Week 4: Stories of Sufi Saints

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Dho ‘l-Nun al-Mesri, cont.

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

Each of these stories about Dho'l Nun involves some supernatural or miraculous occurrence. Pay attention in each story to how the supernatural enters into the story. Notice also how the narrative switches back and forth between Dho'l Nun telling his own story in the first person ("As I went on my way..."), and a narrator who tells about Dho'l Nun in the third person ("Dho'l Nun put his trust in God...).

As I went on my way, I saw a blind little bird perched in a tree. It fluttered down from the tree.

“Where will this helpless creature get food and water?” I cried.

The bird dug the earth with its beak and two saucers appeared, one of gold containing grain and the other of silver full of rosewater. The bird ate its fill, then it flew up into the tree and the saucers vanished.

Utterly dumbfounded, Dho ‘l-Nun thenceforward put his trust in God completely, and was truly converted. He pushed on several stages, and when night fell he came to a desert. In that desert he sighted a jar of gold and jewels, and on the top of the jar a tablet on which was written the name of God. His companions divided the gold and the jewels between them.

“Give me the tablet on which is written the name of my Friend,” Dho ‘l-Nun cried.

And he took the tablet. He kissed the tablet all through the day and night, till by the blessing of the tablet he so progressed that one night he dreamed a voice said to him, “All the rest chose the gold and jewels, for they are precious. You chose what was loftier than that, my Name. Therefore I have opened to you the door of knowledge and wisdom.”

Dho ‘l-Nun then returned to the city. His story continues. I was walking one day when I reached the margin of a river. By the water I saw a pavilion. I proceeded to make my ablutions, and when I had finished my eye suddenly fell on the roof of the pavilion. On the balcony I saw a very beautiful girl standing. Wanting to prove her, I said, “Maiden, to whom do you belong?”

“Dho ‘l-Nun,” replied she, “when you appeared from afar I supposed you were a madman. When you came nearer, I supposed you were a scholar. When you came still nearer, I supposed you were a mystic. Now I see you are neither mad, nor a scholar, nor a mystic.”

“Why do you say that?” I demanded.

“If you had been a madman,” she replied, “you would not have made your ablutions. If you had been a scholar, you would not have gazed at that which is prohibited you. If you had been a mystic, your eye would have fallen upon naught but God. “

So saying, she vanished. I then realized that she was not a mortal creature, but had been sent as a warning. A fire invaded my soul, and I flung myself in the direction of the sea.

When I reached the seashore, I saw a company of men embarked in a ship. I also embarked in that ship. After some days had passed, by chance a jewel belonging to a merchant was lost on board. One by one the passengers were taken and searched. Finally they reached the unanimous conclusion that the jewel was on me. They set about belabouring me and treated me with great disrespect, whilst I remained silent. At last I could endure no more.

“O Creator, Thou knowest,” I cried.

Thousands of fishes thereupon put their heads out of the water, each with a jewel in its mouth.

Dho ‘l-Nun took one of the jewels and gave it to the merchant. All on board when they saw this fell at his feet and begged his pardon. So highly was he considered in the eyes of men. That was why he was called Dho ‘l-Nun (“The Man of the Fish”).

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

  • how did the blind bird get food to eat?
  • when Dho'l Nun and his companions found treasure in the desert, what did the companions take for themselves? what did Dho'l Nun take?
  • what does the name Dho'l-Nun mean? how did he acquire his name?


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