Vice and Virtue

The following translation is another excerpt from the philosophical-mystical Qur’an commentary of ‘Abd al-Razzāq al-Kashanī (d. 730/1329), previously discussed here. In this excerpt, which is ostensibly related to a large chunk of verses from Sura al-Nur (Q. 24), most of which have to do with ‘legal’ matters. Our commentator, however, takes these verses as an opportunity to expound upon the nature of vice and virtue and proper moral behavior and nature. In the Western Latin exegetical tradition, similar material might fall under the label of ‘tropological’ exegesis. In the tropological mode, a commetator seeks to locate the moral meaning or message behind a particular passage, usually for the purpose of presenting a lesson or example for good behavior. In this case, al-Kashanī is interested, first of all, in expounding on the ‘ontology’ of good and evil acts, reflective of his general philosophical-mystical purpose. Secondarily, his ontological exposition serves to draw out a moral message and a warning against the cultivation of vice.

Readers familiar with Western Latin moral philosophy and theology from the same period in which al-Kashanī is writing will probably recognize some common themes and concepts. This is, of course, not accidental: al-Kashanī is drawing upon many shared elements, particularly those often labeled ‘neo-Platonic.’ Of course, the paths taken by al-Kashanī on the one hand and Western philosophers and theologians on the other were quite different in many ways, and the systems and final forms which they created and used varied considerably. In al-Kashanī’s case, his philosophical commitments are filtered through and transformed by his engagement with the mystical theology of Ibn ‘Arabi. In this passage, however, the Great Master’s influence is not especially evident; philosophical language and concepts, creatively interpenetrated with the Qur’anic text and concepts, are front and center.

[From] Those who come with a lie to His words, Theirs is forgiveness and noble sustenance: verily, the magnitude of the matter of falsehood, and the harshness of the threat (al-wa’īd) attached to it—in that no other matter of disobedience is so harshly dealt with, and the seriousness of the punishment for it, in that neither adultery nor murder are treated so seriously: this is because of the magnitude of the vileness, and the weight of the disobedience. It is in relation to the potency (al-quwa)[1] that is its origin (maṣdaruhā). And the condition of the vices, in veiling their practitioner, diverts away from the divine presence and the holy lights, and is involvement in physical destruction, a darkened gulf in view of the disharmony with its locus of manifestation. For the more that the potency that is [a vice’s] origin and its initiatory source is exalted, the vice that derives from it is all the worse through opposition. For vice is what stands opposite virtue, and when the virtue is especially exalted, what stands opposite it as vice is especially base. Lying is the vice of the potency of speech, which is the most exalted of human potencies. Adultery is the vice of the desiring potency, murder is the vice of the irascible potency. On account of the exaltation of the first [the potency of speech] over the other two [lying] increases the baseness of its vileness.

And that is because man is man on account of the first [potency of speech], as it raises him to the higher world, and it turns him to the divine side, and is his attainment for mystical knowledge and miraculous wonders, and is his acquisition for good deeds and happiness. He is by it, so if is corrupted by the overcoming of satanic influence upon it, and is veiled from the Light by the overwhelming of darkness, it becomes a great unhappiness, and incurs the punishment of the Fire. For it is the stainer and the total veil: Nay, rather, it stains their hearts, what they have acquired; they will be on that day veiled from their Lord. (Q. 83.14-15) And for this the eternity of the punishment is necessary, and the persistence of the torment is by the corruption of belief apart from corruption of deeds, as God does not forgive that one associate another with Him, though He forgives all other than that to whomever He wills.

As for the other [potencies], as each of them traces back in its external manifestation to the reigning potency of speech, then perhaps [the vice] is effaced by its [the potency’s] reassertion, and it subjects it to itself through the stilling of its agitation and the calming effect of its sovereignty through the overwhelming of the strength of the light. It exercises sovereignty over [the vice] naturally, like the state of the censuring soul during repentance and contrition. Or, perhaps [the vice] persists through obduracy, and the abandonment of seeking forgiveness. In these two states the vices of the two [potencies] do not overcome the station of the mystical secret, nor the locus of [divine] presence, or intimate conversation with the Lord, nor do they overstep the bounds of the heart, nor bring about the veiling of primal human nature from reality, inverting through variance with these, except that you see the satanic temptation towards humanity, making him further from the divine presence than the predatory and the beastly, and further from his own natural capacity. For man, by the rootedness of the vice of the potency of speech becomes satanic; rootedness in the vices of the other two cause him to become animalistic, like a predator or beast—and every creature is morally sounder and closer to joy than Satan.[2] And for this reason God said: Shall I reveal to you upon whom the satans descend? They descend upon every lying, evil one (Q. 26.222).

And He forbids here from following the footsteps of Satan, for verily the perpetration of the like of these vile deeds is only through following after him and obeying him. And [Satan’s] companion is part of his army and his following, but is even baser and lower than him; he is cut off from the grace of God which is the light of right guidance; veiled from His mercy which is the overflowing of perfect grace and happiness. He is accursed in this world and the next, odious towards God and the angels. His limbs bear witness against him; he changes their forms, their outward manifestation is made unseemly by the wickedness of inner essence and soul, entangled in filth. Verily, the like of this wickedness does not originate save from the wicked, as God said: Wicked women belong to wicked men. As for the good who are free of the vices, their originates from them good and virtue—Theirs is forgiveness, through the veiling of their attributes by the divine lights, and noble sustenance, from the mystical meanings and the mystical knowledge found in their hearts.


[1] This word might also be translated as ‘faculty’ or ‘capacity.’

[2] Translating al-shayṭān as ‘Satan’ is problematic, as the term can mean both the individual, singular Satan familiar to Western religious discourse, as well as ‘satans,’ or evil spirits of the sort usually referred to in English as ‘devils’ or ‘demons’ (the latter word being especially apropos, as one often encounters, especially in Sufi writings, the idea of ‘personal’ satans, malevolent daemons as it were). I have tried to preserve the ambiguity by translating al-shayṭān as ‘Satan’ when the singular individual is referred to; ‘satans’ when the evil spirits are meant. See Andrew Rippin, ‘S̲h̲ayṭān.’ Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online , 2012.

Which Breasts are More Delightful?

The excerpt below is from a Western Christian exegete, Alan of Lille (1128?-1203), a scholar and teacher who composed a number of works of Scripture commentary. While there are many similarities between this Latin commentary and that of Gregory of Narek’s Armenian commentary—they are both coming from a broad tradition of Song of Songs interpretation—there are also some marked differences. Alan’s allegorical reading moves along a different track: whereas Gregory read the Song as referring to the relationship between Christ and the soul, Alan here informs us of at least two possible readings. One is that of the Song being about Christ and the Church, a fairly common interpretation in the Latin West. However, such a correspondence is not Alan’s intention here. Rather, as he notes at the beginning of his commentary, he is going to read the Song as being about Christ and His Mother, the Virgin Mary. To a modern reader, even one sympathetic to allegorical and multi-valenced readings of Scripture, this is neither an obvious nor perhaps particularly tasteful interpretation. However, Alan develops it in depth and on multiple levels, as evidenced here. His interpretation is subtle and deliberately multi-valenced, developing a range of correspondences and meanings, some on a ‘literal’ level, others at a deeper allegorical or ‘mystical’ level. Finally, alongside the allegorical or mystical sense, Alan also wishes to develop a didactic or pedagogical meaning within the text. All of these levels are visible in this fairly brief excerpt, evidence of a fairly sophisticated and involved reading of one of the most treasured and commented-upon of all Scriptural texts in the Latin West.

