A Sufi Journey to Jerusalem

A seventeenth century travelogue by a famous Sufi mystic describes a strange and surprising image of Ottoman Palestine

Two ecstatic Muslim holy men in Jerusalem, photographed by the Christian missionary Robert E. M. Bain in 1894. From the Lenkin Family Collection of Photography at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Late one night in the spring of 1690, the Sufi saint and scholar Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi (1641-1731) had a dream. In his mind’s eye, al-Nabulsi saw himself leaving his house and making his way to one of the markets in Damascus, his home city. As he later recounted, (in Elizabeth Sirriyeh’s translation), he found there

one of the finest Arab horses offered to us to ride and we rode it and went on our way. Suddenly we encountered two strong and energetic young men; they were well-dressed, magnificently clothed in green and red. Each of them put the palm of his hand under my foot while I was riding and their palms took the place of stirrups, each on one side, and I rode the horse like that with the two young men.

The author of a notable–and still popular–book on dream interpretation, al-Nabulsi was an expert on deciphering the symbolic content of our nighttime visions. But not even he could see the dream was in fact a premonition. A few days later, al-Nabulsi set out on his famous journey to Jerusalem, which served as the basis for one of the most important accounts of seventeenth century Palestine. At the head of the caravan, as prefigured in the dream, marched two young majadhib, Sufi ecstatic holy men, who seemed “like angels.”

Illustration of Qays, known as Majnun, “the mad one,” as an ascetic surrounded by wild animals from a 1798 copy of Nezami Ganjavi’s Khamsa, from the National Library of Israel collections. Majnun, driven mad by his unrequited love for Leila, served as a model for Sufi ecstatic piety.

Al-Nabulsi was one of the leading Muslim intellectuals of his age, a wide-ranging figure whose over 250 works include treatises on Islamic law, the benefits of smoking, agriculture, poetry, commentaries on the classics of Sufi mystical literature, and more. Dozens of manuscripts of works by al-Nabulsi are included in the collection of the National Library of Israel. While a copy of al-Nabulsi’s Jerusalem travelogue is not among them, the collection does include an early 1902 printed edition of the work, acquired by the scholar and collector Abraham Shalom Yahuda.

The scion of a wealthy family of judges and religious authorities that traced its own origins back to Jerusalem, al-Nabulsi garnered an early scholarly reputation and was teaching already at the age of twenty. As his engagement with Sufism (especially the work of Ibn Arabi, whom he considered his spiritual father) deepened, al-Nabulsi increasingly withdrew from public life. During one seven-year period, he is said to have remained confined in his house, letting his hair and nails grow long, and achieving a spiritual transcendence which he attributed to the overwhelming experience of God’s presence.

A late nineteenth century manuscript of Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi’s agricultural treatise, ‘Ilm al-malāḥa fī ‘ilm al-falāḥa, from the National Library of Israel collections

Al-Nabulsi’s six-week-long journey to Palestine, which included seventeen days in Jerusalem, was only one of four long excursions that followed this period of seclusion. Aside from that journey, al-Nabulsi traveled through today’s Syria and Lebanon, completed the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca (on which occasion he returned to Jerusalem for a second stay) and visited Egypt as well. Each of these trips became the subject of a travelogue.

In composing these travelogues, a genre known as rihla in Arabic, al-Nabulsi was following a well-worn tradition, the most famous example of which is Ibn Battuta’s (1304-1368) account of his thirty-year-long wanderings that took him from Morocco to China. However, al-Nabulsi’s travel writing is distinguished by his focus on Sufi themes and characters; it is no accident that the journey begins with an encounter with the two ecstatics. This is clear even from the title of al-Nabulsi’s Jerusalem travelogue: Al-hadra al-unsiyya fi al-rihla al-qudsiya (“The Intimate Presence on the Jerusalem Journey”). The “Intimate Presence” refers both to the name for the Sufi spiritual gathering, often held on Thursday nights, and to God’s own presence, which al-Nabulsi hoped to experience on the journey.

A 1902 edition of al-Nabulsi’s Al-hadra al-unsiyya fi al-rihla al-qudsiya, formerly owned by manuscript dealer Abraham Shalom Yahuda, from the National Library of Israel collections

Al-Nabulsi crossed into the country via the Golan Heights, passing the snow-capped Mount Hermon. He complained of the cold and the lawlessness of the country, reporting murders, the looting of a mosque, and even a plot to kidnap him near Jenin, which, he said, was foiled by divine intervention.

