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PREMIERE PARTIE - La célébration de la naissance du Prophète (al-mawlid al-nabawī)
Partie 3 : Productions littéraires et artistiques

Women’s Devotion to the Prophet as Reflected in the Literary Construction of a Non-Canonical Mawlid Narrative: Abū al-Ḥasan al-Bakrī’s Kitāb al-anwār

La dévotion des femmes à l’égard du Prophète d’après la construction littéraire d’un récit non canonique du Mawlid : le Kitāb al-anwār d’Abū al-Ḥasan al-Bakrī
تفاني النساء للنبي وفقًا للبناء الأدبي لرواية غير رسمية للمولد النبوي: كتاب الأنوار لأبي الحسن البكري
Arianna Tondi
p. 155-172

Résumés

Le Kitāb al-anwār attribué à Abū al-Ḥasan al-Bakrī reste encore après des siècles un récit mystérieux, et son auteur présumé encore plus énigmatique. Cette œuvre raconte la création et la transmission de la lumière prophétique suivant les tropes du roman populaire. Dans cet article, nous nous focalisons sur l’une des caractéristiques les plus spécifiques, en l’occurrence la représentation émotionnelle et détaillée des personnages féminins. Nous soutenons que l’émancipation feminine – élément typique de la littérature folklorique – pourrait être le résultat de la volonté du narrateur afin d’attirer un public féminin qui, au Moyen Âge, participait aux célébrations pour la naissance du Prophète. Pour étayer notre thèse, nous comparons différentes versions de cet ouvrage, aussi bien dans sa forme manuscrite qu’imprimée pour démontrer comment la représentation littéraire des thèmes liés à la femme est beaucoup plus élaborée dans les dernières versions de l’œuvre, produite à un moment où la célébration du mawlid était une pratique désormais bien connue.

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Texte intégral

  • 1 Ms. We. I 128: fol. 78r. All translations are my own.

Salma said: “[f]ather, my heart has flared up for Hāshim. The burning love has already caught me, in a way not even comparable to the burning love of a mother for her child”.1

Introduction

1In medieval times, Mawlid ceremonies were distinguished by a remarkable female participation, to the point that a large corpus of polemical literature developed with the aim of condemning the “immoral and reprehensible” practices held by women during this solemn festivity. Mawlid celebrations represented an occasion where women would enjoy relative freedom of movement outside the domestic space (Lutfi, 1992: 115–116). In popular Mawlid narratives we can find a grassroots reaction to the attempt made by Muslim jurists to keep women distant from this liberatory space. In this devotional literary production, in fact, the high presence of female characters and the broad space reserved for their voices are noteworthy and, in our opinion, can be partly explained as a consequence of women’s presence in Mawlid rites.

  • 2 The main purpose of Islamic legends was to teach elements of Islamic doctrine by means of a narrati (...)

2In this article we will focus upon one of the most popular Mawlid narratives, the Kitāb al-anwār (The Book of Lights, henceforth Anwār), attributed to a Baṣran preacher, Abū al-Ḥasan al-Bakrī. As suggested by its title, the work narrates the origin and the transmission of nūr Muḥammad from Adam to the Prophet through a long line of noble ancestors, from father to son. The story is enriched with fantastic details, prodigious miracles and extraordinary tales, whose aim is both didactic and for entertainment.2 One of its most outstanding features is the centrality assigned to female characters as temporary repositories of the sacred light. Figures usually neglected by historiography, such as the Prophet’s foremothers, are the heroines of this popular religious sīra (Prophet’s biography), presented as valiant personalities who raise up heroes and strive to protect them from evil forces. Although the work is undated, the earliest manuscript goes back to the end of the 13th century, while the subsequent ones date from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. This work has been studied by Boaz Shoshan, who has tried to recreate its provenance and cultural milieu (Shoshan, 1993: 23–39), and Marion Holmes Katz, who has paid particular attention to its gynocentric themes (Holmes Katz, 2007: 48–49). We will move a step further by analysing the literary construction of the female characters that animate this work and their function, as it seems very likely that the great female devotion to the Prophet and women’s participation to Mawlid ceremonies are reflected in the way the narrative is framed.

3The Anwār is a religious text, a popular expression of profound prophetological contents. At the same time, it shares peculiar literary features with the genre of the sīra shaʿbiyya (folk romance), since these stories are based on an interactive process of composition. While in popular epics specific literary devices are primarily aimed at producing narrative tension to entertain the audience, in the Anwār they render an edifying narrative more attractive in order to instil devotion.

