Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn Goes Mountain Climbing

Safi al-Din Dreaming.jpg
An illustration from the life of Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn, during his adulthood, depicting a dream concerning the rise and fall of a local post-Ilkhanid dynasty, the Chūbānids (their members symbolized by the candles), with the shaykh himself depicted in the lower half asleep, dreaming. Unfortunately, so far as I know, the story recounted below was never illustrated. (Aga Khan Museum AKM264)

Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn (d. 1334) is best known as the founder and eponym of the Safavid sufi ṭarīqa, which in the late fifteenth into early sixteenth century would be the basis for the Safavid dynasty and empire, one of the major Islamic empires of the early modern world. He was commemorated in a number of ways: for instance, architecturally by a monumental and expansive shrine complex in Ardabil, and textually by an equally monumental and expansive menāqib (hagiography) composed in Persian by Ibn Bazzāz Ardabīlī, completed in 1358, in consultation with Ṣafī al-Dīn’s son and successor to head of the ṭarīqa, Ṣadr al-Dīn. Clocking in at over eight hundred folios in manuscript form, and almost twelve hundred in the modern printed edition, it must surely rank as one of the longest saint’s lives in Islamic history. Like other hagiographies, much of the social and cultural context and particularities of past worlds can be discerned in this text, such as in the story I have selected here.

The following account comes from the chapter on Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn’s childhood, during a period in which, as the first paragraph suggests, the saint was just beginning to discover his powers, not unlike many modern-day superhero stories in which the newly endowed superhero must learn to control his or her spectacular abilities, perhaps with the help of a mentor. Something similar is the case here: Ṣafī al-Dīn discovers strange and sometimes disturbing spiritual powers, such as an ability to see dead people, which, naturally, freaks him out, causing him to stop eating and to worry his mother (who is really his first mentor and a major presence in this chapter), who eventually coaxes the reason out of him. Understanding that her son is special, she seeks out holy men nearby who might direct him, but none are capable of training a prodigy like Ṣafī al-Dīn. In the story that follows, our protagonist sets out to a local holy place with hopes of finding an instructor, or at least some powerful baraka that will help him gain control of his powers and potent spiritual states. Additional commentary follows, but first the tale itself, which centers on Mount Sabalan, a high, prominent peak west of Ardabil:

Detail from the V&A’s Ardabil carpet.

Story (ḥikāyat): Shaykh Ṣadr al-Dīn, God perpetuate his baraka, said that when the spiritual state (ḥāl) of the shaykh, God sanctify his inner secret, grew more powerful, and when exalted conditions would occur which could not be stopped and which the shaykh found difficult to disclose [to others], by necessity he occupied himself with seeking out a guide (murshid) who could bring him out of this tumult of waves and will. He threw his entire body into this search, though he did not know from whence this impetus for searching came [1].

During that time people often had recourse to Mount Sabalan, it being well known that there were folk of God, exalted is He, atop Mount Sabalan. So the shaykh desired to go to Mount Sabalan, in order to find one of these people. The first time he went he found no one. The second time that the season for visiting came—for other than in the heart of summer it is not possible due to the intensity of the snow, ice, and cold—he went again and took from that place, in accordance with the custom of ordinary people, water and soil from the summit of Sabalan in order to derive baraka thereby. On his descent he passed through a couloir in the mountain, and saw a Turk [here with the sense of a nomad] squatting down, having taken up a bow and arrow and put the arrow to the bow, waiting in ambush for the shaykh. Other than [the Turk] there were no people in the vicinity—[Ṣafī al-Dīn] looked to see if he had an entourage or followers, but no, he was like a spider all alone. Continue reading “Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn Goes Mountain Climbing”

Teacher, Student, Text, and the Control of Knowledge in Early Modern Damascus

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The Damascus Room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a winter reception room (qa’a), dating to c. 1707 (Met 1970.170). Once part of a home in Damascus before its disassembly and transportation to New York City in the 1930s, this room resembles the reception hall of a well-to-do Ottoman family in early modern Damascus, though some elements were added later or otherwise modified. ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s house may well have contained a room, if not quite of this opulence, along these lines, for the greeting and hosting of guests.

