Teacher, Student, Text, and the Control of Knowledge in Early Modern Damascus

The Damascus Room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a winter reception room (qa’a), dating to c. 1707 (Met 1970.170). Once part of a home in Damascus before its disassembly and transportation to New York City in the 1930s, this room resembles the reception hall of a well-to-do Ottoman family in early modern Damascus, though some elements were added later or otherwise modified. ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s house may well have contained a room, if not quite of this opulence, along these lines, for the greeting and hosting of guests.

Introduction: ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (1641-1731), a frequent presence on these pages, embodied many roles and identities over the course of his long life, a life that spanned major transformations in the nature of the Ottoman Empire in which he lived, as well as changes occurring in the wider world of early modernity. For many during his lifetime, and even more so after his death, he was a preeminent, even the preeminent ‘friend of God’- saint- of his age. His role as a major theological and philosophical thinker, author, and teacher was often seen as an aspect of his sainthood, the sheer scope of his literary productions and teaching activities, instructing all sorts of people in all sorts of subjects, as evidence of his special relationship with God. The passages that I have translated below are taken from the expansive biography written by ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s great-grandson, Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazzī (1760-1799), titled Wird al-unsī wa-al-warid al-qudsī fī tarjamat al-ʻārif ʻAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī. One of the longer chapters of this work consists of biographical entries, some brief, some quite long, of ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s many disciples and students, demonstrating the shaykh’s numerous social ties and relationships as well as the geographic reach of his instruction and saintly reputation.

The entry translated here- aside from the introductory paragraph, which I will summarize- concerns one Muṣṭafá Ṣafī al-Dīn al-‘Alwānī (1696-1779), a member of the ‘ulama of the city of Hama, descendant of a sixteenth century sufi saint, but whose later career was primarily based upon his skill as a poet and littérateur. In 1722 he came to Damascus from Hama in the company of his primary teaching shaykh, one Muhammad ibn Maḥmūd al-Ḥabbāl, taking up residence in the Bādharā’iyya madrasa. They both went together to visit ‘Abd al-Ghanī, who by 1722 was advanced in years and well established reputation-wise as both a saint and scholar. Our account picks up with Muṣṭafá meeting ‘Abd al-Ghanī for the first time.

Commentary follows the translation, but a few explanatory words will guide the reader unfamiliar with some of the conventions and terminology. Muṣṭafá wants to ‘read’ a book under ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s supervision, which entails, following a long-standing convention in the Islamic world (with analogues elsewhere in medieval and early modern Eurasia) whereby one would study a book by writing it down for one’s self or even memorize it, reciting back what one had written or memorized to the author, who would then grant an ijāza, a ‘certificate,’ stating that the student had properly received the text in question and was authorized to transmit it himself (or on occasion herself). The sessions in which this process took place could also allow the author to explicate and clarify the text. The verb that I alternatively translate as ‘read’ and ‘recite’ is qara’a, a particularly multivalent verb, which can also have the meaning of ‘study,’ as it in fact does here.

A stained glass window that once decorated an Ottoman home in Syria or Egypt, made at some point in the 18th century (Met. 93.26.3).

