Week 4: Stories of Sufi Saints

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Ebrahim ibn Adham, cont.

Reading time: 4 minutes. Word count: 800 words.

The story of Ebrahim's conversion while hunting has some elements in common with the Christian legend of St. Julian, who also encountered a talking stag that was instrumental in his conversion. After his conversion, Ebrahim becomes involved in stories with miraculous and supernatural qualities.

The fire blazed more fiercely still in Ebrahim’s soul, and the anguish within him augmented momently. Visions by day followed the hearing of voices by night, equally mysterious and incomprehensible.

“Saddle my horse,” Ebrahim cried at last. “I will go to the hunt. I know not what this thing is that has come upon me today. Lord God, how will this affair end?” His horse was saddled and he proceeded to the chase. Headlong he galloped across the desert; it was as if he knew not what he was doing. In that state of bewilderment he became separated from his troops. On the way he suddenly heard a voice.


He pretended not to have heard, and rode on. A second time the voice came, but he heeded it not. A third time he heard the same, and hurled himself farther away. Then the voice sounded a fourth time.

“Awake, before you are stricken awake!”

He now lost all self-control. At that instant a deer started up, and Ebrahim prepared to give chase. The deer spoke to him.

“I have been sent to hunt you. You cannot catch me. Was it for this that you were created, or is this what you were commanded?”

“Ah, what is this that has come upon me?” Ebrahim cried.

And he turned his face from the deer. He thereupon heard the same words issuing from the pommel of his saddle. Terror and fear possessed him. The revelation became clearer yet, for Almighty God willed to complete the transaction. A third time the selfsame voice proceeded from the collar of his cloak. The revelation was thus consummated, and the heavens were opened unto him.

Sure faith was now established in him. He dismounted; all his garments, and the horse itself, were dripping with his tears. He made true and sincere repentance. Turning aside from the road, he saw a shepherd wearing felt clothes and a hat of felt, driving his sheep before him. Looking closely, he saw that he was a slave of his. He bestowed on him his gold-embroidered cloak and bejewelled cap, together with the sheep, and took from him his clothes and hat of felt. These he donned himself. All the angelic hosts stood gazing on Ebrahim.

“What a kingdom has come to the son of Adham,” they cried. “He has cast away the filthy garments of the world, and has donned the glorious robes of poverty.”

Even so he proceeded on foot to wander over mountains and endless deserts, lamenting over his sins, until he came to Merv. There he saw a man who had fallen from the bridge and was about to perish, swept away by the river. Ebrahim shouted from afar. "O God, preserve him!”

The man remained suspended in the air until helpers arrived and drew him up.

They were astonished at Ebrahim. “What man is this?” they cried.

Ebrahim departed from that place, and marched on to Nishapur. There he searched for a desolate corner where he might busy himself with obedience to God. In the end he hit upon the famous cave where he dwelt for nine years, three years in each apartment. Who knows what occupied him there through the nights and days? For it needed a mighty man of uncommon substance to be able to be there alone by night.

Every Thursday he would climb above the cavern and collect a bundle of firewood. Next morning he would set out for Nishapur and there sell the brushwood. Having performed the Friday prayers, he would buy bread with the money he had gained, give half to a beggar and use half himself to break his fast. So he did every week.

One winter’s night he was in that apartment. It was extremely cold, and he had to break the ice to wash. All night he shivered, praying through till dawn. By dawn he was in danger of perishing from the cold. By chance the thought of a fire entered his mind. He saw a fur on the ground. Wrapping himself up in the fur, he fell asleep. When he awoke it was broad daylight, and he had become warm. He looked, and saw that the fur was a dragon, its eyes saucers of blood. A mighty terror came upon him.

“Lord God,” he cried, “Thou didst send this thing unto me in a shape of gentleness. Now I see it in a dreadful form. I cannot endure it.”

Immediately the dragon moved away, twice or thrice rubbed its face in the ground before him, and vanished.

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

  • where did the first voice Ebrahim heard while hunting come from? where did the voices come from next?
  • what did Ebrahim do with his fancy clothes?
  • what did Ebrahim use to warm himself during the cold winter night when he had no fire?


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