For many, the very concept of a Muslim ‘saint’ makes little sense. However, within the religion’s Sufi tradition, the notion of a saint, or of a spiritual soul that overlooks the living has an established history.
Sufism, often refereed to as the mystical dimension of Islam, is distinguished by the strong emphasis given to the ascetic and meditative practices by its practitioners, where they seek visions to be guided directly from the prophet.
Sufi shrines and mausoleums honoring saints exist throughout Tunisia. Many, especially the Sufists, still worship at the sites. They believe in a form of mysticism, where saints are trusted to act upon their prayers and intercede on their behalfs. In contrast, North African scholars and researchers value the sites as an important part of the country’s historical heritage.
However, numerous attacks have been committed from radical Sunni Muslim sects against the shrines since the 2011 revolution. The hostility along some groups stems from the belief that worshiping saints is a form of idolatry, as a verse in the Quran in Surah Annissa 116, says: “Indeed, Allah does not forgive association with Him, but He forgives what is less than that for whom He wills. And he who associates others with Allah has certainly gone far astray.”
The controversy has its roots in Islamic law, where only Allah is acknowledged as having the power to act as He sees fit with his people. For many, believing that saints also have power is to equate them with Allah, which is considered to be explicitly forbidden in the Quran. However, despite this, many Sunni and Shia Muslims throughout history have been granted the title of saint.
Sidi Mahrez – a Sunni scholar of the Maliki school of jurisprudence was considered the patron-saint of the city of Tunis. Famous in Tunisian folklore as a savior of the city, Mahrez is said to have protected Tunis from the Fatimides – the rival Shia sects. According to some legends, Mahrez helped found the Jewish neighborhood in the Tunis Medina, known as the Hara. Other legends helped establish his title; for instance, he is said to have used just the powers of his mind to orchestrate the death of the Fatimide ruler after the latter was found impaled upon his own sword. Sidi Mahrez was called The Sultan of the Medina by its inhabitants, due to his numerous contributions to people’s livelihoods. Mahrez’s tomb can be found in the Medina of Tunis, not far from the mosque named after him.
Another important figure carrying the title of Muslim saint is Abul Hassan Shadhili. He was born in Morocco during the 12th Century, and spent time in Tunisia developing his religious knowledge under the tutelage of an Islamic teacher. He had his first vision to teach Sufism in Shadhila, after which he decided to set up his own Zawiya – Islamic school – in Tunis in 1228. His teachings became highly popular in North Africa, and eventually spread to other areas of the Middle East, most notably in Iraq and Egypt. Ab Shadhili gains is saintly title from being an original thinker of Islam.
Abul Hassan Shadhili became a mentor to several other well-known Tunisian Sufi figures, perhaps the most notable was Aicha Manoubia, as she was one of the few females granted the title of saint. The Tunisian historian Abdessattar Amamou, explained, “She wasn’t the only one in the capital, there are others like Lella Arbia, Saida Ajoula or Saida Msika, but she imposed herself through her personality and good deeds.” Manoubia had an unusual life for her time. She first became interested in religious studies during her childhood, and when she became older she started to donate her earnings to the needy, in particular to women. She later became accustomed to having debates with her male counterparts about religious issues, making some of the conservative scholars wary of her presence. She was often discredited and accused of being a “libertine” because she wasn’t married.
However, despite her critics, Manoubia earned much respect among religious leaders for her extensive knowledge of Islam and strong personality. She eventually became known as one of the first Islamic feminists. The city of Manouba was named after her, where her tomb and Zawiya can be found, although hers was one of numerous shrines burned by radical Muslims during 2012.
According to Amamou there used to be many Islamic schools in Tunis, where each had an original way of teaching. One may assume that such a diverse set of approaches to education would cause disputes, but the historian Amamou says: “It’s just like having different political parties.”
Later the schools became places of mystical belief, where people would come and ask the saint to grant them their wishes. Amamou says the saints were known to perform miracles when they were still alive. “Sidi Ben Arous for example was known for being able to cure sterility. Others were known for their ability to cause misfortunes in people’s lives.”
While the religious notion of a saint remains a subject of bitter disagreement, it can be worth remembering that the individual the title honors usually made invaluable contributions to both the physical and religious history of the country.
Prior to working as a journalist, Inel worked as a computer programmer. Inel is fluent in English, French, and Arabic. He writes mainly about freedoms, liberties, and minorities' rights in post revolution Tunisia. He currently blogs about films in French and writes metal reviews.