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.

 

 

 

 

A Tale of Two Holy Wells in Early Modern Constantinople

The Living Fountain, 17th century
Fig. 1: A seventeenth century icon of the Zoödochos Pege, probably produced in Constantinople (Wellcome Library no. 44943i)

Just outside the Theodosian Walls of Istanbul is a spring which is today accessible from beneath a church of nineteenth century vintage, reached by a flight of marble stairs down into the living stone, a spring known as Zoödochos Pege (the ‘Life Giving Spring’) in Greek, Balıklı Ayazması (the ‘Fish Spring’) in Turkish, both names alluding to important features of this site of pilgrimage. One of numerous ayazmas, or holy wells, that appeared in and around Byzantine Constantinople and many of which have survived as places of veneration in modern Istanbul, the Zoödochos Pege is one of the most storied and most visited, from late antiquity to the present (it’s one of the handful of ayazmas I’ve visited, in fact). Long associated with the presence and activity of the Theotokos- as can be immediately surmised from the icon above- the spring’s veneration probably began during the reign of Justinian (527-565), though it might have begun even earlier, a vast trove of miracle accounts associated with the healing powers of the spring, blessed by the Theotokos, accumulating over the centuries. By Ottoman times, which are my concern here, the church above the spring had fallen into ruin, perhaps even before Mehmed II’s conquest of the city. Until the 1720s pilgrims visited a holy well that was, at least in part, out in the open, much as the icons I’ve selected here indicate (though they suggest a location on the surface of the ground, not essentially underground as was almost certainly true then and is definitely the case now.

The early modern Ottoman period seems to have seen a surge in interest in and veneration of this holy well, if we are to go by the numerous iconographic depictions that began to appear in the seventeenth, quite a few of which made their way into the Wellcome Collection (by a route unknown to me), from which I have drawn the two examples featured here. The above icon (fig. 1) lays out several repeating elements in these depictions, depictions which probably brought together a range of traditions and stories circulating among devotees: gathered around the stone basin of the holy well are representatives of miracle accounts, some whose stories we can easily put together- a man rising from his bed, a mother holding a healed child- others less evident to us now. The potency of the holy water of the well underlines each vignette, however, with the enthroned Theotokos and Christ rising above the waters, radiating holiness down into the well. The famed fish are also visible, themselves a part of the sacredness of the well, as the Turkish name indicates. This icon also features a row of ‘supporting figures’: St. John the Forerunner, Sts. Helena and Constantine at the Invention of the Cross, and a third saint, perhaps St. Mamas, an extremely popular saint during the Ottoman period. The icon is in rather rough shape, having been scratched or scraped at various points- not as iconoclastic damage (which would have targeted faces), but in order to use the scraped material for blessing, a way to participate in the holy power of the spring at a remove, as it were. The second icon I’ve included (fig. 2), at the end of this article, probably dates from the eighteenth century, and reproduces much of the same visual material as that above, but with the addition within the image of a stream of text coming from the Christ Child to a soldier, along with a gilded frame without. What drove this evident resurgence of interest in and devotion to the Zoödochos Pege? I am not sure, though, as I will hopefully soon discuss in a later post, early modern Ottoman Christians and Muslims alike expressed renewed devotions, often expressed visually, to their various holy places, from the seventeenth century forward. And indeed, it is possible, as the story of the second holy well might indicate, that it was not only only Orthodox Christians visiting this ayazma, but Muslims as well, which might help us understand the resurgence in interest of this particular ayazma, as a competitive process.

Less than a mile north of the Zoödochos Pege is the zaviye complex of a prominent Muslim saint of 16th century Constantinople, Merkez Efendi (d. 959/1552). While it does not seem to be very prominent today, this site also features a holy well, along with several other sites of veneration, at least in the early modern period, as described by Hafız Hüseyin Ayvansarayî in his late eighteenth century guide to the mosques and other religious structures in and around Istanbul: ‘There is an exalted ayazma in the vicinity of Şeyh Merkez Efendi’s tomb. One descends to it by steps. The abovementioned [Merkez Efendi’s] subterranean halvethane, which is like a cave, is still extant, and it is a place of pilgrimage for the Faithful [1]. The hamam located next to [Merkez Efendi’s zaviye] is one of its vakfs. The aforesaid [Merkez Efendi] had a private room in the hamam for bathing. At present the sick and invalid bathe [there] with purity of purpose and are restored to health.’ [2]

