The religious lives of the nomadic people of the Ottoman era are not easy to reconstruct. While some aspects of nomadic and semi-nomadic life are recoverable due to Ottoman administrators’ interest in the nomads and their often vital role in Ottoman military activities, other aspects are much murkier. Few to no nomads left written records of their own, leaving us dependent on the observations of others, observations that themselves are rather thin due to either lack of contact or, more likely, lack of sustain concern- a situation that holds with observations of rural life in general. But while there were certainly stereotypes operative about nomadic peoples, the attitudes of sedentary, learned people were in fact quite complex and capable of nuance. The following story, narrated by Muḥammad Abū al-Wafā’ ibn ʻUmar al-ʻUrḍī (d. 1661), a scholar from Aleppo whose biographical dictionary, Ma’ādin al-dhahab, is, no pun intended, a gold-mine for the cultural, social, and religious life of early modern Aleppo and its surrounding region, is an example of this nuance. It is not the only story in the biography that features Turkmen nomads- in the next story a group of nomads seek out, and gain, the intercession of the saint on behalf of the son of a tribal chief.

As for this story, it opens with rural people- who may be nomadic, semi-nomadic, or sedentary- engaging in a water dispute with a Shaykh Aḥmad, the subject of the biographical entry (and the author’s maternal great-grandfather), a detail by itself worthy of note. We next see a nomadic Turkmen family, though they are not really the center of the story as it turns out. At heart this anecdote is about the powers of insight of the saintly hero, and his ability in leading an adulterous disciple to repentance and restoration. Still, we get a glimpse of life among the Turkmen of Syria and their devotion to local saintly shaykhs (and the saintly shaykh’s respect for them), coupled with gender norms considerably laxer than those found in urban areas (gender segregation is not observed, and we get the sense that the wife is not veiled). Yet it is noteworthy that there is no explicit condemnation of these lax gender norms, or of the woman involved- rather, the responsibility for the sin that occurs is placed squarely on the errant urban male, who is made to confess his betrayal of hospitality by the saintly shaykh, then guided back to religious and social soundness through the shaykh’s tutelage.

 

Storage Bag (Chuval) Face, early 19th century Islamic,  Wool (warp, weft and pile), cotton (weft); asymmetrically knotted pile; Rug: H. 29 1/2 in. (74.9 cm)          W. 54 1/2 in. (138.4 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The James F. Ballard Collection, Gift of James F. Ballard, 1922 (22.100.40a) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/447498

Turkmen storage bag (chuval), c. 18th century.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 22.100.40a

 

My father the shaykh related to me that Ibn al-Qala’ī turned towards Antakiya due to a case against the shaykh [Aḥmad ibn ‘Abdū al-Raḥman al-Quṣayrī al-Kurdī, d. 1560] concerning water which the Banu al-Qala’ī were making claims on. He found along the way a khalīfa [1] of Shaykh Aḥmad, and he told the matter to him. The khalīfa said: ‘No, this is a futile matter; still, adjudicate it amongst yourselves.’ They agreed upon going to the village of the shaykh for reconciliation. Then night overtook them, so they stopped in a Turkmen tent [2], and the Turkmen received the khalīfa of Shaykh Aḥmad, in honor of the master, and showed him great hospitality. Then the Turkmen left after the evening prayers to tend to his flocks. He had a beautiful wife, and he left the two of them sleeping in the presence of his wife. When the cover of night fell, the khalīfa sought to seduce the wife, and she quickly responded and complied with his desire. Ibn al-Qala’ī perceived that, but the two supposed he was sleeping. When the khalīfa consummated his lust [lit. when he consummated what God had decreed for him], he settled down and went back to sleep.

Morning came, and Ibn al-Qala’ī and the khalīfa set out. Ibn al-Qala’ī said: ‘Let us perform the morning prayer.’ The khalīfa was silent, and payed Ibn al-Qala’ī no attention, so he stopped at a spring of water, did ablutions, and prayed the morning prayer. When the two reached the shaykh who is the subject of this biography, the khalīfa entered. It was the shaykh’s custom to rise to meet him, [which he did]. Then the shaykh looked at him wrathfully, and withdrew his hand from him when the khalīfa sought to kiss it, his face reddening. When the two sat down, the shaykh ordered the fetching of [the book] al-Targhīb wa al-tarhīb [by ‘Abd al-‘Aẓīm ibn ‘Abd al-Qawī al-Mundhirī, d. 1258]. He opened the book and began to read the chapter ‘Invocation of Fear towards Adultery,’ taking up the mention of the evil of adultery. The khalīfa remained silent, until he suddenly cried out, and began weeping and wailing openly. The shaykh shouted at him, then stripped him of his ceremonial apron (mi’zar), drove him out, and said: ‘O traitor! A man trusted you with his family and you betrayed him?’

