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”

On the Answering of Questions in the World of Dreams: Two Early Modern Dreamers

https://www.britishmuseum.org/collectionimages/AN00048/AN00048819_001_l.jpg
A satirical print of a Quaker preaching session, after a work by Egbert van Heemskerck I, produced c. 1690, and while satirical in intent, an accurate enough depiction of both Quaker clothing styles as well as the ubiquity of women in Quaker life and practice, their authority on ‘religious’ matters not a given as the very existence of such satirical prints would indicate. (BM 1854,0812.49)

Across the early modern world- in Afro-Eurasia and in the Americas, their population of European and African descent rapidly increasing- the world of the dream was an important ‘place’ in which people of all origins and backgrounds might receive knowledge of things unknown to them, prescience of events to come, and even divine inspiration. The importance of the dream world- a ‘landscape’ at once like and unlike that of the physical world of waking life- resonated among Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Orthodox, Jews, and others, often in forms and in contexts of striking similarity. The following two dream accounts- one from an English Quaker woman, Elizabeth Webb (1663-1726) , the other from the Ottoman Syrian sufi, saint, and frequent presence on these pages ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (1641-1731)- come from milieus in some ways quite different from one another. Webb was a Quaker preacher whose career took her on a journey through the still young North American colonies along the Atlantic Coast; she passed but a few miles south of where I am now writing in fact, spending some time among the Quaker communities of Maryland and Virginia (sources of the tobacco that would feature quite prominently in ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s career, in fact). ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s travels took him throughout much of the Ottoman world, threading together communities of sufis and saints in the process, not unlike Webb’s work of joining Quaker settlements through her journeys. Both wrote accounts of their travels, and both presented themselves as beneficiaries of some degree of divine inspiration, not least of all through the medium of dreams.

In both the world of Ottoman Islam and of trans-Atlantic English dissenting Protestantism, dreams were potential sources of the resolution of confusion and of answers for outstanding questions. While dreams could also be themselves sources of confusion and in need of interpretation, particularly for people possessed of sanctity (or who claimed as such for themselves at least) the dream, sent by God to the dreamer, could just as easily be an agent of interpretation. In both of these dreams the dreamer had an outstanding issue- not only that, but their issues were remarkably similar, as were other features of their dreams. Let’s consider Webb’s dream first, which she related in the course of an autobiographical letter to the German Lutheran pietist Anton Wilhelm Böhme (1673–1722), long resident in London as a chaplain:

Oh! it is good to trust in the Lord and be obedient to him, for his mercies endure forever; so about the middle of the twelfth month [1], 1697, through the good providence of the Almighty, we arrived in Virginia, and as I traveled along the country from one meeting to another, I observed great numbers of black people, that were in slavery, and they were a strange people to me, and I wanted to know whether visitation of God was to their souls or not, and I observed their conversation, to see if I could discern any good in them, so after I had traveled about four weeks, as I was in bed one morning in a house in Maryland [2], after the sun was up and shone into the chamber, I fell into a slumber, and dreamed I was a servant in a great man’s house, and that I was drawing water at a well to wash the uppermost rooms of the house, and when I was at the well, a voice came to me, which bid me go and call other servants to help me and I went presently; but as I was going along in a very pleasant green meadow, a great light shined about me, which exceeded the light of the sun, and I walked in the midst, and as I went on in the way, I saw a chariot drawn with horses coming to meet me, and I was in care lest the light that shone about me, should frighten the horses, and cause them to throw down the people which I saw in the chariot; when I came to call them, I looked on them, and I knew they were the servants, I was sent to call, and I saw they were both white and black people, and I said unto them, why have you stayed so long? And they said the buckets were frozen, we could come no sooner, so I was satisfied the call of the Lord was unto the black people as well as the white… [3]

At root here is the question of how Webb- and by extension, other Quakers- were to understand people of African descent, and how they were to relate them (or not) to the Quaker community. Webb is also making an argument for her own authority: in this dream God- implicitly, as she does not say so in so many words- authorizes her to incorporate blacks as well as whites into the Quaker community, resolving through a direct intervention her question. Continue reading “On the Answering of Questions in the World of Dreams: Two Early Modern Dreamers”

Why, and How, History (Sometimes) Matters

I do not generally consider the kinds of history I do, either academically or for the wider public, to be especially ‘political’ (in the ordinary sense of the term at least) nor driven by a concern for activism. My own ideological and philosophical profile has become much more convoluted and much less clear over the years- in part because of the challenges my study of history has presented to many of my earlier presuppositions- and while I do not imagine that some pure ‘objective’ stance exists from which to do history, I do aim at letting the past in all its complexity and heterogeneity guide my own approaches as much as possible.

