Arguing Ibn ‘Arabī and Astrology in the Aq Qoyunlu Lands

Folio from a Shahnama (Book of kings) by Firdawsi (d. 1020)
While this miniature is meant to depict a scene from the Shāhnāma, it was produced for the Aq Qoyunlu court (as part of the so-called ‘Big Head Shāhnāma‘) and can give us an idea of what Aq Qoyunlu elites in the immediate orbit of the court would have looked like, their clothing and adjacent material objects reflective of their status; for a sufi such as Ibrāhīm-i Gülşenī there was always a certain ambiguity involved in politically positioning one’s self vis-a-vis such luxury and wealth. (Freer and Sackler S1986.172)

Claims to knowledge and authority are almost always contested, whatever the period or society, but in the often politically and culturally tumultuous Islamicate lands of the 15th and 16th centuries- the pivot point between ‘medieval’ and ‘early modern’- conflict and contestation were particularly vigorous and wide-ranging. Different models of religious authority- some centered on sainthood, others on exoteric scholarly acumen, with many grades within and between- as well as often sharply divergent versions of political authority and justification, to name but two categories of conflict, circulated and clashed from the Maghrib to Inner Asia. Advocates of one epistemic position or source of authority often sought political and culturally advantage, working to ‘cancel’ their adversaries, to use contemporary parlance.

In the massive Ottoman Turkish hagiographic work Menākıb-i İbrāhīm-i Gülşenī by Muḥyī-yi Gülşenī (d. 1605), which describes the life, travails, and practices of the founder of the Gülşenī ṭarīqa, Ibrāhīm-i Gülşenī (d. 1534), we find many valuable snapshots of such conflict in the Ottoman lands- where Ibrāhīm ended up and where his hagiographer Muḥyī lived most of his life- as well as in Ibrāhīm’s native territory, the Aq Qoyunlu domains (which covered parts of what are now Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Turkey). I have selected two such instances that are chronologically close together, both set in the waning days of the Aq Qoyunlu dynasty in the late fifteenth century: in the first, we see conflict over the works of Ibn ‘Arabī, the famous (or infamous according to some) medieval sufi theologian and philosopher whose works and ideas would have a massive impact well into our own day. The second excerpt has to do with conflict between Shaykh Ibrāhīm and court astrologers attached to Sultan Ya’qūb’s court. We begin with the conflict over Ibn ‘Arabī; the accusation of the ẖalīfes (appointed delegates of a sufi shaykh) being ‘Fuṣūṣīs’ is in reference to one of Ibn ‘Arabī’s most famous works, Fuṣūs al-ḥikam:

It is related that when the ẖalīfes of Dede [ʿUmar Rūshanī, Ibrāhīm’s precepting shaykh] Efendi dispersed in order to instruct the Turkmen of Qarabāǧ, while the common people were lovingly engaged with zikr and meditation, certain students of ‘ilm in that region, having conversed with them, became envious and accused them if infidelity, saying, “These are Fuṣūṣīs!’ They gathered together and came before Dede [Efendi], said some worthless things, then took [copies] of the Fuṣūs and piled them up. The venerable Dede said, “I am not Shaykh Ibn ’Arabī’s trustee, but there are portions of the noble Qur’an therein, and burning [them] would be a sin.” He having said this, they all rushed together and bore the venerable Dede off to Tabriz for examination (teftīş). Coming before Qāḍī ‘Īsā they acted very impolitely (bī-adablik).

When Shaykh Ibrāhīm received report of this, he immediately found a mount and came to Qāḍī ‘Īsā. He saw that some hundred immature [literally, ‘not cooked,’ nā-puẖte] students (suẖte) had assembled. He inquired about their condition. When they answered, the shaykh said: ‘It’s a wonder— every time that you brought to us any need of yours, we would fulfill it, but now what is this shamelessness? If you are envious of offerings, tithes, and charity, then come and go to your proper place. The fuqarā’ are not seekers of this world below, and those who act with impropriety will receive their lot.” So saying he broke up the assembly. While the shaykh was together with Qāḍī ‘Īsā, they arranged it such that coming to Sulṭān Ya’qūb they conveyed him to the venerable Dede, and coming to the venerable Dede the sultan entered, made ziyāret, and asked his prayers. Qāḍī ‘Īsā then summoned the ‘ulamā’, and Shaykh Ibrāhīm called the venerable Dede to a feast, saying, “All is at your disposal!” Not wishing to be at odds with Shaykh Ibrāhīm or Qāḍī ‘Īsā, all of the ‘ulamā’ kissed the venerable Dede’s hand, asked his supplicatiom, and sought his forgiveness. Mevlānā ‘Abd al-Ghanī and Mevlānā spent seven days withdrawn in the venerable Dede’s service, and reaped much benefit thereby. [1]

A couple of interesting things stand out: first, this passage reminds us that whereas in the early modern period Ibn ‘Arabī would be increasingly universally received, including among the ‘exoteric ‘ulamā” as a saint and master theologian (though hold-outs rejecting or critiquing him would certainly persist), in the 15th century deep divides still remained, with many Islamic scholars rejecting al-Shaykh al-Akbar as not just incorrect but as an infidel [2]. Dede ʿUmar’s own position is itself a bit ambiguous here, as he disavows being the ‘trustee’ of Ibn ‘Arabī, and defends his works rather lamely (though perhaps this was temporary exigency). Ibrāhīm-i Gülşenī, by contrast, was a much more vigorous defender. In this account he teamed up with a close ally in the Aq Qoyunlu administration, Qāḍī ‘Īsā, to effectively shame the opponents of Ibn ‘Arabī into submission, unabashedly utilizing his close connections with the Aq Qoyunlu elite to do so. The opponents are also an interesting lot: in the Ottoman context the ‘suẖte,’ meaning there students in the medrese system, would become notorious at a later period for social unrest. Here their profile is less clear, but Shaykh Ibrāhīm’s rebuke suggests aspiring ‘ulamā’ who had not secured elite patronage and for whom Ibn ‘Arabī-quoting sufis were direct competitors for authority and physical patronage.

