Week 4: Stories of Sufi Saints

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Background Reading

Depending on the week's assignment, you may have several pages of Background Reading. This week, you have THREE PAGES of Background reading.

  1. Islam and Sufism
  2. Attar's Lives of the Saints
  3. Terms and Definitions

Attar's Tadhkirat al-Auliya, or Memorial of the Saints

The stories about Sufis that you will be reading this week are compiled by a medieval Persian writer named Farid al-Din Attar. Attar is one of the most important authors in the history of Sufism, and he is perhaps most famous for his poetic composition, The Conference of the Birds which is an allegory of the quest of the soul for union with God. If you ever get a chance to see the English theatrical adaptation by the playwright Peter Brook, you go see it! Here's a link to a recent production of the play in Minnesota.

Attar was born around the year 1120 in Nishapur, in northeastern Iran. He lived a very long life and died around the year 1220, probably during the violent upheaval caused by the Mongol invasion of Persia. Attar's name means "pharmacist" and we know from his autobiography that his father owned a pharmacy which Attar took over after his father's death. The word "attar," meaning an aromatic extract or oil, is actually this same Arabic word borrowed into English.

Attar wrote his collection of stories about the Sufi "saints" late in his life. There were already collections of sayings and anecdotes about the Sufis which were in circulation before Attar's time, but his monumental collection was unlike anything which had been written up to that time.

Attar faced the same problem that the editors of the gospels faced: what is the best way to organize the famous words and famous sayings of a holy man?

Remember that the Gospel of Thomas simply listed, one after another, the words and the deeds of Jesus, without any kind of clear organizing principle at all. In addition, there was no narrative variety. Each item in the list simply began with a formula along the lines of "Jesus said...", etc.

The Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke took a biographical approach. They organized the deeds and sayings of Jesus into the form of a life of Jesus, moving in chronological order and ending with the events surrounding Jesus's death. They showed Jesus as a storyteller, so that the words of Jesus were depicted in narrative form: Jesus was shown speaking to his followers and to other audiences, and the reaction of the audience (favorable or unfavorable!) was often an important part of the narrative.

You will see that Attar takes a different approach. There are strong biographical elements in Attar's "lives" of the Sufi saints, but the material is not organized in a strictly chronological way. Instead, Attar interweaves his materials, blending his sources and constantly changing the narrative perspective, in order to present a kind of psychological or personal portrait of each of his subjects. Sometimes the holy man is telling the stories (the way Jesus tells parables), but at other times, the holy man is a character in a story told by someone else. Sometimes Attar is the storyteller, but sometimes he introduces other storytellers, such as students or disciples who share their memories in their own words, speaking in the first person. (That would be kind of like if a Gospel were to include Peter telling a story in the first person, "I remember the day that Jesus first called us, me and my brother, as we were fishing...") So, pay attention as you read the stories this week: who is the storyteller each time? And why do you think Attar is arranging the stories in the way that he does?

The Saints.

Sometimes Arabic and Persian names can be somewhat intimidating - but so can English names if you had ot include your first name and your middle name and your last name, and your nickname too! So before you get started, try to get acquainted with the main name by which each of the holy men will be called. Sometimes these people were known exactly by their nickname, such as "Termedhi," the guy from the city of Termedh. Here is a list of the saints whose lives you will be reading about.

Fozail (Al-Fozail ibn ‘Iyaz): This saint started out as a bandit and highway robber, but even in his career as a criminal he exhibited some unusual qualities!

Ebrahim (Ebrahim ibn Adham): Ebrahim was originally the king of Balkh but he gave up all his wealth and power when he felt the call of religion.

Dho‘l-Nun (Dho‘I-Nun al-Mesri): Dho‘l-Nun was also known by his nickname, "al-Mesri," meaning "the Egyptian."

Yusof (Yusof ibn al-Hosain-e Razi): Yusof was a student of Dho'l-Nun the Egyptian.

Ahmad (Ahmad-e Harb): Ahmad is one of the saints who was born, not in an Arabic-speaking land, but in Persia (modern Iran).

Hatem (Hatem ibn ‘Onwan): Hatem's nickname was "al-Asamm," meaning "the Deaf Man." You will find out how he got this nickname in one of the stories for this week.

Ma'ruf (Ma‘ruf ibn Firuz al-Karkhi): Ma'ruf's parents were Christians, but after their son converted to Islam, so did his parents.

Termedhi (Mohammad ibn Ali-e Termedhi): Because Mohammad ibn Ali came from the town of Termedh, he was known as "Termedhi," or "The Man From Termedh."

Khair (Khair-e Nassaj): Although he was a free man, Khair spent part of his life in bondage as a slave; you will find out how this happened to him in this week's story.

Hallaj (Al-Hosain ibn Mansur al-Hallaj): The execution of al-Hallaj for his religious convictions is one of the most important stories for the Sufi tradition; you will read about the execution of Hallaj in this week's readings.

  1. Islam and Sufism
  2. Attar's Lives of the Saints
  3. Terms and Definitions

Modern Languages MLLL-2003. World Literature: Frametales. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:48 PM