Horses, Herdsmen, Wolves, and Otman Baba

A seventeenth century imagining of another late medieval ‘deviant dervish’ saint, Seyyid Ali Sultan, usually affiliated in later memory with the Bektaşîs.

The early Ottoman Empire was home to a dizzying array of Islamic holy men, wandering dervishes, strange renunciants, and other figures whose practices and identities were often quite different from the expectations of ‘proper’ Sunni behavior and belief. This diversity had deep roots in medieval Anatolia and beyond, and would undergo many interesting and complex permutations during the early modern period, with traces of the diverse and sometimes rather wild milieu of the late medieval world remaining down to the present. The following story is taken from the extensive menâkıb (hagiography) dealing with Otman Baba (d. 1478-9), written by Otman Baba’s disciple Küçük Abdâl in 1483. Otman Baba was a saint and leader of a radical dervish group known as the Abdâl-i Rûm, who, like many such groups, combined socially rejectionist practices with an itinerant lifestyle. In Otman Baba’s case, he seems to have ranged among the nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples of Anatolia and especially the Balkans for much of his life, being buried after his death in the village of Teketo in what is now Bulgaria. His tomb, pictured below, was built during the first decade of the sixteenth century under the auspices of Sultan Bayezid II- hence the distinctively ‘classical’ Ottoman style- and remains a site of pilgrimage, despite a twentieth century interval under Communism in which it was converted into a museum.

In this story, Otman Baba encounters herdsmen on the Black Sea coast west of Constantinople, and after initially being mistaken as a possible fugitive (perhaps fleeing punishment for a crime?), one of the young men, ‘whose heart was open to heaven,’ recognizes him to be a saint, and Otman Baba takes up temporary residence with them. The story exemplifies Otman Baba’s relationships with, and veneration by, the rural populations scattered across Anatolia and the Balkans- people he and his followers seems to have deliberately sought out instead of city dwellers.

Then that Source of Sainthood (kân-i vilâyet, i.e. Otman Baba) abandoned that place [a hill near Constantinople] and struck out by himself along the shore of the [Black] Sea, to a place called Terkoz [mod. Terkos]. In this locale there were some young men (birkaç yiǧit) grazing their horses in the meadow, spending the days and nights there. The Source of Sainthood, being manifest (zahir olup) there, approached these men. When they saw the saintly leader they said to one another, ‘Who is this who has come, is he a fugitive (kaçgun)?’

However there was one among them whose heart was open to heaven, who said, ‘Do not be unjust! This one who has come is a saint (er)! Do you not see his awe and might?’ Saying so he went towards him, and took the hand of the Source of Sainthood and kissed it, then invited him to his house, hosting and entertaining him and saying, ‘From whence did you come O sun of the two worlds?’ He answered, ‘I came in the wake of Arık Çobanı [‘stream shepherd’], coming to the shore of this sea.’ The young man replied, ‘What man can travel the sea without a ship?’ He said, ‘This visible sea does not rise up to the heel of Arık Çobanı.’

It is so, and there is no veil covering sainthood. The world is like a ring on the finger of the saints (evliyâ). This Arık Çobanı that the Source of Sainthood referred to is Koyun Baba of Osmancık [on the Anatolian Black Sea coast], the locus of the manifestation of sainthood. Then the Source of Sainthood stayed with them for some days. One morning upon rising the Source of Sainthood said to the young man, ‘Get up, brother, wolves want to eat your horse!’ So in that moment the young man arose and, not seeing his horse among the other horses, climbed a hill and saw that a group of wolves had taken hold of his horse in their midst, but in that moment, with a sudden jerk, his horse was lifted up away from the wolves [to safety]! Prostrating himself in thanks he made heartfelt supplication to the Source of Sainthood and knew that this Source of Sainthood was the inner secret of the two worlds!

Küçük Abdâl, Vilâyetnâme-i şâhi Göʼçek Abdal, edited by Turgut Koca, and Murat Açış ([Turkey]: [Bektaşi Kültür Derneği], 2002), 28-29. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.

Otman Baba’s tomb, built in the early 16th century, in the village of Teketo, modern Bulgaria (source)

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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”

A Word to My Readers

Dear reader, whether long-time, occasional, or casual passer-by,

Over the coming months I would like to begin offering more original material in this space. Some of it will reflect my ongoing scholarly work, including excerpted topics and sources from my in-progress dissertation, or something drawn from the many other things I am interested in as a scholar. I am also committing myself to the regular writing and publishing of more personal essays, from a reflection on being drawn into the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to some thoughts on the intersection of fatherhood and ecology, and much more. I will also begin presenting at least two new poems a month- one by someone else, one an original composition of my own. Finally, I have a vast library of photographs I have taken and historical imagery I have accumulated that I want to begin sharing in earnest, so be on the lookout for more visual essays, starting with an exploration of the pious graffiti found in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Part of my rationale for more writing is simply to improve my writing, in particular to refine my dissertation and the book project to come, God willing. Of a more philanthropic nature, I want to share the fruits of my scholarship with a wider audience, beyond the confines of the academy and of academic press paywalls. Finally, in order for this additional work I’m assigning myself to make some financial sense, I’ve decided to experiment with maintaining a Patreon account and soliciting supporters, as much as the thought of asking for money for my work grates on my genteel sensibilities and my resolute lack of entrepreneurship. If you’d like to sign up for a small, minuscule even, monthly donation- which you can of course cancel at anytime should you be dissatisfied with the quality or pace of my work- please head on over to my account, where you can also read my full spiel on why you should support me and what the benefits are: Jonathan Parkes Allen. New material will be posted here and on my Patreon page. I’d really, really appreciate any support you might be able to give!