LJS 434 Jadāvil-i ikhtiyārāt
Astrologers were common components in late medieval and early modern ‘knowledge economies’ across the Islamicate world (and beyond), often in the service of political elites; the astrological work from which this colorful schematic came was produced under Timurid rule in eastern Persia, almost contemporaneous with the story below of astrologers in the service of the Aq Qoyunlu sultan Ya’qūb ibn Ūzūn Ḥasan. (University of Pennsylvania, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, LJS 434)

Competition for epistemic authority and, closely intertwined with that authority, sultanic patronage and attention appears in our second story, too. This brief account takes place shortly after the above report, and is part of a much longer description of a campaign undertaken by Sultan Ya’qūb; Shaykh Ibrāhīm has come out on campaign, too, and offers a very different prognostication than that given by the court astrologers:

The sultan’s astrologers, each of whom received from the sultan as part of his employment a regular stipend of a hundred thousand akçes, said to the shaykh: “Now then! We are compelled to go [on campaign], but why are you coming voluntarily? For that the sultan is going to be utterly routed is determined, we have learned it from our examination and observation of the stars.” The shaykh replied, “I rather have witnessed in the divine astrolabe that Bāyindir H̱an will be killed, and the sultan victorious and triumphant, so that the hadith Every astrologer is a liar will be shown true.” Yet in accord with their beliefs they continued to hold forth, and the shaykh said, “If your words prove false, ought not your stipend be cut off?” Humbling themselves the astrologers pleaded, saying, “Woe is us! Don’t say such to anyone, and let it not be thus, for the sake of your sacred head!” The shaykh replied, “If your knowledge is not completely cut off, still it will not be hard for it to be [rendered] doubtful and ambiguous.” [3] Continue reading “Arguing Ibn ‘Arabī and Astrology in the Aq Qoyunlu Lands”

Around the Late Medieval World with Abū Isḥāq al-Kāzarūnī and the Sacred Soil of His Tomb

Salting Mihrab
Fig. 1. A c. 1300 mihrab tile made in Kashan, which once decorated a tomb, perhaps of a saint. Abū Isḥaq’s shrine is no longer extant, but it might well have at some point in its existence featured tilework such as this. (V&A C.1977-1910)

The late medieval Islamicate world was filled with saints’ shrines and communities of sufis and other devotees oriented around those saints and their physical place of burial. Devotion to saints was, in the medieval as in the early modern world, more often than not a local phenomenon, centered around the saint of one’s village or neighborhood. In other cases, a community of devotees came into being that was spread out over an entire city, a region, an empire, or, in some cases, all or most of the Islamicate lands. One such saint with near-global reach was Shaykh Abū Isḥaq al-Kāzarūnī (d. 1035), whose tomb complex once stood in the town of Kāzarūn (modern Kazerun, Iran), until its destruction by the Safavids in the early 1500s (being no longer extant we cannot say what precisely it looked like, but surviving tombs and decorative components, such as those in fig. 1, help in imagining a reconstruction). The community of dervishes that arose around the saint, institutionally maintained in part by numerous khānaqāhs (structures in which sufis might live or visit, and which often provided travelers with lodging too), stretched from China to the Ottoman lands, lasting in the latter at least into the eighteenth century. How did a sufi saint from a relatively minor city in the Iranian lands obtain such a global reach? Abū Isḥaq himself, who in his lifetime seems to have emphasized preaching, charitable works, and jihād on the frontier, only left Kāzarūn once, living and teaching and dying there. It would be his successors who built up a network of devotees oriented around the saint and his tomb-complex, using a wide range of means to do so.

Much of the transformation and ‘globalization’ of devotion to Abū Isḥaq and the community formed around him took place from the 1300s forward. One instrument of the community’s spread, and a crucial source for understanding it, is the Persian-language vitae of the saint, Maḥmūd b. ʿUthmān’s Firdaws al-murshidiyya fī asrār al-ṣamadiyya, completed in 1328, Maḥmūd drawing upon but also adding to a now lost Arabic manāqib about the saint. This work evidently circulated quite widely, being translated into Ottoman Turkish during the mid-seventeenth century by Çömezzāde Meḥmed Şevḳī (d. 1688). Below we will return below to one of the more interesting features of this vitae- an entire chapter devoted to the properties of the soil of the saint’s tomb- but first let us hear from the famed traveler Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, who visited the central shrine and khānaqāh in 1326:

I left Shīrāz to visit the tomb of the pious shaykh Abū Isḥāq al-Kāzarūnī at Kāzarūn, which lies two days’ journey [west] from Shīrāz. This shaykh is held in high honour by the inhabitants of India and China. Travelers on the Sea of China, when the wind turns against them and they fear pirates, usually make vows to Abū Isḥāq, each one setting down in writing what he has vowed. When they reach safety the officers of the convent go on board the ship, receive the list, and take from each person the amount of his vow. There is not a ship coming from India or China but has thousands of dinars in it [vowed to the saint]. Any mendicant who comes to beg alms of the shaykh is given an order, sealed with the shaykh’s seal [see fig. 2] stamped in red wax, to this effect: “Let any person who has made a vow to the Shaykh Abū Isḥāq give thereof to so-and-so so much,” specifying a thousand or a hundred, or more or less. When the mendicant finds anyone who has made a vow, he takes from him the sum named and writes a receipt for the amount on the back of the order. [1]

