I just got the chance to read “Hagiography As A Source For Womens’ History In The Ottoman Empire: The Curious Case Of Unsi Hasan” by John Curry for my Ottoman Cultures course – specifically, the religion study group. I offered said group the quick summary/review below.
Sainthood, and indeed mysticism in general, has a problematic status in Islam. Because of Islam’s powerful emphasis on monotheism, the claim that some people might be closer to God than others makes mainstream Muslims suspect heresy. The Sufi masters, as mystics, offered a more personal connection to the religion, but simultaneously risked undermining the total separation of God from human, and thus God’s complete transcendance.
John Curry, now a professor at UNLV, was a grad student at OSU in 2003 when he came across the biography of an obscure Sufi master from the late 17th century. Curry describes the master, Hasan, as a “failed saint,” and uses his example as a window into the world of popular religiosity in the Ottoman Empire at that time. Indeed, popularity was essential for mystics to gain the status of saints. Curry notes that since there is not any single hierarchy in Islam as there is in the Catholic Church, there is no Muslim process of canonization. Thus the status of saint emerged organically from the community. In the case of this “failed saint,” the hagiography Curry highlights stands as the only source of information about Hasan. If more followers had written Hasan’s biography, or if this biography was more persuasive, his reputaion might have sustained itself more powerfully through the centuries.
We learn about the presence of women among Hasan’s devotees. Both men and women were followers of Sufi masters (as Quataert also mentioned) and some Sufi masters were women. Hasan is portrayed as an extremely strict master, perhaps even arbitrarily so. He is, however, slightly less stern with women. We also learn that Sufi shaykhs were presumed to have supernatural powers; Hasan’s punishment of one female follower was to haunt her dreams. At the same time, Hasan is portrayed as quite humanly flawed; he regrets his decision to marry and takes out his resentment on his daughter, who he alienates so thoroughly she is driven to choose the shameful occupation of bathhouse masseuse.
Hasan, the small-time Sufi master whose story comes to us through a largely overlooked account, thus gives us a sense of the gender, power and theological issues surrounding mystics in the 17th century Ottoman Empire.