Sidi Abul Abbas Sabti (d. 601/1186)
Sidi Abul Abbas Ahmed ibn Jaafar as-Sabti ("Sidi Bel Abbas", d. 601/1186), from the city of Sabta, is considered to be the most imperative gnostic Marrakech and the real protector and Patron Saint of the city. That is because as-Sabti's spiritual method, based as it was on the ethics of charity (sadaqa) and good works (ihsan), was social in nature and expressed values that demanded replicability. Although most of what we know about as-Sabti comes from at-Tadili's (d. 628/1230-1) Akhbar Abil-'Abbas as-Sabti, much of this work relies either on direct testimony from the saint himself or on oral tradition. Although as-Sabti, like Sidi Abu Yaaza Yalnur (d. 572/1157), was an object of suspicion for the Almohad ulama, unlike the latter he was a highly educated and intellectual Sufi who adhered to the early fashion of Moroccan Sufism, which he took from his master Sidi Abdellah al-Fakhar, who was himself a student of the Marrakech Seven Patron saint Sidi Qadi Abul Fadl Iyyad (d. 544/1129) in Sabta.
Social consciousness was so important to as-Sabti's model of sainthood that even defined the pillars of Islam (normally a religious obligation alone) according to this principle:
Tawhid: The meaning of tawhid is the absolute oneness of God Most High without the creation of any god another than Him from among the goods of the material word. For verily, everything that masters a person is his god.
Salat: He who does not understand the meaning of prayer has not prayed. The beginning of prayer is the Magnification of Consecration (takbir al-ihram), which involves raising your hands and saying, "God is Most Great." The meaning of "God is Most Great" is that you do not resent [Allah] anything. Therefore, when one considers a particular aspect of the material world to be most important for him, he has not consecrated himself and has not magnified God in his prayers. The meaning of raising one's hands to magnify God signifies that you have being emptied of everything and are saying, "I possess neither much nor a little."
Sawm: the secret of fasting is that you are hungry. When you are hungry you remember the one who is always hungry and know the strength of the fire of hunger that afflicts him. Thus, if you are in the fact of denying yourself food and have no compassion for the hungry and your fasting does not occur this idea to occur to you, you have not [truly] fasted and have not understand the intended meaning of the fast.
Zakat: As for the lams tax, it is made obligatory for you every year so that you become accustomed to spending and giving of yourself.
Hajj: The essence of pilgrimage is that you appear in the dress of the poor, with a shaved head, unkempt, and wearing sandals, [after] having divested yourself of fine clothing , expounding yourself for the sake of God Most High, and showing worshipfulness [toward Him].
Jihad: the essence of jihad is the expenditure of self for the pleasure of God Most High, emptying oneself of everything for His sake, and divesting oneself of reliance on the material word.
Sidi Bel Abbas was equally devoted to these principles. His session of invocation in Marrakech (which at-Tadili attended) were noted for their atmosphere of mutual respect, and none of his disciples was subjected to open criticism. The same consideration led to his refusal to allow poems of praise to be recited in his honour, for he feared that others might take umbrage at not being praised as well. In addition, an overriding concern for the socially disadvantaged underlay nearly all as-Sabti's public acts, just as had being the case of many eastern Sufi masters. "Do you not know," he once said to his followers, "that the power of God lies in service to the weak?" On another occasion he remarked: "The Companions of the Messenger of God did not attain [their honoured status] except by generosity of spirit, openness of heart, charity, and service to others."
Using a topos common to sacred biography in Islam, Sidi Bel Abbas portrayed himself as having a mystical ambition (himma) from the earliest years of his life: "In the beginning I was an orphan in the city of Sabta and my mother would take me to the shoemakers [to learn their trade]. But I would run away from them to study in the circle of Sidi Abu Abdellah al-Fakhar. She would beat me for this until Abu Abdellah al-Fakhar said to her, 'Why do you beat this child? He is an orphan.' She said, 'he refuses to work at his trade while I have nothing.' My son, why do you not do what your mothers has ordered?' 'Because I love the words that I hear from you,' I answered. Then he said to her, 'Leave him and I will pay you the amount of his earnings and I will also pay for an instructor who will teach him to read.'"
