December 2011


The following life is a marked departure from the two previous biographies from Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah’s Shaqa’iq that I’ve translated and posted here and here. Whereas the previous two figures are depicted as mystics and having an ambiguous, even conflicted relationship with both wider society and the Ottoman state structure, the subject of today’s biography does not seem to have had such problems, working in close company with first a Mamluk Sultan and then the Ottoman Sultan. His relationship with the Ottoman state, interestingly, is also different: rather than “official” posts such as judge, teacher, or mufti, Muhammad ibn ‘Amr ibn Hamza is what we might call a “popular preacher,” or at least that is the way he is depicted here. The “people” (ahl) love him, we are told; yet it isn’t just the people who love him; the holders of the highest political power in the lands he sojourns in also love him, and he seems to return the favor.

Ibn Hamza’s life trajectory is somewhat unusual: while being from a Transoxanian family is not particularly unusual, his birthplace of Antioch does stand out. While a major city of late antiquity and the middle ages, by the Ottoman period Antioch had declined greatly due to invasion and, more importantly, the silting up of the Orontes, which crippled Antioch’s port capacity and hence value as a trade entrepot. Leaving Antioch, ibn Hamza’s career would come to move in tandem with some of the central trends of his era: increasing Ottoman power and vastly widened territory, conflict between the Sunni Ottoman state and the Shi’i Safavid state, conflict that was itself part of a wider trend of state-formation across Eurasia, often in an atmosphere of inter-confessional conflict.

This inter-confessional conflict makes up the central element of ibn Hamza’s life: participating in and indeed encouraging the war against the “heretical” Shi’i Safavids, here refered to as the Qizilbāsh (literally, the “red-heads,” after their red turbans) in reference to the religio-military group that had facilitated the Safavid rise to power. Ibn Hamza’s fight against Shi’ism takes multiple forms, most virulently as a preacher in the service of Sultan Selīm; we may wonder to what extent this anti-Shi’i stance preceded ibn Hamza’s association with the Ottoman state, and to what extent it was simply precipitated by a commitment to Sunni orthodoxy. At any rate, anti-Shi’i activity would be central to Ottoman efforts within and without the empire, a situation somewhat analogous to the Cold War of the twentieth-century between the United States and the Soviet Union. People suspected of Shi’i leanings constituted, in the eyes of the Ottoman authorities, a central threat to the Ottoman state; Sufi groups could fall under suspicion, as we see in ibn Hamza’s life (although also note that Sufism per se is not condemned, at least not in Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah’s rendering, only a particular practice of some Sufis). But it should be noted that preaching holy war against heretics was not the only concern in ibn Hamza’s life—he also seems to have been deeply concerned with the wider social and religious welfare of Ottoman society, or at least this is the impression Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah wants to give us. In addition, while not exactly a conventional scholar, he did engage in book writing and other scholarly pursuits, alongside his preaching of holy war, acting as the companion of sultans, building mosques, preaching often, mastering alchemy, raising a massive family, and apparently engaging in commerce. It is perhaps not coincidental that the appellative that comes to mind is “Renaissance man,” but a discussion of the truth that lies behind such a thought is best saved for another time.

Finally, a note on the new format I have used here: having recently discovered how simple inserting endnotes into a WordPress post is, I have therefore included explanatory notes throughout the text, which I hope will make some of the technical language and historical references clearer.

Among them is the Knowledgeable, the Noble, the Virtuous Mulla Muhyi al-Din Muhammad ibn ‘Amr ibn Hamza:

His grandfather was from Transoxiana [1] and was among the disciples of Sa’ad al-Din al-Tuftazani. He then traveled and settled in Antioch, where this Muhammad was born. He memorized the Qur’an at an early age, then al-Kanz and al-Shatabi and others, then studied fiqh [2] under his paternal uncle Shaykh Hussayn and Shaykh Ahmad, virtuous men, studying under them the principles of jurisprudence (al-usul), Qur’an, and the Arabic language. He then journeyed to Hasn Kifa and Amada, then to Tabriz, learning from its ‘ulama, busying himself there for two years, studying in Tabriz under the learned, the virtuous Mulla Muzid. He then returned to Antioch and Aleppo and remained there for a time, preaching, teaching, and issuing fatwas, his virtues becoming well known. Then he went to Jerusalem and lived nearby, then to Mekka and performed the hajj, then to Egypt. There, he heard hadith from al-Siyuti and al-Shamani, both giving him ijāzas. [3] He preached, taught, and gave fatwas, having great reception for a time, until Sultan Qāʾitbāy [4] sought him out and he appeared before him, preached to him, and wrote a book for him on fiqh titled The Conclusion, so he loved him and honoured him with great honour and rewarded him well. [The Sultan] would not give him permission to travel, so [ibn Hamza] remained in [the Sultan’s] presence until King [sic] Qāʾitbāy passed away in the year 903 [1497].[5]

