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]


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.

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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Sharing a Pipe with the Shaykh

Abu Daood, Shaikh of the Coptic Quarter, in Cairo
A watercolor portrait, by the European artist Carl Haag, of a shaykh in Cairo, one Abū Dawūd; not a sufi shaykh alas (rather a shaykh in charge of an urban quarter, the Coptic one in this case), but displaying both 19th century dress and more importantly for the story below the sizeable nature of tobacco pipes! Painted in 1886 but based on observations from Haag’s 1858-9 visit to Cairo (V&A SD.462)

Apologies for the long delay in posting new material here- as is often the case many other things have intervened, the good and the bad as it were, and the several translations and short essays I had hoped to present here have been pushed back. Much of my ‘free’ time has been taken up teaching a course on modern Islam, which has entailed a great deal of secondary literature reading on my part given that my scholarly training focused pretty much exclusively on the pre-19th century world, with the exception of my recent work as a post-doctoral researcher examining issues in modern Arabic script book history. One of the happy benefits of my recent pivots towards the modern world has been getting to extend my exploration of saints and sainthood in the Islamicate world forward in time, particularly into the 19th century. Far from being marginalized by the developments of modernity, saints and sainthood remained- and in fact remain- vital forces in Islamicate history, in some cases becoming even more salient than in previous centuries. Movements such as the late 19th century Mahdiyya in the Sudan or the emergence of various millenarian and apocalyptic new religious movements like the Aḥmadiyya or the Bābīs are only really explicable within a framework of saints and sainthood.

That said, the saintly subject of the short story I’ve translated here did not herald any grand political movements or religious transformations, but rather can be seen as carrying forward older traditions of sufism and sainthood into the 19th century. We’ve encountered Shaykh Muḥammad al-Jisr (1792-1845) before (see this post for an introduction), and will be meeting him again in these digital pages no doubt, as his hagiography, penned by his scholarly son, is a wonderful source for exploring the transition of Islamic sainthood to the modern world. The story I’ve selected for today, set at some point during the 1830s (the period in which Mehmed ‘Alī’s forces occupied Ottoman Syria) reveals more in the way of continuity than change- while the 19th century would see many reformist and outright puritanical movements either begin outright or emerge into prominence from 18th century origins, here we see Shaykh Muḥammad continuing in a vein of saintly behavior exemplified by the late 17th to early 18th century ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī and others, including the unproblematic use of tobacco. It is also a lovely reminder of the aural presence of sufi ritual: in a world with considerably less noise pollution, and much more oriented around foot-traffic, nocturnal sufi practices such as vocal dhikr had no small aural footprint, attracting passerby such as the young man in our story, even if, as in the story, their reactions could vary in appropriateness!


‘Shaykh Muḥammad Abū Khalīl Efendī Abāẓa the well known and trusted, whose recognition in the Syrian and Egyptian lands is such that he requires no introduction, said to me: ‘I was in Cyprus during the days of the Egyptian government’s dominion in the land of Syria. I was in the bloom of my youth and the mirth of my youthful inclinations and was not yet following the ṭarīqa, nor did I have an inkling of the spiritual states of its sons. One night I came upon the dhikr circle which your father led with his brethren in Cyprus, and it happened that all while I watched them seeing the effects of the dhikr upon the sons of the path caused me to secretly laugh. When the shaykh completed the dhikr he called to me and sat me down next to him, treating me kindly, then offering me his tobacco pipe from which he had been smoking, which I then returned to him [after smoking]. After the session concluded I returned to my lodgings and lay down on my bed, but it happened that every time I fell asleep I found that pope that the shaykh had offered me that night striking me upon my face! So I would awake with a start, then go back to sleep—and again find it striking me upon my face and I would awake, and so my entire night passed until morning dawned. I was most distressed due to lack of sleep and intensity of fear such that I worried I’d lose my mind! So I went ot the shaykh, God be merciful to him, and as soon as he saw me he started laughing. I bent down and kissed his hand and said to him, ‘Yā sayyidī, what sin is it that I did that caused you to act in such a way with me?’ He replied, ‘What is it I did to you?’ So I related to him the story of the pipe in the night, and he said to me, ‘What does that concern me? I didn’t do anything to you other than offering you my pipe!’

I began seeking his intercession, saying, ‘Yā sayyidī, I’m afraid I’m going to lose my mind! I desire your forgiveness!’ At that he said, ‘My son, for what? You stopped by our dhikr circle last night and began to laugh—we are dervish folk and you are a lordly man, it is most befitting to you that you mock and laugh at us.’ I replied, ‘Yā sayyidī, I did not intend to laugh at you, God forbid from that! But the state and levity of my youth are not hidden from you, so I hope you will forgive me!’ At that the shaykh, my God be merciful to him, was pleased with me, and so I set out on the Khalwatiyya ṭarīqa and so continued on from there.’

