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.’

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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.

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.

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

The great Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi traversed the vast lands of the Ottoman Empire and places beyond, recording both the mundane and the fantastic, from the number of public baths in a given town to tales of magic, wonder, and the machinations of dark and mysterious powers. In the especially charming selection below, he describes the unique lifestyle of the residents of Diyarbakır, a city in what is now southeast Turkey. The description- of the marvelous gardens and temporary summer dwellings therein, and the entertainments associated with them- speaks for itself, so I won’t elaborate further. While the particularities of the situation are perhaps unique to Diyarbakır and its geographic and ecological situation, other themes can be traced elsewhere in the Empire: the importance of sociability, especially in semi-public spaces like gardens, accompanied by music and drink, can be traced all through this period and the following century, despite the protests of the more puritanical-minded among the ‘ulama. The seamless integration of Sufi musical practice with the more ‘secular’ preceding night’s entertainment is also worth noting.

15.4-Isl.182-Flisepanel-med-kirsebaergrene

Fritware tile panel, painted in blue, turquoise, and moss green under a transparent glaze Ottoman Empire, Iznik; c. 1540. From the David Collection, Copenhagen.

 

But Diyarbekir’s basil gardens and regularly laid out vegetable plots on the bank of the Tigris have no equal in Rum or the Arab lands or Iran. When, in the spring season, the flood period of the Tigris has passed and its limpid waters begin to flow [again] in a stable current, all Diyarbekir’s inhabitants, rich and poor alike, move with their entire families to the bank of the Tigris. They settle down under tents and pavilions along this wide water, on the plots that they have inherited from their fathers and ancestors, and they sow and cultivate in their gardens melons, water melons, various vegetables and flowers. They cultivate here a special type of basil, which everyone plants along the borders of his plot. In a month’s time it becomes [dense] like a forest and as high as a spear’s length so that it is impossible to look through the basil and see what is inside. The doors and walls, the gates and roofs of all these make-shift habitations on the bank of the Tigris are entirely made out of basil…. These pavilions are so densely overgrown with basil that the nostrils of the men and women living in them are scented night and day with the fragrance of basil and the other flowers in these gardens, such as roses, Judas-trees, and hyacinth. The women’s quarters of each garden are also such open-air pavilions of basil. The ponds and fountains in each pavilion all receive their water from the river Tigris. Between all these gardens and vegetable plots run numerous canals and watercourses which people have diverted from the Tigris to their regularly laid-out vegetable gardens.

For a full seven months a merry tumult, with music and friendly talk, is so going on night and day here on the bank of the river Tigris, as in each pavilion people are passing their time with their beloved and close friends, in jollity and drinking, enjoying concert sessions [like those] of Huseyn Bayqara[‘s court]. All the artisans however remain busy with the crafts during this garden season; [so that] all sorts of food and drink are available. Thousands go to the city in the morning and pursue their respective jobs; and in the late afternoon they return in swarms to the gardens on the banks of the Tigris, to indulge in pleasure and enjoyment…

In short, the people of Diyarbekir arouse the envy of the whole world because of the pleasures and enjoyments that they have on the bank of the Tigris for seven or eight months [of the year], their nights being [like] the Night of Power, and their days [like] the Feast of Sacrifice. They hold banquets like Husayn Bayqara’s, thinking to snatch a bit of pleasure from this transitory world. Each night the banks of the Tigris are illuminated with oil lamps, lanterns, wind tapers and torches, and people arrange in thousands of artful ways oil lamps and wax candles on boards, [which they then put to float on the Tigris], so that the lights are drifting from one side to the other, and the darkest night becomes like a brilliant day. In each pavilion singers and musicians, clowns, minstrels and story-tellers perform, players of the lute, the çartar, the şeşetar, the berbut, the qanun, the çeng, the rebab, the musqar, the tanbur, the santur, the nefir, the balaban, the ney, and the dehenk, in short all sorts of musicians with string and wind instruments give performances like those at Bayqara’s court, continuing until the break of dawn, when the Muslim muezzins chant with their sorrowful voices the glories of God, as it to apologize, and all the followers of the [Sufi] path and faithful lovers [of God] begin their recitations in praise of Oneness, in the spirit of Pythagoras the Monotheist. For since the people of Diyarbekir all belong to the order of the Khwajagan and the Gülşeni order they do not miss the ecstatic joy and delight of ritual chantings. In conclusion [one may say that] while busy intercourse and buzzing conversation go on these Iram-like gardens, the people continually pray for the perpetuation of the imperial state (devlet). May God exalt their spiritual stations!

Evliya Çelebi, Seyahatname, translated by Martin Van Bruinessen and Hendrik Boeschoten, in Evliya Çelebi in Diyarbekir (Leiden: Brill, 1988), 177-181

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.

