africa, poorly clothed to the point of nudity. Leo Africanus states that they did so without any reserve or sense of decency. Sometimes they copulated with women in public places like animals—an act that most critics like Leo Africanus mention, but they do not relate it to the women’s desire for fertility that was supposed to be gained through the holy man’s semen.176 They were simply considered as saints by the common people.

Leo Africanus observed that this rabble existed in great numbers in Tunis,177 but they swarmed in Egypt, especially in Cairo:

I have seen in Cairo, with my own eyes, in Bayn al-Qaṣrayn, one of these individuals seize a very pretty young woman who was leaving a hot-room, lay her in the middle of the road and take advantage of her. As soon as he had released this women, everyone rushed up to touch the clothes of the woman, as if she were an object of devotion because she had been touched by a saint. The people say among themselves that the saint had pretended to deceive her but that it wasn’t anything. [?] When the husband was informed, he considered it as a conspicuous favor. He thanked God for it and made a feast with grand rejoicing for the favor that had been accorded to him. The judges and doctors of the law wanted to punish the rogue severely but they fail to be killed by the people [?] (p.414) because, as I will say, each of these people enjoys a great veneration among the vulgar and receives presents and gifts of considerable value.178

Slightly later than ash-Shaʽrānī and Leo Africanus, Prosper Alpin, an Italian physician-botanist, visited Egypt in AD 1581–4. His account of Egyptian medicine was first published in 1591 and is one of the earliest studies on non-European medicine by a foreign observer; he also published a description of the natural history of Egypt. Altogether, Alpin gives a remarkable picture of Egyptian social life in the late sixteenth century. In his discussion of the ceremonial departure of pilgrims for the annual ḥajj, Alpin described, as did many other foreigners, the ‘santons’ or illuminati who followed the procession. At regular intervals five or more of these men would form a circle (zikr) and loudly cried out religious slogans; they continued their yelling until foam came from their months. They believed that they were imitating the Prophet by their actions.179 Furthermore, Alpin says that the Arabic word siech, i.e. shaykh, or wālī designated a man in whom were mixed both sanctity and madness. These shaykhs wandered through the villages, towns, and hamlets dressed only in a linen shirt; they had such freedom of action that they were allowed to do anything that they wanted, even unjust or dishonest things. There was no shameful act, Alpin says, that they did not commit if they wanted to, even attacking women in the road without any complaint.180

The classic Western description of the Muslim holy fool is that of Edward Lane in his Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, which was first published in 1836. Forgetful of the long tradition of the ‘fool for Christ’s sake’ in Western culture, he is clearly disparaging of the Muslim saints, leaving little doubt about his assessment of their sanity. His presentation of the subject deserves to be quoted in its entirety:

An idiot or a fool is vulgarly regarded by them as a being whose mind is in heaven, while his grosser part mingles among ordinary mortals; consequently, he is considered an especial favourite of heaven. Whatever enormities a reputed saint may commit (and there are many who are constantly infringing precepts of their religion), such acts do not affect his fame for sanctity; for they are considered as the results of the abstraction of his mind from worldly things; his soul, or reasoning faculties, being wholly absorbed in devotion; so that his passions are left without control. Lunatics who are dangerous to society are kept in confinement; but those who are harmless are generally regarded as saints. Most of the reputed saints of Egypt are either lunatics or idiots or impostors.

(p.415) Some of them go about perfectly naked, and are so highly venerated, that the women, instead of avoiding them, sometimes suffer these wretches to take any liberty with them in a public street; and, by the lower orders, are not considered as disgraced by such actions, which, however, are of very rare occurrence. Others are seen clad in a cloak or long coat composed of patches or various coloured cloths, which is called a dilk, adorned with numerous strings of beads, wearing a ragged turban, and bearing a staff with shreds of cloth of various colours attached to the top. Some of them eat straw, or a mixture of chopped straw and broken glass; and attract observation by a variety of absurd actions. During my first visit to this country, I often met, in the streets of Cairo, a deformed man, almost naked, with long matted hair, and riding upon an ass, led by another man. On these occasions, he always stopped his beast directly before me, so as to intercept my way, recited the Faʼtʼhah, and then held out his hands for an alms. The first time that he thus crossed me, I endeavoured to avoid him; but a person passing by remonstrated with me, observing that the man before me was a saint, and that I ought to respect him, and comply with his demand, lest some misfortune should befall me. Men of this class are supported by alms, which they often receive without asking for them. A reputed saint is commonly called sheykh, mooraʼ bit, or welʼee. If affected with lunacy or idiocy, or of weak intellect, he is also, and more properly, termed megzooʼb, or meslooʼb. Welʼee is an appellation correctly given only to an eminent and very devout saint; and means ‘a favourite of heaven’; but it is so commonly applied to real and pretended idiots, that some wit has given it a new interpretation, as equivalent to beleeʼd, which means ‘a fool’ or ‘simpleton’; remarking that these two terms are equivalent both in sense and in the numerical value of the letters composing them, for welʼee is written with the letters waʼoo, laʼm, and yeʼ, of which the numerical values are 6, 30, and 10, or, together, 46; and beleeʼd is written with beʼ laʼm, yeʼ and dal, which are 2, 30, 10, and 4, or, added together, 46. A simpleton is often called a welʼee.181

