The Cow, the Wolf, and the Talking Rocks

A shaykh in the countryside, cattle busily engaged in agriculture and not pursued by wolves, as depicted in 1487 in a manuscript of ‘Aṭṭār’s Manṭiq al-ṭayr, produced in Herat a few years before the Safavid conquest (Met. 63.210.49)

The hagiography of the Anatolian Muslim saint Ḥācım Sulṭān (first introduced here) captures various snapshots of a major transitional period in the region’s history, in which over the course of the fifteenth and early sixteenth century the frontier polities that had proliferated in the post-Mongol period were being incorporated into the rapidly expanding Ottoman Empire. Ottoman expansion took place in a world in which nomadic and semi-nomadic Turkic-speakers had spread widely in Anatolia and further west into the Balkans, part of a general cultural and social flux marked by the disappearance of the Byzantine Empire and an increasingly complex and diverse articulation of Islam in town and countryside. Given that Ḥācım Sulṭān’s hagiography dates from somewhere in the fifteenth century- almost certainly after the incorporation of Germiyan, the polity in which much of the action occurs, into the Ottoman realm- we can usefully read it as a window into some of the realities and cultural attitudes typical of the start of the Ottoman period. The Ottoman polity itself is not mentioned, nor is any other higher-level polity. Instead, authority operates at the very local level, invested in strongmen in towns, in town and village qāḍīs- such as the one in the following story- and in the sometimes competing, sometimes cooperating saintly dervishes wandering the countryside or dwelling in saints’ shrines.

The story excerpted and translated here is set in a village, to which the saint has come for a time (the central story arc of the first third or so of the hagiography is Ḥācım Sulṭān’s quest for the designated place of his future āstāne and shrine). He tends, with the helps of his miraculous black bull companion, the village herds, occupying a rather ambiguous position: he is referred to here and at other points in the story as being a ‘dīvāne,’ a polyvalent word literally meaning ‘crazy’ but also connotative of a wandering dervish. The characters in this story use it in a decidedly negative way, pointing to a reality that Ḥācım Sulṭān’s hagiography does not try to obscure: not everyone accepted his sainthood, and the towns and countryside of earliest modern Anatolia had many claimants to sanctity, not all of whom received universal acclaim. It is also worth noting that here and in many other stories in this vilāyetnāme women feature prominently, both as supporters of the saint and as members of a sometimes skeptical audience in need of convincing.

Finally, alongside depictions of everyday life in the countryside- putting cattle out to pasture, the threat of wolves, and the like- we also see a local qāḍī, or judge, at work. The question of who appointed him and from whence he draws his salary is of no interest to our narrative; what counts is his responsiveness to the villagers’ request for an investigation and his willingness to accept Ḥācım Sulṭān’s proofs of sainthood. Already in this period we get the sense that the norms of Islamic jurisprudence were known to some degree even deep in the countryside, an important foundation for the effectiveness of the Ottoman scholarly-legal bureaucracy and hierarchy already being formed.

Nomads tending to their cattle, from the c. 1400 Divān of the poetry of the Jalāyirid ruler Sulṭān Aḥmad Jalāyir (d. 1410). (Freer and Sackler F1932.34)

Another vilāyet of Ḥācım Sulṭān: there was a little elderly woman who had a single cow (ınek). She would bring the cow out to pasture. Then one day Sulṭān Ḥācım said to her, ‘Mother, by God’s command a wolf is going to eat this cow! Do not pasture her.’ But the woman did not listen. She put the cow out to pasture. Now [Ḥācım Sulṭān] gathered all the cattle [of the village] gathered together and moved them along, but this poor woman’s cow separated from the rest of the cattle and went to another place. With God’s permission a wolf came forth and ate the cow up. Evening fell. All of the animals returned to their homes, but the woman’s cow did not come. For a while they searched but did not find [it]. Finally, the woman’s sons were at a loss. Then about it they said, ‘That crazy one (dīvāne) has palmed off this cow! At any rate let’s go and find him.’ So they went and asked Ḥācım Sulṭān, ‘What did you do with our cow?’ He replied, ‘Your cow was eaten by a wolf in such-and-such a place in the vicinity of such-and-such.’ To which they replied, ‘Surely you are talking nonsense! Come, let us go to the qāḍī and you give [him] answer.’ Ḥācım Sulṭān replied, ‘Let us go!’

