Ṭāhā al-Kurdī Meets His Spiritual Master

A sufi in a somewhat different socio-cultural context concentrating as he prays dhikr using his prayer-beads, in a mode of bodily deportment likely very similar to what Ṭāhā would have used. Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Arabe 6074.

One of the most fascinating sources that I came across in the course of researching and writing my dissertation was an Arabic text simply titled ‘Riḥla,’ which might be translated as ‘Travel Narrative’ though it has other connotations as well, written by an otherwise fairly obscure Kurdish author named Ṭāhā al-Kurdī who was born in on the night of December 11, 1723, in a small village in the vicinity of the town of Koy Sanjaq, about two hundred miles north of Baghdad and fifty north of Kirkuk, in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains. Then as now the region was predominantly Kurdish and while usually under the suzerainty of the Ottomans had a degree of autonomy, and was in some ways quite distant culturally and socially from the more urbane parts of the empire. Much of the population was nomadic or semi-nomadic, non-elite women played a much more prominent role in religious and cultural life than was typical in much of the rest of the empire, and the practices of sainthood- a major concern for Ṭāhā- in the region had their own distinctive aspects. At the same time, there was much that would have been familiar anywhere in the Ottoman world or indeed elsewhere in the vast Islamicate: Ṭāhā traveled to Koy Sanjaq as a youth to study in the madrasa there, learning various subjects in Arabic and Persian, perhaps, though he does not say so, using Kurdish glosses or helping texts initially. His relative mastery of prestige bodies of texts and learned, literate skills would serve him well in the coming years of his peregrinations around the empire, following routes that many learned Kurds took over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with scholars from other tiny towns and villages often playing outsized roles in Ottoman religious and intellectual life.

But even more important for Ṭāhā’s self-image and as an impetus for his travels was his love of the saints and his commitment to the practices and doctrines of sufism as transmitted and inculcated by the living friends of God of his day, beginning with his first and most important saintly shaykh, Darwīsh Muṣṭafā. The story from Ṭāhā’s Riḥla that I have translated below relates his first encounter with this saint, and it is a remarkably detailed and emotionally rich story, written in what we might today call a voice of openness and vulnerability, Ṭaha frankly describing his unsettled emotional state, with which I think most people can readily sympathize. We see in the story the way in which a local saint inhered in the social life of a rural community (and navigated its built spaces), and the sheer importance attached to him; we see the process, both in terms of inner states and emotions and in terms of practicalities and ritual actions, of becoming affiliated to such a saintly shaykh, and entering into the sufi ‘path.’ While Darwīsh Muṣṭafā is described as connected to the ṭarīqa of the famed saint and sufi eponym ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jilānī, there is no sense of institutional organization here or even a set of regularized practices. Instead the stress is on transmission of a saintly lineage from one saintly figure down to another, ending up at ‘Abd al-Qādir. Ṭaha is given a ‘personalized’ dhikr (ritual remembrance of God) to perform, which he finally succeeds in through the dream-intercession as it were of another saint, his shaykh’s shaykh, whose hagiography- which I have not translated here- picks up where the following passage concludes.

The deeply personal voice of Ṭāhā al-Kurdī is perhaps the most striking aspect of not just this story but the whole of his Riḥla; he does not simply narrate the exterior ‘facts’ of his life but is even more interested in relating his inner states and conditions, even when they are not especially flattering. In so doing he was not alone in the early modern Ottoman world, or the world more generally, as this sort of subjective turn is visible in many contexts- as for why this would be so, that is another story entirely and one that I do not think has yet been adequately answered. Certainly however we should not be surprised at this sort of subjective exploration given the emphasis in much sufi training on inner states and conditions; what is perhaps more surprising is its being written down and circulated (there are multiple copies of the Riḥla; I have worked from the one pictured below for the simple reason it’s currently accessible to me!). Regardless, this account is a wonderful view of the operation of sainthood and sufi discipleship in one corner of the rural hinterland of the Ottoman Empire, which, despite the predominance of literary production taking place in and focusing on cities, held the vast majority of the empire’s inhabitants, and no small number of the special friends of God who left their mark upon Ottoman space and society over the centuries.

