Conversion Stories From Across Early Modern Eurasia

John Nelson's Khalwa
The cell-like study and retreat of the early Methodist preacher and holy man John Nelson, whose autobiography is featured below.

In what follows, I have juxtaposed accounts taken from one end of Eurasia (here including North Africa) to the other, each of which dates from the seventeenth or eighteenth century: we begin with an account by an early English Methodist, next hear from a Moroccan sufi shaykh and saint, followed by an Ottoman Syrian self-taught shaykh, finally ending with an Edo-period Japanese Zen master- lives I doubt have ever been placed in such proximity before! Yet they are all united by at least two major common themes in addition to their chronological proximity: one, each is autobiographical, either as part of a stand-alone account, or embedded in some larger biographical project. Two, each has to do with narrating a moment or period of conversion from one way of life to another. We might be tempted to call all of these religious conversions, but I think it’s best to avoid the term ‘religious’ here since while it’s accurate in some ways it does not really quite reflect how these various writers or those around them thought about the world and the nature of the experiences and lives we might label ‘religious.’

There are other shared features that I think are significant and which might point to some of the shared, interconnecting features of early modern life on a global scale. Each of these accounts reveals not just a sense of subjectivity and inwardness, but a surprisingly assertive sense of subjectivity- reflected in, to begin with, the very act of writing and circulating in some fashion an autobiographical account. Related to this subjectivity and self-fashioning is the stress laid on reading and encountering books, often through one’s individual act of reading. This is significant given the emphasis placed in many cultural contexts in medieval Eurasia upon the oral, face-to-face, hand-in-hand transmission of knowledge and religious practice. Yet most of these figures not only were shaped by their own personal readings and encounters with texts, they in turn produced texts for others to encounter in a similar fashion. That is not to say that these authors were ‘individualists,’ and certainly none of them would have embraced the idea of the ‘autonomous’ self. Each in his own way was a part of religious communities, textual genealogies, and shared collectivities of practice and worship and belief.

I encourage you to read these excerpts in sequence and to think about commonalities or differences and the possible reasons for them, as well as what they may or may not say about shared early modern histories beyond my brief comments above. For each excerpt I have given a minimal introductory note, followed by the account and the citation (of the four not originally in English, I have translated one, while the others are translations by other scholars).

1. John Nelson (1707-1770): A stone-mason by trade, John Nelson would become an early convert to the Methodist movement within the English Anglican Church led by John and Charles Wesley. I have selected two sections from his Journal, an autobiographical rendering of his spiritual journey and labors on behalf of the Wesleys’ pietistic movement. In the first, Nelson describes a formative childhood experience, while in the second he narrates the pivotal moment of his adult conversion from a state of emotional insecurity and distance from God to that of being ‘saved.’

When I was between nine and ten years old, I was horribly terrified with the thoughts of death and judgment, whenever I was alone. One Sunday night, as I sat on the ground by the side of my father’s chair, when he was reading the twentieth chapter of the Revelation, the word came with such light and power to my soul, that it made me tremble, as if a dart were shot in my heart. I fell with my face on the floor, and wept till the place was as wet, where I lay, as if water had been poured thereon. As my father proceeded, I thought I saw everything he read about, though my eyes were shut; and the sight was so terrible, I was about to stop my ears, that I might not hear, but I durst not: as soon as I put my fingers in my ears, I pulled them back again. When he came to the eleventh verse, the words made me cringe, and my flesh seemed to creep on my bones while he read…

Nelson, living apart from his wife and family in London in order to work at his trade, underwent a succession of spiritual struggles in which he sought out representatives of most of the religious groups present in early modern London, from conventional Anglicans to Quakers. Upon discovering Wesley’s preaching, he begins to move towards the pivotal moment:

All the week after I felt an awful sense of God resting upon me; and I had a great watchfulness over my words, and several short visits of love, having great hope that I had got complete victory over my besetting sin. But passion was yet too strong for me; for that night I fell again, and cried out immediately, “I am undone; I have lost all hopes of mercy.” All the night I was as if I had been given up to Satan. In the morning, one prayed with me, but I found no answer; for my heart was as hard as a rock.

