Shāh Ni’matullāh Valī in the Very Snowy Mountains of Samarqand

VISIT TO A DERVISH SIGNED MAHMUD MUZAHHIB, BUKHARA, DATED AH 968 1560-61 AD
A group of elites visit two dervishes in a cave, albeit in more hospitable autumn weather than described in the hagiographic excerpt below. Otherwise the motif of members of the ruling elite- whether of Turkic, Persian, or other background- seeking out ascetic sufi saints in the mountains is shared between this image and the story below. From a 1560/1 illumined copy of Sa’dī’s Gulistān, by the painter Maḥmūd Muzahhib, who worked primarily in Bukhara, and hence may well have had stories of Shāh Ni’matullāh Valī’s exploits in the mountains of Samarqand in mind in composing this miniature (private collection, sold by Christies, Sale 6622, Lot 12, London, October 4, 2012).

The late fourteenth into fifteenth centuries across much of the Islamicate world were a period of both great turmoil and of great religious experimentation and vitality, particularly in the areas of sainthood and sufism. Out of the many sufi shaykhs and saints to flourish in the expansive Persianate world stretching from the western edge of the great central mass of Eurasian highlands east to Anatolia, few would obtain as long-lasting or widespread success as Shāh Ni’matullāh Valī Kirmānī (c. 1330-1430/1). Unlike many saints of originally Sunni background, Shāh Ni’matullāh Valī’s veneration as a saint and the sufi ṭarīqa descended from him, the Ni’mat-Allāhiyya, would both survive the rise of the Safavids and the transformation of the core Persian lands from a largely Sunni domain to a Twelver Shi’i one. His shrine in Māhān, begun in 1436, would be patronized by Safavid rulers and continues to be venerated to this day.

Among the practices and charismatic marvels for which he was remembered were his rigorous feats of asceticism and what we might describe as his closeness to the natural landscape, including as a farmer, cultivation of the soil by himself and his followers one of his distinctive practices. In the set of stories I have translated below, taken from an early 16th century Persian hagiography of the saint, his asceticism as well as his fondness for wild places are emphasized, though neither preclude his having an audience, fortunately for his memory among posterity. The stories are relatively self-explanatory, though it’s worth noting that the practice of pious retreat or seclusion (Ar. khalwa) was not unique to Shāh Ni’matullāh Valī but featured in many sufi regimes of the period- though usually not in snowbound mountains.

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For his forty-day retreat and for his great chilla which lasted a hundred and twenty days, Haẓrat [Shāh Ni’matullāh Valī] would go in the wintertime to Mount Mulkdār, which they say is at any season inaccessible due to its height and the abundance of snow. When it was time to break his fast he would taste some snow, not eating or drinking anything else! This was transmitted from the saint by Sayyid ‘Alā’ al-Dīn Mahdī, whose probity and nobility of purpose is well known.

Niẓām al-Dīn Maḥmūd al-Wā’iẓ al-Dā’ī has transmitted: ‘I heard him say: “One time during the days of autumn while I was occupying myself with worship and pious retreat (khalwat) in a cave in one of the great mountains around Samarqand, a great snow fell and blocked the entrance to the cave.” And that holy one remained there until winter had passed and even part of spring! Once a group of hunters pursuing prey came up onto that mountain, and as nightfall was approaching and the sky was promising rain, the dug away the snow from the mouth of the cave and went in. Striking up a fire that saw that the holy one was sitting upon his prayer-rug facing the qibla, utterly apart from all other than God. They were bewildered, but after supplication he explained the reality of his state. One of their number, by consulting the holy one and occupying himself with his sagely counsel, became deeply God-fearing as a result. After taking sustenance they departed.’

And there is that which this poor one has seen in the writing of his own teachers: ‘This holy one and Khwāja Wāq were practicing austere ascetic disciplines in the vicinity of Samarqand. I heard that they were occupied with ascetic disciplines in the Cave of the Lovers (Ghār-i ʻāshiqān) in Kūh-i Ṣāf, one of the mountains of Samarkand. I do not know whether this holy one bestowed these names upon the cave and the mountain or whether they predated him. Regardless, some from among the Turkish chiefs and their followers who were nearby sent a notice [to Shāh Ni’matullāh Valī and Khwāja Wāq] saying, “Winter will be extremely cold and no one can survive in this cave!” But the holy one did not pay any heed to their words, and instead completed a forty-days retreat with minimal food. When the weather turned a little the chiefs of the Turks came so that they might ascertain the condition of [Shāh Ni’matullāh Valī and Khwāja Wāq], certain that they had perished. But when they had cleared the snow away from the entrance of the cave and entered in, they found the holy one sitting upon his prayer-rug, facing the qibla!’

