‘Abd al-Wahhāb Rescues a Fly in Peril

An insect of some sort, from an 18th century Ottoman Turkish version of ʿAjāʾib al-makhlūqāt (Wonders of creation) by Zakarīyā al-Qazwīnī (d. 1293). Walters Art Museum, W.659

Among the many writings produced by the prominent early modern Egyptian saint and sufi ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Sha’rānī (d. 1565) was a work that is best described as a cross between an ‘auto-hagiography’ and an encyclopedia of ethics and sufi practice. Al-Sha’rānī wrote the Laṭāʼif al-minan ostensibly as a compilation of practices and virtues for his followers and others to study and to emulate, though it also clearly functioned as a sprawling (the printed edition I used for this entry clocks in at over eight hundred pages!) argument for his own sanctity. Stories of al-Sha’rānī’s life (including, as here, aspects of his family life) are scattered generously throughout, including this curious little account which comes in the midst of a discussion of proper treatment of cats and other animals. Al-Sha’rānī was especially kind to cats, offering them food right out of his own hands, but, as this little miracle tale reveals, far ‘lowlier’ creatures were on his radar as well.


Among the things that happened to me: my wife Fāṭima Umm ‘Abd al-Raḥman had a thickness (ḥādir) upon her heart. Her mother cried out and was certain that [her daughter] would die, and I was greatly agitated on her account, but a voice came to me while I was in the toilet-room: “Release the fly from the fly-hyena (ḍabu’ al-dhabāb) in the crack that is in front of your face, and We will release your wife from sickness for you.” So I went to the crack and found it to be quite tight such that fingers could not open it, so I took a stick and pulled it open and extracted the fly-hyena with the fly, and found it whole but with the fly-hyena gripping its neck, so I released it from him, and in that moment my wife was released from sickness and restored to health and her mother rejoiced—from that day on I have not looked down upon bestowing good upon any creature or best which the Lawgiver, upon whom be peace and blessing, does not command be slain.

‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Sha’rānī, Laṭāʼif al-minan wa-al-akhlāq fī wujūb al-taḥadduth bi-niʻmat Allāh ʻalá al-iṭlāq, (Damascus: Dār al-Taqwā, 2003) 349-350.

Saints and the Crossing of Confessional Boundaries in the Ottoman and Safavid Worlds: Part i.

Ottoman Armenian
An Ottoman Armenian Christian resident of Istanbul, probably relatively well off enough to warrant his inclusion in a c. 1657‒58 costume collection book (The Rålamb book of costume, Rål. 8:o nr 10)

The two accounts that I’ve selected for this and an upcoming installment come from two milieus that at first glance might seem very different but upon a closer look reveal some striking similarities, similarities that reflect shared ways of seeing the world and ways of relating to people of different religious and confessional traditions, even in an early modern world marked by frequent conflicts and debates over confessional boundaries. The first story comes from an Ottoman Turkish source we’ve explored here previously, the menâkıb (saint’s life) of Hasan Ünsî, an eighteenth century Muslim saint of Istanbul, while the second installment, originally composed in grabar (‘classical’) Armenian, will be an excerpt from the life of Vardapet Poghōs, a seventeenth century Armenian Orthodox saint whose career took place in the northwest corner of the Safavid domains, in what is now Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Iran.

Here is the account from Hasan Ünsî’s menâkıb, with my commentary following:


‘Near the door of the exalted tekke there lived a Christian doctor, named Mikel, who was skillful and wise in the knowledge of medicine. It was his custom that if a sick person came to him and his treatment was not effective or treatment was not even possible, he would say to the patient, “The cure for this illness is inside this tekke, so go to the tekke, and find the Şeyh therein. His name is Hasan Efendi—go to him, he can treat this illness. Its cure will come from the Şeyh, so that you’ll have no need of other than him.” So saying he would send the sick person to the venerable Şeyh. This Mikel was consistent in this practice.

