From the medieval period down to the dawn of modernity, sufi saints and the discipline of alchemy have had a long and often fraught relationship with one another, reflective of the sometimes positive, sometimes ambiguous position alchemy held in Islamicate societies (and elsewhere in the medieval and early modern world). To contend that a given sufi shaykh was an adept of the alchemical arts, or of other occult sciences for that matter, could be a form of praise or condemnation or caution. The delightful story I’ve translated below represents an interesting juncture in the relationship of alchemy and sufi saint: it comes from a source into which I’ve dipped several times now, the hagiography of the nineteenth century Ottoman Syrian saint Shaykh Muḥammad al-Jsir written by his deeply learned (in both ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ arts and sciences) son Ḥusayn. The context and ultimate message- the true alchemy is the practice of piety- would have been familiar to generations of sufi devotees before the nineteenth century, just as many a previous shaykh no doubt had to field similar requests for instruction in the arts of material transfiguration of the elements. There is however here I think a more marked sense of irony, the implication that alchemy isn’t just suspect for its occupation of the fringes of proper belief and practice but also that it is really no longer imaginable as a pursuit- which might have been true for Ḥusayn al-Jisr but was not necessarily true for all of his contemporaries, as the copying and presumable use of the treatise illustrated above would indicate. The subtext might well be that while alchemy is outmoded, the true and ultimately alchemy is not, and that devotional piety remains capable of transforming human beings in ways that neither the ancestor of chemistry nor other systems of knowledge could ever hope to do.
And from that is what my aforementioned uncle related to me also: he said: my barber, Shaykh Ḥusayn ‘Alwān used to say to me, ‘Your brother Shaykh Muḥammad knows how to do alchemy, so you ought to get him to teach you its art!’ So I went to your father one day looking vexed, and he said to me: ‘What’s with you O brother?’ I replied, ‘You know how to perform alchemy, so what’s keeping you from teaching it to me, your own brother?’ The shaykh laughed and said to me, ‘Oh Muṣṭafā, I’d like to spend the next three days alone at home in order to prepare an alchemical course—it’s your duty to turn away from me anyone who seeks me out.’ So I said yes, after which he stayed in his home three days, in the uppermost floor, and I made sure that anyone who came to see him was kept away from the shaykh, turning him away politely. And as the shaykh had withdrawn your mother into seclusion [with him] too I did not see her either, as she stayed with him in the upper floor. It was impossible that I go up and see what was going on; however, I asked a servant girl who was serving him and said to her, ‘What is my brother doing?’ She replied, ‘For a while he prays, then he recites taṣliya, then he reads books.’ I replied, ‘He’s not lighting any fire or asking for any specific amounts of substances from you?’ She said, ‘No.’ I was amazed at that and said to myself, ‘How does he perform this alchemy?’ All that was from the vain thoughts of youth.
Then, after the three days were up, I was in the market when the shaykh sent for me. I came quickly and found him sitting in the lower part of the house in the iwān, a satchel of riyāls in front of him. He looked at me and said, ‘O my brother, take them!’ So I took those riyāls, imagining that they were the product of alchemy, it not occurring to me due to the intensity of my happiness that alchemy doesn’t produce minted coin but rather bullion, or so they allege. Then the shaykh grabbed my ear and turned it, saying to me, ‘You and your barber ‘Alwān are nuts! O brother, our alchemy is blessing upon the Prophet, God bless him and give him peace! Don’t listen to the words of the like of this fellow!’ I paid heed to these words and learned that the shaykh did not perform alchemy at all as I had initially supposed, but rather had taken advantage of the secluded retreat of those days in order to be away from people and devoted to worshiping his Lord.
