June 2014


The below brief text is excerpted from a short Ottoman Turkish manual of Sufism by Mahmut Hüdayı, an important shaykh, and indeed early organizer, of the Celvetiyye ṭarīqa, the adherents of which mostly lived in the Anatolian and Rumelian parts of the Ottoman domains. Much of Mahmut Hüdayı’s output was in Arabic, but a substantial number were in Ottoman Turkish- not quite a colloquial register, but more likely to be read and understood by a wider number of people in Anatolia and Rumelia.

This passage is emblematic of one of the prevailing themes in the work from which it is excerpted: the importance of having a shaykh (in this context, a spiritual master/instructor) and being constant in honoring and obeying him. While such sentiments were hardly new in Sufism in the sixteenth century, there were also a seemingly increasing number of people who contested, explicitly or implicitly, the authority and knowledge of living shaykhs. By the eighteenth century it is easy to find many people practicing what was essentially a ‘privatized’ mystical Islam, with little need for a shaykh or regular communal life. Such a possibility is clearly not in view for Mahmut Hüdayı, however- quite the opposite, as is clear from the following passage.

If the shaykh enjoins as a duty any service (khidmet, mod. Turkish hizmet), [the disciple] ought to carry that service out, without delay, without adding any other business to it, without asking for explanation of cause or detail, and without stopping. It is related about a shaykh that he asked one of his disciples: ‘If your shaykh sent you off to do some service, and on the way you passed by a mosque in which they were performing congregational ritual prayers, what would you do?’

The disciple answered, ‘First, I would carry out that service, then I would perform the ritual prayers.’ The shayhk commended his answer. The intended moral from this [antecdote] is the bestowal of great care in service [to one’s shaykh]; it is not, God forbid, the disparagement of ritual prayer!

Mahmut Hüdayı, 1543 or 1544-1628, Ṭarīqat-nāme, Princeton Islamic Manuscripts, New Series no. 307, fol. 128-129.

Words, loose stock of the tongue,
Jump of a thing.
Clutch of rabbits scattered
Out of the weeds. You make,
And they flee.

Sitting here afloat, pockmarked and saltstreaked cordgrass
Shivering up in the gathering morning heat,
I search for a word for the waters under me.
Creek, the map says, but flowing up,
Against the world’s plane,
Reached by the moon, hard to believe,
Like the best things that also are true.
I listen.
Everywhere, motion and sound, just above silence—
An infinite city in reduced scale, plunging
The five or six feet down in the turbid flow, then into
The mud, the worn-away of the ages,
Ancient Appalachians crumbled,
Creatures great and small alive in the bubbling wash,
The ten thousand things circling in and out.
I hover overhead.
I’d say I’ll withdraw, but there is no real away,
Only a slight difference of distance.
Every moment, earth, under
Moon, self, triangulated, over, below
The waters. Here, and everywhere.

The below passage is from an introductory ‘handbook’ of Sufism in Arabic by the seventeenth century Aleppine Sufi Qāsim al-Khānī (d. 1697). His description here is hardly original, rather, it represents the shifting through and representation of centuries of Sufi thought and practice. At times his writings reflect a concern with theological ‘deviance,’ a particularly acute concern for Sufis like him who sought to defend and perpetuate the long tradition of Sufism- including the many theo-philosophical developments of the thirteenth century, such as those associated with Ibn ‘Arabi. Many of these beliefs and practices came under increasing scrutiny in the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere from the sixteenth century onward, even if such critiques did not become truly mainstream until much closer to our own age. al-Khānī seeks to defend such beliefs as ‘oneness of being,’ while also decrying allegedly incorrect interpretations of such beliefs, for instance here:

That which benefits the wayfarer in his journey is witnessing (shuhūd) of oneness of being not its gnosis. Witnessing is a state (ḥāla) necessarily realized from struggle, privation, successive exercise, lowliness, poverty, and need. And this state does not benefit the wayfarer unless there is with it following of the Shari’a, for if there is not with it following of the Shari’a, then it is damning zandiqa [heresy or deviance].

The passage below is less concerned with fending off theological error; rather, it presents a pretty traditional Sufi understanding of spiritual journeying: the passage through successive ranks of ‘veils’ preventing human cognizance and connection with God. As it is written in a straight-forward, pedagogically-inclined manner, I will leave off further commentary of this fine example of early modern Sufi teaching.

And the greatest of the veils that are between the servant and his Lord are the veils of sins, because they are darkness. As for veils other than them, to be sure the servant should hasten to dispel them, although they are luminescent, not totally veiling the servant. For the likeness of the veil constituted by sins is the likeness of an encompassing wall between you and your goal, and you cannot see essence or trace, due to its preventing, nor shape—which is different from the luminescent veils. They are like glass, with what is behind them being seen, obscuring and revealing by their increase or decrease. If the glass is increased greatly, then the intended object behind it is hidden, though the hiddenness of what is behind the wall is not the case here—at least the shape of the object can be discerned. All of this is what can be seen with the eye of the senses.

The heart is likewise. So long as its eye, which is called discernment (al-baṣīra) is veiled by the darkness of disobedience, which is called overcoming, imprinting, and sealing, it does not see anything of the lights of the Unseen, and has no awareness of what sin and evil does to it.

Then if one turns from what one is in, the veils of sins are lifted from his heart, and he beholds divine things, and begins to feel fear concerning his punishment, and hopes for reward, and persists in obedience to God, and turning away of evil deeds. Now he is veiled with luminescent veils, which are his dependence upon these deeds, for he now believes that he is the one who brings them into existence.

Then, after that, God lifts this veil from him, through the blessing (baraka) of acts of obedience, and he sees that the grace upon him belongs to God, for God causes him to be successful in these deeds, and that he is insufficient in giving thanks for them, and that the effective Giver is God. If God desires of someone good, he invests him with the garment of pious fear (taqwa) so as to make sound his presentation before His presence—and nothing of good or evil is by the hand of the servant, rather, all is by the hand of God.

Then, when this veil is lifted from his heart, he imagines that he has attained to God, for there is spiritual delight in this station. But if the hidden subtleties encompass him, this veil too is raised from him, and he does not cease cutting through the veils, one after another, as per the arrangement of stations and gates as in this book, until he attains to true station, the stopping place of the Most Veiled—so understand!

Do not believe, because of the likeness of the veils to panes of glass, that God is a thing which can be seen by the perceiving eye—for He is free of that. God take in hand your guidance!

Qāsim al-Khānī, al-Sayr wa al-sulūk ilā malik al-mulūk