Ḥusayn al-Jisr, Kitāb nuzhat al-fikr fī manāqib mawlānā al-ʻārif billāh taʻālá quṭb zamānih wa-ghawth awānih al-Shaykh Muḥammad al-Jisr (Beirut: al-Maṭbaʻah al-Adabīyah, 1888), 99-100.

Shaykh Muḥammad al-Jisr and the Snake in the Wall

Egyptian characters, etc. Snake charmer, Cairo 2
A snake charmer at work in early 20th century Cairo, photographed by a photographer from the American Colony in Jerusalem; this is the sort of performer, increasingly associated with ‘the Orient’ in the 19th century, that Ḥusayn al-Jisr wished to differentiate his father from (Library of Congress LC-M32- 994 [P&P])
As anyone who has followed my work here and elsewhere will be aware, until recently my scholarly research was focused all but exclusively on the early modern and medieval worlds, with a rough cut-off date of 1800 beyond which my expertise thins out considerably. Over the last couple of years since completing my PhD and assuming a post-doctoral research position my interests and research responsibilities have diversified considerably (a diversification which comes with its own risks, I might note), running backwards and forwards in time from the periods with which I am most familiar and comfortable. On the one hand I have taken up a much greater interest in the study of deep time and possible ways of integrating perspectives from paleontology, geology, climatology, archeology, and paleoanthropology into the kinds of historical study and teaching I do located within the ‘shallow’ past. Running in the other direction, on the other hand, I have become much more involved in nineteenth and twentieth century topics, some quite new to me, such as the history of technology and communication, others continuations of my long-standing interests such as saints and sainthood.

I learned about the subject of this week’s essay and translation (and who will certainly figure in future posts over the next month or so) by way of Marwa Elshakry’s book Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950, an exploration of the complex and often quite surprising ways in which Ottoman and post-Ottoman Arab thinkers dealt with the emergence and elaboration of Darwinian evolutionary theory and the permutations that engagement underwent vis-a-vis other concerns and political developments. Shaykh Muḥammad al-Jisr’s son, Ḥusayn al-Jisr, was one of the many thinkers, Muslim, Christian, and otherwise, who grappled with evolution and other aspects of the biological sciences, threading a path that was at once critical and open to scientific insights while also remaining very committed to ‘traditional’ Islam (though in ways that would have been unfamiliar even to his own father in the decades prior), remaining largely critical of evolutionary theory but suggesting that given sufficient proof nothing in Islam prevented acceptance of evolutionary theory provided God was understood to be the first and final cause- materialism was Ḥusayn al-Jisr’s primary foe.

Ḥusayn al-Jisr’s position on evolutionary theory in relation to theology is actually related to the work of his translated here, a hagiography, written in 1888, of his father Shaykh Muḥammad al-Jisr (1792-1845), a Khalwatī teaching shakyh and widely acclaimed saint active in Syria and Palestine (though due to political instability he also spent time in Cyprus and Constantinople). Ḥusayn’s account of his father- who died shortly after Ḥusayn’s birth- is striking for the way in which the author engages in extensive epistemological and other routes of analysis and digression, with much of the introduction devoted to tracing Ḥusayn’s own journey from relative skepticism about his father’s sanctity to embracing it, based on the accumulation and weighing of oral and written evidence, including from non-Muslims. These traces of modernity, as it were, continue throughout, even as the world of sanctity and sainthood revealed is not very far from that of early modernity- it is the framing and the tone that has changed, though certainly not into a voice of disenchantment or skepticism. As such it is a good example of the complex ways Muslims and others have constructed their own ‘modernities’ not necessarily along the lines of a neat trajectory of ‘secularism’ and ‘disenchantment that have so often been seen by many as normative and either automatic or only avoidable by ‘relapsing’ into some form of reaction and obscurantism.

I have selected the following short story mostly because it’s memorable and in the voice of the shaykh’s sister, but also because it captures part of Shaykh Muḥammad’s own saintly charisma- his connections with axial saints of the past, including Aḥmad al-Rifā’ī, and his interventions in everyday life- as well as possible objections that were more likely to arise in the modernizing milieus of the late nineteenth century, with Ḥusayn al-Jisr confronting such objections directly with an explicitness unusual within the genre. We will see other interactions of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ in future installations from this saint’s life, so stay tuned!


‘And from what the aforementioned sister of the shaykh related to me about him: she said: “After the incident I told you about before, among the things that happened to me in that house is that there came to us from Beirut a covered basket of zucchinis, and when I opened the basket up to take the zucchinis out, a snake that had been hidden within came out and slithered into a hole in the house. I was very frightened and resolved to flee the house, but when I came into the presence of the shaykh, your father, I related the story to him and revealed my fear. He said to me, ‘Don’t be afraid!’ Then he came and stood in front of the hole into which the snake had entered and said, ‘Yā Sayyidī Aḥmad! Yā Rifā’ī! My sister is afraid of snakes!’ In that very moment I had barely blinked when the snake came out of the hole and the shaykh killed it, and my heart was calmed thereby.”

