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.
Among the many writings produced by the prominent early modern Egyptian saint and sufi ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Sha’rānī (d. 1565) was a work that is best described as a cross between an ‘auto-hagiography’ and an encyclopedia of ethics and sufi practice. Al-Sha’rānī wrote the Laṭāʼif al-minan ostensibly as a compilation of practices and virtues for his followers and others to study and to emulate, though it also clearly functioned as a sprawling (the printed edition I used for this entry clocks in at over eight hundred pages!) argument for his own sanctity. Stories of al-Sha’rānī’s life (including, as here, aspects of his family life) are scattered generously throughout, including this curious little account which comes in the midst of a discussion of proper treatment of cats and other animals. Al-Sha’rānī was especially kind to cats, offering them food right out of his own hands, but, as this little miracle tale reveals, far ‘lowlier’ creatures were on his radar as well.
Among the things that happened to me: my wife Fāṭima Umm ‘Abd al-Raḥman had a thickness (ḥādir) upon her heart. Her mother cried out and was certain that [her daughter] would die, and I was greatly agitated on her account, but a voice came to me while I was in the toilet-room: “Release the fly from the fly-hyena (ḍabu’ al-dhabāb) in the crack that is in front of your face, and We will release your wife from sickness for you.” So I went to the crack and found it to be quite tight such that fingers could not open it, so I took a stick and pulled it open and extracted the fly-hyena with the fly, and found it whole but with the fly-hyena gripping its neck, so I released it from him, and in that moment my wife was released from sickness and restored to health and her mother rejoiced—from that day on I have not looked down upon bestowing good upon any creature or best which the Lawgiver, upon whom be peace and blessing, does not command be slain.
The modern history of relations between Muslims and the Armenian Orthodox of Anatolia, Azarbaijan, and other parts of the former Ottoman Empire has not been happy one for the most part, and in both popular memory and in historical scholarship pogroms, dislocation, erasure, and genocide have been foremost concerns, and for good reason given the ongoing discourses and actions of denial and erasure in the region. However, that focus has often resulted in lack of attention to the complexities of relationships between Armenians and their Muslim neighbors, relationships that historically were marked by more than just antagonism (though conflict did exist). The following story, which reflects a different iteration of the ‘shared economy of holiness’ that we explored in an earlier post, comes from Aṛak’el of Tabriz’s magisterial volume of history that deals with Armenians in the Safavid Empire and beyond during the 17th century, and which includes within it several sustained hagiographic accounts of contemporary- to Aṛak’el- Armenian saints, saints who sought to ‘reform’ and restructure Armenian Orthodoxy through preaching, educating and disciplining clergy and monastics, and building or renovating local church infrastructure. While, according to Aṛak’el’s accounts, these saintly vardapets (a vardapet is a type of monastic preacher and scholar in the Armenian Church) practiced intense personal holiness and strove for the good of the Armenian people and faith, they ran up against entrenched powers in the hierarchy, and as a result sometimes ran afoul of Safavid officials. Interestingly, however, many of the stories of conflict that Aṛak’el tells involve Armenian Christian instigators who go before Muslim Safavid officials and level charges against the saintly protagonists.
Such is the milieu in which this story takes place. Vardapet Poghōs, one of the key saints in Aṛak’el’s history, had incurred the wrath of a range of prominent church officials in his efforts to revive parish life in the far northwestern corner of the Safavid realm. The encounter described in the following account occurs while Poghōs and his disciples are on their way to visit Shah Abbās II in order to clear their name. The encounter between the Armenian saint and the pious Muslim householder that takes place in the midst of this journey is a good symbol of the ways in which holy men and women might be recognized across confessional boundaries, even as prominent people within their own community did not recognize their holiness, for various reasons. Şeyh Hasan Efendi, the subject of part one of this installment, was in a similar state, as he was opposed by Ottoman Muslims of a ‘puritanical’ bent, even as he was evidently recognized as holy by at least some of his Christian neighbors. At the everyday level, it seems, early modern people in the Islamicate world, of which Armenians were an integral part, sought to recognize the friends of God in whatever form or place they might be found, since such holy men and women might provide a crucial source of safety and aid in an often hostile and uncertain world. Holy men and women themselves- including those such as both Vardapet Poghōs and Şeyh Hasan who were clearly deeply committed to the creedal precepts and claims of their respective faiths- were more often than not in this period accepting of such ‘ecumenical’ encounters.
