The Lion, the Lady, and the Dervishes: Şeyh Hasan Ünsî’s Transformation

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Previously I discussed the ‘conversion’ narrative of a major late seventeenth into early eighteenth century Muslim saint of Istanbul, Şeyh Hasan Ünsî Halvetî (1643-1723), whose life was chronicled in great detail in a menâkıb (saint’s life) by Ibrahim Hâs. The story I’ve translated below comes from a slightly later period in the saint’s life, after his şeyh, Karabaş-i Velî (also known as Karabaş ‘Alî: he wore a black turban, hence his being called ‘Black-Head’) had died in the Sinai while making the ḥajj, in 1685. Hasan Ünsî had excelled in ascetic discipline and spiritual insight, his hagiographer tells us, such that Karabaş ‘Alî elevated him over all of his other halifes (Ar. khalīfa, delegates sent from a şeyh/shaykh), and sent him back to Istanbul to establish a center for worship and instruction in the sufi path. Hasan Ünsî settled in a space near the Hagia Sophia, the Acem Aǧa Mosque, built upon parts of the ruins of a pre-Ottoman Byzantine church, St. Mary Chalkoprateia (today the church has sunk deeper into ruin, and only parts of the mosque remain standing- see this excellent blog post for more details on the ‘deep history’ of the site). There he continued his ascetic practices, led zikr (a sufi ritual of ‘remembrance’ of God), and instructed disciples.

But his residency here was not to be entirely peaceful: since the early decades of the 17th century, the Ottoman lands had seen the rise of various ‘puritanical’ Islamic movements and tendencies, often looking back to the writings and life of a 16th century pietistic preacher, Mehmed Birgivî, for inspiration. Many groups and individuals inspired by the puritanical texts, movements, and leaders that arose over the course of the century were opposed to such things as the veneration of the saints, sufi rituals like zikr/dhikr, and widespread practices such as tobacco-smoking and coffee-drinking (though opposition to the former was for a long time widespread beyond so-called ‘puritan’ circles). Unusually- for theological movements of this nature had developed before in various places in the Islamic world- many advocates of a purified Ottoman Islam believed it appropriate to use force to achieve their moral and theological goals. Hasan Ünsî evidently had to deal with Ottoman puritans in his mosque (which, not unusually, also functioned as a living space for dervishes, students, and others), in the form of students of jurisprudence (suhtelar). We are told that, having adopted the beliefs of the ‘people of denial’ (ehl-i inkâr), these students (some of whom Hasan, who himself had an ‘exoteric’ education in the Islamic sciences, had previously instructed) began trying to drive the saintly şeyh from the mosque, in order to ‘purify’ the space of ritual uses they opposed, and to claim the space exclusively for themselves.

To make a long story short, the struggle between Hasan Ünsî and the puritanical legal students grew hotter and hotter and increasingly physical, to the point that, our hagiographer claims, the students contemplated murdering the şeyh! It culminated in a show-down in which, after trying to argue his case using verse from the Qur’an, Şeyh Hasan manifested his ‘celâl,’ or divinely-given wrathful majesty- and the students began dying of mysterious accidents or suddenly falling ill, to the point that in a week’s time none remained in the mosque! During the course of these incidents, one of Şeyh Hasan’s dervishes, Kebâbî Ahmed Dede, asked whether the şeyh ought to moderate the outflow of divine celâl, to which the şeyh replied, ‘Occupy yourself with your own matters!’ At this the dervish, we are told, went pale witnessing the şeyh’s fierce celâl, and reported later that ‘all my being went shaky and my mind was thrown into disorder’ when the şeyh said these words to him. This leads us to the following extended story, in which a cross-section of Istanbul society bears witness to the divine wrath and majesty at work in the şeyh: with the obvious moral throughout that opposing God’s Friends was dangerous, even if it was the ostensibly pious who were doing so.

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Woman and child on the way to the hamam, from the Rålamb Book of Costumes, depictions of residents of Istanbul in the 1650s, a couple of decades before our story.

‘One day, at mid-morning, a lady and her child passed by the Acem Aǧa Mosque, which was locked up. The child peeked into the mosque through a window, but crying out he tumbled into his mother’s arms. His mother said, ‘What was it that frightened you so?’ The child said, ‘There is a lion sitting atop the şeyh’s post [an animal skin rug that symbolized the şeyh/shaykh’s authority]! And now he is rising up!’ The lady herself then looked through the window and saw that a magnificent lion was sitting upon the post. Having seen him the lady became afraid and out of her fear began exclaiming loudly and rapidly.

Some of the dervishes there heard her and came up to her, saying, ‘Lady, what’s the matter?’ She related what had happened to them, and so they took looked through the window and saw upon the Şeyh’s post a lordly lion sitting. He opened his eyes and looked at them such that the gall-bladder of the one upon whose gaze he fell burst from fear! Being filled with great fear they were gripped with confusion. They said, ‘If this lion rises up and comes at us, the door will prove no barrier and there will be trouble!’ As they were trying to figure out a solution, one of the Şeyh’s old dervishes, Pîr Osman Dede Efendi came and forbade them from doing anything, instead sending them to their rooms. After an hour had passed he said to them, ‘Come and see—where is the lion now?’ With fear the dervishes came and peered inside the mosque through a window, but saw no lion! Instead the Şeyh [Hasan Ünsî] was upon his post. Osman Dede Efendi said to them, ‘Keep silence! Tell no one of this! For it is not permitted [to talk of it to others]!’ So saying he strongly admonished them.

Nonetheless, the story became widely known. A while later, some of the dervishes asked Osman Dede Efendi about the secret and divine wisdom of this lion. Drawing them aside, in secret he said to them: ‘This is the form that the Şeyh takes when his celâl is overwhelmingly strong in his innermost secret. Did you not see how in the course of a week the jurisprudence students came to their ends, and have you not heard what Kebâbî Ahmed Efendi said?’

