A Dangerous Vision, a Sufi Martyr, and Ghengiz Khan

This folio from Walters manuscript W.650 depicts the hanging of Mansur al-Hallaj. s
A depiction, from an early 17th century Mughal edition of Dihlavi’s Diwan, of the martyrdom of al-Ḥallāj, perhaps the best-known, if long contested and ambiguous in meaning, martyr in the history of sufism. Walters W.650.22B

The relational nexus between Muslim saint and Muslim ruler in medieval and early modern times was almost always a fraught one. Both saint and ruler laid claim to divinely invested authority, claims that could coexist, cooperate, and clash. A given saint might support a ruler, undermine him, or simply ignore him, while rulers moved between strategies of co-opting saints, seeking them out for their baraka and the social power that being connected to a saint might bring, endowing zawiyas, khaniqahs, and the like, even as some saintly shaykhs made a prominent point of rejecting both contact with and reception of wealth from rulers. Occasionally a Muslim claimant to sainthood ran seriously afoul of a ruler, resulting in exile, imprisonment, or even martyrdom.

I encountered the story- from the early thirteenth century Khawarezm domains- I’ve translated and presented below first in an Ottoman context, in the Ta’rîh (History) of Ibrâhîm Peçevî (d. c. 1650), an Ottoman official and author, who described the martyrdom of the Kurdish Şeyh Mahmûd of Diyarbakır, executed by Sultan Murad IV, probably because the sultan feared the saint, who had a vast following across the Kurdish lands, posed a political threat. Peçevî, who had been posted in Diyarbakır as a defterdâr, had been an intimate of the saint and was deeply sorrowed to learn of his martyrdom. Upon learning that Şeyh Mahmûd had died, he was reminded, he writes, of the story I’ve translated here. It comes from the massive Persian hagiographic compilation, Nafaḥāt al-uns, by the poet, sufi, and author Nūr al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Raḥmān Jāmī (d. 1492). There are indeed striking parallels, as well as differences: Majd al-Dīn, while clearly of saintly status, is seen here oversteping his limits in his relationship with the powerful and axial saint Najm al-Dīn al-Kubrā (d. 1221) in relating his vision, a vision that implies exalted spiritual status. The remainder of the story is largely self-explanatory, though I’ve included some notes for clarification here and there. Given both the odd details, the hints of court intrigue, and the spectacular ending- the Mongols totally devastated the Khawarezm lands- it would be a popular item in Jāmī’s hagiography. Peçevî reproduced, in Ottoman Turkish form, a condensed version of the story (and thereby implicitly criticized the by-then deceased Murad IV and warned future sultans) in his chronicle, while it was circulated in Ottoman Turkish in other contexts as well. The lessons are clear enough: rulers ought to observe proper care and respect around the saints, as the consequences of not doing so can be truly enormous!

Ilkhanid Star Tile With Horse
Ilkhanid star-tile with poetry attributed to Majd al-Dīn around the border, made in 1310 (BMFA 31.729)

One day Shaykh Majd al-Dīn [Baghdādī] was sitting with a group of dervishes when a state of spiritual intoxication came over him. He said: ‘I was a duck’s egg upon the shore of the sea, and Shaykh Najm al-Dīn [Kubrā] was a bird with his wings of spiritual instruction spread out above my head until I came forth from the egg and I was like the young of the duck, then went into the sea, while the shaykh remained on the shore.’

Shaykh Najm al-Dīn knew [what Majd al-Dīn said] by the light of divinely instilled power, and the words ‘He will go into the ocean!’ passed upon his tongue [1]. When Shaykh Majd al-Dīn heard that he was fearful, and he came before Shaykh Sa’d al-Dīn Ḥamawī and with great humility asked, ‘When the time is right with the shaykh, will you give him report of me such that I may enter his presence and request forgiveness?’

Continue reading “A Dangerous Vision, a Sufi Martyr, and Ghengiz Khan”

Nader Shah, a Rebellious Governor, and a Saint’s Intercessions

Partly colored drawing pasted on an album leaf. “A Standing Dervish.” Signed Muhsin. Iran, Isfahan; c. 1650. Drawing: 15.1 × 7.6 cm David Collection Inv. no. 145/2006

One of the most remarkable and fascinating, as well as tumultuous and frequently traumatic, periods in the early modern history of Persia was the meteoric rise and success of Nader Shah (d. 1747), who not only established himself in the ruins of the Safavid dynasty, having expelled invading Afghans and rather handily deposed the resurgent Safavid claimant to the throne, but also embarked on a campaign of conquest in almost every direction that was redolent of the great conquerors of Inner Asia of days past. Nader Shah’s conquests and campaigns had an enormous impact on not just the societies of the former Safavid lands but also the many places touched by his forays, including the Ottoman and Mughal lands. In the Ottoman Empire, for instance, Nader’s campaigns gave rise to a new form of resolutely Sunni devotional regime, centered around the Ahl al-Badr, the early Muslims who fought alongside Muhammad at the pivotal battle of Badr, and whose names formed a litany of saintly intercession that soared in popularity after Nader’s eruption into the Ottoman world. Nader’s conquests and empire re-making drew in and impacted the numerous Armenian communities scattered across the central Islamicate lands, from the Mughal realms in India to the far western edges of the Ottoman domains and beyond into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. As perhaps the most visible and deeply integrated- yet still distinctive and communally cohesive (for the most part)- minority group in these Muslim-majority lands, Armenians, whether Orthodox or Catholic, provide an important and fascinating vantage point for viewing events such as the rise of Nader Shah, with Armenians from different sides of the Ottoman-Iranian border providing markedly different perspectives.

