Ottoman Women and the Lives of Saints, iii.: The Majdhūb and the Pregnant Lady

This final installment- for now at least- in this series of texts dealing with Ottoman women’s lives in the context of sainthood comes from the life of ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (1621-1731), arguably the most important early modern saint of the Arab provinces, who combined the practice of sanctity with a vast scope of scholarship and literary endeavors (for more on him see this post and this one). The following account comes from a massive hagio-biography treating his life, Wird al-unsī wa-al-warid al-qudsiī fī tarjamat al-ʻārif ʻAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī, which was compiled by the saint’s great-grandson, Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazzī (1760-1799). Al-Ghazzī’s account covers almost every aspect of his great-grandfather’s life, including ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s mother’s ‘foretokens’ of her unborn son’s future saintly greatness. In introducing the section from which the below accounts are taken, al-Ghazzī says: ‘Just as there are foretokens for the prophets before [the manifestation of their] prophethood, so the saints of God have miracles occur for them even before the coming to light of their manifestation [as saints], and before they even have capacity for that.’

While, then, these stories are ultimately meant to be understood as signs of ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s sainthood- which was at work, as it were, and evident even while he was in his mother’s womb- they also reveal quite a bit about ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s mother and the relationship between holy men in early modern Damascus and women in general, reinforcing what we saw in a previous post. Here the holy man in question is a majdhūb, a ‘divinely drawn one’ akin to a ‘holy fool,’ a ‘mode’ of saint that I have dealt with repeatedly on this site (and which will feature prominently in my forthcoming dissertation and, God willing, eventual book project). The majādhīb (the plural of majdhūb) had a central presence in ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s life, from before birth and even after his death (one of his daughters would become a majdhūba), a relationship that his mother clearly contributed towards forging. The practices and the sacred presence of the majdhūb saint tended to result in the temporary breakdown of social expectations and protocol, both in terms of gendered relations but also in more fundamental ways (such as the strictures against throwing rocks at guests!). That women in Damascus would particularly numbered among Shaykh Maḥmūd’s devotees is not surprising- but neither is ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s ongoing devotion to the saint, an example of which I have also included in this translated excerpt.

Besides the accounts of ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s mother’s relationship with the saint Maḥmūd translated here, we are also learn from ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s own writings that his mother’s death and burial saw the miraculous intervention of another majdhūb, ‘Alī al-Nabkī, who walked from his village to the city just as ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s mother’s body was being washed. We are meant to understand by all of this, I think, that ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s own sanctity was not entirely unique to him- his mother, in her own way, was a holy woman, numbered in the ranks of the friends of God, male and female.

Syrian Tile
17th century tile from Ottoman Damascus (Met. 1993.315)

As for the good tidings his mother received about him, they were many. Among them is that which she herself related, saying, “The saints and majādhīb used to give me good tidings concerning him, and about his elevated status, and the majesty of his power, before his birth.” From among that was that the pious Shaykh Maḥmūd the Majdhūb—who is buried by the tomb of Shaykh Yusuf al-Qamīnī atop Jabal Qāsiyūn [1]—gave her good tidings of him while she was pregnant with him. He gave her a silver coin and said to her: “Name him ‘Abd al-Ghanī for he will be victorious.” He said to her another time, “Give good tidings to ‘Abd al-Ghanī concerning the divine abundance (al-fayḍ)!” Shaykh Maḥmūd died one day before the master was born. He had said to her: “When you give birth to him, bring him to my tomb, and rub him with dust from it before you bestow his name upon him [2].” Whenever he saw her he would honor her greatly, and say to her, “I venerate the one whom you bear, for by God he will possess greatness and immense power!”

My father the shaykh al-Islām, the master’s grandson, related to me from his father the shaykh al-Islām, my grandfather: “One day the mother of the exalted master, while she was pregnant with him, went out to visit Shaykh Maḥmūd [the Majdhūb] with a group of other women, including another woman who was bearing some cooked chicken, bringing it as a gift for him. But as they came upon him he saw them from afar, and began throwing rocks at them, so they withdrew because of that. He began calling out, ‘O mother of ‘Abd al-Ghanī, you are exalted (ta’ālā) [3]! I didn’t want to hit you!’ So the women thought that he meant the woman bringing him the chicken, so they told her: ‘Go up to his presence by yourself!’

But when he saw her he began throwing rocks at her, and said to her: ‘I didn’t mean you, I meant the mother of ‘Abd al-Ghanī!’ So they said to the mother of the master: ‘They shaykh wants you, so go to him!’ When he saw her he said: ‘Welcome mother of ‘Abd al-Ghanī, ‘Abd al-Ghanī is with you!’

He had her sit down next to him, and honored her with utmost honor, and gave her food and drink from what he had with him. Then he took out a silver miṣrī coin and gave it to her, saying to her: ‘When ‘Abd al-Ghanī is born, give this to him, from me.’ So she took it and kept it safe until after ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s birth, growth, and intellectual maturing, at which point she passed it on to him and informed him about it. He received it from her and placed it with himself, and it remained with him till the day of his departing this life, God be pleased with both of them…”

The mother of the master followed the instructions of Shaykh Maḥmūd, going out with [‘Abd al-Ghanī] to his tomb before naming him, rubbing him in the dust of the tomb. The shaykh, the master, God sanctify his spirit, related that once a grievous sickness befell him, and with it constriction of the throat, to the point that he was unable to swallow his own saliva, bringing him to precipice of death. When things had reached this intensity, he beheld, in waking life, Shaykh Maḥmūd before him. He said to [‘Abd al-Ghanī], “Don’t worry!” He reached with his hand into his throat, and broke up the ulcer. Then the shaykh sought out the metal washing basin (ṭasht) and expelled blood from his throat, and was so restored to health. The master after that would say, “From that time up to the present, truly, I will find the scent and taste of musk in my mouth, sensing them directly.”

Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazzī, Intimate Invocations: Al-Ghazzi’s Biography of ʻAbd Al-Ghani Al-Nabulusi (1641-1731), edited by Samer Akkach (Leiden ; Brill, 2012), 75-78. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.

[1] Jabal Qāsiyūn is the low mountain that rises to the northwest of Damascus, and historically featured numerous holy places- especially caves- and saints’ shrines. In more recent years it has been a major front in the ongoing battle for Damascus in Syria’s civil wars.

[2] The practice of rubbing oneself or another in the ‘dust’ of a holy person’s tomb or shrine is quite old in the Middle East, going back at least to Syriac Christianity, and tending to replace- though not exclusively, as this very story indicates (‘Abd al-Ghanī would come to have a handful of saints’ relics on or close to her person by the end of his life)- the use of relics disconnected from the burial place of the saint.

[3] It is difficult to replicate in English, but Shaykh Maḥmūd’s use of this phrase is highly significant as it is the honorific that traditionally follows mention of God, as in ‘God, exalted is He!’ Majādhīb were known to often play with language, sometimes to almost seemingly blasphemous or at least ‘problematic’ ends, such as here.

See also the other two installments in this series:

Ottoman Women and the Lives of Saints, ii.: Money Trouble and a Sleep-Talking Son

Ottoman Women and the Lives of Saints, i.: Stampeding Livestock and Saintly Friendships

Sofra close up

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One thought on “Ottoman Women and the Lives of Saints, iii.: The Majdhūb and the Pregnant Lady

  1. Pingback: Race, Slavery, and Sainthood in the Early Modern Ottoman World: Some Perspectives – Thicket & Thorp

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