The One-Handed Calligrapher

LACMA Suleyman Tughra
Sultan Süleymân’s tuǧra (LACMA M.85.237.17)

One of the best-known symbols of the Ottoman Empire must surely be the distinctive tuǧra, a ‘calligraphic emblem’ that functioned as both a sultanic signature and seal for a range of uses in official documents and in other settings. While the tuǧra form was not unique to the Ottomans, having its origins much further back in Turkic history, it achieved its most spectacular and iconic form in the empire, a form- the ‘classic’ version of which can be seen above in Süleymân’s tuǧra- that is often imitated today in Turkey and beyond in contexts ranging from religious calligraphy to café logos. Yet as the following story, taken from the Arabic biographical dictionary (ṭabaqāt) of the Damascene scholar al-Muḥibbī (d. 1699), suggests, in the seventeenth century at least such imitations of the sultanic emblem could land a creative calligrapher in trouble:

The subject of this entry [‘Abd al-Karīm al-Ṭārānī, d. 1632] had a brother named Muḥammad, who was among those well-known for utmost excellence of calligraphy. He was proficient in writing all styles of calligraphy, and he would imitate certain styles in contexts other than their usual usage, such that he even imitated the sultanic emblem (‘alāma). He traveled to Cairo, where something happened that led to word of his imitating the tuǧra reaching the governor of Cairo. So he had him brought into his presence, and pressed him to confess [having done] that. He confessed, and his right hand was cut off. Afterwards, he would wrap [the stub of] his hand in a cloth rag which he used to attach the pen to himself and so continue to write!

Muḥammad Amīn ibn Faḍl Allāh al-Muḥibbī, Khulāṣat al-athar fī aʻyān al-qarn al-ḥādī ʻashar (Beirut: Maktabat Khayyāt, [1966]), vol. 3, 12.

Now, the tuǧra was not entirely restricted to sultans during this period, as tuǧras, or at least emblems very close in style and form to the sultanic tuǧras, were used by high officials, in particular governors of Egypt. Nonetheless, Muḥammad al-Ṭārānī’s story indicates that its usage was indeed restricted, and that imitation, in whatever context, was frowned upon, to put it mildly. It’s not hard to imagine why this would be: tuǧras were not merely decorative, but acted as official stamps or seals upon documents and other objects, conveying legitimacy and power in their unique and difficult to master style. Unauthorized copying, for whatever reasons, could at the very least dilute the tuǧra’s distinctiveness, or even be used to forge counterfeit documents. Over time, particularly, it seems, thanks to the innovative calligraphic work of Sultan Ahmed III (who innovated the ‘hadith-tuǧra’) in particular, the tuǧra form would be used in a wider range of contexts, including by people with no status within the elite hierarchy at all, without repercussions. Not much solace for our poor calligrapher, however- though at least he was able to carry on despite the draconian punishment for his act of calligraphic license.

Dish with 'Tughra-illuminator' Design,ca. 1540–50
If overt imitation of the tuǧra was, for a while at least, discouraged, the illumination style of the tuǧra, visible in the above example from Süleymân, was reproduced in other contexts, such as in ceramics, like this dish from c. 1540-50, its scrolling tendrils drawn from tuǧra illumination. (Met. 41.45)

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On the Answering of Questions in the World of Dreams: Two Early Modern Dreamers
A satirical print of a Quaker preaching session, after a work by Egbert van Heemskerck I, produced c. 1690, and while satirical in intent, an accurate enough depiction of both Quaker clothing styles as well as the ubiquity of women in Quaker life and practice, their authority on ‘religious’ matters not a given as the very existence of such satirical prints would indicate. (BM 1854,0812.49)

Across the early modern world- in Afro-Eurasia and in the Americas, their population of European and African descent rapidly increasing- the world of the dream was an important ‘place’ in which people of all origins and backgrounds might receive knowledge of things unknown to them, prescience of events to come, and even divine inspiration. The importance of the dream world- a ‘landscape’ at once like and unlike that of the physical world of waking life- resonated among Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Orthodox, Jews, and others, often in forms and in contexts of striking similarity. The following two dream accounts- one from an English Quaker woman, Elizabeth Webb (1663-1726) , the other from the Ottoman Syrian sufi, saint, and frequent presence on these pages ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (1641-1731)- come from milieus in some ways quite different from one another. Webb was a Quaker preacher whose career took her on a journey through the still young North American colonies along the Atlantic Coast; she passed but a few miles south of where I am now writing in fact, spending some time among the Quaker communities of Maryland and Virginia (sources of the tobacco that would feature quite prominently in ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s career, in fact). ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s travels took him throughout much of the Ottoman world, threading together communities of sufis and saints in the process, not unlike Webb’s work of joining Quaker settlements through her journeys. Both wrote accounts of their travels, and both presented themselves as beneficiaries of some degree of divine inspiration, not least of all through the medium of dreams.

