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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Early Modern Campaign Life: Through the Eyes of Margriet Van Noort

the siege of the city of alesia melchior feselen
Detail from The Siege of Alesia by Melchior Feselen: painted in 1533, this massive painting, from which this detail and the one below is taken, depicts a battle from antiquity but does so in a thoroughly anachronistic fashion, instead showing in great detail the workings of sixteenth century warfare, including the presence of soldiers’ families as described in the passage below.

The excerpted text below comes from the autobiography of Sister Margaret of the Mother of God, born Margriet Van Noort in 1587. Before her death in 1646 she wrote a range of autobiographical pieces of literature, at the behest of her confessor at the convent of the Discalced Carmelites in Brussels in the Low Countries. This passage describes aspects of her childhood, one spent out on campaign alongside her father, a soldier fighting under the Habsburgs during the Eighty Years’ War. Margaret provides a powerful and moving look into what everyday life was like for the families of the soldiers, families that, as in many other early modern wars, went on campaign as well, sleeping in tents, dodging bullets, and contributing to combat in various ways, including, as Margaret later describes, digging trenches. Margaret’s mother sought to give her children some semblance of normalcy, Margaret notes, even if her children could not avoid being swept up in the chaos and danger of an early modern army on the move, as Margaret’s account of her three days separated from her family suggests.


Since my father was a soldier, my mother always followed him with all the children; there were seven of us. We went with him in every campaign where we suffered hardships of every kind, as you can imagine, from heat and other trials. We often lacked food, and even when we had money there was often nothing to buy. At times when we had no money, we would that a horse might be shot so that we could have something to eat. One time we ate meat with no bread because we did not have any; we could not even find a loaf to buy. Other times we would eat raw meat because we had no time, fire, or proper conditions for cooking. And we usually slept four or five months of the year in our clothes on the ground with a bit of straw for a soft bed. Our home was a tent, but my mother took pains to keep us all gathered together as if we were in a house. There we recited our devotions, did our handwork, and read religious books, to which I was always greatly devoted. We never missed Mass when it was said. It was in a tent set up in the open countryside and there were thousands of people who attended. The enemy would shoot artillery and the bullets would fall in the middle of all those people. No one was ever hurt.

About the age of nine, I had a desire to stay in a monastery of the Order of Saint Bernard that was near where we were garrisoned. But my father did not want me to because he said that Friesland was sure to revert to heresy, and so I stayed with my parents. My mother saw that I was quite a young lady at eleven years old, and she had me make my First Communion. At twelve, my father had contracted marriage for me with a young man from a good family; but he was a military man and he died in battle, and I was very happy.

We used to go every summer on a campaign that sometimes lasted until Christmas with a lot of snow and cold. I was very fond of walking and since my parents had carts and horses in which to carry us, when I would see other soldiers’ small children crying so and dying of cold, I would ask my mother to allow me to walk so a little girl could ride in my place. Sometimes she would scold me and tell me that I was going to get lost among the crowds and it happened just so. I had walked all day and at nightfall the companies split from each other with each company camping together. I stayed seated by the road where I thought our people would be passing. But only the Walloons came. I began to ask if the Germans were not passing by there also, and they told me no. I was very distressed and started to cry like a girl of thirteen would. And God willed that a good man might pass by, a captain who asked me why I was crying. I told him of my trouble, that I had thought my father would have come by there. And God willed that this good man should console me, and he took me with him and pampered me, and I spent three days with him while he took care of me as if I were his daughter. He was a captain of the Wallons, and he asked me my father’s name. I said he was an ensign with a German regiment and his name was Sebastiaan Van Noort. Finally my mother came searching for me with two other people. On the third day the companies were reunited and my mother and everyone was very happy that I was found. After that, I always stayed with them.

Margaret van Noort. Spiritual Writings of Sister Margaret of the Mother of God (1635-1643). Translated by Susan M. Smith. (Toronto, Ontario: Iter Academic Press, 2015). 66-67.

A Tale of Two Holy Wells in Early Modern Constantinople

The Living Fountain, 17th century
Fig. 1: A seventeenth century icon of the Zoödochos Pege, probably produced in Constantinople (Wellcome Library no. 44943i)

