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Naming Muslim Sainthood: Walaya or Wilaya?
The problematic of Muslim sainthood begins with its very name. When one translates (literally, "carries over") a word from a foreign language into one's own tongue, the classic translator's dilemma arises: a good translation must be both faithful to the meaning of the foreign term and also fully expressive of its own language. In effect, a double translation must be created. Since this is impossible in an absolute sense, every translation is inadequate. This limitation is all the more present with regard to religious concepts, where even a small difference in meaning can lead to serious misunderstandings. Such is the case, for example, when one uses the English word "sainthood"—a concept associated with Christianity—for the Islamic terms walaya or wilaya. Once taken out of its original context, each term runs the risk of being rendered contextless, and as such would not be recognized by the audience to whom it was first addressed.
But the Islamic case presents its own paradox: although walaya and wilaya are related in meaning, they are nonetheless different. The real issue is therefore one of "double subjectivity" rather than of true objectivity. A problematic exists on both sides of the equation. Should not one be equally as attentive to Muslim interpretations of walaya and wilaya as to their English translation?
This problem is seldom recognized in the field of Islamic Studies. Walaya and wilaya are used interchangeably by most Western scholars of Islam, just as they are in informal Arabic. Recently, however, a debate over these terms has arisen among specialists in Sufism in Europe and America. Some scholars maintain that what we in the West think of as sainthood is most accurately conveyed in Islam by the term walaya This conclusion comes from a strict etymological analysis of the Arabic root walaya, which means "to be near or close." Thus, wali Allah, the compound word most often translated as "saint" in English, means an "intimate" or a "friend" of God.
But the actual use of an expression does not always correspond to etymological ideals. When the word wali is used in the Qur'an, it does not necessarily mean "friend." More often, it carries the power-laden connotations of "manager," "guardian," "protector," or "intercessor"—concepts that are more in the semantic domain of wilaya than walaya. Even walaya itself, which is used twice in the Holy Book, does not always connote friendship. Only when wali Allah, is used in the plural, as in the verse: "Verily for the awliya Allah there is no fear, nor shall they grieve" (X [Yunus], 62), is the idea of closeness to God foregrounded. Thus, according to Qur'anic usage, the term wali Allah, has a social as well as a metaphysical signification: the Muslim saint protects or intercedes for others as Allah's deputy or vicegerent.
In the Islamic Middle Period, the question of whether walaya or wilaya was the "correct" verbal noun of wali was widely discussed by grammarians. Ibn Kathir, for example, came down on the side of wilaya which he defined as authority, power, or the ability to act. To Ibn Sidah, wilaya and walaya were more or less identical. For Ibn as-Sikkit, wilaya meant governmental authority (sultan), while both wilaya and walaya denoted assistance or support (nusra). According to the strictly formalistic Sibawayh, walaya was a verbal noun whereas wilaya was an abstract noun. Yet both meant essentially the same thing: either command (imara) or delegated authority (niqaba).
Despite their best efforts, neither alternative, walaya nor wilaya could be put forward by medieval grammarians as the "correct" verbal noun of wali. Given this fact, it should come as no surprise to find that the meaning of these terms was also debated by Sufis. In the early fourteenth century, the Indian master Nizam ad-Din Awliya' (d. 725/1325) discussed the difference between walaya and wilaya in a lecture that found its way into the pages of Amir Hasan Sijzi's Fawa'id al-Fu'ad (Morals for the heart):
The saint possesses both walayat and wilayat at the same time. Walayat is that which masters impart to disciples about God, just as they teach them about the etiquette of the Way. Everything such as this which takes place between the Shaykh and other people is called walayat. But that which takes place between the Shaykh and God is called wilayat. That is a special kind of love, and when the Shaykh leaves the world, he takes his wilayat with him. His walayat, on the other hand, he can confer on someone else, whomever he wishes, and if he does not confer it, then it is suitable for God Almighty to confer that walayat on someone. But the wilayat is the Shaykh's constant companion; he bears it with him (wherever he goes).
For Nizam ad-Din, it is wilaya that connotes closeness or love, whereas walaya connotes authority. This is not the case, however, for Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Magiri (fl. 696/1297), an Egyptian contemporary of Nizam ad-Din and great-grandson of the Moroccan shaykh Abd Muhammad Salih (d. 631/1234). For this writer, the semantic ambiguity of walaya and wilaya is resolved in favor of authority:
We say (and with God is the approval): Walaya is a verbal noun and wilaya is a gerund [ism masdar]. The meaning of both is "assistance or support" [nusra], according to Sibawayh. Al-Azhari, however, says that walaya means "most clearly related" [azhar fi'n-nasab], while the idea of assistance or support comes from the saying, "a patron by virtue of authority" [wali bayna wilaya]. Walaya therefore, is like a command [imara], as in the saying, "governing by virtue of [delegated] authority" [walin bayna wilaya].
