Inspirational anecdotes from the lives of the great mystic Saints of Islam as narrated in Tadhkirat-al-Auliya by Farid-al-Din Attar and translated by A.J. Arberry:
From the beginning Dawud-e Ta’i was overwhelmed by an inner grief and always avoided the society of his fellow creatures. The cause of his conversion was that he heard a mourning woman recite these verses:
“On which of your cheeks has decay begun,
And which of your eyes has started to run?”
Great sorrow invaded his heart and all composure deserted him. In this state he went to lessons with his teacher Abu Hanifa. “What has transpired with you?” Abu Hanifa asked. Dawud related to him the foregoing incident. “The world has lost its attractions for me,” he added. “Something has happened inside of me which I cannot understand, nor can I discover an explanation of it in any book or legal pronouncement.” “Turn away from other men,” Abu Hanifa prescribed. So Dawud turned his face from other men and shut himself up in his house. After a long interval, Abu Hanifa went to see him. “This is not the solution, for you to hide in your house and utter not a word. The proper course is for you to sit at the feet of the imams and listen to them propounding novel ideas. You should attend to what they have to say patiently, uttering not a word. Then you will know those problems better than they.” Recognizing the good sense of what Abu Hanifa said, Dawud resumed his studies. For a year he sat at the feet of the imams, never opening his mouth and accepting their pronouncements with patience, being content simply to listen and not to reply. “This one year’s patience,” he remarked at the end of that time, “is equivalent to thirty years’ strenuous work.” He then encountered Habib-e Ra’i, who initiated him into the mystic path. He set forth upon it manfully. He flung his books into the river, went into retirement and cut off all expectation of other men. Now he had received twenty dinars as an inheritance. These he consumed in twenty years. Certain that the shaikhs reproved him for this: “The path stands for giving to others, not keeping to oneself.” “I hold on to this amount to secure my peace of mind,” he explained. “I can make do with this until I die.”
Caliph Harun al-Rashid asked Abu Yusof to take him to visit Dawud. Abu Yusof went to Dawud’s house, but was refused admission. He begged Dawud’s mother to intercede. “Admit him,” his mother pleaded. “What business I have with worldlings and evildoers?” Dawud replied, refusing to comply. “I implore you, by the right of my milk, admit him,” his mother said. “O God,” said Dawud, “Thou hast said, ‘Observe the right of thy mother, for My good pleasure is in her good pleasure.’ Otherwise, what business I have with them?” He then granted audience. They entered and seated themselves. Dawud began to preach, and Harun wept copiously. When he withdrew, he put down a gold moidore. “This is hallowed,” he said. “Remove it,” Dawud said. “I have no need of it. I sold a house which was mine by hallowed inheritance, and live on the proceeds. I have asked God that when that money is spent He shall take my soul, so that I may not be in need of any man. I am hopeful that God has answered my prayer.”
Harun and Abu Yusof then returned to the palace. Abu Yusof went to see the keeper of the purse. “How much is left of Dawud’s money?” he asked. “Two dirhams,” the keeper replied. “He has been spending a silver penny daily.” Abu Yusof calculated. Another day, standing with his back to the prayer niche, he announced, “Today Dawud has died.” Enquiry was made, and it was found to be so. “How did you know?” they asked. “I calculated from his expenditure that today nothing remained to him,” Abu Yusof explained. “I knew that his prayer would be answered.”
Amr ibn Othman
When Amr ibn Othman was in Mecca, he wrote to Jonaid, Jorairi, and Shebli in Iraq. This was his letter:
“Know, you who are the great ones and elders of Iraq, say to every man who yearns after the land of Hejaz and the beauty of the Kaaba: You would never reach it, excepting with great distress of spirit. And say to every man who yearns after the Carpet of Propinquity and the Court of Glory: You would never reach it, excepting with great distress of soul.” At the bottom of the letter Amr wrote: “This is a missive from Amr ibn Othman-e Makki and these elders of Hejaz who are all with Him and in Him and by Him. If there be any of you who entertains high aspiration, say to him: Come upon this road wherein are two thousand fiery mountains and two thousand stormy and perilous seas. If you are not of this rank, make no false pretension, for to false pretension nothing is given.'”
When the letter reached Jonaid, he gathered the elders of Iraq together and read it to them. Then he said, “Come, say what he meant by these mountains.”
“By these mountains,” they replied, “he meant ‘naughting’. Until a man is ‘naughted’ a thousand times and a thousand times revived, he does not attain the Court of Glory.”
“Of these two thousand fiery mountains,” Jonaid remarked, “I have crossed only one.”
“You are lucky to have crossed one,” said Jorairi. “Up to now I have gone only three steps.”
Shebli burst into tears: “You are fortunate, Jonaid, to have crossed one mountain,” he cried. “And you are fortunate, Jorairi, to have gone three steps. Up to now I have not even seen the dust from afar.”
As Dho ‘l-Nun lay on his deathbed his friends asked him, “What do you desire?”
“My desire,” he answered, “is that ere I die, even if it be for only one moment, I may know Him.” He then spoke the following verses:
Fear wasted me,
Yearning consumed me,
Love beguiled me,
God revived me.