In both the world of Ottoman Islam and of trans-Atlantic English dissenting Protestantism, dreams were potential sources of the resolution of confusion and of answers for outstanding questions. While dreams could also be themselves sources of confusion and in need of interpretation, particularly for people possessed of sanctity (or who claimed as such for themselves at least) the dream, sent by God to the dreamer, could just as easily be an agent of interpretation. In both of these dreams the dreamer had an outstanding issue- not only that, but their issues were remarkably similar, as were other features of their dreams. Let’s consider Webb’s dream first, which she related in the course of an autobiographical letter to the German Lutheran pietist Anton Wilhelm Böhme (1673–1722), long resident in London as a chaplain:

Oh! it is good to trust in the Lord and be obedient to him, for his mercies endure forever; so about the middle of the twelfth month [1], 1697, through the good providence of the Almighty, we arrived in Virginia, and as I traveled along the country from one meeting to another, I observed great numbers of black people, that were in slavery, and they were a strange people to me, and I wanted to know whether visitation of God was to their souls or not, and I observed their conversation, to see if I could discern any good in them, so after I had traveled about four weeks, as I was in bed one morning in a house in Maryland [2], after the sun was up and shone into the chamber, I fell into a slumber, and dreamed I was a servant in a great man’s house, and that I was drawing water at a well to wash the uppermost rooms of the house, and when I was at the well, a voice came to me, which bid me go and call other servants to help me and I went presently; but as I was going along in a very pleasant green meadow, a great light shined about me, which exceeded the light of the sun, and I walked in the midst, and as I went on in the way, I saw a chariot drawn with horses coming to meet me, and I was in care lest the light that shone about me, should frighten the horses, and cause them to throw down the people which I saw in the chariot; when I came to call them, I looked on them, and I knew they were the servants, I was sent to call, and I saw they were both white and black people, and I said unto them, why have you stayed so long? And they said the buckets were frozen, we could come no sooner, so I was satisfied the call of the Lord was unto the black people as well as the white… [3]

At root here is the question of how Webb- and by extension, other Quakers- were to understand people of African descent, and how they were to relate them (or not) to the Quaker community. Webb is also making an argument for her own authority: in this dream God- implicitly, as she does not say so in so many words- authorizes her to incorporate blacks as well as whites into the Quaker community, resolving through a direct intervention her question. Continue reading “On the Answering of Questions in the World of Dreams: Two Early Modern Dreamers”

The Sesame Presser Turned Saint Who Almost Threw a Qadi in the Water

Divan of Mahmud `Abd al-Baqi Abu Sa'ad teaching
A depiction, from a mid-sixteenth century illumined copy of the Divân of Mahmûd ‘Abdülbâkî, of the most prominent Ottoman jurist of the century, Muhammad Ebussuûd Efendi, (d. 1574), and a circle of students, wearing clothing typical of the Ottoman ‘ilmiye hierarchy from which kâdîs, such as the one in the story below, were recruited. 

As I’ve discussed in these digital pages before, one of the most fascinating and insightful ‘variety’ of Muslim saint in the early modern Ottoman world was the majdhūb (Ott. Turk. meczûb), the ‘divine attracted one,’ a strange and often disruptive and even antinomian figure who became a fixture of many Ottoman cities and towns in both the Arabic and Turkish speaking portions of the empire. Like the holy fool (yurodivy) in the Russian lands during the same period, [1] the majdhūb often engaged in public acts of disrespect towards holders of political power and authority, often with a sharp edge of political critique which might not have been tolerated from other actors. Such an act of transgressive, symbolic political intervention featured strongly in the remembered life story of the majdhūb I’m profiling today, one Abū Bakr al-Mi’ṣarānī al-Majdhūb (d. 1605), of Damascus.