This happening points to the administrative power (taṣarruf) of the shaykh and his close relationship with the venerable Shaykh al-Rifā’ī, God sanctify his inner secret. If it is said that the snake charmers do the like of this deed, we say, yes, but the action of the snake charmers is of the nature of a trick, but that which is related here is the action of a man from among the people of piety and sanctity, who sought the aid of a spiritual axis (quṭb) from among the spiritual axes of the age, one would not deny his virtue save one who is utterly effaced of vision. The one who knows what the learned in religion have written about the distinction between prophetic sign (al-mu’jiza) and saintly miracle (al-karāma) and between bewitchment and the art of persuasion, with all being things outside of the ordinary, such foolish doubt will not trouble his heart.’

Ḥusayn al-Jisr, Kitāb nuzhat al-fikr fī manāqib mawlānā al-ʻārif billāh taʻālá quṭb zamānih wa-ghawth awānih al-Shaykh Muḥammad al-Jisr (Beirut: al-Maṭbaʻah al-Adabīyah, 1888), 82, translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, August, 2021.


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Ḥācım Sulṭān Fights a Dragon

Ident.Nr. I. 4 Sammlung- Museum für Islamische Kunst
Detail of a woolen rug, roughly contemporary with the account of Ḥācım Sulṭān and the dragon, depicting a dragon and phoenix in highly stylized fashion. Produced- probably- in the expanding Ottoman lands by Turkman weavers (and so related to the carpet in our previous visit with Ḥācım Sulṭān), the motif looks to both long-standing Chinese artistic renderings of dragons and phoenixes as well as to textile art current among Turkic groups in Anatolia at the time. (Museum für Islamische Kunst, Ident.Nr. I. 4)

We’ve met Ḥācım Ṣultān before, so I will not give an introduction here, as the following account comes from the same late medieval into early modern hagiography translated in my previous post. This is one is a little different, however, both in subject matter- a battle with a mountaintop dragon!- and in its style, which I have tried to reproduce here as much as possible. Quite frankly, there are sections of this story that I do not fully understand, some of which it is possible the sixteenth century copyist did not fully understand either. The feeling of orality is very strong here, the core story- in which a mountaintop is broken into strange rock formations and colored red- sounding very much like an etiological tale in origin. The hagiography has done a couple of interesting things with the story: it is nested within a larger narrative in which rival dervishes and saints of Western Anatolia spar with and test Ḥācım Ṣultān, having just sent a man named Alaca Altu (‘one of the piebald horse’) to strike down the saint. Upon finding Ḥācım Ṣultān, Alaca Altu dismounted his horse, then

took his weapon in his hand. He gave a loud cry. He set out for Sulṭān Ḥācım. He struck but did not cut. Again he struck but he did not cut. A third time he struck but did not cut! Then the venerable Sulṭān Ḥācım said, ‘You must know, Alaca Atlu, your blade is not going to cut me. But mount your horse and so that you can come and fulfill my intention, upon that hill you ought to go and eat some food! When you ride up there let the dervishes cook you some kebab. We will not slice you up!’

The ‘hill’ becomes the focal point of the following story, which probably originally stood alone. After fighting the dragon, the hagiography continues beyond my translation, Alaca Atlu did indeed come up the mountain and eat some kebab with the dervishes and Ḥācım Ṣultān- a happy ending for everyone (except the dragon!). But before we think further about this tale, here it is, translated as best I could manage- with a stronger than usual caveat about the contingency of a translation.

Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Persan 174 fol. 11v
Dragons have been fixtures of art and imagination in Anatolia for many centuries; this two-headed dragon (or, rather, the angel of the fourth station of the moon taking the form of a dragon!) hails from late 13th century Seljuk Anatolia, reflecting the absorption of Byzantine art and motifs into emergent Islamic art and culture in the region (BnF MS Persan 174 fol. 11v)

Now then that mountain was very densely forested. A bird flying in could not fly out. Some people were dissimulatory towards Sulṭān Ḥācım, saying, ‘In the region of Menteşe he turned a woman into a man, in Germiyan he held up the water, and Alaca Altu could not kill him! Come, let us go and slay the dragon that has come into this forest,’ they said [to him]. Sulṭān Ḥācım entered the path. Upon the path the dragon manifest itself. Out of fear neither human nor jinn would draw close to it, however, one of those dissimulatory towards Muḥammad Muṣṭafā, upon whom be peace, out of coarseness said, ‘Master, you approach it!’ Now, in order to shame the hypocrites God revealed to his most pious and perfect Beloved suras and verses. Muḥammad Muṣṭafā recited [them], and the hypocrites were shamed and saddened. One came to the faith. He said, ‘Ya Muḥammad, if we had not treated you unkindly who would have known you to be a prophet?’ Now, then, it is likewise with God’s saintly servants, God having commanded concerning obligation towards them, saying, ‘Verily, there is no fear in the friends of God nor do are they saddened.’ The saints know one another’s states, though one who but accompanies the dervishes might deny [them]. They make sainthood manifest.

