Shaykh Muḥammad al-Jisr and the Snake in the Wall

Egyptian characters, etc. Snake charmer, Cairo 2
A snake charmer at work in early 20th century Cairo, photographed by a photographer from the American Colony in Jerusalem; this is the sort of performer, increasingly associated with ‘the Orient’ in the 19th century, that Ḥusayn al-Jisr wished to differentiate his father from (Library of Congress LC-M32- 994 [P&P])
As anyone who has followed my work here and elsewhere will be aware, until recently my scholarly research was focused all but exclusively on the early modern and medieval worlds, with a rough cut-off date of 1800 beyond which my expertise thins out considerably. Over the last couple of years since completing my PhD and assuming a post-doctoral research position my interests and research responsibilities have diversified considerably (a diversification which comes with its own risks, I might note), running backwards and forwards in time from the periods with which I am most familiar and comfortable. On the one hand I have taken up a much greater interest in the study of deep time and possible ways of integrating perspectives from paleontology, geology, climatology, archeology, and paleoanthropology into the kinds of historical study and teaching I do located within the ‘shallow’ past. Running in the other direction, on the other hand, I have become much more involved in nineteenth and twentieth century topics, some quite new to me, such as the history of technology and communication, others continuations of my long-standing interests such as saints and sainthood.

I learned about the subject of this week’s essay and translation (and who will certainly figure in future posts over the next month or so) by way of Marwa Elshakry’s book Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950, an exploration of the complex and often quite surprising ways in which Ottoman and post-Ottoman Arab thinkers dealt with the emergence and elaboration of Darwinian evolutionary theory and the permutations that engagement underwent vis-a-vis other concerns and political developments. Shaykh Muḥammad al-Jisr’s son, Ḥusayn al-Jisr, was one of the many thinkers, Muslim, Christian, and otherwise, who grappled with evolution and other aspects of the biological sciences, threading a path that was at once critical and open to scientific insights while also remaining very committed to ‘traditional’ Islam (though in ways that would have been unfamiliar even to his own father in the decades prior), remaining largely critical of evolutionary theory but suggesting that given sufficient proof nothing in Islam prevented acceptance of evolutionary theory provided God was understood to be the first and final cause- materialism was Ḥusayn al-Jisr’s primary foe.

Ḥusayn al-Jisr’s position on evolutionary theory in relation to theology is actually related to the work of his translated here, a hagiography, written in 1888, of his father Shaykh Muḥammad al-Jisr (1792-1845), a Khalwatī teaching shakyh and widely acclaimed saint active in Syria and Palestine (though due to political instability he also spent time in Cyprus and Constantinople). Ḥusayn’s account of his father- who died shortly after Ḥusayn’s birth- is striking for the way in which the author engages in extensive epistemological and other routes of analysis and digression, with much of the introduction devoted to tracing Ḥusayn’s own journey from relative skepticism about his father’s sanctity to embracing it, based on the accumulation and weighing of oral and written evidence, including from non-Muslims. These traces of modernity, as it were, continue throughout, even as the world of sanctity and sainthood revealed is not very far from that of early modernity- it is the framing and the tone that has changed, though certainly not into a voice of disenchantment or skepticism. As such it is a good example of the complex ways Muslims and others have constructed their own ‘modernities’ not necessarily along the lines of a neat trajectory of ‘secularism’ and ‘disenchantment that have so often been seen by many as normative and either automatic or only avoidable by ‘relapsing’ into some form of reaction and obscurantism.

I have selected the following short story mostly because it’s memorable and in the voice of the shaykh’s sister, but also because it captures part of Shaykh Muḥammad’s own saintly charisma- his connections with axial saints of the past, including Aḥmad al-Rifā’ī, and his interventions in everyday life- as well as possible objections that were more likely to arise in the modernizing milieus of the late nineteenth century, with Ḥusayn al-Jisr confronting such objections directly with an explicitness unusual within the genre. We will see other interactions of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ in future installations from this saint’s life, so stay tuned!

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‘And from what the aforementioned sister of the shaykh related to me about him: she said: “After the incident I told you about before, among the things that happened to me in that house is that there came to us from Beirut a covered basket of zucchinis, and when I opened the basket up to take the zucchinis out, a snake that had been hidden within came out and slithered into a hole in the house. I was very frightened and resolved to flee the house, but when I came into the presence of the shaykh, your father, I related the story to him and revealed my fear. He said to me, ‘Don’t be afraid!’ Then he came and stood in front of the hole into which the snake had entered and said, ‘Yā Sayyidī Aḥmad! Yā Rifā’ī! My sister is afraid of snakes!’ In that very moment I had barely blinked when the snake came out of the hole and the shaykh killed it, and my heart was calmed thereby.”

This happening points to the administrative power (taṣarruf) of the shaykh and his close relationship with the venerable Shaykh al-Rifā’ī, God sanctify his inner secret. If it is said that the snake charmers do the like of this deed, we say, yes, but the action of the snake charmers is of the nature of a trick, but that which is related here is the action of a man from among the people of piety and sanctity, who sought the aid of a spiritual axis (quṭb) from among the spiritual axes of the age, one would not deny his virtue save one who is utterly effaced of vision. The one who knows what the learned in religion have written about the distinction between prophetic sign (al-mu’jiza) and saintly miracle (al-karāma) and between bewitchment and the art of persuasion, with all being things outside of the ordinary, such foolish doubt will not trouble his heart.’

Ḥusayn al-Jisr, Kitāb nuzhat al-fikr fī manāqib mawlānā al-ʻārif billāh taʻālá quṭb zamānih wa-ghawth awānih al-Shaykh Muḥammad al-Jisr (Beirut: al-Maṭbaʻah al-Adabīyah, 1888), 82, translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, August, 2021.

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

Ṭāhā al-Kurdī Meets His Spiritual Master

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A sufi in a somewhat different socio-cultural context concentrating as he prays dhikr using his prayer-beads, in a mode of bodily deportment likely very similar to what Ṭāhā would have used. Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Arabe 6074.

