Shāh Ni’matullāh Valī in the Very Snowy Mountains of Samarqand

VISIT TO A DERVISH SIGNED MAHMUD MUZAHHIB, BUKHARA, DATED AH 968 1560-61 AD
A group of elites visit two dervishes in a cave, albeit in more hospitable autumn weather than described in the hagiographic excerpt below. Otherwise the motif of members of the ruling elite- whether of Turkic, Persian, or other background- seeking out ascetic sufi saints in the mountains is shared between this image and the story below. From a 1560/1 illumined copy of Sa’dī’s Gulistān, by the painter Maḥmūd Muzahhib, who worked primarily in Bukhara, and hence may well have had stories of Shāh Ni’matullāh Valī’s exploits in the mountains of Samarqand in mind in composing this miniature (private collection, sold by Christies, Sale 6622, Lot 12, London, October 4, 2012).

The late fourteenth into fifteenth centuries across much of the Islamicate world were a period of both great turmoil and of great religious experimentation and vitality, particularly in the areas of sainthood and sufism. Out of the many sufi shaykhs and saints to flourish in the expansive Persianate world stretching from the western edge of the great central mass of Eurasian highlands east to Anatolia, few would obtain as long-lasting or widespread success as Shāh Ni’matullāh Valī Kirmānī (c. 1330-1430/1). Unlike many saints of originally Sunni background, Shāh Ni’matullāh Valī’s veneration as a saint and the sufi ṭarīqa descended from him, the Ni’mat-Allāhiyya, would both survive the rise of the Safavids and the transformation of the core Persian lands from a largely Sunni domain to a Twelver Shi’i one. His shrine in Māhān, begun in 1436, would be patronized by Safavid rulers and continues to be venerated to this day.

Among the practices and charismatic marvels for which he was remembered were his rigorous feats of asceticism and what we might describe as his closeness to the natural landscape, including as a farmer, cultivation of the soil by himself and his followers one of his distinctive practices. In the set of stories I have translated below, taken from an early 16th century Persian hagiography of the saint, his asceticism as well as his fondness for wild places are emphasized, though neither preclude his having an audience, fortunately for his memory among posterity. The stories are relatively self-explanatory, though it’s worth noting that the practice of pious retreat or seclusion (Ar. khalwa) was not unique to Shāh Ni’matullāh Valī but featured in many sufi regimes of the period- though usually not in snowbound mountains.

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For his forty-day retreat and for his great chilla which lasted a hundred and twenty days, Haẓrat [Shāh Ni’matullāh Valī] would go in the wintertime to Mount Mulkdār, which they say is at any season inaccessible due to its height and the abundance of snow. When it was time to break his fast he would taste some snow, not eating or drinking anything else! This was transmitted from the saint by Sayyid ‘Alā’ al-Dīn Mahdī, whose probity and nobility of purpose is well known.

Niẓām al-Dīn Maḥmūd al-Wā’iẓ al-Dā’ī has transmitted: ‘I heard him say: “One time during the days of autumn while I was occupying myself with worship and pious retreat (khalwat) in a cave in one of the great mountains around Samarqand, a great snow fell and blocked the entrance to the cave.” And that holy one remained there until winter had passed and even part of spring! Once a group of hunters pursuing prey came up onto that mountain, and as nightfall was approaching and the sky was promising rain, the dug away the snow from the mouth of the cave and went in. Striking up a fire that saw that the holy one was sitting upon his prayer-rug facing the qibla, utterly apart from all other than God. They were bewildered, but after supplication he explained the reality of his state. One of their number, by consulting the holy one and occupying himself with his sagely counsel, became deeply God-fearing as a result. After taking sustenance they departed.’