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 2. … And so, although the song of love, Solomon’s wedding song, refers particularly and according to its spiritual sense to the Church, in its most particular and spiritual reference it signifies the most glorious Virgin: this, with divine help, we will explain as far as will be within our power.

3. So it is that in her eagerness for the presence of the Bridegroom, longing for that glorious conception of which she was told by the angel and out of her desire for the divine incarnation, the glorious Virgin speaks thus:

4. May he kiss me with the kiss of his mouth: This is but to say what is elsewhere said in these words: Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to your word. For she had listened to the Archangel Gabriel who was sent to her as a heavenly proxy for her Bridegroom; and he honours the Virgin, filled as she is with extraordinary and spiritual blessing, and speaks a special and unheard of greeting: Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. And when she heard that the Son of God would be born of her, she found no cause for self-congratualation in this news, she did not allow herself to be carried away by this word, nor did she take pride in herself because of her child; rather did she humble herself in and through all things before God; and, never doubting the prophetic word, she replied: Behold the handmaid of the Lord.

5. Which is the same as saying: be it done unto me according to your word, that is, at your word I will conceive the Word of God. And this is what is meant here by: May he kiss me with the kiss of his mouth….

8. For your breasts are more delightful than wine: Which is as much as to say, ‘You desire my kisses and I your breasts, for your breasts are more delightful than wine.’ I can read this literally as referring to the Virgin’s natural breasts, for the Gospel speaks of them in these terms: Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts which you have sucked. Which breasts are more delightful, which better, than those which gave milk to Christ, milk drawn not by the foulness of lust, but from the rich store of virginity? Christ longed for those breasts, he longed to draw milk from them, so as to experience not the deceitful taste of the flesh, but rather the antidote of her virginity. Those breasts were to Christ sweeter than wine, sweeter than the most pleasing of all drinks. For wine is the drink of drinks; it is what we mean we speak of ‘having a good drink.’

9. More fragrant than the finest ointments, that is, they may be compared to fragrance to the very best oils; for what oils emit by way of fragrance, the virginal breasts bestow in integrity. Because as the one attracts by its fragrance, the others nourish Christ on their auroma.

Alan of Lille, Commentary on the Song of Songs, trans. by Denys Turner in Eros and Allegory: Medieval Exegesis of the Song of Songs.

For as the Drunkard But Thirsts the More

The following is an excerpt from a commentary on the Song of Songs by the tenth century Armenian scholar Gregory of Narek (945?-1003). Like many medieval Christian exegetes in both Eastern and Western traditions, Gregory’s exegesis tends to be allegorical: he interprets the text through a system of correspondences between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ meanings. Like many medieval exegetes, for Gregory this ‘allegorical’ method operates alongside a view of Scripture and Scriptural truth that allows for and even demands multiple perspectives, valuations, and interpretations of the same text. As he notes in this brief excerpt, ‘full understanding of the sacred Scriptures’ is ultimately unattainable, given their divine inspiration: just as God is ultimately uncircumscribable and undefinable, the Scriptures He has revealed ultimately elude a final pinning down. Their truth unfolds continuously through the process of reading, meditation, practice, and exegesis.

This does not mean, for Gregory or any other exegetes, that commentary should simply proceed as the exegete wishes (though allegorical interpretations can sometimes seem as such). Rather, Gregory and others operated within particular traditions and tendencies of interpretation, building upon the work and meditation of others, often reproducing or expanding upon previously established sets of correspondences and interpretations. For instance, in this excerpt and throughout his commentary on the Song of Songs, Gregory makes use of the Patristic-era theologian and exegete Gregory of Nyssa. He is also drawing upon an old, and exceedingly broad, tradition of allegorically and typologically reading the Song of Songs. In Gregory of Narek’s reading, the Beloved is the human soul, while the Lover (in the Armenian translation of the Scriptures, the Nephew) is Christ. It is from this basic correspondence—one of several possible allegorical or typological correspondences commonly encountered in medieval exegetes—that the rest of his interpretions proceed.

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5.6 I opened to my Nephew; my Nephew had gone, and my soul went out with his word: See how, as she opened, He had gone. This means that once I had lifted the eyes of my mind to the meaning of Scripture, to behold the inexaminable depths of the knowledge of His grace, once I had opened my heart to embrace that fleeting glimpse, and to examine and become informed of and comprehend the depths of His knowledge, what eluded my weak mind’s grasp so awed me that for desire of it I would have forgotten that which I had received when I opened.

For that reason she says, My Nephew had gone; it is as if no sooner was He seen than He at once withdrew, swift as the lightning. And my soul went out with his word; that is, ‘having obtained a small glimmering of His words my soul left me and pursued His words.’ To put it another way, I recognized Him, and I was united to His love, and I was ebullient with His commandments. And thinking that I had obtained something, I recognized myself to be all the more distant from attainment; seeing the true Sun, I recognized by His light how distant I am from knowledge.

I brought to mind that which this same divine Solomon said in another place: Whoever increases knowledge, increases pain. By saying this, he does not discourage one from gaining knowledge of Holy Writ, lest one’s pain increase; rather, he exhorts one to grow yet more in knowledge, and by that amount of knowledge to understand that the knowledge of what eludes one is knowledge unfathomable. For as a drunkard but thirsts the more, no matter how much he drinks, so also is the person yearns after the maning of the divinely inspired Scriptures: no matter how much he learns, he desires to learn yet more, knowing that he will never uncover the full understanding of the sacred Scriptures. Once his desire for its meaning has been kindled, it becomes a kind of hurt in his spirit, for by means of a little understanding he recognizes the boundlessness of what eludes him, and the desire for that knowledge infects him like a pain, albeit that pain and solicitude increase his healing discoveries.

Gregory of Narek, Commentary on the Song of Songs, trans. by Roberta Ervine (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 2007), 148-9.

The Palm Tree of the Soul: The Mystical-Philosophical Tafsir of ‘Abd al-Razzaq al-Kashani

Few thinkers of any sort in medieval Islam have had as much influence in later Islamic traditions—Sunni and Shi’i and all the permutations within those categories—as the great Andalusian mystic, philosopher, and prolific author Ibn ‘Arabī. Like so many seminal philosophical and mystical thinkers, his later followers and interpreters would vary greatly in their defense, appropriation, and creative expansion of the master’s work and thought. This is perhaps especially the case for Ibn ‘Arabī, an especially dense and difficult author. Already a figure of controversy in his lifetime, Ibn ‘Arabī’s value and legacy continue to be contested points, both within the field of Islamic thought and practice and within the field of historical enquiry. The passage translated below was written by one of Ibn ‘Arabī’s many later followers. Like many others, ‘Abd al-Razzāq al-Kashanī (d. 730/1329) drew upon the writings of the ‘Greatest Master’ in a creative fashion; he did not simply reproduce Ibn ‘Arabī’s ideas or methods—an improbable task, anyway. Rather, as we see in this example of al-Kashanī’s tafsīr, he drew upon Ibn ‘Arabī’s language, concepts, and tendencies to craft his own system of mystical-philosophical theology and hermeneutic. Having studied Avicennian philosophy before embracing Sufism via Ibn ‘Arabī, al-Kashanī’s mystical-philosophical ‘system’ draws upon both traditions. His writings—several of which are commentaries upon the work of Ibn ‘Arabī—tend to have a highly pedagogical edge to them, both in intention and in format and composition. Suffice to say, al-Kashanī is a much easier writer to read than Ibn ‘Arabī. This is not to say his ideas or language are simple, however; they are not. But they are deliberately more accessible and systematic than Ibn ‘Arabi’s works.