One of the most fascinating sources that I came across in the course of researching and writing my dissertation was an Arabic text simply titled ‘Riḥla,’ which might be translated as ‘Travel Narrative’ though it has other connotations as well, written by an otherwise fairly obscure Kurdish author named Ṭāhā al-Kurdī who was born in on the night of December 11, 1723, in a small village in the vicinity of the town of Koy Sanjaq, about two hundred miles north of Baghdad and fifty north of Kirkuk, in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains. Then as now the region was predominantly Kurdish and while usually under the suzerainty of the Ottomans had a degree of autonomy, and was in some ways quite distant culturally and socially from the more urbane parts of the empire. Much of the population was nomadic or semi-nomadic, non-elite women played a much more prominent role in religious and cultural life than was typical in much of the rest of the empire, and the practices of sainthood- a major concern for Ṭāhā- in the region had their own distinctive aspects. At the same time, there was much that would have been familiar anywhere in the Ottoman world or indeed elsewhere in the vast Islamicate: Ṭāhā traveled to Koy Sanjaq as a youth to study in the madrasa there, learning various subjects in Arabic and Persian, perhaps, though he does not say so, using Kurdish glosses or helping texts initially. His relative mastery of prestige bodies of texts and learned, literate skills would serve him well in the coming years of his peregrinations around the empire, following routes that many learned Kurds took over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with scholars from other tiny towns and villages often playing outsized roles in Ottoman religious and intellectual life.

But even more important for Ṭāhā’s self-image and as an impetus for his travels was his love of the saints and his commitment to the practices and doctrines of sufism as transmitted and inculcated by the living friends of God of his day, beginning with his first and most important saintly shaykh, Darwīsh Muṣṭafā. The story from Ṭāhā’s Riḥla that I have translated below relates his first encounter with this saint, and it is a remarkably detailed and emotionally rich story, written in what we might today call a voice of openness and vulnerability, Ṭaha frankly describing his unsettled emotional state, with which I think most people can readily sympathize. We see in the story the way in which a local saint inhered in the social life of a rural community (and navigated its built spaces), and the sheer importance attached to him; we see the process, both in terms of inner states and emotions and in terms of practicalities and ritual actions, of becoming affiliated to such a saintly shaykh, and entering into the sufi ‘path.’ While Darwīsh Muṣṭafā is described as connected to the ṭarīqa of the famed saint and sufi eponym ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jilānī, there is no sense of institutional organization here or even a set of regularized practices. Instead the stress is on transmission of a saintly lineage from one saintly figure down to another, ending up at ‘Abd al-Qādir. Ṭaha is given a ‘personalized’ dhikr (ritual remembrance of God) to perform, which he finally succeeds in through the dream-intercession as it were of another saint, his shaykh’s shaykh, whose hagiography- which I have not translated here- picks up where the following passage concludes.

The deeply personal voice of Ṭāhā al-Kurdī is perhaps the most striking aspect of not just this story but the whole of his Riḥla; he does not simply narrate the exterior ‘facts’ of his life but is even more interested in relating his inner states and conditions, even when they are not especially flattering. In so doing he was not alone in the early modern Ottoman world, or the world more generally, as this sort of subjective turn is visible in many contexts- as for why this would be so, that is another story entirely and one that I do not think has yet been adequately answered. Certainly however we should not be surprised at this sort of subjective exploration given the emphasis in much sufi training on inner states and conditions; what is perhaps more surprising is its being written down and circulated (there are multiple copies of the Riḥla; I have worked from the one pictured below for the simple reason it’s currently accessible to me!). Regardless, this account is a wonderful view of the operation of sainthood and sufi discipleship in one corner of the rural hinterland of the Ottoman Empire, which, despite the predominance of literary production taking place in and focusing on cities, held the vast majority of the empire’s inhabitants, and no small number of the special friends of God who left their mark upon Ottoman space and society over the centuries.

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A page from a holograph copy of the Riḥla, Yale University Library Landberg MSS 220

In that time there was dwelling in a place called Awājī—a village from among the villages around Koy [Sanjaq], three or four hours’ walk from there—the singular and proximate [to God] saint and master of evident miracles, gracious signs, and fame unsurpassed in that region, known as Darwīsh Muṣṭafā, God be pleased with him and with his land. He would come to town every Friday, and the people would gather around him like he was a prophet from among the prophets. He would stay in the house of Koy [Sanjaq]’s preacher (khaṭīb), the pious, sound, and knowledgeable Mullā Ḥusayn, God be merciful to him, whose house was close to the madrasa in which I was studying. I had a companion in study who was both older than me and more knowledge and better versed in fiqh, named Faqīh Ḥasan ibn Khāneh, God be merciful to both of them. He had pledged allegiance to the Shaykh in accordance with the ṭarīqa of the saintly axis and reviver of religion ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jīlī [i.e. al-Jilānī], God be pleased with him. He had mentioned to me several times the spiritual condition of his shaykh and his miracles and spiritual states and this and that, to the point that there arose in my heart love for encountering him in order to pay pious visitation and to pledge allegiance to him. So I said to my companion Faqīh Ḥasan, ‘When next Friday comes take me to his presence and tell him about my condition and what I desire and so act as a translator (turjumān) between me and him, and yours will be the reward with God!’

And so towards the end of the month of Sha’bān, six days remaining to it, in the year 1151 [1738], Friday came and the shaykh arrived and stayed in the house of the aforementioned preacher. My companion said to me, ‘The shaykh has come—if you still want, stand and let’s go!’ So we went, but I saw the teeming assembly and I was deeply embarrassed before all the people. The shaykh was inside the house with lots of people before him, likewise outside the house. Still my companion went inside and told the shaykh about me, then he came back out and said to me, ‘I spoke to him.’ An hour later the shaykh had come forth and looked at me, and I had in my hand an inkwell with a tense firm cover such that it could be shaken to rectify the ink. When I saw the shaykh come out I kissed his hand and my companion said to him, ‘This is he,’ meaning me. I was dazed and embarrassed, I couldn’t see anything else save the shaykh stretching out his blessed hand and taking up the inkwell from my hand and saying to me, ‘What is this?’ I replied, ‘This is ink which can be well mixed through motion.’ He stopped for a while to talk with the people, then went back inside the house, saying to me, ‘With your permission—‘ and we entered the house together and sat down, I faced the shaykh with my head bowed for a while. Then he commanded me to come before him so I stood and sat upon my knees in front of him, the space quite filled up with those seated.

