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Studies in Islamic Mysticism, by Reynold A. Nicholson, [1921], at

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Abú Sa‘íd and Omar Khayyam are associated in the history of Persian literature by the circumstance that each of them is the reputed author of a famous collection of rubá‘íyyát in which his individuality has almost disappeared. That these collections are wholly, or even mainly, the work of Abú Sa‘íd and Omar no one who examines the evidence is likely to assert: they should rather be regarded as anthologies—of which the nucleus, perhaps, was formed by the two authors in question—containing poems of a particular type composed at various periods by many different hands. It is possible, no doubt, that Omar's view of life and his general cast of thought are more or less reflected in the quatrains attributed to him, but we can learn from them nothing definite and distinctive. The same considerations apply with equal force to the mystical rubá‘ís passing under the name of Abú Sa‘íd. In his case, however, we possess excellent and copious biographical materials which make us intimately acquainted with him and throw a welcome light on many aspects of contemporary Persian mysticism.

The oldest of these documents is a short treatise on his life and sayings, which is preserved in a manuscript of the British Museum (Or. 249). It bears neither title nor indication of authorship, but Zhukovski in his edition of the text (Petrograd, 1899) identifies it with the Ḥálát ú Sukhunán-i Shaykh Abú Sa‘íd ibn Abi ’l-Khayr, a work composed about a century after Abú Sa‘íd's death by one of his descendants whose name is unknown. He was a cousin of Muḥammad ibnu ’l-Munawwar, the great-great-grandson of Abú Sa‘íd.

Using the Ḥálát ú Sukhunán as a foundation, Muḥammad ibnu ’l-Munawwar compiled a much larger biography of his ancestor which he entitled Asráru ’l-tawḥíd fí maqámáti ’l-Shaykh Abí Sa‘íd (ed. by Zhukovski, Petrograd, 1899) and dedicated to the Ghúrid prince, Ghiyáthu’ddín Muḥammad

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ibn Sám (ob. a.d. 1203). The author, like Abú Sa‘íd himself, was a native of Mayhana or Mihna in Khurásán. From his earliest youth it had been a labour of love for him to gather the sayings of the Saint and to verify the records and traditions which were handed down in his family and were still fresh in the minds of his fellow-townsmen. The task was undertaken not a moment too soon. In a.d. 1154 the Turcoman tribe of the Ghuzz swept over the borders of Khurásán and carried fire and sword through that flourishing province. Everywhere the population was massacred; the author tells us that 115 descendants of Abú Sa‘íd, young and old, were tortured to death in Mayhana alone, and that no memorial of him was left except his tomb. Religion, he says, fell into utter ruin; the search after Truth ceased, unbelief became rampant; of Islam only the name, and of Ṣúfisim only the form survived. Impelled by divine grace, he complied with the request of some novices that he should write an account of the spiritual experiences and memorable sayings of Shaykh Abú Sa‘íd, for the encouragement of those who desired to enter upon the Path (ṭaríqa) and for the guidance of those who were travelling on the road of the Truth (ḥaqíqa1. Abú Sa‘íd died in a.d. 1049, and the Asráru ’l-tawḥíd was probably completed not less than 120 or more than 150 years later. As Zhukovski points out, it is almost the first example in Persian of a separate work having for its subject the life of an individual mystic. The portrait of Abú Sa‘íd amidst the circle of Ṣúfís and dervishes in which he lived is drawn with extraordinary richness of detail, and gains in vividness as well as in value from the fact that a great part of the story is told by himself. Although the Mohammedan system of oral tradition by which these autobiographical passages have been preserved forbids us to suppose that we have before us an exact transcript of Abú Sa‘íd's words as they were spoken to the original reporter, there is no reason to doubt that in most cases the substance of them is given correctly. His own veracity is not incontestable, but this question, which leads at once into the darkest abysses of psychology, I must leave in suspense.

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The Ḥálát ú Sukhunán and the Asráru ’l-tawḥíd render the more recent biographies of Abú Sa‘íd all but superfluous 1. A certain amount of new material is found in the Supplement to Farídu’ddín ‘Aṭṭár's Tadhkiratu ’l-Awliyá (vol. II of my edition, pp. 322-337) and Jámí's Nafaḥátu ’l-Uns (ed. by Nassau Lees, No. 366) 2.

For the sake of clearness, I have divided the following study into three sections, of which the first deals with the life of Abú Sa‘íd, the second with his mystical sayings and doctrines, and the third with miracles and other matter belonging to his legend.


2:1 Asrár, 4, 16-6, 5.

Next: Part I