An Ottoman Remix

Ottoman Qur'an Mounting

This curious piece, which consists of three early medieval (9th or 10th century) Qur’an folios written in un-voweled Kufic script pasted together then attached to a piece of paperboard and framed with lovely floral border devices, dates (probably) to the eighteenth century, and was produced somewhere in the Ottoman world. It is currently held in the Freer and Sackler Gallery (S1998.8).

Besides it intrinsic loveliness- the bold angular Kufic script contrasts nicely with the delicate flowing lines of the floral elements- this piece of artistic ‘remixing’ presents some questions which I at least cannot answer with any certainty but are worth asking anyway. What was the original setting and intention of this piece? Would it have been in a collected volume of similar pieces or of other ‘remixes’ (calligraphy, paintings, and drawings taken from their original contexts and remounted in new settings, primarily)? Or would it have been displayed, similar to a hilye-i şerif? How would an Ottoman viewer have understood this presentation: was it seen as a link with the far distant Islamic past, or perhaps as an especially potent means of connecting with the power of the Qu’ranic text? Or was the point of this display simply to show a nice instance of Kufic script, or perhaps to appreciate the folios as something along the lines of antiques? Was there something special about these folios- for instance, we know that very old Qur’an volumes and folios in the Ottoman world and elsewhere were sometimes treated as relics due to their assumed linkage with a key figure in the deep Islamic past. Was that the case with these folios? Or was something else entirely being done with this piece, something that is perhaps now unrecoverable for us?

Race, Slavery, and Sainthood in the Early Modern Ottoman World: Some Perspectives

Kadi Sünbül Ali
Kadı Sünbül ‘Ali, as depicted in a c. 1620 Ottoman book of costumes for Western European use, The Habits of the Grand Seignor’s Court, British Museum 1928,0323,0.46.8

Among the circles on Twitter that I follow- and occasionally participate in- in recent weeks the issue of the relationship between ‘the Enlightenment’ and modern notions and practices of racism has emerged as a popular and contentious topic. Now, while I have my own thoughts and theories about the Western European Enlightenment (which was as you can guess from my use of quotation marks a much more complicated affair than either its boosters or detractors tend to make out), what I would like to address here is the question of how race was perceived in a pre-modern, pre-Enlightenment context, specifically, within the Ottoman Empire at a particular time (and among certain groups, not necessarily all, given the sheer diversity of the empire). As such, the example I give here doesn’t necessarily prove anything one way or another about whether or not the Enlightenment ‘invented’ racism or racialized slavery. Rather, what I hope my comments here demonstrate is the complicated ways in which racial, or racial-like, categories, ethnic difference, and practices of slavery (all of which certainly intersected long before the Enlightenment to be sure) interacted. It does not make sense, ultimately, to say that early modern Ottomans were racist, or, for that matter, that they weren’t, or, in terms of slavery, that Ottoman slavery was totally different from slavery in the Americas, or that it was very similar: the reality is, as we historians are (obnoxiously to some!) fond of saying, complicated, and while our modern categories (themselves certainly shaped by, among other things, the Enlightenment(s)) are not totally foreign to early modern Ottoman (or any other) worlds, they must be applied with care if they are to be applied at all. Likewise, while we can often find parallels- unsurprisingly- between Ottoman practices and attitudes and those developing in contemporary Western Europe and the Americas, we ought to be equally sensitive to the differences and divergences.

I’ve taken a single late 17th century encounter, recorded by ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī and translated below along with my commentary, as my main point of departure, a story which I think illustrates well these complexities of racial origin, slavery, and the social limitations and possibilities contained within Ottoman practices of race and slavery, all oriented within a concern for sainthood (a category early modern Ottomans of all confessional varieties would have recognized to some degree or another, incidentally). There are a lot of ways in which we might explore race and slavery in the Ottoman lands: in thinking about race and ethnicity, for instance, we might want to consider the genealogy of ideas about phenotype and human geographical origin in the wider Islamic sphere, a genealogy that we could well trace back to the heritages of the ancient world. In terms of slavery, we might consider the various mechanisms whereby slaves were brought to market in Ottoman cities, the different ways that slaves from different places were perceived and employed, or the interaction of legal norms governing slavery, lived practice, and differing attitudes based on skin color or gender or other characteristics.

