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!

He was killed in the year 1018 [1609].

Muḥammad ibn ʻUmar al-ʻUrḍī, Maʻādin al-dhahab fī al-aʻyān al-musharrafah bi-him Ḥalab (ʻAmman: Markaz al-Wathāʼiq wa-al-Makhṭūṭāt, al-Jāmiʻah al-Urdunīyah, 1992), 66-70.

Why did this Abū Bakr meet a violent end when Abū Bakr al-Wafā’ī, his ‘role model,’ was venerated as a prominent holy man, to the point that Ottoman officials in Aleppo sponsored the construction of his shrine? First, we should note that while al-‘Urḍī does not seem enthusiastic about this would-be saint, to say the least, he is also not exactly enthusiastic about his execution, either, reflective of his own father’s apparent attitude of rejecting the majdhūb’s overtures but then simply ignoring him, a far cry from prosecuting him as a heretic. Furthermore, al-‘Urḍī notes that ‘the people’ were divided in their estimation of Abū Bakr: some believed he got what he deserved, while others thought he was ‘treated unjustly,’ perhaps in a manner akin to the ‘prototypical’ martyr/executed heretic, al-Ḥallāj. Plus while our author speaks of them disparagingly, Abū Bakr did attract followers and disciples in his lifetime; we have no information as to whether his veneration continued after his death, though Ottoman officials did what they could to preclude it by destroying his body.

So we return to our initial question as to why Abū Bakr’s career ended in such violent fashion, when other majdhūb figures like him enjoyed widespread veneration? His treatment of Ottoman officials and his scandalous talk of equality between Judaism and Islam (or even preference for Judaism) might seem to most salient, and certainly they were factors, but by themselves are not enough: there were majdhūb saints who acted even more outrageously towards officials and who said even more apparently heretical things, but were treated as saints, not heretics. There are a couple clues in the account, I think: one is that Abū Bakr started out with a supporting social network in the form of at least one well-connected relative, but that at some point and for unspecified reasons he alienated that relative. Second, it appears that he was setting himself up as something of a local notable in his native village, which could suggest the possibility of rebellion to officials, and which also evidently involved his appropriation of ‘state lands’- mīrī lands- for his own private usage (in this context meaning the collection of revenues). These steps, most likely, pushed Abū Bakr beyond the pale, such that, having alienated potential supporters, he was targeted for execution. His extreme actions and words could then be held against him, even as they might simply be interpreted as a sort of shaṭḥiyyāt, ‘ecstatic utterances’ of an enraptured saint, well-known from sufi theory and hagiography.

In short, the line between saint and heretic in the Ottoman world was often very much a matter of political contingency and the ability (or willingness) to cultivate vital social relationships. Unlike some of their contemporaries elsewhere, in general Ottoman authorities were not eager prosecutors of heretics or other deviants; sporadic efforts at policing tobacco smoking, for instance, drew outrage from some quarters of Ottoman society in part because those efforts were seen as diverging from immemorial Ottoman custom. I suspect that had Abū Bakr remained within certain bounds- not explicitly articulated but well-known enough to most- and avoided certain political entanglements he would have died peacefully and been more widely venerated. Of course, it’s also possible- though our source gives only the barest of hints in this direction- that Abū Bakr wanted to be martyred; certainly this was the case with some Orthodox Christian neo-martyrs of the period, some of whom had to go to some lengths to induce Ottoman qāḍīs to execute them. Perhaps Abū Bakr saw martyrdom as a path to total fanā’, ‘annihilation’ in God. On the other hand, he may well have seen himself as divinely commissioned with special revelations for the people of his age, as a second Muḥammad meant to unite Jews and Muslims into one new community. His reported recitation of Sūrah Yā Sīn before his death might indicate as much- significantly the sūrah speaks of a ‘warner’ who is apparently executed for his admonitions to the people, but who has the last laugh, as it were:

It was said, ‘Enter Paradise!’ He said, ‘Ah, would that my people had knowledge that my Lord has forgiven me and that He has placed me among the honoured.’ And We sent not down upon his people, after him, any host out of heaven; neither would We send any down.  It was only one Cry and lo, they were silent and still. Ah, woe for those servants! Never comes unto them a Messenger, but they mock at him. What, have they not seen how many generations We have destroyed before them, and that it is not unto them that they return? They shall every one of them be arraigned before Us.

Q. 36.26-32 (Arberry translation)



[1] This evidently means pulling out his teeth (!).

[2] A qāḍī is of course primarily a judge but in the Ottoman context also took on many administrative duties.

[3] That is, a hospital, which might also function as a mental patient ward of sorts.

[4] Blessing or divinely-granted grace, though the overall meaning is more complex.

[5] A delegated administrator.

[6] A subordinate official in the jurisprudence-administrative hierarchy.

[7] That is, the Ottoman polity or state, ‘political Ottoman elite’ might be the best translation here.

[8] Lands whose revenues were designated for state usage.


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