When they reached the gawaṛ called Araghbar at dusk, they entered a Muslim village to spend the night there. It so happened that they encountered a man, a Muslim, who came out to greet them. He implored them, saying, “I beg you, for God’s sake, do not abhor that I am a Muslim, but pay heed to my request and enter my house so that I may show you my hospitality. For I have made a vow to God not to eat anything today without a guest. I have been standing here in the middle of the village seeking a guest. God has sent you! I therefore, ask you to enter my house.” The blessed vardapet [Poghōs] answered the man happily and said, “Let it be as you wish. We shall go to your house.” They spent the night at that man’s house and he received them very well. He gave them everything they required for their rest. In the morning, before they prepared to leave, the Muslim man came and implored them, saying, “I have no son, and no one will remember me on this earth. I beg you to pray for me, so that I shall have a son, for my wife is barren.”
The saintly vardapet lifted his habitually outstretched hands to the sky and prayed adamantly to the Lord to give the man a son. The benevolent Lord, who had promised to give His followers whatever they requested in faith, granted the man a son because of the saintly vardapet’s prayers. The same man later informed us of this. For, after some time, the Muslim man came, thanked the vardapet during the Divine Liturgy, bowed down, thanked him, praised him, and said, “Because of your prayers, God has granted me a son. I now beg you to pray that God grant him a long life.” The saintly vardapet prayed for him again, comforted him for some time and then let him go.
Aṛakʻel of Tabriz, The history of Vardapet Aṛakʻel of Tabriz ( Patmutʻiwn Aṛakʻel Vardapeti Dawrizhetsʻwoy) Translated by George A Bournoutian. (Costa Mesa, Calif.: Mazda Publishers, 2005), 202-203.
‘Make love’ we say, and so here indeed is the fruit,
Our love made flesh and bone and blood, life
From love, and love from life. ‘Receive
The body of Christ’ we sing, love in spite of all
In flesh and blood for us, becomes us, and we Him.
Eucharist, this, the swell of thanksgiving in hearts and veins,
Lifting on the ethereal incense, and also as I rest my hands
On my wife’s body, feel this new life stretch and stir within her.
Love is an easy word to say and feel, but the real doing takes
Weight and density, runs along a rough contrary grain—
The pull of a baby in the womb, the push of rock and earth in tilling,
The crooked holy timber of the Cross, splintered and sorrowed.
In the end the only true loves are those that are made and that make,
The work of hand and heart in our slow but surely hallowed places.
There is now much to be said for a power of veiling,
Of making secret, leaving covered. Let this and that corner
Rest obscure, if seen at all then in the sorts of dreams
You had as a child, when your imagined maps had so many
Blank spaces, not just strange beasts in the luminous void,
But whole hidden worlds waiting to open up to you.
Or not—perhaps those others worlds would remain a mystery,
And that was just as good. Sometimes it is better to never know
What lies on the other side of the mountain, or what every
Symbol on the map means. When all can be known,
Every geography pieced together, charted down to the substrates,
The heart gets cramped, and busied with the many things.
Though the holy man can see innermost secrets, still
He sets himself up in the quiet unknowing of seclusion,
There to unsee and so to see further than any.
The two accounts that I’ve selected for this and an upcoming installment come from two milieus that at first glance might seem very different but upon a closer look reveal some striking similarities, similarities that reflect shared ways of seeing the world and ways of relating to people of different religious and confessional traditions, even in an early modern world marked by frequent conflicts and debates over confessional boundaries. The first story comes from an Ottoman Turkish source we’ve explored here previously, the menâkıb (saint’s life) of Hasan Ünsî, an eighteenth century Muslim saint of Istanbul, while the second installment, originally composed in grabar (‘classical’) Armenian, will be an excerpt from the life of Vardapet Poghōs, a seventeenth century Armenian Orthodox saint whose career took place in the northwest corner of the Safavid domains, in what is now Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Iran.
Here is the account from Hasan Ünsî’s menâkıb, with my commentary following:
‘Near the door of the exalted tekke there lived a Christian doctor, named Mikel, who was skillful and wise in the knowledge of medicine. It was his custom that if a sick person came to him and his treatment was not effective or treatment was not even possible, he would say to the patient, “The cure for this illness is inside this tekke, so go to the tekke, and find the Şeyh therein. His name is Hasan Efendi—go to him, he can treat this illness. Its cure will come from the Şeyh, so that you’ll have no need of other than him.” So saying he would send the sick person to the venerable Şeyh. This Mikel was consistent in this practice.