Historians have not tackled these issues to the degree that they deserve; Ottoman slavery, while the subject of a handful of monographs and edited volumes, remains poorly understood and overly polemicized. On the question of race and racial identity and prejudice, perhaps the best treatment has come from Baki Tezcan in his article ‘Dispelling the Darkness: The politics of ‘race’ in the early seventeenth century Ottoman Empire in the light of the life and work of Mullah Ali’.’ [1] Mullah ‘Ali, who is almost certainly the ‘kadı’ pictured above, was an Ottoman scholar and jurist of African origin who rose to extreme prominence in the ‘ilmiyye hierarchy, coming close to claiming the highest rank in the scholarly system, that of shaykh al-Islam, the personal patronage-based politics of the Ottoman elite intervening. While he was subject to some degree of insult and prejudice due to the color of his skin- his detractors drawing upon a venerable genealogy of notions within the Islamic world about the supposed inferiority of Africans- Tezcan argues that these insults and prejudice (which Mullah ‘Ali, also following a long genealogy within Islam, combated in writing) were mostly strategic, his opponents not being motivated by racial prejudice but instead deploying it because it was available. This suggests that something like ‘racism’ was culturally available to Ottomans, but with the stress on ‘available’: it was not systematic in any meaningful sense, and it need not bar a well-connected scholar with black skin from rising to the heights of power. That said, Mullah ‘Ali’s story primarily concerns the situation of the rarefied elite of the Ottoman world. What of race and slavery at the level of more ordinary people?

The story that I’d like to focus on in order to approach some aspects of slavery and race at the non-elite level [2] is one that I’ve shared before, but for a different purpose: The Hermit of Ya’bad and His Marvelous Coffee and Good Counsel. There is a great deal going on this little story, with insights about matters from how sacred space was performed in the Ottoman world to the role of coffee culture and its penetration even into the rural Palestinian countryside. But here we will focus on Shaykh Zā’id – the subject of the account – and his relationships with others. We begin with ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s initial encounter, during his passage through northern Palestine during the late 17th century:

And it reached us in that village [of Ya’bad] that there was close by a black [freed] slave from among the divinely drawn (majādhīb) lovers of God, whose name was Shaykh Zā’id, in a cave there at the foot of a small mountain. And it was reported to us that the cave used to not be there, but one day he was present on the mountain and the cave appeared for him. So we went to visit him, and we entered into his cave. It is a small cave, with lots of niches all around the walls, none of which open to the outside. And he was inside sitting on the ground, and he had a small mortar made of wood with which he ground coffee beans, and a small iron coffee roaster. No one who visited him leaves without him giving them coffee to drink. And he makes the coffee from anything that he has on hand, from wheat, barley, from scraps [of coffee?], and chickpeas—but no one who visits him drinks it without it being excellent coffee! And it was related to us that if he needs firewood, he will, with little effort, pluck out a great tree and break it down with his own hand, bring the wood back, and place it in his cave. Continue reading “Race, Slavery, and Sainthood in the Early Modern Ottoman World: Some Perspectives”

A Magnificent Eighteenth Century Ottoman Book-Cover

Ali Uskudari i

The two images above and below are of a cloth and lacquer-painted book covers- or possibly the binding for a paper notepad or its equivalent- by the Ottoman artist ‘Ali Üsküdarî, made c. 1747-8, in or near Istanbul, almost certainly for an elite patron or buyer (S1986.23). ‘Ali drew upon a range of artistic elements from across Eurasia in making these gorgeous and elaborate covers: while the central foliage element has a long pedigree in Ottoman art, going back to Persianate and even Chinese exemplars, ‘Ali has added exuberant flourishes reminiscent of the Baroque artistic elements increasingly in vogue in the imperial center. The naturalistic flowers in the borders and the back cover reflect both eighteenth century Ottoman tastes in floral elements as well as art coming from Mughal India, where naturalistic irises and roses had abounded throughout the early modern period (for a sense of changes in artistic tastes and styles, compare another Ottoman book-binding featured here previously, but from the sixteenth century). On the whole, a magnificent example of the continued vitality of Ottoman book-arts through the eighteenth century, a vitality that also reminds us of the centrality of manuscript production and culture and the prestige and value attached to the written word in diverse forms.

Ali Uskudari ii

Şemsi Paşa Loves Mushrooms

The Mosque of Şemsi Paşa, Üsküdar, built 1580/81. Photo by the author. Sited directly on the Bosporus (visible in the left background), this is one of the most charming ‘classical’ era mosques in and around Istanbul, and somehow it does not seem surprising that its patron was a big fan of mushrooms!