Among al-Kashanī’s numerous extant writings, one of the most frequently printed is his Qur’an commentary. However, despite the virtually uncontested ascription of the Ta’wīlāt al-Qur’ān to al-Kashanī, this text has been repeatedly printed by modern publishing houses under the name Tafsīr al-Qur’ān al-Karīm and ascribed to Ibn ‘Arabī himself; as one scholar has suggested, this strategy is probably at least in part a marketing ploy.[1] At any rate, the tafsīr is relatively brief (for commentaries)—about a thousand pages in two volumes in the edition I am using—and very readable, particularly compared to Ibn ‘Arabī’s dense and rather convoluted style. Al-Kashanī, like many other ‘specialized’ commentators in other ‘genres’ of commentary, engages in selective commentary, rather than trying to comment on every single line. His concerns are, as might be expected from my brief synopsis above, philosophical-mystical. His exegetical method in most of the commentary might be described as ‘allegorical’ (a problematic but still useful term, I think). However, as I plan on posting excerpts from several more ‘allegorical’ minded commentators, from multiple high medieval traditions, in coming days, I will refrain from a further analysis. Rather, take note of the obvious exegetical moves al-Kashanī makes here, and the underlying philosophical, religious, and ‘mystical’ ideas and concerns he reveals in this short passage. What sorts of things does al-Kashanī presuppose about the world, things that would be accepted by most people in his society? What sorts of things might be contested in his analysis? How does his mystical ‘system’ correspond to the Qur’anic text, and is he consistent in his application?

[Text]: Q.19:22-26: So she [Mary] became pregnant with him and withdrew with him to a remote place. Then the labor pains brought her to the trunk of the palm tree; she said: O that I died before [this], forgotten, forgetting. Then he cried out to her from below her—Lest you be sadded, your Lord has placed flowing water below you. And shake towards you the trunk of the plam tree; there will fall to you ripe harvestable dates. So eat and drink and refresh yourself. And if you see anyone from among men, say: I have vowed to the Merciful a fast, so I will not speak today to anyone.

[Commentary]: And the union of the spirit of Jesus with the sperm (al-nuṭfa), however, is after the occurrence of the sperm in the womb and its repose therein, while it mixes and merges into one, becoming a nature (mizājan) fit for the reception of the spirit.[2] So she withdrew with him (bihu), that is, with him (ma’hu), to a remote place, far from the first eastern place, for it happened to her in a foreign place which is the world of physical nature (‘ālam al-ṭabī’a), the material horizon, and so He said: Then the labor pains brought her to the trunk of the palm tree, the palm tree of the soul. So he cried out to her from below her, that is, Gabriel cried out to her from the lowest [place] in relation to her place in regards to the heart, that is, from the world of physical nature, that which had saddened her with respect to it, the pregnancy which was the cause of her being pointed out and expelled. Lest you be saddened, your Lord has placed flowing water below you, that is, a small stream, from the unseen of physical-natural knowledge, and knowledge of the oneness of actions, with which God singled you out and purified you—as you saw He who generated the fetus from your sperm, uniting it together.

And shake towards you the trunk of the palm tree of your soul, which was lofty through hearing the Spirit, through your connection to the Spirit of holiness, and became verdant with true life, after its aridity from spiritual exercise and its dryness from being forbidden the water of passion and its life. And it bore fruit of gnosis (al-ma’ārif), and inner meaning; that is, Set it in motion with contemplation. There will fall to you, of the fruit of gnosis, and realities, ripe harvestable dates. So eat, that is, from above you, the dates of the realities, of divine gnosis, of knowledge of the manifestation of the [divine] attributes, of the gifts, and of the states. And drink, from below you, the water of the knowledge of physical nature, of the wonders of creation, of the mysteries of the divine actions, of knowledge of tawakkul, of the manifestation of the actions, of the virtues, of the acquisitions, as God says: They would have eaten from above them and from below their feet (Q. 5.66b).

And refresh yourself, by grace, by the blessed son, the existent through divine power, the gift through divine providence. And if you see anyone from among men, that is, from among the people of exotericism, those veiled from the realities by the outer appearances of the means, by the creation, by the judgements, from the wonders and from divine power—those who do not understand your word, and do not speak truthfully regarding you or your state, due to their conformity with custom, and their being veiled by intellects muddied by delusion, veiled from the light of God. Then say: I have vowed to the Merciful a fast, that is, not to talk about anything of your matter, nor to keep on talking with them about what they are not capable of receiving, as one speaks in accordance with his own state.

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[Text]: Q. 20:6-13: And what is in the heavens is His, and what is on the earth, what is between the two, and what is under the ground. And if you speak publicly, He knows the secret and [the] more hidden. God—no god save He; His are the beautiful names. And has there come to you the story of Moses? When he saw a fire, he said to his people: remain; I espied a fire, perhaps I will you from it a firebrand or may find at the fire guidance. And when he came to it, it was cried out, O Moses! Verily, I am your Lord, so take off your two sandals, for you are in the holy valley Ṭuwa. And I have chosen you, so listen to what is revealed.[3]

[Commentary]: And what is in the heavens is His, to and what is under the ground: evidentiary proof of the total embrace of His force and of His dominion over all, that is, everything is under His dominion, His force, His governing power, His effectual influence: you do not come-into-being, do not move, do not come-to-rest, do not change, do not subsist, save by His command. And likewise, you pass away in whole overcome by His oneness, and the obliterating power of His compulsion: you do not hear, do not see, do not strike, do not walk, except in Him and by His command.

And if you speak publicly, He knows the secret and [the] more hidden: evidentiary proof of the perfection of His kindness. That is, His knowledge is effective in all things. He knows their exteriors and interiors, the secret, and the secret of the secret. Likewise, if you act publicly, or covertly, then He knows it, public and covert.

And whereas the aforementioned attributes were the sources with which there is no attribute save under their totality, and there is no name save it is included in these aforementioned names, and the essence is not made multiple by them, so He says: God. That is the way-station (al-manzil) described by these attributes, He is God, there is no god save He, His unitary essence is not made multiple, nor is the reality of His He-ness [made multiple] by them, and He is not numerically compounded. For He is He in eternal duration, just as He was in eternity. There is no he save He, no existence other than Him in regards to His absolute unicity and His being the source of all things. Whereas He mentioned: His are the beautiful names which are His essence in regards to the particularization of the attributes.

When he [Moses] saw a fire, it is the Spirit of holiness, that which kindles from itself light in human souls; he saw it by the refreshed eye of his inner sight, by the light of guidance. He said to his people the capacities of the lower self, Remain, be at rest, and do not set out, since the course (al-sīr), rather, arrives at the holy world (al-‘ālam al-qudsī), and he is joined to it in the presence of these human capacities, from the outer and inner senses, the objects of concern for it.[4] I espied a fire, that is, I saw a fire. Perhaps I will bring you from it a firebrand, that is, a conjunctive luminescent aspect (hai’a), by which all of you (pl.) will be benefited. So [Moses] will be illumined and his essence become an excellent quality. Or I will find at the fire one who will guide me through knowledge and gnosis, the reason for divine guidance to God (al-Ḥaqq), that is, the [revealed] scriptures, by the conjunction through them to the luminescent aspect (hai’a: or, ‘form’), or the cognizant aspect.