When I went back to my lodging at noon, dinner was ready; and the gentlewoman said, “Come, sit down: you have need of your dinner, for you have eaten nothing to-day.” But when I looked on the meat, I said, “Shall such a wretch as I devour the good creature of God in the state I am now in? No; I deserve to be thrust into hell.” I then went into my chamber, shut the door, and fell down on my knees, crying, “Lord, save, or I perish!” When I had prayed till I could pray no more, I got up and walked to and fro, being resolved I would neither eat nor drink till I had found the kingdom of God. I fell down to prayer again, but found no relief; got up and walked again: then tears began to flow from my eyes, like great drops of rain… I kneeled before the Lord some time, and saw myself a criminal before the Judge: then I said, “Lord, thy will be done; damn or save!” That moment Jesus Christ was as evidently set before the eye of my mind, as crucified for my sins, as if I had seen Him with bodily eyes; and in that instant my heart was set at liberty from guilt and tormenting fear, and filled with a calm and serene peace. I could then say, without any dread or fear, “Thou art my Lord and my God!” Now did I begin to sing that part of the 12th chapter of Isaiah, “O Lord, I will praise Thee…” [Isaiah 12:1-2] My heart was filled with love to God and every soul of man… I cried, “O Lord, give me to see my desire on them: let them experience Thy redeeming love!”

In the afternoon I opened the book where it is said, “Unto Him that loveth us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood,” &c. [Revelation 1:5]; with which I was so affected, that I could not read for weeping. That evening, under Mr. Wesley’s sermon, I could do nothing but weep, and love…

John Nelson, Journal, in Lives of Early Methodist Preachers, vol. I (London: William Nichols, 1865), 5-6, 17-19.

2. Aḥmad ibn ‘Ajība (1747-1809): Born in what is now northern Morocco, south of Tetouan, Ibn ‘Ajība was one of the most important sufi figures in the eighteenth century Maghrib, producing a vast array of scholarly, theological, and devotional works. For our purposes, one of his most significant works was his autobiography, entitled al-Fahrasa, in which he records his spiritual journey as well as details of his scholarly production, theological reflections, and even accounts of his sex life and his sometimes stormy relationships with his wives. I have excerpted here his account of turning from the study of ‘exoteric’ scholarship, the domain of the ‘ulama, towards the texts and teachings of the sufis, in preparation, it is implied, for becoming a saint (walī):

When I acquired that share of exoteric knowledge that God had destined for me, I actively prepared myself to receive esoteric knowledge. This preparation rests on the practice of the exterior religious law, for action cannot pass to the inner self unless the senses and the external faculties are held straight…

My passing from knowledge to action was provoked by my encounter with Ibn ‘Aṭā Allāh’s Ḥikam, a copy of which I found at a friend’s house. I made a copy for myself, and then I read Ibn ‘Abbād al-Rundī’s commentary. After this reading, I abandoned exoteric knowledge and dedicated myself to devotional practice, to the remembrance of God, and to praying through God’s Messenger. Then I felt a desire to practice retreat and I began to detest the world and its denizens: when someone approached me, I fled.

Ibn ‘Ajīb’a father attempts to turn him away from this ‘esoteric conversion,’ but to no avail. After an explanation as to why aspiration to becoming a saint is better than aspiring to become an exoteric scholar, Ibn ‘Ajība returns to his narrative:

At the time, then, I happened to aspire to retreat, and so I went sometimes to the mausoleum of Sīdī Ṭalḥā for devotions, and sometimes to the mausoleum of Sīdī ‘Abd Allāh al-Fakhkhār for the same reason. In the latter place, I lived in the room built by the virtuous learned man Sīdī ‘Alī Baraka… Once when I was standing near Sīdī Ṭalḥā’s tomb, he appeared to me in a dream. He came down so close to me that he touched my face with the hair of his beard. I thought: “I must ask him about what I intend to do.” At the time, I had resolved to sell my books in order that I might go into retreat on the mountain of Mawlāy ‘Abd al-Salām ibn Mashīsh so that I could concentrate on devotion. But God had not made the same decision. So I said to Sīdī Ṭalḥā: “Oh Sīdī! I wish to abandon learning and go into retreat in order to worship God with no other preoccupation.” Study,” he replied. “Exoteric knowledge?” I asked. “Yes! Study exoteric knowledge in depth!”

