A Saint’s Shrine is His Castle: Or, Cautionary Tales from the Ṣafvat al-Ṣafā

Harvard University. Fine Arts Library, Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts, United States FA515.156.4 PF Calligraphy
A lithographic reproduction of some of the spectacular calligraphy and tilework which illumines the exterior of Shaykh Ṣadī al-Dīn’s shrine complex; this lithograph- itself a fine piece of artistic and technical work- comes from Friedrich Sarre’s book Ardabil, Grabmaschee des Schech Safi (Berlin: E. Wasmuth, 1924), the field work and photographs for which were completed in 1897, though writing and publication stretch out over the next two decades.

Everything associated with the veneration of the Safavid eponym Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn (on whom see this post and those prior to it) is monumental, it seems: his shrine complex is one of the most spectacular in the Islamicate world, his ‘official’ hagiography, Ṣafvat al-ṣafā, is a sprawling beast of a text, and the Ṣafavī ṭarīqa which grew up around his memory and practices would have an impact on world history rivaled by few other entities, sufi or otherwise, of the late medieval world. But while the Ṣafavī ṭarīqa would become the most famous and arguably significant legacy of the shaykh of Ardabil, his physical shrine in that city played a huge role as a center of veneration and of the religious and political community that formed around it. What follows is an examination of how that shrine was constructed- not primarily in a literal sense, but in terms of how its sacred status and socio-cultural weight was built up over time.

The outlines for the shrine complex were already laid down before the shaykh’s death in 1334, with some structures already in place. However it would be the shaykh’s son Ṣadr al-Dīn who began building the shrine towards its current configuration, and socially and politically cementing the place of the sufi community that had grown up around his father. The following stories, which are but a selection from an extensive chapter detailing miracles of Ṣafī al-Dīn after his death and, in most cases, in connection with his tomb-shrine, illustrate some aspects of the construction of the shrine’s sanctity and of the political role of the community centered on that shrine. A central motif in these stories is the inviolability of the saint’s tomb and, extending out from it, of the sufi community devoted to the saint- those who transgress either the sanctity of the tomb-shrine or who oppress the community of the saint are liable to be punished, sometimes in quite violent and grisly fashion! Another theme that runs through these stories (and across the whole Ṣafvat al-ṣafā in fact) is the role of the saint’s tomb-shrine and of his community as a source and site (quite literally!) of stability. Such stability was in high demand in the tumultuous years after Ṣafī al-Dīn’s death: a mere year after the shaykh’s death the last Ilkhanid khān, Abū Sa’īd, died, with a long period of political disintegration and conflict following. Two of the major contending parties in Iranian Azerbaijan, the Jalāyirids and the Chūbānids, make appearances in the following stories, though other sources of conflict existed, ranging from predatory local strongmen to feuds between semi-autonomous villages. By reinforcing the sanctity of the tomb-shrine Ṣadr al-Dīn and ibn Bazzāz, our hagiographer, worked to render the saint’s shrine and community a sort of anchor in a stormy sea of political change, while also activity intervening in and shaping political events, economic activity, and socio-cultural life in Ardabil and beyond.

Aspects of this work of sanctification already appear in our first account rendered here, which explains why the spectacular tomb-tower, the centerpiece of the entire complex and the physical location of the saint’s tomb, was built in such lofty and monumental fashion:

Harvard University. Fine Arts Library, Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts, United States FA515.156.4 PF Exterior
The exterior of the tomb-tower as it appeared at the end of the 19th century.

Story: [Ṣadr al-Dīn ibn Ṣafī al-Dīn], may his baraka be perpetuated, said: initially the illumined tomb-shrine (mazār) of the Shaykh, God sanctify his secret, was a small poor affair which we had constructed. The tomb-shrine lay below a ceiling with four vaulted walls above it, with small windows fronting the garden within the walls. The atmosphere of the tomb contained by the four walls was dark and gloomy. The ked-khudā [1] named Badr al-Dīn Ṣānūbī saw the Shaykh, God sanctify his secret, in a dream vision, with his blessed hands extended out from the blessed tomb-shrine, saying, ‘I am not contained within the two worlds, yet they have left me here in this gloomy place!’ On a following day he relayed these words to Ḥājjī Nakhjavānī.

