Imām al-Layth, the Debtor, the Parakeet, and the Ruler

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.

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”

‘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”

On the Answering of Questions in the World of Dreams: Two Early Modern Dreamers
A satirical print of a Quaker preaching session, after a work by Egbert van Heemskerck I, produced c. 1690, and while satirical in intent, an accurate enough depiction of both Quaker clothing styles as well as the ubiquity of women in Quaker life and practice, their authority on ‘religious’ matters not a given as the very existence of such satirical prints would indicate. (BM 1854,0812.49)

Across the early modern world- in Afro-Eurasia and in the Americas, their population of European and African descent rapidly increasing- the world of the dream was an important ‘place’ in which people of all origins and backgrounds might receive knowledge of things unknown to them, prescience of events to come, and even divine inspiration. The importance of the dream world- a ‘landscape’ at once like and unlike that of the physical world of waking life- resonated among Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Orthodox, Jews, and others, often in forms and in contexts of striking similarity. The following two dream accounts- one from an English Quaker woman, Elizabeth Webb (1663-1726) , the other from the Ottoman Syrian sufi, saint, and frequent presence on these pages ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (1641-1731)- come from milieus in some ways quite different from one another. Webb was a Quaker preacher whose career took her on a journey through the still young North American colonies along the Atlantic Coast; she passed but a few miles south of where I am now writing in fact, spending some time among the Quaker communities of Maryland and Virginia (sources of the tobacco that would feature quite prominently in ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s career, in fact). ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s travels took him throughout much of the Ottoman world, threading together communities of sufis and saints in the process, not unlike Webb’s work of joining Quaker settlements through her journeys. Both wrote accounts of their travels, and both presented themselves as beneficiaries of some degree of divine inspiration, not least of all through the medium of dreams.

In both the world of Ottoman Islam and of trans-Atlantic English dissenting Protestantism, dreams were potential sources of the resolution of confusion and of answers for outstanding questions. While dreams could also be themselves sources of confusion and in need of interpretation, particularly for people possessed of sanctity (or who claimed as such for themselves at least) the dream, sent by God to the dreamer, could just as easily be an agent of interpretation. In both of these dreams the dreamer had an outstanding issue- not only that, but their issues were remarkably similar, as were other features of their dreams. Let’s consider Webb’s dream first, which she related in the course of an autobiographical letter to the German Lutheran pietist Anton Wilhelm Böhme (1673–1722), long resident in London as a chaplain:

Oh! it is good to trust in the Lord and be obedient to him, for his mercies endure forever; so about the middle of the twelfth month [1], 1697, through the good providence of the Almighty, we arrived in Virginia, and as I traveled along the country from one meeting to another, I observed great numbers of black people, that were in slavery, and they were a strange people to me, and I wanted to know whether visitation of God was to their souls or not, and I observed their conversation, to see if I could discern any good in them, so after I had traveled about four weeks, as I was in bed one morning in a house in Maryland [2], after the sun was up and shone into the chamber, I fell into a slumber, and dreamed I was a servant in a great man’s house, and that I was drawing water at a well to wash the uppermost rooms of the house, and when I was at the well, a voice came to me, which bid me go and call other servants to help me and I went presently; but as I was going along in a very pleasant green meadow, a great light shined about me, which exceeded the light of the sun, and I walked in the midst, and as I went on in the way, I saw a chariot drawn with horses coming to meet me, and I was in care lest the light that shone about me, should frighten the horses, and cause them to throw down the people which I saw in the chariot; when I came to call them, I looked on them, and I knew they were the servants, I was sent to call, and I saw they were both white and black people, and I said unto them, why have you stayed so long? And they said the buckets were frozen, we could come no sooner, so I was satisfied the call of the Lord was unto the black people as well as the white… [3]

At root here is the question of how Webb- and by extension, other Quakers- were to understand people of African descent, and how they were to relate them (or not) to the Quaker community. Webb is also making an argument for her own authority: in this dream God- implicitly, as she does not say so in so many words- authorizes her to incorporate blacks as well as whites into the Quaker community, resolving through a direct intervention her question. Continue reading “On the Answering of Questions in the World of Dreams: Two Early Modern Dreamers”

Teacher, Student, Text, and the Control of Knowledge in Early Modern Damascus
The Damascus Room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a winter reception room (qa’a), dating to c. 1707 (Met 1970.170). Once part of a home in Damascus before its disassembly and transportation to New York City in the 1930s, this room resembles the reception hall of a well-to-do Ottoman family in early modern Damascus, though some elements were added later or otherwise modified. ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s house may well have contained a room, if not quite of this opulence, along these lines, for the greeting and hosting of guests.