Translation: Love of [‘Abd al-Ghanī] seized the whole of his heart, so he returned to him and sought permission to read under him, asking which book [he should read]. The Master (al-ustādh) said to him: “Read our book on the oneness of being named al-Wujūd al-ḥaqq.” Then the Master gave him a quire (kurrās) from out of his own copybook, saying to him, “Write it down in your own handwriting, lesson (dars) by lesson.” He specified to him that the time of the lesson would be on Friday after the ṣalāt, and that every week he would read one lesson. [Muṣṭafá] would take the notebook and write it down in it. So it occurred that every Friday he would go to the Ṣālaḥiyya [neighborhood] and enter the house (dār) of the Master after the ṣalāt, kiss the hand of the Master and sit down. Then the Master would raise his head from writing and say, “Recite.” He would recite, then kiss his hand and go. He did this for a while, though his shaykh, al-Ḥabbāl, did not know about it. One day this Shaykh al-Ḥabbāl entered [Muṣṭafá’s madrasa] room, previously mentioned, began leafing through his loose pages and books, and found the book of the Master, al-Wujūd al-ḥaqq, in his possession, he having written out a goodly portion of it. He asked him about it, and he told him that he was reading the book under the Master’s supervision and so forth. Al-Ḥabbāl said to him by way of advice, “My son, you are not ready to read the like of this book, you don’t have the disposition for understanding the books of ḥaqā’iq [‘esoteric’ theology]. If you want to receive something from the Master and derive blessing from him, read under him a book on the technical terms of hadith, and get an ijāza from him—that much will suffice you.” So [Muṣṭafá] complied with his words. In accordance with his custom on Friday he went with a portion of what he had written out to the Master, this time from the book Sharḥ al-Nukhba [by Ibn al-Ḥajar (1372-1449)], on the knowledge of technical vocabulary. He entered into the Master’s presence, kissed his hand, and sat down. The Master did not raise his head from his writing, and did not say anything to him! He remained looking at him until the ‘aşr adhān [call to prayer] of that day, and the Master arose, prayed the ‘aṣr ṣalāt, then after completing his prayer looked at [Muṣṭafá] and said, “Ya Sayyīd Muṣṭafá, we do not instruct save our own books, and if you wish to read under us then read our books!” He did not expand upon those words any further. Muṣṭafá understood that what he had intended to ask of the Master had been revealed to him by way of unveiling, and he resumed his completion of the recitation of the aforementioned book.’

‘Among the things that happened to him is what he related that on one of the days of his studying this book [al-Wujūd al-ḥaqq] with the Master, after their completing the lesson a man with a ney entered. He sat down by the Master and began playing the ney, the Master listening. [Muṣṭafá] thought to himself: “It’s as if the Master has been taken and has adhered to the Mawlawiyya ṭarīqa such that listening to the sound of the ney is permissible to him!” When the man finished playing, kissed the Master’s hand, and left, the Master turned to [Muṣṭafá] and said, “Ya Sayyīd Muṣṭafá, among the things that have occurred to me is that when I traveled to Rūm and came to Konya I desired to visit Mawlānā Jalāl al-Dīn al-Rūmī, the master of the Mawlawiyya ṭarīqa. I said to myself: ‘If he accepts my visit I will find the door of his tomb (ḍarīḥ) open,’ but when I came up to the door I found it locked. At the moment of my approaching it, however, the locks fell away, the door opened, and I entered. I stopped to recite the Fātiḥa, and found the spiritual presence (rūḥāniyya) of Mawlānā Jalāl al-Dīn in the form of a great white bird alighting upon the tomb. And as I watched it got smaller and smaller, which did not stop until it became like a small sparrow. Then I opened my mouth and it flew inside and I swallowed it.” By means of [that story], [Muṣṭafá] was taken by an immense spiritual state, by humility, and trembling, and stood to kiss the hands and feet of the Master, then departed. Before that the Master had not spoken to him about any other matters besides the appointed lesson.’

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), 338-440. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2019.

Dervishes Dancing, Harvard 1958.23.149
Detail from a mid-16th century Safavid manuscript of Hafiz’s Divān, here depicting sufi samā’, or ‘audition,’ with a ney player at the top left, men dancing in ecstasy to the right. (Harvard Art Museum 1958.23.149, folio 149v.)

Commentary: The first story in this account highlights one of the more controversial aspects of ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s career: his willingness, indeed insistence upon, the broad dissimulation of ‘esoteric,’ sophisticated sufistic teachings, especially Akbarian theology (derived from the works of the mystico-philosophic theologian Ibn al-‘Arabī (1165-1240), stressing the ‘oneness of being’ between God and the world), often by means of texts aimed at a broad reading audience, not necessarily with personal instruction on the part of a teaching shaykh. In this story, ‘Abd al-Ghanī is transmitting in a somewhat traditional manner one of his key texts on Akbarian theology, al-Wujūd al-ḥaqq, ‘The True Existent,’ but is evidently doing so without any further clarifying remarks, or, significantly, without having instructed the young Muṣṭafá in any preliminaries. He has the young man jump in the deep end, as it were, trusting him to take hold of and utilize the esoteric theological knowledge contained therein on his own. Such a stance was quite typical of ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s mature career: he would also give lectures on aspects of esoteric theology to a wide public, open, it seems, to everyone, and he actively sought, as here, the dissimulation of his theological treatises. This strategy on ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s part was not universally received, with other scholars and shaykhs in his world expressing discomfort with such ease of access to ‘advanced’ and potentially ‘dangerous’ works such as al-Wujūd al-ḥaqq. Such is precisely the attitude of Shaykh al-Ḥabbāl, though ‘Abd al-Ghanī overrides it.

