A Moving Experience

Sufism, particularly in its more ecstatic and speculative forms, was not universally admired in the Ottoman world (or in the contemporary world, for that matter). Opposition to particular Sufi practices and doctrines, or Sufism as a whole, could come from various quarters, whether from the ranks of the learned elite or from the pious masses. In the short story below, taken from Aḥmad ibn Muṣṭafá  Tāshkubrīʹzādah’s biographical dictionary (a frequent contributor to this blog in recent days, regular readers will notice), we see both the tenor this opposition could take, and an instance of a rather dramatic conversion from an anti-Sufi stance (or, at least, anti-ecstatic Sufism). The story mostly speaks for itself. A couple of things are a little less obvious perhaps: one, note that the Sufi shaykh featured here is described as only having a Turkish name, unlike the majority of people featured in Tāshkubrīʹzādah’s collection. Does this indicate a rural origin, or perhaps outsider status vis-a-vis the ‘learned hierarchy’ of Istanbul and the rest of the empire? Why does Tāshkubrīʹzādah give only this one anecdote for substantial content of this shaykh’s life? I’m not sure. Ottoman Sufism and religion in general is an area of study I’m still very much a novice in; I might also add, my transcription of the Turkish shaykh’s name is a contingent guess for now. I have but lately begun studying Ottoman Turkish, and will probably come back and modify my transcription in time to something more accurate.

Among them, the Knower of God, Shaykh Sūndīk known as Qūghejēdede: He was a master of great divine ecstasies, sunnaic states, and performed miracles.

It is related that he met with Mullah al-Karamāsī—the qāḍī of Constantinople[1]—along with Mullah Ḥamīd al-Dīn ibn Afḍal al-Dīn, who was at the time a mufti. Mullah al-Karamāsī complained to him regarding the Sufism of the age, in that they danced and entered trance-states during dhikr,[2] which was in disagreement with the shari’a. So Mullah ibn Afḍal al-Dīn said to Mullah al-Karamāsī that their leader was this shaykh, pointing to Qūghejēdede, and said: If you make him sound, all will be sound. At that Mullah al-Karamāsī stood up and took Qūghejēdede to his house and fetched his disciples [of Qūghejēdede], and prepared food for them. After finishing the food, he said to them: ‘Sit, and practice your remembrance (dhikr) of God in propriety, sobriety, and silence!’ They said: ‘We will do that.’ Then, when they began their dhikr, Qūghejēdede shouted very loudly in Mullah al-Karamāsī’s ear, so that the Mullah stood up, threw off his turban from his head[3] and his outer robe from his shoulders, and began dancing and entered a trance-state until an entire third of the day had passed. When the Mullah’s disturbance had stilled, Qūghejēdede sad: ‘For what were you so disturbed, O Mullah—and you had said it was evil?’ The Mullah replied: ‘I repent! And I revoke before God that rejection [of Sufism], and I will never return to it!’

The aforementioned shaykh died in the city of Constantinople and was buried in it—God hallow his mystery (sirrahu).

Aḥmad ibn Muṣṭafá  Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah, Al-Shaqāʼiq Al-Nuʻmānīyah Fī ʻulāmāʼ Al-Dawlah Al-ʻUthmānīyah (Bayrūt, Lubnān: Dār al-Kitāb al-ʻArabī, 1975), 220-1. Translation by Jonathan P. Allen, 2012. No rights reserved.


[1] That is, the chief judge of Constantinople/Istanbul.

[2] Dhikr—literally, ‘remembrance’—is a Sufi practice in which the name of God or certain short devotional phrases or prayers are uttered (either vocally or silently/mentally) in succession, over and over, sometimes leading up to a trance-like state (though not in all forms of dhikr).

[3] An action strongly indicating abandonment of propriety and self-control.

War, Travel, Commentary, Alchemy: An Ottoman Life

The following life is a marked departure from the two previous biographies from Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah’s Shaqa’iq that I’ve translated and posted here and here. Whereas the previous two figures are depicted as mystics and having an ambiguous, even conflicted relationship with both wider society and the Ottoman state structure, the subject of today’s biography does not seem to have had such problems, working in close company with first a Mamluk Sultan and then the Ottoman Sultan. His relationship with the Ottoman state, interestingly, is also different: rather than “official” posts such as judge, teacher, or mufti, Muhammad ibn ‘Amr ibn Hamza is what we might call a “popular preacher,” or at least that is the way he is depicted here. The “people” (ahl) love him, we are told; yet it isn’t just the people who love him; the holders of the highest political power in the lands he sojourns in also love him, and he seems to return the favor.