Dear reader, I’m aiming to have some more substantial posts here soon- our family has been in the midst of a move and the post-move work of getting our new house and budding (hopefully!) small farm up and running, while I have also been busy with my day-job work, elements of which I will cover in more detail on my Substack newsletter. In sharp contrast to all that busyness, I’ve translated the following story, which is related by Ḥusayn al-Jisr in his hagiography of his saintly father; it does not however directly relate to his father’s life, but is instead precipitated by an episode in the shaykh’s career that involved a large basket filled with tobacco and money, the latter fulfilling the need of one of the shaykh’s disciples. Ḥusayn al-Jisr does not tell us from whence he got this story, but it is part of a long tradition of sufi tales having to do with tawakkul, which might best be translated as ‘extreme trust in God.’ It’s also really quite funny, and could have come from a collection of popular stories, ḥikāyāt. Otherwise it is pretty self-explanatory- enjoy!
I have seen a similar story in a book concerning what happened to one of the people of pious trust in God. A man from among them was continuously present in a mosque when another man who prayed there noticed him, seeing that he did not leave the mosque nor did he have a job, so he came to him and said, ‘O brother, how do you manage to eat?’ He replied, ‘God, exalted is He, provides for me.’ The man replied, ‘You speak truthfully, but still God makes a means for everything—is He going to send your sustenance down in a basket?’ The man who put all his trust in God replied, ‘Verily God is able to do that.’
So the man invited him to his house, making him to believe that he wanted to honor him, but instead he seized hold of him and put him down in a well that belonged to him and left him there, saying to him, ‘Now we’ll see whether God sends a basket down to you or not!’ Then he went away to his shop stall. Now it so happened that the man’s wife and her maidservant really wanted some halwa, so they made some and were about to eat it when the man, her husband, knocked at the door, and the two were afraid of his displeasure over their making halwa, so they put it in a basket and in their alarm dropped it down in the well. The man who trusted in God who was down in the well took hold of it and began eating from its contents. The wife of the man opened the door and he came in to attend to some business of his, then he remembered the man who was in the well so he went to the brim of the well and called out to him, ‘Hey so-and-so, has God sent you a basket down yet?’ The man replied, ‘Yes, He sent me some halwa in a basket, in spite of you!’ So he took him out of the well, and, things becoming clear to him took admonition from this happening, honored the man and sought from him his forgiveness.
Apologies for the long delay in posting new material here- as is often the case many other things have intervened, the good and the bad as it were, and the several translations and short essays I had hoped to present here have been pushed back. Much of my ‘free’ time has been taken up teaching a course on modern Islam, which has entailed a great deal of secondary literature reading on my part given that my scholarly training focused pretty much exclusively on the pre-19th century world, with the exception of my recent work as a post-doctoral researcher examining issues in modern Arabic script book history. One of the happy benefits of my recent pivots towards the modern world has been getting to extend my exploration of saints and sainthood in the Islamicate world forward in time, particularly into the 19th century. Far from being marginalized by the developments of modernity, saints and sainthood remained- and in fact remain- vital forces in Islamicate history, in some cases becoming even more salient than in previous centuries. Movements such as the late 19th century Mahdiyya in the Sudan or the emergence of various millenarian and apocalyptic new religious movements like the Aḥmadiyya or the Bābīs are only really explicable within a framework of saints and sainthood.
That said, the saintly subject of the short story I’ve translated here did not herald any grand political movements or religious transformations, but rather can be seen as carrying forward older traditions of sufism and sainthood into the 19th century. We’ve encountered Shaykh Muḥammad al-Jisr (1792-1845) before (see this post for an introduction), and will be meeting him again in these digital pages no doubt, as his hagiography, penned by his scholarly son, is a wonderful source for exploring the transition of Islamic sainthood to the modern world. The story I’ve selected for today, set at some point during the 1830s (the period in which Mehmed ‘Alī’s forces occupied Ottoman Syria) reveals more in the way of continuity than change- while the 19th century would see many reformist and outright puritanical movements either begin outright or emerge into prominence from 18th century origins, here we see Shaykh Muḥammad continuing in a vein of saintly behavior exemplified by the late 17th to early 18th century ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī and others, including the unproblematic use of tobacco. It is also a lovely reminder of the aural presence of sufi ritual: in a world with considerably less noise pollution, and much more oriented around foot-traffic, nocturnal sufi practices such as vocal dhikr had no small aural footprint, attracting passerby such as the young man in our story, even if, as in the story, their reactions could vary in appropriateness!
