Concerning the Prayer-Rug, Matters Mystical and Practical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The Mundane and the Mystical

The following is a translated excerpt from a work by an Ottoman scholar writing in the first half of the sixteenth century, Aḥmad ibn Muṣṭafá Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah. Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah wrote a number of works in Arabic and Persian (and perhaps in Ottoman Turkish-not sure on that though), including a tabaqat (biographical dictionary) on early Ottoman ‘ulama (scholars). All of the scholars have some sort of connection to the emergent Ottoman state structure, either as salaried teachers or muftis, judges in shari’a courts, or as waqf administrators. Many of the members of the ‘ulama Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah considers, however, were Sufis or otherwise mystically inclined, such as the scholar treated in the biography below. In fact, there is no sharp division between “mysticism” and the more “exoteric” religious sciences and practices. Indeed, as this example also shows, these scholars could reconcile, at least notionally, both exoteric, even secular demands, and more mystical impulses and desires.

There is a lot going on in this entry (which is richer in personal details than the majority of Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah’s entries-here, the richness is due to Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah’s personal connection to the subject), but I will only note one other aspect: the treatment of the central Islamic discipline of Qur’an interpretation. On the one hand, we see a very practical concern: Muhyi al-Din’s creation of a sort of introductory text-book for people new to the discipline (and, in the Ottoman context, people who would be unlikely to have any form of Arabic as their first language). On the other hand, we also see a deeply mystical approach to interpretation, reminiscent of some rather radical forms of Sufi hermeneutic and exegetical practice. Both of these “exoteric” concerns (Baydawi’s commentary is hardly mystical stuff) and a deeply, even controversially, mystical approach to exegesis seem to have coexisted for this scholar. I will leave it to the reader to imagine what all this might mean for how we think about the early Ottoman ‘ulama, and perhaps the ‘ulama as a “class,” particularly in relation to “mystical” groups and ideologies.

And among them is the Knowledgeable, the Doer, the Virtuous, the Noble, Mulla Muhyi al-Din Muhammad ibn al-Shaykh the Knower of God the Exalted Maslah al-Din al-Qujawi:

He read under the ‘ulāma of his land then joined to the service of Mulla al-Fadil ibn Afdal al-Din, then became a teacher in the madrasa of Khawajeh Khayr al-Din in Constantinople, and married the daughter of Shaykh Al-‘Arif bi-Allah al-Shaykh Muhyi al-Din al-Qujawi. Then the call of retreat and seclusion overwhelmed him, so he abandoned teaching, with a salary of fifteen dirhams per day in the way of retirement being appointed to him. And he sought to have it decreased, saying, “Ten dirhams is sufficient for me.” And he remained in his house, busying himself with exalted knowledge and worship. He was modest and humble, satisfactory in way of life, praiseworthy in behavior, and was beloved of the people of soundness. He used to purchase his necessities in the market himself and bear them back to his house himself, with the people wanting to serve him, but he was not satisfied unless he carried it out by his own hand, modest towards God and harsh on the lower self. And he used to transmit tafsīr in his mosque, sons of the land gathered to them, seeking to listen to his words, seeking blessings for themselves; many benefited through him. He wrote a marginal commentary on Baydawi’s tafsīr, containing and uniting in one place the benefits that were variously scattered in the books of tafsīr, with clear, easy interpretations in order to benefit the beginner. He wrote an explanation of al-Waqā’i fi al-Fiqh, an explanation of al-Farā’id al-Sarajia, an explanation of al-Muftāh lil-‘Alāma al-Sakākī, and an explanation of the famous qasida al-Burda. He died in the year 950 (1543).

He said, may God be merciful to him, “If a verse from the verse of the Magnificent Qur’an gives me difficulty, I turn to God—exalted is He—then my heart is widened until the measure of the world and the rising of sun and moon in it- I do not know which of the two is which. Then a light appears so that there is a guide to the Preserved Tablet—then I take from it the meaning of the verse.” He said—may God be merciful to him—“If I act according to firm intention, I do not desire sleep unless I am sleeping in the Garden. And if I act according to permission, this state is not present in me.” And he used to have great love towards this lowly servant [the author]. And he [the author] was part of a group that did not vaunt him and did not choose the appointment of judgeship without direction from him. And he had bid me to it [judgeship], and he related to me that one of his sincere companions had been a judge, had left judgeship for a time, then re-entered judgeship—and he was a sound, truthful man. “So I asked him about the cause of his re-entry, and he replied: ‘I had, through my judgeship, a connection to the Prophet of God, peace and prayers be upon him, and I saw him in a dream once every week. Then I left judgeship in order to increase nearness to him [Muhammad]. But after abandoning judgeship I did not see what I had seen while a judge. Then I saw [in a dream] the Prophet of God, peace and prayers be upon him, and said to him: “O Prophet of God! I abandoned being a judge in order to increase my closeness to you—but it has not transpired as I had hoped.” Then the Prophet of God, peace and prayers be upon him, said: “The relationship between me and between you was stronger during [your] judgeship than when you abandoned it, because you, when you were a judge, were occupied with the well-being (aslāh) of your self and of my community, but when you abandonded judgeship you were only occupied with the well-being of your self. When you increase in well-being (aslāh) you increase in proximity to me.’” The mercifully protected Mulla said: “I speak the truth of his words, and the man was truthful. So I advise you that you choose the judgeship and do good to your self and to others.” These are his words—may his secret (sirruhu) be hallowed.

Aḥmad ibn Muṣṭafá  Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah, Al-Shaqāʼiq Al-Nuʻmānīyah Fī ʻulāmāʼ Al-Dawlah Al-ʻUthmānīyah (Bayrūt, Lubnān: Dār al-Kitāb al-ʻArabī, 1975), 245-6.