Week 4: Stories of Sufi Saints

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Al-Fozail ibn Iyaz, cont.

Reading time: 5 minutes. Word count: 900 words.

This story describes a night-visit by Harun al-Rashid, the Commander of the Faithful, to Fozail. At first, Harun does to another religious man, Sofyan, but because Sofyan shows so much respect and deference to him, Harun ignores him and goes to Fozail instead. He is not looking for respect; he is looking for someone who can speak to him honestly, regardless of his rank. Well, that is exactly what Fozail is going to do!

Fozail and Harun al-Rashid

One night Harun al-Rashid summoned Fazl the Barmecide, who was one of his favourite courtiers. “Take me to a man this night who will reveal me to myself,” he bade him. “My heart is grown weary of pomp and pride.”

Fazl brought Harun to the door of the house of Sofyan-e Oyaina. They knocked at the door.

“Who is it?” Sofyan asked.

“The Commander of the Faithful,” Fazl replied.

“Why did he trouble himself so?” Sofyan said. “I ought to have been informed, then I could have come myself to him.”

“This is not the man I am seeking,” Harun commented. “He fawns upon me like the rest.”

Hearing of what had happened, Sofyan said, “Fozail-e Iyaz is such a man as you are seeking. You must go to him.” And he recited this verse: Or do those who commit evil deeds think that We shall make them as those who believe and do righteous deeds?

“If I am seeking good counsel, this is sufficient,” remarked Harun. They knocked at Fozail’s door.

“Who is it?” Fozail asked.

“The Commander of the Faithful,” Fazl replied.

“What business has he with me, and what have I to do with him?” Fozail demanded.

“Is it not a duty to obey those in authority?” countered Fazl.

“Do not disturb me,” cried Fozail.

“Shall I enter with an authority or a command?” said Fazl.

“There is no such thing as authority,” replied Fozail. “If you enter by force, you know what you are doing.”

Harun entered. As he approached Fozail, the latter blew out the lamp so as not to see his face.

Harun stretched out his hand, and Fozail’s hand met it. “How smooth and soft this palm is, if only it could escape from Hell-fire!” Fozail remarked.

So saying, he arose and stood in prayer. Harun was much affected and weeping overcame him.

“Say something to me,” he begged.

Fozail saluted him and then spoke.

“Your ancestor, the Prophet’s uncle, once demanded of the Prophet, ‘Make me commander over some people.’The Prophet replied, ‘Uncle, for one moment I have made you commander over yourself.’ By this he meant, ‘For you to obey God for one moment is better than a thousand years of people obeying you.’ The Prophet added, ‘Command shall be a cause of regretting on the Day of Resurrection.’ “

“Say more,” Harun pleaded.

“When Omar ibn Abd al-Aziz was appointed caliph,” Fozail related, “he summoned Salem ibn Abd Allah, Raja ibn Hayat, and Mohammad ibn Ka’b. ‘I have been afflicted with this trial,’ he told them. ‘What am I to do? For I know this high office to be a trial, even though men count it for a blessing.’ One of the three said, ‘If you wish tomorrow to escape from God’s punishment, look upon aged Muslims as though each were your father, and regard youthful Muslims as your brothers, Muslim children as your own sons, treating them in all respects as one does one’s father, brother, and son.’ “

“Say more,” Harun repeated.

“The lands of Islam are as your own house, and their inhabitants your family,” Fozail said. “Visit your father, honour your brother, and be good to your son. I fear,” he added, “that your handsome face will be sorely tried by the fire of Hell. Fear God, and obey His command. And be watchful and prudent; for on the Resurrection Day God will question you concerning every single Muslim, and He will exact justice from you in respect of every one. If one night an old woman has gone to sleep in a house without provisions, she will pluck your skirt on that Day and will give evidence against you.”

Harun wept bitterly, so that his consciousness was like to fail.

“Enough! You have slain the Commander of the Faithful,” chided Fazl the vizier.

“Be silent, Haman,” cried Fozail. “It is you and your creatures who are destroying him, and then you tell me that I have killed him. Is this murder?”

At these words Harun wept even more copiously. “He calls you Haman,” he said, turning to Fazl, “because he equates me with Pharaoh.” Then, addressing Fozail, he asked, “Have you a debt outstanding?”

“Yes,” replied Fozail. “A debt of obedience to God. If He takes me to task over this, then woe is me!”

“I am speaking of debts owed to men, Fozail,” said Harun.

“Thanks be to God,” cried Fozail, “who has blessed me abundantly, so that I have no complaint to make to His servants.”

Then Harun placed a purse of a thousand dinars before him. “This is lawful coin, of my mother’s inheritance,” he said.

“Commander of the Faithful,” said Fozail, “the counsels I have spoken to you have yielded no profit. Even now you have recommenced wrongdoing and resumed injustice.”

“What wrongdoing?” demanded Harun.

“I call you to salvation, and you cast me into temptation. This is wrongdoing indeed,” said Fozail. “I tell you, give back what you possess to its proper owner. You for your part give it to another to whom it should not be given. It is useless for me to speak.” So saying, he rose up from the caliph’s presence and flung the gold out of the door.

“Ah, what a man he is!” exclaimed Harun, leaving Fozail’s house. “Fozail is in truth a king of men. His arrogance is extreme, and the world is very contemptible in his eyes.”

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • why did Harun al-Rashid decide that Sofyan could not be trusted?
  • what did Fozail say when he touched Harun al-Rashid's hand in the dark?
  • what did Fozail do with the gold that he was given by Harun al-Rashid?


Source: Attar, Muslim Saints and Mystics (Episodes from the Tadhkirat al-Auliya, or Memorial of the Saints). Translated by A. J. Arberry. 1966. Website: Omphaloskepsis.

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