KOBRAWIYA, the most influential Sufi order of the Mongol period in Central Asia and Persia, with branches that survived elsewhere for several centuries.
i. THE EPONYM
Abu’l-Jannāb Aḥmad b. ʿOmar Najm-al-Din Kobrā, eponym of the Kobrawiya, was born in Ḵᵛārazm in 1145 (or possibly a decade later; he is said to have been approximately eighty years of age when the Mongols overran Ḵᵛārazm in 1221). “Kobrā,” the element in his name that gave rise to the designation of the Kobrawiya, is said to be the abbreviation of al-ṭāmmat al-kobrā (the overwhelming event), a description of resurrection in the Qurʾān, 79:34; his maktab teacher so called him in view of his insuperable powers of debate. Alternatively, a number of his followers are related to have described him as āyat Allāh al-kobrā (God’s supreme sign), which was similarly truncated as “Kobrā” (Meier, intro. to Fawāʾeḥ , p. 8).
He was born into a family that evidently combined religious learning with trade, for he relates how in childhood he was once left alone in the cloth shop they owned in order to guard against thieves (Fawāʾeḥ , pp. 51-52). In the same anecdote he recounts how he experienced a temporary “loosening of the bonds of the intellect;” visions of this type (“absences” from conventional modes of perception, he was wont to call them), prefiguring his later immersion in the world of Sufism, recurred frequently in his early years. For long, however, he remained preoccupied with the study of Hadith. He pursued the subject successively in Nišāpur, with Abu’l-Ḥasan Farāvi; in Hamadān, with Abu’l-ʿAlāʾ ʿAṭṭār as well as Moḥammad b. Abi Solaymān b. Yusof Hamadāni, with whom he additionally studied Abu’l-Qāsem Qošayri’s Resāla al-Qošayriya ; Isfahan, with Abu’l-Makārem Labbān and Abu Jaʿfar Ṣaydalāni; Mecca, with Abu Moḥammad Ṭabbāḵ; and Alexandria, with Abu Ṭāher Salafi (or Selāfi). It was in the last of these cities that he received his konya Abu’l-Jannāb from none other than the Prophet, glimpsed in a dream, which he interpreted to mean “the one who shuns this world and the next.” This came to replace the konya of Abu ʿAbd-Allāh that he had previously used. In the same dream, the Prophet praised him for his continuing attention to Hadith while recommending that he also devote the night to reading the Qurʾān; there was therefore no reason for Kobrā abruptly to change course (Kobrā, Fawāʾeḥ , pp. 79-80).
Nonetheless, it was now, when he was roughly thirty-five years of age, that Kobrā began to search earnestly for a spiritual preceptor, although handicapped by awareness of his own superiority in erudition to the shaikhs he encountered. Arriving in Dezful, he fell ill and was fortunate enough to find lodging at the ḵānaqāh of a locally eminent Sufi, Shaikh Esmāʿil Qaṣri. At first he found the noise of the nightly samāʿ irksome, but when bidden by Qaṣri himself to participate, he rose from his bed, danced, and was cured; the following day he formally became a disciple ( morid ) of Qaṣri. Not long after, however, the shaikh perceived that Kobrā had fallen prey once more to the arrogance induced by erudition and he sent him away to be chastened and trained by Abu Yāser ʿAmmār Bedlisi, a deputy ( ḵalifa ) of Abu’l-Najib Sohravardi. Yet again, Kobrā was unable to suppress the silent but detectable discourtesy of imagining himself superior to his shaikh, so Bedlisi sent him on to Egypt to have this lingering arrogance literally knocked out of his head by Ruzbehān Wazzān Meṣri, a migrant from Kāzerun who had settled in Cairo. When Kobrā arrived at Ruzbehān’s ḵānaqāh , he found him making his ablutions with — so Kobrā imagined — insufficient water. Ruzbehān thereupon sprinkled him with some of the water, causing him to lose consciousness and experience a vision in the course of which Ruzbehān vigorously boxed his ears. He then awoke, and according to one account, suffered the same chastisement once more, this time in the flesh. The purpose of the Egyptian sojourn thus having been met, Kobrā returned to Abu Yāser for further training. Such is the story as narrated several generations later by a prominent member of the Kobrawi line, ʿAlāʾ-al-Dawla Semnāni and recorded by one of Semnāni’s disciples, Eqbāl Sistāni (ʿAlāʾ-al-Dawla Semnāni, 1987, pp. 227-30).
