Sharani, The Egyptian

[This is taken from Claud Field's Mystics and Saints of Islam, originally published in 1910.]

One of the last representatives of the mystical school of Islam is Sharani, who wrote in the middle of the sixteenth century. In his time Egypt had just been conquered by the Turks, whose military despotism took the place of the feudal anarchy which had prevailed under the Mameluke sultans. The supremacy of Islam was not affected by the change, the Turks being as sincere Moslems as the Arabs. The administration of the country was centralised in the hands of a Pasha, who resided at Cairo as governor-general. As elsewhere in the Muhammadan world, the most powerful class was that of the Ulema, or learned men. The generous gifts which the Sultan showered upon them and the privileged position he allowed them quickly reconciled them to the new regime. But there was another numerous body, who, though deprived of the substantial advantages which the Ulema enjoyed, had, however, with the masses a prestige almost as great. These were the Sufis. Poor and humble, they were lost in the crowd, whence they drew their origin, and whose miseries they shared. A smouldering animosity existed between these Essenes of Islam and the Ulema, who corresponded to the Pharisees. These last claimed to be the exclusive depositaries of religious knowledge and divine wisdom; they administered justice and monopolised benefices.

The doctrine of the Sufis was in diametrical opposition to this. In their eyes the knowledge derived from books and theological science was far inferior to the inner perception of the supernatural, the mystic intuition to which they claimed to attain in their religious ecstacies. They regarded the theosophist as far superior in every respect to the theologian. Besides this, they considered the different sects of Islam as equally good, and attached no importance to any of the formalities of the ceremonial law, the strict observation of which was considered by the orthodox as binding on every good Moslem. Thus, the reading of the Koran, with rhythmical intonation, as practised in every mosque, had in their eyes no value. To adore God with a pure heart, according to them, was infinitely more important than all outward observances.

Such ideas could not be acceptable to the Ulemas, who saw the absolute authority in religious matters slipping from their hands. Only a moderate power of perception was needed to understand what dangers for the official hierarchy lurked in the ideas of these enthusiasts who claimed to derive divine wisdom from a source so different to that of which the Ulemas believed themselves to be the sole dispensers.

It is true that Arab mysticism had never taken such a bold flight as Persian theosophy, which proclaimed openly a Pantheistic system, in which the authority of the books revealed to different prophets was displaced by a poetic belief. According to this faith, the universe was an emanation of God, the human soul a spark of the Divine Essence gone astray in this transitory world, but destined to return finally to God, after having been purified of its earthly stains. The Arab Sufis did not go so far; for them the Koran was always the Word of God, and Muhammed was His prophet. They conformed externally to the precepts of Islam, but claimed at the same time to understand God and His law better than the theologians, and that not by the study of large volumes of exegesis and traditions, but by celestial inspiration. The orthodox mullahs understood the danger, and did not conceal their growing irritation against these audacious heretics. The government and the great majority of Moslems were on the side of the Ulema, but the mystics found sympathy among the people, and their ideas spread with incredible rapidity.

In the eleventh century, a man of great ability, of whom the Muhammadans are justly proud, made a vigorous effort to reconcile orthodox Islam with the Sufi doctrines current in his time. This man was Ghazzali. He consecrated the labour of a lifetime to this task, and his chief work, "The Revival of the Religious Sciences," is a veritable encyclopædia of Islam. He did not work in vain, but succeeded in erecting a system in which dogmatic theology is cleverly combined with the theosophy of the Arab school of mysticism. But Islam such as Ghazzali conceived it is no longer that of ancient times. Another order of ideas has been insensibly substituted for the austere creed of the Prophet of Mecca, the very foundations of which they have undermined. Muhammad's religious edifice remains standing, its framework and external outlines are the same; but the spirit which informs it is profoundly different. Arab mysticism has succeeded in finding a footing in the official circles of the Moslem hierarchy.

