two days of watching things fall,
the organizing markers in the substrate of my memory:
one was blue sky bright and clear, a fine day,
the first tips of autumn in the air,
the pines before our house were calm and unknowing.
the television billowed with the smoke and time stopped.
an exchange of horror with the postman, I remember,
the day lapse into stunned silence, collapsing
towers on an endless loop, bodies falling. we
could almost smell the smoke and breathe the dust.
everything tasted acrid, our false innocence
expiring under the towers’ broken beams.
the other was not blue sky and bright except in the central
moment as the eye passed over. it was looked for,
but we were not prepared, we did not yet know what
true power looked like, what it meant for everything to stop.
the pines moved in slow splintering rhythm with the skies,
twisting and cracking and bleeding into the driving rain
first the television went,
then the phones,
finally, the radio fell silent, the great tower on the ridge south
crumpled, the cables snapped. silence descended.
trees and towers falling, bodies swallowed up in the waters.
in the heat and decay afterward great insect swarms
moved upon the face of the riven earth, and
the sky was blue and clear and merciless.
As anyone who has followed my work here and elsewhere will be aware, until recently my scholarly research was focused all but exclusively on the early modern and medieval worlds, with a rough cut-off date of 1800 beyond which my expertise thins out considerably. Over the last couple of years since completing my PhD and assuming a post-doctoral research position my interests and research responsibilities have diversified considerably (a diversification which comes with its own risks, I might note), running backwards and forwards in time from the periods with which I am most familiar and comfortable. On the one hand I have taken up a much greater interest in the study of deep time and possible ways of integrating perspectives from paleontology, geology, climatology, archeology, and paleoanthropology into the kinds of historical study and teaching I do located within the ‘shallow’ past. Running in the other direction, on the other hand, I have become much more involved in nineteenth and twentieth century topics, some quite new to me, such as the history of technology and communication, others continuations of my long-standing interests such as saints and sainthood.
I learned about the subject of this week’s essay and translation (and who will certainly figure in future posts over the next month or so) by way of Marwa Elshakry’s book Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950, an exploration of the complex and often quite surprising ways in which Ottoman and post-Ottoman Arab thinkers dealt with the emergence and elaboration of Darwinian evolutionary theory and the permutations that engagement underwent vis-a-vis other concerns and political developments. Shaykh Muḥammad al-Jisr’s son, Ḥusayn al-Jisr, was one of the many thinkers, Muslim, Christian, and otherwise, who grappled with evolution and other aspects of the biological sciences, threading a path that was at once critical and open to scientific insights while also remaining very committed to ‘traditional’ Islam (though in ways that would have been unfamiliar even to his own father in the decades prior), remaining largely critical of evolutionary theory but suggesting that given sufficient proof nothing in Islam prevented acceptance of evolutionary theory provided God was understood to be the first and final cause- materialism was Ḥusayn al-Jisr’s primary foe.
Ḥusayn al-Jisr’s position on evolutionary theory in relation to theology is actually related to the work of his translated here, a hagiography, written in 1888, of his father Shaykh Muḥammad al-Jisr (1792-1845), a Khalwatī teaching shakyh and widely acclaimed saint active in Syria and Palestine (though due to political instability he also spent time in Cyprus and Constantinople). Ḥusayn’s account of his father- who died shortly after Ḥusayn’s birth- is striking for the way in which the author engages in extensive epistemological and other routes of analysis and digression, with much of the introduction devoted to tracing Ḥusayn’s own journey from relative skepticism about his father’s sanctity to embracing it, based on the accumulation and weighing of oral and written evidence, including from non-Muslims. These traces of modernity, as it were, continue throughout, even as the world of sanctity and sainthood revealed is not very far from that of early modernity- it is the framing and the tone that has changed, though certainly not into a voice of disenchantment or skepticism. As such it is a good example of the complex ways Muslims and others have constructed their own ‘modernities’ not necessarily along the lines of a neat trajectory of ‘secularism’ and ‘disenchantment that have so often been seen by many as normative and either automatic or only avoidable by ‘relapsing’ into some form of reaction and obscurantism.
I have selected the following short story mostly because it’s memorable and in the voice of the shaykh’s sister, but also because it captures part of Shaykh Muḥammad’s own saintly charisma- his connections with axial saints of the past, including Aḥmad al-Rifā’ī, and his interventions in everyday life- as well as possible objections that were more likely to arise in the modernizing milieus of the late nineteenth century, with Ḥusayn al-Jisr confronting such objections directly with an explicitness unusual within the genre. We will see other interactions of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ in future installations from this saint’s life, so stay tuned!
‘And from what the aforementioned sister of the shaykh related to me about him: she said: “After the incident I told you about before, among the things that happened to me in that house is that there came to us from Beirut a covered basket of zucchinis, and when I opened the basket up to take the zucchinis out, a snake that had been hidden within came out and slithered into a hole in the house. I was very frightened and resolved to flee the house, but when I came into the presence of the shaykh, your father, I related the story to him and revealed my fear. He said to me, ‘Don’t be afraid!’ Then he came and stood in front of the hole into which the snake had entered and said, ‘Yā Sayyidī Aḥmad! Yā Rifā’ī! My sister is afraid of snakes!’ In that very moment I had barely blinked when the snake came out of the hole and the shaykh killed it, and my heart was calmed thereby.”
