Around the Late Medieval World with Abū Isḥāq al-Kāzarūnī and the Sacred Soil of His Tomb

Salting Mihrab
Fig. 1. A c. 1300 mihrab tile made in Kashan, which once decorated a tomb, perhaps of a saint. Abū Isḥaq’s shrine is no longer extant, but it might well have at some point in its existence featured tilework such as this. (V&A C.1977-1910)

The late medieval Islamicate world was filled with saints’ shrines and communities of sufis and other devotees oriented around those saints and their physical place of burial. Devotion to saints was, in the medieval as in the early modern world, more often than not a local phenomenon, centered around the saint of one’s village or neighborhood. In other cases, a community of devotees came into being that was spread out over an entire city, a region, an empire, or, in some cases, all or most of the Islamicate lands. One such saint with near-global reach was Shaykh Abū Isḥaq al-Kāzarūnī (d. 1035), whose tomb complex once stood in the town of Kāzarūn (modern Kazerun, Iran), until its destruction by the Safavids in the early 1500s (being no longer extant we cannot say what precisely it looked like, but surviving tombs and decorative components, such as those in fig. 1, help in imagining a reconstruction). The community of dervishes that arose around the saint, institutionally maintained in part by numerous khānaqāhs (structures in which sufis might live or visit, and which often provided travelers with lodging too), stretched from China to the Ottoman lands, lasting in the latter at least into the eighteenth century. How did a sufi saint from a relatively minor city in the Iranian lands obtain such a global reach? Abū Isḥaq himself, who in his lifetime seems to have emphasized preaching, charitable works, and jihād on the frontier, only left Kāzarūn once, living and teaching and dying there. It would be his successors who built up a network of devotees oriented around the saint and his tomb-complex, using a wide range of means to do so.

Much of the transformation and ‘globalization’ of devotion to Abū Isḥaq and the community formed around him took place from the 1300s forward. One instrument of the community’s spread, and a crucial source for understanding it, is the Persian-language vitae of the saint, Maḥmūd b. ʿUthmān’s Firdaws al-murshidiyya fī asrār al-ṣamadiyya, completed in 1328, Maḥmūd drawing upon but also adding to a now lost Arabic manāqib about the saint. This work evidently circulated quite widely, being translated into Ottoman Turkish during the mid-seventeenth century by Çömezzāde Meḥmed Şevḳī (d. 1688). Below we will return below to one of the more interesting features of this vitae- an entire chapter devoted to the properties of the soil of the saint’s tomb- but first let us hear from the famed traveler Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, who visited the central shrine and khānaqāh in 1326:

I left Shīrāz to visit the tomb of the pious shaykh Abū Isḥāq al-Kāzarūnī at Kāzarūn, which lies two days’ journey [west] from Shīrāz. This shaykh is held in high honour by the inhabitants of India and China. Travelers on the Sea of China, when the wind turns against them and they fear pirates, usually make vows to Abū Isḥāq, each one setting down in writing what he has vowed. When they reach safety the officers of the convent go on board the ship, receive the list, and take from each person the amount of his vow. There is not a ship coming from India or China but has thousands of dinars in it [vowed to the saint]. Any mendicant who comes to beg alms of the shaykh is given an order, sealed with the shaykh’s seal [see fig. 2] stamped in red wax, to this effect: “Let any person who has made a vow to the Shaykh Abū Isḥāq give thereof to so-and-so so much,” specifying a thousand or a hundred, or more or less. When the mendicant finds anyone who has made a vow, he takes from him the sum named and writes a receipt for the amount on the back of the order. [1]

As is evident from Ibn Baṭṭūṭa’s report, the shrine of Abū Isḥaq had mechanisms for accumulating wealth, wealth which could then be distributed to travelers, the poor, resident dervishes, and the custodians of the shrine itself. The generators of this wealth- here merchants, but we know from other sources that local and Ilkhanid elite sponsored the shrine too- helped to spread devotion to the saint far and wide, in many places leading to the establishment of Kāzarūnī khānaqāhs, from Canton to Edirne. Crucial here was the ‘transportability’ of the saint’s power, his baraka. Vows, texts, and seals such as the one mentioned by Ibn Baṭṭūṭa and shown below were all means of making the saint’s power present far from his resting place.

