Week 4: Stories of Sufi Saints

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The Passion of Hallaj

Reading time: 5 minutes. Word count: 900 words.

Al-Hallaj is a deeply controversial character in the history of Islam and Islamic mysticism. He was born Al-Hosain ibn Mansur in 244 (858) in Fars in southern Iran. His father was a carder of cotton, which is how he got the name "Al-Hallaj," "The Carder." He traveled to many countries and eventually came to Baghdad, where he was arrested and charged as a heretic. He is famous for his declaration, "I am the Truth." You will read an account of his execution, which took place on 29 Dhu ‘l-Qa’da in the year 309 (that is, on March 28 in the year 913). You will perhaps see many comparisons between this scene of execution and the crucifixion of Jesus.

Many tales about Hallaj began to circulate.

So he set out for Mecca where he resided for two years. On his return, his circumstances were much changed. He was a different man, calling people to the “truth” in terms which no one understood. It is said that he was expelled from fifty cities.

In their bewilderment the people were divided concerning him. His detractors were countless, his supporters innumerable. They witnessed many wonders performed by him. Tongues wagged, and his words were carried to the caliph. Finally all were united in the view that he should be put to death because of his saying, “I am the Truth.”

“Say, He is the Truth,” they cried out to him.

“Yes. He is All,” he replied. “You say that He is lost. On the contrary, it is Hosain that is lost. The Ocean does not vanish or grow less.”

“These words which Hallaj speaks have an esoteric meaning,” they told Jonaid.

“Let him be killed,” he answered. “This is not the time for esoteric meanings.”

The caliph ordered that he should be thrown into prison. There he was held for a year. But people would come and consult him on their problems. So then they were prevented from visiting him, and for five months no one came near him, except Ibn ‘Ata once and Ibn Khafif once.

On one occasion Ibn ‘Ata sent him a message. “Master, ask pardon for the words you have spoken, that you may be set free.”

“Tell him who said this to ask pardon,” Hallaj replied.

Ibn ‘Ata wept when he heard this answer. “We are not even a fraction of Hallaj,” he said.

It is said that on the first night of his imprisonment the gaolers came to his cell but could not find him in the prison. They searched through all the prison, but could not discover a soul. On the second night they found neither him nor the prison, for all their hunting. On the third night they discovered him in the prison. “Where were you on the first night, and where were you and the prison on the second night?” they demanded. “Now you have both reappeared. What phenomenon is this?”

“On the first night,” he replied, “I was in the Presence, therefore I was not here. On the second night the Presence was here, so that both of us were absent. On the third night 1 was sent back, that the Law might be preserved. Come and do your work!”

When Hallaj was first confined there were three hundred souls in the prison. That night he addressed them. “Prisoners, shall I set you free?”

“Why do you not free yourself?” they replied. “I am God’s captive. I am the sentinel of salvation,” he answered. “If I so wish, with one signal I can loose all bonds.”

Hallaj made a sign with his finger, and all their bonds burst asunder.

“Now where are we to go?” the prisoners demanded. “The gate of the prison is locked.”

Hallaj signalled again, and cracks appeared in the walls.

“Now go on your way,” he cried.

“Are you not coming too?” they asked.

“No,” he replied. “I have a secret with Him which cannot be told save on the gallows.”

“Where have the prisoners gone?” the warders asked him next morning.

“I set them free,” Hallaj answered.

“Why did you not go?” they enquired.

“God has cause to chide me, so I did not go,” he replied.

This story was carried to the caliph.

“There will be a riot,” he cried. “Kill him, or beat him with sticks until he retracts.”

They beat him with sticks three hundred times. At every blow a clear voice was heard to say, “Fear not, son of Mansur! “

Then they led him out to be crucified. Loaded with thirteen heavy chains, Hallaj strode out proudly along the way waving his arms like a very vagabond.

“Why do you strut so proudly?” they asked him.

“Because I am going to the slaughterhouse,” he replied. And he recited in clear tones,

My boon-companion’s not to be
Accused of mean inequity.
He made me drink like him the best,
As does the generous host his guest;
And when the round was quite complete
He called for sword and winding-sheet.
Such is his fate, who drinks past reason
With Draco in the summer season.

When they brought him to the base of the gallows at Bab al-Taq, he kissed the wood and set his foot upon the ladder.

“How do you feel?” they taunted him.

“The ascension of true men is the top of the gallows,” he answered.

He was wearing a loincloth about his middle and a mantle on his shoulders. Turning towards Mecca, he lifted up his hands and communed with God.

“What He knows, no man knows,” he said. Then he climbed the gibbet.

“What do you say,” asked a group of his followers, “concerning us who are your disciples, and these who condemn you and would stone you?”

“They have a double reward, and you a single,” he answered. “You merely think well of me. They are moved by the strength of their belief in One God to maintain the rigour of the Law."

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

  • what claim did Hallaj make that led to his execution?
  • what happened to the people who were in prison with Hallaj as he awaited his execution?
  • how did Hallaj behave on his way to execution?


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