Of course, the fact that I do not put a great deal of energy into shaping the political profile of my scholarship or its possible political and cultural uses does not mean that my scholarship isn’t politically charged or that it might not make a difference (not necessarily predictable) in a given political or cultural situation. My focus on Islamic history arose in no small part out of the context of post-9/11 America and even more so the American invasion and occupation of Iraq in the early 2000s. I hoped that my scholarship, and perhaps also the whole tenor of my life, could act as a corrective, a sort of reparation even, for what my country had done and was doing to people across the Islamic world. That wasn’t my only motivation, to be sure, but it was- and is, in modified and I would like to think somewhat more sophisticated form- a part of why I embarked on the path upon which I still find myself.

The political potency and even importance of the sort of scholarship that I and many others in history, religious studies, and other disciplines do was driven home today with the horrific terrorist attack in Christchurch upon Muslims praying the Friday prayers. Last night, before the news had broken about what was happening on the other side of the world from me, I posted the following tweet, a rather casual observation about medieval artistic patterns in Iraq and points north into the Armenian lands:

On the surface this is not an especially ‘political’ observation. Late medieval Armenian art, even to a relatively untrained eye, displays many differences from earlier periods, with many components that appear ‘Islamic,’ even if the exact analogues in non-Armenian art are not always clear. It seems likely to me that the 13th century Maqāmāt painting tradition revealed in the Baghdad manuscript above can be connected to the 15th century Armenian Gospel and similar productions, as part of a shared cultural sphere that extended through the Jazīra into the Armenian lands and west to Syria, a shared sphere that can be seen in many other instances of art and architecture.  ‘Armenian’ culture more broadly, in medieval and early modern periods alike, is marked by creative interaction with, and active integration within, the ‘Islamic’ cultures in which Armenian communities lived, creating a complex cultural world that cannot really be reduced to ‘Armenian’ or ‘Islamic’ or ‘Arabic’ or any other homogeneous-sounding appellation.

What does this have to do with the fascist terrorist in Christchurch? While the mimetic (in more than one sense) culture of online fascism is itself quite complex and notoriously slippery, it is very clear that the terrorist (possibly terrorists) in Christchurch, and their political kin elsewhere, draw upon a very particular ‘narrative’ of history, particularly Islamic history. I hesitate to call it a coherent narrative since it is really more an emotionally-charged bundle of stories, sentiments, memes, and fragments of narratives, images and moods. It does not depend so much on a structured account of history as an overall mood or sentiment, one in which ‘Islam’ is a looming and deadly mass, consuming and leveling all before it. Islam and everything non-Islam are imagined only in terms of conflict and violence and terminal struggle. The Christchurch terrorist emblazoned his weapons with verbal images of some of this imagined history- the Armenian genocide, the fall of Acre- which summon up images of stark conflict, of zero-sum interactions. There is no room in this historical imagination for ‘Islamized’ Armenian Gospels, or, say, the role of Muslim troops in the wars of the British Empire. He did not invent these images, nor did he devise the historical narrative of which they are a part. Rather, they have been put together by various actors, mostly online, and exist in the ethereal space of (mostly) social media. Given the right circumstances and agents, they can have real power, as today’s events reveal.

Which is why, I want to cautiously argue, presenting alternative images, alternative narratives, such as the very sort I suggested- rather offhandedly- on Twitter right on the cusp of the terrorist in Christchurch bringing his own historical narrative to bloody life. Now, the historical narrative I presented has the advantage of being true, or at least inclining towards historical truth, constructed carefully and as the result of much research and analysis. In the online world of meme and image and mood, however, if we’re being honest, the possession of historical truth or something like is not necessarily an advantage. What counts is the degree to which certain moods and imaginaries and narratives can capture people’s attention, structure their sense of what is real and what matters. Good historical scholarship, because it captures historical reality better and more fully and hence more powerfully than the manipulations of fascists or other ideologues for whom history is nothing more than raw material for politics and socio-cultural struggle, can put forward images and narratives and moods that can stand in opposition to the tendentious ones of fascists and others.

In other words, this machine of historical scholarship may not kill fascists, but it can create different emotional and imaginative spaces, one that can neutralize the narratives and emotional spaces that feed fascism (and other ideologies, too, I would add, such as militant ‘Islamism,’ itself a fascist-like tendency). ‘Public history,’ whether that means tweeting, writing books for a wide audience, participating in community events, giving lectures, or whatever, puts the narratives and spaces that arise from scholarship out into the wider world, where they can potentially have very real power. It would be naive, of course, to imagine that historians can somehow by themselves stop the next mosque shooting, or prevent ISIS from re-organizing. These movements and tendencies are multi-causal and complex, like everything in human society. However, I do think that we- self included- as historians, particularly of Islam, have a role to play, that even small things like presenting different images (sometimes quite literally), of making worlds and realities visible that would not otherwise be seen by the wider public, that such things can make a cumulative difference.

