Shaykh Jawhar and the Green Bird of Destiny

Jami Birds
Birds, insects, and flowers, from the border of a c. 1500 calligraphic rendering of a different text by Jāmī, the Subḥat al-abrār. (Met 1985.149)

Shaykh Jawhar was in the beginning of his life the slave of someone, then became free, and took to buying and selling in the marketplace of Aden. He would attend the sessions of the [sufi] fuqarā’, [1] and had perfect belief in and loyalty towards them. He was illiterate. When the time of his shaykh’s death approached—the great shaykh Sa’d Ḥadād who is buried in Aden—the fuqarā’ said to him: ‘After you, who do you want to be shaykh?’ He replied: ‘The person who, on the third day after my passing, in the place where the fuqarā’ have gathered, a green bird comes and sits upon his head.’

When the third day came and the fuqarā’ had finished with Qur’an and dhikr they sat down in keeping with the shaykh’s words. Suddenly they saw a green bird had come down and had settled nearby, each of the important members of the fuqarā’ hoping that the green bird would sit on his head. But after a while that bird flew up and alighted on the head of Jawhar! He had not at all imagined that this would happen, nor had any of the other fuqarā’! They all came before him and were set to bear him to the shaykh’s zawīya [2] and seat him in the place of the shaykh. But he said, ‘What qualification do I have for this work? I’m just a man of the marketplace and am illiterate! I don’t know the adāb and the ṭarīqa of the fuqarā’, [3] and I have obligations towards others to fulfill and relations to untangle!’

They replied, ‘This is the will of Heaven, you don’t have any way out of it! God will help you in whatever ways are necessary.’ So he said, ‘Give me a delay so that I can go to the marketplace and fulfill my obligations towards the Muslims there.’ So he went to the marketplace and met his obligations towards everyone, then went to the shaykh’s zawīya and adhered to the instruction of the fuqarā’, and he became like his name a gem (jawhar), possessing virtues and perfections whose enumeration would stretch long—glory to the Noble Beneficient One, that is grace of God which He bestows upon whom He wills, God possesses great grace! [4]

Abb al-Raḥman ibn Aḥmad Jāmī (1414–92), Nafaḥāt al-uns min ḥadarāt al-quds, edited by Mahdi Tawhidipur (Tehran: Kitabfurushi-i Saadi, 1959), 573-4, translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.

[1] Literally, ‘the poor ones,’ but by this period shorthand for sufi devotees (who may or may not have been literally poor).

[2] The structure devoted to a particular shaykh and his companions, for sufi ritual, teaching, and so forth. One of several words for a space of this sort.

[3] That is, the ‘mannered practices’ and ‘spiritual path’ of the sufi devotees. Both terms have so many resonances that I find it generally best not to translate them into English but to leave them in the original.

[4] The section in italics represents Jāmī’s switch from the Persian of the main narrative to Arabic.

 

 

 

 

An Ottoman Book Binding by Way of Tabriz

Binding of a copy of the Bustan of Sa‘di MSS 712
Binding of a copy of the Bustan of Sa‘di, Khalili Collections, MSS 712. Istanbul, Ottoman Empire (likely), 1530–1540. (Papier-mâché boards, painted and varnished; with paper doublures; 24.7 x 16.5cm (covers, each); 24.7 x 11cm (flap and fore-edge)

This spectacular example of book binding was probably produced in the workshops of the Topkapı Palace by artisans from Tabriz (modern-day Iran, at the time part of the Safavid Empire, though periodically contested by the Ottomans). As such it is a good demonstration of the interconnection between the Persianate world and that of the Ottomans, especially in the 16th century (Persian influence and connections would decline somewhat in the coming centuries). This cover protects a copy, executed in Tabriz in 1530, of one of the great works of Persian poetic literature, Sa’di’s Bustan (‘Garden’), which, along with other works of Persian poetry, would have a long-lasting influence on the production of Ottoman Turkish poetry. The artwork, with its intricate interlacing tendrils, delicately rendered foliage and single creature at the center, is redolent of the Persian world, and would have been immediately recognized as such by whatever connoisseurs of art would have had access to the finished product, probably in the Topkapı itself.

