Nader Shah, a Rebellious Governor, and a Saint’s Intercessions

Partly colored drawing pasted on an album leaf. “A Standing Dervish.” Signed Muhsin. Iran, Isfahan; c. 1650. Drawing: 15.1 × 7.6 cm David Collection Inv. no. 145/2006

One of the most remarkable and fascinating, as well as tumultuous and frequently traumatic, periods in the early modern history of Persia was the meteoric rise and success of Nader Shah (d. 1747), who not only established himself in the ruins of the Safavid dynasty, having expelled invading Afghans and rather handily deposed the resurgent Safavid claimant to the throne, but also embarked on a campaign of conquest in almost every direction that was redolent of the great conquerors of Inner Asia of days past. Nader Shah’s conquests and campaigns had an enormous impact on not just the societies of the former Safavid lands but also the many places touched by his forays, including the Ottoman and Mughal lands. In the Ottoman Empire, for instance, Nader’s campaigns gave rise to a new form of resolutely Sunni devotional regime, centered around the Ahl al-Badr, the early Muslims who fought alongside Muhammad at the pivotal battle of Badr, and whose names formed a litany of saintly intercession that soared in popularity after Nader’s eruption into the Ottoman world. Nader’s conquests and empire re-making drew in and impacted the numerous Armenian communities scattered across the central Islamicate lands, from the Mughal realms in India to the far western edges of the Ottoman domains and beyond into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. As perhaps the most visible and deeply integrated- yet still distinctive and communally cohesive (for the most part)- minority group in these Muslim-majority lands, Armenians, whether Orthodox or Catholic, provide an important and fascinating vantage point for viewing events such as the rise of Nader Shah, with Armenians from different sides of the Ottoman-Iranian border providing markedly different perspectives.

The account below comes from an otherwise unknown chronicler of Nader’s rise and campaigns, one Abraham of Erevan, who, as the translator of his chronicle, George A. Bournoutian, notes, was probably either a military man or somehow involved in military affairs, perhaps on the logistics side, as he shows particular acumen in relating military operations and the intricacies of the various campaigns Nader carried out. He is throughout strikingly ‘pro-Nāder,’ even as he gives evidence of Armenians on the Ottoman side with quite different sentiments. The passage I have selected here (and I will perhaps follow up with more selections from Abraham’s chronicle and from other sources in a range of languages dealing with Nader Shah), has to do with, among other things, a Muslim saint, as seen by an Armenian chronicler, and his interactions with, on the one hand, Nader Shah, and, on the other, a rebellious provincial governor who had fled into the saint’s protection. In keeping with the theme of my recent previous set of postings, we see in Abraham’s account a sense of a shared economy of holiness, triply so: Abraham understands the Muslim saint as being in many ways similar to saints in his own tradition, and expects his audience to understand things in this way as well. It is also possible, if not likely, that the saint in question, dwelling on the Iranian littoral away from the centers of Persian Shi’ism, may have been Sunni, though there is no real indication one way or another. If he was, however, this story points to a continued shared economy of holiness between Shi’i and Sunnis in the former Safavid sphere; regardless, the markers of sainthood identified here would have been shared across boundaries. Finally, the story is a reminder of the limits of this economy of holiness- while the saint saves the life of the governor, it is not an unmitigated rescue, as we will see!


After that, Nāder marched on Shiraz, whose governor, called Mohammad, had rebelled against him, even though Nāder had appointed him to control the disloyal Balūç. Instead of convincing the Balūç to become loyal to Nāder, Mohammad rose against Nāder, gathered an army, and planned to march on Isfahan. Meanwhile, he had gone to the Bandar region [on the Persian Gulf coast] and had killed those who refused to join him. He added the rest to his army, went to Shiraz and prepared to attach Isfahan.

Nāder was informed of Mohammad’s intentions and dispatched an envoy with a letter that stated, “What are you doing? You are my servant and have eaten my bread. I raised you above five or six other khans. What is the reason that you have rebelled, have become alienated, have raised you sword and men against me? Repent and change your evil ways.” Nāder sent similar messages three times, but the latter did not answer. After the fourth message, Mohammad Khan replied, “I risk my neck on my action. Let God decide between us. Be aware that either I or you shall lose our life.”

When Nāder heard this, he no longer communicated with Mohammad Khan. Instead, he gathered his army and marched on Shiraz. Mohammad Khan was informed of his approach and went out to meet him on the plain. During the battle Mohammad’s army took flight and many were killed. He himself barely escaped and took refuge in a fortress in the Bandar region caled ‘Avaẓ. The chief of the fortress, a certain Sheikh Jabbār, had an extraordinary knowledge of the supernatural and the Muslims of the region considered him a saint and believed his every word, for her had reportedly performed many miracles. Mohammad Khan thus went to the Sheikh, told him what had occurred, and begged him for God’s sake to intercede with Nāder, since the latter held the Sheikh in great reverence.

The Sheikh gave in to his request and sent a letter to Nāder stating, “For my sake, receive Mohammad Khan, who has repented and who wishes to return to your bosom. Have mercy on him, do not execute him, although he is not worthy of your generosity.” Nāder responded, “Let it be so. Because of your entreaties I shall not execute him. Send him to us.” The Sheikh showed Nāder’s letter to Mohammad Khan and the latter went to him. When he appeared before him, Nāder said, “Do you remember when I was in Baghdad and wrote to you not to go against me? You answered that God shall decide which one of us will remain alive. Well, God has placed you in my hands and it is just that I should kill you.” Mohammad Khan replied, “Do as you wish; I am here in your hands.” Nāder replied, “Although you deserve to die, for the sake of the Sheikh who begged that I spare your life, I shall spare you. But I shall give you a minor punishment.” He then ordered one of his slaves to remove Mohammad Khan’s eyes. Nāder then gave the blind khan one hundred tomans and said, “Go! Live on this sum and pray for me.” He then entrusted him to fifteen soldiers and sent him to Mashhad. [Nāder] then went to Isfahan to prepare the conquest of Shirvan and Shemakhi.

