The Hermit of Ya’bad and His Marvelous Coffee and Good Counsel

In the course of the great Damascene mystic, savant, poet, and author ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī’s journeys- which he took with considerably frequency during the latter years of his life- he encountered many sorts of people from all walks of life, in both city and countryside. His impressions of rural life are especially precious, given his eye for detail and his sympathy and even reverence for rural religiosity and hospitality, a trait hardly universal among early modern literati anywhere in Eurasia, but quite characteristic of ‘Abd al-Ghanī. During his journey to Jerusalem in 1690, he encountered many majdhūb, ‘divinely attracted people,’ figures who are difficult to categorize in terms familiar to most Western readers (or modern-day readers in many places elsewhere for that matter). These people- who could be men, women, or children (or entire families, as ‘Abd al-Ghanī encounters in his journey)- could be similar to the ‘holy fools’ of the Orthodox tradition, though unlike holy fools they did not always embrace radical displays of disruptive piety. All however displayed signs of having been ‘attracted’ by the power of the Divine, in an unmerited, unsolicited manner. This ‘divine attraction,’ as I have translated it, could manifest itself in acts of transgressive piety, such as ignoring the dictates of the sharī’a or embracing extreme living standards or daily actions, like living on a garbage heap or carrying out highly eccentric actions in public. Despite their often extreme rejection of basic standards and social hierarchies they were seen as particularly potent instruments of divine grace and power, and hence not only not persecuted, but were often sought out for their divine baraka or blessing, by all ranks of society, ‘high’ and ‘low,’ literate and illiterate.

The majdhūb that ‘Abd al-Ghanī encounters in the below story is an excellent example. Originally a slave of African origins (and hence a reminder of the global status of the early modern trade in people from Africa), the man would become known as Shaykh Zā’id was seized by ‘divine attraction,’ which evidently quickly led to a change in his status and his embracing of an eremitical life, settling in a cave (miraculously generated according to a story ‘Abd al-Ghanī was told) on the outskirts of the Palestinian village of Ya’bad. The rest is fairly self-explanatory. Note however both the way in which social status could be remarkably disrupted and upended, as well as the role one of the quintessential early modern commodities, coffee, plays in the story, albeit in a surprising way.

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And it reached us in that village [of Ya’bad] that there was close by a black [freed] slave from among the divinely attracted lovers of God, whose name was Shaykh Zā’id, and he is in a cave there, at the foot of a small mountain. And it was reported to us that there used to not be a cave there, but one day he was present on the mountain and the cave appeared for him. So we went to visit him, and we entered into his cave. It is a small cave, with lots of niches all around the walls, none of which open to the outside. And he was inside sitting on the ground, and he had a small mortar made of wood with which he ground coffee beans, and a small iron coffee roaster. No one who visited him leaves without him giving them coffee to drink. And he makes the coffee from anything that he has on hand, from wheat, barley, from scraps [of coffee?], and chickpeas—but no one who visits him drinks it without it being excellent coffee! And it was related to us that if he needs firewood, he will, with little effort, pluck out a great tree and break it down with his own hand, bring the wood back and place it in his cave.

And when we entered we greeted him, and he returned the greeting. He is a black freed slave who prefers silence and solitude; Shaykh Muṣlaḥ of the aforementioned village had told us that he used to be the slave of some of the people of that village, and he used to shepherd animals for them. But then this divine attraction (al-jadhb) occured in him, he abandoned shepherding, and his master manumitted him. He used to return at times the village after the death of his former master, but then he settled in this cave and the people began paying visits to him in it. People from every place seek him out, believe in him, seek blessing from his words, and ask advice from him about their affairs. I asked him about the condition of my brothers and of the group of people traveling with me to Jerusalem, and he replied: ‘They are in grace and good through you.’ And he mentioned to us many words in which were good tidings to us and favorable end for our goal, and peace and safety.

And when we went in to visit him there was with us a young divinely attracted man from among the divinely attracted folk of Damascus, whom we have mentioned previously. When that divinely attracted one went in to him and spoke with him, he laughed greatly. He then said that he was tired, so we recited the Fātiḥa, paid our regards, and departed.

‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī, al-Ḥaḍrah al-unsīyah fī al-riḥlah al-Qudsīyah, Bayrūt, Lubnān: al-Maṣādir, 1990, 66-7.

On True Spiritual Seclusion and Exercise

Bridging the gap between how we intuitively understand words and concepts and how people in the past, or people in the present but in quite different cultural-linguistic worlds from us, understood those same words and concepts is often a difficult task. In the text I’ve translated here from the great early-modern Ottoman Damascene mystical philosopher, poet, and traveler (to name but three of his occupations) ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (1641-1731), we encounter both dissonances of meaning endemic to the gap between our time and his, as well as dissonances that ‘Abd al-Ghanī introduces. Easily one of the most fascinating and versatile thinkers of early modern Islam, ‘Abd al-Ghanī simultaneously defended the practices and concepts of Sufism, especially as embodied in the thought of Ibn ‘Arabī, while also frequently refashioning them and integrating them into a wider-ranging philosophy of Islam that embraced the rapidly changing world of early modernity, against the puritanical, ‘fundamentalist’ strains of Islam that fitfully circulated in the Ottoman world. In addition to defending the legal validity of smoking, coffee-drinking, dancing, musical performances, and other activities, ‘Abd al-Ghanī generally argued for a broad social ethic that rejected moralism and morality policing, instead encouraging positive, indeed tolerant social interactions across class and confessional lines. This is not to say that he advocated some sort of proto-liberalism or modernism: as is clear from the following text, ‘Abd al-Ghanī did not reject the practice of the sharī’a or traditional theological beliefs. But what he did with those beliefs and how he interpreted them in doctrine and practice could be quite surprising and even innovative (a term he would not have appreciated, I should note). His often bold textual moves can be quite jarring at times- as they no doubt were in some cases for people in his own day.

This text is the bulk of a letter ‘Abd al-Ghanī sent, in April of 1678, to one Mulla Aḥmad of Hayrabolu, in what is now the European portion of Turkey (it was evidently conveyed by friends of ‘Abd al-Ghanī, as the note at the end indicates). In it our author discusses ‘true’ and ‘metaphorical’ acts and states, in so doing reversing the ways in which we tend to speak now (though reflecting language C.S. Lewis used in some of his works): the really real seclusion (khalwat, a type of ascetic withdraw for spiritual purposes) takes place within the self and in relation to God and through Him the rest of the world; that of the body and in relation to physical society is merely ‘metaphorical,’ obtaining reality through its contact with the true practice of seclusion. And so on- ‘Abd al-Ghanī explains it pretty well, I think, though this English translation does not convey the word-play and subtlety of the Arabic original- always a problem in translation, especially in religious-philosophical language such as this. But so it goes- ‘Abd al-Ghanī would no doubt argue from such a state to the ultimately metaphorical nature of language, realized only through connection with the truly Real.

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And I have heard regarding you, O brother, that you are firmly fixed in your religion, desiring conformity with the command and the prohibition, and I love you for that. And I love for you what I love for my own self: that you enter into the path of inner piety (ṭarīqat al-taqwā al-bāṭiniyya), so that the interior and exterior be made perfect for you. What I mean by ‘inner piety’ is your crossing from the outward ordinances to the knowable realities, so that you witness through the eye of spiritual perception that every motion out of the motions of canonical prayer and other than those from among the acts of worship possess a lordly sign (ishāra)  and merciful secrets. And every ordinance from the ordinances of the sharī’a has an application in the exterior and an application in the interior. The sharī’aic ordinance (ḥukm) is a body, while the divine wisdom (ḥikma) is the spirit of that body. Do not be content with the bodies apart from the spirits, and do not be distracted from the bodies by the spirits: rather, bring together the exterior and the interior.

And let my friend—God, exalted is He, give him peace—know that there is no recourse for that besides entering into sharī’aic seclusion (khalwat) and doing sharī’aic spiritual exercises. And I mean by ‘seclusion’ only your solitude in witnessing the true Doer apart from the metaphorical doer, then the witnessing of the true One Described, apart from the metaphorical one, then the witnessing of the true Existence, apart from the metaphorical existence. And persist in this witnessing so that the senses and the intellect are fully immersed. This is true spiritual seclusion. As for the metaphorical seclusion, it is that you enclose your body in a ḥalāl house and ḥalāl sustenance, and cut off your sight interiorly and exteriorly from all that is outside that house by negation or affirmation, until you find the true seclusion, then come out of the metaphorical seclusion.

