Ismail Hakki Bursevi
Biographical Notes on Ismail Hakki Bursevi collected and translated by Christopher Ryan

Ismail Hakki was born on a Sunday in 1653 in Aydos, a town not far from the Black Sea port of Burgas in Bulgaria, then part of the Ottoman Empire. However, he became known as Ismail Hakki of Bursa (Bursevi) because, not only did he live for a long time in and die in this town, but also so as not to confuse him with another Ismail Hakki, of Ankara, a noted commentator on the Mathnawi, known as Ismail Hakki Ankaravi.

Ismail Hakki Bursevi’s father, Mustafa Efendi, was originally from Istanbul. Following a fire which destroyed his house and possessions he left Istanbul in 1650 and settled in Aydos, a peaceful little town near to the former Ottoman capital Edirne (Adrianople) in Thrace . Bursevi’s Kitab-al-Silsile mentions that Ismail Hakki’s grandfather was Bayram Chavush, son of Shah Hudabende, and it is recorded, further strengthening this genealogy, that they were descended from the Prophet Mohammed.

When Ismail Hakki was three years old, his father brought him to Osman Fazli Efendi, one of the ‘big ones’ (büyükler) of the Jelvetiyye Order. Ismail Hakki kissed Osman Fazli’s hand. (Osman Fazli refers to Ismail Hakki as ‘our student since the age of three.’)

Ismail Hakki lost his mother at the age of seven. At Osman Fazli’s suggestion, when he was ten years old, he came under the tutelage of Abdulbaki Efendi, a relative and ‘halife’ (representative) of Osman Fazli in Edirne. By this time he had already acquired skills in calligraphy and able to read the different Turkish scripts. Here Ismail Hakki studied grammar, syntax, rhetoric, logic, Muslim law, theology, scholastics, Koranic exegesis and Traditions (hadith). So enthusiastic was his keeness to study that he recopied by hand all the books which were entrusted to him. He spent two thousand drachmas, the whole of his inheritance from his mother, on buying books.

When barely twenty years old (1673) and his studies were completed, Ismail Hakki went to Istanbul to join the classes of his patron Osman Fazli. By this time Osman Fazli had settled in Istanbul where he held teaching positions, as preacher in Kul Cami (in the At Pazari quarter near the Fatih Mosque), at the Selim I Mosque, and at the Suleymaniye Mosque.

As well as preaching, Osman Fazli had started giving public classes. These had caused quite a stir and drew to him large following of students from all over the Empire. As head sheykh of the Jelveti Order, he immediately initiated his student Ismail Hakki into the discipline of this Order. While completely engaged in his studies at his master’s side, Ismail Hakki no less assiduously took in classes given by the most celebrated teachers of the time.

During this period of his education, Ismail Hakki went thoroughly into the philosophy of Muslim law and the principal works of Persian literature, such as the Baharistan of Jami, the Nigaristan of Jawini as well as the Mathnawi of Jelaluddin Rumi et al.. While listening to the lectures, Bursevi took many notes, something he also advises his students to do in his written works: “ Make notes as much as you can during your teachers’ classes. It will stir up the stagnant mind. That way we may continue to glean and discover things in what has been bequeathed us by our ancestors." Printing did not yet exist in Turkey, and by his sense of foresight he learnt calligraphy, for as the saying goes, ‘The calligrapher always has bread on his table.’

Among other counsels, his teacher Osman Fazli, gave him the following advice: “ I recommend to you above all to be just and patient. I don’t recommend you to have gardens and orchards, tekkes and many disciples: be Imam and by that be something! If you do not find an appointment or position, do some job or other which will give you enough to live on. And above all, be disdainful of the fortune with which others are favoured. Live by your labour, by your works, and pay attention to God who has spread out the world before you, and who has initiated you. Your faith will be your adornment.”

Ismail Hakki also studied music. He was convinced that in order to really acquire this noble art, it was necessary not only to love it, and prove oneself able in it, but to have felt vibrate in oneself the sense of the Universal Harmony of the Spheres, adding: “ I hope in this not to appear like the musicians of our time who perform without any concern for this Universal Harmony or a sense of modesty”.

His compositions on the songs of Hüda’i are admirable. The following poem by Hudai is an example of the themes that inspired Ismail Hakki’s music:

‘Before the boundless sea of the Oceanic Unity
O attentive servants of the heart
What prevents you from casting therein
The feeble trembling drops
Of your too persistent identities?