Some alleged saints were respectable, according to Lane, and acted like other men, while others lived as hermits in desert places, depending on Providence and the charity of others. Still others, the dervishes, were ostentatious in their piety and self-denial, as he described them in his Manners and Customs. And those who were insane or feigned insanity performed outrageous acts that should be punished severely. Lane related the story that when the French occupied Egypt at the end of the eighteenth century, the French commander-in-chief, Menou, asked the ʽulamāʼ of Cairo for their opinion about these madmen, and they replied that their conduct was forbidden by Islamic law. The French general thanked them and gave orders to prevent such people behaving in the (p.416) customary ways. If insane, they were to be confined to the māristān, and if sane, to be compelled to relinquish their habits or leave the city.

Finally, Lane, relying on the history of Egypt by al-Jabartī, gave an account of a celebrated modern saint, ʽAlī l-Bakrī, because it was ‘a good illustration of the general character and actions of those insane individuals who are commonly regarded as saints’. ʽAlī was a highly respected ‘mejzoob’; he was a tall, lean man who sometimes wore a shirt and a cotton skull-cap, but he usually walked naked in the streets of Cairo. Clean shaven, he would carry a long staff and speak in a confused manner, which the people listened to attentively and interpreted according to their predilections. His example induced a shaykha, or female mystic, to imitate him; she followed him around, covered by a large cotton veil over her head and body and imitated his incoherent speech. When they entered private homes, she would go up to the women’s quarters and gain their confidence, and the women would give her money and clothes. She said that the shaykh had affected her with religious frenzy, so that she was also a saint. According to Lane, she became more insane and intoxicated, and she uncovered her face and wore men’s clothing. The two continued to wander about together and attracted an unruly following of children and vagabonds who also believed that they were affected by the shaykh’s power and, consequently, acted in eccentric ways. When they stopped, the woman would use offensive language, sometimes in Arabic and sometimes in Turkish, while some of the crowd would kiss her hands to gain a blessing. After some time, they were seized by a Turkish officer, who brought them into his house and gave food to the shaykh and placed the woman and the other ‘mejzoobs’ in confinement. ʽAlī was set free, but the others were beaten; the woman was sent to the māristān and confined there. She remained for a time in the hospital, and afterwards, she lived alone as an honoured shaykha. After being deprived of his companions, ʽAlī was confined by his brother in his house and was cared for there; ʽAlī claimed that he was the quṭb of the saints, so that crowds of people came to visit the caged holy madman. When he died, he was buried with much ceremony in the modern quarter of Cairo, which became naturally a centre of pious pilgrimage.182

The topography of madness in North Africa was more sympathetically surveyed by the early ethnographer Edvard Westermarck in the first part of the twentieth century. His terminological distinctions are particularly helpful, and his general description conveys a strong sense of the (p.417) continuity of Islamic cultural patterns since the Middle Ages and their close similarity to Eastern practices. Westermarck sums up the matter nicely:

There is finally a class of holy men and women that is recruited from idiots and madmen. Derangement of the mind is always in Morocco attributed to supernatural influence. Maniacs are regarded as mejnūnīn, possessed of jnūn, and, being dangerous to their fellow-creatures, are locked up in l-mārisṭān, ‘a prison for frantic madmen’ but harmless lunatics are venerated as saints, whose reason is in heaven while the body is on earth. This is the case with the būhāli (plur. būhāla; fem. būhālīya, plur. būhālīyāt), the idiotic fool, who is quiet, silent, and generally dirty. The same is the case with him who is said to be mejdūb (plur. majādib; fem. mejdūba, plur. mejdūbāt), a person who is more or less out of his mind, talkative, often wearing his hair long (such a person is in Fez called shébsbūb), but often clean in his habits. He is considered more holy than the būhāli; indeed, of the latter it is sometimes said, Būhāli khāli men rāḥmat allāh, ‘A būhāli is devoid of God’s mercy’. Baraka amounting to sainthood is also ascribed to a person who is said to be mkhálkhal (plur. mkhálkhlīn; fem. mkhálkhla, plur. mkbálkblāt), a form of temporary insanity which shows itself in great nervous excitement. This expression is used of shereefs in cases where an ordinary person would be regarded as mejnūn, mejdūb, or būhāli. The saintly lunatic is not held responsible for any absurdity he commits. During my first stay in Fez there was an insane woman who used to walk about in a state of perfect nudity; and when I visited the same town again, after an interval of nearly twelve years, she was still alive and continued her old habit. One of the dead saints of Fez, Sīdi Ḥammādī, who was mejdūb in his lifetime, is also known to have walked about in town quite naked; he is buried in the house where he lived, and a feast (mūsem) in his honour is arranged every autumn by his relatives. Lunatics are not even obliged to observe the Ramaḍān fast, which is popularly regarded as the most imperative of all religious duties. Of an insane person in Tetuan, who instead of abstaining from food till sunset was taking his meal in broad daylight in the open street, I heard the people forgivingly say, ‘The poor fellow does not know what he is doing, his mind is with God.’183

