Tobacco and the Syrian Majdhūb

One of the great transformations that Ottoman society- and many other societies across the world- underwent in the course of the early modern period was the introduction of new (to most markets at least) ‘social’ commodities such as coffee, tobacco, tea, and sugar. Driven by new technologies of transportation, by the European discovery and colonization of the Americas, and by changing dynamics of personal wealth and consumption patterns, across the world people’s lives began to be shaped by the use of coffee and tobacco, both substances with addictive properties, and which lend themselves to use in social, often public, contexts (I am writing this from a coffeehouse, for instance- a direct descendant of these early modern transformations!). In the Ottoman world, as in many other places, both tobacco and coffee stirred up controversy, tobacco most of all.

Yet despite strenuous objections, including sultanic attempts to prohibit smoking, tobacco use flourished in the Ottoman lands, and soon permeated society and culture at many levels. The following anecdote, which dates from the early part of the 18th century and is set in Damascus, illustrates this permeation, which reached even to the karamāt (miracles or signs of sanctity) of Muslim saints, in particular, it seems, the majādhīb, the divinely drawn ones, whom I have introduced elsewhere and who will continue to appear in these digital pages. In this story we see both the continued ambiguity surrounding tobacco, as well as the possibility for its use by a saint, and even being miraculously transformed through the saint’s baraka (divine grace or power).


Shaykh Muṣtafā related to me [Muṣtafī al-Bakrī], saying: ‘I came to visit you once but didn’t find you at home. [Aḥmad the majdhūb] was sitting in front of the iwān, so I greeted him. He said to me: “You only come to visit Ibn al-Bakrī, you never come to visit me, not even once!” I replied, “Your place is exalted and I am weak!” So he said to me, “Come out to my khalwa, I’ll host you!” I wasn’t able to oppose him in that, so I went with him, fearing that the smell of tobacco would harm me due to the closeness of his khalwa. He set to with his pipe, talking with it [in his mouth], but I did not smell the scent of the tobacco nor did anything of it come to my face—and I knew that this was a mark of sanctity (karāma) of his!’

Muṣṭafā al-Bakrī, al-Bayān al-ghanī ʻan al-tahdhīb fī suná aḥwāl al-majādhīb (Cairo: Dārat al-Karaz, 2011), 75.

A Mad Saint, a Dervish, and a Flash-Flood

The following is a pair of Muslim saints’ lives, included in a biographical compilation (Luṭf al-samar wa qaṭf al-thaman) by an early 17th century Ottoman author from Damascus, Najm al-Dīn al-Ghazzī, the scion of a prominent family of ‘ulama, and one of the more prolific Damascene authors of the first part of the 17th century. His biographical histories include many saints’ lives, with a special emphasis on holy men with whom he or his saintly brother Shihāb al-Dīn al-Ghazzī had contact. Perusing the pages of these collected lives, a veritable ecosystem of sainthood and sanctity comes to life, populated by individuals of striking piety and of often controversial actions and behavior. Sainthood was and is a deeply social phenomenon, particularly in the Ottoman world wherein no ecclesial or political authority offered canonical guidance in the question of who was and was not a ‘true’ friend of God. Rather, something of a consensus among devotees would emerge, often alongside challenges from other directions, concerning a given person’s sanctity and closeness to God.

In the first life which I have translated here, we meet an enigmatic majdhūb, or possessed saint, who displayed seemingly erratic and irrational behavior, interpreted by those around him as the manifestation of jadhb, or divine attraction. Like many such majadhīb, he seems to have come from a rural environment, and in lieu of complex doctrinal teachings, he manifested his sainthood through strange, even shocking actions. And like many such possessed saints, he deliberately transgressed social boundaries, in particular, strictures on gender segregation and contact. His companion, Dervish Ḥusayn, was also marked by his transgressing of social norms, in his case, through living for a time an extremely hermetical life, even refusing to speak directly to most pious visitors. Yet before we imagine a gulf between such ‘transgressive’ forms of sanctity and the scholarly ‘ulama class from which our author hailed, al-Ghazzī also describes the ties of members of the ‘ulama with these two saints. Dervish Ḥusayn, for instance, made an exception to his hermit’s life to discuss religious matters with al-Ghazzī and his shaykh.

Finally, these two lives, Continue reading “A Mad Saint, a Dervish, and a Flash-Flood”

A Picnic on Imam al-Shafi’i’s Dome

The dome of al-Shāfi’ī’s tomb in Cairo, Egypt, with its distinctive and somewhat mysterious boat perched atop. Source.

When once [‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Sha’rānī, d. 1565] was hindered from making a visit to [the tomb of] Imām al-Shāfi’ī, God be pleased with him, he [al-Shāfi’ī] came to him in a dream-vision and said to him: ‘O ‘Abd al-Wahhab, I am censuring you for your paucity in visiting me!’ ‘Abd al-Wahhāb replied, ‘Tomorrow I’ll come and visit you.’ But the Imām said to him: ‘I won’t release you until I go with you to my place.’ So he took him by the hand, until he ascended with him upon the back of his dome (qubba), underneath the boat (markab) that is upon it. He spread out for him a new mat and place before him a dining-cloth upon which was tender bread, cheese rounds, and split open for him an ‘abdallāwī melon. He said to him: ‘Eat, O ‘Abd al-Wahhāb, in this place which kings of the earth now departed desired to eat!’

Muḥammad Muḥyī al-Dīn al-Malījī, Tadhkirat ūlī al-albāb fī manāqib al-Shaʻrānī Sayyidī ʻAbd al-Wahhāb