Explicating Devotion to Muhammad, Part i.

Opening page to Kara Davutzâde Mehmed Efendî, Tevfik muvaffikü’l-hayrât li-neyli’l-berekât fi hizmet menbai’s-saâdât, University of Michigan, Special Collections Library, Isl. Ms. 672

Late medieval and early modern devotion to Muhammad in Islam was first and foremost a matter of personal and communal practice, embodied in devotional regimes, public rituals, habitual expressions, and material objects, among other practices and techniques. But it also unfolded at a discursive, textual, and homiletical level, with scholarly and semi-scholarly productions explicating, extolling, and critiquing various aspects of devotion to the Prophet appearing from the late medieval period forward in multiple languages of Islam. The genre of commentary (Ar. sharḥ/Ott. Trk. şerh) was an important vehicle for delivering explication of devotional practices and their intersection with theology and other Islamic disciplines. Numerous commentaries on ṣalawāt– the litanies of blessing upon Muhammad- and related sorts of texts appeared across the Ottoman world and beyond, in both Arabic and Ottoman Turkish (and in other languages further east). Like much early modern commentary production in Islamic societies, these texts have received little engage scholarly attention, though the neglect of commentaries is starting to change. In the following weeks I’d like to give some samples of commentary on devotional texts, starting with excerpts from commentary on what was perhaps the most important text of devotion to Muhammad, al-Jāzūlī’s Dalā’il al-khayrāt.

But before presenting translated texts and analysis of them, I’d like to start with the above image. It comes from the opening page of a beautifully executed manuscript copy of an Ottoman Turkish translation and expansion of an Arabic commentary on al-Jāzūlī’s prayerbook. Titled Tevfik muvaffikü’l-hayrât li-neyli’l-berekât fi hizmet menbai’s-saâdât, this work, which goes through, line by line, the text of Dalā’il al-khayrāt, was composed by an eighteenth century author, Kara Davutzâde Mehmed Efendî, about whom I know no more than can be gleaned from the text. The commentary was aimed at many audiences, especially, it seems, pious women, and may have been meant to furnish material for preachers.

The charming miniature that is framed at the top of the page, a depiction of Medina, centered on the Prophet’s Mosque, is a good example of the devotional iconography that grew up around devotion to Muhammad, in many contexts, featuring images of Mecca and Medina, the tomb of Muhammad and the tombs of the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs, the footprint of Muhammad (and other physical traces), and so on. Such images had many functions: they presented the physical presence of Muhammad and his close associates in an iconographic manner but without actually depicting Muhammad directly. Instead they summoned his presence by pointing the viewer at the material traces of his life and memory, a sort of icon at remove. They had an educational value, giving the reader or viewer a sense of what the holiest places of Islam and the artefacts of the Prophet looked like. And finally they had a prophylactic purpose- that is, early modern Muslims might display or otherwise have on hand these images as a way of warding off evil and misfortune, based on their icon-at-a-remove connection to Muhammad and his powerful intercession. The above image- which is also just simply beautiful and delicately rendered- participates in all of the above.

Devotion to Muhammad in Medieval and Early Modern Islam: An Introduction

Hilye triptych
A three-panel Ottoman ḥilye-i şerîf-  a description of Muhammad’s physical attributes, or ‘verbal icon’- by Ḥafîẓ Osmân Efendî (d. 1698). Note the miniature depiction of Mecca in the top panel. Special Collections Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Isl. Ms. 238.

There are a number of aspects of medieval and early modern Islam (and contemporary living Islam too, for that matter) that tend to surprise, even shock, many modern-day observers, especially non-Muslims who nonetheless have some degree of knowledge about the ‘basics’ of Islam. Because of the wide-spread and often quite profound changes that have transformed Islam in many places throughout the world over the last century and a half or so, there is a great deal in pre-modern ‘mainstream’ Islam that many contemporary Muslims might find odd, unexpected, or even heretical. One such source of surprise and even shock is the history of the image and meaning of Muhammad in Islamic theologies and devotional practices. If, like me, in your initial exposure to Islam you learned that Muslims—throughout time, perhaps?—viewed Muhammad as ‘only’ a prophet, and no more, then Islamic theology that talks about the Muhammadan light, the cosmic role of Muhammad within God’s creative plan, and the intercessory power of the Prophet, and so on, must all sound quite strange and even ‘un-Islamic.’ Indeed, I remember thinking, as I delved into the vastness of ‘Muhammadology,’ that much of the theology I was discovering bore a marked resemblance to Christology, in particular to Logos theology, in Christianity.

