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.
close your eyes and collect your heart, feel the pricks and pains and discomforts of your body the touch of your machine made clothes, smell far distant the sweat of the Bangladeshi worker, straighten your spine, breathe the heavy air. eyes now open, direct your gaze at the concrete before you, look for a breath and a half. eyes shut, review the landscape in your heart: sidewalk and building, road and powerlines, trees rooted under the asphalt, straining. move the clock forward, see the years pass, new oceans soon lapping at less distant shores, the asphalt cracks, the sparrows take to the fields, every edifice totters, o bring us the little foxes, your body and your civilization a-mouldering in the grave, tattered powerlines flying in the wind rags tied at an unholy tomb. these trees tumble, rot, and new trees grow, the foxes remain but the vineyard is gone, and muscadines tangle the new trees. feel your bones and the built up bones of this world below crumble to dust, taste the death dew heavy, let your heart feel I and all my works will perish. still the new trees grow
One of the most fascinating sources that I came across in the course of researching and writing my dissertation was an Arabic text simply titled ‘Riḥla,’ which might be translated as ‘Travel Narrative’ though it has other connotations as well, written by an otherwise fairly obscure Kurdish author named Ṭāhā al-Kurdī who was born in on the night of December 11, 1723, in a small village in the vicinity of the town of Koy Sanjaq, about two hundred miles north of Baghdad and fifty north of Kirkuk, in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains. Then as now the region was predominantly Kurdish and while usually under the suzerainty of the Ottomans had a degree of autonomy, and was in some ways quite distant culturally and socially from the more urbane parts of the empire. Much of the population was nomadic or semi-nomadic, non-elite women played a much more prominent role in religious and cultural life than was typical in much of the rest of the empire, and the practices of sainthood- a major concern for Ṭāhā- in the region had their own distinctive aspects. At the same time, there was much that would have been familiar anywhere in the Ottoman world or indeed elsewhere in the vast Islamicate: Ṭāhā traveled to Koy Sanjaq as a youth to study in the madrasa there, learning various subjects in Arabic and Persian, perhaps, though he does not say so, using Kurdish glosses or helping texts initially. His relative mastery of prestige bodies of texts and learned, literate skills would serve him well in the coming years of his peregrinations around the empire, following routes that many learned Kurds took over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with scholars from other tiny towns and villages often playing outsized roles in Ottoman religious and intellectual life.
But even more important for Ṭāhā’s self-image and as an impetus for his travels was his love of the saints and his commitment to the practices and doctrines of sufism as transmitted and inculcated by the living friends of God of his day, beginning with his first and most important saintly shaykh, Darwīsh Muṣṭafā. The story from Ṭāhā’s Riḥla that I have translated below relates his first encounter with this saint, and it is a remarkably detailed and emotionally rich story, written in what we might today call a voice of openness and vulnerability, Ṭaha frankly describing his unsettled emotional state, with which I think most people can readily sympathize. We see in the story the way in which a local saint inhered in the social life of a rural community (and navigated its built spaces), and the sheer importance attached to him; we see the process, both in terms of inner states and emotions and in terms of practicalities and ritual actions, of becoming affiliated to such a saintly shaykh, and entering into the sufi ‘path.’ While Darwīsh Muṣṭafā is described as connected to the ṭarīqa of the famed saint and sufi eponym ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jilānī, there is no sense of institutional organization here or even a set of regularized practices. Instead the stress is on transmission of a saintly lineage from one saintly figure down to another, ending up at ‘Abd al-Qādir. Ṭaha is given a ‘personalized’ dhikr (ritual remembrance of God) to perform, which he finally succeeds in through the dream-intercession as it were of another saint, his shaykh’s shaykh, whose hagiography- which I have not translated here- picks up where the following passage concludes.
The deeply personal voice of Ṭāhā al-Kurdī is perhaps the most striking aspect of not just this story but the whole of his Riḥla; he does not simply narrate the exterior ‘facts’ of his life but is even more interested in relating his inner states and conditions, even when they are not especially flattering. In so doing he was not alone in the early modern Ottoman world, or the world more generally, as this sort of subjective turn is visible in many contexts- as for why this would be so, that is another story entirely and one that I do not think has yet been adequately answered. Certainly however we should not be surprised at this sort of subjective exploration given the emphasis in much sufi training on inner states and conditions; what is perhaps more surprising is its being written down and circulated (there are multiple copies of the Riḥla; I have worked from the one pictured below for the simple reason it’s currently accessible to me!). Regardless, this account is a wonderful view of the operation of sainthood and sufi discipleship in one corner of the rural hinterland of the Ottoman Empire, which, despite the predominance of literary production taking place in and focusing on cities, held the vast majority of the empire’s inhabitants, and no small number of the special friends of God who left their mark upon Ottoman space and society over the centuries.
