The Bey, the Meczûb, and a Cure for Beardlessness

Sultan Murad III (r1574-1595) on Horseback (painting recto text verso) illustrated folio from a manuscript of the Javahir al-Gharaib Tarjomat Bahr al-Ajaib (Gems of Marvels- A Translation of the Sea of Wonders) of Jennabi (Cennabi)
(Fig. 1) Bearded and beardless soldiers and attendants surround Sultan Murad III (r.1574-1595) in this miniature from a translation into Ottoman Turkish of al-Jannābī’s Baḥr al-‘ajā’ib (Harvard Art Museum 1985.219.3.2)

As I’ve discussed on these pages many times before, Ottoman hagiography (like other bodies of hagiography from around the world) can be read in ways that get at much more than just ‘religious’ history narrowly conceived. Attitudes towards political dynamics, concepts of gender, relationships among various social groups, and many more aspects of life can all be discerned in these sorts of texts. One way of getting at underlying social and cultural realities is to read multiple accounts of the same holy person, when this is possible (and obviously in many cases it isn’t, or while there may be multiple accounts one is an original which the others simply copy and paste).

I’ve selected two renderings, both from the sixteenth century, of the same story in a saint’s life. One of the stories was written by an otherwise obscure person named Emîr Hüseyin Enîsî (fl. mid-16th century) in the small town of Göynük, located roughly halfway between Istanbul and Ankara; the other version was composed in Ottoman Constantinople (or, possibly, Bursa or Edirne) by one of the most famous Islamic scholars of the period, Ahmed Taşköprüzâde (1495-1561). Emîr Hüseyin Enîsî wrote in an almost colloquial register of Ottoman Turkish, while most of Taşköprüzâde’s literary production, including the one excerpted here, was in Arabic, long one of the two ‘international’ languages of the Islamicate world (though it would soon be translated and expanded upon in Ottoman Turkish). As such, to oversimplify somewhat, the one can safely be taken as representing a ‘provincial’ perspective, oriented around a particular holy person and his family and disciples, while Taşköprüzâde represents a more decidedly ‘imperial’ or ‘central’ view of things. Where Taşköprüzâde was a part of the scholarly-legal hierarchy, the so-called ‘ilmiye system, Emîr Hüseyin Enîsî was not, instead living and thinking at some distance from the imperial center and its rarefied world of sultans, viziers, grand medreses, and the like.

These differences are very much on view in these two stories, to which we will now turn, reviewing what they reveal afterwards. First, it should be noted that the main subject of Emîr Hüseyin Enîsî’s menâkıb is Nûru’l-Hüdâ’s father, Akşemseddîn (see this post for more on him). Out of his numerous sons, Nûru’l-Hüdâ is explicitly described as a saint, albeit of the meczûb variety (on which see this post), one whose divinely bestowed powers could go toe-to-toe with his father’s. Taşköprüzâde’s version of the story comes from his al-Shaqāʾiq al-nuʿmāniyya fī ʿulamāʾ al-dawlat al-ʿUthmāniyya, a ‘biographical dictionary’ of prominent scholars, culture-producers, doctors, shaykhs, and saints of the Ottoman lands from the origins of the dynasty up to Taşköprüzâde’s own day. While the story takes place in the fifteenth century, the underlying social and cultural dynamics that our authors bring to it speak more, arguably, of the sixteenth century. Here is Emîr Hüseyin Enîsî’s version:

‘There was a bey known as Kataroǧlu who was beardless (köse). He didn’t have any beard at all. One day he said to [the meczûb saint] Nûru’l-Hüdâ: “With saintly intention (himmet) cause me to have a beard!” So Nûru’l-Hüdâ looked Kataroǧlu in the face. He spit. In the places where the spit landed on Kataroǧlu beard began to sprout. The next morning Kataroǧlu arose and looked in the mirror. In the places the spit had touched beard had grown, and in a few days he had a full, black beard! He brought [the saint] a golden kaftan, and clothed Nûru’l-Hüdâ in it. Suddenly a dog appeared in their midst, and Nûru’l-Hüdâ rose and clothed the dog in the kaftan.’ [1]

And here is Taşköprüzâde’s version:

‘The shaykh had a young son named Nūr al-Hudā, a son who was a majdhūb, his intellect overtaken [by God]. At the time there was a great amīr known as Ibn ‘Aṭṭār, who was satin-skinned, not a hair on his face. He came before the shaykh while on his way to Sultan Muhammad Khan [Mehmed II]. While he was with the shaykh, that majdhūb came in and laughed, saying, “Is this a man? No, he’s a woman!” The shaykh was angry at this, but the amīr implored the shaykh that he not rebuke his son for saying such. Then the amīr said to the aforementioned majdhūb, “Pray for me so that my beard will grow!” So the majdhūb took a great deal of spit from his mouth and rubbed it on the amīr’s face. His beard began to grow, right up to his entry into Constantinople, and when he came before the sultan, the sultan said to his viziers, “Ask him from whence came this beard?” So he related what had happened, and the sultan marveled at it, and endowed upon that young man numerous waqfs, which remain in the control of the sons of the shaykh to this day.’ [2]

Ottoman Kaftan Fragment
(Fig. 2) A fragment of a particularly rich 16th century kaftan woven from silk and metallic thread, with a gold background, perhaps visually similar to the one described in Emîr Hüseyin Enîsî’s version of the story. (Met. 52.20.23a, b)

First, certain shared components are immediately visible: in both versions the Ottoman official- described as a bey or an amīr, roughly equivalent terms in Turkish and Arabic respectively- suffers from a degree of social stigma, it is implied, due to his lack of a beard. Having a beard, or even the first traces of a beard, was a key marker in this world of transitioning from the ambiguously gendered stage of ‘beardless youth’ to an adult man; the total absence of facial hair, if voluntary, could signal subordination (as in the case of eunuchs particularly) or social deviance and rejectionism (as in the case of radical dervishes). Thus the bey’s lack of beard is not simply a matter of style or personal pride, but could be seen as something approaching a disability. The joke the meczûb tells in Taşköprüzâde’s rendering pointedly gets at this gendered social reality.

The ‘cure,’ described in similar- though not quite the same- ways in both accounts, points to the close linkage between the body, the body’s products, and the transmission of sanctity and saintly power in the Islamicate world (and elsewhere). The exchange of saliva between saint and devotee has many parallels elsewhere in medieval and early modern Islamic hagiography (though I do not know of another instance in which spit cures beardlessness!). That the bey wants Nûru’l-Hüdâ to spit on him (or, in Taşköprüzâde’s somewhat more ‘refined’ version, rub on him) indicates his recognition of the meczûb’s sanctity, and signals to the reader Nûru’l-Hüdâ’s status as a saint.

Where the two accounts diverge is in how they implicitly frame the relationship between Nûru’l-Hüdâ (and his father), on the one hand, and Ottoman central power, on the other. In the first, ‘provincial’ rendering, while Nûru’l-Hüdâ cures the bey’s lack of beard, he does so in a way that signals the relative equality prevailing between the two- he spits right in the bey’s face, an effective way to transmit some sacred saliva, but otherwise a rather degrading action. Taşköprüzâde presents the transmission as having been carried out in a less confrontational manner. When it comes to recompense, Taşköprüzâde suggests that not only did the sultan himself reward Nûru’l-Hüdâ’s family, the family retained the reward, right down to the present, thereby tying themselves into the Ottoman center and implicitly subordinating themselves to the Ottoman dynasty. The framing of the story itself subordinates the ‘local’ saints to the central imperial context, with much of the action taking place in the presence of the sultan, not in the presence of the saint.

Emîr Hüseyin Enîsî’s version runs in exactly the opposite direction: not only does Nûru’l-Hüdâ reject the sumptuous kaftan bestowed upon him (see fig. 2 for an example), but he instead clothes a dog with it (the dog, it is implied, appearing providentially in just that moment). This act of rejection is not just a manifestation of conventional ideas of asceticism and distance from rulers. In Emîr Hüseyin Enîsî’s time, a very real struggle was taking place over who was to control the use and distribution of sanctity, over who was to occupy the ‘top spot’ in the hierarchy of saints. The Ottoman dynasty and many of its elite sought to organize, channel, and outright control the many holy people scattered across their domains, with the sultans themselves as saints presiding over the empire. Saints and their supporters, especially hagiographers, resisted these attempts. Neither ‘side’ rejected the legitimacy of the other outright: sultans and beys respected the saints of the land, and the saints, for the most part, supported the right of the House of Osman to rule. What was at issue was the nature of their relationship, and the degree to which saints should be subordinate to sultans and other members of the Ottoman elite.  Dressing a passing dog in a kaftan (itself symbolically linked to the sultan’s household) is in the story a way of signaling the superiority of the saints and that while beys and sultans needed them, the saints did not themselves need beys and sultans. The historical reality was no doubt, in fact, somewhere in between the two visions these contrasting hagiographic accounts present.


