Encountering and Using the Written Word in Early Modern Cairo

The opening page from a 17th century Ottoman copy of the medieval Qur’an commentary of al-Baghawī (d. c. 1117), with owner marks visible in the right margin (University of Michigan, Special Collections Library, Isl. Ms. 4)

We in the early twenty-first century (particularly, I imagine, anyone who happens to be reading this post) inhabit a world of pervasive textuality. From waking to bed we are deluged with words, on screens (mostly, probably), on paper pages of books, on forms, on signs, on packaging, in short- everywhere. If images, still and moving, are also pervasive and in some ways just as or even more dominant than text, still, printed text (even if mostly in digital form) is everywhere and unavoidable. As such we tend to not reflect very much on either the presence of so much text in our lives or on the modes of our engagement with it, texts are simply there. But of course our world of textuality is not simply a natural fact but is the result of cultural, social, and economic processes leading to certain technologies, skills, habits, and contexts. As such, thinking about the role of texts and their many contexts in past worlds, particularly those quite different (but not radically different) from our own is helpful for understanding both the past and our own present, and has occupied various thinkers for quite a long time now (going back really to Plato if not before). Towards that venerable goal of analysis today I’ve selected a particularly insightful little passage from the biography of an early modern North African scholar named Abū al-‘Abbās Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad al-Maqrī (d. 1041/1631) which charts, inadvertently of course, many of the possible contours of texts and their contexts in the early modern Ottoman world. Here is the passage, translated, followed by my commentary:

When he entered Cairo before becoming well-known, he was present one day in the book market (sūq al-kutub) and he found a curious (gharīb) Qur’an commentary (tafsīr) which he opened and landed in [the discussion of] Sūrah al-Nūr, in which the exegete discussed a question of fiqh which he proceeded to speak about at length, and the subject of this biographical entry memorized the entire passage—and in a marvelous congruity not long after that, the ‘ulama of the land came together for supplication (da’wah) and he was present with them. Once they were settled into their session (majlis) a petitioner came with a slip of paper (biṭāqah) in his hand asking about the very issue that the subject of this biographical entry had memorized from that Qur’an commentary. It was passed to the first person among the people of the session, but he looked at it as if he were unable to call upon anything in his mind regarding it, so he passed it on to the next person, and so it was passed on and on, until it reached the subject of this entry. When he looked at it he called for an inkwell and wrote the answer as he had memorized it—and all those presents looked at it with amazement. When they had finished perusing [his answer], they asked, ‘Who said this?’ He replied to them, ‘So-and-son in the exegesis on Sūrah al-Nūr,’ and when the Qur’an commentary was brought it was exactly as he had said.

This little story is a lovely snapshot of the many ways texts worked together in various media and matrices: Abū al-‘Abbās is seen browsing the book market, which suggests that then as now browsing books without necessarily looking to buy them was not uncommon; the book market here functions in a way akin to a library, since he spends at least some time actually reading the Qur’an commentary in question and using an unspecified amount of time to memorize particular contents he found striking. The primary point of the anecdote is Abū al-‘Abbās’ prodigious ability to memorize things, to be sure, but still we can imagine that some time is being expended (and the tone of the story does not convey that this feat is somehow miraculous or totally unheard of, simply a taking to an extreme a culturally valuable and cultivated skill).

There are several distinct movements and contexts related to the given text at work here: the production of the original Qur’an commentary, its being copied and turned into a commercial object, Abū ‘Abbās’ browsing and encountering the text, then his experience and conceptualization and reproduction of, not the entire text, but a discrete section, devoted to a particular question of fiqh, the details of which we are not told but which presumably was of ongoing contemporary interest (which would help to explain why Abū ‘Abbās memorized it as well as why a supplicant came with a question specific to that issue). So we have a movement from author to manuscript (via engagement with the written and memorized text of the Qur’an), to (probably) copy by a professional copyist, to book market, to selective reader, then to memory. In the scholars’ session—which if I am interpreting things correctly was meant for ‘regular’ people to bring questions of fiqh to a council of learned experts, a sort of early modern AMA forum—we see another form of textuality, the ‘slip’ of paper (biṭāqah), a word with a long bureaucratic pedigree, predating Islam in fact. The writer of the slip has inadvertently chanced upon the very topic of the first text, but then there is a problem: no one else in the session had encountered the clarifying text, or, if any of them had, they did not remember it. When it reaches Abū al-‘Abbās his reaction is striking: he calls for an inkwell and then writes out his memorized text, when we might expect simply an oral response. While it is not exactly specified the substrate for his writing must surely be that slip of paper, with the implication that the supplicant/questioner would take it back home for his personal archive or other uses (and since it is fiqh we can imagine a practical use here akin to a fatwa and not simply curious interest). So we have more textual movements: an unrelated (on the surface at least) impromptu text which is visually reviewed by the members of the assembly, which, once it is encountered by Abū al-‘Abbās, registers with the memorized commentary passage and precipitates now a written reproduction of the randomly encountered text. His oral explanation of the text, after it has been successively read (and we get a sense that the paper is passed around, not read out loud), leads to the physical manuscript of the commentary being produced and read publicly (or silently perused one by one? the text is unclear). Finally, this incident gives rise to a sort of ‘social text’ of Abū al-‘Abbās’ prestige in Cairo thanks to his memory and powers of recall and correlation. Continue reading “Encountering and Using the Written Word in Early Modern Cairo”

