Ottoman Women and the Lives of Saints, ii.: Money Trouble and a Sleep-Talking Son

Like any major urban area, eighteenth century Istanbul was inhabited by people from a seemingly endless array of walks of life, from the sultan and his entourage and sprawling staff down. The neighborhood in which the sometimes fiery, sometimes tender sufi saint Hasan Ünsî lived, while it stood hard by the walls of the sultan’s palace, the Topkapı, was a world away from that rarefied atmosphere. In the houses and workspaces and places of worship ordinary people, men and women, lived and toiled and prayed and plotted and did their best to get by. Şeyh Hasan was for some inhabitants a source of comfort and repose, while for others he was a source of humor or of potential easy money. In the two accounts which I have translated and lightly annotated below, we see two different women’s interactions with the saint, as well as glimpses into their everyday lives, glimpses that are quite valuable in reconstructing the diversity of ordinary women’s lives in this period and place. There is a lot that could be said about these stories and the contexts relevant to them, but I will limit myself to a couple of remarks.

In the first story, we meet a woman- who, interestingly, is named here- about whom we have but a few tantalizing details. Described as being Bosnian, we might guess that she had ended up in the city- perhaps her husband was or had been a military man posted in Bosnia?- and had fallen on hard times (the main point of the story). While I have not come across any other descriptions of her particular line of work as a sort of handywoman, it seems likely that such services would have been appealing to ordinary households without the luxury of slaves or hired servants. The rest of the story is relatively self-explanatory, though, as in the previous installment, note the ease with which Uzun Havvâ comes into the şeyh’s presence and interacts with him.

The second story introduces in greater detail the mother of the menâkıb‘s author, Ibrahim Hâs. The ‘set-up’ is that Ibrahim is telling how he came to ‘repent’ at the saint’s hand and take up a dervish life under his tutelage- which happened while he was still a young man living at home. Here we learn that his mother was herself effectively a saint, practicing immense austerities at home (modeled to some degree after Şeyh Hasan, who also tended to remain at home), even as she maintained a close relationship with the saint. We know from the survival of a dream-diary and correspondence with her Halvetî şeyh by a woman in Skopje, described by Cemal Kafadar in an article on Ottoman self-writing, that it was not unheard of for a woman to send her dreams to a saintly şeyh for interpretation. Here, however, Ibrahim’s mother goes directly to the şeyh, as opposed to writing to him, something that we are given to understand she did on a regular basis, and in so doing helped to give direction and greater meaning to her own ascetic pursuits and identity.

Ottoman Yastik
A 17th century Ottoman yastik, or pillow cover, a typical feature of domestic spaces (Boston MFA 77.256)

1. There was a poor Bosnian woman, named Bedümli Uzun Havvâ, who lived in a rented room below my home in the Hocapaşa quarter. For a fee she would look after the daily affairs of her neighbors. One day a neighbor came to her with a sick child. [The neighbor lady] said, “Go and take this child to Şeyh Hasan Efendî in Aydınoǧlu Tekke and have him recite a prayer, and put these pâras [1] down in his presence,” giving the Bosnian woman some pâras.

Taking the child and the pâras, the woman went to the venerable Şeyh. After having pocketed two of the pâras she had been given to present to the Şeyh for his prayer recitation, she put the rest before the venerable Şeyh. He said to her, “Look now, what of the other two pâras?” But the Bosnian woman said, “Only this much were given, only this much!” The venerable Şeyh replied, “Ah, but there are two pâras in your right pocket—did I not see how many pâras were given to you? And do I not know whether in taking the pâras you wanted to deceive me or to try me?”

As he said this, fearful the woman took out the pâras she had taken and placed them before the venerable Şeyh. He said to her, “You did this on account of your poverty, but take care not to speak untruthfully and do not try (imtihân) anyone. Be patient in the midst of poverty, and God, exalted is He, will provide you with the necessities of this life below!” Having said this he gave the woman forty pâras, then gave her the two pâras [she had pocketed]! The woman said, “My sultan! I took those pâras, thinking, ‘The Şeyh won’t know.’ And indeed by poverty is great such that as of tonight they would have been my entire livelihood. But now you have done such good!”

The venerable Şeyh gave her some further good counsel, and the woman, having kissed the Şeyh’s noble hands, departed. She returned the child home, then went home herself. This poor one [the author] learned of this story from the telling of his mother and from her neighbors living there.

