Shaykh ‘Alā al-Dīn Goes on Campaign

Divan of Mahmud `Abd al-Baqi Ottoman Army
The Ottoman army enters a city, from an illuminated copy (Met. 45.174.5) of the Divan of the poet Bâkî (1526–1600). Note the banner held aloft by the soldiers in the top right corner, similar to what we might imagine the saint in the tanner’s story below carrying; also note the diversity of soldiers and other support personnel visible.

Like early modern militaries the world over- and in fact like any organized and sizeable military, right up into the present- the Ottoman military relied on a vast body of ‘support staff’ to travel on campaign and wage warfare. Many of these support staff were recruited from the guildsmen of Istanbul and other major cities in the empire, the craftsmen and artisans and merchants being required to essentially pick up shop and go on campaign, agreeing to offer their services at a set price. In the following short story, taken from an Arabic biographical and hagiographical compendium by the scholar Balī ibn ‘Alī, also known as Alî Mınık (d. 1584), the miracle story is related by a tanner from Edirne who had recently returned from campaign. As is often the case in these sorts of stories, the details are thin, but we are probably meant to imagine a battle involving a fortress on the frontier with the Hapsburg lands. The story is pretty self-explanatory: besides being narrated by a member of the army’s ‘support staff,’ the story is interesting for what it reveals about the perceived role of seemingly unassuming saints in Ottoman military successes, and the imaginative travel, if you will, of otherwise sedentary saints out to the contested frontier.

Divan of Mahmud `Abd al-Baqi Ottoman Army
A close-up from the above of the army’s banner.

‘Among the miracles (karamāt) of [Şeyh Alâüddînd Cerrâḥzâde/‘Alā al-Dīn al-Jarrārzada, 1495-1575]’: the story that our shaykh Muṣlaḥ al-Dīn [the son of ‘Alā al-Dīn], God be merciful to him, related, saying: “We were sitting outside of the aforementioned zawīya [the Dergâh of Şeyh Şücaeddin, in Edirne] with some of the disciples. Tanners in the city had previously been drafted to go on campaign. A tanner came up and kissed my father’s hand, then kissed his feet, and said, ‘If it hadn’t been for you we wouldn’t have taken the fortress!’ My father said, ‘What is this fortress? I don’t know anything at all about it.’ The man persisted in his entreaty and humble supplication, but [my father] persisted in his denial.

So we asked the man about the story, and he said: ‘I went out to war for the Sultan with a detachment of tanners. When we had invested Such-and-Such Fortress, and aimed to seize it, the fighting wore on, and the flame of piercing and striking flared up, so that the fortress was refractory and refused to be conquered. The army was bewildered and despaired of seizing it, until suddenly a shaykh with a banner in his hand appeared, charging at the infidels, scattering them like dust struck by a powerful cold wind. He scaled the fortress and planted the banner upon it. The soldiers of the Islamic army followed after him, entering the fortress through this spot, its conquest becoming easy because of that man. My companions and I got a close look at the man—it was Shaykh ‘Alā al-Dīn, there being no doubt that he came on military campaign with us, and was present for the conquest of the fortress, yet we marveled that we had never once seen him while on the way there!’”

“Later, when I was alone with my father I asked him about the reality of this matter, so as to receive confirmation from him about this secret matter. He would not say anymore than that he did indeed know the one who had obtained to this degree, and that ‘You will obtain, God willing, to this degree of spiritual power when you reach maturity—God cause us and you to obtain to high degrees of spiritual power, and pour out upon us from the streams of His hidden and manifest kindness!’”

Balī ibn ‘Alī, al-ʻIqd al-manẓūm fī dhikr afāḍil al-Rūm (Dār al-Kitāb al-ʻArabī, 1975), 467-468. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.

