Devotion to Muhammad in Medieval and Early Modern Islam: An Introduction

Hilye triptych
A three-panel Ottoman ḥilye-i şerîf-  a description of Muhammad’s physical attributes, or ‘verbal icon’- by Ḥafîẓ Osmân Efendî (d. 1698). Note the miniature depiction of Mecca in the top panel. Special Collections Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Isl. Ms. 238.

There are a number of aspects of medieval and early modern Islam (and contemporary living Islam too, for that matter) that tend to surprise, even shock, many modern-day observers, especially non-Muslims who nonetheless have some degree of knowledge about the ‘basics’ of Islam. Because of the wide-spread and often quite profound changes that have transformed Islam in many places throughout the world over the last century and a half or so, there is a great deal in pre-modern ‘mainstream’ Islam that many contemporary Muslims might find odd, unexpected, or even heretical. One such source of surprise and even shock is the history of the image and meaning of Muhammad in Islamic theologies and devotional practices. If, like me, in your initial exposure to Islam you learned that Muslims—throughout time, perhaps?—viewed Muhammad as ‘only’ a prophet, and no more, then Islamic theology that talks about the Muhammadan light, the cosmic role of Muhammad within God’s creative plan, and the intercessory power of the Prophet, and so on, must all sound quite strange and even ‘un-Islamic.’ Indeed, I remember thinking, as I delved into the vastness of ‘Muhammadology,’ that much of the theology I was discovering bore a marked resemblance to Christology, in particular to Logos theology, in Christianity.

Yet far from being aberrant or peripheral, the theological ‘elevation’ of Muhammad that took place in the course of the Islamic medieval period was a transformation that occurred and impacted Islam across the board. It was not just a ‘Sufi’ thing or a matter of ‘popular’ religion. Devotion to Muhammad, alongside theological renderings of the ‘cosmic Muhammad,’ coursed through the very veins of Islam from the middle ages into early modernity and beyond. The person and role of the Prophet Continue reading “Devotion to Muhammad in Medieval and Early Modern Islam: An Introduction”

Sense Can Come Only From the Sacred

‘The omnipresent Nietzschean or Sartrean chimera which proclaims that man can liberate himself totally, from everything, can free himself of tradition and of all pre-existing sense, and that all sense can be decreed by arbitrary whim, far from unfurling before us the prospect of divine self-creation, leaves us suspended in darkness. And in this darkness, where all things are equally good, all things are also equally indifferent. Once I believe that I am the all-powerful creator of all possible sense, I also believe that I have no reason to create anything whatsoever. But this is a belief that cannot be accepted in good faith and can only give rise to a desperate flight from nothingness to nothingness.

‘To be totally free with respect to sense, free of all pressure from tradition, is to situate oneself in a void and thus, quite simply, to disintegrate. And sense can come only from the sacred; it cannot be produced by empirical research. The utopia of man’s autonomy and the hope of unlimited perfection may be the most efficient instruments of suicide ever to have been invented by human culture.’

/

« La chimère nietzschéenne ou sartrienne, tellement répandue parmi nous, selon laquelle l’homme peut se libérer totalement, se libérer de tout – de toute la tradition et de tout sens préexistant– et qui proclame que tout sens se laisse décréter selon une volonté ou un caprice arbitraires, cette chimère, loin d’ouvrir à l’homme la perspective de l’autoconstitution divine, le suspend dans la nuit. Or dans cette nuit où tout est également bon, tout est, aussi bien, également indifférent. Croire que je suis le créateur tout-puissant de tout sens possible, c’est croire que je n’ai aucune raison pour créer quoi que ce soit. Mais c’est une croyance qui ne se laisse pas admettre de bonne foi, et qui ne peut que produire une fuite enragée du néant vers le néant.

