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.
when the light of your eye is purified
you will hear the trees cry out and clap,
and in the long grind of settling strata stone
see by subterranean fire and force etched
the echoed impression of the eternal Name,
bending on the incline of earth’s energy, the pulse of the wound of grace.
when your inmost ear is attuned to the Real,
the crack of the branch in the icestorm will
sound a psalm of unending praise renewed
in each moment and minutest fiber of being, and so in
your own heart’s pump and beat of blood, pure
creaturely fervor and light, the rhythm of remembrance, time’s flow become the prayer-bead line followed.
forever and ever in the Temple all cry Glory. on this mountain and on that hill.
all is sanctuary and sanctuaried, you can finally see, and hear.
The late medieval Islamicate world was filled with saints’ shrines and communities of sufis and other devotees oriented around those saints and their physical place of burial. Devotion to saints was, in the medieval as in the early modern world, more often than not a local phenomenon, centered around the saint of one’s village or neighborhood. In other cases, a community of devotees came into being that was spread out over an entire city, a region, an empire, or, in some cases, all or most of the Islamicate lands. One such saint with near-global reach was Shaykh Abū Isḥaq al-Kāzarūnī (d. 1035), whose tomb complex once stood in the town of Kāzarūn (modern Kazerun, Iran), until its destruction by the Safavids in the early 1500s (being no longer extant we cannot say what precisely it looked like, but surviving tombs and decorative components, such as those in fig. 1, help in imagining a reconstruction). The community of dervishes that arose around the saint, institutionally maintained in part by numerous khānaqāhs (structures in which sufis might live or visit, and which often provided travelers with lodging too), stretched from China to the Ottoman lands, lasting in the latter at least into the eighteenth century. How did a sufi saint from a relatively minor city in the Iranian lands obtain such a global reach? Abū Isḥaq himself, who in his lifetime seems to have emphasized preaching, charitable works, and jihād on the frontier, only left Kāzarūn once, living and teaching and dying there. It would be his successors who built up a network of devotees oriented around the saint and his tomb-complex, using a wide range of means to do so.
Much of the transformation and ‘globalization’ of devotion to Abū Isḥaq and the community formed around him took place from the 1300s forward. One instrument of the community’s spread, and a crucial source for understanding it, is the Persian-language vitae of the saint, Maḥmūd b. ʿUthmān’s Firdaws al-murshidiyya fī asrār al-ṣamadiyya, completed in 1328, Maḥmūd drawing upon but also adding to a now lost Arabic manāqib about the saint. This work evidently circulated quite widely, being translated into Ottoman Turkish during the mid-seventeenth century by Çömezzāde Meḥmed Şevḳī (d. 1688). Below we will return below to one of the more interesting features of this vitae- an entire chapter devoted to the properties of the soil of the saint’s tomb- but first let us hear from the famed traveler Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, who visited the central shrine and khānaqāh in 1326:
I left Shīrāz to visit the tomb of the pious shaykh Abū Isḥāq al-Kāzarūnī at Kāzarūn, which lies two days’ journey [west] from Shīrāz. This shaykh is held in high honour by the inhabitants of India and China. Travelers on the Sea of China, when the wind turns against them and they fear pirates, usually make vows to Abū Isḥāq, each one setting down in writing what he has vowed. When they reach safety the officers of the convent go on board the ship, receive the list, and take from each person the amount of his vow. There is not a ship coming from India or China but has thousands of dinars in it [vowed to the saint]. Any mendicant who comes to beg alms of the shaykh is given an order, sealed with the shaykh’s seal [see fig. 2] stamped in red wax, to this effect: “Let any person who has made a vow to the Shaykh Abū Isḥāq give thereof to so-and-so so much,” specifying a thousand or a hundred, or more or less. When the mendicant finds anyone who has made a vow, he takes from him the sum named and writes a receipt for the amount on the back of the order. 
As is evident from Ibn Baṭṭūṭa’s report, the shrine of Abū Isḥaq had mechanisms for accumulating wealth, wealth which could then be distributed to travelers, the poor, resident dervishes, and the custodians of the shrine itself. The generators of this wealth- here merchants, but we know from other sources that local and Ilkhanid elite sponsored the shrine too- helped to spread devotion to the saint far and wide, in many places leading to the establishment of Kāzarūnī khānaqāhs, from Canton to Edirne. Crucial here was the ‘transportability’ of the saint’s power, his baraka. Vows, texts, and seals such as the one mentioned by Ibn Baṭṭūṭa and shown below were all means of making the saint’s power present far from his resting place.
