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 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.
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.
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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.
‘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.
Commentary (Arabic sharḥ, Ott. Turk. şerh) was one of most widely used forms of textual production in the early modern Ottoman world, and indeed in the broader late medieval and early modern Islamic world (and beyond- commentaries were popular across pre-modern Eurasia in many scholarly and literary traditions). Islamic manuscript libraries are filled with commentary after commentary, as well as super-commentaries (commentaries on commentaries), both frequently featuring marginal comments added by authors, scribes, or later readers. Related to but distinct from the genre of Qur’an commentary (tafsīr), a sharḥ (pl. shurūḥ) could potentially be used to explicate, argue with, modify, interpret, allegorize, or otherwise engage with almost any sort of text in almost any field or genre, though ‘canonical’ texts from the distant and recent past were the most common objects. It was not uncommon, however, for an author to produce a commentary on an important work he himself had written, sometimes as a sort of ‘package deal.’ Commentary was so dominant that there are examples of parodic commentaries, such as the expansive, and deeply scatological one contained in the 18th century work of Yusuf al-Shirbīnī Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abū Shādhūf Expounded.
Commentary literature has often been overlooked or outright scorned in modern-day appraisals of medieval and early modern Islamic literature and knowledge systems, in part because the genre, while still in existence, is far less central to modern-day cultural and intellectual life and thus does not appear to us as especially interesting or significant. Reading through an example of this commentary literature is often not particularly easy, or interesting, and can be rather dry, sometimes excruciatingly so. The abundance of commentaries and super-commentaries on everything from philosophical treatises to poetry collections has often been used as an example of the ‘decay’ and ‘decadence’ of ‘post-classical’ Arabic intellectual and cultural life. However, on closer analysis- which some scholars of Islamic history are increasingly beginning to do, myself included– the genre (or rather, genres) of commentary writing are much richer than first glance would suggest, and beyond their immediate content, the social role of commentary was quite important. These texts were not just exercises in detached scholarship, but played roles akin in many ways to modern forms of electronic communication, especially social media.
The following story, which I’ve selected and translated from a hagiographic and polemical work by the eighteenth century scholar, Khalwatī sufi, and saint Muṣṭafá al-Bakrī (1688-1749), provides an excellent glimpse into the social role of commentary production, as well as some other particularities of early modern Ottoman life. In order to remain close to the topic at hand, I have interspersed my translation with commentary. We begin with al-Bakrī’s description of the usual way of life of the saint in question:
[Shaykh Aḥmad ibn Kasaba al-Ḥalabī al-Qādirī] loved retreat and solitude apart from people, being constantly turned instead towards God. I used to hear about him and greatly desired to meet him so as to derive benefit from him, but when he would come from his journeys back to Damascus he would not open his door to the flow of visitors. Continue reading “On Commentary and Its Uses in the Ottoman World”→
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”→
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.