Giving Delight to the Lords of Spiritual States

Convent of the Rufai Dervishes .jpg
Sufis with strange and even deviant practices, but who were otherwise deeply integrated into Ottoman social and political life, were hardly limited to the Arab provinces: this c. 1809 painting, by an anonymous Ottoman Greek artist commissioned by the British diplomat Stratford Canning, depicts Rufāʿī dervishes in their Istanbul tekke, performing some of the incredible physical feats for which they were (and are!) well-known. Note the additional edged implements hanging on the wall, and the dervish heating iron in the fireplace to the right, as well as the presence- just as in the story below- of spectators. (V&A D.140-1895)

As sufism and Islamic sainthood both developed over the medieval and into the early modern periods, a vast and heterogenous range of practices were built up to express devotion to God and to make manifest the power of holy people, from various forms of dance to strange feats of physical strength to bodily rigorous rituals lasting hours and hours or even days or weeks. Some of these practices could be quite extreme in the eyes of observers now and at the time, and have in recent years often attracted the designation of ‘folk Islam’ or worse. The following story, which comes from the personal chronicle of a Damascene Muslim scholar named Ibn Kannān (d. 1740), reveals how seriously Ottoman officials- and members of the ‘ulama class, of whom Ibn Kannān was a respectable representative- could take even very strange saints and the unnerving practices of their followers. Here is the tale Ibn Kannān tells:

On the 28th [of Jumādī II, 1118, October 7, 1706], a Thursday, the pasha [Meḥmed Paşa ibn Bayrām] sent someone before Shaykh Muḥibb al-Dīn al-Taghlibī al-Ṣāliḥī al-Shībānī, and commanded him to bring forth the banners, mazhars [1], dhikr litanies, the shaykhs, and the khalīfas [2], and to make a procession (dawra) so that he might give delight to the lords of spiritual states. He did so and set out with banners and mazhars, and when he reached the gate of the palace he called for his horse and rode upon it over the people, [a practice] known as ‘the treading’ (al-dawsa). It is as if the people are sleeping on their faces, then he rides over them with his horse but no one is injured. When he rode out over them the pasha and Qāḍī ʿArīf Efendī and the other elite seated in the kiosk leaped up for joy! Then [Shaykh Muḥibb al-Dīn] came by himself into the presence of the pasha, while the rest of his entourage went to the Sināniyya Mosque…

One of the viziers had an unruly horse whom no one was able to handle. Once he sent it to [Shaykh Muḥibb al-Dīn] and he stood him still upon his feet as was his custom, afixed a bridle he had with him upon his head and led him about, then rode him at a trot. It is said [the vizier] then gifted the horse to the shaykh.

Continue reading “Giving Delight to the Lords of Spiritual States”

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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Sayyida ‘Ā’isha Shuts Down a Hater
Folio from a Qur’an, North Africa- possibly Ḥafṣid Ifraqīya where ‘Ā’isha lived- displaying the distinctive Maghribi script used in this region. (Met. 37.21)

Sayyida ‘Ā’isha al-Mannūbiyya (1199–1267) is one of the, if not simply the most important and best-known female Muslim saints in North African history. Born in the village of al-Manūba close to Tunis, she moved among many different worlds and identities, inhabiting aspects of both rural and urban sainthood, violating social conventions, including regarding gender norms, as part of her enactment of sainthood. She participated in the Shādhiliyya ṭarīqa, and was linked in later memory to the great saints, male and female, of the Islamic past. Her hagiography (manāqib) reveals a bold and confident saint, laying claim to spaces and practices generally reserved for men such as mosques, as in the short story I’ve translated here, in which she is questioned about her knowledge of the Qur’an and rebuffs her critic in rather spectacular fashion. She proved a popular and powerful saint not only in life but long after her physical death. Despite a 2012 attack on her shrine by Salafī militants (one of many attacks on saints’ shrines in post-revolution Tunisia), she remains a popular figure of veneration and supplication.