At the same time, Canaan’s study of Muslim saints in Palestine gives even more detail about the majdhūb. He says that the mystical call of the sufi or dervish may be so sudden and the person may follow it so quickly that he is believed to have become mentally deranged. In fact, this state, being majdhūb, was believed to be the normal beginning in the careers of many dervishes. The majdhūb forgets all earthly things and follows only the internal call, living—so to speak—with his Caller. Being completely absorbed by his inner life, his outer existence is characterized by disconnected speech, repeating one and the same sentence, and roaming (p.418) aimlessly in the streets or in the fields, living only on herbs or even on carcasses. Citing a biography of a majdhūb by ash-Shaʽ rānī, Canaan asserts that the enraptured retained the outward character that he possessed at the time of his mystical inspiration. Furthermore, Canaan gives a number of examples of the majādhīb; it would appear that, when he studied the subject, majdhūb in vernacular Arabic was synonymous with majnūn. Similarly, the Turkish meczub had once meant a sufi who was obsessed with divine love, whereas its colloquial meaning is ‘crazy or insane’.184 Canaan asserts that the behaviour of the majdhūb did not differ from that of the demoniac. Nevertheless, he maintained that in classical Arabic majdhūb was ‘a person inhabited by a good spirit and drawn by God to His presence’, so that the majdhūb was the victim of a good possession by God or the good jinn, as opposed to the bad possession of the majnūn.185

These modern observers of the holy madman in Islamic societies have generally been incredulous and have tended to emphasize the madman’s dramatic and often grotesque behaviour. But even Lane recognized the apparent supernatural powers that a saintly acquaintance of his possessed.186 It was surely this preternatural ability of the holy fool that reinforced the belief in divine madness in the opinion of many native peoples.

Looking back, how was this talent of the holy fool and the whole matter of holy folly understood by a sane man in the late Middle Ages? Again, we are fortunate in having Ibn Khaldūn’s discussion of the topic, which offers both a reasonable and instructive interpretation. At the beginning of his Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldūn discusses the various types of human beings who have supernatural perception, which is acquired either by natural disposition or through exercise. He begins with the basic assertions that God chooses certain individuals as prophets for His purposes, primarily to guide their fellow men and show them the path to salvation, and that the knowledge that God imparts to them cannot be attained by ordinary mortals. The elect can be recognized by the fact that, in a state of inspiration, they ‘seem to be removed from those who are present. This is accompanied by a feeling of being choked that looks like swooning or unconsciousness but has nothing to do with either.’187 This immersion or encounter with the spiritual kingdom is entirely foreign to the ordinary perception of men, but the recipient is able to understand and retain his revelation, as Muhammad did. Because the (p.419) process of receiving revelations creates these unusual conditions, it was common to accuse the prophets of being possessed by jinn. Those chosen by God can also be distinguished from ordinary men by their sinless and exemplary lives; such inspired men gain the respect of others; and they work wonders that attest to their truthfuless, such as the miracles of the prophets and the lesser feats of the saints.188

In the subsequent section on prophecy, Ibn Khaldūn describes the human soul as an invisible but self-evident part of the body; it is the intermediary between the body, through which it ‘acquires the sense percepts by which it is prepared for actual intellection’, and the realm of the angels, where it acquires scientific and supernatural perceptions. Lower than prophecy, soothsaying is a particular quality of the human soul; the soothsayer can achieve the disregard of the senses with the help of rhymed prose, a distinguishing characteristic of soothsaying, but the revelation he receives is inspired by devils or affected by foreign notions (taṣawwur). His imperfect contact with the supernatural results in a jumble of truth and falsehood. Moreover, intuition or the spiritual perception of the soul is experienced in a fragmentary manner by all human beings during sleep; at that time, the soul obtains knowledge of future events by regaining the perceptions that properly belong to it as a spiritual entity when it is released from the restraints of the body. In Galenic terms, Ibn Khaldūn says that the rational soul returns to the function for which it is prepared—the apprehension of the spiritualia— although in a waking state it is diverted to acting through the body’s animal spirit to form perceptions and actions. Although unintentional, often obscure, and usually uncontrollable, all people thereby have a glimpse of the supernatural while asleep—and, one might add, when in love or in moments of sexual ecstasy. ‘If this is possible in the realm of sleep, it is not impossible in other conditions, …’189

Thus, some people have a special natural talent or disposition for foretelling the future; no one can deny, Ibn Khaldūn asserts, that such diviners exist. ‘Statements concerning supernatural things are also placed upon the tongues of the insane, who are thus able to give information about (supernatural things).’ Similarly, those who are about to fall asleep or about to die and those who have received sufi training are able to speak about the supernatural.190 Those who have this access to supermundane perception are able, in one way or another, to remove ‘the veil of the senses’, or the soul’s preoccupation with the body’s physical functioning.