Then he spent a long time weeping before the door of the shaykh, and was public with his repentance and returning to God, until the shaykh caused him to undergo a forty-day retreat [3]. He then dressed him the clothing of the fuqarā’, not of the khalīfas. After two years, when he verified the soundness of his repentance, he returned him to his previous position.

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[1] A sort of deputy of a Sufi shaykh.

[2] Turkmen nomads and semi-nomads could be found all across the Ottoman Arab provinces, sometimes in competition with Arab Bedouin tribes who surged north into Palestine and Syria during this period.

[3] During a forty-day retreat (forty being a symbolic number in both Christianity and Islam) the disciple would remain in seclusion most of the period, praying, practicing remembrance of God, and struggling with his lower self. Aḥmad was an initiate of the Khalwatiyya Sufi ṭarīqa, an order known for spiritual retreats, hence their name, taken from khalwa, ‘solitary retreat.’

______________________

Muḥammad Abū al-Wafā’ ibn ʻUmar al-ʻUrḍī. Maʻādin al-dhahab fī al-aʻyān al-musharrafah bi-him Ḥalab. [Ḥalab]: Dār al-Mallāḥ 1987. 92-93. Translation by Jonathan P. Allen, 2015, no rights reserved.

‘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!’

_______________________________

‘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.

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.

Sultans_OC1_54

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.

Here the hills are marked as if by great cosmic knives, taking
Deep clean cuts, molding wedding cake of land, the blown out bits
Of the glacial wastes, at the ice’s edge, cold lover jilted,
Washed down the River, liquid myth and sorrow.
If you listen close you might hear the blood murmuring, so close
To being silent and still, at last into that good night.
If you let your skin feel you might breathe the brush of spirits
Tangled in the kudzu vines’ frozen crawl up from the gullies,
Burrowing their dark roots into the loess bluffs, bidding the grey months.
There were flames on the hilltop then,
And you arrive a hundred years later, to look, the cinders washed away. You
Mark the columns, anonymous authored Greek tragedy scene,
Live oak weeps in Spanish moss, branches cracking. And you think
You’ve seen this all before, in a dream,
Or on a screen, maybe, fading into one another, ghost cinema.
Circumambulate the ruins, love, and put your finger to pulse. Know
That there are no more secrets here, except what we keep in ourselves.
Shame, the cold-blooded kind, manacled to heart, flesh,
No place to release it, no deeds of manumission.
We remember all too well, and not at all, as we tread the pilgrim’s road,
No absolution at the end, no word of blessing.
Just the dark roil of the River, choke of flood and silt,
Baptism of death, no fire. Look elsewhere for grace and love.
Here are only ever ruins.

Dear loyal readers: for the next couple of months, I plan on posting, perhaps daily, perhaps not, on a side-project blog I recently inaugurated: Sohbetname. The title is an Ottoman Turkish word meaning something like ‘conversation book,’ the story of which I will no doubt give in greater detail at some point in the future. My plan is to attempt to write something moderately publishable, something reflective of my imagination, my philosophical or political speculation, or something connected with my historical work but in a very rough and unverified form- in other words, a different body of material than has been my wont to publish here. I will continue to update this blog, sporadic as ever; this side-project will be my outlet for my more personal, experimental writing, and I very much hope you will give it a look. Thanks!

We like our distance. Angle things a little crooked,
Don’t line up with the neighbors. Show difference.
Scraggling trees, brush piles, dirt road weave,
A junked truck or two, moldering into earthen rust, loose fencing.
Sometimes the dog down the way wanders up and we watch him
Loping along, gaunt, in his eyes a hunted cast, signs of his owner’s
Maladroitness. And we reaffirm our distance, shoo him off.
When God made the world He made it wide with reason, we figure.
We’d prefer to keep it that way. Then, when death calls,
Put us near, but not too near, our ancestors’ bones. Even then
We’ll need our breathing space.