There was another means whereby that power was transmitted, one which Maḥmūd b. ʿUthmān thought important enough to devote an entire chapter to in his vitae of the saint (referred to repeatedly therein as ‘the Guiding Shaykh’): the power of the soil of the saint’s tomb. As the stories I have selected and translated in what follows suggest, soil gathered from above the saint’s grave was believed to transmit the presence and power of the saint himself, with only a small amount necessary, making it easy to collect and carry across the world in fact:
On the Virtue of the Soil of the Tomb of the Guiding Shaykh, God Sanctify his Saintly Spirit:
Know, God be merciful to you, that the special quality and virtue of the soil (gil) of the tomb (qabr) of the Guiding Shaykh, God illumine his tomb, has no limit such that one could describe it or be able to adequately speak of its virtue. It is well established and verified across the face of the earth among the children of Adam, elite and common, that whatever intention is brought [to his tomb], their needs are happily met. It is mentioned and well-known that when a ship, while traversing the midst of the sea, is in fear of sinking, the waves overwhelming, if they throw a handful of soil from the tomb of the Shaykh into the midst of the sea, in that moment the waves will become peaceful and safety return to view, due to the barakāt of the Guiding Shaykh, God sanctify his saintly spirit! The degrees and virtue of that are numerous, however, that measure of things which have come to the hearing of this deficient bondservant and which have been witnessed will be mentioned, towards good, God willing. Continue reading “Around the Late Medieval World with Abū Isḥāq al-Kāzarūnī and the Sacred Soil of His Tomb”→
We have now met Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn (1252/3–1334), the eponym of the Safavid dynasty and one of the most important Muslim saints of the late medieval and early modern Persianate world, a few times, first as a young man seeking out the presence of other holy people, and then as an increasingly proficient adept in the arts of taṣawwuf. The extended story that I’ve translated and presented below (sans, I must confess, the Persian and Arabic couplets interspersed, which, time and energy pending I will later add) is set at a critical moment in the shaykh’s career, not long after the death of his primary shaykh, Shaykh Zāhid. While our source, the sprawling hagiographic treatment of Ibn Bazzāz (d. 1391–92), is somewhat circumspect around the details, it is clear that succession to Shaykh Zāhid’s post was contested. While Ṣafī al-Dīn laid claim to the succession, and was acclaimed by some of the late master’s followers, all was not well. The new shaykh was soon met with opposition, a group of ‘obstinate ones,’ in the words of the hagiography, forming and deciding to get rid of Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn, quite literally in fact, by killing him. In the rather (unintentionally?) humorous story that follows, while on his annual pilgrimage to the shrine of his departed master in Lāhijān near the coast of the Caspian Sea, this group, led by rival claimant to Shaykh Zāhid’s position Shaykhzāda Jamāl al-Dīn, the son of the late shaykh (hence his name, ‘shaykh-descendant’) and therefore seemingly possessed of a stronger claim. Not to give things away, but he does not win out, instead admitting defeat and being reconciled to Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn, who is shown being remarkably chill about the whole affair.
The story is relatively self-explanatory; worthy of note are various small but insightful details such as the presence of a female supporter of Ṣafī al-Dīn and her role in the tale, or the fact that some people at least in this world knew how to swim, whether for utilitarian purposes or for fun is not evident here.
It was Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn’s custom that at an appointed time he would go and make pious visitation (ziyārat u mazār) to Shaykh Zāhid’s tomb [in Lāhijān]. When that time came and he set out to make his pious visitation, Khwāja Fakhr al-Dīn Yusūf, who was the brother of the shaykh, came to the holy shaykh and said, ‘It is assuredly not safe for you to go and make pious visitation to Shaykh Zāhid, for a group of deficient obstinate ones are waiting in ambush, God forbid, to commit a sin!’
The shaykh, God sanctify his secret, replied: ‘If it is destined for me that in this time that in going I fall into their hands, then turning back the decree of God cannot be done, and if not, then there is no fear to be had.’ So the shaykh went on his pious visitation [as usual]. Through that group of obstinate ones the fire of obstinacy and anger was lit in Shaykhzāda Jamāl al-Dīn, God be merciful to him. They agreed to seek the death of the shaykh, God sanctify his secret, and furthermore agreed upon the means of killing him: they would set the shaykh’s retreat cell (khalwat) on fire, consuming the shaykh in the flames and so killing him. They came by night and first on the outside they fastened the door of the retreat cell shut with a nail so that when the fire blazed up [the shaykh] would be unable to come out. But when they lit the fire, due to the shaykh’s sainthood (vilāyat) the fire would not flame up and instead went out, even though houses and retreat cells in that place are all built of wood and beams which after a passage of time become dried out.
