Response to Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi re: Kitab al-Majmu’

bakura image

A friend alerted me that I was mentioned in a recent blog posting having to do with the ‘Alawites. I took a look and found what seems to be a gratuitous swipe at a footnote in my monograph Syria Through Jihadist Eyes (Stanford, 2010). The gist of it was that I had misattributed a prayer used by the Nusayri-‘Alawites to one of their ‘books’ (K. al-Majmu’), and that I had gone further and mischaracterized that same book under a different name (al-Dustour).

My offending footnote reads:

“It is interesting that of all the names of the accursed mentioned in a Nusayri-‘Alawite collection of psalms (Kitab al-majmu’), al-Maghribi is the only person referred to beyond the thirteenth century as one of the enemies of the Nusayri-‘Alawites. See Heinz Halm, Al-ghinossiyah fil Islam (Cologne, Germany: 2003, translated from German), p. 240. Kitab al-Majmu’ is known as the al-Dustoor in Nusayri-‘Alawite sources, and it is attributed to al-Maymoun al-Tabarani, an eleventh-century figure credited with propagating the Nusayri-‘Alawite tenets in the Syrian coast. See Abu Musa and Sheikh Musa [al-Tartousi], Rasa’il al-hikmeh al-‘alawiyyeh, Vol. 1, Diyar Aql (2006), p. 8, n. 1. It seems that names such as Ibrahim al-Dasouqi (thirteenth century) and al-Maghribi (nineteenth century) were added by later scribes.”(Kazimi, Syria, p. 88, n. 12)

My goal was to highlight the importance of Sheikh Muhammad al-Maghribi (1764-1826) in Nusayri-‘Alawite collective memory; the provenance of K. al-Majmu’ was something I cited from others.

However, I found retracing my steps to be a fun and fruitful exercise, so I must thank Mr. al-Tamimi for that. That said, al-Tamimi is mistaken and inattentive on both of these counts: (1) “Like Nibras Kazimi (see the endnotes for more), Othman has misattributed mention of Sheikh al-Maghribi to the Kitab al-Majmu’. On this count, therefore, he is mistaken.” (2) “It is notable however that Kazimi has confused the contents of the Kitab al-Majmu’ with another reputed Alawite work.”

To begin with, the body of 16 suras (verses) that al-Tamimi calls K. al-Majmu’ is in fact al-Dustour, and al-Dustour is—as far as we can discern—a part of a larger compilation called al-Majmu’. Consequently, al-Tamimi is in error when translating the title to the 16 verses as the ‘Book of Totality,’ since it isn’t. It is neither a ‘book’ nor the totality of the Nusayri-‘Alawite faith, no matter what R. Dussaud claims, but more on him later.

The K. al-Majmu’ is likely a wholly different creature. We have to say likely since there are no extant copies of it in public view as of yet. However, reasonable hypotheses can be made about its composition and hence what the meaning of the word majmu’ is supposed to convey and how best to translate it. A century and a half ago, E. Salisbury translated K. al-Majmu’ as ‘Book of Summary.’ A worthy effort given how little was known about the Nusayri-‘Alawites at the time. Furthermore he provided a perfectly adequate and full translation of the 16 verses into English (and much more of al-Adhani’s Bakura, published in the Journal of the American Oriental Society back in 1866; al-Tamimi needlessly reprises part of that effort and provides his own translation of the 16 verses with notes) where Salisbury pointed out that those verses are referred to as al-Dustour within al-Adhani’s commentary.

Bella Tendler provided a more nuanced translation for the title of K. al-Majmu’ in her 2012 PhD dissertation (Concealment and Revelation: a study of secrecy and initiation among the Nusayri-Alawis of Syria, Princeton University—one of her supervisors was the great Patricia Crone!): she translates it as “’the canon’ or ‘the compilation’”—these are much closer to the spirit and function of K. al-Majmu’ per her analyses of its hypothesized provenance (p. 118-19), which is by far the best we have for it yet.

Here is what we know:

-Suleiman al-Adhani (1834-1871?) never called the 16 verses by the name of K. al-Majmu’. In his explanations of some of the verses he makes it clear that they belong to al-Dustour. He does mention K. al-Majmu’ in the context of the initiate being made to swear on it, and that an exegesis of verse 2 can be found in K. al-Majmu’. This is a significant hint that K. al-Majmu’ is a hypotext or a paratext that contains the 16 verses as well as other psalms and maybe even other instructions for the faithful. Al-Adhani also clearly distinguishes it from al-Tabarani’s Majmu’ al-a’yad and anyway there is no resemblance (see Rudolf Strothmann’s publication of it in 1943-44). [NB: maybe al-Tamimi can track down C. Brockelmann’s mysterious reference to Al-Adhani’s Bakura being first published in Aleppo in 1859 while most scholars know of its 1863 Beirut edition—this author believes this is key to the book’s origins]

-It is to Rene Dussaud (1868-1958) that the honor of mischaracterizing the 16 verses as the full extent of K. al-Majmu’ is owed, which al-Tamimi repeated. I cannot read Dussaud’s Histoire et religion des Nosairis (1900) in the French original nor do I have access to the recent Arabic translation (by ‘Abboud Kasooha, 2016). Therefore I cannot say for certain where he got the text from, but it does seem that his sole source was al-Adhani’s publication, down to the ‘intehet’ in verses 1 & 2 that had vexed al-Tamimi’s analytical skills, and which are clearly part of al-Adhani’s pausing to explain the preceding text before he employs another stylistic element for later verses and explanations.

