Shāh Ni’matullāh Valī in the Very Snowy Mountains of Samarqand

VISIT TO A DERVISH SIGNED MAHMUD MUZAHHIB, BUKHARA, DATED AH 968 1560-61 AD
A group of elites visit two dervishes in a cave, albeit in more hospitable autumn weather than described in the hagiographic excerpt below. Otherwise the motif of members of the ruling elite- whether of Turkic, Persian, or other background- seeking out ascetic sufi saints in the mountains is shared between this image and the story below. From a 1560/1 illumined copy of Sa’dī’s Gulistān, by the painter Maḥmūd Muzahhib, who worked primarily in Bukhara, and hence may well have had stories of Shāh Ni’matullāh Valī’s exploits in the mountains of Samarqand in mind in composing this miniature (private collection, sold by Christies, Sale 6622, Lot 12, London, October 4, 2012).

The late fourteenth into fifteenth centuries across much of the Islamicate world were a period of both great turmoil and of great religious experimentation and vitality, particularly in the areas of sainthood and sufism. Out of the many sufi shaykhs and saints to flourish in the expansive Persianate world stretching from the western edge of the great central mass of Eurasian highlands east to Anatolia, few would obtain as long-lasting or widespread success as Shāh Ni’matullāh Valī Kirmānī (c. 1330-1430/1). Unlike many saints of originally Sunni background, Shāh Ni’matullāh Valī’s veneration as a saint and the sufi ṭarīqa descended from him, the Ni’mat-Allāhiyya, would both survive the rise of the Safavids and the transformation of the core Persian lands from a largely Sunni domain to a Twelver Shi’i one. His shrine in Māhān, begun in 1436, would be patronized by Safavid rulers and continues to be venerated to this day.

Among the practices and charismatic marvels for which he was remembered were his rigorous feats of asceticism and what we might describe as his closeness to the natural landscape, including as a farmer, cultivation of the soil by himself and his followers one of his distinctive practices. In the set of stories I have translated below, taken from an early 16th century Persian hagiography of the saint, his asceticism as well as his fondness for wild places are emphasized, though neither preclude his having an audience, fortunately for his memory among posterity. The stories are relatively self-explanatory, though it’s worth noting that the practice of pious retreat or seclusion (Ar. khalwa) was not unique to Shāh Ni’matullāh Valī but featured in many sufi regimes of the period- though usually not in snowbound mountains.

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For his forty-day retreat and for his great chilla which lasted a hundred and twenty days, Haẓrat [Shāh Ni’matullāh Valī] would go in the wintertime to Mount Mulkdār, which they say is at any season inaccessible due to its height and the abundance of snow. When it was time to break his fast he would taste some snow, not eating or drinking anything else! This was transmitted from the saint by Sayyid ‘Alā’ al-Dīn Mahdī, whose probity and nobility of purpose is well known.

Niẓām al-Dīn Maḥmūd al-Wā’iẓ al-Dā’ī has transmitted: ‘I heard him say: “One time during the days of autumn while I was occupying myself with worship and pious retreat (khalwat) in a cave in one of the great mountains around Samarqand, a great snow fell and blocked the entrance to the cave.” And that holy one remained there until winter had passed and even part of spring! Once a group of hunters pursuing prey came up onto that mountain, and as nightfall was approaching and the sky was promising rain, the dug away the snow from the mouth of the cave and went in. Striking up a fire that saw that the holy one was sitting upon his prayer-rug facing the qibla, utterly apart from all other than God. They were bewildered, but after supplication he explained the reality of his state. One of their number, by consulting the holy one and occupying himself with his sagely counsel, became deeply God-fearing as a result. After taking sustenance they departed.’

And there is that which this poor one has seen in the writing of his own teachers: ‘This holy one and Khwāja Wāq were practicing austere ascetic disciplines in the vicinity of Samarqand. I heard that they were occupied with ascetic disciplines in the Cave of the Lovers (Ghār-i ʻāshiqān) in Kūh-i Ṣāf, one of the mountains of Samarkand. I do not know whether this holy one bestowed these names upon the cave and the mountain or whether they predated him. Regardless, some from among the Turkish chiefs and their followers who were nearby sent a notice [to Shāh Ni’matullāh Valī and Khwāja Wāq] saying, “Winter will be extremely cold and no one can survive in this cave!” But the holy one did not pay any heed to their words, and instead completed a forty-days retreat with minimal food. When the weather turned a little the chiefs of the Turks came so that they might ascertain the condition of [Shāh Ni’matullāh Valī and Khwāja Wāq], certain that they had perished. But when they had cleared the snow away from the entrance of the cave and entered in, they found the holy one sitting upon his prayer-rug, facing the qibla!’

‘Abd al-Rizzāq Kirmānī, Tazkira dar manāqib-i Ḥazret-i Shāh Ni’matullāh Valī, in Jean Aubin (ed.), Matériaux pour la biographie de Shâh Ni’matullah Walí Kermânî: Textes persans publiés avec une introduction (Teheran: Département d’iranologie de l’Institut francoiranien, 1956), 40-41.

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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.

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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.