‘One day this poor one [Ibrahim Hâs] had gathered along with the other dervishes before the candle-like beauty of the venerable Şeyh, deriving abundant benefit from the sight of the saint. We saw that two people had come within the door. One had nothing upon his head but a wrapped around piece of cloth. He came up to the venerable Şeyh, kissed his blessed hand, and sat down. The venerable Şeyh said to him, “Have you come from afar?” He replied, “We are from afar.” The man whose head was wrapped in a piece of cloth came before the Şeyh, lifted the piece of cloth from his head and showed his head to the venerable Şeyh. As he turned we all saw that his head was entirely in boils (çıbanlar). Each one was jagged like the shell of a hazelnut and very red, without numerous individuals boils—they were about thirty in number, but each boil was very bad—we take refuge in God! This person said, “My Sultan, thus with this sickness I have been tried. I cannot put anything on my head. I have sought someone to treat it in both Istanbul and Galata, but no physician understands this sickness, and they give no answer. Despite expending many akças I have neither cure nor respite. The physicians of this city are incapable of treating me! Finally, near this tekke’s door there is a physician to whom I came and showed the boils on my head, and he said to me that ‘We have no means of treating this illness. But the doctor for this illness is the şeyh of this tekke, who is named Hasan Efendi. The cure for this is there.’ Saying this he sent me to your side. Will you give me an electuary, or give me a pill? Or perhaps you will give me some other treatment—whatever you say, let it be upon my head! I remain without a cure!”

The venerable Şeyh smiled and said, “Mikel has given you a good report; but you did not quite understand if you seek from us an electuary or pill.” Having said this, he said to the man, “Come before me!” He came before him and uncovered his head. The venerable Şeyh said to him, “Bend your head towards me!” He bent his head, and the venerable Şeyh spit into his hands and placed them on the boils of the man’s head, and then for one time gently hit them. He then said, “This is our pill, electuary, and şerbet! Go now, and henceforward you will be well, whether you believe or don’t believe.’ The venerable Şeyh said no invocation, read no prayers, nor said the Fatiha over him. Then the man kissed the venerable Şeyh’s blessed hand and left. Two days later that person came to the venerable Şeyh and we saw that the boils had gone, he was well, and was wearing a quilted turban (kavuk). He had brought many gifts and much praise. Afterwards he came face-to-face with the venerable Şeyh with his gift, but the Şeyh strongly enjoined him not to tell anyone, but [the story] was circulated among the poor ones [the dervishes].

İbrahim Hâs, Hasan Ünsî Halvetî ve Menâkıbnâmesi, edited by Mustafâ Tatcı (Bağcılar, İstanbul: Kırkambar Kitaplığı, 2013, 2013), 314-317. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.


What might we make of this story? It gets at, I think, an important feature of religious life in not just the Ottoman world but much of the rest of early modern Eurasia: the potential power of sanctity, as invested in a holy person, place, or object, had a decided ecumenical quality. There is no sense here that either Mikel of Hasan Ünsî were rejecting their confessional affiliations, or even questioning the validity of their respective faiths. But we do get the sense of a shared economy of sanctity among them, and among the unfortunate patient and the various onlookers. The story does not end, note, in anyone’s conversion (unlike any number of medieval Islamic saints’ lives), and Şeyh Hasan is explicitly described as not using overtly Islamic methods in treating the man (whom we are given to understand, I think, to be non-Muslim himself, though this is not made explicit). Mikel the Christian doctor does not become Muslim, either, and we get the sense that Şeyh Hasan quite appreciates the referrals he receives from him. The saint’s power has an open quality, at least towards ‘ordinary’ people- elsewhere the saint is shown restricting access to himself when he is sought out by more powerful and wealthier people with ties to the Ottoman ruling elite. Continue reading “Saints and the Crossing of Confessional Boundaries in the Ottoman and Safavid Worlds: Part i.”

Dervish Muḥarram Finds Himself in Strange Straits

Portrait of a Sufi Deccan
While not an Ottoman production, this illustration of a sufi in contemplation (presumably), which comes from the 17th century Deccan, provides a good approximation of dervish dress and deportment in many parts of the Islamic world during this period. (Met. 57.51.22)

It was related to me than when [Muḥarram al-Rūmī’s] shaykh instructed him in the Third Name [1], he began hearing all of the existent things speak to him, even when he needed to urinate—but he heard every place in which he sat in order to relieve his need speaking to him in an eloquent tongue, so he went from there to another place, but found it to just the same, so instead he held back his urine to the point that he was close to perishing. He turned to his shaykh through his spiritual energy (himma) and beheld him with his eyes, even though there was a great spatial distance between them [2]. His shaykh said to him, ‘ Muḥarram! Do what you need to do and don’t be in anguish!’

