[ by Charles Cameron — exploring the importance to both Shias and Sufis of Uways Al Qarni, and of the Uwaysi transmission in Sufism ]
Uways, the destruction of whose shrine I described today in the first of two posts, was the man to whom the Prophet Muhammad entrusted his cloak on his death (a potent symbol ineed), a prototypical Muslim mystic, an early Muslim martyr who never physically met the Prophet — and the saint who gives his name to the Uwaysis, those Sufis who receive spiritual insight not from a living master but through a spiritual transmission from beyond…
Beyond what I can easily tell you, but where beyond is not for me to say…
Diving right in, then, here are two substantial gobbets from Patrick Laude‘s Malâmiyyah Psycho-Spiritual Therapy can also be found — in the same words, I think — in his book, Divine Play, Sacred Laughter, and Spiritual Understanding. Laude is currently Professor at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar:
The figure of Uways Qarani is most representative in this respect. Farid al-Din ‘Attar tells us about him: “during his life in this world, he (Uways) was hiding from all in order to devote himself to acts of worship and obedience” (‘Attar 1976, p. 2). ‘Attar also relates that the Prophet had declared at the time of his death that his robe should be given to Uways, a man he had never met in this life. When ‘Umar looked for Uways during his stay in Kufa, he asked a native of Qarn (the home town of Uways) and was answered “there was one such man, but he was a madman, a senseless person who because of his madness does not live among his fellow countrymen (…) He does not mingle with anybody and does not eat nor drink anything that others drink and eat. He does not know sadness nor joy; when others laugh, he weeps, and when they weep, he laughs” (ibid., p. 29). We can already perceive here, in the case of an early mystic like Uways, the dual, and seemingly contradictory, spiritual vocation of ‘obscurity’ and ‘eccentricity.’ The unassuming figure of Uways is, at the same time, blatantly discordant in the social context. This discordant status that is often referred to as ‘madness’ is the mark of the irruption of a transcendent, vertical perspective within the world of terrestrial horizontality. It is akin to a negation of the negation: the Spirit ‘negates’ the distorted notions of the soul, the biases and comforts. When Uways finally meets with ‘Umar, he tells him that it would be better for him that “nobody (but God) would know him and had knowledge of who he was.” To remain incognito can be considered as the leaven of malamiyyah spirituality.
and in his footnotes:
In his Kitub ‘Uqala’ al-majanin, an-Naysaburi ranks Uways among four of the best-known “wise fools” with Majnun, Sa’dun and Buhlul. Cf. Dols, p.355.
Uways is also, and quite tellingly, the ‘patron’ of Sufis who do not have a living master: “The Sufi tradition has distinguished a special group of seekers: those whose sole link with the teaching is through Khidr himself. There are those rare Sufis who do not have a teacher in the flesh. (…) They have been given a special name: uwaysiyyun.” Sara Sviri (1997) p.98.
It is interesting to note that Uways Qarani is both a norm and a shocking exception in the world of early Islam. He is a shocking exception in so far as his asocial perspective and ascetic disposition took him away from the communal establishment of the ummah that is, in a sense, the very identity of Islam. Still, at the same time, Uways al-Qarani is referred to in at least two ahadith that make of him the spiritual pole of the community. Two interesting facts must be commented upon in this context: first, the Prophet declared that on the Day of Judgment and later in Paradise, God will give the form of Uways to 70,000 angels so that nobody could know, even in the thereafter, who is the actual Uways. This hyperbolic and symbolic manifestation of anonymity is quite suggestive of the principle of ‘invisibility’ that presides over the malamiyyah way. Secondly, when referring to Uways in connection with ‘Umar, ‘Attar carefully avoids any expression that would seem to give precedence to Uways over ‘Umar: “You should know that Uways al- Qarani was not superior to ‘Umar, but that he was a man of detachment vis-a-vis things of this world. ‘Umar, as for him, was an accomplished perfection in all his works.” (op.cit. p.31) ‘Umar’s perfection is defined in terms of presence and action in the world of men, whereas Uways’ perfection is understood in terms of separation from the world. Given its emphasis on equilibrium between the two worlds, Islam cannot extol Uways’ virtues to the point of “otherworldliness.” Moreover, the Prophet’s robe is no doubt a different kind of investiture than the line of succession in the khilafat: it points to a spiritual authority like the khirka (cloak) of the Sufi Shaykh; but this type of investiture and eminence must remain hidden.
This ‘madness’ is also related to the function of the American Indian ‘contrary’, Sioux heyokao or Hopi kochare, or the “grey one” of the Apaches, who embodies the apparently senseless reversal of terrestrial and social norms of behavior.
Thyere’s a lot packed into these two chunks of Laude’s — poetry, legend, hagiography, insight — and I’ve quoted them in extenso because they save me quoting shorter extracts from half a dozen other sources [ eg: 1, 2, 3, 4 ].
For a more detailed understanding, I should probably finesse my way to a copy of Julian Baldick‘s Imaginary Muslims: The Uwaysi Mystics of Central Asia.
A wise fool, then, in that global tradition of sacred folly which extends from Shakespeare‘s Lear’s Fool via Chuang Tzu to the Koshare of the Hopi rituals — and to the Sufis, a wali, a friend of the Beloved.