When he, God perpetuate his baraka, came out of the zāviya, Ḥājjī Nakhjavānī repeated to him the gist of the dream to him, with Badr al-Dīn Ṣānūbī present. So he asked [Badr al-Dīn Ṣānūbī] about it, and he said the same thing. In that moment he, may his baraka persist, ordered that the intermediate ceiling of the tomb-shrine as well as the ceiling of the four vaulted walls both be raised, and the high-up windows be expanded to allow for more illumination, and that the door fronting the courtyard where Qur’an reciters and pilgrims sat be widened and increased in size; surrounding this door would be written honorifics of the Shaykh and something noting the date. Mavlānā ‘Azz al-Dīn Khaṭīb oversaw the calligraphy there; he had a nephew named Muḥammad, a young man, who worked on the calligraphic inscriptions with him. As was the custom he stood on the wood scaffolding, but occupied himself with ribald speech and inappropriate behavior, and while they were resting he would not listen [to his uncle?] until at one point he let out an enormous laugh, so that the plank he was standing on rebounded and he fell, was sorely injured, and died three days later.

The tomb-tower of Shaykh Ṣafī is indeed quite distinctive- while vaults and verticality were hardly unknown in shrine architecture, this particular tomb-shrine stands out for its height and its calligraphic-decorative scheme. The story suggests that the scale was meant to reflect the ‘scale’ of Shaykh Ṣafī himself: here is a saint whose ambit is not meant to be confined to one city or province, but has much greater ambitions, as it were. The story also reinforces a key logic to tomb-shrines such as this: actions done to the physical material of the shrine, and the configuration of the space within the shrine, are also done to the saint himself. Honor bestowed upon the shrine translates to honor bestowed to the saint, which ultimately translates to honor bestowed upon God. The second half of the story continues this logic, but in another, rather more punitive direction: the young apprentice working on the shrine’s exterior fails to respect the sanctity of the place, even as it is under construction.  The deadly serious sanctity of the tomb-shrine and its adjacent structures (at this point, primarily the zāviya or sufi ‘lodge’) is highlighted in our next account:

Harvard University. Fine Arts Library, Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts, United States FA515.156.4 PF Interior
The saint’s cenotaph, with a number of finely wrought metal candle-stands arranged before the cenotaph, some lit and supplementing the natural light streaming in from above- copious illumination, just as Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn had stipulated some centuries before!

[Another] Story: Amīr Kulāhdūz Ardabīlī was, by appointment of Amīr Shaykh Ḥasan Jalāyir, supreme governor (ḥākim-i muṭlaq) in Ardabīl. It was the custom of the murīds and the students of the Shayhk, God sanctify his spirit, that they would exert themselves in forbidding and hindering that which was forbidden and reprehensible, reckoning among their most important daily tasks the commanding of the good, in particular forbidding people from intoxication, games of chance, and [presence in] the house of ill-repute [2]. Amīr Kulāhdūz’s mind was disturbed by this, and he set to speaking against this community (ṭā’ife). He established a house of ill-repute in Ardabīl, and said, ‘I am going to the ordū [3], but when I return I am going to build alongside the blessed [sic.!] zāviya a [house] of ill-repute and will set up a tavern, and will give the so-called sufis the lute to play and to which to dance!’ It was impossible by means of polite forbidding to raise or redirect this idea from him, and so having said this he set out to the ordū, with [the saying] the intention of doing evil is worse than its commission stamped in his brain. Continue reading “A Saint’s Shrine is His Castle: Or, Cautionary Tales from the Ṣafvat al-Ṣafā”

The Attempted Assassination of Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn by the Coward Shakhyzāda Jamāl al-Dīn

AKM264.f349r_HERO
The second of the four assassination attempts upon Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn. The shaykh is the slightly larger than others figure near the center of the composition. Interestingly, the illuminator of this manuscript, completed in 1582 in Safavid Shiraz, illustrated the shortest of the four scenes of attempted assassination, filling out the surrounding context left unsaid by the text itself (which, readers of Persian might note, varies slightly from the critical edition I have used for the translation below). Also note that the illuminator has depicted one of the assassins pulling back an arrow, which does not exactly fit with the textual content. Perhaps for this reason a later viewer made a mark down over the hand and bow of the shooter, either as a ‘correction’ or as a ritual act of ‘disarmament.’ Source: AKM264 (fol.349r).

