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Dossier thématique : Histoire et anthropologie des odeurs en terre d’Islam à l’époque médiévale
Odeurs et sacré

Olfactory Visuals A Case of Saffron Prohibition in adī Commentary

Atanas Shinikov
p. 277-291


Un examen du corpus de traditions prophétiques iḥāḥ révèle de nombreux récits mentionnant l’application de parfums. Le rôle social que les parfums et les cosmétiques peuvent endosser dans une vision musulmane du monde peut être examiné à travers le cas spécifique de la prohibition prophétique du safran pour les hommes, exposé en détails dans le commentaire d’Ibn Haǧar al‑ʿAsqalānī (m. 1449), le Fat al‑Bārī bi‑Šar aḥīḥ al‑Buḫārī, qui fait autorité. L’interdiction de l’utilisation du safran par les hommes sera abordée à la lumière d’une tradition linguistique et interprétative historiquement bien établie et s’appuyant sur un ensemble solide de sources plus anciennes, principalement celles du mahab šāfiʿīte. S’il fallait construire une hiérarchie des perceptions sensorielles afin de décoder le rôle culturel du safran, il serait difficile de dire si l’élément olfactif ou visuel prévaut. En effet, tant l’odeur du safran que sa couleur peuvent être perçues comme ayant une signification au‑delà d’elles‑mêmes. Le bannissement du safran ainsi imposé prend seulement sens dans le cadre des discours sur l’interprétation légale des adīṯ‑s. Les aspects d’odeur et de vue jouent ici un rôle significatif en matière de pratiques culturelles et occupent une position justifiée de manière transcendentale.

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Texte intégral

  • 1 Al‑Nasā’ī, Sunan, vol. 7, p. 72 and 74.
  • 2 Motzki 2004, Motzki 2010, Juynboll 1983, Juynboll 1996, Juynboll 2007, Hallaq 1999.
  • 3 AlShāfiʻī 1961.

1“In the world”, goes on the adīṯ of the prophet Muhammad (d. 632), “perfume and women have been made dear to me (ubbiba ilayya)”.1 Regardless of the scholarly debate on the historicity controversies around the origins and development of the adīṯ compilations,2 it deserves mentioning that at least since the time of the emblematic “Treatise” (Risāla) of Muḥammad b. Idrīs al‑Šāfiʿī (d. 820),3 the prophetic traditions have emerged as exerting normative influence on the ethos of Muslim daily life. Illustrative as it may be, the saying above is not alone within the source material to elucidate aspects of perfume application in Muslim perceptions. A review of the textual corpus of the “authentic” prophetic traditions (iḥāḥ) reveals numerous accounts on the application of perfume and perfume related substances. Although one would expect to see the common ʿir term to designate “perfume”, we rather find that the Arabic ṭīb has been favoured over it. References to perfumes are found through specific terms as well, such as musk (misk), amber (ʿanbar), camphor (kāfūr), saffron (zaʿfarān), safflower (ʿufur), the saffron based alūq, or the elliptical “yellowness” (ufra), within several textual sections. Multiple mentions can be discovered in the adīṯ books of ritual pilgrimage (aǧǧ), manners (adab), gifts (hiba), dress (libās), “adornment” (zīna), ritual bathing (ġusl), funerals (ǧanā’iz), mosques and congregations (almasāǧid walǧamāʿāt), kind treatment of women (ʿišrat alnisā), and “combing [the hair]” (taraǧǧul). Yet, what place could we see perfume and related cosmetic substances occupy in those accounts? What would the possible normative meanings of perfume usage be from adīṯpoint of view, as perceived in later Sunni discourses? How attempts to reconstruct those implications could be embarked upon, and what would these eventually reveal?

  • 4 With kabāb appearing as an example (Elahi 2009), but also refer to the chicken meat based sweet-sou (...)
  • 5 Ibn Māsawayh, Ǧawāhir alṭīb almufrada, fol. 13v.

2Suggesting a direct linkage between the thematic titles of the adīṯ portions in which mentions of perfume are found, and the purpose of perfume usage, seems to carry the perils of the petitio principii methodological risk. Besides, relation between normative religious texts and cultural practice would stand out of the scope of the present paper; same might be said on the historical examinations of evidenced cases of Muslim practices with regards to perfume. On the positive side, however, there seems to be prescriptive material to support exploration of the dimensions of a framework of perception that regulates a Muslim bodily ethos of perfume within certain periods, based on commentaries of the adīṯtexts. Aspects of such a proposition would be tested here through a consideration of saffron (zaʿfarān, Crocus sativus) in texts reflecting on its place in prophetic traditions. Saffron is a favoured substance across the “authentic” adīṯ; the ones of al‑Buḫārī (d. 870) record around twelve occurrences of saffron or related lexical derivatives, most of them articulating a prohibition of its usage in specific contexts. This should not be confused with an overall ban on it historically: besides pointed as a popular compound within Muslim culinary practice,4 saffron, together with musk, ambergris, aloes wood, and camphor is considered as one of the five principal “simple aromatic substances” (uṣūl amsa) at least since the work of Yūḥannā b. Māsawayh (d. 857) on perfumes.5

  • 6 Full reference data of the mentioned works can be found in the bibliography.
  • 7 E.g. EI2, which does not cover an overview of perfumes within Muslim norms and practice; the ʿIr e (...)
  • 8 E.g. Aʿlam (1990) which covers religious aspects of usage of camphor in funerals in Islamic times, (...)