And there is that which this poor one has seen in the writing of his own teachers: ‘This holy one and Khwāja Wāq were practicing austere ascetic disciplines in the vicinity of Samarqand. I heard that they were occupied with ascetic disciplines in the Cave of the Lovers (Ghār-i ʻāshiqān) in Kūh-i Ṣāf, one of the mountains of Samarkand. I do not know whether this holy one bestowed these names upon the cave and the mountain or whether they predated him. Regardless, some from among the Turkish chiefs and their followers who were nearby sent a notice [to Shāh Ni’matullāh Valī and Khwāja Wāq] saying, “Winter will be extremely cold and no one can survive in this cave!” But the holy one did not pay any heed to their words, and instead completed a forty-days retreat with minimal food. When the weather turned a little the chiefs of the Turks came so that they might ascertain the condition of [Shāh Ni’matullāh Valī and Khwāja Wāq], certain that they had perished. But when they had cleared the snow away from the entrance of the cave and entered in, they found the holy one sitting upon his prayer-rug, facing the qibla!’

‘Abd al-Rizzāq Kirmānī, Tazkira dar manāqib-i Ḥazret-i Shāh Ni’matullāh Valī, in Jean Aubin (ed.), Matériaux pour la biographie de Shâh Ni’matullah Walí Kermânî: Textes persans publiés avec une introduction (Teheran: Département d’iranologie de l’Institut francoiranien, 1956), 40-41.

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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

1987.14
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”

A Cultural Entrepreneur in Late Eighteenth Century Cairo

Wakala Oda Basha
The Wakālat Oda Başa, built in 1673 by an Ottoman Chief White Eunuch and now, so far as I can determine, no longer extant, but depicted here as it existed in the 1830s, displaying the spatial configuration and use of an Ottoman wakāla (also voweled wikāla) akin to that in the biographical entry below, with vendors active on the ground floor, storage directly above. (Pascal Coste, Architecture arabe; ou, Monuments du Kaire, mesurés et dessinés, de 1818 à 1826, Typ. de Firmin Didot frères et compagnie, 1839: Volume II plate XLIV.)

The following short biography is taken from the famed chronicle- which is also a biographical dictionary- of the Ottoman Egyptian scholar al-Jabartī (1753-1825), best-known for his accounts of the French invasion and occupation of Egypt under Napoleon. His chronicle contains numerous fascinating slices of every-day life in the late eighteenth century, such as this entry concerning a person of middling estate (which he made up for, as we will see, in other types of ‘capital’):

Ismā’īl Efendī ibn Khalīl… known as al-Ẓuhūrī al-Miṣrī al-Ḥanafī al-Muktib died. He was a good person, satisfied with his lot in life, who earned his living through book-copying and fineness of calligraphy which he had improved in and reached perfection under the tutelage of ‘Alī Aḥmad Efendī al-Shukrī. He wrote with his fine handwriting numerous books (kutub), copies of al-Saba’a al-munjiyyāt [seven selected Qu’ran suras with reputed prophylactic power], Dalā’il al-khayrāt, and full copies of the Qur’an. He also had a storehouse wherein he sold coffee beans, located in the caravanersai of greens (wikālat al-baql) close to the Khalīlī Khan. He was also very knowledgeable in the science of music, melody, the playing of the ‘ūd, and the composition of poetry, having composed madā’iḥ, qaṣā’id, and muwashshaḥāt.[1] He died, God be merciful to him, in 1211/1796.[2]

The picture that emerges from this brief life is of a man who deliberately cultivated a wide range of skills and forms of cultural expertise, while also participating in the flourishing marketplace of goods and commodities. His enterprises were such that they could overlap: selling coffee beans at the scale suggested here would have only occupied so much time, Ismā’īl otherwise working at what al-Jabartī presents as his primary trade, that of a copyist. Despite sporadic in-roads of moveable print in the eighteenth century Ottoman world, manuscript production remained dominant, with men like Ismā’īl turning out often prodigious numbers of texts for an expanded market compared to earlier periods. His specified repertoire consists of works that households with few other texts might very well have owned, either for reading and recitation or simply for their role as potent conveyors of baraka (and, secondarily perhaps, markers of cultural prestige). It is striking that, like several other copyists profiled by al-Jabartī, the Dalā’il al-khayrāt is given as part of Ismā’īl’s calling card, a text of such popularity that it could form a stable item all of its own regardless of individual customer commissions. Continue reading “A Cultural Entrepreneur in Late Eighteenth Century Cairo”