Among the masters of science and spiritual knowledge, [Şemsi Paşa] was a person of accomplishment. Being skilled in poetry and prose, and being unusual in his love of hunting and his ability as a warrior, he was always present at the stirrup of the abovementioned Sultan [Süleyman], so much so that the deceased [Gelibolu Mustafâ] ‘Âli (1541–1600) quotes the abovementioned paşa’s own words… to this effect: “His Majesty Sultan Süleyman Khan knew that I loved mushrooms very much. When one day mushrooms were found in many places in the hunting grounds, His Majesty the Sultan ordered an imperial guard to collect them and put them in a bath towel embroidered with silver thread so as to protect them. When I saw that His Majesty the Sultan liked mushrooms so much, I regretted that I had not previously offered him the mushrooms which had fallen to my lot. When the time to return arrived, I rode at the side of the imperial stirrup and approaching the imperial palace, [the Sultan] took out the mushrooms and presented them to his slave as a gift, saying, ‘Because I knew you loved mushrooms, I caused them to be kept for you.’

“I at once humbly prostrated myself in the imperial presence, and when I asked the reason for my thus being the object of imperial favor, he said, ‘Recently, you made a gift worthy of a thousand such favors of mine. Earlier while riding at my side during our hunt and chase, I was telling you a short story. After I ended, I said that today we had not come across any game animals, and we had not been able to find any prey. You said, “I saw game in such and such a place.” When you said this, I thought you were lying. In fact, returning to that place immediately afterwards, game was spotted in the location you described. We much appreciate that, in order not to interrupt our speech, you did not announce that there was game, and that you announced it following the completion of my discourse. Although between hunters it is beyond endurance not to shout out when game is seen, and despite the fact that a moment’s delay is not possible, you did not announce the location of the prey and did not interrupt me, but showed respect for my imperial speech.'”

Hafız Hüseyin Ayvansarayî, The Garden of the Mosques: Hafiz Hüseyin Al-Ayvansarayî’s Guide to the Muslim Monuments of Ottoman Istanbul, translated by Howard Crane (Leiden ; Brill, 2000), 496-497.

Ottoman Women and the Lives of Saints, iii.: The Majdhūb and the Pregnant Lady

This final installment- for now at least- in this series of texts dealing with Ottoman women’s lives in the context of sainthood comes from the life of ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (1621-1731), arguably the most important early modern saint of the Arab provinces, who combined the practice of sanctity with a vast scope of scholarship and literary endeavors (for more on him see this post and this one). The following account comes from a massive hagio-biography treating his life, Wird al-unsī wa-al-warid al-qudsiī fī tarjamat al-ʻārif ʻAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī, which was compiled by the saint’s great-grandson, Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazzī (1760-1799). Al-Ghazzī’s account covers almost every aspect of his great-grandfather’s life, including ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s mother’s ‘foretokens’ of her unborn son’s future saintly greatness. In introducing the section from which the below accounts are taken, al-Ghazzī says: ‘Just as there are foretokens for the prophets before [the manifestation of their] prophethood, so the saints of God have miracles occur for them even before the coming to light of their manifestation [as saints], and before they even have capacity for that.’

While, then, these stories are ultimately meant to be understood as signs of ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s sainthood- which was at work, as it were, and evident even while he was in his mother’s womb- they also reveal quite a bit about ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s mother and the relationship between holy men in early modern Damascus and women in general, reinforcing what we saw in a previous post. Here the holy man in question is a majdhūb, a ‘divinely drawn one’ akin to a ‘holy fool,’ a ‘mode’ of saint that I have dealt with repeatedly on this site (and which will feature prominently in my forthcoming dissertation and, God willing, eventual book project). The majādhīb (the plural of majdhūb) had a central presence in ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s life, from before birth and even after his death (one of his daughters would become a majdhūba), a relationship that his mother clearly contributed towards forging. The practices and the sacred presence of the majdhūb saint tended to result in the temporary breakdown of social expectations and protocol, both in terms of gendered relations but also in more fundamental ways (such as the strictures against throwing rocks at guests!). That women in Damascus would particularly numbered among Shaykh Maḥmūd’s devotees is not surprising- but neither is ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s ongoing devotion to the saint, an example of which I have also included in this translated excerpt.

Besides the accounts of ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s mother’s relationship with the saint Maḥmūd translated here, we are also learn from ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s own writings that his mother’s death and burial saw the miraculous intervention of another majdhūb, ‘Alī al-Nabkī, who walked from his village to the city just as ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s mother’s body was being washed. We are meant to understand by all of this, I think, that ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s own sanctity was not entirely unique to him- his mother, in her own way, was a holy woman, numbered in the ranks of the friends of God, male and female.