In that time there was dwelling in a place called Awājī—a village from among the villages around Koy [Sanjaq], three or four hours’ walk from there—the singular and proximate [to God] saint and master of evident miracles, gracious signs, and fame unsurpassed in that region, known as Darwīsh Muṣṭafā, God be pleased with him and with his land. He would come to town every Friday, and the people would gather around him like he was a prophet from among the prophets. He would stay in the house of Koy [Sanjaq]’s preacher (khaṭīb), the pious, sound, and knowledgeable Mullā Ḥusayn, God be merciful to him, whose house was close to the madrasa in which I was studying. I had a companion in study who was both older than me and more knowledge and better versed in fiqh, named Faqīh Ḥasan ibn Khāneh, God be merciful to both of them. He had pledged allegiance to the Shaykh in accordance with the ṭarīqa of the saintly axis and reviver of religion ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jīlī [i.e. al-Jilānī], God be pleased with him. He had mentioned to me several times the spiritual condition of his shaykh and his miracles and spiritual states and this and that, to the point that there arose in my heart love for encountering him in order to pay pious visitation and to pledge allegiance to him. So I said to my companion Faqīh Ḥasan, ‘When next Friday comes take me to his presence and tell him about my condition and what I desire and so act as a translator (turjumān) between me and him, and yours will be the reward with God!’
And so towards the end of the month of Sha’bān, six days remaining to it, in the year 1151 , Friday came and the shaykh arrived and stayed in the house of the aforementioned preacher. My companion said to me, ‘The shaykh has come—if you still want, stand and let’s go!’ So we went, but I saw the teeming assembly and I was deeply embarrassed before all the people. The shaykh was inside the house with lots of people before him, likewise outside the house. Still my companion went inside and told the shaykh about me, then he came back out and said to me, ‘I spoke to him.’ An hour later the shaykh had come forth and looked at me, and I had in my hand an inkwell with a tense firm cover such that it could be shaken to rectify the ink. When I saw the shaykh come out I kissed his hand and my companion said to him, ‘This is he,’ meaning me. I was dazed and embarrassed, I couldn’t see anything else save the shaykh stretching out his blessed hand and taking up the inkwell from my hand and saying to me, ‘What is this?’ I replied, ‘This is ink which can be well mixed through motion.’ He stopped for a while to talk with the people, then went back inside the house, saying to me, ‘With your permission—‘ and we entered the house together and sat down, I faced the shaykh with my head bowed for a while. Then he commanded me to come before him so I stood and sat upon my knees in front of him, the space quite filled up with those seated.
Then he said to me, ‘You wish to repent?’ I replied, ‘If God wills!’ He said, ‘Do not return to your sin,’ to which I replied, ‘If God wills!’ He said, ‘Repent from every sin!’ I replied, ‘I repent from all of my sins!’ Now there was to one side of the shaykh his companion, God be merciful to him, who was from among the folk of divine attraction (jadhb) whose state was evident and not hidden, named Mullā ‘Alī, from the people of Koy [Sanjaq]. He said to the shaykh, ‘This boy’—meaning me—‘from what does have to repent?’ He said this in joking manner to the shaykh, but the shaykh replied, ‘No, there is none who is free of sins great and small!’ I felt astonished, and in my heart there was shame over their mentioning sins, due to my own knowledge of my immoderation in regards to my lower self, so that I could verify in my own heart that the shaykh spoke the truth in what he said—this was the first miracle (karāma) manifest to me from him, God be pleased with him! Continue reading “Ṭāhā al-Kurdī Meets His Spiritual Master”→
an open window, first night of August, I know in my bones and my blood coursing that the babel of human endeavor is all vain the ambient aural field of the insects’ nocturne shimmers and fills without, in peace come and depart, the flow of creatures awake to themselves and alive to Wisdom, in order and rhythm without human ken, from before and through and after us on earth.
the dark is a full emptiness, all is symbol and every symbol is all itself. the ocean of the world washes upon every shore, and is in dreams and waking. wisdom—let us attend and the attending stands to in us, whether we will it or not. on the crickets go, ceaselessly, night, night, song upon song, and I, to sleep and to wake and to sleep again
The following translation is of a short service devoted to Saint Moses (Mūsā in Arabic) the Black, one of the best-known and beloved saints from among the Desert Fathers of the late antique Egyptian desert wilds (and my name saint). He has been and is venerated all across the Orthodox world, with particularly strong veneration among Coptic Orthodox Christians, perhaps unsurprisingly given that Saint Mūsā, while of Ethiopian origin, lived most of his life and died in Egypt, following the trajectory of escaped slave, violent robber, repentant monk, and eventually priest and monastic leader. This service and the iconography above in fig. 1 come from a prayer book copied in 1745, almost certainly in Ottoman Egypt, entitled Kitāb al-salāmāt, which we might translate as ‘Book of Salutations’ or ‘Book of salāms,’ each prayer or short service- terminology is tricky here- devoted to a particular saint, with the unifying refrain of ‘Peace, O holy one of God,’ a phrase that could also be translated ‘Salutations, O holy one of God,’ on the model of Islamic devotional practice.
The language of this piece of devotional literature is Arabic, not Coptic, as by the early modern period Coptic was at most a liturgical language and was in fact even in that capacity as here often replaced or supplemented by Arabic, the language the average Coptic Christian spoke and, if literate, read and wrote. It seems likely to me that this is an original composition in Arabic, no doubt looking to Coptic exemplars (perhaps transmitted via translation), as there is no parallel Coptic text as is often the case with more ‘formal’ liturgical texts. While it is hard to pick up on in English translation, I have at points indicated in parentheses specific Arabic words with strong Islamic resonances, suggesting the extent to which Coptic Orthodox devotional culture and imagination intersected with Islamic, even if the end product was distinct from Islamic practice in a number of ways.
