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”

Badr al-Dīn al-Ghazzī’s Guide to Eating Etiquette

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While hailing from a century and a half after al-Ghazzī, this depiction of men at table is fairly close to the sorts of settings envisioned in al-Ghazzī’s manual: the table is low to the ground, the diners sit on the ground, with large dishes of food which they share. A tablecloth might be present in some cases, though here it is not. From a 1721 copy of the Hamse of the seventeenth century Ottoman poet ʿAṭāʾī (Walters W.666)

For many people on earth, self included, the last year has been one of varying degrees of so-called social distancing, lost opportunities, and missing comforts and pleasures, including the pleasant (and, as the below will suggest, sometimes not quite so pleasant) experience of eating with others, whether in a domestic or public setting. As the year and then some of covid gradually recedes over the coming months and more of our ordinary social life returns, you may soon find yourself venturing out to eat, or inviting others to your home for a shared meal. Given that we have been off our table etiquette game for some while now, it seems a good time to offer a bit of a refresher in some things to do and not to do when dining in the company of others. Towards that end, I’ve translated- and will probably continue to add over the coming days as the fancy strikes me- excerpts of a wonderfully delightful sixteenth century Ottoman manual of eating etiquette, the Risālat ādāb al-muʼākala of the prominent Damascene ‘ālim Badr al-Dīn al-Ghazzī (d. 1577). This short treatise is basically a compendium of etiquette errors to be avoided, and while providing genuine guidance to good manners when dining with others is also quite funny; as such, I have been a bit freer in my translations below than usual.

The material and social context of these entries can in many cases be surmised in part from the contents, however, for a much fuller exploration of that context and what this treatise can tell us about early modern Ottoman sociability and dining habits- which both coincide with and diverge from our own- see a recent lovely article by Helen Pfeifer, ‘The Gulper and the Slurper: A Lexicon of Mistakes to Avoid While Eating with Ottoman Gentlemen,‘ in the Journal of Early Modern History; fortunately the article is open-access and so available to all, do give it a read- and my thanks to Helen for both making me aware of this little treatise and digitally lending me a copy of the print edition!

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The repulsive: he who puts what he has taken out of his food such as bones or date pits or the like in front of his neighbor, which is repulsive to him due to how much he eats. It is related that two men who did not get along with one another were present at the table of one of the bigwigs. Fresh dates were brought out to the two of them, and one of the two men put all of the pits he extracted from the dates in front of the other man, until he had a pile in front of him greater than that of anyone else assembled there. Then the first man turned to the master of the house and said, ‘Will you not look my lord at how many fresh dates so-and-so has eaten! There are enough date pits in front of him to suffice the whole assembly.’ His companion though turned to [the master of the house] and said, ‘As for me, God make you prosper, it’s as he said, I have eaten a lot of dates—however this idiot has eaten the dates pits and all!’ At this the whole group laughed and the repulsive one was embarrassed.

The tearful: he who snatches up hot food to eat, not waiting for it to cool—he grabs the morsel, not paying any attention to whether it’s too hot to eat, and so his eyes become tearful due to the burning in his mouth, and perhaps he is obliged to expel the food in his mouth, or to swallow it down with a drought of cold water big enough to compensate for the burning produced by his stomach.

The gurgler: he who, if he wants to talk, does not wait until he has swallowed his bite of food, but rather talks while he is chewing and so gurgles like a camel, and no one is able to understanding what he is saying—especially if it’s a lot of food in his mouth!

The licker: he is named the licker-upper, he who licks his fingers in order to remove from them the fat from his food before he is finished eating, then he goes right back to eating [with his fingers]. As for [doing this] after finishing with eating, it’s no problem in so far as he does not return [to eating]. The most preferable of conditions is that one pays attention to wipe the fingers with something, such as the tablecloth (mi’zar), every time.

