No More Notebooks for Shaykh ‘Alwān

Preacher with Ink instead of Rosewater
An illustration of the interior of a 17th century Ottoman mosque, which wouldn’t be too far off from the setting of the below story- the preacher on the minbar (with hands in his deep sleeves), the candles at the mihrab, the men seated to listen to the preaching, and the neatly lined up shoes, all would have been seen, albeit in somewhat different forms (the floral decoration on the side of the minbar, for instance, is a clear indication that this is a 17th or 18th century setting). (Walters M.666)

Shaykh ‘Alwān (d. 1530) was one of the major Muslim saints of late Mamluk into early Ottoman Damascus. While possessed of the multifaceted education typical of a member of the ‘ulama of his time, Shaykh ‘Alwān’s most important formation came at the hands of an itinerant holy man from the Maghrib (modern day Morocco, ‘Ali al-Maymūn. The following story, related by Najm al-Dīn al-Ghazzī, an important source for saints’ lives from early Ottoman Syria, describes Shaykh ‘Alwān’s first encounter with the man who would become his spiritual preceptor. Besides illustrating a saintly miracle of sorts, it incidentally provides a look at how an early modern Muslim preacher would conduct his sermons, namely, with a handbook of useful material tucked up his sleeve (literally!).

DP230667

Shaykh ‘Alwān related to [Shaykh Yunūs) in 924: He was preaching in Hama, in accordance with the custom of preachers—using a notebook with pleasing stories, wise anecdotes, and edifying reports and accounts, when al-Sayyīd ‘Ali ibn Maymūn—who was also preaching in Hama—passed by him, stopped before him, and said: “O ‘Alwān, preach from your head, and not from a notebook!” But Shaykh ‘Alwān did not pay him any mind, so he said the same thing a second time, then a third. Then, Shaykh ‘Alwān reported, “That caused me to pay attention, and I knew that he was from among the Friends of God. So I said to him: ‘It’s no good for me to preach from my head—meaning by heart.’ He replied: ‘Nay, preach from your head!’ I replied: ‘Ya Sayyīdi, only if you help me!’ He said: ‘I do, and trust in God!’ So when I awoke the next morning I went to the preaching session, with my notebooks in my sleeve. When I sat down the Sayyīd was opposite me. I began speaking from the heart, and God inspired (fataḥa) me, and that inspiration has continued until now!”’

Najm al-Dīn al-Ghazzī, al-Kawākib al-sāʼirah bi-aʻyān al-miʼah al-ʻāshirah (Beirut: Dār al-Kuttub al-‘Ilmiyya, 1997), v. 2, 204-5).

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