The Thought of Fishing

As noted in a previous post, the Ottoman majdhūb/meczûb (the first is the Arabic rendering, the second the same term but in Ottoman Turkish)- the divinely drawn saint or holy madman- was often involved in the details of everyday life, such as the smoking of tobacco. In the following story, which comes from a compilation of meczûb lives in a sprawling 17th work of hagiography by Mehmed Nazmî EfendiHediyyetü’l-ihvân, we see one of these holy madmen miraculously discern the wandering thoughts of the imam in the greatest mosque of Ottoman Istanbul.

A view of the courtyard of the Süleymâniye Mosque, the setting of the following story

‘And there was one, Hızır Aşak, who was from among the great (ulular) of the meczûb. He was a powerful meczûp capable of unveiling inner secrets. It is related that the imam of the Süleymâniye Mosque, Süleymân Efendi—who was later dismissed and sent into retirement—was one day leading the noon prayers, when the thought came to him: “After completing the salât, I’ll go to Hisar [on the Bosporus] and go fishing.’ Just as this thought was occurring to him, Hızır Aşak came to the mosque, and, as was his custom, cried out “Hû!” [i.e. ‘He,’ meaning God, a common sufi form of zikr] and said, “Süleymân Çelebi! You are here, your mind ought not be off fishing in Hisar. There is no prayer without presence of heart. Lead these men in prayer a second time.” Having said this he left the mosque. Süleymân Çelebi related thus: “This unveiling of the mad one brought about divine fear and embarrassment before the people in me. For a little while I passed out! Coming to, I properly completed the prayers.”’

Mehmed Nazmî Efendi, Hediyyetü’l-ihvân

Sense Can Come Only From the Sacred

‘The omnipresent Nietzschean or Sartrean chimera which proclaims that man can liberate himself totally, from everything, can free himself of tradition and of all pre-existing sense, and that all sense can be decreed by arbitrary whim, far from unfurling before us the prospect of divine self-creation, leaves us suspended in darkness. And in this darkness, where all things are equally good, all things are also equally indifferent. Once I believe that I am the all-powerful creator of all possible sense, I also believe that I have no reason to create anything whatsoever. But this is a belief that cannot be accepted in good faith and can only give rise to a desperate flight from nothingness to nothingness.

‘To be totally free with respect to sense, free of all pressure from tradition, is to situate oneself in a void and thus, quite simply, to disintegrate. And sense can come only from the sacred; it cannot be produced by empirical research. The utopia of man’s autonomy and the hope of unlimited perfection may be the most efficient instruments of suicide ever to have been invented by human culture.’


« La chimère nietzschéenne ou sartrienne, tellement répandue parmi nous, selon laquelle l’homme peut se libérer totalement, se libérer de tout – de toute la tradition et de tout sens préexistant– et qui proclame que tout sens se laisse décréter selon une volonté ou un caprice arbitraires, cette chimère, loin d’ouvrir à l’homme la perspective de l’autoconstitution divine, le suspend dans la nuit. Or dans cette nuit où tout est également bon, tout est, aussi bien, également indifférent. Croire que je suis le créateur tout-puissant de tout sens possible, c’est croire que je n’ai aucune raison pour créer quoi que ce soit. Mais c’est une croyance qui ne se laisse pas admettre de bonne foi, et qui ne peut que produire une fuite enragée du néant vers le néant.

« Être totalement libre à l’égard du sens, être libre de toute pression de la tradition, c’est se situer dans le vide, donc éclater tout simplement. Et le sens ne vient que du sacré, parce qu’aucune recherche empirique ne peut le produire. L’utopie de l’autonomie parfaite de l’homme et l’espoir de la perfectibilité illimitée sont peut-être les outils de suicide les plus efficaces que la culture humaine ait inventés. »

Leszek Kolakowski, ‘La revanche du sacré dans la culture profane,’ translated by Agnieszka Kolakowska, in Le besoin religieux, 1973

Tobacco and the Syrian Majdhūb

One of the great transformations that Ottoman society- and many other societies across the world- underwent in the course of the early modern period was the introduction of new (to most markets at least) ‘social’ commodities such as coffee, tobacco, tea, and sugar. Driven by new technologies of transportation, by the European discovery and colonization of the Americas, and by changing dynamics of personal wealth and consumption patterns, across the world people’s lives began to be shaped by the use of coffee and tobacco, both substances with addictive properties, and which lend themselves to use in social, often public, contexts (I am writing this from a coffeehouse, for instance- a direct descendant of these early modern transformations!). In the Ottoman world, as in many other places, both tobacco and coffee stirred up controversy, tobacco most of all.

Yet despite strenuous objections, including sultanic attempts to prohibit smoking, tobacco use flourished in the Ottoman lands, and soon permeated society and culture at many levels. The following anecdote, which dates from the early part of the 18th century and is set in Damascus, illustrates this permeation, which reached even to the karamāt (miracles or signs of sanctity) of Muslim saints, in particular, it seems, the majādhīb, the divinely drawn ones, whom I have introduced elsewhere and who will continue to appear in these digital pages. In this story we see both the continued ambiguity surrounding tobacco, as well as the possibility for its use by a saint, and even being miraculously transformed through the saint’s baraka (divine grace or power).