When all is said and done, walaya and wilaya are best seen as semantic fraternal twins that coexist symbiotically, like yin and yang. Each relies on the other for its meaning. This interpretation is confirmed by etymology and Qur'anic usage alike. It also corresponds to actual experience. A person can only exercise delegated authority over another by being close to the one who bestows authority in the first place. This closeness can be expressed literally, in terms of physical proximity, or metaphorically, in terms of status. When this logic is applied to the Muslim saint, the following argument pertains: Allah is the source of all power and authority. Since the wali Allah, is Allah's "friend," he must be close to Allah. Therefore, he is seen by others as Allah's protégé, just as the friend of a king is seen as a protégé of that king. Protégés of the powerful benefit from their links to their patrons by acting as intermediaries for those who are below them. As an intermediary, the protégé is also a patron, for others rely on him to intercede for them before the ultimate source of authority. Thus, the wali Allah, is both an intermediary and a patron for his clients.
How does this relate to the semantic problem discussed above? If translation means that fidelity to the original can only be found in exact replication, then distortion and infidelity are the lot of every translation. Does this prove the old adage Traduttore traditore ("The translator is a traitor")? Not necessarily. George Steiner has noted that the academic debate about translation is based on two mutually exclusive premises. The "universalist" premise argues that all human languages share a common structure. If this were the case, then it would be possible for the researcher to delve beneath surface differences to find common similarities. The "relativist" or "monadist" premise, on the other hand, views languages as so different from each other that comparison cannot comprehend them. If this were true, then the interpretation of walaya and walaya as "Muslim sainthood" would be so inaccurate as to be meaningless.
But the mere fact of difference does not mean that one cannot translate. Such a conclusion would be absurd, since human beings translate all the time. Every good translator is aware that since translation involves interpretation, no translation can be exact. From this perspective, translation is subsumed under the wider category of representation, analogy, and metaphor—what Wittgenstein called "family resemblances." If all translation is mimetic, then any carefully conceived analogue in any language can serve the task of translation equally well. Whether we use sainthood, sainteté, hagaia, santidad, or any other comparable term for walaya and wilaya is unimportant, so long as we do not claim that it conveys the full meaning of the Arabic concepts.
This point has also been made by Jacques Derrida. For him, "Une 'bonne' traduction doit toujours abuser." Derrida is saying more in this statement than that "a good translation must always abuse." Rather, he reminds us that in every act of translation, the interpretive process distorts the original in new and sometimes imaginative ways. According to Derrida's specialized lexicon of deconstruction, translated concepts are said to be "ab-used." It is often forgotten that the Arabic terms walaya and wilaya are themselves interpretations, since together they represent a concept whose full meaning goes beyond the semantic range of either word when taken by itself. Put another way, they too are "ab-usive" of a greater reality. Thus, the English term "sainthood" need not be any more abusive of the larger reality than the Arabic words it replaces. When we translate walaya and wilaya as "Muslim sainthood," we are simply trying to "understand other cultures as far as possible in their own terms but in our language." Such is the nature of all comparative analysis, whether linguistic or otherwise. Although we should not trivialize foreign concepts by disregarding their historical, cultural, and lexicographical contexts, we may unpack or deconstruct them on different levels.
Why Study Morocco?
The aim of this book is to examine the relationship between sainthood and authority in Morocco, the Far Maghrib (Ar. al-Maghrib al Aqsa') of the premodern Islamic world. Although this region was not a "nation" in the modern sense, its spatial and cultural contours were more clearly defined than in other areas of Islamdom. To the north, it was bounded by the Mediterranean, which formed both a natural border and a means of access to Muslim Spain. To the west was the Atlantic Ocean, an expanse which Moroccans never crossed. To the south was the Sahara desert, a "sea" unto itself, which also acted as a border. The only undefined border was to the east, where the Taza gap opens onto the city of Tlemcen and the Algerian Ouarsenis. Here, cultural and political barriers made up for the absence of geographical limits. After the thirteenth century, it became increasingly difficult to conceive of Tlemcen—a city so near yet so far away from Morocco proper—as part of the Far Maghrib. After the Ottoman occupation ofwestern Algeria in the sixteenth century, the separate identity of this city and its region became an accepted fact.