Evening and its Farewell
Have brought up the procession of
This enchanting plurality.
Dread its delights
Which are merely shadows grown large.
Rather, inhabit the palace of Faith
And explore deeply its strange mystery.

O follower, close your ear to what goes on outside
which prevents you from hearing
that tender word
long awaited.
The Man of Wisdom
So that he arrives at the goal
Does not stop at these scurrying shadows.

Do not let yourself be seduced by ornament.
Rather, admire the Painter
Like dew the scenery vanishes
As soon as the shining Sun appears.

O Hüda’i! fix your sight on Unity,
and leap this dividing wall of plurality.
Can the atom steal the shine
from this shadow-vanquishing One!’

(note: Aziz Mahmud Hüda’i, whose poetry we have quoted, inspired Ismail Hakki to wonderful musical compositions. Hüda’i had a great influence on Sultan Ahmet I (1589-1617), who came to the Ottoman throne at the age of fourteen years, and died at the age of 28. The young emperor relied completely Hüda’i’s advice, he sought his views by letter, confided to him his thoughts, consulted him on the meaning of his dreams and sought his approval before carrying out projects.)

Once, Sultan Ahmet I, having received from India, some elephants, it was suggested to him by someone in his court that these superb pachyderms could be housed in the dis-used Byzantine Church of St Irene (in the outer precincts of the Topkapi Palace). Hearing of this, Hüda’i wrote to the sultan absolutely opposing this suggestion, saying, “ that a monument which has been consecrated for prayer cannot under any circumstance be used as a shelter for animals.”

Another time, the population having suffered the privations of a hard winter, Hüda’i wrote to the Sultan urging him to dig a canal connecting the Sakarya River with the Marmara Sea, in order to facilitate the transport of firewood to the capital. Hüda’i also tells his sovereign how, on the previous day, having departed his presence, and borrowed a boat to cross over to his home in the company of a dervish, this latter became so frightened by a storm which raged over the sea, that he could not stop himself from pointing out that “there was only the thickness of a plank separating them from death”. To this remark Hüda’i quipped. “If you look at it that way, we are safer on the sea than on land where everyone agrees that God can take us anywhere at any time!”)

Ismail Hakki’s teacher, Osman Fazli, was a noble yet austere character, respected for his profound knowledge, his virtuous life, and his educated ‘adab’ (manners). A confidant of Sultan Mehmet IV (r. 1648-87), Osman Fazli had never become a courtier. On the contrary, he made it a matter of conscience to speak the truth to his monarch’s face, and at times he severely criticised Sultan Mehmet’s behaviour and that of his ministers.

Ismail Hakki’s education was no less solid than his teaching. The fasting, the different ascetic practices, the long periods of prayer at night and the meditating served to temper this soul.

Soon his teacher Osman Fazli sent him as a preacher to Uskub ( Skopje). Accompanied by three dervishes, on the 10 July 1675, he arrived in this charming town which he was to like very much: he loved its clear streams, its beautiful gardens, and its savorous and abundant fruit; it was not long before he married the daughter of Mustafa Uşaki, one of the sheykhs of the town.

Ismail Hakki devoted the first days after arriving in visiting the mosques, listening to sermons, getting in touch with the people and the place. With little resources and without patrons or friends in the town, at first he keenly felt the difficulties of his mission, which was not only to preach, but also to set up in Skopje a new teaching centre for the Jelveti Order. His great knowledge, his natural eloquence, the evident refinement of his person and the patronage of some important people soon won him the people’s trust and established his reputation. In order that he might comply with his teacher’s wishes, a rich benefactress of Skopje had a tekke built for him and assigned a significant income to this project. The young missionary set himself up there, and at the same time he received a letter from Osman Fazli enjoining him to begin teaching.