Introduction: ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (1641-1731), a frequent presence on these pages, embodied many roles and identities over the course of his long life, a life that spanned major transformations in the nature of the Ottoman Empire in which he lived, as well as changes occurring in the wider world of early modernity. For many during his lifetime, and even more so after his death, he was a preeminent, even the preeminent ‘friend of God’- saint- of his age. His role as a major theological and philosophical thinker, author, and teacher was often seen as an aspect of his sainthood, the sheer scope of his literary productions and teaching activities, instructing all sorts of people in all sorts of subjects, as evidence of his special relationship with God. The passages that I have translated below are taken from the expansive biography written by ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s great-grandson, Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazzī (1760-1799), titled Wird al-unsī wa-al-warid al-qudsī fī tarjamat al-ʻārif ʻAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī. One of the longer chapters of this work consists of biographical entries, some brief, some quite long, of ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s many disciples and students, demonstrating the shaykh’s numerous social ties and relationships as well as the geographic reach of his instruction and saintly reputation.

The entry translated here- aside from the introductory paragraph, which I will summarize- concerns one Muṣṭafá Ṣafī al-Dīn al-‘Alwānī (1696-1779), a member of the ‘ulama of the city of Hama, descendant of a sixteenth century sufi saint, but whose later career was primarily based upon his skill as a poet and littérateur. In 1722 he came to Damascus from Hama in the company of his primary teaching shaykh, one Muhammad ibn Maḥmūd al-Ḥabbāl, taking up residence in the Bādharā’iyya madrasa. They both went together to visit ‘Abd al-Ghanī, who by 1722 was advanced in years and well established reputation-wise as both a saint and scholar. Our account picks up with Muṣṭafá meeting ‘Abd al-Ghanī for the first time.

Commentary follows the translation, but a few explanatory words will guide the reader unfamiliar with some of the conventions and terminology. Muṣṭafá wants to ‘read’ a book under ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s supervision, which entails, following a long-standing convention in the Islamic world (with analogues elsewhere in medieval and early modern Eurasia) whereby one would study a book by writing it down for one’s self or even memorize it, reciting back what one had written or memorized to the author, who would then grant an ijāza, a ‘certificate,’ stating that the student had properly received the text in question and was authorized to transmit it himself (or on occasion herself). The sessions in which this process took place could also allow the author to explicate and clarify the text. The verb that I alternatively translate as ‘read’ and ‘recite’ is qara’a, a particularly multivalent verb, which can also have the meaning of ‘study,’ as it in fact does here.

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A stained glass window that once decorated an Ottoman home in Syria or Egypt, made at some point in the 18th century (Met. 93.26.3).

Translation: Love of [‘Abd al-Ghanī] seized the whole of his heart, so he returned to him and sought permission to read under him, asking which book [he should read]. The Master (al-ustādh) said to him: “Read our book on the oneness of being named al-Wujūd al-ḥaqq.” Then the Master gave him a quire (kurrās) from out of his own copybook, saying to him, “Write it down in your own handwriting, lesson (dars) by lesson.” He specified to him that the time of the lesson would be on Friday after the ṣalāt, and that every week he would read one lesson. [Muṣṭafá] would take the notebook and write it down in it. So it occurred that every Friday he would go to the Ṣālaḥiyya [neighborhood] and enter the house (dār) of the Master after the ṣalāt, kiss the hand of the Master and sit down. Then the Master would raise his head from writing and say, “Recite.” He would recite, then kiss his hand and go. He did this for a while, though his shaykh, al-Ḥabbāl, did not know about it. One day this Shaykh al-Ḥabbāl entered [Muṣṭafá’s madrasa] room, previously mentioned, began leafing through his loose pages and books, and found the book of the Master, al-Wujūd al-ḥaqq, in his possession, he having written out a goodly portion of it. He asked him about it, and he told him that he was reading the book under the Master’s supervision and so forth. Al-Ḥabbāl said to him by way of advice, “My son, you are not ready to read the like of this book, you don’t have the disposition for understanding the books of ḥaqā’iq [‘esoteric’ theology]. If you want to receive something from the Master and derive blessing from him, read under him a book on the technical terms of hadith, and get an ijāza from him—that much will suffice you.” So [Muṣṭafá] complied with his words. In accordance with his custom on Friday he went with a portion of what he had written out to the Master, this time from the book Sharḥ al-Nukhba [by Ibn al-Ḥajar (1372-1449)], on the knowledge of technical vocabulary. He entered into the Master’s presence, kissed his hand, and sat down. The Master did not raise his head from his writing, and did not say anything to him! He remained looking at him until the ‘aşr adhān [call to prayer] of that day, and the Master arose, prayed the ‘aṣr ṣalāt, then after completing his prayer looked at [Muṣṭafá] and said, “Ya Sayyīd Muṣṭafá, we do not instruct save our own books, and if you wish to read under us then read our books!” He did not expand upon those words any further. Muṣṭafá understood that what he had intended to ask of the Master had been revealed to him by way of unveiling, and he resumed his completion of the recitation of the aforementioned book.’ Continue reading “Teacher, Student, Text, and the Control of Knowledge in Early Modern Damascus”

