Ottoman Women and the Lives of Saints, iii.: The Majdhūb and the Pregnant Lady

This final installment- for now at least- in this series of texts dealing with Ottoman women’s lives in the context of sainthood comes from the life of ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (1621-1731), arguably the most important early modern saint of the Arab provinces, who combined the practice of sanctity with a vast scope of scholarship and literary endeavors (for more on him see this post and this one). The following account comes from a massive hagio-biography treating his life, Wird al-unsī wa-al-warid al-qudsiī fī tarjamat al-ʻārif ʻAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī, which was compiled by the saint’s great-grandson, Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazzī (1760-1799). Al-Ghazzī’s account covers almost every aspect of his great-grandfather’s life, including ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s mother’s ‘foretokens’ of her unborn son’s future saintly greatness. In introducing the section from which the below accounts are taken, al-Ghazzī says: ‘Just as there are foretokens for the prophets before [the manifestation of their] prophethood, so the saints of God have miracles occur for them even before the coming to light of their manifestation [as saints], and before they even have capacity for that.’

While, then, these stories are ultimately meant to be understood as signs of ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s sainthood- which was at work, as it were, and evident even while he was in his mother’s womb- they also reveal quite a bit about ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s mother and the relationship between holy men in early modern Damascus and women in general, reinforcing what we saw in a previous post. Here the holy man in question is a majdhūb, a ‘divinely drawn one’ akin to a ‘holy fool,’ a ‘mode’ of saint that I have dealt with repeatedly on this site (and which will feature prominently in my forthcoming dissertation and, God willing, eventual book project). The majādhīb (the plural of majdhūb) had a central presence in ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s life, from before birth and even after his death (one of his daughters would become a majdhūba), a relationship that his mother clearly contributed towards forging. The practices and the sacred presence of the majdhūb saint tended to result in the temporary breakdown of social expectations and protocol, both in terms of gendered relations but also in more fundamental ways (such as the strictures against throwing rocks at guests!). That women in Damascus would particularly numbered among Shaykh Maḥmūd’s devotees is not surprising- but neither is ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s ongoing devotion to the saint, an example of which I have also included in this translated excerpt.

Besides the accounts of ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s mother’s relationship with the saint Maḥmūd translated here, we are also learn from ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s own writings that his mother’s death and burial saw the miraculous intervention of another majdhūb, ‘Alī al-Nabkī, who walked from his village to the city just as ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s mother’s body was being washed. We are meant to understand by all of this, I think, that ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s own sanctity was not entirely unique to him- his mother, in her own way, was a holy woman, numbered in the ranks of the friends of God, male and female.

Syrian Tile
17th century tile from Ottoman Damascus (Met. 1993.315)

As for the good tidings his mother received about him, they were many. Among them is that which she herself related, saying, “The saints and majādhīb used to give me good tidings concerning him, and about his elevated status, and the majesty of his power, before his birth.” From among that was that the pious Shaykh Maḥmūd the Majdhūb—who is buried by the tomb of Shaykh Yusuf al-Qamīnī atop Jabal Qāsiyūn [1]—gave her good tidings of him while she was pregnant with him. He gave her a silver coin and said to her: “Name him ‘Abd al-Ghanī for he will be victorious.” He said to her another time, “Give good tidings to ‘Abd al-Ghanī concerning the divine abundance (al-fayḍ)!” Shaykh Maḥmūd died one day before the master was born. He had said to her: “When you give birth to him, bring him to my tomb, and rub him with dust from it before you bestow his name upon him [2].” Whenever he saw her he would honor her greatly, and say to her, “I venerate the one whom you bear, for by God he will possess greatness and immense power!” Continue reading “Ottoman Women and the Lives of Saints, iii.: The Majdhūb and the Pregnant Lady”

Ottoman Women and the Lives of Saints, ii.: Money Trouble and a Sleep-Talking Son

Like any major urban area, eighteenth century Istanbul was inhabited by people from a seemingly endless array of walks of life, from the sultan and his entourage and sprawling staff down. The neighborhood in which the sometimes fiery, sometimes tender sufi saint Hasan Ünsî lived, while it stood hard by the walls of the sultan’s palace, the Topkapı, was a world away from that rarefied atmosphere. In the houses and workspaces and places of worship ordinary people, men and women, lived and toiled and prayed and plotted and did their best to get by. Şeyh Hasan was for some inhabitants a source of comfort and repose, while for others he was a source of humor or of potential easy money. In the two accounts which I have translated and lightly annotated below, we see two different women’s interactions with the saint, as well as glimpses into their everyday lives, glimpses that are quite valuable in reconstructing the diversity of ordinary women’s lives in this period and place. There is a lot that could be said about these stories and the contexts relevant to them, but I will limit myself to a couple of remarks.