In the early twenty-first century, the internet has given rise to many controversies and anxieties over social media platforms, the ‘democratization’ of knowledge, the dearth of expertise and of gate-keeping, and the abundance of internet-facilitated freelanced approaches to everything from politics to science. The early modern world, in the Ottoman lands and beyond, faced similar anxieties, though the exact profiles varied from place to place. In general, even in places, such as most of the Islamic world, where print culture lagged in becoming established, book production, book ownership, and authorship expanded in the early modern period. ‘Freelance’ religious and intellectual groups and movements of all sorts flourished, driven by many different dynamics. Spheres of sociability in general expanded and deepened, from Japan to the British Isles (and in the early modern Americas), facilitating the spread and ‘democratized’ use of texts and systems of knowledge. Just as reactions to internet ‘democratization’ by established scholars, ‘gatekeepers,’ and others have varied immensely, so did the reactions of the intellectual and religious ‘gatekeepers’ of early modern worlds vary. ‘Abd al-Ghanī stands out in many ways by his enthusiastic embrace, indeed facilitation, of these changes: he sought to textualize and distribute sophisticated esoteric knowledge as well as polemical stances on extremely controversial issues, from the use of tobacco to sufi dance to the practice of contemplative gazing upon beautiful youth and women. He drew flack for these positions, including from people who supported him and agreed with him but who felt that some things ought to remain exclusive to those ‘in the know.’ ‘Abd al-Ghanī did not agree.

The second story at first glance seems to take up a very different tack, but it is related to the context of the first. The early modern was an increasingly interconnected one, dominated over much of the globe by massive empires, facilitating economic exchange, and cultural exchange. These exchanges and transformations- really, a form of globalization, though without the hegemonic aspects of modern globalization- also generated anxiety and conflict. In the story, Muṣṭafá is confused by his teacher’s impromptu music session, a music session that featured the quintessential instrument of the Mevlevis, the sufi ‘order’ that traces its origins to Mevlānā Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī, the poetry of Rūmī’s Masnavi opening with the words ‘Listen to the ney.’ There is a hint of both disapproval or at least confusion over ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s stance on music, and on his evident connection to the Mevlevis, a ṭarīqa hardly typical of the Arabic-speaking provinces of the Ottoman Empire, but rather indicative of the Turkish-speaking core lands, present in the Arab provinces very much as a rather strange outsider. ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s explanation demonstrates the saint’s intimate connection, not just with Mevlevi practice, but with Mawlānā Rūmī himself, the two saints- one ‘Rūmī,’ the other ‘Shamsī’- intermingling with one another spiritually. The argument here is that Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī is in no way a ‘foreign’ saint, belonging only to Turkish-speaking Mevlevis, but is in fact present, by virtue of that encounter, in ‘Abd al-Ghanī himself. Listening to the ney, then, is entirely appropriate, whether in a Mevlevi tekke or in ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s Damascus reception hall. That a Syrian sufi shaykh would listen to the ney is not all that surprising given the cultural interchange of the Ottoman world, especially in the eighteenth century; ‘Abd al-Ghanī sought to resolve the anxieties generated by such a situation, by means of his own sainthood and resulting special encounters and mediation. In the story at least such an argument is successful: Muṣṭafá learns his lesson in a very visceral way, though whether he became an enthusiast of the ney the story does not alas indicate.


If you would like to help keep the work I’m doing here going, do think about supporting me on a regular basis via Patreon. Thanks!


Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

One thought on “Teacher, Student, Text, and the Control of Knowledge in Early Modern Damascus

  1. Pingback: A Self-Taught Shaykha in Early Modern Fes – Thicket & Thorp

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s