O Monarch of the Heart

In yesterday’s post I introduced the theme of late medieval and early modern devotion to Muhammad, a ‘movement’ within Islam that became dominant and widespread by the end of the middle ages, especially flourishing in the early modern period. The texts of this devotion were not only written in Arabic: rather, devotion to Muhammad was often expressed in vernaculars. The following translated poem, by an Ottoman sufi şeyh and saint, Muhammed Nasûhî Üsküdarî (d. 1718), is a part of a larger collection of poetry of praise and supplication directed towards Muhammad, written in Ottoman Turkish. It is a good example of this genre of poetic composition, which was common across the Ottoman world and beyond, expressing theological concepts as well as emotional bonding between the poet and his object, Muhammad. I have included footnotes at points to clarify certain references that would have been relatively obvious to a contemporary reader or listener but might not be to my readers here.

Iznik Flower Panel

You are the cure of my sickness, yâ Muhammed Mustafa!
You are the sovereign of my heart, yâ Muhammed Mustafa!

Who am I that I dare to praise you, o monarch of the heart?
You are the light of the moon of Yâ-sin [1] yâ Muhammed Mustafa!

You hold sway over the inner secret of this habitation below, o mirror of the True!
You are the monarch of the throne of If you had not been [2], yâ Muhammed Mustafa!

Without sign, without place, in your inner secret I beheld your essence.
You are the spirits of the passionate lovers, yâ Muhammed Mustafa!

To the crooked-statured, sin-bearing Nasûhî [3] give
Help—you are a remedy, yâ Muhammed Mustafa!

Üsküdarlı Muhammed Nasûhî, [‘Poem 6’], in Üsküdarlı Muhammed Nasûhî ve Dîvânçe-i İlâhiyat’ı, ed. Mustafa Tatcı (Üsküdar, İstanbul: Kaknüs Yayınları, 2004), 166-167.

[1] A reference to the 36th surāh of the Qur’an, Surāh Yā’-Sīn, sometimes referred to as ‘the heart of the Qur’an.’

[2] An allusion to a hadith qudsi– a hadith said to convey God’s speech, though not as part of the Qu’ran- in which God says to Muhammad words to the effect of ‘If you not been I would not have created the universe.’

[3] Including one’s name in the penultimate line is an Ottoman convention, carried over from Persian poetic convention.

Devotion to Muhammad in Medieval and Early Modern Islam: An Introduction

Hilye triptych
A three-panel Ottoman ḥilye-i şerîf-  a description of Muhammad’s physical attributes, or ‘verbal icon’- by Ḥafîẓ Osmân Efendî (d. 1698). Note the miniature depiction of Mecca in the top panel. Special Collections Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Isl. Ms. 238.

There are a number of aspects of medieval and early modern Islam (and contemporary living Islam too, for that matter) that tend to surprise, even shock, many modern-day observers, especially non-Muslims who nonetheless have some degree of knowledge about the ‘basics’ of Islam. Because of the wide-spread and often quite profound changes that have transformed Islam in many places throughout the world over the last century and a half or so, there is a great deal in pre-modern ‘mainstream’ Islam that many contemporary Muslims might find odd, unexpected, or even heretical. One such source of surprise and even shock is the history of the image and meaning of Muhammad in Islamic theologies and devotional practices. If, like me, in your initial exposure to Islam you learned that Muslims—throughout time, perhaps?—viewed Muhammad as ‘only’ a prophet, and no more, then Islamic theology that talks about the Muhammadan light, the cosmic role of Muhammad within God’s creative plan, and the intercessory power of the Prophet, and so on, must all sound quite strange and even ‘un-Islamic.’ Indeed, I remember thinking, as I delved into the vastness of ‘Muhammadology,’ that much of the theology I was discovering bore a marked resemblance to Christology, in particular to Logos theology, in Christianity.

Yet far from being aberrant or peripheral, the theological ‘elevation’ of Muhammad that took place in the course of the Islamic medieval period was a transformation that occurred and impacted Islam across the board. It was not just a ‘Sufi’ thing or a matter of ‘popular’ religion. Devotion to Muhammad, alongside theological renderings of the ‘cosmic Muhammad,’ coursed through the very veins of Islam from the middle ages into early modernity and beyond. The person and role of the Prophet Continue reading “Devotion to Muhammad in Medieval and Early Modern Islam: An Introduction”