Sīdī Shaqrūn’s Loathing of Melons is Cured

Detail of an 18th century ceremonial scarf with floral and vegetal patterns from Tétouan (Cleveland Museum of Art 1916.830)

The subject of this biographical entry [Sīdī Shaqrūn, d. 1028/1618/9] also met with the perfect shaykh Sīdī ‘Abd Allāh ibn Ḥusayn in Tameslouht [a village south of Marrakesh], and when he sat down in front of the shaykh, the shaykh gazed at him then called for some melon. Now, Sīdī Shaqrūn used to not eat melon, and wasn’t even able to smell its scent, loathing it with an innate loathing of which he could not disabuse himself, so he was bewildered by that but was not able to gainsay the shaykh. Then when the melon was placed in front of him [the shaykh] ordered him to eat it, he breathed out of his nose a powerful gust of air, to which the shaykh said: ‘That is his shayṭān hatching out,’ meaning, breaking out of his heart. Then he ate it in accordance with the shaykh’s command, and from that day forward he was able to eat melon without any problem, none of his innate aversion remaining.

Abū ʿAbdallāh Muḥammad al-Ṣaghīr al-Ifrānī, Ṣafwat man intashar min akhbār ṣulaḥāʾ al-qarn al-ḥādī ʻashar (Casablanca: Markaz al-Turāth al-Thaqāfī al-Maghribī, 2004), 122. Continue reading “Sīdī Shaqrūn’s Loathing of Melons is Cured”

The Funduq Saint of Fez: ‘Abd al-Majīd and His Exceptional Acts of Devotion

As far as I can tell, the ‘Abd al-Majīd Funduq is no longer extant; however, it may have resembled in general plan and ornamentation this early 18th century example, Funduq Ṣāgha, pictured here from my visit in the spring of 2008.

Early modern Islamic religious life across Afro-Eurasia was marked by many trends and developments with roots in the medieval period but which took on new and often surprising forms in the following centuries. One of the most important trends was the explosive growth of devotion to Muḥammad, growth both in terms of apparent overall popularity but also, and more objectively measurable, growth in the number of textual instruments, ritual practices, and social settings oriented towards Muḥammad-centered devotion. Alongside this growth in devotion was another trend that does not at first glance seem related, namely, the continued flourishing and adaptive transformations of ‘deviant’ mendicant piety, the sort exemplified in the late medieval period by the Qalandar and other types of ‘radical’ dervishes, and in the early modern particularly by the majdhūb. Such forms of ascetic practice and aspiration to sainthood often eschewed compliance with the sharī’a, or at the very least transgressed many social norms in a deliberate fashion.

The following saint’s life, preserved in a seventeenth compilation of outstanding holy or learned (or both) lives, comes from Morocco, Fez to be precise, and embraces both of the above trends in early modern Islamic religious life. The saint, Sīdī ‘Abd al-Majīd, was acclaimed a saint, at least according to our author al-Ifrānī, because of his incredible, indeed super-human, devotion to the Prophet of Islam. The first few paragraphs of his life, the entirety of which I have translated here, lay out his acts of devotion and his saintly inner states, including the curious detail that his ecstatic remembrance of Muḥammad took place even in the latrine- a detail which hints at a somewhat non-normative manner of life. It is in the following paragraphs that we are given further indications that ‘Abd al-Majīd was not universally admired and that his mode of life had many parallels with that of the ‘deviant’ dervishes better known from the Islamic East. But before we consider just what kind of a saint he was, it would be better to read his life as al-Ifrānī has described it:

Among them, the well-known saint and great gnostic Sīdī ‘Abd al-Majīd ibn Abī al-Qāsim al-Bādisī: he was originally from the Rif [1], from the region of the Banū Yaṭifat; he was of the Malāmatiyya, and dwelled in the funduq [2] associated with him north of the Qarawiyyīn Mosque, which is now known as the Funduq of Sīdī ‘Abd al-Majīd. He practiced numerous prayers upon the Prophet, God bless him and give him peace, constantly devoted to him and to prayers upon him, of immense affection towards him, enraptured in love of him, and of great love towards the Folk of the House [3]. And whenever he commenced with invocation of blessings upon the Prophet, God bless him and give him peace, he would begin with saying: ‘I take refuge in God from Shayṭān the accursed. In the name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate: verily, God and His angels pronounce blessings upon the Prophet—O you who believe, pronounce blessings upon him and ask for him peace!’ He would complete this arrangement in good order, letter by letter, then say: ‘O God, bless Muḥammad!’ then ecstasy would overwhelm him and he would simply cry out, ‘Muḥammad! Muḥammad!’ He did not cease remembrance of him standing or sitting, in whatever condition he was in, even in the latrine (bayt al-khalā’). It was said to him, ‘Do you mention him in the latrine?’ He replied, ‘It dwells, O brother,’ meaning, perhaps, love [of Muḥammad], but God knows best. Continue reading “The Funduq Saint of Fez: ‘Abd al-Majīd and His Exceptional Acts of Devotion”

‘Abd Allāh al-Salāsī Escapes a Toxic Environment and Is Not Going Back

Concerning the pious master of uncontested miracles, Shaykh Abū Muḥammad ‘Abd Allāh ibn Aḥmad ibn al-Ḥasan al-Khālidī al-Salāsī (d. 1023/1614), known as Ibn Ḥassūn: his origin, God be merciful to him, was from Salās, a group of villages a day’s journey out from Fes; then he moved to Salé. The reason for his journey to Salé was that there was fighting and war among the people of Salās, and if the people of Sīdī ‘Abd Allāh’s village were victorious he rejoiced, but if they fled in defeat he was saddened. So he thought to himself and said: ‘Loving victory produces [in me] love of evil towards Muslims, and by God’s covenant I cannot stay in a place wherein Muslims are so divided and wish evil upon them.’

So he traveled from there to Salé, and when he settled in Salé people from Salās came to him and attempted to induce his return to their land, urging him strongly to do so. But he took a drinking vessel and filled it with sea-water then set it down. He said to them, ‘Does not the water of the sea crash together, its waves constantly colliding? Why then is this portion of the sea in this drinking vessel still?’

They replied, ‘It is no longer in the sea.’ So he said to them, ‘Exile purifies and makes still.’ They understood his meaning and so gave up on trying [to get him to return].

Abū ʿAbdallāh Muḥammad al-Ṣaghīr al-Ifrānī, Ṣafwat man intashar min akhbār ṣulaḥāʾ al-qarn al-ḥādī ʻashar (Casablanca: Markaz al-Turāth al-Thaqāfī al-Maghribī, 2004), 65-66.

(Image at top: Detail of a decorative mattress component, from the 17th or 18th century Rif region of Morocco, probably Chefchaouen, in the general vicinity of the region in which part of the below story takes place (Cleveland Museum of Art 1916.1226))


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Ibn ‘Askar on Two Muslim Saints of the Early Modern Jbala

Detail of a length of fabric of plain cloth and silk produced in 17th or 18th century Morocco (Cleveland Museum of Art J. H. Wade Fund 1953.321)

The village of Jajouka, also transliterated as Joujouka or Zahjouka, lies at the edge of the Jbala region of northwestern Morocco, and is today best known as the home of not one but two musical collectives, both of which style themselves Master Musicians of the village, one using the transliteration Jajouka, the other Joujouka. The musical traditions of this village were famously ‘discovered’ by the Beats and others associated with the counter-cultures of the late twentieth century, going on to produce their own albums and artistic collaborations as well as tour around the world.

Before the music of Jajouka became globally famous, however, the village and the wider region around it was home to a range of early modern Muslim saints, some of which were profiled by the important Maghribi hagiographer and support of the Sa’idian dynasty Ibn ʿAskar (d. 1578), originally of Chefchaouen, in his Dawḥat al-nāshir. The profiles that I have translated here, of Abū Muḥammad ‘Abd Allāh al-Jābrī and Abū Bakr al-Srīfī, are notable for several reasons. The life of ‘Abd Allāh al-Jābrī embodies a way of life highly redolent of ‘deviant’ and ‘mad’ saints from across the late medieval into early modern Islamicate world, themselves building on older traditions. Already in Ibn ‘Askar’s time such saints were increasingly known as ‘majdhūb,’ divinely attracted, but this was far from being universally true. ‘Abd Allāh al-Jābrī also stands out for his role as a mediator of conflict among the people of the Jbala.