As is evident from Ibn Baṭṭūṭa’s report, the shrine of Abū Isḥaq had mechanisms for accumulating wealth, wealth which could then be distributed to travelers, the poor, resident dervishes, and the custodians of the shrine itself. The generators of this wealth- here merchants, but we know from other sources that local and Ilkhanid elite sponsored the shrine too- helped to spread devotion to the saint far and wide, in many places leading to the establishment of Kāzarūnī khānaqāhs, from Canton to Edirne. Crucial here was the ‘transportability’ of the saint’s power, his baraka. Vows, texts, and seals such as the one mentioned by Ibn Baṭṭūṭa and shown below were all means of making the saint’s power present far from his resting place.

Magical seal, cast bronze Iran; 14th century
Fig. 2. A 14th century bronze seal bearing the inscription ‘Abū Isḥaq, the Guiding Shaykh, God sanctify his spirit’- almost certainly the very seal to which Ibn Battuta refers in the passage below (David Collection Inv. no. 7/1996)

There was another means whereby that power was transmitted, one which Maḥmūd b. ʿUthmān thought important enough to devote an entire chapter to in his vitae of the saint (referred to repeatedly therein as ‘the Guiding Shaykh’): the power of the soil of the saint’s tomb. As the stories I have selected and translated in what follows suggest, soil gathered from above the saint’s grave was believed to transmit the presence and power of the saint himself, with only a small amount necessary, making it easy to collect and carry across the world in fact:

On the Virtue of the Soil of the Tomb of the Guiding Shaykh, God Sanctify his Saintly Spirit:

Know, God be merciful to you, that the special quality and virtue of the soil (gil) of the tomb (qabr) of the Guiding Shaykh, God illumine his tomb, has no limit such that one could describe it or be able to adequately speak of its virtue. It is well established and verified across the face of the earth among the children of Adam, elite and common, that whatever intention is brought [to his tomb], their needs are happily met. It is mentioned and well-known that when a ship, while traversing the midst of the sea, is in fear of sinking, the waves overwhelming, if they throw a handful of soil from the tomb of the Shaykh into the midst of the sea, in that moment the waves will become peaceful and safety return to view, due to the barakāt of the Guiding Shaykh, God sanctify his saintly spirit! The degrees and virtue of that are numerous, however, that measure of things which have come to the hearing of this deficient bondservant and which have been witnessed will be mentioned, towards good, God willing. Continue reading “Around the Late Medieval World with Abū Isḥāq al-Kāzarūnī and the Sacred Soil of His Tomb”

The Attempted Assassination of Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn by the Coward Shakhyzāda Jamāl al-Dīn

The second of the four assassination attempts upon Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn. The shaykh is the slightly larger than others figure near the center of the composition. Interestingly, the illuminator of this manuscript, completed in 1582 in Safavid Shiraz, illustrated the shortest of the four scenes of attempted assassination, filling out the surrounding context left unsaid by the text itself (which, readers of Persian might note, varies slightly from the critical edition I have used for the translation below). Also note that the illuminator has depicted one of the assassins pulling back an arrow, which does not exactly fit with the textual content. Perhaps for this reason a later viewer made a mark down over the hand and bow of the shooter, either as a ‘correction’ or as a ritual act of ‘disarmament.’ Source: AKM264 (fol.349r).

We have now met Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn (1252/3–1334), the eponym of the Safavid dynasty and one of the most important Muslim saints of the late medieval and early modern Persianate world, a few times, first as a young man seeking out the presence of other holy people, and then as an increasingly proficient adept in the arts of taṣawwuf. The extended story that I’ve translated and presented below (sans, I must confess, the Persian and Arabic couplets interspersed, which, time and energy pending I will later add) is set at a critical moment in the shaykh’s career, not long after the death of his primary shaykh, Shaykh Zāhid. While our source, the sprawling hagiographic treatment of Ibn Bazzāz (d. 1391–92), is somewhat circumspect around the details, it is clear that succession to Shaykh Zāhid’s post was contested. While Ṣafī al-Dīn laid claim to the succession, and was acclaimed by some of the late master’s followers, all was not well. The new shaykh was soon met with opposition, a group of ‘obstinate ones,’ in the words of the hagiography, forming and deciding to get rid of Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn, quite literally in fact, by killing him. In the rather (unintentionally?) humorous story that follows, while on his annual pilgrimage to the shrine of his departed master in Lāhijān near the coast of the Caspian Sea, this group, led by rival claimant to Shaykh Zāhid’s position Shaykhzāda Jamāl al-Dīn, the son of the late shaykh (hence his name, ‘shaykh-descendant’) and therefore seemingly possessed of a stronger claim. Not to give things away, but he does not win out, instead admitting defeat and being reconciled to Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn, who is shown being remarkably chill about the whole affair.

The story is relatively self-explanatory; worthy of note are various small but insightful details such as the presence of a female supporter of Ṣafī al-Dīn and her role in the tale, or the fact that some people at least in this world knew how to swim, whether for utilitarian purposes or for fun is not evident here.


It was Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn’s custom that at an appointed time he would go and make pious visitation (ziyārat u mazār) to Shaykh Zāhid’s tomb [in Lāhijān]. When that time came and he set out to make his pious visitation, Khwāja Fakhr al-Dīn Yusūf, who was the brother of the shaykh, came to the holy shaykh and said, ‘It is assuredly not safe for you to go and make pious visitation to Shaykh Zāhid, for a group of deficient obstinate ones are waiting in ambush, God forbid, to commit a sin!’