Introduction: ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (1641-1731), a frequent presence on these pages, embodied many roles and identities over the course of his long life, a life that spanned major transformations in the nature of the Ottoman Empire in which he lived, as well as changes occurring in the wider world of early modernity. For many during his lifetime, and even more so after his death, he was a preeminent, even the preeminent ‘friend of God’- saint- of his age. His role as a major theological and philosophical thinker, author, and teacher was often seen as an aspect of his sainthood, the sheer scope of his literary productions and teaching activities, instructing all sorts of people in all sorts of subjects, as evidence of his special relationship with God. The passages that I have translated below are taken from the expansive biography written by ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s great-grandson, Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazzī (1760-1799), titled Wird al-unsī wa-al-warid al-qudsī fī tarjamat al-ʻārif ʻAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī. One of the longer chapters of this work consists of biographical entries, some brief, some quite long, of ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s many disciples and students, demonstrating the shaykh’s numerous social ties and relationships as well as the geographic reach of his instruction and saintly reputation.

The entry translated here- aside from the introductory paragraph, which I will summarize- concerns one Muṣṭafá Ṣafī al-Dīn al-‘Alwānī (1696-1779), a member of the ‘ulama of the city of Hama, descendant of a sixteenth century sufi saint, but whose later career was primarily based upon his skill as a poet and littérateur. In 1722 he came to Damascus from Hama in the company of his primary teaching shaykh, one Muhammad ibn Maḥmūd al-Ḥabbāl, taking up residence in the Bādharā’iyya madrasa. They both went together to visit ‘Abd al-Ghanī, who by 1722 was advanced in years and well established reputation-wise as both a saint and scholar. Our account picks up with Muṣṭafá meeting ‘Abd al-Ghanī for the first time.

Commentary follows the translation, but a few explanatory words will guide the reader unfamiliar with some of the conventions and terminology. Muṣṭafá wants to ‘read’ a book under ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s supervision, which entails, following a long-standing convention in the Islamic world (with analogues elsewhere in medieval and early modern Eurasia) whereby one would study a book by writing it down for one’s self or even memorize it, reciting back what one had written or memorized to the author, who would then grant an ijāza, a ‘certificate,’ stating that the student had properly received the text in question and was authorized to transmit it himself (or on occasion herself). The sessions in which this process took place could also allow the author to explicate and clarify the text. The verb that I alternatively translate as ‘read’ and ‘recite’ is qara’a, a particularly multivalent verb, which can also have the meaning of ‘study,’ as it in fact does here.
A stained glass window that once decorated an Ottoman home in Syria or Egypt, made at some point in the 18th century (Met. 93.26.3).