3Interpretations on perfume related portions of the prophetic sayings can be discovered in the major Sunnī šurūḥworks, among which the ones of al‑Nawawī’s (d. 1277) commentary on the aḥīḥ of Muslim (d. 875), Abū al‑Ṭayyib Abādī (d. 1329) in his ʿAwn al‑maʿbūd fī šar Sunan Abī Dāwūd expounding on the traditions collection of Abū Dāwūd (d. 888), Ǧalāl al‑Dīn al‑Suyūṭī’s (d. 1505) commentary of al‑Nasā’ī’s (d. 915) Sunan, or Ibn Ḥaǧar al‑ʿAsqalānī’s (d. 1449) Fat al‑bārīon al‑Buḫārī’s (d. 870) compendium of traditions, are just few to mention to stand out as authoritative. Being among the primary normative texts of Sunnī Islam, the corpus of prophetic traditions has supported regulations on the usage of cosmetic products as well, as seen in such works as Ibn al‑Ǧawzī (d. 1200)’s “Regulations on Women” (Akām al‑nisā) which constitutes a compilation of adīṯ‑s to address life of women from fiqh perspective.6 At the same time, the topic of Muslim normative aspects of perfume and cosmetics usage seems more under‑researched than not within scholarly pieces to resort to a variety of approaches,7 with few notable exceptions.8

  • 9 Corbin 1986, p. 5.
  • 10 Rappaport 1979, p. 208‑209.
  • 11 Geertz 1973, p. 7.

4Odours appear related to social frameworks and cultural practices, whereas they turn into symbolically charged devices to convey meanings beyond the purely utilitarian usage. Works such as the one of Constance Classen, David Howes and Antony Synnott, show that it is possible to attempt construction of high level cultural histories across prolonged time spans and extended geographical areas through the prism of the various social spaces and practices that smells contribute to (Classen, Howes and Synnott 1994). Exploration of perception of smells and what Alain Corbin labels as “[to] study the logic of systems of images” from which the history of smells is generated,9 are likely to yield unexpectedly intriguing results. Stepping upon such a broader understanding, the social roles saffron (zaʿfarān) might assume within interpretations of the authoritative Sunni adīṯcorpus would be looked at, avoiding the risks of “imbuing” cultural practices from the Muslim past with meanings derived from externally imposed interpretative frameworks. Thus it needs to be remarked than when our material of study is represented by religious texts, containing certain postulates, “having no material reference they are neither verifiable not falsifiable, and yet they are regarded unquestionable”.10 With their authoritativeness guaranteed, such texts cannot be said to provide direct evidence of observable or documented cultural practice as well. This makes the adoption of anthropological approaches such as Clifford Geertz’s concept of “thick description” (Geertz 1973), more a topic of a separate study than a direct methodological tool to leverage upon; and yet, his call to go beyond the immediacy of mere registration of “facts” to analyse the “(…) stratified hierarchy of meaningful structures”11 behind them, remains a valid one.

  • 12 Said 1978, then a brief summary on the Saidian controversy (Irwin 2007) as well as criticism in Kra (...)

5A framework that mandates an in‑depth inquiry into texts to regulate potential cultural practices and motivate behaviours would be complemented by the techniques of the “sensory anthropology” developed by David Howes and Constance Classen, which relate more tightly to the topic of the present essay. With regards to research based on textual sources, as the current one appears, they offer a method that breaks written evidence down through a cycle of extracting the references to senses, their division into sets, subsequent analysis and conclusion or statement on the “hierarchy or order of senses” for a certain culture. The technique relies on a developed “paradigm for sensing” which provides a practical toolset for analysis of sensory phenomena through outlining key areas – among which language, aesthetics and body decoration seem particularly relevant here – and defining questions to address them through (Howes and Classen 2010), thus facilitating the elucidation on the role of sensory experience. And finally, a scholarly endeavour into any normative texts body would necessarily lean upon the techniques of the critical textual inquiry and language analysis of the sources. While existence of any enduring Islamic “essence” found within Islamic normative texts and practices seems to render its propagators vulnerable to criticism at least since Edward Said on,12 exploration of the normative religious sources, their commentaries and textual linkages to outline internal receptions and continuity within interpretations of key Islamic concepts is difficult to neglect.

  • 13 E.g. due to the limited scope of the paper, it shall not be construed as providing a comprehensive (...)
  • 14 Rosenthal 1986, p. 778.
  • 15 Al‑Buḫārī, Al‑Ǧāmiʿ al‑aḥīḥ, vol. 4, p. 65.
  • 16 Geertz 1973, p. 7.

