Şemseddîn Sivâsî Saves the Exiled Dogs

Dogs in the Market
Mevlana Rumi addresses dogs in the marketplace, from a c. 1590 copy of the Ottoman Turkish translation of Aflākī’s menāqib of Rumi (Morgan Library MS M.466, fol. 66v)

The following story hails from a massive hagiographic compilation in Ottoman Turkish, Hediyyetü’l-ihvân, written by one Mehmed Nazmî Efendi (d. 1669) and dealing with the lives of a series of saints leading up to his own şeyh (Ar. shaykh) in the seventeenth century. This story comes from the life of Şemseddîn Ahmed Sivâsî (1519-1597), who was born in the little town of Zile in Anatolia and eventually settled in Sivas, becoming in time quite well known, to the point of Sultan Süleyman the Great inviting him to go on campaign with him to Hungary. The charming tale that I have translated here points to his fame among the towns and villages of this part of Anatolia. It also reminds us of the complicated relationship between people and dogs that has historically been the case in Islamic lands: we see both an outbreak of ‘anti-dog’ measures in the person of the (unnamed and castigated) kadi, the studied ambiguity of a hadith, and the robust support of the saint, simultaneously. That a saint would intervene on behalf of unjustly treated dogs is not particularly surprising- accounts of Mevlana Rumi’s interactions, and those of his followers, with dogs circulated in the Ottoman world, as witnessed by the above illustration, contemporary in fact to this story.


From among his miracles was the following: the people of Karahisâr-ı Şarkî [modern Şebinkarahisar] sent messengers to Şems asking him that he honor them with his preaching, counsel, [performance of] zikr [1], and his blessed noble beauty. In answer to their supplication he came, and was honored immensely, being given a fine place to stay as well as much feasting and amiable conversation. For some time he preached, gave counsel, and led zikr, then announced that he was returning to Sîvâs. When the scholars, şeyhs, merchants, notables, and ordinary people of the town all came together to give him a farewell with honor and respect, numerous dogs also came before the saint, and, as if presenting complaints, began barking! When Şems asked why they were barking so, the people replied, “Because there has been plague and pestilence in our town, the kadi [2] of our town ordered the killing or banishing of the dogs, so that we killed some and we banished some. These are dogs that we banished.”

The saint cried out, “Your kadi was heedless of the hadith which says, If dogs were not a community (umma) from among the communities, then I would order them killed.” [3] Saying that, he addressed the dogs: “Go safely and soundly back to dwell and to be at rest in your former places!” As the townspeople returned from bidding the saint farewell, they saw these words fulfilled as the dogs, understanding the command, followed after the people back into town to their usual places—and having done so, by the command of God, the plague was lifted on that very day!


[1] That is, the practice of ‘remembrance (Ar. dhikr) of God’ in a ritualized manner.

[2] The kadi- literally, ‘judge,’ from Ar. qāḍī- was not just an arbitrator of legal cases but, in the Ottoman context, a multi-task administrator.

[3] The meaning of this hadith, attributed to Muhammad, seems to be that dogs have a special status as an umma, which normally means a religious community (such as the umma of all Muslims); this special status outweighs any negative aspects dogs may have.

Şeyh Mehmet Nazmi, Osmanlılarda tasavvufî hayat: Halvetîlik örneği : Hediyyetü’l-ihvân, edited by Osman Türer (İstanbul: İnsan Yayınları, 2005), 359-360. Translation by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.

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An Ottoman Remix

Ottoman Qur'an Mounting

This curious piece, which consists of three early medieval (9th or 10th century) Qur’an folios written in un-voweled Kufic script pasted together then attached to a piece of paperboard and framed with lovely floral border devices, dates (probably) to the eighteenth century, and was produced somewhere in the Ottoman world. It is currently held in the Freer and Sackler Gallery (S1998.8).

Besides it intrinsic loveliness- the bold angular Kufic script contrasts nicely with the delicate flowing lines of the floral elements- this piece of artistic ‘remixing’ presents some questions which I at least cannot answer with any certainty but are worth asking anyway. What was the original setting and intention of this piece? Would it have been in a collected volume of similar pieces or of other ‘remixes’ (calligraphy, paintings, and drawings taken from their original contexts and remounted in new settings, primarily)? Or would it have been displayed, similar to a hilye-i şerif? How would an Ottoman viewer have understood this presentation: was it seen as a link with the far distant Islamic past, or perhaps as an especially potent means of connecting with the power of the Qu’ranic text? Or was the point of this display simply to show a nice instance of Kufic script, or perhaps to appreciate the folios as something along the lines of antiques? Was there something special about these folios- for instance, we know that very old Qur’an volumes and folios in the Ottoman world and elsewhere were sometimes treated as relics due to their assumed linkage with a key figure in the deep Islamic past. Was that the case with these folios? Or was something else entirely being done with this piece, something that is perhaps now unrecoverable for us?