An Ottoman Book Binding by Way of Tabriz

Binding of a copy of the Bustan of Sa‘di MSS 712
Binding of a copy of the Bustan of Sa‘di, Khalili Collections, MSS 712. Istanbul, Ottoman Empire (likely), 1530–1540. (Papier-mâché boards, painted and varnished; with paper doublures; 24.7 x 16.5cm (covers, each); 24.7 x 11cm (flap and fore-edge)

This spectacular example of book binding was probably produced in the workshops of the Topkapı Palace by artisans from Tabriz (modern-day Iran, at the time part of the Safavid Empire, though periodically contested by the Ottomans). As such it is a good demonstration of the interconnection between the Persianate world and that of the Ottomans, especially in the 16th century (Persian influence and connections would decline somewhat in the coming centuries). This cover protects a copy, executed in Tabriz in 1530, of one of the great works of Persian poetic literature, Sa’di’s Bustan (‘Garden’), which, along with other works of Persian poetry, would have a long-lasting influence on the production of Ottoman Turkish poetry. The artwork, with its intricate interlacing tendrils, delicately rendered foliage and single creature at the center, is redolent of the Persian world, and would have been immediately recognized as such by whatever connoisseurs of art would have had access to the finished product, probably in the Topkapı itself.


The Thought of Fishing

As noted in a previous post, the Ottoman majdhūb/meczûb (the first is the Arabic rendering, the second the same term but in Ottoman Turkish)- the divinely drawn saint or holy madman- was often involved in the details of everyday life, such as the smoking of tobacco. In the following story, which comes from a compilation of meczûb lives in a sprawling 17th work of hagiography by Mehmed Nazmî EfendiHediyyetü’l-ihvân, we see one of these holy madmen miraculously discern the wandering thoughts of the imam in the greatest mosque of Ottoman Istanbul.

A view of the courtyard of the Süleymâniye Mosque, the setting of the following story

‘And there was one, Hızır Aşak, who was from among the great (ulular) of the meczûb. He was a powerful meczûp capable of unveiling inner secrets. It is related that the imam of the Süleymâniye Mosque, Süleymân Efendi—who was later dismissed and sent into retirement—was one day leading the noon prayers, when the thought came to him: “After completing the salât, I’ll go to Hisar [on the Bosporus] and go fishing.’ Just as this thought was occurring to him, Hızır Aşak came to the mosque, and, as was his custom, cried out “Hû!” [i.e. ‘He,’ meaning God, a common sufi form of zikr] and said, “Süleymân Çelebi! You are here, your mind ought not be off fishing in Hisar. There is no prayer without presence of heart. Lead these men in prayer a second time.” Having said this he left the mosque. Süleymân Çelebi related thus: “This unveiling of the mad one brought about divine fear and embarrassment before the people in me. For a little while I passed out! Coming to, I properly completed the prayers.”’

Mehmed Nazmî Efendi, Hediyyetü’l-ihvân

Sense Can Come Only From the Sacred

‘The omnipresent Nietzschean or Sartrean chimera which proclaims that man can liberate himself totally, from everything, can free himself of tradition and of all pre-existing sense, and that all sense can be decreed by arbitrary whim, far from unfurling before us the prospect of divine self-creation, leaves us suspended in darkness. And in this darkness, where all things are equally good, all things are also equally indifferent. Once I believe that I am the all-powerful creator of all possible sense, I also believe that I have no reason to create anything whatsoever. But this is a belief that cannot be accepted in good faith and can only give rise to a desperate flight from nothingness to nothingness.

‘To be totally free with respect to sense, free of all pressure from tradition, is to situate oneself in a void and thus, quite simply, to disintegrate. And sense can come only from the sacred; it cannot be produced by empirical research. The utopia of man’s autonomy and the hope of unlimited perfection may be the most efficient instruments of suicide ever to have been invented by human culture.’


« La chimère nietzschéenne ou sartrienne, tellement répandue parmi nous, selon laquelle l’homme peut se libérer totalement, se libérer de tout – de toute la tradition et de tout sens préexistant– et qui proclame que tout sens se laisse décréter selon une volonté ou un caprice arbitraires, cette chimère, loin d’ouvrir à l’homme la perspective de l’autoconstitution divine, le suspend dans la nuit. Or dans cette nuit où tout est également bon, tout est, aussi bien, également indifférent. Croire que je suis le créateur tout-puissant de tout sens possible, c’est croire que je n’ai aucune raison pour créer quoi que ce soit. Mais c’est une croyance qui ne se laisse pas admettre de bonne foi, et qui ne peut que produire une fuite enragée du néant vers le néant.