Yet far from being aberrant or peripheral, the theological ‘elevation’ of Muhammad that took place in the course of the Islamic medieval period was a transformation that occurred and impacted Islam across the board. It was not just a ‘Sufi’ thing or a matter of ‘popular’ religion. Devotion to Muhammad, alongside theological renderings of the ‘cosmic Muhammad,’ coursed through the very veins of Islam from the middle ages into early modernity and beyond. The person and role of the Prophet Continue reading “Devotion to Muhammad in Medieval and Early Modern Islam: An Introduction”

Tobacco and the Syrian Majdhūb

One of the great transformations that Ottoman society- and many other societies across the world- underwent in the course of the early modern period was the introduction of new (to most markets at least) ‘social’ commodities such as coffee, tobacco, tea, and sugar. Driven by new technologies of transportation, by the European discovery and colonization of the Americas, and by changing dynamics of personal wealth and consumption patterns, across the world people’s lives began to be shaped by the use of coffee and tobacco, both substances with addictive properties, and which lend themselves to use in social, often public, contexts (I am writing this from a coffeehouse, for instance- a direct descendant of these early modern transformations!). In the Ottoman world, as in many other places, both tobacco and coffee stirred up controversy, tobacco most of all.

Yet despite strenuous objections, including sultanic attempts to prohibit smoking, tobacco use flourished in the Ottoman lands, and soon permeated society and culture at many levels. The following anecdote, which dates from the early part of the 18th century and is set in Damascus, illustrates this permeation, which reached even to the karamāt (miracles or signs of sanctity) of Muslim saints, in particular, it seems, the majādhīb, the divinely drawn ones, whom I have introduced elsewhere and who will continue to appear in these digital pages. In this story we see both the continued ambiguity surrounding tobacco, as well as the possibility for its use by a saint, and even being miraculously transformed through the saint’s baraka (divine grace or power).


Shaykh Muṣtafā related to me [Muṣtafī al-Bakrī], saying: ‘I came to visit you once but didn’t find you at home. [Aḥmad the majdhūb] was sitting in front of the iwān, so I greeted him. He said to me: “You only come to visit Ibn al-Bakrī, you never come to visit me, not even once!” I replied, “Your place is exalted and I am weak!” So he said to me, “Come out to my khalwa, I’ll host you!” I wasn’t able to oppose him in that, so I went with him, fearing that the smell of tobacco would harm me due to the closeness of his khalwa. He set to with his pipe, talking with it [in his mouth], but I did not smell the scent of the tobacco nor did anything of it come to my face—and I knew that this was a mark of sanctity (karāma) of his!’

Muṣṭafā al-Bakrī, al-Bayān al-ghanī ʻan al-tahdhīb fī suná aḥwāl al-majādhīb (Cairo: Dārat al-Karaz, 2011), 75.

Ottoman Majdhūb/Meczûb: Two Stories

The following accounts treat an important, and well-nigh ubiquitous, type of Ottoman Muslim saint, the majdhūb (meczûb in Ottoman Turkish), the ‘divinely attracted or drawn one.’ For a longer explanation of this ‘mode’ of sainthood, see this post of mine from a while back. One of the chapters of my forthcoming dissertation will consist of a detailed history and analysis of majdhūb sainthood, as well. The two accounts below represent the different ways and environments in which this ‘immersive’ saintly identity could operate, across the diverse lands of the Ottoman Empire. The first, from an Arabic biographical compilation from the mid-17th century, treats the arguably most important and well known majdhūb saint in the Ottoman world, Abū Bakr ibn Abū al-Wafā’ al-Majdhūb (d. 991/1583), of Aleppo. The dervish complex and mazār (place of visitation or shrine) that grew up during his lifetime and especially after his death still stands, having gone from being on the outskirts of the city to well enveloped within it, a monument to the centrality this strange and powerful saint took on both during and after his life on earth (for more on this saint and his legacy, see Watenpaugh, Heghnar Zeitlian. “Deviant Dervishes: Space, Gender, and the Construction of Antinomian Piety in Ottoman Aleppo.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 37, no. 4 (2005): 535–65). In the story I have translated we see the saint’s intervention in one of most dangerous and pressing situations in any pre-modern society, the threat of drought- with the mere suggestion that drought might be imminent enough to send local markets into a price-raising frenzy, as noted in this story. The saint’s strange behavior- open to all manner of interpretation- is also displayed here, out of a long list of stories of strange and far more shocking action than manifested here. Continue reading “Ottoman Majdhūb/Meczûb: Two Stories”

