Arguing Ibn ‘Arabī and Astrology in the Aq Qoyunlu Lands

Folio from a Shahnama (Book of kings) by Firdawsi (d. 1020)
While this miniature is meant to depict a scene from the Shāhnāma, it was produced for the Aq Qoyunlu court (as part of the so-called ‘Big Head Shāhnāma‘) and can give us an idea of what Aq Qoyunlu elites in the immediate orbit of the court would have looked like, their clothing and adjacent material objects reflective of their status; for a sufi such as Ibrāhīm-i Gülşenī there was always a certain ambiguity involved in politically positioning one’s self vis-a-vis such luxury and wealth. (Freer and Sackler S1986.172)

Claims to knowledge and authority are almost always contested, whatever the period or society, but in the often politically and culturally tumultuous Islamicate lands of the 15th and 16th centuries- the pivot point between ‘medieval’ and ‘early modern’- conflict and contestation were particularly vigorous and wide-ranging. Different models of religious authority- some centered on sainthood, others on exoteric scholarly acumen, with many grades within and between- as well as often sharply divergent versions of political authority and justification, to name but two categories of conflict, circulated and clashed from the Maghrib to Inner Asia. Advocates of one epistemic position or source of authority often sought political and culturally advantage, working to ‘cancel’ their adversaries, to use contemporary parlance.

In the massive Ottoman Turkish hagiographic work Menākıb-i İbrāhīm-i Gülşenī by Muḥyī-yi Gülşenī (d. 1605), which describes the life, travails, and practices of the founder of the Gülşenī ṭarīqa, Ibrāhīm-i Gülşenī (d. 1534), we find many valuable snapshots of such conflict in the Ottoman lands- where Ibrāhīm ended up and where his hagiographer Muḥyī lived most of his life- as well as in Ibrāhīm’s native territory, the Aq Qoyunlu domains (which covered parts of what are now Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Turkey). I have selected two such instances that are chronologically close together, both set in the waning days of the Aq Qoyunlu dynasty in the late fifteenth century: in the first, we see conflict over the works of Ibn ‘Arabī, the famous (or infamous according to some) medieval sufi theologian and philosopher whose works and ideas would have a massive impact well into our own day. The second excerpt has to do with conflict between Shaykh Ibrāhīm and court astrologers attached to Sultan Ya’qūb’s court. We begin with the conflict over Ibn ‘Arabī; the accusation of the ẖalīfes (appointed delegates of a sufi shaykh) being ‘Fuṣūṣīs’ is in reference to one of Ibn ‘Arabī’s most famous works, Fuṣūs al-ḥikam:

It is related that when the ẖalīfes of Dede [ʿUmar Rūshanī, Ibrāhīm’s precepting shaykh] Efendi dispersed in order to instruct the Turkmen of Qarabāǧ, while the common people were lovingly engaged with zikr and meditation, certain students of ‘ilm in that region, having conversed with them, became envious and accused them if infidelity, saying, “These are Fuṣūṣīs!’ They gathered together and came before Dede [Efendi], said some worthless things, then took [copies] of the Fuṣūs and piled them up. The venerable Dede said, “I am not Shaykh Ibn ’Arabī’s trustee, but there are portions of the noble Qur’an therein, and burning [them] would be a sin.” He having said this, they all rushed together and bore the venerable Dede off to Tabriz for examination (teftīş). Coming before Qāḍī ‘Īsā they acted very impolitely (bī-adablik).

When Shaykh Ibrāhīm received report of this, he immediately found a mount and came to Qāḍī ‘Īsā. He saw that some hundred immature [literally, ‘not cooked,’ nā-puẖte] students (suẖte) had assembled. He inquired about their condition. When they answered, the shaykh said: ‘It’s a wonder— every time that you brought to us any need of yours, we would fulfill it, but now what is this shamelessness? If you are envious of offerings, tithes, and charity, then come and go to your proper place. The fuqarā’ are not seekers of this world below, and those who act with impropriety will receive their lot.” So saying he broke up the assembly. While the shaykh was together with Qāḍī ‘Īsā, they arranged it such that coming to Sulṭān Ya’qūb they conveyed him to the venerable Dede, and coming to the venerable Dede the sultan entered, made ziyāret, and asked his prayers. Qāḍī ‘Īsā then summoned the ‘ulamā’, and Shaykh Ibrāhīm called the venerable Dede to a feast, saying, “All is at your disposal!” Not wishing to be at odds with Shaykh Ibrāhīm or Qāḍī ‘Īsā, all of the ‘ulamā’ kissed the venerable Dede’s hand, asked his supplicatiom, and sought his forgiveness. Mevlānā ‘Abd al-Ghanī and Mevlānā spent seven days withdrawn in the venerable Dede’s service, and reaped much benefit thereby. [1]

A couple of interesting things stand out: first, this passage reminds us that whereas in the early modern period Ibn ‘Arabī would be increasingly universally received, including among the ‘exoteric ‘ulamā” as a saint and master theologian (though hold-outs rejecting or critiquing him would certainly persist), in the 15th century deep divides still remained, with many Islamic scholars rejecting al-Shaykh al-Akbar as not just incorrect but as an infidel [2]. Dede ʿUmar’s own position is itself a bit ambiguous here, as he disavows being the ‘trustee’ of Ibn ‘Arabī, and defends his works rather lamely (though perhaps this was temporary exigency). Ibrāhīm-i Gülşenī, by contrast, was a much more vigorous defender. In this account he teamed up with a close ally in the Aq Qoyunlu administration, Qāḍī ‘Īsā, to effectively shame the opponents of Ibn ‘Arabī into submission, unabashedly utilizing his close connections with the Aq Qoyunlu elite to do so. The opponents are also an interesting lot: in the Ottoman context the ‘suẖte,’ meaning there students in the medrese system, would become notorious at a later period for social unrest. Here their profile is less clear, but Shaykh Ibrāhīm’s rebuke suggests aspiring ‘ulamā’ who had not secured elite patronage and for whom Ibn ‘Arabī-quoting sufis were direct competitors for authority and physical patronage.

