Giving Delight to the Lords of Spiritual States

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Sufis with strange and even deviant practices, but who were otherwise deeply integrated into Ottoman social and political life, were hardly limited to the Arab provinces: this c. 1809 painting, by an anonymous Ottoman Greek artist commissioned by the British diplomat Stratford Canning, depicts Rufāʿī dervishes in their Istanbul tekke, performing some of the incredible physical feats for which they were (and are!) well-known. Note the additional edged implements hanging on the wall, and the dervish heating iron in the fireplace to the right, as well as the presence- just as in the story below- of spectators. (V&A D.140-1895)

As sufism and Islamic sainthood both developed over the medieval and into the early modern periods, a vast and heterogenous range of practices were built up to express devotion to God and to make manifest the power of holy people, from various forms of dance to strange feats of physical strength to bodily rigorous rituals lasting hours and hours or even days or weeks. Some of these practices could be quite extreme in the eyes of observers now and at the time, and have in recent years often attracted the designation of ‘folk Islam’ or worse. The following story, which comes from the personal chronicle of a Damascene Muslim scholar named Ibn Kannān (d. 1740), reveals how seriously Ottoman officials- and members of the ‘ulama class, of whom Ibn Kannān was a respectable representative- could take even very strange saints and the unnerving practices of their followers. Here is the tale Ibn Kannān tells:

On the 28th [of Jumādī II, 1118, October 7, 1706], a Thursday, the pasha [Meḥmed Paşa ibn Bayrām] sent someone before Shaykh Muḥibb al-Dīn al-Taghlibī al-Ṣāliḥī al-Shībānī, and commanded him to bring forth the banners, mazhars [1], dhikr litanies, the shaykhs, and the khalīfas [2], and to make a procession (dawra) so that he might give delight to the lords of spiritual states. He did so and set out with banners and mazhars, and when he reached the gate of the palace he called for his horse and rode upon it over the people, [a practice] known as ‘the treading’ (al-dawsa). It is as if the people are sleeping on their faces, then he rides over them with his horse but no one is injured. When he rode out over them the pasha and Qāḍī ʿArīf Efendī and the other elite seated in the kiosk leaped up for joy! Then [Shaykh Muḥibb al-Dīn] came by himself into the presence of the pasha, while the rest of his entourage went to the Sināniyya Mosque…

One of the viziers had an unruly horse whom no one was able to handle. Once he sent it to [Shaykh Muḥibb al-Dīn] and he stood him still upon his feet as was his custom, afixed a bridle he had with him upon his head and led him about, then rode him at a trot. It is said [the vizier] then gifted the horse to the shaykh.

Continue reading “Giving Delight to the Lords of Spiritual States”

Shared Ottoman Worlds of Imagination

The Prophets Ya'qub (Jacob) and Yusuf (Joseph) seated together, from The Cream of Histories (Zubdat al-tawarikh) by Sayyid Luqman-i 'Ashuri
The Prophets Ya’qub and Yusuf seated together, from the 1585-1590 ‘Cream of Histories’ (Zubdat al-tawârîḫ) by Lokmân-i ‘Âshûrî (d. 1601), (Chester Beatty Library T 414)

The two images in this post come from almost contemporary Ottoman manuscripts, one (above), a major work of history in Ottoman Turkish, the Zubdat al-tawârîḫ of Sayyid Lokmân produced in Istanbul, the other (below) a sort of abridged Bible (though it might be better thought of as an exegetical textual and visual condensation and rearrangement of the Bible) in Armenian, produced in Amida (modern-day Diyarbakır). The Zubdat was completed in 1590, while the Bible chart- and chart is probably the aptest term here- in 1601. There is much that could be said about these texts, and the Zubdat has been studied both for its art historical value as well as in reference to recent scholarly literature on Ottoman historiography and memory construction. The Armenian text (though neither work is fully described by ‘text’ in any meaningful sense) may have been studied in some context but I myself am not aware of any such work.

What struck me in looking at these two manuscripts side-by-side, as it were, is the similarity in the visual structuring of the information on the page. Both manuscripts employ a similar cartographic, architectural style, even if the details and other artistic traditions at work obviously vary. In the one history in a universal (but still very much ‘sacred’) key is displayed and ‘mapped,’ in the other history as a part of the Biblical narrative. Images of important figures are framed- literally- by architectural details, while names and terms are mapped out along the page in hierarchical, linked order, the little textual roundels like points on a map.