A page from a holograph copy of the Riḥla, Yale University Library Landberg MSS 220

In that time there was dwelling in a place called Awājī—a village from among the villages around Koy [Sanjaq], three or four hours’ walk from there—the singular and proximate [to God] saint and master of evident miracles, gracious signs, and fame unsurpassed in that region, known as Darwīsh Muṣṭafā, God be pleased with him and with his land. He would come to town every Friday, and the people would gather around him like he was a prophet from among the prophets. He would stay in the house of Koy [Sanjaq]’s preacher (khaṭīb), the pious, sound, and knowledgeable Mullā Ḥusayn, God be merciful to him, whose house was close to the madrasa in which I was studying. I had a companion in study who was both older than me and more knowledge and better versed in fiqh, named Faqīh Ḥasan ibn Khāneh, God be merciful to both of them. He had pledged allegiance to the Shaykh in accordance with the ṭarīqa of the saintly axis and reviver of religion ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jīlī [i.e. al-Jilānī], God be pleased with him. He had mentioned to me several times the spiritual condition of his shaykh and his miracles and spiritual states and this and that, to the point that there arose in my heart love for encountering him in order to pay pious visitation and to pledge allegiance to him. So I said to my companion Faqīh Ḥasan, ‘When next Friday comes take me to his presence and tell him about my condition and what I desire and so act as a translator (turjumān) between me and him, and yours will be the reward with God!’

And so towards the end of the month of Sha’bān, six days remaining to it, in the year 1151 [1738], Friday came and the shaykh arrived and stayed in the house of the aforementioned preacher. My companion said to me, ‘The shaykh has come—if you still want, stand and let’s go!’ So we went, but I saw the teeming assembly and I was deeply embarrassed before all the people. The shaykh was inside the house with lots of people before him, likewise outside the house. Still my companion went inside and told the shaykh about me, then he came back out and said to me, ‘I spoke to him.’ An hour later the shaykh had come forth and looked at me, and I had in my hand an inkwell with a tense firm cover such that it could be shaken to rectify the ink. When I saw the shaykh come out I kissed his hand and my companion said to him, ‘This is he,’ meaning me. I was dazed and embarrassed, I couldn’t see anything else save the shaykh stretching out his blessed hand and taking up the inkwell from my hand and saying to me, ‘What is this?’ I replied, ‘This is ink which can be well mixed through motion.’ He stopped for a while to talk with the people, then went back inside the house, saying to me, ‘With your permission—‘ and we entered the house together and sat down, I faced the shaykh with my head bowed for a while. Then he commanded me to come before him so I stood and sat upon my knees in front of him, the space quite filled up with those seated.

Then he said to me, ‘You wish to repent?’ I replied, ‘If God wills!’ He said, ‘Do not return to your sin,’ to which I replied, ‘If God wills!’ He said, ‘Repent from every sin!’ I replied, ‘I repent from all of my sins!’ Now there was to one side of the shaykh his companion, God be merciful to him, who was from among the folk of divine attraction (jadhb) whose state was evident and not hidden, named Mullā ‘Alī, from the people of Koy [Sanjaq]. He said to the shaykh, ‘This boy’—meaning me—‘from what does have to repent?’ He said this in joking manner to the shaykh, but the shaykh replied, ‘No, there is none who is free of sins great and small!’ I felt astonished, and in my heart there was shame over their mentioning sins, due to my own knowledge of my immoderation in regards to my lower self, so that I could verify in my own heart that the shaykh spoke the truth in what he said—this was the first miracle (karāma) manifest to me from him, God be pleased with him! Continue reading “Ṭāhā al-Kurdī Meets His Spiritual Master”

Giving Delight to the Lords of Spiritual States

Convent of the Rufai Dervishes .jpg
Sufis with strange and even deviant practices, but who were otherwise deeply integrated into Ottoman social and political life, were hardly limited to the Arab provinces: this c. 1809 painting, by an anonymous Ottoman Greek artist commissioned by the British diplomat Stratford Canning, depicts Rufāʿī dervishes in their Istanbul tekke, performing some of the incredible physical feats for which they were (and are!) well-known. Note the additional edged implements hanging on the wall, and the dervish heating iron in the fireplace to the right, as well as the presence- just as in the story below- of spectators. (V&A D.140-1895)

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 [1], dhikr litanies, the shaykhs, and the khalīfas [2], 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.

