Sword and Pen at the Service of the Ottoman Sultan: A Semiotic Reading of Two Ottoman Texts of the Hand of Muhyi-i Gulsheni (d. 1604-1605)

By Kristof D'hulster
Submitted to Session P4817 (Seeking Order: Sufi Responses to Ottoman Power in 16th-17th Century Egypt and Syria, 2017 Annual Meeting
Ottoman Empire;
13th-18th Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Over the last years, our understanding of Ottoman Sufism in the early modern age has made great progress; and the Gulsheniyye and its main Egyptian chronicler, Muhyi-i Gulsheni (d. 1605), prove no exception to this. Still, however much our understanding may have expanded, some of this prolific author’s many facets await further exploration. This paper takes up the challenge by looking into two of his unpublished works, which stand out amidst his mostly Sufi-oriented writings. While these share their title and topic — an Ottoman punitive expedition against a band of marauding Bedouins in Lower Egypt — they do so from a distinctly different angle. The first is a Persianizing mesnevi that depicts the expedition in bloody detail and lauds the Ottoman troops as Firdawsian lions in pursuit of the gazel-like Ghazale Bedouins. The second is an Arabicizing risale, in which Muhyi builds a legal case. Working from a highly technical tefsir of the infamous Ayetu’l-Hirabe or “Brigandage Verse” — one that is strikingly similar to the “state-sanctioned” tefsir of sheykhu’l-islam Ebu’s-Su’ud Efendi — he identifies the Ghazale as Koranic brigands, thus ex post facto legitimizing their execution as fully sher’an.
These texts reveal some lesser known dimensions of Muhyi’s kaleidoscopic personality, such as his pursuance of local patronage, his familiarity with Ottoman Hanafism, and his judicial activity. At the same time, they exemplify some of the Ottoman Empire’s larger historical trends, such as the Gulsheni-Ottoman rapprochement, the institutionalization of Sufism, and legal Hanafization. Yet, I argue that there is even more to it, and I do so by juxtaposing the texts and rethinking them as two halves of a literary “diptych”. While the mesnevi casts the expedition as siyaset first and foremost (the sultan exercising his power through “the people of the sword”), the risale depicts the same expedition as sheri’at (the caliph/imam defending God’s law through the “people of the pen”). Thus, the texts combined reify a particular vision of the Ottoman Empire: siyaset sher’iyye, in which siyaset and sheri’at, sultan and imam, soldier and jurist, highway robber and Koranic brigand, and, indeed, the Ottoman cause and the Ummah merge into one.
Concluding, the two Ghazale-Names reflect the kaleidoscopic identity of their author, as well as various strands of Ottoman legitimation. Also, they demonstrate how Sufi authors performed their own identity, and how they were instrumental in disseminating an imperial reality outward from the center, by tailoring it to local needs.