Colossal Elephant and His Spiritual Feats

Shaykh Ahmad-e Jâm The Life and Legend of a Popular Sufi Saint of 12th Century Iran

Franklin Lewis, Heshmat Moayyad (1927-2018)

Availability: Out of stock
Published: 2004
Page #: viii + 502
Size: 6 x 9
ISBN: 1-56859-119-5
appendix, bibliography

Quick Overview

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.


Franklin Lewis

Franklin Lewis is Associate Professor of Persian in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. His research interests are in Persian language and literature, comparative literature, translation, sufism and Baha’i studies. In addition to various articles and book chapters in academic journals and encyclopedias on classical literature, Lewis has published studies and translations of Rumi, Sana’i, Shaykh Ahmad-e Jam, as well as translations of poems and short stories by contemporary Iranian writers.

Heshmat Moayyad (1927-2018)

Heshmat Moayyad, who established the Persian program at UChicago, passed away on June 25 at the age of 90. During more than four decades at UChicago, Moayyad trained two generations of scholars who teach at more than a half-dozen universities. His scholarly contributions to the literature and religions of Iran cover a score of books, including critical editions, edited volumes and translations, and more than 100 articles and reviews, written in four languages. Among his many accomplishments, Moayyad translated modern Persian literature into English and German. He organized major international conferences at UChicago on the Indo-Persian poet Amir Khosrow (died 1325) and on the Iranian poet Parvin Etesâmi (died 1941), as well as the first academic conference about “The Baha'i Faith and Islam” in 1984 at McGill University in Montreal. Although Moayyad could not travel to his native Iran after 1978 because of the persecution of the Baha'i community, in the 1980s he hosted a series of “Persian Poetry Evenings” at U Chicago. For more than a decade, Moayyad’s lectures drew many Persian scholars, writers, poets and musicians from Iran, Afghanistan, and India to campus. Born on November 27, 1929, in Hamadan, Iran, he earned his bachelor’s degree in Persian and Arabic literature from the University of Tehran in 1949. After a year traveling throughout Iran, Moayyad left for Germany to continue his studies in Persian, Islamic Studies, and German at the University of Frankfurt am Main, where he earned his doctorate degree under Hellmut Ritter in 1958. His teaching career began in Frankfurt as a lecturer, moving in 1960 to the Istituto Universitario Orientale in Naples, where he became professore incaricato. Moayyad first came to the United States as a visiting lecturer at Harvard University from 1962 to 1963. During this time, U.S. universities usually did not teach Persian literature. However, when he became an assistant professor in 1966 at UChicago, Moayyad became a pioneer in setting up a rigorous Persian literature program in the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department. Moayyad became a full professor in 1974. Additionally, he served as a visiting professor at University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Damascus. He retired from UChicago in 2010.

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