Week 4: Stories of Sufi Saints

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Ahmad ibn Harb

Reading time: 4 minutes. Word count: 700 words.

The next saint you will read about, Ahmad ibn Harb, came from the city of Nishapur in Khorasan (northern Iran), which was also the home of the famous poet Omar Khayyam. He also lived and preached in Baghdad. He died in 234 (849). In this story you will read about Ahmad's encounter with a Zoroastrian, or a follower of the prophet Zoroaster (the same character as "Zarathustra" in Nietzsche's Thus Speak Zarathustra).

Ahmad-e Harb and the Zoroastrian

Ahmad-e Harb had for neighbour a Zoroastrian named Bahram. Now this neighbour had sent a partner out on a trading mission, and on the way thieves had carried off all his goods.

“Rise up,” Ahmad called to his disciples when he heard the news. “Such a thing has happened to our neighbour. Let us go and condole with him. Even though he is a Zoroastrian, yet he is a neighbour.”

When they reached the door of his house Bahram was kindling his Zoroastrian fire. He ran forward and kissed his sleeve. Bahram, thinking that perhaps they were hungry, though bread was scarce, made to lay the table.

“Do not trouble yourself,” Ahmad said. “We have come to sympathize. I heard that your goods had been stolen.”

“Yes, that is so,” said Bahram. “But I have three reasons to be grateful to God. First, because they stole from me and not from someone else. Second, that they took only a half. Third, that even if my worldly goods are gone, I still have my religion; and the world comes and goes.”

These words pleased Ahmad.

“Write this down,” he told his disciples. “The odor of Islam issues from these words.” Then he added, turning to Bahram, “Why do you worship this fire?”

“So that it may not burn me,” Bahram replied. “Secondly, as today I have given it so much fuel, tomorrow it will not be untrue to me but will convey me to God.”

“You have made a great mistake,” commented Ahmad. “Fire is weak and ignorant and faithless. All the calculations you have based on it are false. If a child pours a little water on it, it will go out. A thing so weak as that—how can it convey you to One so mighty? A thing that has not the strength to repel from itself a little earth—how can it convey you to God? Moreover, to prove it is ignorant: if you sprinkle musk and filth upon it, it will burn them both and not know that one is better than the other—that is why it makes no distinction between filth and frankincense. Again, it is now seventy years that you have been worshipping it, and I have never worshipped it; come, let us both put a hand in the fire, and you will see that it burns both our hands. It will not be true to you.”

These words struck the Zoroastrian to the heart. “I will ask you four questions,” he said. “If you answer them all, I will accept your Faith. Say: why did God create men? And having created them, why did He provide for them? Why does He cause them to die? And having caused them to die, why does He raise them up again?”

“He created them that they might be His servants,” Ahmad replied. “He provided for them that they might know Him to be the All-provider. He causes them to die that they may know His overwhelming Power. He makes them to live again that they may know Him to be Omnipotent and Omniscient.”

As soon as Ahmad had finished, Bahram recited the attestation. “I bear witness that there is no god but God, and I bear witness that Mohammad is the Apostle of God.”

Thereupon Ahmad cried aloud and fainted. Presently he recovered consciousness. “Why did you faint?” his disciples asked.

“The moment that he raised his finger in attestation,” Ahmad replied, “a voice called to me in my inmost heart. ‘Ahmad,’ the voice said, ‘Bahram was a Zoroastrian for seventy years, but at last he believed. You have spent seventy years in the Faith; now at the end what will you have to offer?’”

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

  • what did Bahram say that made a positive impression on Ahmad?
  • why did Ahmad reject the worship of fire?
  • how did Ahmad persuade Bahram to become a Muslim?


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