We have now met Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn (1252/3–1334), the eponym of the Safavid dynasty and one of the most important Muslim saints of the late medieval and early modern Persianate world, a few times, first as a young man seeking out the presence of other holy people, and then as an increasingly proficient adept in the arts of taṣawwuf. The extended story that I’ve translated and presented below (sans, I must confess, the Persian and Arabic couplets interspersed, which, time and energy pending I will later add) is set at a critical moment in the shaykh’s career, not long after the death of his primary shaykh, Shaykh Zāhid. While our source, the sprawling hagiographic treatment of Ibn Bazzāz (d. 1391–92), is somewhat circumspect around the details, it is clear that succession to Shaykh Zāhid’s post was contested. While Ṣafī al-Dīn laid claim to the succession, and was acclaimed by some of the late master’s followers, all was not well. The new shaykh was soon met with opposition, a group of ‘obstinate ones,’ in the words of the hagiography, forming and deciding to get rid of Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn, quite literally in fact, by killing him. In the rather (unintentionally?) humorous story that follows, while on his annual pilgrimage to the shrine of his departed master in Lāhijān near the coast of the Caspian Sea, this group, led by rival claimant to Shaykh Zāhid’s position Shaykhzāda Jamāl al-Dīn, the son of the late shaykh (hence his name, ‘shaykh-descendant’) and therefore seemingly possessed of a stronger claim. Not to give things away, but he does not win out, instead admitting defeat and being reconciled to Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn, who is shown being remarkably chill about the whole affair.

The story is relatively self-explanatory; worthy of note are various small but insightful details such as the presence of a female supporter of Ṣafī al-Dīn and her role in the tale, or the fact that some people at least in this world knew how to swim, whether for utilitarian purposes or for fun is not evident here.

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It was Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn’s custom that at an appointed time he would go and make pious visitation (ziyārat u mazār) to Shaykh Zāhid’s tomb [in Lāhijān]. When that time came and he set out to make his pious visitation, Khwāja Fakhr al-Dīn Yusūf, who was the brother of the shaykh, came to the holy shaykh and said, ‘It is assuredly not safe for you to go and make pious visitation to Shaykh Zāhid, for a group of deficient obstinate ones are waiting in ambush, God forbid, to commit a sin!’

The shaykh, God sanctify his secret, replied: ‘If it is destined for me that in this time that in going I fall into their hands, then turning back the decree of God cannot be done, and if not, then there is no fear to be had.’ So the shaykh went on his pious visitation [as usual]. Through that group of obstinate ones the fire of obstinacy and anger was lit in Shaykhzāda Jamāl al-Dīn, God be merciful to him. They agreed to seek the death of the shaykh, God sanctify his secret, and furthermore agreed upon the means of killing him: they would set the shaykh’s retreat cell (khalwat) on fire, consuming the shaykh in the flames and so killing him. They came by night and first on the outside they fastened the door of the retreat cell shut with a nail so that when the fire blazed up [the shaykh] would be unable to come out. But when they lit the fire, due to the shaykh’s sainthood (vilāyat) the fire would not flame up and instead went out, even though houses and retreat cells in that place are all built of wood and beams which after a passage of time become dried out.

When this tack did not work, the flame not flaring up and the retreat cell not catching fire, the flame of their anger and envy only increased. They decided to shoot the shaykh with arrows. They sent out a party to shoot the shaykh from ambush. But when they put their hands to their bows, their hands were all dried out and unable to work the bows, none of their hands being able to work.

When their corrupt intention could not be realized by these sorts of stratagems, again they concluded that they would destroy the shaykh by using poison. So they put a measure of poison in honey and along with a sufra of food brought it before the shaykh, God sanctify his secret. However, the wife (ḥaram) of Shaykhzāda Jamāl al-Dīn, God be merciful to him, who was the mother of the departed Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad, God be merciful to him, secretly sent a message to the shaykh, God sanctify his secret, saying, ‘Take care! Do not stretch out your hand for the honey, beware against accepting any of it!’ When this condition was made known to the shaykh he was wary of the honey and did not accept any of it. And it was likewise with any food with which they schemed and plotted—that pious matron secretly gave report and the shaykh did not stretch out his hand to it.