‘Shaykh Muḥammad Abū Khalīl Efendī Abāẓa the well known and trusted, whose recognition in the Syrian and Egyptian lands is such that he requires no introduction, said to me: ‘I was in Cyprus during the days of the Egyptian government’s dominion in the land of Syria. I was in the bloom of my youth and the mirth of my youthful inclinations and was not yet following the ṭarīqa, nor did I have an inkling of the spiritual states of its sons. One night I came upon the dhikr circle which your father led with his brethren in Cyprus, and it happened that all while I watched them seeing the effects of the dhikr upon the sons of the path caused me to secretly laugh. When the shaykh completed the dhikr he called to me and sat me down next to him, treating me kindly, then offering me his tobacco pipe from which he had been smoking, which I then returned to him [after smoking]. After the session concluded I returned to my lodgings and lay down on my bed, but it happened that every time I fell asleep I found that pope that the shaykh had offered me that night striking me upon my face! So I would awake with a start, then go back to sleep—and again find it striking me upon my face and I would awake, and so my entire night passed until morning dawned. I was most distressed due to lack of sleep and intensity of fear such that I worried I’d lose my mind! So I went ot the shaykh, God be merciful to him, and as soon as he saw me he started laughing. I bent down and kissed his hand and said to him, ‘Yā sayyidī, what sin is it that I did that caused you to act in such a way with me?’ He replied, ‘What is it I did to you?’ So I related to him the story of the pipe in the night, and he said to me, ‘What does that concern me? I didn’t do anything to you other than offering you my pipe!’
I began seeking his intercession, saying, ‘Yā sayyidī, I’m afraid I’m going to lose my mind! I desire your forgiveness!’ At that he said, ‘My son, for what? You stopped by our dhikr circle last night and began to laugh—we are dervish folk and you are a lordly man, it is most befitting to you that you mock and laugh at us.’ I replied, ‘Yā sayyidī, I did not intend to laugh at you, God forbid from that! But the state and levity of my youth are not hidden from you, so I hope you will forgive me!’ At that the shaykh, my God be merciful to him, was pleased with me, and so I set out on the Khalwatiyya ṭarīqa and so continued on from there.’
As anyone who has followed my work here and elsewhere will be aware, until recently my scholarly research was focused all but exclusively on the early modern and medieval worlds, with a rough cut-off date of 1800 beyond which my expertise thins out considerably. Over the last couple of years since completing my PhD and assuming a post-doctoral research position my interests and research responsibilities have diversified considerably (a diversification which comes with its own risks, I might note), running backwards and forwards in time from the periods with which I am most familiar and comfortable. On the one hand I have taken up a much greater interest in the study of deep time and possible ways of integrating perspectives from paleontology, geology, climatology, archeology, and paleoanthropology into the kinds of historical study and teaching I do located within the ‘shallow’ past. Running in the other direction, on the other hand, I have become much more involved in nineteenth and twentieth century topics, some quite new to me, such as the history of technology and communication, others continuations of my long-standing interests such as saints and sainthood.
I learned about the subject of this week’s essay and translation (and who will certainly figure in future posts over the next month or so) by way of Marwa Elshakry’s book Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950, an exploration of the complex and often quite surprising ways in which Ottoman and post-Ottoman Arab thinkers dealt with the emergence and elaboration of Darwinian evolutionary theory and the permutations that engagement underwent vis-a-vis other concerns and political developments. Shaykh Muḥammad al-Jisr’s son, Ḥusayn al-Jisr, was one of the many thinkers, Muslim, Christian, and otherwise, who grappled with evolution and other aspects of the biological sciences, threading a path that was at once critical and open to scientific insights while also remaining very committed to ‘traditional’ Islam (though in ways that would have been unfamiliar even to his own father in the decades prior), remaining largely critical of evolutionary theory but suggesting that given sufficient proof nothing in Islam prevented acceptance of evolutionary theory provided God was understood to be the first and final cause- materialism was Ḥusayn al-Jisr’s primary foe.