Abraham of Erevan, History of the Wars (1721-1738), translated by George A. Bournoutian (Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers, 1999), 83-38.

Two Ways of Dealing with the Jinn in the Ottoman World

Demons- the red king of the djinns, Al-Malik al-Ahmar. Demon portrait. From a 15th-century Arabic collectaneous manuscript known as Kitab al-bulhan.
The Red King (al-Malik al-aḥmar), from Kitāb al-Bulhān, produced c. 1390-1450, probably Baghdad (MS. Bodl. Or. 133, fol. 31a)

The presence and potential power of the jinn- beings neither human nor angel, but instead somewhere in-between, capable of both helping and harming humans but mostly just interested in their own devices- has been a constant throughout Islamic history, with the concept of the jinn probably pre-dating Islam considerably in fact. Ways of dealing with the jinn have varied considerably, though certain practices- the use of talismans and amulets, or other sacred or semi-sacred prophylactics- has been common across many Islamic societies. The two examples I’ve presented here demonstrate at least two ways in which people in the sixteenth century Ottoman world imagined and sought to control the power of the jinn.

The image above is of one of the most fearsome of the jinn, the ‘Red King,’ also referenced in the story below. He is surrounded by various other ferocious, indeed rather terrifying, jinn, sitting astride a lion. His malevolent nature, had it been in doubt, is emphasized by the decapitated human head he holds in one hand. This image comes from a 15th (or possibly late 14th) century compilation, the Kitāb al-Bulhān, produced in pre-Ottoman Baghdad, a book which features a range of material from the astrological to the occult- subjects and genres that hover somewhere among our modern categories of science, magic, and religion. The image itself contains prophylactic letters and numbers- visible to the left and right of the Red King’s head- which are meant to control this particular jinn’s manifestations. More interesting for our purposes, this manuscript was modified by later Ottoman owners: Ottoman Turkish has been added, and some of the images have been modified. This painting of the Red King bears the most striking modifications. Through some technique the paint has been removed from the jinn chief’s body at strategic points: his neck and hands have been ‘cut,’ his head ‘pierced,’ and his mount’s eye put out. As you might guess these are not accidental injuries to the manuscript, but were done deliberately, almost certainly by a 16th century Ottoman owner (at some point in the 17th century it was acquired by a English collector, who added his own cryptographic writing to parts of the text- but that’s another story!). What is going on here?

In her recent discussion of Ottoman and Safavid devotional artistic practices [1], the Islamic art historian Christiane Gruber drew attention to the physical interactions that audiences of manuscript paintings in both empires had with particular images. Along with ‘positive’ devotional acts like the addition of face-covering veils to images of Muhammad and members of the Ahl al-Bayt, kissing and rubbing depictions of Muhammad and others, and other types of practices that modified the image on the page, we also see evidence of symbolic devotional ‘violence’ in images: the faces of Muhammad’s pagan enemies being rubbed out, their necks and hands ‘cut,’ and, in Shi’i contexts, explicitly Sunni figures being ritually defaced. Gruber argues that these actions were seen as relating to the subjects depicted in some way: cutting the necks of Muhammad’s opponents de-fanged their potential power, while allowing the viewer to not just view but participate, albeit at a remove, in the drama being depicted in the picture. Something very similar is going on in this image: whoever modified this image sought to control the power of the Red King through symbolic ritual action, with the understanding that violence done to the jinn’s depiction ‘translated’ to the jinn himself. Note that this is not iconoclasm, at least not in the traditional sense: most of the pictures in this collection have not been modified at all, indicating both the lack of iconoclasm in the book’s audience and the apparently especially dangerous nature of the Red King, dangerous enough that even his image in an occult handbook needed to be ‘brought to heel.’

The second example of controlling the jinn- including the Red King- comes from the saint’s life of ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Sha’rānī (d. 1565), Tadhkirat ūlī al-albāb, by Muḥammad Muḥyī al-Dīn al-Malījī. The short story I have translated below is only one of numerous anecdotes in which the saint confronts jinn, both singly and in groups. In these stories a recurring feature, and one that long predated al-Sha’rānī, is the jinn’s occupation of particular places and spaces, especially abandoned human dwellings. The ability of saints to confront and control the jinn was also well established by the 16th century; al-Sha’rānī is shown using his saintly power to mark out spaces in the urban fabric of Cairo, not so much to defeat the jinn as to demonstrate his sanctity by moving into their space and avoiding any harm from them. Continue reading “Two Ways of Dealing with the Jinn in the Ottoman World”

Race, Slavery, and Sainthood in the Early Modern Ottoman World: Some Perspectives

Kadi Sünbül Ali
Kadı Sünbül ‘Ali, as depicted in a c. 1620 Ottoman book of costumes for Western European use, The Habits of the Grand Seignor’s Court, British Museum 1928,0323,0.46.8

