Ahmd Bin Alwan Glimpses and Legends [Archives:2002/02/Culture]

January 7 2002

Saad Sarif Taher
Nadira, Ibb
The name Ahmad Ibn Alwan has been dancing over tongues of millions of Yemenis for the last eight centuries. This man was treated as a legendary figure of superpowers that could defeat jennies and do extraordinary things; therefore a lot of legends and superstitions have been fabricated to prove that. Let me throw some light on this figure.
Ahmad Ibn Alwan was born and brought up in the thirteenth century AD in Taiz. His father was a registrar in the Rasolid Kings Court and was much liked by the Rasolids, as he was a literary man. So, Ahmad inherited wealth and did not need a job or to praise the king for money.
The environment in which Ibn Alwan lived witnessed a mixture of contrasts; trial conflicts in addition to the political struggle between Rasolid Sunni kings and Shiites in Saada. Ibn Alwan didnt adopt any sect. Culturally, Sunnis controlled the state while the Zaidids and Ismaelids Shiite ideology seemed to greatly influence intellectuals. Sufism hermitism changed to dervishism instead of spiritual descending. Referring to sufism Ibn Alwan mixed dervising and meditation. In his short poems he referred to political suppression which Sufis suffered from.
Sufis who lived in the era of Ibn Alwan like al-Bari in Wossab and Adel in Tihama were never described as superpowerful people who controlled jennies and demons like Ibn Alwan. Why? Because he deserted sufism and appeared as a defender of poor people by disclosing luxury of unjust rulers. He stood fiercely like a volcano against the rulers because he knew their reality, as he knew the sufferings of the ordinary people. Though historians like bin Dubeia and Sharji neglected his militancy and philosophy but others like al-Kjazraji and authors of the Sherifa Dehma and the Mesalik al-Akhbar wrote his biography.
Tales that narrated his superpower and wonders expressed peoples fears. Sometimes they were narrated to kill time. He was considered as a rescuer from unseen fears and/or a symbol of the coming goodness. So, people used to call on him in difficult times. For example, when one is kidnapped by a jennie he had to mention Ibn Alwans name to be set free, as people believed. People fabricated such stories about his wonderful powers. The following is one of those stories:
Ibn Alwans mother used to stay up at night gazing at stars during her pregnancy. Every night she saw a star with a hundred horns and twenty tails. She called it al-Bahoot. She imagined that it was blowing puffs of light in her womb. At the time of child-birth a torch of light came out with the baby. Its brightness pleased the midwife who said: Bahoot has come out of you, call the baby Ahmad. It was said that the child had merits of the prophets during their childhood.
After giving birth, the mother climbed the roof of the house to watch that star but she saw it different; the horns had been changed into fire bayonets and the tails had become horse ears. Such scene did no longer frighten her. She predicted that her son would be an important figure, as if there had been a secret dialogue between her and the stars. He was called Bahoot, as was thought, because it was the name of demons master and because of his power on jennies whom he could scare and change into insects.
Another tale says: During his childhood Ibn Alwan used to eat Thuafira; a tree that resisted coolness and warmth. It grew green during winter and in summer having smells of strong spices. People in middle Yemen used it with coffee to wipe the newly born babies faces with as an amulet.
Ibn Alwan first ate it in response to a voice round or inside it saying: Ahmad; eat this Thuafira. Ahmad was also believed to scare beasts whenever he wondered in the mountain routes.
A third tale which justified his power on genies says: When Ibn Alwan travelled in search of knowledge he reached the Sea of Darkness (the Arabian Sea) but didnt find a boat or anyone to guide him, so he sailed on a demons back to China and came back to Yemen in the same way.
Sociologists interpret asking the help of Ibn Alwan as a result of his fight against exploiters in his lifetime. After death he was considered a rescuer, one who continued his great struggle in life with mysterious powers.
A year later people started to visit his shrine seeking recovery and means of living. Certain people claimed that they were the custodians of the shrine. Others formed groups of self-cutters. They used swords and drums reciting: O sultan of sultans, sheikh of the region, Ahmad Ibn Alwan, you that have a date-palm at your door. Today your visitors are a hundred tribes. Then they stabbed their chests and throats miraculously without shedding blood in front of people. Another group of Alwanians had different practices such as counting stones of rosary with certain Alwanian recitals by which they could wipe out diseases and bring out hiding snakes in houses. A third group controlled jennies by Ibn Alwans order.
It was believed that if a group visited the shrine, Ahmad would gave them scriptures through the windows of the cage on his grave to teach them how to be able to control jennies or send them away. Sterilized Women touched the cage to get pregnant, be helped during giving birth, protect their kids from the evil eyes and/or to soften their husbands or lovers hearts.
Tales described Ibn Alwan with moony face, green clothes, green flash horse, and flammable sword with green fire. Greenness was a symbol of welfare, spring and life. That was Ibn Alwan whom people ignorantly feared, respected and glorified.