4The remarkable presence of women is a key feature of folk literary traditions from all over the world, including the Arabic one (Kruk, 2013; Steinberg, 2018). While in normative Islamic literature women are a quite marginal presence, in the epic-like Anwār the noble women of the Prophet’s household are models of holiness with a very human side, presented in their daily life as women who think and act like ordinary women. In folklore literature, in fact, conventions are often reversed and women have more agency. Drawing upon some theoretical reflections on the alternative discourse detection that is found in folklife material (De Caro, 1983; Mills, 1993; Nenola, 1999), we will examine how the storyteller represents gender and deconstructs the traditional portrayal of women found in canonical religious literature. In particular, we will analyse how the author/s has/have shaped the narrative structure by adding a female character to each episode, and dwelling on distinctive feminine themes. Not coincidentally, women are narrative voices, and numerous references to women’s dress, perfumes, beauty practices, and emotions are found. Some episodes, such as the rendition of Khadīja’s romantic love for Muḥammad and her desire to marry him, are given a strong sentimental nuance, and are poetically fictionalised.

5We will first try to reconstruct the complex history of the circulation of this work from its origins until the Ottoman era, in order to appreciate its reception in specific contexts of the Mediterranean world. We will then examine its folkloric dimension and its interest in women, through a comparative textual analysis of some translations in European languages, four Arabic manuscripts, and two printed editions. In fact, since we cannot find but ephemeral information about the Anwār in scholarly literature, copies of it are the only means at our disposal to analyse the archaeology of this influential sīra. In this way, we will reconstruct the evolution in the representation of female characters from the earliest version – when Mawlid celebrations had not been instituted yet – until the modern Egyptian version, dating from 1951. The last section will draw attention to a striking literary feature of this intimate Islamic narrative, that is, the deeply emotional content.

6In our opinion, some female-centred episodes were not included in the earlier layers of the text, but are successive embellishments of storytellers who adapted the narrative to the audience’s expectations. The female presence in Mawlid ceremonies may thus have played a performative role on the narrative that can help us date a thematic layer of this work. This study will underscore that the hagiographic Anwār is a means to approach reality, bearing witnesses to a significant aspect of medieval Mawlid festivals. Moreover, this article offers a literary approach to the study of a religious text, thus proposing a multidisciplinary perspective to the study of representation of women in premodern Arabic literature.

Circulation and Reception of a Mediterranean Text

  • 3 In the versions we have consulted, the work is referred to by different titles.
  • 4 For example, ms. We. I 128: fol. 112v.

7The Anwār3 is a text that travelled a lot in the medieval Mediterranean, and its alleged author one of the most mysterious and enthralling personalities of the medieval Islamic world. Who was Abū al-Ḥasan Aḥmad b. ʿAbd Allāh al-Bakrī? A talented storyteller or an authorial figure invented to give credibility to a widely circulated text? We will probably never know. The denomination “Baṣran preacher” (wāʿiẓ baṣrī) found in historical sources and in some manuscripts of his works4 implies that he was one of the early storytellers (quṣṣāṣ) who disseminated legends about the Prophet in Baṣra, a city of diverse religious-political opinions. As suggested by Shoshan, this thesis is corroborated by the fact that an extended passage of his oeuvre is inserted in the Kitāb badʾ al-khalq (Book of the Beginning of the Creation) by al-Fārisī, an Egyptian who died in 902 (Shoshan, 1993: 36). Moreover, the dominant theme of the narrative, the pre-existence of the prophetic light and its migration from Adam to Muḥammad’s father ʿAbd Allāh, reported by the transmitter Kaʿb al-Aḥbār, is narrated in a way very similar to other narratives of the 10th century (Holmes Katz, 2007: 16–17). If the earliest thematic nucleus of the story may have originated in the Baṣran environment, very fertile for the creation of prophetic anecdotic material, the Maghreb, Iran and Egypt are the countries where the story propagated more and has been enriched with further thematic layers, passing through al-Andalus, Italy and Ottoman Anatolia, where the work has been translated for completely different purposes.

8In the 12th century, Peter the Venerable commissioned the Latin translation of al-Bakrī’s work, within the scope of the Collectio Toletana, a wide polemical corpus of works about Islam and his Prophet produced in the Castilian city of Toledo. The Latin version, titled Liber de generatione Mahumet et nutriture eius, was made by Hermann of Carinthia (1100–1160; Di Cesare, 2012: 99). Al-Bakrī’s work was translated as well by the Italian Oriental scholar Ludovico Marracci (1612–1700) for the scope of his project concerning a Latin annotated translation of the Quran (Nallino, 1940 vol. 2: 114). The Splendorum – name by which Marracci indicates the Anwār – is based on an Arabic version of the text which presumably corresponds to the earliest extant manuscript, dated to 1295, copied in Denia – a Castilian city reconquered by Christians –, and preserved in the Vatican Library (ms. Borg. ar. 125). In fact, as the Italian orientalist Carlo Alfonso Nallino observed, the Arabic text studied by Marracci was divided into seven parts (Nallino, 1940 vol. 2: 114–115), exactly like the Vatican manuscript. The two Latin translations – both of them ostensibly an abridged version of the original narrative – seem to be grounded on two different Arabic versions, because the Liber de generatione Mahumet ends with the episode of the purification of Muḥammad’s hearth during his childhood, while the Splendorum includes the narration of a young Muḥammad working for the wealthy Khadīja and the marriage to the woman.

