Badr al-Dīn al-Ghazzī’s Guide to Eating Etiquette

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While hailing from a century and a half after al-Ghazzī, this depiction of men at table is fairly close to the sorts of settings envisioned in al-Ghazzī’s manual: the table is low to the ground, the diners sit on the ground, with large dishes of food which they share. A tablecloth might be present in some cases, though here it is not. From a 1721 copy of the Hamse of the seventeenth century Ottoman poet ʿAṭāʾī (Walters W.666)

For many people on earth, self included, the last year has been one of varying degrees of so-called social distancing, lost opportunities, and missing comforts and pleasures, including the pleasant (and, as the below will suggest, sometimes not quite so pleasant) experience of eating with others, whether in a domestic or public setting. As the year and then some of covid gradually recedes over the coming months and more of our ordinary social life returns, you may soon find yourself venturing out to eat, or inviting others to your home for a shared meal. Given that we have been off our table etiquette game for some while now, it seems a good time to offer a bit of a refresher in some things to do and not to do when dining in the company of others. Towards that end, I’ve translated- and will probably continue to add over the coming days as the fancy strikes me- excerpts of a wonderfully delightful sixteenth century Ottoman manual of eating etiquette, the Risālat ādāb al-muʼākala of the prominent Damascene ‘ālim Badr al-Dīn al-Ghazzī (d. 1577). This short treatise is basically a compendium of etiquette errors to be avoided, and while providing genuine guidance to good manners when dining with others is also quite funny; as such, I have been a bit freer in my translations below than usual.

The material and social context of these entries can in many cases be surmised in part from the contents, however, for a much fuller exploration of that context and what this treatise can tell us about early modern Ottoman sociability and dining habits- which both coincide with and diverge from our own- see a recent lovely article by Helen Pfeifer, ‘The Gulper and the Slurper: A Lexicon of Mistakes to Avoid While Eating with Ottoman Gentlemen,‘ in the Journal of Early Modern History; fortunately the article is open-access and so available to all, do give it a read- and my thanks to Helen for both making me aware of this little treatise and digitally lending me a copy of the print edition!

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The repulsive: he who puts what he has taken out of his food such as bones or date pits or the like in front of his neighbor, which is repulsive to him due to how much he eats. It is related that two men who did not get along with one another were present at the table of one of the bigwigs. Fresh dates were brought out to the two of them, and one of the two men put all of the pits he extracted from the dates in front of the other man, until he had a pile in front of him greater than that of anyone else assembled there. Then the first man turned to the master of the house and said, ‘Will you not look my lord at how many fresh dates so-and-so has eaten! There are enough date pits in front of him to suffice the whole assembly.’ His companion though turned to [the master of the house] and said, ‘As for me, God make you prosper, it’s as he said, I have eaten a lot of dates—however this idiot has eaten the dates pits and all!’ At this the whole group laughed and the repulsive one was embarrassed.

The tearful: he who snatches up hot food to eat, not waiting for it to cool—he grabs the morsel, not paying any attention to whether it’s too hot to eat, and so his eyes become tearful due to the burning in his mouth, and perhaps he is obliged to expel the food in his mouth, or to swallow it down with a drought of cold water big enough to compensate for the burning produced by his stomach.

The gurgler: he who, if he wants to talk, does not wait until he has swallowed his bite of food, but rather talks while he is chewing and so gurgles like a camel, and no one is able to understanding what he is saying—especially if it’s a lot of food in his mouth!

The licker: he is named the licker-upper, he who licks his fingers in order to remove from them the fat from his food before he is finished eating, then he goes right back to eating [with his fingers]. As for [doing this] after finishing with eating, it’s no problem in so far as he does not return [to eating]. The most preferable of conditions is that one pays attention to wipe the fingers with something, such as the tablecloth (mi’zar), every time.

Badr al-Dīn al-Ghazzī, Risālat ādāb al-muʼākala, ed. ʿUmar Musa Basha (Rabāt : Maktabat al-Maʻārif, 1984), 17-18, 19, 20, 21. Continue reading “Badr al-Dīn al-Ghazzī’s Guide to Eating Etiquette”

Mystical Insight and Everyday Life in Early Modern Aleppo

Below is a short story from a biography of one of the most important Muslim saints of early modern Ottoman Aleppo, Abu Bakr ibn Abi al-Wafa’ (1503-83). Abu Bakr was a majdhūb saint: someone who has been ‘seized’ by divine ‘attraction,’ as a result acting in often aberrant and socially unacceptable ways (Abu Bakr lived on trash-heaps, had a following of feral dogs, and liked to whack people with his staff, for instance), but believed to have special access to divine insight and revelation. Abu Bakr’s tomb and surrounding complex would become a center of Aleppo’s spiritual life (as well as serving for some time as the headquarters of the Ottoman governor), his reputation built in part by stories like the one reproduced here. However, I selected this particular story due to its giving us a peek into everyday life in Ottoman Aleppo for ordinary people, men and women. Note particularly, as you read the story, the importance of textiles: in our industrialized world of mass produced clothing, the expense and ensuing value of seemingly basic textiles for pre-modern people is hard to grasp. Yet, as this story indicates, simply keeping one’s children properly clothed could be a major struggle for non-elite, working people; unfortunately, not everyone could count on the prescient generosity of a charismatic saint.