Within only six years, Sidi Bel Abbas had memorised the Quran, the Risala of Ibn Abi Zayd al-Qayrawani, and the fundamentals of Arabic language and literature. He chose goodness and charity as his personal path to God after reflecting on the Quranic verse: "Verily, Allah commands justice and the doing of good" (16:90). After listening to his pupil's commentary on this verse, al-Fakhar told him. "My son, I possess several disciples of the followers of futuwwa, but no one has yet asked me about the path of sharing in balanced measure (mushatara), even though it is the highest attainment of the human being." As al-Fakhar had predicted, Sidi Bel Abbas was to make mushatara, the ritualistic sharing of goods in balanced measure, the hallmark of this spiritual praxis:
I found a verse in the book of God that had a great effect on both my hearth and my tongue. It was, "Verily, God commands justice and the doing of good." I pondered this and said [to myself], "Perhaps [finding] this is no coincidence and I am the one who is meant by this verse." I continued to examine its meaning in the books of exegesis until I found Gharib at-tafsir, which stated that the verse was revealed when the Prophet established brotherhood between the Immigrants (muhajirun) and the Helpers (ansar). They had asked the Prophet to establish a pact of brotherhood between them, so he commanded them to share among themselves. In this way, they learned that the justice commanded [by God] was through sharing. Then I looked into the saying of the Prophet: "My community will be divided into seventy-two sects, all of which will be in the Fire except the one will be followed by me and my companions," and found that he said that on the morning of the day he had ordered the pact of brotherhood [to be established] between the Emigrants and the Helpers… So I understood that what he and his companions adhered to were the practices of mushatara and ithar (altruism). Then I swore to God Most High that when anything came to me I would share it with my believing brothers among the poor. I followed this practice for twenty years, and this rule affected my ideas to the point where nothing dominated my thoughts more than uncompromised honesty (sidq).
After I reached forty years of age, another idea occurred to me, so I returned to the original verse and meditated upon it, and discovered that justice was in sharing but the true goodness (ihsan) went beyond that. So I thought about it a third time and swore a vow in God that if anything, small or large, came to me, I would keep one-third and expend two-thirds for the sake of God Most High. I flowed this practice for twenty years, and the result of that decision among humankind was [both] sainthood and rejection; I would be venerated by some and rejected by others.
After twenty [more] years, I meditated on the first obligation of the station of goodness (ihsan) required by God Most High for His worshipers, and found it to be gratitude for His bounty. This is proven by the emergence of the instinct toward good at birth, before the acquisition of either understanding or intellect. I then found that eight grades of behaviour were required for charity and that seven other grades [were required] for ihsan in addition to [those required for] justice. This because for oneself in a portion (haqq), for the wife a portion, a portion for what is in the womb, for the orphan a portion, and a portion for the guest… Once I arrived at these degree, I swore an oath to God that whatever came to me, whether it be little or much, I would keep two-sevenths of it for myself and my wife and [give up] five-sevenths to the one for whom it was due.
Somewhere between the age of sixteen and twenty, Sidi Bel Abbas left Sabta for Ajdir on the Rifian coast, where he taught mathematics and grammar while living on stipends provided by the local treasury. Anything not needed for his own nutrition he gave to students who were preparing to become Almohad missionaries. Further proof of Sidi Bel Abbas' support for the Almohad cause can be found in a report claiming that that while in Ajdir the young Sufi, following the Almohad Hizb Allah (Party of God) futuwwa organisation, would take a whip with him whenever he went to the marketplace in order to punish those who neglected their prayers.
Sidi Bel Abbas moved to Marrakech in 540/1145-6 in company of his servant Masoud al-Haj, during the final weeks of the Almohad siege of the city. For a number of years he lived on a cave in a hill of Igilliz outside of Marrakech, only coming into town on Friday in order to perform the obligatory Friday prayer. At-Tadili reports that the Shaykh first gained official notice when one of his disciples went to collect the wages that were due to him for helping to build a house. When the owner of the house refused to pay him, the house collapsed, and its owner was told that it could only be restored by Sidi Bel Abbas. When the man apologised to the Shaykh, paid the disciple's back wages, and gave a large donation to the city's homeless, the house was miraculously restored to its former condition. The news of this miracle spread rapidly through the streets and alleys of Marrakech, until a delegation led by no less a personage than the Almohadcaliph Sidi Abdelmumin paid their respect to Sidi Bel Abbas at his hillside cave. This official recognition was a far cry from the persecutions suffered by Sufis who were not recognised as Almohadsupporters, such as Moulay Boushayb as-Sarya (d. 561/1166), and Abu Yaaza Yalnour(d. 572/1157).