Sayyid Uthmān al-Ḥadād, known as Būqabrayn, said: ‘One day I was stopping by the Muṣallī Mosque in the company of Sayyidatī ‘Ā’isha, and she was reciting God’s words, As for the foremost and the first from among the emigrants and the helpers and those who follow them in doing good, God is pleased with them and they are pleased with Him. And He has prepared for them gardens under which rivers flow, in which forever to dwell— that is the great victory! [1], to the end of the surah. Then Sayyid Muḥammad ibn Sālim ibn ‘Alī al-Huwārī, one of the fuqahā’ [2] of Tunis, one of those who used to related hadith of the Messenger of God, upon whom be peace and blessing, in the Zaytūna Mosque [3], heard her reciting the Qur’an so he went in to her, and said to her, “Under whom did you learn Qur’an recitation?” She replied, “ cuckold (dayyūth)! I studied the Qur’an under my Lord! [The angel] Michael and Khiḍr [4] came to me, and in their hands was a filled vessel from the Garden. The two of them said to me, ‘Drink, ‘Ā’isha, Mannūbiyya!’ So I drank in that draught knowledge, clemency, certainty, pious submission, humility towards God, divine blessing, compassion, chastity, and divine protection.”’

God be pleased with her and benefit us by her in both worlds! Continue reading “Sayyida ‘Ā’isha Shuts Down a Hater”

Shaykh Ṣafī Spends the Night in a Deadly Shrine

Miniature from a copy of Jafar al-Sadiq’s Falnama. “Scene From a Mausoleum” Iran, Tabriz or Qasvin; c. 1550.jpg
A Safavid era saints’ tomb (or perhaps the tomb of an imām or imāmzade), presumably far less deadly in effect than that of Abū Zur’at. From a c. 1550 Falnama (David Collection, Inv. no. 28/1997)

While I can’t profess to ever having actually watched more than a few minutes of it, I do know (thank you internet) that the Syfy show Ghost Hunters, which ran for several years and was one of the most popular offerings that Syfy ever launched, revolved around a team of ‘paranormal investigators’ combing around allegedly haunted spaces in search of posthumous spiritual activity. Using various electronic devices to register the traces such entities are imagined in modern parapsychological reckoning to leave, they traversed ‘haunted’ places, mostly at night, trying to ‘make contact,’ while also creating a pop culture phenomenon.

Seeking out a dangerous structure and grappling with the malignant forces- spirits and otherwise- therein was a not uncommon practice for medieval and early modern Muslim saints, too, though their purposes and techniques were a world away from that of the Ghost Hunters duo. The manāqib texts describing ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jilānī, the archetypical medieval Muslim saint, feature his actions against the jinn in particular spaces and places. Somewhat later, the great Ottoman Egyptian sufi and saint ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Sha’rānī, for instance, was described by his hagiographer as having wrestled with the jinn (for more on the following story and al-Sha’rānī’s relation with the jinn, see this post: Two Ways of Dealing with the Jinn in the Ottoman World):

He once slept, God be pleased with him, in an abandoned entrance hall (qā’a) which belonged to one of his friends. He lit a lamp for him and locked the door and left him alone. Then a group [of jinn] came to him and extinguished the lamp and raised a din in the entrance hall around him until morning. Then he left them. During this time [that is, during the night] he said to them, ‘If I grasped hold of one of you he would not be able to free himself from me, not even the Red King!’ Then he went to sleep, and slept until morning, not a hair on his head being disturbed even though they remained around him. [1]

The story I have featured today comes from the monumental Persian menāqib of Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn, the eponym of the famed (or infamous, if you had asked an early modern Ottoman!) Safavid ṭarīqa, on which see an earlier post. As mentioned there, at this point, still early in Shaykh Ṣafī’s life, the saint was in possession of almost boundless and hard-to-control spiritual powers, not unlike a superhero in modern imagination, forced to make sense of and usefully make use of new and perhaps frightening super-powers. This story picks up in Shiraz, to whence Ṣafī has gone, ostensibly to meet his merchant brother, but really to seek out holy men who might be able to guide him and help him cultivate his powers. He has just come ‘onto the scene’ as a holy man in his own right, and is now seen beginning to ‘mingle’ with the hidden saints of the city:

Story (ḥikāyat): [Shaykh Ṣadr al-Dīn], God perpetuate his baraka, said: after this, the friends of God who were hidden in that place began to mix with and accompany the shaykh, God sanctify his inner secret, each one practicing a trade (ḥirfat), such as greengrocer and baker as well as others, hidden behind the curtain of the domes [referred to in the hadith] My friends are under My domes, none know them save Me,’ though manifest to the sight endowed with the hallowed light of clarity.

The shaykh, God sanctify his inner secret, spent most of his time in the Mādir-i Sulaymān Mosque, the shrine of Shaykh Abū ‘Abdallāh Khafīf, and the shrine of Shaykh Abū Zur’at Ardabīlī, God be merciful to him, devoting himself to acts of worship. However, during that time it was such that if someone tarried for even a moment in the shrine of Abū Zur’at, God be merciful to him, from the evening prayer to morning, they would find him dead and bury him in the cemetery.