And when he reached it, that is, was joined to it, it was cried out, from behind the fiery veil, which is the pavilions of glory and might, the divine presence being veiled by it. O Moses! Verily, I am your Lord! Veiled by the fiery form, which is one of the veils of might manifest in it. So take off your two sandals, that is, your lower self and your body, or rather two existents, because one, if he is stripped of the two, he is stripped of two existents. That is, likewise, in your spirit and your secret you were stripped of their attributes and aspects, so that you are joined to the Spirit of holiness, and stripped in your heart and your chest from the two, the cutting off of attachment to all things, the effacement of the traces, the extinguishing of the attributes and actions. He names them two sandals, and He does not name them two articles of clothing, because if he were not stripped of wearing the two, he would not be united to the world of holiness. And the state is the state of union, so He commands him with the cutting off of all things in view of Him, as He said: Be devoted to Him entirely. So it is as if his attachment susbsisted with the two, and the attachment through the two caused his foot to slip, [the foot] being the lowest aspect of the heart, designated by ‘front’ (ṣadr). Then the two, after the the spiritual, secretual betaking towards holiness, He ordered the cutting off of the two in the station of the Spirit, and for this He justified the necessity of the taking off by His words, You are in the holy valley Ṭuwa, that is, the world of the Spirit, clear of the traces of attachment, the forms of dependencies, and the extended attachments; [it is] named Ṭuwa, due to the concealment (ṭayy) of the conditions of the domain, and of the celestial and terrestrial bodies beneath it.

He has spoken truthfully who said: ‘He commanded him to put the two [sandals] down due to their being made from the skin of a dead donkey, without tanning.’ And it is said: ‘When He cried out, Satan whispered to him: “Satan cried out to you.”’ So he said: I am discriminating! I heard from six sides with all my members—and that could not be save from the cry of the Merciful.’[5]

I have chosen you, so listen to what is revealed: this He promised with the election that is after the perfect essential manifestation, that which leveled the mountain of his being  (wujūdihi) with the annihilation in it by being leveled, and his thunderstruck prostration at his recovery through Real Being, as God said: when he was restored he said: Glory to you! I turn to You, and I am the first of the believers: [God] said: ‘O Moses! I have chosen you in preference to all other people, as My messenger and My word.’ This manifestation is the manifestation of the attributes, before the manifestation of the essence. And for this He sent him, and he did not here ask Him for information concerning the revelation. And He commanded him with spiritual exercise, with being-present, with watchfulness, and He promised him the great resurrection in short time, so this election is close to the foundational choosing alluded to in His words: Then his Lord chose him; so turn to Him and be rightly-guided, a middle between him and between the electing.


[1] James Winston Morris, ‘Ibn ‘Arabi and His Interpreters:  Part II (Conclusion): Influences and Interpretations, in Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 107 101-119.

[2] Mizāj is derived from a root that means ‘to mix, to stir’; the term might best be translated as ‘humoral nature’ or ‘disposition,’ as the conceptions behind the term lie in Galenic theories of the humors and their particular presences and circulations in the body.

[3] Some readers will perhaps be familiar with a much earlier instance of a mystical/allegorical interpretation of the story of Moses: St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses. As we see here in al-Kashanī’s interpretation, Gregory reinterpreted the historically particular life of Moses along universal lines, as being the story of the human soul in its progress towards God. Likewise, al-Kashanī here finds in the story the opportunity to lay out theology and a supreme example of human experience of God. While he does not deny the historical particularity of the story, that historical particularity is not especially important here—rather, it is the universal truths al-Kashanī finds revealed, mystically and anagologically, in the story.

[4] I.e., Moses said to his lower capacities/potencies: remain here while I [viz., the higher self/spirit] go towards the fire. The sense is that the lower self cannot embark on the path to the ‘hallowed world.’ I am not entirely satisfied with my translation here, but I think the sense is clear.

[5] Al-Kashanī occasionally, as here, inserts material from ‘exoteric’ exegesis, most likely in order to demonstrate that his ‘esoteric’ reading of the text does not preclude more common, ‘established’ exoteric readings drawing upon other forms of explanation and exegetical authority. This is not unlike medieval Latin Christian exegesis, with its levels of meaning (four in many accounts, but more or fewer in other reckonings), the allegorical or the tropological not excluding the literal/historical. For al-Kashanī and other ‘esoteric’ exegetes of the Qur’an, however, the relation between the ‘literal/historical’ and the ‘allegorical/mystical’ could be somewhat more ticklish a subject than in Latin Christendom.

On Trials, Tawakkul, and Subduing the Self

As promised in my last post, below are some excerpts from one of the two extant collections of ‘Abd al-Qādir’s sermons and discourses, the Futūḥ al-Ghayb, a text which gained a selective commentary by none other than ibn Taymiyya (who, it should be remembered, was not entirely anti-Sufi but in fact favored and participated in certain aspects of Sufism). The excerpts I have translated below deal, in general, with the pious believer’s relation to God vis-a-vis the external world. The basic dilemma for ‘Abd al-Qādir is the question of how one can live what would appear to be a rather conventional, active life in the world, while relying entirely upon God and refusing to notionally associate anyone or anything else with God. The goal for ‘Abd al-Qādir, as with many other Sufis and other medieval Muslim ascetics and pious practitioners, is to enter a state in which all attachments, emotional and physical dependencies, and notional conceptions are stripped away from the created world and realigned with God.

How congruent is the world-view expressed in these writings with the image of the powerful Sufi saint, as seen in later hagiography? I will leave the reader to contemplate that question for now; I will take it up in more detail in a future post of excerpts from ‘Abd al-Qādir’s other sermon and discourse collection, al-Fatḥ al-Rabbānī.

3rd Discourse: On Trials

He said, may God be pleased with him and He please him: When the servant is tried with a trial, he first undertakes independent measures of himself, and if he is not delivered from [the trial], he seeks the aid of [other] people, such as holders of power, high dignitaries, lords of this world, spiritually powerful people, and doctors for illness and pains. And if he does not find deliverance in those measures, he turns to his Lord with supplication, humility, and praise. So long as he finds help in himself, he does not turn to [other] people, and so long as he finds help in other people he does not turn to his Lord. Then, when he does not find help in the Creator, he flings himself before Him asking and supplicating, with humility and praise, and neediness with fear and hope. Then God incapacitates his supplication and does not answer him until he is cut off from all means (al-asbāb). Now His power is operative in him, and His action acts in him, and the servant is annihilated from all means and motions, so that he is only spiritually remaining (fa-yabqā rūḥan faqaṭ), and he sees nothing save the action of God (f’il al-Ḥaqq). So he becomes of necessity certain of [divine] oneness, being made profoundly aware that in truth there is no Doer save God, no bringer-into-motion or bringer-to-rest save God, and that there is no good or bad, harm or benefit, giving or withholding, opening or closing, death or life, might or abasement, save by the hand of God.

And he becomes in the divine power (al-qadar) like the suckling child in the hands of the wet-nurse, like the dead body being washed in the hand of the washer, like the ball in the polo-stick of the horseman, turned and changed and modified. He simply is, and there is no motion in himself nor in anyone else, and he is hidden from himself in the action of his Master, seeing no one else other than his Master and His action. He neither hears nor comprehends any other. If he perceives or hears, it is His word that he hears, and His knowledge that he knows, by His blessing he is blessed, with His closeness he is glad. By His proximity is his adornment and exaltation, and by His promise health and peace; by Him is tranquility of soul; by His speech is amicability, from those apart from Him he feels fear and desolation. He takes refuge in and depends upon remembrance of Him, and he puts his confidence in Him and trusts in Him. He is guided, clothed, and attired in the light of knowledge of Him. He becomes aware of the wonders of His knowledge, and he comes close to the secrets of His power. And through Him he hears and takes heed, then upon that he gives praise, glory, thanksgiving, and supplication.

