Week 4: Stories of Sufi Saints

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Ahmad ibn Harb, cont.

Reading time: 3 minutes. Word count: 500 words.

Some of the stories on this page show the difference between Ahmad-e Harb, who is all the time thinking about God, and Ahmad the Merchant, who is all the time thinking about business.

Ahmad-e Harb and Ahmad the Merchant

There lived in Nishapur two men, one named Ahmad-e Harb and the other called Ahmad the Merchant.

Ahmad-e Harb was a man so wrapped up in the recollection of God, that when the barber wished to trim his moustache he kept moving his lips.

“Keep still just while I trim these hairs,” said the barber.

“You busy yourself with your own affairs,” answered Ahmad-e Harb. And each time the barber trimmed, some part of his lips was nicked.


On one occasion he received a letter and for a long while intended to answer it but did not find a spare moment. Then one day the muezzin was chanting the call to prayer. Just while he was saying “It is time” Ahmad called to a companion. “Answer my friend’s letter. Tell him not to write to me any more, because I have not the leisure to reply. Write, ‘Be busy with God. Farewell!’ “


As for Ahmad the Merchant, he was so wrapped up in love of worldly things that one day he asked his maidservant for food. The maidservant prepared a dish and brought it to him, but he went on with his calculations until night fell, and he dropped off to sleep. When he woke next morning he called to the maid. “You did not make that food.”

“I did make it. But you were so taken up with your calculations.”

She cooked a dish a second time and laid it before her master, but again he did not find the leisure to eat it.

A third time the girl prepared food for him, and still he found no opportunity. The maid came and found him asleep, so she rubbed some of the food on his lips. Ahmad the Merchant awoke. “Bring the basin,” he called, thinking that he had eaten.


Ahmad-e Harb and his son

Ahmad-e Harb had a little son whom he was training to trust in God.

“Whenever you want food or anything,” he told him, “go to this window and say, ‘Lord God, I need bread.’ “

Each time the child went to that place, the parents had so arranged to place in the window what the child desired.

One day they were out of the house when the child was overcome by the pangs of hunger. As usual he came under the window and prayed.

“Lord God, I need bread.”

Immediately food was sent down to him by the window. The household returned to find him sitting down and eating.

“Where did you get this from?” they asked.

“From the one who gives me every day,” he replied. So they realized that he was well established in this way.


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

  • what did Ahmad reply to his friend who had written him a letter?
  • how did the merchant's servant trick him into thinking he had eaten?
  • what happened when Ahmad's son prayed for bread on the day his parents were not home?

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