When this tack did not work, the flame not flaring up and the retreat cell not catching fire, the flame of their anger and envy only increased. They decided to shoot the shaykh with arrows. They sent out a party to shoot the shaykh from ambush. But when they put their hands to their bows, their hands were all dried out and unable to work the bows, none of their hands being able to work.
When their corrupt intention could not be realized by these sorts of stratagems, again they concluded that they would destroy the shaykh by using poison. So they put a measure of poison in honey and along with a sufra of food brought it before the shaykh, God sanctify his secret. However, the wife (ḥaram) of Shaykhzāda Jamāl al-Dīn, God be merciful to him, who was the mother of the departed Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad, God be merciful to him, secretly sent a message to the shaykh, God sanctify his secret, saying, ‘Take care! Do not stretch out your hand for the honey, beware against accepting any of it!’ When this condition was made known to the shaykh he was wary of the honey and did not accept any of it. And it was likewise with any food with which they schemed and plotted—that pious matron secretly gave report and the shaykh did not stretch out his hand to it.
When their vain desire and wish was not realized through this stratagem, they again determined that there was no other possible plan remaining save that at the time of [the shaykh’s] return [from the shrine of Shaykh Zāhid in Lāhijān], they would seat the shaykh in a boat, and a group of people who knew how to swim would also board the boat with him. Once they were underway in the water, they would sink the boat and escape by swimming, while the shaykh, God sanctify his secret, not knowing how to swim, would certainly sink with the boat and so die. In preparation for this task they donned light clothing, and wanted to board the ship and seat the shaykh in it. But, the shaykh said, ‘I saw Shaykh Zāhid, God sanctify his secret, coming towards me upon a gazelle-like horse and saying, “O Ṣafī! Ride upon this horse and travel the dry road—do not board the boat!”’
Having seen and heard this from Shaykh Zāhid, the shaykh, God sanctify his secret, said ‘I’m not going to travel by way of the water and will not be boarding the boat, rather, I’ll be going by dry land.’ This having happend, Shaykhzāda Jamāl al-Dīn saw that their idea [of getting rid of the shaykh] was never going to be feasible, so he went with the shaykh and spent an hour with him in his retreat cell. The shaykh, God sanctify his secret, said, ‘Shaykhzāda! I know what you aimed to do to me and what treachery against me became lodged in your heart—but God, exalted is He, has made it impossible for your goal to be achieved, even after this goal was repeated and enmity established. Yet, if your desire is for my destruction and cannot be otherwise, bring a measure of poison so that I can consume it and your intention be fulfilled, and no one else will be aware of this secret.’
When Shaykhzāda Jamāl al-Dīn heard these words, the sweat of shame ran down his face, and he sought forgiveness for this crime and begged clemency for his treachery. Having manifest purity of state, he brought forth the gazelle-like horse for the shaykh, and mounting him the shaykh made his return journey.
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 ), 798-791. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2020.
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The late fourteenth into fifteenth centuries across much of the Islamicate world were a period of both great turmoil and of great religious experimentation and vitality, particularly in the areas of sainthood and sufism. Out of the many sufi shaykhs and saints to flourish in the expansive Persianate world stretching from the western edge of the great central mass of Eurasian highlands east to Anatolia, few would obtain as long-lasting or widespread success as Shāh Ni’matullāh Valī Kirmānī (c. 1330-1430/1). Unlike many saints of originally Sunni background, Shāh Ni’matullāh Valī’s veneration as a saint and the sufi ṭarīqa descended from him, the Ni’mat-Allāhiyya, would both survive the rise of the Safavids and the transformation of the core Persian lands from a largely Sunni domain to a Twelver Shi’i one. His shrine in Māhān, begun in 1436, would be patronized by Safavid rulers and continues to be venerated to this day.
Among the practices and charismatic marvels for which he was remembered were his rigorous feats of asceticism and what we might describe as his closeness to the natural landscape, including as a farmer, cultivation of the soil by himself and his followers one of his distinctive practices. In the set of stories I have translated below, taken from an early 16th century Persian hagiography of the saint, his asceticism as well as his fondness for wild places are emphasized, though neither preclude his having an audience, fortunately for his memory among posterity. The stories are relatively self-explanatory, though it’s worth noting that the practice of pious retreat or seclusion (Ar. khalwa) was not unique to Shāh Ni’matullāh Valī but featured in many sufi regimes of the period- though usually not in snowbound mountains.