Badr al-Dīn al-Ghazzī, Risālat ādāb al-muʼākala, ed. ʿUmar Musa Basha (Rabāt : Maktabat al-Maʻārif, 1984), 17-18, 19, 20, 21. Continue reading “Badr al-Dīn al-Ghazzī’s Guide to Eating Etiquette”

The Cow, the Wolf, and the Talking Rocks

A shaykh in the countryside, cattle busily engaged in agriculture and not pursued by wolves, as depicted in 1487 in a manuscript of ‘Aṭṭār’s Manṭiq al-ṭayr, produced in Herat a few years before the Safavid conquest (Met. 63.210.49)

The hagiography of the Anatolian Muslim saint Ḥācım Sulṭān (first introduced here) captures various snapshots of a major transitional period in the region’s history, in which over the course of the fifteenth and early sixteenth century the frontier polities that had proliferated in the post-Mongol period were being incorporated into the rapidly expanding Ottoman Empire. Ottoman expansion took place in a world in which nomadic and semi-nomadic Turkic-speakers had spread widely in Anatolia and further west into the Balkans, part of a general cultural and social flux marked by the disappearance of the Byzantine Empire and an increasingly complex and diverse articulation of Islam in town and countryside. Given that Ḥācım Sulṭān’s hagiography dates from somewhere in the fifteenth century- almost certainly after the incorporation of Germiyan, the polity in which much of the action occurs, into the Ottoman realm- we can usefully read it as a window into some of the realities and cultural attitudes typical of the start of the Ottoman period. The Ottoman polity itself is not mentioned, nor is any other higher-level polity. Instead, authority operates at the very local level, invested in strongmen in towns, in town and village qāḍīs- such as the one in the following story- and in the sometimes competing, sometimes cooperating saintly dervishes wandering the countryside or dwelling in saints’ shrines.

The story excerpted and translated here is set in a village, to which the saint has come for a time (the central story arc of the first third or so of the hagiography is Ḥācım Sulṭān’s quest for the designated place of his future āstāne and shrine). He tends, with the helps of his miraculous black bull companion, the village herds, occupying a rather ambiguous position: he is referred to here and at other points in the story as being a ‘dīvāne,’ a polyvalent word literally meaning ‘crazy’ but also connotative of a wandering dervish. The characters in this story use it in a decidedly negative way, pointing to a reality that Ḥācım Sulṭān’s hagiography does not try to obscure: not everyone accepted his sainthood, and the towns and countryside of earliest modern Anatolia had many claimants to sanctity, not all of whom received universal acclaim. It is also worth noting that here and in many other stories in this vilāyetnāme women feature prominently, both as supporters of the saint and as members of a sometimes skeptical audience in need of convincing.

Finally, alongside depictions of everyday life in the countryside- putting cattle out to pasture, the threat of wolves, and the like- we also see a local qāḍī, or judge, at work. The question of who appointed him and from whence he draws his salary is of no interest to our narrative; what counts is his responsiveness to the villagers’ request for an investigation and his willingness to accept Ḥācım Sulṭān’s proofs of sainthood. Already in this period we get the sense that the norms of Islamic jurisprudence were known to some degree even deep in the countryside, an important foundation for the effectiveness of the Ottoman scholarly-legal bureaucracy and hierarchy already being formed.

Nomads tending to their cattle, from the c. 1400 Divān of the poetry of the Jalāyirid ruler Sulṭān Aḥmad Jalāyir (d. 1410). (Freer and Sackler F1932.34)

Another vilāyet of Ḥācım Sulṭān: there was a little elderly woman who had a single cow (ınek). She would bring the cow out to pasture. Then one day Sulṭān Ḥācım said to her, ‘Mother, by God’s command a wolf is going to eat this cow! Do not pasture her.’ But the woman did not listen. She put the cow out to pasture. Now [Ḥācım Sulṭān] gathered all the cattle [of the village] gathered together and moved them along, but this poor woman’s cow separated from the rest of the cattle and went to another place. With God’s permission a wolf came forth and ate the cow up. Evening fell. All of the animals returned to their homes, but the woman’s cow did not come. For a while they searched but did not find [it]. Finally, the woman’s sons were at a loss. Then about it they said, ‘That crazy one (dīvāne) has palmed off this cow! At any rate let’s go and find him.’ So they went and asked Ḥācım Sulṭān, ‘What did you do with our cow?’ He replied, ‘Your cow was eaten by a wolf in such-and-such a place in the vicinity of such-and-such.’ To which they replied, ‘Surely you are talking nonsense! Come, let us go to the qāḍī and you give [him] answer.’ Ḥācım Sulṭān replied, ‘Let us go!’