 

Print Culture Remixed: Safavid Painting Across Confessional Boundaries

Hayrapet Jul'ayec'i bible
Fig 1.: Manuscript Bible, illustrated by Hayrapet Jul’ayec’i, 1649 in New Julfa. (“Matenadaran” Mesrop Mashtots Instutute-Museum of Ancient Manuscripts, ms 189) .

The four images in this post- two from Western Europe, two from the Safavid Empire- paint a picture of the inter-connectivity of places, religious communities, and cultural traditions of early modern western Eurasia, inter-connectivity that took place without any single power or region dominating, as would be true from the nineteenth century forward. These images also illustrate the problems with the language of ‘influence,’ as well as the fact that religious communities and traditions that were at odds in some respects could still participate in shared cultural paradigms and draw upon the work and concepts of others in creative ways. In particular these images demonstrate the complicated place of ‘print culture’ in a Eurasian context, printed texts co-existing and interacting with non-print modes well through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

In this first pair of images, Fig. 1 and Fig. 2, illustrating the first chapters of Genesis, the Armenian illustrator Hayrapet Jul’ayec’i has drawn upon the images of Johann Theodor de Bry for his own illumination of the Bible. The relationship is obvious upon even casual examination, such that one might be tempted to call the Armenian paintings ‘copies.’ But slightly closer examination reveals something more subtle going on. Jul’ayec’i has followed the general form and many of the details of de Bry’s engravings, but has done so in a transformative way: the images have been placed in a new arrangement, one that proceeds in chronological order from left to right, the borders dividing the scenes employing motifs with deep roots in Armenian illumination. Most significantly, Jul’ayec’i has rendered these scenes in color, in brilliant color which calls to mind earlier illumined Armenian Bibles. The entire production has furthermore been placed within a manuscript Bible, instead of the printed Bible of de Bry. The reference to de Bry, and by extension, Western European art conventions, remains unmistakable- but in rendering them in the bright splashes of Armenian painting they have been translated and re-appropriated (there is literal translation as well- note the inclusion of Armenian text in Jul’ayec’i’s painting). ‘Remix’ is one way of thinking about such a piece, the form remaining but the interpretation rendered making the piece an effectively new creation, the mood and resonances it conveys departing dramatically from the original ‘cited’ imagery, even as the new art depends on the original to some degree.

Biblia Sacra vulgatæ, pages 2 & 3
Fig. 2.: Biblia Sacra vulgatæ, pages 2 & 3, engravings by Johann Theodor de Bry, Mainz, 1609 (General Research Division, The New York Public Library).

What is particularly notable about Jul’ayec’i’s art, and that of the many other Armenian artists and manuscript producers who employed similar techniques vis-a-vis print culture circulating in Armenian communities (which in itself reminds us that it was not unusual for a Bible printed in the Netherlands to end up in the Safavid lands), is that Armenians were not themselves strangers to print culture. The first Armenian book was printed in 1512, with an increasing pace of printing in a number of presses across the vast Armenian world of western Eurasia. Simultaneously, Armenians produced, sponsored, and purchased manuscripts such as that from which contain Jul’ayec’i’s illuminations. Print culture was useful for some things, while manuscript culture and its associated arts continued to play an important role, from liturgical texts to diaries to magical scrolls. And just as manuscript arts and traditions left their imprint in Armenian print culture (and many other iterations of print culture across early modern Eurasia), the new possibilities that printing opened up could find their way into manuscript production.

In the Safavid world, Armenians were not the only people creatively adapting and ‘remixing’ Western European print culture material. Persian-speaking Muslim artists, such as the seventeenth century painter Muhammad Zaman, were also making interesting use of imagery circulating out of Western Europe. Witness Zaman’s rendering of the iconic scene of Judith with the head of Holofernes:

MSS 1005
Fig. 3.: Judith with the Severed Head of Holofernes, Muhammad Zaman, c. 1680,
Isfahan, Safavid Iran (Khalili Collections MSS 1005).