Ibn Hamza’s life trajectory is somewhat unusual: while being from a Transoxanian family is not particularly unusual, his birthplace of Antioch does stand out. While a major city of late antiquity and the middle ages, by the Ottoman period Antioch had declined greatly due to invasion and, more importantly, the silting up of the Orontes, which crippled Antioch’s port capacity and hence value as a trade entrepot. Leaving Antioch, ibn Hamza’s career would come to move in tandem with some of the central trends of his era: increasing Ottoman power and vastly widened territory, conflict between the Sunni Ottoman state and the Shi’i Safavid state, conflict that was itself part of a wider trend of state-formation across Eurasia, often in an atmosphere of inter-confessional conflict.

This inter-confessional conflict makes up the central element of ibn Hamza’s life: participating in and indeed encouraging the war against the “heretical” Shi’i Safavids, here refered to as the Qizilbāsh (literally, the “red-heads,” after their red turbans) in reference to the religio-military group that had facilitated the Safavid rise to power. Ibn Hamza’s fight against Shi’ism takes multiple forms, most virulently as a preacher in the service of Sultan Selīm; we may wonder to what extent this anti-Shi’i stance preceded ibn Hamza’s association with the Ottoman state, and to what extent it was simply precipitated by a commitment to Sunni orthodoxy. At any rate, anti-Shi’i activity would be central to Ottoman efforts within and without the empire, a situation somewhat analogous to the Cold War of the twentieth-century between the United States and the Soviet Union. People suspected of Shi’i leanings constituted, in the eyes of the Ottoman authorities, a central threat to the Ottoman state; Sufi groups could fall under suspicion, as we see in ibn Hamza’s life (although also note that Sufism per se is not condemned, at least not in Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah’s rendering, only a particular practice of some Sufis). But it should be noted that preaching holy war against heretics was not the only concern in ibn Hamza’s life—he also seems to have been deeply concerned with the wider social and religious welfare of Ottoman society, or at least this is the impression Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah wants to give us. In addition, while not exactly a conventional scholar, he did engage in book writing and other scholarly pursuits, alongside his preaching of holy war, acting as the companion of sultans, building mosques, preaching often, mastering alchemy, raising a massive family, and apparently engaging in commerce. It is perhaps not coincidental that the appellative that comes to mind is “Renaissance man,” but a discussion of the truth that lies behind such a thought is best saved for another time.

Finally, a note on the new format I have used here: having recently discovered how simple inserting endnotes into a WordPress post is, I have therefore included explanatory notes throughout the text, which I hope will make some of the technical language and historical references clearer.

Among them is the Knowledgeable, the Noble, the Virtuous Mulla Muhyi al-Din Muhammad ibn ‘Amr ibn Hamza:

His grandfather was from Transoxiana [1] and was among the disciples of Sa’ad al-Din al-Tuftazani. He then traveled and settled in Antioch, where this Muhammad was born. He memorized the Qur’an at an early age, then al-Kanz and al-Shatabi and others, then studied fiqh [2] under his paternal uncle Shaykh Hussayn and Shaykh Ahmad, virtuous men, studying under them the principles of jurisprudence (al-usul), Qur’an, and the Arabic language. He then journeyed to Hasn Kifa and Amada, then to Tabriz, learning from its ‘ulama, busying himself there for two years, studying in Tabriz under the learned, the virtuous Mulla Muzid. He then returned to Antioch and Aleppo and remained there for a time, preaching, teaching, and issuing fatwas, his virtues becoming well known. Then he went to Jerusalem and lived nearby, then to Mekka and performed the hajj, then to Egypt. There, he heard hadith from al-Siyuti and al-Shamani, both giving him ijāzas. [3] He preached, taught, and gave fatwas, having great reception for a time, until Sultan Qāʾitbāy [4] sought him out and he appeared before him, preached to him, and wrote a book for him on fiqh titled The Conclusion, so he loved him and honoured him with great honour and rewarded him well. [The Sultan] would not give him permission to travel, so [ibn Hamza] remained in [the Sultan’s] presence until King [sic] Qāʾitbāy passed away in the year 903 [1497].[5]