Now, then, Ḥācım Ṣultān approached the place of the dragon. Dervish Burhān followed behind him. Along the way, Dervish Burhān could hear a voice, and the smell of corruption was wafting along. All of his limbs went limp, and his reason was on the point of fleeing. Sulṭān Ḥācım said, ‘What is the matter Burhān?’ Dervish Burhān said, ‘My sulṭān, there is a bad smell coming from that forest! My reason is on the point of departing!’ Sulṭān Ḥācım said, ‘Let us walk forward. Alongside Seyyīd Ghāzī we drew the sword against the infidels and waged holy struggle while opening [to Islam] this place. At the time [this dragon] was a serpent akin to a creeping reptile. It seems that now it has become a dragon. Will it attack a human?’ Continue reading “Ḥācım Sulṭān Fights a Dragon”

Vardapet Poghōs and the Goats

I could not find a rendering of wild goats in a contemporary Armenian manuscript, but this illumined chapter opening from a 1609 Gospel Book () nicely features both wild beasts and little contemporary figures, possibly depicting soldiers (or perhaps wrestlers?).

Vardapet Poghōs, the protagonist of the following little story, taken from the mid-17th century Armenian chronicle (which also contains ample hagiography of contemporary saints) of Aṛakʻel of Tabriz, has been featured in these pages before. This charming account follows in a similar vein to the one linked to above: Due to his attempts at reforming aspects of Armenian church life that he saw as corrupted, Vardepet Poghōs had fallen afoul of an ecclesial foe who had tried to have him prosecuted by the Safavid governor of Erevan. However, the local khan was impressed with the saintly vardapet and rejected the charges against him, instead allowing him to return home, even dispatching a soldier to travel with him. While not stated explicitly, it is implied and we can safely assume that the soldier was a Muslim, though instead of being a cause of antagonism this confessional difference becomes a means for the Christian saint to demonstrate his sanctity.


The vardapet and the soldier left Erevan and traveled to the gawaṛ of Goght’n. They reached the village of Shoṛot’, left it and went toward the village of Ts’ghna. They went on the road that goes along the river that flows from Norakert to Beghewi. But, before they reached the river, they saw that wild goats were eating grass on the plain. There were twelve of them. The vardapet called and the goats came to him. The soldier was not aware that the vardapet had called them, for he was farther away from the vardapet. Seeing that the goats had stopped, he immediately took up his bow to strike them with his arrow. The goats were frightened and immediately took off from where they were standing and began to run away toward the mountains. The vardapet glanced and saw that the soldier was responsible for this. He reproached him and forced him to lower his bow. He then again called the goats, saying, ‘Come with the blessing of God; come to me, I shall not let anyone harm you.’ Behaving like people, with reason, they came to the vardapet once more and stood before him. The vardapet approached them and stroked them with his hand, scratched their necks and backs, hugged them gently and talked to them as with intelligent beasts. The goats stood before him for a long time. The vardapet then said to them, “Go in peace to your pasture. May God guard you as you wish.” They then went on their way to the mountain. The soldier stood by astounded and amazed by all this. The saintly vardapet began to tell him about the miracles performed by the saintly apostle Thaddeus, who brought wild deer to Voski and his comrades.

Aṛakʻel of Tabriz, The history of Vardapet Aṛakʻel of Tabriz ( Patmutʻiwn Aṛakʻel Vardapeti Dawrizhetsʻwoy)  Translated by George A Bournoutian. (Costa Mesa, Calif.: Mazda Publishers, 2005), 206-207.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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A Self-Taught Shaykha in Early Modern Fes

Detail from a swathe of embroidered silk textile, seventeenth or eighteenth century Morocco, with the word Allāh rather faintly visible running in a band near the center. The polemicist author described below might have had such colorful textiles in mind in castigating women in Fes for their material exuberance in following their female shaykha. (Cleveland Museum of Art 1916.1236)

The place of women in early modern Islamicate societies varied greatly depending on particular place, general cultural norms, social status, prevailing madhhab, and many other intersecting factors. Far from being static, the role and status of different sorts of women often fluctuated over time, and was frequently contested, particularly during periods of change such as marked much of early modernity in the Islamicate world as elsewhere. Of a particularly contentious nature was the question of women’s public religious life, a question that for Muslim communities entailed tension between (albeit limited) recognition in Islamic tradition of female religious authority, beginning with hadith-transmitting wives of Muḥammad himself, and prescriptions on women’s authority and public mobility and visibility. The historical reality of female saints and even masters of sufism added extra dimensions to such tensions. In the Islamic West- the Maghrib- from the medieval period forward highly restrictive attitudes towards women’s public participation in religious life existed alongside prominent, and outspokenly public, female saints such as Sayyida ‘Ā’isha al-Mannūbiyya (1199–1267). The anonymous woman who is described in the below text suggests other possibilities, which were accepted by some but strenuously rejected by others, as we will see.