One qabīla over, the life of Abū Bakr al-Srīfī is interesting for his merging of typical rural life with the practice of sainthood, as well as for his friendly relationship with a wolf (or, more specifically, the African golden wolf, Canis anthus). Alongside his replication of what was probably orally transmitted hagiography, Ibn ‘Askar also includes an autobiographical story concerning the saint’s posthumous power, a story that also points to the complicated routes of power in rural 16th century Morocco. Visible throughout this account are indications of wider historical dynamics and historical particularities of the early modern Maghrib, which I have explicated further using footnotes.

17th century tile made in Morocco, perhaps indicating types of decorative architectural elements a tomb like that of Abū Bakr might have used during the period, in addition to the styles of tile better known from past and contemporary usage (V&A 1717-1892).

‘Abd Allāh al-Jābrī al-Rhūnī: the shaykh the saint Abū Muḥammad ‘Abd Allāh al-Jābrī, guest (nazīl) of the Rhūna qabīla [1], among whom is his tomb and among whom was his zāwiya until his death in the [nine-]thirties, God knows best. This man was from among the wonders of the age and the strangest of things, wearing a garment (kisā’) of wool and nothing else, a staff in his hand, and walked barefoot whenever he set out to accomplish some matter in accordance with the power of God. His miraculous actions were conveyed by multiple transmitters (tawātir), [2] and whenever conflicts (fitan) broke out among the qabīlas he would come out and call the people to reconciliation, and whoever pridefully refused him, in that very moment God in His power would manifest in that person chastisement, and so would no longer stand against him. When he become known for that ability, the people submitted to him and no one was able to contradict him or go against his intercession. [God’s] answering his supplication was like the breaking of dawn. He was ascetic, pious, humble, and his mode of life was one of silence, abstemiousness, and was free of pretension, depending upon God in all his conditions, singular among his peers. More than one from among the fuqahā’ and fuqarā’ [3] related wondrous things about him, more than can be enumerated, God be merciful to him. Continue reading “Ibn ‘Askar on Two Muslim Saints of the Early Modern Jbala”

A Self-Taught Shaykha in Early Modern Fes

Detail from a swathe of embroidered silk textile, seventeenth or eighteenth century Morocco, with the word Allāh rather faintly visible running in a band near the center. The polemicist author described below might have had such colorful textiles in mind in castigating women in Fes for their material exuberance in following their female shaykha. (Cleveland Museum of Art 1916.1236)

The place of women in early modern Islamicate societies varied greatly depending on particular place, general cultural norms, social status, prevailing madhhab, and many other intersecting factors. Far from being static, the role and status of different sorts of women often fluctuated over time, and was frequently contested, particularly during periods of change such as marked much of early modernity in the Islamicate world as elsewhere. Of a particularly contentious nature was the question of women’s public religious life, a question that for Muslim communities entailed tension between (albeit limited) recognition in Islamic tradition of female religious authority, beginning with hadith-transmitting wives of Muḥammad himself, and prescriptions on women’s authority and public mobility and visibility. The historical reality of female saints and even masters of sufism added extra dimensions to such tensions. In the Islamic West- the Maghrib- from the medieval period forward highly restrictive attitudes towards women’s public participation in religious life existed alongside prominent, and outspokenly public, female saints such as Sayyida ‘Ā’isha al-Mannūbiyya (1199–1267). The anonymous woman who is described in the below text suggests other possibilities, which were accepted by some but strenuously rejected by others, as we will see.

The text below comes from a major eighteenth century bio-hagiographic compilation, Ṣafwat man intashar min akhbār ṣulaḥāʾ al-ḳarn al-ḥādī ʿashar, written by a scholar whose family was originally from the Draa region in the far south of Morocco, Abū ‘Abdallāh Muḥammad al-Ifrānī (also spelled al-Īfrānī and al-Ufrānī). Born in Marrakesh around 1670, al-Ifrānī eventually settled in Fes, where he would live and work as a scholar, sufi, and author, becoming particularly well known for his historical works, dying in either 1743 or 1745. His Ṣafwat man intashar provides important insight into the shape of early modern Maghribi sainthood as well as many other social realities of the period, including in the vast and often autonomous countryside, as seen in a previous selection from this work translated here.