The shaykh, God sanctify his secret, replied: ‘If it is destined for me that in this time that in going I fall into their hands, then turning back the decree of God cannot be done, and if not, then there is no fear to be had.’ So the shaykh went on his pious visitation [as usual]. Through that group of obstinate ones the fire of obstinacy and anger was lit in Shaykhzāda Jamāl al-Dīn, God be merciful to him. They agreed to seek the death of the shaykh, God sanctify his secret, and furthermore agreed upon the means of killing him: they would set the shaykh’s retreat cell (khalwat) on fire, consuming the shaykh in the flames and so killing him. They came by night and first on the outside they fastened the door of the retreat cell shut with a nail so that when the fire blazed up [the shaykh] would be unable to come out. But when they lit the fire, due to the shaykh’s sainthood (vilāyat) the fire would not flame up and instead went out, even though houses and retreat cells in that place are all built of wood and beams which after a passage of time become dried out.

When this tack did not work, the flame not flaring up and the retreat cell not catching fire, the flame of their anger and envy only increased. They decided to shoot the shaykh with arrows. They sent out a party to shoot the shaykh from ambush. But when they put their hands to their bows, their hands were all dried out and unable to work the bows, none of their hands being able to work.

When their corrupt intention could not be realized by these sorts of stratagems, again they concluded that they would destroy the shaykh by using poison. So they put a measure of poison in honey and along with a sufra of food brought it before the shaykh, God sanctify his secret. However, the wife (ḥaram) of Shaykhzāda Jamāl al-Dīn, God be merciful to him, who was the mother of the departed Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad, God be merciful to him, secretly sent a message to the shaykh, God sanctify his secret, saying, ‘Take care! Do not stretch out your hand for the honey, beware against accepting any of it!’ When this condition was made known to the shaykh he was wary of the honey and did not accept any of it. And it was likewise with any food with which they schemed and plotted—that pious matron secretly gave report and the shaykh did not stretch out his hand to it.

When their vain desire and wish was not realized through this stratagem, they again determined that there was no other possible plan remaining save that at the time of [the shaykh’s] return [from the shrine of Shaykh Zāhid in Lāhijān], they would seat the shaykh in a boat, and a group of people who knew how to swim would also board the boat with him. Once they were underway in the water, they would sink the boat and escape by swimming, while the shaykh, God sanctify his secret, not knowing how to swim, would certainly sink with the boat and so die. In preparation for this task they donned light clothing, and wanted to board the ship and seat the shaykh in it. But, the shaykh said, ‘I saw Shaykh Zāhid, God sanctify his secret, coming towards me upon a gazelle-like horse and saying, “O Ṣafī! Ride upon this horse and travel the dry road—do not board the boat!”’

Having seen and heard this from Shaykh Zāhid, the shaykh, God sanctify his secret, said ‘I’m not going to travel by way of the water and will not be boarding the boat, rather, I’ll be going by dry land.’ This having happend, Shaykhzāda Jamāl al-Dīn saw that their idea [of getting rid of the shaykh] was never going to be feasible, so he went with the shaykh and spent an hour with him in his retreat cell. The shaykh, God sanctify his secret, said, ‘Shaykhzāda! I know what you aimed to do to me and what treachery against me became lodged in your heart—but God, exalted is He, has made it impossible for your goal to be achieved, even after this goal was repeated and enmity established. Yet, if your desire is for my destruction and cannot be otherwise, bring a measure of poison so that I can consume it and your intention be fulfilled, and no one else will be aware of this secret.’

When Shaykhzāda Jamāl al-Dīn heard these words, the sweat of shame ran down his face, and he sought forgiveness for this crime and begged clemency for his treachery. Having manifest purity of state, he brought forth the gazelle-like horse for the shaykh, and mounting him the shaykh made his return journey.

Ibn Bazzāz Ardabīlī, Ṣafvat al-ṣafā: dar tarjumah-ʼi aḥvāl va aqvāl va karāmāt-i Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn Isḥaq Ardabīlī, ed. Ghulām Riẓā Ṭabāṭabāʼī Majd (Tabriz: G.R. Ṭabāṭabāʼī Majd , 1373 [1994]), 798-791. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2020.

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The Mirror of the Heart

The following is from the opening pages of the superb treatise on Sufism, practical and theoretical, by Najm al-Dīn al-Rāzī Dāya (1177-1256), entitled Mirṣād al-‘ibād ilā ’l-mabdaʾ wa ’l-maʿād. Dāya was a disciple of another, rather more famous Najm al-Dīn, the one known as al-Kubrā; Dāya studied the Sufi path under him in the city of Nishapur. However, unlike his master, Dāya seems to have been little concerned with the practice of taking on disciples. Instead, in the course of his wandering life- from Central Asia to Anatolia to Tabriz to Baghdad, all during a period of intense and often violent change and dislocation in the region, with the Mongol invasions being the most famous of these changes. The period in which Dāya lived was also a period of incredible productivity in Sufi circles: many of the intellectual and organizational formations pioneered during the era would continue to deeply shape the practice of taṣawwuf up to the present. Two of Dāya’s works would become part of this long-term legacy: the work excerpted here, and the tafsīr to which he contributed, described in my previous post.

