Encountering and Using the Written Word in Early Modern Cairo

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The opening page from a 17th century Ottoman copy of the medieval Qur’an commentary of al-Baghawī (d. c. 1117), with owner marks visible in the right margin (University of Michigan, Special Collections Library, Isl. Ms. 4)

We in the early twenty-first century (particularly, I imagine, anyone who happens to be reading this post) inhabit a world of pervasive textuality. From waking to bed we are deluged with words, on screens (mostly, probably), on paper pages of books, on forms, on signs, on packaging, in short- everywhere. If images, still and moving, are also pervasive and in some ways just as or even more dominant than text, still, printed text (even if mostly in digital form) is everywhere and unavoidable. As such we tend to not reflect very much on either the presence of so much text in our lives or on the modes of our engagement with it, texts are simply there. But of course our world of textuality is not simply a natural fact but is the result of cultural, social, and economic processes leading to certain technologies, skills, habits, and contexts. As such, thinking about the role of texts and their many contexts in past worlds, particularly those quite different (but not radically different) from our own is helpful for understanding both the past and our own present, and has occupied various thinkers for quite a long time now (going back really to Plato if not before). Towards that venerable goal of analysis today I’ve selected a particularly insightful little passage from the biography of an early modern North African scholar named Abū al-‘Abbās Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad al-Maqrī (d. 1041/1631) which charts, inadvertently of course, many of the possible contours of texts and their contexts in the early modern Ottoman world. Here is the passage, translated, followed by my commentary:

When he entered Cairo before becoming well-known, he was present one day in the book market (sūq al-kutub) and he found a curious (gharīb) Qur’an commentary (tafsīr) which he opened and landed in [the discussion of] Sūrah al-Nūr, in which the exegete discussed a question of fiqh which he proceeded to speak about at length, and the subject of this biographical entry memorized the entire passage—and in a marvelous congruity not long after that, the ‘ulama of the land came together for supplication (da’wah) and he was present with them. Once they were settled into their session (majlis) a petitioner came with a slip of paper (biṭāqah) in his hand asking about the very issue that the subject of this biographical entry had memorized from that Qur’an commentary. It was passed to the first person among the people of the session, but he looked at it as if he were unable to call upon anything in his mind regarding it, so he passed it on to the next person, and so it was passed on and on, until it reached the subject of this entry. When he looked at it he called for an inkwell and wrote the answer as he had memorized it—and all those presents looked at it with amazement. When they had finished perusing [his answer], they asked, ‘Who said this?’ He replied to them, ‘So-and-son in the exegesis on Sūrah al-Nūr,’ and when the Qur’an commentary was brought it was exactly as he had said.

This little story is a lovely snapshot of the many ways texts worked together in various media and matrices: Abū al-‘Abbās is seen browsing the book market, which suggests that then as now browsing books without necessarily looking to buy them was not uncommon; the book market here functions in a way akin to a library, since he spends at least some time actually reading the Qur’an commentary in question and using an unspecified amount of time to memorize particular contents he found striking. The primary point of the anecdote is Abū al-‘Abbās’ prodigious ability to memorize things, to be sure, but still we can imagine that some time is being expended (and the tone of the story does not convey that this feat is somehow miraculous or totally unheard of, simply a taking to an extreme a culturally valuable and cultivated skill).

There are several distinct movements and contexts related to the given text at work here: the production of the original Qur’an commentary, its being copied and turned into a commercial object, Abū ‘Abbās’ browsing and encountering the text, then his experience and conceptualization and reproduction of, not the entire text, but a discrete section, devoted to a particular question of fiqh, the details of which we are not told but which presumably was of ongoing contemporary interest (which would help to explain why Abū ‘Abbās memorized it as well as why a supplicant came with a question specific to that issue). So we have a movement from author to manuscript (via engagement with the written and memorized text of the Qur’an), to (probably) copy by a professional copyist, to book market, to selective reader, then to memory. In the scholars’ session—which if I am interpreting things correctly was meant for ‘regular’ people to bring questions of fiqh to a council of learned experts, a sort of early modern AMA forum—we see another form of textuality, the ‘slip’ of paper (biṭāqah), a word with a long bureaucratic pedigree, predating Islam in fact. The writer of the slip has inadvertently chanced upon the very topic of the first text, but then there is a problem: no one else in the session had encountered the clarifying text, or, if any of them had, they did not remember it. When it reaches Abū al-‘Abbās his reaction is striking: he calls for an inkwell and then writes out his memorized text, when we might expect simply an oral response. While it is not exactly specified the substrate for his writing must surely be that slip of paper, with the implication that the supplicant/questioner would take it back home for his personal archive or other uses (and since it is fiqh we can imagine a practical use here akin to a fatwa and not simply curious interest). So we have more textual movements: an unrelated (on the surface at least) impromptu text which is visually reviewed by the members of the assembly, which, once it is encountered by Abū al-‘Abbās, registers with the memorized commentary passage and precipitates now a written reproduction of the randomly encountered text. His oral explanation of the text, after it has been successively read (and we get a sense that the paper is passed around, not read out loud), leads to the physical manuscript of the commentary being produced and read publicly (or silently perused one by one? the text is unclear). Finally, this incident gives rise to a sort of ‘social text’ of Abū al-‘Abbās’ prestige in Cairo thanks to his memory and powers of recall and correlation. Continue reading “Encountering and Using the Written Word in Early Modern Cairo”

Sīdī Aḥmad Takes Minimalism to a Whole Other Level

Interior view of the Miṣbāḥiyya Madrasa in Fez, Morocco, taken by me in 2008; the madrasa- the saint in the below biographical compilation entry’s ‘home base’- was built in 1346 and could accommodate some 140 residents.