Then [ibn Hamza] traveled to Anatolia (al-Rum) by way of the sea, and then made his way to Bursa, whose people loved him greatly, so he stayed there and busied himself with preaching and forbidding the wrong.[6] Then he went to the city of Constantinople and its people loved him also, and Sultan Bāyazīd [7] heard his sermon and bestowed upon him all of his wealth, and he used to send rewards to him all the time. [Ibn Hamza] wrote for him a book titled Explication of the Excellent Qualities in the Life of Our Prophet (peace and prayers of God—exalted is He—be upon him), and another book on Sufism, and was present before him, exhorting him. Then the Sultan went out on the holy frontier campaign,[8] and [ibn Hamza] was with him. Together they conquered the fortress of Methoni, and this was their second or third entrance therein.[9] Then he returned to Constantinople and remained there, commanding the right and forbidding the wrong, for he did not fear the reproach of God, and he opposed the heretics and the Sufi practice of dancing. He next returned with his family to Aleppo the Protected, and Melik al-Amra’ Khayrbek honoured him greatly and studied under him, being responsible for all of his needs, so that [ibn Hamza] did not require anything else. So [ibn Hamza] stayed there eight years, occupied with tafsir, hadith, and refuting heretics and the Rāfiḍa bearing the name of the tyrant Ardabik.[10] This sect hated him, cursing him in their assembly while cursing the Companions of the Prophet.

[Ibn Hamza] then returned to Anatolia during the reign of Sultan Selīm Khan,[11] urging him on to holy war (jihād) against the Qizilbāsh,[12] writing a book for him on the conditions and virtues of holy frontier campaigns (it is a very fine book); [ibn Hamza] then went with him to the war against this sect, preaching to the army every day during the campaign, reminding them of the rewards of holy war, especially against this sect. The Sultan honoured him and was very generous towards him. When the two armies met, fierce fighting broke out, and as eyes were averted and hearts rose into throats, the Sultan commanded [ibn Hamza] to proclaim the call (al-dawa’a). So he occupied himself with proclaiming the call, and the Sultan cried, “Amen!” So the enemy was put to flight through the help of God—exalted is He—and he journeyed to Rumelia, preaching to its people, forbidding them disobedience [towards God] and commanding them to do the obligatory deeds. So many among them were [morally] improved because of him, and he built two Friday mosques in the town of Saray [Sarajevo], as well as a neighborhood mosque there and another neighborhood mosque in Uskub [Skopje], and remained there approximately twenty years, doing Qur’an interpretation every day, converting many unbelievers. In the year 932 [1525] he went on campaign with our magnificent Sultan [13] to Ankeros, and he called to him at the time of the fighting, and the glorious conquest came as before.[14] Then [ibn Hamza] went to Bursa and dwelled there and began to build a large mosque, but passed away before its completion, on Muharram 4, 938 [August 18, 1531]; he was close to seventy years old, and was buried in the precincts of the mosque.

He beget from his loins nearly a hundred souls; he had many books and treatises on numerous arts, especially on the science of alchemy (al-kīmiyāʾ), being among those who persevere in it. He traveled to many places, was beloved by many, many souls being attracted to him. He was greatly pious, and had perfect watchfulness in his manner of eating, dress, and ritual purity. His cost of living was covered by his commercial activity, while much of his time was expended in the betterment of people through preaching, teaching, and fatwa-giving. There are few hadith mentioned in books which he did not have committed to memory; he was perfect in his Qur’an commentary (tafsir), without recourse to study or books. He used to devote himself on Fridays to commentary (tafsir) on what the preacher had recited during prayers, with perfectly elegant style, variety of aspects, and abundant knowledge, which daily amazed those who thought on it. The common people and the elite among the ‘ulama and the Sufis learned from him: he was knowledgeable, lordly, always summoning to right-guidance and good conduct; putting to death many bad innovation and bringing to life many good traditions (sunnan). People beyond the count of any but God benefited through him; such would not be possible to anyone else unless there came the like of what was sent from the grace of God [through him]—may God breathe upon his face and enlighten his grave!