« Être totalement libre à l’égard du sens, être libre de toute pression de la tradition, c’est se situer dans le vide, donc éclater tout simplement. Et le sens ne vient que du sacré, parce qu’aucune recherche empirique ne peut le produire. L’utopie de l’autonomie parfaite de l’homme et l’espoir de la perfectibilité illimitée sont peut-être les outils de suicide les plus efficaces que la culture humaine ait inventés. »

Leszek Kolakowski, ‘La revanche du sacré dans la culture profane,’ translated by Agnieszka Kolakowska, in Le besoin religieux, 1973

Pious Graffiti at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: Pilgrims’ Prayers and Traces of the Self

A Visual Essay

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, as any pilgrim or tourist visiting it quickly discovers, is a massive, maze-like structure, or, really, assemblage of structures, including the Tomb of Christ and of Golgotha but also numerous other chapels, rooms, and other elements. Somewhat closer investigation starts to reveal the multiple layers of construction and use, going all the way back the first century AD (and probably further, since the Tomb was located in the side of an already old quarry outside of the Herodian walls of the city). While the names of prominent men and women are often attached to these various architectural layers, beginning with Constantine and his mother Helena, the traces of far humbler pilgrims to the great church are also visible, if one knows where to look. Yet, as I observed on my visits to the church earlier this year, the steady streams of pilgrims and tourists, clergy and tour guides, pass right by these fascinating reminders of the centuries of pious visitors who have traveled- often over great distances and in difficult circumstances- to venerate the empty Tomb of Christ.

IMG_4901
The largely Crusader-era main entrance to the church, with entrance and front facade giving little indication of the size of the church’s sprawling interior. The pious graffiti is most abundant around the doors near the center of the picture.

Covering the columned framing of the great doors to the main entrance to the church are perhaps hundreds of instances of ‘pious graffiti’- prayers, names, dates, and short texts carved into the stone by pilgrims. Deeper inside the church, in a stairwell leading down to the Chapel of St. Helena, sunk within the living rock, are hundreds of neatly carved crosses left by Crusaders, also as pious graffiti marking and memorializing their pilgrimage. While in the modern world such defacement is looked down on and even seen as criminal, Continue reading “Pious Graffiti at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: Pilgrims’ Prayers and Traces of the Self”

Christmas on the Mughan Steppe, 1736

The first few decades of the eighteenth century were highly fraught ones for Safavid Persia. One of the handful of eyewitnesses to some of these events was one Catholicos Abraham of Crete, who found himself caught up in the Persian resurgence under Nādir Shāh Afshār. Nādir, of Turkoman background, had risen to prominence in the service of the presumptive Safavid heir Ṭahmāsp in the aftermath of the Afghan invasions earlier in the century. Nādir quickly proved himself an apt and ruthless commander- Abraham calls him a ‘second Alexander’- and soon deposed Ṭahmāsp, enthroned Ṭahmāsp’s son and set himself up as regent. He then resumed an already existing struggle against the Ottomans for control of what is now northwest Iran, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, which is where Abraham first encountered him. By Abraham’s account, Nādir was extremely courteous and respectful of the Armenian ecclesial leader and of Armenian interests generally (though not always); Abraham relates Nādir’s pious visit (using the Arabic loan zīyāret to describe the visit) to the holy Armenian see of Ējmiatsin.

In the waning days of 1735 Nādir summoned the notables of his domain to assemble on the Mughan Steppe near the confluence of the Kura and Aras Rivers, a region that lies in the modern nation of Azerbaijan. In the course of this long encampment, during which the elderly Abraham was forced to cope with cramped living quarters, snow and rain, and distance from home, Nādir was ‘voluntarily’ acclaimed as Shāh by the assembled notables and military men. The following account takes place in the days before Nādir’s arrival at the assembly; it describes the fortifications set up to protect the camp, and the rather somber, but ecumenical, Epiphany/Christmas celebration (both the Nativity and the Baptism are celebrated) in the Armenian quarter of the camp. As is the case throughout Abraham’s chronicle, Arabic, Persian, and Turkish words and titles are used extensively, reflecting the degree of inter-cultural interaction in contemporary Armenian life generally. The presence of Armenian Muslims is also notable, though not particularly surprising in light of the many interactions seen elsewhere in the chronicle.