9Although al-Bakrī’s work was not a Mawlid text in origin, it became associated with the celebration of the birth of the Prophet. Long passages from it are reproduced in the first preserved Sunni text composed for the commemoration of this anniversary, al-Durr al-munaẓẓam fī mawlid al-nabī al-muʿaẓẓam (The String of Pearls in the Story of the Birth of the Revered Prophet) by the Maghribi Abū al-ʿAbbās al-ʿAzafī (d. 1236) (Holmes Katz, 2007: 10). In the Muslim West, the Sunni celebration of the Mawlid was introduced by ‘Azafīs of Ceuta in the 13th century (Boloix Gallardo, 2011; Kaptein, 1993: 98; de la Granja, 1969 and 1970). The earliest Mawlid texts are attributed to scholars from al-Andalus as well, and we have seen that the Anwār circulated in the Iberian Peninsula. The other country where this travelling text had a very large diffusion is Egypt. The harsh criticism of many Mamluk historians and several manuscripts from the Ottoman era give evidence for the centrality of Egypt in the history of circulation of this popular text (Shoshan, 1993: 23; 100). Not without reason, Egypt has played a crucial role in the production and diffusion of devotional literature dedicated to the Prophet, as well as in the promotion of Mawlid ceremonies at both scholarly and popular level.

10Some scholars have argued that the content of the Anwār is somewhat Shiite. The theme of the prophetic light, in fact, probably originated in Shiite circles and plays an important role in Shiite imamology. Maribel Fierro, for example, advances the hypothesis that the total silence of the scholarly Iberian sources about the Anwār may be explained by its strong emphasis on the transmission of the light, which could have had threatening political consequences. The migration of the light implicates that it could be transmitted also to the Prophet’s descendants, thus recognising their right to leadership and representing a weapon against the Sunni legitimisation of the Cordoban Umayyad caliphate. Possibly because of its subversive potential, this work circulated in a restricted way or in minor circles (Fierro, 2016: 161–162). The Shiite inclination of the text could be confirmed by the fact that a noted Shiite scholar such as al-Majlisī (d. 1699) reproduced it extensively in his Biḥār al-anwār. As explained by al-Majlisī, this version – almost similar to the Egyptian edition published in 1951 – was a well-regarded reading during the gatherings of the month of Rabīʿ al-Awwal (al-Majlisī, Biḥār vol. 1: 41). We can conclude that in the 17th century it was an official Mawlid text in Safavid Iran. Since the theme of the light was a central one also in mystical prophetology, we are inclined to think that the Anwār has been an interconfessional text more than a sectarian one, especially in the Ottoman era. The most famous ever Turkish-language sīra, the Siretü’n-Nebī by Muṣṭafā Ḍarīr (d. 1350), is a translation and a re-writing of al-Bakrī’s biography, with ʿAlī playing a dominant role and exalted as a supernatural hero. To this effect, Vefa Erginbaş points out that the Shiite content of the Turkish re-elaboration of the biography has to be considered in the light of ahl al-baytism, i.e., the strong reverence for the Prophet and his descendants, including the Twelver Imams, that characterised Ottoman Sunnism, a sort of confessional ambiguity that influenced a cross-sectarian fertilisation in the Ottoman Empire (Erginbaş, 2019: 79–80).

Folklore and Gender in the Narration of the Transmission of the Prophetic Light

11The history of the circulation of the Anwār across the Mediterranean and through the centuries has demonstrated that it was a distinguished text for Shiites while highly deprecated by some Sunni scholarly circles. In a fatwā on Tanaqqulāt al-anwār (The Transmission of Lights), the Hanbali jurist Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) calls for the necessity to burn copies of al-Bakrī’s mendacious work, as ʿUthmān b. ʿAffān ordered the burning of the Qur’anic manuscripts that differed from the editio princeps (Ibn Taymiyya, Majmūʿ vol. 18: 354). Despite the negative scholarly reception, it had a formidable diffusion at a popular level and was easily available in the book market. As Holmes Katz appropriately points out, the corpus of religious narrative material that originated with storytellers while censured by scholars, “achieved a level of standardisation and dissemination constituting a form of de facto canonicity (2007: 8)”. In other words, al-Bakrī’s text was a rendering of the Prophet’s origins accepted by the majority of Muslims, a product of the medieval “mass culture”.

12The main allegation brought against al-Bakrī by his detractors was that of being a liar, since he narrated events of the life of a noble and infallible man in the manner of storytellers, without respecting the standards of scholarly historiography, and disregarding verification of the reliability of the transmitted material. Reputable Islamic scholars such as al-Dhahabī (d. 1348) and Ibn Kathīr (d. 1373) put al-Bakrī’s work on the same level as sīra shaʿbiyya (al-Dhahabī, Mīzān vol. 1: 112; Ibn Kathīr, Bidāya vol. 9: 334). Their comparison with Arabian epics like Sīrat Dhāt al-Himma or ʿAlī al-Zaybaq is not groundless at all. In his discussion about the reception of the Book of Lights, Shoshan states that miraculous legends surrounding the origin and conception of the Prophet are found in reputed works such as the History of Ibn Kathīr. Hence the question: “What was it, then, that made the stories copied into the Bidaya and its preceding, scholarly siras, legitimate, as opposed to al-Bakrī’s condemned material?” (Shoshan, 1993: 35). We think that the reason was not the somewhat contested theme of the transmission of the light, accepted also by Sunnis, but the way it is presented. The Anwār is to all effects a popular romance, and it is no coincidence that al-Bakrī is credited with maghāzī (military expeditions of the Prophet) works written in an engaging popular style (Shoshan 1993: 97–99, note 13). It is a story in the Aristotelian sense of the term, with a beginning, a middle, and an end; several episodes have the makings of a fairy tale.