I do not know who would have used this devotional work, or exactly how, though it seems likely to me that it would have been for private usage (though a monastic or priestly use could not be ruled out), perhaps on each saint’s feast day, or perhaps on a more regular basis. The latter strikes me as more likely given the immense amount of wear and tear this manuscript displays (see fig. 2 above). Certainly like Islamic prayer books from the same period it is clearly written with the user in mind, employing an almost monumental script that is generally very easy to red, with rubrics (literally as they are in red!) scattered throughout. The history of devotional life among the Coptic Orthodox remains to be written, though there has been some important progress made in recent years (see this study as well as this one); much like contemporary Islamic devotional culture there is so far as I can tell no shortage of material but simply a lack of attention to it. Yet prayer books such as these served to facilitate devotion to the powerful and exemplary saints of God, through word and image, and as such should be seen as emanating from the very heart of Ottoman Coptic life and society. By distilling the life of the saints into a supplicatory format, the user of this manuscript could express his or her devotion to the saints, receive from their barakāt, and encounter inspiration towards a pious and holy life oriented towards God.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God.
Peace, O holy saint (anbā) Mūsā the Black! The blessing of his intercession be with us, amen. Peace to you O holy one of God, O saint Mūsā, O one upon whom God bestowed mercy and there came to him a holy thought so that he went to the place of saint Īsaydurus [of Skétét] the Priest.
Peace to you O holy one of God, O saint Mūsā, who bore the charge of saint Paul the Messenger (al-rasūl) and his teaching, saying, ‘Let us put aside from ourselves the weapon of error and gird up with the weapon of piety and repentance!’
Peace to you O holy one of God, O saint Mūsā, who sought God saying, ‘O Savior of the world who saved the thief that was upon the cross with Him, save me also for I have fled to You!’
Peace to you O holy one of God, O saint Mūsā, who stood six years never sleeping in the night, carrying out many acts of worship (‘abādāt) until he overcame the shayṭān of fornication!
Peace to you O holy one of God, O saint Mūsā, who used to fast constantly, eating nothing but a raṭl of dry salty bread, and praying fifty times every day!
Peace to you O holy one of God, O saint Mūsā, to whom God gave immense grace so that afterwards he had no fear of the shayṭāns, but rather they became in his presence like flies flying around!
Peace to you O holy one of God, O saint Mūsā, upon whom the Spirit of Holiness settled, and the mad were cured, shayṭāns driven out from the people, the sick healed, and many wonders worked!
Peace to you O holy one of God, O saint Mūsā, to whom God gave you the priesthood and gathered together to you five hundred monastic brethren in Dayr Barmūs!
Peace to you O holy one of God, O saint Mūsā, who seized the Kingdom of Heaven by force!
While Islam has often been associated, for a complex and not totally inaccurate set of reasons, with urban life, the stress on Islam as ‘properly’ the religion of urban life ignores the many, many counter-examples of Islamic practice flourishing in rural settings. And while saints and sainthood have long been recognized by historians as central to many experiences of rural Islam, this reality has often been interpreted as due to the ‘syncretic’ nature of sainthood, or the lack of sophistication of rural religion, and the like. The saint profiled below, Shaykh Aḥmad al-Dajānī (d. 1562), is a good counter-example to such an overly simplistic story, as his life moved between the Palestinian countryside and the more urbanized and Ottomanized world of nearby Jerusalem. My discussion here is lightly adapted from my recent dissertation, wherein it comprises part of a sustained discussion of rural sainthood in the sixteenth century Ottoman world. While not entirely my original intention therein, Shaykh Dajānī’s story also speaks to the deep historical roots that present-day Palestinians have in historical Palestine, with the saint’s family a continuing presence today (with his shrine still standing, albeit after a great deal of struggle against various attempts to erase its intended function). Because quite a bit of Shaykh Dajānī’s hagiography focuses on protecting local inhabitants from the depredations of power, it seemed somehow appropriate to share a modified version of this section now, even if I have no illusions that my small intervention is liable to make much if any difference in the ongoing struggle of the Palestinian people in their ancestral lands. If nothing else this story (which, ironically, is based primarily off of a manuscript version of the saint’s manāqib which is held by the Israeli National Library) demonstrates that contrary to many propagandistic narratives the substantive historical ties of modern Palestinians go far back into history and take the land itself, with Jerusalem and its sacred precincts a major component in that historical identity and sense of place.
Such a ‘thickening’ of the meaningful landscape and of deep historical roots hardly began with Shaykh Dajānī. The rural Palestine of the saint was by the sixteenth century dense with holy places of either originally or adapted Islamic pedigrees, from the modest tombs of village shaykhs crowning hilltops to more spectacular constructions honoring a seemingly endless cast of ancient prophets of diverse provenance, most with traditional stories and rituals long associated with them. In central Palestine nomadic groups were generally fewer (though still present) than was the case elsewhere in the Ottoman’s Arabic-speaking provinces, with sedentary peasants the norm. At the heart of this landscape was the holy precincts of Jerusalem, al-Quds, with its rich array of holiness-drenched places and spatially rendered cultural memories.