Race, Slavery, and Sainthood in the Early Modern Ottoman World: Some Perspectives

Kadi Sünbül Ali
Kadı Sünbül ‘Ali, as depicted in a c. 1620 Ottoman book of costumes for Western European use, The Habits of the Grand Seignor’s Court, British Museum 1928,0323,0.46.8

Among the circles on Twitter that I follow- and occasionally participate in- in recent weeks the issue of the relationship between ‘the Enlightenment’ and modern notions and practices of racism has emerged as a popular and contentious topic. Now, while I have my own thoughts and theories about the Western European Enlightenment (which was as you can guess from my use of quotation marks a much more complicated affair than either its boosters or detractors tend to make out), what I would like to address here is the question of how race was perceived in a pre-modern, pre-Enlightenment context, specifically, within the Ottoman Empire at a particular time (and among certain groups, not necessarily all, given the sheer diversity of the empire). As such, the example I give here doesn’t necessarily prove anything one way or another about whether or not the Enlightenment ‘invented’ racism or racialized slavery. Rather, what I hope my comments here demonstrate is the complicated ways in which racial, or racial-like, categories, ethnic difference, and practices of slavery (all of which certainly intersected long before the Enlightenment to be sure) interacted. It does not make sense, ultimately, to say that early modern Ottomans were racist, or, for that matter, that they weren’t, or, in terms of slavery, that Ottoman slavery was totally different from slavery in the Americas, or that it was very similar: the reality is, as we historians are (obnoxiously to some!) fond of saying, complicated, and while our modern categories (themselves certainly shaped by, among other things, the Enlightenment(s)) are not totally foreign to early modern Ottoman (or any other) worlds, they must be applied with care if they are to be applied at all. Likewise, while we can often find parallels- unsurprisingly- between Ottoman practices and attitudes and those developing in contemporary Western Europe and the Americas, we ought to be equally sensitive to the differences and divergences.

I’ve taken a single late 17th century encounter, recorded by ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī and translated below along with my commentary, as my main point of departure, a story which I think illustrates well these complexities of racial origin, slavery, and the social limitations and possibilities contained within Ottoman practices of race and slavery, all oriented within a concern for sainthood (a category early modern Ottomans of all confessional varieties would have recognized to some degree or another, incidentally). There are a lot of ways in which we might explore race and slavery in the Ottoman lands: in thinking about race and ethnicity, for instance, we might want to consider the genealogy of ideas about phenotype and human geographical origin in the wider Islamic sphere, a genealogy that we could well trace back to the heritages of the ancient world. In terms of slavery, we might consider the various mechanisms whereby slaves were brought to market in Ottoman cities, the different ways that slaves from different places were perceived and employed, or the interaction of legal norms governing slavery, lived practice, and differing attitudes based on skin color or gender or other characteristics.

Historians have not tackled these issues to the degree that they deserve; Ottoman slavery, while the subject of a handful of monographs and edited volumes, remains poorly understood and overly polemicized. On the question of race and racial identity and prejudice, perhaps the best treatment has come from Baki Tezcan in his article ‘Dispelling the Darkness: The politics of ‘race’ in the early seventeenth century Ottoman Empire in the light of the life and work of Mullah Ali’.’ [1] Mullah ‘Ali, who is almost certainly the ‘kadı’ pictured above, was an Ottoman scholar and jurist of African origin who rose to extreme prominence in the ‘ilmiyye hierarchy, coming close to claiming the highest rank in the scholarly system, that of shaykh al-Islam, the personal patronage-based politics of the Ottoman elite intervening. While he was subject to some degree of insult and prejudice due to the color of his skin- his detractors drawing upon a venerable genealogy of notions within the Islamic world about the supposed inferiority of Africans- Tezcan argues that these insults and prejudice (which Mullah ‘Ali, also following a long genealogy within Islam, combated in writing) were mostly strategic, his opponents not being motivated by racial prejudice but instead deploying it because it was available. This suggests that something like ‘racism’ was culturally available to Ottomans, but with the stress on ‘available’: it was not systematic in any meaningful sense, and it need not bar a well-connected scholar with black skin from rising to the heights of power. That said, Mullah ‘Ali’s story primarily concerns the situation of the rarefied elite of the Ottoman world. What of race and slavery at the level of more ordinary people?

