An Ottoman Remix

Ottoman Qur'an Mounting

This curious piece, which consists of three early medieval (9th or 10th century) Qur’an folios written in un-voweled Kufic script pasted together then attached to a piece of paperboard and framed with lovely floral border devices, dates (probably) to the eighteenth century, and was produced somewhere in the Ottoman world. It is currently held in the Freer and Sackler Gallery (S1998.8).

Besides it intrinsic loveliness- the bold angular Kufic script contrasts nicely with the delicate flowing lines of the floral elements- this piece of artistic ‘remixing’ presents some questions which I at least cannot answer with any certainty but are worth asking anyway. What was the original setting and intention of this piece? Would it have been in a collected volume of similar pieces or of other ‘remixes’ (calligraphy, paintings, and drawings taken from their original contexts and remounted in new settings, primarily)? Or would it have been displayed, similar to a hilye-i şerif? How would an Ottoman viewer have understood this presentation: was it seen as a link with the far distant Islamic past, or perhaps as an especially potent means of connecting with the power of the Qu’ranic text? Or was the point of this display simply to show a nice instance of Kufic script, or perhaps to appreciate the folios as something along the lines of antiques? Was there something special about these folios- for instance, we know that very old Qur’an volumes and folios in the Ottoman world and elsewhere were sometimes treated as relics due to their assumed linkage with a key figure in the deep Islamic past. Was that the case with these folios? Or was something else entirely being done with this piece, something that is perhaps now unrecoverable for us?

Race, Slavery, and Sainthood in the Early Modern Ottoman World: Some Perspectives

Kadi Sünbül Ali
Kadı Sünbül ‘Ali, as depicted in a c. 1620 Ottoman book of costumes for Western European use, The Habits of the Grand Seignor’s Court, British Museum 1928,0323,0.46.8

Among the circles on Twitter that I follow- and occasionally participate in- in recent weeks the issue of the relationship between ‘the Enlightenment’ and modern notions and practices of racism has emerged as a popular and contentious topic. Now, while I have my own thoughts and theories about the Western European Enlightenment (which was as you can guess from my use of quotation marks a much more complicated affair than either its boosters or detractors tend to make out), what I would like to address here is the question of how race was perceived in a pre-modern, pre-Enlightenment context, specifically, within the Ottoman Empire at a particular time (and among certain groups, not necessarily all, given the sheer diversity of the empire). As such, the example I give here doesn’t necessarily prove anything one way or another about whether or not the Enlightenment ‘invented’ racism or racialized slavery. Rather, what I hope my comments here demonstrate is the complicated ways in which racial, or racial-like, categories, ethnic difference, and practices of slavery (all of which certainly intersected long before the Enlightenment to be sure) interacted. It does not make sense, ultimately, to say that early modern Ottomans were racist, or, for that matter, that they weren’t, or, in terms of slavery, that Ottoman slavery was totally different from slavery in the Americas, or that it was very similar: the reality is, as we historians are (obnoxiously to some!) fond of saying, complicated, and while our modern categories (themselves certainly shaped by, among other things, the Enlightenment(s)) are not totally foreign to early modern Ottoman (or any other) worlds, they must be applied with care if they are to be applied at all. Likewise, while we can often find parallels- unsurprisingly- between Ottoman practices and attitudes and those developing in contemporary Western Europe and the Americas, we ought to be equally sensitive to the differences and divergences.

I’ve taken a single late 17th century encounter, recorded by ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī and translated below along with my commentary, as my main point of departure, a story which I think illustrates well these complexities of racial origin, slavery, and the social limitations and possibilities contained within Ottoman practices of race and slavery, all oriented within a concern for sainthood (a category early modern Ottomans of all confessional varieties would have recognized to some degree or another, incidentally). There are a lot of ways in which we might explore race and slavery in the Ottoman lands: in thinking about race and ethnicity, for instance, we might want to consider the genealogy of ideas about phenotype and human geographical origin in the wider Islamic sphere, a genealogy that we could well trace back to the heritages of the ancient world. In terms of slavery, we might consider the various mechanisms whereby slaves were brought to market in Ottoman cities, the different ways that slaves from different places were perceived and employed, or the interaction of legal norms governing slavery, lived practice, and differing attitudes based on skin color or gender or other characteristics.