He was profiled by the prominent Damascene scholar and biographer Najm al-Dīn al-Ghazzī, who personally knew and revered the saint, to the point that towards the end of Abū Bakr’s life he would even spend nights in the al-Ghazzī family home, talking with Najm al-Dīn deep into the night. Abū Bakr had humble origins and source of livelihood, having worked, as his laqab al-Mi’ṣarānī indicates, as an oil-presser, until one night while in a dhikr assembly (that is, a session of ritual remembrance of God) under the leadership of Shaykh Sulimān al-Ṣawāf al-Ṣufī, Najm al-Dīn’s brother Shihāb al-Dīn in attendance as well, ‘lightning flashes from God flashed out to him and seized him, so that he entered divine attraction, stripping off his clothes and going naked, save for his genitals. Then the state left him after some months, returning to him every year for three or four months. He was hidden in it from his senses, and would utterly shave away his beard and go naked [2].’ Besides embracing the typical majdhūb distaste for proper clothing and facial hair, both also characteristics of ‘antinomian’ dervishes, Abū Bakr also engaged in playful ‘assaults’ on people, demanding money from them, which he would then distribute to the poor. When not in his state of jadhb he would practice silence and acts of worship, secreting himself in the Umayyad Mosque. When ‘under the influence’ his state was clearly a fierce and potentially dangerous one, especially to members of the Ottoman elite. His inner potency was further indicated by a dream al-Ghazzī reports, in which, having asked God to reveal Abū Bakr’s true ‘form’ to him, the scholar behold the majdhūb transmuting into the form of a lion, then back to his human form. ‘That made manifest that he was from among the Abdāl. When day came I saw him, in his condition, and he laughed at me, and said to me: “How did you see me last night?”’ [3]

Continue reading “The Sesame Presser Turned Saint Who Almost Threw a Qadi in the Water”

Teacher, Student, Text, and the Control of Knowledge in Early Modern Damascus
The Damascus Room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a winter reception room (qa’a), dating to c. 1707 (Met 1970.170). Once part of a home in Damascus before its disassembly and transportation to New York City in the 1930s, this room resembles the reception hall of a well-to-do Ottoman family in early modern Damascus, though some elements were added later or otherwise modified. ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s house may well have contained a room, if not quite of this opulence, along these lines, for the greeting and hosting of guests.

Introduction: ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (1641-1731), a frequent presence on these pages, embodied many roles and identities over the course of his long life, a life that spanned major transformations in the nature of the Ottoman Empire in which he lived, as well as changes occurring in the wider world of early modernity. For many during his lifetime, and even more so after his death, he was a preeminent, even the preeminent ‘friend of God’- saint- of his age. His role as a major theological and philosophical thinker, author, and teacher was often seen as an aspect of his sainthood, the sheer scope of his literary productions and teaching activities, instructing all sorts of people in all sorts of subjects, as evidence of his special relationship with God. The passages that I have translated below are taken from the expansive biography written by ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s great-grandson, Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazzī (1760-1799), titled Wird al-unsī wa-al-warid al-qudsī fī tarjamat al-ʻārif ʻAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī. One of the longer chapters of this work consists of biographical entries, some brief, some quite long, of ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s many disciples and students, demonstrating the shaykh’s numerous social ties and relationships as well as the geographic reach of his instruction and saintly reputation.

The entry translated here- aside from the introductory paragraph, which I will summarize- concerns one Muṣṭafá Ṣafī al-Dīn al-‘Alwānī (1696-1779), a member of the ‘ulama of the city of Hama, descendant of a sixteenth century sufi saint, but whose later career was primarily based upon his skill as a poet and littérateur. In 1722 he came to Damascus from Hama in the company of his primary teaching shaykh, one Muhammad ibn Maḥmūd al-Ḥabbāl, taking up residence in the Bādharā’iyya madrasa. They both went together to visit ‘Abd al-Ghanī, who by 1722 was advanced in years and well established reputation-wise as both a saint and scholar. Our account picks up with Muṣṭafá meeting ‘Abd al-Ghanī for the first time.

Commentary follows the translation, but a few explanatory words will guide the reader unfamiliar with some of the conventions and terminology. Muṣṭafá wants to ‘read’ a book under ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s supervision, which entails, following a long-standing convention in the Islamic world (with analogues elsewhere in medieval and early modern Eurasia) whereby one would study a book by writing it down for one’s self or even memorize it, reciting back what one had written or memorized to the author, who would then grant an ijāza, a ‘certificate,’ stating that the student had properly received the text in question and was authorized to transmit it himself (or on occasion herself). The sessions in which this process took place could also allow the author to explicate and clarify the text. The verb that I alternatively translate as ‘read’ and ‘recite’ is qara’a, a particularly multivalent verb, which can also have the meaning of ‘study,’ as it in fact does here.
A stained glass window that once decorated an Ottoman home in Syria or Egypt, made at some point in the 18th century (Met. 93.26.3).