The life and hagiographic traces of Shaykh Dajānī reflects a dialect of sainthood at once rooted in the life and landscape of rural Ottoman Palestine while also oriented towards the Holy City, drawing upon the venerable sources of sanctity embedded in the landscape, while also distinguishing the saint and his performance of sanctity from them. Not only did Shaykh Dajānī have to differentiate himself, as it were, from the many loci of sanctity around him, but he was also confronted with negotiating a new political order under the Ottomans and their exercise of authority and claims to saintly status. In what follows we will explore the particular dialect of sanctity manifest in the life of Aḥmad al-Dajānī and his work of sainthood, all within the context of his oscillation between an already sanctity-abundant Palestinian countryside and the holy precincts of Jerusalem (which, it should be recalled, was in this period a large, albeit spectacularly walled, town, with a decidedly rural ambience right up to and even within the walls). Despite being primarily connected in more modern memory with his family’s custodianship of the Tomb of David, we will see that earlier routes of memory, as reflected in the manāqib of the saint written by his grandson Muḥammad ibn Ṣālaḥ al-Dajānī (d. 1660), recalled Shaykh al-Dajānī to be just as much, if not more a saint of the countryside as of the city, both around Jerusalem and beyond the boundaries of its sancâk, his imaginal saintly territory encompassing much of Palestine as it is understood today. I will now briefly introduce the life of Shaykh Dajānī, his saintly repertoire and its particular dialect, followed by an examination of some of the ways in which his practice of sainthood tracked onto and dealt with the topography of both rural Palestine and of Jerusalem and its environs, both during his lifetime and, primarily in the context of his tomb-shrine in the Mamilla Cemetery, after his physical death.
While early Ottoman Jerusalem and the surrounding Palestinian countryside have received a considerable share of scholarly attention over the years, with works such as that of Amy Singer proving especially helpful in sketching the social and economic context of Shaykh Dajānī’s world, religious life among Muslims in Ottoman Jerusalem and wider Palestine has received comparatively less coverage, with the exception of synthetic works like Kan’ān’s classic volume or James Grehan’s recent study of rural religion in Syria and Palestine. Shaykh Dajānī receives but a single passing mention in Grehan’s work. However, Aharon Layish profiled Shaykh Dajānī in his analysis, some years ago, of another Palestinian rural saint, Ibn ʿAbdallāh al-Asadī, based outside of Safad, a discussion to which we will have recourse further along. My primary source for this saint of rural Palestine is Muḥammad al-Dajānī’s manāqib of his grandfather, a hagiographic treatment closely connected with another surviving trace of the saint, his much restored tomb-shrine located in what was formerly part of the Mamilla Cemetery in contemporary West Jerusalem. While it is today situated somewhat ingloriously in the corner of a parking lot and maintenance area for Independence Park—Shaykh Dajānī’s tomb-shrine and some remnants of Ottoman era tombstones the only surviving traces of this section of Mamilla Cemetery—the shrine is now in good condition and has been the main point of veneration for the saint for centuries. As such it forms a significant part of the saint’s manāqib, a text that appears to have had at least two goals: as Muḥammad al-Dajānī explicitly states in the introductory material, he feared that the oral circulation of accounts of his grandfather’s saintly career would ultimately come to an end, and wished to preserve that memory into the distant future. Second, like much seventeenth century hagiographic production Muḥammad seems to have had in mind puritanical attacks on the Friends of God and the need to defend them and particularly their performances of karāmāt. That said, Muḥammad’s foremost aim was clearly the perpetuation of his saintly forefather’s memory and the promotion of his cultus through the textual deployment (and almost certainly continued oral recitation, perhaps in the setting of the Mamilla tomb-shrine) of that memory.
After introductory eulogistic praise of Aḥmad al-Dajānī as the ‘quṭb of his age, the walī of God’ followed by a brief explanation from Muḥammad al-Dajānī of his reason for writing, the manāqib commences with a karāma-story that reveals some of the intersecting spatialities of the saint’s life, aspects of his position vis-à-vis the Ottoman authorities in Jerusalem, and central aspects of his saintly repertoire. This first story opens with mention of Shaykh Dajānī’s practice of writing down notes of intercession (shif‘a) addressed to the Ottoman security patrol (sūbāshiyya) and judges, which were always effective, the reader is assured. However, there was one judge who did not accept Shaykh Dajānī’s intercession and who in fact wanted to kill him, having discovered the saint’s practice while reviewing the performance of the subaşı (here meaning the head of policing functionaries) of the city, who presented him with a ‘sack-full’ of intercessionary notes. When the judge asked who they were from, the sūbāşī replied, ‘From the venerable Shaykh al-Dajānī—they’re intercessions for those I’ve accosted, and it’s not possible for me to contradict him!’ Enraged with the revenue-costing shaykh the judge asked where he could find him. Learning that he was then in the settlement of Ra’s Abū Zaytūn, the judge at first wanted to send someone to bring the shaykh in, but was told, ‘This is a man from among the saints of God, from the masters of unveiling and gnosis, you won’t be able to make him come to you.’ Instead, he was told the judge would need to intercept Shaykh Dajānī when he came to al-‘Aqṣā for Friday prayers. Here our hagiographer adds that all this was before the shaykh took the Tomb of David ‘from the Franks,’ and that he was at this time dwelling in a place known as Ra’s Abū Zaytūn, which he himself established, building a masjid (also functioning as a zāwiya) and a qubba for his saintly mother who died there. Ra’s Abū Zaytūn is about thirty miles from Jerusalem, and seems to have served as Shaykh Dajānī’s base of operations before he moved permanently to Jerusalem (a move, as I will discuss below, that curiously figures hardly at all in the saint’s recorded manāqib), making visits to al-Ḥaram al-Sharīf not prohibitively difficult though not daily affairs either. Instead, the hagiographic record suggests that Shaykh Dajānī divided his time among a range of places, including his zāwiya on Ra’s Abū Zaytūn, various other rural locales in Palestine, and the Dome of the Rock.Continue reading “A Palestinian Saint of the Early Ottoman Era”→