Among the circles on Twitter that I follow- and occasionally participate in- in recent weeks the issue of the relationship between ‘the Enlightenment’ and modern notions and practices of racism has emerged as a popular and contentious topic. Now, while I have my own thoughts and theories about the Western European Enlightenment (which was as you can guess from my use of quotation marks a much more complicated affair than either its boosters or detractors tend to make out), what I would like to address here is the question of how race was perceived in a pre-modern, pre-Enlightenment context, specifically, within the Ottoman Empire at a particular time (and among certain groups, not necessarily all, given the sheer diversity of the empire). As such, the example I give here doesn’t necessarily prove anything one way or another about whether or not the Enlightenment ‘invented’ racism or racialized slavery. Rather, what I hope my comments here demonstrate is the complicated ways in which racial, or racial-like, categories, ethnic difference, and practices of slavery (all of which certainly intersected long before the Enlightenment to be sure) interacted. It does not make sense, ultimately, to say that early modern Ottomans were racist, or, for that matter, that they weren’t, or, in terms of slavery, that Ottoman slavery was totally different from slavery in the Americas, or that it was very similar: the reality is, as we historians are (obnoxiously to some!) fond of saying, complicated, and while our modern categories (themselves certainly shaped by, among other things, the Enlightenment(s)) are not totally foreign to early modern Ottoman (or any other) worlds, they must be applied with care if they are to be applied at all. Likewise, while we can often find parallels- unsurprisingly- between Ottoman practices and attitudes and those developing in contemporary Western Europe and the Americas, we ought to be equally sensitive to the differences and divergences.

I’ve taken a single late 17th century encounter, recorded by ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī and translated below along with my commentary, as my main point of departure, a story which I think illustrates well these complexities of racial origin, slavery, and the social limitations and possibilities contained within Ottoman practices of race and slavery, all oriented within a concern for sainthood (a category early modern Ottomans of all confessional varieties would have recognized to some degree or another, incidentally). There are a lot of ways in which we might explore race and slavery in the Ottoman lands: in thinking about race and ethnicity, for instance, we might want to consider the genealogy of ideas about phenotype and human geographical origin in the wider Islamic sphere, a genealogy that we could well trace back to the heritages of the ancient world. In terms of slavery, we might consider the various mechanisms whereby slaves were brought to market in Ottoman cities, the different ways that slaves from different places were perceived and employed, or the interaction of legal norms governing slavery, lived practice, and differing attitudes based on skin color or gender or other characteristics.

Historians have not tackled these issues to the degree that they deserve; Ottoman slavery, while the subject of a handful of monographs and edited volumes, remains poorly understood and overly polemicized. On the question of race and racial identity and prejudice, perhaps the best treatment has come from Baki Tezcan in his article ‘Dispelling the Darkness: The politics of ‘race’ in the early seventeenth century Ottoman Empire in the light of the life and work of Mullah Ali’.’ [1] Mullah ‘Ali, who is almost certainly the ‘kadı’ pictured above, was an Ottoman scholar and jurist of African origin who rose to extreme prominence in the ‘ilmiyye hierarchy, coming close to claiming the highest rank in the scholarly system, that of shaykh al-Islam, the personal patronage-based politics of the Ottoman elite intervening. While he was subject to some degree of insult and prejudice due to the color of his skin- his detractors drawing upon a venerable genealogy of notions within the Islamic world about the supposed inferiority of Africans- Tezcan argues that these insults and prejudice (which Mullah ‘Ali, also following a long genealogy within Islam, combated in writing) were mostly strategic, his opponents not being motivated by racial prejudice but instead deploying it because it was available. This suggests that something like ‘racism’ was culturally available to Ottomans, but with the stress on ‘available’: it was not systematic in any meaningful sense, and it need not bar a well-connected scholar with black skin from rising to the heights of power. That said, Mullah ‘Ali’s story primarily concerns the situation of the rarefied elite of the Ottoman world. What of race and slavery at the level of more ordinary people?

The story that I’d like to focus on in order to approach some aspects of slavery and race at the non-elite level [2] is one that I’ve shared before, but for a different purpose: The Hermit of Ya’bad and His Marvelous Coffee and Good Counsel. There is a great deal going on this little story, with insights about matters from how sacred space was performed in the Ottoman world to the role of coffee culture and its penetration even into the rural Palestinian countryside. But here we will focus on Shaykh Zā’id – the subject of the account – and his relationships with others. We begin with ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s initial encounter, during his passage through northern Palestine during the late 17th century:

And it reached us in that village [of Ya’bad] that there was close by a black [freed] slave from among the divinely drawn (majādhīb) lovers of God, whose name was Shaykh Zā’id, in a cave there at the foot of a small mountain. And it was reported to us that the cave used to not be 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. Continue reading “Race, Slavery, and Sainthood in the Early Modern Ottoman World: Some Perspectives”

Ottoman Women and the Lives of Saints, i.: Stampeding Livestock and Saintly Friendships

This post begins a three-part series of accounts of women’s lives that I have discovered ’embedded’ in hagiographical literature from the early modern Ottoman world, lives which I’ve selected for the variety they show, both in the social and economic profiles of the women they feature, and in the ways that the interact with the holy men in the stories. I’ve featured women in Ottoman hagiography before (such as in this recent post), and I could have easily extended this series many times over: for as it turns out, women tend to be quite visible in these sorts of sources, often doing and saying things that might come as a surprise for those who tend to imagine Islamic and Middle Eastern women of this period living highly secluded, strictly gender-segregated existences. While not always true, women tend to be sympathetic or virtuous (or both) characters in these accounts, often being singled out for their devotion and trust in the saint in question, not infrequently in contrast to higher-status men who do not show such trust and suffer the consequences. And across accounts we see women from a range of backgrounds and stations in life freely associating with male saints and crossing into the physical space of the saint- living and departed- in ways that might not have been countenanced so readily by Ottoman men in other spaces.