6The social role perfume and cosmetics related substances could assume from normative perspective would be examined through a closer look at the specific case of the prophetic saffron prohibition for men, expounded upon in the 15th century Fat al‑bārī commentary, considering certain limitations posed by the choice of the source text.13 Known for having an “enduring fame” for his works on the science of adīṯ, and “most admired for his work on al‑Buḫārī”,14 Ibn Ḥaǧar offers a good illustration of the aspects of a diligently outlined late Sunni perception of saffron in his šar. The shortest version of the saffron prohibition tradition is found in the “Book of Dress” (Kitāb al‑libās) of al‑Buḫārī’s collection of traditions.15 The adīṯis reported as transmitted through Anas and seems to voice a plain message along the lines that “The Prophet, peace be upon him, has forbidden (nahiya) [the application of] saffron for a man (an yatazaʿfar al‑raǧul)”. The contents of the message appear direct, yet a closer look at it offers a good case to jump beyond the “thin description” of a mere observation of a prohibition norm in Ryle’s terms.16 In the textual surrounding of theadīṯ, we find the preceding tradition dealing with the invocations regarding those who put on a new dress (ma yudʿā li‑man labisa awban ǧadīdan), while the following one provides more context to the saffron prohibition by narrowing it down through the prophetic imperative on a person in state of irām (murim) not to wear any clothes dyed with saffron or the yellow coloured substance of wars.

7This very context, however, raises new questions, rather than providing answers. In the first place, we face the challenge to establish the connections between the invocations on people wearing new dresses as related to the saffron prohibition on men. Then, moving down through the sequential traditions, we stumble upon a further complication. As if here the target of the prohibition are all persons, not only men, as the generic “[any] person in state of irām” (murim) might easily suggest; and then prohibition here seems not to be universally applicable but rather associated with the ritual state of irām related exclusively to the ritual pilgrimage (aǧǧ). Both the gender scope and the general nature of a saffron prohibition are challenged here. Besides, the very language of the “saffron prohibition” adīṯrenders it prone to multiple interpretations, as long as it uses the reflexive form of the quadrilateral verbderived from the four-consonant root z.ʿ.f.r which plainly indicates “application of saffron on one’s self”, expressed as well through the nomina verbi in the title of the “chapter” (bāb): “On the prohibition of application of saffron for men” (al‑nahyi ʿan al‑tazaʿfur li‑l‑riǧāl). The attempt to leverage on the tooling provided by the approach of sensory anthropology reveals another possible stumbling block. The identification of the senses – e.g. sight [through the yellow colour of the Crocus sativus dye] or smell [through its odour] – that saffron appeals to here, looms as arduous, as long as the language itself does not clarify the exact sensory aspect of the forbidden application of saffron.

  • 17 Al‑ʿAsqalānī, Fat, vol. 10, p. 304.
  • 18 Al‑ʿAsqalānī, Fat, vol. 10, p. 305.

8The Šāfiʿīte jurist Ibn Ḥaǧar emerges as being well aware of the interpretative intricacies the saffron prohibition adīṯ might raise. His elaboration on its possible meanings starts with a clarification on the scope of application of the prohibited substance: the saying in the “prohibition of application of saffron for men” targets “the body” (al‑ǧasad). That assertion is derived by placing the saying of Muḥammad within the larger context of al‑Buḫārī’s book, leaning on the following “chapter on the dress upon which saffron has been applied” (bāb al‑awb al‑muzaʿfar).17 By doing this, Ibn Ḥaǧar perceives the two adīṯ‑s as being hierarchically positioned, with the “saffroned dress” one to narrow the preceding tradition. Yet, if the scope – affirmed by linking and stretching interpretatively the term of “dress” (awb) to overlap with the one of “body” (ǧasad) – seems to be clarified to a certain extent, it is more challenging to say the same with regards to the murim whose wearing of saffron dyed dress in fact appears as a theme of the second adīṯ. According to the theologian, the prohibition covered abundantly in the “Book of ritual pilgrimage” (Kitāb al‑aǧǧ), is not universally agreed upon. Drawing on Ibn Baṭṭāl’s (d. 1057) commentary, it is pointed out that Mālik and many others (Mālik wa‑ǧamāʿa), would consider a dress dyed with saffron permitted (alāl) by asserting that “the prohibition has been imposed specifically for the murim” (waqaʿa al‑nahyi ʿan‑hu li‑l‑murim ḫāṣṣatan). According to the eponym of the Šāfiʿīte school of jurisprudence, however, al‑Šāfiʿī (d. 820), and the Kufians, the prohibition has been carried over the murim andnon‑murim alike.18