Arriving in Jerusalem, al-Nabulsi and his party were met by a delegation of dignitaries, including members of a local Sufi order, who, along with a growing crowd, accompanied the group as they entered the Damascus Gate and made their way to the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount). On entering the sacred precinct, al-Nabulsi recited an appropriate verse (here in Samer Akkach’s translation) on the Prophet Muhammad’s night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, from where he ascended to heaven:

You journeyed by night from a sanctuary to a sanctuary

As the full moon journeys in the thick of darkness.

The travelogue, written in rhymed prose and interspersed with similar verses, includes descriptions about Jerusalem’s Muslim landmarks, including the Mamila cemetery and the Mount of Olives, as well as the city’s Christian sites. Al-Nabulsi and his party also made a side trip to Hebron to see the Tomb of the Patriarchs, venerated as the burial site of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Curiously, in his account of seeing the Dome of the Rock, which follows a long section recounting the powers and virtues of the site, al-Nabulsi erroneously states that the building was constructed by the Crusaders, rather than, as was also well known at the time, the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik (644-705).

While the travelogue provides fascinating details about Jerusalem and his visit there, al-Nabulsi’s primary concern lies elsewhere: seeking out and describing spiritual experiences, particularly his encounters with holy men and sacred shrines and tombs. In terms of the latter, for instance, al-Nabulsi records stopping to pray at the tomb of Samuel, located just north of Jerusalem, before entering the city. As for living holy men, these included both the members of established Sufi orders, and, even more so, the majadhib, ecstatic mystics who lived on the margins of society and its norms. Al-Nabulsi describes some of these majadhib as wandering unclothed and others as wearing only rags, endowed with special powers to read others’ minds and see the future.

Al-Nabulsi met large numbers of such holy men in both the city and the countryside. He describes a party of majadhib from Jenin who meet him as he arrives in the city, having learned of his coming by divine inspiration, and another ecstatic near Nablus who would march armed through the market. Near the village of Yabad, just outside Jenin, al-Nabulsi encounters an ascetic named Sheikh Za’id. A former slave, he was overcome one day by a sudden divine illumination and moved to a cave where he sat, naked, grinding coffee beans and dispensing coffee, blessings, and advice to those who came to consult him. Za’id, al-Nabulsi relates, was both fantastically strong and could see the future, and predicted a happy ending for the author’s journey.

What’s fascinating about al-Nabulsi’s description of a country teeming with miracle-working saints, venerable tombs, and ecstatic holy men–and his other travelogues paint a similar picture–is the fact that it has almost entirely vanished. While such figures continued to be part of the rural and urban landscape for generations, by the first decades of the twentieth century there were few of them left. They had been obliterated by the combined forces of modernization, and colonialism, as well as competing Wahabi and Salafi ideologies, which denounced Sufism as un-Islamic. One of the pleasures of reading al-Nabulsi is the glimpse he provides us into this strange and lost world.

This article is part of the Maktoub digital Islamic manuscripts project at the National Library of Israel.  Supported by the Arcadia Fund, Maktoub will provide free, global access to more than 2,500 rare Arabic, Persian, and Turkish manuscripts and books preserved at the Library, and to the stories behind their creation.

A Bahrain Mystery in the National Library Collection

A mysterious 80 year old document which recently surfaced in our collections emphasizes the geopolitical significance of Bahrain. But what is it doing here?

Bahrain in a First World War era map of the Persian Gulf, produced in Belgium, from the National Library of Israel collections

In October of 1940, the Italian air force launched a daring nighttime strike on the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain. Flying over 2500 miles from a base in the Mediterranean Sea, the Italian planes dropped eighty-four bombs on the country’s important oil refinery. While the government had considered the possibility that the refinery might be attacked, the fear was sabotage, not bombardment. Brilliantly illuminated at night to deter intruders on foot, it was the perfect aerial target.

While mostly forgotten today, the bombing–Bahrain’s most direct experience of World War II– thrust the island nation into the international spotlight. With rule over the territory passing between Iran, Portugal, and various Arab dynasties for centuries, Britain formalized its control in 1892. In subsequent decades, and especially after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following World War I, the British position in Bahrain, and throughout the Gulf, seemed unshakable.