So from there they went to the qāḍī. The sons complained to the qāḍī, saying, ‘Efendi, this crazy one watched over our cattle—or, rather, he himself didn’t, his big black bull did. Now, ask this careless one what he did with our cow!’ So the qāḍī asked, ‘Crazy one, what did you do with these young men’s cow? Let us see how things stand.’ Ḥācım Sulṭān replied, ‘I warned this aged mother that she ought not put the cow out to pasture as with God’s permission as a wolf would eat [it]. She did not listen, added [the cow] to the grazing herd, and the wolf ate [it].’ Continue reading “The Cow, the Wolf, and the Talking Rocks”

Ḥācım Sulṭān Fights a Dragon

Ident.Nr. I. 4 Sammlung- Museum für Islamische Kunst
Detail of a woolen rug, roughly contemporary with the account of Ḥācım Sulṭān and the dragon, depicting a dragon and phoenix in highly stylized fashion. Produced- probably- in the expanding Ottoman lands by Turkman weavers (and so related to the carpet in our previous visit with Ḥācım Sulṭān), the motif looks to both long-standing Chinese artistic renderings of dragons and phoenixes as well as to textile art current among Turkic groups in Anatolia at the time. (Museum für Islamische Kunst, Ident.Nr. I. 4)

We’ve met Ḥācım Ṣultān before, so I will not give an introduction here, as the following account comes from the same late medieval into early modern hagiography translated in my previous post. This is one is a little different, however, both in subject matter- a battle with a mountaintop dragon!- and in its style, which I have tried to reproduce here as much as possible. Quite frankly, there are sections of this story that I do not fully understand, some of which it is possible the sixteenth century copyist did not fully understand either. The feeling of orality is very strong here, the core story- in which a mountaintop is broken into strange rock formations and colored red- sounding very much like an etiological tale in origin. The hagiography has done a couple of interesting things with the story: it is nested within a larger narrative in which rival dervishes and saints of Western Anatolia spar with and test Ḥācım Ṣultān, having just sent a man named Alaca Altu (‘one of the piebald horse’) to strike down the saint. Upon finding Ḥācım Ṣultān, Alaca Altu dismounted his horse, then

took his weapon in his hand. He gave a loud cry. He set out for Sulṭān Ḥācım. He struck but did not cut. Again he struck but he did not cut. A third time he struck but did not cut! Then the venerable Sulṭān Ḥācım said, ‘You must know, Alaca Atlu, your blade is not going to cut me. But mount your horse and so that you can come and fulfill my intention, upon that hill you ought to go and eat some food! When you ride up there let the dervishes cook you some kebab. We will not slice you up!’

The ‘hill’ becomes the focal point of the following story, which probably originally stood alone. After fighting the dragon, the hagiography continues beyond my translation, Alaca Atlu did indeed come up the mountain and eat some kebab with the dervishes and Ḥācım Ṣultān- a happy ending for everyone (except the dragon!). But before we think further about this tale, here it is, translated as best I could manage- with a stronger than usual caveat about the contingency of a translation.

Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Persan 174 fol. 11v
Dragons have been fixtures of art and imagination in Anatolia for many centuries; this two-headed dragon (or, rather, the angel of the fourth station of the moon taking the form of a dragon!) hails from late 13th century Seljuk Anatolia, reflecting the absorption of Byzantine art and motifs into emergent Islamic art and culture in the region (BnF MS Persan 174 fol. 11v)

Now then that mountain was very densely forested. A bird flying in could not fly out. Some people were dissimulatory towards Sulṭān Ḥācım, saying, ‘In the region of Menteşe he turned a woman into a man, in Germiyan he held up the water, and Alaca Altu could not kill him! Come, let us go and slay the dragon that has come into this forest,’ they said [to him]. Sulṭān Ḥācım entered the path. Upon the path the dragon manifest itself. Out of fear neither human nor jinn would draw close to it, however, one of those dissimulatory towards Muḥammad Muṣṭafā, upon whom be peace, out of coarseness said, ‘Master, you approach it!’ Now, in order to shame the hypocrites God revealed to his most pious and perfect Beloved suras and verses. Muḥammad Muṣṭafā recited [them], and the hypocrites were shamed and saddened. One came to the faith. He said, ‘Ya Muḥammad, if we had not treated you unkindly who would have known you to be a prophet?’ Now, then, it is likewise with God’s saintly servants, God having commanded concerning obligation towards them, saying, ‘Verily, there is no fear in the friends of God nor do are they saddened.’ The saints know one another’s states, though one who but accompanies the dervishes might deny [them]. They make sainthood manifest.

