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“In his book on the Moroccan city of Fez, ‘Fez: City of Islam’, Titus Burckhardt describes a meeting with an old craftsman who still followed the traditional ways. ‘I knew a comb-maker who worked in the street of his guild. He was called ‘Abd al-Aziz … He obtained the horn for his combs from ox skulls, which he bought from butchers. He dried the horned skulls at a rented place, removed the horns, opened them lengthwise and straightened them over a fire, a procedure that had to be done with the greatest care lest they should break. From this raw material he cut combs and turned boxes for antimony (used as an eye decoration) on a simple lathe … As he worked he chanted Quranic surahs in a humming tone.

‘I learned that, as a result of an eye disease which is common in Africa, he was already half-blind and that, in view of long practice, he was able to “feel” his work rather than see it. One day he complained to me that the importation of plastic combs was diminishing his business. “It is only a pity that today, solely on account of price, poor quality combs from a factory are preferred to much more durable horn combs,” he said, “it is also senseless that people should stand by a machine and mindlessly repeat the same movement, while an old craft like mine falls into oblivion.’

‘”My work may seem crude to you, but it harbours a subtle meaning which cannot be conveyed in words. I myself acquired it only after many long years and, even if I wanted to, I could not automatically pass it on to my son if he himself did not wish to acquire it — and I think he would rather take up another occupation. This craft can be traced back from apprentice to master until one reaches our Lord Seth, the son of Adam. It was he who first taught it to men, and what a Prophet brings – and Seth was a Prophet must clearly have a special purpose, both outwardly and inwardly. I gradually came to understand that there is nothing fortuitous about this craft, that each movement and each procedure is the bearer of an element of wisdom. Not everyone can understand this. But even if one does not know this, it is still stupid and reprehensible to rob men of the inheritance of Prophets and to put them in front of a machine where, day in and day our, they must perform a meaningless task”.’

The old comb-maker has said all that needs to be said, and those who do not understand him will never understand anything about the human situation or about the demand God makes upon us to sanctify our activities, something that we cannot do unless these activities are inherently capable of sanctification. To regret the passing of this old man and of others like him has nothing to do with sentimentality. It has to do with fear, the fear that once we have become quite useless — totally unsanctified and unsanctifiable — we shall be fit only for the bonfire which awaits the debris of a ruined world.’ ”

p. 211-2, Islam and the Destiny of Man, 1994.

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