However, the Russian emigre intellectual, scholar, and political analyst Basile Nikitine saw the Italian attack as an important turning point. Sitting down at his desk in occupied Paris, Nikitine drafted an article, intended for publication in the French press, underlining Bahrain’s overlooked geopolitical significance. The islands, he wrote,

have been completely ignored by public opinion. Situated somewhere in the Persian Gulf, far from the arena of major politics, who would really be interested in them, apart from a few rarified specialists? However, quiet though it may be, this small dot on the map of the Middle East, is an important link in the chain of Great Britain’s imperial network. Access to India, aviation, oil, politics in Iran and in Arabia–all these elements are intertwined in Bahrain.been completely ignored by public opinion. Situated somewhere in the Persian Gulf, far from grand politics, who could be interested in them, really, aside from a few rarified specialists? However, obscure though it may be, this small point on the map of the Middle East serves as an important link in the imperial system of Great Britain. Access to India, aviation, oil, politics in Iran and in Arabia–all these elements are intertwined in Bahrain.

The first oil well in Bahrain, operated by American-owned BAPCO, the Bahrain Petroleum Company, circa 1931. Photographed by members of BAPCO and the Bahraini government.

In the wake of the historic peace accord between Israel and Bahrain, the Gulf nation, and its ties to regional politics, has gained a new prominence in the minds of Israelis. Now is the perfect time to reconsider Nikitine’s essay–and to try to solve the riddles it contains. Never published, the text, three dense, loose-leaf pages written in French and accompanied by a pen and ink map, is preserved in the National Library archives. Who was Basile Nikitine? And how did this bit of Bahrain’s history make its way to Jerusalem?

Born in 1885 in Poland, then part of the Russian Empire, Nikitine studied Arabic, Persian, and Turkish in Moscow, Paris, and Saint Petersburg, practicing his language skills during frequent trips to the region. After graduation, he joined the Russian Foreign Ministry and spent the majority of his diplomatic service in Iran, traveling widely throughout the country. With the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, Nikitine left Tehran for Paris, pursuing a career as a scholar and writer, where he would remain until his death in 1960.

A First World War era map of the Persian Gulf, produced in Belgium, from the National Library of Israel collections

Nikitine’s scholarship focused on Kurdish language, culture, and history, and he made numerous important contributions to the field. Due to his diplomatic experience, he was also intimately familiar with modern Iranian arts and letters; his memoir, The Iran that I Have Known, recounts his friendships with the country’s leading writers and thinkers.

However, along with his academic research, from 1920 on Nikitine also wrote for the popular press. His articles covered a host of topics, from Soviet spying on the Russian emigre community, Afghanistan in international politics, Japan’s economic potential, the potato in Russian folklore, and more. Employed at the Banque Nationale Francaise du Commerce Exterieur, his freelance journalism served to supplement his income, and this extra cash only became more essential after the Nazi occupation and the installment of the Vichy regime in 1940. Nikitine remained in Paris and in his job at the bank, and continued writing for now pro-German French newspapers.

The original draft of Nikitine’s article in French, preserved in the archives of the National Library of Israel

This background helps explain the character of Nikitine’s essay, written only a few months after the fall of France in June. The tone is overwhelmingly anti-British. Nikitine argued that British influence in Bahrain, and the Persian Gulf overall, was weakening and predicted the ultimate end of British supremacy in the region. The most serious challenge to the British position came in the wake of the failed Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919, never ratified, which would have turned all of Iran into a British protectorate. Nikitine argued that this overreaching was instrumental in the 1921 coup d’etat that saw the downfall of the Qajar dynasty and brought the former army colonel Reza Shah Pahlavi to power in 1925. In the wake of the coup, Reza Shah pursued ties with other European powers; on the eve of World War II, Germany was the country’s biggest trading partner.

Against this backdrop, Nikitine saw Bahrain as a critical point of conflict. In 1927, Iran appealed to the League of Nations to assert its sovereignty over Bahrain, a claim that the British strongly rejected, saying that the island was under imperial protection. “It is well known that Great Britain always finds its ‘irrefutable’ arguments,” Nikitine wrote, dismissing the British arguments as cynical and guided by the narrow interests of securing its naval power, “above all if it sees salt water in abundance.”