One day later he lost consciousness. On the night of his departure from this world, seventy persons saw the Prophet in a dream. All reported that the Prophet said, “The friend of God is coming. I have come out to welcome him.”
When he died, there was seen written in green on his brow, “This is the friend of God. He died in the love of God. This is the slain of God by the sword of God.”
When they lifted his coffin to carry him to the grave the sun was extremely hot. The birds of the air came and with wings flapping kept his bier shaded from his house to the graveside.
As he was being borne along the road, a muezzin chanted the call to prayer. When he reached the words of attestation Dho ‘l-Nun lifted a finger out of the shroud.
“He is alive!” the shout went up. They laid down the bier. His finger was pointing, but he was dead. For all that they tried they could not straighten his finger. When the people of Egypt beheld this, they were all put to shame and repented of the wrongs they had done him. They did things over his dust that cannot be described in words.
There was a disciple of Dho ‘l-Nun who had forty times observed the forty days’ seclusion, forty times he had stood at Arafat, and for forty years he had kept vigil by night. Forty long years he had sat sentinel over the chamber of his heart. One day he came to Dho ‘l-Nun. “I have done all this,” he said “For all that I have suffered the Friend speaks not one word to me nor favours me with a single glance. He takes no account of me, and reveals nothing to me from the unseen world. All this I say not in order to praise myself. I am simply stating the facts. I have performed all that was in the power of me, poor wretch, to do. I make no complaint against God. I simply state the facts, that I devote my whole heart and soul to His service. But I am telling the story of the sadness of my evil luck, the tale of my misfortune. I do not say this because my heart has grown weary of obedience. Only I fear that if further life remains ahead of me, it will be the same. For a whole lifetime I have knocked in hope, but I have heard no response. Now it is grown hard for me to endure this any longer. Since you are the physician of the afflicted and the sovereign prescriber of the sages, minister now to my wretchedness.”
“Go and eat your fill tonight,” advised Dho ‘l-Nun. “Omit the prayer before sleep, and slumber the whole night through. So it may be that if the Friend will not show Himself kindly, He will at least show Himself reproachful; if He will not look on you with compassion, He will look on you with sternness.”
The dervish departed and ate his fill. His heart would not permit him to forgo the prayer before sleep, and so he prayed the prayer and fell asleep. That night he saw the Prophet in a dream. “Your Friend greets you,” the Prophet said. “He says: An effeminate wretch and no true man is he who comes to My court and is quickly sated. The root of the matter is uprightness of life, and no reproaches. God Almighty declares, I have given your heart its desire of forty years, and I grant you to attain all that you hope for, and fulfill all your desire. But convey My greetings to that bandit and pretender Dho ‘I-Nun. Say then to him: Pretender and liar, if I do not expose your shame before all the city, then I am not your Lord. See that you no more beguile the hapless lovers of My court and scare them not away from My court.”
The disciple awoke, and was overcome by weeping. He went and told Dho ‘l-Nun what he had seen and heard. When Dho ‘l-Nun heard the words, “God sends you greetings and declares you a pretender and a liar.” he rolled over and over with joy and wept ecstatically.
Ebrahim ibn Adham
When Ebrahim ibn Adham quitted Balkh he left behind him a suckling child. The latter, by now grown up, asked his mother one day about his father. “Your father is lost,” she replied. The son thereupon made proclamation that all who desired to perform the pilgrimage should assemble. Four thousand presented themselves. He gave them all their expenses to cover provisions and camels and led the party Mecca-wards, hoping that God might grant him sight of his father.
Reaching Mecca, they encountered by the door of the Holy Mosque a party of patchwork-frocked Sufis. “Do you know Ebrahim ibn Adham?” the son enquired. “He is a friend of ours,” they told him. “He is entertaining us, and has gone to hunt for food.” The son asked them to direct him, and he went in his track. The party emerging in the lower quarter of Mecca, he saw his father unshod and bareheaded coming along with a load of firewood. Tears sprang to his eyes, but he controlled himself and followed in his father’s wake to the market. There his father began to shout. “Who will buy goodly things for goodly things?” A baker called to him and took the firewood in exchange for bread. Ebrahim brought the bread and laid it before his companions. “If I say who I am,” the son feared, “he will run away.” So he went to take counsel with his mother as to the best way of recovering his father. His mother advised patience. “Be patient until we make the pilgrimage.” When the boy departed, Ebrahim sat down with his associates. “Today there are women and children on this pilgrimage. Mind your eyes,” he charged them. All accepted his counsel. When the pilgrims entered Mecca and made the circumambulation of the Kaaba, Ebrahim with his companions also circled the Holy House. A handsome boy approached him, and Ebrahim looked at him keenly. His friends noticed this and were astonished, but waited until they had finished the circumambulation. “God have mercy on you!” they then said to Ebrahim. “You bade us not to glance at any woman or child, and then you yourself gazed at a handsome lad.” “Did you see?” Ebrahim exclaimed. “We saw,” they replied. “When I left Balkh,” Ebrahim told them, “I abandoned there a suckling son. I know that the lad is that son.”