16th Discourse: On Tawakkul and Its Stations

Nothing veils you from the grace of God and commencement in His benefits save your reliance upon people, the means, craft and trade, and acquisition. People are your veil from livelihood (lit., eating) in accordance with the sunna, that is, [lawful] earning (al-kasb).[1] So do not persist in being dependent on people, hoping for their gifts and favor, asking of them, always going to their doors—you thereby associate God with His creation![2] So He punishes you by your being deprived of livelihood in accordance with the sunna, that is, earning of the allowed things of this world. Then, if you repent of dependence on people and your associating of them with your Lord, and turn to lawful earning and live by it, but you trust in [your] lawful earning, are tranquil in it, and forget the favor of your Lord—then you are an associator also. It is a hidden associationism (shirk khafī) more hidden than the first, so God will punish you, and veil you from His favor and commencement in it. And if you repent and cease, from the heart, from associationism, no longer trusting in earning, strength, or power, and look only to God—He is the Provider, He is the Causer, the One Who gives ease, the One powerful over earning, the Source of every good. Provision (rizq) is by His hand.[3] Sometimes He continues you in it [provision] by way of people, either through asking them for something in time or trial or testing, or through your asking Him. Other times, it is by way of lawful earning as recompense. Other times it is from His favor commencing without your seeing the means or cause.

So return to Him, and cast yourself between His hands. And so the veil between you and Him will be lifted, and your beginning and your future are by His favor, so that every need is met in accordance with your state, just as the kind, compassionate, loving doctor does for the sick person, so is protection from Him. Yours is purification from leaning towards other than Him; He pleases you with His favor. So when your heart is cut off from every intention, passion, pleasure, seeking, and loving, then there remains in your heart nothing other than His intention. If He wants the conveying of your portion which you will necessarily receive—it is provision for no one else in the creation other than you—there will be found in you desire for that portion and its conveyance to you. And He will continue you in at time of need, then He will give you success and make you to know that is from Him, He is the conveyer of it to you and the Provider of it to you. So now you will thank Him and know and understand. And He will increase departure from [dependence on] the creation in you, and distance from the people, and the interior [person] will be emptied of other than Him . Then, when your knowledge and your certainty are strengthened, your inner senses clarified, your heart enlightened, your proximity to your Master increased, and your place is in His presence, and you become fit for the preservation of the secrets—you will know when your portion comes to you, grace for you and glorification for your honour—favor from Him, gift and guidance.

God says: And we made among them leaders who rightly guided by Our command when they became patient and firmly believed in Our signs (Q. 32.24). And He says: And those who strive in Us, We guide them in Our path (Q. 29.69). And He says: Fear God; God knows you (Q. 2.282). Then He returns upon you the original formation [?]—so be in accordance with the clear warrant in which there is no difficulty of understanding, and with the prescriptive indications are like the illumining sun, and with His pleasing Word—which is more pleasing than every other pleasure; and true inspiration which is without dissimulation, clarified from the notions of the self and the whisperings of accursed Satan.

God says in one of His books [sic.]: O son of Adam, I am God, there is no god save Me—I say to a thing, Be, and it is. Obey Me, and I will make you to be able to say to a thing, Be, and it will be. And He has done that for many of the prophets, saints, and spiritual elite among the sons of Adam.[4]

46th Discourse: On the Death Without Life in It, and the Life Without Death in It

One day a matter caused me anguish, goading the self (al-nafs), so that it was said to me: What do you want? I replied: I want a death without life in it, and life without death in it. So it was said to me: what is the death without life in it, and what is the life without death in it?

So I said: The death without life in it is my death in relation to my manner of being among people, so that I do not perceive them in relation to harm and benefit, and my death from my self (nafsī, the ‘lower self’), my passions, my will, and my desires in this world and the next, so that I neither experience or am found in any of those.

As for the life without death in it: it is my life in the action of my Lord, without my own existence in it, and the death in that is my existence with Him. And this intention is the most precious intention I have desired since I came of understanding.


[1] Kasb, in Islamic jurisprudential understanding, is profit accrued in accordance with the shari’a. See Cahen, ” Kasb,” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online , 2012.

[2] To ‘associate’ is to practice polytheism, effectively; in this case, ‘Abd al-Qādir is arguing, dependence upon creatures—people—is to put them in the place of God, as other gods alongside Him.

[3] Rizq is another deeply multivalenced word, in Sufi discourse and in wider forms of Islamic discourse. I have translated it ‘provision,’ but it could also be translated ‘sustenance,’ ‘livelihood,’ ‘daily bread,’ and so on. The essential idea here is that rizq is something provided by God; in much Islamic thought, rizq, like one’s time of death, is a determined thing (even the Mu’tazila, for instance, tended to accept the determined nature of rizq, for instance).

[4] This final paragraph is, needless to say, curious, and does not immediately seem to go along with the rest of the discourse—it is perhaps an interpolation by later redactors of the text. The lines cited seem to be a ḥadīth qudsī, of unknown provence to me.

Sufi Sainthood and Bodily Control

The stories translated below are taken from a 14th century hagiographic compilation by Abd Allāh ibn Asʻad al-Yāfiʻī (1298-1367), a Sufi ascetic and scholar originally from Yemen.[1] The compilation concerns ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī (1077-1166), the patron and eponym of the Sufi ‘order,’ the Qadiriyya, to which al-Yāfiʻī belonged. ‘Abd al-Qādir was, so far as can be made out, a Hanbalī preacher, jurist, and ascetic Sufi, although it is very unlikely he had any role in the founding of the Sufi ṭariqa that took his name.[2] The handful of extant writings that are definitely his consist of an adab-book of proper religious practice, with some Sufi-tinged material, and two collections of sermons and discourses, many of which have a Sufic character reminiscent of, say, Abū Ṭalib al-Makkī’s Qūt al-Qulūb. As I plan on translating and posting some excerpts from these sermons and discourses, I will make no further comments here. Suffice to say, while his authentic writings have definite Sufic concerns and (some) technical vocabulary, they do not immediately stand out as exceptionally ‘mystical’ or even exclusively Sufi; many of the sermons could have been delivered by any pious, ascetically-inclined Hanbali preacher.[3] There is little immediately apparent in these extant writings or in the earliest biographical notices of ‘Abd al-Qādir to prefigure the later—by a hundred years or so after his death—exaltation of the ascetic preacher to the heights of Sufi sainthood, as evidenced in the excerpts below.

The writings of al-Yāfi’ī and others—he is drawing upon previous writers, such as al-Shattanufī (d. 1314)—then present, not so much the life and milieu of ‘Abd al-Qādir himself, as ideas and conceptions of sainthood relevant in the 13th and 14th centuries among the Qadiriyya and other Sufi ‘orders.’ Besides presenting the ṭariqa’s eponym as a saint of saints and hence worthy of emulation, veneration, and supplication, these sorts of accounts answer many potential questions about the nature of sainthood. What is a saint, or what ought a saint to be? How does the body of the saint ‘operate,’ and how does it differ from others? How does a saint manifest his internal, ‘mystical’ state of being-with-God into the outside, external world of bodies and society? Hagiographical works such as this one work to answer these sorts of questions; whatever the historical validity or historical ‘germ’ that may or may not lie behind such accounts, they relate the ways in which their writers, relators, and readers perceived the spiritual and physical worlds.[4]

A couple of things stand out in the stories I have selected here. Linking all of them together is the theme of the interaction of the spiritual state with the physical body. Sometimes this interaction can be ecstatic and even uncontrollable, as in the story of ‘Abd al-Qādir’s involuntary apparating, as it were. But more prominent in these selections is the theme of bodily integrity and autonomy on the part of the saint. Such a concern explains the rather curious juxtaposition of control of bodily functions and the rejection of bodily obeisance towards holders of temporal power. In both cases, the saint is in charge of his bodily autonomy; he regulates it as he wills, being subject to neither internal forces of nature, nor external forces of temporal power. Nor, as we see in the slightly unnerving story of the shape-shifting jinn, can uncanny forces disturb the saint’s body, or his interior, spiritual state (which, as we see throughout, is intimately linked to his exterior person). Saintliness means, in the world of these accounts, a remarkable degree of personal control and indeed autonomy on the part of the saint, translated into the outer world through his body and his control of it and the space it inhabits (including the bodies and even thoughts of others in the saint’s vicinity). Even terrifying viper-jinn cannot violate the physico-spiritual stability and control of the saint.