Woman and boy going to the hammam
Woman and boy on their way to the hammam, from an early 17th century costume album depicting various people one might encounter in Ottoman Istanbul (BM 1928,0323,0.46.122)

2. It happened on the 15th of Ramadan, 1117 [December 31, 1705]. Up till then, I [Ibrahim Hâs] only attended the tevhîd sessions [2] and busied myself with the discourses of the venerable Şeyh. I slept a lot during the daytime [3]. One day while sleeping alone I began talking in my sleep. My mother came to my side and listened to what I was saying, and when I awoke, my mother said to me, “While you were sleeping you said some wondrous and strange things!” I replied, “What did I say?” My mother then repeated back to me one by one the things I had said [4]. Continue reading “Ottoman Women and the Lives of Saints, ii.: Money Trouble and a Sleep-Talking Son”

Ottoman Women and the Lives of Saints, i.: Stampeding Livestock and Saintly Friendships

This post begins a three-part series of accounts of women’s lives that I have discovered ’embedded’ in hagiographical literature from the early modern Ottoman world, lives which I’ve selected for the variety they show, both in the social and economic profiles of the women they feature, and in the ways that the interact with the holy men in the stories. I’ve featured women in Ottoman hagiography before (such as in this recent post), and I could have easily extended this series many times over: for as it turns out, women tend to be quite visible in these sorts of sources, often doing and saying things that might come as a surprise for those who tend to imagine Islamic and Middle Eastern women of this period living highly secluded, strictly gender-segregated existences. While not always true, women tend to be sympathetic or virtuous (or both) characters in these accounts, often being singled out for their devotion and trust in the saint in question, not infrequently in contrast to higher-status men who do not show such trust and suffer the consequences. And across accounts we see women from a range of backgrounds and stations in life freely associating with male saints and crossing into the physical space of the saint- living and departed- in ways that might not have been countenanced so readily by Ottoman men in other spaces.

In the following brief account, taken from a major 17th century compilation of lives of notable people- including numerous saints- of Damascus and beyond by the scholar Najm al-Dīn al-Ghazzī, we encounter an unnamed woman (a frequent feature in this stories, reflecting gender norms that did not break down even in the textual presence of a saint) who is close to the saint featured here, one Muhammad Abū Muslim al-Ṣamādī (911/1505-994/1585), a charismatic and popular saint of Damascus whom al-Ghazzī considered one of the greatest and most important holy men of the 10th Islamic century. The woman and her husband in this story seem to be of originally nomadic origin- hence the appellation ‘son of an Arab,’ which suggest Bedouin background- but spent at least part of their time in Damascus, going out to the steppes (which lie quite close to the city) at certain times of the year. Note also in this story both the identity of the woman- she herself is described as being a saint, though we are given no further details, unfortunately- and the apparent freedom with which she associated with not just al-Ṣamādī but al-Ghazzī’s father and al-Ghazzī himself.

Velvet Ottoman Panel of Carnations

It also reached me that a man called Muhammad ibn ‘Arab [that is, the son of an ‘Arab] went out eastward [into the steppes] in order to bring in some cattle, and on his way back he spent the night in fearful place. The night was extremely windy and had heavy rain. He related: “It was the middle of the night, when a movement spooked the animals and they bolted. I despaired of regathering them, so I cried out: ‘Yā Abī Muslim, this is your time!’ Then scarcely the blink of an eye later and the animals had come together to me from every direction until they were all assembled.”

The wife of this “ibn ‘Arab” was a holy woman from among the saints of God, who believed in Shaykh Muhammad al-Ṣamādī and who used to believe in my father as well, frequently visiting him and then me after him. She said: “I went to [Shaykh Muhammad al-Ṣamādī] Abū Muslim one day, and my husband was absent on that journey. He said to me: ‘Ya Umm So-and-So I am going to tell you something you must not relate until after I have died. Last night your husband’s animals fled from him so he cried out to me, seeking my aid. So I picked up a stone and threw it towards him, and his animals came back together. He will come to you soundly nothing having happened to him.’”