Continue reading “A Tale of Two Holy Wells in Early Modern Constantinople”

A Dangerous Vision, a Sufi Martyr, and Ghengiz Khan

This folio from Walters manuscript W.650 depicts the hanging of Mansur al-Hallaj. s
A depiction, from an early 17th century Mughal edition of Dihlavi’s Diwan, of the martyrdom of al-Ḥallāj, perhaps the best-known, if long contested and ambiguous in meaning, martyr in the history of sufism. Walters W.650.22B

The relational nexus between Muslim saint and Muslim ruler in medieval and early modern times was almost always a fraught one. Both saint and ruler laid claim to divinely invested authority, claims that could coexist, cooperate, and clash. A given saint might support a ruler, undermine him, or simply ignore him, while rulers moved between strategies of co-opting saints, seeking them out for their baraka and the social power that being connected to a saint might bring, endowing zawiyas, khaniqahs, and the like, even as some saintly shaykhs made a prominent point of rejecting both contact with and reception of wealth from rulers. Occasionally a Muslim claimant to sainthood ran seriously afoul of a ruler, resulting in exile, imprisonment, or even martyrdom.

I encountered the story- from the early thirteenth century Khawarezm domains- I’ve translated and presented below first in an Ottoman context, in the Ta’rîh (History) of Ibrâhîm Peçevî (d. c. 1650), an Ottoman official and author, who described the martyrdom of the Kurdish Şeyh Mahmûd of Diyarbakır, executed by Sultan Murad IV, probably because the sultan feared the saint, who had a vast following across the Kurdish lands, posed a political threat. Peçevî, who had been posted in Diyarbakır as a defterdâr, had been an intimate of the saint and was deeply sorrowed to learn of his martyrdom. Upon learning that Şeyh Mahmûd had died, he was reminded, he writes, of the story I’ve translated here. It comes from the massive Persian hagiographic compilation, Nafaḥāt al-uns, by the poet, sufi, and author Nūr al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Raḥmān Jāmī (d. 1492). There are indeed striking parallels, as well as differences: Majd al-Dīn, while clearly of saintly status, is seen here oversteping his limits in his relationship with the powerful and axial saint Najm al-Dīn al-Kubrā (d. 1221) in relating his vision, a vision that implies exalted spiritual status. The remainder of the story is largely self-explanatory, though I’ve included some notes for clarification here and there. Given both the odd details, the hints of court intrigue, and the spectacular ending- the Mongols totally devastated the Khawarezm lands- it would be a popular item in Jāmī’s hagiography. Peçevî reproduced, in Ottoman Turkish form, a condensed version of the story (and thereby implicitly criticized the by-then deceased Murad IV and warned future sultans) in his chronicle, while it was circulated in Ottoman Turkish in other contexts as well. The lessons are clear enough: rulers ought to observe proper care and respect around the saints, as the consequences of not doing so can be truly enormous!

Ilkhanid Star Tile With Horse
Ilkhanid star-tile with poetry attributed to Majd al-Dīn around the border, made in 1310 (BMFA 31.729)

One day Shaykh Majd al-Dīn [Baghdādī] was sitting with a group of dervishes when a state of spiritual intoxication came over him. He said: ‘I was a duck’s egg upon the shore of the sea, and Shaykh Najm al-Dīn [Kubrā] was a bird with his wings of spiritual instruction spread out above my head until I came forth from the egg and I was like the young of the duck, then went into the sea, while the shaykh remained on the shore.’

Shaykh Najm al-Dīn knew [what Majd al-Dīn said] by the light of divinely instilled power, and the words ‘He will go into the ocean!’ passed upon his tongue [1]. When Shaykh Majd al-Dīn heard that he was fearful, and he came before Shaykh Sa’d al-Dīn Ḥamawī and with great humility asked, ‘When the time is right with the shaykh, will you give him report of me such that I may enter his presence and request forgiveness?’

Continue reading “A Dangerous Vision, a Sufi Martyr, and Ghengiz Khan”

Saints and the Crossing of Confessional Boundaries in the Ottoman and Safavid Worlds: Part ii.

