Week 4: Stories of Sufi Saints

Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

Dho ‘l-Nun al-Mesri

Reading time: 3 minutes. Word count: 600 words.

So far you have read stories about Fozail (the former robber) and Ebrhaim (the former king of Balkh). Now you will move on to a new saint: Dho'l-Nun. Dho ‘l-Nun was born at Ekhmim (or Akhmin) on the upper Nile in Egypt, in 180 (796). His nickname "al-Mesri" means "The Egyptian." He traveled in Arabic and in Syria and was imprisoned for a time in Baghdad, charged as a heretic. He was later released and sent to Cairo, and he died there in 246 (841).

Dho ‘I-Nun the Egyptian and how he was converted

Dho ‘l-Nun the Egyptian told the following story of his conversion:

I was informed that in a certain place an ascetic was living. I set forth to visit him, and found him suspending himself from a tree.

“O body,” he was saying, “assist me to obey God, else I will keep you hanging like this until you die of hunger.”

A fit of weeping overcame me. The devotee heard me crying.

“Who is this,” he called, “who has compassion upon one whose shame is little and whose crimes are many?”

I approached him and gave him greeting.

“What is this state of affairs?” I asked.

“This body of mine gives me no peace to obey God,” he replied. “It wants to mingle with other men.”

I supposed that he must have shed a Muslim’s blood, or committed some other deadly sin.

“Did you not realize,” the ascetic said to me, “that once you mingle with other men, everything else follows?”

“What a tremendous ascetic you are!” I cried.

“Would you like to see someone more ascetic than I?” he said

“I would,” I said.

“Go into yonder mountain,” he said. “There you will see.’

I proceeded thither, and saw a young man squatting in a hermitage; one foot had been amputated and flung out of the cell, and the worms were devouring it. I approached him and saluted him, then I enquired after his circumstances.

“One day,” he told me, “I was seated in this hermitage when a woman happened to pass by. My heart inclined towards her and my body demanded of me to go after her. I put one foot out of the cell, then I heard a voice saying, “Are you not ashamed, after serving and obeying God for thirty years, and now you obey Satan and chase a loose woman?” So I cut off the foot that I had set outside the hermitage, and now I sit here waiting for what will transpire and what they will do with me. What business has brought you to such sinners? If you desire to see a man of God, proceed to the top of this mountain.”

The mountain was too high for me to reach the top, so I enquired about this man.

“Yes,” I was told. “It is a long time now that a man has been serving God in that cell. One day a man came along and disputed with him, saying that daily bread was meant for earning. The devotee vowed that he would eat nothing that involved the acquisition of material possessions. For many days he ate nothing. Then Almighty God sent a cloud of bees to hover around him and give him honey.”

The things I had seen and the words I had heard caused a mighty pain to clutch my heart. I realized that whoever puts his trust in God, God cares for him and suffers not his anguish to be in vain.

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

  • why did the young man amputate his foot?
  • how did the man living on the mountaintop get food to eat?
  • what impression did these people make on Dho'l Nun?


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