A pen and ink map which accompanied Nikitine’s article, the National Library of Israel collections

This conflict over Bahrain, he continued, could spell the end of British dominance in the Gulf. “Politically, the position of Great Britain is no longer unassailable,” he wrote. Fascist Italy was seizing territory on the African coast of the Red Sea, leaving important British positions, like Bahrain, vulnerable. Nikitine predicts that “Arabia, which has been carefully maintained in the British orbit, could detach itself, especially if one considers the fact that Aden, the key to British strategy, is more and more exposed to Italian attacks.”

In the end, history did not align with Nikitine’s analysis: in August 1941, following the German invasion of the Soviet Union that June, the USSR and Great Britain jointly occupied Iran, overthrew Reza Shah, and installed his son on the throne. Britain, and later America, remained overwhelmingly influential in Iran and the Gulf for decades to come.

Nikitine stayed in Paris throughout the war and until the end of his life. There seems to be no indication that he came to Israel or was involved in the National Library in any way; this is the only document written by him in the Library’s archives. The essay likely arrived at the Library in 1962 or 1963, just a few years after the author’s death. However, the precise date is a matter of guesswork; the Library’s catalogue does not record exactly when the essay entered the collection, who donated it, or under what circumstances. The mystery of how Nikitine’s work came to Jerusalem remains unsolved.


Here is the complete translation of the article:

The British Empire: Threatened in the Bahrain Islands

Without fear of exaggeration, it is fair to say that the Islands of Bahrain, the target of a recent visit by Italian bombers, have been completely ignored by public opinion. Situated somewhere in the Persian Gulf, far from the arena of major politics, who would really be interested in them, apart from a few rarified specialists? However, quiet though it may be, this small dot on the map of the Middle East, is an important link in the chain of Great Britain’s imperial network. Access to India, aviation, oil, politics in Iran and in Arabia–all these elements are intertwined in Bahrain.

First and foremost, a few words to acquaint the reader with Bahrain’s geographic and ethnic setting. One of an archipelago of islands including Bahrain, Moharraq, Omm Na’san, Sitra, and Nabi Salih, it is situated on the southwest coast of the Gulf, in the rift separating Qatar from Asia; 552 square kilometers, a hot and humid climate, with no rain. There are a 100,000 inhabitants, three-quarters of whom live in cities: Manama (25,000), Bodayya (8,000), Moharraq (20,000), and Hadd (8,000). Arabic is the only spoken and written language (L’annuaire de Monde Musalman). [The inhabitants are] pearl fishers and farmers.

Within this framework (which due to its latitudes involuntarily evokes a novel by Josef Conrad) let us see how the political events that today are worthy of having a few lines dedicated to them, have come about.

Without going too far, one can distinguish two phases in the modern history of Bahrain: undisputed British supremacy from 1900 to 1927, and its weakening after this date. This chronological division corresponds to the general evolution of British interests in the Middle East. The predominance of Great Britain, before its decline, rested on its privileged position in Persia, which, even after the Anglo-Russian treaty of 1907, gave Albion influence over the entire southern zone of the country to the Gulf, since the Arabian coast, divided up into numerous small principalities, was also ruled according to a system of concessions and protectorate treaties, some more formal than others. From the beginning of the twentieth century, obtaining an oil concession in Iran depended on these links to Great Britain. This was so much the case that His Majesty’s Consul General in Bouchir was also the English Resident for the Gulf, with the status, de facto, if not de jure, of a Viceroy. As with all the consular agents in southern Iran, he was a high-ranking military officer, with links to the Crown of India rather than the Foreign Office.

As for Bahrain, the succeeding sheikh, in accordance with the treaty of 1880, put it under British protection with a political agent subject to the Resident of Bouchir, alongside himself. Since 1923, the Sheikh of Bahrain has been Hamd, the son of Isa-ben-Ali. (He visited London in 1936).

Yet, even during the time of its uncontested supremacy, British susceptibility was upset by the grand project of the German Baghdad railway that planned its terminus in Kuwait on the Gulf, an area that Great Britain had always considered its “hunting grounds.” This time it was only a warning, and Great Britain retained it position – reaffirmed after the Great War by bringing Iraq under its mandate and by the creation of an Arab kingdom in Mecca (the fruits of Lawrence’s efforts).