Historians have not tackled these issues to the degree that they deserve; Ottoman slavery, while the subject of a handful of monographs and edited volumes, remains poorly understood and overly polemicized. On the question of race and racial identity and prejudice, perhaps the best treatment has come from Baki Tezcan in his article ‘Dispelling the Darkness: The politics of ‘race’ in the early seventeenth century Ottoman Empire in the light of the life and work of Mullah Ali’.’ [1] Mullah ‘Ali, who is almost certainly the ‘kadı’ pictured above, was an Ottoman scholar and jurist of African origin who rose to extreme prominence in the ‘ilmiyye hierarchy, coming close to claiming the highest rank in the scholarly system, that of shaykh al-Islam, the personal patronage-based politics of the Ottoman elite intervening. While he was subject to some degree of insult and prejudice due to the color of his skin- his detractors drawing upon a venerable genealogy of notions within the Islamic world about the supposed inferiority of Africans- Tezcan argues that these insults and prejudice (which Mullah ‘Ali, also following a long genealogy within Islam, combated in writing) were mostly strategic, his opponents not being motivated by racial prejudice but instead deploying it because it was available. This suggests that something like ‘racism’ was culturally available to Ottomans, but with the stress on ‘available’: it was not systematic in any meaningful sense, and it need not bar a well-connected scholar with black skin from rising to the heights of power. That said, Mullah ‘Ali’s story primarily concerns the situation of the rarefied elite of the Ottoman world. What of race and slavery at the level of more ordinary people?

The story that I’d like to focus on in order to approach some aspects of slavery and race at the non-elite level [2] is one that I’ve shared before, but for a different purpose: The Hermit of Ya’bad and His Marvelous Coffee and Good Counsel. There is a great deal going on this little story, with insights about matters from how sacred space was performed in the Ottoman world to the role of coffee culture and its penetration even into the rural Palestinian countryside. But here we will focus on Shaykh Zā’id – the subject of the account – and his relationships with others. We begin with ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s initial encounter, during his passage through northern Palestine during the late 17th century:

And it reached us in that village [of Ya’bad] that there was close by a black [freed] slave from among the divinely drawn (majādhīb) lovers of God, whose name was Shaykh Zā’id, in a cave there at the foot of a small mountain. And it was reported to us that the cave used to not be there, but one day he was present on the mountain and the cave appeared for him. So we went to visit him, and we entered into his cave. It is a small cave, with lots of niches all around the walls, none of which open to the outside. And he was inside sitting on the ground, and he had a small mortar made of wood with which he ground coffee beans, and a small iron coffee roaster. No one who visited him leaves without him giving them coffee to drink. And he makes the coffee from anything that he has on hand, from wheat, barley, from scraps [of coffee?], and chickpeas—but no one who visits him drinks it without it being excellent coffee! And it was related to us that if he needs firewood, he will, with little effort, pluck out a great tree and break it down with his own hand, bring the wood back, and place it in his cave. Continue reading “Race, Slavery, and Sainthood in the Early Modern Ottoman World: Some Perspectives”

Ottoman Women and the Lives of Saints, iii.: The Majdhūb and the Pregnant Lady

This final installment- for now at least- in this series of texts dealing with Ottoman women’s lives in the context of sainthood comes from the life of ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (1621-1731), arguably the most important early modern saint of the Arab provinces, who combined the practice of sanctity with a vast scope of scholarship and literary endeavors (for more on him see this post and this one). The following account comes from a massive hagio-biography treating his life, Wird al-unsī wa-al-warid al-qudsiī fī tarjamat al-ʻārif ʻAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī, which was compiled by the saint’s great-grandson, Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazzī (1760-1799). Al-Ghazzī’s account covers almost every aspect of his great-grandfather’s life, including ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s mother’s ‘foretokens’ of her unborn son’s future saintly greatness. In introducing the section from which the below accounts are taken, al-Ghazzī says: ‘Just as there are foretokens for the prophets before [the manifestation of their] prophethood, so the saints of God have miracles occur for them even before the coming to light of their manifestation [as saints], and before they even have capacity for that.’