Ḥusayn al-Jisr’s position on evolutionary theory in relation to theology is actually related to the work of his translated here, a hagiography, written in 1888, of his father Shaykh Muḥammad al-Jisr (1792-1845), a Khalwatī teaching shakyh and widely acclaimed saint active in Syria and Palestine (though due to political instability he also spent time in Cyprus and Constantinople). Ḥusayn’s account of his father- who died shortly after Ḥusayn’s birth- is striking for the way in which the author engages in extensive epistemological and other routes of analysis and digression, with much of the introduction devoted to tracing Ḥusayn’s own journey from relative skepticism about his father’s sanctity to embracing it, based on the accumulation and weighing of oral and written evidence, including from non-Muslims. These traces of modernity, as it were, continue throughout, even as the world of sanctity and sainthood revealed is not very far from that of early modernity- it is the framing and the tone that has changed, though certainly not into a voice of disenchantment or skepticism. As such it is a good example of the complex ways Muslims and others have constructed their own ‘modernities’ not necessarily along the lines of a neat trajectory of ‘secularism’ and ‘disenchantment that have so often been seen by many as normative and either automatic or only avoidable by ‘relapsing’ into some form of reaction and obscurantism.
I have selected the following short story mostly because it’s memorable and in the voice of the shaykh’s sister, but also because it captures part of Shaykh Muḥammad’s own saintly charisma- his connections with axial saints of the past, including Aḥmad al-Rifā’ī, and his interventions in everyday life- as well as possible objections that were more likely to arise in the modernizing milieus of the late nineteenth century, with Ḥusayn al-Jisr confronting such objections directly with an explicitness unusual within the genre. We will see other interactions of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ in future installations from this saint’s life, so stay tuned!
‘And from what the aforementioned sister of the shaykh related to me about him: she said: “After the incident I told you about before, among the things that happened to me in that house is that there came to us from Beirut a covered basket of zucchinis, and when I opened the basket up to take the zucchinis out, a snake that had been hidden within came out and slithered into a hole in the house. I was very frightened and resolved to flee the house, but when I came into the presence of the shaykh, your father, I related the story to him and revealed my fear. He said to me, ‘Don’t be afraid!’ Then he came and stood in front of the hole into which the snake had entered and said, ‘Yā Sayyidī Aḥmad! Yā Rifā’ī! My sister is afraid of snakes!’ In that very moment I had barely blinked when the snake came out of the hole and the shaykh killed it, and my heart was calmed thereby.”
This happening points to the administrative power (taṣarruf) of the shaykh and his close relationship with the venerable Shaykh al-Rifā’ī, God sanctify his inner secret. If it is said that the snake charmers do the like of this deed, we say, yes, but the action of the snake charmers is of the nature of a trick, but that which is related here is the action of a man from among the people of piety and sanctity, who sought the aid of a spiritual axis (quṭb) from among the spiritual axes of the age, one would not deny his virtue save one who is utterly effaced of vision. The one who knows what the learned in religion have written about the distinction between prophetic sign (al-mu’jiza) and saintly miracle (al-karāma) and between bewitchment and the art of persuasion, with all being things outside of the ordinary, such foolish doubt will not trouble his heart.’