(p.420) Ibn Khaldūn ingeniously combines Galenic humours, Platonic forms, and Islamic demons to explain the supernatural talents of the insane, as well as insanity itself. A poor physical constitution and/or the attacks of invasive evil spirits remove an individual from contact with the dominating sensual world and cast him into the spiritual realm of eternal verities:

In the insane, the rational soul is but weakly connected with the body, because the humors, as a rule, are corrupt and have a weak animal spirit. Therefore, the soul belonging to (the body of an insane person) is not deeply immersed in the senses. The painful disease of deficiency that affects it keeps it too much occupied. Frequently, it was pushed into attaching itself to (the insane) by some other Satanic spirituality, which clings to them and which (the soul) itself is too weak to keep away. The insane thus become possessed.191 When they have become possessed in this manner, either because of the corruption of their constitution as the result of the essential corruption of their soul, or because of the onslaught the Satanic souls make upon them when they are attached to (their bodies), they are totally removed from sensual perception. They perceive a glimpse of the world of their soul. (Their soul) receives the impress of forms which, in turn, are transformed by the imagination. In this condition, they frequently speak without wanting to speak. (Supernatural) perception in all these (groups) contains truth and falsehood mixed together. For although they may achieve the loss of sensual perception, it is only with the help of foreign notions (taṣawwur) that they achieve contact (with the supernatural), as we have established. This leads to untruthfulness (which is to be found) in these (ways of supernatural) perceptions.192

Consequently, Ibn Khaldūn expresses serious doubts about the reliability of the madman’s perceptions, not denying his contact with the extraterrestrial but not trusting his distorted reports of it either.

Supernatural perception is also cultivated artificially, according to Ibn Khaldūn, through self-mortification. The intent of such asceticism is to destroy the body and its influence on the soul, freeing it as in death from the material senses. Others discipline their bodies, like the yogis in India, to achieve this goal. In comparison, he believed that the sufis’ training was religious and, therefore, more meritorious, for its primary objective was the mystical experiences of gnosis and divine oneness, not supernatural perception about mundane matters. Instances of the latter do occur accidentally and are called ‘acts of divine grace’ (karāmāt). Muhammad and his companions are alleged to have had such super (p.421) natural perceptions, which confirm the fact that mystics and pious people may have this kind of power.

In this context, Ibn Khaldūn turns to holy madness and expresses little doubt about its genuineness. He emphasizes the madman’s exemption from the law, which will be discussed more fully in the next chapter, in order to stress the fact that the holy fool is not bound by religious or ritual norms. He is not physically ill like the insane, and Ibn Khaldūn is keen to distinguish the holy fool from the merely deranged. The madman is a pure soul who lacks ʽaql, the rational faculty or function that is essential to leading normal material life. Ibn Khaldūn states:

Among the adepts of mysticism are fools and imbeciles who are more like insane persons than like rational beings. Nonetheless, they deservedly attained stations of sainthood and the mystic states of the righteous. The persons with mystical experience who learn about them know that such is their condition, although they are not legally responsible. The information they give about the supernatural is remarkable. They are not bound by anything. They speak absolutely freely about it and tell remarkable things. When jurists see they are not legally responsible, they frequently deny that they have attained any mystical station, since sainthood can be obtained only through divine worship. This is an error. ‘God bestows His grace upon whomever He wants to.’ The attainment of sainthood is not restricted to (the correct performance of) divine worship, or anything else. When the human soul is firmly established as existent, God may single it out for whatever gifts of His He wants to give it. The rational souls of such people are not non-existent, nor are they corrupt, as in the case with the insane. They (merely) lack the intellect that is the basis of legal responsibility. (That intellect) is a special attribute of the soul. It means various kinds of knowledge that are necessary to man and that guide his speculative ability and teach him how to make a living and organize his home. One may say that if he knows how to make a living, he has no excuse left not to accept legal responsibility, so that he may prepare for his life after death. Now, a person who lacks that (special) attribute (of the soul called intellect) still does not lack the soul itself, and has not forgotten his reality. He has reality, though he lacks the intellect entailing legal responsibility, that is, the knowledge of how to make a living. This is not absurd. God does not select His servants for gnosis only on the basis of (the performance of) some legal duty.

If this is correct, it should be known that the state of these men is frequently confused with that of the insane, whose rational souls are corrupted and who belong to (the category of) animals.193