Next day one of the companions went out before Ebrahim to look for the caravan from Balkh. Coming upon it, he observed in the midst of the caravan a tent pitched all of brocade. In the tent a throne was set, and the boy was seated on the throne, reciting the Koran and weeping. Ebrahim’s friend asked if he might enter. “Where do you come from?” he enquired. “From Balkh,” the boy replied. “Whose son are you?” The boy put his hand to his face and began to weep. “I have never seen my father”, he said, laying aside the Koran. “Not until yesterday – I do not know whether it was he or not. I am afraid that if I speak he will run away, as he ran away from us before. My father is Ebrahim-ibn Adham the King of Balkh.” The man seized him to bring him to Ebrahim. His mother rose and went along with him. Ebrahim, as they approached him, was seated with his companions before the Yemeni Corner. He espied from afar his friend with the boy and his mother. As soon as the woman saw him she cried aloud and could control herself no longer. “This is your father.” An indescribable tumult arose. All the bystanders and friends of Ebrahim burst into tears. As soon as the boy recovered himself he saluted his father. Ebrahim returned his greeting and took him to his breast. “What religion do you follow?” he asked. “The religion of Islam,” answered his son. “Praise be to God,” cried Ebrahim. “Do you know the Koran?” “I do.” “Praise be to God. Have you studied the faith?” “I have.” Then Ebrahim would have departed, but the boy would not let go of him. His mother wailed aloud. Turning his face to heaven, Ebrahim cried, “O God, succour me!” The boy immediately expired in his embrace.
“What happened, Ebrahim?” his companions cried out. “When I took him to my breast,” Ebrahim explained, “love for him stirred in my heart. A voice spoke to me, “Ebrahim, you claim to love Me, and you love another along with Me. You charge your companions not to look upon any strange woman or child, and you have attached your heart to that woman and child.” When I heard this call, I prayed, “Lord of Glory, come to my succour! He will so occupy my heart that I shall forget to love Thee. Either take away his life or mine.” His death was the answer to my prayer.”
Hassan of Basra
Hassan had a neighbour named Simeon who was a fire-worshipper. Simeon fell ill and was at death’s door. Friends begged Hassan to visit him; he called, to find him in bed, blackened with fire and smoke. “Fear God,” Hassan counselled him. “You have passed all your life amid fire and smoke. Accept Islam, that God may have mercy on you.” “Three things hold me back from becoming a Muslim,” the fire-worshipper replied. “The first is, that you speak ill of the world, yet night and day you pursue worldly things. Secondly, you say that death is a fact to be faced, yet you make no preparation for death. In the third place, you say that God’s face shall be seen, yet today you do everything contrary to His good pleasure.”
“This is the token of those who know truly,” Hassan commented. “Now if believers act as you describe, what have you to say? They acknowledge the unity of God; whereas you have spent your life in the worship of fire. You who have worshipped fire for seventy years, and I who have never worshipped fire – we are both carried off to Hell. Hell will consume you and me. God will pay no regard to you; but if God so wills, the fire will not dare so much as to burn one hair of my body. For fire is a thing created by God; and the creature is subject to the Creator’s command. Come now, you who have worshipped fire for seventy years; let us both put our hands into the fire, then you will see with your own eyes the impotence of fire and the omnipotence of God.” So saying, Hassan thrust his hand into the fire and held it there. Not a particle of his body was affected or burnt.
When Simeon saw this he was amazed. The dawn of true knowledge began to break. “For seventy years I have worshipped fire,” he groaned. “Now only a breath or two remains to me. What am I to do?”
“Become a Muslim,” was Hassan’s reply.
“If you give it me in writing that God will not punish me,” said Simeon, “then I will believe. But until I have it in writing, I will not believe.”
Hassan wrote it down.
“Now order just witnesses of Basra to append their testimony.” The witnesses endorsed the document. Then Simeon wept many tears and proclaimed the faith. He spoke his last testament to Hassan. “When I die, bid them wash me, then commit me to the earth with your own hands, and place this document in my hand. This document will be my proof.” Having charged Hassan thus, he spoke the attestation of faith and died. They washed his body, said the prayer over him, and buried him with the document in his hand.
That night Hassan went to sleep pondering what he had done. “How could I help a drowning man, seeing that I am drowning myself? Since I have no control over my own fate, why did I venture to prescribe how God should act?” With this thought he fell asleep. He saw Simeon in a dream glowing like a candle; on his head a crown, robed in fine raiment, he was walking with a smile in the garden of Paradise. “How are you, Simeon?” Hassan enquired. “Why do you ask? You can see for yourself,” Simeon answered. “God Almighty of His bounty brought me nigh His presence and graciously showed me His face. The favours He showered upon me surpass all description. You have honoured your guarantee; so take your document. I have no further need of it.” When Hassan awoke, he saw that parchment in his hand. “Lord God,” he cried, “I know well that what Thou doest is without cause, save of Thy bounty. Who shall suffer loss at Thy door? Thou grantest a Guebre of seventy years to come into Thy near presence because of a single utterance. How then wilt Thou exclude a believer of seventy years?”