The Shaykh and the Wrestlers

Wrestlers in a Persianate context, similar to that of the story below, as depicted in a sixteenth century Safavid illumined copy of Sa’di’s collected works (Walters W.618.31B)

Sufism has developed over the centuries a vast technical vocabulary, with many elements filtering out into wider Islamic (or, better, ‘Islamicate’) societies and languages. One of the more difficult terms that makes up this stock of words describing sufi practice and theology is the Arabic word himmah, taken into Persian as himmat. Its basic lexical meaning is, per Steingass’ Persian dictionary, ‘Inclination, desire, resolution, intention, design,’ with the additional meanings of ‘ambition, aspiration; mind, thought, attention, care; magnanimity; power, strength, ability; auspices, grace, favour.’ The sufi usage of himmah encompasses all of these: when a shaykh is said to possess or wield himmah, we might say that he exerts the power of his mindful intention, power which is invested in him by virtue of his relationship with God. It’s a bit like ‘the Force’ in Star Wars, in that through the use of his himmah the advanced master is able to psychically- so to speak- manipulate things in the physical world outside of his body, similar to the way a Jedi master might employ the Force to move objects or change a person’s thoughts or will.

The ambiguity of himmah is not simply the case of being at a remove from the original languages of sufism- it’s clear from the sources that medieval and early modern sufi authors felt a need to explicate what precisely was meant thereby to contemporary audiences. The story I’ve excerpted and translated below comes from a Persian-language collection of lives of Inner Asian Naqshbandī saints, entitled Rashaḥāt-i ʻayn al-ḥayāt, by Fakhr al-Dīn ʿAlī ibn Ḥusayn Wāʿiẓ Kāshifī Ṣafī (1463 – 1532-3). The story is part of longer clarifying discussion by Kāshifī about himmat, as an introduction to the miracles of the important fifteenth-century Naqshbandī saint Khwāja ‘Ubayd Allāh Aḥrār. It also speaks, by the by, to a major component of wider Persianate culture during this period and afterwards, namely, the role of wrestling, a sport which provides the setting for the miracle story.

From a somewhat earlier period, two wrestlers, as depicted on a 13th century Ilkhanid tile (Walters 48.1283)

One day we came to the wrestling-grounds where two people were wrestling—one was powerfully and immensely built of frame, while the other was weak and scrawny of body. The big fellow was making easy work of the weak one, so that we felt merciful towards him, and I said to Mawlānā Sa’d al-Dīn [Kashgārī], ‘Use your power of mind (himmat) and send out a thought (khāṭir) so that that weak one can triumph over that powerful one!’

He replied, ‘You pay heed, and we will also lend aid.’ So his thought turned in that moment to the weak one, and in a flash the weak one was invested with great strength so that he was able to extend his arm and with dexterous skill lifted the powerful-framed man from the ground, hoisted him overhead, then threw him down into the dust of the ring. A great exclamation went up from the crowd, the men watching amazed and bewildered by what had transpired, none of the spectators aware of the secret of it.

ʻAlī ibn Ḥusayn Kāshifī Ṣafī, Rashaḥāt-i ʻayn al-ḥayāt, ed. ʿA.A.’ Muʿīniyān (Tehran: Bunyād-i Nīkūkārī-i Nūriyānī, 2536/1977-8), v. II, 517.


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Horses, Herdsmen, Wolves, and Otman Baba

A seventeenth century imagining of another late medieval ‘deviant dervish’ saint, Seyyid Ali Sultan, usually affiliated in later memory with the Bektaşîs.

The early Ottoman Empire was home to a dizzying array of Islamic holy men, wandering dervishes, strange renunciants, and other figures whose practices and identities were often quite different from the expectations of ‘proper’ Sunni behavior and belief. This diversity had deep roots in medieval Anatolia and beyond, and would undergo many interesting and complex permutations during the early modern period, with traces of the diverse and sometimes rather wild milieu of the late medieval world remaining down to the present. The following story is taken from the extensive menâkıb (hagiography) dealing with Otman Baba (d. 1478-9), written by Otman Baba’s disciple Küçük Abdâl in 1483. Otman Baba was a saint and leader of a radical dervish group known as the Abdâl-i Rûm, who, like many such groups, combined socially rejectionist practices with an itinerant lifestyle. In Otman Baba’s case, he seems to have ranged among the nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples of Anatolia and especially the Balkans for much of his life, being buried after his death in the village of Teketo in what is now Bulgaria. His tomb, pictured below, was built during the first decade of the sixteenth century under the auspices of Sultan Bayezid II- hence the distinctively ‘classical’ Ottoman style- and remains a site of pilgrimage, despite a twentieth century interval under Communism in which it was converted into a museum.

In this story, Otman Baba encounters herdsmen on the Black Sea coast west of Constantinople, and after initially being mistaken as a possible fugitive (perhaps fleeing punishment for a crime?), one of the young men, ‘whose heart was open to heaven,’ recognizes him to be a saint, and Otman Baba takes up temporary residence with them. The story exemplifies Otman Baba’s relationships with, and veneration by, the rural populations scattered across Anatolia and the Balkans- people he and his followers seems to have deliberately sought out instead of city dwellers.

Then that Source of Sainthood (kân-i vilâyet, i.e. Otman Baba) abandoned that place [a hill near Constantinople] and struck out by himself along the shore of the [Black] Sea, to a place called Terkoz [mod. Terkos]. In this locale there were some young men (birkaç yiǧit) grazing their horses in the meadow, spending the days and nights there. The Source of Sainthood, being manifest (zahir olup) there, approached these men. When they saw the saintly leader they said to one another, ‘Who is this who has come, is he a fugitive (kaçgun)?’