ʻAbd al-Raʼūf ibn Tāj al-ʻĀrifīn al-Munāwī, al-Kawākib al-durrīyah fī tarājim al-sādah al-Ṣūfīyah: ṭabaqāt al-Ṣūfīyah, (Bayrūt, Lubnān: Dār Ṣādir, 1999), iv: 512-513. Translation by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.

Sofra close up

[1] Muḥarram al-Rūmī (who lived in the late 16th into early 17th century in Ottoman Cairo; ‘Rūmī’ indicates Anatolian origin) was a Khalwatī (Tur. Halvetî) dervish, a ṭarīqa in which disciples were taught seven successive divine names, each with particular forms of dhikr, spiritual stations, and powers associated with them. The third name mentioned here is ‘‘ (‘He’).

[2] I have translated himma here as ‘spiritual energy,’ an approximation at best, since it also has the idea of ‘intention, will, and zeal,’ all of which contribute to this technical usage found in sufism. Continue reading “Dervish Muḥarram Finds Himself in Strange Straits”

Two Ways of Dealing with the Jinn in the Ottoman World

Demons- the red king of the djinns, Al-Malik al-Ahmar. Demon portrait. From a 15th-century Arabic collectaneous manuscript known as Kitab al-bulhan.
The Red King (al-Malik al-aḥmar), from Kitāb al-Bulhān, produced c. 1390-1450, probably Baghdad (MS. Bodl. Or. 133, fol. 31a)

The presence and potential power of the jinn- beings neither human nor angel, but instead somewhere in-between, capable of both helping and harming humans but mostly just interested in their own devices- has been a constant throughout Islamic history, with the concept of the jinn probably pre-dating Islam considerably in fact. Ways of dealing with the jinn have varied considerably, though certain practices- the use of talismans and amulets, or other sacred or semi-sacred prophylactics- has been common across many Islamic societies. The two examples I’ve presented here demonstrate at least two ways in which people in the sixteenth century Ottoman world imagined and sought to control the power of the jinn.

The image above is of one of the most fearsome of the jinn, the ‘Red King,’ also referenced in the story below. He is surrounded by various other ferocious, indeed rather terrifying, jinn, sitting astride a lion. His malevolent nature, had it been in doubt, is emphasized by the decapitated human head he holds in one hand. This image comes from a 15th (or possibly late 14th) century compilation, the Kitāb al-Bulhān, produced in pre-Ottoman Baghdad, a book which features a range of material from the astrological to the occult- subjects and genres that hover somewhere among our modern categories of science, magic, and religion. The image itself contains prophylactic letters and numbers- visible to the left and right of the Red King’s head- which are meant to control this particular jinn’s manifestations. More interesting for our purposes, this manuscript was modified by later Ottoman owners: Ottoman Turkish has been added, and some of the images have been modified. This painting of the Red King bears the most striking modifications. Through some technique the paint has been removed from the jinn chief’s body at strategic points: his neck and hands have been ‘cut,’ his head ‘pierced,’ and his mount’s eye put out. As you might guess these are not accidental injuries to the manuscript, but were done deliberately, almost certainly by a 16th century Ottoman owner (at some point in the 17th century it was acquired by a English collector, who added his own cryptographic writing to parts of the text- but that’s another story!). What is going on here?

In her recent discussion of Ottoman and Safavid devotional artistic practices [1], the Islamic art historian Christiane Gruber drew attention to the physical interactions that audiences of manuscript paintings in both empires had with particular images. Along with ‘positive’ devotional acts like the addition of face-covering veils to images of Muhammad and members of the Ahl al-Bayt, kissing and rubbing depictions of Muhammad and others, and other types of practices that modified the image on the page, we also see evidence of symbolic devotional ‘violence’ in images: the faces of Muhammad’s pagan enemies being rubbed out, their necks and hands ‘cut,’ and, in Shi’i contexts, explicitly Sunni figures being ritually defaced. Gruber argues that these actions were seen as relating to the subjects depicted in some way: cutting the necks of Muhammad’s opponents de-fanged their potential power, while allowing the viewer to not just view but participate, albeit at a remove, in the drama being depicted in the picture. Something very similar is going on in this image: whoever modified this image sought to control the power of the Red King through symbolic ritual action, with the understanding that violence done to the jinn’s depiction ‘translated’ to the jinn himself. Note that this is not iconoclasm, at least not in the traditional sense: most of the pictures in this collection have not been modified at all, indicating both the lack of iconoclasm in the book’s audience and the apparently especially dangerous nature of the Red King, dangerous enough that even his image in an occult handbook needed to be ‘brought to heel.’