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.

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Dervish Muḥarram Finds Himself in Strange Straits

Portrait of a Sufi Deccan
While not an Ottoman production, this illustration of a sufi in contemplation (presumably), which comes from the 17th century Deccan, provides a good approximation of dervish dress and deportment in many parts of the Islamic world during this period. (Met. 57.51.22)

It was related to me than when [Muḥarram al-Rūmī’s] shaykh instructed him in the Third Name [1], he began hearing all of the existent things speak to him, even when he needed to urinate—but he heard every place in which he sat in order to relieve his need speaking to him in an eloquent tongue, so he went from there to another place, but found it to be just the same, so instead he held back his urine to the point that he was close to perishing. He turned to his shaykh through his spiritual energy (himma) and beheld him with his eyes, even though there was a great spatial distance between them [2]. His shaykh said to him, ‘ Muḥarram! Do what you need to do and don’t be in anguish!’

ʻAbd al-Raʼūf ibn Tāj al-ʻĀrifīn al-Munāwī, al-Kawākib al-durrīyah fī tarājim al-sādah al-Ṣūfīyah: ṭabaqāt al-Ṣūfīyah, (Bayrūt, Lubnān: Dār Ṣādir, 1999), iv: 512-513. Translation by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.

Sofra close up

[1] Muḥarram al-Rūmī (who lived in the late 16th into early 17th century in Ottoman Cairo; ‘Rūmī’ indicates Anatolian origin) was a Khalwatī (Tur. Halvetî) dervish, a ṭarīqa in which disciples were taught seven successive divine names, each with particular forms of dhikr, spiritual stations, and powers associated with them. The third name mentioned here is ‘‘ (‘He’).

[2] I have translated himma here as ‘spiritual energy,’ an approximation at best, since it also has the idea of ‘intention, will, and zeal,’ all of which contribute to this technical usage found in sufism. Continue reading “Dervish Muḥarram Finds Himself in Strange Straits”

Turn Toward a Sacred Precinct Filled With Acceptance

‘Ā’isha al-Bā’ūnīyah (d. 1517) was a female Sufi master from Damascus, living in the twilight years of Mamluk rule and the very beginning of Ottoman control of the region. She is one of the most prolific, if not the most prolific, female Muslim writer in the pre-modern era, writing treatises, poetry, devotional literature, and the like, including a mawlid-text (a text in celebration of Muhammad’s birth) that would prove to be of enduring popularity. The following is a poem from her diwan that is representative of her deeply emotional and affective piety and poetic style.

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Mamluk-era polychrome tile (c. 1420-1459), Damascus.

When I sought union from the one I love,
His majesty replied that there was no path to Him.

So, I closed my eyes that had tried so hard to see Him,
while in my heart, desire burned with separation’s fire.

I was about to meet my death, when He was kind,
and sweetly spoke to my heart, saying:

‘If you want union from Us, be true to Us,
set aside all else, strive for Us, and be humble.

Leave yourself and come to Us with Our true love and grace.
Make that your means to Me.

Draw near to Us, be devoted to Us; don’t fear rejection.
Turn toward a sacred precinct filled with acceptance.

