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A Thought for the Afterlife from the Maghreb

In her book the historian Nelly Amri, lecturer at the Faculty of Letters of the University Manouba of Tunis, presents a structured survey of the ways in which, in the XIV and XV centuries, the Maghrebi men, of Ifriqiya in particular, conceived the afterlife and hoped for eternal salvation. She does this by means of a particular perspective, that of the intercessor saints – faithful to an interest that led her during previous studies to a meticulous exploration of holiness in late-mediaeval Islamic societies – and starting from an age marked by deep affliction. We are in fact in the period in which the Maghrebi Muslims, despite the economic recovery and political stabilisation following the failure of the attempt of imperial unification by the Almohadis, practically powerless they witness the loss of the last Arab possessions in Spain and the sorrowful landing of the exiles from Andalusia on the southern coast of the Mediterranean. But above all it is the moment in which the spread of the plague forces men to face ‘the spectre of death’ incessantly. But it was not just these particular circumstances that turned man’s concern to his fate and the ultimate purpose of life. Amri manages to highlight very well how both Islamic theology and law had had a ‘relatively stable nucleus’ of eschatological representations for some time, starting with the appearance of the first corpora of traditions in the VIII and IX centuries up to the Ihyâ’ ‘ulûm al-dîn, the theological summa of al-Ghazâlî whose influence on the Maghrebi religious culture was of vital importance. What changes is the degree of attention with which the men of that time look upon their fate and the fate of their nearest and dearest, well expressed in a series of questions which, even though coming from every man’s experience, surface in this period and in this context with greater insistence: what fate awaits us in the afterlife? Do eternal beatitude or torment begin in the grave or are they manifested only after the Day of Judgement? What will happen to the infants that die? But above all: what can the living do for their dead? And the latter, once they have left life on earth, can they still do anything to deserve eternal salvation? A series of funeral customs arise from these questions (visits to the dead, prayers and invocations to them, almsgiving) which make graves and cemeteries places of solidarity between the living and the dead. Undoubtedly, many of these customs obviously reappeared from a very ancient pre-Islamic background, and it was for this reason that they were looked upon with suspicion by Islam before they found a legal justification and legitimation in it on the basis of the very sunna of Mohammed. Theologians and jurists continued however to pay special attention to it and to assess, case by case, the compatibility with the text of the revelation. This is shown by the growing importance which, in the plague shaken Maghreb, the eschatological and soteriological issues took on in the opinions and the speculations of qâdî and ‘ulamâ’. Their scruples are infinite ranging from the way in which the dead have to be dressed, which must not be too ostentatious, to the legitimacy of the various expressions of mourning, to the efficacy of the alms-money given for the repose of the souls. The debate, which in certain circumstances reaches casuist paroxysm, is complicated by the fact that typical institutions of Islamic law are bent to the needs of the funereal rituality: is it legal, people asked at that time, to destine a waqf to the psalmody of the Koran on the grave of the dead in the seven days following their passing? And, if the answer is yes, who takes the merit for the action, the deceased, those praying or those singing psalms?



The climate of uncertainty and the moralising intention of the theologians are on the other hand the conditions in which the tawbat al-A‘râb (the repentance of the Bedouins) took place in the Maghreb, a phenomenon of conversion and sedentarisation of the nomad populations which covered all the dimensions of social life. The tajdîd al-dîn (religious renewal), the fight against fasâd (moral corruption), the imitation of Mohammed and the return to the pluralism of the salaf (the pious ancestors of the origins) became recurrent themes of a religious awakening characterised by the proliferation of those institutions zâwiya e madrasa, which were to mark the face of north African Islam indelibly.



But the most significant outcome of this period is the role that Mohammed finally assumed in the Maghrebi spiritual tradition, not only as Prophet and through the revelation, but as intercessor between Allah and the faithful.



The most visible sign of this worship was the progressive introduction of the celebration of Mawlid, the anniversary of the birth of the Prophet, and its institutionalisation as an official feast day by all the Maghrebi dynasties of the time, as well as the obsessive exhibition of the prophetic descent by people and families seeking a religious legitimation. Even if these innovations had to initially overcome the resistance and suspicions of the Malikite jurists, they were much more enthusiastically welcomed by simple believers, whose forms of piety increasingly included prayers, invocations and litanies to the Prophet. A conception of Sufi spirituality and holiness centred on the prophetic model developed in a particular way: the walâya muhammadiyya.



Starting from this time, the relationship of the saint with the Prophet – writes Amri – ‘is understood through the prism of the spiritual heritage, al-wirâtha, that of the filiation and lastly that of education, since the saint is at the same time the heir of the Prophet, his ‘son’ and he who, through his Sunna and his virtues, the Prophet has educated’ (p. 147). We are no longer before the primitive Sufi spirituality, the culminating expression of which was the mystical fusion with the Absolute, but before the search for the personal meeting with the Prophet and the actualisation of his sunna by means of the takhalluq bi-akhlâq al-rasûl, the acquisition of the same moral virtues as the Prophet (p. 154). In this sense the comparison proposed by the authoress between the mi‘raj of the famous Andalusian mystic Ibn ‘Arabî and that of a certain ‘Abd al-Rahmân Al-Tha‘âlibî (died between 1468 and 1470) is quite significant. The former, retracing the stages of Mohammed’s famous ascent into Heaven, concludes his mystic ascent in the presence of God; the final stage of the latter is on the other hand the meeting with the Prophet himself, an increasingly frequent motive of all oneiric visions. And the saints become messengers of hope just because, in an age in which the questions about personal fate are more and more pressing, the Prophet entrusts them with the message of the infinite mercy of God of that rahma which ‘now has a face: that of the ghawth (the rescue), a pole of excellence that occupies the summit of an invisible hierarchy of intercessor saints and on which rests the fate of the world and its creatures’ (p. 240).



In this book, which is solidly founded on a careful analysis of hagiographical collections, juridical opinions and theological treatises, the writer has managed to put the phenomenon of Sufi spirituality in the right perspective. By means of the theme of hope, Amri in fact removes the holiness both from the naturalistic and folkloristic spontaneism in which great part of anthropology had placed it, and from the esoteric and elitist Gnosticism, showing how, even in the continuous dialectic with the most legalist currents, the tension towards holiness makes up an integral part of Islam and its experience of people.



Michele Brignone