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”

Giving Delight to the Lords of Spiritual States

Convent of the Rufai Dervishes .jpg
Sufis with strange and even deviant practices, but who were otherwise deeply integrated into Ottoman social and political life, were hardly limited to the Arab provinces: this c. 1809 painting, by an anonymous Ottoman Greek artist commissioned by the British diplomat Stratford Canning, depicts Rufāʿī dervishes in their Istanbul tekke, performing some of the incredible physical feats for which they were (and are!) well-known. Note the additional edged implements hanging on the wall, and the dervish heating iron in the fireplace to the right, as well as the presence- just as in the story below- of spectators. (V&A D.140-1895)

As sufism and Islamic sainthood both developed over the medieval and into the early modern periods, a vast and heterogenous range of practices were built up to express devotion to God and to make manifest the power of holy people, from various forms of dance to strange feats of physical strength to bodily rigorous rituals lasting hours and hours or even days or weeks. Some of these practices could be quite extreme in the eyes of observers now and at the time, and have in recent years often attracted the designation of ‘folk Islam’ or worse. The following story, which comes from the personal chronicle of a Damascene Muslim scholar named Ibn Kannān (d. 1740), reveals how seriously Ottoman officials- and members of the ‘ulama class, of whom Ibn Kannān was a respectable representative- could take even very strange saints and the unnerving practices of their followers. Here is the tale Ibn Kannān tells:

On the 28th [of Jumādī II, 1118, October 7, 1706], a Thursday, the pasha [Meḥmed Paşa ibn Bayrām] sent someone before Shaykh Muḥibb al-Dīn al-Taghlibī al-Ṣāliḥī al-Shībānī, and commanded him to bring forth the banners, mazhars [1], dhikr litanies, the shaykhs, and the khalīfas [2], and to make a procession (dawra) so that he might give delight to the lords of spiritual states. He did so and set out with banners and mazhars, and when he reached the gate of the palace he called for his horse and rode upon it over the people, [a practice] known as ‘the treading’ (al-dawsa). It is as if the people are sleeping on their faces, then he rides over them with his horse but no one is injured. When he rode out over them the pasha and Qāḍī ʿArīf Efendī and the other elite seated in the kiosk leaped up for joy! Then [Shaykh Muḥibb al-Dīn] came by himself into the presence of the pasha, while the rest of his entourage went to the Sināniyya Mosque…

One of the viziers had an unruly horse whom no one was able to handle. Once he sent it to [Shaykh Muḥibb al-Dīn] and he stood him still upon his feet as was his custom, afixed a bridle he had with him upon his head and led him about, then rode him at a trot. It is said [the vizier] then gifted the horse to the shaykh.

Continue reading “Giving Delight to the Lords of Spiritual States”

Ottoman Cultural Exchange and Devotional Art in the Islamic Far West

Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Arabe 6983 iv
Miḥrab page, Dalā’il al-khayrāt, completed 1705 (Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Arabe 6983, fol. 19r).

The famed late medieval book of prayer and blessings upon the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, known as Dalā’il al-khayrāt, written by Muhammad Sulaymān al-Jazūlī (d. 1465), would become one of the most popular texts of any sort across the early modern Islamicate world. From modern-day Morocco, where al-Jazūlī lived, worked, and died (he completed Dalā’il in Fes, while he would ultimately be buried in Marrakesh), his most famous work would rapidly spread to points east, with copies appearing by the mid eighteenth century as far afield as Eastern Turkestan and the Indonesian archipelago. As this text and its devotional regime spread, the text itself took on what was in some regards a relatively stable visual schemata- depictions of Mecca and Medina, schematics of Muhammad’s tomb and minbar, and an overall ornamentation and careful, often fully vocalized script could all be found in copies across the Islamicate world. At the same time, different regions drew the text into their own traditions of art and manuscript production, while in some cases adding additional material. In the eighteenth century, for instance, Ottoman copies of Dalā’il would often come to include hilye-i şerif panels, calligraphic ‘verbal icons’ of Muhammad (which themselves had originally existed in a medieval treatise).