İbrahim Hâs, Hasan Ünsî Halvetî ve Menâkıbnâmesi, edited by Mustafâ Tatcı (Bağcılar, İstanbul: Kırkambar Kitaplığı, 2013, 2013), 222-224. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.

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The Kadızadeli and the Shāh-nāme

Iconoclasm in Islamic societies is not a new phenomenon, anymore than the production and enjoyment of the visual arts (including pictures of animals, humans, and holy figures) is new. While seventeenth century manifestations of iconoclasm, shrine-destruction, and other acts were fairly mild by modern standards (see, for instance, recent reports of al-Nusra Front destroying the venerable tomb of the important medieval Muslim scholar al-Nawawi), cases did exist. The following story, taken from the Seyāḥat-nāme of the great Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi (1611-1682), may or may not be fictional- one must take many of the stories Evliya Çelebi with a grain of salt- but it does convey attitudes found in various elements of Ottoman society. The boorish, iconoclastic janissary is said to be a follower of Kadızade, the Ottoman puritan and Islamic rigorist par excellence, whose followers opposed all manner of things they came to regard as un-Islamic ‘innovations,’ from tobacco to Sufi ritual to cash waqfs. As depicted in the story, individual Kadızadelis seemed to have had a trenchant for taking up the duty of ‘commanding the right and forbidding the wrong’ personally, sometimes by force. And as depicted in the story, their stances do not seem to have been especially popular in many ranks of Ottoman society, perhaps especially among the urbane elite, for whom the Kadızadelis were both ignorant of Islam and, perhaps far worse, violently unappreciative of refined culture.

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A strange and comical case. There was a person claiming to belong to the hypocritical, fanatical and pederastic sect of the followers of Kadızade, a cowardly and slanderous usurer, a catamite and mischief-maker, despised even by the ignorant, an obscure and nasty individual, mothered in sin, belonging to the tribe of the deniers. He got on his high horse and bid sixteen hundred piasters for a Shāh-nāme, although it had been pledged to someone else. When the witty fellow brought it to his tent and began leafing through it, he saw that it contained miniatures. Painting being forbidden according to his belief, he took his Turkish knife and scraped the narcissus eyes of those depicted, as though he were poking out their eyes, and thus he poked holes in all the pages. Or else he drew lines over their throats, claiming that he had throttled them. Or he rubbed out the faces and garments of the pretty lads and girls with phlegm and saliva from his filthy mouth. Thus in a single moment he spoiled with his spit a miniature that a master painter could not have completed in an entire month.

When the auctioneer went the next day to claim his fee, the man said, “I won’t buy the ugly priest’s book; pictures are forbidden and I’ve destroyed them all!” and he threw the royal Shāh-nāme on his head. When the auctioneer opens the book and see that all the miniatures are ruined, he cries, “People of Muhammad! See what this philistine has done to this Shāh-nāme!” “I did well,” says the witty fellow, “I ‘forbade evil’ just as our shaykh in Tire told me to do. Only one picture I left alone: it reminded me of my dear son in Tire, so I didn’t destroy it.” The helpless auctioneer saw that he would get nowhere by arguing with the fellow. He went directly to the Pasha, crying, “Justice, O brave vizier!”

The auctioneer’s plea for justice: “My sultan, this Shāh-nāme was to go to Khan Murad Beg of Cülomerg castle, the emir of Hakkari’s steward. His bid at the imperial auction was fourteen hundred piasters. Then a certain Haci Mustafa of Tire came along and took it for sixteen hundred piasters. The book lay with him for three nights. It turns out that he is a follower of Kadızade and believes that painting is forbidden. So he poked out the eyes or cut the throats of all the people in the pictures with his knife, or rubbed out their faces with a shoe-sponge. Not only has he ruined the fifty miniatures of this priceless Shāh-nāme, rendering it totally valueless, he has also bilked me of my auction fee.” The Pasha examined the Shāh-nāme and, with a sigh, showed it to his councilors, who showered curses on the fellow, calling him Pharoah, Yezid, Haman, Mervan, Karun, Ebu Cehl, Ebu Leheb, and Balaam son of Peor.

The auctioneer once again put in a plea for his fee. “Never fear, my dear auctioneer,” said the Pasha, quite aroused by this time, “he has not just bilked you of your fee, he has bilked the Padishah of his property. Let that Haji of Tire be brought here right away!” They dragged in the witty, spitty fellow kicking and screaming, as they pushed and pounded on him like powder or flax. “You,” said the Pasha, “why did you do this to this book?” “Oh,” he said, “is that a book? I thought it was priest’s writing. I ‘forbade evil.’ I did well to destroy it.” “You are not charged to ‘forbid evil.’ But I am charged to practice government. I’ll show you how to destroy a book that was to be sold in the imperial auction for two thousand piasters. Dress him down!” “I am a ḳapuḳulı janissary,” he objected, but the martial executioners paid the fellow no heed. He got seventy crosswise lashes, and the kadi of Bitlis ordered him to pay the sixteen hundred piasters, which were sequestered. They gave the auctioneer ten piasters, put the spoiled Shāh-nāme into the offender’s hands, and banished him from the camp. As the poor fellow started out toward Diyarbekir he kept cursing his shaykh for saying that painting was forbidden. And everyone followed him out of the camp, throwing stones and saying, “He got what he deserved.” They turned the fellow into a monkey. It was a comical sight!’

Evliya Çelebi, Seyāḥat-nāme, in Evliya Çelebi in Bitlis, edited and translated by Robert Dankoff. Leiden: Brill, 1990. 295-299