Islamic & Ottoman History // Cultural & Political Critique // Poetry & Prose
PhD student in Ottoman religious history, Islamic and Middle Eastern history more broadly. Sometime poet. Husband, father, gardener. Eastern Orthodox Christian, traditionalist-radical, Tory anti-capitalist.
Gray clouds mount, earth and river sink down
Under the stones’ still new cut. The sliced bloodroot bleeds and bleeds,
But the ten thousand things fall silent along the bypassed highway.
Ah hawk, swooped and spun by a following raven,
There is no solace in what we think will be freedom, but only
Shadows and dreams chasing and chasing.
My skin laps the bloodroot’s flow and the limestone opens
To staunch the river’s run. So what is hidden is always coming out,
And returning to ground, the round and round of the world.
One name gives way to another. Time goes, and goes nowhere,
Goes everywhere. I lock eyes for a hanging moment with
The buzzard in silent glide. Somewhere the ten thousand things gather.
Like early modern militaries the world over- and in fact like any organized and sizeable military, right up into the present- the Ottoman military relied on a vast body of ‘support staff’ to travel on campaign and wage warfare. Many of these support staff were recruited from the guildsmen of Istanbul and other major cities in the empire, the craftsmen and artisans and merchants being required to essentially pick up shop and go on campaign, agreeing to offer their services at a set price. In the following short story, taken from an Arabic biographical and hagiographical compendium by the scholar Balī ibn ‘Alī, also known as Alî Mınık (d. 1584), the miracle story is related by a tanner from Edirne who had recently returned from campaign. As is often the case in these sorts of stories, the details are thin, but we are probably meant to imagine a battle involving a fortress on the frontier with the Hapsburg lands. The story is pretty self-explanatory: besides being narrated by a member of the army’s ‘support staff,’ the story is interesting for what it reveals about the perceived role of seemingly unassuming saints in Ottoman military successes, and the imaginative travel, if you will, of otherwise sedentary saints out to the contested frontier.
‘Among the miracles (karamāt) of [Şeyh Alâüddînd Cerrâḥzâde/‘Alā al-Dīn al-Jarrārzada, 1495-1575]’: the story that our shaykh Muṣlaḥ al-Dīn [the son of ‘Alā al-Dīn], God be merciful to him, related, saying: “We were sitting outside of the aforementioned zawīya [the Dergâh of Şeyh Şücaeddin, in Edirne] with some of the disciples. Tanners in the city had previously been drafted to go on campaign. A tanner came up and kissed my father’s hand, then kissed his feet, and said, ‘If it hadn’t been for you we wouldn’t have taken the fortress!’ My father said, ‘What is this fortress? I don’t know anything at all about it.’ The man persisted in his entreaty and humble supplication, but [my father] persisted in his denial.
So we asked the man about the story, and he said: ‘I went out to war for the Sultan with a detachment of tanners. When we had invested Such-and-Such Fortress, and aimed to seize it, the fighting wore on, and the flame of piercing and striking flared up, so that the fortress was refractory and refused to be conquered. The army was bewildered and despaired of seizing it, until suddenly a shaykh with a banner in his hand appeared, charging at the infidels, scattering them like dust struck by a powerful cold wind. He scaled the fortress and planted the banner upon it. The soldiers of the Islamic army followed after him, entering the fortress through this spot, its conquest becoming easy because of that man. My companions and I got a close look at the man—it was Shaykh ‘Alā al-Dīn, there being no doubt that he came on military campaign with us, and was present for the conquest of the fortress, yet we marveled that we had never once seen him while on the way there!’”
“Later, when I was alone with my father I asked him about the reality of this matter, so as to receive confirmation from him about this secret matter. He would not say anymore than that he did indeed know the one who had obtained to this degree, and that ‘You will obtain, God willing, to this degree of spiritual power when you reach maturity—God cause us and you to obtain to high degrees of spiritual power, and pour out upon us from the streams of His hidden and manifest kindness!’”
Balī ibn ‘Alī, al-ʻIqd al-manẓūm fī dhikr afāḍil al-Rūm (Dār al-Kitāb al-ʻArabī, 1975), 467-468. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.
