A Holy Historian and a Saintly Blacksmith

By definition the lives profiled in hagiography, of whatever religious tradition, are exceptional in some way as perceived by one or multiple audiences (or in some cases, only a single author attempting to make the case for wider public recognition). That said, as I have emphasized many times in my writings here and elsewhere, medieval and early modern hagiography, particularly within Islamic traditions, can shed a great deal of light on the lives and experiences of ordinary people and places, providing a richness of detail hard to find in other sorts of sources. Early modern North Africa is an especially rich source of hagiographical texts which allow us to peer into everyday life not just in urban areas but also- in fact perhaps predominately- in the vast rural ‘hinterlands’ of urban centers like Fes and Marrakesh and Tlemcen. The countryside of the Maghrib was a remarkably dynamic landscape in religious, cultural, and intellectual terms, with many of the major institutional sites of learning in the early modern Maghrib located within remote rural locations, zāwiyas- sufi ‘lodges,’ often with a shrine component, libraries, and teaching elements- existing high up in the Middle and High Atlas, in territory marked to this day by forms of seasonal transhumance.

The two lives I’ve translated here come from a sixteenth century Arabic work of biography and hagiography (most though not all of the figures therein are saints),Dawḥat al-nāshir, by one Ibn ‘Askar, its entries primarily focused on holy men and women from the Rif region of the Maghrib. Both of the men I’ve featured here would have been relatively unexceptional were it not for their piety and reputations for sanctity: one was a learned man who inhabited the countryside outside of the coastal city of Tetouan (a lovely place, by the way, well worth the visit if you are ever in northern Morocco!) who practiced subsistence agriculture as well as scholarship and sainthood. Calling him a ‘historian’ is a bit anachronistic though not entirely so, as while he would not have followed the canons of modern disciplinary history Ibn ‘Askar’s description suggests an interest in and deep knowledge of the wide spectrum of historical events and figures relevant to Islamic and Maghribi history; of course then as now it was hard to make a living on such knowledge and so Shaykh Aḥmad kept himself and his family going through his own practice of agriculture, practice which was, our author hints, blessed by divine intervention. Would that all historian-farmers, self included, were so fortunate!

The theme of agricultural involvement is a not uncommon one in Ibn ‘Askar’s hagiographies, not a few of his holy people growing their own food and offering the fruits of their lands to visitors and pilgrims and ‘sons of the road.’ Many seem to have practiced a sort of intensive gardening or intensive small-scale farming, though I am ignorant of the details of early modern Maghribi agriculture; it seems possible to me that the surprisingly abundant agronomical texts from the western Islamicate world might have found an audience precisely among such farming ‘ulamā’ and sufi shaykhs, people who possessed refined literacy but fully inhabited the rural, agricultural world.

Our second life is from a bit south of Tetouan, having to do with a pious blacksmith in the general vicinity of the famous, and indeed quite beautiful, town of Chefchaouen. This Aḥmad, ‘the Blacksmith,’ might have been literate to some degree given that he served as an imām in a rural mosque, but he certainly would not have been otherwise reckoned a member of the ‘ulamā’, making his living from a trade- a hot and dirty one at that! His ‘style’ of piety seems to have been rather improvised, as witnessed by the surprise expressed by our author. Yet this improvised rural piety of a working man is not disparaged in our text: instead, Aḥmad the Blacksmith gave a rather bold rebuke to our author concerning Ibn ‘Askar’s reliance on ‘book knowledge,’ a rebuke followed by a powerful prayer which Ibn ‘Askar credits with his own spiritual transformation. I’ve a bit more to say on this unexpected- to us at least- rebuke and prayer and what it suggests about the cultural worlds of the past versus our own present, but first here are the two entries in translation, my further thoughts following:


Aḥmad al-Shā’ir al-Yachmī: ‘And from among them, Shaykh Abū al-‘Abbās Aḥmad al-Shā’ir al-Yachmī, from the Banū Yachm in the vicinity of Tetouan. He was, God be merciful to him, a blameless jurist (faqīh), a knower of God, exalted is He, and very pious and ascetic. He was a memorizer of history and was passionate about much study thereof, he was given to deep thought and contemplation. Every Friday he went by foot to the city of Tetouan in order to pray the congregational prayer therein, even though his home was in Bū Khalād some twelve miles away. He was committed to reliance upon God (tawakkul) and never practiced any fixed profession. Instead, he had a space in front of his house which he cultivated, doing the digging by hand, and from the produce of that cultivation he supported himself and his family. He also fed from it all those who stopped in the mosque (masjid) opposite his house, as a way of providing traveling exigencies to the sons of the road. Those who saw [his garden plot] were certain that it was not enough to feed even one person, yet he never took from anyone. When he went to Tetouan he carried with him a large basket in his hand so as to buy what he needed and carry the items in it, such that the trace of it was marked in his left hand. If anyone going along with him offered to carry it for him he forbade it, his face scowling. I learned from him, God be merciful to him, knowledge of history and of philosophical reflection, and all of the times that I met with him over the years he talked with me of nothing but the knowledge of history and of reports of the doings in the past of ‘ulamā, saints, kings, and others. When he was finished talking of such he would say, ‘Permanence belongs to God, surely to God will all things return, and all things are perishing except His Face.’ Then he would grow pale, and a spiritual state would take him and he would turn away. Many miracles were manifest through him and the people of his land were agreed upon his sainthood and virtue. He died between the ‘fifties and ‘sixties of this century, and was buried opposite his mosque, God be merciful to him. [1]


Aḥmad al-Ḥaddād al-Khumsī: And from among them, the holy man, the saint humble in the presence of God, the faqīh Abū al-‘Abbās Aḥmad al-Ḥaddād. He practiced the trade of blacksmithing, and was also an imām in the Masjid al-Shurafā’ in the territory of the Banū Faltwāṭ. He was a preceptor in asceticism, piety, night-vigils, and struggle in good works. I entered his home in the fifty-fifth year of this century, along with our shaykh Abū al-Ḥajjāj and a group of the virtuous. He greeted us and provided for each of us what he could of different kinds of food, serving us himself. When we were ready to depart to the mosque, he went before us to the door of his house and said: ‘I have made a covenant with God, exalted is He, that no one from among the folk of good should leave my home until he has placed his foot upon my cheek.’ He regarded us as worthy and desired to do so to us, and Shaykh Abū al-Ḥajjāj said, ‘Let us help him in his desire, as his intention is the humbling of his lower self and lowliness towards God, exalted is He.’ So [Aḥmad] put his head on the ground and each of us put our feet to his cheek. Then we went on to the Masjid al-Shurfāt, which is said to be one of the mosques built by Ṭāriq ibn Ziyād during his first campaign of conquest [2]. When we reached the mosque a man brought us food which he had cooked with garlic. We ate it, but [Aḥmad] did not eat with us, excusing himself by saying that he did not eat garlic. When we went inside the mosque we asked him about his not eating garlic, and he replied: ‘On a certain night, in the middle of the night I came to this mosque and entered by way of the qibla door that is to the left of the miḥrab within. I had eaten garlic that night. When I entered I found two men from among the saints praying, their light filling the mosque. When they had given the greeting they stood and walked out through the eastern door. I went out following them, and when they were aware of me they stopped in a certain place’—he described the location—‘and I came before them and sought from them prayer. Then one of them said to me: ‘One who wishes to meet with other and to enter the mosque ought not eat garlic.’ So I said, ‘O Sīdī, I repent before God and will never eat garlic again!’ They gave me the greeting of peace and then turned and went. From that time forward I have never eaten it and will never eat it again.’

I sat with him, God be merciful to him, once in Chefchaouen and had begun talking with him about the art of sufism and the way of spiritual gifts, and I had memorized a great deal, saying to him ‘Shaykh So-and-So said,’ and ‘It is related from Shaykh So-and-So.’ But he said to me, ‘For how long will speak of ‘So-and-So said and related, and I related from So-and-So? When will you say “I and you”?’ I replied to him, ‘O Sīdī, pray to God for me!’ So he said for me, ‘Give us sustenance O God, with you is understanding! And give us knowledge, with You is knowledge that gives benefit!’ From that day God opened for me the gate of understanding and I knew of myself the answer to his prayer, benefiting greatly from his supplication, God be merciful to him.

