Conversion Stories From Across Early Modern Eurasia

John Nelson's Khalwa
The cell-like study and retreat of the early Methodist preacher and holy man John Nelson, whose autobiography is featured below.

In what follows, I have juxtaposed accounts taken from one end of Eurasia (here including North Africa) to the other, each of which dates from the seventeenth or eighteenth century: we begin with an account by an early English Methodist, next hear from a Moroccan sufi shaykh and saint, followed by an Ottoman Syrian self-taught shaykh, finally ending with an Edo-period Japanese Zen master- lives I doubt have ever been placed in such proximity before! Yet they are all united by at least two major common themes in addition to their chronological proximity: one, each is autobiographical, either as part of a stand-alone account, or embedded in some larger biographical project. Two, each has to do with narrating a moment or period of conversion from one way of life to another. We might be tempted to call all of these religious conversions, but I think it’s best to avoid the term ‘religious’ here since while it’s accurate in some ways it does not really quite reflect how these various writers or those around them thought about the world and the nature of the experiences and lives we might label ‘religious.’

There are other shared features that I think are significant and which might point to some of the shared, interconnecting features of early modern life on a global scale. Each of these accounts reveals not just a sense of subjectivity and inwardness, but a surprisingly assertive sense of subjectivity- reflected in, to begin with, the very act of writing and circulating in some fashion an autobiographical account. Related to this subjectivity and self-fashioning is the stress laid on reading and encountering books, often through one’s individual act of reading. This is significant given the emphasis placed in many cultural contexts in medieval Eurasia upon the oral, face-to-face, hand-in-hand transmission of knowledge and religious practice. Yet most of these figures not only were shaped by their own personal readings and encounters with texts, they in turn produced texts for others to encounter in a similar fashion. That is not to say that these authors were ‘individualists,’ and certainly none of them would have embraced the idea of the ‘autonomous’ self. Each in his own way was a part of religious communities, textual genealogies, and shared collectivities of practice and worship and belief.

I encourage you to read these excerpts in sequence and to think about commonalities or differences and the possible reasons for them, as well as what they may or may not say about shared early modern histories beyond my brief comments above. For each excerpt I have given a minimal introductory note, followed by the account and the citation (of the four not originally in English, I have translated one, while the others are translations by other scholars).

1. John Nelson (1707-1770): A stone-mason by trade, John Nelson would become an early convert to the Methodist movement within the English Anglican Church led by John and Charles Wesley. I have selected two sections from his Journal, an autobiographical rendering of his spiritual journey and labors on behalf of the Wesleys’ pietistic movement. In the first, Nelson describes a formative childhood experience, while in the second he narrates the pivotal moment of his adult conversion from a state of emotional insecurity and distance from God to that of being ‘saved.’

When I was between nine and ten years old, I was horribly terrified with the thoughts of death and judgment, whenever I was alone. One Sunday night, as I sat on the ground by the side of my father’s chair, when he was reading the twentieth chapter of the Revelation, the word came with such light and power to my soul, that it made me tremble, as if a dart were shot in my heart. I fell with my face on the floor, and wept till the place was as wet, where I lay, as if water had been poured thereon. As my father proceeded, I thought I saw everything he read about, though my eyes were shut; and the sight was so terrible, I was about to stop my ears, that I might not hear, but I durst not: as soon as I put my fingers in my ears, I pulled them back again. When he came to the eleventh verse, the words made me cringe, and my flesh seemed to creep on my bones while he read… Continue reading “Conversion Stories From Across Early Modern Eurasia”

Surah al-Kawthar: Sufi Tafsir: ibn ‘Ajiba

The tafsīr of the Moroccan Sufi Ahmad ibn ‘Ajība (b. 1747/8) is the most recent of the commentaries I am examing in this series, and because of that it is a good summation of the many centuries of exegetical tradition that preceded it, both in ‘mainstream’ Sunni tafsir and in Sufi mystical intepretation. At first glance, there is little to distinguish ibn ‘Ajība from his predecesors. He seems to be drawing heavily upon al-Baydawī (or al-Baydawī’s source, al-Zamakhsharī), with some expansions. However, there are some rather significant changes. For instance, we see that al-Sulamī’s story about Muhammad’s discontent has been included as part of the ‘exoteric’ commentary, and has been modified slightly. Ibn ‘Ajība includes brief grammatical explanations, taking care not to overburden the reader; he also includes an occasion of revelation story that we have not come across before, as well as brief speculation on the liturgical proscriptions inherent in this surah. He thus draws upon the wide variety of exegesis that had developed, paring it down and presenting the various elements in rapid succession.

