The Life, Career, and Violent Death of a Would-Be Saint of Ottoman Syria

The execution of the archetypal ambiguous and contested martyr of Islam, Manṣūr al-Ḥallāj, as depicted c. 1590 in a copy of the Tarjuma-i Thawāqib-i manāqib, an Ottoman Turkish translation of Aflākī’s life of Mawlānā Rūmī. As was typical during the period across much of Eurasia, the characters are shown anachronistically in contemporary clothing, here in Ottoman dress typical of the 16th century. Ḥallāj is imagined as a fairly conventional dervish- he is fully bearded and wearing proper clothing- and his instrument of execution is the gallows; otherwise many of the sorts of Ottoman actors, from the qāḍī on down, in Abū Bakr’s story are represented here. (Morgan Library and Museum, MS M.466, fol. 99v)

Most of the Muslim saints’ lives I’ve featured here are of saints who ‘made it,’ that is, who were appreciated as holy men or women by people around them- rarely universally, but at least to an extent that they entered the historical record as ‘socially verified’ saints. But of course just as in early modern Christendom there were people who practiced lives of holiness or extreme devotion but were accused of and in some cases convicted of heresy or other crimes, there were individuals in the Islamicate world of early modernity who clearly set out on the path of sainthood but did not arrive, socially speaking at least. In some cases, would-be saints met a violent end, either at the hands of government authorities or, more rarely, due to individual or mob violence. In a further twist, some of these individuals would be venerated by some after their deaths as martyrs; the executed şeyhs of the Bayrāmī-Melāmī ṭarīḳat are perhaps the best examples of this dynamic, as this sufi lineage and community went from being at best marginal and suspect in the eyes of Ottoman authorities in the sixteenth century to more or less full ‘mainstreaming’ by the eighteenth. Their executed şeyhs were hailed as martyrs, and their shrines were gradually integrated into the wider landscape of sanctity of Ottoman Constantinople and beyond.

The story that I have excerpted and translated below has to do with a would-be saint, Abū Bakr al-Armanāzī, who ended up as an executed heretic or a sainted martyr, depending on who was asked. His story is related by the seventeenth century biographer Muḥammad ibn ʻUmar al-ʻUrḍī of Aleppo in his Maʻādin al-dhahab. I’ll offer further analysis after the story, but will first point out that the saintly path that this Abū Bakr pursued was one that had been laid down by a far more famous figure, the majdhūb saint of Aleppo Abū Bakr al-Wafā’ī (d. 1583, see this article for more). The strange practices and utterances of this Abū Bakr were not unlike those of the Abū Bakr of Aleppo, and were part of an increasingly established repertoire of ‘deviant’ sainthood that owed much to the antinomian dervish groups that had arisen in the late medieval period. But as this story will demonstrate, the saintly success of one majdhūb saint did not automatically translated into the success of another. After the translation we’ll consider what might have gone wrong.

He was from among the great of the village of Armanāz [in the ‘amāl of Ḥārim]. Then he manifested divine attraction (jadhb), shaved his beard, and ‘kindled the fire between his hands,’ [1] desiring imitation of Shaykh Abu Bakr al-Wafā’ī in that. He was big of body, and heavy-set, resembling Shaykh Abū Bakr. He would prepare meals for guests, and give gifts out to newcomers.

There gathered around him people from the accursed heretics, and he abandoned ritual prayer, worship, and fasting, speaking with the words of the people of heresy, rending custom through horrid matters and ugly states, to the point that he sent a present to my father the shaykh, saying, ‘Come, let us go visit the kanīsa, the abode of the Jews!’ My father the shaykh reviled him for that, being angry with him but otherwise ignoring him. ‘After that he went even further in things outside of rationality, such that it was said of him that he said to the Jews: ‘I want to investigate between you and the Muslims until I determine with which community (firqa) has the truth.’

Rain diminished in a year, so he stormed in upon the qāḍī [2] of Ḥārim and struck him saying, ‘The rain will not fall except through the qāḍī of Ḥārim, Hassām Efendi, being struck!’ The qāḍī reported him to the qāḍī of Aleppo. Out of regard for his in-law Shaykh Shams he placed him in the bīmāristān [3], on the basis of his being mad (majnūn), so that the qāḍī ordered Shaykh Shams al-Dīn that he instruct [his in-law Abū Bakr] to talk with senseless jabber (hadhayān) in the court, so he instructed him. But even so he would not talk with senseless jabber. Then after a short while he was released from the bīmāristān, and a short time after this the qāḍī died, and [Abū Bakr] would say, ‘This is through my baraka [4]!’

Some time later Sinān Pāşā was appointed to oversee Aleppo, and among the most important of his partisans was Hidāyet Beǧ Şaqīq ‘Alī Pāşā al-‘Ajamī, the previous kāfil [5] of Aleppo. Then there assembled against [Abū Bakr] a group of people in the time of Meḥmed Efendi, the qāḍī of Aleppo, known as Çeşmī, consisting of Ramaẓān Efendi, the brother of Hassām Efendi, nā’ib [6] in Aleppo, as well as a group from the folk of the dawla [7], such as Hidāyet Beǧ. Trouble arose between them due to the village of Armanāz, which had taken from being mīrī [8] and alienated it [to himself]. At the same time his relative Shams al-Dīn al-Armanāzī al-Ḥāfiẓ was among those who came out against him, despite having previously assisted him. A group of people bore witness against him that he drank wine, abandoned the canonical prayers and fasting, and that he said ‘I am a prophet,’ and that at times he would say ‘I want to adjudicate between the Muslims and the Jews to see which religion is more correct,’ other times he would scowl. Al-Ḥājj Maḥmūd ibn Naṣīr and Shaykh Muḥammad ibn al-Raḥīm al-Sa’dī and others bore witness of that. The nā’ib commanded his execution, and the qāḍī at the time, Meḥmed Efendi Çeşmī, forbade further hearing of the case.

So that qāḍī ordered his execution, and when he came forth he was reciting Sūrah Yā Sīn, without perturbation, to the point that they struck his neck, atop the Aleppo citadel. Then naphtha and tar were brought and his body was burned thereby. The people disagreed concerning his case: the majority declared him to be a heretic, but some among them bore witness that he was unjustly treated. Knowledge of the truth belongs to God! Continue reading “The Life, Career, and Violent Death of a Would-Be Saint of Ottoman Syria”