When the shakyh, God sanctify his inner secret, wanted to spend the night awake in prayer in that place (mīkhāst keh shab dar ān jā iḥyā konad), the people tried to forbid him since those who went in at night did not come back out but died. The shaykh however said, “We are from the same city, the two of us, and so no harm will come to me from him!” So he spent the night there, busying himself with acts of worship, and declared [later]: “Light steadily came forth up from his pure tomb and descended into my throat, while rays of light from his tomb came forth and streamed up and out of the little windows of the shrine, like the fire in a blacksmith’s forge coming forth through its cracks and openings.” The shaykh was in that place from the ishrāq prayer until the rising of the sun, light steadily streaming forth from the tomb and descending into his throat.

The shaykh’s companions had already purchased a length of burial shroud, sweet herbs for sprinkling on a body, and the implements for a funeral bier, and had stationed themselves outside of the shrine of Abū Zur’at until the moment that came in to retrieve the shaykh and set about on his funeral bier and burial. But instead they beheld the shaykh immersed in light in prayer, and, standing to greet them, he went outside with them. Such were the traces that the light had left upon his blessed face that it was impossible for anyone to look upon his blessed face! [2]

Who was Abū Zu’rat? And what made his shrine so dangerous? The story does not elaborate, either because it was not of interest to the hagiographer, or because the story of this shrine- which does not seem to exist any longer- was so well known at the time. Either way, the idea of a ‘dark saint’ is not too unusual, though hardly common, and points to the fuzzy boundaries between sainthood, the occult, and so-called ‘folk beliefs.’ Most importantly, the story argues for Shaykh Ṣafī’s sainthood, suggesting that the dangerous occupant of the shrine’s tomb was either waiting for the shaykh, or that only Shaykh Ṣafī had the spiritual power to take in the surge of divine light welling up from Abū Zu’rat without being killed thereby. At any rate, not unlike modern instances of spirit-hunting, the encounter made a good story, complete with the wonderful image of the saint’s friends posted outside waiting with the requisites of burial, which of course they did not end up needing.


[1] Muḥammad Muḥyī al-Dīn al-Malījī, Tadhkirat ūlī al-albāb fī manāqib al-Shaʻrānī Sayyidī ʻAbd al-Wahhāb, 130. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.

[3] Ibn Bazzāz Ardabīlī, Ṣafvat al-ṣafā: dar tarjumah-ʼi aḥvāl va aqvāl va karāmāt-i Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn Isḥaq Ardabīlī, ed. Ghulām Riẓā Ṭabāṭabāʼī Majd (Tabriz: G.R. Ṭabāṭabāʼī Majd , 1373 [1994]), 98-99. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2019.

Ardabil Carpet

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Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn Goes Mountain Climbing

Safi al-Din Dreaming.jpg
An illustration from the life of Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn, during his adulthood, depicting a dream concerning the rise and fall of a local post-Ilkhanid dynasty, the Chūbānids (their members symbolized by the candles), with the shaykh himself depicted in the lower half asleep, dreaming. Unfortunately, so far as I know, the story recounted below was never illustrated. (Aga Khan Museum AKM264)

Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn (d. 1334) is best known as the founder and eponym of the Safavid sufi ṭarīqa, which in the late fifteenth into early sixteenth century would be the basis for the Safavid dynasty and empire, one of the major Islamic empires of the early modern world. He was commemorated in a number of ways: for instance, architecturally by a monumental and expansive shrine complex in Ardabil, and textually by an equally monumental and expansive menāqib (hagiography) composed in Persian by Ibn Bazzāz Ardabīlī, completed in 1358, in consultation with Ṣafī al-Dīn’s son and successor to head of the ṭarīqa, Ṣadr al-Dīn. Clocking in at over eight hundred folios in manuscript form, and almost twelve hundred in the modern printed edition, it must surely rank as one of the longest saint’s lives in Islamic history. Like other hagiographies, much of the social and cultural context and particularities of past worlds can be discerned in this text, such as in the story I have selected here.