The text below comes from a major eighteenth century bio-hagiographic compilation, Ṣafwat man intashar min akhbār ṣulaḥāʾ al-ḳarn al-ḥādī ʿashar, written by a scholar whose family was originally from the Draa region in the far south of Morocco, Abū ‘Abdallāh Muḥammad al-Ifrānī (also spelled al-Īfrānī and al-Ufrānī). Born in Marrakesh around 1670, al-Ifrānī eventually settled in Fes, where he would live and work as a scholar, sufi, and author, becoming particularly well known for his historical works, dying in either 1743 or 1745. His Ṣafwat man intashar provides important insight into the shape of early modern Maghribi sainthood as well as many other social realities of the period, including in the vast and often autonomous countryside, as seen in a previous selection from this work translated here.

The following selection comes from the life of a scholar and saint, originally from the town of Ksar el-Kebir but who settled permanently in Fes after his course of studies there, Abū Muḥammad Sayyidī ‘Abd al-Qādir (d. 1680). ‘Abd al-Qādir embodied a form of sainthood that had once been common across Islamic societies but by the early modern period was largely a Maghribi phenomenon: that of the ‘exoteric’ scholar whose vigorous personal asceticism, scrupulosity, and careful adherence to the sharī’a were acclaimed as evidence of sainthood. His karāmāt- miracles or charismatic signs- were many, al-Ifrānī tells us, his saintly status no doubt helped by the fact that his son wrote not one but two manāqibs- hagiographic accounts- of his father’s life. Unlike many of his contemporaries, ‘Abd al-Qādir did not produce in books or compilations; instead, his followers compiled his sayings and fatwas into their own compilations. The passage I have translated here comes from such a compilation, and is reminiscent in form of a fatwa although it is not presented as such:

Another fā’ida: [Abū Muḥammad ‘Abd al-Qādir] was asked about a woman who recited the Qur’an for women, and they would gather around her and take her as their shaykha. He answered with the following: ‘He, peace and blessings of God be upon him, said: “A people ordered by a woman will not know success,” as well as “Hinder them as God has hindered them,” and “They are deficient in reason and religion.” It is not permissible that a woman act as an imāma or shaykha, and as for what the women do on the day when they gather together in the woman’s presence and take her as their shaykha, that is not permissible either, and is an aspect of corruption and evil in the earth due to various reasons: among them, that women pilfer from their husbands and take it to her; and that each of the women dresses in finery, beautifies herself, and goes out into the streets, that being ḥarām and not allowed. And perhaps she leaves without her husband’s permission or pleasure in that, it becoming a cause for anger and division, with things that cause such being ḥarām.

Also, she presides over the reading of books and fatwa collections concerning the religion (dīn) of God, but is without knowledge (‘ilm), not having received that from an ‘ālim, there being things in the books which are comprehensible and things which are not [to those not instructed by a scholar], ‘ilm not being received save from the mouths of scholars. Taking it from books and pages is ḥarām, and all which she receives [in terms of material things] from that is illicit and one ought not eat of it, such that her livelihood is pure ḥarām. Continue reading “A Self-Taught Shaykha in Early Modern Fes”

The Heat of the Divine Lights: The Story of a Rural Maghribi Majdhūb

17th century Moroccan Tile V&A 1718-1892
Scripts of sainthood weren’t the only things shared between the early modern world of the Islamic West and that of the Ottomans, of course. As discussed previously here, art motifs moved back and forth between the two regions, with Maghribi adaptations of Ottoman elements taking on distinctive local styles, such as this 17th century tile which incorporates distinctively Ottoman floral elements but in a quite different context. (V&A 1718-1892)

The following extensive hagiographic entry comes from an important eighteenth century compilation of saints’ lives from Morocco, the Ṣafwat man intashar min akhbār ṣulaḥāʾof the scholar, historian, sufi, and man of letters Abū ʿAbdallāh Muḥammad al-Ṣaghīr al-Ifrānī (c. 1669-1743 or 45), who was originally from the Draa region of southern Morocco, but who lived and traveled in Fes, Marrakesh, and various countryside zāwiyas. He forged ties with many saints of his native land, collecting accounts of holy figures from both his own lifetime and the generation before.