‘Georges de la Tour, like John Donne, is one of the rediscoveries of the twentieth century; and the admiration that both have evoked in our own time may be traced to the same fundamental causes. I do not mean simply the photographic realism of the composition, but rather the way in which every detail of the work is controlled by a human figure in profound meditation. This person’s thoughts are not abstract: the left hand, with its sensitive, tapered fingers, probes the eyesocket of a skull; the arm, so delicately clothed, conveys a rude sensation to the brain. Meanwhile the eye is focused on a mirror, where we are accustomed to pursue the work of preparing “a face to meet the faces”” that we meet: yet here the inquiring eye meets “the skull beneath the skin,” a skull that seems to devour the book on which it rests. Sight and touch, then, meet to form these thoughts, meditative, piercing, looking through the mirror, probing whatever lies beyond. For me, at least, it suggests simultaneously Donne and Yeats: Donne in his shroud and Yeats in his tower, especially the figure that ends A Vision: “Day after day I have sat in my chair turning a symbol over in my mind, exploring all its details, defining and again defining its elements, testing my convictions and those of others by its unity, attempting to substitute particulars for an abstraction like that of algebra.”
Louis L. Martz, The Poetry of Meditation: A Study in English Religious Literature of the Seventeenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954), 1.
I’ll wrap up what has turned into a mini-series of accounts from the menakıb (saint’s life) of the Ottoman Istanbul saint Hasan Ünsî: previous installments can be found here and here. In the two previous translated stories, we saw different snap-shots of daily life- and conflict- in late 17th century Istanbul and its suburbs, coupled with saintly miracles and practices. In the fairly lengthy story I’ve translated below, the action takes place in two very different locations within the early 18th century Ottoman Empire. At this point in Hasan Ünsî’s life he had moved into a tekke (often translated as a ‘sufi lodge’) down the hill from the palace of the sultans themselves. In addition to his extended family and household, various dervishes lived here with him, and he was visited by devotees of all stations of life.
One of these devotees of the saintly şeyh was a za’îm, a tîmâr-holder– that is, someone given grants of productive land in exchange for military service- named Mehmed Aǧa. He ‘believed in’ (or, we might also translate, owed allegiance and had trust in) Hasan Ünsî as being a Friend of God. One day he was sent on campaign, or some other form of military service, to the Balkans, in keeping with his obligations as a tîmâr-holder, but even far from Istanbul, our hagiographer tells us, he kept his faith and allegiance in his şeyh. And so the stage is set for the following miracle-story, one which emphasizes the power of the saintly şeyh at a distance, but which also gives us a good look at the hazards of travel in rural, often largely uncontrolled, parts of the empire, especially in its mountainous regions.
‘One day it was heard that Mehmed Aǧa had been killed by bandits (haydûdlar). The sufis having heard this news related it to the Şeyh. The Şeyh smiled and said that Mehmed was fine. Later, the dervishes found out that Mehmed Aǧa was in fact still alive. After some time had passed, Mehmed Aǧa abruptly appeared [in the tekke], and the dervishes gathered around him. He said, ‘I’d like to go in to see the Şeyh,’ but they replied, ‘The Şeyh is in his harem [inner private area of the household], he’ll come out soon.’ In the meantime, he waited in the room of Uyûnî Derviş Seyyid Mehmed’s room. Because of his belief in the Şeyh the dervishes had great love for Mehmed Aǧa. During their conversation with Mehmed Aǧa, they asked, ‘Bandits attacked you suddenly in the road, and we heard many people say you had been killed. But when we reported this to the Şeyh, he said you were fine! That is how we knew that you were still alive.’ Mehmed Aǧa went silent and gave no answer.
Then the Şeyh came forth from his harem, and having given him the news, Mehmed Aǧa and the dervishes went up to the Şeyh’s presence, and, after greeting him, the Şeyh asked, ‘Mehmed, did you see the camel?’ Then, having heard this word from the Şeyh, the dervishes knew that some secret matter, a hidden deed, had taken place between the saint and Mehmed Aǧa. Mehmed and all the dervishes sat down in the presence of the Şeyh, and for a while he [the şeyh] spoke with Mehmed Aǧa. Afterwards, the Şeyh prayed, and the dervishes and Mehmed Aǧa went out of the Şeyh’s presence, and went back to sit in Uyûnî Derviş Seyyid Mehmed’s room. Therein the elder dervishes and halifes asked Mehmed Aǧa, ‘What did the Şeyh mean by asking you “Did you see the camel?”’ Mehmed Aǧa replied, ‘Do not ask about it,’ and fell silent.