Translation: Love of [‘Abd al-Ghanī] seized the whole of his heart, so he returned to him and sought permission to read under him, asking which book [he should read]. The Master (al-ustādh) said to him: “Read our book on the oneness of being named al-Wujūd al-ḥaqq.” Then the Master gave him a quire (kurrās) from out of his own copybook, saying to him, “Write it down in your own handwriting, lesson (dars) by lesson.” He specified to him that the time of the lesson would be on Friday after the ṣalāt, and that every week he would read one lesson. [Muṣṭafá] would take the notebook and write it down in it. So it occurred that every Friday he would go to the Ṣālaḥiyya [neighborhood] and enter the house (dār) of the Master after the ṣalāt, kiss the hand of the Master and sit down. Then the Master would raise his head from writing and say, “Recite.” He would recite, then kiss his hand and go. He did this for a while, though his shaykh, al-Ḥabbāl, did not know about it. One day this Shaykh al-Ḥabbāl entered [Muṣṭafá’s madrasa] room, previously mentioned, began leafing through his loose pages and books, and found the book of the Master, al-Wujūd al-ḥaqq, in his possession, he having written out a goodly portion of it. He asked him about it, and he told him that he was reading the book under the Master’s supervision and so forth. Al-Ḥabbāl said to him by way of advice, “My son, you are not ready to read the like of this book, you don’t have the disposition for understanding the books of ḥaqā’iq [‘esoteric’ theology]. If you want to receive something from the Master and derive blessing from him, read under him a book on the technical terms of hadith, and get an ijāza from him—that much will suffice you.” So [Muṣṭafá] complied with his words. In accordance with his custom on Friday he went with a portion of what he had written out to the Master, this time from the book Sharḥ al-Nukhba [by Ibn al-Ḥajar (1372-1449)], on the knowledge of technical vocabulary. He entered into the Master’s presence, kissed his hand, and sat down. The Master did not raise his head from his writing, and did not say anything to him! He remained looking at him until the ‘aşr adhān [call to prayer] of that day, and the Master arose, prayed the ‘aṣr ṣalāt, then after completing his prayer looked at [Muṣṭafá] and said, “Ya Sayyīd Muṣṭafá, we do not instruct save our own books, and if you wish to read under us then read our books!” He did not expand upon those words any further. Muṣṭafá understood that what he had intended to ask of the Master had been revealed to him by way of unveiling, and he resumed his completion of the recitation of the aforementioned book.’ Continue reading “Teacher, Student, Text, and the Control of Knowledge in Early Modern Damascus”

Shaykh Jawhar and the Green Bird of Destiny

Jami Birds
Birds, insects, and flowers, from the border of a c. 1500 calligraphic rendering of a different text by Jāmī, the Subḥat al-abrār. (Met 1985.149)

Shaykh Jawhar was in the beginning of his life the slave of someone, then became free, and took to buying and selling in the marketplace of Aden. He would attend the sessions of the [sufi] fuqarā’, [1] and had perfect belief in and loyalty towards them. He was illiterate. When the time of his shaykh’s death approached—the great shaykh Sa’d Ḥadād who is buried in Aden—the fuqarā’ said to him: ‘After you, who do you want to be shaykh?’ He replied: ‘The person who, on the third day after my passing, in the place where the fuqarā’ have gathered, a green bird comes and sits upon his head.’

When the third day came and the fuqarā’ had finished with Qur’an and dhikr they sat down in keeping with the shaykh’s words. Suddenly they saw a green bird had come down and had settled nearby, each of the important members of the fuqarā’ hoping that the green bird would sit on his head. But after a while that bird flew up and alighted on the head of Jawhar! He had not at all imagined that this would happen, nor had any of the other fuqarā’! They all came before him and were set to bear him to the shaykh’s zawīya [2] and seat him in the place of the shaykh. But he said, ‘What qualification do I have for this work? I’m just a man of the marketplace and am illiterate! I don’t know the adāb and the ṭarīqa of the fuqarā’, [3] and I have obligations towards others to fulfill and relations to untangle!’

They replied, ‘This is the will of Heaven, you don’t have any way out of it! God will help you in whatever ways are necessary.’ So he said, ‘Give me a delay so that I can go to the marketplace and fulfill my obligations towards the Muslims there.’ So he went to the marketplace and met his obligations towards everyone, then went to the shaykh’s zawīya and adhered to the instruction of the fuqarā’, and he became like his name a gem (jawhar), possessing virtues and perfections whose enumeration would stretch long—glory to the Noble Beneficient One, that is grace of God which He bestows upon whom He wills, God possesses great grace! [4]

Abb al-Raḥman ibn Aḥmad Jāmī (1414–92), Nafaḥāt al-uns min ḥadarāt al-quds, edited by Mahdi Tawhidipur (Tehran: Kitabfurushi-i Saadi, 1959), 573-4, translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.