The account of Kobrā’s initiatic trajectory provided by another of his spiritual descendants, Ḥosayn Ḵᵛārazmi, is significantly different from the foregoing. According to him, Kobrā joined the circle of Ruzbehān in Cairo immediately after terminating his Hadith studies in Alexandria. He spent several periods of forty-day seclusion under the supervision of Ruzbehān and gained his favor to such a degree that he gave him his daughter in marriage. After a stay in Cairo, which lasted at least long enough for her to bear Kobrā two sons, he learned that Abu Moḥammad Baḡawi’s Maṣābiḥ al-sonna , a noted collection of prophetic tradition, was being taught in Tabriz by one of his students, ʿOmdat-al-Din Ḥafda, and, loyal to his perennial interest in Hadith, Kobrā left Egypt to study under him. When he arrived in Tabriz, however, he encountered an ecstatic dervish ( majḏub ), Bābā Faraj, who dissuaded him from further study and clothed him initiatically in one of his own torn garments. This induced mystical experiences in him which, still a captive to scholarly habit, he tried to capture in writing, much to the displeasure of Bābā Faraj. It was now, according to this account, that Kobrā went on to receive training at the hands of ʿAmmār b. Yāser and Esmāʿil Qaṣri successively, the latter pronouncing him sufficiently mature to return to Ḵᵛārazm and begin acquiring his own disciples. First, however, he paid a farewell visit to Ruzbehān in Cairo (Ḵᵛārazmi, pp. 112-18).
It is impossible to know which of the two accounts is accurate, in whole or in part, although Fritz Meier concludes from a lengthy examination of them that Eqbāl Sistāni’s version of events is more plausible (Meier, Intro. to Fawāʾeḥ , pp. 14-40). In any event, the names of Ruzbehān Meṣri, ʿAmmār Yāser Bedlisi, and Esmāʿil Qaṣri are common to both, so it may be assumed that Kobrā associated with all three preceptors, in whatever order. Bedlisi appears to have played the greatest role in his spiritual evolution, for it is to him alone that Kobrā refers in his writings. He thus records how he abandoned, after a mere eleven days, the first period of forty-day retreat he was due to spend under his supervision; and how he was admonished by him that to count the days left to emerging from seclusion amounted to already having left it ( Fawāʾeḥ , pp. 59-60). Insofar as Kobrā received his principal ḵerqa (initiatic cloak) from Bedlisi, the Kobrawiya may be regarded as a branch of the Sohravardiya in its origins; it was the geographical separation that followed Kobrā’s return to Ḵᵛārazm, as well as his choice of distinctive spiritual emphases, that made of it a new and independent order. Some sources, however, contrastingly accord primacy to his affiliation to Esmāʿil Qaṣri (e.g., Zabidi, fol. 87a).