A Mad Saint, a Dervish, and a Flash-Flood

The following is a pair of Muslim saints’ lives, included in a biographical compilation (Luṭf al-samar wa qaṭf al-thaman) by an early 17th century Ottoman author from Damascus, Najm al-Dīn al-Ghazzī, the scion of a prominent family of ‘ulama, and one of the more prolific Damascene authors of the first part of the 17th century. His biographical histories include many saints’ lives, with a special emphasis on holy men with whom he or his saintly brother Shihāb al-Dīn al-Ghazzī had contact. Perusing the pages of these collected lives, a veritable ecosystem of sainthood and sanctity comes to life, populated by individuals of striking piety and of often controversial actions and behavior. Sainthood was and is a deeply social phenomenon, particularly in the Ottoman world wherein no ecclesial or political authority offered canonical guidance in the question of who was and was not a ‘true’ friend of God. Rather, something of a consensus among devotees would emerge, often alongside challenges from other directions, concerning a given person’s sanctity and closeness to God.

In the first life which I have translated here, we meet an enigmatic majdhūb, or possessed saint, who displayed seemingly erratic and irrational behavior, interpreted by those around him as the manifestation of jadhb, or divine attraction. Like many such majadhīb, he seems to have come from a rural environment, and in lieu of complex doctrinal teachings, he manifested his sainthood through strange, even shocking actions. And like many such possessed saints, he deliberately transgressed social boundaries, in particular, strictures on gender segregation and contact. His companion, Dervish Ḥusayn, was also marked by his transgressing of social norms, in his case, through living for a time an extremely hermetical life, even refusing to speak directly to most pious visitors. Yet before we imagine a gulf between such ‘transgressive’ forms of sanctity and the scholarly ‘ulama class from which our author hailed, al-Ghazzī also describes the ties of members of the ‘ulama with these two saints. Dervish Ḥusayn, for instance, made an exception to his hermit’s life to discuss religious matters with al-Ghazzī and his shaykh.

Finally, these two lives, Continue reading “A Mad Saint, a Dervish, and a Flash-Flood”

A Picnic on Imam al-Shafi’i’s Dome

The dome of al-Shāfi’ī’s tomb in Cairo, Egypt, with its distinctive and somewhat mysterious boat perched atop. Source.

When once [‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Sha’rānī, d. 1565] was hindered from making a visit to [the tomb of] Imām al-Shāfi’ī, God be pleased with him, he [al-Shāfi’ī] came to him in a dream-vision and said to him: ‘O ‘Abd al-Wahhab, I am censuring you for your paucity in visiting me!’ ‘Abd al-Wahhāb replied, ‘Tomorrow I’ll come and visit you.’ But the Imām said to him: ‘I won’t release you until I go with you to my place.’ So he took him by the hand, until he ascended with him upon the back of his dome (qubba), underneath the boat (markab) that is upon it. He spread out for him a new mat and place before him a dining-cloth upon which was tender bread, cheese rounds, and split open for him an ‘abdallāwī melon. He said to him: ‘Eat, O ‘Abd al-Wahhāb, in this place which kings of the earth now departed desired to eat!’

Muḥammad Muḥyī al-Dīn al-Malījī, Tadhkirat ūlī al-albāb fī manāqib al-Shaʻrānī Sayyidī ʻAbd al-Wahhāb

Nomads, Sex, Repentance, and a Sufi Saint

The religious lives of the nomadic people of the Ottoman era are not easy to reconstruct. While some aspects of nomadic and semi-nomadic life are recoverable due to Ottoman administrators’ interest in the nomads and their often vital role in Ottoman military activities, other aspects are much murkier. Few to no nomads left written records of their own, leaving us dependent on the observations of others, observations that themselves are rather thin due to either lack of contact or, more likely, lack of sustain concern- a situation that holds with observations of rural life in general. But while there were certainly stereotypes operative about nomadic peoples, the attitudes of sedentary, learned people were in fact quite complex and capable of nuance. The following story, narrated by Muḥammad Abū al-Wafā’ ibn ʻUmar al-ʻUrḍī (d. 1661), a scholar from Aleppo whose biographical dictionary, Ma’ādin al-dhahab, is, no pun intended, a gold-mine for the cultural, social, and religious life of early modern Aleppo and its surrounding region, is an example of this nuance. It is not the only story in the biography that features Turkmen nomads- in the next story a group of nomads seek out, and gain, the intercession of the saint on behalf of the son of a tribal chief.

