A Cultural Entrepreneur in Late Eighteenth Century Cairo

Wakala Oda Basha
The Wakālat Oda Başa, built in 1673 by an Ottoman Chief White Eunuch and now, so far as I can determine, no longer extant, but depicted here as it existed in the 1830s, displaying the spatial configuration and use of an Ottoman wakāla (also voweled wikāla) akin to that in the biographical entry below, with vendors active on the ground floor, storage directly above. (Pascal Coste, Architecture arabe; ou, Monuments du Kaire, mesurés et dessinés, de 1818 à 1826, Typ. de Firmin Didot frères et compagnie, 1839: Volume II plate XLIV.)

The following short biography is taken from the famed chronicle- which is also a biographical dictionary- of the Ottoman Egyptian scholar al-Jabartī (1753-1825), best-known for his accounts of the French invasion and occupation of Egypt under Napoleon. His chronicle contains numerous fascinating slices of every-day life in the late eighteenth century, such as this entry concerning a person of middling estate (which he made up for, as we will see, in other types of ‘capital’):

Ismā’īl Efendī ibn Khalīl… known as al-Ẓuhūrī al-Miṣrī al-Ḥanafī al-Muktib died. He was a good person, satisfied with his lot in life, who earned his living through book-copying and fineness of calligraphy which he had improved in and reached perfection under the tutelage of ‘Alī Aḥmad Efendī al-Shukrī. He wrote with his fine handwriting numerous books (kutub), copies of al-Saba’a al-munjiyyāt [seven selected Qu’ran suras with reputed prophylactic power], Dalā’il al-khayrāt, and full copies of the Qur’an. He also had a storehouse wherein he sold coffee beans, located in the caravanersai of greens (wikālat al-baql) close to the Khalīlī Khan. He was also very knowledgeable in the science of music, melody, the playing of the ‘ūd, and the composition of poetry, having composed madā’iḥ, qaṣā’id, and muwashshaḥāt.[1] He died, God be merciful to him, in 1211/1796.[2]

The picture that emerges from this brief life is of a man who deliberately cultivated a wide range of skills and forms of cultural expertise, while also participating in the flourishing marketplace of goods and commodities. His enterprises were such that they could overlap: selling coffee beans at the scale suggested here would have only occupied so much time, Ismā’īl otherwise working at what al-Jabartī presents as his primary trade, that of a copyist. Despite sporadic in-roads of moveable print in the eighteenth century Ottoman world, manuscript production remained dominant, with men like Ismā’īl turning out often prodigious numbers of texts for an expanded market compared to earlier periods. His specified repertoire consists of works that households with few other texts might very well have owned, either for reading and recitation or simply for their role as potent conveyors of baraka (and, secondarily perhaps, markers of cultural prestige). It is striking that, like several other copyists profiled by al-Jabartī, the Dalā’il al-khayrāt is given as part of Ismā’īl’s calling card, a text of such popularity that it could form a stable item all of its own regardless of individual customer commissions. Continue reading “A Cultural Entrepreneur in Late Eighteenth Century Cairo”

Imām al-Layth, the Debtor, the Parakeet, and the Ruler

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The minaret and street entrance to the shrine-mosque of Imām al-Layth, as it existed c. 1920 when it was photographed by Sir K.A.C. Creswell (V&A 1573-1921)

During his various journeys,ʿAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (1641-1731) visited many, many shrines of saints and prophets, some known throughout the world, others of only local purchase. In his accounts of his journeys he makes much of these visits, recording them in sometimes great detail and with his own poetic contributions. Very often he reports local accounts of the holy person venerated in the shrine, providing precious insights into the ‘oral hagiography’ and local practices of saintly veneration and saintly space that prevailed in the late seventeenth century around the Ottoman world.

One of the many holy tombs al-Nābulusī visited in the course of his extended stay in Cairo during the pilgrimage journey recounted in his al-Ḥaqīqa wa-al-majāz fī riḥlat bilād al-Shām wa-Miṣr wa-al-Ḥijāz was that of Imām al-Layth ibn Saʿd (713-791), a major figure in the early elaboration of Islamic jurisprudence. Rather like his ‘neighbor’ Imām al-Shāfiʿī, by al-Nābulusī’s time Imām al-Layth was regarded as much, if not more, as a wonder-working saint than as a scholar of jurisprudence, as the story I’ve translated here suggests.