‘One day this poor one [Ibrahim Hâs] had gathered along with the other dervishes before the candle-like beauty of the venerable Şeyh, deriving abundant benefit from the sight of the saint. We saw that two people had come within the door. One had nothing upon his head but a wrapped around piece of cloth. He came up to the venerable Şeyh, kissed his blessed hand, and sat down. The venerable Şeyh said to him, “Have you come from afar?” He replied, “We are from afar.” The man whose head was wrapped in a piece of cloth came before the Şeyh, lifted the piece of cloth from his head and showed his head to the venerable Şeyh. As he turned we all saw that his head was entirely in boils (çıbanlar). Each one was jagged like the shell of a hazelnut and very red, without numerous individuals boils—they were about thirty in number, but each boil was very bad—we take refuge in God! This person said, “My Sultan, thus with this sickness I have been tried. I cannot put anything on my head. I have sought someone to treat it in both Istanbul and Galata, but no physician understands this sickness, and they give no answer. Despite expending many akças I have neither cure nor respite. The physicians of this city are incapable of treating me! Finally, near this tekke’s door there is a physician to whom I came and showed the boils on my head, and he said to me that ‘We have no means of treating this illness. But the doctor for this illness is the şeyh of this tekke, who is named Hasan Efendi. The cure for this is there.’ Saying this he sent me to your side. Will you give me an electuary, or give me a pill? Or perhaps you will give me some other treatment—whatever you say, let it be upon my head! I remain without a cure!”
The venerable Şeyh smiled and said, “Mikel has given you a good report; but you did not quite understand if you seek from us an electuary or pill.” Having said this, he said to the man, “Come before me!” He came before him and uncovered his head. The venerable Şeyh said to him, “Bend your head towards me!” He bent his head, and the venerable Şeyh spit into his hands and placed them on the boils of the man’s head, and then for one time gently hit them. He then said, “This is our pill, electuary, and şerbet! Go now, and henceforward you will be well, whether you believe or don’t believe.’ The venerable Şeyh said no invocation, read no prayers, nor said the Fatiha over him. Then the man kissed the venerable Şeyh’s blessed hand and left. Two days later that person came to the venerable Şeyh and we saw that the boils had gone, he was well, and was wearing a quilted turban (kavuk). He had brought many gifts and much praise. Afterwards he came face-to-face with the venerable Şeyh with his gift, but the Şeyh strongly enjoined him not to tell anyone, but [the story] was circulated among the poor ones [the dervishes].
İbrahim Hâs, Hasan Ünsî Halvetî ve Menâkıbnâmesi, edited by Mustafâ Tatcı (Bağcılar, İstanbul: Kırkambar Kitaplığı, 2013, 2013), 314-317. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.
What might we make of this story? It gets at, I think, an important feature of religious life in not just the Ottoman world but much of the rest of early modern Eurasia: the potential power of sanctity, as invested in a holy person, place, or object, had a decided ecumenical quality. There is no sense here that either Mikel of Hasan Ünsî were rejecting their confessional affiliations, or even questioning the validity of their respective faiths. But we do get the sense of a shared economy of sanctity among them, and among the unfortunate patient and the various onlookers. The story does not end, note, in anyone’s conversion (unlike any number of medieval Islamic saints’ lives), and Şeyh Hasan is explicitly described as not using overtly Islamic methods in treating the man (whom we are given to understand, I think, to be non-Muslim himself, though this is not made explicit). Mikel the Christian doctor does not become Muslim, either, and we get the sense that Şeyh Hasan quite appreciates the referrals he receives from him. The saint’s power has an open quality, at least towards ‘ordinary’ people- elsewhere the saint is shown restricting access to himself when he is sought out by more powerful and wealthier people with ties to the Ottoman ruling elite. Continue reading “Saints and the Crossing of Confessional Boundaries in the Ottoman and Safavid Worlds: Part i.”→
It was related to me than when [Muḥarram al-Rūmī’s] shaykh instructed him in the Third Name , he began hearing all of the existent things speak to him, even when he needed to urinate—but he heard every place in which he sat in order to relieve his need speaking to him in an eloquent tongue, so he went from there to another place, but found it to just the same, so instead he held back his urine to the point that he was close to perishing. He turned to his shaykh through his spiritual energy (himma) and beheld him with his eyes, even though there was a great spatial distance between them . His shaykh said to him, ‘Yā Muḥarram! Do what you need to do and don’t be in anguish!’
ʻAbd al-Raʼūf ibn Tāj al-ʻĀrifīn al-Munāwī, al-Kawākib al-durrīyah fī tarājim al-sādah al-Ṣūfīyah: ṭabaqāt al-Ṣūfīyah, (Bayrūt, Lubnān: Dār Ṣādir, 1999), iv: 512-513. Translation by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.
