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.
Ah world of plastic and poorly bonded materia, fast consumption
Your truest mode, you will be washed in the floods of divine judgment
Woven into the fabric of the world, an assurance
That all our works will suffer the land only so long. Ephemera
Accumulate, then rot. One day a stylite will carve out a home
And radiate his holiness from some marbled remnants rising
Out of the Potomac’s heaped higher floodplain. He will climb down one day
And find at his feet a flint shard washed down from the highlands,
Proof of peoples’ longer gone but with longer echo. He will
Return to his perch and pray in words also solid and deep.
The relational nexus between Muslim saint and Muslim ruler in medieval and early modern times was almost always a fraught one. Both saint and ruler laid claim to divinely invested authority, claims that could coexist, cooperate, and clash. A given saint might support a ruler, undermine him, or simply ignore him, while rulers moved between strategies of co-opting saints, seeking them out for their baraka and the social power that being connected to a saint might bring, endowing zawiyas, khaniqahs, and the like, even as some saintly shaykhs made a prominent point of rejecting both contact with and reception of wealth from rulers. Occasionally a Muslim claimant to sainthood ran seriously afoul of a ruler, resulting in exile, imprisonment, or even martyrdom.
I encountered the story- from the early thirteenth century Khawarezm domains- I’ve translated and presented below first in an Ottoman context, in the Ta’rîh (History) of Ibrâhîm Peçevî (d. c. 1650), an Ottoman official and author, who described the martyrdom of the Kurdish Şeyh Mahmûd of Diyarbakır, executed by Sultan Murad IV, probably because the sultan feared the saint, who had a vast following across the Kurdish lands, posed a political threat. Peçevî, who had been posted in Diyarbakır as a defterdâr, had been an intimate of the saint and was deeply sorrowed to learn of his martyrdom. Upon learning that Şeyh Mahmûd had died, he was reminded, he writes, of the story I’ve translated here. It comes from the massive Persian hagiographic compilation, Nafaḥāt al-uns, by the poet, sufi, and author Nūr al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Raḥmān Jāmī (d. 1492). There are indeed striking parallels, as well as differences: Majd al-Dīn, while clearly of saintly status, is seen here oversteping his limits in his relationship with the powerful and axial saint Najm al-Dīn al-Kubrā (d. 1221) in relating his vision, a vision that implies exalted spiritual status. The remainder of the story is largely self-explanatory, though I’ve included some notes for clarification here and there. Given both the odd details, the hints of court intrigue, and the spectacular ending- the Mongols totally devastated the Khawarezm lands- it would be a popular item in Jāmī’s hagiography. Peçevî reproduced, in Ottoman Turkish form, a condensed version of the story (and thereby implicitly criticized the by-then deceased Murad IV and warned future sultans) in his chronicle, while it was circulated in Ottoman Turkish in other contexts as well. The lessons are clear enough: rulers ought to observe proper care and respect around the saints, as the consequences of not doing so can be truly enormous!
One day Shaykh Majd al-Dīn [Baghdādī] was sitting with a group of dervishes when a state of spiritual intoxication came over him. He said: ‘I was a duck’s egg upon the shore of the sea, and Shaykh Najm al-Dīn [Kubrā] was a bird with his wings of spiritual instruction spread out above my head until I came forth from the egg and I was like the young of the duck, then went into the sea, while the shaykh remained on the shore.’
Shaykh Najm al-Dīn knew [what Majd al-Dīn said] by the light of divinely instilled power, and the words ‘He will go into the ocean!’ passed upon his tongue . When Shaykh Majd al-Dīn heard that he was fearful, and he came before Shaykh Sa’d al-Dīn Ḥamawī and with great humility asked, ‘When the time is right with the shaykh, will you give him report of me such that I may enter his presence and request forgiveness?’
One of the most remarkable and fascinating, as well as tumultuous and frequently traumatic, periods in the early modern history of Persia was the meteoric rise and success of Nader Shah (d. 1747), who not only established himself in the ruins of the Safavid dynasty, having expelled invading Afghans and rather handily deposed the resurgent Safavid claimant to the throne, but also embarked on a campaign of conquest in almost every direction that was redolent of the great conquerors of Inner Asia of days past. Nader Shah’s conquests and campaigns had an enormous impact on not just the societies of the former Safavid lands but also the many places touched by his forays, including the Ottoman and Mughal lands. In the Ottoman Empire, for instance, Nader’s campaigns gave rise to a new form of resolutely Sunni devotional regime, centered around the Ahl al-Badr, the early Muslims who fought alongside Muhammad at the pivotal battle of Badr, and whose names formed a litany of saintly intercession that soared in popularity after Nader’s eruption into the Ottoman world. Nader’s conquests and empire re-making drew in and impacted the numerous Armenian communities scattered across the central Islamicate lands, from the Mughal realms in India to the far western edges of the Ottoman domains and beyond into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. As perhaps the most visible and deeply integrated- yet still distinctive and communally cohesive (for the most part)- minority group in these Muslim-majority lands, Armenians, whether Orthodox or Catholic, provide an important and fascinating vantage point for viewing events such as the rise of Nader Shah, with Armenians from different sides of the Ottoman-Iranian border providing markedly different perspectives.