In the following brief account, taken from a major 17th century compilation of lives of notable people- including numerous saints- of Damascus and beyond by the scholar Najm al-Dīn al-Ghazzī, we encounter an unnamed woman (a frequent feature in this stories, reflecting gender norms that did not break down even in the textual presence of a saint) who is close to the saint featured here, one Muhammad Abū Muslim al-Ṣamādī (911/1505-994/1585), a charismatic and popular saint of Damascus whom al-Ghazzī considered one of the greatest and most important holy men of the 10th Islamic century. The woman and her husband in this story seem to be of originally nomadic origin- hence the appellation ‘son of an Arab,’ which suggest Bedouin background- but spent at least part of their time in Damascus, going out to the steppes (which lie quite close to the city) at certain times of the year. Note also in this story both the identity of the woman- she herself is described as being a saint, though we are given no further details, unfortunately- and the apparent freedom with which she associated with not just al-Ṣamādī but al-Ghazzī’s father and al-Ghazzī himself.

Velvet Ottoman Panel of Carnations

It also reached me that a man called Muhammad ibn ‘Arab [that is, the son of an ‘Arab] went out eastward [into the steppes] in order to bring in some cattle, and on his way back he spent the night in fearful place. The night was extremely windy and had heavy rain. He related: “It was the middle of the night, when a movement spooked the animals and they bolted. I despaired of regathering them, so I cried out: ‘Yā Abī Muslim, this is your time!’ Then scarcely the blink of an eye later and the animals had come together to me from every direction until they were all assembled.”

The wife of this “ibn ‘Arab” was a holy woman from among the saints of God, who believed in Shaykh Muhammad al-Ṣamādī and who used to believe in my father as well, frequently visiting him and then me after him. She said: “I went to [Shaykh Muhammad al-Ṣamādī] Abū Muslim one day, and my husband was absent on that journey. He said to me: ‘Ya Umm So-and-So I am going to tell you something you must not relate until after I have died. Last night your husband’s animals fled from him so he cried out to me, seeking my aid. So I picked up a stone and threw it towards him, and his animals came back together. He will come to you soundly nothing having happened to him.’”

Continue reading “Ottoman Women and the Lives of Saints, i.: Stampeding Livestock and Saintly Friendships”

A Saint of the Rural Road in Ottoman Anatolia

Ottoman Sofra
A rare example of an early 17th century Ottoman sofra- a round cloth, in this beautifully decorated with tulip and other motifs- spread out on the floor or ground in order for food to be placed on it, functioning like a dining room table. While the saint in the story below probably would not have had so finely crafted a sofra, this one gives an idea of what such a textile looked like- and how a reader of the story might have imagined a saint’s sofra to look. (St. Louis Art Museum 175:1952)

Rural religious life in the pre-modern Islamic world remains relatively little known to historians, at least in comparison to religious life in medieval and especially early modern Western Europe. This is partially due to the absence of many of the confessional, disciplinary, and other institutional structures and organs, such as the Inquisition in its various forms, whose operations ensured that much rural life- primarily, but not exclusively, religious- would be quite visible to future historians. For a context such as the Ottoman Empire, our sources for rural life in general are rather scarcer. Travel literature, population and resource surveys, and similar sources are one means of uncovering early modern life among peasants, nomadic peoples, and other inhabitants of rural spaces and places. The following life of a rural saint of the 16th century, which I’ve taken from an Ottoman Turkish biographical compilation by the poet and author Nevîzâde Atâyî (1583–1635), represents another potential route for recovering aspects of religious and social life in the Ottoman countryside- which is where, after all, the majority of the population in fact lived.

I do not know how Atâyî, who was very much a product of the Ottoman elite literary and learned milieu, came by his knowledge of the life of Ahmed Dede, the saint featured in this account, but it seems likely that because of his position on an important route between two well-established cities in western Anatolia, Ahmed Dede was known to people in the imperial center (including, evidently, Selim II). While this account of his life comes from an elite, urban writer, and was written in ornate Ottoman Turkish prose, heavy with Persian vocabulary and constructions, a style I have tried to reproduce somewhat in my translation, it remains valuable for the inadvertent insights into what might have constituted a saint in rural Anatolia. Ahmed Dede, who was known by several other names as well, while he received initiation from sufi masters both in his home village and during a sojourn in Istanbul, seems to become recognized as a saint due to his generous acts of hospitality, and his reputation for miraculously fertile grain crops, crops which he himself cultivated. Previous eras of historiography would probably have suggested that Ahmed Dede was a ‘survival’ of a pre-Islamic fertility cult: while such an idea is, for a number of reasons, quite untenable, it should come as no surprise that peasants and others in the rural world would value divine protection for crops, and that generosity in one’s abundant material possessions would count as a major marker of sainthood.

I have taken the extra step in the below translation to include footnotes explicating some of the less obvious references and allusions that our author makes, as well as to note a couple of places where I am not myself entirely confident that I understood Atâyî’s meaning!