“My son Ismail,” wrote the Master, “Greetings to you and may God keep you in His Holy Regard! Encourage good and forbid evil. Be vigilant, avoid evil and prevent evil, both by word and action. Make your heart like a blank page with regard to the world and look at the Real. Attend to the Divine Order. Do not be like Jonas. May it please heaven that by your merit and efforts God will attract to you the chosen ones, those predestined for this light, when the time shall come. Be always patient, self-examining, pious, pure, withrawn; pray and fast. Avoid everything which could tarnish your reputation. Even if people insist on inviting you, decline, be circumspect. By all means exhort people to knowledge and good behaviour. Get it into their heads the strength that comes from practicing what is good. Make a written record of your teachings, do your best to make them as noble as possible, and speak only well of those who are present and those who are absent. In a word: show that you are there, and that you are a bearer of light."

While Ismail Hakki gave his classes, he also had to struggle against the so-called sheykhs, holy preachers and ignorant imams of Skopje, “ whose only aim is to enhance their own sense of superiority and confine the totality of knowledge to the writing of verse.”

Things got worse when he preached against the debased behaviour of leading citizens and people who spent their time in wineshops. These people went and complained to Osman Fazli who advised Ismail Hakki: “My son, persevere in following the precepts of our religion and our order; stop directly criticising these envious people and content yourself with indirect criticism so that the example of your own life will confront them. Don’t go to visit anyone unless you are invited; content yourself with the believer who take pleasure in your company. Leave to God the chastising of the frivolous. Resign yourself... etc.”

It was difficult for the preacher to comply with this sage advice, and the complaints came anew, this time to the Sheykh-ul-Islam who summoned Ismail Hakki to Istanbul. The great pontif dealt kindly with the young sheykh and re-installed him in Skopje after many exhortations, but to no avail. After six years of ineffective struggle, Hakki was forced to leave Skopje for the neighbouring town of Köprülü.

Upset by the continual complaints of his wife, who never accepted living outside Skopje, her native town, Ismail Hakki only spent fourteen months in Köprülü. In 1682 he accepted the invitation of the inhabitants of Sturumca (Strumica, Makedonya) where he set up public classes, and devoted all his spare time to writing. He wrote a commentary, in Arabic, on the Book of Dialectics of Taşköprüzade and the book of ‘Ritual Prayers’ of Fazili Ghaydani.

Ismail Hakki’s mission in Sturumca lasted thirty months, during which time the local population asked Osman Fazli to make Ismail Hakki their Mufti (jurist in law); Osman Fazli declined, ruling ascetism incompatible with the legal profession, and the religious life incompatible with a secular job. In his letter replying to Ismail Hakki on this matter, he begins thus: “In the name of He who destined you for a life of renunciation and piety, and did not create you to be a lawyer or a judge, in order to save you from the danger of causing harm and evil, and to assure for you salvation and blessings…”

Once, while Osman Fazli was staying in Edirne, he invited Ismail Hakki to join him, and they spent spent three months together studying Ibn Arabi’s Fusus-al-Hikam. There they forbade any but fellow mystics to join them in their quarters, so that the ordinary people could not hear their conversation, “ this book being for the profane a strange poison, and also it would be throwing pearls before swine”

During this period Turkey underwent a series of military disasters, and Osman Fazli was outspoken in his criticism of the government, in particular the Grand Vizier, and he was banished for a period to Sturumca.

When the Jelveti sheykh in Bursa, Sun’ullah Effendi, passed away, Ismail Hakki was appointed to this post by Osman Fazli. Ismail Hakki was distressed by this, for how would his wife, who had not stopped complaining when staying in towns really close to Skopje, cope with living so far away?… In this situation again, however, Ismail Hakki was forced to admit of the providential protection which the holiness of his master brought to him; his master who really seemed to possess the knowledge of the future. In fact, the wars which followed the defeat of Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Paşa at the seige of Vienna (1683) had as their consequence the invasion of the Ottoman lands in the Balkans. Skopje saw its homes and mosques set on fire and its inhabitants massacred (1689).

As Ismail Hakki suspected, his wife coped very badly with the move; nevertheless, they made their arrangements, arriving in Bursa in May 1685. With difficulty they found somewhere to stay. Ismail Hakki confides that, since the war, everywhere wore an aspect of abject misery. Poor sheykh that he was, all he possessed were his books and his tesbih, and he had to sell these in order to survive. Retreating to a humble tekke, he contracted there a nystagmus (involuntary movement of the eye) which irritated him a lot; for two years he suffered these trials and hardships, while teaching Koranic exegesis in the mosque at Bursa. There he began to write his famous work: the exegisis on the Koran, “Ruh-al-Beyan” which he worked on for twenty three years.