Just outside the Theodosian Walls of Istanbul is a spring which is today accessible from beneath a church of nineteenth century vintage, reached by a flight of marble stairs down into the living stone, a spring known as Zoödochos Pege (the ‘Life Giving Spring’) in Greek, Balıklı Ayazması (the ‘Fish Spring’) in Turkish, both names alluding to important features of this site of pilgrimage. One of numerous ayazmas, or holy wells, that appeared in and around Byzantine Constantinople and many of which have survived as places of veneration in modern Istanbul, the Zoödochos Pege is one of the most storied and most visited, from late antiquity to the present (it’s one of the handful of ayazmas I’ve visited, in fact). Long associated with the presence and activity of the Theotokos- as can be immediately surmised from the icon above- the spring’s veneration probably began during the reign of Justinian (527-565), though it might have begun even earlier, a vast trove of miracle accounts associated with the healing powers of the spring, blessed by the Theotokos, accumulating over the centuries. By Ottoman times, which are my concern here, the church above the spring had fallen into ruin, perhaps even before Mehmed II’s conquest of the city. Until the 1720s pilgrims visited a holy well that was, at least in part, out in the open, much as the icons I’ve selected here indicate (though they suggest a location on the surface of the ground, not essentially underground as was almost certainly true then and is definitely the case now.

The early modern Ottoman period seems to have seen a surge in interest in and veneration of this holy well, if we are to go by the numerous iconographic depictions that began to appear in the seventeenth, quite a few of which made their way into the Wellcome Collection (by a route unknown to me), from which I have drawn the two examples featured here. The above icon (fig. 1) lays out several repeating elements in these depictions, depictions which probably brought together a range of traditions and stories circulating among devotees: gathered around the stone basin of the holy well are representatives of miracle accounts, some whose stories we can easily put together- a man rising from his bed, a mother holding a healed child- others less evident to us now. The potency of the holy water of the well underlines each vignette, however, with the enthroned Theotokos and Christ rising above the waters, radiating holiness down into the well. The famed fish are also visible, themselves a part of the sacredness of the well, as the Turkish name indicates. This icon also features a row of ‘supporting figures’: St. John the Forerunner, Sts. Helena and Constantine at the Invention of the Cross, and a third saint, perhaps St. Mamas, an extremely popular saint during the Ottoman period. The icon is in rather rough shape, having been scratched or scraped at various points- not as iconoclastic damage (which would have targeted faces), but in order to use the scraped material for blessing, a way to participate in the holy power of the spring at a remove, as it were. The second icon I’ve included (fig. 2), at the end of this article, probably dates from the eighteenth century, and reproduces much of the same visual material as that above, but with the addition within the image of a stream of text coming from the Christ Child to a soldier, along with a gilded frame without. What drove this evident resurgence of interest in and devotion to the Zoödochos Pege? I am not sure, though, as I will hopefully soon discuss in a later post, early modern Ottoman Christians and Muslims alike expressed renewed devotions, often expressed visually, to their various holy places, from the seventeenth century forward. And indeed, it is possible, as the story of the second holy well might indicate, that it was not only only Orthodox Christians visiting this ayazma, but Muslims as well, which might help us understand the resurgence in interest of this particular ayazma, as a competitive process.

Less than a mile north of the Zoödochos Pege is the zaviye complex of a prominent Muslim saint of 16th century Constantinople, Merkez Efendi (d. 959/1552). While it does not seem to be very prominent today, this site also features a holy well, along with several other sites of veneration, at least in the early modern period, as described by Hafız Hüseyin Ayvansarayî in his late eighteenth century guide to the mosques and other religious structures in and around Istanbul: ‘There is an exalted ayazma in the vicinity of Şeyh Merkez Efendi’s tomb. One descends to it by steps. The abovementioned [Merkez Efendi’s] subterranean halvethane, which is like a cave, is still extant, and it is a place of pilgrimage for the Faithful [1]. The hamam located next to [Merkez Efendi’s zaviye] is one of its vakfs. The aforesaid [Merkez Efendi] had a private room in the hamam for bathing. At present the sick and invalid bathe [there] with purity of purpose and are restored to health.’ [2]

Continue reading “A Tale of Two Holy Wells in Early Modern Constantinople”

Şemseddîn Sivâsî Saves the Exiled Dogs

Dogs in the Market
Mevlana Rumi addresses dogs in the marketplace, from a c. 1590 copy of the Ottoman Turkish translation of Aflākī’s menāqib of Rumi (Morgan Library MS M.466, fol. 66v)

The following story hails from a massive hagiographic compilation in Ottoman Turkish, Hediyyetü’l-ihvân, written by one Mehmed Nazmî Efendi (d. 1669) and dealing with the lives of a series of saints leading up to his own şeyh (Ar. shaykh) in the seventeenth century. This story comes from the life of Şemseddîn Ahmed Sivâsî (1519-1597), who was born in the little town of Zile in Anatolia and eventually settled in Sivas, becoming in time quite well known, to the point of Sultan Süleyman the Great inviting him to go on campaign with him to Hungary. The charming tale that I have translated here points to his fame among the towns and villages of this part of Anatolia. It also reminds us of the complicated relationship between people and dogs that has historically been the case in Islamic lands: we see both an outbreak of ‘anti-dog’ measures in the person of the (unnamed and castigated) kadi, the studied ambiguity of a hadith, and the robust support of the saint, simultaneously. That a saint would intervene on behalf of unjustly treated dogs is not particularly surprising- accounts of Mevlana Rumi’s interactions, and those of his followers, with dogs circulated in the Ottoman world, as witnessed by the above illustration, contemporary in fact to this story.