Continue reading “Giving Delight to the Lords of Spiritual States”

The Jinn-Cat and the Şeyh

The following curious little story comes from the sixteenth century menâkıb of the early Ottoman sufi saint Şeyh Akşemseddîn (1390–1459), written by one Göynüklü Emîr Hüseyin Enîsî, and discussed previously on this site here. The account below comes in a sequence of tales of the Şeyh’s relationship with the jinn, mysterious beings that are in some ways half-way between humans and angels. Like several other of the tales in the sequence, this story has as its ‘moral’ the need for regulation of relationships between jinn and humans, not their absolute suspension. The jinn-turned-cat feature here is not a malevolent character, but rather genuinely wants to be in the presence of the saint. The strange voice without the door is rather obscure to me- does it represent another strange being, perhaps, attracted by the presence of the jinn-cat? Some details are left up to the reader’s imagination, reflecting, no doubt, the originally oral context in which these accounts were developed and in which they circulated before Emîr Hüseyin put them to paper, preserving them for much later audiences.

A (presumably non-jinn) cat at the feet of a shaykh, from a magnificent 16th century Safavid composition, attributed to Mir Sayyid ‘Ali, depicting a city at night- note the burning wall lamp in the top right. Detail from Harvard Art Museum 1958.76.

There was a jinn who loved the Şeyh. Unbeknownst to the Şeyh, the jinn took on the form of a cat, and was constantly in the Şeyh’s house, never leaving. One night the Şeyh went to sleep. The cat curled up beside the hearth. The Şeyh was sleeping soundly when from outside the front door there came a great and powerful strange voice. The cat stood up, and answered from behind the door. The one outside said, ‘I am very hungry! Give me something to eat—let me eat, open the door and I’ll come in!’

But the cat replied: ‘The Şeyh’s door is locked with the bismillah, so the door cannot be opened to give you food.’ However, the Şeyh had earlier cooked some köfte kebab, which [the cat] put through a slot in the door, saying, ‘Eat some of this!’ So it happened. The Şeyh saw it but made no sound and went back to sleep. Morning came. After finishing his prayers, he called out to the cat relating what had happened in the night. The cat twitched, then came [to the Şeyh]. The Şeyh said: ‘It’s difficult for a human and a jinn to always be in one place together. So go now, and come sometimes.’ So the jinn came from time to time, paying Akşemsüddin a pious visit (ziyâret iderdi).

Emîr Hüseyin Enîsî, Akşemseddin hazretleri ve yakın çevresi: Menâkıb-ı Âkşemseddîn, edited by Metin Çelik  (İstanbul: Ark, 2016), 66. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2019.

Ottoman Velvet

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The Lion, the Lady, and the Dervishes: Şeyh Hasan Ünsî’s Transformation


Previously I discussed the ‘conversion’ narrative of a major late seventeenth into early eighteenth century Muslim saint of Istanbul, Şeyh Hasan Ünsî Halvetî (1643-1723), whose life was chronicled in great detail in a menâkıb (saint’s life) by Ibrahim Hâs. The story I’ve translated below comes from a slightly later period in the saint’s life, after his şeyh, Karabaş-i Velî (also known as Karabaş ‘Alî: he wore a black turban, hence his being called ‘Black-Head’) had died in the Sinai while making the ḥajj, in 1685. Hasan Ünsî had excelled in ascetic discipline and spiritual insight, his hagiographer tells us, such that Karabaş ‘Alî elevated him over all of his other halifes (Ar. khalīfa, delegates sent from a şeyh/shaykh), and sent him back to Istanbul to establish a center for worship and instruction in the sufi path. Hasan Ünsî settled in a space near the Hagia Sophia, the Acem Aǧa Mosque, built upon parts of the ruins of a pre-Ottoman Byzantine church, St. Mary Chalkoprateia (today the church has sunk deeper into ruin, and only parts of the mosque remain standing- see this excellent blog post for more details on the ‘deep history’ of the site). There he continued his ascetic practices, led zikr (a sufi ritual of ‘remembrance’ of God), and instructed disciples.