He had many well-known miracles in answer to his supplications. He studied under Shaykh Abū Muḥammad al-Ghazwānī and from Shaykh Abū Muḥammad al-Habṭī. He died, God be merciful to him, around [9]68, and was buried opposite the Mosque of the Sharifs from the Banū Falwāṭ. [3]

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What is so striking to me about Ibn ‘Askar’s interactions with Aḥmad the Blacksmith- interactions with many an analogue in the early modern Maghrib and elsewhere- is the degree to which a humble (somewhat extravagantly so in fact!) blacksmith could participate in the discursive culture of the literate elite, of which Ibn ‘Askar and many of his shaykhs were indeed a part. It is hard to imagine similar interchanges occurring in the present-day on the same scale, as the discursive worlds of people of my class- the hyper-educated denizens of academia and academia-adjacent realms- have if anything grown further apart from the contemporary analogous discursive worlds of a Riffian blacksmith. There is precious little interaction between various discursive realms within academia itself: humanities scholars and researchers in the hard sciences, for instance, struggle to communicate effectively if they even note the existence of the other. Our interactions with ‘the public’ tend to be limited to those sectors with maximum exposure and formation within higher education and its analogous and connected institutions in wider society.

The many disconnects and discontinuities that mark contemporary American (and, arguably, global) society are all the more striking given that in our world, unlike in Ibn ‘Askar’s, we are beholden to and shaped by ideologies which officially at least proclaim the equality and inteconnectivity of, if not all people, at least all members of one’s own nation-state. Whether one presents one’s self as a citizen of a politically constituted nationality or as a ‘citizen of the world,’ some kind of equality and shared identity and heritage is implied. By contrast, in the early modern Maghrib as elsewhere no such ideas existed; religious identities provided the most universal forms of identity, but in practice identity and belonging were much more dispersed, into all sorts of localized identities and affiliations, some of a global nature (affiliation to a given saint or sufi ṭarīqa, for instance), others perhaps shared only with people in one’s village or rural district. In a world with quite limited literacy the rather kit-bashed piety of Aḥmad the Blacksmith was more often than not the norm, even if a universal or at least universalizing set of doctrines and practices provided a more over-arching framework (though the exact application of the universalizing sharī’ah was often highly localized, the sharī’ah itself and its infrastructure possessing mechanisms for some degree of localization in fact).

There are many reasons for why the kind of interaction and role inversion we see in Ibn ‘Askar’s encounters with Aḥmad the Blacksmith are rare in our world, but the decreased salience of religious faith in much of the ‘developed’ world is certainly a major component. Shared religious faith and practice meant, to varying degrees of extent to be sure, a shared discursive and epistemic world; a pious blacksmith could through his asceticism and other forms of bodily-practiced piety become an ‘expert’ in the ‘sufi arts,’ taking what he learned aurally and distilling it into potent guidance for someone well versed in textual knowledge. Of course exclusion and exclusivity existed in Ibn ‘Askar’s world, and command of elite, literate discourse and practice were powerful means of material advancement. That said, in many ways the cultural sphere inhabited by the literate elite was more open, not less, to those without the blessing of elite formation and education, there was more of a common world and shared sense of meaning and value than is usually the case in our, despite our formal commitment to equality and egalitarianism. We can take such early modern examples, not as precise models of course- those worlds are gone and cannot be retrieved even if we should want to do so- but as inspirations and suggestions for how things can be otherwise in our own world.


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Detail of an 18th century ceremonial scarf with floral and vegetal patterns from Tétouan (Cleveland Museum of Art 1916.830)

[1] Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad b. ʿAlī b. al-Ḥusayn b. Miṣbāḥ Ibn ‘Askar, Dawḥat al-nāshir li-maḥāsin man kāna bi al-Maghrib min mashāyikh al-qarn al-ʿāshir (Rabat: Dār al-Maghrib, 1977), 20.

[2] That is, during the early 8th century AD.

[3] Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad b. ʿAlī b. al-Ḥusayn b. Miṣbāḥ Ibn ‘Askar, Dawḥat al-nāshir li-maḥāsin man kāna bi al-Maghrib min mashāyikh al-qarn al-ʿāshir (Rabat: Dār al-Maghrib, 1977), 21-23.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Badr al-Dīn al-Ghazzī’s Guide to Eating Etiquette

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While hailing from a century and a half after al-Ghazzī, this depiction of men at table is fairly close to the sorts of settings envisioned in al-Ghazzī’s manual: the table is low to the ground, the diners sit on the ground, with large dishes of food which they share. A tablecloth might be present in some cases, though here it is not. From a 1721 copy of the Hamse of the seventeenth century Ottoman poet ʿAṭāʾī (Walters W.666)

