Ottoman Cultural Exchange and Devotional Art in the Islamic Far West

Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Arabe 6983 iv
Miḥrab page, Dalā’il al-khayrāt, completed 1705 (Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Arabe 6983, fol. 19r).

The famed late medieval book of prayer and blessings upon the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, known as Dalā’il al-khayrāt, written by Muhammad Sulaymān al-Jazūlī (d. 1465), would become one of the most popular texts of any sort across the early modern Islamicate world. From modern-day Morocco, where al-Jazūlī lived, worked, and died (he completed Dalā’il in Fes, while he would ultimately be buried in Marrakesh), his most famous work would rapidly spread to points east, with copies appearing by the mid eighteenth century as far afield as Eastern Turkestan and the Indonesian archipelago. As this text and its devotional regime spread, the text itself took on what was in some regards a relatively stable visual schemata- depictions of Mecca and Medina, schematics of Muhammad’s tomb and minbar, and an overall ornamentation and careful, often fully vocalized script could all be found in copies across the Islamicate world. At the same time, different regions drew the text into their own traditions of art and manuscript production, while in some cases adding additional material. In the eighteenth century, for instance, Ottoman copies of Dalā’il would often come to include hilye-i şerif panels, calligraphic ‘verbal icons’ of Muhammad (which themselves had originally existed in a medieval treatise).

In the Maghrib- the Islamic ‘Far West’- where the text originated, copies of Dalā’il would often include unique to the region elements, elaborated in a variety of styles. One such unique (so far as I can tell) element was the inclusion, in the opening pages of the manuscript, of an illuminated genealogy of Muhammad. Here is a relatively plain example, making use of name roundels (which were also common in Ottoman productions and may have their origin in such a milieu) and extensions of names into the neutral space of the illumination:

Library of Congress. Arabic manuscript, SM 85.
A genealogy page from a copy of the Dalā’il made in the Maghrib during the second half of the 18th century. (Library of Congress, Arabic manuscripts, SM 85)

However, the manuscript that I want to focus on here, now classified as BnF Arabe 6983, is another Maghribi version of the famous prayer book, and was completed in 1705 in what is now Morocco and held in the library of the Nāṣiriyya sufis in Tamegroute on the edge of the Sahara until it came into the collection of Hubert Lyautey, the French Resident-General of Morocco in the early twentieth century, and thence to the Bibliothèque nationale de France. This manuscript, which in its provenance history already bespeaks to much historical change, has one of the most spectacular and beautiful visual schemes of any copy of Dalā’il I have come across. The mihrab page above- an unusual feature in itself- hints at some of the artistic vigor and cultural exchange visible in this manuscript, which is very much oriented towards the Ottoman world, even as its core features speak to its Maghribi origins. The following page, an example of the above-mentioned genealogy component, demonstrates the Ottoman stylistic aspects especially well:

Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Arabe 6983
Dalā’il al-khayrāt. (Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Arabe 6983, fol. 6r)

Here, the illumination’s neutral space, while like the first example containing the winding names of Muhammad’s ancestors attached to calligraphic roundels, has been filled with a delicate swirling floral pattern. Anyone with some familiarity with Ottoman history is likely to recognize that pattern- it originated in the illumination of the sultanic calligraphic emblem, the tuǧra, as visible in the following example, from the late sixteenth century:

A firman (imperial decree), paper, written in Divani Istanbul, Turkey; 981 H = 1573 L: 295; W: 56 cm
The tuǧra of Sultan Selim II, as affixed to a fermân issued in 1573. Note the intricate floral ornamentation filling the interior of the calligraphy- this is an especially colorful example. (David Collection Inv. no. 51/2002)

Continue reading “Ottoman Cultural Exchange and Devotional Art in the Islamic Far West”

‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī and the Stoned Preacher of Bulaq

Interior of the mosque of Sinan Pasha, Cairo (Photograph)
Interior of the Sinān Pasha Mosque in Būlāq, Cairo, as it appeared between 1916 and 1921, photographed by K.A.C. Creswell (V&A 4812-1955)

Over the course of his several journeys through the Ottoman lands, the great shaykh, scholar, and saint ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī encountered all sorts of people from all manner of walks of life, from members of the Ottoman elite to Turkmen nomads in the desert. On the whole he expressed great affection and understanding for ordinary people, including those whose practice of Islam did not precisely accord with the textual, urban norms of the scholarly class of which al-Nābulusī was a prominent member. In the following story, which takes place in the Būlāq neighborhood of Ottoman Cairo, al-Nābulusī’s patience and tolerance were both tested greatly by a decidedly unprofessional Friday preacher to whom he and his friend and host Shaykh Zayn al-‘Ābidīn al-Bakrī, a prominent and well-known (as the story suggests) member of Cairo’s scholarly class, found themselves listening, first with amusement and later with other less positive emotions. The story is largely self-explanatory, though it is worth pointing out that the preacher’s attempt at angling a bigger share of the mosque’s designated endowment for preaching is a good reminder of the quotidian, economic realities running through Ottoman religious life, like the religious lives of people the world over. His apparent substance addiction, as we would now call it, also reminds us that such problems are hardly anything new, while the undercurrent of humor this story has a decidedly contemporary feel to it as well.

