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  Book review

Visits and Customs: The Visit 
to the Tomb of the Prophet Hud

by Shaikh Abd al-Qadir Muhammad al-Sabban

Translated and edited by Linda Boxberger and ’Awad Abdelrahim Abu Hulayqa. American Institute for Yemeni Studies (PO Box 311, Ardmore PA 19003-0311, USA), 1998. Illus. Notes. Bibliog. Pb. $10. ISBN 1-882557-06-09.

Doreen and Harold Ingrams identify the Prophet Hud with Eber or Heber in Genesis. This, I assume, was done by comparing the genealogical tables in commentaries on the Qur’an with the Old Testament, and the eleventh Sura of the Qur’an carries his name. He is referred to as a prophet sent down to guide the race of ‘Ad, who were destroyed by a ‘roaring wind’ upon refusal to obey him. Although the ‘Adites are generally reckoned by scholars to have been a Southern Arabian people, the tomb of Hud in Hadhramaut (usually identified in Arabic literature with the land of ‘al-Ahqaf’ or the ‘winnowing sands’) has a number of rival sites as distant as Makkah and Damascus.

In ancient times, when Hadhramaut was a prosperous region due to the caravan trade between the East and West, an important suq or market fair was held there at an appropriate time to coincide with the arrival of these caravans, after the fashion of the suq of ’Okaz near Makkah, during which general peace was observed to facilitate commercial and social exchange. Scholars have found it difficult to determine precisely when this took place as no contemporary or sufficiently early references exist, but the timing of the present-day ziyara held during the lunar Islamic month of Sha’ban (also known locally as the month of Hud) is generally deemed to be a 10th Hijri century/15th century A.D. Sufi innovation started by Abdullah Abu Bakr al-’Aidrous, with the date for the ziyara being fixed by Shaikh Abu Bakr bin Salim. Its proceedings are brought to an end on the fifteenth of Sha’ban, the previous night of which is generally recognised in lands with strong Sufi traditions to be one of great merit, when people visit graves and pray for the souls of the departed. In Hadhramaut, a land well-known for its numerous awliya (lit. ‘Friends of God’), the fervour with which this event is observed and celebrated may best be imagined. The late Shaikh Abd al-Qadir al-Sabban’s efforts to preserve for posterity several aspects of Hadhrami history, heritage, culture and traditions, many of which are fast disappearing, have been known and appreciated, particularly amongst Hadhrami circles for a number of years. Thirty-six of his 58 studies and articles have been published so far, including the work under review.

In keeping with the author’s traditional academic background, he presents all that he was able to collect on the subject in what may best be described as the encyclopaedic manner, especially so in the two earlier sections in which he attempts to establish a precise location and an historical framework for the tomb; he finds, however, even the great Yemeni geographer al-Hamdani (died 333 H./945 A.D.) of little help, with the latter’s description of ‘red sand-dunes’ adding to the confusion. In this connection it gives me pleasure to acknowledge the help which I have received from Jim Ellis, the last Resident Adviser and British Agent in Hadhramaut, who spent several years on the fringes of the ‘Empty Quarter’. He considered it unlikely that the site had changed, but pointed out that although pale brown and light coloured sands could be found in Wadi Hadhramaut, the only places where ‘red sands’ were to be found were either well north of the present site and into the ‘Empty Quarter’, or in the equally distant Ramlat al-Sabatain.

Shaikh Abd al-Qadir reserves the third and ultimate section of his book for recording his personal observations and experiences of the ziyara. Despite the methodology of his presentation, which includes references to such names as Ibn ‘Abbas, Ibn Sa’ad, Ibn Katheer, Ibn Habeeb, al-Mas'udi, Yaqut, al-Qazweeni, al-Hamdan, al-Qalaqashandi and Ibn Battuta, the book could hardly be termed voluminous, given that so little has been written about this distant backwater of the world; any formal records seem not to have withstood the elemental or political ravages of time! Besides, most of what has come down is often of an imprecise and fantastic nature, recorded on the basis of hearsay and passed on from one generation of writers to another, located at distant centres of culture and learning.

The Arabic text merely occupies some forty-five pages of bold print with another nineteen pages allocated to notes, a bibliography, five photographs and a rare master-plan and cross section of the site drawn by J-E Breton and C. Darles in 1980. The accompanying translation into English by Linda Boxberger and ‘Awad Abu Hulayqa occupies another forty-four pages, with an additional translator’s introduction by the former, and they, too, richly deserve praise for the courage with which they have dedicated a part of their youth to scholarship associated with such a poorly known region of the world. It should be mentioned here that, perhaps in their effort to make their translation readable, they have occasionally taken liberties which reflect on the tone and even the meaning of the text and are therefore likely to offend the purist.

Any defects notwithstanding, this little book, which appears to be the only comprehensive study of its type, is worth its weight in gold and hats off to the American Institute for Yemeni Studies for making it available for the benefit of readers in Arabic and English.