While Islam has often been associated, for a complex and not totally inaccurate set of reasons, with urban life, the stress on Islam as ‘properly’ the religion of urban life ignores the many, many counter-examples of Islamic practice flourishing in rural settings. And while saints and sainthood have long been recognized by historians as central to many experiences of rural Islam, this reality has often been interpreted as due to the ‘syncretic’ nature of sainthood, or the lack of sophistication of rural religion, and the like. The saint profiled below, Shaykh Aḥmad al-Dajānī (d. 1562), is a good counter-example to such an overly simplistic story, as his life moved between the Palestinian countryside and the more urbanized and Ottomanized world of nearby Jerusalem. My discussion here is lightly adapted from my recent dissertation, wherein it comprises part of a sustained discussion of rural sainthood in the sixteenth century Ottoman world. While not entirely my original intention therein, Shaykh Dajānī’s story also speaks to the deep historical roots that present-day Palestinians have in historical Palestine, with the saint’s family a continuing presence today (with his shrine still standing, albeit after a great deal of struggle against various attempts to erase its intended function). Because quite a bit of Shaykh Dajānī’s hagiography focuses on protecting local inhabitants from the depredations of power, it seemed somehow appropriate to share a modified version of this section now, even if I have no illusions that my small intervention is liable to make much if any difference in the ongoing struggle of the Palestinian people in their ancestral lands. If nothing else this story (which, ironically, is based primarily off of a manuscript version of the saint’s manāqib which is held by the Israeli National Library) demonstrates that contrary to many propagandistic narratives the substantive historical ties of modern Palestinians go far back into history and take the land itself, with Jerusalem and its sacred precincts a major component in that historical identity and sense of place.
Such a ‘thickening’ of the meaningful landscape and of deep historical roots hardly began with Shaykh Dajānī. The rural Palestine of the saint was by the sixteenth century dense with holy places of either originally or adapted Islamic pedigrees, from the modest tombs of village shaykhs crowning hilltops to more spectacular constructions honoring a seemingly endless cast of ancient prophets of diverse provenance, most with traditional stories and rituals long associated with them. In central Palestine nomadic groups were generally fewer (though still present) than was the case elsewhere in the Ottoman’s Arabic-speaking provinces, with sedentary peasants the norm. At the heart of this landscape was the holy precincts of Jerusalem, al-Quds, with its rich array of holiness-drenched places and spatially rendered cultural memories.
The life and hagiographic traces of Shaykh Dajānī reflects a dialect of sainthood at once rooted in the life and landscape of rural Ottoman Palestine while also oriented towards the Holy City, drawing upon the venerable sources of sanctity embedded in the landscape, while also distinguishing the saint and his performance of sanctity from them. Not only did Shaykh Dajānī have to differentiate himself, as it were, from the many loci of sanctity around him, but he was also confronted with negotiating a new political order under the Ottomans and their exercise of authority and claims to saintly status. In what follows we will explore the particular dialect of sanctity manifest in the life of Aḥmad al-Dajānī and his work of sainthood, all within the context of his oscillation between an already sanctity-abundant Palestinian countryside and the holy precincts of Jerusalem (which, it should be recalled, was in this period a large, albeit spectacularly walled, town, with a decidedly rural ambience right up to and even within the walls). Despite being primarily connected in more modern memory with his family’s custodianship of the Tomb of David, we will see that earlier routes of memory, as reflected in the manāqib of the saint written by his grandson Muḥammad ibn Ṣālaḥ al-Dajānī (d. 1660), recalled Shaykh al-Dajānī to be just as much, if not more a saint of the countryside as of the city, both around Jerusalem and beyond the boundaries of its sancâk, his imaginal saintly territory encompassing much of Palestine as it is understood today. I will now briefly introduce the life of Shaykh Dajānī, his saintly repertoire and its particular dialect, followed by an examination of some of the ways in which his practice of sainthood tracked onto and dealt with the topography of both rural Palestine and of Jerusalem and its environs, both during his lifetime and, primarily in the context of his tomb-shrine in the Mamilla Cemetery, after his physical death.