It should be noted however that the high point of British success, was the beginning of a succession of failures. First there was the failure in Tehran, where the treaty making Persia a thinly disguised protectorate, that was agreed upon by Sir Percy Cox (who had become a minister after having been the Resident at Bouchir, where the German consul Wassmuss had given the English a hard time) and Vossug-ed-Dowleh, could never be ratified. It is fair to assume that this attempt contributed to the polarization of patriotic sentiments and created an atmosphere, where it was enough for one coup d’etat that took place in 1921 by a military officer, to ensure that Iran, guided by the man who became its future sovereign (in 1925), would resolutely follow the path to political independence. This caused a change in the balance of power and Great Britain was obligated to abandon its positions in Iran, one after the other: the privilege of issuance [a banking term] at the Imperial Bank of Persia, the extraterritoriality of the Indo-European telegraph line; capitulations; customs facilities; etc. At the same time, the state of affairs in the Arab states was worsening: In Iraq–the mandate caused nothing but troubles and it searched for another formula; in Arabia–Ibn Saud removed the English representatives from Mecca. The latter immediately hastened to conclude a treaty with him in Jeddah, in 1926.

It is here that the question of the Bahrain islands comes back to the fore. One of the stipulations of that treaty could be understood to mean that Great Britain had some rights in Bahrain. Tehran did not accept this and lodged its protest with the League of Nations. Alas, this act, which like so many others in Geneva, only has symbolic value, was never followed up in terms of the Persian claim. This was repeated, however, in 1930, when Standard Oil was granted an oil concession in Bahrain. Persia (Iran after 1935) argued by standing up for its rights from the 18th century, when it exercised sovereignty over Bahrain. Great Britain responded that since then, the dynasty of sheikhs that were vassals of Iran was evicted by another group coming from the Arabian Peninsula, and that in general, the policing necessary for the Gulf (traffic in arms and slaves) could not be guaranteed by anyone except for His Majesty’s navy, etc. The intention here is not to judge the judicial proceedings. It is well known that Great Britain always finds its “irrefutable” arguments when the topic is a place “acquired” by it on any point on the globe, above all if it sees salt water in abundance.” [sea]…On the contrary, it should be noted that Iran did not allow itself to be rebuffed by this negative reaction and was not long in exacting its revenge. In 1931 Tehran revoked the right of British aircraft to fly over Iranian territory. Imperial Airways was thus obliged to abandon its airport in Bouchir. At the same time, Tehran revoked the contract with the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, and brokered a revised contract with much more advantageous terms. Finally, Tehran ordered warships from Italian shipyards. These warships would henceforth form the nucleus of the Iranian navy in the Gulf, where policing would be effected by the sovereign power in its territorial waters.  Is it necessary to add that that the Persian character of the Gulf is singularly reinforced by the fact that the Transiranian which starts at the north end of the Caspian Sea flows to its southern endpoint in the Gulf at the bay of Khormoussa where a port — Bandar Shapur — was built? For its part, Great Britain was forced to establish a new itinerary for Imperial Airways with a stopover at Bahrain and Sharjah. In addition, in 1935 Great Britain removed its naval stations at Basidu and Henjam near the Iranian coast. In 1938, for the first time in British maritime history, the grand naval exercises took place in the Gulf. The theme was…the defense of Bahrain.

All that remains to be said is a word about oil. In 1938, Standard Oil of California, together with Texas Oil, formed a company called Cal-Tex for exploiting the oilfields and the refinery (25,000 barrels a day). The question has always been, why the oilfields prospected by an Englishman, Major Holmes, were not made an English concession? Maybe the presence of an American company in Bahrain, whose sovereignty was under discussion, did not displease Great Britain – it was procuring Yankee complicity, and at the same time, most of the managers were English and production (from 45,000 tons in 1934 to 1,100,000 tons in 1939) was under British control. 

There is one certain thing that emerges from this most complicated affair, and it is with this that we will conclude. Politically speaking, the position of Great Britain in the Persian Gulf is no longer unassailable. This started due to the firm attitude of Iran, as we have just seen. Tomorrow, [the political status of Great Britain] could be even less stable as a result of strategic events that could unfold in the Red Sea or because of the extraordinary Italian exploit (a flight of 4500 km) that could foreshadow options that were unimaginable up till now. Arabia, which was carefully kept within the orbit of Great Britain, could detach itself, especially if one also considers the position of Aden, the key to British strategy, which is becoming more and more exposed to Italian attacks.