[1] Emîr Hüseyin Enîsî, Akşemseddin hazretleri ve yakın çevresi: Menâkıb-ı Âkşemseddîn, edited by Metin Çelik  (İstanbul: Ark, 2016), 98.

[2] Ahmed Taşköprüzâde, al-Shaqāʼq al-Nuʻmānīya fī ʻulmāʼ al-Dawla al-ʻUthmānīya (Beirut: Dār al-Kitāb al-‘Arabī, 1975), 141-142.

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On Landscapes

A Brazilian Landscape
‘A Brazilian Landscape,’ by the Dutch painter Frans Post (1612–1680). (Met. 1981.318)


The landscape has its own sound, an idiom, a dialect, a particular light and temperature and their changes with the seasons. The landscape is the median, the densest synthesis, the ordinary reality. Most people grow up not in countries or towns but in what occupies the middle ground between them: in landscapes. “We are the children of our landscape; it dictates behavior and even thought in the measure to which we are responsive to it. I can think of no better identification.” The landscape is the center, the focus of our lives, and so it is also what is most contentious, contested, embattled, and susceptible to myth-making and ideological construction. There are near-equivalent terms: region, scenery, homeland. The landscape is more important than the political-administrative district; it means more to us than the state, and its meanings reach deeper. People define themselves by the landscape in which they have their roots no less than by the nation whose citizens they are. That is why landscape paintings are not just depictions but our world en miniature: microcosms. Because the landscape designates a totality, the history of the landscape, and of the cultural landscape in particular, has come to stand for efforts to reunite divided and isolated disciplines, to recover the conviction that history can, and should be, narrated as an integral whole, as histoire totale. “Landscape” is a highly malleable term, but its core meaning is inalienable, whether we speak of ruined landscapes or the landscapes of memory, of human or urban landscapes. It always designates the cohesive form, the ensemble. All its various meanings are anchored in its primary signification, the physical landscape.

We walk or travel through landscapes. Their changing appearances and the distinctions that let us tell them apart reveal the richness of our world. The landscape is the consummate result of human labor and human genuis. It is the greatest work of art imaginable, the supreme human achievement, and when our endeavors in it come to grief, it is the greatest conceivable calamity. The landscape is the most solid substance in which man has ever wrought the objective reality of his existence—geography, Robert A. Dodgshon has written, is about the “materiality of social life”—and at once his subtlest and most atmospheric creation, to which poets, philosophers, architects, and the entire human community have each contributed their shares. So to read and decipher landscapes is to unlock a door to the history of a people, of the nations, of humanity. Because “virgin” landscapes do not—or not longer—exist, all history of the landscape is a history of cultural landscapes. Hugo Hassinger has argued that anthropogeography is simply the “morphology of the cultural landscape,” the study of the tectonics of the social sphere, the inertia of the built world, the visible distribution of power and powerlessness, to mention only a few aspects. Historians are experts in matters of cultural forms: (cultural) morphologists. They take an interest in surfaces, and so they must be good phenomenologists and physiognomists if they hope to detect essential processes. They read the landscape like a text, carefully peeling off layer upon layer as though it were a palimpsest.

Karl Schlögel, In Space We Read Time: On the History of Civilization and Geopolitics, translated by Gerrit Jackson (New York City: Bard Graduate Center, 2016), 235-237.

Notes On the ‘Why’ of Doing History

In thinking and talking about the work of history as a discipline, I have long enjoyed using the metaphor of ‘inhabiting’ a given past, but it has often occurred to me that I ought to build upon and expand from that metaphor, to develop an argument or an explanation—I am not sure what word works here—for why history matters, how one encounters the past, and what that does in one’s life, work, being. Here are a few thoughts towards that end, essentially my own thinking out loud, for which I ask your indulgence and, perhaps, participation should you feel inclined.