Armenian MS 11, folio 2 recto
Frontspiece to a Gospel Book, Wellcome Collection MS Armenian 11, early 18th century

The modern history of relations between Muslims and the Armenian Orthodox of Anatolia, Azarbaijan, and other parts of the former Ottoman Empire has not been happy one for the most part, and in both popular memory and in historical scholarship pogroms, dislocation, erasure, and genocide have been foremost concerns, and for good reason given the ongoing discourses and actions of denial and erasure in the region. However, that focus has often resulted in lack of attention to the complexities of relationships between Armenians and their Muslim neighbors, relationships that historically were marked by more than just antagonism (though conflict did exist). The following story, which reflects a different iteration of the ‘shared economy of holiness’ that we explored in an earlier post, comes from Aṛak’el of Tabriz’s magisterial volume of history that deals with Armenians in the Safavid Empire and beyond during the 17th century, and which includes within it several sustained hagiographic accounts of contemporary- to Aṛak’el- Armenian saints, saints who sought to ‘reform’ and restructure Armenian Orthodoxy through preaching, educating and disciplining clergy and monastics, and building or renovating local church infrastructure. While, according to Aṛak’el’s accounts, these saintly vardapets (a vardapet is a type of monastic preacher and scholar in the Armenian Church) practiced intense personal holiness and strove for the good of the Armenian people and faith, they ran up against entrenched powers in the hierarchy, and as a result sometimes ran afoul of Safavid officials. Interestingly, however, many of the stories of conflict that Aṛak’el tells involve Armenian Christian instigators who go before Muslim Safavid officials and level charges against the saintly protagonists.

Such is the milieu in which this story takes place. Vardapet Poghōs, one of the key saints in Aṛak’el’s history, had incurred the wrath of a range of prominent church officials in his efforts to revive parish life in the far northwestern corner of the Safavid realm. The encounter described in the following account occurs while Poghōs and his disciples are on their way to visit Shah Abbās II in order to clear their name. The encounter between the Armenian saint and the pious Muslim householder that takes place in the midst of this journey is a good symbol of the ways in which holy men and women might be recognized across confessional boundaries, even as prominent people within their own community did not recognize their holiness, for various reasons. Şeyh Hasan Efendi, the subject of part one of this installment, was in a similar state, as he was opposed by Ottoman Muslims of a ‘puritanical’ bent, even as he was evidently recognized as holy by at least some of his Christian neighbors. At the everyday level, it seems, early modern people in the Islamicate world, of which Armenians were an integral part, sought to recognize the friends of God in whatever form or place they might be found, since such holy men and women might provide a crucial source of safety and aid in an often hostile and uncertain world. Holy men and women themselves- including those such as both Vardapet Poghōs and Şeyh Hasan who were clearly deeply committed to the creedal precepts and claims of their respective faiths- were more often than not in this period accepting of such ‘ecumenical’ encounters.

armenian-5.jpg

When they reached the gawaṛ called Araghbar at dusk, they entered a Muslim village to spend the night there. It so happened that they encountered a man, a Muslim, who came out to greet them. He implored them, saying, “I beg you, for God’s sake, do not abhor that I am a Muslim, but pay heed to my request and enter my house so that I may show you my hospitality. For I have made a vow to God not to eat anything today without a guest. I have been standing here in the middle of the village seeking a guest. God has sent you! I therefore, ask you to enter my house.” The blessed vardapet [Poghōs] answered the man happily and said, “Let it be as you wish. We shall go to your house.” They spent the night at that man’s house and he received them very well. He gave them everything they required for their rest. In the morning, before they prepared to leave, the Muslim man came and implored them, saying, “I have no son, and no one will remember me on this earth. I beg you to pray for me, so that I shall have a son, for my wife is barren.”

The saintly vardapet lifted his habitually outstretched hands to the sky and prayed adamantly to the Lord to give the man a son. The benevolent Lord, who had promised to give His followers whatever they requested in faith, granted the man a son because of the saintly vardapet’s prayers. The same man later informed us of this. For, after some time, the Muslim man came, thanked the vardapet during the Divine Liturgy, bowed down, thanked him, praised him, and said, “Because of your prayers, God has granted me a son. I now beg you to pray that God grant him a long life.” The saintly vardapet prayed for him again, comforted him for some time and then let him go.

Aṛakʻel of Tabriz, The history of Vardapet Aṛakʻel of Tabriz ( Patmutʻiwn Aṛakʻel Vardapeti Dawrizhetsʻwoy)  Translated by George A Bournoutian. (Costa Mesa, Calif.: Mazda Publishers, 2005), 202-203.

 

Saints and the Crossing of Confessional Boundaries in the Ottoman and Safavid Worlds: Part i.

