A Palestinian Saint of the Early Ottoman Era

The Dome of the Rock, which served Shaykh Dajānī- like generations of Palestinians before and since- as a frequent oratory and not just destination of pilgrimage. Photo by the author, 2017.

While Islam has often been associated, for a complex and not totally inaccurate set of reasons, with urban life, the stress on Islam as ‘properly’ the religion of urban life ignores the many, many counter-examples of Islamic practice flourishing in rural settings. And while saints and sainthood have long been recognized by historians as central to many experiences of rural Islam, this reality has often been interpreted as due to the ‘syncretic’ nature of sainthood, or the lack of sophistication of rural religion, and the like. The saint profiled below, Shaykh Aḥmad al-Dajānī (d. 1562), is a good counter-example to such an overly simplistic story, as his life moved between the Palestinian countryside and the more urbanized and Ottomanized world of nearby Jerusalem. My discussion here is lightly adapted from my recent dissertation, wherein it comprises part of a sustained discussion of rural sainthood in the sixteenth century Ottoman world. While not entirely my original intention therein, Shaykh Dajānī’s story also speaks to the deep historical roots that present-day Palestinians have in historical Palestine, with the saint’s family a continuing presence today (with his shrine still standing, albeit after a great deal of struggle against various attempts to erase its intended function). Because quite a bit of Shaykh Dajānī’s hagiography focuses on protecting local inhabitants from the depredations of power, it seemed somehow appropriate to share a modified version of this section now, even if I have no illusions that my small intervention is liable to make much if any difference in the ongoing struggle of the Palestinian people in their ancestral lands. If nothing else this story (which, ironically, is based primarily off of a manuscript version of the saint’s manāqib which is held by the Israeli National Library) demonstrates that contrary to many propagandistic narratives the substantive historical ties of modern Palestinians go far back into history and take the land itself, with Jerusalem and its sacred precincts a major component in that historical identity and sense of place.

Such a ‘thickening’ of the meaningful landscape and of deep historical roots hardly began with Shaykh Dajānī. The rural Palestine of the saint was by the sixteenth century dense with holy places of either originally or adapted Islamic pedigrees, from the modest tombs of village shaykhs crowning hilltops to more spectacular constructions honoring a seemingly endless cast of ancient prophets of diverse provenance, most with traditional stories and rituals long associated with them.[1] In central Palestine nomadic groups were generally fewer (though still present) than was the case elsewhere in the Ottoman’s Arabic-speaking provinces, with sedentary peasants the norm. At the heart of this landscape was the holy precincts of Jerusalem, al-Quds, with its rich array of holiness-drenched places and spatially rendered cultural memories.

The life and hagiographic traces of Shaykh Dajānī reflects a dialect of sainthood at once rooted in the life and landscape of rural Ottoman Palestine while also oriented towards the Holy City, drawing upon the venerable sources of sanctity embedded in the landscape, while also distinguishing the saint and his performance of sanctity from them. Not only did Shaykh Dajānī have to differentiate himself, as it were, from the many loci of sanctity around him, but he was also confronted with negotiating a new political order under the Ottomans and their exercise of authority and claims to saintly status. In what follows we will explore the particular dialect of sanctity manifest in the life of Aḥmad al-Dajānī and his work of sainthood, all within the context of his oscillation between an already sanctity-abundant Palestinian countryside and the holy precincts of Jerusalem (which, it should be recalled, was in this period a large, albeit spectacularly walled, town, with a decidedly rural ambience right up to and even within the walls). Despite being primarily connected in more modern memory with his family’s custodianship of the Tomb of David,[2] we will see that earlier routes of memory, as reflected in the manāqib of the saint written by his grandson Muḥammad ibn Ṣālaḥ al-Dajānī (d. 1660), recalled Shaykh al-Dajānī to be just as much, if not more a saint of the countryside as of the city, both around Jerusalem and beyond the boundaries of its sancâk, his imaginal saintly territory encompassing much of Palestine as it is understood today.[3]  I will now briefly introduce the life of Shaykh Dajānī, his saintly repertoire and its particular dialect, followed by an examination of some of the ways in which his practice of sainthood tracked onto and dealt with the topography of both rural Palestine and of Jerusalem and its environs, both during his lifetime and, primarily in the context of his tomb-shrine in the Mamilla Cemetery, after his physical death.