The account below comes from an otherwise unknown chronicler of Nader’s rise and campaigns, one Abraham of Erevan, who, as the translator of his chronicle, George A. Bournoutian, notes, was probably either a military man or somehow involved in military affairs, perhaps on the logistics side, as he shows particular acumen in relating military operations and the intricacies of the various campaigns Nader carried out. He is throughout strikingly ‘pro-Nāder,’ even as he gives evidence of Armenians on the Ottoman side with quite different sentiments. The passage I have selected here (and I will perhaps follow up with more selections from Abraham’s chronicle and from other sources in a range of languages dealing with Nader Shah), has to do with, among other things, a Muslim saint, as seen by an Armenian chronicler, and his interactions with, on the one hand, Nader Shah, and, on the other, a rebellious provincial governor who had fled into the saint’s protection. In keeping with the theme of my recent previous set of postings, we see in Abraham’s account a sense of a shared economy of holiness, triply so: Abraham understands the Muslim saint as being in many ways similar to saints in his own tradition, and expects his audience to understand things in this way as well. It is also possible, if not likely, that the saint in question, dwelling on the Iranian littoral away from the centers of Persian Shi’ism, may have been Sunni, though there is no real indication one way or another. If he was, however, this story points to a continued shared economy of holiness between Shi’i and Sunnis in the former Safavid sphere; regardless, the markers of sainthood identified here would have been shared across boundaries. Finally, the story is a reminder of the limits of this economy of holiness- while the saint saves the life of the governor, it is not an unmitigated rescue, as we will see!


After that, Nāder marched on Shiraz, whose governor, called Mohammad, had rebelled against him, even though Nāder had appointed him to control the disloyal Balūç. Instead of convincing the Balūç to become loyal to Nāder, Mohammad rose against Nāder, gathered an army, and planned to march on Isfahan. Meanwhile, he had gone to the Bandar region [on the Persian Gulf coast] and had killed those who refused to join him. He added the rest to his army, went to Shiraz and prepared to attach Isfahan.

Nāder was informed of Mohammad’s intentions and dispatched an envoy with a letter that stated, “What are you doing? You are my servant and have eaten my bread. I raised you above five or six other khans. What is the reason that you have rebelled, have become alienated, have raised you sword and men against me? Repent and change your evil ways.” Nāder sent similar messages three times, but the latter did not answer. After the fourth message, Mohammad Khan replied, “I risk my neck on my action. Let God decide between us. Be aware that either I or you shall lose our life.”

When Nāder heard this, he no longer communicated with Mohammad Khan. Instead, he gathered his army and marched on Shiraz. Mohammad Khan was informed of his approach and went out to meet him on the plain. During the battle Mohammad’s army took flight and many were killed. He himself barely escaped and took refuge in a fortress in the Bandar region caled ‘Avaẓ. The chief of the fortress, a certain Sheikh Jabbār, had an extraordinary knowledge of the supernatural and the Muslims of the region considered him a saint and believed his every word, for her had reportedly performed many miracles. Mohammad Khan thus went to the Sheikh, told him what had occurred, and begged him for God’s sake to intercede with Nāder, since the latter held the Sheikh in great reverence.

The Sheikh gave in to his request and sent a letter to Nāder stating, “For my sake, receive Mohammad Khan, who has repented and who wishes to return to your bosom. Have mercy on him, do not execute him, although he is not worthy of your generosity.” Nāder responded, “Let it be so. Because of your entreaties I shall not execute him. Send him to us.” The Sheikh showed Nāder’s letter to Mohammad Khan and the latter went to him. When he appeared before him, Nāder said, “Do you remember when I was in Baghdad and wrote to you not to go against me? You answered that God shall decide which one of us will remain alive. Well, God has placed you in my hands and it is just that I should kill you.” Mohammad Khan replied, “Do as you wish; I am here in your hands.” Nāder replied, “Although you deserve to die, for the sake of the Sheikh who begged that I spare your life, I shall spare you. But I shall give you a minor punishment.” He then ordered one of his slaves to remove Mohammad Khan’s eyes. Nāder then gave the blind khan one hundred tomans and said, “Go! Live on this sum and pray for me.” He then entrusted him to fifteen soldiers and sent him to Mashhad. [Nāder] then went to Isfahan to prepare the conquest of Shirvan and Shemakhi.

Abraham of Erevan, History of the Wars (1721-1738), translated by George A. Bournoutian (Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers, 1999), 83-38.

Fire Poured Out From Heaven: Muslim Saints’ Shrines in Safavid Miniature Painting

Miniature from a copy of Jafar al-Sadiq_s Falnama. “Scene From a Mausoleum” Iran, Tabriz or Qasvin; c. 1550
Miniature from a copy of Jafar al-Sadiq’s Falnama. “Scene From a Mausoleum”
Iran, Tabriz or Qasvin; c. 1550 (David Collection, Inv. no. 28/1997)
“Prayers in a Mosque” Miniature from Kulliyat-i Mawlana Ahli Shirazi (Collected Works of Mawlana Ahli Shirazi) Shiraz, Iran; c. 1550
Miniature from Kulliyat-i Mawlana Ahli Shirazi (Collected Works of Mawlana Ahli Shirazi)
Shiraz, Iran; c. 1550, David Collection, Inv. no. Isl 161

As any long-time reader of this blog will know, one of my primary areas of scholarly interest is the history of saints and sainthood in the Islamic world, primarily within Islamic traditions but also in Christian and Jewish traditions practiced within or in contact with Islamicate cultures. The very fact that ‘Muslims have saints’ often comes as a surprise, with the usual follow up question being something along the lines of ‘Just what is a Muslim saint like?’ The answer, of course, varies from place to place and time to time, with the usual caveats that Muslims saints ‘look’ both like and unlike saints in other religious traditions, and that some forms of Islam, especially in the modern world, largely reject sainthood (similar to some forms of Christianity after the Protestant Reformation).