After three months in Sturumca, Osman Fazli was allowed to return to Istanbul. Secluded in his house in Rumeli Hisar, Osman Fazli often called Ismail Hakki to him and confided to him what his prophetic visions had revealed with regard to the future of the ruling dynasty, and the mission of Believers in the world. It is curious to note that he announced the end of the Ottoman line as rulers in Turkey, at a time when the concept of monarchist and hereditary rule had never been breached by the revolutionary spirit. But his forthright nature had not changed at all, and he gave the government no rest. Eventually the Grand Vizier could no longer put up with the inconvenient truths presented by Osman Fazli to the court, and in 1690 he was exiled to Famagusta in Cyprus by the Grand Vizier Köprülü Mustafa Paşa.

Ismail Hakki joined his master who died a few months later in 1691. Ismail Hakki recounts the hand of divine vengeance in the sudden disaster which befell the Grand Vizier near Salankemen on 19 August 1691, all the while bewailing the fact that the fault of a single person had been the cause of the death of so many soldiers.

[Note: In his Kitab-al-Silsile, Ismail Hakki, who is at his exiled teacher’s side in Famagusta at the time of the defeat which lead to the death of the grand vizier Köprülü Mustafa Paşa and some 70,000 troops in the plain of Sermi, to the north of Belgrade, tells how the soul of the vizier was led into the presence of Osman Fazli, who asked him: “Why did you exile me unjustly?” Confounded by these words, the soul of the dead man bowed his head full of remorse and was led away in shame from their presence by his guardians.]

The defeat at Vienna and subsequent events hastened the fall of Mehmet IV. Three sultans succeeded in the space of nine years. The last, Mustafa II resolved to put himself at the head of his troops and resume the war against imperial forces in Austria and Transylvania.

The saintly reputation of Ismail Hakki, as the spiritual heir of his master Osman Fazli, was increasing. The knowledge and eloquence of the disciple made him greatly appreciated at the Ottoman court. Mustafa II asked him to accompany him during the military campaign which he was preparing.

Thus Ismail Hakki took part in a number of battles, in the entourage of the Grand Vizier Elmas Mahmud Pasha. Of this period, Ismail Hakki writes:

"These disasters are the just punishments of crimes committed by those in charge: they have caused the deaths of people who didn’t deserve to die. Now, the Koran says definitely “Do not spill human blood, unless it is justifiable. God forbids you to do this. The murderer will be in the power of the heirs of the deceased.” He backs up many reflections of this kind with Koranic verses.

Elmas Mahmud Pasha was fond of his company, and when his duties allowed him some leisure, he enjoyed listening to the sheykh’s illuminating discourse. One evening, on the eve of battle, someone brought to the Grand Vizier’s splendid campaign tent a present, a lively and beautiful gazelle, held on a leash. Ismail Hakki was so moved to pity by the poor animal’s distress that he knew he had to get it released. But the Grand Vizier wanted to keep it imprisoned in a beautiful cage which he was planning to build in his gardens.

‘O my Vizier, listen,’ said Ismail Hakki, ‘It is certainly permitted to kill animals whose meat is edible, but the believers are of another view. Here is a true story: A great and devout king had a son who was very ill. The doctors, despairing of being able to cure him, decided to call in a dervish, one who was very holy, of true virtue and devoted to the service of God. And so he came. Arriving at the palace, he saw lots of cages, each one more beautiful than the next, in which a number of graceful birds were moving about restlessly. Our dervish heard their chirping and twittering as their inconsolable weeping, and he was overcome with infinite pity. He then said, “O king, if you wish to cure your son whom you love so much, then give back freedom to the beatings of my heart which you have imprisoned with these birds. Open the cages! Let these innocent beasts fly off and your wish will be granted.” The king opened the cages and the graceful prisoners escaped en masse. As the last one took flight, the young prince recovered his health.’

He also adds, ‘This tale teaches us that it is abhorrent to imprison the innocent. A government must consider the people’s happiness and joy, above all in their hearts. And yet our prisons are full of innocent people.’ (from İsmail Hakkı Bursevi’s Tuhfe-i Hasekiye)

The story adds that the lovely gazelle was released. As for the Grand Vizier, he died on the field of honour.