9Going back again to the tradition prohibiting saffron upon men, after discoursing on the linkage between the “body” and the “dress”, Ibn Ḥaǧar proceeds to clarify that the restriction is valid upon men only, so that women are excluded. This constraint, however, as if to confirm the ambiguity around saffron, cannot be said to appear in all versions of this prophetic tradition, according to a short discourse on the divergences. One of the transmitters following Anas, namely ʿAbd al‑ʿAzīz, is said to be [ʿAbd al‑ʿAzīz] Ibn Suhaib, while the transmission chain of two variants are discussed. The saying “[the application of] saffron for a man (an yatazaʿfar al‑raǧul)”, virtually meaning “men applying saffron on themselves”, has been transmitted in this way by ʿAbd al‑Wāriṯ – who is Ibn Saʿīd – and who has been narrowing (muqayyid) the meaning; his way of transmission is said to be in concord with the one of Ismāʿīl b. ʿUlayya and Ḥammād b. Zayd found by Muslim[‘s compendium] and others among the authors of prophetic traditions compilations (aṣḥāb al‑sunan). And yet, affirming that Ḥammād b. Zayd’s version of the adīṯsays that “[he] has prohibited the application of saffron for men” (nahiya ʿan al‑tazaʿfur li‑l‑riǧal), al‑ʿAsqalānī also states that Šuʿba has narrated from Ibn ʿUlayya in al‑Nasā’ī’[s collection] simplifying (mulaq) it to the form of “[he] has forbidden the application of saffron on one’s self” (nahiya ʿan al‑tazaʿfur), as if shortening it (kaʾannahu taara‑hu). Besides that, more than ten of the memorizers (uffāẓ) have narrated it from Ismāʿīl through the restriction for men, while the possibility that the stripped, shortened (mulaq) version has been made such in the process of transmission between Ismāʿīl and Šuʿba, is admitted.

  • 19 Al‑ʿAsqalānī, Fat, vol. 10, p. 304.

10As seen in the paragraph above, the more specific version of the adīṯthat forbids saffron for men enjoys the support of a prevalent Muslim majority of traditional narrators according to Ibn Ḥaǧar. Knowing that the prohibition targets representatives of the male gender, the šar presents the reasoning on the cause for proscription of the crocus product, which in this case offers little more than posing a new dilemma. There has been a divergence of opinions, tells us the Šāfiʿīte scholar, on the principles underlying the ban. The first possible reason for prohibition of application of saffron on one’s self would be for “its smell because of it being the perfume of women, and because of which a prohibition of the alūq has also occurred” ([…] li‑rāʾiati‑hi li‑kawni‑hi ṭīb al‑nisāʾ wa‑li‑hāḏāǧāʾa al‑zaǧar ʿan al‑alūq). The second possible explanation advanced here is the one of colour: because of its colour as related to “all kinds of yellow [types of perfumes]” (kull al‑ufra).19

  • 20 Al‑Farāhīdī, Kitāb alʿayn, vol. 2, p. 182.
  • 21 Al‑Farāhīdī, Kitāb alʿayn, vol. 2, p. 333.
  • 22 Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān al‑ʿarab, vol. 4, p. 324.

11It needs to be noted that al‑ʿAsqalānī leverages on the already well known and defined nature of saffron as related to two sensory perceptions of seeing and smell. As early as al‑Ḫalīl b. Aḥmad al‑Farāhīdī (d. 786) in his Kitāb al‑ʿAyn we observe a definition of saffron as “a dye which is a type of a perfume [emphasis mine, A.Sh.]” (ibġ wa‑huwwa min al‑ṭīb).20 Its relation to colour has also been emphasized upon there by reference to al‑Asad [al‑Duʾalī? (d. 688)], according to whom “it has been named as saffroned because of it being rose in colour close to yellowness” (yusammā muzaʿfaran li‑anna‑hu ward al‑lawn yaribu ilā al‑ufra).21 In the same line of thought, the much later and now turned classical dictionary of “Language of the Arabs” (Lisān al‑ʿarab) authored by Muḥammad b. Mukarram b. Manẓūr (d. 1312), provides a definition of saffron as “this well‑known dye, which is also [a type of] a perfume” (hāḏā al‑ibġ al‑maʿrūf wa‑huwwa min al‑ṭīb), and indicatively mentions in the saffron entry the very prohibition adīṯ commented upon by Ibn Ḥaǧar, with the expression “I saffroned the dress” (zaʿfartu al‑awb) listed as synonymous as the one of “I dyed it” (abaġtu‑hu).22

  • 23 Al‑Bayhaqī here does not appear in al‑ʿAsqalānī’s narrative for no reason: he himself compiled seve (...)
  • 24 Al‑ʿAsqalānī, Fat, vol. 10, p. 304.
  • 25 Al‑ʿAsqalānī, Fat, vol. 10, p. 304.

12Then, goes on the theologian, it needs mentioning that another Sunnī authority, al‑Bayhaqī (d. 1066), belonging to Šāfiʿīte school of fiqh just as al‑ʿAsqalānī himself, draws upon a saying of the patron of their school – al‑Šāfiʿī – according to whom it is not considered lawfully permitted (alāl) to apply saffron on one’s self.23 In case this happens, one is supposed to wash it off. He [al‑Šāfiʿī?] is also narrated to have said that “I have permitted (uraḫḫi) [things dyed with] safflower” (ʿufur, Carthamus tinctorius) because there has not been someone found to talk on it except an ambiguous saying of ʿAlī [b. Abī Ṭālib].24 And yet, al‑Bayhaqī is pointed to have said that this has not been identified as a saying of ʿAlī, and proceeds on to cite a tradition narrated by ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿUmar according to which the Prophet was reported to have seen two dresses coloured with safflower (awbān muʿafarān) and stated that “these are among the dresses of the infidels, so do not put them on”. This saying of Muḥammad is mentioned as being one collected by Muslim; according to one of his formulations, the adīṯ goes even further, as to record a dialogue: “[and] I said: Shall I wash them? He said: No! But burn them out!” (lā bal ariq‑humā). And then al‑Bayhaqī plainly asserts that had this reached al‑Šāfiʿī, he would have said to act in compliance with the Sunna, as his habit used to be (la‑qāla bi‑hi ttibāʿan li‑l‑Sunna ka‑ʿādati‑hi).25

  • 26 In fact, al‑ʿAsqalānī cites here verbatim the reference to al‑Bayhaqī within a portion of the much (...)
  • 27 Al‑Nawawī, aḥīḥ Muslim bišar alNawawī, vol. 14, p. 54.