The return took place in 1184, and Kobrā devoted the rest of his life to training some sixty disciples, twelve of whom he regarded with particular esteem and who earned him the hagiographical title of šayḵ-e walitarāš (the saint-manufacturing shaikh). Foremost among them were Majd-al-Din Baḡdādi (d. 1219), Rażi-al-Din ʿAli Lālā (d. 1244), Saʿd-al-Din Ḥammuʾi/Ḥammuya (d. 1253), Jamāl-al-Din Jili (d. 1258), Sayf-al-Din Bāḵarzi (d. 1261), Najm-al-Din Dāya Rāzi (d. 1256), and Bābā Kamāl Jandi (d. 1273). The notion advanced by ʿAbd-al-Raḥmān Jāmi that Bahāʾ-al-Din Moḥammad Walad (d. 1230), father of Jalāl-al-Din Moḥammad Rumi, was also one of Kobrā’s pupils must be dismissed; there is no mention of Kobrā, however slight, in the writings of either father or son, nor any trace of his distinctive teachings (Lewis, pp. 30-33). Similarly baseless is the assertion that Farid-al-Din ʿAṭṭār was among Kobrā’s followers, although it is possible that he met with two of his successors, Majd-al-Din Baḡdādi and Saʿd-al-Din Ḥammuya. Faḵr-al-Din Rāzi, the great adversary of the Sufis, is related to have met with Kobrā in Ḵᵛārazm; he instructed this adversary of Sufism that only “an inspiration ( wāred ) descending irresistibly on the soul” could vouchsafe certain knowledge of God, and that this in turn could be attained only by the discarding of formal knowledge and pretension (Meier, intro. to Fawāʾeḥ , pp. 45-46). The account of this meeting appears to be formulaic, for it is reminiscent of stories concerning similar encounters between Abu Saʿid b. Abi’l-Ḵayr and Ebn Sinā (Avicenna) and between Ebn al-ʿArabi and Ebn Rošd; in all three cases the proponent of experiential certainty triumphs over the advocate of rational or philosophical learning. Nonetheless, it cannot be dismissed as unfounded.
Apart from the pious and the learned, Kobrā seems to have enjoyed the esteem of the court of Ḵᵛārazm; he mentions being visited by an unnamed vizier ( Fawāʾeḥ , p. 74). Bahāʾ-al-Din Baḡdādi, the brother of one of Kobrā’s main disciples Majd-al-Din, was secretary to the Ḵᵛārazmšāh, which must have provided linkages to the court.
It was also during the three and a half decades that elapsed after his return to Ḵᵛārazm that Kobrā wrote a series of works, brief for the most part, on various aspects of the Sufi path; several of his initiatic descendants were far more prolific than he was, perhaps because he had finally taken to heart the admonitions of his guides on the path to refrain from scholarly work. With two exceptions, all of Kobrā’s writings are in Arabic, although several were translated by later Kobrawis into Persian, sometimes with the addition of commentaries. Probably the most influential of Kobrā’s works was Al-Oṣul al-ʿašara , also known as Aqrab al-ṭoroq, a phrase contained in one of its opening sentences. It begins with a threefold division of the paths to God that men may follow: the path of those who rely on acts of devotion ( arbāb al-moʿāmalāt ) such as prayer, fasting, recitation of the Qurʾān, pilgrimage to Mecca ( ḥajj ) and jehād ; the path of those given to inward struggle and ascetic practice ( arbāb al-mojāhadāt wa’l-riāżāt ); and the path of “those who journey towards God and fly by means of Him” ( al-sāʾerin ela’llāh wa’l-ṭāʾerin behi ). It this third path that is the closest to God (hence the alternative title of the work), in that it is based on the volitional death mandated by the Prophet in a much-cited Hadith. There follows an enumeration of the ten principles or methods whereby that state can be attained: repentance ( tawba ), ascetic restraint ( zohd ), reliance on God ( tawakkol ), contentment ( qanāʿa ), isolation ( ʿozla ), constant remembrance ( modāwamat al-ḏekr ), orientation to God ( al-tawajjoh ila’llāh ), patient endurance (ṣabr ), vigilance ( morāqaba ), and satisfaction ( reżā ). There are two Persian translations of this work: one by ʿAli Hamadāni (d. 1384), commonly known as Dah qāʾeda although it has been published under the title Aqrab al-ṭoroq ela’llāh ; and the other by a Naqšbandi, ʿAbd-al-Ḡafur Lāri (d. 1506). A commentary in Persian was written on al-Oṣul al-ʿašara by Kamāl-al-Din Ḥosayn Ḵᵛārazmi (d. 1433 or 1436), and one in Ottoman Turkish by Esmāʿil Ḥaqqi Borsavi (d. 1725), a Sufi of the Jelwati order (ed. Mustafa Kara , pp. 33-70).