Sofra close up

Şeyh Ahmed Dede: He came into the world in a village named Gırbalcı, near the town of Kütahya [1]. Among the common people he was known as Kalburci Şeyhi as well as Mıhmandâr and Çavdârli after the tribe. From the ‘ulamâ of his native place he obtained learning and, being from birth ordained and whetted for taking ‘mystical letters and meanings,’ he joined the service of Şeyh Sinân Karamânî, then inclined towards the beholding the divinely graced Abdüllatîf Efendi. It is related that one day he [Ahmed Dede] was present at a lesson with two companion when, while the aforementioned şeyh was in the time of his spiritual brightness and openness [to God], each one made supplication concerning the desire that was implanted within him. The aforesaid şeyh’s arrow of supplication having been shot and hitting God’s giving answer, one of them became, in accord with his heart’s desire, an officer in the army, while another, in concordance with his soul’s inclination, became part of the folk of knowledge—but the subject of this account, [Ahmed Dede], obtained the grace that he, like the basin and table of Ibrahim, would not have his licit wealth (mâl-i halâl) become exhausted [2].

Afterwards, coming to Istanbul, in the service of the pole of the sphere of divine reality Merkez Efendi he perfected his spiritual wayfaring. After being authorized in giving guidance he became eminent through the gracious oversight of Kastamonulu Şabân Efendi. Ultimately he returned to his village and set up in his well-known zâviye [3], feeding travelers and giving perfect honor to passers-by. In this manner through the months and days he gave praise to God, this honorer of guests of the house of Islam dying in the year 978/1570—to his spirit be divine mercy!

The aforesaid saint’s miraculous gifts of grace (kerâmât) with divine might are well-known—like the brilliant sun and the haloed moon, day and night, he spread out bread and table. He was a Milky Way of the lined-up food-cloth stretched out as constant beneficence, his laughing face like a damask rose, as he made manifest the open sofra, he a spring-time cloud of constant out-pouring, a comfort-giving hand, dressed in nobility, a sea of sainthood, a pocket of aid, treasury of the unseen and traveling-wallet of grace, of holy ardor, the cultivated field of the one in need of the bread of blessing is from the blessings of God. Continue reading “A Saint of the Rural Road in Ottoman Anatolia”

Depicting Devotion to Muhammad: Images in An Ottoman Compendium

Names of God and Names of Muhammad Osmanische Sammelhandschrift , 17XX
Hilye-i Şerîf, from Ahlâk-i resûl Allâh, from Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin Ms. or. oct. 1602, 48v.
Muhammad's Sandal
Depiction of the sandal of the Prophet, Ms. or. oct. 1602, 44v.

These two images come from the same manuscript compendium of devotional texts, a manuscript now held in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, but originally completed and used somewhere in the Turcophone part of the Ottoman Empire, during the seventeenth century. The particular text they are a part of, Ahlâk-i resûl Allâh, describes, as its name suggests, the ‘characteristics’ of Muhammad and aspects of his life, which entails, among other things, encountering, in both text and image, places and things entwined with his life. This includes marvelous schematics of Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, for instance. It also includes a couple of instances of hilye-i şerîf, which I’ve mentioned briefly before here. These are ‘verbal-pictorial icons’ that depict, through words and non-figural (at least not of humans) images and design, the attributes of Muhammad, physical and otherwise. The hilye-i şerîf I’ve included above is a somewhat unusual example: instead of reproducing hadith-based descriptions of Muhammad’s physical characteristics, it features, side by side, names of God and names of Muhammad, filling the big flowers that dominate the top of the page. Below these ‘verbal icons’ are calligraphic renderings of Qur’anic phrases (some barely visible because of the poor contrast between flower color and script) along with the names of other important holy figures from the founding generation of Islam.

The second image is a heavily stylized and decorated rendering of Muhammad’s sandal, one of several physical traces- relics, in a sense- associated with Muhammad from the middle ages on and which seem to have grown in importance in the Ottoman period, as part of the general intensification of devotion to the Prophet across Islam in this period. In addition to objects claimed to be actual physical relics- hairs from Muhammad’s beard, the impress of his foot in a rock, cloaks he once wore- visual reproductions of those relics also proliferated, usually in the context of devotional texts such as this one. What was the devotional content of these images, or, to put it differently, what did these images ‘do’? For the artist, patron, and purchaser or owner or endower of a manuscript such as this, the act of creating the image and beautifying it- the gorgeous rich flowers of the hilye, the bright colors and delicate designs of the sandal, or instance- could serve as acts of devotion, of love, in themselves, as a type of offering. These depictions could also act as loci of remembrance, even for people who could not read or decipher the Arabic inscriptions: the image called to mind the person from whom the original relic was derived. An intrinsic connection was forged- hence my calling these images ‘icons,’ even though no human form is depicted- independent of a viewer, even as they summoned the viewer into an imaginative encounter with the referent. Following a similar logic, these images, by virtue of a perceived ‘link’ back to Muhammad himself, could carry a prophylactic charge. There are in fact hadith- devised very late (and in fact sometimes claimed to have been delivered via dreams)- that claim as much, to the effect that anyone who places a hilye-i şerîf in his or her home will be protected from all manner of misfortune.

In sum, far from being simply decorative objects or illustrations for a text, images such as these had a complex role in Ottoman devotional culture, containing meanings and applications that are not immediate obvious to modern-day viewers but which can give us valuable insights into the religious and emotional lives and practices of early modern Ottoman Muslims.

For further reading:

Christiane Gruber, The Prophet as a ‘Sacred Spring’: Late Ottoman Hilye Bottles

Christiane Gruber, “The Rose of the Prophet: Floral Metaphors in Late Ottoman Devotional Art,” in  Envisioning Islamic Art and Architecture, November 14, 2014, 223–49.