In the course of the Transylvanian campaign, Ismail Hakki was severely wounded and took no further part in the battles which followed. Unable to fight the enemy with the sword, he was forced to do so with the pen and in composing heroic poetry to encourage his former fellow soldiers.

The peace following the Treaty of Karlowitz (1 September 1698) put an end to long years of misery, and began a period of respite for Turkey. Ismail Hakki took advantage of this to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca twice, in 1700 and in 1711.

During the return journey from his first pilgrimage, his caravan was attacked by arab bandits. He lost all his luggage including some fine manuscripts. At that time, Egypt was involved in arms trafficking, supplying weapons to the bedouin tribes. Ismail Hakki condemned this trafficking: ‘some so-called muslims are helping our enemies: specifically, the Egyptians, who every year bring guns into Arabia and sell them there. Now, this is a capital offence. Because from the moment that they plunder and murder muslims on the very road to Mecca, one can no longer consider these bedouin to be muslims.

The attack on the pilgrim caravan in which Ismail Hakki had been travelling had stirred up public indignation and was considered a real scandal. And yet the troops escorting the returning pilgrimage caravans had been as formidable as the contingents on the outward journey. They were under the command of a trustworthy man: Mehmed Pasha Abu Kavuk. It was at Aula, on the return journey, that a horde of these bedouin brigands, armed to the teeth, caught Abu Kavuk’s escort in a surprise attack and annihilated it.

Unarmed, the pilgrims were unable to offer any resistence; most of them were robbed and murdered without mercy; hundreds perished.

Half naked and left to die on the sand, Ismail Hakki wandered alone, thinking his end was near. He placed a stone beneath his head and made his last prayer to heaven. His request was fulfilled in an unexpected way. In fact, Ismail Hakki relates that on the same day, around the time of the evening prayer, through the himmah and help of one of the ‘Büyükler’ (Great Ones) among the servants of God, his salvation was assured, and he was allowed to reach Damascus.

He made his second pilgrimage by sea; it was safer, and nothing untoward occurred on the journey. On his return to Bursa he continued his teaching and writing.

In 1717, however, after having spent thirty five years in Bursa, Ismail Hakki returned to Damascus with his family. It took a month and a half to reach this destination. This journey had been inspired by a vision of Ibn Arabi. This great muslim mystic of the 11th century appeared to him many times; Ismail Hakki recorded the days and times of these appearances.

For Ismail Hakki life was more difficult in Damascus. However, he wrote a dozen books which he sent as presents to his friends ‘ in the dear land of Rum’. The most important of these were: Kitab-al-Hitab, and Kitab-al-Nedjat.

More or less throughout this period there was regular debate on the use of tobacco: some were in favour of it and some against. Tobacco had been imported into the Empire by the Dutch after the discovery of America. The Sultans took the most severe measures, up to and including the death penalty to fight the smoking habit, but without success. With them, some fanatical scholars used their learning to argue against it not just on health grounds, but according to canonical law. Under public pressure, however, the arguments began to fade; the severity of the penalties lessened and the effervescent cries of the fanatics fizzled out, at the same time as the government realised it could create a new source of income by taxing tobacco. Under the circumstances, the Grand Mufti Beha’i issued a fatwa (juricidal decree) in which he declared the use of tobacco permissible, because ‘in itself, every object is permissible which isn’t forbidden by shariah.’ ; thus, he said, ‘One doesn’t know of a single sentence in canonical law forbidding tobacco, neither in the Koran, nor in the Hadith.’ Even though this fatwa didn’t put an end to the arguments, and to the criticisms of the fanatics, the people gave themselves up more than ever to their passion for smoking. Satirical verses in this subject circulated at the time:

‘In order to ban an inoffensive smoke,
we succumbed to iniquitous and oppressive measures.
In truth it would have been more suitable
to remove those fumes which cause
the sighing of the oppressed and the poor.’

‘In the innocent cloud of a glowing pipe
The preachers saw the Day of Judgment,
The ruination of worlds and an end to their sermons.
If it had been so, it would have been a godsend,
To escape the torment of their tedious harangue!’

As for Ismail Hakki, he disapproved its use. In a vision, Ibn Arabi had confirmed to him that ‘this leaf (tobacco) is harmful’.

Finally, in order to calm people down, a reputable author, Abdul Ghani Nablousi published his well-known work: ‘Peace between brothers on the subject of the permissibility of tobacco.’