The following selection comes from the life of a scholar and saint, originally from the town of Ksar el-Kebir but who settled permanently in Fes after his course of studies there, Abū Muḥammad Sayyidī ‘Abd al-Qādir (d. 1680). ‘Abd al-Qādir embodied a form of sainthood that had once been common across Islamic societies but by the early modern period was largely a Maghribi phenomenon: that of the ‘exoteric’ scholar whose vigorous personal asceticism, scrupulosity, and careful adherence to the sharī’a were acclaimed as evidence of sainthood. His karāmāt- miracles or charismatic signs- were many, al-Ifrānī tells us, his saintly status no doubt helped by the fact that his son wrote not one but two manāqibs- hagiographic accounts- of his father’s life. Unlike many of his contemporaries, ‘Abd al-Qādir did not produce in books or compilations; instead, his followers compiled his sayings and fatwas into their own compilations. The passage I have translated here comes from such a compilation, and is reminiscent in form of a fatwa although it is not presented as such:

Another fā’ida: [Abū Muḥammad ‘Abd al-Qādir] was asked about a woman who recited the Qur’an for women, and they would gather around her and take her as their shaykha. He answered with the following: ‘He, peace and blessings of God be upon him, said: “A people ordered by a woman will not know success,” as well as “Hinder them as God has hindered them,” and “They are deficient in reason and religion.” It is not permissible that a woman act as an imāma or shaykha, and as for what the women do on the day when they gather together in the woman’s presence and take her as their shaykha, that is not permissible either, and is an aspect of corruption and evil in the earth due to various reasons: among them, that women pilfer from their husbands and take it to her; and that each of the women dresses in finery, beautifies herself, and goes out into the streets, that being ḥarām and not allowed. And perhaps she leaves without her husband’s permission or pleasure in that, it becoming a cause for anger and division, with things that cause such being ḥarām.

Also, she presides over the reading of books and fatwa collections concerning the religion (dīn) of God, but is without knowledge (‘ilm), not having received that from an ‘ālim, there being things in the books which are comprehensible and things which are not [to those not instructed by a scholar], ‘ilm not being received save from the mouths of scholars. Taking it from books and pages is ḥarām, and all which she receives [in terms of material things] from that is illicit and one ought not eat of it, such that her livelihood is pure ḥarām. Continue reading “A Self-Taught Shaykha in Early Modern Fes”

The Heat of the Divine Lights: The Story of a Rural Maghribi Majdhūb

17th century Moroccan Tile V&A 1718-1892
Scripts of sainthood weren’t the only things shared between the early modern world of the Islamic West and that of the Ottomans, of course. As discussed previously here, art motifs moved back and forth between the two regions, with Maghribi adaptations of Ottoman elements taking on distinctive local styles, such as this 17th century tile which incorporates distinctively Ottoman floral elements but in a quite different context. (V&A 1718-1892)

The following extensive hagiographic entry comes from an important eighteenth century compilation of saints’ lives from Morocco, the Ṣafwat man intashar min akhbār ṣulaḥāʾof the scholar, historian, sufi, and man of letters Abū ʿAbdallāh Muḥammad al-Ṣaghīr al-Ifrānī (c. 1669-1743 or 45), who was originally from the Draa region of southern Morocco, but who lived and traveled in Fes, Marrakesh, and various countryside zāwiyas. He forged ties with many saints of his native land, collecting accounts of holy figures from both his own lifetime and the generation before.

The saint featured here, Shaykh Abū al-Qāsim, lived in the Middle Atlas region south of Fes, then as now predominantly rural, many traces of which are visible in the life al-Ifrānī renders. Islamic Sainthood in Morocco, in medieval and early modern times, has often been centered in rural areas as much as urban ones, with a constant interplay between the two (al-Ifrānī probably learned the accounts of Abū al-Qāsim through one of the latter’s disciples, Sīdī Aḥmad al-Madāsī, a sometime resident in Fes whom al-Ifrānī would much later take as a spiritual master). While in the anthropological and sociological studies of ‘maraboutism’ that long dominated the study of Islam in Morocco, these saints and their devotees are often taken as examples of the exceptional, ‘syncretic’ nature of Moroccan Islam, we can in fact see connections with the wider Islamic world in these saints’ lives as well as the traces of long-standing debates and discussions within sufism and fiqh over the nature of sainthood, sufi practices, what constitutes a proper shaykh, and the nature of the knowledge of God. In this particular life, Abū al-Qāsim is described as a majdhūb, a divinely attracted saint, a type of saint that became increasingly prominent in both the Maghrib and the Ottoman world during this period, even if the mechanisms for those parallels are for now hard to determine. The reality of interconnections between ‘West’ and ‘East’ is alluded to in this life, in fact, by the saint’s dispatch of disciples to ‘the East,’ meaning for this period the Ottoman lands. I’ll note briefly some other parallels and some differences below, but first here is al-Ifrānī’s account of this sometimes quite shocking saint:

Abū al-Qāsim ibn Aḥmad ibn al-Lūsha al-Sufyānī: His companions called him Abū ʿAsrīya, because he used to do most things with his left hand, and he was, God be merciful to him, from among the ones distracted in love of God, and from among the folk of effusive states and lordly ecstatic utterances. His sainthood was firmly established among both the elite and the common, his distinctiveness being well-known in both the east and the west. Early in his life he was renowned as one of the brave young men of his tribe (qabīla) and among those of perfect horsemanship from among them. When the inrushings of gnosis began to flash upon him and the illumined beneficence draw him, he went about in the wild upon his face, distracted from his senses, becoming acquainted with wildness and familiar with solitude, such that knowledge of him was cut off from his folk for one or two years or more. They didn’t know anything of his dwelling nor location until there came a hunter or shepherd who mentioned to them his description, so they rode out in search of him, and when they brought him back he stayed with them a few days then returned to his former inclination, until his spiritual condition calmed down enough to settle down in his homeland, his spiritual states (al-aḥwāl) subsiding somewhat.

Then he began sitting with the fuqarā’, discoursing with them and imposing [spiritual disciples?] upon them, but when his spiritual state (ḥāl) would seize him, he would grab at them and they would flee from him. Among the remarkable things that befell him is that when the spiritual state would seize him, he would rend his clothes and remain totally naked, yet no one ever saw his genitals (ʿawra) [1], and whoever wished to gaze upon his genitals would not see them, no matter how much he strove to see them. The one to whom it was granted to see them would go blind from the very moment. A number of people went blind in such manner until it became well-known among the people and they began to protect themselves from such.

At the beginning of his career, he would stay at length in meadows, ponds, and creeks due to the intensity of what descended (mā nazala) upon him of the [divine] lights (al-anwār), which he would cool off from by means staying close to water until it stopped. In the latter part of his career his spiritual state became calm and serenity prevailed in him. He returned to his senses, now having control over his spiritual state. More than one trustworthy person has related to me that a group of his companions went to the East with his permission, living adjacent to Medina the Noble, and would sit opposite the Noble Room [of Muḥammad] and discuss stories and accounts of him [2]. One day they were doing that when a woman clothed in tattered old rags and of ragged mein stopped before them. She said to them, ‘Do not know other than Qāsim—rejoice, for my Lord has given him the station of the Quṭb today!’ They wrote it down that day, and when they returned to [Abū al-Qāsim] they learned that his state had become calm on the very day that the woman said to them what she said—God knows best! [3]

Continue reading “The Heat of the Divine Lights: The Story of a Rural Maghribi Majdhūb”

Dalā’il al-Khayrāt Coming Out on Top

A 17th century copy of the Dalā’il from somewhere in the Maghrib (priv. coll., sale information here), executed in Maghribi script but in the rectangular format more typical of the eastern Islamicate world. Note the use of multicolored inks to write Muḥammad’s name, as well as the presence of marginal notations.

As discussed previously in these pages, one of the single most popular Islamic texts of any sort in the early modern world was the book of taṣliya- prayers and blessings upon Muḥammad- titled Dalā’il al-khayrāt, composed by Muhammad Sulaymān al-Jazūlī (d. 1465) of Fes and soon dissimulated east and south across Afro-Eurasia. The history of the text’s reception and transformation is long and complicated in no small part because it was such a ‘bestseller,’ taking on different profiles of production and use in different places. But like any book that becomes popular or even canonical, it’s success was not automatic, but involved ‘boosting’ on the part of various persons and groups, particularly in light of the fact that Dalā’il al-khayrāt was far from the only such book of devotion to Muḥammad on the market. There were older, already established texts such as the devotional poem Qaṣidat al-burda by al-Būsīrī (d. 1294), as well as more recent texts composed in response to the upsurge in devotion to Muḥammad that marked the late medieval into early modern period.

One of these was a text known as Tanbīh al-anām wa-shifāʼ al-asqām fī bayān ‘ulūw maqām nabīyinā Muḥammad ʻalayhi al-salām, also a book of invocations and blessings upon Muḥammad, written by a member of a prominent family of scholars from what is now Tunisia, ʻAbd al-Jalīl al-Qayrawānī (d. 1553). While similar in content and manuscript execution- see the examples below for instance- to the Dalā’il, it would prove far less successful (I was unfamiliar with it until coming across the story translated here!). The sense of competition is relayed in the following story, which comes from Muḥammad al-Mahdī ibn Aḥmad al-Fāsī hagiographical account of the author of the Dalā’il, Mumtiʻ al-asmāʻ fī al-Jazūlī, written in the early seventeenth century. Al-Fāsī’s text can be seen both as part of the process of the Dalā’il’s ascent into ubiquity, and as a reflection of its already existing popularity. Besides establishing the sanctity of the Dalā’il‘s compiler, al-Fāsī’s account also underlines the potency of the text itself, as in the following story, one which suggests the Dalā’il’s superiority in rather literal terms!