No doubt there is much that could be made of the similarities in these works, similarities which suggest shared ways of organizing and visualizing information, the relationship of text and space, as well as understandings of the nature of scripture and history. Determining why these similarities exist would require examining just such shared contexts as well as other historical, and perhaps Ottoman-specific, developments and historical rhythms. These two works placed in dialogue are also a good demonstration of the limitations of ‘influence’ as a category of analysis: completed within ten years of one another, one in the world of the Topkapı at the imperial, the other in an Armenian scriptorium at the eastern edge of the empire, the came into being all but simultaneously, and point to contexts and historical currents operative across the empire and through multiple social and cultural channels, not confined to particular locations or to one religious and linguistic tradition only.

Abridged Bible Amida
Page from an Armenian ‘abridged Bible’ produced in Amida in 1601 by Aslan and Hovannes (Chester Beatty Library Arm 551)

Teacher, Student, Text, and the Control of Knowledge in Early Modern Damascus

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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.

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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”

Early Modern Campaign Life: Through the Eyes of Margriet Van Noort

the siege of the city of alesia melchior feselen
Detail from The Siege of Alesia by Melchior Feselen: painted in 1533, this massive painting, from which this detail and the one below is taken, depicts a battle from antiquity but does so in a thoroughly anachronistic fashion, instead showing in great detail the workings of sixteenth century warfare, including the presence of soldiers’ families as described in the passage below.

The excerpted text below comes from the autobiography of Sister Margaret of the Mother of God, born Margriet Van Noort in 1587. Before her death in 1646 she wrote a range of autobiographical pieces of literature, at the behest of her confessor at the convent of the Discalced Carmelites in Brussels in the Low Countries. This passage describes aspects of her childhood, one spent out on campaign alongside her father, a soldier fighting under the Habsburgs during the Eighty Years’ War. Margaret provides a powerful and moving look into what everyday life was like for the families of the soldiers, families that, as in many other early modern wars, went on campaign as well, sleeping in tents, dodging bullets, and contributing to combat in various ways, including, as Margaret later describes, digging trenches. Margaret’s mother sought to give her children some semblance of normalcy, Margaret notes, even if her children could not avoid being swept up in the chaos and danger of an early modern army on the move, as Margaret’s account of her three days separated from her family suggests.

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Since my father was a soldier, my mother always followed him with all the children; there were seven of us. We went with him in every campaign where we suffered hardships of every kind, as you can imagine, from heat and other trials. We often lacked food, and even when we had money there was often nothing to buy. At times when we had no money, we would that a horse might be shot so that we could have something to eat. One time we ate meat with no bread because we did not have any; we could not even find a loaf to buy. Other times we would eat raw meat because we had no time, fire, or proper conditions for cooking. And we usually slept four or five months of the year in our clothes on the ground with a bit of straw for a soft bed. Our home was a tent, but my mother took pains to keep us all gathered together as if we were in a house. There we recited our devotions, did our handwork, and read religious books, to which I was always greatly devoted. We never missed Mass when it was said. It was in a tent set up in the open countryside and there were thousands of people who attended. The enemy would shoot artillery and the bullets would fall in the middle of all those people. No one was ever hurt.

About the age of nine, I had a desire to stay in a monastery of the Order of Saint Bernard that was near where we were garrisoned. But my father did not want me to because he said that Friesland was sure to revert to heresy, and so I stayed with my parents. My mother saw that I was quite a young lady at eleven years old, and she had me make my First Communion. At twelve, my father had contracted marriage for me with a young man from a good family; but he was a military man and he died in battle, and I was very happy.