Then he said to me, ‘You wish to repent?’ I replied, ‘If God wills!’ He said, ‘Do not return to your sin,’ to which I replied, ‘If God wills!’ He said, ‘Repent from every sin!’ I replied, ‘I repent from all of my sins!’ Now there was to one side of the shaykh his companion, God be merciful to him, who was from among the folk of divine attraction (jadhb) whose state was evident and not hidden, named Mullā ‘Alī, from the people of Koy [Sanjaq]. He said to the shaykh, ‘This boy’—meaning me—‘from what does have to repent?’ He said this in joking manner to the shaykh, but the shaykh replied, ‘No, there is none who is free of sins great and small!’ I felt astonished, and in my heart there was shame over their mentioning sins, due to my own knowledge of my immoderation in regards to my lower self, so that I could verify in my own heart that the shaykh spoke the truth in what he said—this was the first miracle (karāma) manifest to me from him, God be pleased with him! Continue reading “Ṭāhā al-Kurdī Meets His Spiritual Master”

A Palestinian Saint of the Early Ottoman Era

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The Dome of the Rock, which served Shaykh Dajānī- like generations of Palestinians before and since- as a frequent oratory and not just destination of pilgrimage. Photo by the author, 2017.

While Islam has often been associated, for a complex and not totally inaccurate set of reasons, with urban life, the stress on Islam as ‘properly’ the religion of urban life ignores the many, many counter-examples of Islamic practice flourishing in rural settings. And while saints and sainthood have long been recognized by historians as central to many experiences of rural Islam, this reality has often been interpreted as due to the ‘syncretic’ nature of sainthood, or the lack of sophistication of rural religion, and the like. The saint profiled below, Shaykh Aḥmad al-Dajānī (d. 1562), is a good counter-example to such an overly simplistic story, as his life moved between the Palestinian countryside and the more urbanized and Ottomanized world of nearby Jerusalem. My discussion here is lightly adapted from my recent dissertation, wherein it comprises part of a sustained discussion of rural sainthood in the sixteenth century Ottoman world. While not entirely my original intention therein, Shaykh Dajānī’s story also speaks to the deep historical roots that present-day Palestinians have in historical Palestine, with the saint’s family a continuing presence today (with his shrine still standing, albeit after a great deal of struggle against various attempts to erase its intended function). Because quite a bit of Shaykh Dajānī’s hagiography focuses on protecting local inhabitants from the depredations of power, it seemed somehow appropriate to share a modified version of this section now, even if I have no illusions that my small intervention is liable to make much if any difference in the ongoing struggle of the Palestinian people in their ancestral lands. If nothing else this story (which, ironically, is based primarily off of a manuscript version of the saint’s manāqib which is held by the Israeli National Library) demonstrates that contrary to many propagandistic narratives the substantive historical ties of modern Palestinians go far back into history and take the land itself, with Jerusalem and its sacred precincts a major component in that historical identity and sense of place.

Such a ‘thickening’ of the meaningful landscape and of deep historical roots hardly began with Shaykh Dajānī. The rural Palestine of the saint was by the sixteenth century dense with holy places of either originally or adapted Islamic pedigrees, from the modest tombs of village shaykhs crowning hilltops to more spectacular constructions honoring a seemingly endless cast of ancient prophets of diverse provenance, most with traditional stories and rituals long associated with them.[1] In central Palestine nomadic groups were generally fewer (though still present) than was the case elsewhere in the Ottoman’s Arabic-speaking provinces, with sedentary peasants the norm. At the heart of this landscape was the holy precincts of Jerusalem, al-Quds, with its rich array of holiness-drenched places and spatially rendered cultural memories.

The life and hagiographic traces of Shaykh Dajānī reflects a dialect of sainthood at once rooted in the life and landscape of rural Ottoman Palestine while also oriented towards the Holy City, drawing upon the venerable sources of sanctity embedded in the landscape, while also distinguishing the saint and his performance of sanctity from them. Not only did Shaykh Dajānī have to differentiate himself, as it were, from the many loci of sanctity around him, but he was also confronted with negotiating a new political order under the Ottomans and their exercise of authority and claims to saintly status. In what follows we will explore the particular dialect of sanctity manifest in the life of Aḥmad al-Dajānī and his work of sainthood, all within the context of his oscillation between an already sanctity-abundant Palestinian countryside and the holy precincts of Jerusalem (which, it should be recalled, was in this period a large, albeit spectacularly walled, town, with a decidedly rural ambience right up to and even within the walls). Despite being primarily connected in more modern memory with his family’s custodianship of the Tomb of David,[2] we will see that earlier routes of memory, as reflected in the manāqib of the saint written by his grandson Muḥammad ibn Ṣālaḥ al-Dajānī (d. 1660), recalled Shaykh al-Dajānī to be just as much, if not more a saint of the countryside as of the city, both around Jerusalem and beyond the boundaries of its sancâk, his imaginal saintly territory encompassing much of Palestine as it is understood today.[3]  I will now briefly introduce the life of Shaykh Dajānī, his saintly repertoire and its particular dialect, followed by an examination of some of the ways in which his practice of sainthood tracked onto and dealt with the topography of both rural Palestine and of Jerusalem and its environs, both during his lifetime and, primarily in the context of his tomb-shrine in the Mamilla Cemetery, after his physical death.