Then [ibn Hamza] traveled to Anatolia (al-Rum) by way of the sea, and then made his way to Bursa, whose people loved him greatly, so he stayed there and busied himself with preaching and forbidding the wrong.[6] Then he went to the city of Constantinople and its people loved him also, and Sultan Bāyazīd [7] heard his sermon and bestowed upon him all of his wealth, and he used to send rewards to him all the time. [Ibn Hamza] wrote for him a book titled Explication of the Excellent Qualities in the Life of Our Prophet (peace and prayers of God—exalted is He—be upon him), and another book on Sufism, and was present before him, exhorting him. Then the Sultan went out on the holy frontier campaign,[8] and [ibn Hamza] was with him. Together they conquered the fortress of Methoni, and this was their second or third entrance therein.[9] Then he returned to Constantinople and remained there, commanding the right and forbidding the wrong, for he did not fear the reproach of God, and he opposed the heretics and the Sufi practice of dancing. He next returned with his family to Aleppo the Protected, and Melik al-Amra’ Khayrbek honoured him greatly and studied under him, being responsible for all of his needs, so that [ibn Hamza] did not require anything else. So [ibn Hamza] stayed there eight years, occupied with tafsir, hadith, and refuting heretics and the Rāfiḍa bearing the name of the tyrant Ardabik.[10] This sect hated him, cursing him in their assembly while cursing the Companions of the Prophet.

[Ibn Hamza] then returned to Anatolia during the reign of Sultan Selīm Khan,[11] urging him on to holy war (jihād) against the Qizilbāsh,[12] writing a book for him on the conditions and virtues of holy frontier campaigns (it is a very fine book); [ibn Hamza] then went with him to the war against this sect, preaching to the army every day during the campaign, reminding them of the rewards of holy war, especially against this sect. The Sultan honoured him and was very generous towards him. When the two armies met, fierce fighting broke out, and as eyes were averted and hearts rose into throats, the Sultan commanded [ibn Hamza] to proclaim the call (al-dawa’a). So he occupied himself with proclaiming the call, and the Sultan cried, “Amen!” So the enemy was put to flight through the help of God—exalted is He—and he journeyed to Rumelia, preaching to its people, forbidding them disobedience [towards God] and commanding them to do the obligatory deeds. So many among them were [morally] improved because of him, and he built two Friday mosques in the town of Saray [Sarajevo], as well as a neighborhood mosque there and another neighborhood mosque in Uskub [Skopje], and remained there approximately twenty years, doing Qur’an interpretation every day, converting many unbelievers. In the year 932 [1525] he went on campaign with our magnificent Sultan [13] to Ankeros, and he called to him at the time of the fighting, and the glorious conquest came as before.[14] Then [ibn Hamza] went to Bursa and dwelled there and began to build a large mosque, but passed away before its completion, on Muharram 4, 938 [August 18, 1531]; he was close to seventy years old, and was buried in the precincts of the mosque.

He beget from his loins nearly a hundred souls; he had many books and treatises on numerous arts, especially on the science of alchemy (al-kīmiyāʾ), being among those who persevere in it. He traveled to many places, was beloved by many, many souls being attracted to him. He was greatly pious, and had perfect watchfulness in his manner of eating, dress, and ritual purity. His cost of living was covered by his commercial activity, while much of his time was expended in the betterment of people through preaching, teaching, and fatwa-giving. There are few hadith mentioned in books which he did not have committed to memory; he was perfect in his Qur’an commentary (tafsir), without recourse to study or books. He used to devote himself on Fridays to commentary (tafsir) on what the preacher had recited during prayers, with perfectly elegant style, variety of aspects, and abundant knowledge, which daily amazed those who thought on it. The common people and the elite among the ‘ulama and the Sufis learned from him: he was knowledgeable, lordly, always summoning to right-guidance and good conduct; putting to death many bad innovation and bringing to life many good traditions (sunnan). People beyond the count of any but God benefited through him; such would not be possible to anyone else unless there came the like of what was sent from the grace of God [through him]—may God breathe upon his face and enlighten his grave!

