The Attempted Assassination of Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn by the Coward Shakhyzāda Jamāl al-Dīn

AKM264.f349r_HERO
The second of the four assassination attempts upon Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn. The shaykh is the slightly larger than others figure near the center of the composition. Interestingly, the illuminator of this manuscript, completed in 1582 in Safavid Shiraz, illustrated the shortest of the four scenes of attempted assassination, filling out the surrounding context left unsaid by the text itself (which, readers of Persian might note, varies slightly from the critical edition I have used for the translation below). Also note that the illuminator has depicted one of the assassins pulling back an arrow, which does not exactly fit with the textual content. Perhaps for this reason a later viewer made a mark down over the hand and bow of the shooter, either as a ‘correction’ or as a ritual act of ‘disarmament.’ Source: AKM264 (fol.349r).

We have now met Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn (1252/3–1334), the eponym of the Safavid dynasty and one of the most important Muslim saints of the late medieval and early modern Persianate world, a few times, first as a young man seeking out the presence of other holy people, and then as an increasingly proficient adept in the arts of taṣawwuf. The extended story that I’ve translated and presented below (sans, I must confess, the Persian and Arabic couplets interspersed, which, time and energy pending I will later add) is set at a critical moment in the shaykh’s career, not long after the death of his primary shaykh, Shaykh Zāhid. While our source, the sprawling hagiographic treatment of Ibn Bazzāz (d. 1391–92), is somewhat circumspect around the details, it is clear that succession to Shaykh Zāhid’s post was contested. While Ṣafī al-Dīn laid claim to the succession, and was acclaimed by some of the late master’s followers, all was not well. The new shaykh was soon met with opposition, a group of ‘obstinate ones,’ in the words of the hagiography, forming and deciding to get rid of Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn, quite literally in fact, by killing him. In the rather (unintentionally?) humorous story that follows, while on his annual pilgrimage to the shrine of his departed master in Lāhijān near the coast of the Caspian Sea, this group, led by rival claimant to Shaykh Zāhid’s position Shaykhzāda Jamāl al-Dīn, the son of the late shaykh (hence his name, ‘shaykh-descendant’) and therefore seemingly possessed of a stronger claim. Not to give things away, but he does not win out, instead admitting defeat and being reconciled to Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn, who is shown being remarkably chill about the whole affair.

The story is relatively self-explanatory; worthy of note are various small but insightful details such as the presence of a female supporter of Ṣafī al-Dīn and her role in the tale, or the fact that some people at least in this world knew how to swim, whether for utilitarian purposes or for fun is not evident here.

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It was Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn’s custom that at an appointed time he would go and make pious visitation (ziyārat u mazār) to Shaykh Zāhid’s tomb [in Lāhijān]. When that time came and he set out to make his pious visitation, Khwāja Fakhr al-Dīn Yusūf, who was the brother of the shaykh, came to the holy shaykh and said, ‘It is assuredly not safe for you to go and make pious visitation to Shaykh Zāhid, for a group of deficient obstinate ones are waiting in ambush, God forbid, to commit a sin!’

The shaykh, God sanctify his secret, replied: ‘If it is destined for me that in this time that in going I fall into their hands, then turning back the decree of God cannot be done, and if not, then there is no fear to be had.’ So the shaykh went on his pious visitation [as usual]. Through that group of obstinate ones the fire of obstinacy and anger was lit in Shaykhzāda Jamāl al-Dīn, God be merciful to him. They agreed to seek the death of the shaykh, God sanctify his secret, and furthermore agreed upon the means of killing him: they would set the shaykh’s retreat cell (khalwat) on fire, consuming the shaykh in the flames and so killing him. They came by night and first on the outside they fastened the door of the retreat cell shut with a nail so that when the fire blazed up [the shaykh] would be unable to come out. But when they lit the fire, due to the shaykh’s sainthood (vilāyat) the fire would not flame up and instead went out, even though houses and retreat cells in that place are all built of wood and beams which after a passage of time become dried out.

When this tack did not work, the flame not flaring up and the retreat cell not catching fire, the flame of their anger and envy only increased. They decided to shoot the shaykh with arrows. They sent out a party to shoot the shaykh from ambush. But when they put their hands to their bows, their hands were all dried out and unable to work the bows, none of their hands being able to work.