And so I returned to study. But my mind was already oriented in its Master’s direction, and my entire heart was with God. I took my place in the circle of students out of consideration for the shaykh who had ordered me to study, but I did not know what the teacher was speaking about, I was so occupied by the remembrance of God. I became entirely absorbed in prayer on God’s Messenger, to the point where I could recite the Dalā’il al-khayrāt by heart. Then it appeared to me that repetition of prayer on the Prophet while using a rosary made concentration easier, and I began to repeat it a great number of times. While I was thus immersed in it, I saw lights shining; ornaments, palaces, and all kinds of extraordinary things appeared to me, but I turned away; a number of times I saw the Prophet in a dream.

Ahmad ibn Muhammad Ibn`Ajibah, The Autobiography of the Moroccan Sufi Ibn Ajiba, trans. by David Streight (Louisville: Fons Vitae, 1999), 69-70, 72-74.

The mausoleum of Sīdī Ṭalḥa. From El culto a las fuentes en Tetuán (Tetuán, 1955), p. 492bis

3. Qāsim ibn Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn al-Khānī (1619-1697): The author of an important manual of sufi doctrine and practice intended to act as a sort of substitute for a teaching shaykh, titled Kitāb al-sayr wa-al-sulūk ilá malik al-mulūk, al-Khānī was born in Ottoman Aleppo but spent several years traveling throughout the Ottoman domains as a merchant, as he notes in the passage below, before undergoing a conversion process and embarking on a career as something of a self-made holy man practicing and teaching sufism. This short autobiographical account comes from an eighteenth century biographical compilation by the Damascene scholar Muḥammad al-Murādī; al-Murādī does not inform us as to where he acquired it, though it seems likely to me that it comes from somewhere in al-Khānī’s own writings:

I was born [in Aleppo] in the year 1028 [1619], then I traveled to Baghdad in the month of Jumadi I in the year 1050 [September, 1640], and my sojourn there was long- some two years- after which I returned to Aleppo and remained there for two months, then went to Basra and remained there for a span of ten months. I returned to Aleppo and stayed there for but ten days, then departed with the ḥājj to Mecca the Noble. I departed from the Ḥijāz to Islāmbūl [ie Constantinople/Istanbul] and remained there for a year and seven months. Finally I returned to Aleppo. These travels of mine lasted for some ten years, and during them I was engaged in the business of taking and giving, buying and selling.

After my final return to Aleppo I was taken with love of solitude apart from people, abandoned my trade of buying and selling, and traveled the way of lowliness and poverty, so changing my way of life in all respects- friends, habits, and self-understanding. I engaged in ascetic struggle with my carnal self, opposing it with hunger and vigil, all for some seven years. Out of that time, for about two years I would restrict myself to eating every sixth hour a handful of flour made into ḥarīra [a type of soup] sweetened with a spoonful of honey, which I would pour down my throat. The handful of flour was about fifteen dirhams worth. Out of the rest of those seven years I subsisted on eating less than a little—all of that was due to instruction from my [unnamed] shaykhs, God be pleased with them all…

After nearly seven years of being heavily weighed by ascetic practice, at the beginning of the month of Shawwāl in the year 1066 [August, 1656] God cast into my heart the love of seeking exoteric knowledge, so I studied for two years, minus a month, under various shaykhs. But God Himself graciously bestowed knowledge upon me, so I stopped my studies and began teaching. I taught some students, but most of them would laugh at me and mock me, saying, ‘We have been in the service of knowledge for ten years yet we do not have such audacity!’ One of them, however, came to my teaching session with the intention to mock, but, by God, when he arose from that session his denial of me had been replaced with belief in me! The next day he came and studied under me and said, ‘This matter is something miraculous!’ I continued teaching in that manner for another year.