Translation: Love of [‘Abd al-Ghanī] seized the whole of his heart, so he returned to him and sought permission to read under him, asking which book [he should read]. The Master (al-ustādh) said to him: “Read our book on the oneness of being named al-Wujūd al-ḥaqq.” Then the Master gave him a quire (kurrās) from out of his own copybook, saying to him, “Write it down in your own handwriting, lesson (dars) by lesson.” He specified to him that the time of the lesson would be on Friday after the ṣalāt, and that every week he would read one lesson. [Muṣṭafá] would take the notebook and write it down in it. So it occurred that every Friday he would go to the Ṣālaḥiyya [neighborhood] and enter the house (dār) of the Master after the ṣalāt, kiss the hand of the Master and sit down. Then the Master would raise his head from writing and say, “Recite.” He would recite, then kiss his hand and go. He did this for a while, though his shaykh, al-Ḥabbāl, did not know about it. One day this Shaykh al-Ḥabbāl entered [Muṣṭafá’s madrasa] room, previously mentioned, began leafing through his loose pages and books, and found the book of the Master, al-Wujūd al-ḥaqq, in his possession, he having written out a goodly portion of it. He asked him about it, and he told him that he was reading the book under the Master’s supervision and so forth. Al-Ḥabbāl said to him by way of advice, “My son, you are not ready to read the like of this book, you don’t have the disposition for understanding the books of ḥaqā’iq [‘esoteric’ theology]. If you want to receive something from the Master and derive blessing from him, read under him a book on the technical terms of hadith, and get an ijāza from him—that much will suffice you.” So [Muṣṭafá] complied with his words. In accordance with his custom on Friday he went with a portion of what he had written out to the Master, this time from the book Sharḥ al-Nukhba [by Ibn al-Ḥajar (1372-1449)], on the knowledge of technical vocabulary. He entered into the Master’s presence, kissed his hand, and sat down. The Master did not raise his head from his writing, and did not say anything to him! He remained looking at him until the ‘aşr adhān [call to prayer] of that day, and the Master arose, prayed the ‘aṣr ṣalāt, then after completing his prayer looked at [Muṣṭafá] and said, “Ya Sayyīd Muṣṭafá, we do not instruct save our own books, and if you wish to read under us then read our books!” He did not expand upon those words any further. Muṣṭafá understood that what he had intended to ask of the Master had been revealed to him by way of unveiling, and he resumed his completion of the recitation of the aforementioned book.’ Continue reading “Teacher, Student, Text, and the Control of Knowledge in Early Modern Damascus”

Race, Slavery, and Sainthood in the Early Modern Ottoman World: Some Perspectives

Kadi Sünbül Ali
Kadı Sünbül ‘Ali, as depicted in a c. 1620 Ottoman book of costumes for Western European use, The Habits of the Grand Seignor’s Court, British Museum 1928,0323,0.46.8

Among the circles on Twitter that I follow- and occasionally participate in- in recent weeks the issue of the relationship between ‘the Enlightenment’ and modern notions and practices of racism has emerged as a popular and contentious topic. Now, while I have my own thoughts and theories about the Western European Enlightenment (which was as you can guess from my use of quotation marks a much more complicated affair than either its boosters or detractors tend to make out), what I would like to address here is the question of how race was perceived in a pre-modern, pre-Enlightenment context, specifically, within the Ottoman Empire at a particular time (and among certain groups, not necessarily all, given the sheer diversity of the empire). As such, the example I give here doesn’t necessarily prove anything one way or another about whether or not the Enlightenment ‘invented’ racism or racialized slavery. Rather, what I hope my comments here demonstrate is the complicated ways in which racial, or racial-like, categories, ethnic difference, and practices of slavery (all of which certainly intersected long before the Enlightenment to be sure) interacted. It does not make sense, ultimately, to say that early modern Ottomans were racist, or, for that matter, that they weren’t, or, in terms of slavery, that Ottoman slavery was totally different from slavery in the Americas, or that it was very similar: the reality is, as we historians are (obnoxiously to some!) fond of saying, complicated, and while our modern categories (themselves certainly shaped by, among other things, the Enlightenment(s)) are not totally foreign to early modern Ottoman (or any other) worlds, they must be applied with care if they are to be applied at all. Likewise, while we can often find parallels- unsurprisingly- between Ottoman practices and attitudes and those developing in contemporary Western Europe and the Americas, we ought to be equally sensitive to the differences and divergences.

I’ve taken a single late 17th century encounter, recorded by ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī and translated below along with my commentary, as my main point of departure, a story which I think illustrates well these complexities of racial origin, slavery, and the social limitations and possibilities contained within Ottoman practices of race and slavery, all oriented within a concern for sainthood (a category early modern Ottomans of all confessional varieties would have recognized to some degree or another, incidentally). There are a lot of ways in which we might explore race and slavery in the Ottoman lands: in thinking about race and ethnicity, for instance, we might want to consider the genealogy of ideas about phenotype and human geographical origin in the wider Islamic sphere, a genealogy that we could well trace back to the heritages of the ancient world. In terms of slavery, we might consider the various mechanisms whereby slaves were brought to market in Ottoman cities, the different ways that slaves from different places were perceived and employed, or the interaction of legal norms governing slavery, lived practice, and differing attitudes based on skin color or gender or other characteristics.

