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1. The Ascetics

The first century of Islam found the Muslims in possession of a great empire, in newly conquered Persia, Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt and North Africa. The conquered People of the Book were allowed to retain their old religions, with the payment of tribute money, and the conquering Arabs dwelt apart in new garrison-cities, supported by the taxation money and the booty from their continuing campaigns. They surrounded themselves with captive concubines and slaves, and lived on a scale of luxury unknown to their ancestors. There was a strong temptation to regard themselves as a Chosen People, and while some of the conquered adopted Islam, the lack of equality accorded them by the Arabs was a source of constant discontent.

The more pious members of the Community saw this situation with distaste and dismay. They looked back nostalgically to the simplicity of Medina, and felt that the best part of Islam was in danger of being disregarded or wholly lost. As a form of social protest, they clothed themselves in rough wool (ṡūf) and held themselves aloof from the dunyā, the "lower" material life. They studied the sayings of Muhammad and the lives of the prophets, and they laid the foundations of the Law and the religious sciences of Islam. Many of them found that the ascetic practices of the Syriac Christian monks were congenial to their religious attitudes.

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This religious ferment within Islam was particularly strong in the new camp town of Baṡra in Iraq, and no single figure is more typical of it than al-Ḥasan al-Baṡrī (died A.H. 110/A.D. 728), a religious scholar universally revered by later generations. The Ṡūfīs regard him as one of their leading early lights, and he is claimed as well by the lawyers and theologians.


Al-Ḥasan said: "The good things have departed; only the reprehensible remains, and whoever is left among the Muslims is afflicted."

. . . al-Ḥasan said: "This Believer wakens grieving and goes to bed grieving, and nothing else encompasses him, for he is between two fearful things: between sin which has so passed that he knows not what God will do to him, and between his allotted term which so remains that he knows not what mortal thing may strike him."

. . . Al-Ḥasan said: "The Believer wakens grieving and goes to bed grieving, overturned by his certainty of grief, and there suffices for him the sufficiency of a woman tried by misfortunes: a handful of dates and a drink of water."

. . . Al-Ḥasan preached to his companions, saying: "The lower world is a house whose inmates labor for loss, and only abstention from it makes one happy in it. He who befriends it in desire and love for it will be rendered wretched by it, and his portion with God will be laid waste. It will deliver him to punishments from God for which there is no patience and no enduring. Its worth is small and its pleasure little, and its passing is written upon it. God is the administrator of its legacy, and its people will change for mansions which long ages shall not decay or alter; and the life there shall not pass away so that they die, and however long their halt there grows, they shall not move on. Then beware this dwelling place, for there is no power and no might save in God, and remember the future life. Son of Adam, cut away your anxiety about the lower world." 2

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A brief period of hope appeared when a pious member of the ruling Umawī dynasty came to the Caliphal throne in the new capital of Damascus. This was ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd-al-‘Azīz (ruled A.D. 717-720), whose ascetic friends hailed him as the restorer of true Islam. He fought corruption and chose as his example the righteous first Caliphs, Abū Bakr and ‘Umar. He preached conversion to the conquered peoples and offered them equality within the fold, so that they embraced Islam in great numbers. A part of al-Ḥasan's correspondence with him has been preserved.


Beware of this world (dunyā) with all wariness; for it is like to a snake, smooth to the touch, but its venom is deadly. . . . The more it pleases thee, the more do thou be wary of it, for the man of this world, whenever he feels secure in any pleasure thereof, the world drives him over into some unpleasantness, and whenever he attains any part of it and squats him down in it, the world turns him upside down. And again beware of this world, for its hopes are lies, its expectations false; its easefulness is all harshness, muddied its limpidity. . . . Even had the Almighty not pronounced upon the world at all or coined for it any similitude . . . yet would the world itself have awakened the slumberer and roused the heedless; how much more then, seeing that God has Himself sent us a warning against it! . . . For this world has neither worth nor weight with God, so slight it is. . . . It was offered to our Prophet, with all its keys and treasures . . . but he refused to accept it, and nothing prevented him from accepting it--for there is naught that can lessen him in God's sight--but he disdained to love what his Creator hated, and to exalt what his Sovereign had debased. As for Muhammad, he bound a stone upon his belly when he was hungry; and as for Moses . . . it is said of him in the stories that God revealed to him, "Moses, when thou seest poverty approaching, say, 'Welcome to the badge of the righteous!' And when thou

