Re-examining the place of textuality in Islamic Studies

Intolerable Mystics: The Cases of al-Hallāj and Marguerite Porete

Sara Ameri

August 20, 2021

On Tuesday, 24 Dhu al-Qaʿda, 309 (922 CE), the people of Baghdad witnessed the public execution of Manṣūr al-Hallāj. He had been a well-known if controversial Sufi who had spent years travelling as far as Kashmir and Qocho, preaching and gathering people to his circle. After spending 8 years in the Abbasid prison for alleged claims to deification, he was finally sentenced to death, whipped, mutilated, and decapitated; his remains were burned, and his ashes were thrown into the Tigris.

Almost four centuries later, on June 1, 1310, a woman named Marguerite Porete was burned at the stake in Paris as a relapsed heretic. She was a beguine (a community of devout women who were not strictly attached to any religious order or institution), who had been found guilty of having written a book containing erroneous and heretical statements. At first her book was burned, and she was made to swear never to disseminate those ideas again. The verdict for her execution came when she started recirculating a new copy of her book.

The stories of these two mystics, although centuries and continents apart, hold surprising similarities in how socio-religious systems confront those located on the margins of established authority. By comparing the lives and works of two condemned ‘heretics’ in the Islamic and Christian traditions, we can obtain a better sense of how heresy was determined in these medieval states not purely based on theological unconventionality but a combination of multiple factors including political developments.

Figure 1: The Hanging of Mansur al-Hallaj from a poetry collection produced in Mughal India, 1011 AH/AD 1602, Baltimore, The Walters Art Museum W.650.22B.

The first connection between Ḥallāj and Marguerite Porete is seen in their textual legacies. Even a cursory reading of Ḥallāj’s best known treatise, al-Tawāsīn, and Marguerite’s only known work, The Mirror of Simple Souls reveals remarkable parallels. On a formal level, both texts are heavily rhymed and employ a dialogic format to convey some of their most complex ideas. Additionally, several mystical concepts such as the insufficiency of reason to capture the essence of mystical love find similar articulation in both texts. A more unique literary feature shared by the two texts is the use of courtly love imagery. Ḥallāj draws on the traditional Islamic poetic figure of the love-sick Majnūn to convey the nature of mystical ʿishq. Marguerite Porete also employs the well-known motif of the enamored knight and his lady found in medieval European romances in expressing the relationship between the lover and the divine beloved. By fusing literature and theology and blurring the boundaries between sacred and secular manifestations of love, Ḥallāj and Marguerite entered the realm of the dangerously undefinable.

In addition to texts composed by Ḥallāj and Marguerite Porete, surviving historical documents on how they each came under suspicion, inquisition, and condemnation also reveal curious patterns. In the case of Ḥallāj, accounts of his trial speak of confiscated notebooks and letters found in his and his disciples’ houses in which he claims that if one cannot undertake the duty of hajjdue to poverty, old age. etc, “he may make up for it by deciding to set aside a room in his house in which to make a mihrāb, to purify himself, to put on the ihrām, to say this, to do that, to pray such and such a prayer [… and] when all of that was carried out, this man was freed of making the pilgrimage to the Bayt al-Harām” (Massignon, 547). This along with some of his other utterances that bore traces of incarnationism (ḥulūl) were drawn up by the Abbasid vizir, Ḥāmid ibn al-ʿAbbas, to move the judges of the court of Baghdad to announce Ḥallāj as ḥalāl al-dam.

 Marguerite’s critique of liturgy similarly occasioned condemnation by the theologians’ commission in Paris. In the Mirror, she famously “takes leave of the virtues” (Porete, 16) and claims that the annihilated soul “neither desires nor despises poverty nor tribulation, neither mass nor sermon, neither fast nor prayer, and gives to Nature all that is necessary, without remorse of conscience” (Stauffer, 57). These utterances form the articles later drawn up by the inquisition to prove Marguerite’s heresy. Thus, for both Ḥallāj and Marguerite Porete, the formal—and to some extent, legal—process of trial rested not so much on doctrinal fallacies but rather, their attempted modifications to rituals of worship in Islamic and Christian practice.

The explicit justifications provided for the charge of heresy, however, only tell part of the story. Once we look more closely at the official documents pertaining to the trials of both Ḥallāj and Marguerite Porete, another significant element emerges—the political authorities’ fear of the public dissemination of their ideas. An account written by Ibn Zanjī, the court clerk, reports that “In the letters to disciples sent forth to preach in the provinces, he [Ḥallāj] indicates to them how to attract listeners to him and what instructions to give them for bringing them, step by step, to the ultimate point of his doctrine” (Massignon, 511). Marguerite Porete’s sentence also records how her inquisitor “found that the said Marguerite, after the condemnation of this book, has communicated the said book, one similar to it containing the same errors […] not only to the said lord but to many other simple people” [my emphasis] (Field, 225).