So from there they went to the qāḍī. The sons complained to the qāḍī, saying, ‘Efendi, this crazy one watched over our cattle—or, rather, he himself didn’t, his big black bull did. Now, ask this careless one what he did with our cow!’ So the qāḍī asked, ‘Crazy one, what did you do with these young men’s cow? Let us see how things stand.’ Ḥācım Sulṭān replied, ‘I warned this aged mother that she ought not put the cow out to pasture as with God’s permission as a wolf would eat [it]. She did not listen, added [the cow] to the grazing herd, and the wolf ate [it].’ Continue reading “The Cow, the Wolf, and the Talking Rocks”

Itching for an Answer

The following are two fatwas- legal opinions issued by a mufti, a Muslim jurist qualified in both knowledge and application of Islamic law- from a multi-volume collection of fatwas of Maghrebi, Andalusian, and Ifraqian origin. The collection was compiled in the fifteenth century, but the fatwas apparently range in dates. Unfortunately, the editorial apparatus gives little indication of exact date or place of origin; only in certain cases does internal evidence provide clues to those sorts of things. However, these fatwas are filled with interesting insights into both the process of Islamic law in the Muslim Far West and into the concerns and exigences of these communities (for instance, in these, dermatological problems…). I hope to translate and share several more sets of fatwas from this collection in the coming weeks and provide a taste of both of these aspects, and hopefully shed some light on the how and why of medieval Islamic legal reasoning and concerns.

So here is the first fatwa I’ve selected, followed by my commentary. I should warn you, however, the subject matter is a little, well, icky:

[Scratching Scabbies in the Mosque]

Sīdī Ahmad al-Qabāb asked about a man who had many scabies on him (bihi jarab kathīr), so that when he went to the mosque for ritual prayer he itches them so that the skin peelings (qushūr) of the scabbies fall off in the mosque, and he is not able to desist from that. Is it permissible for him to enter the mosque or not?

He answered: I did not find any text about this! (lam ajadu fīhā nassan) But if he prays outside the mosque with their prayers if he is capable, it is a precautionary for him.


This first fatwa is quite short, and the mufti does not provide us with a great deal of transparency in his legal reasoning for his opinion. But it raises a couple of important issues in medieval Islamic law: first, questions of ritual purity and bodily propriety. As we will see from the second fatwa, the fact that our unfortunate scabies sufferer is not only scratching vigorously but transgressing the ritual space of the masjid with his skin peelings is a problem- or at least our mufti thinks it is a problem, with the condition that he has found nothing written about it. That is, and this is the second important issue raised here, he can find no legal precedent that addresses this problem. While he doesn’t tell us as much here, the succinct opinion he gives is built on analogy with other rulings concerning bodily propriety and the transgression of ritual space with bodily fluids and other forms of ritual impurity. This process of analogy from previously established cases to a new one is one of the central elements of Islamic law, and part of the flexibility and multi-valency of the legal process.

[More on Scratching]

Sīdī ‘Abd Allāh al-‘Abdūsī asked about a man with an itch during ritual prayer, so that he scratched a lot on account of that, but did not interfere with either the words or external actions of the ritual prayer. So should he start the ritual prayer over or not?

He answered: As for itching during ritual prayer, if on account of necessity it occurs to him in that he is incapable of desisting, and if the pain would distract him if he did not itch, then [scratching] is permissible to him and he does not impair his ritual prayer, unless he greatly prolongs [the scratching] or it distracts him so that he does not know what he is praying- then his ritual prayer would be voided. But if necessity does not compel him, but rather he scratches purely out of pleasure, that is disagreeable. And in the Traditions six [things] are from Satan, that is, on account of him, and scratching is mentioned [among them]. So then, if he prolongs greatly or it distracts him so that he does not know what he is prayer, he ought to start over, and if not, then no.

I said: The master, God’s mercy be upon him, did not discourse about what fell from the skin peelings of the scabbies due to this scratching since he wasn’t asked about that. But the answer for Sīdī Ahmad al-Qabāb has preceded it earlier in this volume.


Here we see, not concerns with ritual purity as such, but with the intention and action of ritual prayer. The question is: does this man’s persistent scratching invalidate his prayers? The scratching would invalidate his prayers, our mufti says and the questioner implies, if it was so intense that he could no longer pay attention to what he was saying and thus would be unable to register the significance of the words. In other words, the validity of ritual prayer is contingent on one’s active cognition of it. Mere repetition without registering is not enough; mumbling through the words while being overwhelmed by a wave of itching would necessitate stopping and resuming later- presumably once one’s itch had subsided… However, in the interest of what a Christian canonist might refer to as economy, some distraction, if it cannot be avoided, is permissible, provided one can still keep his mind (mostly) on prayer.