While, then, these stories are ultimately meant to be understood as signs of ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s sainthood- which was at work, as it were, and evident even while he was in his mother’s womb- they also reveal quite a bit about ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s mother and the relationship between holy men in early modern Damascus and women in general, reinforcing what we saw in a previous post. Here the holy man in question is a majdhūb, a ‘divinely drawn one’ akin to a ‘holy fool,’ a ‘mode’ of saint that I have dealt with repeatedly on this site (and which will feature prominently in my forthcoming dissertation and, God willing, eventual book project). The majādhīb (the plural of majdhūb) had a central presence in ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s life, from before birth and even after his death (one of his daughters would become a majdhūba), a relationship that his mother clearly contributed towards forging. The practices and the sacred presence of the majdhūb saint tended to result in the temporary breakdown of social expectations and protocol, both in terms of gendered relations but also in more fundamental ways (such as the strictures against throwing rocks at guests!). That women in Damascus would particularly numbered among Shaykh Maḥmūd’s devotees is not surprising- but neither is ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s ongoing devotion to the saint, an example of which I have also included in this translated excerpt.

Besides the accounts of ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s mother’s relationship with the saint Maḥmūd translated here, we are also learn from ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s own writings that his mother’s death and burial saw the miraculous intervention of another majdhūb, ‘Alī al-Nabkī, who walked from his village to the city just as ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s mother’s body was being washed. We are meant to understand by all of this, I think, that ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s own sanctity was not entirely unique to him- his mother, in her own way, was a holy woman, numbered in the ranks of the friends of God, male and female.

Syrian Tile
17th century tile from Ottoman Damascus (Met. 1993.315)

As for the good tidings his mother received about him, they were many. Among them is that which she herself related, saying, “The saints and majādhīb used to give me good tidings concerning him, and about his elevated status, and the majesty of his power, before his birth.” From among that was that the pious Shaykh Maḥmūd the Majdhūb—who is buried by the tomb of Shaykh Yusuf al-Qamīnī atop Jabal Qāsiyūn [1]—gave her good tidings of him while she was pregnant with him. He gave her a silver coin and said to her: “Name him ‘Abd al-Ghanī for he will be victorious.” He said to her another time, “Give good tidings to ‘Abd al-Ghanī concerning the divine abundance (al-fayḍ)!” Shaykh Maḥmūd died one day before the master was born. He had said to her: “When you give birth to him, bring him to my tomb, and rub him with dust from it before you bestow his name upon him [2].” Whenever he saw her he would honor her greatly, and say to her, “I venerate the one whom you bear, for by God he will possess greatness and immense power!” Continue reading “Ottoman Women and the Lives of Saints, iii.: The Majdhūb and the Pregnant Lady”

Ottoman Women and the Lives of Saints, i.: Stampeding Livestock and Saintly Friendships

This post begins a three-part series of accounts of women’s lives that I have discovered ’embedded’ in hagiographical literature from the early modern Ottoman world, lives which I’ve selected for the variety they show, both in the social and economic profiles of the women they feature, and in the ways that the interact with the holy men in the stories. I’ve featured women in Ottoman hagiography before (such as in this recent post), and I could have easily extended this series many times over: for as it turns out, women tend to be quite visible in these sorts of sources, often doing and saying things that might come as a surprise for those who tend to imagine Islamic and Middle Eastern women of this period living highly secluded, strictly gender-segregated existences. While not always true, women tend to be sympathetic or virtuous (or both) characters in these accounts, often being singled out for their devotion and trust in the saint in question, not infrequently in contrast to higher-status men who do not show such trust and suffer the consequences. And across accounts we see women from a range of backgrounds and stations in life freely associating with male saints and crossing into the physical space of the saint- living and departed- in ways that might not have been countenanced so readily by Ottoman men in other spaces.