Unlike the tafsīr composed by al-Kubrā’s disciples, Dāya’s most famous work, the Mirṣād al-‘ibād, was composed in Persian, which was quickly becoming a central language of intellectual life across many Muslim communities, and not just in regions that were historically Persian-speaking. Dāya’s magnum opus, for instance, was composed in Konya, in Anatolia, under Seljuk Turkic patronage. Of course, Arabic remained the ‘first’ language of Muslim intellectuals, Sufi or otherwise, and would continue to be given at least nominal priority, even as more and more works were produced in Persian, and, in time, other vernaculars, including different Turkic dialects (themselves influenced heavily by the diffusion of Persian). In the excerpt given here, wholesale Arabic phrases are incorporated, without being translated (which is not always the case- many later authors will translate or expansively paraphrase almost all Arabic material in their works). However, alongside the direct quotation of Qur’an and hadith in Arabic is another feature deeply ingrained in Persian Sufic texts: the use of poetry, which in time would appear even in Arabic treatises as authoritative texts closely behind hadith in authoritative value.

As for the content of this excerpt: Dāya’s stated intention is to show the reader the incredible glory of human nature and potential, potential that must be ‘unlocked,’ or perhaps more fittingly, hammered back into shape. In the cosmology and anthropology he unfolds here- itself a piece with similar intellectual currents au courant among other thirteenth-century Sufis- the human person is the center of the created cosmos, and more. It is in the fully-realized human heart that the divine essence and attributes is truly manifest and refracted, as it were, to the rest of creation. The heart is, for Dāya, the supremely deiform aspect of the human person: but it must be refined through the careful tutelage of spiritual masters before it can shine with its primordial splendour. Here we see the deeply social setting of taṣawwuf: for the full realization of this high anthropology, particular human relationships are necessary. The return to the cardial deiform shape, the cosmic centrality, for which humans were created is possible: but it is only truly realized in the presence and under the care of an already-realized master, a Friend of God. And, for Dāya at least, it must occur gradually, as he makes clear in the final lines of this introduction.

Finally, a note on the remainder of the text, which in printed edition comes in at some 300 plus pages: after some further introductory material, Dāya presents some essential cosmology. This is followed by a description of the proper path to true gnosis, from basic adherence to the shari’a, adherence to a master, and, ultimately, divine realization. Next, Dāya turns to an examination of different sorts of human ‘types,’ which neatly leads into a concluding chapter on the different sorts of Sufis and Sufi organizations, which include people from the top of human society down to the ‘working classes.’

The purpose of the existence of the human person is gnosis (ma’rifat)[1] of the essence and attributes of God, just as David asked: O Lord, why did You create the creation? He said: I was a hidden treasure and I lovingly wished to be known, so I created the creation that I might be known.[2] True gnosis comes only from the perfect human person, notwithstanding the fact that in servanthood the angels and jinn are participants with humans—but as for the human person, he is distinguished from all other beings by the bearing of the burden of the trust (amānat) of gnosis that [is described in the verse] Verily, We offered the trust to the heavens and the earth, et al.[3] The intended meaning of ‘heaven’ is the folk of heaven, meaning, the angels; by ‘earth,’ the folk of earth, meaning, the animals, the jinn, and the devils; by ‘mountains,’ the folk of the mountains, meaning, the wild creatures and the birds. Out of these, none are capable of the burden of the trust except the human person, because, out of all His creation, it is the human soul that is the mirror of the beauty and majesty, which makes manifest the divine Presence, and is the point of manifestation of the universality of the attributes [of God]. [The words] He created Adam in His own image are an indication of this.

The quintessence of the soul of the human person is the heart, and the heart is the mirror, and each of the two worlds are the covering of that mirror. And the manifestation of the totality of the attributes of the beauty and majesty of the divine Presence are by means of this mirror that is We will show them Our signs on the horizons and in their souls. In this vein it is said:

The purpose of the being of mankind and jinnkind is the mirror/ The object of sight in the two worlds is the mirror.

The heart is the mirror of the beauty of the  King of Kings/ And these two worlds are the covering of that mirror.

And when the soul of the human person, which is predisposed for mirrorhood (āyina-gī), finds pedagogical upbringing (tarbiyat) and arrives at completion, it witnesses the manifestation of the totality of the attributes in itself, the soul itself recognizing why it was created. Then the reality of He who knows himself knows his Lord is realized, and he again knows what he is, and for whom the secret of grace and beneficience is found, just as [it is said]:

O copy of the divine book that you are!/ O perfect royal mirror that you are!

Outside, nothing in this world is/  From yourself, in seeking, is everything that you wish.

But until the soul of the human person arrives at the perfect degree of the limpidity of mirrorhood, he must engage in much journeying and struggle. This only be means of the main thoroughfare of the sharī’a and the true ṭarīqa,[4] and only by gradation. It is just as iron must be first extracted from a mine, then fashioned and shaped through skill and learning of various sorts which they manifest, just as transmitted by the master of the craft, before it can become a mirror.

The human person is in the beginning a mine of the iron of this mirror, for humans are mines, like mines of gold and silver. That iron must be, brought forth from the mine of the being of the human person through sound oversight (ḥusn-i tadbīr), and through pedagogical upbringing , so that you arrive at the degree of mirrorhood, by gradation and gradual advance.


[1] Gnosis being the special, experiential knowledge/comprehension of God, distinct from more discursive, rational reason, ‘ilm. The two are not necessarily opposed so much as they represent, in classical taṣawwuf, hierarchical degrees of knowledge.

[2] Probably one of the most famous and most cited of hadith among Sufis, this is a so-called hadith qudsi, or ‘sacred’ hadith, attributed directly to God. Its import for establishing Sufi cosmology is pretty evident, even apart from the expansions of meaning interpretation provides.