Premodern Morocco is important to the study of sainthood for several reasons. First, this part of the world has been studied extensively by Western social scientists. However, since anthropological and sociological studies of religion are concerned primarily with behavioral and social-structural issues, social-scientific investigations of Moroccan sainthood have focused on the social aspect of this phenomenon instead of its doctrinal or metaphysical aspect. Although such research is useful, it tells only part of the story. If the doctrinal aspect of Muslim sainthood is not explored, the important relationship between Sufism and the Moroccan cult of saints is liable to be ignored or misunderstood.
Second, although Morocco has received plenty of attention from social scientists, it has been overlooked in the field of Islamic Studies. This is particularly true of Moroccan Sufism. While a number of Moroccan Sufi texts have been edited in Arabic and one or two have appeared in French, no detailed study of Moroccan Sufism has yet been written in any language. This problem is all the more acute because the Far Maghrib has long been one of the most important crucibles of Islamic mysticism. The wide geographical extent of the Shadhiliyya and Tijaniyya Sufi orders underscores the importance of this lacuna. In addition, recent studies of so-called neo-Sufism have shown that the transregional character of this concept extends to, and must include, Moroccan Sufism.
North Africa was never the backwater that many orientalists and social scientists have assumed. While Muslim Spain (Ar. al-Andalus), with its sophisticated intellectual life and "civilized" ways, is often highlighted in surveys of Islamic civilization, the premodern Maghrib is still dismissed as either an appendix of Islamic Iberia or a mere subregion of a peripheral and marginalized Islamic Africa. But the historian who looks at North African primary sources without prejudice finds that such an extreme center-periphery approach distorts reality. Rather than making a peripheralized North Africa dependent on Muslim Spain, it is better to view the entire Islamic West—al-Andalus, the Maghrib, Muslim Sicily, and parts of West Africa—as a single, relatively unified cultural entity. In this wider region, ideas were freely exchanged and innovations were adopted as readily as anywhere in the Muslim world. Most importantly, religious and intellectual movements from Morocco and other parts of the Maghrib often created ebb tides of intellectual and cultural influence that flowed toward the East. Instead of being merely imitative, many of the doctrines and institutions that were created in western "subcenters" such as Fez or Marrakesh had profound effects on the rest of the Islamic world.
Only by embracing a more open-minded approach to the premodern Maghrib can we fully understand the relationship between Islam, authority, and mysticism in Morocco. Why, for example, is Muslim sainthood referred to as walaya in Sufi texts but as wilaya in Moroccan Arabic? Can this difference be dismissed as the result of dialectical euphony or were there different modalities of sainthood in premodern North Africa? Can one bridge the gap between Sufism and popular religion without having to rely on etymological explanations? How much have North African Sufis assimilated the concept of wilaya into their own understanding of sainthood? Was there, in fact, a Sufi order that stressed wilaya as part of its doctrines? If so, how was the interrelationship between wilaya and walaya articulated in theory and practice? All of these issues, and more, will be addressed in the following chapters.
Sainthood and Social Science in Morocco
When social scientists discuss sainthood in Morocco, they seldom use either walaya or wilaya. Instead, they talk about charisma, which they equate with the Arabic term baraka—a concept whose definition has run the gamut from "blessed virtue" and "spiritual potency" to "power" and even "luck. " Since European saints are said to be charismatic figures, charisma is also assumed to be central to the Moroccan conception of religious authority. For this reason, the Moroccan saint is most often defined as a baraka-laden individual.
But how is the holy person characterized in Morocco itself? In actual practice, what is doctrinally known as a wali Allah can be designated by any one of several terms, either masculine or feminine: salih/saliha (Ar.), shaykh (Ar.), murabit (Ar.), siyyid/siyyida (Dial. Ar.), agurram/tagurramt (Ber.), and amghar (Ber.). Yet despite this range of alternatives, social scientists most often refer to the Moroccan saint as a marabout, a Francophone corruption of the Arabic term murabit that was used in Algeria to designate rural holy men. This "abuse" of an indigenous concept has become so prevalent that today even North Africans often use marabout in place of wali Allah.
