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”

No More Notebooks for Shaykh ‘Alwān

Preacher with Ink instead of Rosewater
An illustration of the interior of a 17th century Ottoman mosque, which wouldn’t be too far off from the setting of the below story- the preacher on the minbar (with hands in his deep sleeves), the candles at the mihrab, the men seated to listen to the preaching, and the neatly lined up shoes, all would have been seen, albeit in somewhat different forms (the floral decoration on the side of the minbar, for instance, is a clear indication that this is a 17th or 18th century setting). (Walters M.666)

Shaykh ‘Alwān (d. 1530) was one of the major Muslim saints of late Mamluk into early Ottoman Damascus. While possessed of the multifaceted education typical of a member of the ‘ulama of his time, Shaykh ‘Alwān’s most important formation came at the hands of an itinerant holy man from the Maghrib (modern day Morocco, ‘Ali al-Maymūn. The following story, related by Najm al-Dīn al-Ghazzī, an important source for saints’ lives from early Ottoman Syria, describes Shaykh ‘Alwān’s first encounter with the man who would become his spiritual preceptor. Besides illustrating a saintly miracle of sorts, it incidentally provides a look at how an early modern Muslim preacher would conduct his sermons, namely, with a handbook of useful material tucked up his sleeve (literally!).


Shaykh ‘Alwān related to [Shaykh Yunūs) in 924: He was preaching in Hama, in accordance with the custom of preachers—using a notebook with pleasing stories, wise anecdotes, and edifying reports and accounts, when al-Sayyīd ‘Ali ibn Maymūn—who was also preaching in Hama—passed by him, stopped before him, and said: “O ‘Alwān, preach from your head, and not from a notebook!” But Shaykh ‘Alwān did not pay him any mind, so he said the same thing a second time, then a third. Then, Shaykh ‘Alwān reported, “That caused me to pay attention, and I knew that he was from among the Friends of God. So I said to him: ‘It’s no good for me to preach from my head—meaning by heart.’ He replied: ‘Nay, preach from your head!’ I replied: ‘Ya Sayyīdi, only if you help me!’ He said: ‘I do, and trust in God!’ So when I awoke the next morning I went to the preaching session, with my notebooks in my sleeve. When I sat down the Sayyīd was opposite me. I began speaking from the heart, and God inspired (fataḥa) me, and that inspiration has continued until now!”’

Najm al-Dīn al-Ghazzī, al-Kawākib al-sāʼirah bi-aʻyān al-miʼah al-ʻāshirah (Beirut: Dār al-Kuttub al-‘Ilmiyya, 1997), v. 2, 204-5).

Depicting Devotion to Muhammad: Images in An Ottoman Compendium

Names of God and Names of Muhammad Osmanische Sammelhandschrift , 17XX
Hilye-i Şerîf, from Ahlâk-i resûl Allâh, from Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin Ms. or. oct. 1602, 48v.
Muhammad's Sandal
Depiction of the sandal of the Prophet, Ms. or. oct. 1602, 44v.

These two images come from the same manuscript compendium of devotional texts, a manuscript now held in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, but originally completed and used somewhere in the Turcophone part of the Ottoman Empire, during the seventeenth century. The particular text they are a part of, Ahlâk-i resûl Allâh, describes, as its name suggests, the ‘characteristics’ of Muhammad and aspects of his life, which entails, among other things, encountering, in both text and image, places and things entwined with his life. This includes marvelous schematics of Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, for instance. It also includes a couple of instances of hilye-i şerîf, which I’ve mentioned briefly before here. These are ‘verbal-pictorial icons’ that depict, through words and non-figural (at least not of humans) images and design, the attributes of Muhammad, physical and otherwise. The hilye-i şerîf I’ve included above is a somewhat unusual example: instead of reproducing hadith-based descriptions of Muhammad’s physical characteristics, it features, side by side, names of God and names of Muhammad, filling the big flowers that dominate the top of the page. Below these ‘verbal icons’ are calligraphic renderings of Qur’anic phrases (some barely visible because of the poor contrast between flower color and script) along with the names of other important holy figures from the founding generation of Islam.

The second image is a heavily stylized and decorated rendering of Muhammad’s sandal, one of several physical traces- relics, in a sense- associated with Muhammad from the middle ages on and which seem to have grown in importance in the Ottoman period, as part of the general intensification of devotion to the Prophet across Islam in this period. In addition to objects claimed to be actual physical relics- hairs from Muhammad’s beard, the impress of his foot in a rock, cloaks he once wore- visual reproductions of those relics also proliferated, usually in the context of devotional texts such as this one. What was the devotional content of these images, or, to put it differently, what did these images ‘do’? For the artist, patron, and purchaser or owner or endower of a manuscript such as this, the act of creating the image and beautifying it- the gorgeous rich flowers of the hilye, the bright colors and delicate designs of the sandal, or instance- could serve as acts of devotion, of love, in themselves, as a type of offering. These depictions could also act as loci of remembrance, even for people who could not read or decipher the Arabic inscriptions: the image called to mind the person from whom the original relic was derived. An intrinsic connection was forged- hence my calling these images ‘icons,’ even though no human form is depicted- independent of a viewer, even as they summoned the viewer into an imaginative encounter with the referent. Following a similar logic, these images, by virtue of a perceived ‘link’ back to Muhammad himself, could carry a prophylactic charge. There are in fact hadith- devised very late (and in fact sometimes claimed to have been delivered via dreams)- that claim as much, to the effect that anyone who places a hilye-i şerîf in his or her home will be protected from all manner of misfortune.

In sum, far from being simply decorative objects or illustrations for a text, images such as these had a complex role in Ottoman devotional culture, containing meanings and applications that are not immediate obvious to modern-day viewers but which can give us valuable insights into the religious and emotional lives and practices of early modern Ottoman Muslims.

For further reading:

Christiane Gruber, The Prophet as a ‘Sacred Spring’: Late Ottoman Hilye Bottles

Christiane Gruber, “The Rose of the Prophet: Floral Metaphors in Late Ottoman Devotional Art,” in  Envisioning Islamic Art and Architecture, November 14, 2014, 223–49.




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.