The Shaykh and the Wrestlers

Wrestlers in a Persianate context, similar to that of the story below, as depicted in a sixteenth century Safavid illumined copy of Sa’di’s collected works (Walters W.618.31B)

Sufism has developed over the centuries a vast technical vocabulary, with many elements filtering out into wider Islamic (or, better, ‘Islamicate’) societies and languages. One of the more difficult terms that makes up this stock of words describing sufi practice and theology is the Arabic word himmah, taken into Persian as himmat. Its basic lexical meaning is, per Steingass’ Persian dictionary, ‘Inclination, desire, resolution, intention, design,’ with the additional meanings of ‘ambition, aspiration; mind, thought, attention, care; magnanimity; power, strength, ability; auspices, grace, favour.’ The sufi usage of himmah encompasses all of these: when a shaykh is said to possess or wield himmah, we might say that he exerts the power of his mindful intention, power which is invested in him by virtue of his relationship with God. It’s a bit like ‘the Force’ in Star Wars, in that through the use of his himmah the advanced master is able to psychically- so to speak- manipulate things in the physical world outside of his body, similar to the way a Jedi master might employ the Force to move objects or change a person’s thoughts or will.

The ambiguity of himmah is not simply the case of being at a remove from the original languages of sufism- it’s clear from the sources that medieval and early modern sufi authors felt a need to explicate what precisely was meant thereby to contemporary audiences. The story I’ve excerpted and translated below comes from a Persian-language collection of lives of Inner Asian Naqshbandī saints, entitled Rashaḥāt-i ʻayn al-ḥayāt, by Fakhr al-Dīn ʿAlī ibn Ḥusayn Wāʿiẓ Kāshifī Ṣafī (1463 – 1532-3). The story is part of longer clarifying discussion by Kāshifī about himmat, as an introduction to the miracles of the important fifteenth-century Naqshbandī saint Khwāja ‘Ubayd Allāh Aḥrār. It also speaks, by the by, to a major component of wider Persianate culture during this period and afterwards, namely, the role of wrestling, a sport which provides the setting for the miracle story.

From a somewhat earlier period, two wrestlers, as depicted on a 13th century Ilkhanid tile (Walters 48.1283)

One day we came to the wrestling-grounds where two people were wrestling—one was powerfully and immensely built of frame, while the other was weak and scrawny of body. The big fellow was making easy work of the weak one, so that we felt merciful towards him, and I said to Mawlānā Sa’d al-Dīn [Kashgārī], ‘Use your power of mind (himmat) and send out a thought (khāṭir) so that that weak one can triumph over that powerful one!’

He replied, ‘You pay heed, and we will also lend aid.’ So his thought turned in that moment to the weak one, and in a flash the weak one was invested with great strength so that he was able to extend his arm and with dexterous skill lifted the powerful-framed man from the ground, hoisted him overhead, then threw him down into the dust of the ring. A great exclamation went up from the crowd, the men watching amazed and bewildered by what had transpired, none of the spectators aware of the secret of it.

ʻAlī ibn Ḥusayn Kāshifī Ṣafī, Rashaḥāt-i ʻayn al-ḥayāt, ed. ʿA.A.’ Muʿīniyān (Tehran: Bunyād-i Nīkūkārī-i Nūriyānī, 2536/1977-8), v. II, 517.


Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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.


Different Diseases, Different Cures

Medieval Sufis were extremely diverse in terms of doctrine, practice, style, social status, and manner of life. As a result, establishing a common thread or unifying theme can be difficult. The  author of the work excerpted below, ʿAbd Allāh b. Muḥammad b. ʿAlī ʿAyn al-Quḍāt Hamadānī (d. 525/1133), is no exception. Educated in all of the ‘classical’ courses of study of his time, from law to tafsīr to literature, Hamadānī came to embrace a rather idiosyncratic form of Sufism, resulting in accusations of Ismai’ali ‘heresy’ from his political enemies. Perhaps in part due to such accusations, coupled with political and social conflict Hamadānī found himself embroiled in, our author was executed in 1133 at a relatively young age (some sources give his age as thirty-three, others a somewhat older age). Before his execution—which had echoes of the execution of the famous martyr of Baghdad, al-Ḥallaj—Hamadānī wrote numerous treatises, poems, and letters. While some have not come down to us (for instance, he was said to have partially completed a Qur’an tafsīr, which has not survived), a considerable portion of his corpus has been passed down, including a trove of letters, a lengthy philosophical-theological treatise in Arabic, and his Persian handbook of Sufism, the Tamhīdāt, which I have excerpted from and translated here.