hMuḥammad Khalīl ibn ʻAlī Murādī, Silk al-durar fī aʻyān al-qarn al-thānī ʻashar, vol. IV ([Būlāq]: [Al-Maṭbaʻah al-ʻAmirah], [1874-83]), 9-10

4. Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1768): Finally, we come to the life of one of the most important Zen Buddhist figures in early modern Japan, who, unlike the majority of other Zen masters of his time, wrote not one but multiple first-person accounts describing his journey towards enlightenment and his work to revive the practice of Zen in Japan. In the following two excerpts Hakuin describes a childhood encounter markedly similar to that of John Nelson:

Back when I was a young boy of seven or eight (I was called Iwaya), my mother would take me with her when she went to visit a temple of one of the Teaching Schools. Once while we were there we heard the priest describe, in excruciating detail, the terrible torments inflicted on victims in the Eight Fiery Hells and Eight Cold Hells. He had everyone in the hall scared half to death- their teeth were chattering, their knees quaking uncontrollably. I too was assailed by terrible fears. I came to feel as though there was nothing at all I could rely upon. The fears kept gnawing at me day and night. I moped about in a very unhappy state, my eyes red from constant tears. Of course at such a tender age, I wasn’t able to dispel my fears by discussing them with my friends, so I would go off by myself and, sobbing loudly, cry my heart out in secret.

After an incident in which the fire warming his bath terrifies him, Hakuin confides in his mother, who tries to steer him towards devotional practices she hopes will assuage his fears. Hakuin eventually becomes a Buddhist monk, but becomes disillusioned and remains a monastic simply because it seems easier than returning to secular life. He eventually joins the community of a Zen master in Mino province, one Baō Rōjin, but soon finds himself deserted by the other monks:

So I remained alone at Baō’s temple. It was spare and spartan existence, drawing water, gathering firewood, and cooking rice for meals. One day, Baō set out by himself for Ōgaki. Left alone amid the solitude of the deserted temple, I got to thinking: “What a pitiful creature I am. I look like a monk but I’m not. I resemble a layman, too, but I’m not a layman. I’m not a Confucian, a Shintoist, or follower of Lao Tzu or Chuang Tzu either. Will I ever be able to confirm my ‘Mind Master’? What is to become of me!” Streams of tears began cascading down my cheeks.

I happened to raise my gaze upward to the veranda of the Guest Hall, where hundreds of books- Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike- had been stacked on top of desks following the annual airing of the temple library. I lit an offering of incense before the books, performed twenty or so prostrations before them, and prayed earnestly to the gods and Buddhas for their guidance… I closed my eyes and slowly approached a pile of books on one of the desks. I reached out with my thumb and forefinger and fished blindly among the stacks until I had fixed on a single volume among them. I pulled it out, raised it high above my head several times in veneration. Then I opened it… I had chosen Spurring Zen Students Through the Barrier [Chan guan ce jin]! What a wonderful stroke of luck it was for me! Eagerly scanning the page in front of me, I saw four or five lines of marginalia inscribed above the text. It read: “In the past, when the priest Tz’u-ming was studying at Fen-yang, he say through the nights without sleep, oblivious to the bitter cold east of the river. Whenever the sleep demon tried to approach, he would tell himself, ‘Who are you? You’ll be worthless if you go on living, and no one will notice if you die,’ and jab himself in the thigh with a needle-sharp gimlet.”

The moment I read those words, joyous tears filled my eyes and spilled down my cheeks. They became engraved in my heart, and I felt a strong root of faith penetrate into my bones. I found myself dancing mindlessly about with joy. When Baō returned I went straight in to see him and told him what had occurred. I procured my own copy of Spurring Zen Students Through the Barrier and from that time on it never left my side day or night. Even when I was engaged in various daily activities, it was always there with me, rolled up and stuck inside my robe.

Hakuin Ekaku, Hakuin’s Precious Mirror Cave: A Zen Miscellany, trans. by Norman Waddell (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2009), 13, 19-21.






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