The story that I’d like to focus on in order to approach some aspects of slavery and race at the non-elite level [2] is one that I’ve shared before, but for a different purpose: The Hermit of Ya’bad and His Marvelous Coffee and Good Counsel. There is a great deal going on this little story, with insights about matters from how sacred space was performed in the Ottoman world to the role of coffee culture and its penetration even into the rural Palestinian countryside. But here we will focus on Shaykh Zā’id – the subject of the account – and his relationships with others. We begin with ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s initial encounter, during his passage through northern Palestine during the late 17th century:

And it reached us in that village [of Ya’bad] that there was close by a black [freed] slave from among the divinely drawn (majādhīb) lovers of God, whose name was Shaykh Zā’id, in a cave there at the foot of a small mountain. And it was reported to us that the cave used to not be there, but one day he was present on the mountain and the cave appeared for him. So we went to visit him, and we entered into his cave. It is a small cave, with lots of niches all around the walls, none of which open to the outside. And he was inside sitting on the ground, and he had a small mortar made of wood with which he ground coffee beans, and a small iron coffee roaster. No one who visited him leaves without him giving them coffee to drink. And he makes the coffee from anything that he has on hand, from wheat, barley, from scraps [of coffee?], and chickpeas—but no one who visits him drinks it without it being excellent coffee! And it was related to us that if he needs firewood, he will, with little effort, pluck out a great tree and break it down with his own hand, bring the wood back, and place it in his cave. Continue reading “Race, Slavery, and Sainthood in the Early Modern Ottoman World: Some Perspectives”

A Magnificent Eighteenth Century Ottoman Book-Cover

Ali Uskudari i

The two images above and below are of a cloth and lacquer-painted book covers- or possibly the binding for a paper notepad or its equivalent- by the Ottoman artist ‘Ali Üsküdarî, made c. 1747-8, in or near Istanbul, almost certainly for an elite patron or buyer (S1986.23). ‘Ali drew upon a range of artistic elements from across Eurasia in making these gorgeous and elaborate covers: while the central foliage element has a long pedigree in Ottoman art, going back to Persianate and even Chinese exemplars, ‘Ali has added exuberant flourishes reminiscent of the Baroque artistic elements increasingly in vogue in the imperial center. The naturalistic flowers in the borders and the back cover reflect both eighteenth century Ottoman tastes in floral elements as well as art coming from Mughal India, where naturalistic irises and roses had abounded throughout the early modern period (for a sense of changes in artistic tastes and styles, compare another Ottoman book-binding featured here previously, but from the sixteenth century). On the whole, a magnificent example of the continued vitality of Ottoman book-arts through the eighteenth century, a vitality that also reminds us of the centrality of manuscript production and culture and the prestige and value attached to the written word in diverse forms.

Ali Uskudari ii

Şemsi Paşa Loves Mushrooms

The Mosque of Şemsi Paşa, Üsküdar, built 1580/81. Photo by the author. Sited directly on the Bosporus (visible in the left background), this is one of the most charming ‘classical’ era mosques in and around Istanbul, and somehow it does not seem surprising that its patron was a big fan of mushrooms!

Among the masters of science and spiritual knowledge, [Şemsi Paşa] was a person of accomplishment. Being skilled in poetry and prose, and being unusual in his love of hunting and his ability as a warrior, he was always present at the stirrup of the abovementioned Sultan [Süleyman], so much so that the deceased [Gelibolu Mustafâ] ‘Âli (1541–1600) quotes the abovementioned paşa’s own words… to this effect: “His Majesty Sultan Süleyman Khan knew that I loved mushrooms very much. When one day mushrooms were found in many places in the hunting grounds, His Majesty the Sultan ordered an imperial guard to collect them and put them in a bath towel embroidered with silver thread so as to protect them. When I saw that His Majesty the Sultan liked mushrooms so much, I regretted that I had not previously offered him the mushrooms which had fallen to my lot. When the time to return arrived, I rode at the side of the imperial stirrup and approaching the imperial palace, [the Sultan] took out the mushrooms and presented them to his slave as a gift, saying, ‘Because I knew you loved mushrooms, I caused them to be kept for you.’

“I at once humbly prostrated myself in the imperial presence, and when I asked the reason for my thus being the object of imperial favor, he said, ‘Recently, you made a gift worthy of a thousand such favors of mine. Earlier while riding at my side during our hunt and chase, I was telling you a short story. After I ended, I said that today we had not come across any game animals, and we had not been able to find any prey. You said, “I saw game in such and such a place.” When you said this, I thought you were lying. In fact, returning to that place immediately afterwards, game was spotted in the location you described. We much appreciate that, in order not to interrupt our speech, you did not announce that there was game, and that you announced it following the completion of my discourse. Although between hunters it is beyond endurance not to shout out when game is seen, and despite the fact that a moment’s delay is not possible, you did not announce the location of the prey and did not interrupt me, but showed respect for my imperial speech.'”

Hafız Hüseyin Ayvansarayî, The Garden of the Mosques: Hafiz Hüseyin Al-Ayvansarayî’s Guide to the Muslim Monuments of Ottoman Istanbul, translated by Howard Crane (Leiden ; Brill, 2000), 496-497.