  • 5 And vice versa. The early biography of the Prophet by Ibn Isḥāq (died ca. 768), where Muḥammad is t (...)

13Folk literature is the product of creative imagination; it transforms beliefs and values of a community into charming tales. This literature promotes an idea of collective participation which strengthens the bond of unity. Despite being oral in nature, it possesses many literary features of written literature (Egonu, 1987: 109, 112). The Anwār exhibits several attributes of a literary text: extensive dialogues, emotional intensity, intermingling of prose and poetry, and fantasy content. Moreover, it displays features of a popular epic; for example, it is based on historical events, characters are divided into good and bad, the good ones are invincible heroes, and the dramatic tension is constant. The text belongs to the oral tradition, as demonstrated by the use of qāla al-rāwī (the narrator said) formula – typical of popular epic – rather than the chain of transmitters, the constant use of verba dicendi, citation of proverbs, and linear exposition style. The aim of these strategies is to entertain by teaching a part of the Prophet’s biography, to capture the listeners’ attention and imagination by describing stunning miracles, floods of gemstones, celestial apparitions, inanimate objects taking life, and enemies being pulverised. Popular epics were recited in cemeteries or during Mawlid celebrations, so this genre may have influenced the religious popular sīra.5

  • 6 Respectively Sharaf al-Muṣṭafā (Honor of the Chosen One) and Dalāʾil al-Nubuwwa (Proofs of Prophecy (...)

14As we have seen, parts of the Anwār were already in circulation at the end of the 9th century. If we compare the Vatican version of the work with the earliest proto-Mawlid narratives produced, such as those of the preacher al-Kharkūshī (d. 1016) or the scholar al-Bayhaqī (d. 1066)6, we can note that the former is much more developed from a narrative point of view. It is a well-structured literary text, not an enumeration of reported traditions; it is enriched by additional details that makes the story dramatic and enjoyable. We can presume that the earliest version of the Anwār was not much dissimilar in content and style from other legends circulating in the same epoch. If we compare the Vatican version with the manuscripts from the late Mamluk and Ottoman era, we observe that the latter are still more elaborated, full of pathos, and richly embellished by fantastic and romantic details. In the Ottoman era, many of the supernatural elements of Mawlid narratives were accepted by recognized scholars, so the marvellous dimension of the Anwār was not rebuked as in medieval times. In general, we can assert that despite its wide and complex circulation, the work’s structure preserved a high homogeneity across the centuries. However, the differences between the Vatican version and the later ones can be explained by the oral nature of the text, destined for extemporaneous recitation and thus for adaptation to the audience’s devotional needs and expectations.

15As we have anticipated, women play a special role in the Anwār since they make the transmission of the light possible. What we want to highlight here is that the female-related content may have not been so developed and romanticised in the earliest version of the work, but has been incorporated later. We support this argument on the basis of a comparison between the first Latin translation – though shortened, it does not include significant female episodes – and the Vatican manuscript, which constitutes a well-developed narrative, but still not so centred on emotions as the Egyptian manuscripts from the Ottoman era.

16In normative religious or historical literature of the classical period, women are often cited for their relationship to a man; in adab (anecdotal prose) works, women are presented as social character types, with the female linked to ruses (Malti-Douglas, 1991: 32). Conversely, folklore literature is highly populated by female characters who think, decide, act, refuse, and obtain what they want. A reversal in the representation of women is a general feature of folklore culture and literature, which usually gives voice to forgotten categories. At the same time, however, we cannot exclude that the pivotal role played by women in the Anwār may also have been inspired by the special status conferred to female saints in Sufi hagiographies (Amri, 1992), or yet by the centrality of female characters in the Shiite narrations of al-Ḥusayn b. ʿAlī’s martyrdom, as unique witnesses and privileged narrators of this tragic event (Aghaie, 2005).

  • 7 In the case of Salma and Āmina, this is probably due to the fact that they died before revelation.