One difference between Muslim modes of understanding and depicting saints and sainthood and those found in many other traditions such as Christianity and Buddhism is the relatively low-key role of visual depictions in describing saints and in venerating them or inscribing their memory. While it is not true to say that Islam across the board lacks iconographic traditions, explicit uses of icon-like depictions for veneration has historically tended to be limited to either to depictions of non-human items and places, described in last week’s post, or in a rather supplemental manner (for private devotions or in the context of a shrine), such as has become common in contemporary Shi’i devotion (though certainly not only Shi’i- for instance, see this example from resolutely Sunni Morocco). The two miniatures above fall into another category altogether: in both we have something quite rare, namely, artistic renderings of practiced devotion to saints. These two images, both of which were produced in Safavid Iran while it was still in the long process of transitioning from a Sunni polity to a Shi’i one, give us a pretty good visual idea of what tomb veneration looked like in an early modern context- while they come from the Persian world, we know from literary evidence that the practices and architectural elements depicted in them would have been shared with other regions, including the neighboring Ottoman lands. The images are hence worth a closer look. Continue reading “Fire Poured Out From Heaven: Muslim Saints’ Shrines in Safavid Miniature Painting”

Come to the Banquet of God!

It is also transmitted that to begin with Qāḍī ‘Ezz al-Dīn was extremely opposed to the samā’ [devotional, ecstatic dance and recitation] of the dervishes. One day [Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī] Mowlānā, having become greatly aroused with passion, came forth from his madrasa while performing the samā’. He entered the chamber of Qāḍī ‘Ezz al-Dīn and, shouting at him and grabbing him by the collar, he said: ‘Get up! Come to the banquet of God!’ He then dragged him to the gathering of ‘the lovers’ and revealed to him what was appropriate to ‘Ezz al-Dīn’s capacity. The latter tore his robe and joined in the samā’, spinning about and letting out shouts. In the end, he came to experience devotion and become a disciple in complete sincerity.

Shams al-Dīn Aḥmad-e Aflākī, Manāqib al-‘ārifīn, trans. by John O’Kane, 75.

Roses for Kerā Khātūn

Few Sufis in history have achieved as much renown as Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (1207-1273), also widely known as simply Mawlānā, ‘our master.’ Of several hagiographical texts dealing with the life of Rūmī, the most expansive and best known is Manāqib al-‘ārifīn by Shams al-Dīn Aḥmad-e Aflākī, written in the early 1300s, decades after Rūmī’s death. In addition to Rūmī’s life, Aflākī includes the lives of several other saintly figures associated with Rūmī, drawing upon what seems to have been a vast reservoir of stories and anecdotes available to him. The resulting text, while imbued with many of the conventions of Sufi hagiography, also contains glimpses into everyday life in 13th century Konya. Formerly the center of the Seljuk Empire, Konya was by the lifetime of Rūmī under the rule of the Mongol Ilkhanids, albeit as a somewhat peripheral, frontier-like province. As had been the case under the Seljuks, Anatolia continued to be a place of cross-cultural interaction and struggle, and while increasingly politically decentralized and fragmented, host to both outstanding scholars and to networks of merchants and traders. Muslims may have been the majority population by Rūmī’s time, but members of various Christian confessions were still sizable and probably made up the majority in some places.

In the story below, in addition to the argument for the exalted nature of Mawlānā’s spiritual state, we get a glimpse of the market culture of Konya, and its possible ties to distant places. We also see some of the possibilities in the life of a woman in this period; the account is, not insignificantly, attributed to a woman, Mawlānā’s wife. Her maidservant acts as her representative in the market, unsurprising for a woman of exalted social class in this period. The account is also shot through with a rich sensuality and aesthetic sensibility, summoning for us not just sights and sounds of medieval Konya, but even smell- which is here bound up with the memory of sanctity, activated through the long-lasting lingering of the beautiful odor of the miraculous roses: memory that must be guarded lest it be misused, but, in the right noses, is both spiritually and sensually pleasing.

A rose by the Ottoman artist Abdullah Bukharī, c. 1733.
A rose by the Ottoman artist Abdullah Bukharī, c. 1733.

It is also transmitted that Mowlānā’s wife, Kerā Khātūn- God have mercy on her- who was a second [Virgin] Mary with regard to her unsullied life and the purity of her honor, related: ‘One day in the depths of winter Mowlānā was seated in seclusion with Shams-e Tabrīzī, and Mowlānā was leaning on Shams al-Dīn’s knee. I had placed my ear against a crack in the door in their direction to hear the secrets they were saying and to learn what was going on between them. Suddenly I beheld the wall of the house open and six awesome men of the invisible realm came in. They said salām, did obeisance, and placed a bouquet of roses before Mowlānā. And they sat there in complete concentration without uttering a single word, until it was close to the time of the midday prayers. Mowlānā indicated to Shams al-Dīn: “Let us perform the prayers. You act as prayer leader.” Shams al-Dīn said: “No one else can act as prayer leader when you are present.”

Mowlānā led the prayers and when the prayers were over, the six esteemed individuals, having paid their respects, rose and went out again through the wall. Due to this awesomeness I fainted. When I recovered my senses, I saw that Mowlānā had come outside and he gave me the bouquet of roses, saying: “Look after this!”

I sent a few petals of this rose to the shop of the perfume sellers to ask: “We have never seen this kind of rose before. Where does this rose come from and what is its name?” All the perfume sellers were amazed at the freshness, color, and fragrance of the rose, saying: “In the depths of winter where has such a wondrous rose come from?”

As it happened, there was a reputable gentleman in that company by the name of Sharaf al-Dīn al-Hendī who was always going to India on business and bringing back strange and wondrous merchandise. When they showed him the roses, he said: “This is the Indian rose. It grows particularly in that country in the area of Ceylon. That being the case, what is it doing in the clime of Rūm? I must find out the circumstances of how this rarity came to be in Rūm.”