But, with the Persian Gulf breaking away from the English sphere of influence, it is the supply of petrol from Iraq (already threatened in Haifa) and from Iran, which would be completely disrupted. There is no need to emphasize the gravity of this hypothesis.

Thank You for Smoking: Abd al-Ghani Al-Nabulsi and the Ottoman Tobacco Controversy

A seventeenth-century Muslim intellectual's staunch defense of smoking sheds light on the practice's connection to modernity and the concept of recreation

A man smoking a water pipe from Jerusalem, 1875, photo by English photographer Frank Mason Good (1839-1928), the National Library of Israel collections

The Middle East is in love with cigarettes. Even as tobacco use is declining globally, in Beirut, Cairo, and Riyadh — as well as in Tel Aviv — smoking remains widespread, and in some countries is even increasing. According to a recent report, Jordan, for one, has one of the highest rates of tobacco consumption in the world: more than 80% of Jordanian men are regular smokers, averaging 23 cigarettes a day.

Although tobacco seems woven into the fabric of daily life in the region today, it was not always so. When tobacco, native to the new world, was first introduced in the Ottoman Empire in the mid-sixteenth century, it was the topic of fierce disagreement. Was tobacco healthy or harmful? Is smoking permissible in Islam, or should it be forbidden?

Preachers, poets, religious leaders, and government officials all weighed in on the debate. But one of the most prominent voices belonged to Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi, a unique figure and an influential Damascene scholar, mystic, and intellectual. Al-Nabulsi wrote a treatise in praise of smoking, Al-ṣulḥ bayn al-ikhwān fī ḥukm ibāḥat al-dukhkhān (“Making peace between brothers on the issue of legalizing smoking”); a 1774 manuscript of the book, copied from the author’s own handwritten version, is just one of the many works by al-Nabulsi in the collection of the National Library of Israel. How did this reclusive Sufi come to be one of tobacco’s main defenders?

The opening page of Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi’s 1682 defense of smoking Al-ṣulḥ bayn al-ikhwān fī ḥukm ibāḥat al-dukhkhān, the National Library of Israel collections

When tobacco first came to the Middle East via Europe, it was considered an innovative medical treatment for everything from burns to poisoning. However, by the first decade of the seventeenth century, as more and more men and women took up recreational smoking, resistance to the practice also increased. One of the basic issues that tobacco faced, from a religious perspective, was that, as a novel product, it was not mentioned in the Quran, the hadith literature about the Prophet Muhammad and his sayings, or in the authoritative codes of Islamic law.

In the face of this silence, tobacco’s numerous opponents pounced. Reasoning from analogy–qiyas, a common method in Islamic jurisprudence–they argued that tobacco could be compared to that other prohibited substance, alcohol. Tobacco, critics argued, produced similar intoxicating effects, as exemplified by the dizziness suffered by new smokers.

People resting and smoking at a roadside stall near Jerusalem, photo by English photographer Frank Mason Good (1839-1928), the National Library of Israel collections

Other than such scriptural arguments, critics claimed that tobacco was detrimental to health: reducing strength, causing bad breath, and dulling the senses. Smokers also were dirty, their clothes covered in smudges and ash. What’s more, this physical contamination, it was claimed, was accompanied by an even more dire moral impurity. Smoking caused idleness, and its newness– “deviating innovation” (bid‘a in Arabic)– was taken as inherently threatening. As James Grehan has written in a comprehensive article on the subject:

In the most extravagant visions, the fire and smoke that accompanied the act of lighting a pipe conjured up hellfire and eternal damnation. Critics warned that smokers would appear on the Day of Judgment with blackened faces and hookahs hung around their necks; until that time, they would burn in their graves, like the tobacco in their pipes.

The opposition to tobacco was not limited to intellectual circles and the arguments of the learned. The Ottoman authorities made numerous attempts to prohibit and confiscate tobacco. Though ultimately unsuccessful, these crackdowns were accompanied by brutal and bloody enforcement of the rules.