17Folklore can be used as a tool to obtain consensus or as a means of contestation. In the first case, it can be used to maintain and reinforce the acceptance of norms and power structures; in the second case, it can be employed to challenge the authority of dominant concepts and power holders (Nenola, 1999: 23). In a text like the Anwār, the easily accessible and captivating narrative aims at pursuing consensus in the Muslim community, by making devotees love the Prophet and his women and imitate their example. As Amanda Steinberg observes in her study on Arabic sīra, women who are closer to the male heroes of an epic, like mothers, wives and lovers, are given more agency in the narrative and exhibit a remarkable access to power (Steinberg, 2018: 10, 21). Family ties are the main source of power and visibility for women. In fact, the main female characters of al-Bakrī’s work are the fiancées and wives-to-be of the Prophet’s ancestors; in particular Salma, Hāshim’s wife and Muḥammad’s grandmother; Āmina, ʿAbdallāh’s wife and the Prophet’s mother; Ḥalīma, the Prophet’s wet-nurse; and finally, Khadīja, the Prophet’s first and long-lasting love. Accounts and anecdotes regarding these four women occupy a substantial part of the narrative and, to our knowledge, are not to be found in any scholarly source.7 The four women, narrators of many episodes, are the true heroines of the Anwār, just as the Prophet and his forefathers. Furthermore, several minor female characters punctuate the text.

  • 8 In particular, the stories of Salma’s engagement to Hāshim and Khadīja’s marriage to Muḥammad are v (...)
  • 9 The second condition was already reported in ms. Borg. ar. 125: fol. 10v. In ms. We. I 128, Salma p (...)
  • 10 The Anwār does not take into consideration the revelation and the consequent public career of the P (...)

18The portrayals of such a gallery of woman characters are very different from those found in elite literature8, first of all in terms of agency. The rendering of figures such as Salma and Khadīja perfectly illustrates this point. Salma takes an active part in the negotiations for her own marriage, specifying she cannot accept a scarce mahr and a husband who neglects to pay attention to her.9 Khadīja fights as hard as she can to convince her father to accept her will to marry Muḥammad, even resorting to subterfuges. The depiction of the Anwār is alternative also in terms of attention to women-oriented themes. Given the main theme of the narrative, the transmission of the light, the story focuses on the events that lead to this migration and hence to the birth of the temporary hero, such as courtship, engagement, wedding, conception, gestation, childbirth, and lactation, to start again with the conception of the next repository of the light.10 When the heroines get pregnant, the light migrates to their womb and shines on their faces for nine months, making them ethereal creatures made of light whose stunning beauty dazes everyone. These women are unique witnesses of the superiority and infallibility of the Prophet’s ancestors. They are recipients of the baraka (blessing) of the Prophet, and the female audience of the Anwār as well could receive this blessing by listening to their story.

  • 11 Episode already found in ms. Borg. ar. 125: fol. 32r.
  • 12 Detail found only in ms. We. I 128: fol. 130r.
  • 13 Episode found only in ms. We. I 128: fol. 149v.
  • 14 Ms. We. I 128: fol. 204v; al-Bakrī, Anwār: 151.

19We do not have explicit evidence that women had been involved in the production of the narrative, which is almost certainly male-authored. However, we have evidence of women storytellers performing at Mawlid festivals and of a consistent participation of women in this celebration starting from the 13th century (Lutfi, 1992: 115–116). Hence, the female-oriented motives that pervade the whole narrative may have been influenced by the audience’s composition. We hypothesise that the storytellers may have intended to appeal to this specific large group of devotees by choosing to insert details that make a miraculous biography more worldly and touchable. The divinely-chosen female ancestors of the Prophet are models of pureness and sanctity, but at the same time earthly women who feel and act like ordinary women. Details of women’s daily life are interspersed in the story, along with female customs related to engagement and marriage. The Anwār provides a realistic depiction of female practices unknown to high literature. For example, Birra dyes the hair of her daughter Āmina and dresses her with the most beautiful clothes and accessories because ʿAbdallāh’s mother wants to meet the bride-to-be before engagement.11 In a very vivid description, Āmina says in vernacular: “I felt the labour was approaching” (ḥassayt bi l-ḥaml).12 Āmina, in a beautiful example of confidence between women, confides to Ḥalīma that she has not suffered the labour pain.13 Khadīja sets up her house for the marriage ceremony, and asks her servants to arrange silver pots, couches, cushions, and a great variety of fruits for the guests.14 The women of Mecca arrive at her house spreading incense, and the bride sends honey, rice, and sugar as a gift to Muḥammad’s uncle Abū Ṭālib (al-Bakrī, Anwār: 160). Women participating in the Mawlid could easily recognise themselves in these holy women and sympathise with them, feeling that the story was, in part, also their story.

Khadīja and Her “Carmina Amatoria”

  • 15 We think that the description of marriage ceremonies in the Anwār, with a ceremony on earth and one (...)
  • 16 Ms. We. I 128: fol. 79v.
  • 17 Ms. We. I 128: fol. 87r.
  • 18 Ms. We. II 314: fol. 36r.

