Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn Goes Mountain Climbing

Safi al-Din Dreaming.jpg
An illustration from the life of Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn, during his adulthood, depicting a dream concerning the rise and fall of a local post-Ilkhanid dynasty, the Chūbānids (their members symbolized by the candles), with the shaykh himself depicted in the lower half asleep, dreaming. Unfortunately, so far as I know, the story recounted below was never illustrated. (Aga Khan Museum AKM264)

Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn (d. 1334) is best known as the founder and eponym of the Safavid sufi ṭarīqa, which in the late fifteenth into early sixteenth century would be the basis for the Safavid dynasty and empire, one of the major Islamic empires of the early modern world. He was commemorated in a number of ways: for instance, architecturally by a monumental and expansive shrine complex in Ardabil, and textually by an equally monumental and expansive menāqib (hagiography) composed in Persian by Ibn Bazzāz Ardabīlī, completed in 1358, in consultation with Ṣafī al-Dīn’s son and successor to head of the ṭarīqa, Ṣadr al-Dīn. Clocking in at over eight hundred folios in manuscript form, and almost twelve hundred in the modern printed edition, it must surely rank as one of the longest saint’s lives in Islamic history. Like other hagiographies, much of the social and cultural context and particularities of past worlds can be discerned in this text, such as in the story I have selected here.

The following account comes from the chapter on Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn’s childhood, during a period in which, as the first paragraph suggests, the saint was just beginning to discover his powers, not unlike many modern-day superhero stories in which the newly endowed superhero must learn to control his or her spectacular abilities, perhaps with the help of a mentor. Something similar is the case here: Ṣafī al-Dīn discovers strange and sometimes disturbing spiritual powers, such as an ability to see dead people, which, naturally, freaks him out, causing him to stop eating and to worry his mother (who is really his first mentor and a major presence in this chapter), who eventually coaxes the reason out of him. Understanding that her son is special, she seeks out holy men nearby who might direct him, but none are capable of training a prodigy like Ṣafī al-Dīn. In the story that follows, our protagonist sets out to a local holy place with hopes of finding an instructor, or at least some powerful baraka that will help him gain control of his powers and potent spiritual states. Additional commentary follows, but first the tale itself, which centers on Mount Sabalan, a high, prominent peak west of Ardabil:

Detail from the V&A’s Ardabil carpet.

Story (ḥikāyat): Shaykh Ṣadr al-Dīn, God perpetuate his baraka, said that when the spiritual state (ḥāl) of the shaykh, God sanctify his inner secret, grew more powerful, and when exalted conditions would occur which could not be stopped and which the shaykh found difficult to disclose [to others], by necessity he occupied himself with seeking out a guide (murshid) who could bring him out of this tumult of waves and will. He threw his entire body into this search, though he did not know from whence this impetus for searching came [1].

During that time people often had recourse to Mount Sabalan, it being well known that there were folk of God, exalted is He, atop Mount Sabalan. So the shaykh desired to go to Mount Sabalan, in order to find one of these people. The first time he went he found no one. The second time that the season for visiting came—for other than in the heart of summer it is not possible due to the intensity of the snow, ice, and cold—he went again and took from that place, in accordance with the custom of ordinary people, water and soil from the summit of Sabalan in order to derive baraka thereby. On his descent he passed through a couloir in the mountain, and saw a Turk [here with the sense of a nomad] squatting down, having taken up a bow and arrow and put the arrow to the bow, waiting in ambush for the shaykh. Other than [the Turk] there were no people in the vicinity—[Ṣafī al-Dīn] looked to see if he had an entourage or followers, but no, he was like a spider all alone.

Then that Turk cried out to the shaykh in the Mongol tongue [2], ‘Come!’ The shaykh came before him, and [the Turk] asked, ‘What is that in your hand?’ The shaykh replied, ‘A flask of water.’ He asked, ‘What water is it?’ [The shaykh] replied, ‘Water from the summit of Sabalan which I have taken in order to obtain baraka.’[The Turk] picked his bow back up and said, ‘Pour it out!’ The shaykh poured the water out of the flask. The Turk said, ‘What difference is there between this flowing water [in the stream of the couloir] and that water? What baraka is to be found in water?’ Again the Turk asked, ‘What is the other thing in your hand?’ The shaykh replied, ’Soil from the summit of Sabalan that I have collected to get baraka.’ Again the Turk took up his bow and said, ‘Pour it out!’ So the shayh poured the soil out, too, and the Turk asked, ‘What difference is there between this soil and that soil?’ Then he added, ‘Take heed! As I see it, aside for those fleeing from heat or from work or for the ailing man, what baraka is there in stone and mountain? What power comes from stone and mountain? This time I forgive you, but if in similar fashion you return again, I will strike [you].’