Leaf from Ms. Ludwig II 7: Mesrop of Khizan (Armenian, active 1605 - 1651). Isfahan, Persia, 1615. Tempera on glazed paper
The Baptism of Christ. Leaf from Ms. Ludwig II 7: Mesrop of Khizan (Armenian, active 1605 – 1651). Isfahan, Persia, 1615. Tempera on glazed paper.

The deputy of the Great Khan, who supervised and kept watch over all the affairs of the troops in the camp, that is the nasaqçıbaşı ‘Abd ol-Ḥasan Beg, lodged us somewhat to the side of the camp, in cabins made of reeds. Over 500 cabins were prepared on the north bank of the Arax. The day of the Eve of Epiphany we went on an outing on horseback and saw the place were the Arax and the Kura meet. There were two bridges there: One over the Arax before the location of the confluence, and the other, over the Kura, after the confluence of the two rivers. There was a fortification built over small boats, which consisted of wooden launches that were placed on the water beside each other over the span of the river. Thick ropes tied the launches to each other from one end to the other. The ends of the ropes were attached on the top to chains and on the bottom with ropes which resembled the thick cables of the mooring of galleons. Thick logs and boards, attached by nails covered the launches so that people could cross the river. On both sides of the bridge across the Kura River, however, edifices and towers were constructed which resembled forts. They had installed artillery pieces in these forts so that the enemy could not attack unexpectedly and damage the bridge. In addition guards were stationed to protect the bridge day and night…

After visiting all of this, we returned to our quarters, which were an hour’s distance from the confluence of the Arax and the Kura Rivers, for the bridge across the Arax was located within the area were the army was stationed, while the bridge across the Kura was below the camp and we were stationed in the upper part of the camp.

Next day, on a Tuesday, we pitched a large tent, which we had brought from Holy Ējmiatsin and which resembled a church, having a cupola-like top and decorated with drawings, crosses and flowers. I ordered that all born to the faith of the Illuminator to gather there and those [Armenian soldiers] who were in the camp to come to my tent the next day [Christmas Day]. On Christmas Day they all came to my tent and we celebrated the feast of the birthday of Christ, Our Lord. We did so without an altar or liturgy, without any spiritual satisfaction, just like the ancient Israelites who hung their harps on willows. Thus with sad faces and broken hearts out people against my will dressed and taking the few church vessels and religious utensils we had brought with us, which were indispensable for a religious procession, I, together with priests, deacons, and lectors, dressed in robes, dressed in robes and carrying lit candles descended from the tent to the Arax.

There we performed the ceremony of the preparation of holy water by pouring the holy meṛon in the waters of the Arax. The kalantar of Erevan, Melikjan, Melik Hakobjan, Melik Mkrtum, Melik Ēgēn of Dizak were present. At my command he removed the cross from the water. In addition [there were] the kadḳodās of Erevan and the Ararat province, the Armenians in the army, the āqā of Erevan, and distinguished people, such as the sheikh ul-Islam, the qāẓī, and the Khan’s yüz-başı; altogether more than 300 Armenians and Muslims. The amazing thing was that the Persians took the water mixed with the meṛon and anointed their faces with it. I then left them and they went to their own places. We returned to our tent. There were some distinguished people with us whom we had invited to dine with us.

Patmut’iwn of Kat’oghikos Abraham Kretats’i, translated by George A. Bournoutian (Costa Mesa, California: Mazda Publishers, 1999), 57-59.

The Great Comet of 1680

The little excerpt of translated text below is from the Kunnāsh, or notebook, of a scholarly resident of Damascus, Ismā’il al-Maḥāsinī, who died in 1690. In his notebook he records matters of local, regional, and even empire-wide importance, as well as various things and events that concerned or interested him. The events described range from an excursion to some neighboring towns to take in the country air, to the appointments and removals of various Ottoman officials in Damascus. In this entry he notes the occurrence of what in Western Europe would become known as Kirch’s Comet, as illustrated below in a painting from Rotterdam. Read Ismā’il’s description after the image:

comet

It befell that the first of the month of Ramaḍān, in the year 1091 [1680], was a Tuesday, and the Day of the Sacrifice likewise, and likewise the first of Muḥarram in the year 1092. And from the beginning days of the month of Dhū al-Ḥijja in the year 1091 [December 1680] a star went out which was seen in the lower third of the heavens in the direction of the qibla, and there extended out from it light like a solid column, around a cubit wide, inclining towards the west. And it remained like that every night for around a month.