This happening points to the administrative power (taṣarruf) of the shaykh and his close relationship with the venerable Shaykh al-Rifā’ī, God sanctify his inner secret. If it is said that the snake charmers do the like of this deed, we say, yes, but the action of the snake charmers is of the nature of a trick, but that which is related here is the action of a man from among the people of piety and sanctity, who sought the aid of a spiritual axis (quṭb) from among the spiritual axes of the age, one would not deny his virtue save one who is utterly effaced of vision. The one who knows what the learned in religion have written about the distinction between prophetic sign (al-mu’jiza) and saintly miracle (al-karāma) and between bewitchment and the art of persuasion, with all being things outside of the ordinary, such foolish doubt will not trouble his heart.’
close your eyes and collect your heart, feel the pricks and pains and discomforts of your body the touch of your machine made clothes, smell far distant the sweat of the Bangladeshi worker, straighten your spine, breathe the heavy air. eyes now open, direct your gaze at the concrete before you, look for a breath and a half. eyes shut, review the landscape in your heart: sidewalk and building, road and powerlines, trees rooted under the asphalt, straining. move the clock forward, see the years pass, new oceans soon lapping at less distant shores, the asphalt cracks, the sparrows take to the fields, every edifice totters, o bring us the little foxes, your body and your civilization a-mouldering in the grave, tattered powerlines flying in the wind rags tied at an unholy tomb. these trees tumble, rot, and new trees grow, the foxes remain but the vineyard is gone, and muscadines tangle the new trees. feel your bones and the built up bones of this world below crumble to dust, taste the death dew heavy, let your heart feel I and all my works will perish. still the new trees grow
One of the most fascinating sources that I came across in the course of researching and writing my dissertation was an Arabic text simply titled ‘Riḥla,’ which might be translated as ‘Travel Narrative’ though it has other connotations as well, written by an otherwise fairly obscure Kurdish author named Ṭāhā al-Kurdī who was born in on the night of December 11, 1723, in a small village in the vicinity of the town of Koy Sanjaq, about two hundred miles north of Baghdad and fifty north of Kirkuk, in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains. Then as now the region was predominantly Kurdish and while usually under the suzerainty of the Ottomans had a degree of autonomy, and was in some ways quite distant culturally and socially from the more urbane parts of the empire. Much of the population was nomadic or semi-nomadic, non-elite women played a much more prominent role in religious and cultural life than was typical in much of the rest of the empire, and the practices of sainthood- a major concern for Ṭāhā- in the region had their own distinctive aspects. At the same time, there was much that would have been familiar anywhere in the Ottoman world or indeed elsewhere in the vast Islamicate: Ṭāhā traveled to Koy Sanjaq as a youth to study in the madrasa there, learning various subjects in Arabic and Persian, perhaps, though he does not say so, using Kurdish glosses or helping texts initially. His relative mastery of prestige bodies of texts and learned, literate skills would serve him well in the coming years of his peregrinations around the empire, following routes that many learned Kurds took over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with scholars from other tiny towns and villages often playing outsized roles in Ottoman religious and intellectual life.
But even more important for Ṭāhā’s self-image and as an impetus for his travels was his love of the saints and his commitment to the practices and doctrines of sufism as transmitted and inculcated by the living friends of God of his day, beginning with his first and most important saintly shaykh, Darwīsh Muṣṭafā. The story from Ṭāhā’s Riḥla that I have translated below relates his first encounter with this saint, and it is a remarkably detailed and emotionally rich story, written in what we might today call a voice of openness and vulnerability, Ṭaha frankly describing his unsettled emotional state, with which I think most people can readily sympathize. We see in the story the way in which a local saint inhered in the social life of a rural community (and navigated its built spaces), and the sheer importance attached to him; we see the process, both in terms of inner states and emotions and in terms of practicalities and ritual actions, of becoming affiliated to such a saintly shaykh, and entering into the sufi ‘path.’ While Darwīsh Muṣṭafā is described as connected to the ṭarīqa of the famed saint and sufi eponym ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jilānī, there is no sense of institutional organization here or even a set of regularized practices. Instead the stress is on transmission of a saintly lineage from one saintly figure down to another, ending up at ‘Abd al-Qādir. Ṭaha is given a ‘personalized’ dhikr (ritual remembrance of God) to perform, which he finally succeeds in through the dream-intercession as it were of another saint, his shaykh’s shaykh, whose hagiography- which I have not translated here- picks up where the following passage concludes.