Now, then, Ḥācım Ṣultān approached the place of the dragon. Dervish Burhān followed behind him. Along the way, Dervish Burhān could hear a voice, and the smell of corruption was wafting along. All of his limbs went limp, and his reason was on the point of fleeing. Sulṭān Ḥācım said, ‘What is the matter Burhān?’ Dervish Burhān said, ‘My sulṭān, there is a bad smell coming from that forest! My reason is on the point of departing!’ Sulṭān Ḥācım said, ‘Let us walk forward. Alongside Seyyīd Ghāzī we drew the sword against the infidels and waged holy struggle while opening [to Islam] this place. At the time [this dragon] was a serpent akin to a creeping reptile. It seems that now it has become a dragon. Will it attack a human?’ Continue reading “Ḥācım Sulṭān Fights a Dragon”

Ḥācım Sulṭān, the Questing Dervish, and the Troublesome Nomads

Fourtheenth Century Anatolian Carpet
Surviving traces of late medieval nomadic material culture are, unsurprisingly, few and far between, but this probably fourteenth century carpet of probable western Anatolian Turkman origin is an exception. The fronted animal motifs are reminiscent of Inner Asian nomadic art of much earlier times down to the present; however, the survival of this rug, by way of trade to, apparently, Tibet, as well as the presence of very similar rugs in Western European paintings from the fourteenth and fifteenth century points to the fact that these Anatolian tribes were already connected to emergent global networks through which people, practices, objects, and non-human organisms moved. For another example of this style of rug, see the even further-flung in final destination ‘Marby rug.’ (Met. 1990.61)

Hailing from the world of late medieval and very early modern Anatolia are a group of hagiographic texts, often titled vilāyetnāmes (roughly, ‘sainthood-books’), which deal with a wide range of holy people loosely tied together through similarities of practice, discourse, and claimed lineage. Many of these saints, who are often collectively referred to as the Abdāl-i Rūm, are today associated with the Bektashis and Alevis, though until the modern period they were widely venerated, including by ‘respectable’ Sunni Ottoman Muslims. Ḥācı Bektāş Velī is by far the best known of these saints, the majority of whom are described in the hagiography as hailing from Khorasan in Inner Asia. In what follows below I have translated a selection from the vilāyetnāme of one of these saints, the (probably) 14th century Ḥācım Sulṭān, whose hagiography was written down in the fifteenth century, with the earliest copy hailing from the sixteenth. As such, it is a wonderful snapshot of what rural Islam looked like in western Anatolia during this transitional period in which the late medieval beyliks were being progressively incorporated into the expansive Ottoman Empire. It is one in which wandering saints are common, as well as cases of opposition to those saints, and contestation over the meaning of sainthood and who ought to wield it. It is a world in which nomadic peoples remain prominent, with the saints themselves effectively nomadic much of the time.

Before reading the story it is helpful to know what precedes it: in the opening pages of the vilāyetnāme we learn how Ḥācım Sulṭān was sent to Anatolia (that is, Rūm) along with Ḥācı Bektāş Velī by the famed Central Asian saint Aḥmet Yesevī. The two saints spent some time in Mecca and Medina before coming to Anatolia, where they first met with the saints already resident in Rūm, displaying their own saintly credentials before setting off to build up their base of followers. Ḥācım Sulṭān split off from his more famous companion (and the hagiography clearly builds upon the relationship to legitimize Ḥācım Sulṭān), traveling towards the territory of Germiyān in southwestern Anatolia. He herds cattle, deals with opponents, miraculously manipulates rocks, and so forth, all the while seeking out a place called Ṣūsuz (that is, ‘waterless’) which he has been told in a dream-vision is the place he must set up his headquarters, as it were. When he finally comes to Ṣūsūz (located south of the town of Uşak) he finds that a group of Aq Qoyunlū Turkman nomads are already using the area as their summer pasture, setting up a clash between the wandering dervish and the resident Turkmans. In the meantime, it should be mentioned, a miraculous black bull enters his service and attracts wonder everywhere he goes.