 

Sufi Air Delivery

[The Sufi shaykh] Abū Turāb al-Ramlī: He was setting out from Mecca with his companions when he said to them: ‘You will go on the road to Jeda, while I go on the road to Tubuk.’ They said: ‘The heat is oppressive!’ He said: ‘No help for that—but, when you get to Ramla, go into the house of So-and-So, our friend!’ When they arrived in Ramla, they went into his house. He brought them four pieces of broiled meat, and a hawk swooped down from the sky and snatched one of the pieces. They said, ‘Well, that wasn’t meant for us,’ and ate the remaining pieces. When, after two days, Abū Turāb came, they asked him: ‘Did you find nothing on the journey?’ He answered: ‘No, rather, on such-and-such day a hawk tossed a piece of hot broiled meat to me!’ They said: ‘Well then, we have eaten together, for it was snatched from us.’ Abū Turāb said: ‘True, it was thus!’

From Jāmī (1414-1492), Nafaḥāt al-uns ḥaḍarāt al-quds

Advice for the Journey

In the vast field of medieval Arabic and Persian literature, it is not hard to find authors whose works seem all but impenetrable, cloaked in difficult syntax, obscure vocabulary, and constant, often infuriating motion from one perspective to another, full of occluded subjects, ambiguous referents, and unattributed references. ‘Azīz Nasafī, who seems to have lived at some point in the 13th century in what is now Uzbekistan, was not such a writer. Rather, his treatises, which defy easy categorization, are concise yet clear, carefully constructed with a pedagogical eye towards learners of varying skill levels; he is often humorous, drawing upon ‘real-world’ analogies in illustrating theological points. Some sources refer to him as a ‘Sufi,’ though this is a problematic characterization, as should be clear from the excerpt from one of his short treatises which I’ve translated and presented below, the Zubdat al-haqā’iq. He incorporates elements from the discursive tradition of Sufism, and had some sort of relationship or affiliation with a shaykh of the Kubrayi tariqa- but that is about the limit of it. He does not present himself as a Sufi shaykh, and his incorporation of Sufi material is selective. Likewise, he was clearly conversant with multiple streams of philosophy; his own particular philosophical perspective was a sort of monism, similar, but not dependent upon that of the rather more famous ibn ‘Arabi. But it would probably be inaccurate to simply call him a philosopher and be done with it.

And so on we might go with all of the conventional designations for thinkers and religious folk of this period- categories become rather difficult, if not impossible, to apply. He himself, in several of his treatises, deflects categorization: he instead tells his readers that his purpose is to present the teachings of multiple ‘schools’ of thought and practice, trying hard not to bias the reader in one direction or another. And, perhaps surprisingly given much of what we think we know about the Islamic middle ages, he is generally quite successful in his ecumenical endeavor. In the end, though, he does make sure that the most important things are clarified, the things that the spiritual seeker, he believes, cannot dispense with.

Regardless of how we classify him, ‘Azīz Nasafī was clearly a prolific enough author, with a deeply humane vision of religious and ethical practice, a vision he wished to impart to a wide audience. And he did reach a wide audience- his texts circulated far and wide, from South Asia to Southeastern Europe, both in their original Persian and translated into other vernaculars. Despite his relative obscurity in life, his texts and the mystical-ethical vision they contained have found considerable reception. I hope this short text, taken from the final section of the final chapter of the Zubdat, imparts a glimpse of that vision, as our author describes the sort of conduct the spiritual seeker ought to engage in, and what she ought to avoid, and how to truly become ‘an inhabitant of heaven.’

Finally, for more information on this figure, see the quite good Encyclopedia Iranica article on him: Nasafi, ‘Aziz.

O dervish! If you yourself are not able to arrive at the limit of spiritual stations, or spend the entire day in gazing upon the divine attributes and the spiritual stations, or persist in contemplating what no eye has seen nor ear heard nor thought entered the human heart, or always dwell in the highest heaven and in closeness to the Divine Presence in the station of absolute proximity, in the witnessing and the encountering of the Beauty of the Divine Presence, the Possessor of Magnificence—well, at least strive that you be saved from hell and become an inhabitant of heaven!

O dervish! Everything that falls into the salt mine becomes salt, and everything that falls into a filthy place becomes filthy—dirt from dirt, purity from purity! First of all you make yourself pure so that everything that comes from you is pure.