Syrian Tile
17th century tile from Ottoman Damascus (Met. 1993.315)

As for the good tidings his mother received about him, they were many. Among them is that which she herself related, saying, “The saints and majādhīb used to give me good tidings concerning him, and about his elevated status, and the majesty of his power, before his birth.” From among that was that the pious Shaykh Maḥmūd the Majdhūb—who is buried by the tomb of Shaykh Yusuf al-Qamīnī atop Jabal Qāsiyūn [1]—gave her good tidings of him while she was pregnant with him. He gave her a silver coin and said to her: “Name him ‘Abd al-Ghanī for he will be victorious.” He said to her another time, “Give good tidings to ‘Abd al-Ghanī concerning the divine abundance (al-fayḍ)!” Shaykh Maḥmūd died one day before the master was born. He had said to her: “When you give birth to him, bring him to my tomb, and rub him with dust from it before you bestow his name upon him [2].” Whenever he saw her he would honor her greatly, and say to her, “I venerate the one whom you bear, for by God he will possess greatness and immense power!” Continue reading “Ottoman Women and the Lives of Saints, iii.: The Majdhūb and the Pregnant Lady”

Ottoman Women and the Lives of Saints, ii.: Money Trouble and a Sleep-Talking Son

Like any major urban area, eighteenth century Istanbul was inhabited by people from a seemingly endless array of walks of life, from the sultan and his entourage and sprawling staff down. The neighborhood in which the sometimes fiery, sometimes tender sufi saint Hasan Ünsî lived, while it stood hard by the walls of the sultan’s palace, the Topkapı, was a world away from that rarefied atmosphere. In the houses and workspaces and places of worship ordinary people, men and women, lived and toiled and prayed and plotted and did their best to get by. Şeyh Hasan was for some inhabitants a source of comfort and repose, while for others he was a source of humor or of potential easy money. In the two accounts which I have translated and lightly annotated below, we see two different women’s interactions with the saint, as well as glimpses into their everyday lives, glimpses that are quite valuable in reconstructing the diversity of ordinary women’s lives in this period and place. There is a lot that could be said about these stories and the contexts relevant to them, but I will limit myself to a couple of remarks.

In the first story, we meet a woman- who, interestingly, is named here- about whom we have but a few tantalizing details. Described as being Bosnian, we might guess that she had ended up in the city- perhaps her husband was or had been a military man posted in Bosnia?- and had fallen on hard times (the main point of the story). While I have not come across any other descriptions of her particular line of work as a sort of handywoman, it seems likely that such services would have been appealing to ordinary households without the luxury of slaves or hired servants. The rest of the story is relatively self-explanatory, though, as in the previous installment, note the ease with which Uzun Havvâ comes into the şeyh’s presence and interacts with him.

The second story introduces in greater detail the mother of the menâkıb‘s author, Ibrahim Hâs. The ‘set-up’ is that Ibrahim is telling how he came to ‘repent’ at the saint’s hand and take up a dervish life under his tutelage- which happened while he was still a young man living at home. Here we learn that his mother was herself effectively a saint, practicing immense austerities at home (modeled to some degree after Şeyh Hasan, who also tended to remain at home), even as she maintained a close relationship with the saint. We know from the survival of a dream-diary and correspondence with her Halvetî şeyh by a woman in Skopje, described by Cemal Kafadar in an article on Ottoman self-writing, that it was not unheard of for a woman to send her dreams to a saintly şeyh for interpretation. Here, however, Ibrahim’s mother goes directly to the şeyh, as opposed to writing to him, something that we are given to understand she did on a regular basis, and in so doing helped to give direction and greater meaning to her own ascetic pursuits and identity.

Ottoman Yastik
A 17th century Ottoman yastik, or pillow cover, a typical feature of domestic spaces (Boston MFA 77.256)

1. There was a poor Bosnian woman, named Bedümli Uzun Havvâ, who lived in a rented room below my home in the Hocapaşa quarter. For a fee she would look after the daily affairs of her neighbors. One day a neighbor came to her with a sick child. [The neighbor lady] said, “Go and take this child to Şeyh Hasan Efendî in Aydınoǧlu Tekke and have him recite a prayer, and put these pâras [1] down in his presence,” giving the Bosnian woman some pâras.

Taking the child and the pâras, the woman went to the venerable Şeyh. After having pocketed two of the pâras she had been given to present to the Şeyh for his prayer recitation, she put the rest before the venerable Şeyh. He said to her, “Look now, what of the other two pâras?” But the Bosnian woman said, “Only this much were given, only this much!” The venerable Şeyh replied, “Ah, but there are two pâras in your right pocket—did I not see how many pâras were given to you? And do I not know whether in taking the pâras you wanted to deceive me or to try me?”