Continue reading “Ottoman Women and the Lives of Saints, i.: Stampeding Livestock and Saintly Friendships”

Roses for Kerā Khātūn

Few Sufis in history have achieved as much renown as Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (1207-1273), also widely known as simply Mawlānā, ‘our master.’ Of several hagiographical texts dealing with the life of Rūmī, the most expansive and best known is Manāqib al-‘ārifīn by Shams al-Dīn Aḥmad-e Aflākī, written in the early 1300s, decades after Rūmī’s death. In addition to Rūmī’s life, Aflākī includes the lives of several other saintly figures associated with Rūmī, drawing upon what seems to have been a vast reservoir of stories and anecdotes available to him. The resulting text, while imbued with many of the conventions of Sufi hagiography, also contains glimpses into everyday life in 13th century Konya. Formerly the center of the Seljuk Empire, Konya was by the lifetime of Rūmī under the rule of the Mongol Ilkhanids, albeit as a somewhat peripheral, frontier-like province. As had been the case under the Seljuks, Anatolia continued to be a place of cross-cultural interaction and struggle, and while increasingly politically decentralized and fragmented, host to both outstanding scholars and to networks of merchants and traders. Muslims may have been the majority population by Rūmī’s time, but members of various Christian confessions were still sizable and probably made up the majority in some places.

In the story below, in addition to the argument for the exalted nature of Mawlānā’s spiritual state, we get a glimpse of the market culture of Konya, and its possible ties to distant places. We also see some of the possibilities in the life of a woman in this period; the account is, not insignificantly, attributed to a woman, Mawlānā’s wife. Her maidservant acts as her representative in the market, unsurprising for a woman of exalted social class in this period. The account is also shot through with a rich sensuality and aesthetic sensibility, summoning for us not just sights and sounds of medieval Konya, but even smell- which is here bound up with the memory of sanctity, activated through the long-lasting lingering of the beautiful odor of the miraculous roses: memory that must be guarded lest it be misused, but, in the right noses, is both spiritually and sensually pleasing.

A rose by the Ottoman artist Abdullah Bukharī, c. 1733.
A rose by the Ottoman artist Abdullah Bukharī, c. 1733.

It is also transmitted that Mowlānā’s wife, Kerā Khātūn- God have mercy on her- who was a second [Virgin] Mary with regard to her unsullied life and the purity of her honor, related: ‘One day in the depths of winter Mowlānā was seated in seclusion with Shams-e Tabrīzī, and Mowlānā was leaning on Shams al-Dīn’s knee. I had placed my ear against a crack in the door in their direction to hear the secrets they were saying and to learn what was going on between them. Suddenly I beheld the wall of the house open and six awesome men of the invisible realm came in. They said salām, did obeisance, and placed a bouquet of roses before Mowlānā. And they sat there in complete concentration without uttering a single word, until it was close to the time of the midday prayers. Mowlānā indicated to Shams al-Dīn: “Let us perform the prayers. You act as prayer leader.” Shams al-Dīn said: “No one else can act as prayer leader when you are present.”

Mowlānā led the prayers and when the prayers were over, the six esteemed individuals, having paid their respects, rose and went out again through the wall. Due to this awesomeness I fainted. When I recovered my senses, I saw that Mowlānā had come outside and he gave me the bouquet of roses, saying: “Look after this!”

I sent a few petals of this rose to the shop of the perfume sellers to ask: “We have never seen this kind of rose before. Where does this rose come from and what is its name?” All the perfume sellers were amazed at the freshness, color, and fragrance of the rose, saying: “In the depths of winter where has such a wondrous rose come from?”

As it happened, there was a reputable gentleman in that company by the name of Sharaf al-Dīn al-Hendī who was always going to India on business and bringing back strange and wondrous merchandise. When they showed him the roses, he said: “This is the Indian rose. It grows particularly in that country in the area of Ceylon. That being the case, what is it doing in the clime of Rūm? I must find out the circumstances of how this rarity came to be in Rūm.”

The maidservant of Kerā Khātūn took the petals and, returning to the house, reported what had happened. Kerā Khātūn’s amazement increased a thousandfold. Suddenly Mowlānā came in and said: “Kerā, keep this bouquet of roses hidden and do not show it to any outsider. Concealed persons from the sanctuary of generosity and the caretaker of the delightful garden of Eram, who are the Pivots of India, have brought this for you as a gift that it may convey vigor the palate of your soul and give pleasure to your body’s eye. By God, by God, look after it well lest the evil eye afflict it.’

And it is said that Kerā Khātūn kept these petals until her final breath. But it happened that she gave a few petals from the bouquet to Gorjī Khātūn, the wife of the sultan, and this she did with Mowlānā’s permission. Whenever someone suffered pain in the eye, once a petal was rubbed on it he would be cured. The color and fragrance of these roses never underwent change thanks to the blessing of those esteemed persons whose bosom was perfumed with musk.

Shams al-Dīn Aḥmad-e Aflākī, Manāqib al-‘ārifīn, trans. by John O’Kane, 67-68

A basket of rose petals and bottles of rosewater, Fes, 2008.
A basket of rose petals and bottles of rosewater, Fes, 2008.