"The Pride of the Poor and Prince of the Austere, the Blessing of al-Andalus (…) Abul Hasan of Sustar, was a man of great knowledge." – Ibn al-Khatib
This is how the celebrity vizier, chronicler and poet described Abul Hasan al-Sustari (known as al-Shushtari in Egypt) in his book Al-Ihata fi akhbar Gharnata. Al-Sustari was born in the year 1212 in Sustar, close to Guadix in the Province of Granada, and his story is, in a way, reminiscent of that of Buddha.
This Sufi mystic, practically unheard of to many people in Egypt, spent long years of his life in the Delta where he would die in Tina, close to Damietta, at the age of 57. While no known mosque or mausoleum bears his name in the Delta, his legacy can be thought of as intangible heritage, for his colloquial poems and songs are still being recited by people all over North Africa from Al-Maghreb (Morocco) to Egypt.
The Andalusi Buddha
Al-Sustari was born in Granada at a time when Islam was losing important territories in al-Andalus. Born to a rich family, he took the road less travelled and chose a completely unexpected path for a man of his social class and status. In his book Iqaz al-Himam, Ibn ‘Ajiba tells us that "al-Sustari wanted to join a tariqa [Sufi order], but its sheikh told him there was no way he could be part of the tariqa unless he would give up his fancy clothes, dress in rags, hold a tambourine and sing to praise Allah in the marketplace."
Al-Sustari obeyed. For three days he roamed the marketplace moving from one stand to the next, singing and beating his tambourine until, according to Ibn ‘Ajiba, "his soul was cleared." The true revelation, however, awaited him in Algeria. Enchanted by the tariqa of the famous mystic Abu Madyan (from Seville), his enchantment turned into deep confusion upon talking to yet another mystic and philosopher: the legendary Ibn Sabin (from Murcia). Al-Sustari had to make a choice between staying with the followers of the first or leaving with the second. Ibn Sab’in himself resolved the dilemma and told al-Sustari: "If it is Paradise that you crave, stay with [the tariqa of] Abu Madyan; but if it is the Lord of Paradise that you yearn for, then follow me."
Al-Sustari followed Ibn Sab’in as he traveled to the Orient, adopted some of his Neo-Platonist thoughts and perfected his poems and songs. He became famous for his divine love zajal poems, which he would sing to the rhythm of his tambourine-like bandir. Among the most popular verses that he wrote are these lines:
"A little sheikh from the land of Meknes sings in the heart of the marketplaces:
What have I to do with people, and what have they to do with me?
What, my friend, have I to do with any creature
When He whom I love is the Creator and the Provider?" – al-Sustari
The Juggler of Love
"My Beloved, He visited me before dawn,
And my scandalous state was never sweeter.
He gave me a drink of wine, He told me: ‘rejoice,
for he who loves Me can never be accused of sinning’."
Al-Sustari was happy with his austere life in the company of Ibn Sab’in until, one day, Ibn Sabin was accused of heresy and banished. Ibn Sabin’s followers could have no better successor than al-Sustari, who remained faithful to his master's teachings.
It was in Egypt that al-Sustari would visit several Coptic monasteries, engage in dialogue with countless monks and expand his horizon through their mystic experience, something that made many reputed European historians compare him to Saint Francis of Assisi. The celebrated medieval philosopher Ramon Llull, a contemporary of al-Sustari, was influenced by his zajal poems and his way of expressing his passion. Al-Sustari had no particular message and did not preach any specific teachings, he was pure passion and he transmitted his ecstasy through his songs and his music.
Singing about the divine wine, the encounter with the divine and the spiritual trances that he experienced, his poems eventually raised many eyebrows, including those of orthodox faqihs that did not tolerate his ‘excesses.’ Al-Sustari managed to distance himself from these faqihs and to avoid any ideological or theological confrontations. He finally died and was buried near Damietta, having prophesied his own death.
Al-Sustari’s true legacy lives on in the heart of men who still sing his poems and celebrate his memory. In the Delta of Egypt, followers of the Shadhiliyya Order still recite his zajal, while in Tunisia his words are sung to the tones of a musical instrument bearing his name, ‘al-Sustariyya.’ In Morocco his songs are a common denominator to several Sufi celebrations, and in Spain he is regarded as a trendsetter in Andalusi literature and is better known as "The Juggler of Love."