For many people on earth, self included, the last year has been one of varying degrees of so-called social distancing, lost opportunities, and missing comforts and pleasures, including the pleasant (and, as the below will suggest, sometimes not quite so pleasant) experience of eating with others, whether in a domestic or public setting. As the year and then some of covid gradually recedes over the coming months and more of our ordinary social life returns, you may soon find yourself venturing out to eat, or inviting others to your home for a shared meal. Given that we have been off our table etiquette game for some while now, it seems a good time to offer a bit of a refresher in some things to do and not to do when dining in the company of others. Towards that end, I’ve translated- and will probably continue to add over the coming days as the fancy strikes me- excerpts of a wonderfully delightful sixteenth century Ottoman manual of eating etiquette, the Risālat ādāb al-muʼākala of the prominent Damascene ‘ālim Badr al-Dīn al-Ghazzī (d. 1577). This short treatise is basically a compendium of etiquette errors to be avoided, and while providing genuine guidance to good manners when dining with others is also quite funny; as such, I have been a bit freer in my translations below than usual.

The material and social context of these entries can in many cases be surmised in part from the contents, however, for a much fuller exploration of that context and what this treatise can tell us about early modern Ottoman sociability and dining habits- which both coincide with and diverge from our own- see a recent lovely article by Helen Pfeifer, ‘The Gulper and the Slurper: A Lexicon of Mistakes to Avoid While Eating with Ottoman Gentlemen,‘ in the Journal of Early Modern History; fortunately the article is open-access and so available to all, do give it a read- and my thanks to Helen for both making me aware of this little treatise and digitally lending me a copy of the print edition!

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The repulsive: he who puts what he has taken out of his food such as bones or date pits or the like in front of his neighbor, which is repulsive to him due to how much he eats. It is related that two men who did not get along with one another were present at the table of one of the bigwigs. Fresh dates were brought out to the two of them, and one of the two men put all of the pits he extracted from the dates in front of the other man, until he had a pile in front of him greater than that of anyone else assembled there. Then the first man turned to the master of the house and said, ‘Will you not look my lord at how many fresh dates so-and-so has eaten! There are enough date pits in front of him to suffice the whole assembly.’ His companion though turned to [the master of the house] and said, ‘As for me, God make you prosper, it’s as he said, I have eaten a lot of dates—however this idiot has eaten the dates pits and all!’ At this the whole group laughed and the repulsive one was embarrassed.

The tearful: he who snatches up hot food to eat, not waiting for it to cool—he grabs the morsel, not paying any attention to whether it’s too hot to eat, and so his eyes become tearful due to the burning in his mouth, and perhaps he is obliged to expel the food in his mouth, or to swallow it down with a drought of cold water big enough to compensate for the burning produced by his stomach.

The gurgler: he who, if he wants to talk, does not wait until he has swallowed his bite of food, but rather talks while he is chewing and so gurgles like a camel, and no one is able to understanding what he is saying—especially if it’s a lot of food in his mouth!

The licker: he is named the licker-upper, he who licks his fingers in order to remove from them the fat from his food before he is finished eating, then he goes right back to eating [with his fingers]. As for [doing this] after finishing with eating, it’s no problem in so far as he does not return [to eating]. The most preferable of conditions is that one pays attention to wipe the fingers with something, such as the tablecloth (mi’zar), every time.

Badr al-Dīn al-Ghazzī, Risālat ādāb al-muʼākala, ed. ʿUmar Musa Basha (Rabāt : Maktabat al-Maʻārif, 1984), 17-18, 19, 20, 21. Continue reading “Badr al-Dīn al-Ghazzī’s Guide to Eating Etiquette”

Ibn ‘Askar on Two Muslim Saints of the Early Modern Jbala

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Detail of a length of fabric of plain cloth and silk produced in 17th or 18th century Morocco (Cleveland Museum of Art J. H. Wade Fund 1953.321)

The village of Jajouka, also transliterated as Joujouka or Zahjouka, lies at the edge of the Jbala region of northwestern Morocco, and is today best known as the home of not one but two musical collectives, both of which style themselves Master Musicians of the village, one using the transliteration Jajouka, the other Joujouka. The musical traditions of this village were famously ‘discovered’ by the Beats and others associated with the counter-cultures of the late twentieth century, going on to produce their own albums and artistic collaborations as well as tour around the world.

Before the music of Jajouka became globally famous, however, the village and the wider region around it was home to a range of early modern Muslim saints, some of which were profiled by the important Maghribi hagiographer and support of the Sa’idian dynasty Ibn ʿAskar (d. 1578), originally of Chefchaouen, in his Dawḥat al-nāshir. The profiles that I have translated here, of Abū Muḥammad ‘Abd Allāh al-Jābrī and Abū Bakr al-Srīfī, are notable for several reasons. The life of ‘Abd Allāh al-Jābrī embodies a way of life highly redolent of ‘deviant’ and ‘mad’ saints from across the late medieval into early modern Islamicate world, themselves building on older traditions. Already in Ibn ‘Askar’s time such saints were increasingly known as ‘majdhūb,’ divinely attracted, but this was far from being universally true. ‘Abd Allāh al-Jābrī also stands out for his role as a mediator of conflict among the people of the Jbala.

