‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī and the Stoned Preacher of Bulaq

Interior of the mosque of Sinan Pasha, Cairo (Photograph)
Interior of the Sinān Pasha Mosque in Būlāq, Cairo, as it appeared between 1916 and 1921, photographed by K.A.C. Creswell (V&A 4812-1955)

Over the course of his several journeys through the Ottoman lands, the great shaykh, scholar, and saint ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī encountered all sorts of people from all manner of walks of life, from members of the Ottoman elite to Turkmen nomads in the desert. On the whole he expressed great affection and understanding for ordinary people, including those whose practice of Islam did not precisely accord with the textual, urban norms of the scholarly class of which al-Nābulusī was a prominent member. In the following story, which takes place in the Būlāq neighborhood of Ottoman Cairo, al-Nābulusī’s patience and tolerance were both tested greatly by a decidedly unprofessional Friday preacher to whom he and his friend and host Shaykh Zayn al-‘Ābidīn al-Bakrī, a prominent and well-known (as the story suggests) member of Cairo’s scholarly class, found themselves listening, first with amusement and later with other less positive emotions. The story is largely self-explanatory, though it is worth pointing out that the preacher’s attempt at angling a bigger share of the mosque’s designated endowment for preaching is a good reminder of the quotidian, economic realities running through Ottoman religious life, like the religious lives of people the world over. His apparent substance addiction, as we would now call it, also reminds us that such problems are hardly anything new, while the undercurrent of humor this story has a decidedly contemporary feel to it as well.

Preacher with Ink instead of Rosewater
Another Ottoman preacher whose reception was not what he was expecting: an illustration of a story of a preacher in a mosque who accidently sprinkled his face with ink instead of rosewater, from a 1721 copy of the Ḫamse of the Ottoman poet ʿAṭāʾī (d. 1634). From Walters Ms. W.666, fol. 48a.

‘We came to the Sanāniyya Mosque [that is, the Sinān Pasha Mosque, built in 1572] and the prayed here the Friday prayer. We found the preacher preaching and mispronouncing words, praying and reciting and mispronouncing words—in other words, he did not cease from his mispronunciations! But no one else inside of that mosque noticed, nor anyone outside in the courtyard. Shaykh Zayn al-‘Ābidīn al-Bakrī, God preserve him, when the preacher would make a mispronunciation would look at me and grin. The preacher, out of his ignorance of his mispronunciations, thought that he was amazed at his eloquence and heaved a sigh. Off-handedly, the following verses came to my mind in that we had never encountered a preacher quite like him:

The preacher of Būlāq whose voice/ prides itself more than the mill does the flour,

Preaches with mispronunciation upon mispronunciation, and if/ he mispronounces here, compensates with mispronunciation there!

Continue reading “‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī and the Stoned Preacher of Bulaq”

No More Notebooks for Shaykh ‘Alwān

Preacher with Ink instead of Rosewater
An illustration of the interior of a 17th century Ottoman mosque, which wouldn’t be too far off from the setting of the below story- the preacher on the minbar (with hands in his deep sleeves), the candles at the mihrab, the men seated to listen to the preaching, and the neatly lined up shoes, all would have been seen, albeit in somewhat different forms (the floral decoration on the side of the minbar, for instance, is a clear indication that this is a 17th or 18th century setting). (Walters M.666)

Shaykh ‘Alwān (d. 1530) was one of the major Muslim saints of late Mamluk into early Ottoman Damascus. While possessed of the multifaceted education typical of a member of the ‘ulama of his time, Shaykh ‘Alwān’s most important formation came at the hands of an itinerant holy man from the Maghrib (modern day Morocco, ‘Ali al-Maymūn. The following story, related by Najm al-Dīn al-Ghazzī, an important source for saints’ lives from early Ottoman Syria, describes Shaykh ‘Alwān’s first encounter with the man who would become his spiritual preceptor. Besides illustrating a saintly miracle of sorts, it incidentally provides a look at how an early modern Muslim preacher would conduct his sermons, namely, with a handbook of useful material tucked up his sleeve (literally!).

DP230667

Shaykh ‘Alwān related to [Shaykh Yunūs) in 924: He was preaching in Hama, in accordance with the custom of preachers—using a notebook with pleasing stories, wise anecdotes, and edifying reports and accounts, when al-Sayyīd ‘Ali ibn Maymūn—who was also preaching in Hama—passed by him, stopped before him, and said: “O ‘Alwān, preach from your head, and not from a notebook!” But Shaykh ‘Alwān did not pay him any mind, so he said the same thing a second time, then a third. Then, Shaykh ‘Alwān reported, “That caused me to pay attention, and I knew that he was from among the Friends of God. So I said to him: ‘It’s no good for me to preach from my head—meaning by heart.’ He replied: ‘Nay, preach from your head!’ I replied: ‘Ya Sayyīdi, only if you help me!’ He said: ‘I do, and trust in God!’ So when I awoke the next morning I went to the preaching session, with my notebooks in my sleeve. When I sat down the Sayyīd was opposite me. I began speaking from the heart, and God inspired (fataḥa) me, and that inspiration has continued until now!”’

Najm al-Dīn al-Ghazzī, al-Kawākib al-sāʼirah bi-aʻyān al-miʼah al-ʻāshirah (Beirut: Dār al-Kuttub al-‘Ilmiyya, 1997), v. 2, 204-5).