While early Ottoman Jerusalem and the surrounding Palestinian countryside have received a considerable share of scholarly attention over the years, with works such as that of Amy Singer proving especially helpful in sketching the social and economic context of Shaykh Dajānī’s world, religious life among Muslims in Ottoman Jerusalem and wider Palestine has received comparatively less coverage, with the exception of synthetic works like Kan’ān’s classic volume or James Grehan’s recent study of rural religion in Syria and Palestine.[4] Shaykh Dajānī receives but a single passing mention in Grehan’s work. However, Aharon Layish profiled Shaykh Dajānī in his analysis, some years ago, of another Palestinian rural saint, Ibn ʿAbdallāh al-Asadī, based outside of Safad, a discussion to which we will have recourse further along.[5] My primary source for this saint of rural Palestine is Muḥammad al-Dajānī’s manāqib of his grandfather, a hagiographic treatment closely connected with another surviving trace of the saint, his much restored tomb-shrine located in what was formerly part of the Mamilla Cemetery in contemporary West Jerusalem.[6] While it is today situated somewhat ingloriously in the corner of a parking lot and maintenance area for Independence Park—Shaykh Dajānī’s tomb-shrine and some remnants of Ottoman era tombstones the only surviving traces of this section of Mamilla Cemetery—the shrine is now in good condition and has been the main point of veneration for the saint for centuries.[7] As such it forms a significant part of the saint’s manāqib, a text that appears to have had at least two goals: as Muḥammad al-Dajānī explicitly states in the introductory material, he feared that the oral circulation of accounts of his grandfather’s saintly career would ultimately come to an end, and wished to preserve that memory into the distant future. Second, like much seventeenth century hagiographic production Muḥammad seems to have had in mind puritanical attacks on the Friends of God and the need to defend them and particularly their performances of karāmāt.[8] That said, Muḥammad’s foremost aim was clearly the perpetuation of his saintly forefather’s memory and the promotion of his cultus through the textual deployment (and almost certainly continued oral recitation, perhaps in the setting of the Mamilla tomb-shrine) of that memory.

After introductory eulogistic praise of Aḥmad al-Dajānī as the ‘quṭb of his age, the walī of God’ followed by a brief explanation from Muḥammad al-Dajānī of his reason for writing, the manāqib commences with a karāma-story that reveals some of the intersecting spatialities of the saint’s life, aspects of his position vis-à-vis the Ottoman authorities in Jerusalem, and central aspects of his saintly repertoire. This first story opens with mention of Shaykh Dajānī’s practice of writing down notes of intercession (shifa) addressed to the Ottoman security patrol (sūbāshiyya)[9] and judges, which were always effective, the reader is assured.[10] However, there was one judge who did not accept Shaykh Dajānī’s intercession and who in fact wanted to kill him, having discovered the saint’s practice while reviewing the performance of the subaşı (here meaning the head of policing functionaries) of the city, who presented him with a ‘sack-full’ of intercessionary notes. When the judge asked who they were from, the sūbāşī replied, ‘From the venerable Shaykh al-Dajānī—they’re intercessions for those I’ve accosted, and it’s not possible for me to contradict him!’ Enraged with the revenue-costing shaykh the judge asked where he could find him. Learning that he was then in the settlement of Ra’s Abū Zaytūn, the judge at first wanted to send someone to bring the shaykh in, but was told, ‘This is a man from among the saints of God, from the masters of unveiling and gnosis, you won’t be able to make him come to you.’ Instead, he was told the judge would need to intercept Shaykh Dajānī when he came to al-‘Aqṣā for Friday prayers. Here our hagiographer adds that all this was before the shaykh took the Tomb of David ‘from the Franks,’ and that he was at this time dwelling in a place known as Ra’s Abū Zaytūn, which he himself established, building a masjid (also functioning as a zāwiya) and a qubba for his saintly mother who died there.[11] Ra’s Abū Zaytūn is about thirty miles from Jerusalem, and seems to have served as Shaykh Dajānī’s base of operations before he moved permanently to Jerusalem (a move, as I will discuss below, that curiously figures hardly at all in the saint’s recorded manāqib), making visits to al-Ḥaram al-Sharīf not prohibitively difficult though not daily affairs either. Instead, the hagiographic record suggests that Shaykh Dajānī divided his time among a range of places, including his zāwiya on Ra’s Abū Zaytūn, various other rural locales in Palestine, and the Dome of the Rock.[12] Continue reading “A Palestinian Saint of the Early Ottoman Era”

Sīdī Aḥmad Takes Minimalism to a Whole Other Level

Interior view of the Miṣbāḥiyya Madrasa in Fez, Morocco, taken by me in 2008; the madrasa- the saint in the below biographical compilation entry’s ‘home base’- was built in 1346 and could accommodate some 140 residents.

The subject of this entry [Abū al-‘Abbās Sīdī Aḥmad al-Būs’īdī al-Hashtūkī, d. 1046/1636] was exceptional in his age in asceticism and piety, only wearing of the clothing of this world the very least necessary to humans, to the point that he had no more than one garment, and if he wanted to wash it he would go out to Wādī al-Zaytūn [a former watercourse on the north end of Fez] and tear his garment into two halves. He would wrap himself in one half and occupy himself with washing the other half; once it had dried he would wrap himself with it, then wash the other. Then when it had dried he would stitch the garment back together as it had been before. He only took sustenance from the seed that he sowed with his own hand on land which someone from the folk of good and religion had gifted him. He would make a round loaf of dough and place it in the fire, and content himself with that—such was his habit. He kept this up even though people sought him out from distant horizons, bringing abundant gifts and generous alms, yet he paid not attention to that, such making no impression on his mind. It is related that one of the elite of Fez was struck with a sickness which thwarted the doctors and wore out the enchanters, so someone suggested to the sick man that he pay a pious visit to the subject of this entry. So he sought him out in his room in the Miṣbāḥiyya Madrasa and described his present sickness to him. Then the shaykh took some of his flour and made a tincture for him, then commanded him to drink it. He drank, and immediately he was better. The shaykh said to him: “That which is ḥalāl is a theriac for the severest of sicknesses! When a sick person eats a bite of something ḥalāl it is as if he has been released from bondage.”

Abū ʿAbdallāh Muḥammad al-Ṣaghīr al-Ifrānī, Ṣafwat man intashar min akhbār ṣulaḥāʾ al-qarn al-ḥādī ʻashar (Casablanca: Markaz al-Turāth al-Thaqāfī al-Maghribī, 2004), 139.

Continue reading “Sīdī Aḥmad Takes Minimalism to a Whole Other Level”

Sīdī Shaqrūn’s Loathing of Melons is Cured

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Detail of an 18th century ceremonial scarf with floral and vegetal patterns from Tétouan (Cleveland Museum of Art 1916.830)

The subject of this biographical entry [Sīdī Shaqrūn, d. 1028/1618/9] also met with the perfect shaykh Sīdī ‘Abd Allāh ibn Ḥusayn in Tameslouht [a village south of Marrakesh], and when he sat down in front of the shaykh, the shaykh gazed at him then called for some melon. Now, Sīdī Shaqrūn used to not eat melon, and wasn’t even able to smell its scent, loathing it with an innate loathing of which he could not disabuse himself, so he was bewildered by that but was not able to gainsay the shaykh. Then when the melon was placed in front of him [the shaykh] ordered him to eat it, he breathed out of his nose a powerful gust of air, to which the shaykh said: ‘That is his shayṭān hatching out,’ meaning, breaking out of his heart. Then he ate it in accordance with the shaykh’s command, and from that day forward he was able to eat melon without any problem, none of his innate aversion remaining.