Magical seal, cast bronze Iran; 14th century
Fig. 2. A 14th century bronze seal bearing the inscription ‘Abū Isḥaq, the Guiding Shaykh, God sanctify his spirit’- almost certainly the very seal to which Ibn Battuta refers in the passage below (David Collection Inv. no. 7/1996)

There was another means whereby that power was transmitted, one which Maḥmūd b. ʿUthmān thought important enough to devote an entire chapter to in his vitae of the saint (referred to repeatedly therein as ‘the Guiding Shaykh’): the power of the soil of the saint’s tomb. As the stories I have selected and translated in what follows suggest, soil gathered from above the saint’s grave was believed to transmit the presence and power of the saint himself, with only a small amount necessary, making it easy to collect and carry across the world in fact:

On the Virtue of the Soil of the Tomb of the Guiding Shaykh, God Sanctify his Saintly Spirit:

Know, God be merciful to you, that the special quality and virtue of the soil (gil) of the tomb (qabr) of the Guiding Shaykh, God illumine his tomb, has no limit such that one could describe it or be able to adequately speak of its virtue. It is well established and verified across the face of the earth among the children of Adam, elite and common, that whatever intention is brought [to his tomb], their needs are happily met. It is mentioned and well-known that when a ship, while traversing the midst of the sea, is in fear of sinking, the waves overwhelming, if they throw a handful of soil from the tomb of the Shaykh into the midst of the sea, in that moment the waves will become peaceful and safety return to view, due to the barakāt of the Guiding Shaykh, God sanctify his saintly spirit! The degrees and virtue of that are numerous, however, that measure of things which have come to the hearing of this deficient bondservant and which have been witnessed will be mentioned, towards good, God willing.

Story: They say that when [Great Seljuk] Prince Qāvurt came to Kāzurūn with his great army, they came to a halt in Mehrenjān [a nearby village]. [Prince Qāvurt] had with him his son who was called Mardānshāh, who had a chronic illness which no matter how many treatments the doctors plied could not be made better and no cure could be found. The custodians of the ribāṭ of the Guide arose and came with greetings to that prince, after which the prince related the story of his son’s illness to the custodians of the Guide’s [shrine]. One of the custodians, whose name was Musharif, arose and went to the head of the sacred enclosure of the Guide [that is, his tomb] and took a handful of soil from the grave of the Shaykh, then returned to the prince. The soil (gil) was mixed with rose-water (ʻaraqi gul) [2] and given to Mardānshāh to drink. In that moment God, exalted is He, gave him healing, and that illness in an instant ceased from him. After that Prince Qāvurt arose and came to Kāzurūn and presented himself in the shrine of the Guiding Shaykh, asking who was the lordly one whose shrine [literally, ‘place’] this was? The custodian Musharif replied, ‘This is the shrine of the Guiding Shaykh Abū Isḥaq, God sanctify his saintly spirit—it was the soil from his tomb which gave healing to your son Mardānshāh!’ Prince Qāvurt went and turned towards the presence of the venerable Shaykh, performing ziyārat [3] before the venerable Shaykh. Afterwards, he commanded that it be proclaimed in the midst of the army’s encampment that no one was to pillage either Kāzarūn or its surrounding villages nor disturb anyone. When the army heard the proclamation of the prince they refrained from pillage, and afterwards Kāzarūn and its surroundings were spared pillage and disorder, exchanging fear and tribulation for peace and security, thanks to the barakāt of the Guiding Shaykh, God sanctify his saintly spirit!