While early Ottoman Jerusalem and the surrounding Palestinian countryside have received a considerable share of scholarly attention over the years, with works such as that of Amy Singer proving especially helpful in sketching the social and economic context of Shaykh Dajānī’s world, religious life among Muslims in Ottoman Jerusalem and wider Palestine has received comparatively less coverage, with the exception of synthetic works like Kan’ān’s classic volume or James Grehan’s recent study of rural religion in Syria and Palestine.[4] Shaykh Dajānī receives but a single passing mention in Grehan’s work. However, Aharon Layish profiled Shaykh Dajānī in his analysis, some years ago, of another Palestinian rural saint, Ibn ʿAbdallāh al-Asadī, based outside of Safad, a discussion to which we will have recourse further along.[5] My primary source for this saint of rural Palestine is Muḥammad al-Dajānī’s manāqib of his grandfather, a hagiographic treatment closely connected with another surviving trace of the saint, his much restored tomb-shrine located in what was formerly part of the Mamilla Cemetery in contemporary West Jerusalem.[6] While it is today situated somewhat ingloriously in the corner of a parking lot and maintenance area for Independence Park—Shaykh Dajānī’s tomb-shrine and some remnants of Ottoman era tombstones the only surviving traces of this section of Mamilla Cemetery—the shrine is now in good condition and has been the main point of veneration for the saint for centuries.[7] As such it forms a significant part of the saint’s manāqib, a text that appears to have had at least two goals: as Muḥammad al-Dajānī explicitly states in the introductory material, he feared that the oral circulation of accounts of his grandfather’s saintly career would ultimately come to an end, and wished to preserve that memory into the distant future. Second, like much seventeenth century hagiographic production Muḥammad seems to have had in mind puritanical attacks on the Friends of God and the need to defend them and particularly their performances of karāmāt.[8] That said, Muḥammad’s foremost aim was clearly the perpetuation of his saintly forefather’s memory and the promotion of his cultus through the textual deployment (and almost certainly continued oral recitation, perhaps in the setting of the Mamilla tomb-shrine) of that memory.

After introductory eulogistic praise of Aḥmad al-Dajānī as the ‘quṭb of his age, the walī of God’ followed by a brief explanation from Muḥammad al-Dajānī of his reason for writing, the manāqib commences with a karāma-story that reveals some of the intersecting spatialities of the saint’s life, aspects of his position vis-à-vis the Ottoman authorities in Jerusalem, and central aspects of his saintly repertoire. This first story opens with mention of Shaykh Dajānī’s practice of writing down notes of intercession (shifa) addressed to the Ottoman security patrol (sūbāshiyya)[9] and judges, which were always effective, the reader is assured.[10] However, there was one judge who did not accept Shaykh Dajānī’s intercession and who in fact wanted to kill him, having discovered the saint’s practice while reviewing the performance of the subaşı (here meaning the head of policing functionaries) of the city, who presented him with a ‘sack-full’ of intercessionary notes. When the judge asked who they were from, the sūbāşī replied, ‘From the venerable Shaykh al-Dajānī—they’re intercessions for those I’ve accosted, and it’s not possible for me to contradict him!’ Enraged with the revenue-costing shaykh the judge asked where he could find him. Learning that he was then in the settlement of Ra’s Abū Zaytūn, the judge at first wanted to send someone to bring the shaykh in, but was told, ‘This is a man from among the saints of God, from the masters of unveiling and gnosis, you won’t be able to make him come to you.’ Instead, he was told the judge would need to intercept Shaykh Dajānī when he came to al-‘Aqṣā for Friday prayers. Here our hagiographer adds that all this was before the shaykh took the Tomb of David ‘from the Franks,’ and that he was at this time dwelling in a place known as Ra’s Abū Zaytūn, which he himself established, building a masjid (also functioning as a zāwiya) and a qubba for his saintly mother who died there.[11] Ra’s Abū Zaytūn is about thirty miles from Jerusalem, and seems to have served as Shaykh Dajānī’s base of operations before he moved permanently to Jerusalem (a move, as I will discuss below, that curiously figures hardly at all in the saint’s recorded manāqib), making visits to al-Ḥaram al-Sharīf not prohibitively difficult though not daily affairs either. Instead, the hagiographic record suggests that Shaykh Dajānī divided his time among a range of places, including his zāwiya on Ra’s Abū Zaytūn, various other rural locales in Palestine, and the Dome of the Rock.[12] Continue reading “A Palestinian Saint of the Early Ottoman Era”