When their vain desire and wish was not realized through this stratagem, they again determined that there was no other possible plan remaining save that at the time of [the shaykh’s] return [from the shrine of Shaykh Zāhid in Lāhijān], they would seat the shaykh in a boat, and a group of people who knew how to swim would also board the boat with him. Once they were underway in the water, they would sink the boat and escape by swimming, while the shaykh, God sanctify his secret, not knowing how to swim, would certainly sink with the boat and so die. In preparation for this task they donned light clothing, and wanted to board the ship and seat the shaykh in it. But, the shaykh said, ‘I saw Shaykh Zāhid, God sanctify his secret, coming towards me upon a gazelle-like horse and saying, “O Ṣafī! Ride upon this horse and travel the dry road—do not board the boat!”’

Having seen and heard this from Shaykh Zāhid, the shaykh, God sanctify his secret, said ‘I’m not going to travel by way of the water and will not be boarding the boat, rather, I’ll be going by dry land.’ This having happend, Shaykhzāda Jamāl al-Dīn saw that their idea [of getting rid of the shaykh] was never going to be feasible, so he went with the shaykh and spent an hour with him in his retreat cell. The shaykh, God sanctify his secret, said, ‘Shaykhzāda! I know what you aimed to do to me and what treachery against me became lodged in your heart—but God, exalted is He, has made it impossible for your goal to be achieved, even after this goal was repeated and enmity established. Yet, if your desire is for my destruction and cannot be otherwise, bring a measure of poison so that I can consume it and your intention be fulfilled, and no one else will be aware of this secret.’

When Shaykhzāda Jamāl al-Dīn heard these words, the sweat of shame ran down his face, and he sought forgiveness for this crime and begged clemency for his treachery. Having manifest purity of state, he brought forth the gazelle-like horse for the shaykh, and mounting him the shaykh made his return journey.

Ibn Bazzāz Ardabīlī, Ṣafvat al-ṣafā: dar tarjumah-ʼi aḥvāl va aqvāl va karāmāt-i Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn Isḥaq Ardabīlī, ed. Ghulām Riẓā Ṭabāṭabāʼī Majd (Tabriz: G.R. Ṭabāṭabāʼī Majd , 1373 [1994]), 798-791. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2020.

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Shaykh Ṣafī Spends the Night in a Deadly Shrine

Miniature from a copy of Jafar al-Sadiq’s Falnama. “Scene From a Mausoleum” Iran, Tabriz or Qasvin; c. 1550.jpg
A Safavid era saints’ tomb (or perhaps the tomb of an imām or imāmzade), presumably far less deadly in effect than that of Abū Zur’at. From a c. 1550 Falnama (David Collection, Inv. no. 28/1997)

While I can’t profess to ever having actually watched more than a few minutes of it, I do know (thank you internet) that the Syfy show Ghost Hunters, which ran for several years and was one of the most popular offerings that Syfy ever launched, revolved around a team of ‘paranormal investigators’ combing around allegedly haunted spaces in search of posthumous spiritual activity. Using various electronic devices to register the traces such entities are imagined in modern parapsychological reckoning to leave, they traversed ‘haunted’ places, mostly at night, trying to ‘make contact,’ while also creating a pop culture phenomenon.

Seeking out a dangerous structure and grappling with the malignant forces- spirits and otherwise- therein was a not uncommon practice for medieval and early modern Muslim saints, too, though their purposes and techniques were a world away from that of the Ghost Hunters duo. The manāqib texts describing ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jilānī, the archetypical medieval Muslim saint, feature his actions against the jinn in particular spaces and places. Somewhat later, the great Ottoman Egyptian sufi and saint ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Sha’rānī, for instance, was described by his hagiographer as having wrestled with the jinn (for more on the following story and al-Sha’rānī’s relation with the jinn, see this post: Two Ways of Dealing with the Jinn in the Ottoman World):

He once slept, God be pleased with him, in an abandoned entrance hall (qā’a) which belonged to one of his friends. He lit a lamp for him and locked the door and left him alone. Then a group [of jinn] came to him and extinguished the lamp and raised a din in the entrance hall around him until morning. Then he left them. During this time [that is, during the night] he said to them, ‘If I grasped hold of one of you he would not be able to free himself from me, not even the Red King!’ Then he went to sleep, and slept until morning, not a hair on his head being disturbed even though they remained around him. [1]