In the work of historical encounter, especially, I think, in the work of encounter with individual and collective lives in the past, one expands one’s own self, you become richer and deeper and are able to see the contingency of the present and the multitude of possibilities inhering in the past and in the flow of human history. There is a sort of loneliness and poverty that afflicts someone whose knowledge begins and ends with his contemporary world, in which the only emotions imaginable, the only configurations of self conceivable, the only moral universe explicable, the only languages comprehensible, are those of one’s own narrowly circumscribed present. What is more, one does not even fully grasp one’s own present: for all of those things—emotions, sense of self, morality, and so on—are expressed in and through us because of the work and being of past worlds. And whatever genealogies extend backwards from our particular presents at some point intersect with or overlap or contrast with other genealogies, other worlds of the past, spread out across this earth. We are now living in a historical moment in which our tools and our manner of life, at least in the post-industrialized nations, allows us an unprecedented ability to delve into the past and to encounter great sweeps and depths of the human experience. At the same time, we are perhaps more than ever in human history constrained by our governing and prevailing ‘inner technics,’ by our ideologies, by our habits of thought from looking beyond the narrow boundaries of the present or of what is familiar and safe.

Yet people long for these sorts of encounters with the past, they long for both the stability of connecting with long traditions and the dynamism and vitality that comes from stepping into streams of time and practice longer and larger than ourselves. Not unlike previous periods in modernity, false encounters with the past, and manipulative iterations of nostalgia and propagandized memory so often end up being the means whereby people try to ground themselves in history or seek encounters with other, past worlds. Such means can range from mostly benign indulgence in nostalgic media or advertising campaigns to recruitment into resurgent authoritarian leftist or rightist movements which promise the recovery of some lost golden age, whether it is one of the power of workers or the unity of the nation. Unsurprisingly the time horizons on such nostalgic endeavors is rarely very deep, the twentieth and nineteenth centuries providing the usual frames of reference, even if colored, on the right, with vague appeals to ‘tradition’ and to deeper pasts.

History by itself is not sufficient to give people a sense of meaning or to ground them in connection with others and with deep pasts and traditions. In some ways the discipline of history runs counter to any political project that would seek to use the past for justification, in fact, for the discipline of history rightly done reveals a dynamic and contingent past, looks at the inner logics and developments of traditions and ways of life. Rather, history offers a space for encountering the past in its complexity and wonder (and, to be sure, terror and darkness), of enriching one’s self through stepping into other worlds and out of one’s own, expanding the bounds of what is imaginable. History erodes the feeling of loneliness and of a crippling ‘autonomy’ by revealing the interconnections and interdependencies that all humans, ourselves included, partake of. We inhabit, for a moment and of course partially (but this is always true for us) the lives of others, encounter their fears and dreams and catch glimpses of how the world looked through their eyes. What we may then do with the knowledge—a knowledge that is, or at least should be, multifaceted and not easily described—so gained is not dictated by the knowledge itself. There is no political program determined by deep encounters with human pasts. Rather, any political program or cultural ambit or whatever else that we may embark on in the here and now ought to be informed by, situated within encounters with and awareness of many human pasts, with persons in the past, an experience and knowledge which may then help lead towards wiser, more human, more emphatic and adroit, actions and policies and works of life.

The Conquest of Mexico and Other Stories

As part of one of my classes- History of the Spanish Conquest– the professor is having us respond to each week’s reading on a blog. I personally enjoy this approach; it certainly beats having to write formulaic book reviews, which I’ve never particularly enjoyed. This format allows more freedom of form and content, and presents a platform for working out thoughts and ideas in a ‘semi-formal’ that I’ve long found useful for working towards more polished ideas and projects. Anyway, if you would like to read my musings on the Spanish Conquest of Central America (no Peru, unfortunately- time and size constraints), they are here: The Conquest, Considered. Latin American history is a fair distance (though not too terribly far) from my usual stomping-grounds of Islamic and Eastern Christian medieval matters, but I enjoy the topic, and so far the readings have been interesting and profitable, if long (this week’s was a monster of nineteenth century work). My posts don’t provide a lot of context, so some are probably going to be fairly worthless outside of the class’ setting. Some, however, I think might be interesting, including this week’s, which, if nothing else, has some lovely examples of nineteenth-century geographical determinism.