When their corrupt intention could not be realized by these sorts of stratagems, again they concluded that they would destroy the shaykh by using poison. So they put a measure of poison in honey and along with a sufra of food brought it before the shaykh, God sanctify his secret. However, the wife (ḥaram) of Shaykhzāda Jamāl al-Dīn, God be merciful to him, who was the mother of the departed Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad, God be merciful to him, secretly sent a message to the shaykh, God sanctify his secret, saying, ‘Take care! Do not stretch out your hand for the honey, beware against accepting any of it!’ When this condition was made known to the shaykh he was wary of the honey and did not accept any of it. And it was likewise with any food with which they schemed and plotted—that pious matron secretly gave report and the shaykh did not stretch out his hand to it.

When their vain desire and wish was not realized through this stratagem, they again determined that there was no other possible plan remaining save that at the time of [the shaykh’s] return [from the shrine of Shaykh Zāhid in Lāhijān], they would seat the shaykh in a boat, and a group of people who knew how to swim would also board the boat with him. Once they were underway in the water, they would sink the boat and escape by swimming, while the shaykh, God sanctify his secret, not knowing how to swim, would certainly sink with the boat and so die. In preparation for this task they donned light clothing, and wanted to board the ship and seat the shaykh in it. But, the shaykh said, ‘I saw Shaykh Zāhid, God sanctify his secret, coming towards me upon a gazelle-like horse and saying, “O Ṣafī! Ride upon this horse and travel the dry road—do not board the boat!”’

Having seen and heard this from Shaykh Zāhid, the shaykh, God sanctify his secret, said ‘I’m not going to travel by way of the water and will not be boarding the boat, rather, I’ll be going by dry land.’ This having happend, Shaykhzāda Jamāl al-Dīn saw that their idea [of getting rid of the shaykh] was never going to be feasible, so he went with the shaykh and spent an hour with him in his retreat cell. The shaykh, God sanctify his secret, said, ‘Shaykhzāda! I know what you aimed to do to me and what treachery against me became lodged in your heart—but God, exalted is He, has made it impossible for your goal to be achieved, even after this goal was repeated and enmity established. Yet, if your desire is for my destruction and cannot be otherwise, bring a measure of poison so that I can consume it and your intention be fulfilled, and no one else will be aware of this secret.’

When Shaykhzāda Jamāl al-Dīn heard these words, the sweat of shame ran down his face, and he sought forgiveness for this crime and begged clemency for his treachery. Having manifest purity of state, he brought forth the gazelle-like horse for the shaykh, and mounting him the shaykh made his return journey.

Ibn Bazzāz Ardabīlī, Ṣafvat al-ṣafā: dar tarjumah-ʼi aḥvāl va aqvāl va karāmāt-i Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn Isḥaq Ardabīlī, ed. Ghulām Riẓā Ṭabāṭabāʼī Majd (Tabriz: G.R. Ṭabāṭabāʼī Majd , 1373 [1994]), 798-791. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2020.

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A Self-Taught Shaykha in Early Modern Fes

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Detail from a swathe of embroidered silk textile, seventeenth or eighteenth century Morocco, with the word Allāh rather faintly visible running in a band near the center. The polemicist author described below might have had such colorful textiles in mind in castigating women in Fes for their material exuberance in following their female shaykha. (Cleveland Museum of Art 1916.1236)

The place of women in early modern Islamicate societies varied greatly depending on particular place, general cultural norms, social status, prevailing madhhab, and many other intersecting factors. Far from being static, the role and status of different sorts of women often fluctuated over time, and was frequently contested, particularly during periods of change such as marked much of early modernity in the Islamicate world as elsewhere. Of a particularly contentious nature was the question of women’s public religious life, a question that for Muslim communities entailed tension between (albeit limited) recognition in Islamic tradition of female religious authority, beginning with hadith-transmitting wives of Muḥammad himself, and prescriptions on women’s authority and public mobility and visibility. The historical reality of female saints and even masters of sufism added extra dimensions to such tensions. In the Islamic West- the Maghrib- from the medieval period forward highly restrictive attitudes towards women’s public participation in religious life existed alongside prominent, and outspokenly public, female saints such as Sayyida ‘Ā’isha al-Mannūbiyya (1199–1267). The anonymous woman who is described in the below text suggests other possibilities, which were accepted by some but strenuously rejected by others, as we will see.

