The Sesame Presser Turned Saint Who Almost Threw a Qadi in the Water

Divan of Mahmud `Abd al-Baqi Abu Sa'ad teaching
A depiction, from a mid-sixteenth century illumined copy of the Divân of Mahmûd ‘Abdülbâkî, of the most prominent Ottoman jurist of the century, Muhammad Ebussuûd Efendi, (d. 1574), and a circle of students, wearing clothing typical of the Ottoman ‘ilmiye hierarchy from which kâdîs, such as the one in the story below, were recruited. 

As I’ve discussed in these digital pages before, one of the most fascinating and insightful ‘variety’ of Muslim saint in the early modern Ottoman world was the majdhūb (Ott. Turk. meczûb), the ‘divine attracted one,’ a strange and often disruptive and even antinomian figure who became a fixture of many Ottoman cities and towns in both the Arabic and Turkish speaking portions of the empire. Like the holy fool (yurodivy) in the Russian lands during the same period, [1] the majdhūb often engaged in public acts of disrespect towards holders of political power and authority, often with a sharp edge of political critique which might not have been tolerated from other actors. Such an act of transgressive, symbolic political intervention featured strongly in the remembered life story of the majdhūb I’m profiling today, one Abū Bakr al-Mi’ṣarānī al-Majdhūb (d. 1605), of Damascus.

He was profiled by the prominent Damascene scholar and biographer Najm al-Dīn al-Ghazzī, who personally knew and revered the saint, to the point that towards the end of Abū Bakr’s life he would even spend nights in the al-Ghazzī family home, talking with Najm al-Dīn deep into the night. Abū Bakr had humble origins and source of livelihood, having worked, as his laqab al-Mi’ṣarānī indicates, as an oil-presser, until one night while in a dhikr assembly (that is, a session of ritual remembrance of God) under the leadership of Shaykh Sulimān al-Ṣawāf al-Ṣufī, Najm al-Dīn’s brother Shihāb al-Dīn in attendance as well, ‘lightning flashes from God flashed out to him and seized him, so that he entered divine attraction, stripping off his clothes and going naked, save for his genitals. Then the state left him after some months, returning to him every year for three or four months. He was hidden in it from his senses, and would utterly shave away his beard and go naked [2].’ Besides embracing the typical majdhūb distaste for proper clothing and facial hair, both also characteristics of ‘antinomian’ dervishes, Abū Bakr also engaged in playful ‘assaults’ on people, demanding money from them, which he would then distribute to the poor. When not in his state of jadhb he would practice silence and acts of worship, secreting himself in the Umayyad Mosque. When ‘under the influence’ his state was clearly a fierce and potentially dangerous one, especially to members of the Ottoman elite. His inner potency was further indicated by a dream al-Ghazzī reports, in which, having asked God to reveal Abū Bakr’s true ‘form’ to him, the scholar behold the majdhūb transmuting into the form of a lion, then back to his human form. ‘That made manifest that he was from among the Abdāl. When day came I saw him, in his condition, and he laughed at me, and said to me: “How did you see me last night?”’ [3]

The central wondrous story that al-Ghazzī relates has to do with Abū Bakr’s curious interaction with the then chief judge (Ar. qāḍī, Turk. kâdî) of the city. In the Ottoman system, kâdîs were regularly circulated through different posts, being transferred frequently in order to avoid having them build up a local power base and to avoid corruption. As this story suggests, they did not always prove to be acceptable to local subjects:

‘Abd al-Raḥman Efendī, when he was chief qāḍī in Damascus, believed in [Abū Bakr al-Mu’asirānī al-Majdhūb]. Concerning the matter of the harvest he had injustice in mind, and the people were distressed concerning him. One day the qāḍī said to [the majdhūb], who was in his retreat (khalwa): “O Shaykh Abū Bakr, I want to ride you!” So he said to him, “Stand up oh Efendi!” So he bore him on his back, holding on to his thighs with his hands. He stood up with him, then stopped alongside a basin of water nearby and said to him: “How do you think of yourself now Efendi? Should I throw you into the water?” There was no one else with the qāḍī, so he took to flattering Abū Bakr, supposing that he was indeed going to throw him in. [The majdhūb] did not stop but rather intensified what he was doing, until finally Abū Bakr set him down from his back. The qāḍī tossed him three silver coins, and left his presence. The report came of his dismissal from office two days later. The people knew that what [the majdhūb] did to him was an indication (ishāra) of the lifting of his assault on the Muslims and his dismissal from office.

‘I asked Shaykh Abū Bakr about his encounter with the qāḍī, while he was in his ḥāl [his spiritual state of jadhb, divine attraction], and he reported to me in a manner that agreed with what had been related to me from others about the matter. I said to him, “By the Doer! This was a diminishment of your adab [i.e. proper behavior] with the qāḍī of the sharī’a!” But he replied to me, “Quiet! God does not love the prideful!” [4]

Two things in particular stand out in this story: first, the kâdî is shown being a ‘believer’ in the majdhūb, a term that also has the sense of having ‘allegiance’ and ‘loyalty,’ with ‘believer’ capturing but part of the sense. The strange and seemingly ‘deviant’ practices of these saints were, by the end of the sixteenth century, recognized widely across the Ottoman world as markers of sainthood, including by members of the Ottoman elite. It is this recognition of his sainthood that allows the second notable aspect of this story, the saint’s freedom of political critique. Abū Bakr can mock, and indeed threaten with albeit mild violence, one of the most important members of the Ottoman power elite within a given locale, the kâdî, and can do so with impunity, precisely because of his exceptional status. Like the late antique holy man profiled by Peter Brown, or like the yurodivy St. Basil of Moscow who famously upbraided Tsar Ivan the Terrible, Abū Bakr’s widely recognized and venerated position as a ‘friend of God’ gave him certain leeway in his relations with the kâdî.

Now, that said, the oddest, to me, part of the story is the kâdî’s request to ‘ride’ on the saint’s back. What are we meant to make of that detail? I am not sure, honestly- there may be homoerotic undertones (is the kâdî proposing that he ‘mount’ the saint, with all the sexual and power dynamic connotations such a suggestion might carry?), or perhaps the kâdî wished to receive the saint’s baraka through close physical contact. It is also possible that we are meant to see it as absurd, a desire precipitated by the saint’s divinely bestowed power. Regardless, the story is deliberately comic, another ‘typical’ aspect of majdhūb behavior and this sort of saint’s propensity for inversion. Finally, note that al-Ghazzī, the narrator, was clearly uncomfortable with the saint’s behavior, even if he acknowledges in his account that the judge was unjust and worthy of removal (which, it is implied, was effected through the saint’s power). But it is the majdhūb who has the last word, not the scruples of the learned scholar of the sharī’a.


[1] On the tradition of holy foolishness in late medieval into early modern Russia, see S. A. Ivanov, Holy Fools in Byzantium and Beyond, (Oxford ; Oxford University Press, 2006).

[2] Najm al-Dīn Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazzī, Luṭf al-samar wa-qaṭf al-thamar: mintarājum aʻyān al-ṭabaqah al-ūlá min al-qarn al-ḥādī ʻashar (Dimashq: Manshūrāt Wizārat al-Thaqāfah wa-al-Irshād al-Qawmī, 1981), 258.

[3] Ibid., 259

[4] Ibid., 260-261.


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