Sovereignty and Self-Control: Shaykh `Alwan al-Hamawi's (d. 1530) Advice for the Ottoman Ruler

By Timothy J. Fitzgerald
Submitted to Session P4817 (Seeking Order: Sufi Responses to Ottoman Power in 16th-17th Century Egypt and Syria, 2017 Annual Meeting
Arab States; Ottoman Empire; Syria; The Levant;
13th-18th Centuries; Islamic Law; Mysticism/Sufi Studies; Ottoman Studies;
`Ali b. `Atiyya al-Hiti, known as Shaykh `Alwan (d. 1530), was an influential mystic and scholar from Hamah, Syria. `Alwan lived across the transition from Mamluk to Ottoman rule in the central Islamic lands, and his writings attest to transformative and unsettled times. Though best known for his Sufi works (and his association with the legendary Moroccan mystic `Ali b. Maymun), `Alwan also commented on what he perceived to be the many social ills infecting his world. In this vein, he penned a fascinating advice treatise for the Ottoman ruler, likely Sultan Selim I (r. 1512-1520): al-Nasa’ih al-muhimma li-al-muluk wa al-a’imma (Important Advice for Rulers and Imams). In this treatise, `Alwan catalogs the many “abominations” now rampant in the wake of Selim’s defeat of the Mamluks—from offenses against public morality, like prostitution, gambling, and alcohol consumption, to derogations of a just political order, such as soldiers’ abuse of peasants and unlawful taxation. `Alwan seeks rectification through the sultan’s attentiveness to the `ulama’ and, ultimately, through the determined application of Islamic law. He also imagines a leader in control of his own excesses and not just those of his servants and subjects. `Alwan’s ideal ruler, then, combines qualities sought in traditional kingly advice literature with traits valued in Sufi thought. This paper will describe and contextualize `Alwan’s distinctive vision. The early 16th Century was an age of anxiety and expectation but also opportunity and refashioning, and Shaykh `Alwan al-Hamawi’s al-Nasa’ih al-muhimma provides a rich opportunity to examine these dynamics, and their concrete manifestations, in an under-appreciated setting.