20Another factor that differentiates the Anwār from the scholarly Mawlid texts is the centrality of emotions in the framing of the story. Considering the importance of displaying emotions during Mawlid ceremonies, we are not surprised that the depiction of emotional experiences is noteworthy in the work. Furthermore, popular narratives have a strong emotional content because interaction with audience plays a significant role in the storytelling process (Blatherwick, 2019: 227). The narrative is a sequence of episodes put in chronological order, like a chain, from Adam to Muḥammad. Starting from Hāshim, each episode has a standard structure. Marriage is the climactic event of each episode.15 To reach this happy ending, the protagonist of a certain link of the story chain must overcome obstacles and incidents, defeating several enemies. The hero is astonishingly handsome and sexually attractive due to the light he carries and the smell he emanates. The anti-heroes, such as the Jews and Iblīs, operate to destroy the light and hence its next carrier; the evildoer Abū Lahab, Muḥammad’s uncle, seeks to interfere to prevent his nephew’s marriage to Khadīja. The good characters are always guided by God; a supernatural and invisible voice suggests to the hero how to act or who will be his/her spouse. The narrator meticulously describes the emotions felt by characters and their reactions to a certain circumstance. Let’s give some examples of this emotional richness. During a travel far from home, Hāshim, longing for his wife, brings her a gift.16 When a young ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib decides to leave Yathrib and his mother Salma in order to join his uncle, the woman sheds bitter tears due to the pain of separation, wishing for him to rejoin her in the future.17 Due to the joy for Muḥammad’s birth, Āmina’s house is so full of jubilant angels that there is no room for one single human foot.18

  • 19 In a recent volume about emotions in premodern Arabic literature, some differences in the represent (...)

21In particular, female characters exhibit a peculiar emotional and affectionate characterisation.19 This may be a further literary strategy by which the storyteller aimed at appealing to a female audience, theatrically describing different nuances of love, from the romantic to the filial. Women attending the celebration for the birth of the Prophet could dream by imagining the love at first sight of Khadīja for Muḥammad. They could have faced their own childbirth experience with less fear knowing that the pious Āmina was comforted by the four celestial women who appeared to her, interpreted to act like midwives (obstetrices) in the oldest Latin translation (Di Cesare, 2012: 109). These accounts of emotional states can also be a strategy to express bonds of solidarity between women and an active female participation to Mawlid rituals, as well as a means to create an emotional community guided by attachment to the Prophet. In fact, different ways of expressing emotions are directly related to the reinforcement of a sense of belonging to a group through a common style of manifesting emotions (van Kleef, Fischer, 2016: 4–5). Moreover, expressing emotions seems to be a form of female empowerment and a liberatory act, since jurists reproached women for their public display of emotions.

  • 20 Both Salma and Khadīja are defined as mālikat nafsihā (mistress of herself), to underline their cap (...)
  • 21 Al-Ṭabarī, for example, only reports that Khadīja proposed to Muḥammad after his return from Syria. (...)

22The emotion most frequently solicited by Mawlid defenders is love (Holmes Katz, 2007: 117). Love for the Prophet is an imperative, a meritorious act, the source of his veneration. In the narrative, we observe a gendered characterisation of love. This is definitely due to the fact that the objects of love are men; at the same time, it is another literary strategy that develops female characters. Two love stories dominate the narrative: the God-inspired love of Hāshim for Salma, and Khadīja’s passion for Muḥammad, who falls in love after dreaming of him.20 The closing section of the Anwār is one of the most significant parts to support our argument, that a layer of the narrative has been influenced by the female presence at Mawlid celebrations. The succinct subtext information about Khadīja’s marriage to Muḥammad21 has been transformed into a love story recalling stories from the Thousand and One Nights. The Latin translation lacks the episode, while the Vatican manuscript suddenly ends with Muḥammad trading with Khadīja’s merchandise. Unfortunately, an evident lacuna occurs in the closing of the manuscript, but Marracci’s translation suggests to us that Khadīja’s episode was included in the Vatican version. We can deduce that it was already part of the Anwār at the end of the 13th century. Starting from al-Majlīsī’s version, the last episode is so long and embellished that it seems to be an independent story. The construction of the narrative clearly shows how far this popular Mawlid is from the canonical ones, with Khadīja acting as a beautiful, generous and enamoured princess in her sumptuous mansion.

  • 22 Literary descriptions of the physical and spiritual characteristics of the Prophet.
  • 23 Ms. We. I 128: fol. 201r.
  • 24 These definitions were collected by Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya in his religious treatise on love, Rawḍa (...)