Historians have not tackled these issues to the degree that they deserve; Ottoman slavery, while the subject of a handful of monographs and edited volumes, remains poorly understood and overly polemicized. On the question of race and racial identity and prejudice, perhaps the best treatment has come from Baki Tezcan in his article ‘Dispelling the Darkness: The politics of ‘race’ in the early seventeenth century Ottoman Empire in the light of the life and work of Mullah Ali’.’ [1] Mullah ‘Ali, who is almost certainly the ‘kadı’ pictured above, was an Ottoman scholar and jurist of African origin who rose to extreme prominence in the ‘ilmiyye hierarchy, coming close to claiming the highest rank in the scholarly system, that of shaykh al-Islam, the personal patronage-based politics of the Ottoman elite intervening. While he was subject to some degree of insult and prejudice due to the color of his skin- his detractors drawing upon a venerable genealogy of notions within the Islamic world about the supposed inferiority of Africans- Tezcan argues that these insults and prejudice (which Mullah ‘Ali, also following a long genealogy within Islam, combated in writing) were mostly strategic, his opponents not being motivated by racial prejudice but instead deploying it because it was available. This suggests that something like ‘racism’ was culturally available to Ottomans, but with the stress on ‘available’: it was not systematic in any meaningful sense, and it need not bar a well-connected scholar with black skin from rising to the heights of power. That said, Mullah ‘Ali’s story primarily concerns the situation of the rarefied elite of the Ottoman world. What of race and slavery at the level of more ordinary people?

The story that I’d like to focus on in order to approach some aspects of slavery and race at the non-elite level [2] is one that I’ve shared before, but for a different purpose: The Hermit of Ya’bad and His Marvelous Coffee and Good Counsel. There is a great deal going on this little story, with insights about matters from how sacred space was performed in the Ottoman world to the role of coffee culture and its penetration even into the rural Palestinian countryside. But here we will focus on Shaykh Zā’id – the subject of the account – and his relationships with others. We begin with ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s initial encounter, during his passage through northern Palestine during the late 17th century:

And it reached us in that village [of Ya’bad] that there was close by a black [freed] slave from among the divinely drawn (majādhīb) lovers of God, whose name was Shaykh Zā’id, in a cave there at the foot of a small mountain. And it was reported to us that the cave used to not be there, but one day he was present on the mountain and the cave appeared for him. So we went to visit him, and we entered into his cave. It is a small cave, with lots of niches all around the walls, none of which open to the outside. And he was inside sitting on the ground, and he had a small mortar made of wood with which he ground coffee beans, and a small iron coffee roaster. No one who visited him leaves without him giving them coffee to drink. And he makes the coffee from anything that he has on hand, from wheat, barley, from scraps [of coffee?], and chickpeas—but no one who visits him drinks it without it being excellent coffee! And it was related to us that if he needs firewood, he will, with little effort, pluck out a great tree and break it down with his own hand, bring the wood back, and place it in his cave. Continue reading “Race, Slavery, and Sainthood in the Early Modern Ottoman World: Some Perspectives”

Ottoman Women and the Lives of Saints, iii.: The Majdhūb and the Pregnant Lady

This final installment- for now at least- in this series of texts dealing with Ottoman women’s lives in the context of sainthood comes from the life of ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (1621-1731), arguably the most important early modern saint of the Arab provinces, who combined the practice of sanctity with a vast scope of scholarship and literary endeavors (for more on him see this post and this one). The following account comes from a massive hagio-biography treating his life, Wird al-unsī wa-al-warid al-qudsiī fī tarjamat al-ʻārif ʻAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī, which was compiled by the saint’s great-grandson, Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazzī (1760-1799). Al-Ghazzī’s account covers almost every aspect of his great-grandfather’s life, including ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s mother’s ‘foretokens’ of her unborn son’s future saintly greatness. In introducing the section from which the below accounts are taken, al-Ghazzī says: ‘Just as there are foretokens for the prophets before [the manifestation of their] prophethood, so the saints of God have miracles occur for them even before the coming to light of their manifestation [as saints], and before they even have capacity for that.’