Preacher with Ink instead of Rosewater
Another Ottoman preacher whose reception was not what he was expecting: an illustration of a story of a preacher in a mosque who accidently sprinkled his face with ink instead of rosewater, from a 1721 copy of the Ḫamse of the Ottoman poet ʿAṭāʾī (d. 1634). From Walters Ms. W.666, fol. 48a.

‘We came to the Sanāniyya Mosque [that is, the Sinān Pasha Mosque, built in 1572] and the prayed here the Friday prayer. We found the preacher preaching and mispronouncing words, praying and reciting and mispronouncing words—in other words, he did not cease from his mispronunciations! But no one else inside of that mosque noticed, nor anyone outside in the courtyard. Shaykh Zayn al-‘Ābidīn al-Bakrī, God preserve him, when the preacher would make a mispronunciation would look at me and grin. The preacher, out of his ignorance of his mispronunciations, thought that he was amazed at his eloquence and heaved a sigh. Off-handedly, the following verses came to my mind in that we had never encountered a preacher quite like him:

The preacher of Būlāq whose voice/ prides itself more than the mill does the flour,

Preaches with mispronunciation upon mispronunciation, and if/ he mispronounces here, compensates with mispronunciation there!

Continue reading “‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī and the Stoned Preacher of Bulaq”

The Bey, the Meczûb, and a Cure for Beardlessness

Sultan Murad III (r1574-1595) on Horseback (painting recto text verso) illustrated folio from a manuscript of the Javahir al-Gharaib Tarjomat Bahr al-Ajaib (Gems of Marvels- A Translation of the Sea of Wonders) of Jennabi (Cennabi)
(Fig. 1) Bearded and beardless soldiers and attendants surround Sultan Murad III (r.1574-1595) in this miniature from a translation into Ottoman Turkish of al-Jannābī’s Baḥr al-‘ajā’ib (Harvard Art Museum 1985.219.3.2)

As I’ve discussed on these pages many times before, Ottoman hagiography (like other bodies of hagiography from around the world) can be read in ways that get at much more than just ‘religious’ history narrowly conceived. Attitudes towards political dynamics, concepts of gender, relationships among various social groups, and many more aspects of life can all be discerned in these sorts of texts. One way of getting at underlying social and cultural realities is to read multiple accounts of the same holy person, when this is possible (and obviously in many cases it isn’t, or while there may be multiple accounts one is an original which the others simply copy and paste).

I’ve selected two renderings, both from the sixteenth century, of the same story in a saint’s life. One of the stories was written by an otherwise obscure person named Emîr Hüseyin Enîsî (fl. mid-16th century) in the small town of Göynük, located roughly halfway between Istanbul and Ankara; the other version was composed in Ottoman Constantinople (or, possibly, Bursa or Edirne) by one of the most famous Islamic scholars of the period, Ahmed Taşköprüzâde (1495-1561). Emîr Hüseyin Enîsî wrote in an almost colloquial register of Ottoman Turkish, while most of Taşköprüzâde’s literary production, including the one excerpted here, was in Arabic, long one of the two ‘international’ languages of the Islamicate world (though it would soon be translated and expanded upon in Ottoman Turkish). As such, to oversimplify somewhat, the one can safely be taken as representing a ‘provincial’ perspective, oriented around a particular holy person and his family and disciples, while Taşköprüzâde represents a more decidedly ‘imperial’ or ‘central’ view of things. Where Taşköprüzâde was a part of the scholarly-legal hierarchy, the so-called ‘ilmiye system, Emîr Hüseyin Enîsî was not, instead living and thinking at some distance from the imperial center and its rarefied world of sultans, viziers, grand medreses, and the like.