For his forty-day retreat and for his great chilla which lasted a hundred and twenty days, Haẓrat [Shāh Ni’matullāh Valī] would go in the wintertime to Mount Mulkdār, which they say is at any season inaccessible due to its height and the abundance of snow. When it was time to break his fast he would taste some snow, not eating or drinking anything else! This was transmitted from the saint by Sayyid ‘Alā’ al-Dīn Mahdī, whose probity and nobility of purpose is well known.
Niẓām al-Dīn Maḥmūd al-Wā’iẓ al-Dā’ī has transmitted: ‘I heard him say: “One time during the days of autumn while I was occupying myself with worship and pious retreat (khalwat) in a cave in one of the great mountains around Samarqand, a great snow fell and blocked the entrance to the cave.” And that holy one remained there until winter had passed and even part of spring! Once a group of hunters pursuing prey came up onto that mountain, and as nightfall was approaching and the sky was promising rain, the dug away the snow from the mouth of the cave and went in. Striking up a fire that saw that the holy one was sitting upon his prayer-rug facing the qibla, utterly apart from all other than God. They were bewildered, but after supplication he explained the reality of his state. One of their number, by consulting the holy one and occupying himself with his sagely counsel, became deeply God-fearing as a result. After taking sustenance they departed.’
And there is that which this poor one has seen in the writing of his own teachers: ‘This holy one and Khwāja Wāq were practicing austere ascetic disciplines in the vicinity of Samarqand. I heard that they were occupied with ascetic disciplines in the Cave of the Lovers (Ghār-i ʻāshiqān) in Kūh-i Ṣāf, one of the mountains of Samarkand. I do not know whether this holy one bestowed these names upon the cave and the mountain or whether they predated him. Regardless, some from among the Turkish chiefs and their followers who were nearby sent a notice [to Shāh Ni’matullāh Valī and Khwāja Wāq] saying, “Winter will be extremely cold and no one can survive in this cave!” But the holy one did not pay any heed to their words, and instead completed a forty-days retreat with minimal food. When the weather turned a little the chiefs of the Turks came so that they might ascertain the condition of [Shāh Ni’matullāh Valī and Khwāja Wāq], certain that they had perished. But when they had cleared the snow away from the entrance of the cave and entered in, they found the holy one sitting upon his prayer-rug, facing the qibla!’
‘Abd al-Rizzāq Kirmānī, Tazkira dar manāqib-i Ḥazret-i Shāh Ni’matullāh Valī, in Jean Aubin (ed.), Matériaux pour la biographie de Shâh Ni’matullah Walí Kermânî: Textes persans publiés avec une introduction (Teheran: Département d’iranologie de l’Institut francoiranien, 1956), 40-41.
The place of women in early modern Islamicate societies varied greatly depending on particular place, general cultural norms, social status, prevailing madhhab, and many other intersecting factors. Far from being static, the role and status of different sorts of women often fluctuated over time, and was frequently contested, particularly during periods of change such as marked much of early modernity in the Islamicate world as elsewhere. Of a particularly contentious nature was the question of women’s public religious life, a question that for Muslim communities entailed tension between (albeit limited) recognition in Islamic tradition of female religious authority, beginning with hadith-transmitting wives of Muḥammad himself, and prescriptions on women’s authority and public mobility and visibility. The historical reality of female saints and even masters of sufism added extra dimensions to such tensions. In the Islamic West- the Maghrib- from the medieval period forward highly restrictive attitudes towards women’s public participation in religious life existed alongside prominent, and outspokenly public, female saints such as Sayyida ‘Ā’isha al-Mannūbiyya (1199–1267). The anonymous woman who is described in the below text suggests other possibilities, which were accepted by some but strenuously rejected by others, as we will see.
The text below comes from a major eighteenth century bio-hagiographic compilation, Ṣafwat man intashar min akhbār ṣulaḥāʾ al-ḳarn al-ḥādī ʿashar, written by a scholar whose family was originally from the Draa region in the far south of Morocco, Abū ‘Abdallāh Muḥammad al-Ifrānī (also spelled al-Īfrānī and al-Ufrānī). Born in Marrakesh around 1670, al-Ifrānī eventually settled in Fes, where he would live and work as a scholar, sufi, and author, becoming particularly well known for his historical works, dying in either 1743 or 1745. His Ṣafwat man intashar provides important insight into the shape of early modern Maghribi sainthood as well as many other social realities of the period, including in the vast and often autonomous countryside, as seen in a previous selection from this work translated here.