Mehmed Aǧa’s Miraculous Deliverance From Balkan Bandits

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I’ll wrap up what has turned into a mini-series of accounts from the menakıb (saint’s life) of the Ottoman Istanbul saint Hasan Ünsî: previous installments can be found here and here. In the two previous translated stories, we saw different snap-shots of daily life- and conflict- in late 17th century Istanbul and its suburbs, coupled with saintly miracles and practices. In the fairly lengthy story I’ve translated below, the action takes place in two very different locations within the early 18th century Ottoman Empire. At this point in Hasan Ünsî’s life he had moved into a tekke (often translated as a ‘sufi lodge’) down the hill from the palace of the sultans themselves. In addition to his extended family and household, various dervishes lived here with him, and he was visited by devotees of all stations of life.

One of these devotees of the saintly şeyh was a za’îm, a tîmâr-holder that is, someone given grants of productive land in exchange for military service- named Mehmed Aǧa. He ‘believed in’ (or, we might also translate, owed allegiance and had trust in) Hasan Ünsî as being a Friend of God. One day he was sent on campaign, or some other form of military service, to the Balkans, in keeping with his obligations as a tîmâr-holder, but even far from Istanbul, our hagiographer tells us, he kept his faith and allegiance in his şeyh. And so the stage is set for the following miracle-story, one which emphasizes the power of the saintly şeyh at a distance, but which also gives us a good look at the hazards of travel in rural, often largely uncontrolled, parts of the empire, especially in its mountainous regions.

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An Ottoman levend, or irregular soldier, from the Ralamb Book of Costumes. Such soldiers, while recruited by Ottoman military commanders for ‘official’ warfare, often ended up taking up a life of brigandage when demobilized.

‘One day it was heard that Mehmed Aǧa had been killed by bandits (haydûdlar). The sufis having heard this news related it to the Şeyh. The Şeyh smiled and said that Mehmed was fine. Later, the dervishes found out that Mehmed Aǧa was in fact still alive. After some time had passed, Mehmed Aǧa abruptly appeared [in the tekke], and the dervishes gathered around him. He said, ‘I’d like to go in to see the Şeyh,’ but they replied, ‘The Şeyh is in his harem [inner private area of the household], he’ll come out soon.’ In the meantime, he waited in the room of Uyûnî Derviş Seyyid Mehmed’s room. Because of his belief in the Şeyh the dervishes had great love for Mehmed Aǧa. During their conversation with Mehmed Aǧa, they asked, ‘Bandits attacked you suddenly in the road, and we heard many people say you had been killed. But when we reported this to the Şeyh, he said you were fine! That is how we knew that you were still alive.’ Mehmed Aǧa went silent and gave no answer.

Then the Şeyh came forth from his harem, and having given him the news, Mehmed Aǧa and the dervishes went up to the Şeyh’s presence, and, after greeting him, the Şeyh asked, ‘Mehmed, did you see the camel?’ Then, having heard this word from the Şeyh, the dervishes knew that some secret matter, a hidden deed, had taken place between the saint and Mehmed Aǧa. Mehmed and all the dervishes sat down in the presence of the Şeyh, and for a while he [the şeyh] spoke with Mehmed Aǧa. Afterwards, the Şeyh prayed, and the dervishes and Mehmed Aǧa went out of the Şeyh’s presence, and went back to sit in Uyûnî Derviş Seyyid Mehmed’s room. Therein the elder dervishes and halifes asked Mehmed Aǧa, ‘What did the Şeyh mean by asking you “Did you see the camel?”’ Mehmed Aǧa replied, ‘Do not ask about it,’ and fell silent.

Some time later, after the Şeyh had died, the halife A’rec Mustafa Efendi, Ser-tarîk Mehmed Efendi, Enişte Mustafa Efendi, and others, once again asked Mehmed Aǧa about the Şeyh’s having said ‘Did you see the camel?’ They added, ‘The Şeyh has gone to the Other World, so there is now no longer any harm in talking of it! Rather, it is appropriate and praiseworthy to make this miracle (kerâmet) public so that we may know and the name of the Şeyh be better remembered!’ And so Mehmed Aǧa said, ‘It was when I had gone to Rumili [the Balkans] in military service. After completing my service, in the company of a caravan we headed back to Istanbul when while on our way we came to a forest. The others in the caravan said that this forest did not have any bandits, still, they said, let us go through it quickly. We entered in good order, but there were in fact bandits in the forest. Unable to take us all on in one fell swoop, they instead began killing us off. Killing many men they set to pillaging our goods, while those of my retinue were killed. I too despaired of my life, saying to myself, I wonder which one will kill me? In fear, as I dropped disordered and shaken to the skirts of a mountain, the Şeyh came to my mind. And at that moment I saw him coming up in front of me—he looked at me and motioned to me to go up the side of the mountain. We ran and went up right in front of the bandits, but they did not see us.