The Heat of the Divine Lights: The Story of a Rural Maghribi Majdhūb

17th century Moroccan Tile V&A 1718-1892
Scripts of sainthood weren’t the only things shared between the early modern world of the Islamic West and that of the Ottomans, of course. As discussed previously here, art motifs moved back and forth between the two regions, with Maghribi adaptations of Ottoman elements taking on distinctive local styles, such as this 17th century tile which incorporates distinctively Ottoman floral elements but in a quite different context. (V&A 1718-1892)

The following extensive hagiographic entry comes from an important eighteenth century compilation of saints’ lives from Morocco, the Ṣafwat man intashar min akhbār ṣulaḥāʾof the scholar, historian, sufi, and man of letters Abū ʿAbdallāh Muḥammad al-Ṣaghīr al-Ifrānī (c. 1669-1743 or 45), who was originally from the Draa region of southern Morocco, but who lived and traveled in Fes, Marrakesh, and various countryside zāwiyas. He forged ties with many saints of his native land, collecting accounts of holy figures from both his own lifetime and the generation before.

The saint featured here, Shaykh Abū al-Qāsim, lived in the Middle Atlas region south of Fes, then as now predominantly rural, many traces of which are visible in the life al-Ifrānī renders. Islamic Sainthood in Morocco, in medieval and early modern times, has often been centered in rural areas as much as urban ones, with a constant interplay between the two (al-Ifrānī probably learned the accounts of Abū al-Qāsim through one of the latter’s disciples, Sīdī Aḥmad al-Madāsī, a sometime resident in Fes whom al-Ifrānī would much later take as a spiritual master). While in the anthropological and sociological studies of ‘maraboutism’ that long dominated the study of Islam in Morocco, these saints and their devotees are often taken as examples of the exceptional, ‘syncretic’ nature of Moroccan Islam, we can in fact see connections with the wider Islamic world in these saints’ lives as well as the traces of long-standing debates and discussions within sufism and fiqh over the nature of sainthood, sufi practices, what constitutes a proper shaykh, and the nature of the knowledge of God. In this particular life, Abū al-Qāsim is described as a majdhūb, a divinely attracted saint, a type of saint that became increasingly prominent in both the Maghrib and the Ottoman world during this period, even if the mechanisms for those parallels are for now hard to determine. The reality of interconnections between ‘West’ and ‘East’ is alluded to in this life, in fact, by the saint’s dispatch of disciples to ‘the East,’ meaning for this period the Ottoman lands. I’ll note briefly some other parallels and some differences below, but first here is al-Ifrānī’s account of this sometimes quite shocking saint:

Abū al-Qāsim ibn Aḥmad ibn al-Lūsha al-Sufyānī: His companions called him Abū ʿAsrīya, because he used to do most things with his left hand, and he was, God be merciful to him, from among the ones distracted in love of God, and from among the folk of effusive states and lordly ecstatic utterances. His sainthood was firmly established among both the elite and the common, his distinctiveness being well-known in both the east and the west. Early in his life he was renowned as one of the brave young men of his tribe (qabīla) and among those of perfect horsemanship from among them. When the inrushings of gnosis began to flash upon him and the illumined beneficence draw him, he went about in the wild upon his face, distracted from his senses, becoming acquainted with wildness and familiar with solitude, such that knowledge of him was cut off from his folk for one or two years or more. They didn’t know anything of his dwelling nor location until there came a hunter or shepherd who mentioned to them his description, so they rode out in search of him, and when they brought him back he stayed with them a few days then returned to his former inclination, until his spiritual condition calmed down enough to settle down in his homeland, his spiritual states (al-aḥwāl) subsiding somewhat.