23As Wen-chin Ouyang explains in her study of love in classical Arabic literature, profane love is a disdained theme in religious treatises, which warn of the perils of love. Yet, this has not prevented the high popularity of love stories (Ouyang, 2003: 488). In the Anwār, the loved one is the Beloved par excellence, and that justifies the extreme and passional love of Khadīja for the future Prophet. It is a proper love for the proper person, to the point that the protagonist cannot but fall in love with such a perfect human being. However, the extraordinary detailed and romanticised way in which the noble marriage is transformed into a passionate and credible love story could have been inacceptable to medieval jurists and historians. Muḥammad is depicted as a real man who cannot accept Khadīja’s marriage proposal because he has nothing to offer to her. To make it acceptable, the story has been elaborated adopting some tropes of ʿudhrī (chaste) love stories. Here, however, it is the woman that suffers in pain, and the object of the unattainable love is the man. The obstacle is the lover’s father, who opposes the union because his daughter was married to wealthy men, while the spouse-to-be is indigent. Just like the heroes of ʿudhrī stories (Leder, 2004), Khadīja suffers from insomnia when Muḥammad is away, and, whenever the name of her beloved is mentioned, “she sheds tears” or “loses her integrity (al-Bakrī, Anwār: 109, 110)”. The praise for the physical beauty of Muḥammad, typical of shamāʾil literature22, is transformed into the ʿudhrī praise for the beloved. To describe the woman’s intense desire, the narrator makes use of a vocabulary of love. Maḥabba (al-Bakrī, Anwār: 108), ebullition of the heart, wajd23, pangs of love, gharām (al-Bakrī, Anwār: 109), love that torments the heart, shawq (al-Bakrī, Anwār: 109), longing of the soul24, are just some of the terms used to describe Khadīja’s yearning and suffering. The strong love potential expressed in the Khadīja’s episode was noted by Marracci, who summarised romantic passages of the story with expressions such as verba amatoria (amatory words) and carmina amatoria (amatory poems; Marracci, 1691: 83, 84), a clear reference to the verses by which the woman expresses her love to Muḥammad and her desire for him. The woman’s poetic vein is a notable exception in the panorama of female poetic production in the medieval period, specialized in elegiac poetry. Poetry is an eloquent means to express love inspiration; Khadīja pronounces several ghazal (love) verses by which she captures her sorrow and despair for the separation. When Muḥammad is about to leave to Syria, she recites:

The lover’s hearth is attracted by the beloveds/His body is plundered by sickness

To whom asked about the taste of love, I answered:/Love is sweet, but it brings torment

I sacrifice myself for those who, being far away,/my blood has been spilled on my cheeks and my tears have been shed (al-Bakrī, Anwār: 114; al-Majlīsī, Biḥār vol. 16: 29).

24Thanks to her staunch will and prominent social position, the woman successfully handles the obstacles to the union, even by secretly paying her own dowry. Love triumphs and every creature, celestial and terrestrial, exults for the solemn marriage. In epical romance, the successful union of the lovers guarantees the preservation of the nation (Ouyang, 2003: 497). In the Anwār, it is the last step towards the founding of the umma, since Khadīja will be the first witness and promoter of Muḥammad’s prophetic mission. This crowned love will also entail the preservation of the sacred genealogy.

Conclusion

25In this article, we have approached al-Bakrī’s Anwār from a gender perspective. The narrative is a composite text that incorporates various genres pertaining both to religious and profane literature, such as dalāʾil al-nubuwwa, shamāʾil, sīra shaʿbiyya, and ʿudhrī love stories. The cosmogonic concept of the primordial substance of Muḥammad is strongly connected to the tangible dimension of real life. The history of the circulation of the Anwār has demonstrated that it has been a quite stable text with a solid structure. However, the comparison between its earliest versions and the most recent ones has highlighted that the careful representation of multiple nuances of the woman’s realm is the result of subsequent extensions of the earliest nucleus of the story. We have tried to demonstrate that the great attention towards female-oriented themes may be explained by the storytellers’ will to attract a female audience, and that the deep emotional characterisation of female characters makes the narrative a liberatory and empowering space for women devotees. The reality of Mawlid ceremonies, hence, would have played a major role in the making of later layers of the narrative.

  • 25 Ms. Vol. 33: f. 58v.

26A semi-real text like the Anwār may also have influenced some rituals related to Mawlid celebrations, since it mirrors specific cultural and anthropological aspects of the Mawlid from the premodern era up to today. As we have highlighted, marriage is the climactic event of the narrative. We have evidence that Mawlid narratives were recited during wedding festivities (Holmes Katz, 2007: 72). A manuscript of the Anwār dated to 1757 contains a poem in praise of the Prophet recited by Āmina after her delivery. Here, the new born is called ʿarūs (groom) for his astonishing beauty, the girls who went to visit Āmina are said to perform a zaffa (wedding procession), and all the people in the house danced for the joy.25 A marriage-inspired practice still distinguishes the Egyptian celebrations: the folk custom of the ʿarūsat al-mawlid, the sugar bridal doll given to little girls as a gift in occasion of the mawlid al-nabawī. The women of the household of the Prophet allegedly buried in Egypt are considered pure brides, and a bride veil or a bouquet is put on their tomb during their Mawlid. Perfumes and fragrances are cited many times in the Anwār, as a beauty practice or a method to bless the home during a celebration. This use is obviously inspired by the pleasant scent emanated by the Prophet mentioned in shamāʾil literature, but perfume is also a very feminine element and, not fortuitously, special fragrances like rose-water are used by women as nafḥa (meaning both perfume and gift) during the sacred festival. To conclude, the Anwār proved to be a document of female piety to the Prophet, a witness to gender oriented devotional practices in the medieval Islamic world, and an answer to restrictions imposed to women during popular religious festivals.