So the shaykh, God sanctify his inner secret, set out on his descent, but when in that moment he looked back he did not see any trace of the Turk. He did not return again [3].

Lake of Sabalan peak, سبلان
The summit lake of Mount Sabalan today, photographed by Morteza Tadayoni.

This is a rather curious story, in that it depicts Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn engaging in a practice which the author clearly does not countenance, but which, by Ibn Bazzāz’s own admission (or Ṣadr al-Dīn’s, whose voice is at least partially present here) was quite common in the lifetime of the shaykh, and quite likely in Ibn Bazzāz’s time, a few decades after the shaykh’s death. That Mount Sabalan would be sacred is not very surprising: rising nearly sixteen thousand feet above sea level, looming above Iranian Azerbaijan, it would be an impressive and numinious enough place even without the addition of its spectacular summit lake (the mountain’s caldera, Sabalan being an inactive stratovolcano). It is not a stretch to imagine that local people had venerated the mountain before the rise of Islam, though we should not discount the rationale given for its holiness in Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn’s time, namely, that it was the inhabitant of certain ‘folk of God,’ saints, as similar stories of ‘wild’ holy people abounded in the Islamic world, stories reinforced by wandering ascetics and hermits, who themselves were preceded in Syriac Christianity by a whole host of ‘wild’ holy people inhabiting the countryside. However, it is notable that it appears from the story- despite the explanatory device about the ‘folk of God’- that the baraka of the mountain is on some level inherent in the material makeup of the summit itself, and not necessarily tied into the presence or activity of human saints.

That the mountain’s very water and soil could possess baraka, the ‘stuff’ of divine blessing typically associated in Islam with saints, the Qur’an, and other ‘properly’ Islamic individuals and entities, points to what I have elsewhere styled the ‘economy of sanctity,’ in which various communities and traditions could, and did, share practices and concepts of holiness and the power of sanctity, such that people from multiple communities and traditions might draw upon shared ‘resources’ of holiness for often quite ‘practical’ purposes. At the same time, this economy of sanctity could be challenged by those wishing to ‘focus’ it upon a single tradition or even individual. That is what seems to be going on here: the lone Turk (which here indicates a nomad more than a single ethnic identity), whom we should take as being miraculous and perhaps angelic in nature, turns the shaykh away from the practice, not because baraka could not inhere in physical objects, but seemingly as a way of contesting this particular source of physically-inhering baraka, which the shaykh does not need and which, presumably, others do not need as well. The subtext, I think, is that pilgrimage to Mount Sabalan is unnecessary, not out of a distaste for pilgrimage or reproducing baraka physically and through ‘relics,’ but because one ought to visit the shrines of saints for such things- especially (and perhaps exclusively) the shrine of Ṣafī al-Dīn!


[1] This last sentence is somewhat obscure to me (and based on variant readings of extant manuscripts, was obscure to early modern copyists as well), but I think I have more less captured the sense of the young Ṣafī al-Dīn’s general confusion concerning the mastering of his onrushing spiritual states.

[2] Literally, ‘Mughāl’ tongue, which could mean Mongol, as I have translated, but might simply imply nomadic language, ‘Mongol’ and ‘Turkic’ not always distinguishable in a world of ethnic fluidity.

[3] Ibn Bazzāz Ardabīlī, Ṣafvat al-ṣafā: dar tarjumah-ʼi aḥvāl va aqvāl va karāmāt-i Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn Isḥaq Ardabīlī, ed. Ghulām Riz̤ā Ṭabāṭabāʼī Majd (Tabrīz: G.R. Ṭabaṭabāʼī Majd, 1373 [1994]), 93-94.


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