We used to go every summer on a campaign that sometimes lasted until Christmas with a lot of snow and cold. I was very fond of walking and since my parents had carts and horses in which to carry us, when I would see other soldiers’ small children crying so and dying of cold, I would ask my mother to allow me to walk so a little girl could ride in my place. Sometimes she would scold me and tell me that I was going to get lost among the crowds and it happened just so. I had walked all day and at nightfall the companies split from each other with each company camping together. I stayed seated by the road where I thought our people would be passing. But only the Walloons came. I began to ask if the Germans were not passing by there also, and they told me no. I was very distressed and started to cry like a girl of thirteen would. And God willed that a good man might pass by, a captain who asked me why I was crying. I told him of my trouble, that I had thought my father would have come by there. And God willed that this good man should console me, and he took me with him and pampered me, and I spent three days with him while he took care of me as if I were his daughter. He was a captain of the Wallons, and he asked me my father’s name. I said he was an ensign with a German regiment and his name was Sebastiaan Van Noort. Finally my mother came searching for me with two other people. On the third day the companies were reunited and my mother and everyone was very happy that I was found. After that, I always stayed with them.

Margaret van Noort. Spiritual Writings of Sister Margaret of the Mother of God (1635-1643). Translated by Susan M. Smith. (Toronto, Ontario: Iter Academic Press, 2015). 66-67.

Print Culture Remixed: Safavid Painting Across Confessional Boundaries

Hayrapet Jul'ayec'i bible
Fig 1.: Manuscript Bible, illustrated by Hayrapet Jul’ayec’i, 1649 in New Julfa. (“Matenadaran” Mesrop Mashtots Instutute-Museum of Ancient Manuscripts, ms 189) .

The four images in this post- two from Western Europe, two from the Safavid Empire- paint a picture of the inter-connectivity of places, religious communities, and cultural traditions of early modern western Eurasia, inter-connectivity that took place without any single power or region dominating, as would be true from the nineteenth century forward. These images also illustrate the problems with the language of ‘influence,’ as well as the fact that religious communities and traditions that were at odds in some respects could still participate in shared cultural paradigms and draw upon the work and concepts of others in creative ways. In particular these images demonstrate the complicated place of ‘print culture’ in a Eurasian context, printed texts co-existing and interacting with non-print modes well through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

In this first pair of images, Fig. 1 and Fig. 2, illustrating the first chapters of Genesis, the Armenian illustrator Hayrapet Jul’ayec’i has drawn upon the images of Johann Theodor de Bry for his own illumination of the Bible. The relationship is obvious upon even casual examination, such that one might be tempted to call the Armenian paintings ‘copies.’ But slightly closer examination reveals something more subtle going on. Jul’ayec’i has followed the general form and many of the details of de Bry’s engravings, but has done so in a transformative way: the images have been placed in a new arrangement, one that proceeds in chronological order from left to right, the borders dividing the scenes employing motifs with deep roots in Armenian illumination. Most significantly, Jul’ayec’i has rendered these scenes in color, in brilliant color which calls to mind earlier illumined Armenian Bibles. The entire production has furthermore been placed within a manuscript Bible, instead of the printed Bible of de Bry. The reference to de Bry, and by extension, Western European art conventions, remains unmistakable- but in rendering them in the bright splashes of Armenian painting they have been translated and re-appropriated (there is literal translation as well- note the inclusion of Armenian text in Jul’ayec’i’s painting). ‘Remix’ is one way of thinking about such a piece, the form remaining but the interpretation rendered making the piece an effectively new creation, the mood and resonances it conveys departing dramatically from the original ‘cited’ imagery, even as the new art depends on the original to some degree.

Biblia Sacra vulgatæ, pages 2 & 3
Fig. 2.: Biblia Sacra vulgatæ, pages 2 & 3, engravings by Johann Theodor de Bry, Mainz, 1609 (General Research Division, The New York Public Library).

What is particularly notable about Jul’ayec’i’s art, and that of the many other Armenian artists and manuscript producers who employed similar techniques vis-a-vis print culture circulating in Armenian communities (which in itself reminds us that it was not unusual for a Bible printed in the Netherlands to end up in the Safavid lands), is that Armenians were not themselves strangers to print culture. The first Armenian book was printed in 1512, with an increasing pace of printing in a number of presses across the vast Armenian world of western Eurasia. Simultaneously, Armenians produced, sponsored, and purchased manuscripts such as that from which contain Jul’ayec’i’s illuminations. Print culture was useful for some things, while manuscript culture and its associated arts continued to play an important role, from liturgical texts to diaries to magical scrolls. And just as manuscript arts and traditions left their imprint in Armenian print culture (and many other iterations of print culture across early modern Eurasia), the new possibilities that printing opened up could find their way into manuscript production.