O dervish! Don’t obsess about praying a great deal, nor about fasting a lot. Don’t obsess about making the ḥajj a lot—just do what is obligatory. Don’t obsess about expanding your vocabulary, don’t obsess about reading lots of stories, don’t obsess about increasing in philosophical knowledge—just be content with the necessary amount. Rather, you should be concerned with being honest and good-hearted, for the torment of the folk of hell is mostly from dishonesty and bad-heartedness, while the comfort of the inhabitant of heaven is from honesty and good-heartedness. It is necessary that your inner self become honest and good-hearted so that you be delivered. For if you bind yourself with affectedness, you are in hell. It is necessary that you become such that, all day, goodness and comfort [towards others] spontaneously pour out of you. Do not be like those who all day, evil and pain [towards others] pour out of them. Their inner selves have become the doing of dishonesty and evil. Your inner self must be honesty and the doing of goodness.

O dervish! You will be ornamented with the characteristics of God when you entirely act with goodness, neither desiring compensation for yourself nor imposing obligation; rather, you take the obligation upon yourself. For bad-heartedness is when all day you cause pain to people and desire pain in people, whether by word, deed, or property. When you know the meaning of evil, it is necessary that you be far from it!

Good-heartedness is when all day you desire comfort for people and all the time cause comfort for people, whether by word, deed, or property. When you know the meaning of good-heartedness and bad-heartedness then know that everyone who is honest and good-hearted is delivered from hell and becomes an inhabitant of heaven. Then, if you seek either remaining [in this state] or a higher degree—it is well and good, in view of the fact that for the inhabitant of heaven everything that she achieves in this world or the other, her heaven becomes more expansive, while for inhabitant of hell everything she achieves in this world or the other, her hell becomes tighter.

O dervish! From the beginning to the end of spiritual journeying, this little treatise suffices for the spiritual wayfarers.

 ‘Azīz Nasafī, Zubdat al-haqā’iq.

 

The Mirror of the Heart

The following is from the opening pages of the superb treatise on Sufism, practical and theoretical, by Najm al-Dīn al-Rāzī Dāya (1177-1256), entitled Mirṣād al-‘ibād ilā ’l-mabdaʾ wa ’l-maʿād. Dāya was a disciple of another, rather more famous Najm al-Dīn, the one known as al-Kubrā; Dāya studied the Sufi path under him in the city of Nishapur. However, unlike his master, Dāya seems to have been little concerned with the practice of taking on disciples. Instead, in the course of his wandering life- from Central Asia to Anatolia to Tabriz to Baghdad, all during a period of intense and often violent change and dislocation in the region, with the Mongol invasions being the most famous of these changes. The period in which Dāya lived was also a period of incredible productivity in Sufi circles: many of the intellectual and organizational formations pioneered during the era would continue to deeply shape the practice of taṣawwuf up to the present. Two of Dāya’s works would become part of this long-term legacy: the work excerpted here, and the tafsīr to which he contributed, described in my previous post.

Unlike the tafsīr composed by al-Kubrā’s disciples, Dāya’s most famous work, the Mirṣād al-‘ibād, was composed in Persian, which was quickly becoming a central language of intellectual life across many Muslim communities, and not just in regions that were historically Persian-speaking. Dāya’s magnum opus, for instance, was composed in Konya, in Anatolia, under Seljuk Turkic patronage. Of course, Arabic remained the ‘first’ language of Muslim intellectuals, Sufi or otherwise, and would continue to be given at least nominal priority, even as more and more works were produced in Persian, and, in time, other vernaculars, including different Turkic dialects (themselves influenced heavily by the diffusion of Persian). In the excerpt given here, wholesale Arabic phrases are incorporated, without being translated (which is not always the case- many later authors will translate or expansively paraphrase almost all Arabic material in their works). However, alongside the direct quotation of Qur’an and hadith in Arabic is another feature deeply ingrained in Persian Sufic texts: the use of poetry, which in time would appear even in Arabic treatises as authoritative texts closely behind hadith in authoritative value.

As for the content of this excerpt: Dāya’s stated intention is to show the reader the incredible glory of human nature and potential, potential that must be ‘unlocked,’ or perhaps more fittingly, hammered back into shape. In the cosmology and anthropology he unfolds here- itself a piece with similar intellectual currents au courant among other thirteenth-century Sufis- the human person is the center of the created cosmos, and more. It is in the fully-realized human heart that the divine essence and attributes is truly manifest and refracted, as it were, to the rest of creation. The heart is, for Dāya, the supremely deiform aspect of the human person: but it must be refined through the careful tutelage of spiritual masters before it can shine with its primordial splendour. Here we see the deeply social setting of taṣawwuf: for the full realization of this high anthropology, particular human relationships are necessary. The return to the cardial deiform shape, the cosmic centrality, for which humans were created is possible: but it is only truly realized in the presence and under the care of an already-realized master, a Friend of God. And, for Dāya at least, it must occur gradually, as he makes clear in the final lines of this introduction.

