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”

Imām al-Layth, the Debtor, the Parakeet, and the Ruler

The minaret and street entrance to the shrine-mosque of Imām al-Layth, as it existed c. 1920 when it was photographed by Sir K.A.C. Creswell (V&A 1573-1921)

During his various journeys,ʿAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (1641-1731) visited many, many shrines of saints and prophets, some known throughout the world, others of only local purchase. In his accounts of his journeys he makes much of these visits, recording them in sometimes great detail and with his own poetic contributions. Very often he reports local accounts of the holy person venerated in the shrine, providing precious insights into the ‘oral hagiography’ and local practices of saintly veneration and saintly space that prevailed in the late seventeenth century around the Ottoman world.

One of the many holy tombs al-Nābulusī visited in the course of his extended stay in Cairo during the pilgrimage journey recounted in his al-Ḥaqīqa wa-al-majāz fī riḥlat bilād al-Shām wa-Miṣr wa-al-Ḥijāz was that of Imām al-Layth ibn Saʿd (713-791), a major figure in the early elaboration of Islamic jurisprudence. Rather like his ‘neighbor’ Imām al-Shāfiʿī, by al-Nābulusī’s time Imām al-Layth was regarded as much, if not more, as a wonder-working saint than as a scholar of jurisprudence, as the story I’ve translated here suggests.

While the central point of the story is pretty straightforward- and rather charming- certain details stand out for thinking about how Ottoman Muslims experienced the built space of such shrines. First, it should be noted, as al-Nābulusī does in introducing this structure a bit before the translated passage, and as can be seen in the photographs, reproduced here, taken by K.A.C. Creswell in the late 1910s, the shrine sat pretty much continuous with the surrounding houses, marked off by its dome (qubba, see below) and relatively low but ornate minaret, both of late Mamluk provenance. The line between house and shrine could be blurred in other ways: the man in the story practices the venerable rite of ‘incubation,’ sleeping in a holy place so as to receive a vision or answer to a prayer. If the shrine was seen as a sort of ‘home’ for the entombed saint, incubation was equivalent to a guest spending the night.

The fact that al-Nābulusī heard this story, perhaps from a neighbor to the shrine, indicates that the space remained ‘alive’ to local residents and devotees, as did the saint himself, even to the point of attracting an additional element to his name (at least among his local devotees). It’s a good reminder that whatever the intentions of the original founders of the tomb (which certainly predates the ‘modern’ late Mamluk construction visible now to us) or of later patrons and builders, those intentions might have only partially been respected or even recognized by later participants in the sanctified space.

The qubba- dome- and rooftop of the shrine, fairly typical of mausoleum architecture during the Mamluk period (V&A 1571-1921)

The reason for his being given the kunya [1] of Abū al-Makārim [that is, ‘Father of Noble Deeds’] among the people of Cairo is what was told us in the following manner, namely that there was a man with many debts. He set out sincerely for a pious visit to [Imām al-Layth], and recited the Fātiḥa for him and supplicated God, asking for relief from his debt. He slept here in the shrine and saw [Imām al-Layth] in a dream. He said to the man: ‘When you arise from your dream take hold of and possess what you see upon my tomb!’

When the man arose from his sleep, he saw upon his tomb the bird known as parrot (babbaghā’) or parakeet (durra), and it could recite in the manner of an expert reciter the Qur’an in all its seven recitations! [2] So he took hold of it, and soon the people had heard of it, to the point that word of it reached the ruler of Cairo, and he commanded that the man be brought to his presence so that he might take the bird from him. When he came into the ruler’s presence the ruler bought it from him, and with the money the man was able to repay all of his debts.

Continue reading “Imām al-Layth, the Debtor, the Parakeet, and the Ruler”

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.


[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.

Ardabil Carpet

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Converting Constantinople after the Conquest: Akşemseddin’s Finding of Ebû Eyyûb

Şehname-i Selim Han (BL Or. 7043)
Sultan Selîm II (r. 1566-74) visits the shrine of Ebû Eyyûb, from the poet Lukmân’s Şehname-i Selim Han (BL Or. 7043)

Perhaps the best-known, and most-visited, Islamic place of pilgrimage in modern-day Istanbul is the tomb-shrine complex of Ebû Eyyûb (Ar. Abū Ayyūb al-Anṣārī), located in the eponymous quarter of Eyüp, just north of the Theodosian  land walls along the Golden Horn. Ebû Eyyûb, an early Muslim (one of the Anṣār, the ‘helpers,’ who joined the fledgling community later than the Companions), was said to have died during the unsuccessful Muslim siege of Constantinople in 669, being buried where he fell without the walls. His tomb, whose ‘discovery’ is described in the text below, would become a center of visitation soon after Mehmed II’s conquest of the city in 1453, and over time there would be built up the sprawling array of mosques, medreses, tombs, cemeteries, and so on that encompasses the main tomb-shrine complex. The tomb itself has gone through many permutations since the above image was painted in the early 17th century, but the tomb remains at the center of it all. Its discovery is described in the following story, an account taken from a menâkıb of one of the major Muslim saints of the fifteenth century Ottoman lands, Akşemseddin (1390–1459). The saint’s life was written down by one Göynüklü Emîr Hüseyin Enîsî in the mid-sixteenth century, drawing upon oral narratives circulating in his native Göynük, the small west Anatolian town where Akṣemseddin eventually settled and where he would die and be buried, and elsewhere, in including in Constantinople. This story picks up from Akṣemseddin’s close relationship with Mehmed II, who has just led the conquest of the city from the Byzantines:

Ottoman Velvet

Then Constantinople was conquered. Sultan Muhammed [Mehmed Fatih] sought from Akşemsüddin the exalted tomb of Ebû Eyyûb. The Şeyh, finding a thicket growing in the midst of the exalted tomb, marked it out by placing his staff to the right side of Ebû Eyyûb’s body. But someone took the staff, so that the marker that the staff had provided of the place was hidden, and it was said to the Şeyh, ‘The marker has gone away, do designate it once again!’ So they Şeyh returned to the place. He set up his staff, and they began to dig, and he stood up the hidden markers [under the ground].

Akşemsüddin then said: ‘This is the exalted tomb! The evident sign of this is that the night that Ebû Eyyûb was buried, an ascetic monk (bir ehl-i riyâzat ruhbân) saw in a dream the Prophet, upon whom be peace. The Prophet, upon whom be peace, indicated his desire for the monk to become a Muslim, saying: “One of my companions, Ebû Eyyûb-i Ensârî is buried in such-and-such place. It ought not remain unmarked in this foreign realm,” he said. The monk awoke, his heart filled with the light of faith: ‘I bear witness that there is no god but God and I bear witness that Muhammad is his servant and his messenger,’ he said. He tasted the savor of faith, and with love and purity before morning he went out from the fortifications, and looked for the indicated place. In the place of the exalted tomb he saw a light. Dawn was approaching. This was the exalted tomb. He rubbed his face [upon it]. He built a place of visitation (mezâr) over it, and digging down close by to the tomb uncovered an ayazma [1].

This being so, Sultan Muhammad Hân and all the lords of the devlet [2] came to the exalted tomb and dug, and clearing away the rubble in accordance with the Şeyh’s words uncovered the exalted tomb and the ayazma. Sultan Muhammed Hân then built up the exalted tomb and built for the Şeyh built a hânigâh and a tekye, but the Şeyh did not accept them, and they were made into a medrese later [3].

After having excavated Ebû Eyyûb-i Ensârî’s place of visitation (mezâr), in support of the evidence that the Şeyh had adduced a shepherd came forward and said: ‘This is the exalted tomb! For I was driving my animals along, and upon coming to this place, the sheep would not pass over this exalted place of visitation, but split up to go around it, coming back together afterwards.’ [4]

Ottoman Velvet

There is much to uncover (pun intended) from this story. Ebû Eyyûb was known to have died before Constantinople from a wide range of Arabic sources dating back to the formative period of Islam, but those sources gave no indication of exactly where he was buried, and the conquering Ottomans clearly could find no visible trace of his tomb, as much as they may have hoped to establish its location and so have at hand the holy tomb of a warrior from the earliest days of Islam and who was in direct contact with Muhammad himself, evidence of the long-standing ‘Islamic-ness’ of the city. We can see similar ‘strategies’ at work elsewhere in Anatolia and in the Balkans, through the ‘discovery’ of tombs of figures from early Islam, and the elaboration of stories about them, such as Battal Gazi.

The intervention of Akşemseddin provides saintly authority as to the tomb’s location, which is presented here as being in a basically rural area (as indeed parts of the district, in Byzantine times known as Kosmidion, were devoted to various forms of agriculture well through Ottoman times). Note that he presents a very particular argument with ‘evidence,’ and not just the presentation of his word as authoritative in itself or as a result of a dream-vision delivered to him. He claims instead to have knowledge (though he does not describe how he came about the knowledge) of how the tomb was originally discovered, by a Byzantine monk. This monk, while he (secretly?) converts to Islam through a dream-vision, is notably depicted as already being pious and ascetic even as a Christian, the phrase ehl-i riyâzat one that might be applied to Muslim saints as well. And when he uncovers the tomb of Ebû Eyyûb, he also uncovers an ayazma, a holy well, a typical feature of Orthodox Christian holy places in Constantinople (as discussed in this post), and which is still accessible at the tomb-shrine. The story suggests an awareness of continuity and a need to deal with the existence of Orthodox Christian holy places in the vicinity, such as the monastery and shrine devoted to the saints Cosmas and Damian that stood nearby (the name Kosmodion in reference to this shrine). Even more, it suggests a continuity among the Ottomans from the Orthodox Byzantines of ideas of what constituted a holy place, ideas that would continue to be re-manifest from time to time, as the account of Merkez Efendî’s ayazma indicates. Continue reading “Converting Constantinople after the Conquest: Akşemseddin’s Finding of Ebû Eyyûb”