One qabīla over, the life of Abū Bakr al-Srīfī is interesting for his merging of typical rural life with the practice of sainthood, as well as for his friendly relationship with a wolf (or, more specifically, the African golden wolf, Canis anthus). Alongside his replication of what was probably orally transmitted hagiography, Ibn ‘Askar also includes an autobiographical story concerning the saint’s posthumous power, a story that also points to the complicated routes of power in rural 16th century Morocco. Visible throughout this account are indications of wider historical dynamics and historical particularities of the early modern Maghrib, which I have explicated further using footnotes.

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17th century tile made in Morocco, perhaps indicating types of decorative architectural elements a tomb like that of Abū Bakr might have used during the period, in addition to the styles of tile better known from past and contemporary usage (V&A 1717-1892).

‘Abd Allāh al-Jābrī al-Rhūnī: the shaykh the saint Abū Muḥammad ‘Abd Allāh al-Jābrī, guest (nazīl) of the Rhūna qabīla [1], among whom is his tomb and among whom was his zāwiya until his death in the [nine-]thirties, God knows best. This man was from among the wonders of the age and the strangest of things, wearing a garment (kisā’) of wool and nothing else, a staff in his hand, and walked barefoot whenever he set out to accomplish some matter in accordance with the power of God. His miraculous actions were conveyed by multiple transmitters (tawātir), [2] and whenever conflicts (fitan) broke out among the qabīlas he would come out and call the people to reconciliation, and whoever pridefully refused him, in that very moment God in His power would manifest in that person chastisement, and so would no longer stand against him. When he become known for that ability, the people submitted to him and no one was able to contradict him or go against his intercession. [God’s] answering his supplication was like the breaking of dawn. He was ascetic, pious, humble, and his mode of life was one of silence, abstemiousness, and was free of pretension, depending upon God in all his conditions, singular among his peers. More than one from among the fuqahā’ and fuqarā’ [3] related wondrous things about him, more than can be enumerated, God be merciful to him. Continue reading “Ibn ‘Askar on Two Muslim Saints of the Early Modern Jbala”

Simēon of Poland Does Not Have a Good Time in Quarantine

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The lazaretto at Livorno, Tuscany, Italy: panoramic view. Coloured etching by Pompeo Lapi. (Wellcome Library no. 24279i)

The practice of quarantine- or at least quarantine as we now think of it- was first developed in late medieval Venice, and was gradually developed in early modern Europe with increasing legal and infrastructural support and method. One such institution was the lazaretto, an example of which, that of Livorno, is pictured above, as it looked in the 18th century. From the sixteenth century forward lazarettos were built in a number of European cities and ports, generally with a similar layout: something of a combination between a merchants’ caravansarai or khan and a fortress, designed to accommodate travelers and their goods while monitoring them for diseases, particularly the plague.

The Armenian traveler Simēon of Poland (b. 1584), whose travels primarily took place within the Ottoman Empire, left the Ottoman lands in 1611 for a sojourn in Rome, a city with which he was much impressed. However, upon departing the Ottoman Empire and entering Venetian-controlled territory, Simēon found himself forced into involuntary quarantine in the lazeretto (no longer extant) of Split, modern-day Croatia. His account, translated by George A. Bournoutian, describes his reaction to this practice, one unfamiliar to a traveler used to Ottoman customs, which did not yet include quarantine, his apprehension compounded by the language divide he encountered on the Venetian side of the frontier:

When we crossed the other side of the river and entered the fortress of Split, soldiers came out to meet us. We were overjoyed and thought they had come to honour us. But they took us to a house, which is called Nazaret [1], shut the door on us, and left. Not knowing their language or the circumstances surrounding the event, we remained there in depressed sorrow and cried all day. In the evening, looking out of the windows, we saw many merchants- Christians and Muslims- from various cities: Istanbul, Angora, Edirne, Julfa and other regions. Conversing with them, we asked, ‘Why have they detained us?’ They replied that such was their custom; even if the Sultan of Turkey came they had to put him in quarantine. Hearing this we became so distressed and such an irreparable melancholy came over us that our entire being was disturbed and our tongues dried out. We suffered thus in jail and in chains and even avoided each other; no one came to visit us and we did not see anyone. On the second day they brought a gvardian, that is, a nāẓir [2], and said that he shall carry out and buy whatever we wish. However, we did not know his tongue, nor did he know ours. We, therefore, explained to him via hand signs, like dumb people. If we asked for food, even fruit, they handed it to us through the window and we threw out the money…