We in the early twenty-first century (particularly, I imagine, anyone who happens to be reading this post) inhabit a world of pervasive textuality. From waking to bed we are deluged with words, on screens (mostly, probably), on paper pages of books, on forms, on signs, on packaging, in short- everywhere. If images, still and moving, are also pervasive and in some ways just as or even more dominant than text, still, printed text (even if mostly in digital form) is everywhere and unavoidable. As such we tend to not reflect very much on either the presence of so much text in our lives or on the modes of our engagement with it, texts are simply there. But of course our world of textuality is not simply a natural fact but is the result of cultural, social, and economic processes leading to certain technologies, skills, habits, and contexts. As such, thinking about the role of texts and their many contexts in past worlds, particularly those quite different (but not radically different) from our own is helpful for understanding both the past and our own present, and has occupied various thinkers for quite a long time now (going back really to Plato if not before). Towards that venerable goal of analysis today I’ve selected a particularly insightful little passage from the biography of an early modern North African scholar named Abū al-‘Abbās Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad al-Maqrī (d. 1041/1631) which charts, inadvertently of course, many of the possible contours of texts and their contexts in the early modern Ottoman world. Here is the passage, translated, followed by my commentary:
When he entered Cairo before becoming well-known, he was present one day in the book market (sūq al-kutub) and he found a curious (gharīb) Qur’an commentary (tafsīr) which he opened and landed in [the discussion of] Sūrah al-Nūr, in which the exegete discussed a question of fiqh which he proceeded to speak about at length, and the subject of this biographical entry memorized the entire passage—and in a marvelous congruity not long after that, the ‘ulama of the land came together for supplication (da’wah) and he was present with them. Once they were settled into their session (majlis) a petitioner came with a slip of paper (biṭāqah) in his hand asking about the very issue that the subject of this biographical entry had memorized from that Qur’an commentary. It was passed to the first person among the people of the session, but he looked at it as if he were unable to call upon anything in his mind regarding it, so he passed it on to the next person, and so it was passed on and on, until it reached the subject of this entry. When he looked at it he called for an inkwell and wrote the answer as he had memorized it—and all those presents looked at it with amazement. When they had finished perusing [his answer], they asked, ‘Who said this?’ He replied to them, ‘So-and-son in the exegesis on Sūrah al-Nūr,’ and when the Qur’an commentary was brought it was exactly as he had said.
This little story is a lovely snapshot of the many ways texts worked together in various media and matrices: Abū al-‘Abbās is seen browsing the book market, which suggests that then as now browsing books without necessarily looking to buy them was not uncommon; the book market here functions in a way akin to a library, since he spends at least some time actually reading the Qur’an commentary in question and using an unspecified amount of time to memorize particular contents he found striking. The primary point of the anecdote is Abū al-‘Abbās’ prodigious ability to memorize things, to be sure, but still we can imagine that some time is being expended (and the tone of the story does not convey that this feat is somehow miraculous or totally unheard of, simply a taking to an extreme a culturally valuable and cultivated skill).
There are several distinct movements and contexts related to the given text at work here: the production of the original Qur’an commentary, its being copied and turned into a commercial object, Abū ‘Abbās’ browsing and encountering the text, then his experience and conceptualization and reproduction of, not the entire text, but a discrete section, devoted to a particular question of fiqh, the details of which we are not told but which presumably was of ongoing contemporary interest (which would help to explain why Abū ‘Abbās memorized it as well as why a supplicant came with a question specific to that issue). So we have a movement from author to manuscript (via engagement with the written and memorized text of the Qur’an), to (probably) copy by a professional copyist, to book market, to selective reader, then to memory. In the scholars’ session—which if I am interpreting things correctly was meant for ‘regular’ people to bring questions of fiqh to a council of learned experts, a sort of early modern AMA forum—we see another form of textuality, the ‘slip’ of paper (biṭāqah), a word with a long bureaucratic pedigree, predating Islam in fact. The writer of the slip has inadvertently chanced upon the very topic of the first text, but then there is a problem: no one else in the session had encountered the clarifying text, or, if any of them had, they did not remember it. When it reaches Abū al-‘Abbās his reaction is striking: he calls for an inkwell and then writes out his memorized text, when we might expect simply an oral response. While it is not exactly specified the substrate for his writing must surely be that slip of paper, with the implication that the supplicant/questioner would take it back home for his personal archive or other uses (and since it is fiqh we can imagine a practical use here akin to a fatwa and not simply curious interest). So we have more textual movements: an unrelated (on the surface at least) impromptu text which is visually reviewed by the members of the assembly, which, once it is encountered by Abū al-‘Abbās, registers with the memorized commentary passage and precipitates now a written reproduction of the randomly encountered text. His oral explanation of the text, after it has been successively read (and we get a sense that the paper is passed around, not read out loud), leads to the physical manuscript of the commentary being produced and read publicly (or silently perused one by one? the text is unclear). Finally, this incident gives rise to a sort of ‘social text’ of Abū al-‘Abbās’ prestige in Cairo thanks to his memory and powers of recall and correlation. Continue reading “Encountering and Using the Written Word in Early Modern Cairo”→
