Andalusi intellectuals in Alexandria and the Delta

Mohammed Elrazzaz, Saturday 29 Dec 2012

Approaching Alexandria by sea, at a distance shimmers white domes that seem to defy gravity — a fitting tribute to the legacy of Sufi saint Abul Abbas Al-Mursi

Andalusi Intellectuals in Alexandria & the Delta
(Photo: Amira el noshokaty)

“I was once at the kuttab (Quranic school) scribbling in my sheet when a man approached and told me "a Sufi never smears the whiteness of a sheet with black ink." I replied: "You don’t get it right. A Sufi is one who never smears the whiteness of his track record with the darkness of sins.” — Al-Mursi on his childhood


As the traveler approaches Alexandria by the sea, he can spot at a distance shimmering white domes that seem to defy gravity as they dominate the horizon together with elegant minarets. This visual reference in the city’s skyline is the famed Mosque of Sidi Abul Abbas Al-Mursi, a masterpiece by the Italian architect Mario Rossi.


Nevertheless, it is not architecture that draws scores of people to this mosque, but rather the saint buried in a chamber attached to the mosque together with his children. The mureeds (devout followers) come to seek his blessings, and they still celebrate his mulid (anniversary) every year.


Venerated by the Alexandrians, many would still mention his name when making an oath or a vow. The Sufi saint that left his hometown in Al-Andalus (the city of Murcia, and hence his title, Al-Mursi) would never have guessed what the journey would yield. His whole family drowned close to Tunisia, and only he and his brother survived the tragedy. In the central Maghreb, a revelation would change his life forever after.


The encounter


“When I die, stick to Abu Al-Abbas (Al-Mursi), for he is more familiar with the ways of Heaven than he is with those of Earth,” said Abul Hasan ash-Shadhili to his disciples.


In Tunisia, Al-Mursi, in his early 20s, heard of ash-Shadhili, the great qutb (pole, spiritual guide) for the first time. In a vision, he saw ash-Shadhili and, once he woke up, he wasted no time: off he went to meet him in person. What followed was a long apprenticeship during which Al-Mursi quenched his thirst for knowledge and mastered every religious and spiritual science, as he himself would relate: “He (ash-Shadhili) gave me 40 disciplines (sciences), the ocean without a shore that he was … ”


Al-Mursi eventually became ash-Shadhili’s faithful disciple, married his daughter, and accompanied him wherever he went. When, in Egypt, ash-Shadhili passed away, Al-Mursi became responsible for the tariqa (the Sufi Order). He would settle in Alexandria for the rest of his life, teaching and guiding the followers of the tariqa until his death in 1286. His legacy lived on through a group of prominent students that in turn became great Sufi figures: Yaqut Al-Arsh, Al-Busiri and Ibn Ataa Allah Al-Sakandari and others.


In his book Kitab Al-Lata’if fi manaqib Abil-Abbas Al-Mursi, Ibn Ataa Allah refers to Al-Mursi as “our master and companion, the pole of gnostics, the signpost of the rightly guided, the supreme apologist for Sufism, the travelers’ guide, the rescuer of the perishing ... ” Al-Busiri also gave Al-Mursi his fair share of praise in his poems, describing him as “all saintly virtues embodied in a single person.”


What remains of the legacy today?


The Mosque and Mausoleum of Al-Mursi


Today one can still visit the Mausoleum of Al-Mursi, an ocean of green carpets and lights, where many of his mureeds can always been seen reading the Quran or just meditating in this place which, to them, radiates with the sheikh’s blessings. The mausoleum is attached to the mosque, which makes for an obligatory visit for anyone interested in history and/or architecture.


The mosque in its current form was founded by Mario Rossi in the 1940s and features a hybrid style that combines neo-Mamluk, Andalusi and even Fatimid features. Inside the mosque, one can appreciate the painted ceiling and the geometric motifs that dominate the decoration. Nothing remains of the original mosque founded in the Mamluk times and renovated over and over throughout history.


A few metres away from the mosque are the mosques of Al-Mursi’s disciples, Yaqut Al-Arsh and Al-Busiri, close to their master in life as in death. Both are open to the public and are worth a visit.


Mosques and mausoleums apart, Al-Mursi remains one of Egypt’s most celebrated Sufi saints together with Sidi Ahmad Al-Badawi (Tanta), Ibrahim Al-Desouki (Desouk) and Abu Haggag (Luxor). Al-Mursi’s fame in Alexandria grew beyond that of his master, ash-Shazili, just like Jalal Al-Din Rumi’s fame would exceed that of his master Shams Al-Din Tabrizi centuries later. Many people ignore Al-Mursi’s Andalusi origins, and few would know that his city, Murcia, was founded by the Umayyad Emir Abd Al-Rahman II, and that it gave birth to yet another icon of Islamic mysticism, namely Ibn Arabi, who died in Damascus.


Finally, these are the words of Al-Mursi to his followers, a reminder of his ideals and a summary of his "way": “One’s righteousness lies in three things: knowing Allah, knowing yourself and knowing the world in which you live. If you know Allah, you shall respect Him; if you know yourself, you shall be humble; and if you understand the world, you shall give it up.”

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