Sidi Bel Abbas was particularly noted for his fluency in classical Arabic. This was due in part to his education in Sabta, which at that time was an important centre for the study of grammar and rhetoric. Biographers mention that he enjoyed debating and would respond with passages from the Quran or proofs based on logic whenever someone objected to his reasoning. Sidi Bel Abbas demonstrated by the autobiographical sessions of Akhbar Abil-'Abbas as-Sabti, the Shaykh took pleasure in being a man of the people and tailored his lessons to suit the educational level of his audience. Once his retreat at Igilliz was discovered, he began to go down to Marrakech at regular intervals, where he conducted question-and-answer sessions in public markets or in open places along widely travelled thoroughfares. During these sessions he would urge, his listeners to practice charity, illustrating his points from selections from the Quran or hadith. If donations were given to him, he would divide them among the poor at the end of his lecture abd quickly leave.
Because Sidi Bel Abbas' popularity among the lower classes, the elites of Marrakech often regarded him as a threat. Apologists called him a malamati Sufi because of his self-abnegating character and utterances he sometimes made during moments of spiritual intoxication; his disciples called him a Qutb, a spiritual axis, and few (usually Almohad ulama) went so far to accuse him of being, a heretic, an unwarranted innovator, a magician, and a sorcerer. Some Almohad officials even accused him of "bewitching the masses" with the fluency of his tongue, a clear indication that they were discomfited by his potential rebel. Adding fuel to their fire, was the fact that Sidi Bel Abbas, like his predecessor Sidi Ali ibn Harzihim of Fez, was prone to proclaiming his holiness openly, saying "I am a guide toward ihsan and intermediary between mankind and their Creator." He also said, "I am a merchant of God among His creatures."
The official approval enjoyed by Sidi Bel Abbas under Abdelmumin changed to hostility under the next caliph, the philosophically inclined Abu Yaqub Yusuf (d. 580/1184). A crisis was instigated when a group of official notaries signed a petition claiming that the Shaykh was a heretic. The qadi al-jama'a of Marrakech, who either issued the charge in the first place or was unable to deny the claim's of Sidi Bel Abbas' accusers because they were "just witnesses" under Islamic law, brought the petition to the ruler and sent for the Shaykh in order to test his beliefs. When Sidi Bel Abbas arrived at the palace, Abu Yaqub gave him a gift of one fourth of a dinar, a gesture of extreme disrespect from a ruler who was known for his open-handedness toward favourites. "What do you desire oh Commander of the Faithful?" asked Sidi Bel Abbas. "Oh Sidi," said the caliph, "these legal scholars have written a document and I want it to be read in your presence because the qadi has approved of what is in it." "In the Name of God, let him who has written it read it," said the Shaykh. So the document was read in the presence of everyone who was in attendee. "And by the Grace of Him who says 'Be' and it is" (claims at-Tadili), every bad that was written about the Shaykh was changed to good and very negative claim was changed to its opposite. Zindiq (heretic) was changed to siddiq (one who testifies to the Truth) and tali'h (wicked or villainous) was changed to sali'h. The qadi was greatly ashamed at what had happened and knew that it was a sign from God. Then Sidi Bel Abbas said to the caliph, "Oh Commander of the Faithful, since these men have spoken so well of us, may God reward them with good!" Upon leaving the palace, he turned to his servant and remarked, "Did you see how one-fourth of a dinar made a liar out of everyone?"
Another reason for the opposition to Sidi Bel Abbas during this period was his habit of raising the consciousness of the rich by engaging in a form of mushatara that is best described "bargaining for the future". To his opponents, this practice amounted to little more than spiritual form of extortion. The growth of Marrakech, in the space of less than seventy-five years, from a virtual nonentity into the capital of a major empire caused disparities in living standards that were exacerbated by the price inflation that accompanied imperial expansion in the whole Maghrib and West Africa. Like its commercial rival Fez, Marrakech was a magnet for large numbers of the rural poor, who flocked to the city in search of a better life through military service or the trade-oriented "service industries" that supported the Almohad ruling classes. This boom-town economy provided an opportunity for some but bitter disappointment for many others. Those who could not compete joined the masses of the poor, who were abandoned by a regime that (according to the testimony of as-Sabti's supporters) neglected the Islamic pillar of charity to a secondary or even tertiary level off importance.