« Être totalement libre à l’égard du sens, être libre de toute pression de la tradition, c’est se situer dans le vide, donc éclater tout simplement. Et le sens ne vient que du sacré, parce qu’aucune recherche empirique ne peut le produire. L’utopie de l’autonomie parfaite de l’homme et l’espoir de la perfectibilité illimitée sont peut-être les outils de suicide les plus efficaces que la culture humaine ait inventés. »

Leszek Kolakowski, ‘La revanche du sacré dans la culture profane,’ translated by Agnieszka Kolakowska, in Le besoin religieux, 1973

Tobacco and the Syrian Majdhūb

One of the great transformations that Ottoman society- and many other societies across the world- underwent in the course of the early modern period was the introduction of new (to most markets at least) ‘social’ commodities such as coffee, tobacco, tea, and sugar. Driven by new technologies of transportation, by the European discovery and colonization of the Americas, and by changing dynamics of personal wealth and consumption patterns, across the world people’s lives began to be shaped by the use of coffee and tobacco, both substances with addictive properties, and which lend themselves to use in social, often public, contexts (I am writing this from a coffeehouse, for instance- a direct descendant of these early modern transformations!). In the Ottoman world, as in many other places, both tobacco and coffee stirred up controversy, tobacco most of all.

Yet despite strenuous objections, including sultanic attempts to prohibit smoking, tobacco use flourished in the Ottoman lands, and soon permeated society and culture at many levels. The following anecdote, which dates from the early part of the 18th century and is set in Damascus, illustrates this permeation, which reached even to the karamāt (miracles or signs of sanctity) of Muslim saints, in particular, it seems, the majādhīb, the divinely drawn ones, whom I have introduced elsewhere and who will continue to appear in these digital pages. In this story we see both the continued ambiguity surrounding tobacco, as well as the possibility for its use by a saint, and even being miraculously transformed through the saint’s baraka (divine grace or power).


Shaykh Muṣtafā related to me [Muṣtafī al-Bakrī], saying: ‘I came to visit you once but didn’t find you at home. [Aḥmad the majdhūb] was sitting in front of the iwān, so I greeted him. He said to me: “You only come to visit Ibn al-Bakrī, you never come to visit me, not even once!” I replied, “Your place is exalted and I am weak!” So he said to me, “Come out to my khalwa, I’ll host you!” I wasn’t able to oppose him in that, so I went with him, fearing that the smell of tobacco would harm me due to the closeness of his khalwa. He set to with his pipe, talking with it [in his mouth], but I did not smell the scent of the tobacco nor did anything of it come to my face—and I knew that this was a mark of sanctity (karāma) of his!’

Muṣṭafā al-Bakrī, al-Bayān al-ghanī ʻan al-tahdhīb fī suná aḥwāl al-majādhīb (Cairo: Dārat al-Karaz, 2011), 75.

Pious Graffiti at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: Pilgrims’ Prayers and Traces of the Self

A Visual Essay

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, as any pilgrim or tourist visiting it quickly discovers, is a massive, maze-like structure, or, really, assemblage of structures, including the Tomb of Christ and of Golgotha but also numerous other chapels, rooms, and other elements. Somewhat closer investigation starts to reveal the multiple layers of construction and use, going all the way back the first century AD (and probably further, since the Tomb was located in the side of an already old quarry outside of the Herodian walls of the city). While the names of prominent men and women are often attached to these various architectural layers, beginning with Constantine and his mother Helena, the traces of far humbler pilgrims to the great church are also visible, if one knows where to look. Yet, as I observed on my visits to the church earlier this year, the steady streams of pilgrims and tourists, clergy and tour guides, pass right by these fascinating reminders of the centuries of pious visitors who have traveled- often over great distances and in difficult circumstances- to venerate the empty Tomb of Christ.

The largely Crusader-era main entrance to the church, with entrance and front facade giving little indication of the size of the church’s sprawling interior. The pious graffiti is most abundant around the doors near the center of the picture.

Covering the columned framing of the great doors to the main entrance to the church are perhaps hundreds of instances of ‘pious graffiti’- prayers, names, dates, and short texts carved into the stone by pilgrims. Deeper inside the church, in a stairwell leading down to the Chapel of St. Helena, sunk within the living rock, are hundreds of neatly carved crosses left by Crusaders, also as pious graffiti marking and memorializing their pilgrimage. While in the modern world such defacement is looked down on and even seen as criminal, Continue reading “Pious Graffiti at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: Pilgrims’ Prayers and Traces of the Self”