‘The Şeyh headed up the mountain, and I followed behind. The Şeyh said to me, “Keep on going over the side of this mountain,” motioning with his blessed hand, then disappeared. Looking in all four directions, I saw no trace of the Şeyh. Then I ran over the other side of the mountain, eventually reaching a level place. I saw a number of tents set up there, and many people. When they saw me come down from the mountain, some of them came to my side—I was disoriented out of fear of being killed and had no capacity to speak. These people later asked about my condition, and I told them about how on the other side of the mountain bandits had emerged from the woods and fallen upon the caravan, turning us aside, pillaging, and killing, taking my goods and killing my retinue.

They replied, “What time did this happen? We heard nothing!” I said, “Just now, not a quarter hour ago!” They said, “There’s no such woods on the other side of this mountain, nor any bandits, just a village!” But I said, “Come now! There were bandits there! Pillaging and looting!” One of them asked me, “Where were you coming from?” I replied, “We were coming from such and such place. On the road from there are woods, on the other side of this mountain!” But they replied, “The woods you speak of are three hours from here, but you say you were just there?” Then I knew that this was an instance of the saint’s divine disposal and miracle-working. I replied, “I’m all confused—I don’t know what I’m saying!”

I took as companions some people there who went with me to Istanbul, and upon arrival I came straight to the Şeyh. As you and I approached the saint together as he came out the door, his saying “Mehmed, did you see the camel [that is, the camel that presumably bore him the three hours from the mountain to the level place]?” was in reference to this.’ And so he related in this manner the story. The dervishes that were there in hearing it greatly increased their faith in the şeyh and as a result sought assistance from his spiritual powers.

İbrahim Hâs, Hasan Ünsî Halvetî ve Menâkıbnâmesi, edited by Mustafâ Tatcı (Bağcılar, İstanbul: Kırkambar Kitaplığı, 2013, 2013), 234-240. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.

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The Lion, the Lady, and the Dervishes: Şeyh Hasan Ünsî’s Transformation

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Previously I discussed the ‘conversion’ narrative of a major late seventeenth into early eighteenth century Muslim saint of Istanbul, Şeyh Hasan Ünsî Halvetî (1643-1723), whose life was chronicled in great detail in a menâkıb (saint’s life) by Ibrahim Hâs. The story I’ve translated below comes from a slightly later period in the saint’s life, after his şeyh, Karabaş-i Velî (also known as Karabaş ‘Alî: he wore a black turban, hence his being called ‘Black-Head’) had died in the Sinai while making the ḥajj, in 1685. Hasan Ünsî had excelled in ascetic discipline and spiritual insight, his hagiographer tells us, such that Karabaş ‘Alî elevated him over all of his other halifes (Ar. khalīfa, delegates sent from a şeyh/shaykh), and sent him back to Istanbul to establish a center for worship and instruction in the sufi path. Hasan Ünsî settled in a space near the Hagia Sophia, the Acem Aǧa Mosque, built upon parts of the ruins of a pre-Ottoman Byzantine church, St. Mary Chalkoprateia (today the church has sunk deeper into ruin, and only parts of the mosque remain standing- see this excellent blog post for more details on the ‘deep history’ of the site). There he continued his ascetic practices, led zikr (a sufi ritual of ‘remembrance’ of God), and instructed disciples.