Finally, of most significance is the final paragraph of the commentary, the ‘spiritual allusions.’ Here we see another form of Sufi exegesis, but in a very different order from al-Sulamī’s. Instead of the usual process of dividing the surah into lemmas (individual lines or units) and presenting various exegetical authorities and opinions, line by line, our author interprets the surah through a process of interpolation, flowing from phrase to phrase. He expands the verse using Sufi doctrines and concepts, uniting the scriptural words seamlessly with mystical language and experience.


The Truth [God], His strength is mighty, said: ‘Verily, we gave to you al-kawthar.’ That is: abundance of goodness, the one [Muhammad] whom universal prophethood exalts possesses the good of both worlds, universal headship, and the happiness of this world and the next. [The word al-kawthar is of the form] faw’al from [the word] al-kathira. And it is said: it is a river in the Garden, sweeter than honey, whiter than milk, colder than snow, softer than foam. Its two brims are of pearls and chrysolite, and its [drinking] vessels are of silver, the number of the stars of heaven, and the one who drinks of it will never be thirsty, and the one coming to drink it returns. Two of the Immigrants recited, [they are of] dirty clothes, unkempt hair, those who are not wedded to the graces [of God?], and He does not open to them the gates of intensity [?]- that is: the gates of the kings- due to their weakness. One of them dies, and his necessity stammers inside his chest- if he swore by God, let him fulfill it. [These last couple of sentences remain opaque to me. There seems to be some reference to something which I am missing…]

And ibn ‘Abbās interpreted it as abundance of good, and it was said to him: verily people say: it is a river in Paradise. So he said: The river is part of that good. And it is said: it is abudance of his children and descendents, or the ‘ulamā’ of his community, or the Qur’ān providing the good of this world and the next.

And it is related: That the Prophet, peace and prayer be upon him, said: ‘O Lord, You took Ibrahim as a friend, and Musa as a spokesman- so how am I special?’ So [this verse] descended: ‘Did He not find you an orphan then give [you] shelter?’ But he was not satisfied with that, so there descended: ‘We gave you al-kawthar.’ But he was not satisfied with that, for it was due him lest he be satisfied, for contement from God is deprivation, and reliance upon [one spiritual] state cuts off the highest [spiritual state]. So Jibrīl descended, and said to the Prophet, peace and prayer be upon him: ‘God- blessed and exalted is He- greets you with peace, and says to you: “If I took Ibrahim as a friend, and Musa as spokesman, then I have taken you as a beloved one (habīban), and My counsel and my Strength are for the preference of My beloved over and beyond My friend and My spokesman.”’ So [Muhammad], peace and prayer be upon him, was content.

The [particle] fa’ in His saying ‘So pray (fa-sall) to your Lord and sacrifice’ is for the organization of what is after it in relation to what is before it, in that God, exalted is He, gave [Muhammad]- peace and prayer be upon him- what was mentioned of the gift which was not given to any one [else] in the world, deserving to the one commissioned by Him, that is, one deserving. That is: continue in prayer to your Lord- He who has poured out upon you this glorious grace, to which no [other] grace compares- purely devoted to His face, differing from the heedless hypocrites, so stand in the reality of gratitude for it, for verily the canonical prayer is a uniting of the various parts of gratitude. ‘And sacrifice’: the torso (al-badn), which is the choice part of the goods of the Bedouin, and give alms to the needy, differing from him who repells them [the needy] and forbids them, forbidding from them small kindnesses. And on the authority of ‘Attīa: it is the canonical prayer of dawn in a gathering, and the sacrifice is in Mina, and it is said: [it is] the prayer of the festival and of the sacrifical animal. It is said: it is the kind of prayer, and ‘the sacrifice’ is the placing of the right [hand] upon the left, under his sacrifice. It is said: it is that one raise his hands during the ‘God is great’, towards his sacrifice. And according to ibn ‘Abbās: face the qibla with your sacrifice, that is, during the ritual prayer. Al-Fara’ and al-Kalbī [also] say this.