Abū ʿAbdallāh Muḥammad al-Ṣaghīr al-Ifrānī, Ṣafwat man intashar min akhbār ṣulaḥāʾ al-qarn al-ḥādī ʻashar (Casablanca: Markaz al-Turāth al-Thaqāfī al-Maghribī, 2004), 122. Continue reading “Sīdī Shaqrūn’s Loathing of Melons is Cured”

The Funduq Saint of Fez: ‘Abd al-Majīd and His Exceptional Acts of Devotion

As far as I can tell, the ‘Abd al-Majīd Funduq is no longer extant; however, it may have resembled in general plan and ornamentation this early 18th century example, Funduq Ṣāgha, pictured here from my visit in the spring of 2008.

Early modern Islamic religious life across Afro-Eurasia was marked by many trends and developments with roots in the medieval period but which took on new and often surprising forms in the following centuries. One of the most important trends was the explosive growth of devotion to Muḥammad, growth both in terms of apparent overall popularity but also, and more objectively measurable, growth in the number of textual instruments, ritual practices, and social settings oriented towards Muḥammad-centered devotion. Alongside this growth in devotion was another trend that does not at first glance seem related, namely, the continued flourishing and adaptive transformations of ‘deviant’ mendicant piety, the sort exemplified in the late medieval period by the Qalandar and other types of ‘radical’ dervishes, and in the early modern particularly by the majdhūb. Such forms of ascetic practice and aspiration to sainthood often eschewed compliance with the sharī’a, or at the very least transgressed many social norms in a deliberate fashion.

The following saint’s life, preserved in a seventeenth compilation of outstanding holy or learned (or both) lives, comes from Morocco, Fez to be precise, and embraces both of the above trends in early modern Islamic religious life. The saint, Sīdī ‘Abd al-Majīd, was acclaimed a saint, at least according to our author al-Ifrānī, because of his incredible, indeed super-human, devotion to the Prophet of Islam. The first few paragraphs of his life, the entirety of which I have translated here, lay out his acts of devotion and his saintly inner states, including the curious detail that his ecstatic remembrance of Muḥammad took place even in the latrine- a detail which hints at a somewhat non-normative manner of life. It is in the following paragraphs that we are given further indications that ‘Abd al-Majīd was not universally admired and that his mode of life had many parallels with that of the ‘deviant’ dervishes better known from the Islamic East. But before we consider just what kind of a saint he was, it would be better to read his life as al-Ifrānī has described it:

Among them, the well-known saint and great gnostic Sīdī ‘Abd al-Majīd ibn Abī al-Qāsim al-Bādisī: he was originally from the Rif [1], from the region of the Banū Yaṭifat; he was of the Malāmatiyya, and dwelled in the funduq [2] associated with him north of the Qarawiyyīn Mosque, which is now known as the Funduq of Sīdī ‘Abd al-Majīd. He practiced numerous prayers upon the Prophet, God bless him and give him peace, constantly devoted to him and to prayers upon him, of immense affection towards him, enraptured in love of him, and of great love towards the Folk of the House [3]. And whenever he commenced with invocation of blessings upon the Prophet, God bless him and give him peace, he would begin with saying: ‘I take refuge in God from Shayṭān the accursed. In the name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate: verily, God and His angels pronounce blessings upon the Prophet—O you who believe, pronounce blessings upon him and ask for him peace!’ He would complete this arrangement in good order, letter by letter, then say: ‘O God, bless Muḥammad!’ then ecstasy would overwhelm him and he would simply cry out, ‘Muḥammad! Muḥammad!’ He did not cease remembrance of him standing or sitting, in whatever condition he was in, even in the latrine (bayt al-khalā’). It was said to him, ‘Do you mention him in the latrine?’ He replied, ‘It dwells, O brother,’ meaning, perhaps, love [of Muḥammad], but God knows best. Continue reading “The Funduq Saint of Fez: ‘Abd al-Majīd and His Exceptional Acts of Devotion”

‘Abd Allāh al-Salāsī Escapes a Toxic Environment and Is Not Going Back

Concerning the pious master of uncontested miracles, Shaykh Abū Muḥammad ‘Abd Allāh ibn Aḥmad ibn al-Ḥasan al-Khālidī al-Salāsī (d. 1023/1614), known as Ibn Ḥassūn: his origin, God be merciful to him, was from Salās, a group of villages a day’s journey out from Fes; then he moved to Salé. The reason for his journey to Salé was that there was fighting and war among the people of Salās, and if the people of Sīdī ‘Abd Allāh’s village were victorious he rejoiced, but if they fled in defeat he was saddened. So he thought to himself and said: ‘Loving victory produces [in me] love of evil towards Muslims, and by God’s covenant I cannot stay in a place wherein Muslims are so divided and wish evil upon them.’

So he traveled from there to Salé, and when he settled in Salé people from Salās came to him and attempted to induce his return to their land, urging him strongly to do so. But he took a drinking vessel and filled it with sea-water then set it down. He said to them, ‘Does not the water of the sea crash together, its waves constantly colliding? Why then is this portion of the sea in this drinking vessel still?’

They replied, ‘It is no longer in the sea.’ So he said to them, ‘Exile purifies and makes still.’ They understood his meaning and so gave up on trying [to get him to return].

Abū ʿAbdallāh Muḥammad al-Ṣaghīr al-Ifrānī, Ṣafwat man intashar min akhbār ṣulaḥāʾ al-qarn al-ḥādī ʻashar (Casablanca: Markaz al-Turāth al-Thaqāfī al-Maghribī, 2004), 65-66.