Fire Poured Out From Heaven: Muslim Saints’ Shrines in Safavid Miniature Painting

Miniature from a copy of Jafar al-Sadiq_s Falnama. “Scene From a Mausoleum” Iran, Tabriz or Qasvin; c. 1550
Miniature from a copy of Jafar al-Sadiq’s Falnama. “Scene From a Mausoleum”
Iran, Tabriz or Qasvin; c. 1550 (David Collection, Inv. no. 28/1997)
“Prayers in a Mosque” Miniature from Kulliyat-i Mawlana Ahli Shirazi (Collected Works of Mawlana Ahli Shirazi) Shiraz, Iran; c. 1550
Miniature from Kulliyat-i Mawlana Ahli Shirazi (Collected Works of Mawlana Ahli Shirazi)
Shiraz, Iran; c. 1550, David Collection, Inv. no. Isl 161

As any long-time reader of this blog will know, one of my primary areas of scholarly interest is the history of saints and sainthood in the Islamic world, primarily within Islamic traditions but also in Christian and Jewish traditions practiced within or in contact with Islamicate cultures. The very fact that ‘Muslims have saints’ often comes as a surprise, with the usual follow up question being something along the lines of ‘Just what is a Muslim saint like?’ The answer, of course, varies from place to place and time to time, with the usual caveats that Muslims saints ‘look’ both like and unlike saints in other religious traditions, and that some forms of Islam, especially in the modern world, largely reject sainthood (similar to some forms of Christianity after the Protestant Reformation).

One difference between Muslim modes of understanding and depicting saints and sainthood and those found in many other traditions such as Christianity and Buddhism is the relatively low-key role of visual depictions in describing saints and in venerating them or inscribing their memory. While it is not true to say that Islam across the board lacks iconographic traditions, explicit uses of icon-like depictions for veneration has historically tended to be limited to either to depictions of non-human items and places, described in last week’s post, or in a rather supplemental manner (for private devotions or in the context of a shrine), such as has become common in contemporary Shi’i devotion (though certainly not only Shi’i- for instance, see this example from resolutely Sunni Morocco). The two miniatures above fall into another category altogether: in both we have something quite rare, namely, artistic renderings of practiced devotion to saints. These two images, both of which were produced in Safavid Iran while it was still in the long process of transitioning from a Sunni polity to a Shi’i one, give us a pretty good visual idea of what tomb veneration looked like in an early modern context- while they come from the Persian world, we know from literary evidence that the practices and architectural elements depicted in them would have been shared with other regions, including the neighboring Ottoman lands. The images are hence worth a closer look. Continue reading “Fire Poured Out From Heaven: Muslim Saints’ Shrines in Safavid Miniature Painting”

A Beginner’s Guide to Futuwwat

Upon reading the title of this post, you may be wondering, right off, what is futuwwat? You may be forgiven a lack of familiarity with the term; while once an ethical, spiritual, and organizational concept that animated communities across the Middle East and beyond, futuwwat (also known by its Persian translational equivalent, javānmardi) is not exactly in common currency anymore- though it is not extinct, either. Literally it could be translated ‘youngmanliness’; some scholars have suggested ‘chivalry’ or ‘Islamic chivalry’ as translations. Both of those get at some of the aspects of this term, but hardly explain it. To put it briefly (see the works cited at the end of this post for more information), the concept of futuwwat embodies a social ethic and set of practices informed by a rigorous morality, Sufic ascetic and mystical concepts and practices, and ideas on appropriate social behavior. While seemingly first developed by Sufi writers (though its origins are rather obscure, like the origins of many, perhaps most things), the ethics of futuwwat eventually became the ideological foundation for futuwwat-brotherhoods and futuwwat-influenced guilds, replete with distinctive rituals, mutual aid, group solidarity, and occasionally armed action on behalf of members or political causes. By the fifteenth century, the period from which the treatise below hails, futuwwat was firmly integrated and developed within both Sufi orders and urban workmen’s guilds, as well as groups devoted simply to futuwwat. The concept and associated practices would survive through those entities for a long time- in Egypt, for instance, futuwwat organizations were only ended through the drive for centralized state power after World War II. In the contemporary Persianate world (Iran, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, etc.), the futuwwat/javānmardi ethos lives on in the Zurkhaneh tradition and its associated athletic practices and ethos. At any rate, medieval and early modern futuwwat is still often something of a mystery, in part because expressions of futuwwat were so diverse and ranged across social classes. A primary source of information is the futuwwat-handbook genre, as represented by the translation below.

The author of the treatise excerpted from here was one Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī Wāʻiẓ Kāshifī (c.1420-1504/5), a scholar and writer who spent much of his life in and around the Timurid court in Herat. Kāshifī was a prolific author, writing everything from Qur’an commentaries (all in Persian) to a treatise on epistolography to a book on magic. Two of his shorter treatises, Anwār-i Suhaylī and Rawḍat al-shuhadāʾ, have had a long and vigorous historical afterlife. The first is a Persian translation of the long-popular story Kalīla wa-Dimna, itself transmitted into Arabic from Indian sources. Kāshifī’s version continues to be reprinted, and made its ways into Ottoman Turkish and, via that route, French, influencing the composition of La Fontaine’s Fables. As for the Rawḍat al-shuhadāʾ, a poetic work dealing with ‘Ali and his family (the title translates as Garden of the Martyrs), it continues in use among Shīʿīs as part of Muḥarram commemorations.