13The account on diversity of interpretations goes on through al‑ʿAsqalānī’s generalization that “a group of the righteous predecessors has considered what has safflower applied on it as offensive, while another group has permitted it” (wa‑qad kariha al‑muʿafar ǧamāʿa min al‑salaf wa‑raḫḫaa fī‑hi ǧamāʿa); and belonging to those that stand for it being offensive “amongst our companions” (min aṣḥābi‑nā) is al‑Ḥalīmī [likely to be the Šāfiʿīte al‑Ḥalīmī, d. 1012?]. Another authoritative discourse in the Šāfiʿīte legal tradition used to substantiate the comment, is Abū Zakariyā Muḥyī al‑Dīn Yaḥyā b. Šaraf al‑Nawawī (d. 1277)’s statement provided in his šar of Muslims’ adīṯcompendium in favour of the aforementioned through the telling “Al‑Bayhaqī has masterfully handled the issue; and Allāh knows best” (atqana al‑Bayhaqīal‑masʾala wa‑Lāhu aʿlam).26 At the same time, a key legal figure such as Mālik (d. 795) has been reported to allow things which have had safflower and saffron applied on them (al‑muʿafar wa‑l‑muzaʿfar) restricting them to the space of the Muslim homes (buyūt), but not in public gatherings (maḥāfil).27

  • 28 Al‑ʿAsqalānī, Fat, vol. 10, p. 304, see also al‑Bayhaqī, AlSunan alkubrā, p. 55‑56 for tradition (...)

14The narrative is elaborated by positioning the saffron prohibition within specific social contexts, the first one being that of marital relationship (nikāḥ) and its intimate dimensions. According to a tradition, the companion ʿAbd al‑Raḥmān b. ʿAwf married, and subsequently visited the Prophet, still traces of “yellow” [perfume] (ufra) found on him. The tradition skips an underlying questioning to have taken place, and yet ʿAbd al‑Raḥmān b. ʿAwf advanced an explanation to justify the ufra: “the alūq perfume has been found on his dress, as it has adhered to him from the woman”, not being found on his body. And here, in a more precise expression that the one in the beginning of the commentary that equals between a “body” and a “dress”, we find the clarification that one that applies saffron on his body (badan) is found to be more offensive than the one doing that on his dress (awb). In the same spirit and letter of the prohibition, the commentator lists incontestable adīṯauthorities such as Abū Dāwud, al‑Tirmīḏī and al‑Nasāʾī, according to whom a man that entered in Muḥammad’s presence bearing traces of “yellowness” (ufra), deserved the Prophet “finding that offensive” (fa‑kariha ḏālika), and subsequently ordering abandonment of ufra. Situation has been additionally aggravated by the reference to a tradition to inform that “the angels are not present at the funeral of an infidel, as well as the one who has embalmed himself with saffron” (lā taḥḍur al‑malāʾika ǧanāzat kāfir wa‑lā muammiḫḫ bi‑zaʿfarān). And finally, a companion who happened to have had saffron applied on him by his family because of his chapped hands, is reported to have been instructed by the Messenger of Allāh, without being greeted upon (fa‑lam yuraḥḥib bī), to “go away and wash this off you” (ihab wa‑ġsil ʿan‑ka hāḏā).28

  • 29 Ref. e.g. illustrations of saffron prohibition for murim‑s found inal‑Buḫārī’s aḥīḥ in the “Book (...)
  • 30 Ref. e.g. Sunan of al‑Nasāʾī, mentioning that the Prophet used alūq as a dyeing agent for his bear (...)
  • 31 Al‑Siǧistānī, Sunan Abī Dāwud, vol. 4, p. 464.
  • 32 Al‑Tirmīḏī’s collections of traditions and his “Book of Ǧihād” there, where [the blood of?] those w (...)
  • 33 Al‑Tirmīḏī’, AlǦāmiʿ al‑aḥīḥ, vol. 5, p. 107.