These differences are very much on view in these two stories, to which we will now turn, reviewing what they reveal afterwards. First, it should be noted that the main subject of Emîr Hüseyin Enîsî’s menâkıb is Nûru’l-Hüdâ’s father, Akşemseddîn (see this post for more on him). Out of his numerous sons, Nûru’l-Hüdâ is explicitly described as a saint, albeit of the meczûb variety (on which see this post), one whose divinely bestowed powers could go toe-to-toe with his father’s. Taşköprüzâde’s version of the story comes from his al-Shaqāʾiq al-nuʿmāniyya fī ʿulamāʾ al-dawlat al-ʿUthmāniyya, a ‘biographical dictionary’ of prominent scholars, culture-producers, doctors, shaykhs, and saints of the Ottoman lands from the origins of the dynasty up to Taşköprüzâde’s own day. While the story takes place in the fifteenth century, the underlying social and cultural dynamics that our authors bring to it speak more, arguably, of the sixteenth century. Here is Emîr Hüseyin Enîsî’s version:

‘There was a bey known as Kataroǧlu who was beardless (köse). He didn’t have any beard at all. One day he said to [the meczûb saint] Nûru’l-Hüdâ: “With saintly intention (himmet) cause me to have a beard!” So Nûru’l-Hüdâ looked Kataroǧlu in the face. He spit. In the places where the spit landed on Kataroǧlu beard began to sprout. The next morning Kataroǧlu arose and looked in the mirror. In the places the spit had touched beard had grown, and in a few days he had a full, black beard! He brought [the saint] a golden kaftan, and clothed Nûru’l-Hüdâ in it. Suddenly a dog appeared in their midst, and Nûru’l-Hüdâ rose and clothed the dog in the kaftan.’ [1]

And here is Taşköprüzâde’s version:

‘The shaykh had a young son named Nūr al-Hudā, a son who was a majdhūb, his intellect overtaken [by God]. At the time there was a great amīr known as Ibn ‘Aṭṭār, who was satin-skinned, not a hair on his face. He came before the shaykh while on his way to Sultan Muhammad Khan [Mehmed II]. While he was with the shaykh, that majdhūb came in and laughed, saying, “Is this a man? No, he’s a woman!” The shaykh was angry at this, but the amīr implored the shaykh that he not rebuke his son for saying such. Then the amīr said to the aforementioned majdhūb, “Pray for me so that my beard will grow!” So the majdhūb took a great deal of spit from his mouth and rubbed it on the amīr’s face. His beard began to grow, right up to his entry into Constantinople, and when he came before the sultan, the sultan said to his viziers, “Ask him from whence came this beard?” So he related what had happened, and the sultan marveled at it, and endowed upon that young man numerous waqfs, which remain in the control of the sons of the shaykh to this day.’ [2]

Ottoman Kaftan Fragment
(Fig. 2) A fragment of a particularly rich 16th century kaftan woven from silk and metallic thread, with a gold background, perhaps visually similar to the one described in Emîr Hüseyin Enîsî’s version of the story. (Met. 52.20.23a, b)

First, certain shared components are immediately visible: in both versions the Ottoman official- described as a bey or an amīr, roughly equivalent terms in Turkish and Arabic respectively- suffers from a degree of social stigma, it is implied, due to his lack of a beard. Having a beard, or even the first traces of a beard, was a key marker in this world of transitioning from the ambiguously gendered stage of ‘beardless youth’ to an adult man; the total absence of facial hair, if voluntary, could signal subordination (as in the case of eunuchs particularly) or social deviance and rejectionism (as in the case of radical dervishes). Thus the bey’s lack of beard is not simply a matter of style or personal pride, but could be seen as something approaching a disability. The joke the meczûb tells in Taşköprüzâde’s rendering pointedly gets at this gendered social reality.

The ‘cure,’ described in similar- though not quite the same- ways in both accounts, points to the close linkage between the body, the body’s products, and the transmission of sanctity and saintly power in the Islamicate world (and elsewhere). The exchange of saliva between saint and devotee has many parallels elsewhere in medieval and early modern Islamic hagiography (though I do not know of another instance in which spit cures beardlessness!). That the bey wants Nûru’l-Hüdâ to spit on him (or, in Taşköprüzâde’s somewhat more ‘refined’ version, rub on him) indicates his recognition of the meczûb’s sanctity, and signals to the reader Nûru’l-Hüdâ’s status as a saint.

Where the two accounts diverge is in how they implicitly frame the relationship between Nûru’l-Hüdâ (and his father), on the one hand, and Ottoman central power, on the other. In the first, ‘provincial’ rendering, while Nûru’l-Hüdâ cures the bey’s lack of beard, he does so in a way that signals the relative equality prevailing between the two- he spits right in the bey’s face, an effective way to transmit some sacred saliva, but otherwise a rather degrading action. Taşköprüzâde presents the transmission as having been carried out in a less confrontational manner. When it comes to recompense, Taşköprüzâde suggests that not only did the sultan himself reward Nûru’l-Hüdâ’s family, the family retained the reward, right down to the present, thereby tying themselves into the Ottoman center and implicitly subordinating themselves to the Ottoman dynasty. The framing of the story itself subordinates the ‘local’ saints to the central imperial context, with much of the action taking place in the presence of the sultan, not in the presence of the saint.