Kāshifī himself cannot be described as being simply either Sunnī or Shīʿī, as his work- including the one treated here- displays ideas and sentiments that could be classified in either theological camp; his work stands as an example of the ways in which even in the fifteenth century sectarian positions and affiliations were not absolutely fixed or determined. Indeed, futuwwat works historically had expressed strong pro-‘Alid sentiments; ‘Ali is frequently praised as the true exemplar of futuwwat, for instance. In Kāshifī’s treatment of futuwwat, devotion to the ‘house’ (that is, family) of Muhammad is front-and-center; at the same time, Sufism is also strongly on display and deliberately called upon. Kāshifī was affiliated, for a while at least, with the Naqshbandī order, a resolutely Sunni branch of Sufism; at the same time, he was perfectly capable of expressing ‘Shīʿī’ sentiments and doctrines. At any rate, his treatise on futuwwat is a significant one, given its length and depth: he tackles the issue from all its angles, from its Sufic, ethical aspect to its integration with guilds and other occupational groupings.

The excerpt below represents my first public attempt at translating from Persian into English; as such, I must present it provisionally, with the caveat that a couple of points in the text eluded my full comprehension, though I believe that I have conveyed the meaning accurately. In the handful of spots in this excerpt where the author writes in Arabic I have marked it in italics, for instance when Kāshifī quotes the Qur’an. I have not tried to rework the text to soften the edge of its insistence on lists; this ‘listing mentality’ is part of the utility and purpose of the text, and represents what was by Kāshifī’s time a pretty well established tradition in futuwwat texts, among other genres. Fortunately for me as a novice in Persian, the text as a whole is pretty straightforward and written in an accessible manner- while Kāshifī treats some ‘lofty’ themes and includes plenty of Sufi-inflected material, the work as a whole seems to be aimed at instructing the beginner in futuwwat, the proverbial man on the street who might wish to join a futuwwat-brotherhood or guild. As a result, we get a nice cross-section of social values- at least as expressed by the learned classes of which Kāshifī is a representative- that, while primarily located in those learned classes, can also be assumed to have had cachet among a wider body of the population. After all, as the composition and intended audience of this text make clear, futuwwat was not intended just for the learned elite or mystics: it was very often directed at, and a product of, the masses.

If one asks: how many are the conditions (shura’īṭ) of futuwwat? Say: Seventy-one: forty-eight are positive, and twenty-three are negative. As for those that are positive: first, Islam; second, faith; third, rationality; fourth, knowledge; fifth, gentleness; sixth, asceticism; seventh, piety; eight, truthfulness; ninth, nobility; tenth, marūwat; eleventh, compassion; twelfth, good deeds; thirteenth, fidelity; fourteenth, humility; fifteenth, trust in God; sixteenth, courage; seventeenth, zeal; eighteenth, patience; nineteenth, uprightness; twentieth, giving good advice; twenty-first, purity of soul; twenty-second, exalted intention; twenty-third, keeping secrets; twenty-fourth, visiting one’s kin; twenty-fifth, following the sharī’a; twenty-sixth, commanding the good; twenty-seventh, forbidding the wrong; twenty-eighth, respecting parents; twenty-ninth, service to one’s teacher; thirtieth, respecting the rights of all; thirty-first, speaking accurately; thirty-second, discretion with what one knows; thirty-third, seeking [only] the permitted things; thirty-fourth, giving greetings; thirty-fifth, keeping company with the good and the pure; thirty-sixth, keeping company with the reasonable; thirty-seventh, being thankful; thirty-eighth, aiding the oppressed; thirty-ninth, visiting the friendless; fortieth, thinking and weeping [over one’s sin]; forty-first, acting with sincerity; forty-second, keeping trust; forty-third, resisting the lower self and the passions; forty-fourth, being just; forty-fifth, satisfaction with [God’s] decree; forty-sixth, visiting the sick; forty-seventh, desisting from the rude; and forty-eighth, persisting in remembrance of God.

As for those that one ought to guard against doing, the first is differing with the sharī’a; second, speaking with corrupt language; third, slandering good people; fourth, too much jesting; fifth, empty words; sixth; too much laughter; seventh, breaking a promise; eighth, carrying out trickery and deceit with people of livelihood; ninth, being envious; tenth, being oppressive; eleventh, acting as an accuser; twelfth, laboring in love of this world; thirteenth, desiring acquisition of the things of this world; fourteenth, expecting things in advance; fifteenth, seeking out and talking about people’s faults; sixteenth, making false oaths; seventeenth, desiring the property of other people; eighteenth, exerting oneself with treachery; nineteenth, telling lies and reporting what one has not seen; twentieth, wine-drinking; twenty-first, eating the fruit of usury; twenty-second, practicing sodomy and adultery; and twenty-third, displaying bad conduct and bad trust with companions. Whoever is not familiar with these seventy-one conditions, futuwwat has not arrived with him. And God knows best.

If one asks: the letters of [the word] futuwwat—what do they signify? Say [to him]: the of futuwwat is an indication of annihilation (dalīl fanā-ast). So long as the attributes of the wayfarer himself are not annihilated, the attributes of the Friend cannot subsist.[1] The first is an indication of divestment (tajrīd). The wāw of futuwwa is an indication of fidelity (wafā), meaning, keeping a watch on one’s behavior (ādab) both exteriorly and interiorly. The second is an indication of the abandonment (tarikat) of all that is other than God.