123rd Account: According to the Sharīf Abū ‘Abdallah Muḥammad ibn al-Khiḍr ibn ‘Abdallah al-Ḥusanī al-Mawṣilī: My father related to me: he said: I accompanied our master Shaykh Muḥya al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Qādir for thirteen years, and I never saw him during that time wipe his nose nor spit, nor did a fly ever alight on him. And he never stood up for important people, nor for any one possessing goods or temporal power, nor did he sit upon the rugs of kings. And whenever the caliph, or vizier, or any other respectable person came to him, if he was sitting, then he would rise and enter into his house, lest he stand up for them. But when he left his house, they stood up for him, and he spoke good words with them, and he went to great lengths in exhorting them, and they accepted it, forming a circle before him humbly and meekly.

And if the caliph wrote a letter to him, he [‘Abd al-Qādir] would write back: ‘’Abd al-Qādir commands you with such and such, and his command is legally valid towards you, and obeying him is incumbent upon you, and he is a model for you, and an argument against you.’ And when [the caliph] came to the end of his letter, he would kiss it and say: ‘The shaykh, God be pleased with him, spoke truthfully!’

And ‘Abd al-Qādir used to say: The states (al-aḥwāl) used to, in my beginning, overcome me, conveying me. So I resisted them and mastered them, so that I vanish from them and from my essence (wujūdī), and I cross over bounds and become unaware. And when that passes from me, I find myself in a place far distant from where I was. One time the state (al-ḥāl) overcame me in the streets of Baghdad, and an hour went by and I was unaware—then it passed from me and I was in Shushtar, and between it and Baghdad is a twelve-day journey. I remained meditating on my affair.[5]

126th Account: According to Shaykh Abū Bakr ‘Abd al-Rizāq, who said: I heard my father, Muḥya al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Qādir, say: One night I was in the mosque of al-Mansur Usli, and heard the sound of something moving along the floor—then there came an enormous viper, and it opened its mouth in the place of my prostration [i.e. in the place the head touches the ground] and when I desired to make a prostration I repelled it with my hand and completed my prostration. When I sat down for the shahada, it crawled over my thigh, rose to my neck, and coiled itself around it. Upon concluding my prayers, I no longer saw it. The next day, when I entered the street facing the mosque, I saw a person whose eyes were cloven longways, and I knew that he was my jinn. Then he said to me: ‘I am the viper you saw yesterday. I have tried many of the saints in the same way I tried you, and none of them stayed firm the way you stayed firm. There were among them those who were disturbed exteriorly and interiorly [that is, physically and spiritually], and those who were disturbed interiorly while they remained firm exteriorly—but I perceived that you were not disturbed exteriorly or interiorly!’ Then he asked that he might be induced to repent by my hand, so I induced him to repent.

132nd Account: According to Shaykh Abū Ḥafṣ ‘Umar ibn Ḥassan ibn Khalīl al-Ṭaybī, who said: I was present at the session (majlis) of ‘Abd al-Qādir, God be pleased with him, and I was sitting alongside him, when I saw something in the form of a crystal lamp descending from heaven so that it drew close to the mouth of the shaykh, then it went back, ascending rapidly. This happened three times. I couldn’t restrain myself from rising to tell others do the excess of my wonder, but he cried out to me: ‘Sit down! These sessions are held in trust.’ So I sat and did not talk about it until after his death.

And according to Yaḥya ibn al-Ḥājj al-Adīb, who said: I said to myself, I want to count how many times the shaykh Muḥya al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Qādir relates poetry in the session of his preaching. So I attended a session and had with me a string, and whenever he related poetry I tied a knot in the string, concealed under my clothing, and I was at the back of the crowd. So he said [perceiving it], ‘I loosen and you tie!’

ʻAbd Allāh ibn Asʻad al-Yāfiʻī, Khalāsa al-Mafākhir Fī Manāqib al-Shaykh ʻAbd al-Qādir, ed. by Aḥmad Farīd al-Mazīdī (Sirīlānkā: Dār al-Āthār al-Islāmīyah lil-Ṭibāʻah wa-al-Nashr, 2006), 199, 201, 205.


[1] On Yāfiʻī  see: Geoffroy, E.. ” al-Yāfiʿī.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online , 2012.

[2] On ‘Abd al-Qādir, see, besides his EI2 article and the article on the Qadiriyya, Bruce Lawrence’s article for the Encyclopedia Iranica, available here: http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/abd-al-qader-jilani; and Jacqueline Chabbi, ‘‘Abd al-Kadir al-Djilani personage historique: Quelques Elements de Biographie’, in Studia Islamica, No. 38 (1973). There are multiple works dealing with the various permutations of the Qadiriyya; among resources available on-line, see Martin van Bruinessen, “Shaykh `Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani and the Qadiriyya in Indonesia”, Journal of the History of Sufism, vol. 1-2 (2000), 361-395, available here: http://www.hum.uu.nl/medewerkers/m.vanbruinessen/publications/Qadiriyya_Indonesia.htm. His article includes a discussion of, among other things, Indonesian comic books depicting stories of ‘Abd al-Qādir.

[3] There are a number of works attributed to ‘Abd al-Qādir that are most certainly not his, including an interesting, but clearly much later, treatise called Sirr al-Asrar, that would seem to date from the 13th or 14th century; the peoms and litanies attributed to him are also probably considerably later in origin.

[4] For a recent treatment of the uses of Sufi hagiography, and concepts and uses of the body, in the context of late medieval Persianate Sufism, see Shazad Bashir, Sufi Bodies: Religion and Society in Medieval Islam (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

[5] My translation of this passage is rather tentative. To be honest, I am not entirely sure what to make of parts of it—it does seem clear, however, that there is something about the saint’s mystical ‘states’ that cause extranormal bodily experiences.

Judgeship in ‘Umayyad Spain

The following are two short anecdotes about a judge in Cordoba, Spain during the rule of the ‘Umayyad amir Abdallah ibn Muhammad (r. 888-912). Both stories come from the Quḍāt Qurṭubah of Khushani, a member of the ‘ulama in tenth century Spain; the Quḍāt Qurṭubah is a history of the judges (quḍāt) of that city. In the first story, the traits of a good judge are exemplified: a quiet, humble sort of ascetic piety, in this manifested by the judge’s doing labor that would not be expected of someone of his apparently high social state. The reader can draw further conclusions about this story’s significance, and the significance of its memory by later generations of Cordobans. As for the second story, it illustrates a couple of tensions often present in early Islamic societies: one, the interplay between the judge- who may or not be a learned member of the ‘ulama– and the scholars and jurists of the community. Second, it reveals the tension between “commanding the good and forbidding the wrong,” and the principle of respecting privacy (as we would put it- though the concept in the shari’a is more complex), a central tenet of medieval Islamic jurisprudence and ethics.

Khalid ibn Sa’id said: Muhammad ibn Hashim al-Zahid related to me, saying: A sound woman from the people of the veiling related to me that one day she went to the house [of Muhammad ibn Salma], before noon, and knocked on his door. He came out to her—she did not know him before that—and on his hands were the traces of bread dough, as if he had been kneading dough. So she said to him: ‘I want to talk with the judge, as I need him for something.’ So he said to her: ‘Go on to the congregational mosque, and he’ll meet you in an hour.’