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seest wealth approaching, say, 'Lo! a sin whose punishment has been put on aforetime.'" If thou shouldst wish, thou mightest name as a third the Lord of the Spirit and the Word [Jesus], for in his affair there is a marvel; he used to say, "My daily bread is hunger, my badge is fear, my raiment is wool, my mount is my foot, my lantern at night is the moon, and my fire by day is the sun, and my fruit and fragrant herbs are such things as the earth brings forth for the wild beasts and the cattle. All the night I have nothing, yet there is none richer than I!" 3


The Ṡūfī name remained long after the woolen habit (ṡūf) passed into disuse. Asceticism traveled with the Arabs to the frontiers of their empire, and took root also in Khurasan, the old eastern march provinces of Persia, where Zoroastrianism and Nestorian Christianity met with Central Asian Buddhism. One of the great Khurasanī ascetics was Ibrāhīm ibn Adham, an Arab, 4 whom the legend makes the son of one of the native princes of Balkh. The story of his conversion to asceticism recalls that of Gautama Buddha.


My father was one of the princes of Khurasan, and I was a youth, and rode to the chase. I went out one day on a horse of mine, with my dog along, and raised a hare or fox. While I was chasing it, I heard the voice of an unseen speaker say, "Oh Ibrāhīm, for this wast thou created? Is it this thou wast commanded to do?" I felt dread, and stopped--then I began again, and urged my horse on. Three times it happened, like that. Then I heard the voice--from the horn of my saddle, by God!--saying, "It was not for this thou wast created! It is not this thou wast commanded to perform!" I dismounted then, and came across one of my father's shepherds, and took from him his woolen tunic and put it on. I gave him my mare and all I had with me in exchange, and turned my steps toward Mecca. 5

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He wandered as far as Syria and became a hermit near the Dead Sea. He is quoted as saying that he learned true knowledge of God (ma‘rifa: gnosis) from a solitary Syrian monk. 6 As the beggar-prince, he is very popular in Ṡūfī poetry and literature.


A certain man was constantly bewailing his condition and complaining of his poverty. Ibrāhīm ibn Adham said to him: "My son, perhaps you paid but little for your poverty?" "You are talking nonsense," said the man, "you should be ashamed of yourself. Does anyone buy poverty?" Ibrāhīm replied: "For my part, I chose it of my own free will: nay, more; I bought it at the price of this world's sovereignty, and I would buy one instant of this poverty again with a hundred worlds, for every moment it becomes worth yet more to me. . . . Without any doubt, I know the value of poverty, while you remain in ignorance of it. I give thanks for it, while you are ungrateful." 7

Ibrāhīm is said to have prayed: "O God, Thou knowest that Paradise weighs not with me so much as the wing of a gnat. If Thou befriendest me by Thy recollection, and sustainest me with Thy love, and makest it easy for me to obey thee, then give Thou Thy Paradise to whomsoever Thou wilt." 8

Ḥātim al-Aṡamm of Khurasan (died A.H. 237/A.D. 851) was asked, "On what do you base your trust in God?" He replied: "On four principles. I learned that no one can eat my daily bread except me, and quieted myself with this knowledge. I learned that no one performs my acts except me, so I am busy with them; I learned that Death will come suddenly, and so I run to meet him, and I learned that I am never hidden from the eye of God wherever I may be, so I behave modestly before Him." 9


One of the greatest ascetics of Baṡra was the holy woman Rābi‘a al-‘Adawīya, a former slave of non-Arab

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origin who had been trained as a flute player before she turned to the contemplative life. With her, we find fully developed mystical doctrine: the ardent longing of the soul for God, who reveals Himself to those who love Him. She lived until A.H. 185/A.D. 801.


The Ṡūfīs of Baṡra urged Rābi‘a to choose a husband from among them, rather than continue to live unmarried. She replied, "Willingly," and asked which of them was most religious. They replied that it was Ḥasan. So she said to him that if he could give her the answer to four questions, she would become his wife.

"What will the Judge of the world say when I die? That I have come forth from the world a Muslim, or an unbeliever?"

Has an answered, "This is among the hidden things known only to God Most High."

Then she said, "When I am put in the grave and Munkar and Nakīr [the angels who question the dead] question me, shall I be able to answer them (satisfactorily) or not?" He replied, "This is also hidden."

"When people are assembled at the Resurrection and the books are distributed, shall I be given mine in my right hand or my left?" . . . "This also is among the hidden things."

Finally she asked, "When mankind is summoned (at the Judgment), some to Paradise and some to Hell, in which group shall I be?" He answered, "This too is hidden, and none knows what is hidden save God--His is the glory and the majesty."