In the following brief account, taken from a major 17th century compilation of lives of notable people- including numerous saints- of Damascus and beyond by the scholar Najm al-Dīn al-Ghazzī, we encounter an unnamed woman (a frequent feature in this stories, reflecting gender norms that did not break down even in the textual presence of a saint) who is close to the saint featured here, one Muhammad Abū Muslim al-Ṣamādī (911/1505-994/1585), a charismatic and popular saint of Damascus whom al-Ghazzī considered one of the greatest and most important holy men of the 10th Islamic century. The woman and her husband in this story seem to be of originally nomadic origin- hence the appellation ‘son of an Arab,’ which suggest Bedouin background- but spent at least part of their time in Damascus, going out to the steppes (which lie quite close to the city) at certain times of the year. Note also in this story both the identity of the woman- she herself is described as being a saint, though we are given no further details, unfortunately- and the apparent freedom with which she associated with not just al-Ṣamādī but al-Ghazzī’s father and al-Ghazzī himself.


It also reached me that a man called Muhammad ibn ‘Arab [that is, the son of an ‘Arab] went out eastward [into the steppes] in order to bring in some cattle, and on his way back he spent the night in fearful place. The night was extremely windy and had heavy rain. He related: “It was the middle of the night, when a movement spooked the animals and they bolted. I despaired of regathering them, so I cried out: ‘Yā Abī Muslim, this is your time!’ Then scarcely the blink of an eye later and the animals had come together to me from every direction until they were all assembled.”

The wife of this “ibn ‘Arab” was a holy woman from among the saints of God, who believed in Shaykh Muhammad al-Ṣamādī and who used to believe in my father as well, frequently visiting him and then me after him. She said: “I went to [Shaykh Muhammad al-Ṣamādī] Abū Muslim one day, and my husband was absent on that journey. He said to me: ‘Ya Umm So-and-So I am going to tell you something you must not relate until after I have died. Last night your husband’s animals fled from him so he cried out to me, seeking my aid. So I picked up a stone and threw it towards him, and his animals came back together. He will come to you soundly nothing having happened to him.’”

Continue reading “Ottoman Women and the Lives of Saints, i.: Stampeding Livestock and Saintly Friendships”

Shaykh ‘Alā al-Dīn Goes on Campaign

Divan of Mahmud `Abd al-Baqi Ottoman Army
The Ottoman army enters a city, from an illuminated copy (Met. 45.174.5) of the Divan of the poet Bâkî (1526–1600). Note the banner held aloft by the soldiers in the top right corner, similar to what we might imagine the saint in the tanner’s story below carrying; also note the diversity of soldiers and other support personnel visible.

Like early modern militaries the world over- and in fact like any organized and sizeable military, right up into the present- the Ottoman military relied on a vast body of ‘support staff’ to travel on campaign and wage warfare. Many of these support staff were recruited from the guildsmen of Istanbul and other major cities in the empire, the craftsmen and artisans and merchants being required to essentially pick up shop and go on campaign, agreeing to offer their services at a set price. In the following short story, taken from an Arabic biographical and hagiographical compendium by the scholar Balī ibn ‘Alī, also known as Alî Mınık (d. 1584), the miracle story is related by a tanner from Edirne who had recently returned from campaign. As is often the case in these sorts of stories, the details are thin, but we are probably meant to imagine a battle involving a fortress on the frontier with the Hapsburg lands. The story is pretty self-explanatory: besides being narrated by a member of the army’s ‘support staff,’ the story is interesting for what it reveals about the perceived role of seemingly unassuming saints in Ottoman military successes, and the imaginative travel, if you will, of otherwise sedentary saints out to the contested frontier.

Divan of Mahmud `Abd al-Baqi Ottoman Army
A close-up from the above of the army’s banner.

‘Among the miracles (karamāt) of [Şeyh Alâüddînd Cerrâḥzâde/‘Alā al-Dīn al-Jarrārzada, 1495-1575]’: the story that our shaykh Muṣlaḥ al-Dīn [the son of ‘Alā al-Dīn], God be merciful to him, related, saying: “We were sitting outside of the aforementioned zawīya [the Dergâh of Şeyh Şücaeddin, in Edirne] with some of the disciples. Tanners in the city had previously been drafted to go on campaign. A tanner came up and kissed my father’s hand, then kissed his feet, and said, ‘If it hadn’t been for you we wouldn’t have taken the fortress!’ My father said, ‘What is this fortress? I don’t know anything at all about it.’ The man persisted in his entreaty and humble supplication, but [my father] persisted in his denial.