As he said this, fearful the woman took out the pâras she had taken and placed them before the venerable Şeyh. He said to her, “You did this on account of your poverty, but take care not to speak untruthfully and do not try (imtihân) anyone. Be patient in the midst of poverty, and God, exalted is He, will provide you with the necessities of this life below!” Having said this he gave the woman forty pâras, then gave her the two pâras [she had pocketed]! The woman said, “My sultan! I took those pâras, thinking, ‘The Şeyh won’t know.’ And indeed by poverty is great such that as of tonight they would have been my entire livelihood. But now you have done such good!”

The venerable Şeyh gave her some further good counsel, and the woman, having kissed the Şeyh’s noble hands, departed. She returned the child home, then went home herself. This poor one [the author] learned of this story from the telling of his mother and from her neighbors living there.

Woman and boy going to the hammam
Woman and boy on their way to the hammam, from an early 17th century costume album depicting various people one might encounter in Ottoman Istanbul (BM 1928,0323,0.46.122)

2. It happened on the 15th of Ramadan, 1117 [December 31, 1705]. Up till then, I [Ibrahim Hâs] only attended the tevhîd sessions [2] and busied myself with the discourses of the venerable Şeyh. I slept a lot during the daytime [3]. One day while sleeping alone I began talking in my sleep. My mother came to my side and listened to what I was saying, and when I awoke, my mother said to me, “While you were sleeping you said some wondrous and strange things!” I replied, “What did I say?” My mother then repeated back to me one by one the things I had said [4]. Continue reading “Ottoman Women and the Lives of Saints, ii.: Money Trouble and a Sleep-Talking Son”

Ottoman Women and the Lives of Saints, i.: Stampeding Livestock and Saintly Friendships

This post begins a three-part series of accounts of women’s lives that I have discovered ’embedded’ in hagiographical literature from the early modern Ottoman world, lives which I’ve selected for the variety they show, both in the social and economic profiles of the women they feature, and in the ways that the interact with the holy men in the stories. I’ve featured women in Ottoman hagiography before (such as in this recent post), and I could have easily extended this series many times over: for as it turns out, women tend to be quite visible in these sorts of sources, often doing and saying things that might come as a surprise for those who tend to imagine Islamic and Middle Eastern women of this period living highly secluded, strictly gender-segregated existences. While not always true, women tend to be sympathetic or virtuous (or both) characters in these accounts, often being singled out for their devotion and trust in the saint in question, not infrequently in contrast to higher-status men who do not show such trust and suffer the consequences. And across accounts we see women from a range of backgrounds and stations in life freely associating with male saints and crossing into the physical space of the saint- living and departed- in ways that might not have been countenanced so readily by Ottoman men in other spaces.

In the following brief account, taken from a major 17th century compilation of lives of notable people- including numerous saints- of Damascus and beyond by the scholar Najm al-Dīn al-Ghazzī, we encounter an unnamed woman (a frequent feature in this stories, reflecting gender norms that did not break down even in the textual presence of a saint) who is close to the saint featured here, one Muhammad Abū Muslim al-Ṣamādī (911/1505-994/1585), a charismatic and popular saint of Damascus whom al-Ghazzī considered one of the greatest and most important holy men of the 10th Islamic century. The woman and her husband in this story seem to be of originally nomadic origin- hence the appellation ‘son of an Arab,’ which suggest Bedouin background- but spent at least part of their time in Damascus, going out to the steppes (which lie quite close to the city) at certain times of the year. Note also in this story both the identity of the woman- she herself is described as being a saint, though we are given no further details, unfortunately- and the apparent freedom with which she associated with not just al-Ṣamādī but al-Ghazzī’s father and al-Ghazzī himself.


It also reached me that a man called Muhammad ibn ‘Arab [that is, the son of an ‘Arab] went out eastward [into the steppes] in order to bring in some cattle, and on his way back he spent the night in fearful place. The night was extremely windy and had heavy rain. He related: “It was the middle of the night, when a movement spooked the animals and they bolted. I despaired of regathering them, so I cried out: ‘Yā Abī Muslim, this is your time!’ Then scarcely the blink of an eye later and the animals had come together to me from every direction until they were all assembled.”

The wife of this “ibn ‘Arab” was a holy woman from among the saints of God, who believed in Shaykh Muhammad al-Ṣamādī and who used to believe in my father as well, frequently visiting him and then me after him. She said: “I went to [Shaykh Muhammad al-Ṣamādī] Abū Muslim one day, and my husband was absent on that journey. He said to me: ‘Ya Umm So-and-So I am going to tell you something you must not relate until after I have died. Last night your husband’s animals fled from him so he cried out to me, seeking my aid. So I picked up a stone and threw it towards him, and his animals came back together. He will come to you soundly nothing having happened to him.’”

Continue reading “Ottoman Women and the Lives of Saints, i.: Stampeding Livestock and Saintly Friendships”