Ibn Khaldūn concludes with three signs by which the holy fool and the insane could be distinguished, but, based on the historical evidence, they (p.422) do not appear to be entirely reliable as guides, nor is Ibn Khaldūn consistent with his foregoing description of the ‘fool for God’s sake’.194 The signs are only one man’s attempt to formulate criteria for assessing extraordinary behaviour, but they appear quite restrictive; Ibn Khaldūn probably intended to limit the category of holy madness because of its privileged legal status. He says that the first sign is the fool’s constant devotion to dhikr exercises and divine worship although not in the prescribed manner, whereas the insane are not devout at all. As we have seen, holy folly, whether feigned or actual, cannot ironically be neatly described as holy at all; indeed, the purpose of simulated folly was to avoid the obvious signs of religiosity, especially Muslim ritual practices, either in the mosque or sufi lodge, and the hallmark of divine madness was folly or relatively harmless noncomformity to all social conventions. Apparently, Ibn Khaldūn wished to see the holy fool as a reputable ecstatic, firmly anchored within the wide but acknowledged purview of late medieval sufism. Second, according to Ibn Khaldūn, the holy fool was stupid from birth; the insane lost their minds during their lifetime as the result of natural physical accidents, so that their rational souls were corrupted and ‘they are lost’. In other words, the holy fool was a congenital majdhūb. Again, this characterization is too narrow. On the one hand, it ignores those who were mentally deficient from birth, and on the other hand, it leaves out those individuals, apparently the majority, who were ‘attracted’ to God later in life, often as a part of their religious ‘crisis’. Ibn Khaldūn was neither a sufi nor a physician, and he appears to go further astray in his third sign of the holy fool: the fools were conspicuous for their ‘great activity’ that might be good or bad, presumably by the yardstick of Sharīʽa norms, while the insane showed no such activity. This feature contradicts most historical accounts of the ‘insane’, who were said to be highly agitated and usually dangerous to themselves or to others. The holy fool was essentially harmless, physically if not psychologically. What Ibn Khaldūn meant by ‘great activity’ is quite unclear though he stresses that it was not subject to legal restraints. If the phenomenon of holy folly eluded Ibn Khaldūn’s analysis, he grappled with the issue and conceded a measure of recognition to the unpredictable ‘fool for God’s sake’, who was as unfathomable as God Himself.


(1) The Kashf al-maḥjūbNasrallah Pūrjavādī, ‘Analysis of the Concepts of “‘Aql” and “Junūn” in ʽUqalā-i Majānānʼ, Maʽārif, 4 (1987), 14–16

(2) London, 1985, p. 242.

(3) John Saward, Perfect Fools (Oxford, 1980)

(4) 1 Cor. 3: 18–19.

(5) 1 Cor. 2: 7–8.

(6) 1 Cor. 1:18. On moria in the New Testament, see Saward, Perfect Fools, 5.

(7) 1 Cor. 4: 10.

(8) 1 Cor. 4: 11–21.

(9) 2 Cor. ii: 23–33.

(10) 2 Cor. 11: 16.

(11) Acts 26: 24–5.

(12) Acts 26: 27.

(13) Mark 3: 21.

(14) 1 Cor. 14: 18, 2 Cor. 12: 1–14.

(15) 1 Cor. 14: 1–40.

(16) M. A. Screech, ‘Good Madness in Christendom’, in The Anatomy of Madness: Essays in the History of Psychiatry, ed. W. F. Bynum, Roy Porter, and Michael Shepherd, i (London, 1985), 25–39

(17) Ibid

(18) Ibid

(19) See M. A. Screech, ‘Good Madness in Christendom’, 32.

(20) Saward, Perfect Fools, 12. It appears mistaken to say that holy folly was ‘nearly always in close historical relation to monasticism’ (pp. 12, 17), judging by the lives of the holy fools that are recounted by the author; the fools were, naturally, marginal to the institutional Church and frequently at variance with it. This misunderstanding seems to be explained by Saward’s desire to show the fruitful tension between charisma and church: ‘here is the development of an apparently wild and unrestrained spirituality firmly and loyally within the limits of what to some seem monolithic, authoritarian, ecclesiastical organizations’ (p. x). Moreover, any such assessment as this must take into account the objectives of the hagiographers, who reined in the excesses of the holy fools in order to present them as thoroughly orthodox.

(21) The classical Greek word bore the unfavourable connotations of the non-citizen; in modern parlance, the ‘idiot’ was a ‘marginal man’ or a ‘loner’, not one who was stupid or mentally deficient.

(22) Saward, Perfect Fools, 6 et passim.

(23) Palladius, Lausiac History, 105–10.

(24) Ibid

(25) Lennart Rydén, ‘The Holy Fool’, in The Byzantine Saint, ed. Sergei Hackel (Studies Supplementary to Sobornost, 5; London, 1981), 106

(26) Palladius, Lausiac History, 98; Rydén, ‘The Holy Fool’, 106.

(27) Rydén, ‘The Holy Fool’, 107.

(28) The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collectionibid

(29) Émile Dermenghem, Vies des saints musulmans, new edn. (Algiers, 1959)

(30) Lives of the Eastern Saints, ed. and trans. E. W. Brooks (PO, 19: 2; Paris, 1925), 164.

(31) Ibid

(32) Hans J. W. Drijvers, ‘Hellenistic and Oriental Origins’, in The Byzantine Saint, ed. Sergei Hackel (Studies Supplementary to Sobornost, 5; London, 1981), 26–28

(33) Saward, Perfect Fools, 18–19.

(34) IbidInstitutes

(35) Saward, Perfect Fools, 20, considers Andrew’s madness to have been feigned.

(36) Quoted in Rydén, ‘The Holy Fool’, 109.

(37) Tor Andrae, In the Garden of Myrtles: Studies in Early Islamic Mysticism trans. Birgitta Sharpe (Albany, NY, 1987)Uqalā

(38) ibid

(39) Schipperges, ‘Der Narr und sein Humanum’, 3–4.

(40) EI2, s.v. ‘Ahl al-ṣuffa’ (W. Montgomery Watt).

(41) ʽUqalāʼ, Najaf edn., 108–10; Ibn al-Jawzī, Kitab Ṣifat aṣ-ṣafwa, ii. 112–13.