While the central point of the story is pretty straightforward- and rather charming- certain details stand out for thinking about how Ottoman Muslims experienced the built space of such shrines. First, it should be noted, as al-Nābulusī does in introducing this structure a bit before the translated passage, and as can be seen in the photographs, reproduced here, taken by K.A.C. Creswell in the late 1910s, the shrine sat pretty much continuous with the surrounding houses, marked off by its dome (qubba, see below) and relatively low but ornate minaret, both of late Mamluk provenance. The line between house and shrine could be blurred in other ways: the man in the story practices the venerable rite of ‘incubation,’ sleeping in a holy place so as to receive a vision or answer to a prayer. If the shrine was seen as a sort of ‘home’ for the entombed saint, incubation was equivalent to a guest spending the night.

The fact that al-Nābulusī heard this story, perhaps from a neighbor to the shrine, indicates that the space remained ‘alive’ to local residents and devotees, as did the saint himself, even to the point of attracting an additional element to his name (at least among his local devotees). It’s a good reminder that whatever the intentions of the original founders of the tomb (which certainly predates the ‘modern’ late Mamluk construction visible now to us) or of later patrons and builders, those intentions might have only partially been respected or even recognized by later participants in the sanctified space.

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The qubba- dome- and rooftop of the shrine, fairly typical of mausoleum architecture during the Mamluk period (V&A 1571-1921)

The reason for his being given the kunya [1] of Abū al-Makārim [that is, ‘Father of Noble Deeds’] among the people of Cairo is what was told us in the following manner, namely that there was a man with many debts. He set out sincerely for a pious visit to [Imām al-Layth], and recited the Fātiḥa for him and supplicated God, asking for relief from his debt. He slept here in the shrine and saw [Imām al-Layth] in a dream. He said to the man: ‘When you arise from your dream take hold of and possess what you see upon my tomb!’

When the man arose from his sleep, he saw upon his tomb the bird known as parrot (babbaghā’) or parakeet (durra), and it could recite in the manner of an expert reciter the Qur’an in all its seven recitations! [2] So he took hold of it, and soon the people had heard of it, to the point that word of it reached the ruler of Cairo, and he commanded that the man be brought to his presence so that he might take the bird from him. When he came into the ruler’s presence the ruler bought it from him, and with the money the man was able to repay all of his debts.

Continue reading “Imām al-Layth, the Debtor, the Parakeet, and the Ruler”

‘Abd al-Wahhāb Rescues a Fly in Peril

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An insect of some sort, from an 18th century Ottoman Turkish version of ʿAjāʾib al-makhlūqāt (Wonders of creation) by Zakarīyā al-Qazwīnī (d. 1293). Walters Art Museum, W.659

Among the many writings produced by the prominent early modern Egyptian saint and sufi ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Sha’rānī (d. 1565) was a work that is best described as a cross between an ‘auto-hagiography’ and an encyclopedia of ethics and sufi practice. Al-Sha’rānī wrote the Laṭāʼif al-minan ostensibly as a compilation of practices and virtues for his followers and others to study and to emulate, though it also clearly functioned as a sprawling (the printed edition I used for this entry clocks in at over eight hundred pages!) argument for his own sanctity. Stories of al-Sha’rānī’s life (including, as here, aspects of his family life) are scattered generously throughout, including this curious little account which comes in the midst of a discussion of proper treatment of cats and other animals. Al-Sha’rānī was especially kind to cats, offering them food right out of his own hands, but, as this little miracle tale reveals, far ‘lowlier’ creatures were on his radar as well.

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Among the things that happened to me: my wife Fāṭima Umm ‘Abd al-Raḥman had a thickness (ḥādir) upon her heart. Her mother cried out and was certain that [her daughter] would die, and I was greatly agitated on her account, but a voice came to me while I was in the toilet-room: “Release the fly from the fly-hyena (ḍabu’ al-dhabāb) in the crack that is in front of your face, and We will release your wife from sickness for you.” So I went to the crack and found it to be quite tight such that fingers could not open it, so I took a stick and pulled it open and extracted the fly-hyena with the fly, and found it whole but with the fly-hyena gripping its neck, so I released it from him, and in that moment my wife was released from sickness and restored to health and her mother rejoiced—from that day on I have not looked down upon bestowing good upon any creature or best which the Lawgiver, upon whom be peace and blessing, does not command be slain.

‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Sha’rānī, Laṭāʼif al-minan wa-al-akhlāq fī wujūb al-taḥadduth bi-niʻmat Allāh ʻalá al-iṭlāq, (Damascus: Dār al-Taqwā, 2003) 349-350.