The following selection comes from the life of a scholar and saint, originally from the town of Ksar el-Kebir but who settled permanently in Fes after his course of studies there, Abū Muḥammad Sayyidī ‘Abd al-Qādir (d. 1680). ‘Abd al-Qādir embodied a form of sainthood that had once been common across Islamic societies but by the early modern period was largely a Maghribi phenomenon: that of the ‘exoteric’ scholar whose vigorous personal asceticism, scrupulosity, and careful adherence to the sharī’a were acclaimed as evidence of sainthood. His karāmāt- miracles or charismatic signs- were many, al-Ifrānī tells us, his saintly status no doubt helped by the fact that his son wrote not one but two manāqibs- hagiographic accounts- of his father’s life. Unlike many of his contemporaries, ‘Abd al-Qādir did not produce in books or compilations; instead, his followers compiled his sayings and fatwas into their own compilations. The passage I have translated here comes from such a compilation, and is reminiscent in form of a fatwa although it is not presented as such:
Another fā’ida: [Abū Muḥammad ‘Abd al-Qādir] was asked about a woman who recited the Qur’an for women, and they would gather around her and take her as their shaykha. He answered with the following: ‘He, peace and blessings of God be upon him, said: “A people ordered by a woman will not know success,” as well as “Hinder them as God has hindered them,” and “They are deficient in reason and religion.” It is not permissible that a woman act as an imāma or shaykha, and as for what the women do on the day when they gather together in the woman’s presence and take her as their shaykha, that is not permissible either, and is an aspect of corruption and evil in the earth due to various reasons: among them, that women pilfer from their husbands and take it to her; and that each of the women dresses in finery, beautifies herself, and goes out into the streets, that being ḥarām and not allowed. And perhaps she leaves without her husband’s permission or pleasure in that, it becoming a cause for anger and division, with things that cause such being ḥarām.
Also, she presides over the reading of books and fatwa collections concerning the religion (dīn) of God, but is without knowledge (‘ilm), not having received that from an ‘ālim, there being things in the books which are comprehensible and things which are not [to those not instructed by a scholar], ‘ilm not being received save from the mouths of scholars. Taking it from books and pages is ḥarām, and all which she receives [in terms of material things] from that is illicit and one ought not eat of it, such that her livelihood is pure ḥarām.Continue reading “A Self-Taught Shaykha in Early Modern Fes”→
Pierced metal plaques such as the one above must surely count among the most spectacular instances of Safavid art to modern eyes, with their stark contrasts, incredible fineness of detail, bold clean lines surrounding delicate ornament, and obvious evidence of extremely skilled craft. Plaques such as this one- see below for another, quite similar example- once formed part of the interior of Safavid shrines, either to one of the Twelve Imāms or to the far more frequent imāmzādehs, the descendents of the Imāms, who were also more likely to be found in Safavid controlled territory (there were also cases of saints’ shrines of various sorts being ‘converted’ to an imāmzādeh after the rise of the Safavids). Others were found on the tombs of Safavid shahs and in the massive shrine complex of Ṣafī al-Dīn, the Safavid eponym, in Ardabil. In 1550 large number of such plaques were ordered and installed by Shah Tahmāsp I in the shrine of Imām Riḍā in Mashhad, with further production through the rest of the Safavid dynasty.
So far as I know none remain in situ, a consequence of their likely original location- probably upon the grill-like structure surrounding the location of the tomb itself (see the 16th century illustration above for an idea of what such a space would have looked like). Such structures, as well as the built fabric of shrines in general, tend to be subject to great use, wear-and-tear, and continual renovation; as a result these plaques were dispersed and now reside in various museums and collections. Originally, however, they would have been visible to those making pious visitation (ziyāra) to the holy people whose tombs they adorned.
In terms of content, these plaques extoll and in some cases supplicate the prayers of the Twelve Imāms, as well as Muḥammad and Fāṭima, acting both to channel the intercessory power of these figures while linking the entombed person to the ‘People of the House.’ While devotion to the Twelve Imāms was not limited to Shi’i Muslims historically- contemporaneous Ottomans who would have regarded themselves as good Sunnis venerated the Twelve Imāms as well- such devotion was especially central to Shi’i Islam and to Safavid religious identity. These plaques signaled, to those who could read them (or have them read to them), that centrality, while also acting as inscribed requests for intercession, connecting the People of the House and their baraka to whatever shrine their names were place within. The sheer skill, time, and resources that were involved in producing such works were in themselves acts of devotion (along with the patronage of such work).