The story I’ve selected and translated here describes a new character entering Ḥācım Sulṭān’s fold, a dervish from far-off Khurāsān, a tale which is followed by one describing the resolution of the conflict between saint and nomads. Late medieval Anatolia was already a place intimately connected with other parts of Eurasia, whether through trade- as the above carpet suggests- or through the circulation of nomads, wandering dervishes, and the like, often coming, ultimately, from Inner Asia. It is not implausible that the outbreak of death in the nomadic camp as described below can be interpreted in light of the circulation of epidemic disease across Eurasia, an issue that remains very much acute in our own world.

This hagiography, like others of its sort, was written in a form of Turkish intermediate between late West Oghuz and the emergent Ottoman literary form, with what appear to be sixteenth century interjections here and there explaining words that had become obscure. These hagiographies were assembled out of oral reports and stories, something that frequently comes across in the written text, and reflect the intermingling and cross-fertilization of standard Islamic practices and ideas, elements of Persianate sufism, and local Anatolian motifs and traditions. As such, the meanings and significances of these stories are not always obvious, coming as they do from religious and cultural worlds that feel far distant from our own in many ways. I hope that my translation has retained some of that strangeness.

Folio from a Divan (Collected poems) by Sultan Ahmad Jalayir (d.1410); verso- Nomad camp; recto- text
Filling the margins of this c. 1400 Divān of the poetry of the Jalāyirid ruler Sulṭān Aḥmad Jalāyir (d. 1410) are depictions of an encampment of either Turkman or Mongol nomads. While probably produced in Iraq or Iran, this ink drawing gives a good idea of what the Turkman community described in Ḥācım Sulṭān’s vilāyetnāme might have looked like. (Freer and Sackler F1932.34)

There was a pure-hearted, worshipful, ascetic dervish saint in the lands of Khurāsān, whose name was Burhān, and who was a lover of the Folk of the illustrious House, and was in heart and soul a lover of the Friends of God. His heart was filled with passionate love (muḥabbet-i ‘aşıḳ). He constantly prayed, ‘O God of the worlds, make me to obtain to the skirt of one of the children of the Messenger!’ He consigned his heart to the divine unicity of God, exalted is He. One night while performing tesbīḥ, ‘ibādet, and zikr, he fell asleep. In his dream he saw that he had come to the lands of Rūm, where he saw that the saints of Rūm had all gathered together in one place, performing acts of worship and conversing about divine matters together. This dervish came up to them, and they offered him a place, so he sat down and saw that their khalīfe was one of luminous face and such that in seeing him one’s heart was struck with passionate divine love. This their khalīfe was Ḥācım Sulṭān. He said, ‘Welcome, my friend and loyal one, Dervīş Burhān!’ Hearing this answer [Burhān] arose and kissed Sulṭān Ḥācım’s hands and knees, saying, ‘You are my şeyh and my saint!’ Then the venerable Sulṭān Ḥācım said, ‘Yā Burhān! If you wish to be with us, come to Rūm, to the region of Germiyān, and you will find us.’ In that moment Dervīş Burhān awoke and found himself still in his room in Khurāsān. Immediately he arose and Dervīş Burhān became mad with love (divāne), passionate love encompassing him. Asking no one [for direction] he set off in the direction of the qibla. Will not anyone overtaken with divine passionate love (‘aşıḳ-i ilāhī) become divāne? Will not such a one vigorously search out for his şeyh? Not even the crossing of a great stony mountain phased Dervīş Burhān’s mind. In accordance with the saying ‘For the lover Baghdad is not too far away,’ day by day he traveled on the way, and in time one day he reached Rūm. Divine attraction towards the saints of God befell his heart (evlīyā’-i Allāhiñ cezbesi ḳelbiñe duşdi). One day he reached the region of Germiyān and said to himself, ‘Now, how shall I find his exalted side?’ It came to his mind that ‘Having taken me from Khurāsān shall I not reach his feet?’

