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Cairo's Historic Cemetery of al-Suyuti Conflicting Claims.

SAYYIDI MUHAMMAD HASAN 'ABATA

Modern shrine over the grave of a local wali and Rifa’isufi who died around the mid 20th C. Grandson the current caretaker. Annual mawlid on 15 June recently cancelled as were weekly hadras (sufi sessions) on Wednesdays. Wife buried next to him, also a religious figure, but less important. Still visited, mostly on Friday afternoons, and can be considered to equal al-Barizi (see below) as the cemetery’s 2nd most important shrine after Suyuti.

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Identification

Shaykh Hasan ‘Abata was a poor tea-seller from Bulaq Abu’l-‘Ila who died in 1939. He is buried in this shrine along with his father-in-law, tramway driver Ibrahim Rayhan, wife Zaynab, and son Hashim ‘Abata.

 

Myth and Ritual

The stories told of ‘Abata are all the more incredible when one remembers they happened in the 20th century and were told by none other than his grandson.

The moment when Muhammad Hasan (d. 1939 or 1941) acquired the name ‘Abata (literally idiocy) marks the occasion of his rise from being a poor tea-seller with Sufi leanings to the area’s most recent and most popular saint. Muhammad Hasan had been a member of the Rifa’i order, a lover of the shrines of ahl al-bayt, especially al-Sayyida Zaynab and Sayyiduna al-Husayn, and a follower of a contemporary of his, Shaykh Ibrahim Rayhan.

Shaykh Ibrahim Rayhan (who bears no relationship to the Shaykh Rayhan in the Sudun – Sawabi enclosure) was a tram driver known for his piety and esoteric powers. His particular karama was related to his profession; he could make his tram car move or stop simply by ordering it to do so. According to the caretaker of the shrine and the grandson of ‘Abata, if he said, “Move blessed one”, it would move or,” Stop blessed one”, it would stop (imshi ya mabruka, timshi – uqafi ya mabruka tuqaf). Rayhan’s grave is the oldest, and it is the inspiration for the other name of this shrine, Darih al-Trummay (the Tramway Shrine).  Muhammad Hasan married Zaynab the daughter of Rayhan, and they lived in Bulaq Abu’l-‘Ila.

Zaynab gave Hasan 15 milliemes (3 ta’rifas) and asked him to buy some mulukhiyya (a leafy vegetable used to make a popular Egyptian soup). He disappeared for three years and came back with the money and the fresh mulukhiyya. When she saw him she shouted at him, “You idiot” (ya ‘abit) and that is when he came to be known as ‘Abata. The karama is that this was not the mulukhiyya season; the inference being that he had come back from some esoteric parallel universe where time for him had stood still.

‘Abata’s rise in stature as a wali started from then on. He started on the path of da’wa targeting a house of ill-repute in the neighbourhood of al-Azbakiyya. He would walk its streets at dawn and call for prayer (al-salah ya mu’minin – al-salah). Then he would sit outside the house and strike the women leaving it ordering them to repent. If they did, he would introduce them to the Rifa’iyya tariqa and marry them to one of its members. He kept this up until the owner of the brothel herself repented, and the house shut down. His mission, as he saw it, was to take people out of the fire (hell) into the light (yijibu min al-nar, yihuttu fi’l-nur). According to Sayyid ‘Abata, his grandson, Shaykh ‘Abata kept copies in his home of all the certificates of the marriages he brokered. These certificates were sought after as keepsakes by ‘Abata’s followers, and they all disappeared from the shrine.

‘Abata was a revered figure in the neighbourhood of al-Imam al-Shafi’i, and the power he wielded there aggravated its mayor (‘umda) into conspiring to ruin his reputation. He asked his wife to lure him into their home and entice him into taking off his pants, then call out claiming he was attacking her. She succeeded in doing so, and when neighbours responded to her cries, she turned around and he had vanished.  They then saw him walking down the bottom of the street with all his clothes on. The woman is said to have died of mortification within the year.