The maidservant of Kerā Khātūn took the petals and, returning to the house, reported what had happened. Kerā Khātūn’s amazement increased a thousandfold. Suddenly Mowlānā came in and said: “Kerā, keep this bouquet of roses hidden and do not show it to any outsider. Concealed persons from the sanctuary of generosity and the caretaker of the delightful garden of Eram, who are the Pivots of India, have brought this for you as a gift that it may convey vigor the palate of your soul and give pleasure to your body’s eye. By God, by God, look after it well lest the evil eye afflict it.’

And it is said that Kerā Khātūn kept these petals until her final breath. But it happened that she gave a few petals from the bouquet to Gorjī Khātūn, the wife of the sultan, and this she did with Mowlānā’s permission. Whenever someone suffered pain in the eye, once a petal was rubbed on it he would be cured. The color and fragrance of these roses never underwent change thanks to the blessing of those esteemed persons whose bosom was perfumed with musk.

Shams al-Dīn Aḥmad-e Aflākī, Manāqib al-‘ārifīn, trans. by John O’Kane, 67-68

A basket of rose petals and bottles of rosewater, Fes, 2008.
A basket of rose petals and bottles of rosewater, Fes, 2008.

Sufi Air Delivery

[The Sufi shaykh] Abū Turāb al-Ramlī: He was setting out from Mecca with his companions when he said to them: ‘You will go on the road to Jeda, while I go on the road to Tubuk.’ They said: ‘The heat is oppressive!’ He said: ‘No help for that—but, when you get to Ramla, go into the house of So-and-So, our friend!’ When they arrived in Ramla, they went into his house. He brought them four pieces of broiled meat, and a hawk swooped down from the sky and snatched one of the pieces. They said, ‘Well, that wasn’t meant for us,’ and ate the remaining pieces. When, after two days, Abū Turāb came, they asked him: ‘Did you find nothing on the journey?’ He answered: ‘No, rather, on such-and-such day a hawk tossed a piece of hot broiled meat to me!’ They said: ‘Well then, we have eaten together, for it was snatched from us.’ Abū Turāb said: ‘True, it was thus!’

From Jāmī (1414-1492), Nafaḥāt al-uns ḥaḍarāt al-quds

Advice for the Journey

In the vast field of medieval Arabic and Persian literature, it is not hard to find authors whose works seem all but impenetrable, cloaked in difficult syntax, obscure vocabulary, and constant, often infuriating motion from one perspective to another, full of occluded subjects, ambiguous referents, and unattributed references. ‘Azīz Nasafī, who seems to have lived at some point in the 13th century in what is now Uzbekistan, was not such a writer. Rather, his treatises, which defy easy categorization, are concise yet clear, carefully constructed with a pedagogical eye towards learners of varying skill levels; he is often humorous, drawing upon ‘real-world’ analogies in illustrating theological points. Some sources refer to him as a ‘Sufi,’ though this is a problematic characterization, as should be clear from the excerpt from one of his short treatises which I’ve translated and presented below, the Zubdat al-haqā’iq. He incorporates elements from the discursive tradition of Sufism, and had some sort of relationship or affiliation with a shaykh of the Kubrayi tariqa- but that is about the limit of it. He does not present himself as a Sufi shaykh, and his incorporation of Sufi material is selective. Likewise, he was clearly conversant with multiple streams of philosophy; his own particular philosophical perspective was a sort of monism, similar, but not dependent upon that of the rather more famous ibn ‘Arabi. But it would probably be inaccurate to simply call him a philosopher and be done with it.

And so on we might go with all of the conventional designations for thinkers and religious folk of this period- categories become rather difficult, if not impossible, to apply. He himself, in several of his treatises, deflects categorization: he instead tells his readers that his purpose is to present the teachings of multiple ‘schools’ of thought and practice, trying hard not to bias the reader in one direction or another. And, perhaps surprisingly given much of what we think we know about the Islamic middle ages, he is generally quite successful in his ecumenical endeavor. In the end, though, he does make sure that the most important things are clarified, the things that the spiritual seeker, he believes, cannot dispense with.

Regardless of how we classify him, ‘Azīz Nasafī was clearly a prolific enough author, with a deeply humane vision of religious and ethical practice, a vision he wished to impart to a wide audience. And he did reach a wide audience- his texts circulated far and wide, from South Asia to Southeastern Europe, both in their original Persian and translated into other vernaculars. Despite his relative obscurity in life, his texts and the mystical-ethical vision they contained have found considerable reception. I hope this short text, taken from the final section of the final chapter of the Zubdat, imparts a glimpse of that vision, as our author describes the sort of conduct the spiritual seeker ought to engage in, and what she ought to avoid, and how to truly become ‘an inhabitant of heaven.’

Finally, for more information on this figure, see the quite good Encyclopedia Iranica article on him: Nasafi, ‘Aziz.

O dervish! If you yourself are not able to arrive at the limit of spiritual stations, or spend the entire day in gazing upon the divine attributes and the spiritual stations, or persist in contemplating what no eye has seen nor ear heard nor thought entered the human heart, or always dwell in the highest heaven and in closeness to the Divine Presence in the station of absolute proximity, in the witnessing and the encountering of the Beauty of the Divine Presence, the Possessor of Magnificence—well, at least strive that you be saved from hell and become an inhabitant of heaven!

O dervish! Everything that falls into the salt mine becomes salt, and everything that falls into a filthy place becomes filthy—dirt from dirt, purity from purity! First of all you make yourself pure so that everything that comes from you is pure.