While, then, these stories are ultimately meant to be understood as signs of ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s sainthood- which was at work, as it were, and evident even while he was in his mother’s womb- they also reveal quite a bit about ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s mother and the relationship between holy men in early modern Damascus and women in general, reinforcing what we saw in a previous post. Here the holy man in question is a majdhūb, a ‘divinely drawn one’ akin to a ‘holy fool,’ a ‘mode’ of saint that I have dealt with repeatedly on this site (and which will feature prominently in my forthcoming dissertation and, God willing, eventual book project). The majādhīb (the plural of majdhūb) had a central presence in ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s life, from before birth and even after his death (one of his daughters would become a majdhūba), a relationship that his mother clearly contributed towards forging. The practices and the sacred presence of the majdhūb saint tended to result in the temporary breakdown of social expectations and protocol, both in terms of gendered relations but also in more fundamental ways (such as the strictures against throwing rocks at guests!). That women in Damascus would particularly numbered among Shaykh Maḥmūd’s devotees is not surprising- but neither is ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s ongoing devotion to the saint, an example of which I have also included in this translated excerpt.

Besides the accounts of ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s mother’s relationship with the saint Maḥmūd translated here, we are also learn from ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s own writings that his mother’s death and burial saw the miraculous intervention of another majdhūb, ‘Alī al-Nabkī, who walked from his village to the city just as ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s mother’s body was being washed. We are meant to understand by all of this, I think, that ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s own sanctity was not entirely unique to him- his mother, in her own way, was a holy woman, numbered in the ranks of the friends of God, male and female.

Syrian Tile
17th century tile from Ottoman Damascus (Met. 1993.315)

As for the good tidings his mother received about him, they were many. Among them is that which she herself related, saying, “The saints and majādhīb used to give me good tidings concerning him, and about his elevated status, and the majesty of his power, before his birth.” From among that was that the pious Shaykh Maḥmūd the Majdhūb—who is buried by the tomb of Shaykh Yusuf al-Qamīnī atop Jabal Qāsiyūn [1]—gave her good tidings of him while she was pregnant with him. He gave her a silver coin and said to her: “Name him ‘Abd al-Ghanī for he will be victorious.” He said to her another time, “Give good tidings to ‘Abd al-Ghanī concerning the divine abundance (al-fayḍ)!” Shaykh Maḥmūd died one day before the master was born. He had said to her: “When you give birth to him, bring him to my tomb, and rub him with dust from it before you bestow his name upon him [2].” Whenever he saw her he would honor her greatly, and say to her, “I venerate the one whom you bear, for by God he will possess greatness and immense power!” Continue reading “Ottoman Women and the Lives of Saints, iii.: The Majdhūb and the Pregnant Lady”

The Hermit of Ya’bad and His Marvelous Coffee and Good Counsel

In the course of the great Damascene mystic, savant, poet, and author ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī’s journeys- which he took with considerably frequency during the latter years of his life- he encountered many sorts of people from all walks of life, in both city and countryside. His impressions of rural life are especially precious, given his eye for detail and his sympathy and even reverence for rural religiosity and hospitality, a trait hardly universal among early modern literati anywhere in Eurasia, but quite characteristic of ‘Abd al-Ghanī. During his journey to Jerusalem in 1690, he encountered many majdhūb, ‘divinely attracted people,’ figures who are difficult to categorize in terms familiar to most Western readers (or modern-day readers in many places elsewhere for that matter). These people- who could be men, women, or children (or entire families, as ‘Abd al-Ghanī encounters in his journey)- could be similar to the ‘holy fools’ of the Orthodox tradition, though unlike holy fools they did not always embrace radical displays of disruptive piety. All however displayed signs of having been ‘attracted’ by the power of the Divine, in an unmerited, unsolicited manner. This ‘divine attraction,’ as I have translated it, could manifest itself in acts of transgressive piety, such as ignoring the dictates of the sharī’a or embracing extreme living standards or daily actions, like living on a garbage heap or carrying out highly eccentric actions in public. Despite their often extreme rejection of basic standards and social hierarchies they were seen as particularly potent instruments of divine grace and power, and hence not only not persecuted, but were often sought out for their divine baraka or blessing, by all ranks of society, ‘high’ and ‘low,’ literate and illiterate.