15The exposition in close keeping to the vivid text of the Fat al‑bārīreveals a certain density of text to facilitate unfolding the thematic threads in which the proscription operated according to Muslim interpretative authorities. In the first place, it needs to be noted that the commentary to this most concise version of saffron condemnation here does not present a comprehensive view of the whole textual and cultural context. Other repeatable mentions of the saffron in the adīṯcollections, such as the ones around the dress of the murim,29 usage of saffron as a dye of beard by the Prophet,30 through celebration of child birth within the ʿaqīqa ceremony,31 or the ǧihād context of saffron allusions32 are omitted. The emphasis seems to fall here on more general aspects of the injunction and the rest of the sourcematerial would be supposedly covered in the remaining part of the Fatwhich unfolds adīṯ by adīṯ. In the same time a number of those themes seem inherently present in this late discourse of the Sunnī mainstream through the historically continuous interpretation of al‑ʿAsqalānī. Those indicative gleanings can be revealed through the terminological circles that surround the ban. In the first place, indisputably the main term used to designate saffron here is the zaʿfarān (Crocus sativus); following a “sensory anthropology” starting point, it becomes clear that it is perceived both as a “perfume” (ṭīb) and a “dye” (ibġ). Perfume-wise, the prohibition can be understood along the gender dividing lines of the “perfume of women” (ṭīb al‑nisāʾ) expression used in the commentary evoking the olfactory side of it. Usage of smell as a powerful dividing line between genders is not uncommon to the adīṯ corpus; moreover, we have evidence that the traditions tend to put a special emphasis on it. As the famous saying of the Prophet goes, there are regulations that cover aspects of perfumes of men, as opposed to the ones for women, along the lines that “Fragrance for men is that which its scent is apparent and its colour is hidden, and fragrance for women is that which its colour is visible and its scent is hidden.”33 No need to go deeper here into the historical reception of the adīṯto observe the divinely sanctioned division through utilization of the markers of colour and smell.

  • 34 Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān al‑ʿarab, vol. 10, p. 91.

16It is to this gender loaded aspect of smell that we relate the specific alūq term as well. Based on saffron, this type perfume has been appearing as explicitly forbidden for men long before Ibn Ḥaǧar wrote his commentary. Approximately one century and a half before him, Ibn Manẓūr sheds light in his Lisān alʿarab by defining alūq as “a type of a perfume, it has been called [as well] saffron” (arb min al‑ṭīb wa‑qīla al‑zaʿfarān). The summary he provides wraps up the dilemma. He clarifies that this consonant root has also produced the derivatives of taallaqa (“apply alūq on one’s self”) and allaqtu‑hu (“I have applied alūq on it”), hence the expression “I smeared alūq on it” (alaytu‑hu bi‑l‑alūq), and “the woman applied alūq on her body” (allaqat al‑marʾa ǧisma‑hā) meaning “smeared it with alūq” (alat‑hu bi‑l‑alūq), and the reflexive “the woman has applied on herself the alūq” (taallaqat al‑marʾa bi‑l‑alūq). In the style of Ibn Manẓūr’s lexicographic work, the summary is only introduced by the derivatives of the .l.q root. It is brought to our knowledge that the alūq is “the known perfume”, produced from saffron and other different perfume compounds, characterized by the dominant colours of red (umra) and yellow (ufra). It has been observed, he tells us, that sometimes it is classified within the domain of the Šarīʿa permissibility (ibāḥa), while it other occasion it belongs to the field of forbiddance (nayi ʿan‑hu). And forbiddance is considered more wide spread and better affirmed; saffron has been prohibited “being the perfume of women, as they are the ones to use it most”. The authority of Ibn al‑Aṯīr [Maǧd al‑Dīn Abū al‑Saʿādāt al‑Mubārak, d. 1210?] is drawn upon, to have said that “it is evident that the traditions on forbiddance are abrogating (nāsia) [the rest].”34

  • 35 Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān al‑ʿarab, vol. 4, p. 581.
  • 36 Al‑Māwardī, Al‑Ḥāwī al‑kabīr, vol. 4, p. 111.

17This elaboration ties into the second sensory aspect of the saffron prohibition for the male gender, namely its colour. The terms found in relation to it are the general “yellowness” (ufra) – often but not exclusively associated with the fair sex – and the more specific Carthamus tinctorius, the safflower (ʿufur), and the term of “thing that has safflower applied on it” (muʿafar) appearing with Ibn Ḥaǧar. The aspect of colour is emphasized again by Ibn Manẓūr as a linguistic authority: safflower is “thing used to dye with” (hāḏā‑l‑lāḏī yubaġ bi‑hi), which brings in additional clarity towards its known application, namely dyeing of clothes, in the expression “I have coloured the clothes with ʿufur, so it was coloured with it” (ʿafartu al‑awb fa‑taʿafar).35 The notion of safflower as associated primarily with the perception of seeing, and only secondary with the quality of smell is not something unique to Ibn Manẓūr. Illustrations of this can be discovered as a historically sustainable common theme within the Šāfiʿīte legal thought within exemplary authors such as Abū al‑Ḥasan al‑Māwardī (d. 1058). In the voluminous work on Šāfiʿīte jurisprudence he wrote as an explanation of the Mutaar (“Abridgement”) of al‑Šāfiʿī’s disciple Ismāʿīl b. Yaḥyā al‑Muzanī (d. 877), we are told that “Al‑Šāfiʿī, may Allah be pleased with him, has said that safflower is not among the perfumes” (qāla al‑Šāfiʿī raiya Lāhu ʿan‑hu wa‑l‑ʿufur laysa min al‑ṭīb). In a dense text found in the “Book on Ritual Pilgrimage” (Kitāb al‑aǧǧ) alMāwardī in his own turn embarks on reasoning with regards to the nature of the ʿufur and its usage as a colouring agent on the clothes of the murim‑s. The question boils down not that much to the physical qualities or ingredient composition of the ʿufur that could classify it among the perfumes only, but to whether safflower could be treated from legal perspective as the perfumes (fīukm al‑ṭīb).36

  • 37 Gilliot 1997, p. 318.