Ottoman Armenian
An Ottoman Armenian Christian resident of Istanbul, probably relatively well off enough to warrant his inclusion in a c. 1657‒58 costume collection book (The Rålamb book of costume, Rål. 8:o nr 10)

The two accounts that I’ve selected for this and an upcoming installment come from two milieus that at first glance might seem very different but upon a closer look reveal some striking similarities, similarities that reflect shared ways of seeing the world and ways of relating to people of different religious and confessional traditions, even in an early modern world marked by frequent conflicts and debates over confessional boundaries. The first story comes from an Ottoman Turkish source we’ve explored here previously, the menâkıb (saint’s life) of Hasan Ünsî, an eighteenth century Muslim saint of Istanbul, while the second installment, originally composed in grabar (‘classical’) Armenian, will be an excerpt from the life of Vardapet Poghōs, a seventeenth century Armenian Orthodox saint whose career took place in the northwest corner of the Safavid domains, in what is now Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Iran.

Here is the account from Hasan Ünsî’s menâkıb, with my commentary following:

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‘Near the door of the exalted tekke there lived a Christian doctor, named Mikel, who was skillful and wise in the knowledge of medicine. It was his custom that if a sick person came to him and his treatment was not effective or treatment was not even possible, he would say to the patient, “The cure for this illness is inside this tekke, so go to the tekke, and find the Şeyh therein. His name is Hasan Efendi—go to him, he can treat this illness. Its cure will come from the Şeyh, so that you’ll have no need of other than him.” So saying he would send the sick person to the venerable Şeyh. This Mikel was consistent in this practice.

‘One day this poor one [Ibrahim Hâs] had gathered along with the other dervishes before the candle-like beauty of the venerable Şeyh, deriving abundant benefit from the sight of the saint. We saw that two people had come within the door. One had nothing upon his head but a wrapped around piece of cloth. He came up to the venerable Şeyh, kissed his blessed hand, and sat down. The venerable Şeyh said to him, “Have you come from afar?” He replied, “We are from afar.” The man whose head was wrapped in a piece of cloth came before the Şeyh, lifted the piece of cloth from his head and showed his head to the venerable Şeyh. As he turned we all saw that his head was entirely in boils (çıbanlar). Each one was jagged like the shell of a hazelnut and very red, without numerous individuals boils—they were about thirty in number, but each boil was very bad—we take refuge in God! This person said, “My Sultan, thus with this sickness I have been tried. I cannot put anything on my head. I have sought someone to treat it in both Istanbul and Galata, but no physician understands this sickness, and they give no answer. Despite expending many akças I have neither cure nor respite. The physicians of this city are incapable of treating me! Finally, near this tekke’s door there is a physician to whom I came and showed the boils on my head, and he said to me that ‘We have no means of treating this illness. But the doctor for this illness is the şeyh of this tekke, who is named Hasan Efendi. The cure for this is there.’ Saying this he sent me to your side. Will you give me an electuary, or give me a pill? Or perhaps you will give me some other treatment—whatever you say, let it be upon my head! I remain without a cure!”

The venerable Şeyh smiled and said, “Mikel has given you a good report; but you did not quite understand if you seek from us an electuary or pill.” Having said this, he said to the man, “Come before me!” He came before him and uncovered his head. The venerable Şeyh said to him, “Bend your head towards me!” He bent his head, and the venerable Şeyh spit into his hands and placed them on the boils of the man’s head, and then for one time gently hit them. He then said, “This is our pill, electuary, and şerbet! Go now, and henceforward you will be well, whether you believe or don’t believe.’ The venerable Şeyh said no invocation, read no prayers, nor said the Fatiha over him. Then the man kissed the venerable Şeyh’s blessed hand and left. Two days later that person came to the venerable Şeyh and we saw that the boils had gone, he was well, and was wearing a quilted turban (kavuk). He had brought many gifts and much praise. Afterwards he came face-to-face with the venerable Şeyh with his gift, but the Şeyh strongly enjoined him not to tell anyone, but [the story] was circulated among the poor ones [the dervishes].

İbrahim Hâs, Hasan Ünsî Halvetî ve Menâkıbnâmesi, edited by Mustafâ Tatcı (Bağcılar, İstanbul: Kırkambar Kitaplığı, 2013, 2013), 314-317. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.