Aḥmad ibn Muṣṭafá  Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah, Al-Shaqāʼiq Al-Nuʻmānīyah Fī ʻulāmāʼ Al-Dawlah Al-ʻUthmānīyah (Bayrūt, Lubnān: Dār al-Kitāb al-ʻArabī, 1975), 247-249.


[1] Lit., “what lies beyond the river,” roughly modern-day Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, part of Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan.

[2] Islamic jurisprudence.

[3] “License,” certification that one is qualified to transmit hadith (or a book or other text) from a given person via an authorized chain of transmitters.

[4] Important late Mamluk ruler, carried out extensive military campaigns and building projects; died a few years before the Ottoman conquest of Egypt. See M Sobernheim, “Ḳāʾit Bāy, al-Malik al-As̲h̲raf Abu ‘l-Naṣr Sayf al-dīn al-Maḥmūdī al-Ẓāhirī” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, edited by: P. Bearman; , Th. Bianquis; , C.E. Bosworth; , E. van Donzel; and W.P. Heinrichs (Leiden: Brill, 2011).

[5] Qāʾitbāy actually died in 901/1496.

[6]The second half of the phrase “commanding the right and forbidding the wrong,” a basic Islamic ethical injunction incumbent upon all believers; the exact dynamics and parameters were, however, widely debated. See Michael Cook, Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[7] Sultan Bāyazīd II, ruled 886-918/1481-1512.

[8] Ghazu, literally a raid, but in this context a campaign on the Ottoman frontier, here given a sacred function (see below), hence my somewhat inelegant translation.

[9] Methoni (also known as Modon) is a heavily fortified town in Morea, Greece; it had been held by the Venetians for nearly three hundred years until its fall, mentioned here, on August 9, 1500. For photos of surviving fortifications and a plan of the town, see: Methoni.

[10] “Rāfiḍa” by this period had become a derogatory term for Shi’i Muslims in general; I have not been able to uncover to whom the name Ardabik refers.

[11] Ruled 918-926/1512-1520.

[12] That is, the Persian Safavids, relatively recently converted to Shi’a Islam.

[13] Sultan Süleymān I, ruled 926-74/1520-66.

[14] This must refer to either Süleymān’s conquest of Belgrade in 1521 or his 1525 Hungary campaign; I suspect the former, though that would mean Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah’s date is wrong.

Killing a Dragon

They told me that, in the district of Aghstev, there is a cavern in the fir forest. It is situated on a high ground, as high as the height of two persons. A monstrous dragon had made his lair in it. At midday he would crawl out of his lair and look around. The moment he saw an animal, he would leap on it; if he could, he would gobble him up; if he could not, he would return to his lair. No one could kill it, for the cavern was on a high ground.

One priest killed it by being cunning. He made a trident hook, bent the end of its shaft into a circle and tied a rope to it. He killed a baby goat, skinned it, prepared a water-skin, filled it with hay, and placed the hook in it. He then adroitly tied the legs and head of the goat to the skin and went at night to the cavern. He set the skin there, took the end of the rope, moved away, and sat under a tree. Another man lay in wait with him. At noon, the dragon crawled out of the cavern and saw the baby goat near its entrance. It slid down, swallowed the baby goat, and wanted to return to the cavern. The priest, however, pulled the rope and the hook cut into the body of the dragon. It began to whistle and its tail tried to grasp plants, grass, and everything else that was around. The priest dragged the rope, while the dragon pulled toward the cavern. It hissed terribly, coiled, and struck its tail to the right and left. It suffered thus until it croaked. The priest skinned it, salted it, and took it to their governor. They measured the skin and it was eighteen t’iz [a t’iz is nine inches] long and three t’iz wide. They then packed it with straw and sent it to the Shah. Together with the stuffed animal, they also sent an account of how they killed the dragon. The Shah exempted the priest from the taxes due to the treasury and made him the head of the village.

Deacon Zak’aria (1627-1699), The Chronicle of Deacon Zak’aria of K’anak’er, translated by George A. Bournoutian