The account below comes from an otherwise unknown chronicler of Nader’s rise and campaigns, one Abraham of Erevan, who, as the translator of his chronicle, George A. Bournoutian, notes, was probably either a military man or somehow involved in military affairs, perhaps on the logistics side, as he shows particular acumen in relating military operations and the intricacies of the various campaigns Nader carried out. He is throughout strikingly ‘pro-Nāder,’ even as he gives evidence of Armenians on the Ottoman side with quite different sentiments. The passage I have selected here (and I will perhaps follow up with more selections from Abraham’s chronicle and from other sources in a range of languages dealing with Nader Shah), has to do with, among other things, a Muslim saint, as seen by an Armenian chronicler, and his interactions with, on the one hand, Nader Shah, and, on the other, a rebellious provincial governor who had fled into the saint’s protection. In keeping with the theme of my recent previous set of postings, we see in Abraham’s account a sense of a shared economy of holiness, triply so: Abraham understands the Muslim saint as being in many ways similar to saints in his own tradition, and expects his audience to understand things in this way as well. It is also possible, if not likely, that the saint in question, dwelling on the Iranian littoral away from the centers of Persian Shi’ism, may have been Sunni, though there is no real indication one way or another. If he was, however, this story points to a continued shared economy of holiness between Shi’i and Sunnis in the former Safavid sphere; regardless, the markers of sainthood identified here would have been shared across boundaries. Finally, the story is a reminder of the limits of this economy of holiness- while the saint saves the life of the governor, it is not an unmitigated rescue, as we will see!
After that, Nāder marched on Shiraz, whose governor, called Mohammad, had rebelled against him, even though Nāder had appointed him to control the disloyal Balūç. Instead of convincing the Balūç to become loyal to Nāder, Mohammad rose against Nāder, gathered an army, and planned to march on Isfahan. Meanwhile, he had gone to the Bandar region [on the Persian Gulf coast] and had killed those who refused to join him. He added the rest to his army, went to Shiraz and prepared to attach Isfahan.
Nāder was informed of Mohammad’s intentions and dispatched an envoy with a letter that stated, “What are you doing? You are my servant and have eaten my bread. I raised you above five or six other khans. What is the reason that you have rebelled, have become alienated, have raised you sword and men against me? Repent and change your evil ways.” Nāder sent similar messages three times, but the latter did not answer. After the fourth message, Mohammad Khan replied, “I risk my neck on my action. Let God decide between us. Be aware that either I or you shall lose our life.”
When Nāder heard this, he no longer communicated with Mohammad Khan. Instead, he gathered his army and marched on Shiraz. Mohammad Khan was informed of his approach and went out to meet him on the plain. During the battle Mohammad’s army took flight and many were killed. He himself barely escaped and took refuge in a fortress in the Bandar region caled ‘Avaẓ. The chief of the fortress, a certain Sheikh Jabbār, had an extraordinary knowledge of the supernatural and the Muslims of the region considered him a saint and believed his every word, for her had reportedly performed many miracles. Mohammad Khan thus went to the Sheikh, told him what had occurred, and begged him for God’s sake to intercede with Nāder, since the latter held the Sheikh in great reverence.
The Sheikh gave in to his request and sent a letter to Nāder stating, “For my sake, receive Mohammad Khan, who has repented and who wishes to return to your bosom. Have mercy on him, do not execute him, although he is not worthy of your generosity.” Nāder responded, “Let it be so. Because of your entreaties I shall not execute him. Send him to us.” The Sheikh showed Nāder’s letter to Mohammad Khan and the latter went to him. When he appeared before him, Nāder said, “Do you remember when I was in Baghdad and wrote to you not to go against me? You answered that God shall decide which one of us will remain alive. Well, God has placed you in my hands and it is just that I should kill you.” Mohammad Khan replied, “Do as you wish; I am here in your hands.” Nāder replied, “Although you deserve to die, for the sake of the Sheikh who begged that I spare your life, I shall spare you. But I shall give you a minor punishment.” He then ordered one of his slaves to remove Mohammad Khan’s eyes. Nāder then gave the blind khan one hundred tomans and said, “Go! Live on this sum and pray for me.” He then entrusted him to fifteen soldiers and sent him to Mashhad. [Nāder] then went to Isfahan to prepare the conquest of Shirvan and Shemakhi.
Abraham of Erevan, History of the Wars (1721-1738), translated by George A. Bournoutian (Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers, 1999), 83-38.
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.