Ṭāhā al-Kurdī Meets His Spiritual Master

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A sufi in a somewhat different socio-cultural context concentrating as he prays dhikr using his prayer-beads, in a mode of bodily deportment likely very similar to what Ṭāhā would have used. Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Arabe 6074.

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.

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A page from a holograph copy of the Riḥla, Yale University Library Landberg MSS 220

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 [1738], 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!

Then he took my right hand in his right hand and looked in my face, I remaining silent for a while, then cast a kerchief (mandīl) over my hands, and saying the words of tawḥīd—‘No god but God, Muhammad is the Messenger of God’—three times, his voice unlagging; then he commanded me and I repeated them three times. He bowed his head for a time, his hand still holding my hand, raised his head and looked me in the face, then bowed his head a second time, still holding my hand. Those present were bewildered. Finally he, God sanctify his inner secret, raised his head and said to me, ‘Go to your place and be seated.’ When I had sat down, he said to me, ‘I command you to fast for six years continuously.’ I replied, ‘Yes, God willing,’ and my saying yes to him was sincere interiorly and exteriorly, without the thought flashing before me that I could not do that! Then his disciples, the aforementioned Mullā ’Alī, said, ‘No Shaykh Musṭafā, this is too much! He’s just a boy!’ The shaykh replied, ‘Then six months.’ Mullā ‘Alī again said, ‘No, Shaykh Muṣṭafā, this is too much also.’ So the shaykh said, ‘Then six days.’ And to everything the shaykh said I replied ‘Yes,’ but I was gladdened by the words of Mullā ‘Alī when he sought for me a reduction the first and second time; at the third instance Mullā ‘Alī said, ‘Yes, this is easy.’ The shaykh said, ‘There remain six days until Ramadan, so do not fast then; after Ramadan, fast for six days from the start of Shawwāl. On account of my command and of the sunna you will receive such-and-such reward.’ I replied, ‘Yes.’ Then he said to me, ‘Bow your head, collect yourself inwardly, and say with your heart “No god but God, He is One,’ until your lower self is constricted so that there does not remain for you any effort in so constricting it, and it acts naturally as you give command. My lower self now acts in such a manner after much struggle on my part for its restraint, so that I speak ‘No god but God’ in my heart without motion of the tongue.’ Then the shaykh said to me, how many times can you repeat [the dhikr formula]?’ I replied, ‘Seven times,’ to which he replied, ‘Good—continue in this dhikr in this mode until you can say “no god but God” in your heart five hundred times in the space of one breath. Afterwards, come to me,’ meaning to his village.

So I set out day and night containing my lower self and reciting the dhikr of no god but God, my five-hundred count prayer-beads in my hand, working up through one hundred, then two hundred, then three hundred, then four hundred, then four hundred and twenty, increasing as I was able, continuing in this for a year or a year and a half, after which I beheld in a dream the shaykh of my shaykh, the intercessory pious saint and master of inner vision Shaykh Aḥmad al-Ḥaṣawī, God sanctify his inner secret. In the dream I was drinking milk—at the time I did not know after interpreting the dream that milk signifies knowledge, and knowledge is the inner heart of every object sought. After this dream-vision I obtained the desired number at once, so I went to the shaykh and related it to him, and he said to me, ‘This is the blessing (baraka) of Shaykh Aḥmad!’

Ibn Yaḥyá al-ʻIrāqī Ṣaḥīḥ al-Dīn Abū al-Fayḍ Muḥammad Ṭāhā ibn Yaḥyá ibn Sulaymān ibn Muḥammad al-Kurdī, Riḥla, Yale University Library, Landberg MSS 220, 3a-4b.

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

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