A section (juz') of a Koran, sura 3:92-170 Manuscript

It is related that someone from among the people had copies of Dalā’il al-khayrāt and of Tanbīh al-anām, and when he put them down he would place Dalā’il al-khayrāt on the bottom and Tanbīh al-anām on top of it. Then, when he went out and came back to his place he would find Dalā’il al-khayrāt on top of Tanbīh al-anām. This happened more than once, and no one else had come into his place other than him.

Also someone whom I trust related to me the story one from among the students told him along the same lines, it having happened to him as well—it’s possible the two stories have to do with the same person, or with two separate persons, this occurrence being multiple. I heard our master and intermediary with our Lord, Shakh Sīdī Abū ʿAbdallāh ibn Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad ibn ʿAbdallāh ibn Maʿn al-Andalusī, God be pleased with him and with us through him, say words to the effect that Dalā’il al-khayrāt suffuses light (al-nūr), Tanbīh al-anām knowledge (al-‘ilm). [1]

I found in the handwriting of Shaykh Abū ʿAbdallāh al-ʿArabī, God be merciful to him, upon the surface of a copy of Dalā’il al-khayrāt the following text: ‘One of the Qur’an-memorizing fuqahā’ mentioned to me that among the things he had tried for the meeting of needs and the alleviation of distress was reciting Dalā’il al-khayrāt forty times, the reciter striving to complete this number of recitations before the passage of forty days. The need was fulfilled through the baraka of blessing (al-ṣalāt) upon the Prophet, peace and blessing be upon him!’ [2]

From the same privately held manuscript as the above, facing pages depicting the Prophet’s minbar (left) and his tomb (right), the tomb depiction having received a great deal of pious rubbing to ‘activate’ its baraka. For more on this visual schemata, see this post.

Continue reading “Dalā’il al-Khayrāt Coming Out on Top”

Ottoman Cultural Exchange and Devotional Art in the Islamic Far West

Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Arabe 6983 iv
Miḥrab page, Dalā’il al-khayrāt, completed 1705 (Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Arabe 6983, fol. 19r).

The famed late medieval book of prayer and blessings upon the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, known as Dalā’il al-khayrāt, written by Muhammad Sulaymān al-Jazūlī (d. 1465), would become one of the most popular texts of any sort across the early modern Islamicate world. From modern-day Morocco, where al-Jazūlī lived, worked, and died (he completed Dalā’il in Fes, while he would ultimately be buried in Marrakesh), his most famous work would rapidly spread to points east, with copies appearing by the mid eighteenth century as far afield as Eastern Turkestan and the Indonesian archipelago. As this text and its devotional regime spread, the text itself took on what was in some regards a relatively stable visual schemata- depictions of Mecca and Medina, schematics of Muhammad’s tomb and minbar, and an overall ornamentation and careful, often fully vocalized script could all be found in copies across the Islamicate world. At the same time, different regions drew the text into their own traditions of art and manuscript production, while in some cases adding additional material. In the eighteenth century, for instance, Ottoman copies of Dalā’il would often come to include hilye-i şerif panels, calligraphic ‘verbal icons’ of Muhammad (which themselves had originally existed in a medieval treatise).

In the Maghrib- the Islamic ‘Far West’- where the text originated, copies of Dalā’il would often include unique to the region elements, elaborated in a variety of styles. One such unique (so far as I can tell) element was the inclusion, in the opening pages of the manuscript, of an illuminated genealogy of Muhammad. Here is a relatively plain example, making use of name roundels (which were also common in Ottoman productions and may have their origin in such a milieu) and extensions of names into the neutral space of the illumination:

Library of Congress. Arabic manuscript, SM 85.
A genealogy page from a copy of the Dalā’il made in the Maghrib during the second half of the 18th century. (Library of Congress, Arabic manuscripts, SM 85)

However, the manuscript that I want to focus on here, now classified as BnF Arabe 6983, is another Maghribi version of the famous prayer book, and was completed in 1705 in what is now Morocco and held in the library of the Nāṣiriyya sufis in Tamegroute on the edge of the Sahara until it came into the collection of Hubert Lyautey, the French Resident-General of Morocco in the early twentieth century, and thence to the Bibliothèque nationale de France. This manuscript, which in its provenance history already bespeaks to much historical change, has one of the most spectacular and beautiful visual schemes of any copy of Dalā’il I have come across. The mihrab page above- an unusual feature in itself- hints at some of the artistic vigor and cultural exchange visible in this manuscript, which is very much oriented towards the Ottoman world, even as its core features speak to its Maghribi origins. The following page, an example of the above-mentioned genealogy component, demonstrates the Ottoman stylistic aspects especially well:

Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Arabe 6983
Dalā’il al-khayrāt. (Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Arabe 6983, fol. 6r)

Here, the illumination’s neutral space, while like the first example containing the winding names of Muhammad’s ancestors attached to calligraphic roundels, has been filled with a delicate swirling floral pattern. Anyone with some familiarity with Ottoman history is likely to recognize that pattern- it originated in the illumination of the sultanic calligraphic emblem, the tuǧra, as visible in the following example, from the late sixteenth century:

A firman (imperial decree), paper, written in Divani Istanbul, Turkey; 981 H = 1573 L: 295; W: 56 cm
The tuǧra of Sultan Selim II, as affixed to a fermân issued in 1573. Note the intricate floral ornamentation filling the interior of the calligraphy- this is an especially colorful example. (David Collection Inv. no. 51/2002)

Continue reading “Ottoman Cultural Exchange and Devotional Art in the Islamic Far West”

Conversion Stories From Across Early Modern Eurasia

John Nelson's Khalwa
The cell-like study and retreat of the early Methodist preacher and holy man John Nelson, whose autobiography is featured below.

In what follows, I have juxtaposed accounts taken from one end of Eurasia (here including North Africa) to the other, each of which dates from the seventeenth or eighteenth century: we begin with an account by an early English Methodist, next hear from a Moroccan sufi shaykh and saint, followed by an Ottoman Syrian self-taught shaykh, finally ending with an Edo-period Japanese Zen master- lives I doubt have ever been placed in such proximity before! Yet they are all united by at least two major common themes in addition to their chronological proximity: one, each is autobiographical, either as part of a stand-alone account, or embedded in some larger biographical project. Two, each has to do with narrating a moment or period of conversion from one way of life to another. We might be tempted to call all of these religious conversions, but I think it’s best to avoid the term ‘religious’ here since while it’s accurate in some ways it does not really quite reflect how these various writers or those around them thought about the world and the nature of the experiences and lives we might label ‘religious.’

There are other shared features that I think are significant and which might point to some of the shared, interconnecting features of early modern life on a global scale. Each of these accounts reveals not just a sense of subjectivity and inwardness, but a surprisingly assertive sense of subjectivity- reflected in, to begin with, the very act of writing and circulating in some fashion an autobiographical account. Related to this subjectivity and self-fashioning is the stress laid on reading and encountering books, often through one’s individual act of reading. This is significant given the emphasis placed in many cultural contexts in medieval Eurasia upon the oral, face-to-face, hand-in-hand transmission of knowledge and religious practice. Yet most of these figures not only were shaped by their own personal readings and encounters with texts, they in turn produced texts for others to encounter in a similar fashion. That is not to say that these authors were ‘individualists,’ and certainly none of them would have embraced the idea of the ‘autonomous’ self. Each in his own way was a part of religious communities, textual genealogies, and shared collectivities of practice and worship and belief.

I encourage you to read these excerpts in sequence and to think about commonalities or differences and the possible reasons for them, as well as what they may or may not say about shared early modern histories beyond my brief comments above. For each excerpt I have given a minimal introductory note, followed by the account and the citation (of the four not originally in English, I have translated one, while the others are translations by other scholars).

1. John Nelson (1707-1770): A stone-mason by trade, John Nelson would become an early convert to the Methodist movement within the English Anglican Church led by John and Charles Wesley. I have selected two sections from his Journal, an autobiographical rendering of his spiritual journey and labors on behalf of the Wesleys’ pietistic movement. In the first, Nelson describes a formative childhood experience, while in the second he narrates the pivotal moment of his adult conversion from a state of emotional insecurity and distance from God to that of being ‘saved.’

When I was between nine and ten years old, I was horribly terrified with the thoughts of death and judgment, whenever I was alone. One Sunday night, as I sat on the ground by the side of my father’s chair, when he was reading the twentieth chapter of the Revelation, the word came with such light and power to my soul, that it made me tremble, as if a dart were shot in my heart. I fell with my face on the floor, and wept till the place was as wet, where I lay, as if water had been poured thereon. As my father proceeded, I thought I saw everything he read about, though my eyes were shut; and the sight was so terrible, I was about to stop my ears, that I might not hear, but I durst not: as soon as I put my fingers in my ears, I pulled them back again. When he came to the eleventh verse, the words made me cringe, and my flesh seemed to creep on my bones while he read… Continue reading “Conversion Stories From Across Early Modern Eurasia”