In the first story, we meet a woman- who, interestingly, is named here- about whom we have but a few tantalizing details. Described as being Bosnian, we might guess that she had ended up in the city- perhaps her husband was or had been a military man posted in Bosnia?- and had fallen on hard times (the main point of the story). While I have not come across any other descriptions of her particular line of work as a sort of handywoman, it seems likely that such services would have been appealing to ordinary households without the luxury of slaves or hired servants. The rest of the story is relatively self-explanatory, though, as in the previous installment, note the ease with which Uzun Havvâ comes into the şeyh’s presence and interacts with him.

The second story introduces in greater detail the mother of the menâkıb‘s author, Ibrahim Hâs. The ‘set-up’ is that Ibrahim is telling how he came to ‘repent’ at the saint’s hand and take up a dervish life under his tutelage- which happened while he was still a young man living at home. Here we learn that his mother was herself effectively a saint, practicing immense austerities at home (modeled to some degree after Şeyh Hasan, who also tended to remain at home), even as she maintained a close relationship with the saint. We know from the survival of a dream-diary and correspondence with her Halvetî şeyh by a woman in Skopje, described by Cemal Kafadar in an article on Ottoman self-writing, that it was not unheard of for a woman to send her dreams to a saintly şeyh for interpretation. Here, however, Ibrahim’s mother goes directly to the şeyh, as opposed to writing to him, something that we are given to understand she did on a regular basis, and in so doing helped to give direction and greater meaning to her own ascetic pursuits and identity.

Ottoman Yastik
A 17th century Ottoman yastik, or pillow cover, a typical feature of domestic spaces (Boston MFA 77.256)

1. There was a poor Bosnian woman, named Bedümli Uzun Havvâ, who lived in a rented room below my home in the Hocapaşa quarter. For a fee she would look after the daily affairs of her neighbors. One day a neighbor came to her with a sick child. [The neighbor lady] said, “Go and take this child to Şeyh Hasan Efendî in Aydınoǧlu Tekke and have him recite a prayer, and put these pâras [1] down in his presence,” giving the Bosnian woman some pâras.

Taking the child and the pâras, the woman went to the venerable Şeyh. After having pocketed two of the pâras she had been given to present to the Şeyh for his prayer recitation, she put the rest before the venerable Şeyh. He said to her, “Look now, what of the other two pâras?” But the Bosnian woman said, “Only this much were given, only this much!” The venerable Şeyh replied, “Ah, but there are two pâras in your right pocket—did I not see how many pâras were given to you? And do I not know whether in taking the pâras you wanted to deceive me or to try me?”

As he said this, fearful the woman took out the pâras she had taken and placed them before the venerable Şeyh. He said to her, “You did this on account of your poverty, but take care not to speak untruthfully and do not try (imtihân) anyone. Be patient in the midst of poverty, and God, exalted is He, will provide you with the necessities of this life below!” Having said this he gave the woman forty pâras, then gave her the two pâras [she had pocketed]! The woman said, “My sultan! I took those pâras, thinking, ‘The Şeyh won’t know.’ And indeed by poverty is great such that as of tonight they would have been my entire livelihood. But now you have done such good!”

The venerable Şeyh gave her some further good counsel, and the woman, having kissed the Şeyh’s noble hands, departed. She returned the child home, then went home herself. This poor one [the author] learned of this story from the telling of his mother and from her neighbors living there.