In the Safavid world, Armenians were not the only people creatively adapting and ‘remixing’ Western European print culture material. Persian-speaking Muslim artists, such as the seventeenth century painter Muhammad Zaman, were also making interesting use of imagery circulating out of Western Europe. Witness Zaman’s rendering of the iconic scene of Judith with the head of Holofernes:

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Fig. 3.: Judith with the Severed Head of Holofernes, Muhammad Zaman, c. 1680,
Isfahan, Safavid Iran (Khalili Collections MSS 1005).

Zaman’s depiction of this scene incorporates material from an etching of a painting by the fifteenth century Italian artist Andrea Mantegna (fig. 4). But just as his Armenian contemporary had done with de Bry’s etchings, Zaman has transformed the scene. It is now in bright and vivid color, reminiscent of more traditional forms of Persianate miniature (which itself had long been in dialogue with Armenian painting). Just as Jul’ayec’i reframed his source material, Zaman has not only filled out the scene around Judith and her maidservant with lush vegetation, vivid flora, and a scene of a camp and a city in the background, but in keeping with the conventions of Persianate art he has embedded his painting within a series of frames, frames that are as much a part of the painting as the main image itself. Particularly strikingly, he has filled the upper panel with realistic flowers, flora typical of alpine Eurasia such as primroses and irises. The result is a striking contrast between the delicate beauty of the flowers and the gory sight of Holofernes’ head being held aloft, a somewhat incongruous scene. What would Zaman’s viewers have taken away from this painting? Would they have known to what it was referring, whether in terms of story or in terms of the source in Andrea Mantegna’s depiction? The Western European elements, as in the Armenian imagery above, are unmistakable, diverging as they do from the canons of Persianate art: yet they have been rendered into a Persianate style and frame (literally and figuratively). Some of the meaning is retained, while other aspects are transformed- for instance, it is possible that most viewers would not have known the story itself, leading them to imagine their own story or to connect the image with stories they did know. Continue reading “Print Culture Remixed: Safavid Painting Across Confessional Boundaries”

Nader Shah, a Rebellious Governor, and a Saint’s Intercessions

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Partly colored drawing pasted on an album leaf. “A Standing Dervish.” Signed Muhsin. Iran, Isfahan; c. 1650. Drawing: 15.1 × 7.6 cm David Collection Inv. no. 145/2006

One of the most remarkable and fascinating, as well as tumultuous and frequently traumatic, periods in the early modern history of Persia was the meteoric rise and success of Nader Shah (d. 1747), who not only established himself in the ruins of the Safavid dynasty, having expelled invading Afghans and rather handily deposed the resurgent Safavid claimant to the throne, but also embarked on a campaign of conquest in almost every direction that was redolent of the great conquerors of Inner Asia of days past. Nader Shah’s conquests and campaigns had an enormous impact on not just the societies of the former Safavid lands but also the many places touched by his forays, including the Ottoman and Mughal lands. In the Ottoman Empire, for instance, Nader’s campaigns gave rise to a new form of resolutely Sunni devotional regime, centered around the Ahl al-Badr, the early Muslims who fought alongside Muhammad at the pivotal battle of Badr, and whose names formed a litany of saintly intercession that soared in popularity after Nader’s eruption into the Ottoman world. Nader’s conquests and empire re-making drew in and impacted the numerous Armenian communities scattered across the central Islamicate lands, from the Mughal realms in India to the far western edges of the Ottoman domains and beyond into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. As perhaps the most visible and deeply integrated- yet still distinctive and communally cohesive (for the most part)- minority group in these Muslim-majority lands, Armenians, whether Orthodox or Catholic, provide an important and fascinating vantage point for viewing events such as the rise of Nader Shah, with Armenians from different sides of the Ottoman-Iranian border providing markedly different perspectives.