 Muḥarram al-Rūmī (who lived in the late 16th into early 17th century in Ottoman Cairo; ‘Rūmī’ indicates Anatolian origin) was a Khalwatī (Tur. Halvetî) dervish, a ṭarīqa in which disciples were taught seven successive divine names, each with particular forms of dhikr, spiritual stations, and powers associated with them. The third name mentioned here is ‘Hū‘ (‘He’).
The presence and potential power of the jinn- beings neither human nor angel, but instead somewhere in-between, capable of both helping and harming humans but mostly just interested in their own devices- has been a constant throughout Islamic history, with the concept of the jinn probably pre-dating Islam considerably in fact. Ways of dealing with the jinn have varied considerably, though certain practices- the use of talismans and amulets, or other sacred or semi-sacred prophylactics- has been common across many Islamic societies. The two examples I’ve presented here demonstrate at least two ways in which people in the sixteenth century Ottoman world imagined and sought to control the power of the jinn.
The image above is of one of the most fearsome of the jinn, the ‘Red King,’ also referenced in the story below. He is surrounded by various other ferocious, indeed rather terrifying, jinn, sitting astride a lion. His malevolent nature, had it been in doubt, is emphasized by the decapitated human head he holds in one hand. This image comes from a 15th (or possibly late 14th) century compilation, the Kitāb al-Bulhān, produced in pre-Ottoman Baghdad, a book which features a range of material from the astrological to the occult- subjects and genres that hover somewhere among our modern categories of science, magic, and religion. The image itself contains prophylactic letters and numbers- visible to the left and right of the Red King’s head- which are meant to control this particular jinn’s manifestations. More interesting for our purposes, this manuscript was modified by later Ottoman owners: Ottoman Turkish has been added, and some of the images have been modified. This painting of the Red King bears the most striking modifications. Through some technique the paint has been removed from the jinn chief’s body at strategic points: his neck and hands have been ‘cut,’ his head ‘pierced,’ and his mount’s eye put out. As you might guess these are not accidental injuries to the manuscript, but were done deliberately, almost certainly by a 16th century Ottoman owner (at some point in the 17th century it was acquired by a English collector, who added his own cryptographic writing to parts of the text- but that’s another story!). What is going on here?
In her recent discussion of Ottoman and Safavid devotional artistic practices , the Islamic art historian Christiane Gruber drew attention to the physical interactions that audiences of manuscript paintings in both empires had with particular images. Along with ‘positive’ devotional acts like the addition of face-covering veils to images of Muhammad and members of the Ahl al-Bayt, kissing and rubbing depictions of Muhammad and others, and other types of practices that modified the image on the page, we also see evidence of symbolic devotional ‘violence’ in images: the faces of Muhammad’s pagan enemies being rubbed out, their necks and hands ‘cut,’ and, in Shi’i contexts, explicitly Sunni figures being ritually defaced. Gruber argues that these actions were seen as relating to the subjects depicted in some way: cutting the necks of Muhammad’s opponents de-fanged their potential power, while allowing the viewer to not just view but participate, albeit at a remove, in the drama being depicted in the picture. Something very similar is going on in this image: whoever modified this image sought to control the power of the Red King through symbolic ritual action, with the understanding that violence done to the jinn’s depiction ‘translated’ to the jinn himself. Note that this is not iconoclasm, at least not in the traditional sense: most of the pictures in this collection have not been modified at all, indicating both the lack of iconoclasm in the book’s audience and the apparently especially dangerous nature of the Red King, dangerous enough that even his image in an occult handbook needed to be ‘brought to heel.’
The second example of controlling the jinn- including the Red King- comes from the saint’s life of ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Sha’rānī (d. 1565), Tadhkirat ūlī al-albāb, by Muḥammad Muḥyī al-Dīn al-Malījī. The short story I have translated below is only one of numerous anecdotes in which the saint confronts jinn, both singly and in groups. In these stories a recurring feature, and one that long predated al-Sha’rānī, is the jinn’s occupation of particular places and spaces, especially abandoned human dwellings. The ability of saints to confront and control the jinn was also well established by the 16th century; al-Sha’rānī is shown using his saintly power to mark out spaces in the urban fabric of Cairo, not so much to defeat the jinn as to demonstrate his sanctity by moving into their space and avoiding any harm from them. Continue reading “Two Ways of Dealing with the Jinn in the Ottoman World”→