‘Abd al-Rizzāq Kirmānī, Tazkira dar manāqib-i Ḥazret-i Shāh Ni’matullāh Valī, in Jean Aubin (ed.), Matériaux pour la biographie de Shâh Ni’matullah Walí Kermânî: Textes persans publiés avec une introduction (Teheran: Département d’iranologie de l’Institut francoiranien, 1956), 40-41.

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Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn Goes Mountain Climbing

Safi al-Din Dreaming.jpg
An illustration from the life of Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn, during his adulthood, depicting a dream concerning the rise and fall of a local post-Ilkhanid dynasty, the Chūbānids (their members symbolized by the candles), with the shaykh himself depicted in the lower half asleep, dreaming. Unfortunately, so far as I know, the story recounted below was never illustrated. (Aga Khan Museum AKM264)

Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn (d. 1334) is best known as the founder and eponym of the Safavid sufi ṭarīqa, which in the late fifteenth into early sixteenth century would be the basis for the Safavid dynasty and empire, one of the major Islamic empires of the early modern world. He was commemorated in a number of ways: for instance, architecturally by a monumental and expansive shrine complex in Ardabil, and textually by an equally monumental and expansive menāqib (hagiography) composed in Persian by Ibn Bazzāz Ardabīlī, completed in 1358, in consultation with Ṣafī al-Dīn’s son and successor to head of the ṭarīqa, Ṣadr al-Dīn. Clocking in at over eight hundred folios in manuscript form, and almost twelve hundred in the modern printed edition, it must surely rank as one of the longest saint’s lives in Islamic history. Like other hagiographies, much of the social and cultural context and particularities of past worlds can be discerned in this text, such as in the story I have selected here.

The following account comes from the chapter on Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn’s childhood, during a period in which, as the first paragraph suggests, the saint was just beginning to discover his powers, not unlike many modern-day superhero stories in which the newly endowed superhero must learn to control his or her spectacular abilities, perhaps with the help of a mentor. Something similar is the case here: Ṣafī al-Dīn discovers strange and sometimes disturbing spiritual powers, such as an ability to see dead people, which, naturally, freaks him out, causing him to stop eating and to worry his mother (who is really his first mentor and a major presence in this chapter), who eventually coaxes the reason out of him. Understanding that her son is special, she seeks out holy men nearby who might direct him, but none are capable of training a prodigy like Ṣafī al-Dīn. In the story that follows, our protagonist sets out to a local holy place with hopes of finding an instructor, or at least some powerful baraka that will help him gain control of his powers and potent spiritual states. Additional commentary follows, but first the tale itself, which centers on Mount Sabalan, a high, prominent peak west of Ardabil:

Detail from the V&A’s Ardabil carpet.

Story (ḥikāyat): Shaykh Ṣadr al-Dīn, God perpetuate his baraka, said that when the spiritual state (ḥāl) of the shaykh, God sanctify his inner secret, grew more powerful, and when exalted conditions would occur which could not be stopped and which the shaykh found difficult to disclose [to others], by necessity he occupied himself with seeking out a guide (murshid) who could bring him out of this tumult of waves and will. He threw his entire body into this search, though he did not know from whence this impetus for searching came [1].

During that time people often had recourse to Mount Sabalan, it being well known that there were folk of God, exalted is He, atop Mount Sabalan. So the shaykh desired to go to Mount Sabalan, in order to find one of these people. The first time he went he found no one. The second time that the season for visiting came—for other than in the heart of summer it is not possible due to the intensity of the snow, ice, and cold—he went again and took from that place, in accordance with the custom of ordinary people, water and soil from the summit of Sabalan in order to derive baraka thereby. On his descent he passed through a couloir in the mountain, and saw a Turk [here with the sense of a nomad] squatting down, having taken up a bow and arrow and put the arrow to the bow, waiting in ambush for the shaykh. Other than [the Turk] there were no people in the vicinity—[Ṣafī al-Dīn] looked to see if he had an entourage or followers, but no, he was like a spider all alone. Continue reading “Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn Goes Mountain Climbing”

The Spirit of Robinson Jeffers Rises Along the Lost River

Gray clouds mount, earth and river sink down
Under the stones’ still new cut. The sliced bloodroot bleeds and bleeds,
But the ten thousand things fall silent along the bypassed highway.
Ah hawk, swooped and spun by a following raven,
There is no solace in what we think will be freedom, but only
Shadows and dreams chasing and chasing.
My skin laps the bloodroot’s flow and the limestone opens
To staunch the river’s run. So what is hidden is always coming out,
And returning to ground, the round and round of the world.
One name gives way to another. Time goes, and goes nowhere,
Goes everywhere. I lock eyes for a hanging moment with
The buzzard in silent glide. Somewhere the ten thousand things gather.