Hamadānī deals with two important themes in medieval Sufism: the question of personal epistemology, as it were, and the importance of the spiritual shaykh. His answers to these questions, while drawing upon an already well-established tradition within Sufism, also display his own interpretations and ideas. Certainly Hamadānī is eager to root his arguments in both Qur’an and hadith, while giving both a decidedly different interpretation than would be likely be found among more ‘exoteric’ interpreters. Indeed, the arguments put forward here—for the epistemological veracity of the illumined, properly disposed heart, and the absolute vitality and power of the spiritual master—found resistance and even violent condemnation among some of the non-Sufi ‘ulama of Hamadānī’s era, and afterwards; nor did all Sufis accept positions such as these, either. That is to say nothing of some of Hamadānī’s quite radical and even transgressive positions enumerated elsewhere in this treatise; he is quite comfortable with neo-Platonic philosophy and its theological implications, for instance. However, this work does not seem to have been primarily intended as an apologetic; it seems to have been aimed at initiates or potential initiates into the mystical path of Islam. It is ostensibly addressed to one ‘Aziz, an enquirer into Sufism; implicitly, it is directed to all who are sympathetically interested in the esoteric dimensions of religion. It is written in Persian, not Arabic, thus representing a relatively early vernacular work of Sufism; the language is clear and eloquent, without being overly obscure or excessively Arabicizing. That said, this text is still aimed at possessors of at least a middling education, people capable of reading and more or less understanding the Arabic of the Qur’an and hadith (italicized in my translation).

For more on Hamadānī, his life and works, see Hermann Landolt, ‘‘Ayn al-Qudat Al-Hamadani,’ in The Encyclopaedia of Islam (Third Edition), 2009, Brill Online, ed. Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas and Everett Rowson. (E.J. Brill), available (for free!) here; and Carl W. Ernst, Words of Ecstasy in Sufism. SUNY Press, 1985.

Do you understand, O ‘Aziz? The scent from this hadith—The believer is the mirror of the believer—adheres to this subject. For everything that one does not know but wishes to know, there are to ways available [to come to know it]. The first is that by one’s own heart (dil) one ascend, through contemplation and deliberation, until he attains to the right knowledge of the matter. Muhammad—upon him peace—said about this: Consult your heart for legal opinions (istafti qalbaka), verily, your seeking of legal opinion are the muftis. He said: all that is brought before it, the place and mufti of that ought to be sincerity of heart. If the heart gives a fatwa, it is the command of God—do it; if it does not give a fatwa—leave it off.  It is manifest that Verily, the angel has a portion, and the satan has a portion. Whatever the heart gives as a fatwa is divine, and whatever it rebuts is satanic, and the occurrence of these two portions (dū lamma) is in all bodies, among both believers and unbelievers. Our deeds become difficult in that regard when our mufti is the commanding lower self (nafs-i amare) that is the soul commanding evil (Q. 12.53). Everyone whose mufti is the heart is God-fearing and happy, while everyone whose mufti is the lower self (nafs) is a loser and unhappy. If someone does not have the aptitude or predisposition to know [religious knowledge] by means of his own heart, he must seek the heart of someone else and ask of someone with this aptitude—So ask of the people of remembrance if you do not know (Q. 16.43), so that someone else’s heart becomes your mirror.

O friend, hearts are divided into two divisions: the first is that which stands facing what the Pen of God has written upon it: God wrote in their hearts faith (Q. 58.22), and the right hand of God is the scribe. Then whatever he does not know by means of the elevation of his own heart he will come to know. The second division, however, neither attains nor has aptitude to stand facing the Pen of God. When such a one seeks out and comes to know from one whose heart is a mirror and tablet for the Pen of God, he knows from this that it is God who is seen in the mirror of the  soul of the spiritual master (pīr). The spiritual master sees himself in the mirror of the soul of the disciple (murīd), while the disciple sees God in the mirror of the spiritual master’s soul.