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Notes

1 Ms. We. I 128: fol. 78r. All translations are my own.

2 The main purpose of Islamic legends was to teach elements of Islamic doctrine by means of a narrative parable (Knappert, 1985 vol. 1: 5–6).

3 In the versions we have consulted, the work is referred to by different titles.

4 For example, ms. We. I 128: fol. 112v.

5 And vice versa. The early biography of the Prophet by Ibn Isḥāq (died ca. 768), where Muḥammad is the hero par excellence and miraculous actions surround his person, seems to have influenced the popular sīra based on historical events and rich in supernatural details (Ibrāhīm, 1995: 17).

6 Respectively Sharaf al-Muṣṭafā (Honor of the Chosen One) and Dalāʾil al-Nubuwwa (Proofs of Prophecy; in general, genre of premodern Islamic literature that gives evidence of Muḥammad’s prophethood).

7 In the case of Salma and Āmina, this is probably due to the fact that they died before revelation.

8 In particular, the stories of Salma’s engagement to Hāshim and Khadīja’s marriage to Muḥammad are very succinct in historical sources, where we find relatively little information (Ibn Hishām, Sīra vol. 1: 144; al-Ṭabarī, Ta’rīkh vol. 2: 281–282). The story of Āmina who gives birth to the Prophet, instead, is reported with some supernatural details in very early sources like the Sīra of Ibn Isḥāq or Dalāʾil al-Nubuwwa by Abū Nuʿaym al-Iṣfahānī (d. 1038). The sīra of early writers took for granted the dominant role of the supernatural (Khalidi, 2009: 98).

9 The second condition was already reported in ms. Borg. ar. 125: fol. 10v. In ms. We. I 128, Salma poses extra conditions to Hāshim: she will not leave her village after marriage, and if they bear a boy, he will always live with her (fol. 75r).

10 The Anwār does not take into consideration the revelation and the consequent public career of the Prophet.

11 Episode already found in ms. Borg. ar. 125: fol. 32r.

12 Detail found only in ms. We. I 128: fol. 130r.

13 Episode found only in ms. We. I 128: fol. 149v.

14 Ms. We. I 128: fol. 204v; al-Bakrī, Anwār: 151.

15 We think that the description of marriage ceremonies in the Anwār, with a ceremony on earth and one on heaven and many supernatural events, is overtly Shiite, inspired by the description of the marriage of Fāṭima and ʿAlī narrated by authors lived in the 10th and 11th centuries (Veccia Vaglieri, EI2 vol. 2: 846).

16 Ms. We. I 128: fol. 79v.

17 Ms. We. I 128: fol. 87r.

18 Ms. We. II 314: fol. 36r.

19 In a recent volume about emotions in premodern Arabic literature, some differences in the representation of emotions in male and female characters have been detected (Rosenwein, 2019: 131).

20 Both Salma and Khadīja are defined as mālikat nafsihā (mistress of herself), to underline their capacity to take decisions autonomously. Salma seems to be Khadīja’s double, concerning the construction of the love story. She is Āmina’s double, concerning the narration of her pregnancy: she is alone during her childbirth, she gives birth to ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib without pain, comforted by an angel.

21 Al-Ṭabarī, for example, only reports that Khadīja proposed to Muḥammad after his return from Syria. Ḥamza, Muḥammad’s uncle, formally asks the permission of Khadīja’s father for the marriage and the man consented. According to another version, reported by al-Waqīdī, Khadīja, to gain her father’s approval, gave him wine until he was drunk. When the man sobered up, he denied everything (al-Ṭabarī, Ta’rīkh vol. 2: 281–282).

22 Literary descriptions of the physical and spiritual characteristics of the Prophet.

23 Ms. We. I 128: fol. 201r.

24 These definitions were collected by Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya in his religious treatise on love, Rawḍat al-muḥibbīn, (Ibn Qayyim, Rawḍat: 27, 41, 79, 48). In the Salma’s episode, we find the term wiṣāl, which indicates the emotional ties between two people. Before leaving for his last travel, Hāshim entrust his companions to tell Salma such words after his death: “Oh, what a union! I could never have enough of my union with her, or of looking at her” (al-Bakrī, Anwār: 22).

25 Ms. Vol. 33: f. 58v.

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Arianna Tondi, « Women’s Devotion to the Prophet as Reflected in the Literary Construction of a Non-Canonical Mawlid Narrative: Abū al-Ḥasan al-Bakrī’s Kitāb al-anwār »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée, 155 (1/2024) | -1, 155-172.

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Arianna Tondi, « Women’s Devotion to the Prophet as Reflected in the Literary Construction of a Non-Canonical Mawlid Narrative: Abū al-Ḥasan al-Bakrī’s Kitāb al-anwār »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 155 (1/2024) | 2024, mis en ligne le 07 juillet 2024, consulté le 20 juillet 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/remmm/21202 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/11z1j

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Arianna Tondi

ORCID: 0000-0002-6777-3812, University of Bergamo, Italy; arianna.tondi[at]unibg.it

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