From among his miracles was the following: the people of Karahisâr-ı Şarkî [modern Şebinkarahisar] sent messengers to Şems asking him that he honor them with his preaching, counsel, [performance of] zikr [1], and his blessed noble beauty. In answer to their supplication he came, and was honored immensely, being given a fine place to stay as well as much feasting and amiable conversation. For some time he preached, gave counsel, and led zikr, then announced that he was returning to Sîvâs. When the scholars, şeyhs, merchants, notables, and ordinary people of the town all came together to give him a farewell with honor and respect, numerous dogs also came before the saint, and, as if presenting complaints, began barking! When Şems asked why they were barking so, the people replied, “Because there has been plague and pestilence in our town, the kadi [2] of our town ordered the killing or banishing of the dogs, so that we killed some and we banished some. These are dogs that we banished.”

The saint cried out, “Your kadi was heedless of the hadith which says, If dogs were not a community (umma) from among the communities, then I would order them killed.” [3] Saying that, he addressed the dogs: “Go safely and soundly back to dwell and to be at rest in your former places!” As the townspeople returned from bidding the saint farewell, they saw these words fulfilled as the dogs, understanding the command, followed after the people back into town to their usual places—and having done so, by the command of God, the plague was lifted on that very day!


[1] That is, the practice of ‘remembrance (Ar. dhikr) of God’ in a ritualized manner.

[2] The kadi- literally, ‘judge,’ from Ar. qāḍī- was not just an arbitrator of legal cases but, in the Ottoman context, a multi-task administrator.

[3] The meaning of this hadith, attributed to Muhammad, seems to be that dogs have a special status as an umma, which normally means a religious community (such as the umma of all Muslims); this special status outweighs any negative aspects dogs may have.

Şeyh Mehmet Nazmi, Osmanlılarda tasavvufî hayat: Halvetîlik örneği : Hediyyetü’l-ihvân, edited by Osman Türer (İstanbul: İnsan Yayınları, 2005), 359-360. Translation by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.

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Şeyh Hasan’s Momentous Trip to Üsküdar

View of the dome of Eski/Atik Vâlide Mosque (the tekye mentioned in the story was a part of the larger complex, with the mosque in the center). Photo by the author, 2015.

As I noted in an earlier post, stories of conversion- to a new faith or to an intensified version of one’s faith- were common across early modern Eurasia, in diverse Christian, Islamic, and Buddhist environments. The following story is another example of a ‘conversion story,’ embedded within a hagiography (in this instance, a menâkıb (Ar. manāqib) the Islamic functional equivalent of the saint’s vitae in the Latinate world). Unlike the others, this one is told, not from the perspective of the individual doing the converting, but is instead described by someone who was there. Hasan Ünsî Halvetî (1643-1723), whose türbe (tomb-shrine) is near Istanbul’s Topkapı Palace and is today passed by a constant stream of tourists walking and riding the street-level tram (the Gülhane stop is a couple blocks from the saint’s tomb), was one of the foremost Islamic saints in early 18th century Istanbul. Born in the village of Taşköprü outside of the provincial center of Kastamonu, Hasan, like many academically-minded young men in Ottoman Anatolia, made his way to the big city, where he soon found a niche as an instructor in the (no longer extant) medrese attached to the Ayasofya (that is, the Hagia Sophia, converted to a mosque complex after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople). The rooms mentioned here are small residential cells for teachers and students.

Several things of interest can be picked up on in this story: one, the role of Üsküdar- here conceptualized as a distinctly separate town or geographical entity from Istanbul- across the Bosporus as a sort of loci of sanctity that is close enough to be accessible yet far enough to be distinct and to have a certain aura about it (and in fact several other major early modern Islamic saints are buried in Üsküdar). Also in terms of place, note the importance that Alî Efendi places on the common regional original of everyone in the story- he learns about Karabaş Alî from another man from Kastamonu (which here means not just the town by the rural areas around the town), for instance. This alone tells us that regional identities continued to matter for Ottoman subjects who had settled in the imperial center.

It is also noteworthy that Şeyh Hasan is depicted as having not followed the usual protocol of venerating a saintly şeyh (the Turkish rendering of the Arabic shaykh), until his encounter with Karabaş Alî. We are not told why this was the case- perhaps Hasan had aligned himself with critics of such practices. Or perhaps it was merely a personal tic. Regardless, the hagiographic intent is clear: this encounter was divinely ordained, and it would set Hasan Ünsî on a trajectory for sainthood himself.