As for this story, it opens with rural people- who may be nomadic, semi-nomadic, or sedentary- engaging in a water dispute with a Shaykh Aḥmad, the subject of the biographical entry (and the author’s maternal great-grandfather), a detail by itself worthy of note. We next see a nomadic Turkmen family, though they are not really the center of the story as it turns out. At heart this anecdote is about the powers of insight of the saintly hero, and his ability in leading an adulterous disciple to repentance and restoration. Still, we get a glimpse of life among the Turkmen of Syria and their devotion to local saintly shaykhs (and the saintly shaykh’s respect for them), coupled with gender norms considerably laxer than those found in urban areas (gender segregation is not observed, and we get the sense that the wife is not veiled). Yet it is noteworthy that there is no explicit condemnation of these lax gender norms, or of the woman involved- rather, the responsibility for the sin that occurs is placed squarely on the errant urban male, who is made to confess his betrayal of hospitality by the saintly shaykh, then guided back to religious and social soundness through the shaykh’s tutelage.


Storage Bag (Chuval) Face, early 19th century Islamic,  Wool (warp, weft and pile), cotton (weft); asymmetrically knotted pile; Rug: H. 29 1/2 in. (74.9 cm)          W. 54 1/2 in. (138.4 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The James F. Ballard Collection, Gift of James F. Ballard, 1922 (22.100.40a) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/447498
Turkmen storage bag (chuval), c. 18th century.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 22.100.40a


My father the shaykh related to me that Ibn al-Qala’ī turned towards Antakiya due to a case against the shaykh [Aḥmad ibn ‘Abdū al-Raḥman al-Quṣayrī al-Kurdī, d. 1560] concerning water which the Banu al-Qala’ī were making claims on. He found along the way a khalīfa [1] of Shaykh Aḥmad, and he told the matter to him. The khalīfa said: ‘No, this is a futile matter; still, adjudicate it amongst yourselves.’ They agreed upon going to the village of the shaykh for reconciliation. Then night overtook them, so they stopped in a Turkmen tent [2], and the Turkmen received the khalīfa of Shaykh Aḥmad, in honor of the master, and showed him great hospitality. Then the Turkmen left after the evening prayers to tend to his flocks. He had a beautiful wife, and he left the two of them sleeping in the presence of his wife. When the cover of night fell, the khalīfa sought to seduce the wife, and she quickly responded and complied with his desire. Ibn al-Qala’ī perceived that, but the two supposed he was sleeping. When the khalīfa consummated his lust [lit. when he consummated what God had decreed for him], he settled down and went back to sleep.

Morning came, and Ibn al-Qala’ī and the khalīfa set out. Ibn al-Qala’ī said: ‘Let us perform the morning prayer.’ The khalīfa was silent, and payed Ibn al-Qala’ī no attention, so he stopped at a spring of water, did ablutions, and prayed the morning prayer. When the two reached the shaykh who is the subject of this biography, the khalīfa entered. It was the shaykh’s custom to rise to meet him, [which he did]. Then the shaykh looked at him wrathfully, and withdrew his hand from him when the khalīfa sought to kiss it, his face reddening. When the two sat down, the shaykh ordered the fetching of [the book] al-Targhīb wa al-tarhīb [by ‘Abd al-‘Aẓīm ibn ‘Abd al-Qawī al-Mundhirī, d. 1258]. He opened the book and began to read the chapter ‘Invocation of Fear towards Adultery,’ taking up the mention of the evil of adultery. The khalīfa remained silent, until he suddenly cried out, and began weeping and wailing openly. The shaykh shouted at him, then stripped him of his ceremonial apron (mi’zar), drove him out, and said: ‘O traitor! A man trusted you with his family and you betrayed him?’

Then he spent a long time weeping before the door of the shaykh, and was public with his repentance and returning to God, until the shaykh caused him to undergo a forty-day retreat [3]. He then dressed him the clothing of the fuqarā’, not of the khalīfas. After two years, when he verified the soundness of his repentance, he returned him to his previous position.


[1] A sort of deputy of a Sufi shaykh.

[2] Turkmen nomads and semi-nomads could be found all across the Ottoman Arab provinces, sometimes in competition with Arab Bedouin tribes who surged north into Palestine and Syria during this period.

[3] During a forty-day retreat (forty being a symbolic number in both Christianity and Islam) the disciple would remain in seclusion most of the period, praying, practicing remembrance of God, and struggling with his lower self. Aḥmad was an initiate of the Khalwatiyya Sufi ṭarīqa, an order known for spiritual retreats, hence their name, taken from khalwa, ‘solitary retreat.’


Muḥammad Abū al-Wafā’ ibn ʻUmar al-ʻUrḍī. Maʻādin al-dhahab fī al-aʻyān al-musharrafah bi-him Ḥalab. [Ḥalab]: Dār al-Mallāḥ 1987. 92-93. Translation by Jonathan P. Allen, 2015, no rights reserved.