They came every week, examined our worn clothes, bags, silk, shook them and hung them on ropes. They hung thus till evening. We somewhat comforted ourselves by talking to the Armenians who stood at a distance. They told us that there were different quarantines: those who have beeswax, hides, or morocco leather, and other similar goods, but do not have mohair, they keep twenty-five days. Those who have goods made of felt, leather, wool, or items made of mohair, are kept for forty days. We had nothing, but the vardapets had several rolls of wool to present as gifts to the Pope; because of that they detained us for forty days. Alas! Alas! Alas! Woe is me!

Simēon of Poland, The Travel Accounts of Simēon of Poland, trans. and ed. by George A. Bournoutian (Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers, 2007).

[1] Simēon no doubt mixed up the unfamiliar Italian word lazarett with the very similar sounding Ottoman Turkish naẓāret, meaning view or supervision.

[2] Here Simēon more or less accurately translates the Italian term into Ottoman Turkish, nāẓir meaning a superintendent and hence in this case one who looks after the quarantined travelers.

A Cultural Entrepreneur in Late Eighteenth Century Cairo

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The Wakālat Oda Başa, built in 1673 by an Ottoman Chief White Eunuch and now, so far as I can determine, no longer extant, but depicted here as it existed in the 1830s, displaying the spatial configuration and use of an Ottoman wakāla (also voweled wikāla) akin to that in the biographical entry below, with vendors active on the ground floor, storage directly above. (Pascal Coste, Architecture arabe; ou, Monuments du Kaire, mesurés et dessinés, de 1818 à 1826, Typ. de Firmin Didot frères et compagnie, 1839: Volume II plate XLIV.)

The following short biography is taken from the famed chronicle- which is also a biographical dictionary- of the Ottoman Egyptian scholar al-Jabartī (1753-1825), best-known for his accounts of the French invasion and occupation of Egypt under Napoleon. His chronicle contains numerous fascinating slices of every-day life in the late eighteenth century, such as this entry concerning a person of middling estate (which he made up for, as we will see, in other types of ‘capital’):

Ismā’īl Efendī ibn Khalīl… known as al-Ẓuhūrī al-Miṣrī al-Ḥanafī al-Muktib died. He was a good person, satisfied with his lot in life, who earned his living through book-copying and fineness of calligraphy which he had improved in and reached perfection under the tutelage of ‘Alī Aḥmad Efendī al-Shukrī. He wrote with his fine handwriting numerous books (kutub), copies of al-Saba’a al-munjiyyāt [seven selected Qu’ran suras with reputed prophylactic power], Dalā’il al-khayrāt, and full copies of the Qur’an. He also had a storehouse wherein he sold coffee beans, located in the caravanersai of greens (wikālat al-baql) close to the Khalīlī Khan. He was also very knowledgeable in the science of music, melody, the playing of the ‘ūd, and the composition of poetry, having composed madā’iḥ, qaṣā’id, and muwashshaḥāt.[1] He died, God be merciful to him, in 1211/1796.[2]

The picture that emerges from this brief life is of a man who deliberately cultivated a wide range of skills and forms of cultural expertise, while also participating in the flourishing marketplace of goods and commodities. His enterprises were such that they could overlap: selling coffee beans at the scale suggested here would have only occupied so much time, Ismā’īl otherwise working at what al-Jabartī presents as his primary trade, that of a copyist. Despite sporadic in-roads of moveable print in the eighteenth century Ottoman world, manuscript production remained dominant, with men like Ismā’īl turning out often prodigious numbers of texts for an expanded market compared to earlier periods. His specified repertoire consists of works that households with few other texts might very well have owned, either for reading and recitation or simply for their role as potent conveyors of baraka (and, secondarily perhaps, markers of cultural prestige). It is striking that, like several other copyists profiled by al-Jabartī, the Dalā’il al-khayrāt is given as part of Ismā’īl’s calling card, a text of such popularity that it could form a stable item all of its own regardless of individual customer commissions. Continue reading “A Cultural Entrepreneur in Late Eighteenth Century Cairo”

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:

MSS 1005
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”