But his residency here was not to be entirely peaceful: since the early decades of the 17th century, the Ottoman lands had seen the rise of various ‘puritanical’ Islamic movements and tendencies, often looking back to the writings and life of a 16th century pietistic preacher, Mehmed Birgivî, for inspiration. Many groups and individuals inspired by the puritanical texts, movements, and leaders that arose over the course of the century were opposed to such things as the veneration of the saints, sufi rituals like zikr/dhikr, and widespread practices such as tobacco-smoking and coffee-drinking (though opposition to the former was for a long time widespread beyond so-called ‘puritan’ circles). Unusually- for theological movements of this nature had developed before in various places in the Islamic world- many advocates of a purified Ottoman Islam believed it appropriate to use force to achieve their moral and theological goals. Hasan Ünsî evidently had to deal with Ottoman puritans in his mosque (which, not unusually, also functioned as a living space for dervishes, students, and others), in the form of students of jurisprudence (suhtelar). We are told that, having adopted the beliefs of the ‘people of denial’ (ehl-i inkâr), these students (some of whom Hasan, who himself had an ‘exoteric’ education in the Islamic sciences, had previously instructed) began trying to drive the saintly şeyh from the mosque, in order to ‘purify’ the space of ritual uses they opposed, and to claim the space exclusively for themselves.

To make a long story short, the struggle between Hasan Ünsî and the puritanical legal students grew hotter and hotter and increasingly physical, to the point that, our hagiographer claims, the students contemplated murdering the şeyh! It culminated in a show-down in which, after trying to argue his case using verse from the Qur’an, Şeyh Hasan manifested his ‘celâl,’ or divinely-given wrathful majesty- and the students began dying of mysterious accidents or suddenly falling ill, to the point that in a week’s time none remained in the mosque! During the course of these incidents, one of Şeyh Hasan’s dervishes, Kebâbî Ahmed Dede, asked whether the şeyh ought to moderate the outflow of divine celâl, to which the şeyh replied, ‘Occupy yourself with your own matters!’ At this the dervish, we are told, went pale witnessing the şeyh’s fierce celâl, and reported later that ‘all my being went shaky and my mind was thrown into disorder’ when the şeyh said these words to him. This leads us to the following extended story, in which a cross-section of Istanbul society bears witness to the divine wrath and majesty at work in the şeyh: with the obvious moral throughout that opposing God’s Friends was dangerous, even if it was the ostensibly pious who were doing so.

Woman and child on the way to the hamam, from the Rålamb Book of Costumes, depictions of residents of Istanbul in the 1650s, a couple of decades before our story.

‘One day, at mid-morning, a lady and her child passed by the Acem Aǧa Mosque, which was locked up. The child peeked into the mosque through a window, but crying out he tumbled into his mother’s arms. His mother said, ‘What was it that frightened you so?’ The child said, ‘There is a lion sitting atop the şeyh’s post [an animal skin rug that symbolized the şeyh/shaykh’s authority]! And now he is rising up!’ The lady herself then looked through the window and saw that a magnificent lion was sitting upon the post. Having seen him the lady became afraid and out of her fear began exclaiming loudly and rapidly.

Some of the dervishes there heard her and came up to her, saying, ‘Lady, what’s the matter?’ She related what had happened to them, and so they took looked through the window and saw upon the Şeyh’s post a lordly lion sitting. He opened his eyes and looked at them such that the gall-bladder of the one upon whose gaze he fell burst from fear! Being filled with great fear they were gripped with confusion. They said, ‘If this lion rises up and comes at us, the door will prove no barrier and there will be trouble!’ As they were trying to figure out a solution, one of the Şeyh’s old dervishes, Pîr Osman Dede Efendi came and forbade them from doing anything, instead sending them to their rooms. After an hour had passed he said to them, ‘Come and see—where is the lion now?’ With fear the dervishes came and peered inside the mosque through a window, but saw no lion! Instead the Şeyh [Hasan Ünsî] was upon his post. Osman Dede Efendi said to them, ‘Keep silence! Tell no one of this! For it is not permitted [to talk of it to others]!’ So saying he strongly admonished them.