The story I have featured today comes from the monumental Persian menāqib of Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn, the eponym of the famed (or infamous, if you had asked an early modern Ottoman!) Safavid ṭarīqa, on which see an earlier post. As mentioned there, at this point, still early in Shaykh Ṣafī’s life, the saint was in possession of almost boundless and hard-to-control spiritual powers, not unlike a superhero in modern imagination, forced to make sense of and usefully make use of new and perhaps frightening super-powers. This story picks up in Shiraz, to whence Ṣafī has gone, ostensibly to meet his merchant brother, but really to seek out holy men who might be able to guide him and help him cultivate his powers. He has just come ‘onto the scene’ as a holy man in his own right, and is now seen beginning to ‘mingle’ with the hidden saints of the city:

Story (ḥikāyat): [Shaykh Ṣadr al-Dīn], God perpetuate his baraka, said: after this, the friends of God who were hidden in that place began to mix with and accompany the shaykh, God sanctify his inner secret, each one practicing a trade (ḥirfat), such as greengrocer and baker as well as others, hidden behind the curtain of the domes [referred to in the hadith] My friends are under My domes, none know them save Me,’ though manifest to the sight endowed with the hallowed light of clarity.

The shaykh, God sanctify his inner secret, spent most of his time in the Mādir-i Sulaymān Mosque, the shrine of Shaykh Abū ‘Abdallāh Khafīf, and the shrine of Shaykh Abū Zur’at Ardabīlī, God be merciful to him, devoting himself to acts of worship. However, during that time it was such that if someone tarried for even a moment in the shrine of Abū Zur’at, God be merciful to him, from the evening prayer to morning, they would find him dead and bury him in the cemetery.

When the shakyh, God sanctify his inner secret, wanted to spend the night awake in prayer in that place (mīkhāst keh shab dar ān jā iḥyā konad), the people tried to forbid him since those who went in at night did not come back out but died. The shaykh however said, “We are from the same city, the two of us, and so no harm will come to me from him!” So he spent the night there, busying himself with acts of worship, and declared [later]: “Light steadily came forth up from his pure tomb and descended into my throat, while rays of light from his tomb came forth and streamed up and out of the little windows of the shrine, like the fire in a blacksmith’s forge coming forth through its cracks and openings.” The shaykh was in that place from the ishrāq prayer until the rising of the sun, light steadily streaming forth from the tomb and descending into his throat.

The shaykh’s companions had already purchased a length of burial shroud, sweet herbs for sprinkling on a body, and the implements for a funeral bier, and had stationed themselves outside of the shrine of Abū Zur’at until the moment that came in to retrieve the shaykh and set about on his funeral bier and burial. But instead they beheld the shaykh immersed in light in prayer, and, standing to greet them, he went outside with them. Such were the traces that the light had left upon his blessed face that it was impossible for anyone to look upon his blessed face! [2]

Who was Abū Zu’rat? And what made his shrine so dangerous? The story does not elaborate, either because it was not of interest to the hagiographer, or because the story of this shrine- which does not seem to exist any longer- was so well known at the time. Either way, the idea of a ‘dark saint’ is not too unusual, though hardly common, and points to the fuzzy boundaries between sainthood, the occult, and so-called ‘folk beliefs.’ Most importantly, the story argues for Shaykh Ṣafī’s sainthood, suggesting that the dangerous occupant of the shrine’s tomb was either waiting for the shaykh, or that only Shaykh Ṣafī had the spiritual power to take in the surge of divine light welling up from Abū Zu’rat without being killed thereby. At any rate, not unlike modern instances of spirit-hunting, the encounter made a good story, complete with the wonderful image of the saint’s friends posted outside waiting with the requisites of burial, which of course they did not end up needing.

Notes:

[1] Muḥammad Muḥyī al-Dīn al-Malījī, Tadhkirat ūlī al-albāb fī manāqib al-Shaʻrānī Sayyidī ʻAbd al-Wahhāb, 130. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.

[3] Ibn Bazzāz Ardabīlī, Ṣafvat al-ṣafā: dar tarjumah-ʼi aḥvāl va aqvāl va karāmāt-i Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn Isḥaq Ardabīlī, ed. Ghulām Riẓā Ṭabāṭabāʼī Majd (Tabriz: G.R. Ṭabāṭabāʼī Majd , 1373 [1994]), 98-99. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2019.

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