(Image at top: Detail of a decorative mattress component, from the 17th or 18th century Rif region of Morocco, probably Chefchaouen, in the general vicinity of the region in which part of the below story takes place (Cleveland Museum of Art 1916.1226))

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A Saint’s Shrine is His Castle: Or, Cautionary Tales from the Ṣafvat al-Ṣafā

Harvard University. Fine Arts Library, Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts, United States FA515.156.4 PF Calligraphy
A lithographic reproduction of some of the spectacular calligraphy and tilework which illumines the exterior of Shaykh Ṣadī al-Dīn’s shrine complex; this lithograph- itself a fine piece of artistic and technical work- comes from Friedrich Sarre’s book Ardabil, Grabmaschee des Schech Safi (Berlin: E. Wasmuth, 1924), the field work and photographs for which were completed in 1897, though writing and publication stretch out over the next two decades.

Everything associated with the veneration of the Safavid eponym Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn (on whom see this post and those prior to it) is monumental, it seems: his shrine complex is one of the most spectacular in the Islamicate world, his ‘official’ hagiography, Ṣafvat al-ṣafā, is a sprawling beast of a text, and the Ṣafavī ṭarīqa which grew up around his memory and practices would have an impact on world history rivaled by few other entities, sufi or otherwise, of the late medieval world. But while the Ṣafavī ṭarīqa would become the most famous and arguably significant legacy of the shaykh of Ardabil, his physical shrine in that city played a huge role as a center of veneration and of the religious and political community that formed around it. What follows is an examination of how that shrine was constructed- not primarily in a literal sense, but in terms of how its sacred status and socio-cultural weight was built up over time.

The outlines for the shrine complex were already laid down before the shaykh’s death in 1334, with some structures already in place. However it would be the shaykh’s son Ṣadr al-Dīn who began building the shrine towards its current configuration, and socially and politically cementing the place of the sufi community that had grown up around his father. The following stories, which are but a selection from an extensive chapter detailing miracles of Ṣafī al-Dīn after his death and, in most cases, in connection with his tomb-shrine, illustrate some aspects of the construction of the shrine’s sanctity and of the political role of the community centered on that shrine. A central motif in these stories is the inviolability of the saint’s tomb and, extending out from it, of the sufi community devoted to the saint- those who transgress either the sanctity of the tomb-shrine or who oppress the community of the saint are liable to be punished, sometimes in quite violent and grisly fashion! Another theme that runs through these stories (and across the whole Ṣafvat al-ṣafā in fact) is the role of the saint’s tomb-shrine and of his community as a source and site (quite literally!) of stability. Such stability was in high demand in the tumultuous years after Ṣafī al-Dīn’s death: a mere year after the shaykh’s death the last Ilkhanid khān, Abū Sa’īd, died, with a long period of political disintegration and conflict following. Two of the major contending parties in Iranian Azerbaijan, the Jalāyirids and the Chūbānids, make appearances in the following stories, though other sources of conflict existed, ranging from predatory local strongmen to feuds between semi-autonomous villages. By reinforcing the sanctity of the tomb-shrine Ṣadr al-Dīn and ibn Bazzāz, our hagiographer, worked to render the saint’s shrine and community a sort of anchor in a stormy sea of political change, while also activity intervening in and shaping political events, economic activity, and socio-cultural life in Ardabil and beyond.

Aspects of this work of sanctification already appear in our first account rendered here, which explains why the spectacular tomb-tower, the centerpiece of the entire complex and the physical location of the saint’s tomb, was built in such lofty and monumental fashion:

Harvard University. Fine Arts Library, Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts, United States FA515.156.4 PF Exterior
The exterior of the tomb-tower as it appeared at the end of the 19th century.

Story: [Ṣadr al-Dīn ibn Ṣafī al-Dīn], may his baraka be perpetuated, said: initially the illumined tomb-shrine (mazār) of the Shaykh, God sanctify his secret, was a small poor affair which we had constructed. The tomb-shrine lay below a ceiling with four vaulted walls above it, with small windows fronting the garden within the walls. The atmosphere of the tomb contained by the four walls was dark and gloomy. The ked-khudā [1] named Badr al-Dīn Ṣānūbī saw the Shaykh, God sanctify his secret, in a dream vision, with his blessed hands extended out from the blessed tomb-shrine, saying, ‘I am not contained within the two worlds, yet they have left me here in this gloomy place!’ On a following day he relayed these words to Ḥājjī Nakhjavānī.

When he, God perpetuate his baraka, came out of the zāviya, Ḥājjī Nakhjavānī repeated to him the gist of the dream to him, with Badr al-Dīn Ṣānūbī present. So he asked [Badr al-Dīn Ṣānūbī] about it, and he said the same thing. In that moment he, may his baraka persist, ordered that the intermediate ceiling of the tomb-shrine as well as the ceiling of the four vaulted walls both be raised, and the high-up windows be expanded to allow for more illumination, and that the door fronting the courtyard where Qur’an reciters and pilgrims sat be widened and increased in size; surrounding this door would be written honorifics of the Shaykh and something noting the date. Mavlānā ‘Azz al-Dīn Khaṭīb oversaw the calligraphy there; he had a nephew named Muḥammad, a young man, who worked on the calligraphic inscriptions with him. As was the custom he stood on the wood scaffolding, but occupied himself with ribald speech and inappropriate behavior, and while they were resting he would not listen [to his uncle?] until at one point he let out an enormous laugh, so that the plank he was standing on rebounded and he fell, was sorely injured, and died three days later.

The tomb-tower of Shaykh Ṣafī is indeed quite distinctive- while vaults and verticality were hardly unknown in shrine architecture, this particular tomb-shrine stands out for its height and its calligraphic-decorative scheme. The story suggests that the scale was meant to reflect the ‘scale’ of Shaykh Ṣafī himself: here is a saint whose ambit is not meant to be confined to one city or province, but has much greater ambitions, as it were. The story also reinforces a key logic to tomb-shrines such as this: actions done to the physical material of the shrine, and the configuration of the space within the shrine, are also done to the saint himself. Honor bestowed upon the shrine translates to honor bestowed to the saint, which ultimately translates to honor bestowed upon God. The second half of the story continues this logic, but in another, rather more punitive direction: the young apprentice working on the shrine’s exterior fails to respect the sanctity of the place, even as it is under construction.  The deadly serious sanctity of the tomb-shrine and its adjacent structures (at this point, primarily the zāviya or sufi ‘lodge’) is highlighted in our next account:

Harvard University. Fine Arts Library, Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts, United States FA515.156.4 PF Interior
The saint’s cenotaph, with a number of finely wrought metal candle-stands arranged before the cenotaph, some lit and supplementing the natural light streaming in from above- copious illumination, just as Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn had stipulated some centuries before!

