Hair-Free, Sin-Free

A story of how one man resisted temptation and inspired generations of religious men to follow his path toward piety.

There was a story once told to me by Ibn Battuta, the great Moroccan traveler and contemporary of Marco Polo, as it was told to him by the learned men of Dimyat (modern: Damietta, Egypt) about a pious a man who by virtue of his resistance against female temptation earned himself a cult of devoted followers for many generations. They belonged to a sect of Islam called Qarandariyah, or Qalandariyya, and would shave their heads, beards, and eyebrows so that they would go totally hairless on their heads. This was done for the purpose of keeping women away from them so that they may stay pious and sin-free in the eyes of God.

               The man who started this sect was Shaikh Jamal al-Din al-Sawi, reputedly from Saveh, Iran in the 13th Century. He was known to be quite handsome and, so, a woman had fallen desperately in love with him. He repeatedly rejected her advances, but the woman would not give up.

               One day, the woman had her old maid lie in wait for him on the street he frequented on the way to his mosque. The old lady saw him and stopped him and asked him to read a certain letter from her son because, she claimed, she could not read. He obliged, being the kind, helpful, religious man he was and began reading the letter.

Arabian Courtyard

After the letter’s salutation was read, the old woman interrupted Jamal and said that the letter was apparently for her daughter-in-law, her son’s wife, not her. So, she asked if he would follow her to their home where he could read it aloud from their courtyard while the wife listened from a balcony. Again, he said yes, ever obliged to favor others.

               He followed the old woman to the home. Once inside the house’s courtyard, he was immediately shut in by locked gates.

               The woman who had so long longed for him thus revealed herself and demanded he make love to her. She said she would not let him go until he did so. Plus, it already looked indecent of him to have entered her home. He gave in and, again, obliged the request made of him asking only to use the wash room before they should begin. The woman’s servants then brought him some soap and washcloths and showed him to a room with a water basin in it.

               He closed the door and took this brief opportunity in private to utilize the blade he always carried with him. He rubbed up the soap and water all over his face and head, took the blade in his hand, and shaved off all the hair from his scalp to his chin. Now, hairless, eyebrowless, and beardless, Jamal returned to the woman.

               So perturbed was she by this jarringly unattractive look and by the extreme length he was willing to go to avoid being with her that she dismissed the man and let him go having want nothing more to do with him anymore.

               God—so pleased by this piety and devotion and wanting to show the world how to avoid temptation—made Jamal al-Din al-Sawi’s face permanently hairless for the rest of his life. As such was born the Qarandariyah, a sect of ascetic followers of Islam who shaved their heads, beards, and eyebrows and practiced asceticism free from sin.

Map of the City of Damietta on the Egyptian Coast
Map of the City of Damietta on the Egyptian Coast

Categories: Medieval

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