[3] A partial citation of Q. 33.72. The entire verse runs: Verily, we offered the trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, but they declined to bear it and were afraid of it. The human person accepted it; he is oppressive and ignorant.

[4] These two terms are frequently paired in Sufi texts, in order to emphasize the necessity of both the ‘external’ religious ‘path’ (the literal meaning of shari’a) and the ‘internal’ religious way (tariqa also meaning path or way): in other words, the whole gamut of Islamic practice, not just legal obligation or mystical practices.

Lions, Pomegranates, and Sufi Saints

The following are more stories from ʻAbd Allāh ibn Asʻad al-Yāfiʻī’s collection of hagiographic tales, Khalāsa al-Mafākhir Fī Manāqib al-Shaykh ʻAbd al-Qādir, which I discussed previously here. The first few stories have to do with different saints, not ‘Abd al-Qādir himself. However, they reflect similar themes in the previously translated stories: the translocational capacity of the true saint, his bodily control, both over himself and over the bodies of others; his penetration of the minds of others; and his ability to manipulate nature for the benefit of his disciples. And while these rather entertaining and often amusing tales probably do not strike us in the modern world as elevated discourse akin to other forms of Sufi writing (say, Ibn ‘Arabī), they do include important Sufic vocabulary and seek to inculcate theological and mystical doctrine. The relationship between ‘interior’ and ‘exterior’ is stressed in them, as peoples’ interior states correlate directly with and indeed determine exterior happenings. The supreme example of this interior-exterior dynamism is the exalted saint, who has mastered his interior states and is therefore able to draw upon divine power in shaping ‘exterior’ events. Of course, it is also plausible that pious tales such as these functioned as much for entertainment as anything else—there being no necessary sharp demarcation between entertaining tales and pious, even pedagogical tales, either in our own age or in previous ones.

Addendum: I have added two more stories, both of which have to do with ‘Abd al-Qadir’s control over the magical forces of the unseen, particularly the jinn. They are pretty self-explanatory: in the first, ‘Abd al-Qadir knows how to manipulate the unseen forces of the world, as his instruction in the making of a magic circle indicates; but this knowledge is predicated upon his own saintly power, and not merely technique. Likewise, his contact with the ‘men of the unseen’ is because of his saintliness, his integral connection with the cosmos. The message of all such stories, besides the obvious intention of emphasizing the saint’s prophylactic power and intercessory worth, is to argue for the deep integration of the divinely-inspired saint with the entirety of the cosmos, seen and unseen. Again, the purification and divinization of the saint’s interior reflects on his relationship to the exterior world (and to the hidden world, which is both interior and exterior at once).

 Ḥikāya 89:

According to Shaykh al-‘Ārif Billah Abū Ḥafṣ ‘Umar ibn Maḥmud al-Maghrabī, God be merciful to him, who said: I was sitting with Shaykh Abū al-Barakāt ibn Ṣukhr in the side of the zāwiya,[1] and the impulsive thought[2] occurred to me of grilled meat in hot wheat bread.[3] So the impulsive thought increased in me; while I was like that suddenly a lion[4] came into our midst, and in his mouth was bread. He sat down by Shaykh Abū al-Barakāt, who said to him: ‘Go and put it in the hands of Shaykh ‘Umar.’ So the lion came and put it down and passed on by. In it was grilled meat and hot bread. Scarcely a moment had passed when a dusty, disheveled man descended to us from the air! As soon as I saw him, the desire for the meat and the bread went from me. The man went to the bread that had been brought by the lion, and ate it and everything wrapped in it. Then he sat down and related something to Abū al-Barakāt, then went back into the air from whence he had come. Shaykh Abū al-Barakāt said to me: ‘O Shaykh ‘Umar! The desire that gripped you was not yours, rather, it belonged to the man whom you saw. The man is among the pampered ones: if any impulsive thought arises in his soul, his impulsive thought does not cease until it is fulfilled. At this moment he is in the land of farthest China.’

Ḥikāya 90:

According to Shaykh al-‘Ālam al-Muqrī’ Abū al-Fataḥ Naṣr, who said: I went out one day in autumn with Shaykh Abū al-Barakāt from the zawīya to the mountain, and with him was a group of Sufis. Then he said: ‘Today we want sweet and sour pomegranates!’ And he had not even finished his words when all sorts of trees in this valley and mountain were filled with pomegranates. So he said to us: ‘Here you are! Pomegranates!’ So we picked from it many [fruits], and and we were picking pomegranates from apple, pear, and apricot trees, and other sorts. And we took from one tree both sweet and sour pomegranates, eating a great deal of it, until we were satisfied. Then we departed, and after an hour we returned, but the shaykh was no longer with us and we did not see a single pomegranate upon the trees!

Ḥikāya 91:

According to Shaykh al-Aṣīl Abū Muḥammad ‘Abdallah ibn Abū Mufraj ‘Abd al-Raḥman ibn al-Nāsik Abū al-Fataḥ Naṣrallah ibn ‘Alī al-Hamawī al-Shībānī, God be merciful to him, who said: I heard my father say: My father was walking along the edge of the mountain on a violently windy day, and a wind caught him and he fell. Shaykh Abū Barakāt was sitting facing the mountain, and he pointed with his finger in [my father’s] direction, so his place was fixed in the air between the summit of the mountain and the ground below, and he did not move to the left or the right, up or down, so that it was as if someone was grasping him and keeping him from moving. And he remained like that for an hour. Then the shaykh said: ‘O wind! Rise with him to the roof [or: surface] of the mountain!’ So the wind rose gently with him, as if someone were carrying him, until he arrived at the roof of the mountain.