Some time later, after the Şeyh had died, the halife A’rec Mustafa Efendi, Ser-tarîk Mehmed Efendi, Enişte Mustafa Efendi, and others, once again asked Mehmed Aǧa about the Şeyh’s having said ‘Did you see the camel?’ They added, ‘The Şeyh has gone to the Other World, so there is now no longer any harm in talking of it! Rather, it is appropriate and praiseworthy to make this miracle (kerâmet) public so that we may know and the name of the Şeyh be better remembered!’ And so Mehmed Aǧa said, ‘It was when I had gone to Rumili [the Balkans] in military service. After completing my service, in the company of a caravan we headed back to Istanbul when while on our way we came to a forest. The others in the caravan said that this forest did not have any bandits, still, they said, let us go through it quickly. We entered in good order, but there were in fact bandits in the forest. Unable to take us all on in one fell swoop, they instead began killing us off. Killing many men they set to pillaging our goods, while those of my retinue were killed. I too despaired of my life, saying to myself, I wonder which one will kill me? In fear, as I dropped disordered and shaken to the skirts of a mountain, the Şeyh came to my mind. And at that moment I saw him coming up in front of me—he looked at me and motioned to me to go up the side of the mountain. We ran and went up right in front of the bandits, but they did not see us.
‘The Şeyh headed up the mountain, and I followed behind. The Şeyh said to me, “Keep on going over the side of this mountain,” motioning with his blessed hand, then disappeared. Looking in all four directions, I saw no trace of the Şeyh. Then I ran over the other side of the mountain, eventually reaching a level place. I saw a number of tents set up there, and many people. When they saw me come down from the mountain, some of them came to my side—I was disoriented out of fear of being killed and had no capacity to speak. These people later asked about my condition, and I told them about how on the other side of the mountain bandits had emerged from the woods and fallen upon the caravan, turning us aside, pillaging, and killing, taking my goods and killing my retinue.
They replied, “What time did this happen? We heard nothing!” I said, “Just now, not a quarter hour ago!” They said, “There’s no such woods on the other side of this mountain, nor any bandits, just a village!” But I said, “Come now! There were bandits there! Pillaging and looting!” One of them asked me, “Where were you coming from?” I replied, “We were coming from such and such place. On the road from there are woods, on the other side of this mountain!” But they replied, “The woods you speak of are three hours from here, but you say you were just there?” Then I knew that this was an instance of the saint’s divine disposal and miracle-working. I replied, “I’m all confused—I don’t know what I’m saying!”
I took as companions some people there who went with me to Istanbul, and upon arrival I came straight to the Şeyh. As you and I approached the saint together as he came out the door, his saying “Mehmed, did you see the camel [that is, the camel that presumably bore him the three hours from the mountain to the level place]?” was in reference to this.’ And so he related in this manner the story. The dervishes that were there in hearing it greatly increased their faith in the şeyh and as a result sought assistance from his spiritual powers.
İbrahim Hâs, Hasan Ünsî Halvetî ve Menâkıbnâmesi, edited by Mustafâ Tatcı (Bağcılar, İstanbul: Kırkambar Kitaplığı, 2013, 2013), 234-240. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.
Previously I discussed the ‘conversion’ narrative of a major late seventeenth into early eighteenth century Muslim saint of Istanbul, Şeyh Hasan Ünsî Halvetî (1643-1723), whose life was chronicled in great detail in a menâkıb (saint’s life) by Ibrahim Hâs. The story I’ve translated below comes from a slightly later period in the saint’s life, after his şeyh, Karabaş-i Velî (also known as Karabaş ‘Alî: he wore a black turban, hence his being called ‘Black-Head’) had died in the Sinai while making the ḥajj, in 1685. Hasan Ünsî had excelled in ascetic discipline and spiritual insight, his hagiographer tells us, such that Karabaş ‘Alî elevated him over all of his other halifes (Ar. khalīfa, delegates sent from a şeyh/shaykh), and sent him back to Istanbul to establish a center for worship and instruction in the sufi path. Hasan Ünsî settled in a space near the Hagia Sophia, the Acem Aǧa Mosque, built upon parts of the ruins of a pre-Ottoman Byzantine church, St. Mary Chalkoprateia (today the church has sunk deeper into ruin, and only parts of the mosque remain standing- see this excellent blog post for more details on the ‘deep history’ of the site). There he continued his ascetic practices, led zikr (a sufi ritual of ‘remembrance’ of God), and instructed disciples.