(42) Ṣifat, ii. 292.

(43) Ibid

(44) Ibidmaʽtūh/majnūn

(45) EI2, s.v. ‘Dhu ’l-Nūn, Abu ’l-Fayḍ’ (M. Smith).

(46) Dermenghem, Vies des saints, 337–40.

(47) Ṣifat, iv. 313–14.

(48) Ibid

(49) ibid

(50) Ibid

(51) Ibid

(52) IbidʽUqalā

(53) Ṩifat, iv. 517. See ʽUqalāʼ, 129–30.

(54) Sifat, iv. 321.

(55) Al-Hujwīrī, The Kashf al-maḥjūb, 267–8.

(56) Alessandro Bausani, ‘Note sul “Pazzo Sacro” nell’Islam’, in Studi e Materiali di Storia delle Religioni, 29 (1958), 93–107

(57) EI2, s.v. ‘Abū Yazīd al-Biṣtāmī’ (H. Ritter).

(58) Quoted in Dermenghem, Vies des saints, 328.

(59) Farīd ad-Dīn ʽAṭṭar, Muslim Saints and Mystics, trans. A. J. Arberry (Chicago-London, 1966), 104

(60) EI2, s.v. ‘Malamātiyya’ (Hamid Algar).

(61) Marijan Molé, Les Mystiques Musulmans (Paris, 1965)

(62) EI2, s.v. ‘Malāmatiyya’ (F. de jong). See also Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions, 86–8; Émile Dermenghem, Le Culte des saints, 30–1.

(63) Farūd ad-Dūn ʽAṭṭār, Ilāhī-nāma, trans. J. A. Boyle (Persian Heritage Series, 29; Manchester, 1976), 94–5

(64) Al-Hujwīrī, The Kashf al-maḥjūb, 62–3.

(65) Al-Hujwīrī, The Kashf al-maḥjūb, 68–9.

(66) EI2, s.v. ‘Ḳalandar’ and ‘Ḳalandariyya’ (Tahsin Yazici).

(67) EImalangKatherine Ewing, ‘Malangs of the Punjab: Intoxication or Adab as the path to God’, in Moral Conduct and Authority, ed. Barbara D. Metcalf (Berkeley, Calif., 1984), 357–71

(68) Michael Winter, Society and Religion in Early Ottoman Egypt (New Brunswick, NJ-London, 1982)an-nafs al-lawwāmaEI

(69) Margaret Smith, Studies in Early Mysticism in the Near and Middle East (London, 1931)chs. 79

(70) The Muqaddimah, Rosenthal trans., iii. 77; see his entire account, pp. 76–103.

(71) Louis Massignon, The Passion of al-Ḥallāj: Mystic and Martyr of Islam, trans. Herbert Mason (4 vols.; Princeton, NJ, 1982)EI

(72) EI2, s.v. ‘Abū Saʽīd Faḍl Allāh b. Abi ‘1-Khayr’ (H. Ritter); EIr, s.v. ‘Abū Saʽid Fazlallāh b. Abi ’1-Kayr’ (G. Böwering).

(73) R. A. Nicholson, Studies in Islamic Mysticism (Cambridge, 1921), 15. See also Fritz Meier, Abū Saʽīd-i Abu l-Khayr (357–440/967–1049): Wirklichkeit und Legende (Acta Iranica, 3rd ser., 4; Leiden-Tehran, 1976).

(74) Nicholson, Studies, 17.

(75) Al-Hujwīrī, The Kasbf al-maḥjūb, 150–2.

(76) Ibid

(77) ʽAṭṭār, Muslim Saints and Mystics, 279–81; cf. al-Hujwīrī, The Kashf al-maḥjūb, 155–6, 312–13.

(78) The Ilāhī-nāma, 131–2.

(79) Such as the comparison of himself to a frog, see Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions, 77–80.

(80) Le Quite des saints, 87–95.

(81) Al-Maqrīzī, al-Khiṭaṭ, ii. 435, 1. 18 quoted in Goldziher, ‘Veneration of Saints’, in his Muslim Studies, ii. 265.

(82) EI1, s.v. ‘Walī’ (B. Carra de Vaux).

(83) EI2, s.v. ‘Madjdhūb’ (R. Gramlich).

(84) Al-Hujwīrī, The Kashf al-maḥjūb, 258.

(85) The term majdhūb is not Qur’ānic, but it was used in the early Islamic era, often in connection with eccentric behaviour; for example, Sahl ibn Abī Mālik al-Khazāʽī is described in the collection of an-Naysābūrī as both majnūn and majdhūb (ʽUqalāʼ, Najaf edn., 106).

(86) Sufis of Andalusia: The ‘Rūḥ al-quds’ and ‘al-Durrat al-fākhirah’ of Ibn ʽArabī, trans. R. W. J. Austin (Sherborne, 1988), 77.

(87) Dermenghem, Le Culte des saints, 29–31.

(88) Quoted in Andrae, In the Garden, 87.

(89) Ilāhī-nāma, 141.

(90) See Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions, 19–20, 105.

(91) IbidVies des saintsmajdhūbLe Culte des saints

(92) e.g. ʽAṭṭār, Ilāhī-nāma, 136–7, 153–6, 197, 202, 245–7.