The following account comes from the chapter on Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn’s childhood, during a period in which, as the first paragraph suggests, the saint was just beginning to discover his powers, not unlike many modern-day superhero stories in which the newly endowed superhero must learn to control his or her spectacular abilities, perhaps with the help of a mentor. Something similar is the case here: Ṣafī al-Dīn discovers strange and sometimes disturbing spiritual powers, such as an ability to see dead people, which, naturally, freaks him out, causing him to stop eating and to worry his mother (who is really his first mentor and a major presence in this chapter), who eventually coaxes the reason out of him. Understanding that her son is special, she seeks out holy men nearby who might direct him, but none are capable of training a prodigy like Ṣafī al-Dīn. In the story that follows, our protagonist sets out to a local holy place with hopes of finding an instructor, or at least some powerful baraka that will help him gain control of his powers and potent spiritual states. Additional commentary follows, but first the tale itself, which centers on Mount Sabalan, a high, prominent peak west of Ardabil:

Detail from the V&A’s Ardabil carpet.

Story (ḥikāyat): Shaykh Ṣadr al-Dīn, God perpetuate his baraka, said that when the spiritual state (ḥāl) of the shaykh, God sanctify his inner secret, grew more powerful, and when exalted conditions would occur which could not be stopped and which the shaykh found difficult to disclose [to others], by necessity he occupied himself with seeking out a guide (murshid) who could bring him out of this tumult of waves and will. He threw his entire body into this search, though he did not know from whence this impetus for searching came [1].

During that time people often had recourse to Mount Sabalan, it being well known that there were folk of God, exalted is He, atop Mount Sabalan. So the shaykh desired to go to Mount Sabalan, in order to find one of these people. The first time he went he found no one. The second time that the season for visiting came—for other than in the heart of summer it is not possible due to the intensity of the snow, ice, and cold—he went again and took from that place, in accordance with the custom of ordinary people, water and soil from the summit of Sabalan in order to derive baraka thereby. On his descent he passed through a couloir in the mountain, and saw a Turk [here with the sense of a nomad] squatting down, having taken up a bow and arrow and put the arrow to the bow, waiting in ambush for the shaykh. Other than [the Turk] there were no people in the vicinity—[Ṣafī al-Dīn] looked to see if he had an entourage or followers, but no, he was like a spider all alone. Continue reading “Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn Goes Mountain Climbing”

The Jinn-Cat and the Şeyh

The following curious little story comes from the sixteenth century menâkıb of the early Ottoman sufi saint Şeyh Akşemseddîn (1390–1459), written by one Göynüklü Emîr Hüseyin Enîsî, and discussed previously on this site here. The account below comes in a sequence of tales of the Şeyh’s relationship with the jinn, mysterious beings that are in some ways half-way between humans and angels. Like several other of the tales in the sequence, this story has as its ‘moral’ the need for regulation of relationships between jinn and humans, not their absolute suspension. The jinn-turned-cat feature here is not a malevolent character, but rather genuinely wants to be in the presence of the saint. The strange voice without the door is rather obscure to me- does it represent another strange being, perhaps, attracted by the presence of the jinn-cat? Some details are left up to the reader’s imagination, reflecting, no doubt, the originally oral context in which these accounts were developed and in which they circulated before Emîr Hüseyin put them to paper, preserving them for much later audiences.

A (presumably non-jinn) cat at the feet of a shaykh, from a magnificent 16th century Safavid composition, attributed to Mir Sayyid ‘Ali, depicting a city at night- note the burning wall lamp in the top right. Detail from Harvard Art Museum 1958.76.

There was a jinn who loved the Şeyh. Unbeknownst to the Şeyh, the jinn took on the form of a cat, and was constantly in the Şeyh’s house, never leaving. One night the Şeyh went to sleep. The cat curled up beside the hearth. The Şeyh was sleeping soundly when from outside the front door there came a great and powerful strange voice. The cat stood up, and answered from behind the door. The one outside said, ‘I am very hungry! Give me something to eat—let me eat, open the door and I’ll come in!’

But the cat replied: ‘The Şeyh’s door is locked with the bismillah, so the door cannot be opened to give you food.’ However, the Şeyh had earlier cooked some köfte kebab, which [the cat] put through a slot in the door, saying, ‘Eat some of this!’ So it happened. The Şeyh saw it but made no sound and went back to sleep. Morning came. After finishing his prayers, he called out to the cat relating what had happened in the night. The cat twitched, then came [to the Şeyh]. The Şeyh said: ‘It’s difficult for a human and a jinn to always be in one place together. So go now, and come sometimes.’ So the jinn came from time to time, paying Akşemsüddin a pious visit (ziyâret iderdi).

Emîr Hüseyin Enîsî, Akşemseddin hazretleri ve yakın çevresi: Menâkıb-ı Âkşemseddîn, edited by Metin Çelik  (İstanbul: Ark, 2016), 66. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2019.