18Hence, going back to Geertz’ language, we face a “structure of signification”, that appears important for 15th century Sunni discourse. A prohibition of saffron here is not construed as a standalone iteration of a ban to comply with; rather, the look into this single case here hints at the existence of complex regulative frameworks. They, even in the lexicographical sources, can be seen to sit within a broader domain linked to Muslim jurisprudence trying to position Crocus sativus along the legal axis of the categories of “permitted” (mubāḥ) and “reproachable” (makrūh). Although the language of fiqh shows through in the commentary of Ibn Ḥaǧar without significant interpretative effort, a šar,being sometimes no more than “explanations of a term, of a verse, or of a tradition”, or “a commentary on a single tradition”,37 is not a formal legal text with the status of a fatwā or a fiqh manual. While this might raise questions on the relation of such a commentary to cultural and legal practice, it does not diminish its value to facilitate a reconstruction of a 15th century Sunni Weltanschauung on perfumes and saffron in specific. Its task is not to question the normative status of the prophetic traditions; at the time of the commentator the debate around their contents and validity within legal production has long been considered settled down. What matters here, however, is the attempt to position this case of saffron avoidance within a tradition of continuity leaning on previous recognized legal authorities. Ibn Ḥaǧar is putting the prohibition in chronological and inter-mahab perspective, drawing mostly but not exclusively on Šāfiʿīte sources, interrelating to each other, such as al‑Šāfiʿī, al‑Ḥalīmī, al‑Bayhaqī, al‑Nawawī, or the Mālikite Ibn Baṭṭāl. Moreover, contexts built around the saffron prohibition are not constructed independent of, or in contradiction to the common usages of the ‘saffron’ related terminology within the great works of Arabic lexicography of al‑Farāhīdī and Ibn Manẓūr that point to its bi‑sensory nature.

19Hence, in case we need to build a hierarchy of sensory perceptions in order to decode the cultural role of saffron, it is difficult to say whether the olfactory or the visual element prevails; we can say for sure that a third sense – the one of taste, implicit in the culinary usages of saffron – is considered insignificant from religious point of view. In the same time, both saffron smell and colour can be perceived as having highly symbolic values to point to a meaning beyond its direct perception or mere aesthetic dimension. Saffron seems to play a role of marker in the normative regulation of a variety of cases. In the first place, as the prohibition itself suggests a gender division, saffron plays the role of a device within what Hadas Hirsch calls “gendered spheres of smell” (Hirsch 2013). On the basis of the šar, and considering the colour aspect, these spheres can be extended to cover visual perception as well. The gender distinction however, without being overemphasized in the Fat al‑bārī, cannot be looked upon as monopolizing the usages of saffron. The zaʿfarān serves as a denominator to help delineating divinely established borders within many other areas such as ritual pilgrimage, the closed spaces of home vs. public space, faith and infidelity, relate to one’s life in the afterworld, funerals and protection of the believers by angels. Thus a saffron ban is not necessarily made meaningful through rationally grounded argumentation; it is only within the discourses of Sunni legal expression where dimensions of smell and sight acquire a transcendentally regulated function and play a symbolic role with regards to normative justification of eventual cultural practices.

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1 Al‑Nasā’ī, Sunan, vol. 7, p. 72 and 74.

2 Motzki 2004, Motzki 2010, Juynboll 1983, Juynboll 1996, Juynboll 2007, Hallaq 1999.

3 AlShāfiʻī 1961.

4 With kabāb appearing as an example (Elahi 2009), but also refer to the chicken meat based sweet-sour dish of Persian origin zirbāǧ, or the abāhiǧa the preparation of which includes combining saffron with honey nuts, corn starch, etc. (Waines 2002, p. 381).

5 Ibn Māsawayh, Ǧawāhir alṭīb almufrada, fol. 13v.

6 Full reference data of the mentioned works can be found in the bibliography.

7 E.g. EI2, which does not cover an overview of perfumes within Muslim norms and practice; the ʿIr entry does not contain information in itself but refers to the entries dedicated to individual types of perfume and cosmetic substances. Then, in the specific ones on ambergris (Plessner and Ruska 1986), musk (Dietrich 1993), camphor (Dietrich 1997), saffron (Waines et Sanagustin 2002) scholarly effort has been invested in areas such as domestic usages, application of the substances in medicine, ways of production, varieties and geographical spread, ref. as well Aubaile-Sallenave (1987) and Mottahedin (1985).

8 E.g. Aʿlam (1990) which covers religious aspects of usage of camphor in funerals in Islamic times, or Juynboll (1986), dealing with dyeing the hair and beard in early Islam with substances such as innā(Lawsonia inermis), to mention briefly the saffron related ufra as a perfume, rather than a dye, to have probably been used by the Prophet based on a commentary of Muḥammad al‑Zurqānī on the Muwaṭṭa’ of Mālik (Juynboll 1986, p. 57) or drawing on Ibn Ḥaǧar al‑ʿAsqalānī himself.