While early Ottoman Jerusalem and the surrounding Palestinian countryside have received a considerable share of scholarly attention over the years, with works such as that of Amy Singer proving especially helpful in sketching the social and economic context of Shaykh Dajānī’s world, religious life among Muslims in Ottoman Jerusalem and wider Palestine has received comparatively less coverage, with the exception of synthetic works like Kan’ān’s classic volume or James Grehan’s recent study of rural religion in Syria and Palestine. Shaykh Dajānī receives but a single passing mention in Grehan’s work. However, Aharon Layish profiled Shaykh Dajānī in his analysis, some years ago, of another Palestinian rural saint, Ibn ʿAbdallāh al-Asadī, based outside of Safad, a discussion to which we will have recourse further along. My primary source for this saint of rural Palestine is Muḥammad al-Dajānī’s manāqib of his grandfather, a hagiographic treatment closely connected with another surviving trace of the saint, his much restored tomb-shrine located in what was formerly part of the Mamilla Cemetery in contemporary West Jerusalem. While it is today situated somewhat ingloriously in the corner of a parking lot and maintenance area for Independence Park—Shaykh Dajānī’s tomb-shrine and some remnants of Ottoman era tombstones the only surviving traces of this section of Mamilla Cemetery—the shrine is now in good condition and has been the main point of veneration for the saint for centuries. As such it forms a significant part of the saint’s manāqib, a text that appears to have had at least two goals: as Muḥammad al-Dajānī explicitly states in the introductory material, he feared that the oral circulation of accounts of his grandfather’s saintly career would ultimately come to an end, and wished to preserve that memory into the distant future. Second, like much seventeenth century hagiographic production Muḥammad seems to have had in mind puritanical attacks on the Friends of God and the need to defend them and particularly their performances of karāmāt. That said, Muḥammad’s foremost aim was clearly the perpetuation of his saintly forefather’s memory and the promotion of his cultus through the textual deployment (and almost certainly continued oral recitation, perhaps in the setting of the Mamilla tomb-shrine) of that memory.
After introductory eulogistic praise of Aḥmad al-Dajānī as the ‘quṭb of his age, the walī of God’ followed by a brief explanation from Muḥammad al-Dajānī of his reason for writing, the manāqib commences with a karāma-story that reveals some of the intersecting spatialities of the saint’s life, aspects of his position vis-à-vis the Ottoman authorities in Jerusalem, and central aspects of his saintly repertoire. This first story opens with mention of Shaykh Dajānī’s practice of writing down notes of intercession (shif‘a) addressed to the Ottoman security patrol (sūbāshiyya) and judges, which were always effective, the reader is assured. However, there was one judge who did not accept Shaykh Dajānī’s intercession and who in fact wanted to kill him, having discovered the saint’s practice while reviewing the performance of the subaşı (here meaning the head of policing functionaries) of the city, who presented him with a ‘sack-full’ of intercessionary notes. When the judge asked who they were from, the sūbāşī replied, ‘From the venerable Shaykh al-Dajānī—they’re intercessions for those I’ve accosted, and it’s not possible for me to contradict him!’ Enraged with the revenue-costing shaykh the judge asked where he could find him. Learning that he was then in the settlement of Ra’s Abū Zaytūn, the judge at first wanted to send someone to bring the shaykh in, but was told, ‘This is a man from among the saints of God, from the masters of unveiling and gnosis, you won’t be able to make him come to you.’ Instead, he was told the judge would need to intercept Shaykh Dajānī when he came to al-‘Aqṣā for Friday prayers. Here our hagiographer adds that all this was before the shaykh took the Tomb of David ‘from the Franks,’ and that he was at this time dwelling in a place known as Ra’s Abū Zaytūn, which he himself established, building a masjid (also functioning as a zāwiya) and a qubba for his saintly mother who died there. Ra’s Abū Zaytūn is about thirty miles from Jerusalem, and seems to have served as Shaykh Dajānī’s base of operations before he moved permanently to Jerusalem (a move, as I will discuss below, that curiously figures hardly at all in the saint’s recorded manāqib), making visits to al-Ḥaram al-Sharīf not prohibitively difficult though not daily affairs either. Instead, the hagiographic record suggests that Shaykh Dajānī divided his time among a range of places, including his zāwiya on Ra’s Abū Zaytūn, various other rural locales in Palestine, and the Dome of the Rock.Continue reading “A Palestinian Saint of the Early Ottoman Era”→