O dervish! Don’t obsess about praying a great deal, nor about fasting a lot. Don’t obsess about making the ḥajj a lot—just do what is obligatory. Don’t obsess about expanding your vocabulary, don’t obsess about reading lots of stories, don’t obsess about increasing in philosophical knowledge—just be content with the necessary amount. Rather, you should be concerned with being honest and good-hearted, for the torment of the folk of hell is mostly from dishonesty and bad-heartedness, while the comfort of the inhabitant of heaven is from honesty and good-heartedness. It is necessary that your inner self become honest and good-hearted so that you be delivered. For if you bind yourself with affectedness, you are in hell. It is necessary that you become such that, all day, goodness and comfort [towards others] spontaneously pour out of you. Do not be like those who all day, evil and pain [towards others] pour out of them. Their inner selves have become the doing of dishonesty and evil. Your inner self must be honesty and the doing of goodness.

O dervish! You will be ornamented with the characteristics of God when you entirely act with goodness, neither desiring compensation for yourself nor imposing obligation; rather, you take the obligation upon yourself. For bad-heartedness is when all day you cause pain to people and desire pain in people, whether by word, deed, or property. When you know the meaning of evil, it is necessary that you be far from it!

Good-heartedness is when all day you desire comfort for people and all the time cause comfort for people, whether by word, deed, or property. When you know the meaning of good-heartedness and bad-heartedness then know that everyone who is honest and good-hearted is delivered from hell and becomes an inhabitant of heaven. Then, if you seek either remaining [in this state] or a higher degree—it is well and good, in view of the fact that for the inhabitant of heaven everything that she achieves in this world or the other, her heaven becomes more expansive, while for inhabitant of hell everything she achieves in this world or the other, her hell becomes tighter.

O dervish! From the beginning to the end of spiritual journeying, this little treatise suffices for the spiritual wayfarers.

 ‘Azīz Nasafī, Zubdat al-haqā’iq.


The Mirror of the Heart

The following is from the opening pages of the superb treatise on Sufism, practical and theoretical, by Najm al-Dīn al-Rāzī Dāya (1177-1256), entitled Mirṣād al-‘ibād ilā ’l-mabdaʾ wa ’l-maʿād. Dāya was a disciple of another, rather more famous Najm al-Dīn, the one known as al-Kubrā; Dāya studied the Sufi path under him in the city of Nishapur. However, unlike his master, Dāya seems to have been little concerned with the practice of taking on disciples. Instead, in the course of his wandering life- from Central Asia to Anatolia to Tabriz to Baghdad, all during a period of intense and often violent change and dislocation in the region, with the Mongol invasions being the most famous of these changes. The period in which Dāya lived was also a period of incredible productivity in Sufi circles: many of the intellectual and organizational formations pioneered during the era would continue to deeply shape the practice of taṣawwuf up to the present. Two of Dāya’s works would become part of this long-term legacy: the work excerpted here, and the tafsīr to which he contributed, described in my previous post.

Unlike the tafsīr composed by al-Kubrā’s disciples, Dāya’s most famous work, the Mirṣād al-‘ibād, was composed in Persian, which was quickly becoming a central language of intellectual life across many Muslim communities, and not just in regions that were historically Persian-speaking. Dāya’s magnum opus, for instance, was composed in Konya, in Anatolia, under Seljuk Turkic patronage. Of course, Arabic remained the ‘first’ language of Muslim intellectuals, Sufi or otherwise, and would continue to be given at least nominal priority, even as more and more works were produced in Persian, and, in time, other vernaculars, including different Turkic dialects (themselves influenced heavily by the diffusion of Persian). In the excerpt given here, wholesale Arabic phrases are incorporated, without being translated (which is not always the case- many later authors will translate or expansively paraphrase almost all Arabic material in their works). However, alongside the direct quotation of Qur’an and hadith in Arabic is another feature deeply ingrained in Persian Sufic texts: the use of poetry, which in time would appear even in Arabic treatises as authoritative texts closely behind hadith in authoritative value.

As for the content of this excerpt: Dāya’s stated intention is to show the reader the incredible glory of human nature and potential, potential that must be ‘unlocked,’ or perhaps more fittingly, hammered back into shape. In the cosmology and anthropology he unfolds here- itself a piece with similar intellectual currents au courant among other thirteenth-century Sufis- the human person is the center of the created cosmos, and more. It is in the fully-realized human heart that the divine essence and attributes is truly manifest and refracted, as it were, to the rest of creation. The heart is, for Dāya, the supremely deiform aspect of the human person: but it must be refined through the careful tutelage of spiritual masters before it can shine with its primordial splendour. Here we see the deeply social setting of taṣawwuf: for the full realization of this high anthropology, particular human relationships are necessary. The return to the cardial deiform shape, the cosmic centrality, for which humans were created is possible: but it is only truly realized in the presence and under the care of an already-realized master, a Friend of God. And, for Dāya at least, it must occur gradually, as he makes clear in the final lines of this introduction.

Finally, a note on the remainder of the text, which in printed edition comes in at some 300 plus pages: after some further introductory material, Dāya presents some essential cosmology. This is followed by a description of the proper path to true gnosis, from basic adherence to the shari’a, adherence to a master, and, ultimately, divine realization. Next, Dāya turns to an examination of different sorts of human ‘types,’ which neatly leads into a concluding chapter on the different sorts of Sufis and Sufi organizations, which include people from the top of human society down to the ‘working classes.’

The purpose of the existence of the human person is gnosis (ma’rifat)[1] of the essence and attributes of God, just as David asked: O Lord, why did You create the creation? He said: I was a hidden treasure and I lovingly wished to be known, so I created the creation that I might be known.[2] True gnosis comes only from the perfect human person, notwithstanding the fact that in servanthood the angels and jinn are participants with humans—but as for the human person, he is distinguished from all other beings by the bearing of the burden of the trust (amānat) of gnosis that [is described in the verse] Verily, We offered the trust to the heavens and the earth, et al.[3] The intended meaning of ‘heaven’ is the folk of heaven, meaning, the angels; by ‘earth,’ the folk of earth, meaning, the animals, the jinn, and the devils; by ‘mountains,’ the folk of the mountains, meaning, the wild creatures and the birds. Out of these, none are capable of the burden of the trust except the human person, because, out of all His creation, it is the human soul that is the mirror of the beauty and majesty, which makes manifest the divine Presence, and is the point of manifestation of the universality of the attributes [of God]. [The words] He created Adam in His own image are an indication of this.