The second example of controlling the jinn- including the Red King- comes from the saint’s life of ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Sha’rānī (d. 1565), Tadhkirat ūlī al-albāb, by Muḥammad Muḥyī al-Dīn al-Malījī. The short story I have translated below is only one of numerous anecdotes in which the saint confronts jinn, both singly and in groups. In these stories a recurring feature, and one that long predated al-Sha’rānī, is the jinn’s occupation of particular places and spaces, especially abandoned human dwellings. The ability of saints to confront and control the jinn was also well established by the 16th century; al-Sha’rānī is shown using his saintly power to mark out spaces in the urban fabric of Cairo, not so much to defeat the jinn as to demonstrate his sanctity by moving into their space and avoiding any harm from them. Continue reading “Two Ways of Dealing with the Jinn in the Ottoman World”

Şemseddîn Sivâsî Saves the Exiled Dogs

Dogs in the Market
Mevlana Rumi addresses dogs in the marketplace, from a c. 1590 copy of the Ottoman Turkish translation of Aflākī’s menāqib of Rumi (Morgan Library MS M.466, fol. 66v)

The following story hails from a massive hagiographic compilation in Ottoman Turkish, Hediyyetü’l-ihvân, written by one Mehmed Nazmî Efendi (d. 1669) and dealing with the lives of a series of saints leading up to his own şeyh (Ar. shaykh) in the seventeenth century. This story comes from the life of Şemseddîn Ahmed Sivâsî (1519-1597), who was born in the little town of Zile in Anatolia and eventually settled in Sivas, becoming in time quite well known, to the point of Sultan Süleyman the Great inviting him to go on campaign with him to Hungary. The charming tale that I have translated here points to his fame among the towns and villages of this part of Anatolia. It also reminds us of the complicated relationship between people and dogs that has historically been the case in Islamic lands: we see both an outbreak of ‘anti-dog’ measures in the person of the (unnamed and castigated) kadi, the studied ambiguity of a hadith, and the robust support of the saint, simultaneously. That a saint would intervene on behalf of unjustly treated dogs is not particularly surprising- accounts of Mevlana Rumi’s interactions, and those of his followers, with dogs circulated in the Ottoman world, as witnessed by the above illustration, contemporary in fact to this story.


From among his miracles was the following: the people of Karahisâr-ı Şarkî [modern Şebinkarahisar] sent messengers to Şems asking him that he honor them with his preaching, counsel, [performance of] zikr [1], and his blessed noble beauty. In answer to their supplication he came, and was honored immensely, being given a fine place to stay as well as much feasting and amiable conversation. For some time he preached, gave counsel, and led zikr, then announced that he was returning to Sîvâs. When the scholars, şeyhs, merchants, notables, and ordinary people of the town all came together to give him a farewell with honor and respect, numerous dogs also came before the saint, and, as if presenting complaints, began barking! When Şems asked why they were barking so, the people replied, “Because there has been plague and pestilence in our town, the kadi [2] of our town ordered the killing or banishing of the dogs, so that we killed some and we banished some. These are dogs that we banished.”

The saint cried out, “Your kadi was heedless of the hadith which says, If dogs were not a community (umma) from among the communities, then I would order them killed.” [3] Saying that, he addressed the dogs: “Go safely and soundly back to dwell and to be at rest in your former places!” As the townspeople returned from bidding the saint farewell, they saw these words fulfilled as the dogs, understanding the command, followed after the people back into town to their usual places—and having done so, by the command of God, the plague was lifted on that very day!


[1] That is, the practice of ‘remembrance (Ar. dhikr) of God’ in a ritualized manner.

[2] The kadi- literally, ‘judge,’ from Ar. qāḍī- was not just an arbitrator of legal cases but, in the Ottoman context, a multi-task administrator.

[3] The meaning of this hadith, attributed to Muhammad, seems to be that dogs have a special status as an umma, which normally means a religious community (such as the umma of all Muslims); this special status outweighs any negative aspects dogs may have.

Şeyh Mehmet Nazmi, Osmanlılarda tasavvufî hayat: Halvetîlik örneği : Hediyyetü’l-ihvân, edited by Osman Türer (İstanbul: İnsan Yayınları, 2005), 359-360. Translation by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.

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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”