The subject of this entry [Abū al-‘Abbās Sīdī Aḥmad al-Būs’īdī al-Hashtūkī, d. 1046/1636] was exceptional in his age in asceticism and piety, only wearing of the clothing of this world the very least necessary to humans, to the point that he had no more than one garment, and if he wanted to wash it he would go out to Wādī al-Zaytūn [a former watercourse on the north end of Fez] and tear his garment into two halves. He would wrap himself in one half and occupy himself with washing the other half; once it had dried he would wrap himself with it, then wash the other. Then when it had dried he would stitch the garment back together as it had been before. He only took sustenance from the seed that he sowed with his own hand on land which someone from the folk of good and religion had gifted him. He would make a round loaf of dough and place it in the fire, and content himself with that—such was his habit. He kept this up even though people sought him out from distant horizons, bringing abundant gifts and generous alms, yet he paid not attention to that, such making no impression on his mind. It is related that one of the elite of Fez was struck with a sickness which thwarted the doctors and wore out the enchanters, so someone suggested to the sick man that he pay a pious visit to the subject of this entry. So he sought him out in his room in the Miṣbāḥiyya Madrasa and described his present sickness to him. Then the shaykh took some of his flour and made a tincture for him, then commanded him to drink it. He drank, and immediately he was better. The shaykh said to him: “That which is ḥalāl is a theriac for the severest of sicknesses! When a sick person eats a bite of something ḥalāl it is as if he has been released from bondage.”

Abū ʿAbdallāh Muḥammad al-Ṣaghīr al-Ifrānī, Ṣafwat man intashar min akhbār ṣulaḥāʾ al-qarn al-ḥādī ʻashar (Casablanca: Markaz al-Turāth al-Thaqāfī al-Maghribī, 2004), 139.

Continue reading “Sīdī Aḥmad Takes Minimalism to a Whole Other Level”

(lenten) thinking out loud, i: Scripture and the Resurrection in light of the deep history of life on earth

Alongside occasional posts outlining, in quite ‘uncooked’ and sporadic form, some of the current directions of my thought in relation to things like the history of technology and technics (particularly in relationship to the Islamicate world and our relationship to objects and bodies of historical inheritance therefrom in the present), at least during Lent this year I’d like to offer up some reflections, also quite sporadic and rapidly sketched, on theological and other issues that have been occupying my thinking lately, particular in relation to the deep evolutionary history of life on earth and its implications for Orthodox Christian theology and practice (I also have in the works a long essay on my own personal journey and perspectives on the controversy apprehension- or rejection!- of such a deep time perspective has occasioned in Christianity). The following is then an initial exploration, precipitated by a passage by St. Gregory of Nyssa, of the intersect of Scriptural views of the created order, the deep evolutionary history of life on earth as expressed in our genetic ‘archive,’ and the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Christ.

Our takeaway from Patristic explorations of science and theology should not be to adopt their particular interpretations, in the majority of cases anyway, given that while impressive for the era, and in a genealogical line forward to much our own body of epistemic workings out, the majority of that scientific knowledge is now entirely antiquated if not downright quaint. What counts is the same thing that counts about the production of that knowledge in the first place, as well as the theological routes visible in the Scriptures: not the particulars but the processes and the underlying presuppositions about the order and legibility of the universe and its relationship to God. St. Gregory is entirely comfortable thinking about divine creation in terms of the prevailing science—we might rather say natural philosophy—not to make Scripture say something novel but rather to read Scripture in light of what was then known about the natural world (and in this regard we can in fact see multiple strategies from the Fathers, precisely as we would expect for anyone with a genuinely high view of Scripture and its inspiration—that it can sustain many meanings and interpretative paths across chronological spans). In St. Gregory’s case the basic message that he—rightly I think—sees in the Genesis account as having to do with the place of humans in the created order and in relation to God is pretty readily transposable to what we know of evolutionary history. There is, as Genesis in fact suggests pretty overtly, continuity—we would say genetic continuity—between ourselves and all previous lifeforms, and we carry the evolutionary traces of them in ourselves, in our sensations and our instincts. And as part of God’s good creation, this evolutionary inheritance is fundamentally good, it is a part of the biological package necessary for life. Sin results in our misuse of our evolutionary heritage, and we alone of all creatures can make use, or misuse, of our biological inheritance precisely because we possess consciousness (in St. Gregory’s parlance, ‘reason’) and a soul, which I think we really ought to think of as shorthand for our unique relationship with God—the other principle lesson of the Genesis account. That consciousness and that relationship with God, of course, entail our free will, our being moral creatures who can ascend towards God and divine transformation or who can descend towards sin and destruction (of ourselves and of the wider creation, which ‘groans’ in anticipation of its transformation through God working in and with us).