Ottoman Velvet

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Teacher, Student, Text, and the Control of Knowledge in Early Modern Damascus
The Damascus Room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a winter reception room (qa’a), dating to c. 1707 (Met 1970.170). Once part of a home in Damascus before its disassembly and transportation to New York City in the 1930s, this room resembles the reception hall of a well-to-do Ottoman family in early modern Damascus, though some elements were added later or otherwise modified. ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s house may well have contained a room, if not quite of this opulence, along these lines, for the greeting and hosting of guests.

Introduction: ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (1641-1731), a frequent presence on these pages, embodied many roles and identities over the course of his long life, a life that spanned major transformations in the nature of the Ottoman Empire in which he lived, as well as changes occurring in the wider world of early modernity. For many during his lifetime, and even more so after his death, he was a preeminent, even the preeminent ‘friend of God’- saint- of his age. His role as a major theological and philosophical thinker, author, and teacher was often seen as an aspect of his sainthood, the sheer scope of his literary productions and teaching activities, instructing all sorts of people in all sorts of subjects, as evidence of his special relationship with God. The passages that I have translated below are taken from the expansive biography written by ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s great-grandson, Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazzī (1760-1799), titled Wird al-unsī wa-al-warid al-qudsī fī tarjamat al-ʻārif ʻAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī. One of the longer chapters of this work consists of biographical entries, some brief, some quite long, of ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s many disciples and students, demonstrating the shaykh’s numerous social ties and relationships as well as the geographic reach of his instruction and saintly reputation.

The entry translated here- aside from the introductory paragraph, which I will summarize- concerns one Muṣṭafá Ṣafī al-Dīn al-‘Alwānī (1696-1779), a member of the ‘ulama of the city of Hama, descendant of a sixteenth century sufi saint, but whose later career was primarily based upon his skill as a poet and littérateur. In 1722 he came to Damascus from Hama in the company of his primary teaching shaykh, one Muhammad ibn Maḥmūd al-Ḥabbāl, taking up residence in the Bādharā’iyya madrasa. They both went together to visit ‘Abd al-Ghanī, who by 1722 was advanced in years and well established reputation-wise as both a saint and scholar. Our account picks up with Muṣṭafá meeting ‘Abd al-Ghanī for the first time.

Commentary follows the translation, but a few explanatory words will guide the reader unfamiliar with some of the conventions and terminology. Muṣṭafá wants to ‘read’ a book under ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s supervision, which entails, following a long-standing convention in the Islamic world (with analogues elsewhere in medieval and early modern Eurasia) whereby one would study a book by writing it down for one’s self or even memorize it, reciting back what one had written or memorized to the author, who would then grant an ijāza, a ‘certificate,’ stating that the student had properly received the text in question and was authorized to transmit it himself (or on occasion herself). The sessions in which this process took place could also allow the author to explicate and clarify the text. The verb that I alternatively translate as ‘read’ and ‘recite’ is qara’a, a particularly multivalent verb, which can also have the meaning of ‘study,’ as it in fact does here.
A stained glass window that once decorated an Ottoman home in Syria or Egypt, made at some point in the 18th century (Met. 93.26.3).

Translation: Love of [‘Abd al-Ghanī] seized the whole of his heart, so he returned to him and sought permission to read under him, asking which book [he should read]. The Master (al-ustādh) said to him: “Read our book on the oneness of being named al-Wujūd al-ḥaqq.” Then the Master gave him a quire (kurrās) from out of his own copybook, saying to him, “Write it down in your own handwriting, lesson (dars) by lesson.” He specified to him that the time of the lesson would be on Friday after the ṣalāt, and that every week he would read one lesson. [Muṣṭafá] would take the notebook and write it down in it. So it occurred that every Friday he would go to the Ṣālaḥiyya [neighborhood] and enter the house (dār) of the Master after the ṣalāt, kiss the hand of the Master and sit down. Then the Master would raise his head from writing and say, “Recite.” He would recite, then kiss his hand and go. He did this for a while, though his shaykh, al-Ḥabbāl, did not know about it. One day this Shaykh al-Ḥabbāl entered [Muṣṭafá’s madrasa] room, previously mentioned, began leafing through his loose pages and books, and found the book of the Master, al-Wujūd al-ḥaqq, in his possession, he having written out a goodly portion of it. He asked him about it, and he told him that he was reading the book under the Master’s supervision and so forth. Al-Ḥabbāl said to him by way of advice, “My son, you are not ready to read the like of this book, you don’t have the disposition for understanding the books of ḥaqā’iq [‘esoteric’ theology]. If you want to receive something from the Master and derive blessing from him, read under him a book on the technical terms of hadith, and get an ijāza from him—that much will suffice you.” So [Muṣṭafá] complied with his words. In accordance with his custom on Friday he went with a portion of what he had written out to the Master, this time from the book Sharḥ al-Nukhba [by Ibn al-Ḥajar (1372-1449)], on the knowledge of technical vocabulary. He entered into the Master’s presence, kissed his hand, and sat down. The Master did not raise his head from his writing, and did not say anything to him! He remained looking at him until the ‘aşr adhān [call to prayer] of that day, and the Master arose, prayed the ‘aṣr ṣalāt, then after completing his prayer looked at [Muṣṭafá] and said, “Ya Sayyīd Muṣṭafá, we do not instruct save our own books, and if you wish to read under us then read our books!” He did not expand upon those words any further. Muṣṭafá understood that what he had intended to ask of the Master had been revealed to him by way of unveiling, and he resumed his completion of the recitation of the aforementioned book.’ Continue reading “Teacher, Student, Text, and the Control of Knowledge in Early Modern Damascus”