Another of Kobrā’s treatises, Resāla ela’l-ḥāʾem al-ḵāʾef men lawmat al-lāʾem , also organized under ten headings, deals with the duties to be observed by the morid : ritual purity, retreat, continuous silence, continuous fasting, continuous remembrance, submission, the repelling of stray thoughts, linking the heart to the shaikh, restricting sleep to the minimum, and observing moderation in eating and drinking. Kobrā himself prepared a Persian translation of this work under the title al-Sāʾer al-ḥāʾer al-wājed ; there is also a translation in Modern Turkish (Mustafa Kara, pp. 73-90). Also practical in its concerns is Kobrā’s other work in Persian, Ādāb al-ṣuffiyya , in which he discusses the behavioral norms ( ādāb ) to be observed on seven occasions: donning the ḵerqa ; sitting and rising; entering the ḵānaqāh ; eating; accepting hospitality; participating in samāʿ ; and traveling. Much of the content is reminiscent of other books on Sufi adab , notably Sohravardi’s Ādāb al-moridin .
Fawāʾeḥ al-jamāl wa fawāteḥ al-jalāl , perhaps the best known of Kobrā’s works to Western scholarship, is noted principally for its description and analysis of the epiphenomena of the Sufi path. In it Kobrā discusses visions of heavenly bodies (the sun, the moon, the stars, the signs of the zodiac and the stations of the moon) categorized by him as “supernal” ( aʿlā ), as well as earthly entities ( adnā ) such as forms, colors, oceans, fire, deserts, castles, fields, and pits. The precise fashion in which any of these or other objects are seen determines their meaning: thus to dream one is traversing an ocean while submerged in it is an indication that he is being divested of water, one of the four elements that make up man’s being as the microcosm; to dream of calm seas in which suns, lights, or fires have been immersed is to observe the seas of gnosis; and to dream of rainfall is to witness its descent from the divine mercy to revive the barren soil of dead hearts (p. 6). As for lights, they are twofold: those that ascend from the human heart, and those that descend from the divine throne; once the veil between heart and throne is removed and a gate to the throne is opened for the heart, the two yearning for each other, the ascending and descending lights merge, as the Qurʾān indicates in 24:35: “light upon light” ( nur ʿalā nur ; p. 30). Lights may be glimpsed in varying colors: green, red, yellow, and blue; these, too, are of significance. Green light, for example, betokens the vitality of the heart: “when you witness greenness, you sense a freeing of the heart, a broadening of the breast, a purity of the soul, a joy of the spirit, and a delight of the vision, all these being attributes of [true] life” (p. 6).
In addition to these brief treatises, Kobrā has been credited with embarking on a Qurʾān commentary ( tafsir ) and bringing it as far as 51:18 before being overtaken by death; it was then taken up first by Najm-al-Din Dāya and brought to completion by ʿAlāʾ-al-Dawla Semnāni (Ateş, pp. 139-60). In reality, the tafsir has now been shown to be the work only of the later Kobrawis, not of Kobrā himself (Algar, “Bahrü’l-Hakâik ve’l-Meânî”). The confusion arose, no doubt, from the name shared by Kobrā and Dāya as well as the multiple names by which the tafsir in question was known. Despite its importance as the sole commentary on the Qurʾān written by Kobrawis and a widespread diffusion attested by an abundance of manuscripts in Turkey and Persia, this work has still not been published. Considerable extracts indicative of its tone and content are, however, to be found in Esmāʿil Ḥaqqi (Hakkı) Borsavi’s Ruḥ al-bayān . As is so often the case with the genre, doubt also surrounds the attribution to Kobrā of numerous quatrains; however, at least some may be regarded as his (see Berthels).