Zaman’s depiction of this scene incorporates material from an etching of a painting by the fifteenth century Italian artist Andrea Mantegna (fig. 4). But just as his Armenian contemporary had done with de Bry’s etchings, Zaman has transformed the scene. It is now in bright and vivid color, reminiscent of more traditional forms of Persianate miniature (which itself had long been in dialogue with Armenian painting). Just as Jul’ayec’i reframed his source material, Zaman has not only filled out the scene around Judith and her maidservant with lush vegetation, vivid flora, and a scene of a camp and a city in the background, but in keeping with the conventions of Persianate art he has embedded his painting within a series of frames, frames that are as much a part of the painting as the main image itself. Particularly strikingly, he has filled the upper panel with realistic flowers, flora typical of alpine Eurasia such as primroses and irises. The result is a striking contrast between the delicate beauty of the flowers and the gory sight of Holofernes’ head being held aloft, a somewhat incongruous scene. What would Zaman’s viewers have taken away from this painting? Would they have known to what it was referring, whether in terms of story or in terms of the source in Andrea Mantegna’s depiction? The Western European elements, as in the Armenian imagery above, are unmistakable, diverging as they do from the canons of Persianate art: yet they have been rendered into a Persianate style and frame (literally and figuratively). Some of the meaning is retained, while other aspects are transformed- for instance, it is possible that most viewers would not have known the story itself, leading them to imagine their own story or to connect the image with stories they did know. Continue reading “Print Culture Remixed: Safavid Painting Across Confessional Boundaries”

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”

Questions and Answers with the Elders of Gaza

Barsanuphe
Sts. Barsanuphius and John of Gaza (fl. first half of the 6th century).

Saints Barsanuphius and John (who was also known as John the Prophet) settled in the vicinity of Gaza, Palestine at some point during the reign of Justinian; the exact dates of their deaths are unknown though they are commemorated together in the Orthodox Church on February 6. Barsanuphius was of Coptic origin, having begun his monastic life in the fabled desert of Egypt, but, like many others in his time, he eventually traveled north into Palestine where he and his contemporaries developed a new form of embedded- quite literally in his case- monasticism in the well-populated countryside of Palestine. Barsanuphius and his disciple, John, who would come and settled alongside his master and live beside him for eighteen years, both practiced strict seclusion, communicating primarily through letters and intermediaries. However, their reputation drew other more conventional monsastics, and soon a thriving monastic community with handicraft production, medical services, a church, and other features grew up around them. Both Barsanuphius and John acted as spiritual counselors to not just the monastics around them but to ordinary laypeople in the nearby communities. Drawing upon years of spiritual practice and discernment, these two men provided careful and sympathetic, but frequently powerful and insightful, responses to the questions- some profound, some very quotidian- directed towards them. Below is a selection of these questions and answers, with an emphasis on matters pertaining to laypeople.

444. Question: If I am distracted during prayer, what should I do?

Response by Barsanuphius: If you are praying to God and become distracted, struggle until you begin to pray without distraction. And keep your intellect alert in order that it does not become too lofty. Nonetheless, should this occur, since we are weak, persist to the very end of your prayer; then prick your heart, and say with compunction, “Lord, have mercy on me and forgive me all of my offenses.” And, afterward, you will receive forgiveness of all your offenses as well as of the distraction that occurred at the beginning of your prayer.

463. A Christ-loving layperson asked the same Old Man [John] if one should reflect a great deal about the sacred mysteries, and whether a sinful person approaching these would be condemned as being unworthy.

Response by John: When you enter the holies, pay attention and have no doubt that you are about to receive the Body and Blood of Christ; indeed, this is the truth. As for how this is the case, do not reflect on it too much. According to him who said, “Take, eat; for this is my body and blood,” these were given to us for the forgiveness of our sins. One who believes this, we hope, will not be condemned.

Therefore, do not prevent yourself from approaching by judging yourself as being a sinner. Believe, rather, that a sinner who approaches the Savior is rendered worthy of the forgiveness of sins, in the manner that we encounter in Scripture those who approach him and hear the divine voice: “Your many sins are forgiven.” Had that person been worthy of approaching him, he would not have had any sins! Yet because he was a sinful man and a debtor, he received the forgiveness of his debts.

Again, listen to the words of the Lord: “I did not come to save the righteous, but sinners.” And again: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but only those who are sick.” So regard yourself as being sinful and unwell, and approach him who alone can save the lost.

686. Another Christ-loving layperson asked the same Old Man: I want to press some Jewish wine in my presser. Is this a sin?

Response by John: If, when God rains, it rains in your field but not in that of the Jew, then do not press his wine. If he is loving-kind to all and rains upon the just and the unjust, then why do you want to be inhumane and not compassionate, rather, as he says: “Be merciful, even as your Father in heaven is merciful.”