Ismā’il Maḥāsinī, Kunnāsh, entry no. 25

A View of Constantinople, 1756

The following effusive description of Ottoman Constantinople/Istanbul is from the pen of Timothy Gabashvili, a Georgian cleric who embarked, in the mid 18th century, on a long journey across the Ottoman realms visiting sacred sites, various Orthodox communities, and other sights and places along the way, all of which he would later describe in his Georgian-language record of his pilgrimage. Timothy’s perspective is a somewhat unique one: Georgia in the mid 18th century was still within the Ottoman orbit, but was being aggressively courted by an expansive Russian empire. Timothy himself had previously visited Moscow and the new city of St. Petersburg. Yet in much of his narrative his treatment of the Ottomans is remarkably positive- all of his interactions with Ottoman officials were amiable and productive, and the relationships he managed to forge enabled the success of his pilgrimage. In a relatively few short years- unbeknownst to Timothy or anyone else- the Ottoman world would change a great deal, and a pilgrimage of this sort, and the relationships that made it possible, would be forever lost. In 1756, however, a pious Georgian pilgrim could still feast and drink with Muslim Ottoman notables, and wax poetic in praise of the the Ottoman incarnation of the City of cities.

Panorama of Istanbul, Ottoman, late 18th – early 19th century, 58 x 27.1 cm, SHM 12449 – İ.1285 / From the Sadberk Hanım Museum, Istanbul

*

Now, I’ll say something about the city of Constantinople. The lure of the city’s radiance has spread its beauty to distant parts of the world and even the capitals, because in no other place can one find Asia and Europe together. Among them, running down from the Black Sea, there flows a narrow sea like a river. It runs, with spouts of foam. Constantinople is founded on it and on the mountains by the hand of Sabaoth. The mountains are lavishly covered with spruce trees and Lebanese cypresses. The city has been built on both sides of the sea that flows in a narrow stream. The structure of the walls, the towers and the battlements are splendidly coloured. The windows of the palaces sparkling in different ways, resembled Eden.

Some of the palaces, vaults and bazaars of the city were covered with lead, the gilded roofs of the palaces and springs shone like the sun shining on the city, and the colour of other buildings in the city was scorched clay, or purple, a hue also like the sunset. The ships in the city stood erect like the trunks of poplar trees. Among the groves of selvinu, ghaji, and cypress trees, there was a glimpse of the royal palaces, and the buildings were veiled in the forest of pine and spruce groves. This capital seemed to me like the brightest among the stars, like a rose among the flowers of Eden, like a jacinth among the precious emeralds, like the rainbow in the clouds, and Augustus Caeser among the kings. I found it very difficult and sad to be leaving Constantinople, as I, who had come here after a great many sufferings and hardships, would never see it again. My eyes and my mind competed in emotion when viewing this marvelous city

Timothy Gabashvili, Pilgrimage to Mount Athos, Constantinople, and Jerusalem, 1755-1759, trans. by Mzia Ebanoidze and John Wilkinson

 

To Drive Away the Vampires: Music from the Balkans

Below is a wonderful sampler of music, via Baltimore-based Canary Records, from across the Balkans, culled from albums produced from the 1930s to the 1970s, so ‘modern,’ but not that far removed from the pre-radio, pre-recording, pre-nationalist past. One of the enduring legacies of the Ottoman Empire is the vast, diverse, yet inter-related soundscape of music practiced by the various ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups that dwelt in and moved across the Ottoman realms, carrying and transmitting and sharing their musical traditions, to the extent that no musical tradition remained sealed off from others. One can hear that multiplicity and interconnectedness in this lovely sampler; another good example, drawn from recent field recordings, is the album Mountains of Tongues, an assembly of contemporary ‘traditional’ music from the Caucuses, a region that, like the Ottoman Empire (which indeed included parts of the Caucuses) was and is a tapestry of traditions and identities.