Iconoclasm in Islamic societies is not a new phenomenon, anymore than the production and enjoyment of the visual arts (including pictures of animals, humans, and holy figures) is new. While seventeenth century manifestations of iconoclasm, shrine-destruction, and other acts were fairly mild by modern standards (see, for instance, recent reports of al-Nusra Front destroying the venerable tomb of the important medieval Muslim scholar al-Nawawi), cases did exist. The following story, taken from the Seyāḥat-nāme of the great Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi (1611-1682), may or may not be fictional- one must take many of the stories Evliya Çelebi with a grain of salt- but it does convey attitudes found in various elements of Ottoman society. The boorish, iconoclastic janissary is said to be a follower of Kadızade, the Ottoman puritan and Islamic rigorist par excellence, whose followers opposed all manner of things they came to regard as un-Islamic ‘innovations,’ from tobacco to Sufi ritual to cash waqfs. As depicted in the story, individual Kadızadelis seemed to have had a trenchant for taking up the duty of ‘commanding the right and forbidding the wrong’ personally, sometimes by force. And as depicted in the story, their stances do not seem to have been especially popular in many ranks of Ottoman society, perhaps especially among the urbane elite, for whom the Kadızadelis were both ignorant of Islam and, perhaps far worse, violently unappreciative of refined culture.

a_damascus_pottery_tile_ottoman_syria_17th_century_d5479930h

A strange and comical case. There was a person claiming to belong to the hypocritical, fanatical and pederastic sect of the followers of Kadızade, a cowardly and slanderous usurer, a catamite and mischief-maker, despised even by the ignorant, an obscure and nasty individual, mothered in sin, belonging to the tribe of the deniers. He got on his high horse and bid sixteen hundred piasters for a Shāh-nāme, although it had been pledged to someone else. When the witty fellow brought it to his tent and began leafing through it, he saw that it contained miniatures. Painting being forbidden according to his belief, he took his Turkish knife and scraped the narcissus eyes of those depicted, as though he were poking out their eyes, and thus he poked holes in all the pages. Or else he drew lines over their throats, claiming that he had throttled them. Or he rubbed out the faces and garments of the pretty lads and girls with phlegm and saliva from his filthy mouth. Thus in a single moment he spoiled with his spit a miniature that a master painter could not have completed in an entire month.

When the auctioneer went the next day to claim his fee, the man said, “I won’t buy the ugly priest’s book; pictures are forbidden and I’ve destroyed them all!” and he threw the royal Shāh-nāme on his head. When the auctioneer opens the book and see that all the miniatures are ruined, he cries, “People of Muhammad! See what this philistine has done to this Shāh-nāme!” “I did well,” says the witty fellow, “I ‘forbade evil’ just as our shaykh in Tire told me to do. Only one picture I left alone: it reminded me of my dear son in Tire, so I didn’t destroy it.” The helpless auctioneer saw that he would get nowhere by arguing with the fellow. He went directly to the Pasha, crying, “Justice, O brave vizier!”

The auctioneer’s plea for justice: “My sultan, this Shāh-nāme was to go to Khan Murad Beg of Cülomerg castle, the emir of Hakkari’s steward. His bid at the imperial auction was fourteen hundred piasters. Then a certain Haci Mustafa of Tire came along and took it for sixteen hundred piasters. The book lay with him for three nights. It turns out that he is a follower of Kadızade and believes that painting is forbidden. So he poked out the eyes or cut the throats of all the people in the pictures with his knife, or rubbed out their faces with a shoe-sponge. Not only has he ruined the fifty miniatures of this priceless Shāh-nāme, rendering it totally valueless, he has also bilked me of my auction fee.” The Pasha examined the Shāh-nāme and, with a sigh, showed it to his councilors, who showered curses on the fellow, calling him Pharoah, Yezid, Haman, Mervan, Karun, Ebu Cehl, Ebu Leheb, and Balaam son of Peor.

The auctioneer once again put in a plea for his fee. “Never fear, my dear auctioneer,” said the Pasha, quite aroused by this time, “he has not just bilked you of your fee, he has bilked the Padishah of his property. Let that Haji of Tire be brought here right away!” They dragged in the witty, spitty fellow kicking and screaming, as they pushed and pounded on him like powder or flax. “You,” said the Pasha, “why did you do this to this book?” “Oh,” he said, “is that a book? I thought it was priest’s writing. I ‘forbade evil.’ I did well to destroy it.” “You are not charged to ‘forbid evil.’ But I am charged to practice government. I’ll show you how to destroy a book that was to be sold in the imperial auction for two thousand piasters. Dress him down!” “I am a ḳapuḳulı janissary,” he objected, but the martial executioners paid the fellow no heed. He got seventy crosswise lashes, and the kadi of Bitlis ordered him to pay the sixteen hundred piasters, which were sequestered. They gave the auctioneer ten piasters, put the spoiled Shāh-nāme into the offender’s hands, and banished him from the camp. As the poor fellow started out toward Diyarbekir he kept cursing his shaykh for saying that painting was forbidden. And everyone followed him out of the camp, throwing stones and saying, “He got what he deserved.” They turned the fellow into a monkey. It was a comical sight!’

Evliya Çelebi, Seyāḥat-nāme, in Evliya Çelebi in Bitlis, edited and translated by Robert Dankoff. Leiden: Brill, 1990. 295-299

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