The following is a pair of Muslim saints’ lives, included in a biographical compilation (Luṭf al-samar wa qaṭf al-thaman) by an early 17th century Ottoman author from Damascus, Najm al-Dīn al-Ghazzī, the scion of a prominent family of ‘ulama, and one of the more prolific Damascene authors of the first part of the 17th century. His biographical histories include many saints’ lives, with a special emphasis on holy men with whom he or his saintly brother Shihāb al-Dīn al-Ghazzī had contact. Perusing the pages of these collected lives, a veritable ecosystem of sainthood and sanctity comes to life, populated by individuals of striking piety and of often controversial actions and behavior. Sainthood was and is a deeply social phenomenon, particularly in the Ottoman world wherein no ecclesial or political authority offered canonical guidance in the question of who was and was not a ‘true’ friend of God. Rather, something of a consensus among devotees would emerge, often alongside challenges from other directions, concerning a given person’s sanctity and closeness to God.
In the first life which I have translated here, we meet an enigmatic majdhūb, or possessed saint, who displayed seemingly erratic and irrational behavior, interpreted by those around him as the manifestation of jadhb, or divine attraction. Like many such majadhīb, he seems to have come from a rural environment, and in lieu of complex doctrinal teachings, he manifested his sainthood through strange, even shocking actions. And like many such possessed saints, he deliberately transgressed social boundaries, in particular, strictures on gender segregation and contact. His companion, Dervish Ḥusayn, was also marked by his transgressing of social norms, in his case, through living for a time an extremely hermetical life, even refusing to speak directly to most pious visitors. Yet before we imagine a gulf between such ‘transgressive’ forms of sanctity and the scholarly ‘ulama class from which our author hailed, al-Ghazzī also describes the ties of members of the ‘ulama with these two saints. Dervish Ḥusayn, for instance, made an exception to his hermit’s life to discuss religious matters with al-Ghazzī and his shaykh.
Finally, these two lives, in addition to revealing aspects of the ecology of sanctity that animated the Ottoman world- not just Damascus, obviously- is also a poignant look at a natural disaster that hit the city and took the lives of both saints. The seventeenth century was a period of intense climatic flux across the Ottoman world, and indeed across Eurasia and North America. For already marginal ecologies and landscapes such as that around Damascus, the intense weather patterns often associated with this period of climatic instability could be quite tragic. Indeed, al-Ghazzī ends his life of Dervish Ḥusayn with a note of sorrow, a rather rare intrusion of emotion in a genre known for its workmanlike nature more than its emotional depth. Lives of holiness could generate social bonds among people otherwise quite distant, bonds whose emotional traces could live on long after the physical death of the holy person.
Ḥasan al-Sayyid al-Majdhūb, the believed in. It is possible that he was from one of the villages outside of Damascus. He entered Damascus and dwelt near the Umayyad Mosque, by Bāb al-Ghazāliyya, for two years, being provided for from the unknown realm of God (min ghayb Allāh), from what the people gave him as charity, they believing in him. Then he moved to the Yalbagha Mosque, below the Damascus Citadel, and dwelt near it. Then there was a day in which a man from the Mevleviyye, from the faqīrs of Molla Hunkār, sat near him. A cat came and received something from the hand of the Mevlevi, who then killed the cat. So Sayyid Ḥasan stood up and killed the Mevlevi! Then he was turned over to ‘Ali Ḥasan Pasha ibn Muḥammad Pasha the Vizier—who was then the nā’ib of Damascus—who asked him: ‘Why did you kill this man?’ He answered: ‘Because he killed my cat!’ So he released him due to his jadhb.
After this he moved to a garden, in the area of Arza, that was part of cultivated lands. A group of people from this area reported to me that in the wintertime the snow would not touch him when it fell, nor would it affect the place in which he was. He was not harmed by either heat or cold, summer and winter. The people sought to visit him here, come to him with food and drink, sometimes perceiving from him mystical unveilings. Next, he moved to the summit of Mount Qāsiyyun, dwelling in the Grotto of Scarcity, between the Grotto of Blood and the Cave of Jibrīl. Shaykh Ḥusayn al-Rūmī associated with him—he used to worship in that wadi before him for some two years—as well Shaykh Abu Bakr al-Dabbāgh, though he died before the other two of them, they remaining after him. The people, men and women, went up to visit the two, with many women believing in him. Sometimes they would unveil their faces and he would touch them, they receiving blessing through his touch. Sometimes women would seek him out in order to fulfill some need of theirs and it would be fulfilled. He was immersed, he neither rationally understanding nor being rationally understood. Disapproval from many fell upon him, the main object of the disapproval being the unveiling of women before him.
