Week 4: Stories of Sufi Saints

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Yusof ibn al-Hosain

Reading time: 6 minutes. Word count: 1100 words.

Now you will hear about another saint: Yusof ibn al-Hosain. Yusof ibn al-Hosain was born in Rayy (near the city of Tehran, in Iran) but he traveled throughout Arabia and Egypt, where he studied with Dho 'l-Nun the Egyptian, whom you just read about in the previous pages. He later returned to Rayy and died there in 304 (916). Notice how in this first story you will see the back-and-forth between the third person narration ("Yusof was traveling in Arabia...") and the first person narration, when Yusof tells his story in his own words ("I cried..."). In one part of this story you will meet a famous folklore motif: a covered bowl that contains a tiny animal. This bowl is a test: if you are told not to lift the cover of the bowl but you do so out of curiosity, the little animal runs away and there is nothing you can do to get him back!

The conversion of Yusof ibn al-Hosain-e Razi

The spiritual career of Yusof ibn al-Hosain-e Razi began in the following circumstances. He was travelling in Arabia with a company of his fellows when he arrived in the territory of a certain tribe. When the daughter of the Prince of the Arabs caught sight of him, she fell madly in love with him, for he was possessed of great beauty. Waiting her opportunity, the girl suddenly flung herself before him. Trembling, he left her and departed to a more distant tribe.

That night he was sleeping with his head on his knees, when he dreamed he was in a place the like of which he had never seen. One was seated on a throne there in kingly wise, surrounded by a company clad in green robes. Wishful to know who they might be, Yusof edged his way towards them. They made way for him, treating him with much respect.

“Who are you?” he enquired.

“We are angels,” they replied, “and he who is seated on the throne there is Joseph, upon whom be peace. He has come to pay a visit to Yusof ibn al-Hosain.”

Let Yusof tell the rest of the story in his own words:

Overcome with weeping, I cried, “Who am I, that God’s prophet should come to visit me?”

Thereupon Joseph, upon him be peace, descended from his throne, took me in his embrace, and seated me on the throne.

“Prophet of God,” I cried, “who am I that you should be so gracious to me?”

“In the hour,” Joseph answered, “when that lovely girl flung herself before you, and you committed yourself to God and sought His protection, God displayed you to me and the angels. God said, ‘See, Joseph! You are that Joseph who inclined after Zoleikha only to repel her. He is that Joseph who did not incline after the daughter of the King of the Arabs, and fled.’ God Himself sent me with these angels to visit you. He sends you the good tidings that you are of God’s elect.”

Then Joseph added, “In every age there is a portent. The portent in this age is Dho ‘l-Nun-e Mesri. He has been vouchsafed the Greatest Name of God. Go unto him.”

When Yusof awoke (the narrative continues) he was filled with a great ache. A powerful yearning overmastered him, and he turned his face towards Egypt, desirous to know the Great Name of God. Arriving at the mosque of Dho ‘l-Nun, he spoke the greeting and sat down. Dho ‘l-Nun returned his greeting. For a whole year Yusof sat in a remote corner of the mosque, not daring to question Dho ‘l-Nun.

After a year Dho ‘l-Nun asked, “Whence is this young man come?”

“From Rayy,” he replied.

For another year Dho ‘l-Nun said nothing, and Yusof continued to occupy the same corner.

At the end of the second year Dho ‘l-Nun asked, “On what errand has this young man come?”

“To visit you,” he replied.

For another year Dho ‘l-Nun was silent. Then he asked, “Does he require anything?”

“I have come that you may teach me the Greatest Name,” Yusof replied.

For a further year Dho ‘l-Nun held his peace. Then he handed Yusof a wooden vessel covered over. “Cross the River Nile,” he told him. “In a certain place there is an elder. Give this bowl to him, and remember whatever he tells you.”

Yusof took the bowl and set forth. When he had gone a part of the way, a temptation assailed him. “What is this moving about in this bowl?”

He uncovered the bowl. A mouse jumped out and ran away.

Yusof was filled with bewilderment. “Where am I to go? Shall I go to this elder, or return to Dho ‘l-Nun?”

Finally he proceeded to the elder, carrying the empty bowl. When the elder beheld him, he smiled. “You asked him for God’s Great Name?” he asked.

“Yes!” Yusof replied.

“Dho ‘l-Nun saw your impatience, and gave you a mouse,” the elder said. “Glory be to God! You cannot look after a mouse. How then will you keep the Greatest Name?”

Put to shame, Yusof returned to the mosque of Dho ‘l-Nun.

“Yesterday I asked leave of God seven times to teach you the Greatest Name,” Dho ‘l-Nun told him. “God did not give permission, meaning that the time is not yet. Then God commanded me, ‘Make trial of him with a mouse.’ When I made trial of you, this is what happened. Now return to your own city, till the proper time comes.”

“Before I leave, give me a testament,” Yusof begged.

“I will give you three testaments,” said Dho ‘l-Nun, “one great, one middling, and one small. The great testament is this, that you forget all that you have read, and wash away all that you have written, so that the veil may be lifted.”

“This I cannot do,” said Yusof.

“The middling testament is this, that you forget me and tell my name to no man,” said Dho ‘l-Nun. “To say that my monitor declared this or my shaikh ordered that is all self-praise.”

“This too I cannot do,” said Yusof.

“The small testament is this,” said Dho ‘l-Nun, “that you counsel men and call them to God.”

“This I can do, God willing,” said Yusof.

“On condition, however,” Dho ‘l-Nun added, “that in counselling men you do not have men in sight.”

“So I will do,” Yusof promised.

Then he proceeded to Rayy. Now he came from the nobility of Rayy, and the citizens came out to welcome him. When he began his preaching, he expounded the mystic realities. The people, accustomed to exoteric doctrine, rose up in anger against him, for in that time only formal learning was current. Yusof fell into disrepute, to such an extent that no one came to his lectures. One day he turned up to preach as usual, but seeing no one in the hall he was about to return home. At that moment an old woman called to him.

“Did you not promise Dho ‘l-Nun that in counselling men you would not have them in sight, and would speak only for God’s sake?”

Astonished at her words, Yusof began to preach. Thereafter he continued so for fifty years, whether anyone was present or no.

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

  • who told Yusof to go study with Dho'l Nun?
  • why did the elder refuse to tell Yusof the Great Name of God?
  • what advice did Dho'l Nun give to Yusof that he could not follow? what advice did he give that Yusof agreed to try to follow?


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