In examining the role of the saint in Moroccan society, social scientists often base their discussions on La Religion musulmane en Berbérie (1938) by the French historian Alfred Bel. According to Bel, North African Islam was heavily influenced by pre-Islamic Berber religiosity. This he defines as a predilection for sacrifice, a belief in the dualistic opposition of good versus evil, and faith in the power of charms and amulets. These pre-Islamic beliefs, which were driven underground after the Arab conquest, supposedly reemerged from the soil of the Maghrib after the introduction of Sufi mysticism in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Into what Bel saw as the "Arab" ethos of Islam—dominated by a remote and "terrible God" (dieu terrible) who permits no communion, no intermediary, and no contact between Himself and His creatures—Sufism introduced the concepts of mysticism, divine love, and belief in a beneficent deity who bestows baraka upon favored protégés. Over time, a syncretistic form of religiosity, neither specifically Berber nor properly Muslim, metamorphosed out of this admixture of Berber spiritualism, Arab Islam, and Sufism. After gaining the approval of a sufficient percentage of the scholarly elite, this new syncretism supposedly evolved into an intolerant form of popular Sufism and a self-satisfied fatalism that contributed to the overall decline of Islamic civilization.
According to Bel, the key figure in the development of popular Islam in North Africa was the marabout. Originally a point man in the Islamization of the rural Maghrib, he was seen by the masses as a theophany or "human fetish" (homme fétiche). Based in a rural hermitage located far from the influence of cities or governments, the marabout performed important social functions, such as teaching Islam and mediating disputes. By thus making himself indispensable, he could compete with urban scholars in influencing the beliefs and practices of his followers. The marabout dominated Moroccan Islam from the beginning of the sixteenth century, when a socalled "epidemic of sharifism" was started by the followers of the Sufi shaykh Muhammad ibn Sulayman al Jazuli (d. 869/1465). In the early modern period, marabouts began to ascribe false prophetic lineages to themselves, replacing a paradigm of holiness based on asceticism and heroic virtue with one that was based on genealogy alone.
Although Bel does make some valid historical points, his paradigm of "maraboutism" was heavily influenced by his political agenda. The overall purpose of his book was to explicate North African Islam for colonial officials who had little sympathy for the religion of their native subjects. These officials were most concerned with countering the influence of Islamic reformists in Algeria, who had begun to add their voices to the call for independence. The concept of maraboutism was well-suited for creating an artificial dichotomy between the supposedly "natural" religious syncretism of the Berbers and an "Arab" Islamic orthodoxy. Until the end of the colonial period, the official French policy toward religion in the Maghrib was to distinguish the supposedly sober, authoritarian, and culturally alien ethos of classical Islam from the affective, syncretistic, and Mediterranean ethos of the Berber "state of nature."
Despite its lack of objectivity, some of the most prominent anthropologists, social historians, and political scientists working in Morocco still regard Bel's model of North African Islam as definitive. Others have tried to improve upon it by examining his paradigm of maraboutism through the lens of social anthropology, basing their findings on structural-functional studies of holy families and tomb complexes.
Ernest Gellner exemplifies this approach. Gellner sees maraboutism as one side of a dichotomy between urban and rural types of religious expression. In Saints of the Atlas (1.969), he postulates an egalitarian, scripturally oriented, and urban Islamic orthodoxy, opposing it to a hierarchical, ritually indulgent, and rural heterodoxy. Grafting Max Weber's ideal-type model of Protestant and Catholic religious culture onto an alien context, he epitomizes the conflict between these contrasting interpretations of Islam by drawing on an oppositional pair from medieval Europe: the "doctor" (an urban legist) versus the "saint" (a rural marabout) . Although Gellner tries to indigenize his model by identifying the ascribed and acquired traits that Moroccans associate with sainthood, these after-the-fact explanations do not extricate him from the mire of reductionistic and tautological definitions. Why is a Moroccan marabout or agurram a saint? "A person is a [saint] by virtue of being held to be one."
Although Gellner's analysis of Moroccan sainthood provides certain insights into the nature of holy-family politics, it does not solve the problem of maraboutism. Claiming that a person is a saint because others treat him as such may help one understand why the descendants of a saint are considered holy, but it tells us little about the original, living saint himself. Also, one must ask: how can typologies drawn from localized case studies, such as Gellner's Ahansal marabouts of the Atlas mountains, represent Muslim (or even Moroccan) sainthood in every respect? Finally, Gellner seems to contradict himself. Despite his stated aversion to the reification of tradition, he affirms the immutability of social structure by applying analytical tools developed for the study of small-scale societies to the complex and often literate world of Islamic Morocco. Part of his problem lies in the anthropological disposition to favor the present over the past. If the present is not systematically compared with the past, it is easy to imagine that premodern institutions do not change. But traditions are ideational complexes, and ideas change all the time. It is not, therefore, more logical to assume that Moroccan ideas about holiness have changed as well? And may not local conceptions of sainthood reflect more than just local paradigms?