Then by God’s decree he came to the graveyard (gūristān). He saw that some of the nomad households had made their summer pasturing grounds in the wild country there. Finding someone he asked, ‘What is this place?’ This person answered, ‘This place is Germiyān and is our summer pasture. Upon that hill there is a dervish like you who spends forty days neither eating nor drinking. He continually tells us, “In this place I am going to build my āstāne [lit. threshhold, but also indicating a sufi lodge or a shrine].” He refuses to go to any other place.’ Dervīş Burhān replied, ‘Now where is this dervish?’ The person answered, ‘He’s on that hill.’ So Dervīş Burhān set out towards him, which was known to Sulṭān Ḥācım. He rose from his place and went forward by three steps. Dervīş Burhān beheld the beauty (cemāl) of Sulṭān Ḥācım, so that his heart was illumined and he knew that he was the person he was seeking and whom he had seen in his dream. He walked towards him. He greeted him. Ḥācim Sulṭān reverently returned his greeting, saying ‘Welcome Dervīş Burhān,’ and he [Burhān] kissed his hands and feet, and in mutual love for one another they busied themselves with remembrance (zikr) of God. [Dervīş Burhān] reverently served Ḥācim Sulṭān. Continue reading “Ḥācım Sulṭān, the Questing Dervish, and the Troublesome Nomads”

Simēon of Poland Does Not Have a Good Time in Quarantine

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The lazaretto at Livorno, Tuscany, Italy: panoramic view. Coloured etching by Pompeo Lapi. (Wellcome Library no. 24279i)

The practice of quarantine- or at least quarantine as we now think of it- was first developed in late medieval Venice, and was gradually developed in early modern Europe with increasing legal and infrastructural support and method. One such institution was the lazaretto, an example of which, that of Livorno, is pictured above, as it looked in the 18th century. From the sixteenth century forward lazarettos were built in a number of European cities and ports, generally with a similar layout: something of a combination between a merchants’ caravansarai or khan and a fortress, designed to accommodate travelers and their goods while monitoring them for diseases, particularly the plague.

The Armenian traveler Simēon of Poland (b. 1584), whose travels primarily took place within the Ottoman Empire, left the Ottoman lands in 1611 for a sojourn in Rome, a city with which he was much impressed. However, upon departing the Ottoman Empire and entering Venetian-controlled territory, Simēon found himself forced into involuntary quarantine in the lazeretto (no longer extant) of Split, modern-day Croatia. His account, translated by George A. Bournoutian, describes his reaction to this practice, one unfamiliar to a traveler used to Ottoman customs, which did not yet include quarantine, his apprehension compounded by the language divide he encountered on the Venetian side of the frontier:

When we crossed the other side of the river and entered the fortress of Split, soldiers came out to meet us. We were overjoyed and thought they had come to honour us. But they took us to a house, which is called Nazaret [1], shut the door on us, and left. Not knowing their language or the circumstances surrounding the event, we remained there in depressed sorrow and cried all day. In the evening, looking out of the windows, we saw many merchants- Christians and Muslims- from various cities: Istanbul, Angora, Edirne, Julfa and other regions. Conversing with them, we asked, ‘Why have they detained us?’ They replied that such was their custom; even if the Sultan of Turkey came they had to put him in quarantine. Hearing this we became so distressed and such an irreparable melancholy came over us that our entire being was disturbed and our tongues dried out. We suffered thus in jail and in chains and even avoided each other; no one came to visit us and we did not see anyone. On the second day they brought a gvardian, that is, a nāẓir [2], and said that he shall carry out and buy whatever we wish. However, we did not know his tongue, nor did he know ours. We, therefore, explained to him via hand signs, like dumb people. If we asked for food, even fruit, they handed it to us through the window and we threw out the money…

They came every week, examined our worn clothes, bags, silk, shook them and hung them on ropes. They hung thus till evening. We somewhat comforted ourselves by talking to the Armenians who stood at a distance. They told us that there were different quarantines: those who have beeswax, hides, or morocco leather, and other similar goods, but do not have mohair, they keep twenty-five days. Those who have goods made of felt, leather, wool, or items made of mohair, are kept for forty days. We had nothing, but the vardapets had several rolls of wool to present as gifts to the Pope; because of that they detained us for forty days. Alas! Alas! Alas! Woe is me!