Of course none of this per se speaks to whether we ought to understand Adam and Eve as pointing towards literal discrete historical figures or something else: I really do not think the story itself indicates one way or the other all that conclusively, and can be read in multiple ways, indeed, demands multiple readings and interpretive routes by, among other things, the inclusion of not one but two origins stories for Adam and Eve right there in the opening chapters of Genesis. The details and perhaps the relationship to historical time are different in each, but the basic gist is the same: humans are creatures derived from the same origins as all other creatures, ultimately the fruit of the earth itself, but who are given a special relationship with God and carry His image, and are instructed by God to live in a particular relationship with Him and the created order, but are capable of contravening that relationship, with their sin ultimately having ‘real-world’ effects within the wider creation and within human self and society. God calls us bipedal, consciousness-bearing hominids to a special status in the world, to inhabit the created order as creatures ourselves in kinship with all other living things but as points of contact with God, as priests and worshipers who are in the world yet consciously (and freely!) oriented towards God. That of course is half of the story: the second half (though really it is the entire story) is that God Himself enters into the stream of evolutionary time and development, a stream that we as humans were meant to transfigure and transform, not from a bad state to a good state but to a transformed state, one only realized through in a sense deiform created beings simultaneously in relation to the wider natural world of which they are a part and in relation to God and the suprasensual order of the spiritual world and of Divine Life Itself.

St. Gregory would have been very excited to learn, I think, that humans quite literally carry within their genetic code a record of their deep past reaching back to the earliest life forms (even if the signal thereof is no longer visible to us down to the earliest periods), we contain within ourselves a continuous and cohesive expression of the wider living created order in a quite concrete sense—and that in becoming human God the Son took on in a manner beyond comprehension the whole history of life as contained and expressed in our humanity, in the genetic code that generates our biological reality. In rising to life again Christ quite literally brings to life, brings to divine life and being and transformation—transfiguration—not just humans as discrete entities but humans as bearers of the whole previous history of life on earth (that is, one such trajectory, standing in as it were for the many others), assembled from the fundamental elements of the earth—and so bears into divine life all of creation as expressed in our genetic history and physical-chemical assembly, a genetic history that contains a record of specifically human history, too, including our sin and acts against divine order. At a cultural level, it is no accident that Christ was incarnate in a particular time and place speaking a particular language within a particular cultural sphere. For much as our genetic code and its epigenetic expression doesn’t just relate but really is the cumulative expression of creation’s whole past and present, culture—particularly language—is itself the record and the expression of the deep human past, of its good and bad and terrible. Christ literally physically bore in Himself, in the humanity He received from the Theotokos, the whole sweep of the evolutionary history of life, the cosmological history of matter, and the cultural history of human society—and in dying and rising again He completed the arc of transformation invested in us and, in a sense, fulfilled by us in the person of Christ, who is not just the ‘second Adam’—that is, human—but is indeed the ‘true Adam,’ the true human. Christ models in Himself and specifically in His post-Resurrection interactions with His disciples the ultimate end of the created order, the full trajectory of the history of the cosmos and of life on earth: not replacement or effacement or even radical rupture but transformation, a form of being at once very much continuous with and yet in other ways inconceivable in relation to current life. Scripture gives us really no ‘hard details’ about the ‘after,’ just as we cannot extract a theory of evolution or cosmological expansion or really any such details from the creation accounts of Scripture. We are given indications and clues in Scripture, outlines and stories; for the large arc of life’s history scientific inquiry can fill in many gaps, if not explain things theologically really. For the future of the created order’s trajectory, for what the salvation and transformation in Christ looks like, again, we have hints and clues, stories and symbols—and, as a sort of prefigurative ‘fossil’ record if you like, the life of the Church and the lives of the saints, men and women who embody to a visible extent the life of Christ in the here-and-now, before- in a strict chronological sense at least- the general Resurrection, yet also within and through that Resurrection.

Badr al-Dīn al-Ghazzī’s Guide to Eating Etiquette

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While hailing from a century and a half after al-Ghazzī, this depiction of men at table is fairly close to the sorts of settings envisioned in al-Ghazzī’s manual: the table is low to the ground, the diners sit on the ground, with large dishes of food which they share. A tablecloth might be present in some cases, though here it is not. From a 1721 copy of the Hamse of the seventeenth century Ottoman poet ʿAṭāʾī (Walters W.666)

For many people on earth, self included, the last year has been one of varying degrees of so-called social distancing, lost opportunities, and missing comforts and pleasures, including the pleasant (and, as the below will suggest, sometimes not quite so pleasant) experience of eating with others, whether in a domestic or public setting. As the year and then some of covid gradually recedes over the coming months and more of our ordinary social life returns, you may soon find yourself venturing out to eat, or inviting others to your home for a shared meal. Given that we have been off our table etiquette game for some while now, it seems a good time to offer a bit of a refresher in some things to do and not to do when dining in the company of others. Towards that end, I’ve translated- and will probably continue to add over the coming days as the fancy strikes me- excerpts of a wonderfully delightful sixteenth century Ottoman manual of eating etiquette, the Risālat ādāb al-muʼākala of the prominent Damascene ‘ālim Badr al-Dīn al-Ghazzī (d. 1577). This short treatise is basically a compendium of etiquette errors to be avoided, and while providing genuine guidance to good manners when dining with others is also quite funny; as such, I have been a bit freer in my translations below than usual.

The material and social context of these entries can in many cases be surmised in part from the contents, however, for a much fuller exploration of that context and what this treatise can tell us about early modern Ottoman sociability and dining habits- which both coincide with and diverge from our own- see a recent lovely article by Helen Pfeifer, ‘The Gulper and the Slurper: A Lexicon of Mistakes to Avoid While Eating with Ottoman Gentlemen,‘ in the Journal of Early Modern History; fortunately the article is open-access and so available to all, do give it a read- and my thanks to Helen for both making me aware of this little treatise and digitally lending me a copy of the print edition!