…. Another [Story]: Once this deficient bondservant had an excruciating headache, such that I was rendered incapable from the pain. A dervish came to visit me in my sickness, and when he asked how I was doing, I related to him my condition. That dervish gave me a handful of soil from the tomb of the Shaykh and said, ‘Rub a handful of this soil on your forehead, and through the barakat of the Guiding Shakyh God will give healing.’ So I took a little of that in my mouth and made it into mud, then rubbed it on my forehead, and in that very moment the pain stopped and [my head] became tranquil, the healing coming from the barakāt of the Guiding Shakyh, God sanctify his saintly spirit!

… It is related that a group of merchants from the people of Kāzarūn went on a journey, having numerous costly wares with them. Before their departure, one of them when to the presence of the venerable Guiding Shaykh, God sanctify his saintly spirit, did ziyārat, declared his intention, and took a handful of soil from the tomb of the Guiding Shaykh, carried it away, and placed it in the midst of his own costly wares. He then set out with them on the journey. After they had traveled for two or three days robbers fell upon them and pillaged the merchants’ property, but the property of [the merchant with the soil] was safe, the robbers not even coming close to his property. After the caravan robbers had struck and gone away, the people of the caravan questioned that person, saying, ‘How is that your property remained safe, but all of ours they carried away?’ He replied, ‘Because when I was preparing to set out I went to the presence of the Guiding Shaykh, God sanctify his saintly spirit, did ziyārat, declared my intention, and took a handful of soil from his tomb and placed it in the midst of my costly wares. Through the barakāt of the Guiding Shakyh, God sanctify his saintly spirit, God preserved my property! [4]

There are a couple of recurring themes worth noting in these accounts: first, the soil itself is of course central. We might think of it as reproducing, sometimes at great distance, the space and power of the shrine itself; not only is it saturated with the saint’s baraka via proximity to his bodily remains, it is almost as if it carries with the shrine itself in miniature, the physical locus of the shaykh’s spiritual presence. The person carrying or using the soil is linked back to that holy place and its powerful effects. Second, various people are involved in using, conveying, and spreading this sacred soil: merchants and dervishes most of all, both given to movement and able to spread the sacred soil of the saint far and wide. They also introduce others to the saint by means of this potent relic: Maḥmūd, the author of this text, discovered the power of the soil because of a visiting dervish, and then in turn publicized its virtues through his Persian menāqib. Finally, the sacred soil of the shrine is shown to be of interest to the elite as well, and to provide a means of checking some of the potential violence and disorder of those elite. By means of his sacred soil, Abū Isḥaq becomes the protector of Kāzarūn, even as devotion to him and adherence to the community bearing his name spread far beyond the southwest corner of the Iranian lands, merchants and warriors and dervishes, sacred soil in hand, spreading praise of this powerful Friend of God from China to the Balkans.

Ilkhanid Fox and Hare Tiles


[1] Ibn Baṭṭūṭa. Travels in Asia and Africa: 1325-1354. Translated by H. A. R. Gibb. Routledge, 2005.

[2] Maḥmūd is of course playing on words here, since the Persian word for ‘soil’ and ‘rose’ are usually indistinguishable when written due to the frequent absence of short vowels in Arabic script.

[3] That is, to perform a set of practices before the saint’s tomb, usually consisting of the recitation of the Fātiḥa, certain acts of bodily deportment, and a statement of supplications and requests for intercessions from the saint, perhaps accompanied by lighting of candles, leaving of votives, rubbing the tomb with one’s head and hands, and so forth.

[4] Maḥmūd b. ʿUthmān. Firdaws al-murshidiyya fī asrār al-ṣamadiyya. Edited by Fritz Meier. In Die Vita des Scheich Abū Isḥāq al-Kāzarūnī. Leipzig, 1948. For more on Abū Isḥaq see Aigle, Denise. ‘Kāzarūniyya’. In Encyclopaedia of Islam, THREE. Edited by Kate Fleet, Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, and Everett Rowson. Brill Online.

Ilkhanid Fox and Hare Tiles

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