The majdhūb that ‘Abd al-Ghanī encounters in the below story is an excellent example. Originally a slave of African origins (and hence a reminder of the global status of the early modern trade in people from Africa), the man would become known as Shaykh Zā’id was seized by ‘divine attraction,’ which evidently quickly led to a change in his status and his embracing of an eremitical life, settling in a cave (miraculously generated according to a story ‘Abd al-Ghanī was told) on the outskirts of the Palestinian village of Ya’bad. The rest is fairly self-explanatory. Note however both the way in which social status could be remarkably disrupted and upended, as well as the role one of the quintessential early modern commodities, coffee, plays in the story, albeit in a surprising way.


And it reached us in that village [of Ya’bad] that there was close by a black [freed] slave from among the divinely attracted lovers of God, whose name was Shaykh Zā’id, and he is in a cave there, at the foot of a small mountain. And it was reported to us that there used to not be a cave there, but one day he was present on the mountain and the cave appeared for him. So we went to visit him, and we entered into his cave. It is a small cave, with lots of niches all around the walls, none of which open to the outside. And he was inside sitting on the ground, and he had a small mortar made of wood with which he ground coffee beans, and a small iron coffee roaster. No one who visited him leaves without him giving them coffee to drink. And he makes the coffee from anything that he has on hand, from wheat, barley, from scraps [of coffee?], and chickpeas—but no one who visits him drinks it without it being excellent coffee! And it was related to us that if he needs firewood, he will, with little effort, pluck out a great tree and break it down with his own hand, bring the wood back and place it in his cave.

And when we entered we greeted him, and he returned the greeting. He is a black freed slave who prefers silence and solitude; Shaykh Muṣlaḥ of the aforementioned village had told us that he used to be the slave of some of the people of that village, and he used to shepherd animals for them. But then this divine attraction (al-jadhb) occured in him, he abandoned shepherding, and his master manumitted him. He used to return at times the village after the death of his former master, but then he settled in this cave and the people began paying visits to him in it. People from every place seek him out, believe in him, seek blessing from his words, and ask advice from him about their affairs. I asked him about the condition of my brothers and of the group of people traveling with me to Jerusalem, and he replied: ‘They are in grace and good through you.’ And he mentioned to us many words in which were good tidings to us and favorable end for our goal, and peace and safety.

And when we went in to visit him there was with us a young divinely attracted man from among the divinely attracted folk of Damascus, whom we have mentioned previously. When that divinely attracted one went in to him and spoke with him, he laughed greatly. He then said that he was tired, so we recited the Fātiḥa, paid our regards, and departed.

‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī, al-Ḥaḍrah al-unsīyah fī al-riḥlah al-Qudsīyah, Bayrūt, Lubnān: al-Maṣādir, 1990, 66-7.

Translating Dhikr

The following is an excerpt from a letter sent by ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (on whom and his letter writing see a previous post) to a friend of his living in the Ottoman town of Hayrabolu (in modern-day Turkey), one Ibrāhīm Efendī, in March of 1680. It concerns the practice of dhikr- remembrance- of God: its form, its effect, and its proper ‘translation,’ both into the letter recipient’s native tongue (in this case Turkish), and into right understanding of the role of the practioner vis-a-vis God. As such it is a good snapshot of how ‘Abd al-Ghanī envisioned the ‘mechanics’ of spiritual practice working in the practioner, including a glimpse into the real-world application of spiritual advice.


Persist in the dhikr of Sahl ibn ‘Abdallah al-Tustarī, God be pleased with him, which his shaykh invested him with and through which he attained to God in four days, with your observation adhering to its meaning in each moment. Then you will be benefited greatly by that, God willing. The dhikr of Sahl, God be pleased with him, is: ‘God is with me, God looks towards me, God is present to me.’ And if you translate it for yourself into the Turkish language, with words that make attention to its meaning easy for you, and so remember God by them, that is excellent. And it is thus when you pay heed to it with your heart but your tongue does not speak it. The intended goal is that there be no straining (takalluf) in yourself and in your thoughts for the flow of the remembrance of God (dhikr Allāh), and that you practice dhikr in every condition. Do not practice His dhikr believing that is you doing it under your own strength, rather, believe that it is He who is remembering Himself by means of your tongue and heart.