But his residency here was not to be entirely peaceful: since the early decades of the 17th century, the Ottoman lands had seen the rise of various ‘puritanical’ Islamic movements and tendencies, often looking back to the writings and life of a 16th century pietistic preacher, Mehmed Birgivî, for inspiration. Many groups and individuals inspired by the puritanical texts, movements, and leaders that arose over the course of the century were opposed to such things as the veneration of the saints, sufi rituals like zikr/dhikr, and widespread practices such as tobacco-smoking and coffee-drinking (though opposition to the former was for a long time widespread beyond so-called ‘puritan’ circles). Unusually- for theological movements of this nature had developed before in various places in the Islamic world- many advocates of a purified Ottoman Islam believed it appropriate to use force to achieve their moral and theological goals. Hasan Ünsî evidently had to deal with Ottoman puritans in his mosque (which, not unusually, also functioned as a living space for dervishes, students, and others), in the form of students of jurisprudence (suhtelar). We are told that, having adopted the beliefs of the ‘people of denial’ (ehl-i inkâr), these students (some of whom Hasan, who himself had an ‘exoteric’ education in the Islamic sciences, had previously instructed) began trying to drive the saintly şeyh from the mosque, in order to ‘purify’ the space of ritual uses they opposed, and to claim the space exclusively for themselves.
To make a long story short, the struggle between Hasan Ünsî and the puritanical legal students grew hotter and hotter and increasingly physical, to the point that, our hagiographer claims, the students contemplated murdering the şeyh! It culminated in a show-down in which, after trying to argue his case using verse from the Qur’an, Şeyh Hasan manifested his ‘celâl,’ or divinely-given wrathful majesty- and the students began dying of mysterious accidents or suddenly falling ill, to the point that in a week’s time none remained in the mosque! During the course of these incidents, one of Şeyh Hasan’s dervishes, Kebâbî Ahmed Dede, asked whether the şeyh ought to moderate the outflow of divine celâl, to which the şeyh replied, ‘Occupy yourself with your own matters!’ At this the dervish, we are told, went pale witnessing the şeyh’s fierce celâl, and reported later that ‘all my being went shaky and my mind was thrown into disorder’ when the şeyh said these words to him. This leads us to the following extended story, in which a cross-section of Istanbul society bears witness to the divine wrath and majesty at work in the şeyh: with the obvious moral throughout that opposing God’s Friends was dangerous, even if it was the ostensibly pious who were doing so.
‘One day, at mid-morning, a lady and her child passed by the Acem Aǧa Mosque, which was locked up. The child peeked into the mosque through a window, but crying out he tumbled into his mother’s arms. His mother said, ‘What was it that frightened you so?’ The child said, ‘There is a lion sitting atop the şeyh’s post [an animal skin rug that symbolized the şeyh/shaykh’s authority]! And now he is rising up!’ The lady herself then looked through the window and saw that a magnificent lion was sitting upon the post. Having seen him the lady became afraid and out of her fear began exclaiming loudly and rapidly.
Some of the dervishes there heard her and came up to her, saying, ‘Lady, what’s the matter?’ She related what had happened to them, and so they took looked through the window and saw upon the Şeyh’s post a lordly lion sitting. He opened his eyes and looked at them such that the gall-bladder of the one upon whose gaze he fell burst from fear! Being filled with great fear they were gripped with confusion. They said, ‘If this lion rises up and comes at us, the door will prove no barrier and there will be trouble!’ As they were trying to figure out a solution, one of the Şeyh’s old dervishes, Pîr Osman Dede Efendi came and forbade them from doing anything, instead sending them to their rooms. After an hour had passed he said to them, ‘Come and see—where is the lion now?’ With fear the dervishes came and peered inside the mosque through a window, but saw no lion! Instead the Şeyh [Hasan Ünsî] was upon his post. Osman Dede Efendi said to them, ‘Keep silence! Tell no one of this! For it is not permitted [to talk of it to others]!’ So saying he strongly admonished them.
Nonetheless, the story became widely known. A while later, some of the dervishes asked Osman Dede Efendi about the secret and divine wisdom of this lion. Drawing them aside, in secret he said to them: ‘This is the form that the Şeyh takes when his celâl is overwhelmingly strong in his innermost secret. Did you not see how in the course of a week the jurisprudence students came to their ends, and have you not heard what Kebâbî Ahmed Efendi said?’
İbrahim Hâs, Hasan Ünsî Halvetî ve Menâkıbnâmesi, edited by Mustafâ Tatcı (Bağcılar, İstanbul: Kırkambar Kitaplığı, 2013, 2013), 222-224. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.