The text below comes from a major eighteenth century bio-hagiographic compilation, Ṣafwat man intashar min akhbār ṣulaḥāʾ al-ḳarn al-ḥādī ʿashar, written by a scholar whose family was originally from the Draa region in the far south of Morocco, Abū ‘Abdallāh Muḥammad al-Ifrānī (also spelled al-Īfrānī and al-Ufrānī). Born in Marrakesh around 1670, al-Ifrānī eventually settled in Fes, where he would live and work as a scholar, sufi, and author, becoming particularly well known for his historical works, dying in either 1743 or 1745. His Ṣafwat man intashar provides important insight into the shape of early modern Maghribi sainthood as well as many other social realities of the period, including in the vast and often autonomous countryside, as seen in a previous selection from this work translated here.

The following selection comes from the life of a scholar and saint, originally from the town of Ksar el-Kebir but who settled permanently in Fes after his course of studies there, Abū Muḥammad Sayyidī ‘Abd al-Qādir (d. 1680). ‘Abd al-Qādir embodied a form of sainthood that had once been common across Islamic societies but by the early modern period was largely a Maghribi phenomenon: that of the ‘exoteric’ scholar whose vigorous personal asceticism, scrupulosity, and careful adherence to the sharī’a were acclaimed as evidence of sainthood. His karāmāt- miracles or charismatic signs- were many, al-Ifrānī tells us, his saintly status no doubt helped by the fact that his son wrote not one but two manāqibs- hagiographic accounts- of his father’s life. Unlike many of his contemporaries, ‘Abd al-Qādir did not produce in books or compilations; instead, his followers compiled his sayings and fatwas into their own compilations. The passage I have translated here comes from such a compilation, and is reminiscent in form of a fatwa although it is not presented as such:

Another fā’ida: [Abū Muḥammad ‘Abd al-Qādir] was asked about a woman who recited the Qur’an for women, and they would gather around her and take her as their shaykha. He answered with the following: ‘He, peace and blessings of God be upon him, said: “A people ordered by a woman will not know success,” as well as “Hinder them as God has hindered them,” and “They are deficient in reason and religion.” It is not permissible that a woman act as an imāma or shaykha, and as for what the women do on the day when they gather together in the woman’s presence and take her as their shaykha, that is not permissible either, and is an aspect of corruption and evil in the earth due to various reasons: among them, that women pilfer from their husbands and take it to her; and that each of the women dresses in finery, beautifies herself, and goes out into the streets, that being ḥarām and not allowed. And perhaps she leaves without her husband’s permission or pleasure in that, it becoming a cause for anger and division, with things that cause such being ḥarām.

Also, she presides over the reading of books and fatwa collections concerning the religion (dīn) of God, but is without knowledge (‘ilm), not having received that from an ‘ālim, there being things in the books which are comprehensible and things which are not [to those not instructed by a scholar], ‘ilm not being received save from the mouths of scholars. Taking it from books and pages is ḥarām, and all which she receives [in terms of material things] from that is illicit and one ought not eat of it, such that her livelihood is pure ḥarām. Continue reading “A Self-Taught Shaykha in Early Modern Fes”

Safavid Devotional Art in Steel, Script, and Scroll

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A Safavid pierced steel plaque, probably late 17th century, featuring a calligraphic rendering of part of a poem in praise of Muḥammad, Fāṭima, and the Twelve Imams, formerly part of a larger set distributed in a shrine or similar structure. Metropolitan Museum of Art 1987.14

Pierced metal plaques such as the one above must surely count among the most spectacular instances of Safavid art to modern eyes, with their stark contrasts, incredible fineness of detail, bold clean lines surrounding delicate ornament, and obvious evidence of extremely skilled craft. Plaques such as this one- see below for another, quite similar example- once formed part of the interior of Safavid shrines, either to one of the Twelve Imāms or to the far more frequent imāmzādehs, the descendents  of the Imāms, who were also more likely to be found in Safavid controlled territory (there were also cases of saints’ shrines of various sorts being ‘converted’ to an imāmzādeh after the rise of the Safavids). Others were found on the tombs of Safavid shahs and in the massive shrine complex of Ṣafī al-Dīn, the Safavid eponym, in Ardabil. In 1550 large number of such plaques were ordered and installed by Shah Tahmāsp I in the shrine of Imām Riḍā in Mashhad, with further production through the rest of the Safavid dynasty.