(93) See the discussion of Dayr Hirqil above and the relevant references.

(94) Yafiʽī quoted in Dermengham, Vies des saints, 341.

(95) Ibid

(96) ‘Al-Maqāma al-māristānīya’, Maqāmāt (Beirut, 1889), 119–25 = The Maqāmāt of Badīʽ al-Zamān al-Hamadhānī, trans. W.J. Prendergast (Madras-London, 1915; repr. 1973), 100–3.

(97) James T. Monroe, The Art of Badīʼ az-Zamān al-Hamadhānī as Picaresque Narrative (Papers of The Center for Arab and Middle East Studies, 2; American University of Beirut, 1983)

(98) Al-Hamadhānī is clearly not concerned with historical accuracy; al-ʽAsharī is selected simply because he was a famous Muʽtazilite, and there was probably no bīmāristān in 8th-cent. Basra.

(99) Prendergast, The Maqāmāt, 134–5.

(100) IbidThe Art of Badīʽ az-Zamān al-Hamādhanī

(101) Everett K. Rowson, ‘Religion and Politics in the Career of Badīʽ al-Zamān al-Hamadhānī’, JAOS, 107 (1987), 653–73

(102) This is Monroe’s view of al-Hamadhānī’s purpose especially in ch. 5 (‘In Praise of Folly’) of his The Art of Badīʽ az-Zamān.

(103) The Ilāhī-nāma, 181.

(104) For similar holy fools to those of ʽAṭṭār, see Yāfiʽī, Rawḍ ar-rayāḥīn, nos. 19 ff.

(105) For an exception, see The Ilāhī-nāma, 95.

(106) The evil of the material world was a well-worn topos of the medieval mystical literature. The report by ʽAṭṭār of the meeting between Hasan Basrī (d. AD 728) and Rābiʽa, two famous early mystics, is a clever variant. Initially, all of the wild animals fled from Rābiʽa when Ḥasan approached, and he was jealous of the female mystic. Rābiʽa explained that it was because of his eating animal fat, and she generally criticized his diet: ‘Thou art nothing, man, without the privy and the kitchen. Is thy heart not weary, man, of these two hells? Thou goest from one hell to another; thou goest from the privy to the kitchen. Since thou canst not do for a moment without sweetmeats and delicacies, how long in thy madness will thou pursue visions?’ (The Ilāhī-nāma, 115–16; cf. pp. 163–4, 202–3, 223.)

(107) The reproach of God was, however, not unique among sufis; see Andrae, In the Garden, 122.

(108) Ritter, Das Meer der Seele, 159–80, which is poorly summarized in his ‘Muslim Mystics Strife with God’, Oriens, 5 (1952), 1–15.

(109) A common theme of ʽAṭṭār’s poetry is male homosexual love, suggestive of the unusual relationship between the mystic and God; e.g. The Ilāhī-nāma, 99–102.

(110) Ritter, ‘Muslim Mystics’, 9; idem, Das Meer, 170.

(111) Ritter, ‘Muslim Mystics’, 2–3.

(112) Ritter, ‘Muslim Mystics’, 15. On Jesus the ascetic and this apophthegm in particular, see Andrae, In the Garden, 15–29.

(113) The Conference of the Birds, trans. Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis (Harmondsworth, 1984), 142–3. See also Ritter, Das Meer, 168–9.

(114) See Ritter, Das Meer, 163–5.

(115) Ibid

(116) A. J. Wensinck and J. P. Mensing, Concordance et indices de la tradition musulmane, ii (Leiden, 1943)

(117) Quoted in Ritter, ‘Muslim Mystics’, 8; see also Nicholson, Studies in Islamic Mysticism, 6–7.

(118) The Conference of the Birds, trans. Darbandi and Davis, 193–4. Cf. Ritter, Das Meer, 167.

(119) Ritter, ‘Muslim Mystics’, 9; Das Meer, 169.

(120) The Ilāhī-nāma, 254; Ritter, ‘Muslim Mystics’, 3.

(121) Ritter, ‘Muslim Mystics’, 3. See also The Ilāhī-nāma, 171–2.

(122) The Conference of the Birds, trans. Darbandi and Davis, 85–6; cf. The Ilāhī-nāma, 140. See also Ritter, ‘Muslim Mystics’, 11–12; idem, Das Meer, 176–7.

(123) Ritter, ‘Muslim Mystics’, 4; Das Meer, 173.

(124) Ritter, ‘Muslim Mystics’, 10; Das Meer, 174.

(125) Ritter, ‘Muslim Mystics’, 4; Das Meer, 173. Cf. The Ilāhī-nāma, 160.

(126) The Conference of the Birds, trans. Darbandi and Davis, 87.

(127) Ritter, ‘Muslim Mystics’, 6; Das Meer, 159–60.

(128) See EI2, s.v. ‘Djahm b. Safwān’ (W. Montgomery Watt).

(129) See Ritter, ‘Muslim Mystics’, 6–7; Das Meer, 160–3.

(130) Ritter, ‘Muslim Mystics’, 12–13; Das Meer, 175, 177–8.