As God said: ‘God’s remembrance is greater,’ (Q. 29.45), which is an example of the attribution of the maṣdar [verbal noun] to its doer; that is, greater than the canonical prayer which is the dhikr of the servant towards his Lord. For indeed you are in His hand, in the disposition of His power, and He remembers Himself through you as He wills, and He makes your heart heedless of Him as He wills. Do not depend upon any but Him, and do not prop any of your affairs upon any but Him; do not imagine that any will benefit you other than Him, and do not believe that any can strike you other than Him. Be with Him by means of nothing else, and be in everything through Him. So stand upright and persist in that, and do not be displeased concerning His judgments over you, nor from the effect of His disposition in you. Be patient with the judgment of your Lord, and do not say, ‘He will not bestow good upon me.’ If He inclines thus for you, He will bestow good upon you in accordance with what He wills, not in accordance with what you will. If He wills, He will convey you in the moment, from state to state, and in a flash wholeness will come.

I have presented you with good advice, but it is God who is responsible for your guidance, for He is your Master. Do not fail to report about yourself to me, O brother, and write to me concerning everything that concerns your religious affairs, for I am the servant of this path, for the good of people. Peace in perpetuity!

‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī, Risāla 6, in Wasā’il al-taḥqīq wa rasā’il al-tawfīq, edited by Samer Akkach, in Letters of Sufi Scholar (Leiden: Brill, 2010),150-151.

On True Spiritual Seclusion and Exercise

Bridging the gap between how we intuitively understand words and concepts and how people in the past, or people in the present but in quite different cultural-linguistic worlds from us, understood those same words and concepts is often a difficult task. In the text I’ve translated here from the great early-modern Ottoman Damascene mystical philosopher, poet, and traveler (to name but three of his occupations) ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (1641-1731), we encounter both dissonances of meaning endemic to the gap between our time and his, as well as dissonances that ‘Abd al-Ghanī introduces. Easily one of the most fascinating and versatile thinkers of early modern Islam, ‘Abd al-Ghanī simultaneously defended the practices and concepts of Sufism, especially as embodied in the thought of Ibn ‘Arabī, while also frequently refashioning them and integrating them into a wider-ranging philosophy of Islam that embraced the rapidly changing world of early modernity, against the puritanical, ‘fundamentalist’ strains of Islam that fitfully circulated in the Ottoman world. In addition to defending the legal validity of smoking, coffee-drinking, dancing, musical performances, and other activities, ‘Abd al-Ghanī generally argued for a broad social ethic that rejected moralism and morality policing, instead encouraging positive, indeed tolerant social interactions across class and confessional lines. This is not to say that he advocated some sort of proto-liberalism or modernism: as is clear from the following text, ‘Abd al-Ghanī did not reject the practice of the sharī’a or traditional theological beliefs. But what he did with those beliefs and how he interpreted them in doctrine and practice could be quite surprising and even innovative (a term he would not have appreciated, I should note). His often bold textual moves can be quite jarring at times- as they no doubt were in some cases for people in his own day.

This text is the bulk of a letter ‘Abd al-Ghanī sent, in April of 1678, to one Mulla Aḥmad of Hayrabolu, in what is now the European portion of Turkey (it was evidently conveyed by friends of ‘Abd al-Ghanī, as the note at the end indicates). In it our author discusses ‘true’ and ‘metaphorical’ acts and states, in so doing reversing the ways in which we tend to speak now (though reflecting language C.S. Lewis used in some of his works): the really real seclusion (khalwat, a type of ascetic withdraw for spiritual purposes) takes place within the self and in relation to God and through Him the rest of the world; that of the body and in relation to physical society is merely ‘metaphorical,’ obtaining reality through its contact with the true practice of seclusion. And so on- ‘Abd al-Ghanī explains it pretty well, I think, though this English translation does not convey the word-play and subtlety of the Arabic original- always a problem in translation, especially in religious-philosophical language such as this. But so it goes- ‘Abd al-Ghanī would no doubt argue from such a state to the ultimately metaphorical nature of language, realized only through connection with the truly Real.