Ḥikāya 94:

According to Shaykh al-Ṣalāḥ al-Majd ibn Sa’adān al-Wasṭī, God be merciful to him, who said: I was present in the majlis of Shaykh Isḥāq Ibrāhīm al-‘Azab, God be pleased with him, and he was talking with his companions, saying in one of his discourses: ‘My Lord has given me free disposal concerning everyone who is present to me, so that no one stands, sits, or moves in my presence save that I have governing jurisdiction over him.’ Then I thought to myself: ‘Ha! I will stand if I wish, and sit if I wish.’ Then the shaykh cut off his discourse, pointed at me and said: ‘If you are capable of it, stand!’ So I started to rise in order to stand, but I was incapable of motion—I [remained] as one sitting! So I was carried to my house upon the backs of men. I was incapable of moving about, and this condition remained for a month. I knew that it was because of my opposition to the shaykh. So I contracted repentence with God, and said to my family: ‘Carry me to the shaykh!’ They did so, and I said: ‘O my master! It was but an impulsive thought!’ Then he rose to stand, took me by the hand, and then he walked and I walked with him, and what was in me left.

Ḥikāya 95:

According to Shaykh al-Ṣāliḥ Abū al-Farj ‘Abd al-Ḥamīd Mu’ālī ibn Halāl al-‘Abādānī: I heard from my father a story he related from his father who said: I heard Shaykh al-‘Azab, God be pleased with him, say: ‘No one visits us (yazūrunā: a quasi-technical term for visiting a Sufi shaykh, or the tomb of a saint)  unless we want him to.’ So he [the relator’s grandfather] said: So I intended to visit him one time, and an impulse arose in me of this sort so that I said to myself: ‘Ha! I will visit him if he wants it or not.’ Then when I came to the door of the living-place [of the shaykh], I saw a mighty lion—he frightened me with his gaze! Then he bared his teeth at me, so I turned on my heels and fled! And my impatience had increased—or he [the relator] said, my fear—and I was used to hunting and killing lions, so when I was a ways away I stopped, and watched the lion: people were entering and leaving and he did not oppose them—they didn’t even see him, it seemed to me. The next day I came back, and he was in his same place, acting the same way, and when he saw me he stood up before me, so I fled from him. This was my condition in relation to the lion for a month: I was incapable of entering or even getting close to the door. So I went to one of the shaykhs of the Baṭā’iḥ[5] and complained to him about my condition, so he said: ‘Look within yourself for which sin has brought this about.’ So I mentioned to him my impulsive thought, and he said: ‘It has come from it—and the lion which you saw is the state (ḥāl) of Shaykh Ibrāhīm.’ He [the relator’s grandfather] said: So I sought God’s forgiveness, and intended repentance from my opposition. So I went to the living-quarters, and the lion stood and entered in, going to the shaykh and those mingling around him, and was hidden from me. And when I came before the shaykh, he said to me: ‘Welcome, O penitent one!’

Ḥikāya 96:

According to Shaykh Abū al-Ma’ālī ibn Masu’ūd al-‘Irāqī al-Tājir al-Jawharī, who said: I intended to travel one year to the land of the Persians for business, so [before setting out] I sent a pledge to Shaykh Ibrāhīm, and he said to me: ‘If you fall into hardship, call on my name.’ Then, when we were halfway through the stony wastes of Khurāsān, a band of robbers (literally, a ‘force,’ ḥīl) came out against us, and they seized our goods and carried them off in their hands, and we watched them go.[6] I remembered the words of Shaykh Ibrāhīm, but I was in a group of [mu’tabirīn—Shi’i?] among my companions, so I was embarrassed to mention the name of the shaykh with my tongue, so instead the cry for help from him pervaded me secretly—and my inner thoughts had not concluded when I saw him from afar upon a mountain; in his hand a staff with which he was motioning towards those robbers, so that they came with all our goods and surrendered them to us. And they said to us: ‘Proceed freely, rightly guided ones! We have a piece of information for you.’ We said: ‘What is it?’ They replied: ‘We saw upon the mountain a man, a staff in his hand with which he was motioning towards us to return your goods—and the wide expanses seemed narrow to us out of fear of him, for we perceived destruction for whoever opposed him. And there was one among us who had divided off [for himself] part of your goods, but with his staff [the shaykh] drove him back until he rejoined us—then we perceived him and thought that he must be from heaven!’[7]

Ḥikāya 115

According to Abū Sa’īd ‘Abdallah ibn Aḥmad al-Baghdādī who said: One of my daughters, named Fāṭima, who was a virgin, went up to the roof of our house and was kidnapped; she was then sixteen years old. So I immediately went to Shaykh Muḥya al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Qādir and told him of it. He said to me: ‘Go tonight to the ruins of Karkh (a suburb of Baghdad) and sit upon Khamis Hill, then trace around yourself a circle on the ground, saying as you trace it: In the name of God in accordance with the intention of ‘Abd al-Qādir. Then when the gloom of night comes, there will pass by you groups of jinn in different forms—but do not be frightened of their might. Then, when dawn is nigh[8] there will pass by you their king in the midst of an army of them, and he will ask you: What do you need? So say to him: ‘Abd al-Qādir sent me to you. Then tell him about the affair of your daughter.’ So I went and did as he commanded me. There passed by disquieting forms from among them [the jinn], but none were able to get close to the circle I was in. And troop after troop of them did not cease passing by until their king came, riding his steed, and before him were all his peoples. He stopped opposite the circle and said to me: ‘What do you need?’ I said: ‘‘Abd al-Qādir sent me to you.’ He got down from his steed, kissed the ground, and sat down outside the circle; those with him sat down also. He said: ‘What is your affair?’ So I told him the story of my daughter, and he said to those with him: ‘Who did this?’ But they did not know who did it, until one came with a demon (mārid), and she [the daughter] was with him, and it was said to him: ‘This one is from the demons of China.’ Then [the king of the jinn] said to him: ‘What possessed you to kidnap someone who is a loyal follower of the Pole [of the Saints] (al-quṭb)?!’ He replied: ‘The idea took hold of me.’ So he commanded him to be struck on his neck, and he gave me back my daughter, then I said: ‘Have you ever seen anything like tonight in your obedience to ‘Abd al-Qādir?’ He said, ‘Yes—he looks from his house to the demons that are in the furthest part of the earth. So they flee from fear of him to their dwelling places. Verily, when God raises a Quṭb, He gives him power over man and jinn.’