Other anthropologists and social historians have tried to overcome such difficulties by interpreting Moroccan sainthood in terms that are more universally Islamic. Émile Dermenghem (1954), for example, draws a distinction between "hereditary sanctity" and "initiatic sanctity" and focuses on three Islamic ideal types: the wali (the one who is close to God), the salih (the pure), and the siddiq (the just). Dale Eickelman (1976), on the other hand, concentrates on the idea of closeness (qaraba), which is both a doctrinal and a cultural metaphor. These approaches indeed point academic inquiry toward categories that are used throughout the Muslim world. But before they can be worked into a general theory of sainthood, the extent of their applicability must first be established by comparative research.
The most fundamental problem with the neo-Weberian approach to Muslim sainthood, however, lies in Weber's paradigms themselves. This is particularly true of his model of charismatic authority. In Moroccan Studies, this concept is commonly used to explain the phenomenon of hereditary sainthood. In place of the prophet, Weber's ideal-type charismatic leader, neo-Weberians substitute the marabout; for charisma, they substitute baraka. As for the ribat (the marabout's home base), its institutional development is assumed to follow the pattern of Weber's charismatic state.
According to Weber's theory of the transformation of charisma, the charismatic authority of a religious leader changes after his death into a hereditary charisma that is retained by his descendants. To preserve their position in a competitive world, these second- and third-generation charismatic leaders rely on the artificial proof of miracle working and magic to attract a clientele. Since pure charisma can no longer be maintained, hereditary authority instead becomes dependent on social-structural and economic criteria. This "routinization of charisma" dulls the creative aspects of charismatic authority after only a few generations. Now stagnant, religiously legitimated leadership comes to rely on traditional forms of authority that have little of the original, creative character of charisma itself.
At first glance, this approach seems ideally suited to the study of institutionalized sainthood. Recent historical and anthropological studies have indeed demonstrated that a number of North African marabouts presided over micropolities or "charismatic states." What remains at issue, however, is Weber's inability to clarify the premises on which the phenomenon of charismatic domination is based. Among recent anthropologists, only Michael Gilsenan (1982) has attempted to identify the epistemological foundations of a Muslim holy man's charisma. To do so, however, he is forced to go outside the boundaries of classical Weberian sociology.
Bryan Turner (1978) has attempted to modify the neo-Weberian discourse in Muslim sainthood by rejecting the terms "saint" for wali and "charisma" for baraka. Taking the monadist position on translation, he asserts that the Christian term "sainthood" is oflittle use in an Islamic context. Using the Roman Catholic process of canonization as his basis of comparison, he points out that this formal and highly bureaucratic procedure for recognizing posthumously the holiness of theologians and clerics has little to do with the informal and often ad hoc sanctification of living persons in the Islamic world. For Turner, since these Arabic concepts have little or nothing in common with Christianity, it is best to leave them untranslated.
Yet the point made earlier about translation is equally valid for sociology. Differences in expression do not necessarily imply differences in the phenomena that words describe. While it is correct to say that a European "saint" and a Moroccan wali Allah are not exactly the same, cultural relativism can be taken too far. Turner's cultural purism is based on the premise that difference is fundamental whereas similarity is not. But if this were true, how could cross-cultural comparison be at all possible? To put it another way: If a wali Allah looks like a saint, acts like a saint, and speaks like a saint, why not call him a saint?
Turner's relativistic argument is further weakened by misconceptions about the nature of sainthood in Islam and Christianity alike. First of all, the term "saint" is not inherently Christian. Like the term "religion," it has a polytheistic origin that is significantly different from its monotheistic present character. Second, premodern Muslim sainthood (which Turner calls "Islamic maraboutism") can in no way be considered "formally and practically heretical." Chapters One and Three of this book will show that jurists and similar "clerical" types were just as important to the hagiographical tradition of Morocco as they were to that of Europe. Furthermore, studies of sainthood in medieval Europe have demonstrated that whatever the official Church position on sainthood might have been, the vox populi was just as clearly heard in Latin Christendom as it was in Moroccan Islam. Finally, Turner takes no account of the fact that even a Roman Catholic saint has to be recognized as holy in life before being canonized after death. This means that any serious investigation of sainthood—whether in premodern Europe, North Africa, or anywhere else in the Christian or Muslim worlds—must be conducted among the living as much as among the deceased.