In the Maghrib- the Islamic ‘Far West’- where the text originated, copies of Dalā’il would often include unique to the region elements, elaborated in a variety of styles. One such unique (so far as I can tell) element was the inclusion, in the opening pages of the manuscript, of an illuminated genealogy of Muhammad. Here is a relatively plain example, making use of name roundels (which were also common in Ottoman productions and may have their origin in such a milieu) and extensions of names into the neutral space of the illumination:

Library of Congress. Arabic manuscript, SM 85.
A genealogy page from a copy of the Dalā’il made in the Maghrib during the second half of the 18th century. (Library of Congress, Arabic manuscripts, SM 85)

However, the manuscript that I want to focus on here, now classified as BnF Arabe 6983, is another Maghribi version of the famous prayer book, and was completed in 1705 in what is now Morocco and held in the library of the Nāṣiriyya sufis in Tamegroute on the edge of the Sahara until it came into the collection of Hubert Lyautey, the French Resident-General of Morocco in the early twentieth century, and thence to the Bibliothèque nationale de France. This manuscript, which in its provenance history already bespeaks to much historical change, has one of the most spectacular and beautiful visual schemes of any copy of Dalā’il I have come across. The mihrab page above- an unusual feature in itself- hints at some of the artistic vigor and cultural exchange visible in this manuscript, which is very much oriented towards the Ottoman world, even as its core features speak to its Maghribi origins. The following page, an example of the above-mentioned genealogy component, demonstrates the Ottoman stylistic aspects especially well:

Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Arabe 6983
Dalā’il al-khayrāt. (Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Arabe 6983, fol. 6r)

Here, the illumination’s neutral space, while like the first example containing the winding names of Muhammad’s ancestors attached to calligraphic roundels, has been filled with a delicate swirling floral pattern. Anyone with some familiarity with Ottoman history is likely to recognize that pattern- it originated in the illumination of the sultanic calligraphic emblem, the tuǧra, as visible in the following example, from the late sixteenth century:

A firman (imperial decree), paper, written in Divani Istanbul, Turkey; 981 H = 1573 L: 295; W: 56 cm
The tuǧra of Sultan Selim II, as affixed to a fermân issued in 1573. Note the intricate floral ornamentation filling the interior of the calligraphy- this is an especially colorful example. (David Collection Inv. no. 51/2002)

Continue reading “Ottoman Cultural Exchange and Devotional Art in the Islamic Far West”

‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī and the Stoned Preacher of Bulaq

Interior of the mosque of Sinan Pasha, Cairo (Photograph)
Interior of the Sinān Pasha Mosque in Būlāq, Cairo, as it appeared between 1916 and 1921, photographed by K.A.C. Creswell (V&A 4812-1955)

Over the course of his several journeys through the Ottoman lands, the great shaykh, scholar, and saint ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī encountered all sorts of people from all manner of walks of life, from members of the Ottoman elite to Turkmen nomads in the desert. On the whole he expressed great affection and understanding for ordinary people, including those whose practice of Islam did not precisely accord with the textual, urban norms of the scholarly class of which al-Nābulusī was a prominent member. In the following story, which takes place in the Būlāq neighborhood of Ottoman Cairo, al-Nābulusī’s patience and tolerance were both tested greatly by a decidedly unprofessional Friday preacher to whom he and his friend and host Shaykh Zayn al-‘Ābidīn al-Bakrī, a prominent and well-known (as the story suggests) member of Cairo’s scholarly class, found themselves listening, first with amusement and later with other less positive emotions. The story is largely self-explanatory, though it is worth pointing out that the preacher’s attempt at angling a bigger share of the mosque’s designated endowment for preaching is a good reminder of the quotidian, economic realities running through Ottoman religious life, like the religious lives of people the world over. His apparent substance addiction, as we would now call it, also reminds us that such problems are hardly anything new, while the undercurrent of humor this story has a decidedly contemporary feel to it as well.

Preacher with Ink instead of Rosewater
Another Ottoman preacher whose reception was not what he was expecting: an illustration of a story of a preacher in a mosque who accidently sprinkled his face with ink instead of rosewater, from a 1721 copy of the Ḫamse of the Ottoman poet ʿAṭāʾī (d. 1634). From Walters Ms. W.666, fol. 48a.

‘We came to the Sanāniyya Mosque [that is, the Sinān Pasha Mosque, built in 1572] and the prayed here the Friday prayer. We found the preacher preaching and mispronouncing words, praying and reciting and mispronouncing words—in other words, he did not cease from his mispronunciations! But no one else inside of that mosque noticed, nor anyone outside in the courtyard. Shaykh Zayn al-‘Ābidīn al-Bakrī, God preserve him, when the preacher would make a mispronunciation would look at me and grin. The preacher, out of his ignorance of his mispronunciations, thought that he was amazed at his eloquence and heaved a sigh. Off-handedly, the following verses came to my mind in that we had never encountered a preacher quite like him:

The preacher of Būlāq whose voice/ prides itself more than the mill does the flour,

Preaches with mispronunciation upon mispronunciation, and if/ he mispronounces here, compensates with mispronunciation there!

Continue reading “‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī and the Stoned Preacher of Bulaq”