A Saint’s Shrine is His Castle: Or, Cautionary Tales from the Ṣafvat al-Ṣafā

Harvard University. Fine Arts Library, Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts, United States FA515.156.4 PF Calligraphy
A lithographic reproduction of some of the spectacular calligraphy and tilework which illumines the exterior of Shaykh Ṣadī al-Dīn’s shrine complex; this lithograph- itself a fine piece of artistic and technical work- comes from Friedrich Sarre’s book Ardabil, Grabmaschee des Schech Safi (Berlin: E. Wasmuth, 1924), the field work and photographs for which were completed in 1897, though writing and publication stretch out over the next two decades.

Everything associated with the veneration of the Safavid eponym Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn (on whom see this post and those prior to it) is monumental, it seems: his shrine complex is one of the most spectacular in the Islamicate world, his ‘official’ hagiography, Ṣafvat al-ṣafā, is a sprawling beast of a text, and the Ṣafavī ṭarīqa which grew up around his memory and practices would have an impact on world history rivaled by few other entities, sufi or otherwise, of the late medieval world. But while the Ṣafavī ṭarīqa would become the most famous and arguably significant legacy of the shaykh of Ardabil, his physical shrine in that city played a huge role as a center of veneration and of the religious and political community that formed around it. What follows is an examination of how that shrine was constructed- not primarily in a literal sense, but in terms of how its sacred status and socio-cultural weight was built up over time.

The outlines for the shrine complex were already laid down before the shaykh’s death in 1334, with some structures already in place. However it would be the shaykh’s son Ṣadr al-Dīn who began building the shrine towards its current configuration, and socially and politically cementing the place of the sufi community that had grown up around his father. The following stories, which are but a selection from an extensive chapter detailing miracles of Ṣafī al-Dīn after his death and, in most cases, in connection with his tomb-shrine, illustrate some aspects of the construction of the shrine’s sanctity and of the political role of the community centered on that shrine. A central motif in these stories is the inviolability of the saint’s tomb and, extending out from it, of the sufi community devoted to the saint- those who transgress either the sanctity of the tomb-shrine or who oppress the community of the saint are liable to be punished, sometimes in quite violent and grisly fashion! Another theme that runs through these stories (and across the whole Ṣafvat al-ṣafā in fact) is the role of the saint’s tomb-shrine and of his community as a source and site (quite literally!) of stability. Such stability was in high demand in the tumultuous years after Ṣafī al-Dīn’s death: a mere year after the shaykh’s death the last Ilkhanid khān, Abū Sa’īd, died, with a long period of political disintegration and conflict following. Two of the major contending parties in Iranian Azerbaijan, the Jalāyirids and the Chūbānids, make appearances in the following stories, though other sources of conflict existed, ranging from predatory local strongmen to feuds between semi-autonomous villages. By reinforcing the sanctity of the tomb-shrine Ṣadr al-Dīn and ibn Bazzāz, our hagiographer, worked to render the saint’s shrine and community a sort of anchor in a stormy sea of political change, while also activity intervening in and shaping political events, economic activity, and socio-cultural life in Ardabil and beyond.

Aspects of this work of sanctification already appear in our first account rendered here, which explains why the spectacular tomb-tower, the centerpiece of the entire complex and the physical location of the saint’s tomb, was built in such lofty and monumental fashion:

Harvard University. Fine Arts Library, Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts, United States FA515.156.4 PF Exterior
The exterior of the tomb-tower as it appeared at the end of the 19th century.

Story: [Ṣadr al-Dīn ibn Ṣafī al-Dīn], may his baraka be perpetuated, said: initially the illumined tomb-shrine (mazār) of the Shaykh, God sanctify his secret, was a small poor affair which we had constructed. The tomb-shrine lay below a ceiling with four vaulted walls above it, with small windows fronting the garden within the walls. The atmosphere of the tomb contained by the four walls was dark and gloomy. The ked-khudā [1] named Badr al-Dīn Ṣānūbī saw the Shaykh, God sanctify his secret, in a dream vision, with his blessed hands extended out from the blessed tomb-shrine, saying, ‘I am not contained within the two worlds, yet they have left me here in this gloomy place!’ On a following day he relayed these words to Ḥājjī Nakhjavānī.

When he, God perpetuate his baraka, came out of the zāviya, Ḥājjī Nakhjavānī repeated to him the gist of the dream to him, with Badr al-Dīn Ṣānūbī present. So he asked [Badr al-Dīn Ṣānūbī] about it, and he said the same thing. In that moment he, may his baraka persist, ordered that the intermediate ceiling of the tomb-shrine as well as the ceiling of the four vaulted walls both be raised, and the high-up windows be expanded to allow for more illumination, and that the door fronting the courtyard where Qur’an reciters and pilgrims sat be widened and increased in size; surrounding this door would be written honorifics of the Shaykh and something noting the date. Mavlānā ‘Azz al-Dīn Khaṭīb oversaw the calligraphy there; he had a nephew named Muḥammad, a young man, who worked on the calligraphic inscriptions with him. As was the custom he stood on the wood scaffolding, but occupied himself with ribald speech and inappropriate behavior, and while they were resting he would not listen [to his uncle?] until at one point he let out an enormous laugh, so that the plank he was standing on rebounded and he fell, was sorely injured, and died three days later.