The account below comes from an otherwise unknown chronicler of Nader’s rise and campaigns, one Abraham of Erevan, who, as the translator of his chronicle, George A. Bournoutian, notes, was probably either a military man or somehow involved in military affairs, perhaps on the logistics side, as he shows particular acumen in relating military operations and the intricacies of the various campaigns Nader carried out. He is throughout strikingly ‘pro-Nāder,’ even as he gives evidence of Armenians on the Ottoman side with quite different sentiments. The passage I have selected here (and I will perhaps follow up with more selections from Abraham’s chronicle and from other sources in a range of languages dealing with Nader Shah), has to do with, among other things, a Muslim saint, as seen by an Armenian chronicler, and his interactions with, on the one hand, Nader Shah, and, on the other, a rebellious provincial governor who had fled into the saint’s protection. In keeping with the theme of my recent previous set of postings, we see in Abraham’s account a sense of a shared economy of holiness, triply so: Abraham understands the Muslim saint as being in many ways similar to saints in his own tradition, and expects his audience to understand things in this way as well. It is also possible, if not likely, that the saint in question, dwelling on the Iranian littoral away from the centers of Persian Shi’ism, may have been Sunni, though there is no real indication one way or another. If he was, however, this story points to a continued shared economy of holiness between Shi’i and Sunnis in the former Safavid sphere; regardless, the markers of sainthood identified here would have been shared across boundaries. Finally, the story is a reminder of the limits of this economy of holiness- while the saint saves the life of the governor, it is not an unmitigated rescue, as we will see!

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After that, Nāder marched on Shiraz, whose governor, called Mohammad, had rebelled against him, even though Nāder had appointed him to control the disloyal Balūç. Instead of convincing the Balūç to become loyal to Nāder, Mohammad rose against Nāder, gathered an army, and planned to march on Isfahan. Meanwhile, he had gone to the Bandar region [on the Persian Gulf coast] and had killed those who refused to join him. He added the rest to his army, went to Shiraz and prepared to attach Isfahan.

Nāder was informed of Mohammad’s intentions and dispatched an envoy with a letter that stated, “What are you doing? You are my servant and have eaten my bread. I raised you above five or six other khans. What is the reason that you have rebelled, have become alienated, have raised you sword and men against me? Repent and change your evil ways.” Nāder sent similar messages three times, but the latter did not answer. After the fourth message, Mohammad Khan replied, “I risk my neck on my action. Let God decide between us. Be aware that either I or you shall lose our life.”

When Nāder heard this, he no longer communicated with Mohammad Khan. Instead, he gathered his army and marched on Shiraz. Mohammad Khan was informed of his approach and went out to meet him on the plain. During the battle Mohammad’s army took flight and many were killed. He himself barely escaped and took refuge in a fortress in the Bandar region caled ‘Avaẓ. The chief of the fortress, a certain Sheikh Jabbār, had an extraordinary knowledge of the supernatural and the Muslims of the region considered him a saint and believed his every word, for her had reportedly performed many miracles. Mohammad Khan thus went to the Sheikh, told him what had occurred, and begged him for God’s sake to intercede with Nāder, since the latter held the Sheikh in great reverence.

The Sheikh gave in to his request and sent a letter to Nāder stating, “For my sake, receive Mohammad Khan, who has repented and who wishes to return to your bosom. Have mercy on him, do not execute him, although he is not worthy of your generosity.” Nāder responded, “Let it be so. Because of your entreaties I shall not execute him. Send him to us.” The Sheikh showed Nāder’s letter to Mohammad Khan and the latter went to him. When he appeared before him, Nāder said, “Do you remember when I was in Baghdad and wrote to you not to go against me? You answered that God shall decide which one of us will remain alive. Well, God has placed you in my hands and it is just that I should kill you.” Mohammad Khan replied, “Do as you wish; I am here in your hands.” Nāder replied, “Although you deserve to die, for the sake of the Sheikh who begged that I spare your life, I shall spare you. But I shall give you a minor punishment.” He then ordered one of his slaves to remove Mohammad Khan’s eyes. Nāder then gave the blind khan one hundred tomans and said, “Go! Live on this sum and pray for me.” He then entrusted him to fifteen soldiers and sent him to Mashhad. [Nāder] then went to Isfahan to prepare the conquest of Shirvan and Shemakhi.

Abraham of Erevan, History of the Wars (1721-1738), translated by George A. Bournoutian (Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers, 1999), 83-38.

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”