So we asked the man about the story, and he said: ‘I went out to war for the Sultan with a detachment of tanners. When we had invested Such-and-Such Fortress, and aimed to seize it, the fighting wore on, and the flame of piercing and striking flared up, so that the fortress was refractory and refused to be conquered. The army was bewildered and despaired of seizing it, until suddenly a shaykh with a banner in his hand appeared, charging at the infidels, scattering them like dust struck by a powerful cold wind. He scaled the fortress and planted the banner upon it. The soldiers of the Islamic army followed after him, entering the fortress through this spot, its conquest becoming easy because of that man. My companions and I got a close look at the man—it was Shaykh ‘Alā al-Dīn, there being no doubt that he came on military campaign with us, and was present for the conquest of the fortress, yet we marveled that we had never once seen him while on the way there!’”

“Later, when I was alone with my father I asked him about the reality of this matter, so as to receive confirmation from him about this secret matter. He would not say anymore than that he did indeed know the one who had obtained to this degree, and that ‘You will obtain, God willing, to this degree of spiritual power when you reach maturity—God cause us and you to obtain to high degrees of spiritual power, and pour out upon us from the streams of His hidden and manifest kindness!’”

Balī ibn ‘Alī, al-ʻIqd al-manẓūm fī dhikr afāḍil al-Rūm (Dār al-Kitāb al-ʻArabī, 1975), 467-468. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.

Shaykh Abū al-Ḥasan Won’t Take ‘No’ For An Answer

Şeyh Gülşeni and Disciples
Şeyh Gülşenî (at center on the left), a 15th into 16th century Ottoman saint, bids some of his disciples and khalīfas farewell at a dock, illustrating the relationship between a saintly shaykh and his disciples also on display in the below story from another Ottoman context. From an 18th century illustrated copy of Ata’is Hamse (Walters 666.41A)

Shaykh Abū al-Wafā’ ibn Ma’rūf al-Ḥamawī—who was from among the pious ‘ulāmā and whose biography will come later—related to me that he had become a khalīfa to Shaykh [Aḥmad ibn ‘Abd al-Raḥman, (d. 1571), a Kurdish saint in the countryside north of Aleppo] after serving him for some time. He went to Cairo in order to study exoteric knowledge. He met with Shaykh Abū al-Ḥasan al-Bakrī, God sanctify his secret [1]. He treated him hospitably, but then Abū al-Ḥasan tried to get Abū al-Wafā’ to take the pledge of his ṭarīqa from him [2]. Abū al-Wafā’ refused out of regard for his shaykh [Aḥmad]. Abū al-Ḥasan kept asking, and Abū al-Wafā’ continued to refuse, until one night [Abū al-Ḥasan] entered his room and said: ‘Put your hand in mine!’ Suddenly a crack appeared in the wall, and Shaykh Aḥmad emerged and cried out, ‘Leave my disciple alone!’ [Abū al-Ḥasan] said, ‘Not possible!’ In that very moment, a fire came forth from Shaykh Aḥmad’s eye, and at that Shaykh Abū al-Ḥasan left Abū al-Wafā’ alone. Then al-Khiḍr emerged, and made peace between the two shaykhs [3]. The next morning Abū al-Wafā’s visit to Cairo was concluded so he returned home, and when he reached the village of al-Quṣayr, he entered the presence of Shaykh Aḥmad and kissed his hand, at which the shaykh smiled and said, ‘The chain of our ṭarīqa is unbroken!’

This poor one [ie the author al-‘Urḍī] had heard this story and had denied its truth, saying that people were making up lies about Shaykh al-Wafā’. But when I was young he came to Aleppo and I said to him, ‘This story, did it take place in waking life or dreaming?’ [4] He replied, ‘Waking life!’


[1] The Bakrī family was by the mid-16th century a well-established scholarly and saintly house, which would continue to be prominent all through the Ottoman period.

[2] Receiving a ṭarīqa- that is, initiation into a particular sufi lineage or path- from a shaykh could be a very personal matter of loyalty and prestige, particularly in this period, and especially in a Kurdish context- while receiving multiple affiliations was not uncommon in some contexts, and posed no problem for some shaykhs, this obviously was not universally true.