But his residency here was not to be entirely peaceful: since the early decades of the 17th century, the Ottoman lands had seen the rise of various ‘puritanical’ Islamic movements and tendencies, often looking back to the writings and life of a 16th century pietistic preacher, Mehmed Birgivî, for inspiration. Many groups and individuals inspired by the puritanical texts, movements, and leaders that arose over the course of the century were opposed to such things as the veneration of the saints, sufi rituals like zikr/dhikr, and widespread practices such as tobacco-smoking and coffee-drinking (though opposition to the former was for a long time widespread beyond so-called ‘puritan’ circles). Unusually- for theological movements of this nature had developed before in various places in the Islamic world- many advocates of a purified Ottoman Islam believed it appropriate to use force to achieve their moral and theological goals. Hasan Ünsî evidently had to deal with Ottoman puritans in his mosque (which, not unusually, also functioned as a living space for dervishes, students, and others), in the form of students of jurisprudence (suhtelar). We are told that, having adopted the beliefs of the ‘people of denial’ (ehl-i inkâr), these students (some of whom Hasan, who himself had an ‘exoteric’ education in the Islamic sciences, had previously instructed) began trying to drive the saintly şeyh from the mosque, in order to ‘purify’ the space of ritual uses they opposed, and to claim the space exclusively for themselves.

To make a long story short, the struggle between Hasan Ünsî and the puritanical legal students grew hotter and hotter and increasingly physical, to the point that, our hagiographer claims, the students contemplated murdering the şeyh! It culminated in a show-down in which, after trying to argue his case using verse from the Qur’an, Şeyh Hasan manifested his ‘celâl,’ or divinely-given wrathful majesty- and the students began dying of mysterious accidents or suddenly falling ill, to the point that in a week’s time none remained in the mosque! During the course of these incidents, one of Şeyh Hasan’s dervishes, Kebâbî Ahmed Dede, asked whether the şeyh ought to moderate the outflow of divine celâl, to which the şeyh replied, ‘Occupy yourself with your own matters!’ At this the dervish, we are told, went pale witnessing the şeyh’s fierce celâl, and reported later that ‘all my being went shaky and my mind was thrown into disorder’ when the şeyh said these words to him. This leads us to the following extended story, in which a cross-section of Istanbul society bears witness to the divine wrath and majesty at work in the şeyh: with the obvious moral throughout that opposing God’s Friends was dangerous, even if it was the ostensibly pious who were doing so.

woman-on-the-way-to-hamam.png
Woman and child on the way to the hamam, from the Rålamb Book of Costumes, depictions of residents of Istanbul in the 1650s, a couple of decades before our story.

‘One day, at mid-morning, a lady and her child passed by the Acem Aǧa Mosque, which was locked up. The child peeked into the mosque through a window, but crying out he tumbled into his mother’s arms. His mother said, ‘What was it that frightened you so?’ The child said, ‘There is a lion sitting atop the şeyh’s post [an animal skin rug that symbolized the şeyh/shaykh’s authority]! And now he is rising up!’ The lady herself then looked through the window and saw that a magnificent lion was sitting upon the post. Having seen him the lady became afraid and out of her fear began exclaiming loudly and rapidly.

Some of the dervishes there heard her and came up to her, saying, ‘Lady, what’s the matter?’ She related what had happened to them, and so they took looked through the window and saw upon the Şeyh’s post a lordly lion sitting. He opened his eyes and looked at them such that the gall-bladder of the one upon whose gaze he fell burst from fear! Being filled with great fear they were gripped with confusion. They said, ‘If this lion rises up and comes at us, the door will prove no barrier and there will be trouble!’ As they were trying to figure out a solution, one of the Şeyh’s old dervishes, Pîr Osman Dede Efendi came and forbade them from doing anything, instead sending them to their rooms. After an hour had passed he said to them, ‘Come and see—where is the lion now?’ With fear the dervishes came and peered inside the mosque through a window, but saw no lion! Instead the Şeyh [Hasan Ünsî] was upon his post. Osman Dede Efendi said to them, ‘Keep silence! Tell no one of this! For it is not permitted [to talk of it to others]!’ So saying he strongly admonished them.

Nonetheless, the story became widely known. A while later, some of the dervishes asked Osman Dede Efendi about the secret and divine wisdom of this lion. Drawing them aside, in secret he said to them: ‘This is the form that the Şeyh takes when his celâl is overwhelmingly strong in his innermost secret. Did you not see how in the course of a week the jurisprudence students came to their ends, and have you not heard what Kebâbî Ahmed Efendi said?’