Nabulsi did not start out as smoking’s premier champion. Born in Damascus in 1641 to a family originally from Jerusalem, al-Nabulsi was a prolific Sufi mystic and scholar who authored over 250 works. Extremely wide-ranging in his interests and expertise, al-Nabulsi wrote commentaries on books by earlier mystics, especially the thirteenth century master Ibn Arabi, as well as poetry, travelogues, books on architecture and agriculture, and law. In his lifetime and for more than a century after his death, al-Nabulsi remained profoundly influential, both through his writings and a wide circle of students. It is no wonder then that the National Library houses manuscripts of twenty-six of his works, as well as several others that he himself copied or owned.

A late nineteenth century manuscript of Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi’s agricultural treatise “‘Ilm al-malāḥa fī ‘ilm al-falāḥa,” the National Library of Israel collections.

Al-Nabulsi defended smoking against its detractors on multiple fronts; while he only became a smoker himself during the course of his travels to Mecca over a decade later, his arguments were already forceful and fully formed when he composed the book in 1682.

Concerning health, al-Nabulsi denied that there was a link between smoking and illness, and argued that the physicians who prescribed tobacco as a remedy knew their business much better than critics untrained in medicine.

In fact, his book on smoking opens with just such medical arguments. In the first lines of the composition, al-Nabulsi praises God that tobacco is good for the body: drying the humors, removing phlegm, helping the intestines digest food, improving the mind, and all kinds of other benefits. “Apart from these, its usefulness against poison has been demonstrated in the medical literature,” he adds, “especially against the poison of the scorpion.”

But his more interesting arguments touched on tobacco’s status in Islamic law. He countered the claims of those who dismissed tobacco as a “deviating innovation,” saying that they were deluded by prejudice, ignorance, and knee-jerk conservatism. Al-Nabulsi writes that he chose to author the treatise not because he likes smoking or in order to join the debate on tobacco for its own sake, but rather to find the truth of the issue. He rejects the use of qiyas by those who argued against tobacco, and says if no scriptural source explicitly bans the substance, it should be permitted. While the context here only concerns the permissibility of smoking, the distinction between the truth and the law, and between the sublime mystics who perceive the former and the more limited doctors of the law who deal with the latter, is a central and recurring theme of al-Nabulsi’s thought.

At heart, and fascinatingly, al-Nabulsi’s arguments amount to a defense of a value that to us is quite familiar, but which was then a new and radical concept: fun. In making room for smoking, Nabulsi was also arguing that greater space be given to private life and private enjoyment, so long as it did not explicitly violate the strictures of Islamic law.

To a great degree, al-Nabulsi was following in the wake of social changes that were already underway. Tobacco, like coffee before it, became so popular precisely because it was convivial, encouraging conversation and the blurring of social boundaries; this was especially true in the coffeehouse, where members of different classes could meet, relax, and talk, their gatherings fueled by the stimulants in their smoke and drink. Writing on the cusp of modernity, al-Nabulsi was defending not just smoking but a central part of what it meant to be modern itself.

The Mathematics of Mecca

How advanced mathematics were used for Islamic religious purposes in the Middle Ages

Diagram of the geometrical method of determining the qibla. From an eighteenth century Ottoman Turkish copy of the sharḥ al-mulakhkhaṣ fī al-hayʾa ("Commentary on the Compendium on Astronomy by Mahmud al-Jaghmini"), the National Library of Israel collections

In the middle of the Grand Mosque in Mecca sits the Ka‘ba, the black-covered, square edifice that is the most sacred site in Islam. While the Ka‘ba predates the Prophet Muhammad’s revelation of the religion in the seventh century—the tradition ascribes its construction to Abraham or even Adam—it is a central symbol and a focal point of worship for Muslims around the world. This is no more apparent than during the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, when millions of believers gather in the holy city. The vast courtyard of the Grand Mosque fills with white-clad pilgrims performing tawaf, the counter-clockwise circumambulation of the House of God.

However, the Ka‘ba is central to prayer throughout the year, not only during the hajj: just as Jews face Jerusalem during their worship, the Ka‘ba marks the direction of Muslim prayer, the qibla. In fact, Jews and Muslims do not only share the idea of orienting prayer in general, but Jerusalem in particular. Before the Prophet Muhammad declared Mecca to be the direction of prayer, the early Muslim community prayed towards Jerusalem, and the city has retained its sanctity as the third-holiest site after Mecca and Medina.