The quintessence of the soul of the human person is the heart, and the heart is the mirror, and each of the two worlds are the covering of that mirror. And the manifestation of the totality of the attributes of the beauty and majesty of the divine Presence are by means of this mirror that is We will show them Our signs on the horizons and in their souls. In this vein it is said:

The purpose of the being of mankind and jinnkind is the mirror/ The object of sight in the two worlds is the mirror.

The heart is the mirror of the beauty of the  King of Kings/ And these two worlds are the covering of that mirror.

And when the soul of the human person, which is predisposed for mirrorhood (āyina-gī), finds pedagogical upbringing (tarbiyat) and arrives at completion, it witnesses the manifestation of the totality of the attributes in itself, the soul itself recognizing why it was created. Then the reality of He who knows himself knows his Lord is realized, and he again knows what he is, and for whom the secret of grace and beneficience is found, just as [it is said]:

O copy of the divine book that you are!/ O perfect royal mirror that you are!

Outside, nothing in this world is/  From yourself, in seeking, is everything that you wish.

But until the soul of the human person arrives at the perfect degree of the limpidity of mirrorhood, he must engage in much journeying and struggle. This only be means of the main thoroughfare of the sharī’a and the true ṭarīqa,[4] and only by gradation. It is just as iron must be first extracted from a mine, then fashioned and shaped through skill and learning of various sorts which they manifest, just as transmitted by the master of the craft, before it can become a mirror.

The human person is in the beginning a mine of the iron of this mirror, for humans are mines, like mines of gold and silver. That iron must be, brought forth from the mine of the being of the human person through sound oversight (ḥusn-i tadbīr), and through pedagogical upbringing , so that you arrive at the degree of mirrorhood, by gradation and gradual advance.


[1] Gnosis being the special, experiential knowledge/comprehension of God, distinct from more discursive, rational reason, ‘ilm. The two are not necessarily opposed so much as they represent, in classical taṣawwuf, hierarchical degrees of knowledge.

[2] Probably one of the most famous and most cited of hadith among Sufis, this is a so-called hadith qudsi, or ‘sacred’ hadith, attributed directly to God. Its import for establishing Sufi cosmology is pretty evident, even apart from the expansions of meaning interpretation provides.

[3] A partial citation of Q. 33.72. The entire verse runs: Verily, we offered the trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, but they declined to bear it and were afraid of it. The human person accepted it; he is oppressive and ignorant.

[4] These two terms are frequently paired in Sufi texts, in order to emphasize the necessity of both the ‘external’ religious ‘path’ (the literal meaning of shari’a) and the ‘internal’ religious way (tariqa also meaning path or way): in other words, the whole gamut of Islamic practice, not just legal obligation or mystical practices.

Different Diseases, Different Cures

Medieval Sufis were extremely diverse in terms of doctrine, practice, style, social status, and manner of life. As a result, establishing a common thread or unifying theme can be difficult. The  author of the work excerpted below, ʿAbd Allāh b. Muḥammad b. ʿAlī ʿAyn al-Quḍāt Hamadānī (d. 525/1133), is no exception. Educated in all of the ‘classical’ courses of study of his time, from law to tafsīr to literature, Hamadānī came to embrace a rather idiosyncratic form of Sufism, resulting in accusations of Ismai’ali ‘heresy’ from his political enemies. Perhaps in part due to such accusations, coupled with political and social conflict Hamadānī found himself embroiled in, our author was executed in 1133 at a relatively young age (some sources give his age as thirty-three, others a somewhat older age). Before his execution—which had echoes of the execution of the famous martyr of Baghdad, al-Ḥallaj—Hamadānī wrote numerous treatises, poems, and letters. While some have not come down to us (for instance, he was said to have partially completed a Qur’an tafsīr, which has not survived), a considerable portion of his corpus has been passed down, including a trove of letters, a lengthy philosophical-theological treatise in Arabic, and his Persian handbook of Sufism, the Tamhīdāt, which I have excerpted from and translated here.

Hamadānī deals with two important themes in medieval Sufism: the question of personal epistemology, as it were, and the importance of the spiritual shaykh. His answers to these questions, while drawing upon an already well-established tradition within Sufism, also display his own interpretations and ideas. Certainly Hamadānī is eager to root his arguments in both Qur’an and hadith, while giving both a decidedly different interpretation than would be likely be found among more ‘exoteric’ interpreters. Indeed, the arguments put forward here—for the epistemological veracity of the illumined, properly disposed heart, and the absolute vitality and power of the spiritual master—found resistance and even violent condemnation among some of the non-Sufi ‘ulama of Hamadānī’s era, and afterwards; nor did all Sufis accept positions such as these, either. That is to say nothing of some of Hamadānī’s quite radical and even transgressive positions enumerated elsewhere in this treatise; he is quite comfortable with neo-Platonic philosophy and its theological implications, for instance. However, this work does not seem to have been primarily intended as an apologetic; it seems to have been aimed at initiates or potential initiates into the mystical path of Islam. It is ostensibly addressed to one ‘Aziz, an enquirer into Sufism; implicitly, it is directed to all who are sympathetically interested in the esoteric dimensions of religion. It is written in Persian, not Arabic, thus representing a relatively early vernacular work of Sufism; the language is clear and eloquent, without being overly obscure or excessively Arabicizing. That said, this text is still aimed at possessors of at least a middling education, people capable of reading and more or less understanding the Arabic of the Qur’an and hadith (italicized in my translation).