The subject of this entry [Abū al-‘Abbās Sīdī Aḥmad al-Būs’īdī al-Hashtūkī, d. 1046/1636] was exceptional in his age in asceticism and piety, only wearing of the clothing of this world the very least necessary to humans, to the point that he had no more than one garment, and if he wanted to wash it he would go out to Wādī al-Zaytūn [a former watercourse on the north end of Fez] and tear his garment into two halves. He would wrap himself in one half and occupy himself with washing the other half; once it had dried he would wrap himself with it, then wash the other. Then when it had dried he would stitch the garment back together as it had been before. He only took sustenance from the seed that he sowed with his own hand on land which someone from the folk of good and religion had gifted him. He would make a round loaf of dough and place it in the fire, and content himself with that—such was his habit. He kept this up even though people sought him out from distant horizons, bringing abundant gifts and generous alms, yet he paid not attention to that, such making no impression on his mind. It is related that one of the elite of Fez was struck with a sickness which thwarted the doctors and wore out the enchanters, so someone suggested to the sick man that he pay a pious visit to the subject of this entry. So he sought him out in his room in the Miṣbāḥiyya Madrasa and described his present sickness to him. Then the shaykh took some of his flour and made a tincture for him, then commanded him to drink it. He drank, and immediately he was better. The shaykh said to him: “That which is ḥalāl is a theriac for the severest of sicknesses! When a sick person eats a bite of something ḥalāl it is as if he has been released from bondage.”
Abū ʿAbdallāh Muḥammad al-Ṣaghīr al-Ifrānī, Ṣafwat man intashar min akhbār ṣulaḥāʾ al-qarn al-ḥādī ʻashar (Casablanca: Markaz al-Turāth al-Thaqāfī al-Maghribī, 2004), 139.
Alongside occasional posts outlining, in quite ‘uncooked’ and sporadic form, some of the current directions of my thought in relation to things like the history of technology and technics (particularly in relationship to the Islamicate world and our relationship to objects and bodies of historical inheritance therefrom in the present), at least during Lent this year I’d like to offer up some reflections, also quite sporadic and rapidly sketched, on theological and other issues that have been occupying my thinking lately, particular in relation to the deep evolutionary history of life on earth and its implications for Orthodox Christian theology and practice (I also have in the works a long essay on my own personal journey and perspectives on the controversy apprehension- or rejection!- of such a deep time perspective has occasioned in Christianity). The following is then an initial exploration, precipitated by a passage by St. Gregory of Nyssa, of the intersect of Scriptural views of the created order, the deep evolutionary history of life on earth as expressed in our genetic ‘archive,’ and the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Christ.
Our takeaway from Patristic explorations of science and theology should not be to adopt their particular interpretations, in the majority of cases anyway, given that while impressive for the era, and in a genealogical line forward to much our own body of epistemic workings out, the majority of that scientific knowledge is now entirely antiquated if not downright quaint. What counts is the same thing that counts about the production of that knowledge in the first place, as well as the theological routes visible in the Scriptures: not the particulars but the processes and the underlying presuppositions about the order and legibility of the universe and its relationship to God. St. Gregory is entirely comfortable thinking about divine creation in terms of the prevailing science—we might rather say natural philosophy—not to make Scripture say something novel but rather to read Scripture in light of what was then known about the natural world (and in this regard we can in fact see multiple strategies from the Fathers, precisely as we would expect for anyone with a genuinely high view of Scripture and its inspiration—that it can sustain many meanings and interpretative paths across chronological spans). In St. Gregory’s case the basic message that he—rightly I think—sees in the Genesis account as having to do with the place of humans in the created order and in relation to God is pretty readily transposable to what we know of evolutionary history. There is, as Genesis in fact suggests pretty overtly, continuity—we would say genetic continuity—between ourselves and all previous lifeforms, and we carry the evolutionary traces of them in ourselves, in our sensations and our instincts. And as part of God’s good creation, this evolutionary inheritance is fundamentally good, it is a part of the biological package necessary for life. Sin results in our misuse of our evolutionary heritage, and we alone of all creatures can make use, or misuse, of our biological inheritance precisely because we possess consciousness (in St. Gregory’s parlance, ‘reason’) and a soul, which I think we really ought to think of as shorthand for our unique relationship with God—the other principle lesson of the Genesis account. That consciousness and that relationship with God, of course, entail our free will, our being moral creatures who can ascend towards God and divine transformation or who can descend towards sin and destruction (of ourselves and of the wider creation, which ‘groans’ in anticipation of its transformation through God working in and with us).