If one asks: how many are the covenants of futuwwat? Say: two: one is essential, the other is merely verbal. The essential is for the sake of divine reality; the merely verbal is for the sake of seeking a blessing –just as on the [spiritual, or Sufi] Path (ṭarīqat) there is the khirqa of blessing-seeking and the khirqa of divine reality.[2]

If one asks: how many are the characteristics of the people of futuwwat? Say: there are ten characteristics that the people of futuwwat cannot dispense with. First: being truthful with God (ḥaqq). Second: equity with people. Third: overcoming one’s lower self. Fourth: service towards the great. Fifth: compassion towards the less fortunate. Sixth: good advice to one’s friends. Seventh: Humility towards the learned. Eighth: gentleness with the wise. Ninth: liberality towards enemies. Tenth: silence among the ignorant.

If one asks: with what do people compare futuwwat? Say: with the tree, that is, the good tree pointed out [in His words] God the exalted said: [A good word is] like a good tree—its roots are firmly established, and its branches are in heaven (Q. 14.24). If ones asks: what is the similarity and relation between a tree and futuwwat? Say: Just as a tree has roots, bark, branches, trunk, leaves, flowers, and fruit, so does futuwwat have brances, leaves, trunk, bark, flowers, fruits, and roots. If one asks: what is each one [of these]? Say: the root (bīkh) of the tree of futuwwat is its foundation (aṣl), and without it, the tree does not possess growth and increase (nushū ū namā nadārad) nor put forth fruit or leaves. Love of his eminence the Prophet of God, peace and prayer of God be upon him, and his pure family—that is [the root]. If someone worshiped for years and expended wealth and gold in measure to Mount Uḥud[3] upon the path of God, but every year he left off going on the ḥajj,  because in his heart there is no love for the family of his eminence the Prophet, peace and prayer of God be upon and his house, not even a whiff of heaven will he find. For as it is well-known that the root of the tree of futuwwat is love for the family of the Prophet, then it is necessary to know that its root is humility, its branch is brotherliness, its leaves are control over the passions, its bark is proper behavior and modesty, its flowers are good character and kindness, and its fruit is liberality and nobility.

If one asks: What is marūwat? Say: marūwat is a part of futuwwat, just as futuwwat is a part of the [Sufi] path.[4]

If one asks: because the foundation is the [spiritual] Path, why is this branch of knowledge (‘ilm) called the knowledge of futuwwat and not [simply of] the Path? Say: for everyone’s alloted sustenance is established upon a path of the Path. For instance, the path, step by step, of his eminence the Chosen One [Muhammad], peace and prayer of God be upon him, and that of the Approved [‘Ali], peace be upon him, is established [once and for all]. The allotted sustenance of that [path] is without descendants [i.e., has no further examples, is unique]. Regarding this matter of theirs they have said in a hemistich: ‘The first then the last, and the last then the first.’ As for everyone who strives in accordance with his own inclination and alloted sustenance, finds from futuwwat profit, and because of the things acquired from investigation into the aforementioned futuwwat, he becomes after these through the significations of the Path, of right behavior, and its supports, mystically knowledgeable, as we will make clear, with God’s help.

Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī Wāʻiẓ Kāshifī, Futuvvatʹnāmah-ʼi Sultānī (Tehran: Intishārāt-i Bunyād-i Farhang-i Īrān, 1350/1971), 25-29.

[1] ‘Annihilation’ here is the Sufi concept of ‘passing away’ into God, in which the ego is stripped of itself and only God is witnessed.

[2]  A khirqa is a patched robe worn as a marker of one’s affiliation with a Sufi order; there were (and are) varying degrees of affiliation, from the truly committed initiate- the ‘essential’- to someone merely seeking the blessing or grace expected through affiliation with an order or a well-known Sufi saint or master. The traveler ibn Battuta, for instance, was affiliated with a number of Sufi orders in the course of his travels, but was hardly a full initiate of many, or any, of them.

[3] A prominent mountain near Mecca.

[4] Marūwat, treated only briefly in this excerpt, is another difficult-to-translate term; it is close to the English ‘virtue,’ with its historical links to ideas of manliness and strength. Likewise, the Persian term (itself a loan from Arabic) conveys the idea of manly strength or vigour, but also hospitality, proper social deportment, and so on. ‘Masculinity’ is one possible translation, but only with the caveat that what is meant by masculinity is not necessarily what Western, contemporary cultures mean by it.


Select Bibliography

In addition to the selected works below, see the quite good (and freely available) Encyclopdia Iranica article, which has a much more extensive bibliography: Javanmardi.

Breebart, D.A. ‘The Fütüvvet-nāme-i kebīr. A Manual on Turkish Guilds.’ In Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient. Vol. 15, No. 1/2 (Jun., 1972).

Cahen, Claude and Franz Taeschner. “Futuwwa.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, edited by P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel and W.P. Heinrichs. Leiden: Brill, 2010: Brill Online.

Cahen, Claude. “Mouvements Populares et Autonomisme Urbain dans l’Asie Musulmane du Moyen Age, III.” In Arabica, T. 6, Fasc. 3 (Sept., 1959).

Hosein Yousofi, G̲h̲olam. ” Kās̲h̲ifī.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online , 2012.

Ridgeon, Lloyd V. J. Morals and Mysticism in Persian Sufism: A History of Sufi-Futuwwat in Iran. Routledge Sufi Series 10. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, N.Y: Routledge, 2010.

Ridgeon, Lloyd V. J. Jawanmardi: a Sufi Code of Honour. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011.

Taeschner, Franz. Zunfte und Bruderschaften im Islam : Texte zur Geschichte der futuwwa. Zürich: Artemis-Verlag, 1979.

Tor, D. G. Violent order: religious warfare, chivalry, and the ‘ayyār phenomenon in the medieval Islamic world. Würzburg: Ergon,, 2007.