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A 17th century Ottoman cushion cover, though probably rather more ornate than anything Jamāl would have owned or aspired to.

Jamāl al-Khādim related that he visited [Shaykh Abū Bakr al-Majdhūb] once. The shaykh gave Jamāl his shirt and outer garment and said: ‘Put these shirts and trousers aside for your children!’ But Jamāl, who at the time was not married, said: ‘Ya sīdī, I don’t have any children!’ So the shaykh hit him with his staff and said, ‘You lie! [1] I can hear their voices!’ Some of those present said, ‘Take them from the shaykh, whether you have children or not!’ Jamāl said: ‘I fear accusing the shaykh of deceit,’ so he took them and intended to use them as a funeral shroud for himself when the day came. He stuck them in with the stuffing of a cushion (mikhadda), then forgot about them. Time passed, Jamāl got married, they had children, and these clothes were still forgotten. His wife sought from him shirts for his children, but he replied: ‘I have nothing! But perhaps God will give us a blessing.’

He spent several days in great distress on account of his children. But then he came home one day to find brand-new shirts upon his children, and asked: ‘Where did you get these?’ His wife answered: ‘I washed the cushion, and I pulled out the stuffing so as to clean it too, and found linen shirts and outer garments!’ Jamāl wept, remembering the mystical foresight (kashf) of the shaykh.

Abu al-Wafa’ ibn ‘Umar al-‘Urdi, Ma’adin al-dhahabfi al-a’yan al-musharrafa bi-him Halab, ed. ‘Abdullah al-Ghazali( Kuwait, 1987), 52-53.

[1] Here Abu Bakr addresses Jamāl in the feminine, not the expected masculine; this was one of Abu Bakr’s ‘specialties,’ through which he marked off his socially aberrant, and hence spiritually liminal, place in the world.

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For more on this fascinating saint and the world of Ottoman Aleppo, see the following:

Watenpaugh, Heghnar Zeitlian. “Deviant Dervishes: Space, Gender, and the Construction of Antinomian Piety in Ottoman Aleppo.” In International Journal of Middle East Studies 37, no. 4 (2005): 535–65.
_______. The Image of an Ottoman City: Imperial Architecture and Urban Experience in Aleppo in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2004.

Concerning the Prayer-Rug, Matters Mystical and Practical

The translation below comes from a text I have previously written about here, the Futuvvatʹnāmah-ʼi Sultānī of Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī Wāʻiẓ Kāshifī (c.1420-1504/5). For more information on the text and on the content of futuwwa/futuvva, see the above post. In this excerpt, Kāshifī deals with a topic that is not exclusively futuwwa or Sufi-oriented: the prayer-rug (sajjāda), a piece of liturgical equipment often emphasized by Sufis and Sufi-oriented futuwwa brotherhoods and guilds, but also by many other Muslims, both then and now. Kāshifī’s discussion of the prayer-rug is two-fold: one, he lays out the proper practice and behavior associated with the use of the prayer-rug; I have included a partial excerpt of these instructions. Second, he develops the prayer-rug as a mystical symbol, and spins practice-based implications out of those mystical symbols. The prayer-rug, already featuring a sort of cartography in its very design (see the illustration below and note 1), is given a further sacred cartography.

Kāshifī’s treatment of the prayer-rug, with his mix of practical regulation, mystical interpretation, and multiple layers of meaning (right down to mystical significances for the letters of words), is not unique to this one item. Rather, in previous chapters he explores the proper practice, mystical meanings, sacred origins, and scriptural justifications for all sorts of items: Sufi cloaks, futuwwa-belts, various types of clothing, headgear, and so on. As throughout the treatise, his language is generally quite accessible, with simple sentences and frequent translations of Qur’an and hadith texts (though not in this passage, curiously). Granted, as seen here, some of the language is deliberately esoteric, and might well have stumped some initiates (though perhaps also delighting them). The sources of mystical interpretations are diverse: here, for instance, religious legend, scripture, hadith, and Akbarian philosophic theology are all in evidence. The result is a text that contains an intersection of material culture, ‘popular’ religion, and ‘elite’ religious and mystical thought and practice: a text that we can reasonably imagine ‘ordinary’ Persian-speaking craftsmen and other workers, as well as more well-to-do people, reading and thinking about, perhaps in the course of their every-day prayers.

An example, from the late 1500s, of a prayer-rug, not unlike the sort our author would have used and had in mind in writing this passage.
A particularly fine example, from the late sixteenth century Ottoman Empire, of a prayer-rug, not unlike the sort our author would have used and had in mind in writing this passage. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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If one asks, What are the judgments regarding the prayer-rug and the mosque? Say to him: four: first, just as when one enters the mosque he puts enters with his right foot first, so, he puts his right foot on the prayer-rug first. Second, just as when one leaves the mosque he puts his left foot out first, so, when getting up from the prayer-rug one puts out his left foot first. Third, just as one does not speak of worldly things in the mosque, upon the prayer rug one also should not speak of worldly things save under necessity. Fourth, just as one should be continued occupied with remembrance [of God] in the mosque, so upon the prayer-rug one should be continually attached to remembrance, and speak words having to do with God and the Prophet.