LJS 434 Jadāvil-i ikhtiyārāt
Astrologers were common components in late medieval and early modern ‘knowledge economies’ across the Islamicate world (and beyond), often in the service of political elites; the astrological work from which this colorful schematic came was produced under Timurid rule in eastern Persia, almost contemporaneous with the story below of astrologers in the service of the Aq Qoyunlu sultan Ya’qūb ibn Ūzūn Ḥasan. (University of Pennsylvania, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, LJS 434)

Competition for epistemic authority and, closely intertwined with that authority, sultanic patronage and attention appears in our second story, too. This brief account takes place shortly after the above report, and is part of a much longer description of a campaign undertaken by Sultan Ya’qūb; Shaykh Ibrāhīm has come out on campaign, too, and offers a very different prognostication than that given by the court astrologers:

The sultan’s astrologers, each of whom received from the sultan as part of his employment a regular stipend of a hundred thousand akçes, said to the shaykh: “Now then! We are compelled to go [on campaign], but why are you coming voluntarily? For that the sultan is going to be utterly routed is determined, we have learned it from our examination and observation of the stars.” The shaykh replied, “I rather have witnessed in the divine astrolabe that Bāyindir H̱an will be killed, and the sultan victorious and triumphant, so that the hadith Every astrologer is a liar will be shown true.” Yet in accord with their beliefs they continued to hold forth, and the shaykh said, “If your words prove false, ought not your stipend be cut off?” Humbling themselves the astrologers pleaded, saying, “Woe is us! Don’t say such to anyone, and let it not be thus, for the sake of your sacred head!” The shaykh replied, “If your knowledge is not completely cut off, still it will not be hard for it to be [rendered] doubtful and ambiguous.” [3]

The story moves on from there, with the sultan taking stock of Shaykh Ibrāhīm’s (ultimately correct) prognostication. At play is a recurring tension between two fixtures of late medieval into early modern Islamicate courts (and of many other areas of life below the level of the court), the sufi (or otherwise) holy man and the astrologer. The line between holy man and astrologer (or alchemist or practitioner of the ‘esoteric arts’) was not always entirely clear, and the conversation Shaykh Ibrāhīm and the chastened astrologers have suggests why: both ‘sides’ laid claim to knowledge of the future, even as their methods and sources were quite different. Where the astrologers looked to the literal, physical heavens, utilizing literal astrolabes (such as the almost-contemporary Timurid example below), treatises, charts, horoscopes (like that above), and the like, the holy man drew upon his ‘divine astrolabe,’ his relationship with God and result special access to divine knowledge, particularly knowledge of divine predestination of events.

16.17-D25-1986-forside-Astrolab
An astrolabe– ‘an instrument used in astronomy for a variety of purposes, e.g., demonstration and solution of problems in spherics, measuring altitudes, and telling time’ – made in 1426/7 in Timurid Persia, and hence likley quite similar to the sorts of instruments Aq Qoyunlu astrologers mighty have used. (David Collection Inv. no. D 25/1986)

In sum, these two stories, with their rich and complex backgrounds and historical contexts, capture some of the struggles and conflicts over authority, knowledge, and social and cultural power that ran through the late medieval Iranian lands in particular, and which would continue to foment well through the seventeenth century, taking on new forms and permutations as circumstances changed. One of the biggest transformations would be the rise to power of the Safavids, the fall of the Aq Qoyunlu, and the attendant flourishing of the Ottomans, with the contestation of authority and religious legitimacy rising to new heights during the conflict between the two expansive empires. Shaykh Ibrāhīm-i Gülşenī would be forced to leave his homeland, settling in a soon-to-be-Ottomanized Egypt, where he would encounter new conflicts and cultural situations, with a very different political profile from that of the ambulant court of Sultan Ya’qūb. But that is another story [4].

0000.999.11458.obv.noscale
One side of a gold dinar of Sultan Ya’qūb (American Numismatic Society, 0000.999.11458)

Footnotes:

[1] Muhyî-yi Gülşenî, Menâkib-i İbrâhîm-i Gülşenî, ed. Tahsin Yazıcı (Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu Basımevi, 1982), 88-89.

[2] See for instance Aleksandr D Knyž, Ibn ʻArabi in the Later Islamic Tradition: The Making of a Polemical Image in Medieval Islam (Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1999).

[3] Muhyî-yi Gülşenî, Menâkib, 117.

[4] For more on his story, see Side Emre, Ibrahim-i Gulshani and the Khalwati-Gulshani Order: Power Brokers in Ottoman Egypt (Leiden: Brill, 2017).

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

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