The saint featured here, Shaykh Abū al-Qāsim, lived in the Middle Atlas region south of Fes, then as now predominantly rural, many traces of which are visible in the life al-Ifrānī renders. Islamic Sainthood in Morocco, in medieval and early modern times, has often been centered in rural areas as much as urban ones, with a constant interplay between the two (al-Ifrānī probably learned the accounts of Abū al-Qāsim through one of the latter’s disciples, Sīdī Aḥmad al-Madāsī, a sometime resident in Fes whom al-Ifrānī would much later take as a spiritual master). While in the anthropological and sociological studies of ‘maraboutism’ that long dominated the study of Islam in Morocco, these saints and their devotees are often taken as examples of the exceptional, ‘syncretic’ nature of Moroccan Islam, we can in fact see connections with the wider Islamic world in these saints’ lives as well as the traces of long-standing debates and discussions within sufism and fiqh over the nature of sainthood, sufi practices, what constitutes a proper shaykh, and the nature of the knowledge of God. In this particular life, Abū al-Qāsim is described as a majdhūb, a divinely attracted saint, a type of saint that became increasingly prominent in both the Maghrib and the Ottoman world during this period, even if the mechanisms for those parallels are for now hard to determine. The reality of interconnections between ‘West’ and ‘East’ is alluded to in this life, in fact, by the saint’s dispatch of disciples to ‘the East,’ meaning for this period the Ottoman lands. I’ll note briefly some other parallels and some differences below, but first here is al-Ifrānī’s account of this sometimes quite shocking saint:

Abū al-Qāsim ibn Aḥmad ibn al-Lūsha al-Sufyānī: His companions called him Abū ʿAsrīya, because he used to do most things with his left hand, and he was, God be merciful to him, from among the ones distracted in love of God, and from among the folk of effusive states and lordly ecstatic utterances. His sainthood was firmly established among both the elite and the common, his distinctiveness being well-known in both the east and the west. Early in his life he was renowned as one of the brave young men of his tribe (qabīla) and among those of perfect horsemanship from among them. When the inrushings of gnosis began to flash upon him and the illumined beneficence draw him, he went about in the wild upon his face, distracted from his senses, becoming acquainted with wildness and familiar with solitude, such that knowledge of him was cut off from his folk for one or two years or more. They didn’t know anything of his dwelling nor location until there came a hunter or shepherd who mentioned to them his description, so they rode out in search of him, and when they brought him back he stayed with them a few days then returned to his former inclination, until his spiritual condition calmed down enough to settle down in his homeland, his spiritual states (al-aḥwāl) subsiding somewhat.

Then he began sitting with the fuqarā’, discoursing with them and imposing [spiritual disciples?] upon them, but when his spiritual state (ḥāl) would seize him, he would grab at them and they would flee from him. Among the remarkable things that befell him is that when the spiritual state would seize him, he would rend his clothes and remain totally naked, yet no one ever saw his genitals (ʿawra) [1], and whoever wished to gaze upon his genitals would not see them, no matter how much he strove to see them. The one to whom it was granted to see them would go blind from the very moment. A number of people went blind in such manner until it became well-known among the people and they began to protect themselves from such.

At the beginning of his career, he would stay at length in meadows, ponds, and creeks due to the intensity of what descended (mā nazala) upon him of the [divine] lights (al-anwār), which he would cool off from by means staying close to water until it stopped. In the latter part of his career his spiritual state became calm and serenity prevailed in him. He returned to his senses, now having control over his spiritual state. More than one trustworthy person has related to me that a group of his companions went to the East with his permission, living adjacent to Medina the Noble, and would sit opposite the Noble Room [of Muḥammad] and discuss stories and accounts of him [2]. One day they were doing that when a woman clothed in tattered old rags and of ragged mein stopped before them. She said to them, ‘Do not know other than Qāsim—rejoice, for my Lord has given him the station of the Quṭb today!’ They wrote it down that day, and when they returned to [Abū al-Qāsim] they learned that his state had become calm on the very day that the woman said to them what she said—God knows best! [3]

Continue reading “The Heat of the Divine Lights: The Story of a Rural Maghribi Majdhūb”

Dalā’il al-Khayrāt Coming Out on Top

A 17th century copy of the Dalā’il from somewhere in the Maghrib (priv. coll., sale information here), executed in Maghribi script but in the rectangular format more typical of the eastern Islamicate world. Note the use of multicolored inks to write Muḥammad’s name, as well as the presence of marginal notations.

As discussed previously in these pages, one of the single most popular Islamic texts of any sort in the early modern world was the book of taṣliya- prayers and blessings upon Muḥammad- titled Dalā’il al-khayrāt, composed by Muhammad Sulaymān al-Jazūlī (d. 1465) of Fes and soon dissimulated east and south across Afro-Eurasia. The history of the text’s reception and transformation is long and complicated in no small part because it was such a ‘bestseller,’ taking on different profiles of production and use in different places. But like any book that becomes popular or even canonical, it’s success was not automatic, but involved ‘boosting’ on the part of various persons and groups, particularly in light of the fact that Dalā’il al-khayrāt was far from the only such book of devotion to Muḥammad on the market. There were older, already established texts such as the devotional poem Qaṣidat al-burda by al-Būsīrī (d. 1294), as well as more recent texts composed in response to the upsurge in devotion to Muḥammad that marked the late medieval into early modern period.