There, you will find providence draws you to Us,
bringing sweet union,

And you will leave there all but Us
and appear in a station where true men alight.

You will behold lights of power, and in their intensity,
the shadow of difference will go and disappear.

You will pass away, nothing to preserve you save Our splendor,
as you behold, truly, the climax of desire.

Then you will abide with Us, Our servant,
pure, chosen by Us for Our secrets forever!’

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‘Ā’isha al-Bā’ūnīyah, Fayḍ al-Faḍl wa-Jam’ al-Shaml, translated by Th. Emil Homerin, in Emanations of Grace: Mystical Poems by ‘Ā’isha al-Bā’ūnīyah (Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2011), 64.

Mystical Insight and Everyday Life in Early Modern Aleppo

Below is a short story from a biography of one of the most important Muslim saints of early modern Ottoman Aleppo, Abu Bakr ibn Abi al-Wafa’ (1503-83). Abu Bakr was a majdhūb saint: someone who has been ‘seized’ by divine ‘attraction,’ as a result acting in often aberrant and socially unacceptable ways (Abu Bakr lived on trash-heaps, had a following of feral dogs, and liked to whack people with his staff, for instance), but believed to have special access to divine insight and revelation. Abu Bakr’s tomb and surrounding complex would become a center of Aleppo’s spiritual life (as well as serving for some time as the headquarters of the Ottoman governor), his reputation built in part by stories like the one reproduced here. However, I selected this particular story due to its giving us a peek into everyday life in Ottoman Aleppo for ordinary people, men and women. Note particularly, as you read the story, the importance of textiles: in our industrialized world of mass produced clothing, the expense and ensuing value of seemingly basic textiles for pre-modern people is hard to grasp. Yet, as this story indicates, simply keeping one’s children properly clothed could be a major struggle for non-elite, working people; unfortunately, not everyone could count on the prescient generosity of a charismatic saint.

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A 17th century Ottoman cushion cover, though probably rather more ornate than anything Jamāl would have owned or aspired to.

Jamāl al-Khādim related that he visited [Shaykh Abū Bakr al-Majdhūb] once. The shaykh gave Jamāl his shirt and outer garment and said: ‘Put these shirts and trousers aside for your children!’ But Jamāl, who at the time was not married, said: ‘Ya sīdī, I don’t have any children!’ So the shaykh hit him with his staff and said, ‘You lie! [1] I can hear their voices!’ Some of those present said, ‘Take them from the shaykh, whether you have children or not!’ Jamāl said: ‘I fear accusing the shaykh of deceit,’ so he took them and intended to use them as a funeral shroud for himself when the day came. He stuck them in with the stuffing of a cushion (mikhadda), then forgot about them. Time passed, Jamāl got married, they had children, and these clothes were still forgotten. His wife sought from him shirts for his children, but he replied: ‘I have nothing! But perhaps God will give us a blessing.’

He spent several days in great distress on account of his children. But then he came home one day to find brand-new shirts upon his children, and asked: ‘Where did you get these?’ His wife answered: ‘I washed the cushion, and I pulled out the stuffing so as to clean it too, and found linen shirts and outer garments!’ Jamāl wept, remembering the mystical foresight (kashf) of the shaykh.

Abu al-Wafa’ ibn ‘Umar al-‘Urdi, Ma’adin al-dhahabfi al-a’yan al-musharrafa bi-him Halab, ed. ‘Abdullah al-Ghazali( Kuwait, 1987), 52-53.

[1] Here Abu Bakr addresses Jamāl in the feminine, not the expected masculine; this was one of Abu Bakr’s ‘specialties,’ through which he marked off his socially aberrant, and hence spiritually liminal, place in the world.

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For more on this fascinating saint and the world of Ottoman Aleppo, see the following:

Watenpaugh, Heghnar Zeitlian. “Deviant Dervishes: Space, Gender, and the Construction of Antinomian Piety in Ottoman Aleppo.” In International Journal of Middle East Studies 37, no. 4 (2005): 535–65.
_______. The Image of an Ottoman City: Imperial Architecture and Urban Experience in Aleppo in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2004.