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The interior of the shrine of an Imām or an imāmzādeh, from a circa 1550 Safavid Fālnāmeh (‘book of divination’). Besides showing the internal architectural layout of a Safavid shrine, it provides a nice view of the activity that might go on there. (David Collection Inv. no. 28/1997)

So far as I know none remain in situ, a consequence of their likely original location- probably upon the grill-like structure surrounding the location of the tomb itself (see the 16th century illustration above for an idea of what such a space would have looked like). Such structures, as well as the built fabric of shrines in general, tend to be subject to great use, wear-and-tear, and continual renovation; as a result these plaques were dispersed and now reside in various museums and collections. Originally, however, they would have been visible to those making pious visitation (ziyāra) to the holy people whose tombs they adorned.

Decorative Plaque Plaque
Another Safavid pierced plaque, here extolling the last of the Twelve Imāms, also from the late 17th century. (Freer & Sackler F1997.21)

In terms of content, these plaques extoll and in some cases supplicate the prayers of the Twelve Imāms, as well as Muḥammad and Fāṭima, acting both to channel the intercessory power of these figures while linking the entombed person to the ‘People of the House.’ While devotion to the Twelve Imāms was not limited to Shi’i Muslims historically- contemporaneous Ottomans who would have regarded themselves as good Sunnis venerated the Twelve Imāms as well- such devotion was especially central to Shi’i Islam and to Safavid religious identity. These plaques signaled, to those who could read them (or have them read to them), that centrality, while also acting as inscribed requests for intercession, connecting the People of the House and their baraka to whatever shrine their names were place within. The sheer skill, time, and resources that were involved in producing such works were in themselves acts of devotion (along with the patronage of such work).

CBL Is 1623
Above and below: sections from a Safavid Qur’an scroll written in ghubār (‘dust’) script with extensive illumination (Chester Beatty Library Is 1623)

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Continue reading “Safavid Devotional Art in Steel, Script, and Scroll”

Dalā’il al-Khayrāt Coming Out on Top

MUHAMMAD BIN SULAYMAN AL-JAZULI (D.1465 AD)- DALA'IL AL-KHAYRAT NORTH AFRICA, PROBABLY MOROCCO, 17TH CENTURY
A 17th century copy of the Dalā’il from somewhere in the Maghrib (priv. coll., sale information here), executed in Maghribi script but in the rectangular format more typical of the eastern Islamicate world. Note the use of multicolored inks to write Muḥammad’s name, as well as the presence of marginal notations.

As discussed previously in these pages, one of the single most popular Islamic texts of any sort in the early modern world was the book of taṣliya- prayers and blessings upon Muḥammad- titled Dalā’il al-khayrāt, composed by Muhammad Sulaymān al-Jazūlī (d. 1465) of Fes and soon dissimulated east and south across Afro-Eurasia. The history of the text’s reception and transformation is long and complicated in no small part because it was such a ‘bestseller,’ taking on different profiles of production and use in different places. But like any book that becomes popular or even canonical, it’s success was not automatic, but involved ‘boosting’ on the part of various persons and groups, particularly in light of the fact that Dalā’il al-khayrāt was far from the only such book of devotion to Muḥammad on the market. There were older, already established texts such as the devotional poem Qaṣidat al-burda by al-Būsīrī (d. 1294), as well as more recent texts composed in response to the upsurge in devotion to Muḥammad that marked the late medieval into early modern period.

One of these was a text known as Tanbīh al-anām wa-shifāʼ al-asqām fī bayān ‘ulūw maqām nabīyinā Muḥammad ʻalayhi al-salām, also a book of invocations and blessings upon Muḥammad, written by a member of a prominent family of scholars from what is now Tunisia, ʻAbd al-Jalīl al-Qayrawānī (d. 1553). While similar in content and manuscript execution- see the examples below for instance- to the Dalā’il, it would prove far less successful (I was unfamiliar with it until coming across the story translated here!). The sense of competition is relayed in the following story, which comes from Muḥammad al-Mahdī ibn Aḥmad al-Fāsī hagiographical account of the author of the Dalā’il, Mumtiʻ al-asmāʻ fī al-Jazūlī, written in the early seventeenth century. Al-Fāsī’s text can be seen both as part of the process of the Dalā’il’s ascent into ubiquity, and as a reflection of its already existing popularity. Besides establishing the sanctity of the Dalā’il‘s compiler, al-Fāsī’s account also underlines the potency of the text itself, as in the following story, one which suggests the Dalā’il’s superiority in rather literal terms!