After three years in Damascus, Ismail Hakki felt an intense longing for Turkey and as he put it in a couplet: ‘At times there blows a zephyr from the land of my dreams. Bring news of this rose-garden to the nightingale singing in my soul’. He says further: ‘In the symbolic form of Damascus I saw a portion of my heart (Ibn Arabi), but how long can it hold out against this crazy passion for my beloved Turkey.’ In the end, on the night of 4/5 March 1720, a fervent request arose in his heart, which God soon granted, and he departed Damascus for good and set out once again on the road to Bursa.

Reaching Uskudar, a district of Constantinople, he was immediately ordered to stop; he settled down there and began teaching again, being very much in demand. A total of thirty pamplets emerged from his tireless pen, many of which were requested by friends to whom he dedicated these works. They included: Rissale-i-Bahriye, Rissale-i-Hasekiye, Rissale-i-Haliliye, and Rissale-i-Toufe-i-Omeriye. These works all deal with sufism and moral philosophy.

Determined at last to return to Bursa, he set out towards the end of December in 1722. Disembarking at Mudanya, ‘a warning of a psychic nature enjoined him to make his final arrangements. And he felt inside himself the need to enter into a deep retreat.

On his return to Bursa he bequeathed his books to the public libraries, shared his possessions among his heirs, and left all his money (ten purses) to pay for the construction of a mosque: Cami-i-Mohammedi. This delightful little mosque exists to this day.

In Bursa, Ismail Hakki completed three of his books. In spite of the vicissitudes of existence, nothing interrupted his work. He himself says in his Kitab-ul Netice: ‘Know that I underwent indescribable rigours in the process of my research. What tortures I endured from coarse ignoramuses among the believers, not to mention the venom of those imbeciles. The poison was diluted in the cup of life. The true believers stayed on the right path.’

Ismail Hakki’s life was in fact one long and painful trial. A trial of indigence compounded by a large family, a trial of illnesses which brought him further poverty and privation, trials of battle wounds from which he only recovered after seven patient years, trials of violent attacks by enemies in the course carrying out bravely his lifelong mission, and further trials in two attempts to have him assassinated. These attempts took place at the end of his lectures in Uskudar. A frenzied and fanatical mob, stirred up by the official theologians, jealous as much of Ismail Hakki’s moral influence as his spiritual disposition, while at the same time ignorant of the true order of things, had arranged the disturbance to have him killed him. Miraculously rescued from this first threat, he continued his classes as before, but the trouble continued and again he was exposed to the same dangers, until he decided to return to Bursa. Ismail Hakki was not only a great religious writer, he was also a saint and martyr with a redeemer’s love. All the energy and resilience of his race Ismail Hakki put at the service of his ideal, that of ‘bearer of light’.

In 1137 AH/ 1725 AD, Ismail Hakki’s passing, in 1725, was in complete and perfect serenity, the just reward of a pure and noble life.

To this day, Ismail Hakki Bursevi is revered as one of the ‘Büyükler’ – the great saints, of Anatolia. He is also recognised as an eminent literary figure in the Turkish language. He produced more than a hundred written works, mostly in the nature of commentaries. Among them, the 4,637 page Koranic exegesis ‘Rûh'ul Beyân’ is particularly famous – written, he says, ‘with the guidance of my spiritual father Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi’. His ‘Rûh-ul Mesnevi’ is a commentary on the first 748 verses of the Mathnawi, a work inspired by Mevlana himself. He also wrote Kenz-i Mahvi (The Hidden Treasure) and translated and commentated Ibn Arabi’s ‘Lübb’ül-Lüb’ (Kernel of the Kernel), a small work taken from the Futuhat al Makkiya. His profound scholarship enabled him to work as easily in Arabic and Persian as his native Turkish. He was also a poet, writing under the ‘mahlas’ (pen-name) ‘Hakki’.

Biographical notes on Osman Fazli

Christopher Ryan
Christopher has been associated with the Chisholme Institute since its foundation in 1979. He studied Law at University of West Australia, and Turkish at Oxford University. He is a businessman, consultant and restaurateur and writer. His current venture is the Damascus Drum, a cafe and bookshop in Hawick. He is author of 'The Story of the Damascus Drum.'