The relational nexus between Muslim saint and Muslim ruler in medieval and early modern times was almost always a fraught one. Both saint and ruler laid claim to divinely invested authority, claims that could coexist, cooperate, and clash. A given saint might support a ruler, undermine him, or simply ignore him, while rulers moved between strategies of co-opting saints, seeking them out for their baraka and the social power that being connected to a saint might bring, endowing zawiyas, khaniqahs, and the like, even as some saintly shaykhs made a prominent point of rejecting both contact with and reception of wealth from rulers. Occasionally a Muslim claimant to sainthood ran seriously afoul of a ruler, resulting in exile, imprisonment, or even martyrdom.
I encountered the story- from the early thirteenth century Khawarezm domains- I’ve translated and presented below first in an Ottoman context, in the Ta’rîh (History) of Ibrâhîm Peçevî (d. c. 1650), an Ottoman official and author, who described the martyrdom of the Kurdish Şeyh Mahmûd of Diyarbakır, executed by Sultan Murad IV, probably because the sultan feared the saint, who had a vast following across the Kurdish lands, posed a political threat. Peçevî, who had been posted in Diyarbakır as a defterdâr, had been an intimate of the saint and was deeply sorrowed to learn of his martyrdom. Upon learning that Şeyh Mahmûd had died, he was reminded, he writes, of the story I’ve translated here. It comes from the massive Persian hagiographic compilation, Nafaḥāt al-uns, by the poet, sufi, and author Nūr al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Raḥmān Jāmī (d. 1492). There are indeed striking parallels, as well as differences: Majd al-Dīn, while clearly of saintly status, is seen here oversteping his limits in his relationship with the powerful and axial saint Najm al-Dīn al-Kubrā (d. 1221) in relating his vision, a vision that implies exalted spiritual status. The remainder of the story is largely self-explanatory, though I’ve included some notes for clarification here and there. Given both the odd details, the hints of court intrigue, and the spectacular ending- the Mongols totally devastated the Khawarezm lands- it would be a popular item in Jāmī’s hagiography. Peçevî reproduced, in Ottoman Turkish form, a condensed version of the story (and thereby implicitly criticized the by-then deceased Murad IV and warned future sultans) in his chronicle, while it was circulated in Ottoman Turkish in other contexts as well. The lessons are clear enough: rulers ought to observe proper care and respect around the saints, as the consequences of not doing so can be truly enormous!
One day Shaykh Majd al-Dīn [Baghdādī] was sitting with a group of dervishes when a state of spiritual intoxication came over him. He said: ‘I was a duck’s egg upon the shore of the sea, and Shaykh Najm al-Dīn [Kubrā] was a bird with his wings of spiritual instruction spread out above my head until I came forth from the egg and I was like the young of the duck, then went into the sea, while the shaykh remained on the shore.’
Shaykh Najm al-Dīn knew [what Majd al-Dīn said] by the light of divinely instilled power, and the words ‘He will go into the ocean!’ passed upon his tongue . When Shaykh Majd al-Dīn heard that he was fearful, and he came before Shaykh Sa’d al-Dīn Ḥamawī and with great humility asked, ‘When the time is right with the shaykh, will you give him report of me such that I may enter his presence and request forgiveness?’
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.
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 , 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”→
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’.’  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  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”→
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.
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.’”
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!
Şeyh Ahmed Dede: He came into the world in a village named Gırbalcı, near the town of Kütahya . 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 .
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 , 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”→
Commentary (Arabic sharḥ, Ott. Turk. şerh) was one of most widely used forms of textual production in the early modern Ottoman world, and indeed in the broader late medieval and early modern Islamic world (and beyond- commentaries were popular across pre-modern Eurasia in many scholarly and literary traditions). Islamic manuscript libraries are filled with commentary after commentary, as well as super-commentaries (commentaries on commentaries), both frequently featuring marginal comments added by authors, scribes, or later readers. Related to but distinct from the genre of Qur’an commentary (tafsīr), a sharḥ (pl. shurūḥ) could potentially be used to explicate, argue with, modify, interpret, allegorize, or otherwise engage with almost any sort of text in almost any field or genre, though ‘canonical’ texts from the distant and recent past were the most common objects. It was not uncommon, however, for an author to produce a commentary on an important work he himself had written, sometimes as a sort of ‘package deal.’ Commentary was so dominant that there are examples of parodic commentaries, such as the expansive, and deeply scatological one contained in the 18th century work of Yusuf al-Shirbīnī Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abū Shādhūf Expounded.
Commentary literature has often been overlooked or outright scorned in modern-day appraisals of medieval and early modern Islamic literature and knowledge systems, in part because the genre, while still in existence, is far less central to modern-day cultural and intellectual life and thus does not appear to us as especially interesting or significant. Reading through an example of this commentary literature is often not particularly easy, or interesting, and can be rather dry, sometimes excruciatingly so. The abundance of commentaries and super-commentaries on everything from philosophical treatises to poetry collections has often been used as an example of the ‘decay’ and ‘decadence’ of ‘post-classical’ Arabic intellectual and cultural life. However, on closer analysis- which some scholars of Islamic history are increasingly beginning to do, myself included– the genre (or rather, genres) of commentary writing are much richer than first glance would suggest, and beyond their immediate content, the social role of commentary was quite important. These texts were not just exercises in detached scholarship, but played roles akin in many ways to modern forms of electronic communication, especially social media.
The following story, which I’ve selected and translated from a hagiographic and polemical work by the eighteenth century scholar, Khalwatī sufi, and saint Muṣṭafá al-Bakrī (1688-1749), provides an excellent glimpse into the social role of commentary production, as well as some other particularities of early modern Ottoman life. In order to remain close to the topic at hand, I have interspersed my translation with commentary. We begin with al-Bakrī’s description of the usual way of life of the saint in question:
[Shaykh Aḥmad ibn Kasaba al-Ḥalabī al-Qādirī] loved retreat and solitude apart from people, being constantly turned instead towards God. I used to hear about him and greatly desired to meet him so as to derive benefit from him, but when he would come from his journeys back to Damascus he would not open his door to the flow of visitors. Continue reading “On Commentary and Its Uses in the Ottoman World”→