She said: ‘So I went to the congregational mosque, made my prostrations, then sat down, looking for the judge. It was not long before that man who had come out to me with dough on his hands came, and began his prostrations. So I asked about him, and someone said to me: “He’s the judge!” So when he had finished his prostrations, I came before him and talked to him about my need, and he ruled on it for me.

Ahmad ibn ‘Ubada said: one day I was walking with Muhammad ibn Salma, when he was judge. We met someone carrying a sack on his head, in which something was obscured, and in his hand was a drum. The judge ordered him to break the drum, and he knew without a doubt that the sack was full of drums, so he said: ‘Put down the sack and show what is in it!’

So Ahmad ibn ‘Ubada said: I said to him: it is not incumbent upon you to force the disclosure of the goods of the people and their hidden things—rather, it is your duty to change that which is already manifest.’ So he [the judge] desisted from his command to disclose the contents of the sack. Then we went on, and ran into Muhammad ibn ‘Umar ibn Laba, and [the judge] asked him about the incident, and ibn Laba replied with words similar to mine.

Then the judge inclined towards me and said: We have benefited from your companionship today, my shepherd!’

Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥārith Khushanī, Quḍāt Qurṭubah, (Maktabah al-Andalusīyah 4. al-Qāhirah: Dār al-Kutub al-Islāmīyah, 1982), 197.

War, Travel, Commentary, Alchemy: An Ottoman Life

The following life is a marked departure from the two previous biographies from Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah’s Shaqa’iq that I’ve translated and posted here and here. Whereas the previous two figures are depicted as mystics and having an ambiguous, even conflicted relationship with both wider society and the Ottoman state structure, the subject of today’s biography does not seem to have had such problems, working in close company with first a Mamluk Sultan and then the Ottoman Sultan. His relationship with the Ottoman state, interestingly, is also different: rather than “official” posts such as judge, teacher, or mufti, Muhammad ibn ‘Amr ibn Hamza is what we might call a “popular preacher,” or at least that is the way he is depicted here. The “people” (ahl) love him, we are told; yet it isn’t just the people who love him; the holders of the highest political power in the lands he sojourns in also love him, and he seems to return the favor.

Ibn Hamza’s life trajectory is somewhat unusual: while being from a Transoxanian family is not particularly unusual, his birthplace of Antioch does stand out. While a major city of late antiquity and the middle ages, by the Ottoman period Antioch had declined greatly due to invasion and, more importantly, the silting up of the Orontes, which crippled Antioch’s port capacity and hence value as a trade entrepot. Leaving Antioch, ibn Hamza’s career would come to move in tandem with some of the central trends of his era: increasing Ottoman power and vastly widened territory, conflict between the Sunni Ottoman state and the Shi’i Safavid state, conflict that was itself part of a wider trend of state-formation across Eurasia, often in an atmosphere of inter-confessional conflict.

This inter-confessional conflict makes up the central element of ibn Hamza’s life: participating in and indeed encouraging the war against the “heretical” Shi’i Safavids, here refered to as the Qizilbāsh (literally, the “red-heads,” after their red turbans) in reference to the religio-military group that had facilitated the Safavid rise to power. Ibn Hamza’s fight against Shi’ism takes multiple forms, most virulently as a preacher in the service of Sultan Selīm; we may wonder to what extent this anti-Shi’i stance preceded ibn Hamza’s association with the Ottoman state, and to what extent it was simply precipitated by a commitment to Sunni orthodoxy. At any rate, anti-Shi’i activity would be central to Ottoman efforts within and without the empire, a situation somewhat analogous to the Cold War of the twentieth-century between the United States and the Soviet Union. People suspected of Shi’i leanings constituted, in the eyes of the Ottoman authorities, a central threat to the Ottoman state; Sufi groups could fall under suspicion, as we see in ibn Hamza’s life (although also note that Sufism per se is not condemned, at least not in Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah’s rendering, only a particular practice of some Sufis). But it should be noted that preaching holy war against heretics was not the only concern in ibn Hamza’s life—he also seems to have been deeply concerned with the wider social and religious welfare of Ottoman society, or at least this is the impression Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah wants to give us. In addition, while not exactly a conventional scholar, he did engage in book writing and other scholarly pursuits, alongside his preaching of holy war, acting as the companion of sultans, building mosques, preaching often, mastering alchemy, raising a massive family, and apparently engaging in commerce. It is perhaps not coincidental that the appellative that comes to mind is “Renaissance man,” but a discussion of the truth that lies behind such a thought is best saved for another time.

Finally, a note on the new format I have used here: having recently discovered how simple inserting endnotes into a WordPress post is, I have therefore included explanatory notes throughout the text, which I hope will make some of the technical language and historical references clearer.

Among them is the Knowledgeable, the Noble, the Virtuous Mulla Muhyi al-Din Muhammad ibn ‘Amr ibn Hamza:

His grandfather was from Transoxiana [1] and was among the disciples of Sa’ad al-Din al-Tuftazani. He then traveled and settled in Antioch, where this Muhammad was born. He memorized the Qur’an at an early age, then al-Kanz and al-Shatabi and others, then studied fiqh [2] under his paternal uncle Shaykh Hussayn and Shaykh Ahmad, virtuous men, studying under them the principles of jurisprudence (al-usul), Qur’an, and the Arabic language. He then journeyed to Hasn Kifa and Amada, then to Tabriz, learning from its ‘ulama, busying himself there for two years, studying in Tabriz under the learned, the virtuous Mulla Muzid. He then returned to Antioch and Aleppo and remained there for a time, preaching, teaching, and issuing fatwas, his virtues becoming well known. Then he went to Jerusalem and lived nearby, then to Mekka and performed the hajj, then to Egypt. There, he heard hadith from al-Siyuti and al-Shamani, both giving him ijāzas. [3] He preached, taught, and gave fatwas, having great reception for a time, until Sultan Qāʾitbāy [4] sought him out and he appeared before him, preached to him, and wrote a book for him on fiqh titled The Conclusion, so he loved him and honoured him with great honour and rewarded him well. [The Sultan] would not give him permission to travel, so [ibn Hamza] remained in [the Sultan’s] presence until King [sic] Qāʾitbāy passed away in the year 903 [1497].[5]

Then [ibn Hamza] traveled to Anatolia (al-Rum) by way of the sea, and then made his way to Bursa, whose people loved him greatly, so he stayed there and busied himself with preaching and forbidding the wrong.[6] Then he went to the city of Constantinople and its people loved him also, and Sultan Bāyazīd [7] heard his sermon and bestowed upon him all of his wealth, and he used to send rewards to him all the time. [Ibn Hamza] wrote for him a book titled Explication of the Excellent Qualities in the Life of Our Prophet (peace and prayers of God—exalted is He—be upon him), and another book on Sufism, and was present before him, exhorting him. Then the Sultan went out on the holy frontier campaign,[8] and [ibn Hamza] was with him. Together they conquered the fortress of Methoni, and this was their second or third entrance therein.[9] Then he returned to Constantinople and remained there, commanding the right and forbidding the wrong, for he did not fear the reproach of God, and he opposed the heretics and the Sufi practice of dancing. He next returned with his family to Aleppo the Protected, and Melik al-Amra’ Khayrbek honoured him greatly and studied under him, being responsible for all of his needs, so that [ibn Hamza] did not require anything else. So [ibn Hamza] stayed there eight years, occupied with tafsir, hadith, and refuting heretics and the Rāfiḍa bearing the name of the tyrant Ardabik.[10] This sect hated him, cursing him in their assembly while cursing the Companions of the Prophet.