The deeply personal voice of Ṭāhā al-Kurdī is perhaps the most striking aspect of not just this story but the whole of his Riḥla; he does not simply narrate the exterior ‘facts’ of his life but is even more interested in relating his inner states and conditions, even when they are not especially flattering. In so doing he was not alone in the early modern Ottoman world, or the world more generally, as this sort of subjective turn is visible in many contexts- as for why this would be so, that is another story entirely and one that I do not think has yet been adequately answered. Certainly however we should not be surprised at this sort of subjective exploration given the emphasis in much sufi training on inner states and conditions; what is perhaps more surprising is its being written down and circulated (there are multiple copies of the Riḥla; I have worked from the one pictured below for the simple reason it’s currently accessible to me!). Regardless, this account is a wonderful view of the operation of sainthood and sufi discipleship in one corner of the rural hinterland of the Ottoman Empire, which, despite the predominance of literary production taking place in and focusing on cities, held the vast majority of the empire’s inhabitants, and no small number of the special friends of God who left their mark upon Ottoman space and society over the centuries.
In that time there was dwelling in a place called Awājī—a village from among the villages around Koy [Sanjaq], three or four hours’ walk from there—the singular and proximate [to God] saint and master of evident miracles, gracious signs, and fame unsurpassed in that region, known as Darwīsh Muṣṭafā, God be pleased with him and with his land. He would come to town every Friday, and the people would gather around him like he was a prophet from among the prophets. He would stay in the house of Koy [Sanjaq]’s preacher (khaṭīb), the pious, sound, and knowledgeable Mullā Ḥusayn, God be merciful to him, whose house was close to the madrasa in which I was studying. I had a companion in study who was both older than me and more knowledge and better versed in fiqh, named Faqīh Ḥasan ibn Khāneh, God be merciful to both of them. He had pledged allegiance to the Shaykh in accordance with the ṭarīqa of the saintly axis and reviver of religion ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jīlī [i.e. al-Jilānī], God be pleased with him. He had mentioned to me several times the spiritual condition of his shaykh and his miracles and spiritual states and this and that, to the point that there arose in my heart love for encountering him in order to pay pious visitation and to pledge allegiance to him. So I said to my companion Faqīh Ḥasan, ‘When next Friday comes take me to his presence and tell him about my condition and what I desire and so act as a translator (turjumān) between me and him, and yours will be the reward with God!’
And so towards the end of the month of Sha’bān, six days remaining to it, in the year 1151 , Friday came and the shaykh arrived and stayed in the house of the aforementioned preacher. My companion said to me, ‘The shaykh has come—if you still want, stand and let’s go!’ So we went, but I saw the teeming assembly and I was deeply embarrassed before all the people. The shaykh was inside the house with lots of people before him, likewise outside the house. Still my companion went inside and told the shaykh about me, then he came back out and said to me, ‘I spoke to him.’ An hour later the shaykh had come forth and looked at me, and I had in my hand an inkwell with a tense firm cover such that it could be shaken to rectify the ink. When I saw the shaykh come out I kissed his hand and my companion said to him, ‘This is he,’ meaning me. I was dazed and embarrassed, I couldn’t see anything else save the shaykh stretching out his blessed hand and taking up the inkwell from my hand and saying to me, ‘What is this?’ I replied, ‘This is ink which can be well mixed through motion.’ He stopped for a while to talk with the people, then went back inside the house, saying to me, ‘With your permission—‘ and we entered the house together and sat down, I faced the shaykh with my head bowed for a while. Then he commanded me to come before him so I stood and sat upon my knees in front of him, the space quite filled up with those seated.
Then he said to me, ‘You wish to repent?’ I replied, ‘If God wills!’ He said, ‘Do not return to your sin,’ to which I replied, ‘If God wills!’ He said, ‘Repent from every sin!’ I replied, ‘I repent from all of my sins!’ Now there was to one side of the shaykh his companion, God be merciful to him, who was from among the folk of divine attraction (jadhb) whose state was evident and not hidden, named Mullā ‘Alī, from the people of Koy [Sanjaq]. He said to the shaykh, ‘This boy’—meaning me—‘from what does have to repent?’ He said this in joking manner to the shaykh, but the shaykh replied, ‘No, there is none who is free of sins great and small!’ I felt astonished, and in my heart there was shame over their mentioning sins, due to my own knowledge of my immoderation in regards to my lower self, so that I could verify in my own heart that the shaykh spoke the truth in what he said—this was the first miracle (karāma) manifest to me from him, God be pleased with him! Continue reading “Ṭāhā al-Kurdī Meets His Spiritual Master”→
an open window, first night of August, I know in my bones and my blood coursing that the babel of human endeavor is all vain the ambient aural field of the insects’ nocturne shimmers and fills without, in peace come and depart, the flow of creatures awake to themselves and alive to Wisdom, in order and rhythm without human ken, from before and through and after us on earth.
the dark is a full emptiness, all is symbol and every symbol is all itself. the ocean of the world washes upon every shore, and is in dreams and waking. wisdom—let us attend and the attending stands to in us, whether we will it or not. on the crickets go, ceaselessly, night, night, song upon song, and I, to sleep and to wake and to sleep again