Kobrā died in the slaughter wrought by the Mongols on Ḵᵛārazm in 1221, although the precise circumstances are unclear. According to Rašid-al-Din Fażl-Allāh (cited by Meier, intro. to Fawāʾeḥ , p. 53), Čengiz Khan gave him the option of leaving the city in advance of the massacre, but he declined, saying it would be improper for him to abandon the city with which he had been associated all his life. Another account, that of al-Yāfeʿi, records that once the Mongols had broken through the fortifications of Kᵛārazm, Kobrā summoned his followers in the city and instructed some of them, notably Saʿd al-Din Ḥammuya and ʿAli Lālā, to leave; he then led into battle those that remained and was martyred (Yāfeʿi, IV, 41-42). Yet another narration, at variance with both the preceding, claims that Kobrā sent his disciples to ʿAbd-al-Ḵāleq Ḡojdovāni in Bukhara, unaware that he had just died, so that they might have him pray for the Mongol attack to be averted (“Maqāmat-e ʿĀref Rivgari,” pp. 16-17). This seems to reflect a wish on the part of Ḡojdovāni’s Naqšbandi descendants to have Kobrā implicitly acknowledge his pre-eminence.
Rašid-al-Din Fażl-Allāh and Yāfeʿi differ also on the fate of Kobrā’s corpse; the former reports that it could not be identified among the multitude of the fallen, and the latter that it was buried in the ruins of his ḵānaqāh (Meier, intro. to Fawāʾeḥ ; Yāfeʿi, IV, p. 42) . Whatever be the case, a grave and a zāwia bearing his name had come into being on the outskirts of Ḵᵛārazm, at the latest by the time of Ebn Baṭṭuta’s visit to the city in 1332: it dispensed food to travelers and was supervised by a certain Sayf-al-Din b. ʿAṣāba (Ebn Baṭṭuṭa, I, p. 360). A. Y. Yakubovskii, a Russian archeologist, concluded after his examination of Kobrā’s shrine in 1929 that it had been constructed some time between 1321 and 1333 (Meier, Intro. to Fawāʾeḥ , p. 62). Local tradition nonetheless came to credit Timur with its building; it was perhaps he who restored or expanded it. Repair work was undertaken in the first half of the 19th century by Moḥammad Amin Khan, the ruler of Ḵiva. The results were seen by Rezāqoli Khan Hedāyat, the Qājār bureaucrat and littérateur, when he visited Ḵᵛārazm on a diplomatic mission in 1852; he recited a Fāteḥa for Kobrā, and noted that unlike Čengiz Khan or Sultan Moḥammad the Ḵᵛārazmšāh, Kobrā was still benefiting from men’s prayers (Hedāyat, pp. 94-95). The shrine continued to receive thousands of pilgrims throughout the 19th century and, on a smaller scale, even during the Soviet period; despite lack of evidence, Russian ethnologists insisted on classifying such pilgrimages as relics of pre-Islamic Uzbek belief (Snesarev, pp. 269, 433).
Works by Najm-al-Din Kobrā.
Fawāʾeḥ al-jamāl wa fawāteḥ al-jalāl , ed. Fritz Meier as Die Fawāʾiḥ al-Ḡamāl wa-Fawātiḥ al-Ḡalāl des Naḡm ad-Dīn al-Kubrā: Eine Darstellung mystischer Erfahrungen im Islam aus der Zeit um 1200 n. Chr. , Wiesbaden, 1957, tr. Paul Ballanfat as Les Éclosions de la beauté et les parfums de la majesté , Nimes, 2000.
Ādāb al-moridin , tr. Fritz Meier as “Ein Knigge für Ṣūfī’s,” Rivista degli studi orientali 32, 1957, pp. 485-524.
“Traités mineurs,” in Annales islamologiques IV, Cairo, 1963, pp. 1-78 (includes al-Oṣul al-ʿašara, Resāla ela’l-ḥāʾem al-ḵāʾef men lawmat al-lāʾem, Resālat al-sāʾer al-ḥāʾer ela’l-sāter al-wāḥed al-mājed, and Ketāb ādāb as-soluk elā ḥażrat Mālek-al-Molk wa Malek-al-Moluk ).