Of course none of this per se speaks to whether we ought to understand Adam and Eve as pointing towards literal discrete historical figures or something else: I really do not think the story itself indicates one way or the other all that conclusively, and can be read in multiple ways, indeed, demands multiple readings and interpretive routes by, among other things, the inclusion of not one but two origins stories for Adam and Eve right there in the opening chapters of Genesis. The details and perhaps the relationship to historical time are different in each, but the basic gist is the same: humans are creatures derived from the same origins as all other creatures, ultimately the fruit of the earth itself, but who are given a special relationship with God and carry His image, and are instructed by God to live in a particular relationship with Him and the created order, but are capable of contravening that relationship, with their sin ultimately having ‘real-world’ effects within the wider creation and within human self and society. God calls us bipedal, consciousness-bearing hominids to a special status in the world, to inhabit the created order as creatures ourselves in kinship with all other living things but as points of contact with God, as priests and worshipers who are in the world yet consciously (and freely!) oriented towards God. That of course is half of the story: the second half (though really it is the entire story) is that God Himself enters into the stream of evolutionary time and development, a stream that we as humans were meant to transfigure and transform, not from a bad state to a good state but to a transformed state, one only realized through in a sense deiform created beings simultaneously in relation to the wider natural world of which they are a part and in relation to God and the suprasensual order of the spiritual world and of Divine Life Itself.
St. Gregory would have been very excited to learn, I think, that humans quite literally carry within their genetic code a record of their deep past reaching back to the earliest life forms (even if the signal thereof is no longer visible to us down to the earliest periods), we contain within ourselves a continuous and cohesive expression of the wider living created order in a quite concrete sense—and that in becoming human God the Son took on in a manner beyond comprehension the whole history of life as contained and expressed in our humanity, in the genetic code that generates our biological reality. In rising to life again Christ quite literally brings to life, brings to divine life and being and transformation—transfiguration—not just humans as discrete entities but humans as bearers of the whole previous history of life on earth (that is, one such trajectory, standing in as it were for the many others), assembled from the fundamental elements of the earth—and so bears into divine life all of creation as expressed in our genetic history and physical-chemical assembly, a genetic history that contains a record of specifically human history, too, including our sin and acts against divine order. At a cultural level, it is no accident that Christ was incarnate in a particular time and place speaking a particular language within a particular cultural sphere. For much as our genetic code and its epigenetic expression doesn’t just relate but really is the cumulative expression of creation’s whole past and present, culture—particularly language—is itself the record and the expression of the deep human past, of its good and bad and terrible. Christ literally physically bore in Himself, in the humanity He received from the Theotokos, the whole sweep of the evolutionary history of life, the cosmological history of matter, and the cultural history of human society—and in dying and rising again He completed the arc of transformation invested in us and, in a sense, fulfilled by us in the person of Christ, who is not just the ‘second Adam’—that is, human—but is indeed the ‘true Adam,’ the true human. Christ models in Himself and specifically in His post-Resurrection interactions with His disciples the ultimate end of the created order, the full trajectory of the history of the cosmos and of life on earth: not replacement or effacement or even radical rupture but transformation, a form of being at once very much continuous with and yet in other ways inconceivable in relation to current life. Scripture gives us really no ‘hard details’ about the ‘after,’ just as we cannot extract a theory of evolution or cosmological expansion or really any such details from the creation accounts of Scripture. We are given indications and clues in Scripture, outlines and stories; for the large arc of life’s history scientific inquiry can fill in many gaps, if not explain things theologically really. For the future of the created order’s trajectory, for what the salvation and transformation in Christ looks like, again, we have hints and clues, stories and symbols—and, as a sort of prefigurative ‘fossil’ record if you like, the life of the Church and the lives of the saints, men and women who embody to a visible extent the life of Christ in the here-and-now, before- in a strict chronological sense at least- the general Resurrection, yet also within and through that Resurrection.
For many people on earth, self included, the last year has been one of varying degrees of so-called social distancing, lost opportunities, and missing comforts and pleasures, including the pleasant (and, as the below will suggest, sometimes not quite so pleasant) experience of eating with others, whether in a domestic or public setting. As the year and then some of covid gradually recedes over the coming months and more of our ordinary social life returns, you may soon find yourself venturing out to eat, or inviting others to your home for a shared meal. Given that we have been off our table etiquette game for some while now, it seems a good time to offer a bit of a refresher in some things to do and not to do when dining in the company of others. Towards that end, I’ve translated- and will probably continue to add over the coming days as the fancy strikes me- excerpts of a wonderfully delightful sixteenth century Ottoman manual of eating etiquette, the Risālat ādāb al-muʼākala of the prominent Damascene ‘ālim Badr al-Dīn al-Ghazzī (d. 1577). This short treatise is basically a compendium of etiquette errors to be avoided, and while providing genuine guidance to good manners when dining with others is also quite funny; as such, I have been a bit freer in my translations below than usual.
The material and social context of these entries can in many cases be surmised in part from the contents, however, for a much fuller exploration of that context and what this treatise can tell us about early modern Ottoman sociability and dining habits- which both coincide with and diverge from our own- see a recent lovely article by Helen Pfeifer, ‘The Gulper and the Slurper: A Lexicon of Mistakes to Avoid While Eating with Ottoman Gentlemen,‘ in the Journal of Early Modern History; fortunately the article is open-access and so available to all, do give it a read- and my thanks to Helen for both making me aware of this little treatise and digitally lending me a copy of the print edition!
