Week 4: Stories of Sufi Saints

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Hatem al-Asamm

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

The next saint you will read about, Hatem ibn ‘Onwan, was also from Balkh (northern Afghanistan), as was Ebrahim, the king of Balkh whom you read about earlier. In the first story you will find out how Hatem got his nickname "al-Asamm," "The Deaf." He died in 237 (852).

Anecdotes of Hatem the Deaf

Hatem the Deaf’s charity was so great that when a woman came to him one day to ask him a question and at that moment she broke wind, he said to her, “Speak louder. I am hard of hearing.” This he said in order that the woman should not be put to shame. She raised her voice, and he answered her problem.

So long as that old woman was alive, for close on fifteen years Hatem made out that he was deaf, so that no one should tell the old woman that he was not so. After her death he gave his answers readily. Until then, he would say to everyone who spoke to him, “Speak louder.” That was why he was called Hatem the Deaf.

One day Hatem was preaching in Balkh.

“O God,” he prayed, “whoever in this congregation today is the greatest and boldest sinner and has the blackest record, do Thou forgive him.”

Now there was present in that congregation a man who robbed the dead. He had opened many tombs and stolen the winding-sheets. That night he went about his usual business of robbing the dead. He had actually removed the earth from a grave when he heard a voice proceeding out of the tomb. “Are you not ashamed? This morning you were pardoned at Hatem’s gathering, and tonight you are at your old business again?”

The grave-robber jumped out of the tomb, and ran to Hatem. He told him what had happened, and repented.

Sa’d ibn Mohammad al-Razi reports the following.

For many years I was a disciple of Hatem, and in all that time I only once saw him angry. He had gone to the market, and there he saw a man who had seized hold of one of his apprentices and was shouting. “Many times he has taken my goods and eaten them, and does not pay me the price of them.”

“Good sir, be charitable,” Hatem interposed.

“I know nothing of charity. I want my money,” the man retorted.

All Hatem’s pleading was without effect. Growing angry, he took his cloak from his shoulders and flung it to the ground there in the midst of the bazaar. It was filled with gold, all true coin. “Come, take what is owing to you, and no more, or your hand will be withered,” he said to the tradesman.

The man set about picking up the gold until he had taken his due. He could not contain himself, and stretched out the hand again to pick up more. His hand immediately became withered.

One day a man came to Hatem and said, “I possess much wealth, and I wish to give some of this wealth to you and your companions. Will you accept?”

“I am afraid,” Hatem answered, “that when you die I shall have to say, ‘Heavenly Provider, my earthly provider is dead.’”

Hatem recalled, “When I went out to the wars a Turk seized me and flung me to the ground to kill me. My heart was not concerned or afraid. I just waited to see what he would do. He was feeling for his sword, when suddenly an arrow pierced him and he fell from me. ‘Did you kill me, or did I kill you?’ I exclaimed.

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

  • why did Hatem pretend to be deaf as long as the old woman was alive?
  • what made the grave-robber give up robbing graves and go running to Hatem?
  • what happened to the man who tried to take more than the money that was due to him?


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