Sidi Muhammad ibn Abd al-Rahman al-Azhari

Although ANOTHER TOMB IN ALGIERS is a work of fiction, many of the characters and events are drawn from history.

A few years ago the National Library in Algiers celebrated the 300th birth anniversary of the famed Sufi Shaykh, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Rahman al-Qashtuli al-Djurdjuri, a central figure in ANOTHER TOMB IN ALGIERS for obvious reasons, by holding a seminar in his honor. Sponsored by the Algerian Cultural Foundation, the event was attended by academics from several universities. Participants discussed the towering spiritual figure who established the Rahmaniya Order of Sufis and the teachings of the order that have overspread all borders to reach the most distant horizons.

But why was a simple Sufi master from a mountainous region far beyond the capital of such importance to the Dey of Algiers?

Jamil M. Abun Nasr, a noted professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Bayreuth, Germany explained the reason in his MUSLIM COMMUNITIES OF GRACE: “The [Turkish] deys sought to compensate for their political authority’s lack of religious legitimacy by cultivating the goodwill of the prominent Sufi shaykhs…” and “In the latter part of the eighteenth century the Rahmaniya Sufi brotherhood became the major religious prop of the dey’s authority…”

Shaykh Qashtuli, as he is referred to in ANOTHER TOMB, was born in the Djurdjura mountains in the region known as the Kabylia. His family, Sufis themselves, thought to send their clearly gifted son to Egypt for an education at Al-Azhar, the most famous of all institutions of higher learning in the Arab and Muslim world at the time. During the more than thirty years that the young scion was away, the mountain tribes revolted against Turkish rule causing great harm to the deys and beys by denying them the revenues from their taxes, the principal source of stability for the capital. But, by the time of Shaykh Qashtuli’s return as a grown and fully mature man, the revolt had been suppressed. Then, in accord with his spiritual teachings of accommodation, forgiveness, and inner reform, Shaykh Qashtuli accepted the dey’s invitation to locate his sufi retreat, called a zawya, in Algiers. Although I have used a writer’s license to locate the zawya just outside the city walls, the mosque and mausoleum are actually situated inside the city today where people in the hundreds visit it at every hour of the day.

As a writer of fiction, I confess to inventing the trials that make up much of the story in ANOTHER TOMB IN ALGIERS. As a literary device, the trials serve as an effective means of explaining the tensions between the locals and their Turkish rulers, and then to elucidate the uneasy peace between the orthodox religious authorities and the populist Sufis.

The court of the cadi, or the cadivial court, to use the phrase in English used by Weiss in THE SEARCH FOR GOD’S LAW, is based on the model used throughout the Muslim world; though it is unique in that there were effectively two cadivial courts in Algiers, one for the followers of Abu Hanifa, the Turks, and another for the followers of Anas ibn Malik, the Algerians.

Likewise, the chief judge, or the Cadi of All Cadis, was one who, as a member of the official judiciary of the Ottoman Empire, or mevleviat, was appointed by the Sultan in Istanbul. Obviously, an ambitious jurist would seek a position as cadi in the capital, Istanbul, or in another of the major cities of the empire. I have characterized the Cadi of All Cadis in Algiers as a man whose connections, if not his qualifications, were not sufficient to win him one of those coveted positions. Although he held the highest position in the judiciary of Algiers, he was nonetheless dissatisfied at being sent to what he might have considered a backwater.

But, to return to Shaykh Qastuli, I first learned of the historical person from reading a biographical dictionary, Mu`jam A`alam al-Jaza’ir listing the most prominent scholars of Algiers over the centuries. What caught my eye was the Shaykh’s nickname, Bu Qabrayn, or Father of Two Tombs. It was the mystery of how one man might have two tombs that spurred me to further research and then to begin writing the story that unfolds in ANOTHER TOMB IN ALGIERS. I must emphasize to readers here, though it should be obvious from reading the book itself, that the story there is pure fiction. Of course, it needs to be credible, to a degree, to qualify as a literary mystery. But the story as related by Abun Nasr in his book, is as follows:

“He died while on a visit to his tribal group in the Kabylia and was buried in his home village of Ait Ismail. Seeking to continue the identification of his spiritual authority with their government, the Turks enabled his followers in Algiers to exhume him and bring his remains for burial in the capital. His followers in the Kabylia consoled themselves with the belief that his corpse was miraculously duplicated and that he was buried not only in Algiers, but also in Ait Ismail.”

If the issue was addressed by those who attended the celebration at the National Library a few years back, I have not seen a record of it. In any case, my approach in ANOTHER TOMB IN ALGIERS is quite different; and I can only hope that none of the Shaykh’s devoted followers, and they continue to be numerous, will take offense at my fiction. On the contrary, and keeping in mind that the story is narrated from the person of a young man with little experience of the world of Sufis, I believe that my treatment of the entire affair is respectful and in keeping with the Shaykh’s teachings of tolerance and understanding.

A final note in regard to the Shaykh: I should explain one of the criticisms aimed at the Shaykh by his adversaries in the official, and mainly Turkish, religious establishment at the time. The Prophet of Islam is reported to have said to his followers that there should be no rahbaniya in Islam. The term, rahbaniya, is widely understood to refer to monasticism, a distinctly Christian phenomenon which finds emphasis in the idea that priesthood requires celibacy. The Prophet married, and he urged his followers to emulate his example. He did not, however, make marriage an article of faith. Rather, it is a meritorious and virtuous act on the part of men and women to become husbands and wives. When Shaykh Qashtuli decided to shun marriage, the reason he gave was that he abhorred the practise prevalent among Sufi orders that spiritual leadership should pass from father to son. By refusing to marry and have children, he was refuting the popular understanding of how spiritual leadership is to be passed on to succeeding generations.  His reason for abstention, however, was ignored by the Turkish religious establishment. Instead, and in order to discredit the Shaykh with the commonfolk who respected him, they attributed his abstention to rahbaniya, as an especially unholy practice of the hated Christians or, as they were popularly known in North Africa and throughout the Muslim world, the Nazarenes, an-Nasaara.

رحمه الله رحمة واسعة





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