The following short biography is taken from the famed chronicle- which is also a biographical dictionary- of the Ottoman Egyptian scholar al-Jabartī (1753-1825), best-known for his accounts of the French invasion and occupation of Egypt under Napoleon. His chronicle contains numerous fascinating slices of every-day life in the late eighteenth century, such as this entry concerning a person of middling estate (which he made up for, as we will see, in other types of ‘capital’):
Ismā’īl Efendī ibn Khalīl… known as al-Ẓuhūrī al-Miṣrī al-Ḥanafī al-Muktib died. He was a good person, satisfied with his lot in life, who earned his living through book-copying and fineness of calligraphy which he had improved in and reached perfection under the tutelage of ‘Alī Aḥmad Efendī al-Shukrī. He wrote with his fine handwriting numerous books (kutub), copies of al-Saba’a al-munjiyyāt [seven selected Qu’ran suras with reputed prophylactic power], Dalā’il al-khayrāt, and full copies of the Qur’an. He also had a storehouse wherein he sold coffee beans, located in the caravanersai of greens (wikālat al-baql) close to the Khalīlī Khan. He was also very knowledgeable in the science of music, melody, the playing of the ‘ūd, and the composition of poetry, having composed madā’iḥ, qaṣā’id, and muwashshaḥāt. He died, God be merciful to him, in 1211/1796.
The picture that emerges from this brief life is of a man who deliberately cultivated a wide range of skills and forms of cultural expertise, while also participating in the flourishing marketplace of goods and commodities. His enterprises were such that they could overlap: selling coffee beans at the scale suggested here would have only occupied so much time, Ismā’īl otherwise working at what al-Jabartī presents as his primary trade, that of a copyist. Despite sporadic in-roads of moveable print in the eighteenth century Ottoman world, manuscript production remained dominant, with men like Ismā’īl turning out often prodigious numbers of texts for an expanded market compared to earlier periods. His specified repertoire consists of works that households with few other texts might very well have owned, either for reading and recitation or simply for their role as potent conveyors of baraka (and, secondarily perhaps, markers of cultural prestige). It is striking that, like several other copyists profiled by al-Jabartī, the Dalā’il al-khayrāt is given as part of Ismā’īl’s calling card, a text of such popularity that it could form a stable item all of its own regardless of individual customer commissions. Continue reading “A Cultural Entrepreneur in Late Eighteenth Century Cairo”→
The following extensive hagiographic entry comes from an important eighteenth century compilation of saints’ lives from Morocco, the Ṣafwat man intashar min akhbār ṣulaḥāʾof the scholar, historian, sufi, and man of letters Abū ʿAbdallāh Muḥammad al-Ṣaghīr al-Ifrānī (c. 1669-1743 or 45), who was originally from the Draa region of southern Morocco, but who lived and traveled in Fes, Marrakesh, and various countryside zāwiyas. He forged ties with many saints of his native land, collecting accounts of holy figures from both his own lifetime and the generation before.
The saint featured here, Shaykh Abū al-Qāsim, lived in the Middle Atlas region south of Fes, then as now predominantly rural, many traces of which are visible in the life al-Ifrānī renders. Islamic Sainthood in Morocco, in medieval and early modern times, has often been centered in rural areas as much as urban ones, with a constant interplay between the two (al-Ifrānī probably learned the accounts of Abū al-Qāsim through one of the latter’s disciples, Sīdī Aḥmad al-Madāsī, a sometime resident in Fes whom al-Ifrānī would much later take as a spiritual master). While in the anthropological and sociological studies of ‘maraboutism’ that long dominated the study of Islam in Morocco, these saints and their devotees are often taken as examples of the exceptional, ‘syncretic’ nature of Moroccan Islam, we can in fact see connections with the wider Islamic world in these saints’ lives as well as the traces of long-standing debates and discussions within sufism and fiqh over the nature of sainthood, sufi practices, what constitutes a proper shaykh, and the nature of the knowledge of God. In this particular life, Abū al-Qāsim is described as a majdhūb, a divinely attracted saint, a type of saint that became increasingly prominent in both the Maghrib and the Ottoman world during this period, even if the mechanisms for those parallels are for now hard to determine. The reality of interconnections between ‘West’ and ‘East’ is alluded to in this life, in fact, by the saint’s dispatch of disciples to ‘the East,’ meaning for this period the Ottoman lands. I’ll note briefly some other parallels and some differences below, but first here is al-Ifrānī’s account of this sometimes quite shocking saint:
Abū al-Qāsim ibn Aḥmad ibn al-Lūsha al-Sufyānī: His companions called him Abū ʿAsrīya, because he used to do most things with his left hand, and he was, God be merciful to him, from among the ones distracted in love of God, and from among the folk of effusive states and lordly ecstatic utterances. His sainthood was firmly established among both the elite and the common, his distinctiveness being well-known in both the east and the west. Early in his life he was renowned as one of the brave young men of his tribe (qabīla) and among those of perfect horsemanship from among them. When the inrushings of gnosis began to flash upon him and the illumined beneficence draw him, he went about in the wild upon his face, distracted from his senses, becoming acquainted with wildness and familiar with solitude, such that knowledge of him was cut off from his folk for one or two years or more. They didn’t know anything of his dwelling nor location until there came a hunter or shepherd who mentioned to them his description, so they rode out in search of him, and when they brought him back he stayed with them a few days then returned to his former inclination, until his spiritual condition calmed down enough to settle down in his homeland, his spiritual states (al-aḥwāl) subsiding somewhat.