[Another] Story: Amīr Kulāhdūz Ardabīlī was, by appointment of Amīr Shaykh Ḥasan Jalāyir, supreme governor (ḥākim-i muṭlaq) in Ardabīl. It was the custom of the murīds and the students of the Shayhk, God sanctify his spirit, that they would exert themselves in forbidding and hindering that which was forbidden and reprehensible, reckoning among their most important daily tasks the commanding of the good, in particular forbidding people from intoxication, games of chance, and [presence in] the house of ill-repute [2]. Amīr Kulāhdūz’s mind was disturbed by this, and he set to speaking against this community (ṭā’ife). He established a house of ill-repute in Ardabīl, and said, ‘I am going to the ordū [3], but when I return I am going to build alongside the blessed [sic.!] zāviya a [house] of ill-repute and will set up a tavern, and will give the so-called sufis the lute to play and to which to dance!’ It was impossible by means of polite forbidding to raise or redirect this idea from him, and so having said this he set out to the ordū, with [the saying] the intention of doing evil is worse than its commission stamped in his brain. Continue reading “A Saint’s Shrine is His Castle: Or, Cautionary Tales from the Ṣafvat al-Ṣafā”

‘Alī ibn Muḥammad al-‘Āmilī and the Aggressive Meccan Tour Guide

cps_w609137a_fp_dd-2
An eighteenth century Safavid depiction of the Ka’ba, around which our story’s protagonist wanted to circumambulate; here Majnūn and his father behold the sacred precints. From a copy of the Khamsa of Niẓāmī Ganjavī (Walters W.609).

Probably for as long as there have been pilgrims and tourists (with the line between the two categories often indistinct) there have been people who sought to make a living off of pilgrims and tourists, through means both licit and less so. Tour guides in both the form of written (and often illustrated) manuals and in the form of individuals knowledgeable of a given site are both venerable features of travel from the medieval world to the present. And just as most travelers in the present, self included, have had both good and bad experiences with guides, a range of responses to guides and guidance, solicited or not, can be found in the historical record.

The story translated below, which comes from the autobiographical section of a work by the Safavid Shi’i scholar ‘Alī ibn Muḥammad al-‘Āmilī (d. 1692), reflects the sometimes tense encounters pilgrims and tourists down to the present (well, pre-covid at least!) can have with self-appointed tour guides and their claims of expertise. The story takes place when a sixteen year old ‘Alī, whose family was from the important Shi’i center of learning Jabal ʿĀmil (located in what is now Lebanon), made the ḥajj for the first time, a few years after the death of his father. His story is largely self-explanatory (though see this helpful essay and images for background on the rituals and sites of the ḥajj if they are unfamiliar), and will no doubt resonate with any reader who has had a similar unpleasant experience negotiating unsolicited offers of guidance in a new place.

Ardabil Carpet

When I entered Mecca the Noble I preceded in front of the ḥajj caravan along with a couple of companions, riding mules from ‘Usfān [1]. When I reached Mecca the Noble I went to the Ḥaram in order to perform the ritual circumambulation (ṭawāf) of the ‘umrah (the ‘minor pilgrimage’). I was alone. First, I circled around al-Bayt al-Ḥarām so that I would recognize the designated locations which one needs to know during the circumambulation [2]. Then I wanted to start on the circumambulation, but a man from among those who there lead the people in the circumambulation came up to me and said, ‘I will take you on the circumambulation!’

But I replied to him, ‘I am a man from Syria and I arrived ahead of the Syrian ḥajj caravan, so I don’t have any dirhams with me right now to give to you—I’ve got nothing on me save what a pilgrim needs in his ritual state. Now, if you’re alright with it then instruct me for free, otherwise, leave me alone and I’ll perform the circumambulation by myself!’

Then he set to arguing with me and saying nasty things, until, while we were in the middle of it, a man approached and drew the man aside, saying to him, ‘Leave this one alone to circumambulate by himself! You want to instruct him in the circumambulation—but he and his father before him have themselves instructed a thousand people like you in the circumambulation!—’ or something to that effect— ‘so leave him alone so that he can perform the circumambulation.’ So he left me alone and I performed the circumambulation as I wished. Continue reading “‘Alī ibn Muḥammad al-‘Āmilī and the Aggressive Meccan Tour Guide”

Arguing Ibn ‘Arabī and Astrology in the Aq Qoyunlu Lands

Folio from a Shahnama (Book of kings) by Firdawsi (d. 1020)
While this miniature is meant to depict a scene from the Shāhnāma, it was produced for the Aq Qoyunlu court (as part of the so-called ‘Big Head Shāhnāma‘) and can give us an idea of what Aq Qoyunlu elites in the immediate orbit of the court would have looked like, their clothing and adjacent material objects reflective of their status; for a sufi such as Ibrāhīm-i Gülşenī there was always a certain ambiguity involved in politically positioning one’s self vis-a-vis such luxury and wealth. (Freer and Sackler S1986.172)

Claims to knowledge and authority are almost always contested, whatever the period or society, but in the often politically and culturally tumultuous Islamicate lands of the 15th and 16th centuries- the pivot point between ‘medieval’ and ‘early modern’- conflict and contestation were particularly vigorous and wide-ranging. Different models of religious authority- some centered on sainthood, others on exoteric scholarly acumen, with many grades within and between- as well as often sharply divergent versions of political authority and justification, to name but two categories of conflict, circulated and clashed from the Maghrib to Inner Asia. Advocates of one epistemic position or source of authority often sought political and culturally advantage, working to ‘cancel’ their adversaries, to use contemporary parlance.