Among that which brings you to this is your concern for and your paying attention to the books of the knowledge of Sufism, such as the books of Ibn ‘Arabī, Ibn Sab’īn, al-‘Afīf al-Tilimsānī, and the like of them—God hallow their spirits—after washing the spiritual sight of the dirt of rejection of any of them, so that the door of their luminescent secret is opened for the heart, and the reality of their stationing upon the stations of the Muhammadan sharī’a is unveiled for the heart. And it knows that they are knowledge of it in the most perfect sense, acting according to it without innovation (bid’a) in the exterior or interior. And someone is not veiled from them through unknowledgeable rejection of their path, unreflexively being against them due to uncritical imitation [of anti-Sufi views], or from being fearful in regards to others due to his not understanding their doctrine, hiding in his [public] disavowal with faith in their doctrine without thinking evil of them—that is more beneficial for him, if such a person is not an enemy of that which he does not know. Junayd, God be pleased with him, said: ‘Faith (al-īmān) in the doctrine of this group is wilāya.’ Meaning, with neither understanding nor critical objection. For every entity among the learned has technical vocabulary which they use but others do not know, so accusing them of error without awareness of their technical vocabulary is itself a mistake. And there is a people who understand the doctrine of Sufism in accordance with the Book and Sunna, even if the exterior of the.doctrine appears to be in opposition. Its people always exist—to God belongs praise in every place and time! The one who licitly seeks them, finds them. ‘Licit seeking’ is sincere devotion, trust in God, thinking evil of the lower self, and the non-existence of thinking evil of others, whoever it may be, and submission to God in every place of His judgement and His decree, good and ill. As for the practitioner of innovationist seeking, he is not benefited by anyone he meets, even a prophet from among the prophets, upon them be peace.

And I mean by ‘exercise’ (riyāḍa) whenever I mention it, the directing of the soul towards the attaining of the realities and their habituation in every state, little by little. And that is by attachment to the clear Truth (al-ḥaqq), then by being characterized by it, then by ultimate realization—that is real spiritual exercise. As for metaphorical bodily exercise by the limiting of the eating of food and the drinking of water, as he—peace be upon him—said: ‘The sufficiency of the son of Adam are morsels which suffice his loins,’ so it is an excercise seeking other than itself, not for its own sake. It is constituted in the whole and is an aid for the fulfillment of the spiritual exercise, and is what does not go to excess and so lead to corrupt imaginings, so becoming a harmful interdicted thing—for this reason the jurists discuss it in their books.

So I have explicated for you seclusion and its conditions, real and metaphorical, and its like, exercise, but we hastened the matter due to the closeness of the travel of the brothers to you. God guide us and you on a straight path, and upright religion, in every moment, to the hour of death.

‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī, Risāla 6, in Wasā’il al-taḥqīq wa rasā’il al-tawfīq, edited by Samer Akkach, in Letters of Sufi Scholar (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 116-119. Translation by Jonathan P. Allen, 2014, no rights reserved.

Roses for Kerā Khātūn

Few Sufis in history have achieved as much renown as Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (1207-1273), also widely known as simply Mawlānā, ‘our master.’ Of several hagiographical texts dealing with the life of Rūmī, the most expansive and best known is Manāqib al-‘ārifīn by Shams al-Dīn Aḥmad-e Aflākī, written in the early 1300s, decades after Rūmī’s death. In addition to Rūmī’s life, Aflākī includes the lives of several other saintly figures associated with Rūmī, drawing upon what seems to have been a vast reservoir of stories and anecdotes available to him. The resulting text, while imbued with many of the conventions of Sufi hagiography, also contains glimpses into everyday life in 13th century Konya. Formerly the center of the Seljuk Empire, Konya was by the lifetime of Rūmī under the rule of the Mongol Ilkhanids, albeit as a somewhat peripheral, frontier-like province. As had been the case under the Seljuks, Anatolia continued to be a place of cross-cultural interaction and struggle, and while increasingly politically decentralized and fragmented, host to both outstanding scholars and to networks of merchants and traders. Muslims may have been the majority population by Rūmī’s time, but members of various Christian confessions were still sizable and probably made up the majority in some places.