In terms of style and language, I have tried in my translation from the Ottoman Turkish to preserve the fairly colloquial feel of the original. Like many instances of the genre, there is little of the florid prose, heavy with Persian and Arabic genitive constructions, that was popular in many other genres during the period.

Atik Valide Inscription
Inscription above the main entrance to the Eski Vâlide Mosque. MIT Libraries, Aga Khan Visual Archive (IMG40234)

The cause of the holy şeyh’s coming under divine grace was that there was in a neighboring resident room [of the medrese in which Şeyh Hasan Ünsî lived] a member of the ‘ulemâ named Alî Efendi, who was from the same town as Hasan [that is, Kastamonu], and to whom this poor one [that is, the author, Ibrahim Hâs] also knew quite well. This Alî Efendi frequently came to visit the holy şeyh, and told the following story about him: ‘One day I was in Üsküdar, where I met with someone from my town [Kastamonu]. That person said to me, “There is a şeyh from our town, Şeyh Karabaş Alî Efendi, living in Üsküdar’s Eski Vâlide Tekye,” and he went on to describe his greatness. But when I went I did not get to see him. When I returned to Istanbul, I went to Şeyh Ünsî Hasan’s room, I told him, “A şeyh has come from Kastamonu to Üsküdar, one who is learned, virtuous, abstinent, and his ascetic exercise and struggles are without equal; he is a master of spiritual states (hâl) and of divinely-granted disposal (tasarruf), whom they call Karabaş Alî Efendi. His written works are many. Let’s go—I’d like to go and see him with you,” I said. “Sounds good!” said Hasan Efendi, so together we went to Üsküdar.

When we came to the Eski Vâlide Tekye we sought out Şeyh Karabaş Alî Efendi’s presence, and when he saw us the first thing he said was, “Hasan Efendi, I have often wished for you! Thanks be to the Guide [ie God] who has facilitated this meeting!” He then said, “Attendant, summon Osman Efendi!” One of his dervishes went and called, and when Osman Efendi came, [Şeyh Alî] said to him, “Osman, here is the one I talked to you about!” So saying, he pointed at Hasan Efendi and smiled broadly. Osman Efendi, having kissed the holy şeyh’s blessed knees, sat down. Then for a while we talked with the holy şeyh. Hasan Efendi remained silent. In such manner we sat in the presence of the şeyh for half an hour.’

Continue reading “Şeyh Hasan’s Momentous Trip to Üsküdar”

Devotion to Muhammad in Medieval and Early Modern Islam: An Introduction

Hilye triptych
A three-panel Ottoman ḥilye-i şerîf-  a description of Muhammad’s physical attributes, or ‘verbal icon’- by Ḥafîẓ Osmân Efendî (d. 1698). Note the miniature depiction of Mecca in the top panel. Special Collections Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Isl. Ms. 238.

There are a number of aspects of medieval and early modern Islam (and contemporary living Islam too, for that matter) that tend to surprise, even shock, many modern-day observers, especially non-Muslims who nonetheless have some degree of knowledge about the ‘basics’ of Islam. Because of the wide-spread and often quite profound changes that have transformed Islam in many places throughout the world over the last century and a half or so, there is a great deal in pre-modern ‘mainstream’ Islam that many contemporary Muslims might find odd, unexpected, or even heretical. One such source of surprise and even shock is the history of the image and meaning of Muhammad in Islamic theologies and devotional practices. If, like me, in your initial exposure to Islam you learned that Muslims—throughout time, perhaps?—viewed Muhammad as ‘only’ a prophet, and no more, then Islamic theology that talks about the Muhammadan light, the cosmic role of Muhammad within God’s creative plan, and the intercessory power of the Prophet, and so on, must all sound quite strange and even ‘un-Islamic.’ Indeed, I remember thinking, as I delved into the vastness of ‘Muhammadology,’ that much of the theology I was discovering bore a marked resemblance to Christology, in particular to Logos theology, in Christianity.

Yet far from being aberrant or peripheral, the theological ‘elevation’ of Muhammad that took place in the course of the Islamic medieval period was a transformation that occurred and impacted Islam across the board. It was not just a ‘Sufi’ thing or a matter of ‘popular’ religion. Devotion to Muhammad, alongside theological renderings of the ‘cosmic Muhammad,’ coursed through the very veins of Islam from the middle ages into early modernity and beyond. The person and role of the Prophet Continue reading “Devotion to Muhammad in Medieval and Early Modern Islam: An Introduction”