Saints Barsanuphius and John (who was also known as John the Prophet) settled in the vicinity of Gaza, Palestine at some point during the reign of Justinian; the exact dates of their deaths are unknown though they are commemorated together in the Orthodox Church on February 6. Barsanuphius was of Coptic origin, having begun his monastic life in the fabled desert of Egypt, but, like many others in his time, he eventually traveled north into Palestine where he and his contemporaries developed a new form of embedded- quite literally in his case- monasticism in the well-populated countryside of Palestine. Barsanuphius and his disciple, John, who would come and settled alongside his master and live beside him for eighteen years, both practiced strict seclusion, communicating primarily through letters and intermediaries. However, their reputation drew other more conventional monsastics, and soon a thriving monastic community with handicraft production, medical services, a church, and other features grew up around them. Both Barsanuphius and John acted as spiritual counselors to not just the monastics around them but to ordinary laypeople in the nearby communities. Drawing upon years of spiritual practice and discernment, these two men provided careful and sympathetic, but frequently powerful and insightful, responses to the questions- some profound, some very quotidian- directed towards them. Below is a selection of these questions and answers, with an emphasis on matters pertaining to laypeople.
444. Question: If I am distracted during prayer, what should I do?
Response by Barsanuphius: If you are praying to God and become distracted, struggle until you begin to pray without distraction. And keep your intellect alert in order that it does not become too lofty. Nonetheless, should this occur, since we are weak, persist to the very end of your prayer; then prick your heart, and say with compunction, “Lord, have mercy on me and forgive me all of my offenses.” And, afterward, you will receive forgiveness of all your offenses as well as of the distraction that occurred at the beginning of your prayer.
463. A Christ-loving layperson asked the same Old Man [John] if one should reflect a great deal about the sacred mysteries, and whether a sinful person approaching these would be condemned as being unworthy.
Response by John: When you enter the holies, pay attention and have no doubt that you are about to receive the Body and Blood of Christ; indeed, this is the truth. As for how this is the case, do not reflect on it too much. According to him who said, “Take, eat; for this is my body and blood,” these were given to us for the forgiveness of our sins. One who believes this, we hope, will not be condemned.
Therefore, do not prevent yourself from approaching by judging yourself as being a sinner. Believe, rather, that a sinner who approaches the Savior is rendered worthy of the forgiveness of sins, in the manner that we encounter in Scripture those who approach him and hear the divine voice: “Your many sins are forgiven.” Had that person been worthy of approaching him, he would not have had any sins! Yet because he was a sinful man and a debtor, he received the forgiveness of his debts.
Again, listen to the words of the Lord: “I did not come to save the righteous, but sinners.” And again: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but only those who are sick.” So regard yourself as being sinful and unwell, and approach him who alone can save the lost.
686. Another Christ-loving layperson asked the same Old Man: I want to press some Jewish wine in my presser. Is this a sin?
Response by John: If, when God rains, it rains in your field but not in that of the Jew, then do not press his wine. If he is loving-kind to all and rains upon the just and the unjust, then why do you want to be inhumane and not compassionate, rather, as he says: “Be merciful, even as your Father in heaven is merciful.”
763. A Christ-loving layperson asked the same Old Man: “God created the human person free, but he also says: ‘Without me, you are not able to do anything.’ How, then, is this freedom reconciled with not being able to do anything without God?
Response by John: God created the human person free in order that we may be able to incline toward good; yet, even while inclining out of freedom, we are incapable of accomplishing this without the assistance of God. For it is written: “It depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy.”
Therefore, if we incline the heart toward good and invoke God to our assistance, God will pay attention to our good intention and bestow strength upon our work. In this way, both are developed, namely human freedom and God’s power. For this is how good comes about, but it is accomplished through his saints. Thus God is glorified in all and again glorifies them.
765: Question: I have a servant who is wounded with leprosy. Should I keep him or not?
Response by John: It is not necessary for you to keep him in your house; for not everyone will bear to live with him. If they could bear this, that would be a pious thing to do. Yet, you should not afflict others on his account. Instead, send him to a hospice for poor lepers, and provide for his meals and as many garments as he requires, as well as his bed, so that he is no way burdened.
Excerpted from Barsanuphius and John, Letters from the Desert: A Selection of Questions and Responses, translated by John Chryssavgis (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003)
Offer the light piercing and the springmorning clouds
Over the grey backboned ridgelines gathering into early bloom.
Offer the salttaste of the marsh receding under early summer’s
Thunderheads larger than our toilsome systems, looming.
Offer this stone rolled down from the mountains rising,
Worn to round in years and years of river rise and fall.
Offer the moments that are not contained, offer the wind wet and cold
Off the sprucetreed highlands. Savage and beautiful is closeness
To the sacred, what in the last decree cannot be controlled. In the end all
This worn anthropocene too must give way, sedimented back into the holy,
Soil and stone of the world, bright and becoming from the hand of the Father—
Eucharist rung out still from the trampled earth, so take up and sing in offering,
What is not yours is that for which you must most give thanks.