The Shaykh and the Wrestlers

Wrestlers in a Persianate context, similar to that of the story below, as depicted in a sixteenth century Safavid illumined copy of Sa’di’s collected works (Walters W.618.31B)

Sufism has developed over the centuries a vast technical vocabulary, with many elements filtering out into wider Islamic (or, better, ‘Islamicate’) societies and languages. One of the more difficult terms that makes up this stock of words describing sufi practice and theology is the Arabic word himmah, taken into Persian as himmat. Its basic lexical meaning is, per Steingass’ Persian dictionary, ‘Inclination, desire, resolution, intention, design,’ with the additional meanings of ‘ambition, aspiration; mind, thought, attention, care; magnanimity; power, strength, ability; auspices, grace, favour.’ The sufi usage of himmah encompasses all of these: when a shaykh is said to possess or wield himmah, we might say that he exerts the power of his mindful intention, power which is invested in him by virtue of his relationship with God. It’s a bit like ‘the Force’ in Star Wars, in that through the use of his himmah the advanced master is able to psychically- so to speak- manipulate things in the physical world outside of his body, similar to the way a Jedi master might employ the Force to move objects or change a person’s thoughts or will.

The ambiguity of himmah is not simply the case of being at a remove from the original languages of sufism- it’s clear from the sources that medieval and early modern sufi authors felt a need to explicate what precisely was meant thereby to contemporary audiences. The story I’ve excerpted and translated below comes from a Persian-language collection of lives of Inner Asian Naqshbandī saints, entitled Rashaḥāt-i ʻayn al-ḥayāt, by Fakhr al-Dīn ʿAlī ibn Ḥusayn Wāʿiẓ Kāshifī Ṣafī (1463 – 1532-3). The story is part of longer clarifying discussion by Kāshifī about himmat, as an introduction to the miracles of the important fifteenth-century Naqshbandī saint Khwāja ‘Ubayd Allāh Aḥrār. It also speaks, by the by, to a major component of wider Persianate culture during this period and afterwards, namely, the role of wrestling, a sport which provides the setting for the miracle story.

From a somewhat earlier period, two wrestlers, as depicted on a 13th century Ilkhanid tile (Walters 48.1283)

One day we came to the wrestling-grounds where two people were wrestling—one was powerfully and immensely built of frame, while the other was weak and scrawny of body. The big fellow was making easy work of the weak one, so that we felt merciful towards him, and I said to Mawlānā Sa’d al-Dīn [Kashgārī], ‘Use your power of mind (himmat) and send out a thought (khāṭir) so that that weak one can triumph over that powerful one!’

He replied, ‘You pay heed, and we will also lend aid.’ So his thought turned in that moment to the weak one, and in a flash the weak one was invested with great strength so that he was able to extend his arm and with dexterous skill lifted the powerful-framed man from the ground, hoisted him overhead, then threw him down into the dust of the ring. A great exclamation went up from the crowd, the men watching amazed and bewildered by what had transpired, none of the spectators aware of the secret of it.

ʻAlī ibn Ḥusayn Kāshifī Ṣafī, Rashaḥāt-i ʻayn al-ḥayāt, ed. ʿA.A.’ Muʿīniyān (Tehran: Bunyād-i Nīkūkārī-i Nūriyānī, 2536/1977-8), v. II, 517.


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