The tomb-tower of Shaykh Ṣafī is indeed quite distinctive- while vaults and verticality were hardly unknown in shrine architecture, this particular tomb-shrine stands out for its height and its calligraphic-decorative scheme. The story suggests that the scale was meant to reflect the ‘scale’ of Shaykh Ṣafī himself: here is a saint whose ambit is not meant to be confined to one city or province, but has much greater ambitions, as it were. The story also reinforces a key logic to tomb-shrines such as this: actions done to the physical material of the shrine, and the configuration of the space within the shrine, are also done to the saint himself. Honor bestowed upon the shrine translates to honor bestowed to the saint, which ultimately translates to honor bestowed upon God. The second half of the story continues this logic, but in another, rather more punitive direction: the young apprentice working on the shrine’s exterior fails to respect the sanctity of the place, even as it is under construction.  The deadly serious sanctity of the tomb-shrine and its adjacent structures (at this point, primarily the zāviya or sufi ‘lodge’) is highlighted in our next account:

Harvard University. Fine Arts Library, Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts, United States FA515.156.4 PF Interior
The saint’s cenotaph, with a number of finely wrought metal candle-stands arranged before the cenotaph, some lit and supplementing the natural light streaming in from above- copious illumination, just as Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn had stipulated some centuries before!

[Another] Story: Amīr Kulāhdūz Ardabīlī was, by appointment of Amīr Shaykh Ḥasan Jalāyir, supreme governor (ḥākim-i muṭlaq) in Ardabīl. It was the custom of the murīds and the students of the Shayhk, God sanctify his spirit, that they would exert themselves in forbidding and hindering that which was forbidden and reprehensible, reckoning among their most important daily tasks the commanding of the good, in particular forbidding people from intoxication, games of chance, and [presence in] the house of ill-repute [2]. Amīr Kulāhdūz’s mind was disturbed by this, and he set to speaking against this community (ṭā’ife). He established a house of ill-repute in Ardabīl, and said, ‘I am going to the ordū [3], but when I return I am going to build alongside the blessed [sic.!] zāviya a [house] of ill-repute and will set up a tavern, and will give the so-called sufis the lute to play and to which to dance!’ It was impossible by means of polite forbidding to raise or redirect this idea from him, and so having said this he set out to the ordū, with [the saying] the intention of doing evil is worse than its commission stamped in his brain. Continue reading “A Saint’s Shrine is His Castle: Or, Cautionary Tales from the Ṣafvat al-Ṣafā”

Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn Goes Mountain Climbing

Safi al-Din Dreaming.jpg
An illustration from the life of Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn, during his adulthood, depicting a dream concerning the rise and fall of a local post-Ilkhanid dynasty, the Chūbānids (their members symbolized by the candles), with the shaykh himself depicted in the lower half asleep, dreaming. Unfortunately, so far as I know, the story recounted below was never illustrated. (Aga Khan Museum AKM264)

Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn (d. 1334) is best known as the founder and eponym of the Safavid sufi ṭarīqa, which in the late fifteenth into early sixteenth century would be the basis for the Safavid dynasty and empire, one of the major Islamic empires of the early modern world. He was commemorated in a number of ways: for instance, architecturally by a monumental and expansive shrine complex in Ardabil, and textually by an equally monumental and expansive menāqib (hagiography) composed in Persian by Ibn Bazzāz Ardabīlī, completed in 1358, in consultation with Ṣafī al-Dīn’s son and successor to head of the ṭarīqa, Ṣadr al-Dīn. Clocking in at over eight hundred folios in manuscript form, and almost twelve hundred in the modern printed edition, it must surely rank as one of the longest saint’s lives in Islamic history. Like other hagiographies, much of the social and cultural context and particularities of past worlds can be discerned in this text, such as in the story I have selected here.

The following account comes from the chapter on Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn’s childhood, during a period in which, as the first paragraph suggests, the saint was just beginning to discover his powers, not unlike many modern-day superhero stories in which the newly endowed superhero must learn to control his or her spectacular abilities, perhaps with the help of a mentor. Something similar is the case here: Ṣafī al-Dīn discovers strange and sometimes disturbing spiritual powers, such as an ability to see dead people, which, naturally, freaks him out, causing him to stop eating and to worry his mother (who is really his first mentor and a major presence in this chapter), who eventually coaxes the reason out of him. Understanding that her son is special, she seeks out holy men nearby who might direct him, but none are capable of training a prodigy like Ṣafī al-Dīn. In the story that follows, our protagonist sets out to a local holy place with hopes of finding an instructor, or at least some powerful baraka that will help him gain control of his powers and potent spiritual states. Additional commentary follows, but first the tale itself, which centers on Mount Sabalan, a high, prominent peak west of Ardabil:

Detail from the V&A’s Ardabil carpet.

Story (ḥikāyat): Shaykh Ṣadr al-Dīn, God perpetuate his baraka, said that when the spiritual state (ḥāl) of the shaykh, God sanctify his inner secret, grew more powerful, and when exalted conditions would occur which could not be stopped and which the shaykh found difficult to disclose [to others], by necessity he occupied himself with seeking out a guide (murshid) who could bring him out of this tumult of waves and will. He threw his entire body into this search, though he did not know from whence this impetus for searching came [1].

During that time people often had recourse to Mount Sabalan, it being well known that there were folk of God, exalted is He, atop Mount Sabalan. So the shaykh desired to go to Mount Sabalan, in order to find one of these people. The first time he went he found no one. The second time that the season for visiting came—for other than in the heart of summer it is not possible due to the intensity of the snow, ice, and cold—he went again and took from that place, in accordance with the custom of ordinary people, water and soil from the summit of Sabalan in order to derive baraka thereby. On his descent he passed through a couloir in the mountain, and saw a Turk [here with the sense of a nomad] squatting down, having taken up a bow and arrow and put the arrow to the bow, waiting in ambush for the shaykh. Other than [the Turk] there were no people in the vicinity—[Ṣafī al-Dīn] looked to see if he had an entourage or followers, but no, he was like a spider all alone. Continue reading “Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn Goes Mountain Climbing”