Then he began sitting with the fuqarā’, discoursing with them and imposing [spiritual disciples?] upon them, but when his spiritual state (ḥāl) would seize him, he would grab at them and they would flee from him. Among the remarkable things that befell him is that when the spiritual state would seize him, he would rend his clothes and remain totally naked, yet no one ever saw his genitals (ʿawra) [1], and whoever wished to gaze upon his genitals would not see them, no matter how much he strove to see them. The one to whom it was granted to see them would go blind from the very moment. A number of people went blind in such manner until it became well-known among the people and they began to protect themselves from such.

At the beginning of his career, he would stay at length in meadows, ponds, and creeks due to the intensity of what descended (mā nazala) upon him of the [divine] lights (al-anwār), which he would cool off from by means staying close to water until it stopped. In the latter part of his career his spiritual state became calm and serenity prevailed in him. He returned to his senses, now having control over his spiritual state. More than one trustworthy person has related to me that a group of his companions went to the East with his permission, living adjacent to Medina the Noble, and would sit opposite the Noble Room [of Muḥammad] and discuss stories and accounts of him [2]. One day they were doing that when a woman clothed in tattered old rags and of ragged mein stopped before them. She said to them, ‘Do not know other than Qāsim—rejoice, for my Lord has given him the station of the Quṭb today!’ They wrote it down that day, and when they returned to [Abū al-Qāsim] they learned that his state had become calm on the very day that the woman said to them what she said—God knows best! [3]

Continue reading “The Heat of the Divine Lights: The Story of a Rural Maghribi Majdhūb”

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”

Giving Delight to the Lords of Spiritual States

Convent of the Rufai Dervishes .jpg
Sufis with strange and even deviant practices, but who were otherwise deeply integrated into Ottoman social and political life, were hardly limited to the Arab provinces: this c. 1809 painting, by an anonymous Ottoman Greek artist commissioned by the British diplomat Stratford Canning, depicts Rufāʿī dervishes in their Istanbul tekke, performing some of the incredible physical feats for which they were (and are!) well-known. Note the additional edged implements hanging on the wall, and the dervish heating iron in the fireplace to the right, as well as the presence- just as in the story below- of spectators. (V&A D.140-1895)

As sufism and Islamic sainthood both developed over the medieval and into the early modern periods, a vast and heterogenous range of practices were built up to express devotion to God and to make manifest the power of holy people, from various forms of dance to strange feats of physical strength to bodily rigorous rituals lasting hours and hours or even days or weeks. Some of these practices could be quite extreme in the eyes of observers now and at the time, and have in recent years often attracted the designation of ‘folk Islam’ or worse. The following story, which comes from the personal chronicle of a Damascene Muslim scholar named Ibn Kannān (d. 1740), reveals how seriously Ottoman officials- and members of the ‘ulama class, of whom Ibn Kannān was a respectable representative- could take even very strange saints and the unnerving practices of their followers. Here is the tale Ibn Kannān tells:

On the 28th [of Jumādī II, 1118, October 7, 1706], a Thursday, the pasha [Meḥmed Paşa ibn Bayrām] sent someone before Shaykh Muḥibb al-Dīn al-Taghlibī al-Ṣāliḥī al-Shībānī, and commanded him to bring forth the banners, mazhars [1], dhikr litanies, the shaykhs, and the khalīfas [2], and to make a procession (dawra) so that he might give delight to the lords of spiritual states. He did so and set out with banners and mazhars, and when he reached the gate of the palace he called for his horse and rode upon it over the people, [a practice] known as ‘the treading’ (al-dawsa). It is as if the people are sleeping on their faces, then he rides over them with his horse but no one is injured. When he rode out over them the pasha and Qāḍī ʿArīf Efendī and the other elite seated in the kiosk leaped up for joy! Then [Shaykh Muḥibb al-Dīn] came by himself into the presence of the pasha, while the rest of his entourage went to the Sināniyya Mosque…

One of the viziers had an unruly horse whom no one was able to handle. Once he sent it to [Shaykh Muḥibb al-Dīn] and he stood him still upon his feet as was his custom, afixed a bridle he had with him upon his head and led him about, then rode him at a trot. It is said [the vizier] then gifted the horse to the shaykh.

Continue reading “Giving Delight to the Lords of Spiritual States”