Aḥmad ibn Muṣṭafá  Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah, Al-Shaqāʼiq Al-Nuʻmānīyah Fī ʻulāmāʼ Al-Dawlah Al-ʻUthmānīyah (Bayrūt, Lubnān: Dār al-Kitāb al-ʻArabī, 1975), 247-249.


[1] Lit., “what lies beyond the river,” roughly modern-day Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, part of Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan.

[2] Islamic jurisprudence.

[3] “License,” certification that one is qualified to transmit hadith (or a book or other text) from a given person via an authorized chain of transmitters.

[4] Important late Mamluk ruler, carried out extensive military campaigns and building projects; died a few years before the Ottoman conquest of Egypt. See M Sobernheim, “Ḳāʾit Bāy, al-Malik al-As̲h̲raf Abu ‘l-Naṣr Sayf al-dīn al-Maḥmūdī al-Ẓāhirī” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, edited by: P. Bearman; , Th. Bianquis; , C.E. Bosworth; , E. van Donzel; and W.P. Heinrichs (Leiden: Brill, 2011).

[5] Qāʾitbāy actually died in 901/1496.

[6]The second half of the phrase “commanding the right and forbidding the wrong,” a basic Islamic ethical injunction incumbent upon all believers; the exact dynamics and parameters were, however, widely debated. See Michael Cook, Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[7] Sultan Bāyazīd II, ruled 886-918/1481-1512.

[8] Ghazu, literally a raid, but in this context a campaign on the Ottoman frontier, here given a sacred function (see below), hence my somewhat inelegant translation.

[9] Methoni (also known as Modon) is a heavily fortified town in Morea, Greece; it had been held by the Venetians for nearly three hundred years until its fall, mentioned here, on August 9, 1500. For photos of surviving fortifications and a plan of the town, see: Methoni.

[10] “Rāfiḍa” by this period had become a derogatory term for Shi’i Muslims in general; I have not been able to uncover to whom the name Ardabik refers.

[11] Ruled 918-926/1512-1520.

[12] That is, the Persian Safavids, relatively recently converted to Shi’a Islam.

[13] Sultan Süleymān I, ruled 926-74/1520-66.

[14] This must refer to either Süleymān’s conquest of Belgrade in 1521 or his 1525 Hungary campaign; I suspect the former, though that would mean Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah’s date is wrong.

Here is another selection from Aḥmad ibn Muṣṭafá Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah’s collection of biographies of early Ottoman scholars. Here we have a man who is unambiguously a Sufi, though his order (perhaps Halveti?) is not given (for this order specifically, see the recent work by John Curry on the Halveti order in part of Anatolia[1] ). At any rate, a couple of things stand out. One, Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah does not have a great deal of information to go on, other than perhaps the letter (risala-also, a treatise) al-Amasyi wrote. Much of the rest- the ragged clothing, the small livelihood- is pretty standard, though it does reveal what was expected of a Sufi scholar in this period. Most notable though is the saying Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah tentatively attributes to al-Amasyi about his vision of the Preserved Tablet, followed by al-Amasyi’s other dreams, namely, of Muhammad. Dreams and their interpretation were a major component not just of Sufi thought and practice, but across the ranks of the ‘ulama and even beyond. Here, perhaps ironically, it is through dreams and their being written down that one man’s life has come down to us, albeit in a very tiny fragment through which we can only imagine a larger whole.

Among them is the Knowledgeable, the Virtuous, the Noble Mulla Bakhshi Khalifa al-Amasyi, God be merciful to him.

He was born in a village close to Amasya and studied under the ‘ulama of his homeland. He then traveled to the Arab lands and studied under those ‘ulama as well. Then he chose the Sufi path and received from it glorious rank. He was lowly, humble, watchful, shari’a-minded, content with a small livelihood, dressing in raggedy old clothes. He used to teach, many people sitting for his sermons and dhikr-recitation. He was skillful in tafsir, and had many books of tafsir in his memory, with many studying under him and gaining benefit from him. He was also skillful in fiqh, and in all the sciences. And perhaps he said: “I saw on the Preserved Tablet lines written like thus.” His words were never off the mark, and it was as he transmitted. And I saw a letter of his in which he collected all of his visions in his dreams of the Prophet, peace and prayers be upon him, and his conversations with him, and they were very many. He reposed—God be merciful to him—around the year 930 (1523), God illumine his repose and in the highest chamber of the Gardens give him rest.

