Giving Delight to the Lords of Spiritual States

Convent of the Rufai Dervishes .jpg
Sufis with strange and even deviant practices, but who were otherwise deeply integrated into Ottoman social and political life, were hardly limited to the Arab provinces: this c. 1809 painting, by an anonymous Ottoman Greek artist commissioned by the British diplomat Stratford Canning, depicts Rufāʿī dervishes in their Istanbul tekke, performing some of the incredible physical feats for which they were (and are!) well-known. Note the additional edged implements hanging on the wall, and the dervish heating iron in the fireplace to the right, as well as the presence- just as in the story below- of spectators. (V&A D.140-1895)

As sufism and Islamic sainthood both developed over the medieval and into the early modern periods, a vast and heterogenous range of practices were built up to express devotion to God and to make manifest the power of holy people, from various forms of dance to strange feats of physical strength to bodily rigorous rituals lasting hours and hours or even days or weeks. Some of these practices could be quite extreme in the eyes of observers now and at the time, and have in recent years often attracted the designation of ‘folk Islam’ or worse. The following story, which comes from the personal chronicle of a Damascene Muslim scholar named Ibn Kannān (d. 1740), reveals how seriously Ottoman officials- and members of the ‘ulama class, of whom Ibn Kannān was a respectable representative- could take even very strange saints and the unnerving practices of their followers. Here is the tale Ibn Kannān tells:

On the 28th [of Jumādī II, 1118, October 7, 1706], a Thursday, the pasha [Meḥmed Paşa ibn Bayrām] sent someone before Shaykh Muḥibb al-Dīn al-Taghlibī al-Ṣāliḥī al-Shībānī, and commanded him to bring forth the banners, mazhars [1], dhikr litanies, the shaykhs, and the khalīfas [2], and to make a procession (dawra) so that he might give delight to the lords of spiritual states. He did so and set out with banners and mazhars, and when he reached the gate of the palace he called for his horse and rode upon it over the people, [a practice] known as ‘the treading’ (al-dawsa). It is as if the people are sleeping on their faces, then he rides over them with his horse but no one is injured. When he rode out over them the pasha and Qāḍī ʿArīf Efendī and the other elite seated in the kiosk leaped up for joy! Then [Shaykh Muḥibb al-Dīn] came by himself into the presence of the pasha, while the rest of his entourage went to the Sināniyya Mosque…

One of the viziers had an unruly horse whom no one was able to handle. Once he sent it to [Shaykh Muḥibb al-Dīn] and he stood him still upon his feet as was his custom, afixed a bridle he had with him upon his head and led him about, then rode him at a trot. It is said [the vizier] then gifted the horse to the shaykh.

The reason for [the above] procession which the pasha ordered was that Badr al-Majdhūb came to him and sought food from him. He gave him money, which the majdhūb [3] threw away, wanting food, so he gave him bread which he took and then went away. Later, the majdhūb Muṣṭafá al-Taghlibī came to him. The pasha offered him some food but the majdhūb rejected it, wanting money instead, so he gave him some and he accepted it. Then one of the deniers denied [his sanctity]. There was [in the pasha’s company] some from the folk of the countryside (ahl al-balad), and they mentioned [Muṣṭafá al-Taghlibī’s] people (ahl) and their acts of charismata and spiritual states, so the pasha ordered [that procession] in order to give delight and to the erase the denial that had been manifest in his presence. [4]

Several things stand out from this account worth noting. First, the Taghlibīs were a nomadic, tribal grouping- ahl is the Arabic term, one which doesn’t have in this context a precise English equivalent- which, like a number of other rural, ‘tribal’ entities in this period, had developed a reputation for ancestral sanctity and divine power. This reputation, and its ‘leverage’ into sufi organization and ritual, carried into urban areas such as Damascus, providing a good example of the permeability of urban and rural (including nomadic) contexts. The pasha, who would have been a Turkish-speaking Rūmī from the core lands of the empire, not a ‘local’ in other words, recognizes their sanctity and works to make good a perceived insult to the Taghlibīs. That such an insult- a ‘denial’- could happen reminds us that not everyone in this world accepted the status and power of the saints. Critics of the saints existed, particularly among advocates of Ottoman Islamic puritanism, even if their political power was much diminished by the early eighteenth century.

Shaykh Muḥibb al-Dīn al-Taghlibī’s followers draw upon a wide range of sufi practices and emblems, some quite common if not universal, such as dhikr (here, chanted litanies in remembrance of God), others much less common. Most spectacular, of course, is the practice of ‘treading,’ one found among some other sufi groups such as the Rufāʿī, and which was made for public performance and intense reaction- precisely the result in this story. It is interesting that Ibn Kannān ‘explains’ the practice, not through accusations of ‘innovation’ but really as linked to the saintly Muḥibb al-Dīn’s divinely granted power over horses, as implied in the story that appends the main account. On the whole, his account here suggests that the pasha’s presence was generally open to holy men, even the very odd and deviant. We might press a bit and say that the pasha benefited from such openness both in gaining the baraka of these holy men, and in demonstrating to hagiophilic Damascenes like Ibn Kannān that he and the rest of Ottoman officialdom in the city were themselves supporters of the Friends of God. And, of course, it’s equally clear that the pasha and his entourage enjoyed the show, as it were, simultaneous to repairing their relationship with a saintly clan. A win-win situation!


The following track, recorded in 1955, probably in Iraq, features mazhars and sufi singing, probably quite similar to the vocal dhikr and mazhar-playing in the above story:


[1] That is, a type of large tambourine, with a long genealogy in Islamicate music.

[2] A delegate of a shaykh, who might carry the group’s particular ritual to another neighborhood or town, often conveying some of the shaykh’s particular baraka as well.

[3] On these curious saints, see among others this post.

[4] Muḥammad ibn ʻĪsá Ibn Kannān, Yawmīyāt Shāmīya: wa-huwa al-tārīkh al-musammá bi-al-Ḥawādith al-yawmīya min tārīkh ihḍ ʻashar wa-alf wa-mīʼa : ṣafaḥāt nādira min tārīkh Dimashq fī al-ʻaṣr al-ʻUthmānī, 1111-1153 H/1699-1730 M, ed. by Akram Ḥasan ʻUlabī (Damascus: Dār al-Ṭabbāʻ, 1994), 117-118.

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