On Landscapes

A Brazilian Landscape
‘A Brazilian Landscape,’ by the Dutch painter Frans Post (1612–1680). (Met. 1981.318)


The landscape has its own sound, an idiom, a dialect, a particular light and temperature and their changes with the seasons. The landscape is the median, the densest synthesis, the ordinary reality. Most people grow up not in countries or towns but in what occupies the middle ground between them: in landscapes. “We are the children of our landscape; it dictates behavior and even thought in the measure to which we are responsive to it. I can think of no better identification.” The landscape is the center, the focus of our lives, and so it is also what is most contentious, contested, embattled, and susceptible to myth-making and ideological construction. There are near-equivalent terms: region, scenery, homeland. The landscape is more important than the political-administrative district; it means more to us than the state, and its meanings reach deeper. People define themselves by the landscape in which they have their roots no less than by the nation whose citizens they are. That is why landscape paintings are not just depictions but our world en miniature: microcosms. Because the landscape designates a totality, the history of the landscape, and of the cultural landscape in particular, has come to stand for efforts to reunite divided and isolated disciplines, to recover the conviction that history can, and should be, narrated as an integral whole, as histoire totale. “Landscape” is a highly malleable term, but its core meaning is inalienable, whether we speak of ruined landscapes or the landscapes of memory, of human or urban landscapes. It always designates the cohesive form, the ensemble. All its various meanings are anchored in its primary signification, the physical landscape.

We walk or travel through landscapes. Their changing appearances and the distinctions that let us tell them apart reveal the richness of our world. The landscape is the consummate result of human labor and human genuis. It is the greatest work of art imaginable, the supreme human achievement, and when our endeavors in it come to grief, it is the greatest conceivable calamity. The landscape is the most solid substance in which man has ever wrought the objective reality of his existence—geography, Robert A. Dodgshon has written, is about the “materiality of social life”—and at once his subtlest and most atmospheric creation, to which poets, philosophers, architects, and the entire human community have each contributed their shares. So to read and decipher landscapes is to unlock a door to the history of a people, of the nations, of humanity. Because “virgin” landscapes do not—or not longer—exist, all history of the landscape is a history of cultural landscapes. Hugo Hassinger has argued that anthropogeography is simply the “morphology of the cultural landscape,” the study of the tectonics of the social sphere, the inertia of the built world, the visible distribution of power and powerlessness, to mention only a few aspects. Historians are experts in matters of cultural forms: (cultural) morphologists. They take an interest in surfaces, and so they must be good phenomenologists and physiognomists if they hope to detect essential processes. They read the landscape like a text, carefully peeling off layer upon layer as though it were a palimpsest.

Karl Schlögel, In Space We Read Time: On the History of Civilization and Geopolitics, translated by Gerrit Jackson (New York City: Bard Graduate Center, 2016), 235-237.