A section (juz') of a Koran, sura 3:92-170 Manuscript

It is related that someone from among the people had copies of Dalā’il al-khayrāt and of Tanbīh al-anām, and when he put them down he would place Dalā’il al-khayrāt on the bottom and Tanbīh al-anām on top of it. Then, when he went out and came back to his place he would find Dalā’il al-khayrāt on top of Tanbīh al-anām. This happened more than once, and no one else had come into his place other than him.

Also someone whom I trust related to me the story one from among the students told him along the same lines, it having happened to him as well—it’s possible the two stories have to do with the same person, or with two separate persons, this occurrence being multiple. I heard our master and intermediary with our Lord, Shakh Sīdī Abū ʿAbdallāh ibn Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad ibn ʿAbdallāh ibn Maʿn al-Andalusī, God be pleased with him and with us through him, say words to the effect that Dalā’il al-khayrāt suffuses light (al-nūr), Tanbīh al-anām knowledge (al-‘ilm). [1]

I found in the handwriting of Shaykh Abū ʿAbdallāh al-ʿArabī, God be merciful to him, upon the surface of a copy of Dalā’il al-khayrāt the following text: ‘One of the Qur’an-memorizing fuqahā’ mentioned to me that among the things he had tried for the meeting of needs and the alleviation of distress was reciting Dalā’il al-khayrāt forty times, the reciter striving to complete this number of recitations before the passage of forty days. The need was fulfilled through the baraka of blessing (al-ṣalāt) upon the Prophet, peace and blessing be upon him!’ [2]

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From the same privately held manuscript as the above, facing pages depicting the Prophet’s minbar (left) and his tomb (right), the tomb depiction having received a great deal of pious rubbing to ‘activate’ its baraka. For more on this visual schemata, see this post.

Continue reading “Dalā’il al-Khayrāt Coming Out on Top”

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”

Shared Ottoman Worlds of Imagination

The Prophets Ya'qub (Jacob) and Yusuf (Joseph) seated together, from The Cream of Histories (Zubdat al-tawarikh) by Sayyid Luqman-i 'Ashuri
The Prophets Ya’qub and Yusuf seated together, from the 1585-1590 ‘Cream of Histories’ (Zubdat al-tawârîḫ) by Lokmân-i ‘Âshûrî (d. 1601), (Chester Beatty Library T 414)

The two images in this post come from almost contemporary Ottoman manuscripts, one (above), a major work of history in Ottoman Turkish, the Zubdat al-tawârîḫ of Sayyid Lokmân produced in Istanbul, the other (below) a sort of abridged Bible (though it might be better thought of as an exegetical textual and visual condensation and rearrangement of the Bible) in Armenian, produced in Amida (modern-day Diyarbakır). The Zubdat was completed in 1590, while the Bible chart- and chart is probably the aptest term here- in 1601. There is much that could be said about these texts, and the Zubdat has been studied both for its art historical value as well as in reference to recent scholarly literature on Ottoman historiography and memory construction. The Armenian text (though neither work is fully described by ‘text’ in any meaningful sense) may have been studied in some context but I myself am not aware of any such work.

What struck me in looking at these two manuscripts side-by-side, as it were, is the similarity in the visual structuring of the information on the page. Both manuscripts employ a similar cartographic, architectural style, even if the details and other artistic traditions at work obviously vary. In the one history in a universal (but still very much ‘sacred’) key is displayed and ‘mapped,’ in the other history as a part of the Biblical narrative. Images of important figures are framed- literally- by architectural details, while names and terms are mapped out along the page in hierarchical, linked order, the little textual roundels like points on a map.

No doubt there is much that could be made of the similarities in these works, similarities which suggest shared ways of organizing and visualizing information, the relationship of text and space, as well as understandings of the nature of scripture and history. Determining why these similarities exist would require examining just such shared contexts as well as other historical, and perhaps Ottoman-specific, developments and historical rhythms. These two works placed in dialogue are also a good demonstration of the limitations of ‘influence’ as a category of analysis: completed within ten years of one another, one in the world of the Topkapı at the imperial, the other in an Armenian scriptorium at the eastern edge of the empire, the came into being all but simultaneously, and point to contexts and historical currents operative across the empire and through multiple social and cultural channels, not confined to particular locations or to one religious and linguistic tradition only.

Abridged Bible Amida
Page from an Armenian ‘abridged Bible’ produced in Amida in 1601 by Aslan and Hovannes (Chester Beatty Library Arm 551)

Teacher, Student, Text, and the Control of Knowledge in Early Modern Damascus

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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.

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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”