And it is like all that we said: all who are sick arise and go to a physician each one seeking a cure. The physician gives them different prescriptions in view of the assuaging of different diseases. If someone says, ‘These different prescriptions are due to the ignorance of the physician,’ he has spoken in error, and this speaker is ignorant of the fact that the difference of prescriptions occurs due to the difference of diseases. For diseases are of various sorts, and prescribing for all diseases with one disease in mind would be ignorance and error. Those who understand what has been said understand the matter. For the formal cause of religion and of the Islam of form is of one sort. Islam is built upon five. The essential prescriptions [of Islam] are fixed, which are the five prescriptions that are the healing and curing of all believers. As for internal works and the illumination of the heart, they are unbound and innumerable. Without doubt, every spiritual master must act as an adroit physician who treats the disciple, and for every different disease command a different medicine. For all those who have abandoned cure and physician it is better that they go under the disease, for If God knew of any good in them, He would have made them hear (Q. 8.23). So it is necessary to travel the Path with an adroit physician; in accordance with the consensus of the shaykhs—God have mercy on their souls—it is a legal obligation. Because of his they say: Whoever has no shaykh has no religion. The shaykh also has obligations, to accept successorship (khilāfat) and to teach disciples the obligations of the Path. If you desire from God the best of perfection, listen to His words: It is He Who made you khalifs on the earth and raised some of you over some of you in ranks. And in proof of internal successorship (khilāfat-i bāṭin) in another place He says: He will make them succeed them as He made those before them to succeed (Q. 24.55).

ʿAbd Allāh b. Muḥammad b. ʿAlī ʿAyn al-Quḍāt Hamadānī

Concerning the Prayer-Rug, Matters Mystical and Practical

The translation below comes from a text I have previously written about here, the Futuvvatʹnāmah-ʼi Sultānī of Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī Wāʻiẓ Kāshifī (c.1420-1504/5). For more information on the text and on the content of futuwwa/futuvva, see the above post. In this excerpt, Kāshifī deals with a topic that is not exclusively futuwwa or Sufi-oriented: the prayer-rug (sajjāda), a piece of liturgical equipment often emphasized by Sufis and Sufi-oriented futuwwa brotherhoods and guilds, but also by many other Muslims, both then and now. Kāshifī’s discussion of the prayer-rug is two-fold: one, he lays out the proper practice and behavior associated with the use of the prayer-rug; I have included a partial excerpt of these instructions. Second, he develops the prayer-rug as a mystical symbol, and spins practice-based implications out of those mystical symbols. The prayer-rug, already featuring a sort of cartography in its very design (see the illustration below and note 1), is given a further sacred cartography.

Kāshifī’s treatment of the prayer-rug, with his mix of practical regulation, mystical interpretation, and multiple layers of meaning (right down to mystical significances for the letters of words), is not unique to this one item. Rather, in previous chapters he explores the proper practice, mystical meanings, sacred origins, and scriptural justifications for all sorts of items: Sufi cloaks, futuwwa-belts, various types of clothing, headgear, and so on. As throughout the treatise, his language is generally quite accessible, with simple sentences and frequent translations of Qur’an and hadith texts (though not in this passage, curiously). Granted, as seen here, some of the language is deliberately esoteric, and might well have stumped some initiates (though perhaps also delighting them). The sources of mystical interpretations are diverse: here, for instance, religious legend, scripture, hadith, and Akbarian philosophic theology are all in evidence. The result is a text that contains an intersection of material culture, ‘popular’ religion, and ‘elite’ religious and mystical thought and practice: a text that we can reasonably imagine ‘ordinary’ Persian-speaking craftsmen and other workers, as well as more well-to-do people, reading and thinking about, perhaps in the course of their every-day prayers.

An example, from the late 1500s, of a prayer-rug, not unlike the sort our author would have used and had in mind in writing this passage.
A particularly fine example, from the late sixteenth century Ottoman Empire, of a prayer-rug, not unlike the sort our author would have used and had in mind in writing this passage. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


If one asks, What are the judgments regarding the prayer-rug and the mosque? Say to him: four: first, just as when one enters the mosque he puts enters with his right foot first, so, he puts his right foot on the prayer-rug first. Second, just as when one leaves the mosque he puts his left foot out first, so, when getting up from the prayer-rug one puts out his left foot first. Third, just as one does not speak of worldly things in the mosque, upon the prayer rug one also should not speak of worldly things save under necessity. Fourth, just as one should be continued occupied with remembrance [of God] in the mosque, so upon the prayer-rug one should be continually attached to remembrance, and speak words having to do with God and the Prophet.

If one asks, What are the pious customs regarding sitting upon the prayer-rug? Say to him: three: first, upon coming to the prayer-rug, one prays two raka’a, just as in performing prayer in the mosque. Second, sitting facing the qibla. Third, paying attention to proper practice.