In the story below, in addition to the argument for the exalted nature of Mawlānā’s spiritual state, we get a glimpse of the market culture of Konya, and its possible ties to distant places. We also see some of the possibilities in the life of a woman in this period; the account is, not insignificantly, attributed to a woman, Mawlānā’s wife. Her maidservant acts as her representative in the market, unsurprising for a woman of exalted social class in this period. The account is also shot through with a rich sensuality and aesthetic sensibility, summoning for us not just sights and sounds of medieval Konya, but even smell- which is here bound up with the memory of sanctity, activated through the long-lasting lingering of the beautiful odor of the miraculous roses: memory that must be guarded lest it be misused, but, in the right noses, is both spiritually and sensually pleasing.

A rose by the Ottoman artist Abdullah Bukharī, c. 1733.
A rose by the Ottoman artist Abdullah Bukharī, c. 1733.

It is also transmitted that Mowlānā’s wife, Kerā Khātūn- God have mercy on her- who was a second [Virgin] Mary with regard to her unsullied life and the purity of her honor, related: ‘One day in the depths of winter Mowlānā was seated in seclusion with Shams-e Tabrīzī, and Mowlānā was leaning on Shams al-Dīn’s knee. I had placed my ear against a crack in the door in their direction to hear the secrets they were saying and to learn what was going on between them. Suddenly I beheld the wall of the house open and six awesome men of the invisible realm came in. They said salām, did obeisance, and placed a bouquet of roses before Mowlānā. And they sat there in complete concentration without uttering a single word, until it was close to the time of the midday prayers. Mowlānā indicated to Shams al-Dīn: “Let us perform the prayers. You act as prayer leader.” Shams al-Dīn said: “No one else can act as prayer leader when you are present.”

Mowlānā led the prayers and when the prayers were over, the six esteemed individuals, having paid their respects, rose and went out again through the wall. Due to this awesomeness I fainted. When I recovered my senses, I saw that Mowlānā had come outside and he gave me the bouquet of roses, saying: “Look after this!”

I sent a few petals of this rose to the shop of the perfume sellers to ask: “We have never seen this kind of rose before. Where does this rose come from and what is its name?” All the perfume sellers were amazed at the freshness, color, and fragrance of the rose, saying: “In the depths of winter where has such a wondrous rose come from?”

As it happened, there was a reputable gentleman in that company by the name of Sharaf al-Dīn al-Hendī who was always going to India on business and bringing back strange and wondrous merchandise. When they showed him the roses, he said: “This is the Indian rose. It grows particularly in that country in the area of Ceylon. That being the case, what is it doing in the clime of Rūm? I must find out the circumstances of how this rarity came to be in Rūm.”

The maidservant of Kerā Khātūn took the petals and, returning to the house, reported what had happened. Kerā Khātūn’s amazement increased a thousandfold. Suddenly Mowlānā came in and said: “Kerā, keep this bouquet of roses hidden and do not show it to any outsider. Concealed persons from the sanctuary of generosity and the caretaker of the delightful garden of Eram, who are the Pivots of India, have brought this for you as a gift that it may convey vigor the palate of your soul and give pleasure to your body’s eye. By God, by God, look after it well lest the evil eye afflict it.’

And it is said that Kerā Khātūn kept these petals until her final breath. But it happened that she gave a few petals from the bouquet to Gorjī Khātūn, the wife of the sultan, and this she did with Mowlānā’s permission. Whenever someone suffered pain in the eye, once a petal was rubbed on it he would be cured. The color and fragrance of these roses never underwent change thanks to the blessing of those esteemed persons whose bosom was perfumed with musk.

Shams al-Dīn Aḥmad-e Aflākī, Manāqib al-‘ārifīn, trans. by John O’Kane, 67-68

A basket of rose petals and bottles of rosewater, Fes, 2008.
A basket of rose petals and bottles of rosewater, Fes, 2008.