Shaykh Ahmad of Jâm, nicknamed “the Colossal Elephant,” was a popular Muslim saint who lived from 1049 to 1141 in eastern Iran. His career as a religious figure and worker of miracles is here vividly and imaginatively portrayed through delightful and often fantastic tales. The unique portrait that emerges of Shaykh Ahmad, while drawing on the hagiographic traditions of Persian and Arabic literature, depicts a Sufi saint unlike any other. Told in plain and folksy language, the anecdotes in The Colossal Elephant and His Spiritual Feats provide a close-up view of popular piety and the practice of Islam in the rural and provincial areas of eastern Iran in the medieval period.
Extensively annotated and with a detailed introduction about Shaykh Ahmad and the sources for his life, this book presents translations of four Persian texts. First, a hagiographical account from the late 12th century by one of Shaykh Ahmad’s own disciples, Mohammad-e Ghaznavi, containing over 350 vignettes chronicling Shaykh Ahmad’s career as a Sufi leader, and detailing his interactions with famous political and historical figures, as well as local townspeople, disciples and members of his own family.
This is followed by a short compilation of miracles purportedly performed by Shaykh Ahmad after his death. In contrast to this hagiographical portrait, a treatise is then presented by Shaykh Ahmad’s own son, who attempts to downplay the miraculous tales circulating among his father’s followers and the townspeople in Jam. This is followed by fragments of Shaykh Ahmad’s own treatises and epistles, which stand in stark contrast to the legendary thaumaturge portrayed in the miracle stories, are also included. Read in juxtaposition, these texts shed much light on the process of saint formation in the medieval Muslim world. They furthermore provide unique information about economic, social, and political conditions in eastern Iran in the 12th century, especially the geography, economy and local history of Khorasan during the Saljuq period. The wealth of detail about everyday life, including medicine, cuisine, agricultural practices, domestic life, relations between the sexes, relations between the Sunnis and the Ismailis, relations between Muslims with Zoroastrians and Christians, etc., makes the text useful for historians, anthropologists and Islamicists alike.