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The repulsive: he who puts what he has taken out of his food such as bones or date pits or the like in front of his neighbor, which is repulsive to him due to how much he eats. It is related that two men who did not get along with one another were present at the table of one of the bigwigs. Fresh dates were brought out to the two of them, and one of the two men put all of the pits he extracted from the dates in front of the other man, until he had a pile in front of him greater than that of anyone else assembled there. Then the first man turned to the master of the house and said, ‘Will you not look my lord at how many fresh dates so-and-so has eaten! There are enough date pits in front of him to suffice the whole assembly.’ His companion though turned to [the master of the house] and said, ‘As for me, God make you prosper, it’s as he said, I have eaten a lot of dates—however this idiot has eaten the dates pits and all!’ At this the whole group laughed and the repulsive one was embarrassed.

The tearful: he who snatches up hot food to eat, not waiting for it to cool—he grabs the morsel, not paying any attention to whether it’s too hot to eat, and so his eyes become tearful due to the burning in his mouth, and perhaps he is obliged to expel the food in his mouth, or to swallow it down with a drought of cold water big enough to compensate for the burning produced by his stomach.

The gurgler: he who, if he wants to talk, does not wait until he has swallowed his bite of food, but rather talks while he is chewing and so gurgles like a camel, and no one is able to understanding what he is saying—especially if it’s a lot of food in his mouth!

The licker: he is named the licker-upper, he who licks his fingers in order to remove from them the fat from his food before he is finished eating, then he goes right back to eating [with his fingers]. As for [doing this] after finishing with eating, it’s no problem in so far as he does not return [to eating]. The most preferable of conditions is that one pays attention to wipe the fingers with something, such as the tablecloth (mi’zar), every time.

Badr al-Dīn al-Ghazzī, Risālat ādāb al-muʼākala, ed. ʿUmar Musa Basha (Rabāt : Maktabat al-Maʻārif, 1984), 17-18, 19, 20, 21. Continue reading “Badr al-Dīn al-Ghazzī’s Guide to Eating Etiquette”

thinking out loud, i.: history, technology, anthropocene, and ways forward

Starting as an occasional figure- at least, unless/until I decide to migrate this feature to another possibly more suitable platform (no, probably not going to start a Substack, unless there’s some strange surge of my readers demanding it)- I’d like to offer my relatively unfiltered thoughts as expressed in my personal daily register of thoughts, ideas, and assorted cognitive ephemera (including my daily to-do lists, which I will not burden you with). The following was inspired by, among other things, reading a recent article by Alan Jacobs, but is really but a beginning iteration in some theoretical and methodological approaches I hope to pursue at greater length and depth in the coming months and years, God willing. I hope my thoughts are useful, and welcome critique- keep in mind this as close to flow-of-consciousness writing I’m liable to release into the wild!

Medieval and early modern worlds as expressed in their multiplicitous traces provide, not resources—a word we ought to generally avoid I think given the connotations hoisted upon it in industrial capitalist discourse—as starting points, spaces to inhabit, relational matrices with which to interact, to draw upon, to take from and to give, as windows out of our own anthropocenal techno-dystopias. The natural sciences and in particular I think natural history and related disciplines provide a similar outlet, as do more obviously arts and philosophies; and there is no hard and fast division in all of these. Medieval and early modern religious art, to pluck a single example (and interpreting ‘art’ here in a maximally capacious way), should orient us towards different relationships with materiality and the body and their relations with others (including, or most particularly, the Divine Other); such a re-orientation is not, or need not be, discontinuous with the insights and contexualizations that the sciences offer, but can serve as a means towards a productive and healthy consilience of not just knowledge in the scholarly sense but of an integrated and lived consilient knowledge. Indeed it is somewhat ironic that even as modern science has permitted us to better intellectually (and, if we make the jump, imaginatively and spiritually) situate ourselves in relation to a vast, complex, and dynamic cosmos of materialities and processes and relations and histories of which we are integral parts, never in the history of our species has our day-to-day phenomenological interface with ‘nature’ been more reduced and distant, never have we known so little of the world around us in terms of experience and phenomenological participation and imagination.

The way forward is not to jettison our scientific appraisal of the world or to refuse further knowledge and appreciation, but rather if anything to, at a minimum, make that knowledge more broadly accessible and shared, and to find ways to integrate it into a renewed daily contact with and experience within the natural world itself, as we build out ways of life that enable such and which cultivate genuine ecological flourishing for other organisms as well. There is no reversing, no returning to a real or imagined past; but neither are we automatically locked into the paths laid out by technology and life worlds and patterns as they currently exist. If it does nothing else the study of history, of history across many scales and regions and chronological units, demonstrates that configurations of technology and culture, that experiences and embedding in the world, are not necessary or universal or automatic upon the mere existence of certain techniques or technologies or patterns of life. There is no obvious and inexorable superiority to one form of rule or to one technical regime, but rather such things must at some level emerge out of choice and adaptation, even if at a certain register or scale of use they obtain a hegemonic and self-directing character. Yet even this last is not absolute, and like all else is subject to change.