İbrahim Hâs, Hasan Ünsî Halvetî ve Menâkıbnâmesi, edited by Mustafâ Tatcı (Bağcılar, İstanbul: Kırkambar Kitaplığı, 2013, 2013), 222-224. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.

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Şeyh Hasan’s Momentous Trip to Üsküdar

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View of the dome of Eski/Atik Vâlide Mosque (the tekye mentioned in the story was a part of the larger complex, with the mosque in the center). Photo by the author, 2015.

As I noted in an earlier post, stories of conversion- to a new faith or to an intensified version of one’s faith- were common across early modern Eurasia, in diverse Christian, Islamic, and Buddhist environments. The following story is another example of a ‘conversion story,’ embedded within a hagiography (in this instance, a menâkıb (Ar. manāqib) the Islamic functional equivalent of the saint’s vitae in the Latinate world). Unlike the others, this one is told, not from the perspective of the individual doing the converting, but is instead described by someone who was there. Hasan Ünsî Halvetî (1643-1723), whose türbe (tomb-shrine) is near Istanbul’s Topkapı Palace and is today passed by a constant stream of tourists walking and riding the street-level tram (the Gülhane stop is a couple blocks from the saint’s tomb), was one of the foremost Islamic saints in early 18th century Istanbul. Born in the village of Taşköprü outside of the provincial center of Kastamonu, Hasan, like many academically-minded young men in Ottoman Anatolia, made his way to the big city, where he soon found a niche as an instructor in the (no longer extant) medrese attached to the Ayasofya (that is, the Hagia Sophia, converted to a mosque complex after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople). The rooms mentioned here are small residential cells for teachers and students.

Several things of interest can be picked up on in this story: one, the role of Üsküdar- here conceptualized as a distinctly separate town or geographical entity from Istanbul- across the Bosporus as a sort of loci of sanctity that is close enough to be accessible yet far enough to be distinct and to have a certain aura about it (and in fact several other major early modern Islamic saints are buried in Üsküdar). Also in terms of place, note the importance that Alî Efendi places on the common regional original of everyone in the story- he learns about Karabaş Alî from another man from Kastamonu (which here means not just the town by the rural areas around the town), for instance. This alone tells us that regional identities continued to matter for Ottoman subjects who had settled in the imperial center.

It is also noteworthy that Şeyh Hasan is depicted as having not followed the usual protocol of venerating a saintly şeyh (the Turkish rendering of the Arabic shaykh), until his encounter with Karabaş Alî. We are not told why this was the case- perhaps Hasan had aligned himself with critics of such practices. Or perhaps it was merely a personal tic. Regardless, the hagiographic intent is clear: this encounter was divinely ordained, and it would set Hasan Ünsî on a trajectory for sainthood himself.

In terms of style and language, I have tried in my translation from the Ottoman Turkish to preserve the fairly colloquial feel of the original. Like many instances of the genre, there is little of the florid prose, heavy with Persian and Arabic genitive constructions, that was popular in many other genres during the period.

Atik Valide Inscription
Inscription above the main entrance to the Eski Vâlide Mosque. MIT Libraries, Aga Khan Visual Archive (IMG40234)

The cause of the holy şeyh’s coming under divine grace was that there was in a neighboring resident room [of the medrese in which Şeyh Hasan Ünsî lived] a member of the ‘ulemâ named Alî Efendi, who was from the same town as Hasan [that is, Kastamonu], and to whom this poor one [that is, the author, Ibrahim Hâs] also knew quite well. This Alî Efendi frequently came to visit the holy şeyh, and told the following story about him: ‘One day I was in Üsküdar, where I met with someone from my town [Kastamonu]. That person said to me, “There is a şeyh from our town, Şeyh Karabaş Alî Efendi, living in Üsküdar’s Eski Vâlide Tekye,” and he went on to describe his greatness. But when I went I did not get to see him. When I returned to Istanbul, I went to Şeyh Ünsî Hasan’s room, I told him, “A şeyh has come from Kastamonu to Üsküdar, one who is learned, virtuous, abstinent, and his ascetic exercise and struggles are without equal; he is a master of spiritual states (hâl) and of divinely-granted disposal (tasarruf), whom they call Karabaş Alî Efendi. His written works are many. Let’s go—I’d like to go and see him with you,” I said. “Sounds good!” said Hasan Efendi, so together we went to Üsküdar.