Shaykh Muṣtafā related to me [Muṣtafī al-Bakrī], saying: ‘I came to visit you once but didn’t find you at home. [Aḥmad the majdhūb] was sitting in front of the iwān, so I greeted him. He said to me: “You only come to visit Ibn al-Bakrī, you never come to visit me, not even once!” I replied, “Your place is exalted and I am weak!” So he said to me, “Come out to my khalwa, I’ll host you!” I wasn’t able to oppose him in that, so I went with him, fearing that the smell of tobacco would harm me due to the closeness of his khalwa. He set to with his pipe, talking with it [in his mouth], but I did not smell the scent of the tobacco nor did anything of it come to my face—and I knew that this was a mark of sanctity (karāma) of his!’

Muṣṭafā al-Bakrī, al-Bayān al-ghanī ʻan al-tahdhīb fī suná aḥwāl al-majādhīb (Cairo: Dārat al-Karaz, 2011), 75.

Pious Graffiti at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: Pilgrims’ Prayers and Traces of the Self

A Visual Essay

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, as any pilgrim or tourist visiting it quickly discovers, is a massive, maze-like structure, or, really, assemblage of structures, including the Tomb of Christ and of Golgotha but also numerous other chapels, rooms, and other elements. Somewhat closer investigation starts to reveal the multiple layers of construction and use, going all the way back the first century AD (and probably further, since the Tomb was located in the side of an already old quarry outside of the Herodian walls of the city). While the names of prominent men and women are often attached to these various architectural layers, beginning with Constantine and his mother Helena, the traces of far humbler pilgrims to the great church are also visible, if one knows where to look. Yet, as I observed on my visits to the church earlier this year, the steady streams of pilgrims and tourists, clergy and tour guides, pass right by these fascinating reminders of the centuries of pious visitors who have traveled- often over great distances and in difficult circumstances- to venerate the empty Tomb of Christ.

The largely Crusader-era main entrance to the church, with entrance and front facade giving little indication of the size of the church’s sprawling interior. The pious graffiti is most abundant around the doors near the center of the picture.

Covering the columned framing of the great doors to the main entrance to the church are perhaps hundreds of instances of ‘pious graffiti’- prayers, names, dates, and short texts carved into the stone by pilgrims. Deeper inside the church, in a stairwell leading down to the Chapel of St. Helena, sunk within the living rock, are hundreds of neatly carved crosses left by Crusaders, also as pious graffiti marking and memorializing their pilgrimage. While in the modern world such defacement is looked down on and even seen as criminal, Continue reading “Pious Graffiti at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: Pilgrims’ Prayers and Traces of the Self”

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.

Verses From Jerusalem

If I forget thee O Jerusalem—but how much do you, O Jerusalem, forget? Here
Is what you forget: all the lives lived and buried under your warm old stones, and
Stones that lie buried under newer stones, that give way to older cold stones,
Fenced and labeled, dead stones, an inner bark exposed to the air, the sap dried.
You forget too much, and not enough, O Jerusalem. If I forget thee—but how
Could I? You are lodged in me like the new old name of God lodged in the tongue
Of the mystic from Buffalo roaming your streets,
Like the crosses and the names sunk in the threshold of the holy Tomb.
Will you forget me after the dust of my feet has risen up into your air
And fallen east over the ridgetop settlements, over the bright waters of En Prat,
Over the high concrete walls, over dead forgotten cities in the desert,
Over Nabi Musa’s stark domes, over sad black tarps in the nomad camps?
What is the skill of your right hand, O Jerusalem? Gathering stones,
And in another time or in the same time, scattering them. Yet, in your left hand
Is remembering, rising up like scents in Suq al-‘Attarin, all your names
And the names within names in the many tongues
Pooling in your left palm, ephemeral, eternal,
But the right hand, it does not know what the left hand has.


September Beside the Potomac

Persimmon fruit hangs sweet and heavy in the air-
Bottomland forest along the Potomac,
First leaf falls whisp in and out, acorns, walnuts
Scatter and plop to the sandied floor, soundings.
Cool breeze washes the warm dense scent of the river
At end of summer up to us, promise of change. Memory’s scent,
Of my own late summer childhood nestling in
The sun-warmed receding pools, focusing the gentle force of drawn-
Down cascades in the Piney River, sniffing in the little river,
Shivering as the sun got low in afternoon
And we got out of the water. Now, my little son
Reaches out to feel the great round bole of a silver maple,
Smiling, two vigors, connecting. Together, we take in the
Touch, the forest and the river’s wafting multiplicities,
Such lines of continuity, untamed worlds, wild rivers,
Seasons in their turns and turns and turns.