The reconciliation, however, of the mystics with the theologians was only apparent, and could not be otherwise. At the bottom of the question there were two incompatible principles. For the theologians the letter of the Koran and written tradition contained all religious knowledge. For the mystics the dead letter was nothing, and the inspiration of their own hearts was the sole source of all knowledge. Of these two principles, one subordinates reason to tradition and tends to the almost complete abdication of thought in favour of absolute faith; the other results in enthroning imagination, spiritual hallucination and mystic ecstacy. The first confines religion to too narrow limits; the second robs it of all palpable substance and positive form, and makes it as vague and intangible as the clouds.

Egypt has always been a soil favourable to the development of mystic tendencies. Christian asceticism took early root there, and during the first centuries of our era thousands of anchorites inhabited the deserts of the Thebaid, and carried on there religious exercises of extreme austerity. We do not know what secret connection may exist between the climate of the valley of the Nile and the character of its inhabitants, but if the Arab chroniclers deserve any credit, Arab mysticism originated in this country. The celebrated theosophist Zu'l Noun is known as the first who introduced into Islam visions and mystic ecstacies. Some centuries later the famous poet Omar Ibn Faridh saw the light at Cairo, and since then Egypt has produced a long series of Muhammadan ascetics more or less famous. Sharani is one of the last of this theosophic school of Egypt, the doctrines of which he expounds in his numerous works. We do not know if the impression he made on his contemporaries was as great as the zeal with which he pleads the cause of mysticism, but up to the present day his memory is religiously preserved at Cairo, where a mosque still bears his name. The natives revere his memory as that of a saint. He himself informs us that the publication of his work entitled "Al bahr al Maurud" gave rise to serious disturbances at Cairo.

In this work Sharani expounds the duties of the true Sufi, the perfect theosophist, and at the same time in very energetic language he exposes the defects and weakness of the Muhammadan society of his day. His most virulent attacks are naturally directed against the Ulema, as in the following extract:

"We Sufis have entered into an engagement never to allow one of our body to have recourse to intrigues to obtain employment such as those practised by self-styled doctors of the law. The endeavour to obtain such a post is all the more contemptible when it has belonged to a person recently deceased who has left sons or brothers or when it is already occupied by a poor man who has no protector or support in the world. Such acts of injustice, however, are often committed by the so-called Ulema. The plot to supplant men of merit, with the aim of obtaining for themselves lucrative posts, which they straightway dispose of for money to incompetent individuals.

"Often one man occupies more than one office, e.g., that of preacher in mosques so far apart that it is impossible for him to attend to both properly; in which case he puts in a deputy-preacher (sometimes he does not even do that) and pays him part of the emolument of the post, pocketing the rest.

"We have also entered into an engagement to rise before our superiors when they appear, and to kiss their hands even when they are unjust. We do this with the Ulema, although they do not act in a manner conformable to the science which they profess."

In speaking of the Christians and the Jews, he praises their demeanour, in order to censure all the more sharply the pretensions of the Ulema. "See," he says, "how modestly they conduct themselves towards the meanest subordinates, and you will see that their manners and demeanour are more noble and worthy of imitation than those of the Ulema. They are not angry if people do not make room for them when they enter a public assembly; and if they are offered to drink water which has been sullied by the hands of children, slaves or beggars, they do not change countenance, but on the contrary consider themselves as the last of men. When they are allowed to sit down in an assembly they look upon it as a favour. They take their places with heads bent, praying God to cover their faults with the veil of his clemency, and not to expose them to the scorn of others. These are the distinctive qualities of the truly learned; for if learning does not increase the modesty of him who has it, it is good for nothing."

These extracts make it sufficiently plain with what courage the daring theosophist censured the most influential class of Moslem society in his day. Sharani reproaches the Ulema, with their ambition, their cupidity, their pride, their hypocrisy, and he advises them to confine themselves in their sermons simply to dwelling on the precepts of the moral law and to abstain from speaking of the recompenses and punishments of the future life, since the destiny of souls after death depends on God, and not on them.

