Week 4: Stories of Sufi Saints

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Ebrahim ibn Adham

Reading time: 2 minutes. Word count: 400 words.

Ebrahim ibn Adham was an Arab born in Balkh (northern Afghanistan). He was born a prince of the kingdom of Balkh but renounced his royal position and became a wandering ascetic, ending up in Syria. he died in 165 (782).

The legend of Ebrahim ibn Adham

Ebrahim ibn Adham’s saintly career began in the following manner. He was king of Balkh, and a whole world was under his command; forty gold swords and forty gold maces were carried before and behind him.

One night he was asleep on his royal couch. At midnight the roof of the apartment vibrated, as if someone was walking on the roof.

“Who is there?” he shouted.

“A friend,” came the reply. “I have lost a camel, and am searching for it on this roof.”

“Fool, do you look for the camel on the roof?” cried Ebrahim.

“Heedless one,” answered the voice, “do you seek for God in silken clothes, asleep on a golden couch?”

These words filled his heart with terror. A fire blazed within him, and he could not sleep any more. When day came he returned to the dais and sat on his throne, thoughtful, bewildered and full of care. The ministers of state stood each in his place; his slaves were drawn up in serried ranks. General audience was proclaimed.

Suddenly a man with aweful mien entered the chamber, so terrible to look upon that none of the royal retinue and servants dared ask him his name; the tongues of all clove to their throats. He advanced solemnly till he stood before the throne.

“What do you want?” demanded Ebrahim.

“I have just alighted at this caravanserai,” said the man.

“This is not a caravanserai. This is my palace. You are mad,” shouted Ebrahim.

“Who owned this palace before you?” asked the man.

“My father,” Ebrahim replied.

“And before him?”

“My grandfather.”

“And before him?”


“And before him?”

“The father of So-and-so.”

“Where have they all departed?” asked the man.

“They have gone. They are dead,” Ebrahim replied.

“Then is this not a caravanserai which one man enters and another leaves?”

With these words the stranger vanished. He was Khezr, upon whom be peace.

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

  • what kind of life did Ebrahim lead before his religious conversion?
  • what did the person on the roof say he was doing?
  • why did Khezr compare Ebrahim's palace to a caravanserai?


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