Sacred Texts  Islam  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

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


Ṣúfisim is at once the religious philosophy and the popular religion of Islam. The great Mohammedan mystics are also saints. Their lives belong to the Legend and contain, besides their lofty and abstruse speculations, an account of the miracles which they wrought. They are the object of endless worship and adoration, their tombs are holy shrines whither men and women come as pilgrims to beseech their all-powerful aid, their relics bring a blessing that only the rich can buy. Whilst still living, they are canonised by the people; not posthumously by the Church. Their title to saintship depends on a peculiarly intimate relation to God, which is attested by fits of ecstasy and, above all, by thaumaturgic gifts (karámát = χαρίσματα, grazie). Belief in such gifts is almost universal, but there is disagreement as to the importance which should be attached to them. The higher doctrine, that they are of small value in comparison with the attainment of spiritual perfection, was ignored by the mass of Moslems, who would have considered a saint without miracles to be no saint at all. Miracles there must be; if the holy man failed to supply them, they were invented for him. It is vain to inquire how far the miracles of Abú Sa‘íd may have been the work of popular imagination, but the following extracts show that the question is not an irrelevant one, even if we take for granted the reality of these occult and mysterious powers.

It is related by Ustád ‘Abdu ’l-Raḥmán, who was Abú

p. 66

[paragraph continues] Sa‘íd's principal Koran-reader (muqrí), that when Abú Sa‘íd was living in Níshápúr a man came to him and saluted him and said:

"I am a stranger here. On my arrival I found the whole city full of thy fame. They tell me thou art a man who has the gift of miracles and does not hide it. Now show me one." Abú Sa‘íd replied: "When I was at Ámul with Abú ’l-‘Abbás Qaṣṣáb, some one came to him on the same errand and demanded of him the same thing which you have just demanded of me. He answered, 'What do you see that is not miraculous? A butcher's son (pisar-i qaṣṣábí), whose father taught him his own trade, has a vision, is enraptured, is brought to Baghdád and falls in with Shaykh Shiblí; from Baghdád to Mecca, from Mecca to Medina, from Medina to Jerusalem, where Khaḍir appears to him, and God puts it in Khaḍir's heart to accept him as a disciple; then he is brought back here and multitudes turn towards him, coming forth from taverns and renouncing wickedness and taking vows of penitence and sacrificing wealth. Filled with burning love they come from the ends of the world to seek God from me. What miracle is greater than this?' The man replied that he wished to see a miracle at the present moment. 'Is it not a miracle,' said Abú ’l-‘Abbás, 'that a goat-killer's son is sitting in the seat of the mighty and that he does not sink into the earth and that this wall does not fall upon him and that this house does not tumble over his head? Without goods and gear he possesses saintship, and without work or means of support he receives his daily bread and feeds many people. Is not all this a gift of miracles?' Good sir (Abú Sa‘íd continued), your experience with me is the same as that man's with Abú ’l-‘Abbás Qaṣṣáb." "O Shaykh!" said he, "I ask thee for miracles and thou tellest of Shaykh Abú ’l-‘Abbás." Abú Sa‘íd said, "Whosoever belongs entirely to the Giver (Karím), all his acts are gifts (karámát)."

Then he smiled and said in verse:

Every wind that comes to me from the region of Bukhárá
Breathes the perfume of roses and musk and the scent of jessamine.
Every man and woman on whom that wind is blowing
Thinks it is surely blowing from Khoten.
Nay, nay! From Khoten bloweth no such delicious gale: p. 67
That wind is coming from the presence of the Beloved.
Each night I gaze towards Yemen, that thou mayst rise;
For thou art Suhayl (Canopus), and Suhayl rises from Yemen.
Adored One! I endeavour to hide thy name from all,
In order that thy name may not come into folk's mouths;
But whether I will or no, whenever I speak to any one,
Thy name is the first word that comes to my lips.

When God makes a man pure and separates him from his selfhood, all that he does or abstains from doing, all that he says and all that he feels becomes a wondrous gift (karámát). God bless Mohammed and the whole of his Family 1.

In another passage the extraordinary feats performed by saints are reduced to their proper insignificance.

They said to him, "So-and-so walks on the water." He replied, "It is easy enough: frogs and waterfowl do it." They said, "So-and-so flies in the air." "So do birds and insects," he replied. They said, "So-and-so goes from one town to another in a moment of time." "Satan," he rejoined, "goes in one moment from the East to the West. Things like these have no great value"; and he proceeded to give the definition of the true saint which has been quoted already 2—a man who lives in friendly intercourse with his fellow-creatures, yet is never forgetful of God 3.