Tasavvufî hayat , tr. and ed. Mustafa Kara, Istanbul, 1980 (includes Oṣul al-ʿašara , Resāla ela’l-ḥāʾem al-ḵāʾef, and Fawāʾeḥ al-jamāl ).
Resāla ela’l-ḥāʾem al-ḵāʾef men lawmat al-lāʾem , Pers. version as al-Sāʾer al-ḥāʾer al-wājed ela’l-sāter al-wāḥed al-mājed , ed. Masʿud Qāsemi, Tehran, 1982, Turk. tr. in, Tasavvufî hayat , pp. 73-90.
al-Oṣul al-ʿašara , tr. ʿAli Hamadāni as Dah qāʿeda , ed. ʿAli-Reżā Šarif Moḥseni as Aqrab al-ṭoroq ela’llāh , Tehran, 1983 (also including the commentary of Kamāl-al-Din Ḥosayn Ḵᵛārazmi), tr. with commentary by ʿAbd-al-Ḡafur Lāri, ed. Najib Māyel Heravi, Tehran, 1984, Turk. tr. by Esmāʿil Ḥaqqi (Hakkı) in Tasavvufî hayat , pp. 33-70.
Ādāb al-Ṣufiya, ed. Masʿud Qāsemi, Tehran, 1984.
Resālat al-ḵāʾef al-ḥāʾem men lawmat al-lāʾem , ed. Tawfiq Sobḥāni, Tehran, 1985.
La pratique du soufisme: quatorze petits traités de Najm al-Dîn Kubrâ , tr. Paul Ballanfat, Nimes, 2002.
Hamid Algar, “Kubrā, Na dj m al-Dīn,” in EI² V, pp. 300-1.
Idem, “Bahrü’l-Hakâik ve’l-Meânî,” in Türkiye diyanet vakfı Ëslam ansiklopedisi IV, Istanbul, 1991, pp. 515-16.
Süleyman Ateş, Işari tefsir okulu , Ankara, 1974; tr. Tawfiq Sobḥāni as Makteb-e tafsir-e ešāri, Tehran, 2002.
Evgenuĭ E`duardovich Berthel’s, “Chetverostishiya Sheikha Nadzhm al-Dina Kubra” (The quatrains of Shaikh Najm-al-Din Kobrā), in idem, Sufizm i sufiĭskaya literatura (Sufism and Sufi literature; Russ. tr. of articles originally published in German), Moscow, 1965, pp. 324-28.
Ebn Baṭṭuṭa, Reḥla , ed. Karam Bostāni, 2 vols., Beirut, 1964.
Toshihiko Izutsu, “The Theophanic Ego in Sufism: An Analysis of the Sufi Psychology of Najm ad-Dīn Kubrā,” Sophia Perennis 4/1, 1978, pp. 23-42.
ʿAbd-al-Raḥmān Jāmi, Nafaḥāt al-ons , ed. Maḥmud ʿĀbedi, Tehran, 1991.
Kamāl-al-Din Ḥosayn Ḵᵛārazmi, Jawāher al-asrār wa ẓawāher al-anwār , ed. Moḥammad-Jawād Šariʿat, Isfahan, 1981.
Franklin D. Lewis, Rumi Past and Present, East and West: the Life, Teachings and Poetry of Jalâl al-Din Rumi , Oxford, 2003.
“Maqāmāt-e ʿAbd-al-Ḵāleq Ḡojdovāni wa ʿĀref Rivgari,” ed. Saʿid Nafisi, Farhang-e Irān-zamin 2, 1954, pp. 1-18.
Fritz Meier, “Stambuler Handschriften dreier persischer Mystiker,” Der Islam 24, 1937, pp. 1-42.
ʿAbd-Allāh b. Asʿad Yāfeʿi, Merʾāt al-jenān , 4 vols., Beirut, 1970.
Manučehr Moḥseni, Taḥqiq dar aḥwāl wa āṯār-e Najm-al-Din Kobrā Owaysi , Tehran, 1967.
(July 1, 2009)
Originally Published: July 15, 2009
Last Updated: July 15, 2009