Over the course of the eighteenth century Orthodox monasticism and spiritual life would undergo a considerable revival, beginning in various parts of the Ottoman Empire and spread north into the borderlands along the Dniester River, regions contested between the expanding Russian and Austrian Empires and the contracting Ottoman Empire and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in addition to the maneuverings of local forces such as the Zaporozhian Cossacks and the various nobility of the Ottoman semi-autonomous principalities of Wallachia and Moldova. In time the currents of spiritual revival would make their way into Russia, contributing to the re-formation of the starets tradition in Russian monasticism and spiritual life, known to many readers in the West through Dosteovsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

One of the key figures in this spiritual revival was St. Paisius Velichkovsky (20 December 1722 – 15 November 1794). Born in what is now Ukraine, Paisius made his way as a young man to various monastic settlements in Wallachia, followed by a stay at Mount Athos, then a return north to Moldavia at the invitation of Prince Gregory III, the Ottoman-appointed ruler of the principality. The story below comes from his sojourn at the monastery and hermitage of Trǎisteni in what is now Romania. He later moved to a monastery at the northern edge of Moldavia, in the region of Bucovina, only to see the Austrians invade and annex Bucovina to their expanding empire. Due to the hostility of the Catholic Austrian polity to Orthodoxy, Paisius and many of the brothers retreated to Ottoman lands, settling at the monastery of Neamţ, where Paisius would die in 1794. Before his death, Paisius would devote much of his time to translating the now beloved spiritual classic The Philokalia into Slavonic, allowing its transmission throughout the northern Orthodox world. He also helped to introduce the practice of the Jesus Prayer to the same Slavonic lands, as part of his emphasis on reinvigorating older forms of Orthodox spirituality. In addition to these efforts, he began, though did not complete, an autobiography, which describes his travels and labors. The 17th and 18th centuries of the Ottoman world saw an explosion of travel narratives, autobiographical accounts, and personal chronicles or diaries, of which this account is no doubt an example, as well as being part of a West Eurasian-wide increase in literacy and authorship. As the excerpt below makes clear, Paisius wished to relate the mundane in addition to the sublime, and in so doing, reveals precious details of everyday life- in this case, an attempt at bread baking gone very wrong!

For more on Paisius’ life and historical legacy, see John C. McGuckin, “The Life and Mission of St. Paisius Velichkovsky (1722-1794): An Early Modern Master of The Orthodox Spiritual Life,” in Spiritus 9.2. (2009).

A detail from the Gospel manuscript of Luke the Cypriot (active 1583-1625), who worked in various places in the Ottoman Empire before settling in Moscow, where this Gospel was completed.

A detail from the Gospel manuscript of Luke the Cypriot (active 1583-1625), who worked in various places in the Ottoman Empire before settling in Moscow, where this Gospel was completed.

When everyone had gone off to the forest, then, to do the aforementioned work, the superior called one of the brethren who was the most experienced of all in the baking of bread and ordered him to show me the procedure for baking bread; and he ordered me to bake the bread, that it might be ready for the meal. This brother showed me in detail the procedure: pouring water into the cauldron, he showed me the pans of flour and the jug of kvass. He told me, ‘After you have heated the water, pour it into the flour in the pans and begin to knead it; then pout all the kvass from the jug into the dough and knead it all together.’

Having said this, he went off to the brethren in the forest. But wretch that I was, after his departure I heated the water and poured in the flour, completely forgetting to add the kvass. When I began to knead it, there was too little water, and too much flour. Having no experience, I did not know that it was possible to heat more water and add it, but thinking that once the brother had measured out so much water and flour it was in no wise possible to add or take away from it, I labored with great toil to knead all the flour; and the dough became so hard that it was impossible to put my fingers in it. At a loss for what to do with all the remaining flour, I cut the dough in pieces with a knife and placed it on the table. Sprinkling flour upon it, I beat it with a piece of wood and thus scarcely managed to knead in all of the flour; and placing all the dough in the pans with the greatest of difficulty, I scarcely managed to set them on the oven, so that the dough might rise more quickly in the warmth.