That unfortunate business of soliciting money out of the way, I encourage you to check back into this space in the coming weeks and months, and to let me know if you have any topics that you think might be in my wheelhouse and which you’d like to hear something about.

Domination and Concentration

In a society in which nearly everybody is dominated by somebody else’s mind or by a disembodied mind, it becomes increasingly difficult to learn the truth about the activities of governments and corporations, about the quality or value of products, or about the health of one’s own place and economy.

In such a society, also, our private economies will depend less and less upon the private ownership of real, usable property, and more and more upon property that is institutional and abstract, beyond individual control, such as money, insurance policies, certificates of deposit, stocks, and shares. And as our private economies become more abstract, the mutual, free helps and pleasures of family and community life will be supplanted by a kind of displaced or placeless citizenship and by commerce with impersonal and self-interested suppliers…

Thus, although we are not slaves in name, and cannot be carried to market and sold as somebody else’s legal chattels, we are free only within narrow limits. For all our talk about liberation and personal autonomy, there are few choices that we are free to make. What would be the point, for example, if a majority of our people decided to be self-employed?

The great enemy of freedom is the alignment of political power with wealth. This alignment destroys the commonwealth – that is, the natural wealth of localities and the local economies of household, neighborhood, and community – and so destroys democracy, of which the commonwealth is the foundation and practical means.

Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace

Friday Roundup

The Policeman’s New Clothes: ‘In October 2010 a new Industrial Police Force (IPF) became operational in Bangladesh. After years of refusal, reluctant to provide the extra funding, the government finally agreed to demands of the garment manufacturers and established a permanent paramilitary force to deal with workers unrest in the industrial zones. The widespread strikes and riots of the previous years, ongoing since the mass revolt of 2006, had also prompted the state’s initiative.’

The Revolt of the Salaried Bourgeoisie: Slavoj Zizek is a loose cannon, to be sure. However, his analysis here of the current shape of capitalism and class is pretty well spot on, I think.

War on Iran: It’s not a Matter of ‘If’: ‘As with sanctions and covert military onslaughts on Iraq in the run up to 2003, the first point to underline is that the US is waging war on Iran. But well aware of the US public’s aversion to yet another war in the Middle East, the onslaught is an undeclared one.’

Is Distributism a Form of Capitalism?: ‘In other words, while Distributism and Capitalism adhere to a basic principle of private ownership of productive capital, there is a vast chasm of difference which makes even the term “distributist capitalism” misleading.’

Creating American Terrorists: ‘Defenders of the recently passed National Defense Authorization Act, which declares the entire world to be a “battlefield” against terrorism and authorizes the U.S. military to detain indefinitely anyone suspected of being a terrorism supporter, have claimed that the White House will only use its new power carefully and with due process. Opponents note that the White House has never hesitated to use any new authority, no matter how outrageous, and that the trend of law enforcement and security agencies is to expand on powers granted, not to rein them in or limit them.’

The Morning Commute

I live a couple miles east of the university; every morning I descend on my bike the hill my neighborhood is perched on and take a greenway that runs alongside the Tennessee River. It comes out below the university, leaving a short hustle uphill to get on campus. All in all, a hard to beat commute. Though the up-hill journey coming back is less enjoyable.

Trumpet creeper vines

The Tennessee River (well, the Tennessee Lake these days, to be more accurate)

Morning glories are everywhere and in multiple colors along the river.

Downtown comes into view

Back Home

I am not dead, nor have I been in hiding, exactly; rather, I spent the past few months in Fes, Morocco, studying Arabic. I had originally intended to blog while there, but I didn’t bring my laptop with me, and while I had access to internet regularly, it was too much trouble to blog and I wanted to devote my time to other things than the internet.

Now that I’m back in the States I plan on resuming blogging. Since I have not blogged my experiences in Morocco, but have quite a lot of write about and photos to post, I will share them here: Lost in the Medina.

Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

To the person who searched this blog for “New Orleans” sin volunteer, I’m not sure if I really hope you found what you’re looking for, because frankly it doesn’t sound to savory. I would offer that finding opportunities to sin in New Orleans- for free or for a slight charge- hardly require the services of a search engine. If you would like to combine your sinning with some volunteer work, I can likewise attest that N.O. still has plenty of opportunities for that, also.

 Also, for the confused soul wondering what a thicket is for: it all depends, I suppose, on the sort of thicket.

Eight Random Things About Me

I was tagged by Steve at Khanya

Here are the rules…

1. Each player starts with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
2. People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.
3. At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names.
4. Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged, and to read your blog.

Here are eight things about me:

1. I was born in Meridian, Mississippi, but my parents were living at the time in Shuqulak, thirty miles up the road in beautiful (no really!) Noxubee County.

2. A few months ago I was bitten on the nose by a random dog in a park. He ran away before I could properly admonish him.

3. The dog’s hostility was perhaps not unwarranted, as I once ate dog stew at a restaurant in Southwest China. It wasn’t that great really. I’ve never really liked dogs.

4. I was the very first undergraduate graduate from William Carey University, as the school changed its title from ‘College’ to ‘University’ last year. My last name being Allen I was the first in the alphabetically aranged line of graduates.

5. My one and only case of altitude sickness was on a mountainside soccer field in the central Andes of Peru. It was pretty bad.

6. As a child I would get into trouble with the neighbors for digging replica Civil War trenches in their woods.

7. I am sometimes asked if I am a Mennonite (mainly because of my hair and beard style, I think). I’m not, though I almost volunteered for a Mennonite-run teaching program in China.

8. I almost never eat the part of the french fry touched by my fingers whilst eating it, a habit I picked up from being a busboy at a catfish house and having pereptually dirty, grease and general-filth caked hands as a result- especially at dinner time at the end of the night.

Now, since pretty much everyone else has been tagged for this meme, I’m going to excuse myself for being lazy and not tagging anyone else.