Finally, a note on the remainder of the text, which in printed edition comes in at some 300 plus pages: after some further introductory material, Dāya presents some essential cosmology. This is followed by a description of the proper path to true gnosis, from basic adherence to the shari’a, adherence to a master, and, ultimately, divine realization. Next, Dāya turns to an examination of different sorts of human ‘types,’ which neatly leads into a concluding chapter on the different sorts of Sufis and Sufi organizations, which include people from the top of human society down to the ‘working classes.’

The purpose of the existence of the human person is gnosis (ma’rifat)[1] of the essence and attributes of God, just as David asked: O Lord, why did You create the creation? He said: I was a hidden treasure and I lovingly wished to be known, so I created the creation that I might be known.[2] True gnosis comes only from the perfect human person, notwithstanding the fact that in servanthood the angels and jinn are participants with humans—but as for the human person, he is distinguished from all other beings by the bearing of the burden of the trust (amānat) of gnosis that [is described in the verse] Verily, We offered the trust to the heavens and the earth, et al.[3] The intended meaning of ‘heaven’ is the folk of heaven, meaning, the angels; by ‘earth,’ the folk of earth, meaning, the animals, the jinn, and the devils; by ‘mountains,’ the folk of the mountains, meaning, the wild creatures and the birds. Out of these, none are capable of the burden of the trust except the human person, because, out of all His creation, it is the human soul that is the mirror of the beauty and majesty, which makes manifest the divine Presence, and is the point of manifestation of the universality of the attributes [of God]. [The words] He created Adam in His own image are an indication of this.

The quintessence of the soul of the human person is the heart, and the heart is the mirror, and each of the two worlds are the covering of that mirror. And the manifestation of the totality of the attributes of the beauty and majesty of the divine Presence are by means of this mirror that is We will show them Our signs on the horizons and in their souls. In this vein it is said:

The purpose of the being of mankind and jinnkind is the mirror/ The object of sight in the two worlds is the mirror.

The heart is the mirror of the beauty of the  King of Kings/ And these two worlds are the covering of that mirror.

And when the soul of the human person, which is predisposed for mirrorhood (āyina-gī), finds pedagogical upbringing (tarbiyat) and arrives at completion, it witnesses the manifestation of the totality of the attributes in itself, the soul itself recognizing why it was created. Then the reality of He who knows himself knows his Lord is realized, and he again knows what he is, and for whom the secret of grace and beneficience is found, just as [it is said]:

O copy of the divine book that you are!/ O perfect royal mirror that you are!

Outside, nothing in this world is/  From yourself, in seeking, is everything that you wish.

But until the soul of the human person arrives at the perfect degree of the limpidity of mirrorhood, he must engage in much journeying and struggle. This only be means of the main thoroughfare of the sharī’a and the true ṭarīqa,[4] and only by gradation. It is just as iron must be first extracted from a mine, then fashioned and shaped through skill and learning of various sorts which they manifest, just as transmitted by the master of the craft, before it can become a mirror.

The human person is in the beginning a mine of the iron of this mirror, for humans are mines, like mines of gold and silver. That iron must be, brought forth from the mine of the being of the human person through sound oversight (ḥusn-i tadbīr), and through pedagogical upbringing , so that you arrive at the degree of mirrorhood, by gradation and gradual advance.

_______________________

[1] Gnosis being the special, experiential knowledge/comprehension of God, distinct from more discursive, rational reason, ‘ilm. The two are not necessarily opposed so much as they represent, in classical taṣawwuf, hierarchical degrees of knowledge.

[2] Probably one of the most famous and most cited of hadith among Sufis, this is a so-called hadith qudsi, or ‘sacred’ hadith, attributed directly to God. Its import for establishing Sufi cosmology is pretty evident, even apart from the expansions of meaning interpretation provides.

[3] A partial citation of Q. 33.72. The entire verse runs: Verily, we offered the trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, but they declined to bear it and were afraid of it. The human person accepted it; he is oppressive and ignorant.

[4] These two terms are frequently paired in Sufi texts, in order to emphasize the necessity of both the ‘external’ religious ‘path’ (the literal meaning of shari’a) and the ‘internal’ religious way (tariqa also meaning path or way): in other words, the whole gamut of Islamic practice, not just legal obligation or mystical practices.