For many people on earth, self included, the last year has been one of varying degrees of so-called social distancing, lost opportunities, and missing comforts and pleasures, including the pleasant (and, as the below will suggest, sometimes not quite so pleasant) experience of eating with others, whether in a domestic or public setting. As the year and then some of covid gradually recedes over the coming months and more of our ordinary social life returns, you may soon find yourself venturing out to eat, or inviting others to your home for a shared meal. Given that we have been off our table etiquette game for some while now, it seems a good time to offer a bit of a refresher in some things to do and not to do when dining in the company of others. Towards that end, I’ve translated- and will probably continue to add over the coming days as the fancy strikes me- excerpts of a wonderfully delightful sixteenth century Ottoman manual of eating etiquette, the Risālat ādāb al-muʼākala of the prominent Damascene ‘ālim Badr al-Dīn al-Ghazzī (d. 1577). This short treatise is basically a compendium of etiquette errors to be avoided, and while providing genuine guidance to good manners when dining with others is also quite funny; as such, I have been a bit freer in my translations below than usual.
The material and social context of these entries can in many cases be surmised in part from the contents, however, for a much fuller exploration of that context and what this treatise can tell us about early modern Ottoman sociability and dining habits- which both coincide with and diverge from our own- see a recent lovely article by Helen Pfeifer, ‘The Gulper and the Slurper: A Lexicon of Mistakes to Avoid While Eating with Ottoman Gentlemen,‘ in the Journal of Early Modern History; fortunately the article is open-access and so available to all, do give it a read- and my thanks to Helen for both making me aware of this little treatise and digitally lending me a copy of the print edition!
The repulsive: he who puts what he has taken out of his food such as bones or date pits or the like in front of his neighbor, which is repulsive to him due to how much he eats. It is related that two men who did not get along with one another were present at the table of one of the bigwigs. Fresh dates were brought out to the two of them, and one of the two men put all of the pits he extracted from the dates in front of the other man, until he had a pile in front of him greater than that of anyone else assembled there. Then the first man turned to the master of the house and said, ‘Will you not look my lord at how many fresh dates so-and-so has eaten! There are enough date pits in front of him to suffice the whole assembly.’ His companion though turned to [the master of the house] and said, ‘As for me, God make you prosper, it’s as he said, I have eaten a lot of dates—however this idiot has eaten the dates pits and all!’ At this the whole group laughed and the repulsive one was embarrassed.
The tearful: he who snatches up hot food to eat, not waiting for it to cool—he grabs the morsel, not paying any attention to whether it’s too hot to eat, and so his eyes become tearful due to the burning in his mouth, and perhaps he is obliged to expel the food in his mouth, or to swallow it down with a drought of cold water big enough to compensate for the burning produced by his stomach.
The gurgler: he who, if he wants to talk, does not wait until he has swallowed his bite of food, but rather talks while he is chewing and so gurgles like a camel, and no one is able to understanding what he is saying—especially if it’s a lot of food in his mouth!
The licker: he is named the licker-upper, he who licks his fingers in order to remove from them the fat from his food before he is finished eating, then he goes right back to eating [with his fingers]. As for [doing this] after finishing with eating, it’s no problem in so far as he does not return [to eating]. The most preferable of conditions is that one pays attention to wipe the fingers with something, such as the tablecloth (mi’zar), every time.
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. He died, God be merciful to him, in 1211/1796.