However there was one among them whose heart was open to heaven, who said, ‘Do not be unjust! This one who has come is a saint (er)! Do you not see his awe and might?’ Saying so he went towards him, and took the hand of the Source of Sainthood and kissed it, then invited him to his house, hosting and entertaining him and saying, ‘From whence did you come O sun of the two worlds?’ He answered, ‘I came in the wake of Arık Çobanı [‘stream shepherd’], coming to the shore of this sea.’ The young man replied, ‘What man can travel the sea without a ship?’ He said, ‘This visible sea does not rise up to the heel of Arık Çobanı.’

It is so, and there is no veil covering sainthood. The world is like a ring on the finger of the saints (evliyâ). This Arık Çobanı that the Source of Sainthood referred to is Koyun Baba of Osmancık [on the Anatolian Black Sea coast], the locus of the manifestation of sainthood. Then the Source of Sainthood stayed with them for some days. One morning upon rising the Source of Sainthood said to the young man, ‘Get up, brother, wolves want to eat your horse!’ So in that moment the young man arose and, not seeing his horse among the other horses, climbed a hill and saw that a group of wolves had taken hold of his horse in their midst, but in that moment, with a sudden jerk, his horse was lifted up away from the wolves [to safety]! Prostrating himself in thanks he made heartfelt supplication to the Source of Sainthood and knew that this Source of Sainthood was the inner secret of the two worlds!

Küçük Abdâl, Vilâyetnâme-i şâhi Göʼçek Abdal, edited by Turgut Koca, and Murat Açış ([Turkey]: [Bektaşi Kültür Derneği], 2002), 28-29. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.

Otman Baba’s tomb, built in the early 16th century, in the village of Teketo, modern Bulgaria (source)

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Early Modern Campaign Life: Through the Eyes of Margriet Van Noort

the siege of the city of alesia melchior feselen
Detail from The Siege of Alesia by Melchior Feselen: painted in 1533, this massive painting, from which this detail and the one below is taken, depicts a battle from antiquity but does so in a thoroughly anachronistic fashion, instead showing in great detail the workings of sixteenth century warfare, including the presence of soldiers’ families as described in the passage below.

The excerpted text below comes from the autobiography of Sister Margaret of the Mother of God, born Margriet Van Noort in 1587. Before her death in 1646 she wrote a range of autobiographical pieces of literature, at the behest of her confessor at the convent of the Discalced Carmelites in Brussels in the Low Countries. This passage describes aspects of her childhood, one spent out on campaign alongside her father, a soldier fighting under the Habsburgs during the Eighty Years’ War. Margaret provides a powerful and moving look into what everyday life was like for the families of the soldiers, families that, as in many other early modern wars, went on campaign as well, sleeping in tents, dodging bullets, and contributing to combat in various ways, including, as Margaret later describes, digging trenches. Margaret’s mother sought to give her children some semblance of normalcy, Margaret notes, even if her children could not avoid being swept up in the chaos and danger of an early modern army on the move, as Margaret’s account of her three days separated from her family suggests.


Since my father was a soldier, my mother always followed him with all the children; there were seven of us. We went with him in every campaign where we suffered hardships of every kind, as you can imagine, from heat and other trials. We often lacked food, and even when we had money there was often nothing to buy. At times when we had no money, we would that a horse might be shot so that we could have something to eat. One time we ate meat with no bread because we did not have any; we could not even find a loaf to buy. Other times we would eat raw meat because we had no time, fire, or proper conditions for cooking. And we usually slept four or five months of the year in our clothes on the ground with a bit of straw for a soft bed. Our home was a tent, but my mother took pains to keep us all gathered together as if we were in a house. There we recited our devotions, did our handwork, and read religious books, to which I was always greatly devoted. We never missed Mass when it was said. It was in a tent set up in the open countryside and there were thousands of people who attended. The enemy would shoot artillery and the bullets would fall in the middle of all those people. No one was ever hurt.

About the age of nine, I had a desire to stay in a monastery of the Order of Saint Bernard that was near where we were garrisoned. But my father did not want me to because he said that Friesland was sure to revert to heresy, and so I stayed with my parents. My mother saw that I was quite a young lady at eleven years old, and she had me make my First Communion. At twelve, my father had contracted marriage for me with a young man from a good family; but he was a military man and he died in battle, and I was very happy.

We used to go every summer on a campaign that sometimes lasted until Christmas with a lot of snow and cold. I was very fond of walking and since my parents had carts and horses in which to carry us, when I would see other soldiers’ small children crying so and dying of cold, I would ask my mother to allow me to walk so a little girl could ride in my place. Sometimes she would scold me and tell me that I was going to get lost among the crowds and it happened just so. I had walked all day and at nightfall the companies split from each other with each company camping together. I stayed seated by the road where I thought our people would be passing. But only the Walloons came. I began to ask if the Germans were not passing by there also, and they told me no. I was very distressed and started to cry like a girl of thirteen would. And God willed that a good man might pass by, a captain who asked me why I was crying. I told him of my trouble, that I had thought my father would have come by there. And God willed that this good man should console me, and he took me with him and pampered me, and I spent three days with him while he took care of me as if I were his daughter. He was a captain of the Wallons, and he asked me my father’s name. I said he was an ensign with a German regiment and his name was Sebastiaan Van Noort. Finally my mother came searching for me with two other people. On the third day the companies were reunited and my mother and everyone was very happy that I was found. After that, I always stayed with them.

Margaret van Noort. Spiritual Writings of Sister Margaret of the Mother of God (1635-1643). Translated by Susan M. Smith. (Toronto, Ontario: Iter Academic Press, 2015). 66-67.