In the massive Ottoman Turkish hagiographic work Menākıb-i İbrāhīm-i Gülşenī by Muḥyī-yi Gülşenī (d. 1605), which describes the life, travails, and practices of the founder of the Gülşenī ṭarīqa, Ibrāhīm-i Gülşenī (d. 1534), we find many valuable snapshots of such conflict in the Ottoman lands- where Ibrāhīm ended up and where his hagiographer Muḥyī lived most of his life- as well as in Ibrāhīm’s native territory, the Aq Qoyunlu domains (which covered parts of what are now Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Turkey). I have selected two such instances that are chronologically close together, both set in the waning days of the Aq Qoyunlu dynasty in the late fifteenth century: in the first, we see conflict over the works of Ibn ‘Arabī, the famous (or infamous according to some) medieval sufi theologian and philosopher whose works and ideas would have a massive impact well into our own day. The second excerpt has to do with conflict between Shaykh Ibrāhīm and court astrologers attached to Sultan Ya’qūb’s court. We begin with the conflict over Ibn ‘Arabī; the accusation of the ẖalīfes (appointed delegates of a sufi shaykh) being ‘Fuṣūṣīs’ is in reference to one of Ibn ‘Arabī’s most famous works, Fuṣūs al-ḥikam:

It is related that when the ẖalīfes of Dede [ʿUmar Rūshanī, Ibrāhīm’s precepting shaykh] Efendi dispersed in order to instruct the Turkmen of Qarabāǧ, while the common people were lovingly engaged with zikr and meditation, certain students of ‘ilm in that region, having conversed with them, became envious and accused them if infidelity, saying, “These are Fuṣūṣīs!’ They gathered together and came before Dede [Efendi], said some worthless things, then took [copies] of the Fuṣūs and piled them up. The venerable Dede said, “I am not Shaykh Ibn ’Arabī’s trustee, but there are portions of the noble Qur’an therein, and burning [them] would be a sin.” He having said this, they all rushed together and bore the venerable Dede off to Tabriz for examination (teftīş). Coming before Qāḍī ‘Īsā they acted very impolitely (bī-adablik).

When Shaykh Ibrāhīm received report of this, he immediately found a mount and came to Qāḍī ‘Īsā. He saw that some hundred immature [literally, ‘not cooked,’ nā-puẖte] students (suẖte) had assembled. He inquired about their condition. When they answered, the shaykh said: ‘It’s a wonder— every time that you brought to us any need of yours, we would fulfill it, but now what is this shamelessness? If you are envious of offerings, tithes, and charity, then come and go to your proper place. The fuqarā’ are not seekers of this world below, and those who act with impropriety will receive their lot.” So saying he broke up the assembly. While the shaykh was together with Qāḍī ‘Īsā, they arranged it such that coming to Sulṭān Ya’qūb they conveyed him to the venerable Dede, and coming to the venerable Dede the sultan entered, made ziyāret, and asked his prayers. Qāḍī ‘Īsā then summoned the ‘ulamā’, and Shaykh Ibrāhīm called the venerable Dede to a feast, saying, “All is at your disposal!” Not wishing to be at odds with Shaykh Ibrāhīm or Qāḍī ‘Īsā, all of the ‘ulamā’ kissed the venerable Dede’s hand, asked his supplicatiom, and sought his forgiveness. Mevlānā ‘Abd al-Ghanī and Mevlānā spent seven days withdrawn in the venerable Dede’s service, and reaped much benefit thereby. [1]

A couple of interesting things stand out: first, this passage reminds us that whereas in the early modern period Ibn ‘Arabī would be increasingly universally received, including among the ‘exoteric ‘ulamā” as a saint and master theologian (though hold-outs rejecting or critiquing him would certainly persist), in the 15th century deep divides still remained, with many Islamic scholars rejecting al-Shaykh al-Akbar as not just incorrect but as an infidel [2]. Dede ʿUmar’s own position is itself a bit ambiguous here, as he disavows being the ‘trustee’ of Ibn ‘Arabī, and defends his works rather lamely (though perhaps this was temporary exigency). Ibrāhīm-i Gülşenī, by contrast, was a much more vigorous defender. In this account he teamed up with a close ally in the Aq Qoyunlu administration, Qāḍī ‘Īsā, to effectively shame the opponents of Ibn ‘Arabī into submission, unabashedly utilizing his close connections with the Aq Qoyunlu elite to do so. The opponents are also an interesting lot: in the Ottoman context the ‘suẖte,’ meaning there students in the medrese system, would become notorious at a later period for social unrest. Here their profile is less clear, but Shaykh Ibrāhīm’s rebuke suggests aspiring ‘ulamā’ who had not secured elite patronage and for whom Ibn ‘Arabī-quoting sufis were direct competitors for authority and physical patronage.

LJS 434 Jadāvil-i ikhtiyārāt
Astrologers were common components in late medieval and early modern ‘knowledge economies’ across the Islamicate world (and beyond), often in the service of political elites; the astrological work from which this colorful schematic came was produced under Timurid rule in eastern Persia, almost contemporaneous with the story below of astrologers in the service of the Aq Qoyunlu sultan Ya’qūb ibn Ūzūn Ḥasan. (University of Pennsylvania, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, LJS 434)

Competition for epistemic authority and, closely intertwined with that authority, sultanic patronage and attention appears in our second story, too. This brief account takes place shortly after the above report, and is part of a much longer description of a campaign undertaken by Sultan Ya’qūb; Shaykh Ibrāhīm has come out on campaign, too, and offers a very different prognostication than that given by the court astrologers:

The sultan’s astrologers, each of whom received from the sultan as part of his employment a regular stipend of a hundred thousand akçes, said to the shaykh: “Now then! We are compelled to go [on campaign], but why are you coming voluntarily? For that the sultan is going to be utterly routed is determined, we have learned it from our examination and observation of the stars.” The shaykh replied, “I rather have witnessed in the divine astrolabe that Bāyindir H̱an will be killed, and the sultan victorious and triumphant, so that the hadith Every astrologer is a liar will be shown true.” Yet in accord with their beliefs they continued to hold forth, and the shaykh said, “If your words prove false, ought not your stipend be cut off?” Humbling themselves the astrologers pleaded, saying, “Woe is us! Don’t say such to anyone, and let it not be thus, for the sake of your sacred head!” The shaykh replied, “If your knowledge is not completely cut off, still it will not be hard for it to be [rendered] doubtful and ambiguous.” [3] Continue reading “Arguing Ibn ‘Arabī and Astrology in the Aq Qoyunlu Lands”