Week 4: Stories of Sufi Saints

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Dho ‘l-Nun al-Mesri, cont.

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

These stories about Dho'l Nun reveal how the mysteries of the spiritual life exceed the powers of the material world. Pay special attention to the motif of "jewels" which you will see in several of these stories.

Anecdotes of Dho ‘l-Nun

One day a boy approached Dho ‘l-Nun and said, “I have a hundred thousand dinars. I want to spend them in your service. I wish to use that gold on your dervishes.”

“Are you of age?” Dho ‘l-Nun asked him.

“No,” he replied.

“Then you are not entitled to expend,” Dho ‘l-Nun told him. “Wait with patience until you are of age.”

When the boy came of age he returned to Dho ‘l- Nun and repented at his hands. Then he gave all that gold to the dervishes, until nothing remained of the hundred thousand dinars.

One day an emergency arose, and nothing remained to the dervishes, for they had spent all the money. “What a pity there is not another hundred thousand, so that I could spend it on these fine men,” said the benefactor.

When Dho ‘l-Nun heard him speak these words, he realized that he had not yet penetrated to the inner truth of the mystic life, for worldly things still seemed important to him. He summoned the young man. “Go to the shop of such-and-such a druggist,” he instructed him. “Tell him from me to give you three dirhams’ worth of such-and-such a medicine.” The youth went to the druggist’s, and presently returned.

“Put the stuff in the mortar and pound it up small,” Dho ‘l-Nun ordered him. “Then pour on top of it a little oil, until it becomes a paste. Make three pellets of it, and pierce each with a needle. Then bring them to me.” The youth carried out these instructions, and brought the pellets. Dho ‘l-Nun rubbed them in his hands and breathed on them, and they turned into three rubies the like of which was never seen.

“Now take these to the market and have them valued,” ordered Dho ‘l-Nun. “But do not sell them.”

The youth took the rubies to the market and displayed them. Each one was priced at a thousand dinars. He returned and told Dho ‘l-Nun. “Now put them in the mortar and pound them, and throw them into water,” the latter directed. The youth did as instructed, and threw the powder into water.

“My child,” said Dho ‘l-Nun, “these dervishes are not hungry for lack of bread. This is their free choice.” The youth repented, and his soul awoke. The world had no longer any worth in his eyes.

Dho ‘l-Nun related as follows:

For thirty years I called men to repent, but only one person came to the court of God in due obedience. The circumstances were these.

One day a prince with his retinue passed by me by the door of the mosque. I spoke these words. “No one is more foolish than the weakling who tangles with the strong.”

“What words are these?” demanded the prince.

“Man is a weakling, yet he tangles with God who is strong,” I said.

The young prince grew pale. He arose and departed. Next day he returned.

“What is the way to God?” he asked.

“There is a little way, and there is a greater way,” I answered. “Which of the two do you want? If you desire the little way, abandon the world and the lusts of the flesh and give up sinning. If you want the great way, abandon everything but God, and empty your heart of all things.”

“By Allah, I will choose only the greater way,” said the prince.

The next day he put on the woollen robe, and entered the mystic way. In due course he became a saint.

The following story was told by Abu Ja’far the Oneeyed:

I was with Dho ‘l-Nun when a group of his followers were present. They were telling stories of inanimate things obeying commands. Now there was a sofa in the room.

“An example,” said Dho ‘l-Nun, “of inanimate things obeying saints’ commands would be if I were to say to that sofa there, ‘Waltz around the house’ and it started to move.”

No sooner had Dho ‘l-Nun spoken these words than the sofa started to circle round the house, then it returned to its place. A youth present burst into tears at the sight, and gave up the ghost. They washed his body on that very sofa, and buried him.

Once a man came up to Dho ‘l-Nun and said, “I have a debt, and I have no means of paying it.” Dho ‘l-Nun picked up a stone from the ground and gave it to him. The man took the stone to the bazaar. It had turned into an emerald. He sold it for four hundred dirhams and paid his debt.

A certain youth was always speaking against Sufis. One day Dho ‘l-Nun took the ring off his finger and handed it to him.

“Take this to market and pawn it for a dinar,” he said.

The young man took the ring to market, but they would not take it for more than one dirham. The youth returned with the news.

“Now take it to the jewellers, and see what they value it at,” Dho ‘l-Nun told him.

The jewellers priced the ring at a thousand dinars.

“You know as much about Sufis,” Dho ‘l-Nun said to the youth when he returned, “as those stallholders in the market know about this ring.”

The youth repented, and disbelieved in the Sufis no more.

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

  • why did Dho'l Nun have the young man grind up the rubies and throw them in the water?
  • what happened when Dho'l Nun caused the sofa to move around at his command?
  • what happened when Dho'l Nun gave the man a stone to use to pay his debt?


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