Week 4: Stories of Sufi Saints

Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

Mohammad ibn Ali al-Termedhi

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

Because of his extreme teachings, Mohammad ibn Ali was forced to leave his native town of Termedh in central Asia. He was best known by his nickname, al-Termedhi, "the man from Termedh." Termedhi went to Nishapur in Khorasan (Iran) and was known to be preaching there in 285 (898). The year of his death is not know. Some of the stories on this page are narrated by Abu Bakr, one of Termedhi's students. The vision that Abu Bakr has of his master might remind you of the scene of Jesus's transfiguration as witness by his discples (Matthew 17, Mark 9, Luke 9).

The training of Hakim-e Termedhi

At the beginning of his career, Mohammad ibn Ali-e Termedhi arranged with two students to set out with them in quest of knowledge. When they were just ready to leave, his mother became very sorrowful.

“Soul of your mother,” she addressed her son, “I am a feeble woman, and have no one in the world. You look after my affairs. To whom will you leave me, alone and feeble as I am?”

Her words pained Termedhi, and he abandoned his journey while his two friends went off in quest of knowledge. Some time elapsed. Then one day he was sitting in the cemetery, weeping bitterly.

“Here am I left here, neglected and ignorant. My friends will come back, perfectly trained scholars.”

Suddenly there appeared a luminous elder who addressed him. “My son, why do you weep?”

Termedhi told him his tale.

“Would you like me to teach you a lesson daily, so that you will soon outstrip them?” he asked.

“I would,” Termedhi replied.

“So,” Termedhi recalled, “every day he taught me a lesson, till three years had gone by. Then I realized that he was Khezr, and that I had attained this felicity because I pleased my mother.”

Every Sunday (so Abu Bakr-e Warraq reports) Khezr would visit Termedhi and they would converse on every matter.

One day he said to me, “Today I will take you somewhere.”

“The master knows best,” I replied.

I set out with him, and within a little while I espied an arduous and harsh desert, in the midst of which a golden throne was set under a verdant tree by a spring of water. Someone apparelled in beautiful raiment was seated on the throne. The shaikh approached him, whereupon this person rose up and set Termedhi on the throne. In a little while a company gathered from all directions, until forty persons were assembled. They made a signal to heaven and food appeared, and they ate. The shaikh asked that person questions which he answered, but in such language that I did not understand a single word. After a time Termedhi begged leave to go, and took his departure.

“Go,” he said to me. “You have been blessed.”

In a while we were back in Termedh. I then questioned the shaikh.

“What was all that? What place was it, and who was that man?”

“It was the wilderness of the Children of Israel,” Termedhi replied. “That man was the Pole.”

“How was it that we went and returned in such a short time?” I asked.

“O Abu Bakr,” he answered, “when He conveys, one is able to arrive! What business is it of yours to know the why and wherefore? To arrive is your task, not to ask!”

“However hard I strove to keep my carnal soul in subjection,” Termedhi related, “I could not prevail over it. In my despair I said, ‘Haply Almighty God has created this soul for Hell. Why nurture a creature doomed to Hell?’

Proceeding to the banks of the Oxus, I begged a man to bind me hand and foot. He left me thus, and I rolled over and flung myself into the water, hoping to drown myself. The impact of the water freed my hands; then a wave came and cast me up on the bank.

Despairing of myself, I cried, ‘Glory be to Thee, O God, who hast created a soul that is not proper either for Heaven or Hell!’

In the very moment of my self-despair, by the blessing of that cry my secret heart was opened and I saw what was necessary for me. In that selfsame hour I vanished from myself. So long as I have lived, I have lived by the blessing of that hour.”

Abu Bakr-e Warraq also relates the following:

One day Termedhi handed over to me many volumes of his writings to cast into the Oxus. I examined them and found they were replete with mystic subtleties and truths. I could not bring myself to carry out his instructions, and instead stored them in my room. I then told him that I had thrown them in.

“What did you see?” he asked.

“Nothing,” I replied.

“You did not throw them in,” he concluded. “Go and do so.”

“I see two problems,” I said to myself. “First, why does he want them flung into the water? And second, what visible proof will there be?”

However, I went back and threw the books into the Oxus. I saw the river open up, and an open chest appeared; the volumes fell into it, then the lid closed and the river subsided. I was astonished.

“Did you throw them in this time?” Termedhi questioned me when I returned to him.

“Master, by God’s glory,” I cried, “tell me the secret behind this.”

“I had composed something on the science of the Sufis, the disclosing of the verification of which was difficult for human minds to grasp,” he replied. “My brother Khezr entreated me. The chest was brought by a fish at his bidding, and Almighty God commanded the waters to convey it to him.”

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

  • who came to teach Termedhi while he stayed with his mother?
  • what happened when Termedhi tried to drown himself in the Oxus river?
  • what happened when Abu Bakr threw the book written by Termedhi into the Oxus river?


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