9 Corbin 1986, p. 5.

10 Rappaport 1979, p. 208‑209.

11 Geertz 1973, p. 7.

12 Said 1978, then a brief summary on the Saidian controversy (Irwin 2007) as well as criticism in Kramer (2001, p. 27‑43), and more recently in Varisco (2007).

13 E.g. due to the limited scope of the paper, it shall not be construed as providing a comprehensive historical overview on the development of saffron prohibition for men, targeting a limited time frame; it cannot be expected to explore the debates around the authenticity of the prophetic traditions, and question their validity in shaping a Muslim normative understanding; it does not aim to provide an exhaustive overview of all the texts related to saffron or saffron prohibition in the adīṯ; it does not seek to look at the linkages between prescriptive texts and practice within the fiqh tradition, neither to reconstruct the practice at the time of the Prophet in the spirit of Leopold von Ranke’s “as it really was” (wie es eigentlich gewesen) (Von Ranke 1885, VII).

14 Rosenthal 1986, p. 778.

15 Al‑Buḫārī, Al‑Ǧāmiʿ al‑aḥīḥ, vol. 4, p. 65.

16 Geertz 1973, p. 7.

17 Al‑ʿAsqalānī, Fat, vol. 10, p. 304.

18 Al‑ʿAsqalānī, Fat, vol. 10, p. 305.

19 Al‑ʿAsqalānī, Fat, vol. 10, p. 304.

20 Al‑Farāhīdī, Kitāb alʿayn, vol. 2, p. 182.

21 Al‑Farāhīdī, Kitāb alʿayn, vol. 2, p. 333.

22 Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān al‑ʿarab, vol. 4, p. 324.

23 Al‑Bayhaqī here does not appear in al‑ʿAsqalānī’s narrative for no reason: he himself compiled several traditions on the topic in his Sunan mentioned here as well (al‑Bayhaqī, AlSunan alkubrā, vol. 5, p. 55‑56).

24 Al‑ʿAsqalānī, Fat, vol. 10, p. 304.

25 Al‑ʿAsqalānī, Fat, vol. 10, p. 304.

26 In fact, al‑ʿAsqalānī cites here verbatim the reference to al‑Bayhaqī within a portion of the much longer šarof al‑Nawawī where we see that “al‑Bayhaqī, may Allāh be pleased with him, has masterfully handled the issue, and he has said in his book on the knowledge of the traditions (Sunan) that al‑Šāfiʿī has prohibited man what has had saffron applied on it (muzaʿfar) and has permitted (abāḥa) what has had safflower applied on it (muʿafar)” etc. (al‑Nawawī, aḥīḥ Muslim bišar alNawawī, vol. 14., p. 54).

27 Al‑Nawawī, aḥīḥ Muslim bišar alNawawī, vol. 14, p. 54.

28 Al‑ʿAsqalānī, Fat, vol. 10, p. 304, see also al‑Bayhaqī, AlSunan alkubrā, p. 55‑56 for traditions with similar contents.

29 Ref. e.g. illustrations of saffron prohibition for murim‑s found inal‑Buḫārī’s aḥīḥ in the “Book of Knowledge” or “Book of Prayer” (al‑Buḫārī, Al‑Ǧāmiʿ alaḥīḥ, vol. 1, p. 64 and p. 138), or in Muslim’s aḥīḥ and his “Book of pilgrimage” (Ibn Ḥaǧǧaǧ, aḥīḥ Muslim, p. 459).

30 Ref. e.g. Sunan of al‑Nasāʾī, mentioning that the Prophet used alūq as a dyeing agent for his beard (al‑Suyūṭī, Sunan alNasāʾī bi‑šar al‑ḥāfiǦalāl al‑Dīn al‑Suyūṭī, vol. 8, p. 517), as well as Juynboll (1986).

31 Al‑Siǧistānī, Sunan Abī Dāwud, vol. 4, p. 464.

32 Al‑Tirmīḏī’s collections of traditions and his “Book of Ǧihād” there, where [the blood of?] those who have been wounded fighting in the path of Allāh, is promised in the Resurrection Day “to have colour like saffron and odour like the musk” (lawnu‑hā al‑zaʿfarān wa‑rīḥu‑hā al‑misk), ref.: al‑Tirmīḏī, Al‑Ǧāmiʿ al‑aḥīḥ, vol. 4, p. 185.

33 Al‑Tirmīḏī’, AlǦāmiʿ al‑aḥīḥ, vol. 5, p. 107.

34 Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān al‑ʿarab, vol. 10, p. 91.

35 Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān al‑ʿarab, vol. 4, p. 581.

36 Al‑Māwardī, Al‑Ḥāwī al‑kabīr, vol. 4, p. 111.

37 Gilliot 1997, p. 318.

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Atanas Shinikov, « Olfactory Visuals A Case of Saffron Prohibition in adī Commentary », Bulletin d’études orientales, LXIV | 2016, 277-291.

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Atanas Shinikov, « Olfactory Visuals A Case of Saffron Prohibition in adī Commentary », Bulletin d’études orientales [En ligne], LXIV | 2016, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2018, consulté le 26 août 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/beo.4721

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Atanas Shinikov

PhD Student – Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski

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