I waited for quite a while, and then I lit the oven so that it might be ready, but after I had burnt a great quantity of wood, the dough had still not risen. I was grieved by this, not knowing why it would not rise, but remained hard and immovable like a rock. In the afternoon one of the brethren came from the forest, not the one who had shown me how to bake the bread, but another, sent by the superior to learn whether the bread was ready or not. He asked me, ‘Why is the bread still not ready?’ Answering him with a sigh, I told him that it still had not risen. He and I then took the pans off the oven and, feeling it with his hand, found that it had been kneaded as hard as rock. Learning the reason for this, he smiled and said,’ You ignoramus! When you saw that there was too little water you ought to have added more without hesitation, or else taken away some of the flour, and thus you wold have kneaded the dough as one needs do.’ Then he asked me, ‘Did you add kvass to this dough?’ What fear and shame came upon me when I heard this! I scarcely managed to answer that I had forgotten to add the kvass. But seeing that I was terrified, and being a sensible man, he began to console me with spiritual words: ‘Do not grieve over this,’ he said, ‘for it was not from contempt, but from your inexperience in this work that you have erred.’ He heated some water and pour it upon the dough, and he and I began to knead it, adding the kvass. With great difficulty we scarcely managed to knead it somewhat, though it was impossible to knead it thoroughly on account of its great hardness.

Then, having given me instructions what to to do, he went back to the forest. I waited a rather long time, and when I thought the dough had risen somewhat, I made it into loaves and placed them on the table. After sufficient time I built up the fire in the oven, and it grew so hot that it emitted sparks. I swept these up carefully and, allowing the oven to cool a little, though not as much as was necessary, I put the bread into it, thinking that it would bake well. But because of the oven’s great heat it turned black forthwith and began to burn, and it was burnt nearly two fingerbreadths from the top and bottom. At a loss for what to do, I fell into great despair, firstly because through my ignorance I had made such a mess of things in the bakery of the holy hermitage, and secondly because the holy fathers would not find anything to eat when they came back from the forest. Taking the bread, then, completely burnt, from the oven, I awaited with fear the arrival of the brethren. And when they returned from the forest and saw what I, wretch that I was, had done in my ignorance, what great fear and shame came upon me! Not knowing what to do, I fell down at their holy feet with tears and asked forgiveness. The father superior and all the brethren, imitating Christ’s mercy, forgave me. Cutting one of the loaves, they saw that it was in no wise fit to be eaten; and they boiled corn mush (mǎmǎligǎ) and made a meal of this. No more did they bid me to bake the bread. But once having endured this, I thereafter watched diligently how the bread was baked and, with God’s assistance, I learned to do this. I describe here how I suffered because of my inexperience in this matter for the sake of the brethren who come now to our community, that they may not be frightened because of their inexperience in this or a similar obedience. For through God’s help and their own fervor they will be able to gain experience in the obediences assigned them.

Paisius Velichkovsky, The Life of Paisij Velyčkos’kjy, trans. by J.M.E. Featherstone (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1989), 70-72.

Bridging the gap between how we intuitively understand words and concepts and how people in the past, or people in the present but in quite different cultural-linguistic worlds from us, understood those same words and concepts is often a difficult task. In the text I’ve translated here from the great early-modern Ottoman Damascene mystical philosopher, poet, and traveler (to name but three of his occupations) ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (164-1731), we encounter both dissonances of meaning endemic to the gap between our time and his, as well as dissonances that ‘Abd al-Ghanī introduces. Easily one of the most fascinating and versatile thinkers of early modern Islam, ‘Abd al-Ghanī simultaneously defended the practices and concepts of Sufism, especially as embodied in the thought of Ibn ‘Arabī, while also frequently refashioning them and integrating them into a wider-ranging philosophy of Islam that embraced the rapidly changing world of early modernity, against the puritanical, ‘fundamentalist’ strains of Islam that fitfully circulated in the Ottoman world. In addition to defending the legal validity of smoking, coffee-drinking, dancing, musical performances, and other activities, ‘Abd al-Ghanī generally argued for a broad social ethic that rejected moralism and morality policing, instead encouraging positive, indeed tolerant social interactions across class and confessional lines. This is not to say that he advocated some sort of proto-liberalism or modernism: as is clear from the following text, ‘Abd al-Ghanī did not reject the practice of the sharī’a or traditional theological beliefs. But what he did with those beliefs and how he interpreted them in doctrine and practice could be quite surprising and even innovative (a term he would not have appreciated, I should note). His often bold textual moves can be quite jarring at times- as they no doubt were in some cases for people in his own day.

This text is the bulk of a letter ‘Abd al-Ghanī sent, in April of 1678, to one Mulla Aḥmad of Hayrabolu, in what is now the European portion of Turkey (it was evidently conveyed by friends of ‘Abd al-Ghanī, as the note at the end indicates). In it our author discusses ‘true’ and ‘metaphorical’ acts and states, in so doing reversing the ways in which we tend to speak now (though reflecting language C.S. Lewis used in some of his works): the really real seclusion (khalwat, a type of ascetic withdraw for spiritual purposes) takes place within the self and in relation to God and through Him the rest of the world; that of the body and in relation to physical society is merely ‘metaphorical,’ obtaining reality through its contact with the true practice of seclusion. And so on- ‘Abd al-Ghanī explains it pretty well, I think, though this English translation does not convey the word-play and subtlety of the Arabic original- always a problem in translation, especially in religious-philosophical language such as this. But so it goes- ‘Abd al-Ghanī would no doubt argue from such a state to the ultimately metaphorical nature of language, realized only through connection with the truly Real.