763. A Christ-loving layperson asked the same Old Man: “God created the human person free, but he also says: ‘Without me, you are not able to do anything.’ How, then, is this freedom reconciled with not being able to do anything without God?

Response by John: God created the human person free in order that we may be able to incline toward good; yet, even while inclining out of freedom, we are incapable of accomplishing this without the assistance of God. For it is written: “It depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy.”

Therefore, if we incline the heart toward good and invoke God to our assistance, God will pay attention to our good intention and bestow strength upon our work. In this way, both are developed, namely human freedom and God’s power. For this is how good comes about, but it is accomplished through his saints. Thus God is glorified in all and again glorifies them.

765: Question: I have a servant who is wounded with leprosy. Should I keep him or not?

Response by John: It is not necessary for you to keep him in your house; for not everyone will bear to live with him. If they could bear this, that would be a pious thing to do. Yet, you should not afflict others on his account. Instead, send him to a hospice for poor lepers, and provide for his meals and as many garments as he requires, as well as his bed, so that he is no way burdened.

Excerpted from Barsanuphius and John, Letters from the Desert: A Selection of Questions and Responses, translated by John Chryssavgis (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003)

 

Conversion Stories From Across Early Modern Eurasia

John Nelson's Khalwa
The cell-like study and retreat of the early Methodist preacher and holy man John Nelson, whose autobiography is featured below.

In what follows, I have juxtaposed accounts taken from one end of Eurasia (here including North Africa) to the other, each of which dates from the seventeenth or eighteenth century: we begin with an account by an early English Methodist, next hear from a Moroccan sufi shaykh and saint, followed by an Ottoman Syrian self-taught shaykh, finally ending with an Edo-period Japanese Zen master- lives I doubt have ever been placed in such proximity before! Yet they are all united by at least two major common themes in addition to their chronological proximity: one, each is autobiographical, either as part of a stand-alone account, or embedded in some larger biographical project. Two, each has to do with narrating a moment or period of conversion from one way of life to another. We might be tempted to call all of these religious conversions, but I think it’s best to avoid the term ‘religious’ here since while it’s accurate in some ways it does not really quite reflect how these various writers or those around them thought about the world and the nature of the experiences and lives we might label ‘religious.’

There are other shared features that I think are significant and which might point to some of the shared, interconnecting features of early modern life on a global scale. Each of these accounts reveals not just a sense of subjectivity and inwardness, but a surprisingly assertive sense of subjectivity- reflected in, to begin with, the very act of writing and circulating in some fashion an autobiographical account. Related to this subjectivity and self-fashioning is the stress laid on reading and encountering books, often through one’s individual act of reading. This is significant given the emphasis placed in many cultural contexts in medieval Eurasia upon the oral, face-to-face, hand-in-hand transmission of knowledge and religious practice. Yet most of these figures not only were shaped by their own personal readings and encounters with texts, they in turn produced texts for others to encounter in a similar fashion. That is not to say that these authors were ‘individualists,’ and certainly none of them would have embraced the idea of the ‘autonomous’ self. Each in his own way was a part of religious communities, textual genealogies, and shared collectivities of practice and worship and belief.

I encourage you to read these excerpts in sequence and to think about commonalities or differences and the possible reasons for them, as well as what they may or may not say about shared early modern histories beyond my brief comments above. For each excerpt I have given a minimal introductory note, followed by the account and the citation (of the four not originally in English, I have translated one, while the others are translations by other scholars).

1. John Nelson (1707-1770): A stone-mason by trade, John Nelson would become an early convert to the Methodist movement within the English Anglican Church led by John and Charles Wesley. I have selected two sections from his Journal, an autobiographical rendering of his spiritual journey and labors on behalf of the Wesleys’ pietistic movement. In the first, Nelson describes a formative childhood experience, while in the second he narrates the pivotal moment of his adult conversion from a state of emotional insecurity and distance from God to that of being ‘saved.’

When I was between nine and ten years old, I was horribly terrified with the thoughts of death and judgment, whenever I was alone. One Sunday night, as I sat on the ground by the side of my father’s chair, when he was reading the twentieth chapter of the Revelation, the word came with such light and power to my soul, that it made me tremble, as if a dart were shot in my heart. I fell with my face on the floor, and wept till the place was as wet, where I lay, as if water had been poured thereon. As my father proceeded, I thought I saw everything he read about, though my eyes were shut; and the sight was so terrible, I was about to stop my ears, that I might not hear, but I durst not: as soon as I put my fingers in my ears, I pulled them back again. When he came to the eleventh verse, the words made me cringe, and my flesh seemed to creep on my bones while he read… Continue reading “Conversion Stories From Across Early Modern Eurasia”