While I do think that radical and disruptive measures are needed, particularly as the global ecological and climatic ‘crisis’ (perhaps not the best word for something that is deep, structural, and relative to our lives and frames of reference at least slow-moving) only grows more pronounced and unavoidable with every passing year, it is the case that cultural and social and all the other metrics of change in fact move rather glacially, and any sustained movements towards a new and better culture of technics and ways of life must interject at ten thousand diverse points of contact, and must be understood as cumulative and processional, without promise of any clearly legible end point or conclusive moment. Even small victories in such an understanding can prove—though of course nothing is inevitable, until, perhaps, it is—in the long run of great significance, and not simply objects of physiological hope and perhaps self-delusion.

Sīdī Shaqrūn’s Loathing of Melons is Cured

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Detail of an 18th century ceremonial scarf with floral and vegetal patterns from Tétouan (Cleveland Museum of Art 1916.830)

The subject of this biographical entry [Sīdī Shaqrūn, d. 1028/1618/9] also met with the perfect shaykh Sīdī ‘Abd Allāh ibn Ḥusayn in Tameslouht [a village south of Marrakesh], and when he sat down in front of the shaykh, the shaykh gazed at him then called for some melon. Now, Sīdī Shaqrūn used to not eat melon, and wasn’t even able to smell its scent, loathing it with an innate loathing of which he could not disabuse himself, so he was bewildered by that but was not able to gainsay the shaykh. Then when the melon was placed in front of him [the shaykh] ordered him to eat it, he breathed out of his nose a powerful gust of air, to which the shaykh said: ‘That is his shayṭān hatching out,’ meaning, breaking out of his heart. Then he ate it in accordance with the shaykh’s command, and from that day forward he was able to eat melon without any problem, none of his innate aversion remaining.

Abū ʿAbdallāh Muḥammad al-Ṣaghīr al-Ifrānī, Ṣafwat man intashar min akhbār ṣulaḥāʾ al-qarn al-ḥādī ʻashar (Casablanca: Markaz al-Turāth al-Thaqāfī al-Maghribī, 2004), 122. Continue reading “Sīdī Shaqrūn’s Loathing of Melons is Cured”

The Life, Career, and Violent Death of a Would-Be Saint of Ottoman Syria

The execution of the archetypal ambiguous and contested martyr of Islam, Manṣūr al-Ḥallāj, as depicted c. 1590 in a copy of the Tarjuma-i Thawāqib-i manāqib, an Ottoman Turkish translation of Aflākī’s life of Mawlānā Rūmī. As was typical during the period across much of Eurasia, the characters are shown anachronistically in contemporary clothing, here in Ottoman dress typical of the 16th century. Ḥallāj is imagined as a fairly conventional dervish- he is fully bearded and wearing proper clothing- and his instrument of execution is the gallows; otherwise many of the sorts of Ottoman actors, from the qāḍī on down, in Abū Bakr’s story are represented here. (Morgan Library and Museum, MS M.466, fol. 99v)

Most of the Muslim saints’ lives I’ve featured here are of saints who ‘made it,’ that is, who were appreciated as holy men or women by people around them- rarely universally, but at least to an extent that they entered the historical record as ‘socially verified’ saints. But of course just as in early modern Christendom there were people who practiced lives of holiness or extreme devotion but were accused of and in some cases convicted of heresy or other crimes, there were individuals in the Islamicate world of early modernity who clearly set out on the path of sainthood but did not arrive, socially speaking at least. In some cases, would-be saints met a violent end, either at the hands of government authorities or, more rarely, due to individual or mob violence. In a further twist, some of these individuals would be venerated by some after their deaths as martyrs; the executed şeyhs of the Bayrāmī-Melāmī ṭarīḳat are perhaps the best examples of this dynamic, as this sufi lineage and community went from being at best marginal and suspect in the eyes of Ottoman authorities in the sixteenth century to more or less full ‘mainstreaming’ by the eighteenth. Their executed şeyhs were hailed as martyrs, and their shrines were gradually integrated into the wider landscape of sanctity of Ottoman Constantinople and beyond.

The story that I have excerpted and translated below has to do with a would-be saint, Abū Bakr al-Armanāzī, who ended up as an executed heretic or a sainted martyr, depending on who was asked. His story is related by the seventeenth century biographer Muḥammad ibn ʻUmar al-ʻUrḍī of Aleppo in his Maʻādin al-dhahab. I’ll offer further analysis after the story, but will first point out that the saintly path that this Abū Bakr pursued was one that had been laid down by a far more famous figure, the majdhūb saint of Aleppo Abū Bakr al-Wafā’ī (d. 1583, see this article for more). The strange practices and utterances of this Abū Bakr were not unlike those of the Abū Bakr of Aleppo, and were part of an increasingly established repertoire of ‘deviant’ sainthood that owed much to the antinomian dervish groups that had arisen in the late medieval period. But as this story will demonstrate, the saintly success of one majdhūb saint did not automatically translated into the success of another. After the translation we’ll consider what might have gone wrong.

He was from among the great of the village of Armanāz [in the ‘amāl of Ḥārim]. Then he manifested divine attraction (jadhb), shaved his beard, and ‘kindled the fire between his hands,’ [1] desiring imitation of Shaykh Abu Bakr al-Wafā’ī in that. He was big of body, and heavy-set, resembling Shaykh Abū Bakr. He would prepare meals for guests, and give gifts out to newcomers.