If one asks, How many are the proper practices (ādāb) of prayer-rug sitting? Say to him: four: first, that one sit on two [bent] knees on the prayer-rug, though if necessary, the right leg can be brought up and the left leg stuck out. Second, that it not come to pass that his feet become barefooted. Third, that he not blow his nose or spit. Fourth, in like manner he should be prepared in regards to whatever comes into existence from him, be it in word or in deed.

If one asks, To what do the four corners of the prayer-rug symbolically point? Say to him: the right-hand miḥrab-corner[1] symbolically points to Gabriel, and the protected land and Mount Ḥira that is in it. And the left-hand miḥrab-corner symbolically points to Michael and to the Mount of the Fig. And the right-hand corner that is across from the miḥrab-corner symbolically points to Israfil and to the Mount of Olives. And the left-hand corner that is across from the miḥrab-corner symbolically points to ‘Azrael and to Mount Sina. God has brought together these places in this verse: By the fig, the olive, Mount Sina, and this protected land (Q. 95.1-3). For in each place one of the divine books was sent down. The Torah of Moses was sent down on Mount Sina, on the Mount of the Fig the Gospel descended to Jesus, on the Mount of Olives the Psalms of David were sent down, and on Mount Ḥira that is in the protect land the greater part of the Qur’an was sent down to our master [Muhammad].[2]

Thus, the four corners of the prayer-rug symbolically point to the four archangels, the four sacred books, and the four blessed places. Thus whoever sits upon the prayer-rug it is incumbent that he be steadfast like a firmly rooted mountain, not attracting the wayward breeze of the soul, until the effluence of the divine Book and Word comes to him, and he find the rank of divine proximity. Also: the bearers of the divine throne are the four angels to which the four corners of the prayer-rug symbolically point, meaning that upon the possessor of the prayer-rug it is incumbent that the throne of his own heart, that is [as described in the following verse]: the heart of the believer is the throne of God and the heart of the believer is the house of God,[3] must be stretched out by possessing the four attributes [see below] until he finds a portion of the cry of the throne-bearer, as God says: Those who bear the throne and from around Him they worship with praise of their Lord, believing in Him and seeking forgiveness for those who believe (Q.30.7).

If one asks, What are the four attributes by which the heart can become a bearer of the Throne? Say to him: first, faith in the various parts of the shari’ah; second, belief in the mysteries of the Way; third, turning to the mystical traces of God; fourth, being illumined by the lights of divine knowledge.

If one asks, To what do the letters [in the word] prayer-rug (sajjādeh) symbolically point?[4] Say to him: the letter sīn is for the traveling and wayfaring of the possessor of the prayer-rug in the world of ruling (malakūt). The letter jīm is for his striving and struggle in the observation of the lights of divine power. The alif is for the instruction in the manifestations of the degrees of divinity. The letter dāl is for the remembrance (dhikr, sic.) of the [divine] presence living, not dying. The letter is for the destruction of the lower-self attributes and the satanic ones in the straitening of the temporal world.

Futuvvat-nāmah-i sultānī, Ḥusayn Vāʻiẓ Kāshifī Sabzivārī, 197-9. Trans. Jonathan P. Allen, 2012. No rights reserved.

[1] A prayer rug (sajjāda, P. sajjādeh) of this period (and previous and later ones as well) would have a stylized miḥrab (prayer niche) on it; the top of the miḥrab (which I have translated here as the miḥrab-corner) would face the qibla. See the illustration above.

[2] This is a curious bit of exegesis. In a brief survey of Arabic exegetical literature I made in preparing this post I found many opinions corroborating the identification of the protected land as that around Mecca (and perhaps also Medina), however, the rest of our author’s interpretation seems to be idiosyncratic to him. However, I did not survey any Persian exegetical literature (a somewhat more laborious task, as little of it is online, unlike Arabic tafsir), which would perhaps be the place to look. I suspect some legendary material lies behind these significations.

[3] A hadith, not a Qur’an citation; it is given, however, in Arabic, without an accompanying Persian translation as is often Kāshifī’s wont.

[4] Our author frequently finds mystical signification in the letters of words, often, as here, by linking each letter to relatively complex concepts of post-Akbarian Sufism. I am not sure if the practice should be interpreted as mnemonic device (I somewhat doubt it) or simply as another way of layering mystical and religious meaning upon material and ideational objects—even if the meanings are not necessarily comprehended by everyone in the targeted audience.