Both Ḥallāj and Marguerite, therefore, insisted on sharing their views and visions with the common people instead of confining them to the learned circles of mystics. Ḥallāj achieved this by travelling and street preaching, and Marguerite by writing in vernacular French instead of the accepted, and exclusive Latin. That these democratic gestures were perhaps more significant in their condemnation than the actual content of their texts is suggested by several factors. Firstly, the ideas they each voiced were not unusual in the context of the respective mystical discourses to which they belonged and from which they were drawing. Ḥallāj clearly claims in his defense that he took the concept of the replacement of hajj from “Kitāb al-Ikhlās of Hasan Basrī,” (Massignon, 546). His thought on divine unification also resonates strongly with Bāyazīd Bastāmī, one of the most respected masters of Sufism (See Keeler’s “Abū Yazīd al-Bisṭāmī and Discussions about Intoxicated Sufism”). Similarly, recent scholarship on Marguerite Porete has shown her affinity with well-established authorities in Christian mysticism such as Bernard of Clairvaux and the Victorine school.

Figure 2: “Dialogue of Soul and Reason” from a Middle French manuscript of Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls, c. 1500. Chantilly, Musée Condé ms. F xiv 26 (catalogue #157), f.38.

The second clue as to the real cause of Ḥallāj and Marguerite’s condemnation lies in the fact that neither figure was executed upon their original trial. Ḥallāj spends years in prison, his condition ebbing and flowing according to the political struggles outside his cell between different faction of the Abbasid Caliphate. It is during these years that Ḥallāj completes his Tawāsīn while riots are breaking out in Baghdad accusing the government of “leading Islam into dishonor and ruin” (Massignon, 31). In fact, the order for the execution of Ḥallāj is finally issued at the height of the state’s struggle to maintain its power. Similarly, Marguerite Porete is only given a warning in her first trial. Even when she is arrested again, she spends 18 months in prison while her inquisitor attempts to convince her to swear an oath to truth which will allow the trial to begin, which Marguerite persistently refuses. By the time her final sentence is issued in 1310, Marguerite was not the first person—nor the last—to be caught in the escalating crossfire between the French king and the Pope over control of Western Christianity.

Thus, we can see how the execution of these two mystics was perhaps not so much due to what they said—although one can certainly see the unconventionality of their thoughts—but rather the position from which they said it. They were both situated in the gaps between religious sects and orders and so lacked the vital support of established authority; Ḥallāj was trained in the Sunni tradition but had intellectual and familial ties to the Shi’i denomination, and Marguerite belonged to the self-governing congregation of beguines. Moreover, their growing influence among the people and stubborn refusal to recant inevitably placed them at odds with governments whose claims to legitimacy rested almost entirely upon religious purview. In other words, by not playing by the rules of governing authorities, Ḥallāj and Marguerite moved beyond the control of the state while their public reach gave them a power over the laity that could not be tolerated during the political turmoil of 10th-century Abbasid Baghdad and 14th-century Capetian Paris.

The cases of Ḥallāj and Marguerite Porete illustrate how heresy in a religious system can be determined as much by socio-political events as by abstract ideas. Understanding these interconnected elements requires a multidimensional approach to textual and historical documents that considers both the differences in time and place as well as common strands in the discourses of religious heterodoxy.

Bibliography

Field, Sean L. The Beguine, the Angel, and the Inquisitor: The Trials of Marguerite Porete and Guiard of Cressonessart. University of Notre Dame Press, 2012.

Ḥallāj, al-Ḥusayn ibn Manṣūr. Al-Ṭawāsīn. Edited by Riḍwān Saḥḥ, Dār al-Farqad, 2010.

Mason, Herbert. Al-Ḥallāj. Curzon Press, 1995.

Keeler, Annabel. “Abū Yazīd al-Bisṭāmī and Discussions about Intoxicated Sufism.” Routledge Handbook on Sufism. Edited by Lloyd Ridgeon, Routledge, 2021.

Massignon, Louis. The Passion of Al-Ḥallāj: Mystic and Martyr of Islam. Vol. 1: Life of al-Ḥallāj. Translated by Herbert Mason, Princeton University Press, 1982.

Porete, Marguerite. The Mirror of Simple Souls. Translated by Edmund Colledge et al., University of Notre Dame Press, 1999.

Stauffer, Robert, and Wendy R. Terry, editors. A Companion to Marguerite Porete and The Mirror of Simple Souls. Brill, 2017.

Sara Ameri

Sara Ameri is a PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto, Department of English. Her research focuses on the medieval plague and its function and representation in late medieval devotional writings. She is also a research assistant in the Old Books New Science and Reading Muslims projects at the University of Toronto, with interest in the global Middle Ages and critical theory.

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