‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī and the Stoned Preacher of Bulaq

Interior of the mosque of Sinan Pasha, Cairo (Photograph)
Interior of the Sinān Pasha Mosque in Būlāq, Cairo, as it appeared between 1916 and 1921, photographed by K.A.C. Creswell (V&A 4812-1955)

Over the course of his several journeys through the Ottoman lands, the great shaykh, scholar, and saint ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī encountered all sorts of people from all manner of walks of life, from members of the Ottoman elite to Turkmen nomads in the desert. On the whole he expressed great affection and understanding for ordinary people, including those whose practice of Islam did not precisely accord with the textual, urban norms of the scholarly class of which al-Nābulusī was a prominent member. In the following story, which takes place in the Būlāq neighborhood of Ottoman Cairo, al-Nābulusī’s patience and tolerance were both tested greatly by a decidedly unprofessional Friday preacher to whom he and his friend and host Shaykh Zayn al-‘Ābidīn al-Bakrī, a prominent and well-known (as the story suggests) member of Cairo’s scholarly class, found themselves listening, first with amusement and later with other less positive emotions. The story is largely self-explanatory, though it is worth pointing out that the preacher’s attempt at angling a bigger share of the mosque’s designated endowment for preaching is a good reminder of the quotidian, economic realities running through Ottoman religious life, like the religious lives of people the world over. His apparent substance addiction, as we would now call it, also reminds us that such problems are hardly anything new, while the undercurrent of humor this story has a decidedly contemporary feel to it as well.

Preacher with Ink instead of Rosewater
Another Ottoman preacher whose reception was not what he was expecting: an illustration of a story of a preacher in a mosque who accidently sprinkled his face with ink instead of rosewater, from a 1721 copy of the Ḫamse of the Ottoman poet ʿAṭāʾī (d. 1634). From Walters Ms. W.666, fol. 48a.

‘We came to the Sanāniyya Mosque [that is, the Sinān Pasha Mosque, built in 1572] and the prayed here the Friday prayer. We found the preacher preaching and mispronouncing words, praying and reciting and mispronouncing words—in other words, he did not cease from his mispronunciations! But no one else inside of that mosque noticed, nor anyone outside in the courtyard. Shaykh Zayn al-‘Ābidīn al-Bakrī, God preserve him, when the preacher would make a mispronunciation would look at me and grin. The preacher, out of his ignorance of his mispronunciations, thought that he was amazed at his eloquence and heaved a sigh. Off-handedly, the following verses came to my mind in that we had never encountered a preacher quite like him:

The preacher of Būlāq whose voice/ prides itself more than the mill does the flour,

Preaches with mispronunciation upon mispronunciation, and if/ he mispronounces here, compensates with mispronunciation there!

‘When we completed the Friday prayer we also prayed the noon prayer [implying, probably, defect in the performance of the Friday prayer], then returned to the Gülşenî zāwiya where we had been previously. Lo and behold, that preacher came in to us, too, thinking we had taken his preaching performance as good because of his overhearing our talking about him and amazement at the affair. Then he sat down before Shaykh Zayn al-‘Ābidīn, God preserve him, seeking his intercession that he might have the entirety of the preaching position [in the Sinān Pasha Mosque], as he had to share it with someone else, and that someone else wasn’t worthy, while his own condition was praiseworthy, until some of those present made him to understand that the reality of his condition was that he was from among the heedless, mentioning to him his mispronunciations during the sermon and prayer.  He excused himself by saying he had earlier secretly consumed some of the hashish with which he was sorely tried. He then changed the topic, plunging entirely into foolery, telling jokes and using crass language such that those present turned him out. We all marveled at this unreal seeming affair! When the time of the afternoon prayer approached, we arose and went towards the Qarāfa [Cemetery] so that we could lay hold of baraka through pious visitation of those graceful alighting places of the stars of holy spirits therein, and to wash from the faces of our hearts what had grimed them from the dirt of density.’

‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulsuī, al-Ḥaqīqa wa-al-majāz fī riḥlat bilād al-Shām wa-Miṣr wa-al-Ḥijāz, ed. by Riyāḍ ʻAbd al-Ḥamīd Murād (Damascus: Dār al-Maʻrifah, 1998), 108-109. Translation by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2019.

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

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