One of these was a text known as Tanbīh al-anām wa-shifāʼ al-asqām fī bayān ‘ulūw maqām nabīyinā Muḥammad ʻalayhi al-salām, also a book of invocations and blessings upon Muḥammad, written by a member of a prominent family of scholars from what is now Tunisia, ʻAbd al-Jalīl al-Qayrawānī (d. 1553). While similar in content and manuscript execution- see the examples below for instance- to the Dalā’il, it would prove far less successful (I was unfamiliar with it until coming across the story translated here!). The sense of competition is relayed in the following story, which comes from Muḥammad al-Mahdī ibn Aḥmad al-Fāsī hagiographical account of the author of the Dalā’il, Mumtiʻ al-asmāʻ fī al-Jazūlī, written in the early seventeenth century. Al-Fāsī’s text can be seen both as part of the process of the Dalā’il’s ascent into ubiquity, and as a reflection of its already existing popularity. Besides establishing the sanctity of the Dalā’il‘s compiler, al-Fāsī’s account also underlines the potency of the text itself, as in the following story, one which suggests the Dalā’il’s superiority in rather literal terms!

A section (juz') of a Koran, sura 3:92-170 Manuscript

It is related that someone from among the people had copies of Dalā’il al-khayrāt and of Tanbīh al-anām, and when he put them down he would place Dalā’il al-khayrāt on the bottom and Tanbīh al-anām on top of it. Then, when he went out and came back to his place he would find Dalā’il al-khayrāt on top of Tanbīh al-anām. This happened more than once, and no one else had come into his place other than him.

Also someone whom I trust related to me the story one from among the students told him along the same lines, it having happened to him as well—it’s possible the two stories have to do with the same person, or with two separate persons, this occurrence being multiple. I heard our master and intermediary with our Lord, Shakh Sīdī Abū ʿAbdallāh ibn Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad ibn ʿAbdallāh ibn Maʿn al-Andalusī, God be pleased with him and with us through him, say words to the effect that Dalā’il al-khayrāt suffuses light (al-nūr), Tanbīh al-anām knowledge (al-‘ilm). [1]

I found in the handwriting of Shaykh Abū ʿAbdallāh al-ʿArabī, God be merciful to him, upon the surface of a copy of Dalā’il al-khayrāt the following text: ‘One of the Qur’an-memorizing fuqahā’ mentioned to me that among the things he had tried for the meeting of needs and the alleviation of distress was reciting Dalā’il al-khayrāt forty times, the reciter striving to complete this number of recitations before the passage of forty days. The need was fulfilled through the baraka of blessing (al-ṣalāt) upon the Prophet, peace and blessing be upon him!’ [2]

From the same privately held manuscript as the above, facing pages depicting the Prophet’s minbar (left) and his tomb (right), the tomb depiction having received a great deal of pious rubbing to ‘activate’ its baraka. For more on this visual schemata, see this post.

Continue reading “Dalā’il al-Khayrāt Coming Out on Top”

Converting Constantinople after the Conquest: Akşemseddin’s Finding of Ebû Eyyûb

Şehname-i Selim Han (BL Or. 7043)
Sultan Selîm II (r. 1566-74) visits the shrine of Ebû Eyyûb, from the poet Lukmân’s Şehname-i Selim Han (BL Or. 7043)

Perhaps the best-known, and most-visited, Islamic place of pilgrimage in modern-day Istanbul is the tomb-shrine complex of Ebû Eyyûb (Ar. Abū Ayyūb al-Anṣārī), located in the eponymous quarter of Eyüp, just north of the Theodosian  land walls along the Golden Horn. Ebû Eyyûb, an early Muslim (one of the Anṣār, the ‘helpers,’ who joined the fledgling community later than the Companions), was said to have died during the unsuccessful Muslim siege of Constantinople in 669, being buried where he fell without the walls. His tomb, whose ‘discovery’ is described in the text below, would become a center of visitation soon after Mehmed II’s conquest of the city in 1453, and over time there would be built up the sprawling array of mosques, medreses, tombs, cemeteries, and so on that encompasses the main tomb-shrine complex. The tomb itself has gone through many permutations since the above image was painted in the early 17th century, but the tomb remains at the center of it all. Its discovery is described in the following story, an account taken from a menâkıb of one of the major Muslim saints of the fifteenth century Ottoman lands, Akşemseddin (1390–1459). The saint’s life was written down by one Göynüklü Emîr Hüseyin Enîsî in the mid-sixteenth century, drawing upon oral narratives circulating in his native Göynük, the small west Anatolian town where Akṣemseddin eventually settled and where he would die and be buried, and elsewhere, in including in Constantinople. This story picks up from Akṣemseddin’s close relationship with Mehmed II, who has just led the conquest of the city from the Byzantines:

Ottoman Velvet

Then Constantinople was conquered. Sultan Muhammed [Mehmed Fatih] sought from Akşemsüddin the exalted tomb of Ebû Eyyûb. The Şeyh, finding a thicket growing in the midst of the exalted tomb, marked it out by placing his staff to the right side of Ebû Eyyûb’s body. But someone took the staff, so that the marker that the staff had provided of the place was hidden, and it was said to the Şeyh, ‘The marker has gone away, do designate it once again!’ So they Şeyh returned to the place. He set up his staff, and they began to dig, and he stood up the hidden markers [under the ground].

Akşemsüddin then said: ‘This is the exalted tomb! The evident sign of this is that the night that Ebû Eyyûb was buried, an ascetic monk (bir ehl-i riyâzat ruhbân) saw in a dream the Prophet, upon whom be peace. The Prophet, upon whom be peace, indicated his desire for the monk to become a Muslim, saying: “One of my companions, Ebû Eyyûb-i Ensârî is buried in such-and-such place. It ought not remain unmarked in this foreign realm,” he said. The monk awoke, his heart filled with the light of faith: ‘I bear witness that there is no god but God and I bear witness that Muhammad is his servant and his messenger,’ he said. He tasted the savor of faith, and with love and purity before morning he went out from the fortifications, and looked for the indicated place. In the place of the exalted tomb he saw a light. Dawn was approaching. This was the exalted tomb. He rubbed his face [upon it]. He built a place of visitation (mezâr) over it, and digging down close by to the tomb uncovered an ayazma [1].

This being so, Sultan Muhammad Hân and all the lords of the devlet [2] came to the exalted tomb and dug, and clearing away the rubble in accordance with the Şeyh’s words uncovered the exalted tomb and the ayazma. Sultan Muhammed Hân then built up the exalted tomb and built for the Şeyh built a hânigâh and a tekye, but the Şeyh did not accept them, and they were made into a medrese later [3].

After having excavated Ebû Eyyûb-i Ensârî’s place of visitation (mezâr), in support of the evidence that the Şeyh had adduced a shepherd came forward and said: ‘This is the exalted tomb! For I was driving my animals along, and upon coming to this place, the sheep would not pass over this exalted place of visitation, but split up to go around it, coming back together afterwards.’ [4]

Ottoman Velvet

There is much to uncover (pun intended) from this story. Ebû Eyyûb was known to have died before Constantinople from a wide range of Arabic sources dating back to the formative period of Islam, but those sources gave no indication of exactly where he was buried, and the conquering Ottomans clearly could find no visible trace of his tomb, as much as they may have hoped to establish its location and so have at hand the holy tomb of a warrior from the earliest days of Islam and who was in direct contact with Muhammad himself, evidence of the long-standing ‘Islamic-ness’ of the city. We can see similar ‘strategies’ at work elsewhere in Anatolia and in the Balkans, through the ‘discovery’ of tombs of figures from early Islam, and the elaboration of stories about them, such as Battal Gazi.

The intervention of Akşemseddin provides saintly authority as to the tomb’s location, which is presented here as being in a basically rural area (as indeed parts of the district, in Byzantine times known as Kosmidion, were devoted to various forms of agriculture well through Ottoman times). Note that he presents a very particular argument with ‘evidence,’ and not just the presentation of his word as authoritative in itself or as a result of a dream-vision delivered to him. He claims instead to have knowledge (though he does not describe how he came about the knowledge) of how the tomb was originally discovered, by a Byzantine monk. This monk, while he (secretly?) converts to Islam through a dream-vision, is notably depicted as already being pious and ascetic even as a Christian, the phrase ehl-i riyâzat one that might be applied to Muslim saints as well. And when he uncovers the tomb of Ebû Eyyûb, he also uncovers an ayazma, a holy well, a typical feature of Orthodox Christian holy places in Constantinople (as discussed in this post), and which is still accessible at the tomb-shrine. The story suggests an awareness of continuity and a need to deal with the existence of Orthodox Christian holy places in the vicinity, such as the monastery and shrine devoted to the saints Cosmas and Damian that stood nearby (the name Kosmodion in reference to this shrine). Even more, it suggests a continuity among the Ottomans from the Orthodox Byzantines of ideas of what constituted a holy place, ideas that would continue to be re-manifest from time to time, as the account of Merkez Efendî’s ayazma indicates. Continue reading “Converting Constantinople after the Conquest: Akşemseddin’s Finding of Ebû Eyyûb”