For more on Hamadānī, his life and works, see Hermann Landolt, ‘‘Ayn al-Qudat Al-Hamadani,’ in The Encyclopaedia of Islam (Third Edition), 2009, Brill Online, ed. Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas and Everett Rowson. (E.J. Brill), available (for free!) here; and Carl W. Ernst, Words of Ecstasy in Sufism. SUNY Press, 1985.

Do you understand, O ‘Aziz? The scent from this hadith—The believer is the mirror of the believer—adheres to this subject. For everything that one does not know but wishes to know, there are to ways available [to come to know it]. The first is that by one’s own heart (dil) one ascend, through contemplation and deliberation, until he attains to the right knowledge of the matter. Muhammad—upon him peace—said about this: Consult your heart for legal opinions (istafti qalbaka), verily, your seeking of legal opinion are the muftis. He said: all that is brought before it, the place and mufti of that ought to be sincerity of heart. If the heart gives a fatwa, it is the command of God—do it; if it does not give a fatwa—leave it off.  It is manifest that Verily, the angel has a portion, and the satan has a portion. Whatever the heart gives as a fatwa is divine, and whatever it rebuts is satanic, and the occurrence of these two portions (dū lamma) is in all bodies, among both believers and unbelievers. Our deeds become difficult in that regard when our mufti is the commanding lower self (nafs-i amare) that is the soul commanding evil (Q. 12.53). Everyone whose mufti is the heart is God-fearing and happy, while everyone whose mufti is the lower self (nafs) is a loser and unhappy. If someone does not have the aptitude or predisposition to know [religious knowledge] by means of his own heart, he must seek the heart of someone else and ask of someone with this aptitude—So ask of the people of remembrance if you do not know (Q. 16.43), so that someone else’s heart becomes your mirror.

O friend, hearts are divided into two divisions: the first is that which stands facing what the Pen of God has written upon it: God wrote in their hearts faith (Q. 58.22), and the right hand of God is the scribe. Then whatever he does not know by means of the elevation of his own heart he will come to know. The second division, however, neither attains nor has aptitude to stand facing the Pen of God. When such a one seeks out and comes to know from one whose heart is a mirror and tablet for the Pen of God, he knows from this that it is God who is seen in the mirror of the  soul of the spiritual master (pīr). The spiritual master sees himself in the mirror of the soul of the disciple (murīd), while the disciple sees God in the mirror of the spiritual master’s soul.

And it is like all that we said: all who are sick arise and go to a physician each one seeking a cure. The physician gives them different prescriptions in view of the assuaging of different diseases. If someone says, ‘These different prescriptions are due to the ignorance of the physician,’ he has spoken in error, and this speaker is ignorant of the fact that the difference of prescriptions occurs due to the difference of diseases. For diseases are of various sorts, and prescribing for all diseases with one disease in mind would be ignorance and error. Those who understand what has been said understand the matter. For the formal cause of religion and of the Islam of form is of one sort. Islam is built upon five. The essential prescriptions [of Islam] are fixed, which are the five prescriptions that are the healing and curing of all believers. As for internal works and the illumination of the heart, they are unbound and innumerable. Without doubt, every spiritual master must act as an adroit physician who treats the disciple, and for every different disease command a different medicine. For all those who have abandoned cure and physician it is better that they go under the disease, for If God knew of any good in them, He would have made them hear (Q. 8.23). So it is necessary to travel the Path with an adroit physician; in accordance with the consensus of the shaykhs—God have mercy on their souls—it is a legal obligation. Because of his they say: Whoever has no shaykh has no religion. The shaykh also has obligations, to accept successorship (khilāfat) and to teach disciples the obligations of the Path. If you desire from God the best of perfection, listen to His words: It is He Who made you khalifs on the earth and raised some of you over some of you in ranks. And in proof of internal successorship (khilāfat-i bāṭin) in another place He says: He will make them succeed them as He made those before them to succeed (Q. 24.55).

ʿAbd Allāh b. Muḥammad b. ʿAlī ʿAyn al-Quḍāt Hamadānī

Concerning the Prayer-Rug, Matters Mystical and Practical

The translation below comes from a text I have previously written about here, the Futuvvatʹnāmah-ʼi Sultānī of Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī Wāʻiẓ Kāshifī (c.1420-1504/5). For more information on the text and on the content of futuwwa/futuvva, see the above post. In this excerpt, Kāshifī deals with a topic that is not exclusively futuwwa or Sufi-oriented: the prayer-rug (sajjāda), a piece of liturgical equipment often emphasized by Sufis and Sufi-oriented futuwwa brotherhoods and guilds, but also by many other Muslims, both then and now. Kāshifī’s discussion of the prayer-rug is two-fold: one, he lays out the proper practice and behavior associated with the use of the prayer-rug; I have included a partial excerpt of these instructions. Second, he develops the prayer-rug as a mystical symbol, and spins practice-based implications out of those mystical symbols. The prayer-rug, already featuring a sort of cartography in its very design (see the illustration below and note 1), is given a further sacred cartography.

Kāshifī’s treatment of the prayer-rug, with his mix of practical regulation, mystical interpretation, and multiple layers of meaning (right down to mystical significances for the letters of words), is not unique to this one item. Rather, in previous chapters he explores the proper practice, mystical meanings, sacred origins, and scriptural justifications for all sorts of items: Sufi cloaks, futuwwa-belts, various types of clothing, headgear, and so on. As throughout the treatise, his language is generally quite accessible, with simple sentences and frequent translations of Qur’an and hadith texts (though not in this passage, curiously). Granted, as seen here, some of the language is deliberately esoteric, and might well have stumped some initiates (though perhaps also delighting them). The sources of mystical interpretations are diverse: here, for instance, religious legend, scripture, hadith, and Akbarian philosophic theology are all in evidence. The result is a text that contains an intersection of material culture, ‘popular’ religion, and ‘elite’ religious and mystical thought and practice: a text that we can reasonably imagine ‘ordinary’ Persian-speaking craftsmen and other workers, as well as more well-to-do people, reading and thinking about, perhaps in the course of their every-day prayers.

