Week 4: Stories of Sufi Saints

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Yusof ibn al-Hosain, cont.

Reading time: 5 minutes. Word count: 1000 words.

These two stories about Yusof are concerned with the tension between the spiritual and the secular life. In the first story, Yusof is able to weep over a line of poetry, which moves him more than the Koran - this is a sign of his spiritual weakness, and his attachment to the things of this world. In the second story, it appears that Yusof is connected with the things of this world - a young boy, a bowl of wine - when, in fact, appearances can be deceiving. Notice that the first story is told in the first person by a student of Yusof who is named Ebrahim.

Yusof ibn al-Hosain and Ebrahim-e Khauwas

Ebrahim-e Khauwas became a disciple of Yusof ibn al- Hosain. Through the blessing of his companionship he attained to such remarkable spiritual advancement that he would travel through the desert without provision and mount. It is to him that we owe the following story:

One night (Ebrahim said) I heard a voice which said to me, “Go and say to Yusof-e Hosain, ‘You are of the rejected’.” So grievous were these words for me to hear, that if a mountain had been flung on my head that would have been easier to bear than that I should repeat what I had heard to him.

Next night I heard in even more menacing tones, “Say to him, ‘You are of the rejected’.”

Rising up, I washed and begged God’s forgiveness, and sat in meditation till the third night, when the same voice came to me. “Say to him, ‘You are of the rejected’. If you do not deliver this message, you will receive such a blow that you will not rise again.”

So full of sorrow I rose up and went to the mosque, where I saw Yusof seated in the prayer-niche.

“Do you remember any verse?” he asked me when he saw me.

“I do,” I replied. I recollected a verse in Arabic which I recited to him. Delighted, he rose up and remained on his feet for a long while, tears as if flecked with blood streaming from his eyes. Then he turned to me.

“Since first light till now,” he said, “they have been reciting the Koran before me, and not one drop came to my eyes. Now through that single verse you spoke such a state has manifested —a veritable torrent has flowed from my eyes. Men are right when they say I am a heretic. The voice of the Divine Presence speaks truly, that I am of the rejected. A man who is so affected by a verse of poetry, while the Koran makes no impression whatever upon him—he is surely rejected.”

I was bewildered by what I saw and heard. My belief in him was shaken. Afraid, I rose up and set my face towards the desert. By chance I fell in with Khezr, who addressed me.

“Yusof-e Hosain has received a blow from God. But his place is in the topmost heights of Heaven. A man must stride so far and manfully upon the path of God, that even if the hand of rejection is struck against his forehead, yet his place is in the topmost heights of Heaven. If he falls on this path from kingship, yet he will not fall from the rank of minister.”

Yusof ibn al-Hosain and the handmaiden

A certain merchant in Nishapur bought a Turkish handmaiden for a thousand dinars. He had a creditor living in another town, and wanted to go in haste and recover his money from him. In Nishapur there was no one in whom he trusted sufficiently to commit the girl to his keeping. So he called on Abu ‘Othman-e Hiri and explained his predicament to him.

At first Abu ‘Othman refused, but the merchant implored him earnestly. “Admit her into your harem. I will return as soon as possible.”

So finally he consented, and the merchant departed. Involuntarily Abu ‘Othman’s glance fell upon the girl and he fell uncontrollably in love with her. Not knowing what to do, he rose up and went to consult his teacher Abu Hafs-e Haddad.

“You must go to Rayy, to consult Yusof ibn al- Hosain,” Abu Hafs told him.

Abu ‘Othman set out at once towards Iraq. When he reached Rayy he enquired where Yusof-e Hosain was living.

“What have you to do with that damned heretic?” they asked him. “You look a religious man yourself. His society will be bad for you.”

They said many such things to him, so that Abu ‘Othman regretted having come there and returned to Nishapur.

“Did you see Yusof-e Hosain?” Abu Hafs asked him.

“No,” he replied.

“Why not?”

“I heard that he was such and such a man,” Abu ‘Othman related what the people of Rayy had told him. “So I did not go to him, but returned.”

“Go back and see him,” Abu Hafs urged.

Abu ‘Othman returned to Rayy and again asked for Yusof’s house. The people of Rayy told him a hundred times as much as before.

“But I have important business with him,” he explained.

So at last they indicated the way to him. When he reached Yusof’s house, he saw an old man seated there. A beardless and handsome boy was before him, laying before him a bowl and a goblet. Light streamed from his face. Abu ‘Othman entered and spoke the greeting and sat down. Shaikh Yusof began to speak, and uttered such lofty words that Abu ‘Othman was amazed.

“For God’s sake, master,” he cried, “with such words and such contemplating, what is this state that is on you? Wine, and a beardless boy?”

“This beardless boy is my son, and very few people know that he is my son,” Yusof replied. “I am teaching him the Koran. A bowl happened to be thrown into this dustbin. I picked it out and washed it and filled it with water, so that anyone who wished for water might drink, for I had no pitcher.”

“For God’s sake,” Abu ‘Othman repeated, “why do you act so that men say of you what they say?”

“I do it for this reason,” Yusof answered, “so that no one may send a Turkish handmaiden to my house as a confidant.”

When Abu ‘Othman heard these words he fell down at the shaikh’s feet. He realized that the man had attained a high degree.

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

  • what did the noctural voice say to Ebrahim? why did these words upset him?
  • why did Yusof consider himself to be one of God's rejected?
  • what problem led Abu 'Othman to go ask Yusof for advice? how did Yusof surprise Abu 'Othman?


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