[Abū al-‘Abbās] said: I was lying up on top of the roof of the madrasa on Saturday night, between dinner and sunset, on the ninth of al-Rabī’ al-Ākhir, the year 552, and it was summertime. Our master Muḥya al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Qādir came before me, facing the qibla. And then I saw in the sky a man flying about in the air like an arrow. Upon his head was a fine turban, with an ‘adhiba [?] between his shoulders, the whitest of clothing upon him, and an apron around his waist. When he drew near to the Shaykh’s head, he dropped like an eagle descending on its prey, until he sat before him and greeted him. Then he went back into the air until he disappear from my sight. So I stood up and asked the Shaykh about him, and he said: ‘You saw him?’ ‘Yes,’ I answered, and he said: ‘He is one of the men of the roving unseen world, upon them be peace.’

ʻAbd Allāh ibn Asʻad al-Yāfiʻī, Khalāsa al-Mafākhir Fī Manāqib al-Shaykh ʻAbd al-Qādir, ed. by Aḥmad Farīd al-Mazīdī (Sirīlānkā: Dār al-Āthār al-Islāmīyah lil-Ṭibāʻah wa-al-Nashr, 2006), 168-169, 172-174, 190-191.

[1] A sort of Sufi retreat or meeting place, sometimes also a shrine.

[2] Khāṭir: In Sufic terminology, a khāṭir is a thought that ‘arises’ in one, without any intention on the person’s part, and often without the person’s control, though a person may choose to act upon the impulsive thought. It often has a negative valence, but not always. In this story, the impulsive thought is apparently linked to mystical, quasi-magical capacities, presumably granted to a supreme saint (here, a Chinese saint of some sort!).

[3] The theme of food, seen here and in several other antecdotes translated below, was already an old one in Sufi lore. Sweets, grilled meat, and bread appear again and again. See for instance several stories of al-Ḥallāj compiled and translated by Massignon: For further instances, see footnote 110 at p. 118, op. cite.; and Abū Ṭalib al-Makkī, Qūt al-Qulūb, Vol. II , 42; and the short Sufi story translated here. Finally, see Shazad Bashir, Sufi Bodies: Religion and Society in Medieval Islam (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011),

[4] This story and another further along feature lions linked to a Sufi saint (or saints, as here); besides the obvious symbolism of a powerful, majestic animal, the lion might also carry ‘Alid symbolism.

[5] ‘The Marshlands’—the area around the ‘Iraqi city of Wasit.

[6] A reminder of the often precarious nature of travel and commerce in the Middle Ages…

[7] The saint who works wonders from afar is a common theme in medieval hagiography the world over; the theme of the saint’s effective power being summoned by mention of his or her name is likewise common. In this story, part of the emphasis would seem to be upon the universal availability of the saint’s summoned power: even though the story-teller is ashamed to publicly invoke the saint, his invocation of the holy man ‘secretly’ (a term that has a double meaning in Sufi discourse, it should be noted) demonstrates both the saint’s awesome power and his clemency.

[8] Waqt al-saḥar; a slight change of vocalization would give waqt al-siḥr, time of magic or sorcery, not incidental I suspect.

Too Much Tafsir and Tarikh

The following little story is related in al-Sharazuri’s entry on the famous exegete and  historian al-Tabari. As you could gather from the story, al-Tabari’s two most renowned works were his massive tafsir and his equally massive history (tarikh) of the world, with a particular emphasis upon the parts he knew best, of course (the image above is taken from a later, partially illumined copy of his history). As the humorous story below demonstrates, he could have made both far longer. That, at least, was the perception of later scholars (like al-Sharazuri, who lived hundreds of years after al-Tabari) who had come to see al-Tabari as one of the crowning jewels of Muslim scholarship- though, this story might also insinuate, such an ability might be more than ordinary scholars could handle…


Al-Qadi Abu ‘Umar ‘Ubid Allah ibn Ahmad al-Samsar and Abu al-Qasm ibn ‘Aqil al-Waraq said that once Abu Ja’afar al-Tabari said to his disciples: ‘Are you in the mood for commentary on the Qur’an (atanshatun li-tafsir al-Qur’an)?’ They replied: ‘How long is it going to be?’ He said: ‘Thirty thousand pages,’ to which they replied: ‘This would use up entire lifetimes before it could be completed!’ So he condensed it to approximately three thousand pages. Then he said to them: ‘How do you feel about a history of the world from the time of Adam up to our own time?’ They replied: ‘How long is it going to be?’ So he said what he had said about the commentary, and the replied in the same way, to which he said: ‘Good Lord! Ambition is dead.’ So he condensed it in the same fashion as he had condensed the commentary.

Al-Sharazuri, Ṭabaqāt al-Fuqahāʼ al-Shāfiʻīyah