Nonetheless, the story became widely known. A while later, some of the dervishes asked Osman Dede Efendi about the secret and divine wisdom of this lion. Drawing them aside, in secret he said to them: ‘This is the form that the Şeyh takes when his celâl is overwhelmingly strong in his innermost secret. Did you not see how in the course of a week the jurisprudence students came to their ends, and have you not heard what Kebâbî Ahmed Efendi said?’

İbrahim Hâs, Hasan Ünsî Halvetî ve Menâkıbnâmesi, edited by Mustafâ Tatcı (Bağcılar, İstanbul: Kırkambar Kitaplığı, 2013, 2013), 222-224. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.


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Ottoman Majdhūb/Meczûb: Two Stories

The following accounts treat an important, and well-nigh ubiquitous, type of Ottoman Muslim saint, the majdhūb (meczûb in Ottoman Turkish), the ‘divinely attracted or drawn one.’ For a longer explanation of this ‘mode’ of sainthood, see this post of mine from a while back. One of the chapters of my forthcoming dissertation will consist of a detailed history and analysis of majdhūb sainthood, as well. The two accounts below represent the different ways and environments in which this ‘immersive’ saintly identity could operate, across the diverse lands of the Ottoman Empire. The first, from an Arabic biographical compilation from the mid-17th century, treats the arguably most important and well known majdhūb saint in the Ottoman world, Abū Bakr ibn Abū al-Wafā’ al-Majdhūb (d. 991/1583), of Aleppo. The dervish complex and mazār (place of visitation or shrine) that grew up during his lifetime and especially after his death still stands, having gone from being on the outskirts of the city to well enveloped within it, a monument to the centrality this strange and powerful saint took on both during and after his life on earth (for more on this saint and his legacy, see Watenpaugh, Heghnar Zeitlian. “Deviant Dervishes: Space, Gender, and the Construction of Antinomian Piety in Ottoman Aleppo.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 37, no. 4 (2005): 535–65). In the story I have translated we see the saint’s intervention in one of most dangerous and pressing situations in any pre-modern society, the threat of drought- with the mere suggestion that drought might be imminent enough to send local markets into a price-raising frenzy, as noted in this story. The saint’s strange behavior- open to all manner of interpretation- is also displayed here, out of a long list of stories of strange and far more shocking action than manifested here. Continue reading “Ottoman Majdhūb/Meczûb: Two Stories”

On Service to One’s Shaykh

The below brief text is excerpted from a short Ottoman Turkish manual of Sufism by Mahmut Hüdayı, an important shaykh, and indeed early organizer, of the Celvetiyye ṭarīqa, the adherents of which mostly lived in the Anatolian and Rumelian parts of the Ottoman domains. Much of Mahmut Hüdayı’s output was in Arabic, but a substantial number were in Ottoman Turkish- not quite a colloquial register, but more likely to be read and understood by a wider number of people in Anatolia and Rumelia.

This passage is emblematic of one of the prevailing themes in the work from which it is excerpted: the importance of having a shaykh (in this context, a spiritual master/instructor) and being constant in honoring and obeying him. While such sentiments were hardly new in Sufism in the sixteenth century, there were also a seemingly increasing number of people who contested, explicitly or implicitly, the authority and knowledge of living shaykhs. By the eighteenth century it is easy to find many people practicing what was essentially a ‘privatized’ mystical Islam, with little need for a shaykh or regular communal life. Such a possibility is clearly not in view for Mahmut Hüdayı, however- quite the opposite, as is clear from the following passage.

If the shaykh enjoins as a duty any service (khidmet, mod. Turkish hizmet), [the disciple] ought to carry that service out, without delay, without adding any other business to it, without asking for explanation of cause or detail, and without stopping. It is related about a shaykh that he asked one of his disciples: ‘If your shaykh sent you off to do some service, and on the way you passed by a mosque in which they were performing congregational ritual prayers, what would you do?’

The disciple answered, ‘First, I would carry out that service, then I would perform the ritual prayers.’ The shayhk commended his answer. The intended moral from this [antecdote] is the bestowal of great care in service [to one’s shaykh]; it is not, God forbid, the disparagement of ritual prayer!

Mahmut Hüdayı, 1543 or 1544-1628, Ṭarīqat-nāme, Princeton Islamic Manuscripts, New Series no. 307, fol. 128-129.