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”→
As sufism and Islamic sainthood both developed over the medieval and into the early modern periods, a vast and heterogenous range of practices were built up to express devotion to God and to make manifest the power of holy people, from various forms of dance to strange feats of physical strength to bodily rigorous rituals lasting hours and hours or even days or weeks. Some of these practices could be quite extreme in the eyes of observers now and at the time, and have in recent years often attracted the designation of ‘folk Islam’ or worse. The following story, which comes from the personal chronicle of a Damascene Muslim scholar named Ibn Kannān (d. 1740), reveals how seriously Ottoman officials- and members of the ‘ulama class, of whom Ibn Kannān was a respectable representative- could take even very strange saints and the unnerving practices of their followers. Here is the tale Ibn Kannān tells:
On the 28th [of Jumādī II, 1118, October 7, 1706], a Thursday, the pasha [Meḥmed Paşa ibn Bayrām] sent someone before Shaykh Muḥibb al-Dīn al-Taghlibī al-Ṣāliḥī al-Shībānī, and commanded him to bring forth the banners, mazhars , dhikr litanies, the shaykhs, and the khalīfas , and to make a procession (dawra) so that he might give delight to the lords of spiritual states. He did so and set out with banners and mazhars, and when he reached the gate of the palace he called for his horse and rode upon it over the people, [a practice] known as ‘the treading’ (al-dawsa). It is as if the people are sleeping on their faces, then he rides over them with his horse but no one is injured. When he rode out over them the pasha and Qāḍī ʿArīf Efendī and the other elite seated in the kiosk leaped up for joy! Then [Shaykh Muḥibb al-Dīn] came by himself into the presence of the pasha, while the rest of his entourage went to the Sināniyya Mosque…
One of the viziers had an unruly horse whom no one was able to handle. Once he sent it to [Shaykh Muḥibb al-Dīn] and he stood him still upon his feet as was his custom, afixed a bridle he had with him upon his head and led him about, then rode him at a trot. It is said [the vizier] then gifted the horse to the shaykh.
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:
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:
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:
Over the course of his several journeys through the Ottoman lands, the great shaykh, scholar, and saint ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī encountered all sorts of people from all manner of walks of life, from members of the Ottoman elite to Turkmen nomads in the desert. On the whole he expressed great affection and understanding for ordinary people, including those whose practice of Islam did not precisely accord with the textual, urban norms of the scholarly class of which al-Nābulusī was a prominent member. In the following story, which takes place in the Būlāq neighborhood of Ottoman Cairo, al-Nābulusī’s patience and tolerance were both tested greatly by a decidedly unprofessional Friday preacher to whom he and his friend and host Shaykh Zayn al-‘Ābidīn al-Bakrī, a prominent and well-known (as the story suggests) member of Cairo’s scholarly class, found themselves listening, first with amusement and later with other less positive emotions. The story is largely self-explanatory, though it is worth pointing out that the preacher’s attempt at angling a bigger share of the mosque’s designated endowment for preaching is a good reminder of the quotidian, economic realities running through Ottoman religious life, like the religious lives of people the world over. His apparent substance addiction, as we would now call it, also reminds us that such problems are hardly anything new, while the undercurrent of humor this story has a decidedly contemporary feel to it as well.
‘We came to the Sanāniyya Mosque [that is, the Sinān Pasha Mosque, built in 1572] and the prayed here the Friday prayer. We found the preacher preaching and mispronouncing words, praying and reciting and mispronouncing words—in other words, he did not cease from his mispronunciations! But no one else inside of that mosque noticed, nor anyone outside in the courtyard. Shaykh Zayn al-‘Ābidīn al-Bakrī, God preserve him, when the preacher would make a mispronunciation would look at me and grin. The preacher, out of his ignorance of his mispronunciations, thought that he was amazed at his eloquence and heaved a sigh. Off-handedly, the following verses came to my mind in that we had never encountered a preacher quite like him:
The preacher of Būlāq whose voice/ prides itself more than the mill does the flour,
Preaches with mispronunciation upon mispronunciation, and if/ he mispronounces here, compensates with mispronunciation there!