As a natural consequence of these ideas, Sharani goes on to inveigh against the Turkish Government, which, wishing to create for itself a support in the powerful class of the Ulema, made them great concessions, and by doing so annoyed their antagonists the Sufis. Thus Sharani does not hesitate to say that since a.d. 1517 real learning had ceased to exist, that being the date of the conquest of Egypt by the Sultan Selim.

The lot of the Egyptian fellahin or peasants has never been an enviable one. Successive Roman and Arab dominations brought no change favourable to them. Under the Mamelukes, when the country was parcelled out among petty feudal lords ruling over their domains with absolute authority, the condition of the peasants was one of extreme wretchedness. Sharani finds that in his time the state of the agricultural class was worse than formerly.

"In past times," he says, "when a peasant died, there was often found in the corner of his house a jar, a pot or other vessel filled with pieces of gold. It was what the poor man had saved from his harvests after having paid his taxes and the daily expenses of his family and his guests. But in our day, in order to pay his taxes, the peasant is often obliged to sell the produce of his land, the ox with which he ploughs, and the cow which gives him milk.

"If part of his tax is unpaid he is taken to prison, and often his wife and children accompany him thither. Often the Kashif or governor disposes of the hand of his daughter without consulting him, and her dowry is kept back to pay the arrears of his tax. It sometimes happens that the tax charged upon him is not really due from him at all, but from his fellow-villagers who have gone away to avoid molestation."

Elsewhere he says, "We Sufis have entered into an engagement not to buy merchandises, gardens or water-wheels, for in our time the taxes on these are so heavy that no one can afford to possess them. Let him who listens not to our counsel and acquires such property, blame himself if he has to undergo all kinds of humiliations; if, in order that the Government may pay for naval expeditions, it demands of him in advance a year's taxes on his houses, his merchandise or his lands. Then he will say with a sigh, 'How happy are they who possess nothing.'"

It is not difficult to see in these passages a profound dissatisfaction, not only with the ruling class, but with the Government itself. Notwithstanding this, Sharani enjoins his disciples to respect the temporal authority and to submit to the laws. Passive obedience has always characterised the Oriental.

We do not know precisely whether Sharani had in view a veritable reform of Muhammadan society. Probably the contrary. He felt deeply the general uneasiness of the time; he understood that Islam was entering a period of decadence, but he had, as far as we can see, no clear plan for its regeneration. Mysticism, in which he was such a fervent adept, here hindered him. But this mystical tendency, which was in one respect his weakness, was his glory in another. A tone of high moral purity marks his utterances on the social and religious state of his time, and, led rather by instinct than by philosophical considerations, he hits the blot on Muhammadan society—polygamy. We may judge by the following extract: "We Sufis have entered into an engagement to espouse only one wife, and not to associate others with her.

"The man who has only one wife is happy; his means are sufficient to support his home; but as soon as he takes a second wife, the prosperity of his house decreases, and when he opens his money-box he finds it empty. A pure-hearted wife is a great happiness in the house. Oh, how often while I was weaving have I stolen a glance at my wife, the mother of my son Abdurrahman, sewing garments for the poor. I understood then that I had happiness in my house. Often she opened her larder which sufficed us for whole months, and distributed the contents to the poor, who quickly emptied it. May God be merciful to her."

As a religious reformer, Sharani endeavoured to restore Islam to its primitive unity. Many sects existed in it from the earliest times four of which preserved the title of orthodox. Sharani sought to unite these sects on a common basis, and numerous passages in his writings attest that this idea remained with him all his life. His efforts apparently had no success, but for those who have faith in the power of ideas, it is certain that Sharani has not lived nor laboured in vain. In the East, reforming ideas do not make way so quickly as in Europe, but their effect is none the less great when they come to the front. Few details of Sharani's life are known. He informs us that he belonged to the order of the Shadiliyah dervishes, and that his instructor in mysticism was the Egyptian Sufi, Ali Khawass. He died at Cairo, a.d. 1565.





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