There gathered around him people from the accursed heretics, and he abandoned ritual prayer, worship, and fasting, speaking with the words of the people of heresy, rending custom through horrid matters and ugly states, to the point that he sent a present to my father the shaykh, saying, ‘Come, let us go visit the kanīsa, the abode of the Jews!’ My father the shaykh reviled him for that, being angry with him but otherwise ignoring him. ‘After that he went even further in things outside of rationality, such that it was said of him that he said to the Jews: ‘I want to investigate between you and the Muslims until I determine with which community (firqa) has the truth.’

Rain diminished in a year, so he stormed in upon the qāḍī [2] of Ḥārim and struck him saying, ‘The rain will not fall except through the qāḍī of Ḥārim, Hassām Efendi, being struck!’ The qāḍī reported him to the qāḍī of Aleppo. Out of regard for his in-law Shaykh Shams he placed him in the bīmāristān [3], on the basis of his being mad (majnūn), so that the qāḍī ordered Shaykh Shams al-Dīn that he instruct [his in-law Abū Bakr] to talk with senseless jabber (hadhayān) in the court, so he instructed him. But even so he would not talk with senseless jabber. Then after a short while he was released from the bīmāristān, and a short time after this the qāḍī died, and [Abū Bakr] would say, ‘This is through my baraka [4]!’

Some time later Sinān Pāşā was appointed to oversee Aleppo, and among the most important of his partisans was Hidāyet Beǧ Şaqīq ‘Alī Pāşā al-‘Ajamī, the previous kāfil [5] of Aleppo. Then there assembled against [Abū Bakr] a group of people in the time of Meḥmed Efendi, the qāḍī of Aleppo, known as Çeşmī, consisting of Ramaẓān Efendi, the brother of Hassām Efendi, nā’ib [6] in Aleppo, as well as a group from the folk of the dawla [7], such as Hidāyet Beǧ. Trouble arose between them due to the village of Armanāz, which had taken from being mīrī [8] and alienated it [to himself]. At the same time his relative Shams al-Dīn al-Armanāzī al-Ḥāfiẓ was among those who came out against him, despite having previously assisted him. A group of people bore witness against him that he drank wine, abandoned the canonical prayers and fasting, and that he said ‘I am a prophet,’ and that at times he would say ‘I want to adjudicate between the Muslims and the Jews to see which religion is more correct,’ other times he would scowl. Al-Ḥājj Maḥmūd ibn Naṣīr and Shaykh Muḥammad ibn al-Raḥīm al-Sa’dī and others bore witness of that. The nā’ib commanded his execution, and the qāḍī at the time, Meḥmed Efendi Çeşmī, forbade further hearing of the case.

So that qāḍī ordered his execution, and when he came forth he was reciting Sūrah Yā Sīn, without perturbation, to the point that they struck his neck, atop the Aleppo citadel. Then naphtha and tar were brought and his body was burned thereby. The people disagreed concerning his case: the majority declared him to be a heretic, but some among them bore witness that he was unjustly treated. Knowledge of the truth belongs to God! Continue reading “The Life, Career, and Violent Death of a Would-Be Saint of Ottoman Syria”

The Funduq Saint of Fez: ‘Abd al-Majīd and His Exceptional Acts of Devotion

As far as I can tell, the ‘Abd al-Majīd Funduq is no longer extant; however, it may have resembled in general plan and ornamentation this early 18th century example, Funduq Ṣāgha, pictured here from my visit in the spring of 2008.

Early modern Islamic religious life across Afro-Eurasia was marked by many trends and developments with roots in the medieval period but which took on new and often surprising forms in the following centuries. One of the most important trends was the explosive growth of devotion to Muḥammad, growth both in terms of apparent overall popularity but also, and more objectively measurable, growth in the number of textual instruments, ritual practices, and social settings oriented towards Muḥammad-centered devotion. Alongside this growth in devotion was another trend that does not at first glance seem related, namely, the continued flourishing and adaptive transformations of ‘deviant’ mendicant piety, the sort exemplified in the late medieval period by the Qalandar and other types of ‘radical’ dervishes, and in the early modern particularly by the majdhūb. Such forms of ascetic practice and aspiration to sainthood often eschewed compliance with the sharī’a, or at the very least transgressed many social norms in a deliberate fashion.

The following saint’s life, preserved in a seventeenth compilation of outstanding holy or learned (or both) lives, comes from Morocco, Fez to be precise, and embraces both of the above trends in early modern Islamic religious life. The saint, Sīdī ‘Abd al-Majīd, was acclaimed a saint, at least according to our author al-Ifrānī, because of his incredible, indeed super-human, devotion to the Prophet of Islam. The first few paragraphs of his life, the entirety of which I have translated here, lay out his acts of devotion and his saintly inner states, including the curious detail that his ecstatic remembrance of Muḥammad took place even in the latrine- a detail which hints at a somewhat non-normative manner of life. It is in the following paragraphs that we are given further indications that ‘Abd al-Majīd was not universally admired and that his mode of life had many parallels with that of the ‘deviant’ dervishes better known from the Islamic East. But before we consider just what kind of a saint he was, it would be better to read his life as al-Ifrānī has described it:

Among them, the well-known saint and great gnostic Sīdī ‘Abd al-Majīd ibn Abī al-Qāsim al-Bādisī: he was originally from the Rif [1], from the region of the Banū Yaṭifat; he was of the Malāmatiyya, and dwelled in the funduq [2] associated with him north of the Qarawiyyīn Mosque, which is now known as the Funduq of Sīdī ‘Abd al-Majīd. He practiced numerous prayers upon the Prophet, God bless him and give him peace, constantly devoted to him and to prayers upon him, of immense affection towards him, enraptured in love of him, and of great love towards the Folk of the House [3]. And whenever he commenced with invocation of blessings upon the Prophet, God bless him and give him peace, he would begin with saying: ‘I take refuge in God from Shayṭān the accursed. In the name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate: verily, God and His angels pronounce blessings upon the Prophet—O you who believe, pronounce blessings upon him and ask for him peace!’ He would complete this arrangement in good order, letter by letter, then say: ‘O God, bless Muḥammad!’ then ecstasy would overwhelm him and he would simply cry out, ‘Muḥammad! Muḥammad!’ He did not cease remembrance of him standing or sitting, in whatever condition he was in, even in the latrine (bayt al-khalā’). It was said to him, ‘Do you mention him in the latrine?’ He replied, ‘It dwells, O brother,’ meaning, perhaps, love [of Muḥammad], but God knows best. Continue reading “The Funduq Saint of Fez: ‘Abd al-Majīd and His Exceptional Acts of Devotion”

‘Abd Allāh al-Salāsī Escapes a Toxic Environment and Is Not Going Back

Concerning the pious master of uncontested miracles, Shaykh Abū Muḥammad ‘Abd Allāh ibn Aḥmad ibn al-Ḥasan al-Khālidī al-Salāsī (d. 1023/1614), known as Ibn Ḥassūn: his origin, God be merciful to him, was from Salās, a group of villages a day’s journey out from Fes; then he moved to Salé. The reason for his journey to Salé was that there was fighting and war among the people of Salās, and if the people of Sīdī ‘Abd Allāh’s village were victorious he rejoiced, but if they fled in defeat he was saddened. So he thought to himself and said: ‘Loving victory produces [in me] love of evil towards Muslims, and by God’s covenant I cannot stay in a place wherein Muslims are so divided and wish evil upon them.’

So he traveled from there to Salé, and when he settled in Salé people from Salās came to him and attempted to induce his return to their land, urging him strongly to do so. But he took a drinking vessel and filled it with sea-water then set it down. He said to them, ‘Does not the water of the sea crash together, its waves constantly colliding? Why then is this portion of the sea in this drinking vessel still?’

They replied, ‘It is no longer in the sea.’ So he said to them, ‘Exile purifies and makes still.’ They understood his meaning and so gave up on trying [to get him to return].

Abū ʿAbdallāh Muḥammad al-Ṣaghīr al-Ifrānī, Ṣafwat man intashar min akhbār ṣulaḥāʾ al-qarn al-ḥādī ʻashar (Casablanca: Markaz al-Turāth al-Thaqāfī al-Maghribī, 2004), 65-66.

(Image at top: Detail of a decorative mattress component, from the 17th or 18th century Rif region of Morocco, probably Chefchaouen, in the general vicinity of the region in which part of the below story takes place (Cleveland Museum of Art 1916.1226))

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A Saint’s Shrine is His Castle: Or, Cautionary Tales from the Ṣafvat al-Ṣafā

Harvard University. Fine Arts Library, Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts, United States FA515.156.4 PF Calligraphy
A lithographic reproduction of some of the spectacular calligraphy and tilework which illumines the exterior of Shaykh Ṣadī al-Dīn’s shrine complex; this lithograph- itself a fine piece of artistic and technical work- comes from Friedrich Sarre’s book Ardabil, Grabmaschee des Schech Safi (Berlin: E. Wasmuth, 1924), the field work and photographs for which were completed in 1897, though writing and publication stretch out over the next two decades.

Everything associated with the veneration of the Safavid eponym Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn (on whom see this post and those prior to it) is monumental, it seems: his shrine complex is one of the most spectacular in the Islamicate world, his ‘official’ hagiography, Ṣafvat al-ṣafā, is a sprawling beast of a text, and the Ṣafavī ṭarīqa which grew up around his memory and practices would have an impact on world history rivaled by few other entities, sufi or otherwise, of the late medieval world. But while the Ṣafavī ṭarīqa would become the most famous and arguably significant legacy of the shaykh of Ardabil, his physical shrine in that city played a huge role as a center of veneration and of the religious and political community that formed around it. What follows is an examination of how that shrine was constructed- not primarily in a literal sense, but in terms of how its sacred status and socio-cultural weight was built up over time.

The outlines for the shrine complex were already laid down before the shaykh’s death in 1334, with some structures already in place. However it would be the shaykh’s son Ṣadr al-Dīn who began building the shrine towards its current configuration, and socially and politically cementing the place of the sufi community that had grown up around his father. The following stories, which are but a selection from an extensive chapter detailing miracles of Ṣafī al-Dīn after his death and, in most cases, in connection with his tomb-shrine, illustrate some aspects of the construction of the shrine’s sanctity and of the political role of the community centered on that shrine. A central motif in these stories is the inviolability of the saint’s tomb and, extending out from it, of the sufi community devoted to the saint- those who transgress either the sanctity of the tomb-shrine or who oppress the community of the saint are liable to be punished, sometimes in quite violent and grisly fashion! Another theme that runs through these stories (and across the whole Ṣafvat al-ṣafā in fact) is the role of the saint’s tomb-shrine and of his community as a source and site (quite literally!) of stability. Such stability was in high demand in the tumultuous years after Ṣafī al-Dīn’s death: a mere year after the shaykh’s death the last Ilkhanid khān, Abū Sa’īd, died, with a long period of political disintegration and conflict following. Two of the major contending parties in Iranian Azerbaijan, the Jalāyirids and the Chūbānids, make appearances in the following stories, though other sources of conflict existed, ranging from predatory local strongmen to feuds between semi-autonomous villages. By reinforcing the sanctity of the tomb-shrine Ṣadr al-Dīn and ibn Bazzāz, our hagiographer, worked to render the saint’s shrine and community a sort of anchor in a stormy sea of political change, while also activity intervening in and shaping political events, economic activity, and socio-cultural life in Ardabil and beyond.

