November 2014


In the course of the great Damascene mystic, savant, poet, and author ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī’s journeys- which he took with considerably frequency during the latter years of his life- he encountered many sorts of people from all walks of life, in both city and countryside. His impressions of rural life are especially precious, given his eye for detail and his sympathy and even reverence for rural religiosity and hospitality, a trait hardly universal among early modern literati anywhere in Eurasia, but quite characteristic of ‘Abd al-Ghanī. During his journey to Jerusalem in 1690, he encountered many majdhūb, ‘divinely attracted people,’ figures who are difficult to categorize in terms familiar to most Western readers (or modern-day readers in many places elsewhere for that matter). These people- who could be men, women, or children (or entire families, as ‘Abd al-Ghanī encounters in his journey)- could be similar to the ‘holy fools’ of the Orthodox tradition, though unlike holy fools they did not always embrace radical displays of disruptive piety. All however displayed signs of having been ‘attracted’ by the power of the Divine, in an unmerited, unsolicited manner. This ‘divine attraction,’ as I have translated it, could manifest itself in acts of transgressive piety, such as ignoring the dictates of the sharī’a or embracing extreme living standards or daily actions, like living on a garbage heap or carrying out highly eccentric actions in public. Despite their often extreme rejection of basic standards and social hierarchies they were seen as particularly potent instruments of divine grace and power, and hence not only not persecuted, but were often sought out for their divine baraka or blessing, by all ranks of society, ‘high’ and ‘low,’ literate and illiterate.

The majdhūb that ‘Abd al-Ghanī encounters in the below story is an excellent example. Originally a slave of African origins (and hence a reminder of the global status of the early modern trade in people from Africa), the man would become known as Shaykh Zā’id was seized by ‘divine attraction,’ which evidently quickly led to a change in his status and his embracing of an eremitical life, settling in a cave (miraculously generated according to a story ‘Abd al-Ghanī was told) on the outskirts of the Palestinian village of Ya’bad. The rest is fairly self-explanatory. Note however both the way in which social status could be remarkably disrupted and upended, as well as the role one of the quintessential early modern commodities, coffee, plays in the story, albeit in a surprising way.

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And it reached us in that village [of Ya’bad] that there was close by a black [freed] slave from among the divinely attracted lovers of God, whose name was Shaykh Zā’id, and he is in a cave there, at the foot of a small mountain. And it was reported to us that there used to not be a cave there, but one day he was present on the mountain and the cave appeared for him. So we went to visit him, and we entered into his cave. It is a small cave, with lots of niches all around the walls, none of which open to the outside. And he was inside sitting on the ground, and he had a small mortar made of wood with which he ground coffee beans, and a small iron coffee roaster. No one who visited him leaves without him giving them coffee to drink. And he makes the coffee from anything that he has on hand, from wheat, barley, from scraps [of coffee?], and chickpeas—but no one who visits him drinks it without it being excellent coffee! And it was related to us that if he needs firewood, he will, with little effort, pluck out a great tree and break it down with his own hand, bring the wood back and place it in his cave.

And when we entered we greeted him, and he returned the greeting. He is a black freed slave who prefers silence and solitude; Shaykh Muṣlaḥ of the aforementioned village had told us that he used to be the slave of some of the people of that village, and he used to shepherd animals for them. But then this divine attraction (al-jadhb) occured in him, he abandoned shepherding, and his master manumitted him. He used to return at times the village after the death of his former master, but then he settled in this cave and the people began paying visits to him in it. People from every place seek him out, believe in him, seek blessing from his words, and ask advice from him about their affairs. I asked him about the condition of my brothers and of the group of people traveling with me to Jerusalem, and he replied: ‘They are in grace and good through you.’ And he mentioned to us many words in which were good tidings to us and favorable end for our goal, and peace and safety.

And when we went in to visit him there was with us a young divinely attracted man from among the divinely attracted folk of Damascus, whom we have mentioned previously. When that divinely attracted one went in to him and spoke with him, he laughed greatly. He then said that he was tired, so we recited the Fātiḥa, paid our regards, and departed.

‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī, al-Ḥaḍrah al-unsīyah fī al-riḥlah al-Qudsīyah, Bayrūt, Lubnān: al-Maṣādir, 1990, 66-7.

The following is an excerpt from a letter sent by ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (on whom and his letter writing see a previous post) to a friend of his living in the Ottoman town of Hayrabolu (in modern-day Turkey), one Ibrāhīm Efendī, in March of 1680. It concerns the practice of dhikr- remembrance- of God: its form, its effect, and its proper ‘translation,’ both into the letter recipient’s native tongue (in this case Turkish), and into right understanding of the role of the practioner vis-a-vis God. As such it is a good snapshot of how ‘Abd al-Ghanī envisioned the ‘mechanics’ of spiritual practice working in the practioner, including a glimpse into the real-world application of spiritual advice.

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Persist in the dhikr of Sahl ibn ‘Abdallah al-Tustarī, God be pleased with him, which his shaykh invested him with and through which he attained to God in four days, with your observation adhering to its meaning in each moment. Then you will be benefited greatly by that, God willing. The dhikr of Sahl, God be pleased with him, is: ‘God is with me, God looks towards me, God is present to me.’ And if you translate it for yourself into the Turkish language, with words that make attention to its meaning easy for you, and so remember God by them, that is excellent. And it is thus when you pay heed to it with your heart but your tongue does not speak it. The intended goal is that there be no straining (takalluf) in yourself and in your thoughts for the flow of the remembrance of God (dhikr Allāh), and that you practice dhikr in every condition. Do not practice His dhikr believing that is you doing it under your own strength, rather, believe that it is He who is remembering Himself by means of your tongue and heart.

As God said: ‘God’s remembrance is greater,’ (Q. 29.45), which is an example of the attribution of the maṣdar [verbal noun] to its doer; that is, greater than the canonical prayer which is the dhikr of the servant towards his Lord. For indeed you are in His hand, in the disposition of His power, and He remembers Himself through you as He wills, and He makes your heart heedless of Him as He wills. Do not depend upon any but Him, and do not prop any of your affairs upon any but Him; do not imagine that any will benefit you other than Him, and do not believe that any can strike you other than Him. Be with Him by means of nothing else, and be in everything through Him. So stand upright and persist in that, and do not be displeased concerning His judgments over you, nor from the effect of His disposition in you. Be patient with the judgment of your Lord, and do not say, ‘He will not bestow good upon me.’ If He inclines thus for you, He will bestow good upon you in accordance with what He wills, not in accordance with what you will. If He wills, He will convey you in the moment, from state to state, and in a flash wholeness will come.

I have presented you with good advice, but it is God who is responsible for your guidance, for He is your Master. Do not fail to report about yourself to me, O brother, and write to me concerning everything that concerns your religious affairs, for I am the servant of this path, for the good of people. Peace in perpetuity!

‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī, Risāla 6, in Wasā’il al-taḥqīq wa rasā’il al-tawfīq, edited by Samer Akkach, in Letters of Sufi Scholar (Leiden: Brill, 2010),150-151.

 

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Taken along the Potomac River, below the Great Falls, Maryland, October 31. From top to bottom: Sycamore leaves on river-eroded stone; bits of downed wood; metamorphic stone up-close; driftwooded tree and Solidago sp.;  Chasmanthium latifolium, river oats; seed pods of Clematis sp.