While we in the twenty-first century live in a world of staggering material abundance- it is genuinely hard for us to grasp just how abundant stuff truly is in our world- humans have been making, using, accumulating, and thinking about and with material objects since quite literally the dawn of human history. Symbolic meanings attached to shaped objects are almost certainly visible in artefacts from the Upper Paleolithic, and probably precede that stage. Meaning-making with objects has continued since, and persists in our world, even as, ironically, we have arguably become less attuned to the material realities around us, and less likely to attach symbolic meanings to made objects. Modern industrial capitalism is heavily predicated on disposability, at a pace unknown before the twentieth century, and the sheer abundance of things that fill our homes, workspaces, markets, dumps, and even recent geological strata tends to cause many of them to become mere background. Yet special objects persist, including material goods that would otherwise be thrown away: the desk at which I am sitting as I write this is adorned with fossils, a handful of icons, some notebooks, a dictionary, and a small plastic toy dinosaur I found on a sidewalk over a decade ago and have toted about, talisman-like, ever since. All of these material things, manufactured or not, have some special significance to me, even as I rarely give a second thought to most of my stuff.
The premodern, pre-industrial world was quite different. Simply put, stuff was more precious, more valuable, on almost every level. Something I am always at pain to communicate to undergraduate students when studying any period of premodern history is the significance and value of textiles and clothing: without industrial scale agriculture churning out cotton, and massive factories worked by a vast global proletariat class, obtaining clothing was not a matter of dropping a few bucks at a big box store for some t-shirts and pants. All clothes and textiles had some value, and were used to their maximum, while luxury clothes were among the most costly stores of value around. Other categories of object were similar, and in some historical contexts cultural norms or ecological particularities further constrained how much stuff one’s home might contain. In the early modern Ottoman period, for which we have good records of household inventories, the sparsity of belongings and furnishings still comes as something of a shock to me when I read such lists- even the quite well-off had homes that we would have found strangely empty.
Partially, I think, as a result of that relative scarcity of material goods, objects and goods (including biological ones, with similar logics of relative abundance in a world before fossil fuel powered industrial agriculture and its yields) could signify and matter in ways that are perhaps less likely or less legible in our own world. For instance, the three stories that I’ve translated below, taken from what has now become a familiar source here, the late medieval hagiography of Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn, the eponym of the Safavids, come from a section of the manāqib devoted to miracle stories having to do with material things. This section comes after stories focused on humans, then on animals, and encompasses both made objects and things in nature, including plants. The stories often suggest a sort of special linkage, an ontological connection, between the saint and the object, with particular things- such as the prayer rug in the first story- seeming to take on a proverbial life of their own. There is an ontological heaviness to objects in the view of the world visible here (and in many other sources from the medieval and early modern periods); things certainly have their utilitarian uses but they are more than dead capital or matter subsumed into human will and intentionality. In the hands of the saint objects take on especial power.
As you read, pay attention to the different ways in which inanimate things- a prayer rug, the land itself, and clothing- carry significance and become, as it were, animate under saintly power. I would suggest that while the central meaning is the divinely granted power of the saint to work marvels, there is an underlying view or logic of the world displayed here, in which these objects already have a potency for action, they are in a sense alive already. This applies to texts as well, and in the near future I hope to explore this theme further: words, letters, even the dots of specific letter-forms, were understood to have vital ontological realities of their own, not just as signifiers of distant mystical realities but as actually participating in and constituting those realities. I suspect that we can only fully understand manuscript culture and the arts and uses of the book with these things in mind, and fully capturing them takes no small leap of imagination for us drowning in the seas of anthropocene stuff. We also stand the chance to learn something of great importance in reflecting on premodern object ontologies- but that is another route of inquiry for another day! For now enjoy these manāqib tales:
Story: Shaykh Ṣadr al-Dīn, God perpetuate his baraka, said: Once Amīr Dawlatshāh, who was known as Dawlash—requested a prayer-rug from the shayh, God sanctify his secret, and the shaykh wanted to give him one. There were two prayer-rugs in the house: one of regular wool and one of coarse wool. The shaykh wanted to give him the one from regular wool, but his wife—the daughter of Shayh Zāhid—God be merciful to her, wanted to give him the prayer-rug of coarse wool. The shayhk however said, ‘No, do not give away this prayer-rug made of coarse wool, I have a special interest in it.’ They asked him, ‘What is that interest?’ He replied, ‘Once I had performed my ritual ablutions. I wanted something so that I could perform two rak’as of the prayer of ritual ablution in accordance with the sunnah, and this prayer-rug was in the corner of the zawīya of the house. Of itself from that place it rose and dropped itself before me so that I could perform the prayer!’
Story: Mawlānā Yūsuf the khaṭīb of [the village of] Nevdīh said that the shaykh, God sanctify his inner secret, once gave a quantity of lentils so that the community of Nevdīh could plant them. They planted them, but did not watch over them. Nothing came of it. The shaykh, God sanctify his inner secret, was disturbed by this. For the next seven years that land produced nothing. Nothing that they planted in that land grew, until after seven years the shaykh, God sanctify his inner secret, came and alighted on that land. The community said, ‘Shaykh, it’s been seven years since we’ve tried to cultivate this land but nothing has born fruit! The shaykh, God sanctify his inner secret, commanded them, ‘Sow it,’ and waved his blessed hand. They sowed it that year, and so much grew and fruited that it was impossible to adequately describe!
Story: He, God perpetuate his baraka, related that once in Sultānīyeh the most esteemed Qāḍī Sayf al-Dīn, God be merciful to him, gave a garment off his own body to the shaykh, by way of transmitting the nobility of the clothing to the blessed body of the shaykh. Now [the qāḍī] was a man of considerably tall stature, and his clothing was fitted to his stature, while the shaykh inclined towards shortness of stature. But when he put that garment on it fit his stature perfectly, as if there were nothing additional [so as to make it too loose-fitting]. Then the shaykh, God sanctify his inner secret, gave a piece of clothing off of his own body to Qāḍī Sayf al-Dīn. As a means of gaining blessing he put on that piece of clothing and it fit perfectly to his tall stature, just as if nothing were missing [that would make it too tight]!
Ibn Bazzāz Ardabīlī, Ṣafvat al-ṣafā: dar tarjumah-ʼi aḥvāl va aqvāl va karāmāt-i Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn Isḥaq Ardabīlī, ed. Ghulām Riẓā Ṭabāṭabāʼī Majd (Tabriz: G.R. Ṭabāṭabāʼī Majd , 1373 ), 612, 626, 635.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.