Woman and boy going to the hammam
Woman and boy on their way to the hammam, from an early 17th century costume album depicting various people one might encounter in Ottoman Istanbul (BM 1928,0323,0.46.122)

2. It happened on the 15th of Ramadan, 1117 [December 31, 1705]. Up till then, I [Ibrahim Hâs] only attended the tevhîd sessions [2] and busied myself with the discourses of the venerable Şeyh. I slept a lot during the daytime [3]. One day while sleeping alone I began talking in my sleep. My mother came to my side and listened to what I was saying, and when I awoke, my mother said to me, “While you were sleeping you said some wondrous and strange things!” I replied, “What did I say?” My mother then repeated back to me one by one the things I had said [4]. Continue reading “Ottoman Women and the Lives of Saints, ii.: Money Trouble and a Sleep-Talking Son”

Ottoman Women and the Lives of Saints, i.: Stampeding Livestock and Saintly Friendships

This post begins a three-part series of accounts of women’s lives that I have discovered ’embedded’ in hagiographical literature from the early modern Ottoman world, lives which I’ve selected for the variety they show, both in the social and economic profiles of the women they feature, and in the ways that the interact with the holy men in the stories. I’ve featured women in Ottoman hagiography before (such as in this recent post), and I could have easily extended this series many times over: for as it turns out, women tend to be quite visible in these sorts of sources, often doing and saying things that might come as a surprise for those who tend to imagine Islamic and Middle Eastern women of this period living highly secluded, strictly gender-segregated existences. While not always true, women tend to be sympathetic or virtuous (or both) characters in these accounts, often being singled out for their devotion and trust in the saint in question, not infrequently in contrast to higher-status men who do not show such trust and suffer the consequences. And across accounts we see women from a range of backgrounds and stations in life freely associating with male saints and crossing into the physical space of the saint- living and departed- in ways that might not have been countenanced so readily by Ottoman men in other spaces.

In the following brief account, taken from a major 17th century compilation of lives of notable people- including numerous saints- of Damascus and beyond by the scholar Najm al-Dīn al-Ghazzī, we encounter an unnamed woman (a frequent feature in this stories, reflecting gender norms that did not break down even in the textual presence of a saint) who is close to the saint featured here, one Muhammad Abū Muslim al-Ṣamādī (911/1505-994/1585), a charismatic and popular saint of Damascus whom al-Ghazzī considered one of the greatest and most important holy men of the 10th Islamic century. The woman and her husband in this story seem to be of originally nomadic origin- hence the appellation ‘son of an Arab,’ which suggest Bedouin background- but spent at least part of their time in Damascus, going out to the steppes (which lie quite close to the city) at certain times of the year. Note also in this story both the identity of the woman- she herself is described as being a saint, though we are given no further details, unfortunately- and the apparent freedom with which she associated with not just al-Ṣamādī but al-Ghazzī’s father and al-Ghazzī himself.

Velvet Ottoman Panel of Carnations

It also reached me that a man called Muhammad ibn ‘Arab [that is, the son of an ‘Arab] went out eastward [into the steppes] in order to bring in some cattle, and on his way back he spent the night in fearful place. The night was extremely windy and had heavy rain. He related: “It was the middle of the night, when a movement spooked the animals and they bolted. I despaired of regathering them, so I cried out: ‘Yā Abī Muslim, this is your time!’ Then scarcely the blink of an eye later and the animals had come together to me from every direction until they were all assembled.”

The wife of this “ibn ‘Arab” was a holy woman from among the saints of God, who believed in Shaykh Muhammad al-Ṣamādī and who used to believe in my father as well, frequently visiting him and then me after him. She said: “I went to [Shaykh Muhammad al-Ṣamādī] Abū Muslim one day, and my husband was absent on that journey. He said to me: ‘Ya Umm So-and-So I am going to tell you something you must not relate until after I have died. Last night your husband’s animals fled from him so he cried out to me, seeking my aid. So I picked up a stone and threw it towards him, and his animals came back together. He will come to you soundly nothing having happened to him.’”