On Monday, the 13th of Ṣafar, in the year 1018 (May 5, 1609), the 8th of May (Ayyār), before noon, a cloud-mass came in which were roaring winds, strong thunder, and sheets of lightning. Then its clouds heaped up and grew denser, then great strong hail began to fall, the size of musket-balls, at three or four different points in time, concentrated on the Ṣālaḥiyya [Neighborhood] and the Mount, mostly on its western flank, much of it on the city of Damascus itself, to the point that courtyards and alleyways were filled with hail. The valleys of the Ṣālaḥiyya began to flood from the storm, particular the valley in which is the Grotto of Scarcity, the flash-flood sweeping along houses and tombs, many among the living dying, a group of buried dead being brought forth as if resurrected from the dead. Due to the force of that flood a deep channel was gouged out in that area, and great rocks were dislodged. Among those who were swept up and buried by the flood were Sayyid Ḥasan—the subject of this entry—and his companion the dervish Ḥusayn al-Rūmī. Sayyid Ḥasan was pulled out on Tuesday, the 14th of Ṣafar, the aforementioned year of 1018, and a massive crowd of men and women attended his funeral procession, the women being more numerous than the men, because they made up the greatest number of his devotees. Among those present were Shaykh Muhammad ibn Shaykh Sa’d al-Dīn, and his son ‘Īsa and his brother Sa’d al-Dīn. I prayed as imam for him and for the woman who died with him under the destruction brought down by the aforementioned deluge. Later that day, the dervish Ḥusayn was extracted, and was buried the following day in accordance with what will be mentioned in his biographical entry.
Ḥusayn al-Rūmī the Dervish, dweller on Mount Qassiyūn for two years. He came to Damascus as a young man, devoting himself to acts of worship. He frequented our shaykh, Shaykh al-Islam Shihāb al-Dīn al-‘Aythāwī, and would ask him about matters of religion. Then he secluded himself in a little cave near the Grotto of Scarcity on Mount Qassiyūn, retreating to it, narrowing its entrance upon himself. He would not go out to anyone who intended to visit him, so people would pay visitation to him from behind a veil. Our shaykh—God be merciful to him—used to make visitation to him, I with him, and he would come out to us and discuss various matters with the shaykh, asking him of religious matters that occurred to him, and he would give him indications in various sorts of acts of worship, our shaykh thus giving him instruction.
There was upon him the luminosity of obedience and the traces of sanctity. He remained in that state for two years, then Shaykh Abu Bakr al-Ḍabbāgh gathered to him and dwelt in the Grotto of Scarcity, the two coming together for acts of obedience to God. Then Shaykh Ḥusayn got married, and lived with his wife in a little house built for him nearby his cave, Shaykh Ḥasan the aforementioned joining with him subsequently.
When the flash-flood, mentioned in the entry on Sayyid Ḥasan, came, on Monday, the 13th of Ṣafar, in the year 1018, it picked up rocks of the valley, carrying them along and engulfing the house in which he lived, he and Sayyid Ḥasan being in the house along with a woman, the sister-in-law of Shaykh Husayn’s wife. They all perished under the rubble. Sayyid Ḥasan and the woman were pulled out Tuesday morning, and I prayed over them together as previously mentioned. Dervish Ḥusayn was not seen, only being found in the evening of the day, and pulled out. The next day, Wednesday, he was washed and shrouded, and our shaykh went forth for the prayers over him. It was not easy for me to be present at his funeral due to the love between him and I and my belief in him. He was buried alongside Sayyid Ḥasan on the summit of Mount Qassiyūn. God be merciful to him!
Najm al-Dīn al-Ghazzī, Luṭf al-samar wa qaṭf al-thaman, j. 1, 402-405, 416-417