Then she said to him, "Since this is so, and I have these four questions with which to concern myself, how should I need a husband, with whom to be occupied?" 10 [She remained unmarried.]


Rābi‘a said, "I saw the Prophet in a dream, and he said to me, 'O Rābi‘a, dost thou love me?' I said, 'O Prophet of God, who is there who does not love thee? But my love to God

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has so possessed me that no place remains for loving or hating any save Him.'" 11


Rābi‘a said, "It is a bad servant who serves God from fear and terror or from the desire of a reward--but there are many of these." They asked her, "Why do you worship God: have you no desire for Paradise?" She replied, "The Neighbor first, and then the House. Is it not enough for me that I am given leave to worship Him? Even if Heaven and Hell were not, does it not behoove us to obey Him? He is worthy of worship without any intermediary (motive)."' 12


It is related that Rābi‘a prayed once, "Oh my God, wilt Thou burn in Hell a heart which loves Thee?" and an unseen voice answered her, "We shall not do thus. Do not think of Us an evil thought!" 13


It is related of her that at night she would go up to her roof and pray thus:

"Oh my Lord, the stars are shining and the eyes of men are closed, and kings have shut their doors, and every lover is alone with his beloved, and here am I alone with Thee." 14


The Umawī dynasty was swept away by the ‘Abbāsī revolution (A.H. 132/A.D. 750) and a new capital of the Islamic World Empire rose at Baghdad. One of the figures who bridges the school of Baṡra with that of Baghdad is Ḥārith ibn Asad al-Muḥāsibī (died A.H. 234/A.D. 857). For him, asceticism seems only valuable because it purges the soul for its companionship with God.


God has appointed self-mortification for the seekers, for the training of the soul. Men are ignorant of the high station of that one who is preoccupied with his Lord, who is seen to be thinking little of this world, who is humble, fearful, sorrowful, weeping, showing a meek spirit, keeping far from the children of this world, suffering oppression and not seeking

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revenge, despoiled, yet not seeking requital. He is dishevelled, dusty, shabby, thinking little of what he wears, wounded, alone, a stranger--but if the ignorant were to look upon the heart of that seeker, and see how God has fulfilled in him what He promised of His favor and what He gives him in exchange for that which he renounced of the vain glory of this world and its pleasure, he would desire to be in that one's place, and would realize that it is he, the seeker after God, who is truly rich, and fair to look upon, who tastes delight, who is joyous and happy, for he has attained his desire and has secured that which he sought from his Lord. Let him who wishes to be near to God abandon all that alienates him from God. 15

Al-Junayd, his pupil, said, "I used often to say to al-Muḥāsibī, 'My solitude has become my consolation, and will you drag me forth to the desert, to the sight of men and the public highways?' And he would say, 'How often will you say "my consolation"; "my solitude"? If half of mankind were to draw near me, I should find no consolation in them, and if the other half stayed far away from me, I should not feel lonely because of their distance from me.'" 16


144:2 Abū Nu‘aym al-Isfahānī, Hilyat al-Awliyā’ (Cairo, 1933), Vol. II, pp. 132-140.

144:3 A. J. Arberry, trans., Ṡūfism (London, 1950), pp. 33, 35, here abridged.

144:4 Cf. Massignon, op. cit., p. 172.

144:5 Al-Sulamī, Tabaqāt al-Ṡūfīya (Cairo, 1953), p. 30. Somewhat different version translated by Arberry in Ṡūfism, p. 37.

144:6 Story translated in Arberry, Ṡūfism, p. 37.

144:7 Margaret Smith, trans., The Persian Mystics: Attār (Wisdom of the East Series; London, 1932), p. 39.

144:8 Arberry, Ṡūfism, p. 37.

144:9 Ibn Yazdānyār, Rawdat al-Murīdīn (Mss. Princeton, Paris, Berlin, Cairo, Istanbul).

144:10 p. 247 Quoted by Margaret Smith, Rabi‘a the Mystic (Cambridge, 1928), p. 11.

144:11 Ibid., p 99.

144:12 Ibid., p. 100.

144:13 Ibid., p. 101.

144:14 Ibid., p. 22.

144:15 Quoted by Margaret Smith, Readings from the Mystics of Islam (London, 1950), pp. 15, 16.

144:16 Al-Isfahānī, op. cit., Vol. 10, p. 74. Quoted also in M. Smith, An Early Mystic of Baghdad (London, 1935), p. 9.

Next: 2. The Ecstatics