[1] Literally, ‘the poor ones,’ but by this period shorthand for sufi devotees (who may or may not have been literally poor).

[2] The structure devoted to a particular shaykh and his companions, for sufi ritual, teaching, and so forth. One of several words for a space of this sort.

[3] That is, the ‘mannered practices’ and ‘spiritual path’ of the sufi devotees. Both terms have so many resonances that I find it generally best not to translate them into English but to leave them in the original.

[4] The section in italics represents Jāmī’s switch from the Persian of the main narrative to Arabic.





‘Abd al-Wahhāb Rescues a Fly in Peril

An insect of some sort, from an 18th century Ottoman Turkish version of ʿAjāʾib al-makhlūqāt (Wonders of creation) by Zakarīyā al-Qazwīnī (d. 1293). Walters Art Museum, W.659

Among the many writings produced by the prominent early modern Egyptian saint and sufi ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Sha’rānī (d. 1565) was a work that is best described as a cross between an ‘auto-hagiography’ and an encyclopedia of ethics and sufi practice. Al-Sha’rānī wrote the Laṭāʼif al-minan ostensibly as a compilation of practices and virtues for his followers and others to study and to emulate, though it also clearly functioned as a sprawling (the printed edition I used for this entry clocks in at over eight hundred pages!) argument for his own sanctity. Stories of al-Sha’rānī’s life (including, as here, aspects of his family life) are scattered generously throughout, including this curious little account which comes in the midst of a discussion of proper treatment of cats and other animals. Al-Sha’rānī was especially kind to cats, offering them food right out of his own hands, but, as this little miracle tale reveals, far ‘lowlier’ creatures were on his radar as well.


Among the things that happened to me: my wife Fāṭima Umm ‘Abd al-Raḥman had a thickness (ḥādir) upon her heart. Her mother cried out and was certain that [her daughter] would die, and I was greatly agitated on her account, but a voice came to me while I was in the toilet-room: “Release the fly from the fly-hyena (ḍabu’ al-dhabāb) in the crack that is in front of your face, and We will release your wife from sickness for you.” So I went to the crack and found it to be quite tight such that fingers could not open it, so I took a stick and pulled it open and extracted the fly-hyena with the fly, and found it whole but with the fly-hyena gripping its neck, so I released it from him, and in that moment my wife was released from sickness and restored to health and her mother rejoiced—from that day on I have not looked down upon bestowing good upon any creature or best which the Lawgiver, upon whom be peace and blessing, does not command be slain.

‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Sha’rānī, Laṭāʼif al-minan wa-al-akhlāq fī wujūb al-taḥadduth bi-niʻmat Allāh ʻalá al-iṭlāq, (Damascus: Dār al-Taqwā, 2003) 349-350.

Dervish Muḥarram Finds Himself in Strange Straits

Portrait of a Sufi Deccan
While not an Ottoman production, this illustration of a sufi in contemplation (presumably), which comes from the 17th century Deccan, provides a good approximation of dervish dress and deportment in many parts of the Islamic world during this period. (Met. 57.51.22)

It was related to me than when [Muḥarram al-Rūmī’s] shaykh instructed him in the Third Name [1], he began hearing all of the existent things speak to him, even when he needed to urinate—but he heard every place in which he sat in order to relieve his need speaking to him in an eloquent tongue, so he went from there to another place, but found it to be just the same, so instead he held back his urine to the point that he was close to perishing. He turned to his shaykh through his spiritual energy (himma) and beheld him with his eyes, even though there was a great spatial distance between them [2]. His shaykh said to him, ‘ Muḥarram! Do what you need to do and don’t be in anguish!’

ʻAbd al-Raʼūf ibn Tāj al-ʻĀrifīn al-Munāwī, al-Kawākib al-durrīyah fī tarājim al-sādah al-Ṣūfīyah: ṭabaqāt al-Ṣūfīyah, (Bayrūt, Lubnān: Dār Ṣādir, 1999), iv: 512-513. Translation by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.

Sofra close up

[1] Muḥarram al-Rūmī (who lived in the late 16th into early 17th century in Ottoman Cairo; ‘Rūmī’ indicates Anatolian origin) was a Khalwatī (Tur. Halvetî) dervish, a ṭarīqa in which disciples were taught seven successive divine names, each with particular forms of dhikr, spiritual stations, and powers associated with them. The third name mentioned here is ‘‘ (‘He’).

[2] I have translated himma here as ‘spiritual energy,’ an approximation at best, since it also has the idea of ‘intention, will, and zeal,’ all of which contribute to this technical usage found in sufism. Continue reading “Dervish Muḥarram Finds Himself in Strange Straits”