Early 18th-century European map of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, including the Ka’ba, the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel

The qibla is built into the architecture of mosques, which include a niche, called the mihrab, in the wall facing Mecca. When praying at home or outside, individual worshipers must determine the qibla for themselves.

Today, finding the direction of the Ka‘ba from any location on the globe is a relatively easy affair: qibla compasses built into prayer rugs, smartphone apps, and Youtube guides can point the way.

But before modernity, finding the qibla was no easy matter, and precise determinations demanded serious mathematical skills.

Photograph of the mihrab prayer niche in the Khalid ibn al-Walid Mosque in Homs, Syria, taken in 1938 by A. Reid. From the Lenkin Family Collection of Photography, the University of Pennsylvania Libraries

Magnetic compasses were first introduced in the Islamic world from China in the thirteenth century, and their use in locating the qibla was described in royal Yemenite astronomer Al-Ashraf Umar ibn Yusuf’s  (d. 1296) On the Use of the Compass Bowl (tasa) for the Determination of the Qibla, written around 1290. The text describes the making of a compass using a bowl filled with water and an iron needle magnetized with a lodestone. After locating the compass’s true north, ibn Yusuf instructs readers to count twenty-seven degrees along the rim of the compass eastward; this is the qibla for the central Yemenite cities of Aden, Ta‘izz and Zabid. As Yusuf writes:

Pray in that direction, because, when the north line is known, you know the qibla of every locality of the climates according to (its) deviation and according to all the surrounding degrees on the circle of the entire rim of the bowl that are associated with it.

Geometrical models for determining the qibla also abounded. Numerous works of scientific astronomy, which build on and refine the work of the Hellenistic astronomer Ptolemy (c. 100-170 CE), whose writings were first translated to Arabic in the eighth century, also contain a chapter on determining the finding the azimuth of Mecca from a given locale. Rather than an extraneous, religious curiosity, qibla calculation was a standard topic in Islamic science.

European map of the Arabian Peninsula, including an inset drawing of the Ka’ba and the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the 1750s, the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel

An example of such a geometrical model can be found in a manuscript from the National Library of Israel’s collection, written around the same time as Ibn Yusuf’s work. Composed by Ottoman astronomer Qadizade al-Rumi (1364-1346), the book is a commentary on Mahmud al-Jaghmini’s early thirteenth century Compendium on Astronomy (mulakhkhas fi al-hay’a), which amassed over sixty commentaries and translations into Persian, Turkish, and Hebrew. The Mulakhkhas, one of the most successful astronomical textbooks of all time, was intended as an introduction to astronomy for advanced students, conveying detailed information in a concise, consistent, and comprehensive way.

Jaghmini provides instructions for locating the qibla using a sundial. Marking the points on a circle where the shadow cast by the sundial reaches just before noon and again towards evening determines the east-west line and the north-south meridian. If one knows the difference between the longitude and latitude of Mecca and one’s own location, one can then geometrically find the qibla—at least approximately.


Diagram of the “Indian circle” method for calculating the cardinal directions using a sundial. From an 18th-century Ottoman Turkish copy of the sharḥ al-mulakhkhaṣ fī al-hayʾa (“Commentary on the Compendium on Astronomy” by Mahmud al-Jaghmini), the National Library of Israel collections

The manuscript includes two diagrams illustrating the method for the city of Samarkand, where Jaghmini lived, a major cultural center in the Middle Ages. The first diagram shows the positions of the sun (the red circles) and of the black shadows, as well as the east-west and north-south lines.

Diagram of the geometrical method of determining the qibla. From an 18th-century Ottoman Turkish copy of the sharḥ al-mulakhkhaṣ fī al-hayʾa (“Commentary on the Compendium on Astronomy” by Mahmud al-Jaghmini), the National Library of Israel collections

The second diagram shows the actual determination of the qibla. Since Samarkand is to the northeast of Mecca, one is then to indicate the respective difference with lines parallel to the east-west line and the north-south meridian. A line segment drawn from the center to the edge of the circle through the point of intersection of the two new lines indicates the direction of prayer. The diagram also shows the direction for the region of Khwarezm, another important region located in Central Asia.