Aḥmad ibn Muṣṭafá  Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah, Al-Shaqāʼiq Al-Nuʻmānīyah Fī ʻulāmāʼ Al-Dawlah Al-ʻUthmānīyah (Bayrūt, Lubnān: Dār al-Kitāb al-ʻArabī, 1975)
____________

1 John J. Curry The Transformation of Muslim Mystical Thought in the Ottoman Empire: The Rise of the Halveti Order, 1350-1650. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010)

If divine guidance is needed, it is for the purpose of setting human life in good order. The purpose is not to control discipline, the two most salient missions of modern law and the modern state that commands it. Rather, in Muslim thinking, it is to live in peace: first, with oneself; second, with and in society; and third, with and in the world. It is to do the right thing, whoever or wherever one is. The state permits and forbids, and when it does the latter, it punishes severely upon infraction. It is not in the least interested in individuals do outside of its spheres of influence and concern. Islamic law, on the other hand, has an all-encompassing interest in human acts. It organizes them into various categories ranging from moral to legal, without however making such distinctions.

Wael B. Hallaq, Sharīʻa: Theory, Practice, Transformations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 84.

The following is a translated excerpt from a work by an Ottoman scholar writing in the first half of the sixteenth century, Aḥmad ibn Muṣṭafá Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah. Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah wrote a number of works in Arabic and Persian (and perhaps in Ottoman Turkish-not sure on that though), including a tabaqat (biographical dictionary) on early Ottoman ‘ulama (scholars). All of the scholars have some sort of connection to the emergent Ottoman state structure, either as salaried teachers or muftis, judges in shari’a courts, or as waqf administrators. Many of the members of the ‘ulama Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah considers, however, were Sufis or otherwise mystically inclined, such as the scholar treated in the biography below. In fact, there is no sharp division between “mysticism” and the more “exoteric” religious sciences and practices. Indeed, as this example also shows, these scholars could reconcile, at least notionally, both exoteric, even secular demands, and more mystical impulses and desires.

There is a lot going on in this entry (which is richer in personal details than the majority of Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah’s entries-here, the richness is due to Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah’s personal connection to the subject), but I will only note one other aspect: the treatment of the central Islamic discipline of Qur’an interpretation. On the one hand, we see a very practical concern: Muhyi al-Din’s creation of a sort of introductory text-book for people new to the discipline (and, in the Ottoman context, people who would be unlikely to have any form of Arabic as their first language). On the other hand, we also see a deeply mystical approach to interpretation, reminiscent of some rather radical forms of Sufi hermeneutic and exegetical practice. Both of these “exoteric” concerns (Baydawi’s commentary is hardly mystical stuff) and a deeply, even controversially, mystical approach to exegesis seem to have coexisted for this scholar. I will leave it to the reader to imagine what all this might mean for how we think about the early Ottoman ‘ulama, and perhaps the ‘ulama as a “class,” particularly in relation to “mystical” groups and ideologies.

And among them is the Knowledgeable, the Doer, the Virtuous, the Noble, Mulla Muhyi al-Din Muhammad ibn al-Shaykh the Knower of God the Exalted Maslah al-Din al-Qujawi:

He read under the ‘ulāma of his land then joined to the service of Mulla al-Fadil ibn Afdal al-Din, then became a teacher in the madrasa of Khawajeh Khayr al-Din in Constantinople, and married the daughter of Shaykh Al-‘Arif bi-Allah al-Shaykh Muhyi al-Din al-Qujawi. Then the call of retreat and seclusion overwhelmed him, so he abandoned teaching, with a salary of fifteen dirhams per day in the way of retirement being appointed to him. And he sought to have it decreased, saying, “Ten dirhams is sufficient for me.” And he remained in his house, busying himself with exalted knowledge and worship. He was modest and humble, satisfactory in way of life, praiseworthy in behavior, and was beloved of the people of soundness. He used to purchase his necessities in the market himself and bear them back to his house himself, with the people wanting to serve him, but he was not satisfied unless he carried it out by his own hand, modest towards God and harsh on the lower self. And he used to transmit tafsīr in his mosque, sons of the land gathered to them, seeking to listen to his words, seeking blessings for themselves; many benefited through him. He wrote a marginal commentary on Baydawi’s tafsīr, containing and uniting in one place the benefits that were variously scattered in the books of tafsīr, with clear, easy interpretations in order to benefit the beginner. He wrote an explanation of al-Waqā’i fi al-Fiqh, an explanation of al-Farā’id al-Sarajia, an explanation of al-Muftāh lil-‘Alāma al-Sakākī, and an explanation of the famous qasida al-Burda. He died in the year 950 (1543).

He said, may God be merciful to him, “If a verse from the verse of the Magnificent Qur’an gives me difficulty, I turn to God—exalted is He—then my heart is widened until the measure of the world and the rising of sun and moon in it- I do not know which of the two is which. Then a light appears so that there is a guide to the Preserved Tablet—then I take from it the meaning of the verse.” He said—may God be merciful to him—“If I act according to firm intention, I do not desire sleep unless I am sleeping in the Garden. And if I act according to permission, this state is not present in me.” And he used to have great love towards this lowly servant [the author]. And he [the author] was part of a group that did not vaunt him and did not choose the appointment of judgeship without direction from him. And he had bid me to it [judgeship], and he related to me that one of his sincere companions had been a judge, had left judgeship for a time, then re-entered judgeship—and he was a sound, truthful man. “So I asked him about the cause of his re-entry, and he replied: ‘I had, through my judgeship, a connection to the Prophet of God, peace and prayers be upon him, and I saw him in a dream once every week. Then I left judgeship in order to increase nearness to him [Muhammad]. But after abandoning judgeship I did not see what I had seen while a judge. Then I saw [in a dream] the Prophet of God, peace and prayers be upon him, and said to him: “O Prophet of God! I abandoned being a judge in order to increase my closeness to you—but it has not transpired as I had hoped.” Then the Prophet of God, peace and prayers be upon him, said: “The relationship between me and between you was stronger during [your] judgeship than when you abandoned it, because you, when you were a judge, were occupied with the well-being (aslāh) of your self and of my community, but when you abandonded judgeship you were only occupied with the well-being of your self. When you increase in well-being (aslāh) you increase in proximity to me.’” The mercifully protected Mulla said: “I speak the truth of his words, and the man was truthful. So I advise you that you choose the judgeship and do good to your self and to others.” These are his words—may his secret (sirruhu) be hallowed.

Aḥmad ibn Muṣṭafá  Ṭāshkubrīʹzādah, Al-Shaqāʼiq Al-Nuʻmānīyah Fī ʻulāmāʼ Al-Dawlah Al-ʻUthmānīyah (Bayrūt, Lubnān: Dār al-Kitāb al-ʻArabī, 1975), 245-6.

The guild [of Jerusalem tourist guides] had ten members, one of whom was the head; it was very zealous in guarding their vested interests. They apparently had ample reason to be anxious: in 1641 it was reported to the kadi that unauthorized guides were meeting the pilgrims outside Jerusalem’s walls and showing them around holy sites, their faulty knowledge not withstanding. Moreover, other individuals were selling the visitors figurines made of clay, allegedly taken from the cave situated beneath the Dome of the Rock and representing historical figures—claims that were baseless factually and harmful financially. Thus the kadi instructed “stock ‘Abd al-Qadir,” the head of the guild, to stop anyone who tried to behave in such unauthorized ways, and if necessary, bring them to the court where they would be punished. All guild members were to be equally treated by the head, but each guide was to be left alone to handle his own customers, without interference by others. The head was also to stop any sales of the kind just mentioned, as well as insist that each of the staff of the Temple Mount stay within his allocated area and address the visitors there, while refraining from showing them around other areas. However, if high-ranking individuals wished to vist these places, their tours should not be conducted by ordinary guild members; only handpicked top staff of the Temple Mount (the deputy shaykh al-haram and the deputy nazir) could guide them there. And finally, no one was to be allowed to intercept the pilgrims outside the town gates and monopolize them.

Amnon Cohen, The Guilds of Ottoman Jerusalem (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 79-80.