Then he began sitting with the fuqarā’, discoursing with them and imposing [spiritual disciples?] upon them, but when his spiritual state (ḥāl) would seize him, he would grab at them and they would flee from him. Among the remarkable things that befell him is that when the spiritual state would seize him, he would rend his clothes and remain totally naked, yet no one ever saw his genitals (ʿawra) , and whoever wished to gaze upon his genitals would not see them, no matter how much he strove to see them. The one to whom it was granted to see them would go blind from the very moment. A number of people went blind in such manner until it became well-known among the people and they began to protect themselves from such.
At the beginning of his career, he would stay at length in meadows, ponds, and creeks due to the intensity of what descended (mā nazala) upon him of the [divine] lights (al-anwār), which he would cool off from by means staying close to water until it stopped. In the latter part of his career his spiritual state became calm and serenity prevailed in him. He returned to his senses, now having control over his spiritual state. More than one trustworthy person has related to me that a group of his companions went to the East with his permission, living adjacent to Medina the Noble, and would sit opposite the Noble Room [of Muḥammad] and discuss stories and accounts of him . One day they were doing that when a woman clothed in tattered old rags and of ragged mein stopped before them. She said to them, ‘Do not know other than Qāsim—rejoice, for my Lord has given him the station of the Quṭb today!’ They wrote it down that day, and when they returned to [Abū al-Qāsim] they learned that his state had become calm on the very day that the woman said to them what she said—God knows best! 
During his various journeys,ʿAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (1641-1731) visited many, many shrines of saints and prophets, some known throughout the world, others of only local purchase. In his accounts of his journeys he makes much of these visits, recording them in sometimes great detail and with his own poetic contributions. Very often he reports local accounts of the holy person venerated in the shrine, providing precious insights into the ‘oral hagiography’ and local practices of saintly veneration and saintly space that prevailed in the late seventeenth century around the Ottoman world.
One of the many holy tombs al-Nābulusī visited in the course of his extended stay in Cairo during the pilgrimage journey recounted in his al-Ḥaqīqa wa-al-majāz fī riḥlat bilād al-Shām wa-Miṣr wa-al-Ḥijāz was that of Imām al-Layth ibn Saʿd (713-791), a major figure in the early elaboration of Islamic jurisprudence. Rather like his ‘neighbor’ Imām al-Shāfiʿī, by al-Nābulusī’s time Imām al-Layth was regarded as much, if not more, as a wonder-working saint than as a scholar of jurisprudence, as the story I’ve translated here suggests.
While the central point of the story is pretty straightforward- and rather charming- certain details stand out for thinking about how Ottoman Muslims experienced the built space of such shrines. First, it should be noted, as al-Nābulusī does in introducing this structure a bit before the translated passage, and as can be seen in the photographs, reproduced here, taken by K.A.C. Creswell in the late 1910s, the shrine sat pretty much continuous with the surrounding houses, marked off by its dome (qubba, see below) and relatively low but ornate minaret, both of late Mamluk provenance. The line between house and shrine could be blurred in other ways: the man in the story practices the venerable rite of ‘incubation,’ sleeping in a holy place so as to receive a vision or answer to a prayer. If the shrine was seen as a sort of ‘home’ for the entombed saint, incubation was equivalent to a guest spending the night.
The fact that al-Nābulusī heard this story, perhaps from a neighbor to the shrine, indicates that the space remained ‘alive’ to local residents and devotees, as did the saint himself, even to the point of attracting an additional element to his name (at least among his local devotees). It’s a good reminder that whatever the intentions of the original founders of the tomb (which certainly predates the ‘modern’ late Mamluk construction visible now to us) or of later patrons and builders, those intentions might have only partially been respected or even recognized by later participants in the sanctified space.