[3] Al-Khiḍr is an immortal, mysterious figure within Islam, and is often depicted appearing at opportune moments to convey knowledge or to solve a particular problem.

[4] In other words, did the ‘action’ take place in a dream-vision (which would be ‘real,’ just in a different way), or did the two shaykhs and al-Khiḍr bodily appear in poor Abū al-Wafā’s room? The former option would be rather unexceptional; the latter is a rather different and more spectacular scenario.

Muḥammad ibn ʻUmar al-ʻUrḍī, Maʻādin al-dhahab fī al-aʻyān al-musharrafa bi-him Ḥalab ʻAmman : Markaz al-Wathaʼiq wa-al-Makhtutat, 1992), 282.

Conversion Stories From Across Early Modern Eurasia

John Nelson's Khalwa
The cell-like study and retreat of the early Methodist preacher and holy man John Nelson, whose autobiography is featured below.

In what follows, I have juxtaposed accounts taken from one end of Eurasia (here including North Africa) to the other, each of which dates from the seventeenth or eighteenth century: we begin with an account by an early English Methodist, next hear from a Moroccan sufi shaykh and saint, followed by an Ottoman Syrian self-taught shaykh, finally ending with an Edo-period Japanese Zen master- lives I doubt have ever been placed in such proximity before! Yet they are all united by at least two major common themes in addition to their chronological proximity: one, each is autobiographical, either as part of a stand-alone account, or embedded in some larger biographical project. Two, each has to do with narrating a moment or period of conversion from one way of life to another. We might be tempted to call all of these religious conversions, but I think it’s best to avoid the term ‘religious’ here since while it’s accurate in some ways it does not really quite reflect how these various writers or those around them thought about the world and the nature of the experiences and lives we might label ‘religious.’

There are other shared features that I think are significant and which might point to some of the shared, interconnecting features of early modern life on a global scale. Each of these accounts reveals not just a sense of subjectivity and inwardness, but a surprisingly assertive sense of subjectivity- reflected in, to begin with, the very act of writing and circulating in some fashion an autobiographical account. Related to this subjectivity and self-fashioning is the stress laid on reading and encountering books, often through one’s individual act of reading. This is significant given the emphasis placed in many cultural contexts in medieval Eurasia upon the oral, face-to-face, hand-in-hand transmission of knowledge and religious practice. Yet most of these figures not only were shaped by their own personal readings and encounters with texts, they in turn produced texts for others to encounter in a similar fashion. That is not to say that these authors were ‘individualists,’ and certainly none of them would have embraced the idea of the ‘autonomous’ self. Each in his own way was a part of religious communities, textual genealogies, and shared collectivities of practice and worship and belief.

I encourage you to read these excerpts in sequence and to think about commonalities or differences and the possible reasons for them, as well as what they may or may not say about shared early modern histories beyond my brief comments above. For each excerpt I have given a minimal introductory note, followed by the account and the citation (of the four not originally in English, I have translated one, while the others are translations by other scholars).

1. John Nelson (1707-1770): A stone-mason by trade, John Nelson would become an early convert to the Methodist movement within the English Anglican Church led by John and Charles Wesley. I have selected two sections from his Journal, an autobiographical rendering of his spiritual journey and labors on behalf of the Wesleys’ pietistic movement. In the first, Nelson describes a formative childhood experience, while in the second he narrates the pivotal moment of his adult conversion from a state of emotional insecurity and distance from God to that of being ‘saved.’

When I was between nine and ten years old, I was horribly terrified with the thoughts of death and judgment, whenever I was alone. One Sunday night, as I sat on the ground by the side of my father’s chair, when he was reading the twentieth chapter of the Revelation, the word came with such light and power to my soul, that it made me tremble, as if a dart were shot in my heart. I fell with my face on the floor, and wept till the place was as wet, where I lay, as if water had been poured thereon. As my father proceeded, I thought I saw everything he read about, though my eyes were shut; and the sight was so terrible, I was about to stop my ears, that I might not hear, but I durst not: as soon as I put my fingers in my ears, I pulled them back again. When he came to the eleventh verse, the words made me cringe, and my flesh seemed to creep on my bones while he read… Continue reading “Conversion Stories From Across Early Modern Eurasia”