-Hashem Othman categorically denies that a book by the name al-Majmu’ exists among his community. He may be accurate in two senses: K. al-Majmu’ may have been specific to Shamali (Haydari) sect. Another way of looking at it is that Othman is seizing on the misidentification of the al-Dustour as al-Majmu’ and denying that it exists as a book. This sly rhetorical trick hides the likelihood that the 16 verses (al-Dustour) were never meant to be written down (except for one line, see Yaron Friedman, The Nusayri-‘Alawis, 2010, p. 216) and that it was supposed to be transmitted orally, hence it is indeed not a ‘book.’

-Maymun ibn al-Qasim al-Tabarani (d. 1034) hints that he authored the al-Dustour, or at least expanded upon earlier material. Joseph Qezzi (the writer and publisher writing under the pseudonyms ‘Abu Musa’ and ‘Sheikh Musa al-Tartousi’) asserts that al-Tabarani based it on Al-risala al-mafdheliyya but does not demonstrate how he reached that conclusion (Abu Musa and Sheikh Musa [al-Tartousi], Silselet al-turath al-‘alawi, Vol. 6, Diyar Aql (2006), p. 9)

-Qezzi then comes up with the claim that the Shamalis call al-Dustour by the name K. al-Majmu’ (Silselet al-turath al-‘alawi, Vol. 9, Diyar Aql (2008), p. 12) while the Kalazis (Qiblis) stick to the original name al-Dustour. I think this is just retroactive finessing because he had previously used the term K. al-Majmu’ to refer to the 16 verses since the publication of his 1988 book on the Nusayri-‘Alawites (p. 243-259). There is still no evidence anywhere for calling the 16 verses al-Majmu’ outside of Dussaud’s initial error.

-Tendler introduces us to MS Taymur 564 in her dissertation. This manuscript (transcribed in 1889) is titled/labeled Al-Majmu’ fi ‘aqa’id al-nusayriyyeh where it is stored. It contains the 16 verses and much more, including a portion that may or may not be fabricated. According to Tendler there is also a sizable overlap with al-Adhani’s Bakura. Her analysis (see citation above) demonstrates that there may have been a book (‘a compilation’) called K. al-Majmu’ that both Bakura and MS Taymur 564 borrowed from. Several years later she is still sticking to her analysis, see her contribution (now as Bella Tendler Krieger) ‘New Evidence for the Survival of Sexually Libertine Rites among some Nusayri-‘Alawis of the Nineteenth Century,’ to Sadeghi, Ahmed, Silverstein, Hoyland (eds.), Islamic Cultures, Islamic Contexts, Brill, 2015, p. 567, n. 8.

-A cursory look suggests that the verses, rites and palms that al-Adhani reveals are similar in tone, outlay and referencing to Kitab al-Mashyakha (published in Silselet al-turath al-‘alawi, Vol. 9, Diyar Aql (2008), p. 141-230). It may be useful to think of K. al-Majmu’ as an updated version of this manual, or even as a substitute for it among communities that had lost access to a copy of K. al-Mashyakha. This is indeed something for scholars to look into.

-Consequently, the ‘Prayer of Dissociation (al-Bara’a)’ (Tendler’s rendering) or the ‘Formula of Disburdening’ (Salisbury) or the less artful ‘Verse of Curses’ which seems closer to al-Adhani’s understanding of it, and which contains the reference to al-Maghribi, could very well be part of a compendium called al-Majmu’. Tendler gives us further analysis about the verse/psalm in her dissertation (pp. 170-77). She writes that this prayer is very important for the initiate into the faith—being the first prayer the student learns—“for with it he articulates his severance from his past life and from all of the false beliefs to which life was subject.” She does err in thinking that ‘Muhammad al-Maghribi’ refers to Ibn al-‘Arabi though (p. 171, n. 454). If later scribes added al-Dosouki then it stands to reason that they would add the nineteenth century al-Maghribi who was a bane to their community’s existence and deserving of damnation from their perspective. He certainly would loom large in their minds, and if they did mean Ibn al-‘Arabi then later scribes would have amended the name to that since that is how he is universally known, making it easier for the student to learn by rote.

Now clearly I did not dwell on all these points above when writing the footnote ten years ago. My interest at that instance was al-Maghribi, and I went by what I thought at the time, that all that al-Adhani revealed in his Bakura was from a book called al-Majmu’, which a footnote on page 8 in volume 1 of Qezzi’s book (which I cited in my monograph, and which al-Tamimi translated) told me was also known as al-Dustour (“Kitab al-Majmu’, which al-Adhani published, is called al-Dustour. And it was composed by Abu Sa’id al-Maymun bin al-Qasim al-Tabarani…”)

But as the exploration above shows I was still correct in referencing the curse against al-Maghribi to K. al-Majmu’. None of this of course changes my initial assertion: that the curse against al-Maghribi is one that matters to the Nusayri-‘Alawites, which in turn helps us to understand some of their history better.

UPDATE (May 24, 2020): al-Tamimi responds to my response at the bottom of his original post. Also, grammatical and spelling mistakes were cleaned up in the post above.


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