The reason for his being given the kunya  of Abū al-Makārim [that is, ‘Father of Noble Deeds’] among the people of Cairo is what was told us in the following manner, namely that there was a man with many debts. He set out sincerely for a pious visit to [Imām al-Layth], and recited the Fātiḥa for him and supplicated God, asking for relief from his debt. He slept here in the shrine and saw [Imām al-Layth] in a dream. He said to the man: ‘When you arise from your dream take hold of and possess what you see upon my tomb!’
When the man arose from his sleep, he saw upon his tomb the bird known as parrot (babbaghā’) or parakeet (durra), and it could recite in the manner of an expert reciter the Qur’an in all its seven recitations!  So he took hold of it, and soon the people had heard of it, to the point that word of it reached the ruler of Cairo, and he commanded that the man be brought to his presence so that he might take the bird from him. When he came into the ruler’s presence the ruler bought it from him, and with the money the man was able to repay all of his debts.
As discussed previously in these pages, one of the single most popular Islamic texts of any sort in the early modern world was the book of taṣliya- prayers and blessings upon Muḥammad- titled Dalā’il al-khayrāt, composed by Muhammad Sulaymān al-Jazūlī (d. 1465) of Fes and soon dissimulated east and south across Afro-Eurasia. The history of the text’s reception and transformation is long and complicated in no small part because it was such a ‘bestseller,’ taking on different profiles of production and use in different places. But like any book that becomes popular or even canonical, it’s success was not automatic, but involved ‘boosting’ on the part of various persons and groups, particularly in light of the fact that Dalā’il al-khayrāt was far from the only such book of devotion to Muḥammad on the market. There were older, already established texts such as the devotional poem Qaṣidat al-burda by al-Būsīrī (d. 1294), as well as more recent texts composed in response to the upsurge in devotion to Muḥammad that marked the late medieval into early modern period.
One of these was a text known as Tanbīh al-anām wa-shifāʼ al-asqām fī bayān ‘ulūw maqām nabīyinā Muḥammad ʻalayhi al-salām, also a book of invocations and blessings upon Muḥammad, written by a member of a prominent family of scholars from what is now Tunisia, ʻAbd al-Jalīl al-Qayrawānī (d. 1553). While similar in content and manuscript execution- see the examples below for instance- to the Dalā’il, it would prove far less successful (I was unfamiliar with it until coming across the story translated here!). The sense of competition is relayed in the following story, which comes from Muḥammad al-Mahdī ibn Aḥmad al-Fāsī hagiographical account of the author of the Dalā’il,Mumtiʻ al-asmāʻ fī al-Jazūlī, written in the early seventeenth century. Al-Fāsī’s text can be seen both as part of the process of the Dalā’il’s ascent into ubiquity, and as a reflection of its already existing popularity. Besides establishing the sanctity of the Dalā’il‘s compiler, al-Fāsī’s account also underlines the potency of the text itself, as in the following story, one which suggests the Dalā’il’s superiority in rather literal terms!
It is related that someone from among the people had copies of Dalā’il al-khayrāt and of Tanbīh al-anām, and when he put them down he would place Dalā’il al-khayrāt on the bottom and Tanbīh al-anām on top of it. Then, when he went out and came back to his place he would find Dalā’il al-khayrāt on top of Tanbīh al-anām. This happened more than once, and no one else had come into his place other than him.
Also someone whom I trust related to me the story one from among the students told him along the same lines, it having happened to him as well—it’s possible the two stories have to do with the same person, or with two separate persons, this occurrence being multiple. I heard our master and intermediary with our Lord, Shakh Sīdī Abū ʿAbdallāh ibn Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad ibn ʿAbdallāh ibn Maʿn al-Andalusī, God be pleased with him and with us through him, say words to the effect that Dalā’il al-khayrāt suffuses light (al-nūr), Tanbīh al-anām knowledge (al-‘ilm). 
I found in the handwriting of Shaykh Abū ʿAbdallāh al-ʿArabī, God be merciful to him, upon the surface of a copy of Dalā’il al-khayrāt the following text: ‘One of the Qur’an-memorizing fuqahā’ mentioned to me that among the things he had tried for the meeting of needs and the alleviation of distress was reciting Dalā’il al-khayrāt forty times, the reciter striving to complete this number of recitations before the passage of forty days. The need was fulfilled through the baraka of blessing (al-ṣalāt) upon the Prophet, peace and blessing be upon him!’