Emîr Hüseyin Enîsî’s version runs in exactly the opposite direction: not only does Nûru’l-Hüdâ reject the sumptuous kaftan bestowed upon him (see fig. 2 for an example), but he instead clothes a dog with it (the dog, it is implied, appearing providentially in just that moment). This act of rejection is not just a manifestation of conventional ideas of asceticism and distance from rulers. In Emîr Hüseyin Enîsî’s time, a very real struggle was taking place over who was to control the use and distribution of sanctity, over who was to occupy the ‘top spot’ in the hierarchy of saints. The Ottoman dynasty and many of its elite sought to organize, channel, and outright control the many holy people scattered across their domains, with the sultans themselves as saints presiding over the empire. Saints and their supporters, especially hagiographers, resisted these attempts. Neither ‘side’ rejected the legitimacy of the other outright: sultans and beys respected the saints of the land, and the saints, for the most part, supported the right of the House of Osman to rule. What was at issue was the nature of their relationship, and the degree to which saints should be subordinate to sultans and other members of the Ottoman elite.  Dressing a passing dog in a kaftan (itself symbolically linked to the sultan’s household) is in the story a way of signaling the superiority of the saints and that while beys and sultans needed them, the saints did not themselves need beys and sultans. The historical reality was no doubt, in fact, somewhere in between the two visions these contrasting hagiographic accounts present.


[1] Emîr Hüseyin Enîsî, Akşemseddin hazretleri ve yakın çevresi: Menâkıb-ı Âkşemseddîn, edited by Metin Çelik  (İstanbul: Ark, 2016), 98.

[2] Ahmed Taşköprüzâde, al-Shaqāʼq al-Nuʻmānīya fī ʻulmāʼ al-Dawla al-ʻUthmānīya (Beirut: Dār al-Kitāb al-‘Arabī, 1975), 141-142.

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Sayyida ‘Ā’isha Shuts Down a Hater
Folio from a Qur’an, North Africa- possibly Ḥafṣid Ifraqīya where ‘Ā’isha lived- displaying the distinctive Maghribi script used in this region. (Met. 37.21)

Sayyida ‘Ā’isha al-Mannūbiyya (1199–1267) is one of the, if not simply the most important and best-known female Muslim saints in North African history. Born in the village of al-Manūba close to Tunis, she moved among many different worlds and identities, inhabiting aspects of both rural and urban sainthood, violating social conventions, including regarding gender norms, as part of her enactment of sainthood. She participated in the Shādhiliyya ṭarīqa, and was linked in later memory to the great saints, male and female, of the Islamic past. Her hagiography (manāqib) reveals a bold and confident saint, laying claim to spaces and practices generally reserved for men such as mosques, as in the short story I’ve translated here, in which she is questioned about her knowledge of the Qur’an and rebuffs her critic in rather spectacular fashion. She proved a popular and powerful saint not only in life but long after her physical death. Despite a 2012 attack on her shrine by Salafī militants (one of many attacks on saints’ shrines in post-revolution Tunisia), she remains a popular figure of veneration and supplication.


Sayyid Uthmān al-Ḥadād, known as Būqabrayn, said: ‘One day I was stopping by the Muṣallī Mosque in the company of Sayyidatī ‘Ā’isha, and she was reciting God’s words, As for the foremost and the first from among the emigrants and the helpers and those who follow them in doing good, God is pleased with them and they are pleased with Him. And He has prepared for them gardens under which rivers flow, in which forever to dwell— that is the great victory! [1], to the end of the surah. Then Sayyid Muḥammad ibn Sālim ibn ‘Alī al-Huwārī, one of the fuqahā’ [2] of Tunis, one of those who used to related hadith of the Messenger of God, upon whom be peace and blessing, in the Zaytūna Mosque [3], heard her reciting the Qur’an so he went in to her, and said to her, “Under whom did you learn Qur’an recitation?” She replied, “ cuckold (dayyūth)! I studied the Qur’an under my Lord! [The angel] Michael and Khiḍr [4] came to me, and in their hands was a filled vessel from the Garden. The two of them said to me, ‘Drink, ‘Ā’isha, Mannūbiyya!’ So I drank in that draught knowledge, clemency, certainty, pious submission, humility towards God, divine blessing, compassion, chastity, and divine protection.”’

God be pleased with her and benefit us by her in both worlds! Continue reading “Sayyida ‘Ā’isha Shuts Down a Hater”

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.