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What might we make of this story? It gets at, I think, an important feature of religious life in not just the Ottoman world but much of the rest of early modern Eurasia: the potential power of sanctity, as invested in a holy person, place, or object, had a decided ecumenical quality. There is no sense here that either Mikel of Hasan Ünsî were rejecting their confessional affiliations, or even questioning the validity of their respective faiths. But we do get the sense of a shared economy of sanctity among them, and among the unfortunate patient and the various onlookers. The story does not end, note, in anyone’s conversion (unlike any number of medieval Islamic saints’ lives), and Şeyh Hasan is explicitly described as not using overtly Islamic methods in treating the man (whom we are given to understand, I think, to be non-Muslim himself, though this is not made explicit). Mikel the Christian doctor does not become Muslim, either, and we get the sense that Şeyh Hasan quite appreciates the referrals he receives from him. The saint’s power has an open quality, at least towards ‘ordinary’ people- elsewhere the saint is shown restricting access to himself when he is sought out by more powerful and wealthier people with ties to the Ottoman ruling elite. Continue reading “Saints and the Crossing of Confessional Boundaries in the Ottoman and Safavid Worlds: Part i.”

Şemseddîn Sivâsî Saves the Exiled Dogs

Dogs in the Market
Mevlana Rumi addresses dogs in the marketplace, from a c. 1590 copy of the Ottoman Turkish translation of Aflākī’s menāqib of Rumi (Morgan Library MS M.466, fol. 66v)

The following story hails from a massive hagiographic compilation in Ottoman Turkish, Hediyyetü’l-ihvân, written by one Mehmed Nazmî Efendi (d. 1669) and dealing with the lives of a series of saints leading up to his own şeyh (Ar. shaykh) in the seventeenth century. This story comes from the life of Şemseddîn Ahmed Sivâsî (1519-1597), who was born in the little town of Zile in Anatolia and eventually settled in Sivas, becoming in time quite well known, to the point of Sultan Süleyman the Great inviting him to go on campaign with him to Hungary. The charming tale that I have translated here points to his fame among the towns and villages of this part of Anatolia. It also reminds us of the complicated relationship between people and dogs that has historically been the case in Islamic lands: we see both an outbreak of ‘anti-dog’ measures in the person of the (unnamed and castigated) kadi, the studied ambiguity of a hadith, and the robust support of the saint, simultaneously. That a saint would intervene on behalf of unjustly treated dogs is not particularly surprising- accounts of Mevlana Rumi’s interactions, and those of his followers, with dogs circulated in the Ottoman world, as witnessed by the above illustration, contemporary in fact to this story.

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From among his miracles was the following: the people of Karahisâr-ı Şarkî [modern Şebinkarahisar] sent messengers to Şems asking him that he honor them with his preaching, counsel, [performance of] zikr [1], and his blessed noble beauty. In answer to their supplication he came, and was honored immensely, being given a fine place to stay as well as much feasting and amiable conversation. For some time he preached, gave counsel, and led zikr, then announced that he was returning to Sîvâs. When the scholars, şeyhs, merchants, notables, and ordinary people of the town all came together to give him a farewell with honor and respect, numerous dogs also came before the saint, and, as if presenting complaints, began barking! When Şems asked why they were barking so, the people replied, “Because there has been plague and pestilence in our town, the kadi [2] of our town ordered the killing or banishing of the dogs, so that we killed some and we banished some. These are dogs that we banished.”

The saint cried out, “Your kadi was heedless of the hadith which says, If dogs were not a community (umma) from among the communities, then I would order them killed.” [3] Saying that, he addressed the dogs: “Go safely and soundly back to dwell and to be at rest in your former places!” As the townspeople returned from bidding the saint farewell, they saw these words fulfilled as the dogs, understanding the command, followed after the people back into town to their usual places—and having done so, by the command of God, the plague was lifted on that very day!

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[1] That is, the practice of ‘remembrance (Ar. dhikr) of God’ in a ritualized manner.

[2] The kadi- literally, ‘judge,’ from Ar. qāḍī- was not just an arbitrator of legal cases but, in the Ottoman context, a multi-task administrator.

[3] The meaning of this hadith, attributed to Muhammad, seems to be that dogs have a special status as an umma, which normally means a religious community (such as the umma of all Muslims); this special status outweighs any negative aspects dogs may have.

Şeyh Mehmet Nazmi, Osmanlılarda tasavvufî hayat: Halvetîlik örneği : Hediyyetü’l-ihvân, edited by Osman Türer (İstanbul: İnsan Yayınları, 2005), 359-360. Translation by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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