Simēon of Poland, The Travel Accounts of Simēon of Poland, trans. and ed. by George A. Bournoutian (Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers, 2007).

[1] Simēon no doubt mixed up the unfamiliar Italian word lazarett with the very similar sounding Ottoman Turkish naẓāret, meaning view or supervision.

[2] Here Simēon more or less accurately translates the Italian term into Ottoman Turkish, nāẓir meaning a superintendent and hence in this case one who looks after the quarantined travelers.

A Cultural Entrepreneur in Late Eighteenth Century Cairo

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

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

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

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

Imām al-Layth, the Debtor, the Parakeet, and the Ruler

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The minaret and street entrance to the shrine-mosque of Imām al-Layth, as it existed c. 1920 when it was photographed by Sir K.A.C. Creswell (V&A 1573-1921)

During his various journeys,ʿAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (1641-1731) visited many, many shrines of saints and prophets, some known throughout the world, others of only local purchase. In his accounts of his journeys he makes much of these visits, recording them in sometimes great detail and with his own poetic contributions. Very often he reports local accounts of the holy person venerated in the shrine, providing precious insights into the ‘oral hagiography’ and local practices of saintly veneration and saintly space that prevailed in the late seventeenth century around the Ottoman world.

One of the many holy tombs al-Nābulusī visited in the course of his extended stay in Cairo during the pilgrimage journey recounted in his al-Ḥaqīqa wa-al-majāz fī riḥlat bilād al-Shām wa-Miṣr wa-al-Ḥijāz was that of Imām al-Layth ibn Saʿd (713-791), a major figure in the early elaboration of Islamic jurisprudence. Rather like his ‘neighbor’ Imām al-Shāfiʿī, by al-Nābulusī’s time Imām al-Layth was regarded as much, if not more, as a wonder-working saint than as a scholar of jurisprudence, as the story I’ve translated here suggests.

While the central point of the story is pretty straightforward- and rather charming- certain details stand out for thinking about how Ottoman Muslims experienced the built space of such shrines. First, it should be noted, as al-Nābulusī does in introducing this structure a bit before the translated passage, and as can be seen in the photographs, reproduced here, taken by K.A.C. Creswell in the late 1910s, the shrine sat pretty much continuous with the surrounding houses, marked off by its dome (qubba, see below) and relatively low but ornate minaret, both of late Mamluk provenance. The line between house and shrine could be blurred in other ways: the man in the story practices the venerable rite of ‘incubation,’ sleeping in a holy place so as to receive a vision or answer to a prayer. If the shrine was seen as a sort of ‘home’ for the entombed saint, incubation was equivalent to a guest spending the night.

The fact that al-Nābulusī heard this story, perhaps from a neighbor to the shrine, indicates that the space remained ‘alive’ to local residents and devotees, as did the saint himself, even to the point of attracting an additional element to his name (at least among his local devotees). It’s a good reminder that whatever the intentions of the original founders of the tomb (which certainly predates the ‘modern’ late Mamluk construction visible now to us) or of later patrons and builders, those intentions might have only partially been respected or even recognized by later participants in the sanctified space.

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The qubba- dome- and rooftop of the shrine, fairly typical of mausoleum architecture during the Mamluk period (V&A 1571-1921)

The reason for his being given the kunya [1] of Abū al-Makārim [that is, ‘Father of Noble Deeds’] among the people of Cairo is what was told us in the following manner, namely that there was a man with many debts. He set out sincerely for a pious visit to [Imām al-Layth], and recited the Fātiḥa for him and supplicated God, asking for relief from his debt. He slept here in the shrine and saw [Imām al-Layth] in a dream. He said to the man: ‘When you arise from your dream take hold of and possess what you see upon my tomb!’

When the man arose from his sleep, he saw upon his tomb the bird known as parrot (babbaghā’) or parakeet (durra), and it could recite in the manner of an expert reciter the Qur’an in all its seven recitations! [2] So he took hold of it, and soon the people had heard of it, to the point that word of it reached the ruler of Cairo, and he commanded that the man be brought to his presence so that he might take the bird from him. When he came into the ruler’s presence the ruler bought it from him, and with the money the man was able to repay all of his debts.

Continue reading “Imām al-Layth, the Debtor, the Parakeet, and the Ruler”