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And I have heard regarding you, O brother, that you are firmly fixed in your religion, desiring conformity with the command and the prohibition, and I love you for that. And I love for you what I love for my own self: that you enter into the path of inner piety (ṭarīqat al-taqwā al-bāṭiniyya), so that the interior and exterior be made perfect for you. What I mean by ‘inner piety’ is your crossing from the outward ordinances to the knowable realities, so that you witness through the eye of spiritual perception that every motion out of the motions of canonical prayer and other than those from among the acts of worship possess a lordly sign (ishāra)  and merciful secrets. And every ordinance from the ordinances of the sharī’a has an application in the exterior and an application in the interior. The sharī’aic ordinance (ḥukm) is a body, while the divine wisdom (ḥikma) is the spirit of that body. Do not be content with the bodies apart from the spirits, and do not be distracted from the bodies by the spirits: rather, bring together the exterior and the interior.

And let my friend—God, exalted is He, give him peace—know that there is no recourse for that besides entering into sharī’aic seclusion (khalwat) and doing sharī’aic spiritual exercises. And I mean by ‘seclusion’ only your solitude in witnessing the true Doer apart from the metaphorical doer, then the witnessing of the true One Described, apart from the metaphorical one, then the witnessing of the true Existence, apart from the metaphorical existence. And persist in this witnessing so that the senses and the intellect are fully immersed. This is true spiritual seclusion. As for the metaphorical seclusion, it is that you enclose your body in a ḥalāl house and ḥalāl sustenance, and cut off your sight interiorly and exteriorly from all that is outside that house by negation or affirmation, until you find the true seclusion, then come out of the metaphorical seclusion.

Among that which brings you to this is your concern for and your paying attention to the books of the knowledge of Sufism, such as the books of Ibn ‘Arabī, Ibn Sab’īn, al-‘Afīf al-Tilimsānī, and the like of them—God hallow their spirits—after washing the spiritual sight of the dirt of rejection of any of them, so that the door of their luminescent secret is opened for the heart, and the reality of their stationing upon the stations of the Muhammadan sharī’a is unveiled for the heart. And it knows that they are knowledge of it in the most perfect sense, acting according to it without innovation (bid’a) in the exterior or interior. And someone is not veiled from them through unknowledgeable rejection of their path, unreflexively being against them due to uncritical imitation [of anti-Sufi views], or from being fearful in regards to others due to his not understanding their doctrine, hiding in his [public] disavowal with faith in their doctrine without thinking evil of them—that is more beneficial for him, if such a person is not an enemy of that which he does not know. Junayd, God be pleased with him, said: ‘Faith (al-īmān) in the doctrine of this group is wilāya.’ Meaning, with neither understanding nor critical objection. For every entity among the learned has technical vocabulary which they use but others do not know, so accusing them of error without awareness of their technical vocabulary is itself a mistake. And there is a people who understand the doctrine of Sufism in accordance with the Book and Sunna, even if the exterior of the.doctrine appears to be in opposition. Its people always exist—to God belongs praise in every place and time! The one who licitly seeks them, finds them. ‘Licit seeking’ is sincere devotion, trust in God, thinking evil of the lower self, and the non-existence of thinking evil of others, whoever it may be, and submission to God in every place of His judgement and His decree, good and ill. As for the practitioner of innovationist seeking, he is not benefited by anyone he meets, even a prophet from among the prophets, upon them be peace.

And I mean by ‘exercise’ (riyāḍa) whenever I mention it, the directing of the soul towards the attaining of the realities and their habituation in every state, little by little. And that is by attachment to the clear Truth (al-ḥaqq), then by being characterized by it, then by ultimate realization—that is real spiritual exercise. As for metaphorical bodily exercise by the limiting of the eating of food and the drinking of water, as he—peace be upon him—said: ‘The sufficiency of the son of Adam are morsels which suffice his loins,’ so it is an excercise seeking other than itself, not for its own sake. It is constituted in the whole and is an aid for the fulfillment of the spiritual exercise, and is what does not go to excess and so lead to corrupt imaginings, so becoming a harmful interdicted thing—for this reason the jurists discuss it in their books.

So I have explicated for you seclusion and its conditions, real and metaphorical, and its like, exercise, but we hastened the matter due to the closeness of the travel of the brothers to you. God guide us and you on a straight path, and upright religion, in every moment, to the hour of death.

‘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), 116-119. Translation by Jonathan P. Allen, 2014, no rights reserved.