When we came to the Eski Vâlide Tekye we sought out Şeyh Karabaş Alî Efendi’s presence, and when he saw us the first thing he said was, “Hasan Efendi, I have often wished for you! Thanks be to the Guide [ie God] who has facilitated this meeting!” He then said, “Attendant, summon Osman Efendi!” One of his dervishes went and called, and when Osman Efendi came, [Şeyh Alî] said to him, “Osman, here is the one I talked to you about!” So saying, he pointed at Hasan Efendi and smiled broadly. Osman Efendi, having kissed the holy şeyh’s blessed knees, sat down. Then for a while we talked with the holy şeyh. Hasan Efendi remained silent. In such manner we sat in the presence of the şeyh for half an hour.’

Continue reading “Şeyh Hasan’s Momentous Trip to Üsküdar”

Shaykh Abū al-Ḥasan Won’t Take ‘No’ For An Answer

Şeyh Gülşeni and Disciples
Şeyh Gülşenî (at center on the left), a 15th into 16th century Ottoman saint, bids some of his disciples and khalīfas farewell at a dock, illustrating the relationship between a saintly shaykh and his disciples also on display in the below story from another Ottoman context. From an 18th century illustrated copy of Ata’is Hamse (Walters 666.41A)

Shaykh Abū al-Wafā’ ibn Ma’rūf al-Ḥamawī—who was from among the pious ‘ulāmā and whose biography will come later—related to me that he had become a khalīfa to Shaykh [Aḥmad ibn ‘Abd al-Raḥman, (d. 1571), a Kurdish saint in the countryside north of Aleppo] after serving him for some time. He went to Cairo in order to study exoteric knowledge. He met with Shaykh Abū al-Ḥasan al-Bakrī, God sanctify his secret [1]. He treated him hospitably, but then Abū al-Ḥasan tried to get Abū al-Wafā’ to take the pledge of his ṭarīqa from him [2]. Abū al-Wafā’ refused out of regard for his shaykh [Aḥmad]. Abū al-Ḥasan kept asking, and Abū al-Wafā’ continued to refuse, until one night [Abū al-Ḥasan] entered his room and said: ‘Put your hand in mine!’ Suddenly a crack appeared in the wall, and Shaykh Aḥmad emerged and cried out, ‘Leave my disciple alone!’ [Abū al-Ḥasan] said, ‘Not possible!’ In that very moment, a fire came forth from Shaykh Aḥmad’s eye, and at that Shaykh Abū al-Ḥasan left Abū al-Wafā’ alone. Then al-Khiḍr emerged, and made peace between the two shaykhs [3]. The next morning Abū al-Wafā’s visit to Cairo was concluded so he returned home, and when he reached the village of al-Quṣayr, he entered the presence of Shaykh Aḥmad and kissed his hand, at which the shaykh smiled and said, ‘The chain of our ṭarīqa is unbroken!’

This poor one [ie the author al-‘Urḍī] had heard this story and had denied its truth, saying that people were making up lies about Shaykh al-Wafā’. But when I was young he came to Aleppo and I said to him, ‘This story, did it take place in waking life or dreaming?’ [4] He replied, ‘Waking life!’

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[1] The Bakrī family was by the mid-16th century a well-established scholarly and saintly house, which would continue to be prominent all through the Ottoman period.

[2] Receiving a ṭarīqa- that is, initiation into a particular sufi lineage or path- from a shaykh could be a very personal matter of loyalty and prestige, particularly in this period, and especially in a Kurdish context- while receiving multiple affiliations was not uncommon in some contexts, and posed no problem for some shaykhs, this obviously was not universally true.

[3] Al-Khiḍr is an immortal, mysterious figure within Islam, and is often depicted appearing at opportune moments to convey knowledge or to solve a particular problem.