Continue reading “Ottoman Women and the Lives of Saints, i.: Stampeding Livestock and Saintly Friendships”

Derviş ‘Ömer’s Mother Mocks a Saint


As I’ve noted before, Ottoman saints’ lives, especially those from the seventeenth century forward, are often wonderful sources for catching glimpses of everyday life in the Ottoman world, or, rather, ordinary life in contact with the extraordinary powers and abilities of a saint. The eighteenth century menâkıb of Şeyh Hasan Ünsî, which I have featured here several times before, has proven to be an especially good source in this regard, and the story I’ve translated here is yet another instance of the intersection of the saint’s life with the everyday lives of ordinary residents of Istanbul. The story is narrated to the text’s author, Ibrahim Hâs, by one Derviş ‘Ömer, about whom we are given no further details beyond what can be picked up from within the story.

There are several points of significance worth pointing out in relation to this account: one, this story revolves around women’s interactions with Şeyh Hasan. Note that the women in the story interact with the saint quite freely, leaving their house to visit him, entering his presence, kissing his hand, and so forth- while this sort of interaction sometimes drew criticism from other quarters of Ottoman society, here there is no sense of impropriety or critique at all. What is ‘problematic’ from the view of the saint and of the storyteller and the rest of his household, however, is the fact that Derviş ‘Ömer’s mother (whose name is not given in the story), while in some sense a ‘believer’ in the saint, also feels no compunction in parodying his actions, namely, his practicing the ritual of ‘reading and blowing,’ that is, reciting certain efficacious prayers then blowing upon the person seeking healing, the idea being that the saint’s breath will convey healing bereket. If as you imagine a şeyh doing this you find it a bit humorous, you’d be in the company of the people in ‘Ömer’s household, too: hence this story helps us to imagine what sorts of things an eighteenth century Ottoman subject might find funny, such as, evidently, pantomiming a saint.

If you’re also thinking that perhaps pantomiming a saint might not be especially pious and could lead to trouble- especially with Şeyh Hasan, who seems to have been a bit testy- you’d also be right, and that is the ultimate moral of the story, which follows after this helpful illustration:

Hailing from a different story, this illustration from Atayı’s Hamse provides a good visualization of sleeping arrangements in an Ottoman house (though the furnishings along the wall indicate a more lavishly equipped dwelling than the one suggested in our story). (W.666.35B)

There was a child from among our relatives in our household who became sick. My mother and the child’s mother, along with a couple other women of our household, went to visit the şeyh of Aydınoǧlu Tekke, Ünsî Hasan Eendi, in order for him to read over the child, saying to him, ‘Read over this child.’ The venerable Şeyh read over and blew upon the child, then my mother with the other women came home, and in that very moment the child became well.

After my mother returned from visiting the venerable Şeyh, in order to make the women and children in our household laugh said to them, ‘Şeyh Efendi read and blew like this upon the boy—come, let me read over you!’ Saying this she summoned the women in the household and some came and sat down before her. My mother filled her cheeks with air then blew on them, and they all laughed. She did this a couple of times.

When evening came we performed the evening prayers, then put on our clothes for sleeping. There were no people from without the household (nâmahrem) among us. Our house being narrow, we all lay down in one room. We all went to sleep. At some point in the night from our midst there came a great groan and the sound of kicking about. Exclaiming, ‘Who is this, what’s going?’ we all woke up. I lit a candle and saw that it was my mother! She had turned a shade of deep purple and with great anguish she was kicking about, her eyes closed, saying nothing, her mind gone, hearing nothing of our words. We were all scattered about [the room], but we gathered to her, not knowing what to do. She kicked about in this condition for about an hour, struggling. This kept on until suddenly, she went senseless and lay down. ‘Is she dead?’ we cried, but checking we saw that she was fine. For about two hours she lay senseless. Afterwards she gradually grew paler, and a while after that her intellect returned and she opened her eyes, but she was confused. We said, ‘O mother, what happened to you? What changed your condition—this evening there was nothing wrong?’

With sorrow she replied, ‘This evening we all lay down. But while you all fell asleep, I was unable to sleep. I could not close my eyes. I saw before my eyes that the Şeyh Efendi that read over our child had appeared, and at that very moment with power he took hold of my throat and said, “Why did you take me for a laughingstock—am I your laughingstock? Does anyone take me for an object of ridicule?” Saying this he gripped my throat such that while I wanted to cry out and shake it off, I was unable to do so; finally, I passed out. I don’t know anything else.’ Continue reading “Derviş ‘Ömer’s Mother Mocks a Saint”