If one asks, What are the pious customs regarding sitting upon the prayer-rug? Say to him: three: first, upon coming to the prayer-rug, one prays two raka’a, just as in performing prayer in the mosque. Second, sitting facing the qibla. Third, paying attention to proper practice.

If one asks, How many are the proper practices (ādāb) of prayer-rug sitting? Say to him: four: first, that one sit on two [bent] knees on the prayer-rug, though if necessary, the right leg can be brought up and the left leg stuck out. Second, that it not come to pass that his feet become barefooted. Third, that he not blow his nose or spit. Fourth, in like manner he should be prepared in regards to whatever comes into existence from him, be it in word or in deed.

If one asks, To what do the four corners of the prayer-rug symbolically point? Say to him: the right-hand miḥrab-corner[1] symbolically points to Gabriel, and the protected land and Mount Ḥira that is in it. And the left-hand miḥrab-corner symbolically points to Michael and to the Mount of the Fig. And the right-hand corner that is across from the miḥrab-corner symbolically points to Israfil and to the Mount of Olives. And the left-hand corner that is across from the miḥrab-corner symbolically points to ‘Azrael and to Mount Sina. God has brought together these places in this verse: By the fig, the olive, Mount Sina, and this protected land (Q. 95.1-3). For in each place one of the divine books was sent down. The Torah of Moses was sent down on Mount Sina, on the Mount of the Fig the Gospel descended to Jesus, on the Mount of Olives the Psalms of David were sent down, and on Mount Ḥira that is in the protect land the greater part of the Qur’an was sent down to our master [Muhammad].[2]

Thus, the four corners of the prayer-rug symbolically point to the four archangels, the four sacred books, and the four blessed places. Thus whoever sits upon the prayer-rug it is incumbent that he be steadfast like a firmly rooted mountain, not attracting the wayward breeze of the soul, until the effluence of the divine Book and Word comes to him, and he find the rank of divine proximity. Also: the bearers of the divine throne are the four angels to which the four corners of the prayer-rug symbolically point, meaning that upon the possessor of the prayer-rug it is incumbent that the throne of his own heart, that is [as described in the following verse]: the heart of the believer is the throne of God and the heart of the believer is the house of God,[3] must be stretched out by possessing the four attributes [see below] until he finds a portion of the cry of the throne-bearer, as God says: Those who bear the throne and from around Him they worship with praise of their Lord, believing in Him and seeking forgiveness for those who believe (Q.30.7).

If one asks, What are the four attributes by which the heart can become a bearer of the Throne? Say to him: first, faith in the various parts of the shari’ah; second, belief in the mysteries of the Way; third, turning to the mystical traces of God; fourth, being illumined by the lights of divine knowledge.

If one asks, To what do the letters [in the word] prayer-rug (sajjādeh) symbolically point?[4] Say to him: the letter sīn is for the traveling and wayfaring of the possessor of the prayer-rug in the world of ruling (malakūt). The letter jīm is for his striving and struggle in the observation of the lights of divine power. The alif is for the instruction in the manifestations of the degrees of divinity. The letter dāl is for the remembrance (dhikr, sic.) of the [divine] presence living, not dying. The letter is for the destruction of the lower-self attributes and the satanic ones in the straitening of the temporal world.

Futuvvat-nāmah-i sultānī, Ḥusayn Vāʻiẓ Kāshifī Sabzivārī, 197-9. Trans. Jonathan P. Allen, 2012. No rights reserved.


[1] A prayer rug (sajjāda, P. sajjādeh) of this period (and previous and later ones as well) would have a stylized miḥrab (prayer niche) on it; the top of the miḥrab (which I have translated here as the miḥrab-corner) would face the qibla. See the illustration above.

[2] This is a curious bit of exegesis. In a brief survey of Arabic exegetical literature I made in preparing this post I found many opinions corroborating the identification of the protected land as that around Mecca (and perhaps also Medina), however, the rest of our author’s interpretation seems to be idiosyncratic to him. However, I did not survey any Persian exegetical literature (a somewhat more laborious task, as little of it is online, unlike Arabic tafsir), which would perhaps be the place to look. I suspect some legendary material lies behind these significations.

[3] A hadith, not a Qur’an citation; it is given, however, in Arabic, without an accompanying Persian translation as is often Kāshifī’s wont.

[4] Our author frequently finds mystical signification in the letters of words, often, as here, by linking each letter to relatively complex concepts of post-Akbarian Sufism. I am not sure if the practice should be interpreted as mnemonic device (I somewhat doubt it) or simply as another way of layering mystical and religious meaning upon material and ideational objects—even if the meanings are not necessarily comprehended by everyone in the targeted audience.