The repulsive: he who puts what he has taken out of his food such as bones or date pits or the like in front of his neighbor, which is repulsive to him due to how much he eats. It is related that two men who did not get along with one another were present at the table of one of the bigwigs. Fresh dates were brought out to the two of them, and one of the two men put all of the pits he extracted from the dates in front of the other man, until he had a pile in front of him greater than that of anyone else assembled there. Then the first man turned to the master of the house and said, ‘Will you not look my lord at how many fresh dates so-and-so has eaten! There are enough date pits in front of him to suffice the whole assembly.’ His companion though turned to [the master of the house] and said, ‘As for me, God make you prosper, it’s as he said, I have eaten a lot of dates—however this idiot has eaten the dates pits and all!’ At this the whole group laughed and the repulsive one was embarrassed.
The tearful: he who snatches up hot food to eat, not waiting for it to cool—he grabs the morsel, not paying any attention to whether it’s too hot to eat, and so his eyes become tearful due to the burning in his mouth, and perhaps he is obliged to expel the food in his mouth, or to swallow it down with a drought of cold water big enough to compensate for the burning produced by his stomach.
The gurgler: he who, if he wants to talk, does not wait until he has swallowed his bite of food, but rather talks while he is chewing and so gurgles like a camel, and no one is able to understanding what he is saying—especially if it’s a lot of food in his mouth!
The licker: he is named the licker-upper, he who licks his fingers in order to remove from them the fat from his food before he is finished eating, then he goes right back to eating [with his fingers]. As for [doing this] after finishing with eating, it’s no problem in so far as he does not return [to eating]. The most preferable of conditions is that one pays attention to wipe the fingers with something, such as the tablecloth (mi’zar), every time.
Starting as an occasional figure- at least, unless/until I decide to migrate this feature to another possibly more suitable platform (no, probably not going to start a Substack, unless there’s some strange surge of my readers demanding it)- I’d like to offer my relatively unfiltered thoughts as expressed in my personal daily register of thoughts, ideas, and assorted cognitive ephemera (including my daily to-do lists, which I will not burden you with). The following was inspired by, among other things, reading a recent article by Alan Jacobs, but is really but a beginning iteration in some theoretical and methodological approaches I hope to pursue at greater length and depth in the coming months and years, God willing. I hope my thoughts are useful, and welcome critique- keep in mind this as close to flow-of-consciousness writing I’m liable to release into the wild!
Medieval and early modern worlds as expressed in their multiplicitous traces provide, not resources—a word we ought to generally avoid I think given the connotations hoisted upon it in industrial capitalist discourse—as starting points, spaces to inhabit, relational matrices with which to interact, to draw upon, to take from and to give, as windows out of our own anthropocenal techno-dystopias. The natural sciences and in particular I think natural history and related disciplines provide a similar outlet, as do more obviously arts and philosophies; and there is no hard and fast division in all of these. Medieval and early modern religious art, to pluck a single example (and interpreting ‘art’ here in a maximally capacious way), should orient us towards different relationships with materiality and the body and their relations with others (including, or most particularly, the Divine Other); such a re-orientation is not, or need not be, discontinuous with the insights and contexualizations that the sciences offer, but can serve as a means towards a productive and healthy consilience of not just knowledge in the scholarly sense but of an integrated and lived consilient knowledge. Indeed it is somewhat ironic that even as modern science has permitted us to better intellectually (and, if we make the jump, imaginatively and spiritually) situate ourselves in relation to a vast, complex, and dynamic cosmos of materialities and processes and relations and histories of which we are integral parts, never in the history of our species has our day-to-day phenomenological interface with ‘nature’ been more reduced and distant, never have we known so little of the world around us in terms of experience and phenomenological participation and imagination.
The way forward is not to jettison our scientific appraisal of the world or to refuse further knowledge and appreciation, but rather if anything to, at a minimum, make that knowledge more broadly accessible and shared, and to find ways to integrate it into a renewed daily contact with and experience within the natural world itself, as we build out ways of life that enable such and which cultivate genuine ecological flourishing for other organisms as well. There is no reversing, no returning to a real or imagined past; but neither are we automatically locked into the paths laid out by technology and life worlds and patterns as they currently exist. If it does nothing else the study of history, of history across many scales and regions and chronological units, demonstrates that configurations of technology and culture, that experiences and embedding in the world, are not necessary or universal or automatic upon the mere existence of certain techniques or technologies or patterns of life. There is no obvious and inexorable superiority to one form of rule or to one technical regime, but rather such things must at some level emerge out of choice and adaptation, even if at a certain register or scale of use they obtain a hegemonic and self-directing character. Yet even this last is not absolute, and like all else is subject to change.
While I do think that radical and disruptive measures are needed, particularly as the global ecological and climatic ‘crisis’ (perhaps not the best word for something that is deep, structural, and relative to our lives and frames of reference at least slow-moving) only grows more pronounced and unavoidable with every passing year, it is the case that cultural and social and all the other metrics of change in fact move rather glacially, and any sustained movements towards a new and better culture of technics and ways of life must interject at ten thousand diverse points of contact, and must be understood as cumulative and processional, without promise of any clearly legible end point or conclusive moment. Even small victories in such an understanding can prove—though of course nothing is inevitable, until, perhaps, it is—in the long run of great significance, and not simply objects of physiological hope and perhaps self-delusion.