[4] In other words, did the ‘action’ take place in a dream-vision (which would be ‘real,’ just in a different way), or did the two shaykhs and al-Khiḍr bodily appear in poor Abū al-Wafā’s room? The former option would be rather unexceptional; the latter is a rather different and more spectacular scenario.

Muḥammad ibn ʻUmar al-ʻUrḍī, Maʻādin al-dhahab fī al-aʻyān al-musharrafa bi-him Ḥalab ʻAmman : Markaz al-Wathaʼiq wa-al-Makhtutat, 1992), 282.

Conversion Stories From Across Early Modern Eurasia

John Nelson's Khalwa
The cell-like study and retreat of the early Methodist preacher and holy man John Nelson, whose autobiography is featured below.

In what follows, I have juxtaposed accounts taken from one end of Eurasia (here including North Africa) to the other, each of which dates from the seventeenth or eighteenth century: we begin with an account by an early English Methodist, next hear from a Moroccan sufi shaykh and saint, followed by an Ottoman Syrian self-taught shaykh, finally ending with an Edo-period Japanese Zen master- lives I doubt have ever been placed in such proximity before! Yet they are all united by at least two major common themes in addition to their chronological proximity: one, each is autobiographical, either as part of a stand-alone account, or embedded in some larger biographical project. Two, each has to do with narrating a moment or period of conversion from one way of life to another. We might be tempted to call all of these religious conversions, but I think it’s best to avoid the term ‘religious’ here since while it’s accurate in some ways it does not really quite reflect how these various writers or those around them thought about the world and the nature of the experiences and lives we might label ‘religious.’

There are other shared features that I think are significant and which might point to some of the shared, interconnecting features of early modern life on a global scale. Each of these accounts reveals not just a sense of subjectivity and inwardness, but a surprisingly assertive sense of subjectivity- reflected in, to begin with, the very act of writing and circulating in some fashion an autobiographical account. Related to this subjectivity and self-fashioning is the stress laid on reading and encountering books, often through one’s individual act of reading. This is significant given the emphasis placed in many cultural contexts in medieval Eurasia upon the oral, face-to-face, hand-in-hand transmission of knowledge and religious practice. Yet most of these figures not only were shaped by their own personal readings and encounters with texts, they in turn produced texts for others to encounter in a similar fashion. That is not to say that these authors were ‘individualists,’ and certainly none of them would have embraced the idea of the ‘autonomous’ self. Each in his own way was a part of religious communities, textual genealogies, and shared collectivities of practice and worship and belief.

I encourage you to read these excerpts in sequence and to think about commonalities or differences and the possible reasons for them, as well as what they may or may not say about shared early modern histories beyond my brief comments above. For each excerpt I have given a minimal introductory note, followed by the account and the citation (of the four not originally in English, I have translated one, while the others are translations by other scholars).

1. John Nelson (1707-1770): A stone-mason by trade, John Nelson would become an early convert to the Methodist movement within the English Anglican Church led by John and Charles Wesley. I have selected two sections from his Journal, an autobiographical rendering of his spiritual journey and labors on behalf of the Wesleys’ pietistic movement. In the first, Nelson describes a formative childhood experience, while in the second he narrates the pivotal moment of his adult conversion from a state of emotional insecurity and distance from God to that of being ‘saved.’

When I was between nine and ten years old, I was horribly terrified with the thoughts of death and judgment, whenever I was alone. One Sunday night, as I sat on the ground by the side of my father’s chair, when he was reading the twentieth chapter of the Revelation, the word came with such light and power to my soul, that it made me tremble, as if a dart were shot in my heart. I fell with my face on the floor, and wept till the place was as wet, where I lay, as if water had been poured thereon. As my father proceeded, I thought I saw everything he read about, though my eyes were shut; and the sight was so terrible, I was about to stop my ears, that I might not hear, but I durst not: as soon as I put my fingers in my ears, I pulled them back again. When he came to the eleventh verse, the words made me cringe, and my flesh seemed to creep on my bones while he read… Continue reading “Conversion Stories From Across Early Modern Eurasia”