(131) Ritter, ‘Muslim Mystics’, 9; Das Meer, 171. For another interpretation of the madman on his hobby-horse, see The Ilāhī-nāma, 222.

(132) The Ilāhī-nāma, 111.

(133) Ritter, ‘Muslim Mystics’, 10–11; Das Meer, 175–6.

(134) Ibid

(135) The Ilāhī-nāma, 160–1.

(136) ibid

(137) Ritter, ‘Muslim Mystics’, 13; Das Meer, 178.

(138) La ‘Risāla’ de Ṣafī al-Dīn ibn Abī l-Mansūr ibn Zāfir: Biographies des maïtres spirituels connus par un cheikh égyptien du VIIe/XIIIe siècle (Textes arabes et études islamiques, 25; Cairo, 1986).

(139) Ibid

(140) See further L. Pouzet, ‘Aspects de la vie religieuse à Damas au VIIe/XIIIe siècle’, diss. (University of Lyon II, 1981), 248, 261–2.

(141) La ‘Risāla’ de Ṣafī al-Dīn, fos. 96–96b.

(142) Ibid

(143) See The Travels of Ibn Jubayr, 33.

(144) La ‘Risdla’ de Safī al-Dīn, fos. 103b–104.

(145) ibid

(146) Ibid

(147) Ibid

(148) Ibid

(149) Ibid

(150) Ibid

(151) La ‘Risāla’ de Ṣafī al-Dīn, p. 41.

(152) Ibid

(153) Ibid

(154) Ibid

(155) Ibid

(156) Elaine Pagels, ‘The Politics of Paradise’, New York Review of Books, 35: 8 (12 May 1988), 28Adam, Eve, and the Serpent

(157) EI2, s.v. ‘Ibn al-ʽArabīʼ (A. Ates).

(158) Ibn al-ʽArabī, al-Futūḥāt al-Makkīya, ed. Uthman Yaḥyā and Ibrahim Madkour, iv (Cairo, 1975), 87

(159) Ibid

(160) Ibid

(161) Ibid

(162) Ibid

(163) Ibn al-ʽArabī, al-Futūḥāt al-Makkīya, ed. by Uthman Yaḥyā and Ibrahim Madkour, iv (Cairo, 1975), 100–1

(164) Quoted in Welsford, The Fool, 76–7.

(165) Pero Tafur, Travels and Adventures, 1435–1439, trans, and ed. Malcolm Letter (London, 1926), 71–2

(166) See EI2, s.v. ‘Manāḳib’ (C. Pellat), an outstanding survey of the subject.

(167) Michael Winter, Society and Religion, 115–16.

(168) Ibid

(169) Dermenghem, Vies des saints, 344–5.

(170) M. Horten, ‘Mönchtum und Mönchsleben im Islam’, Beiträge zur Kenntnis des Orients, 12 (1915), 107

(171) Winter, Society and Religion, 115.

(172) Ibid

(173) Ibid

(174) Bausani, ‘Note sul “Passo Sacro” nell’Islam’, 99.

(175) Paul W. M. Hartmann, ‘Meshreb der weise Narr und fromme Ketzer: Ein zentralasiatisches Volksbuch’, Der Islamische Orient: Berichte und Forschungen, 1: 5 (Berlin, 1902), 147–93

(176) See Meyerhof, ‘Beiträge’, 341.

(177) Leo Africanus, The History and Description of Africa, trans. Brown, iii. 721 = Description de l’Afrique, trans. Épaulard, p. 384: ‘There are certain people in this city whom a man would take to be distraught, who go bareheaded and bare-footed, carrying stones about with them; these men are reverenced by the common people because of their singular holiness. Moreover, on behalf of one of these mad men called Sīdī d-Dahī and his sanctity, the king of Tunis built one of the foresaid monasteries and endowed it with most ample revenues.’

(178) Leo Africanus, Description de l’ Afrique, trans. Épaulard, i. 223–4.

(179) Alpin, Histoire naturelle de l’Égypte, 57, 94–5.

(180) Ibid

(181) Manners and CustomsEIHerbert E. E. Hayes in his ‘Islam and Magic in Egypt’, Moslem World, 3 (1913), 402–3

(182) Lane, Arabian Society, 60–9.

(183) Westermarck, Ritual and Belief, i. 47–9.

(184) Redhouse Yeni Türkçe-Ingilizce Sözlük, s.v. ‘meczub’.

(185) Canaan, Mohammedan Saints, 320–1.

(186) Lane, Arabian Society, 60–9.

(187) The Muqaddimah, Rosenthal trans., i. 184.

(188) Ibid

(189) Ibidet passim

(190) Ibid

(191) Ibid. i. 218 n. 318a: ‘For takhabbata, “to become possessed”, cf. Qurʼān 2: 275 (276), and A. Spitaler, Orientalische Literaturzeitung, 48 (1953), 535’.

(192) The Muqaddimah, Rosenthal trans., i. 218; cf. Macdonald’s translation in his The Religious Attitude, 98–9.

(193) The Muqaddimah, Rosenthal trans., i. 224–6.

(194) The Muqaddimah, Rosenthal trans., i. 226.