And I have heard regarding you, O brother, that you are firmly fixed in your religion, desiring conformity with the command and the prohibition, and I love you for that. And I love for you what I love for my own self: that you enter into the path of inner piety (ṭarīqat al-taqwā al-bāṭiniyya), so that the interior and exterior be made perfect for you. What I mean by ‘inner piety’ is your crossing from the outward ordinances to the knowable realities, so that you witness through the eye of spiritual perception that every motion out of the motions of canonical prayer and other than those from among the acts of worship possess a lordly sign (ishāra)  and merciful secrets. And every ordinance from the ordinances of the sharī’a has an application in the exterior and an application in the interior. The sharī’aic ordinance (ḥukm) is a body, while the divine wisdom (ḥikma) is the spirit of that body. Do not be content with the bodies apart from the spirits, and do not be distracted from the bodies by the spirits: rather, bring together the exterior and the interior.

And let my friend—God, exalted is He, give him peace—know that there is no recourse for that besides entering into sharī’aic seclusion (khalwat) and doing sharī’aic spiritual exercises. And I mean by ‘seclusion’ only your solitude in witnessing the true Doer apart from the metaphorical doer, then the witnessing of the true One Described, apart from the metaphorical one, then the witnessing of the true Existence, apart from the metaphorical existence. And persist in this witnessing so that the senses and the intellect are fully immersed. This is true spiritual seclusion. As for the metaphorical seclusion, it is that you enclose your body in a ḥalāl house and ḥalāl sustenance, and cut off your sight interiorly and exteriorly from all that is outside that house by negation or affirmation, until you find the true seclusion, then come out of the metaphorical seclusion.

Among that which brings you to this is your concern for and your paying attention to the books of the knowledge of Sufism, such as the books of Ibn ‘Arabī, Ibn Sab’īn, al-‘Afīf al-Tilimsānī, and the like of them—God hallow their spirits—after washing the spiritual sight of the dirt of rejection of any of them, so that the door of their luminescent secret is opened for the heart, and the reality of their stationing upon the stations of the Muhammadan sharī’a is unveiled for the heart. And it knows that they are knowledge of it in the most perfect sense, acting according to it without innovation (bid’a) in the exterior or interior. And someone is not veiled from them through unknowledgeable rejection of their path, unreflexively being against them due to uncritical imitation [of anti-Sufi views], or from being fearful in regards to others due to his not understanding their doctrine, hiding in his [public] disavowal with faith in their doctrine without thinking evil of them—that is more beneficial for him, if such a person is not an enemy of that which he does not know. Junayd, God be pleased with him, said: ‘Faith (al-īmān) in the doctrine of this group is wilāya.’ Meaning, with neither understanding nor critical objection. For every entity among the learned has technical vocabulary which they use but others do not know, so accusing them of error without awareness of their technical vocabulary is itself a mistake. And there is a people who understand the doctrine of Sufism in accordance with the Book and Sunna, even if the exterior of the.doctrine appears to be in opposition. Its people always exist—to God belongs praise in every place and time! The one who licitly seeks them, finds them. ‘Licit seeking’ is sincere devotion, trust in God, thinking evil of the lower self, and the non-existence of thinking evil of others, whoever it may be, and submission to God in every place of His judgement and His decree, good and ill. As for the practitioner of innovationist seeking, he is not benefited by anyone he meets, even a prophet from among the prophets, upon them be peace.

And I mean by ‘exercise’ (riyāḍa) whenever I mention it, the directing of the soul towards the attaining of the realities and their habituation in every state, little by little. And that is by attachment to the clear Truth (al-ḥaqq), then by being characterized by it, then by ultimate realization—that is real spiritual exercise. As for metaphorical bodily exercise by the limiting of the eating of food and the drinking of water, as he—peace be upon him—said: ‘The sufficiency of the son of Adam are morsels which suffice his loins,’ so it is an excercise seeking other than itself, not for its own sake. It is constituted in the whole and is an aid for the fulfillment of the spiritual exercise, and is what does not go to excess and so lead to corrupt imaginings, so becoming a harmful interdicted thing—for this reason the jurists discuss it in their books.

So I have explicated for you seclusion and its conditions, real and metaphorical, and its like, exercise, but we hastened the matter due to the closeness of the travel of the brothers to you. God guide us and you on a straight path, and upright religion, in every moment, to the hour of death.

‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī, Risāla 6, in Wasā’il al-taḥqīq wa rasā’il al-tawfīq, edited by Samer Akkach, in Letters of Sufi Scholar (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 116-119. Translation by Jonathan P. Allen, 2014, no rights reserved.