An example, from the late 1500s, of a prayer-rug, not unlike the sort our author would have used and had in mind in writing this passage.
A particularly fine example, from the late sixteenth century Ottoman Empire, of a prayer-rug, not unlike the sort our author would have used and had in mind in writing this passage. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


If one asks, What are the judgments regarding the prayer-rug and the mosque? Say to him: four: first, just as when one enters the mosque he puts enters with his right foot first, so, he puts his right foot on the prayer-rug first. Second, just as when one leaves the mosque he puts his left foot out first, so, when getting up from the prayer-rug one puts out his left foot first. Third, just as one does not speak of worldly things in the mosque, upon the prayer rug one also should not speak of worldly things save under necessity. Fourth, just as one should be continued occupied with remembrance [of God] in the mosque, so upon the prayer-rug one should be continually attached to remembrance, and speak words having to do with God and the Prophet.

If one asks, What are the pious customs regarding sitting upon the prayer-rug? Say to him: three: first, upon coming to the prayer-rug, one prays two raka’a, just as in performing prayer in the mosque. Second, sitting facing the qibla. Third, paying attention to proper practice.

If one asks, How many are the proper practices (ādāb) of prayer-rug sitting? Say to him: four: first, that one sit on two [bent] knees on the prayer-rug, though if necessary, the right leg can be brought up and the left leg stuck out. Second, that it not come to pass that his feet become barefooted. Third, that he not blow his nose or spit. Fourth, in like manner he should be prepared in regards to whatever comes into existence from him, be it in word or in deed.

If one asks, To what do the four corners of the prayer-rug symbolically point? Say to him: the right-hand miḥrab-corner[1] symbolically points to Gabriel, and the protected land and Mount Ḥira that is in it. And the left-hand miḥrab-corner symbolically points to Michael and to the Mount of the Fig. And the right-hand corner that is across from the miḥrab-corner symbolically points to Israfil and to the Mount of Olives. And the left-hand corner that is across from the miḥrab-corner symbolically points to ‘Azrael and to Mount Sina. God has brought together these places in this verse: By the fig, the olive, Mount Sina, and this protected land (Q. 95.1-3). For in each place one of the divine books was sent down. The Torah of Moses was sent down on Mount Sina, on the Mount of the Fig the Gospel descended to Jesus, on the Mount of Olives the Psalms of David were sent down, and on Mount Ḥira that is in the protect land the greater part of the Qur’an was sent down to our master [Muhammad].[2]

Thus, the four corners of the prayer-rug symbolically point to the four archangels, the four sacred books, and the four blessed places. Thus whoever sits upon the prayer-rug it is incumbent that he be steadfast like a firmly rooted mountain, not attracting the wayward breeze of the soul, until the effluence of the divine Book and Word comes to him, and he find the rank of divine proximity. Also: the bearers of the divine throne are the four angels to which the four corners of the prayer-rug symbolically point, meaning that upon the possessor of the prayer-rug it is incumbent that the throne of his own heart, that is [as described in the following verse]: the heart of the believer is the throne of God and the heart of the believer is the house of God,[3] must be stretched out by possessing the four attributes [see below] until he finds a portion of the cry of the throne-bearer, as God says: Those who bear the throne and from around Him they worship with praise of their Lord, believing in Him and seeking forgiveness for those who believe (Q.30.7).

If one asks, What are the four attributes by which the heart can become a bearer of the Throne? Say to him: first, faith in the various parts of the shari’ah; second, belief in the mysteries of the Way; third, turning to the mystical traces of God; fourth, being illumined by the lights of divine knowledge.

If one asks, To what do the letters [in the word] prayer-rug (sajjādeh) symbolically point?[4] Say to him: the letter sīn is for the traveling and wayfaring of the possessor of the prayer-rug in the world of ruling (malakūt). The letter jīm is for his striving and struggle in the observation of the lights of divine power. The alif is for the instruction in the manifestations of the degrees of divinity. The letter dāl is for the remembrance (dhikr, sic.) of the [divine] presence living, not dying. The letter is for the destruction of the lower-self attributes and the satanic ones in the straitening of the temporal world.

Futuvvat-nāmah-i sultānī, Ḥusayn Vāʻiẓ Kāshifī Sabzivārī, 197-9. Trans. Jonathan P. Allen, 2012. No rights reserved.

[1] A prayer rug (sajjāda, P. sajjādeh) of this period (and previous and later ones as well) would have a stylized miḥrab (prayer niche) on it; the top of the miḥrab (which I have translated here as the miḥrab-corner) would face the qibla. See the illustration above.

[2] This is a curious bit of exegesis. In a brief survey of Arabic exegetical literature I made in preparing this post I found many opinions corroborating the identification of the protected land as that around Mecca (and perhaps also Medina), however, the rest of our author’s interpretation seems to be idiosyncratic to him. However, I did not survey any Persian exegetical literature (a somewhat more laborious task, as little of it is online, unlike Arabic tafsir), which would perhaps be the place to look. I suspect some legendary material lies behind these significations.

[3] A hadith, not a Qur’an citation; it is given, however, in Arabic, without an accompanying Persian translation as is often Kāshifī’s wont.

[4] Our author frequently finds mystical signification in the letters of words, often, as here, by linking each letter to relatively complex concepts of post-Akbarian Sufism. I am not sure if the practice should be interpreted as mnemonic device (I somewhat doubt it) or simply as another way of layering mystical and religious meaning upon material and ideational objects—even if the meanings are not necessarily comprehended by everyone in the targeted audience.