His first posthumous karama happened during his funerary procession, which was an extremely popular affair complete with ululating women. The coffin is said to have flown from the shrine of al-Sayyida Nafisa to al-Sayyida ‘Aisha to al-Husayn then landed in its burial spot of choice next to where Shaykh Ibrahim Rayhan has been buried, where the shrine is today. This seemingly implausible story is not uncommon in Egyptian folklore. In fact, the coffin of an even more recent wali, the 4 year old Ashraf al-Husayni who died in 1970 and is buried at the foot of al-Muqattam, is also said to have flown to Cairo’s shrines before landing where he should be buried. Even ‘Abata’s son, Hashim, is said to have forced his funerary procession to visit al-Rifa’i Mosque in Maydan al-Qal’a before allowing head back to this cemetery where he was buried next to his father and grandfather.

This is the Suyuti cemetery’s most frequented shrine. It is particularly popular with Rifa’is and the preferred ziyara day is Friday. A weekly dhikr session used to be held there every Wednesday. Sufis would sit in two rows opposite each other to recite from the hizb (a collection of religious evocations), then stand for dhikr and then sit again. The session would end with the charitable distribution of food. According to de Jong, these sessions were extremely popular in the 1970s, when Sufis used implements consisting of spikey balls on chains (called dabbus) to pierce their bodies. The fact that they suffered no injury was proof of the wali’s powers. This practice was later abandoned by order of the Supreme Council of Sufi Orders.

The annual mawlid, which used to be held on the 15th of June, has also been discontinued. This was a popular event that attracted villagers from outside Cairo who would set up their tents in the neighbourhood. Hadra sessions were held accompanied by music and religious singing (inshad). A small makeshift fair with swings and games would be set up, and special rituals, such as circumbulating the shrine with a tray of candles and henna were popular, accompanied with the ululations of women.

There are two conflicting accounts of the reason why the mawlid was discontinued.  The caretaker claims that his grandfather came to him in a dream vision and ordered him to stop holding it. The people of the neighbourhood recount a more prosaic story where it was prohibited by the police after incidents of sexual molestation were reported.

Now a minor celebration takes place in conjunction with the Sayyida ‘A’isha mawlid, when some lights are hung on the shrine.

 

Description

‘Abata has another shrine in the village of al-‘Atamna in Manfalut, Asyut. The main shrine, however, that marks the graves of his father in-law, ‘Abata himself, his wife, who died in the 1950s and their son Hashim (d. 1983), is in the cemetery of Sayyidi Jalal in the vicinity of the mausoleum of Badr al-Qarafi.

A sign above the door refers to the latest remodeling of this shrine, ordered by Hashim. The façade is clad with rusticated stone (fara’uni) and a green metal door leads into the shrine. Three signs above the door refer to Ibrahim Rayhan, ‘Abata and Hashim. The interior has a domed canopy with ‘Abata’s cenotaph. This canopy must have been an earlier structure around which the current walls and roof were built. The walls of the canopy are also clad in stone, and the dome is green as are the interior walls which are decorated with rough but colourful trompe l’oeuil patterns meant to emulate a marble dado with calligraphic roundels. The interior of the dome is also painted in radiating rays of primary colours. Two other cenotaphs are to be found in the room. All the cenotaphs are draped with green cloth, with a turban for ‘Abata and Rayhan and a veil for Zaynab. A box for votive offerings is also placed within the canopy as is a document authenticating Zaynab’s status as a descendant of the prophet and a pencil drawing of ‘Abata with his distinctive long-hair and kohl-rimmed eyes. 

 

Bibliography

Al-Jawharí, Muhammad, et. al., Dirasat fi`ilm al-fulklur (Alexandria, 1992).

De Jong, F., “Cairene Ziyara Days; A Contribution to the Study of Saint Veneration in Islam”, Die Welt des Islams Vol. XVII (1976-7),  pp. 27-44.

Jestice, P. (ed.), Holy People of the World: a Cross-Cultural Encyclopedia, (Santa Barbara, 2004).

Hoffman, V., Sufism, Mystics and Saints in Modern Egypt (University of South Carolina Press, 1995)