‘Verily, he who hates you’: that is, the one who despises you, whoever he may be, ‘he is cut off’: he who has no descendent, when there does not subsist for him lineage, no glorification of remembrance- but as for you [Muhammad], your progeny remains, your fame is glorified, and your virtue praised, up to the day of the Resurrection. Because all who are begotten of the Muslims are your sons and your descendants, your remembrance is lifted up in the minbars, and is upon the tongue of every scholar and mystic, to the end of the age. One begins with the remembrance of God, and one gives praise through your remembrance. You possess in the next world what is not described in the Qur’an, and one cut off does not speak of even your likeness, rather, the one cut off, he who hates you, is forgotten in this world and the next.

It is said: [the verse] descended regarding al-‘As ibn Wā’al, who used to call the Prophet, peace and prayer be upon him, ‘cut off,’ after [Muhammad’s] son, ‘Abd Allāh, died. He stopped [to speak] with the Prophet, peace and prayer be upon him, and it was said to him: ‘With whom did you stop to speak?’ He said: ‘With that cut-off one.’ So Quraysh called him cut-off and one solitary without descendants. And when Ka’ab ibn al-Ashra- God curse him!- preceded to Mekka, and Quraysh agitated against [Muhammad], peace and prayer be upon him, saying to [Ka’ab]: ‘We are the people of al-Saqāya and al-Sadāna, and you are the master of the people of al-Medīna- so are we better, or is that cut-off solitary one without descendants of your people [better]?’ He answered: ‘You are better,’ so [the following verse] descended regarding Ka’ab: ‘Have you not looked to those to whom half of the Book was given, who believe in al-Jibat and al-Tāghūt…?’ (al-Nisa’, 51) And [the following verse] descended regarding them, ‘Verily, he who hates you, he is cut off.’

Spiritual allusions: it is said to the successor (khalīfa) of the Messenger, he who is molded after [Muhammad’s] innate characterstics and follows after him: ‘We gave you al-kawthar,’ abundance of good, because whoever obtains gnosis of God has gained the entire good. ‘He who has found You, what is he deprived of?’ [Ibn ‘Attā Allāh, Kitāb al-Hikam, Munājāt 26] ‘So pray to your Lord’ the prayer of the heart, ‘and sacrifice’ yourself and your passions. ‘Verily he who hates you’ and despises you, ‘he is cut off,’ and as for you, your remembrance continues, and your life is not cut off, because the death of the people of piety is life without annihilation afterwards. And Junayd said: ‘“He who hates you, he is cut off”: that is, cut off from attaining hope in You.’

May God pray for our master Muhammad and his house!

The Genres of Tafsir

The following is an excerpt from the introduction to the 18th century Moroccan Sufi Ahmad ibn ‘Ajiba’s mystical commentary on the Qur’an. He provides in this excerpt an excellent summary of the ‘genres’ of tafsir from the perspective of a scholar who was both trained in the full range of traditional Islamic exegesis and who embraced the particularly Sufi mode of interpretation later in life.


The Prophet’s saying, ‘Every verse has an outer aspect and an inner, a limit and a vantage point’ thus means that the outward is for those such as the grammarians, the experts in language and declension. The inward is for those concerned with the meanings of words, the commandments and prohibitions, parables and narratives, the affirmation of God’s oneness, and other like teachings of the Qur’an, such being the domain of the exegetes. The limit is for the juridical scholars (al-fuqaha) who are concerned with the derivation of rules from the verses, who come to a verse and then carry its arguments as far as possible but without addition. The vantage point (al-muttala’u) is for the people of spiritual truths among the greatest of the Sufis, where, from the outward meaning of a verse, they look down, as it were, into its inward meaning. Then are unveiled to them, through reflection upon the verse, its mysteries, teachings, and mystic sense.

Literally, muttala’u means any place from which one may look down upon something from its highest to lowest point and this word is mentioned in a sound hadith referring to the ‘terror of the vantage point’ by which is meant a place of approach from which one will look down upon the events of the Last Day. Thus too can it be said [in Arabic], ‘Where is the vantage point of this question?’ meaning its point of approach, which is literally an elevated point from which something may be seen from its highest to lowest limits. In a like manner do the people of spiritual truth look down from the outward meaning of a verse into the mysteries of its inward dimension and then plunge into the depths of the ocean. And God Most High knows better.

Ahmad ibn ‘Ajiba, Al-Barh al-Madid (The Immense Ocean), trans. Mohamed Fouad Aresmouk and Michael Abdurrahman Fitzgerald (Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2009), 3-4.