When a person came to Sidi Bel Abbas requesting his intercession, the Shaykh would ask, "Where is the release?" At this point, the petitioner would give up all the hard currency he/she possessed for distribution to the poor. In one account a poor woman came to Sidi Bel Abbas, complaining that her only son had contracted leprosy. "Where is the release?" asked the Shaykh, and she brought forth one dirham, all of the money that she possessed. He then told her to buy cucumbers with the dirham and give them to the poor, saving only the last, which she should feed to her son. The woman did as the Shaykh commanded, and when the youth ate the cucumber his stomach swelled and he began to sweat profusely. Then he fell into a long, deep sleep. When he awoke, he found that his leprosy had peeled of him like the skin of a snake.
On another occasion Sidi Bel Abbas went to the governor of Marrakech, accompanied by a large number of the city's homeless. "Bring forth the release for these people!" he demanded. "What is the release?" asked the governor. "Honesty," replied the Shaykh. "And what is that?" "Alms," said Sidi Bel Abbas. "For whom?" "For the shake of God Most High," replied the Shaykh. "Indeed God had no need of that!" the governor arrogantly retorted. At this, the Shaykh turned toward the governor's servant and said, "This governor is demoted. He has demoted himself!" According to at-Tadili, who transmitted this account as firsthand testimony, the governor lost his post only twenty-five days later when the caliph returned from Cordoba.
Sidi Bel Abbas summed up his theory of reciprocity with the maxim: "[Divine] Being is actualised by generosity" (al-wujud yanfa'ilu bil jud). This statement is a variation on the well-known Arabic proverb, "Existence is bettered by generosity" (al-wujud yantafi'u bil jud). The Andalusian philosopher Ibn Rush (Averroes, d. 595/1180), who visited Sidi Bel Abbas several times during his services as a caliphal physician in Marrakech, assumed that the saint had learned this doctrine from the Greeks. If so, his inspiration would most likely have been sympathaeia. This doctrine postulated a set of "sympathies" or reciprocal relations that linked God to the material universe. Others have seen in Sidi Bel Abbas' doctrine of reciprocity a reflection of the Christian concept agapé, the "gratuitous love" that God bestows on all of human kind, regardless of merit.
Whether or not he was acquainted with the late antique theodicies, the doctrine of sympathaeia was pertinent to Sidi Bel Abbas' understanding of God's mercy in the world. The idea that creation "constrains" God to behave in a predictable manner is logically prior to the belief that the divine original of mercy is present is each merciful act. Because of the reciprocity that pertains between God and the world, every act of human mercy evokes a merciful response from God. To restate this doctrine in more Quranic terms: each act of rahma (human mercy) calls forth a response from ar-Rahim (God as the All-Merciful), who rewards the believers in proportion to his expenditure of self. About two decades before his death, Sidi Bel Abbas regained the official approval that he had formally enjoyed under the caliph Sidi Abdelmumin. In 584/1188, at the end of his campaign against the Banu Ghaniyya (a particularly troublesome group of Almoravid holdouts in Ifriqiya), the newly installed Almohad caliph Yaqub al-Mansur was forced to execute his uncle for refusing to surrender the city of Tlemcen to his authority. A short time later, the same fate befell his brother, the governor of Murcia, who had concluded a treasonous alliance with Alfonso VIII of Castile. The caliph was paralysed with remorse at having to carry out these executions. In consolation, he turned to the Sufis of Morocco for both personal solace and political support.
The recognition accorded Sidi Bel Abbas by Yaqub al-Mansur was part of this policy. Amid great fanfare, the caliph brought the saint down from his cave on the hill of Igilliz and installed him in a large house that had been constructed near the Kutubiyya mosque. Later, he provided a hostel for Sidi Bel Abbas' disciples as well as a madrasa for study and teaching that was maintained by the caliph's own funds. Whenever Yaqub al-Mansur visited Sidi Bel Abbas he made a point of behaving in a humble manner and acted "as a servant" in the saints presence. When Sidi Bel Abbas died in 601, he was laid to rest in a grave that had originally been reserved for the philosopher Ibn Rushd, who preferred to be buried in his native city of Cordoba instead. The humility that was such an important part of Sidi Bel Abbas' example was recalled in the saint's deathbed wish that his grave not be covered by a dome, so that it could be exposed to the open air like that of any other believer. Despite the fact that the tomb of Sidi Bel Abbas in Marrakech is now surmounted by a large qubba built by the Alawite rulers of present-day Morocco, his wished are still respected to the extent that his resting place is marked, not by the usual catafalque, but by a modest gravestone that memorises the simplicity of his life.