Aspects of this work of sanctification already appear in our first account rendered here, which explains why the spectacular tomb-tower, the centerpiece of the entire complex and the physical location of the saint’s tomb, was built in such lofty and monumental fashion:

Harvard University. Fine Arts Library, Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts, United States FA515.156.4 PF Exterior
The exterior of the tomb-tower as it appeared at the end of the 19th century.

Story: [Ṣadr al-Dīn ibn Ṣafī al-Dīn], may his baraka be perpetuated, said: initially the illumined tomb-shrine (mazār) of the Shaykh, God sanctify his secret, was a small poor affair which we had constructed. The tomb-shrine lay below a ceiling with four vaulted walls above it, with small windows fronting the garden within the walls. The atmosphere of the tomb contained by the four walls was dark and gloomy. The ked-khudā [1] named Badr al-Dīn Ṣānūbī saw the Shaykh, God sanctify his secret, in a dream vision, with his blessed hands extended out from the blessed tomb-shrine, saying, ‘I am not contained within the two worlds, yet they have left me here in this gloomy place!’ On a following day he relayed these words to Ḥājjī Nakhjavānī.

When he, God perpetuate his baraka, came out of the zāviya, Ḥājjī Nakhjavānī repeated to him the gist of the dream to him, with Badr al-Dīn Ṣānūbī present. So he asked [Badr al-Dīn Ṣānūbī] about it, and he said the same thing. In that moment he, may his baraka persist, ordered that the intermediate ceiling of the tomb-shrine as well as the ceiling of the four vaulted walls both be raised, and the high-up windows be expanded to allow for more illumination, and that the door fronting the courtyard where Qur’an reciters and pilgrims sat be widened and increased in size; surrounding this door would be written honorifics of the Shaykh and something noting the date. Mavlānā ‘Azz al-Dīn Khaṭīb oversaw the calligraphy there; he had a nephew named Muḥammad, a young man, who worked on the calligraphic inscriptions with him. As was the custom he stood on the wood scaffolding, but occupied himself with ribald speech and inappropriate behavior, and while they were resting he would not listen [to his uncle?] until at one point he let out an enormous laugh, so that the plank he was standing on rebounded and he fell, was sorely injured, and died three days later.

The tomb-tower of Shaykh Ṣafī is indeed quite distinctive- while vaults and verticality were hardly unknown in shrine architecture, this particular tomb-shrine stands out for its height and its calligraphic-decorative scheme. The story suggests that the scale was meant to reflect the ‘scale’ of Shaykh Ṣafī himself: here is a saint whose ambit is not meant to be confined to one city or province, but has much greater ambitions, as it were. The story also reinforces a key logic to tomb-shrines such as this: actions done to the physical material of the shrine, and the configuration of the space within the shrine, are also done to the saint himself. Honor bestowed upon the shrine translates to honor bestowed to the saint, which ultimately translates to honor bestowed upon God. The second half of the story continues this logic, but in another, rather more punitive direction: the young apprentice working on the shrine’s exterior fails to respect the sanctity of the place, even as it is under construction.  The deadly serious sanctity of the tomb-shrine and its adjacent structures (at this point, primarily the zāviya or sufi ‘lodge’) is highlighted in our next account:

Harvard University. Fine Arts Library, Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts, United States FA515.156.4 PF Interior
The saint’s cenotaph, with a number of finely wrought metal candle-stands arranged before the cenotaph, some lit and supplementing the natural light streaming in from above- copious illumination, just as Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn had stipulated some centuries before!

[Another] Story: Amīr Kulāhdūz Ardabīlī was, by appointment of Amīr Shaykh Ḥasan Jalāyir, supreme governor (ḥākim-i muṭlaq) in Ardabīl. It was the custom of the murīds and the students of the Shayhk, God sanctify his spirit, that they would exert themselves in forbidding and hindering that which was forbidden and reprehensible, reckoning among their most important daily tasks the commanding of the good, in particular forbidding people from intoxication, games of chance, and [presence in] the house of ill-repute [2]. Amīr Kulāhdūz’s mind was disturbed by this, and he set to speaking against this community (ṭā’ife). He established a house of ill-repute in Ardabīl, and said, ‘I am going to the ordū [3], but when I return I am going to build alongside the blessed [sic.!] zāviya a [house] of ill-repute and will set up a tavern, and will give the so-called sufis the lute to play and to which to dance!’ It was impossible by means of polite forbidding to raise or redirect this idea from him, and so having said this he set out to the ordū, with [the saying] the intention of doing evil is worse than its commission stamped in his brain. Continue reading “A Saint’s Shrine is His Castle: Or, Cautionary Tales from the Ṣafvat al-Ṣafā”