[Ibn Hamza] then returned to Anatolia during the reign of Sultan Selīm Khan,[11] urging him on to holy war (jihād) against the Qizilbāsh,[12] writing a book for him on the conditions and virtues of holy frontier campaigns (it is a very fine book); [ibn Hamza] then went with him to the war against this sect, preaching to the army every day during the campaign, reminding them of the rewards of holy war, especially against this sect. The Sultan honoured him and was very generous towards him. When the two armies met, fierce fighting broke out, and as eyes were averted and hearts rose into throats, the Sultan commanded [ibn Hamza] to proclaim the call (al-dawa’a). So he occupied himself with proclaiming the call, and the Sultan cried, “Amen!” So the enemy was put to flight through the help of God—exalted is He—and he journeyed to Rumelia, preaching to its people, forbidding them disobedience [towards God] and commanding them to do the obligatory deeds. So many among them were [morally] improved because of him, and he built two Friday mosques in the town of Saray [Sarajevo], as well as a neighborhood mosque there and another neighborhood mosque in Uskub [Skopje], and remained there approximately twenty years, doing Qur’an interpretation every day, converting many unbelievers. In the year 932 [1525] he went on campaign with our magnificent Sultan [13] to Ankeros, and he called to him at the time of the fighting, and the glorious conquest came as before.[14] Then [ibn Hamza] went to Bursa and dwelled there and began to build a large mosque, but passed away before its completion, on Muharram 4, 938 [August 18, 1531]; he was close to seventy years old, and was buried in the precincts of the mosque.

He beget from his loins nearly a hundred souls; he had many books and treatises on numerous arts, especially on the science of alchemy (al-kīmiyāʾ), being among those who persevere in it. He traveled to many places, was beloved by many, many souls being attracted to him. He was greatly pious, and had perfect watchfulness in his manner of eating, dress, and ritual purity. His cost of living was covered by his commercial activity, while much of his time was expended in the betterment of people through preaching, teaching, and fatwa-giving. There are few hadith mentioned in books which he did not have committed to memory; he was perfect in his Qur’an commentary (tafsir), without recourse to study or books. He used to devote himself on Fridays to commentary (tafsir) on what the preacher had recited during prayers, with perfectly elegant style, variety of aspects, and abundant knowledge, which daily amazed those who thought on it. The common people and the elite among the ‘ulama and the Sufis learned from him: he was knowledgeable, lordly, always summoning to right-guidance and good conduct; putting to death many bad innovation and bringing to life many good traditions (sunnan). People beyond the count of any but God benefited through him; such would not be possible to anyone else unless there came the like of what was sent from the grace of God [through him]—may God breathe upon his face and enlighten his grave!

Aḥmad ibn Muṣṭafá  Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah, Al-Shaqāʼiq Al-Nuʻmānīyah Fī ʻulāmāʼ Al-Dawlah Al-ʻUthmānīyah (Bayrūt, Lubnān: Dār al-Kitāb al-ʻArabī, 1975), 247-249.


[1] Lit., “what lies beyond the river,” roughly modern-day Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, part of Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan.

[2] Islamic jurisprudence.

[3] “License,” certification that one is qualified to transmit hadith (or a book or other text) from a given person via an authorized chain of transmitters.

[4] Important late Mamluk ruler, carried out extensive military campaigns and building projects; died a few years before the Ottoman conquest of Egypt. See M Sobernheim, “Ḳāʾit Bāy, al-Malik al-As̲h̲raf Abu ‘l-Naṣr Sayf al-dīn al-Maḥmūdī al-Ẓāhirī” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, edited by: P. Bearman; , Th. Bianquis; , C.E. Bosworth; , E. van Donzel; and W.P. Heinrichs (Leiden: Brill, 2011).

[5] Qāʾitbāy actually died in 901/1496.

[6]The second half of the phrase “commanding the right and forbidding the wrong,” a basic Islamic ethical injunction incumbent upon all believers; the exact dynamics and parameters were, however, widely debated. See Michael Cook, Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[7] Sultan Bāyazīd II, ruled 886-918/1481-1512.

[8] Ghazu, literally a raid, but in this context a campaign on the Ottoman frontier, here given a sacred function (see below), hence my somewhat inelegant translation.

[9] Methoni (also known as Modon) is a heavily fortified town in Morea, Greece; it had been held by the Venetians for nearly three hundred years until its fall, mentioned here, on August 9, 1500. For photos of surviving fortifications and a plan of the town, see: Methoni.

[10] “Rāfiḍa” by this period had become a derogatory term for Shi’i Muslims in general; I have not been able to uncover to whom the name Ardabik refers.

[11] Ruled 918-926/1512-1520.

[12] That is, the Persian Safavids, relatively recently converted to Shi’a Islam.

[13] Sultan Süleymān I, ruled 926-74/1520-66.

[14] This must refer to either Süleymān’s conquest of Belgrade in 1521 or his 1525 Hungary campaign; I suspect the former, though that would mean Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah’s date is wrong.

The State and the Shari’a

If divine guidance is needed, it is for the purpose of setting human life in good order. The purpose is not to control discipline, the two most salient missions of modern law and the modern state that commands it. Rather, in Muslim thinking, it is to live in peace: first, with oneself; second, with and in society; and third, with and in the world. It is to do the right thing, whoever or wherever one is. The state permits and forbids, and when it does the latter, it punishes severely upon infraction. It is not in the least interested in individuals do outside of its spheres of influence and concern. Islamic law, on the other hand, has an all-encompassing interest in human acts. It organizes them into various categories ranging from moral to legal, without however making such distinctions.

Wael B. Hallaq, Sharīʻa: Theory, Practice, Transformations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 84.

Friday Roundup

Land-Grabbing and Climate Change in Uganda: Nothing new here, unfortunately: statism and capitalism have a long relationship, indeed inter-penetration, that has often been most exemplified in the ‘developing world.’ The creation of a particular sort of market, and a particular sort of polity, with rules, regulations, and institutions that favor the lop-sided concentration of both wealth and power: these are not ‘natural’ or inevitable processes. They must be created and enforced, at the cost of human life and livelihood. In this case, land-grabbing- designed for the profit of a multi-national and for the benefit of Ugandan state-creation both- has as part of its ideological supporting structure the ideology and practices associated with the politics and economy of global climate change. This is hardly new, either, though of more recent origin than other ideologies of state and capital.

Companies Using Immigration Crack-Downs to Turn a Profit: Not really new, either. ‘Privatization’ schemes in which states farm out their coercive activities to others, who then turn a profit, are very old. The most recent batch of ‘privatization’ efforts have seen a heavy focus on incarceration; this is merely another, even more insidious example- as the ‘criminals’ in this instance are almost all ‘guilty’ of transgressing imaginary lines on the map, and nothing else.

The Assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki: It’s not really surprising, I guess, that the drone warriors are killing Americans. The brilliance- from the point of the American state, of course- of drone warfare is the distance it places between the executing force and the state itself, not to mention domestic opinion. Warfare carried out at a great distance with minimal American personnel on the ground requires relatively little grooming of public opinion. Even if the targets are American citizens…

Grey Markets in Mexico: Oh no! What will state and capital do if people start ignoring them and creating their own markets and social spaces? Horror!

Empire of the Son: Despite the insane conspiracy theories of the right (Obama as secret liberation theology follower, Obama as secret Muslim, Obama as secret communist), the current American President is very much a product of the massive extension of American power and influence that took place during the Cold War, and continues apace today under different names and forms.