Abú Sa‘íd looked with disfavour on the composition of marvellous tales concerning himself. One day he summoned his famulus, Khwája ‘Abdu ’l-Karím, and inquired what he had been doing. ‘Abdu ’l-Karím answered that he had been writing some anecdotes of his master for a certain dervish who wanted them. "O ‘Abdu ’l-Karím!" said the Shaykh, "do not be a writer of anecdotes: be such a man that anecdotes will be told of thee." The biographer observes that Abú Sa‘íd's fear lest a legend of his miracles should be published and widely circulated accords with the practice of the most eminent Ṣúfís, who have always concealed their mystical experiences 4. Abú Sa‘íd placed the hidden and unrecognised saint above the saint manifest and known to the people: the former is he whom God loves, the latter he who loves God 5.

p. 68

Such protests may have retarded, although they did not check, the constantly increasing glorification of popular saints by themselves and their devotees. At any rate, the ancient Lives of Abú Sa‘íd are modest and subdued if we compare them with some famous legends of the same kind.

As I have mentioned, his recorded miracles are mostly instances of firása, a term equivalent to clairvoyance. Being an effect of the light which God sets in the purified heart, firása is reckoned among the "gifts" (karámát) of the saint and is accepted as evidence of holiness. There were two friends, a tailor and a weaver, who obstinately asserted that Abú Sa‘íd was an impostor. One day they said, "This man pretends to have the gift of miracles. Let us go to him, and if he knows what trade each of us follows, we shall then know that his claim is true." They disguised themselves and went to the Shaykh. As soon as his eye fell on them, he said:

On the falak are two craftsmen 1,
One a tailor, one a weaver.

[paragraph continues] Then he said, pointing to the tailor:

This one fashions robes for princes.

[paragraph continues] And pointing to the weaver:

This one weaves black woollens only.

Both were covered with confusion and fell at the Shaykh's feet and repented of their disbelief 2.

Moslems attribute to firása, and therefore to a divine source, all the phenomena of telepathy, thought-reading, and second sight. In the course of this essay I have had occasion to translate several testimonies that Abú Sa‘íd was richly endowed with these "gifts" and that he made his reputation as a saint by exhibiting them in public. That he really possessed them or, at least, persuaded a great number of people to think so, is beyond dispute—otherwise, traditions attesting

p. 69

them would not have occupied so much of his legend; but when we come to examine particular cases, we find that the evidence is weak from a scientific point of view as well as on common grounds of probability. Such considerations, I need hardly say, not only have no influence upon the Moslem's belief in occult phenomena but do not even enter his mind. Many stories illustrating Abú Sa‘íd's powers of firása occur in the preceding pages, and it would be useless to give further specimens. The following extracts commemorate some miracles of a different class.

In Níshápúr there lived a woman of noble family, whose name was Íshí Nílí. She was a great ascetic, and on account of her piety the people of Níshápúr used to seek blessings from her. It was forty years since she had gone to the warm baths or set foot outside of her house. When Abú Sa‘íd came to Níshápúr and the report of his miracles spread through the city, she sent a nurse, who always waited upon her, to hear him preach. "Remember what he says," said she, "and tell me when you come back." The nurse, on her return, could recollect nothing of Abú Sa‘íd's discourse, but repeated to her mistress some bacchanalian verses she had heard him recite 1. Íshí cried, "Go and wash your mouth! Do ascetics and divines speak such words as these?" Now, Íshí was in the habit of making eye-salves which she gave to the people. That night she saw a frightful thing in her sleep and started up. Both her eyes were aching. She treated them with eye-salves, but was no better; she betook herself to all the physicians, but found no cure: she moaned in pain twenty days and nights. Then one night she slept and dreamed that if she wished her eyes to be better, she must satisfy the Shaykh of Mayhana and win his exalted favour. Next day she put in a purse a thousand dirhems, which she had received as alms, and bade the nurse take it to Abú Sa‘íd and present it to him as soon as he should have finished his sermon. When the nurse laid it before him, he was using a toothpick—for it was his rule that at the end of the sermon a disciple brought some bread and a toothpick, which he would use after eating the bread. He said to her, as she was about to depart, "Come, nurse, take this toothpick and give it to thy lady. Tell her

p. 70

that she must stir some water with it and then wash her eyes with the water, in order that her outward eye may be cured. And tell her to put out of her heart all suspicious and unfriendly feelings towards the Ṣúfís, in order that her inward eye too may be cured." Íshí carefully followed his directions. She dipped the toothpick in water and washed her eyes and was cured immediately. Next day she brought to the Shaykh all her jewelry and ornaments and dresses, and said, "O Shaykh! I have repented and have put every hostile feeling out of my heart." "May it bring thee blessing!" said he, and bade them conduct her to the mother of Bú Ṭáhir 1, that she might robe her in the gaberdine (khirqa). Íshí went in obedience to his command and donned the gaberdine and busied herself with serving the women of this fraternity (the Ṣúfís). She gave up her house and goods, and rose to great eminence in this Path, and became a leader of the Ṣúfís 2.

During the time when Abú Sa‘íd was at Níshápúr, disciples came to him of all sorts, well and ill bred. One of his converts was a rough peasant with iron-soled mountain-shoes, which made a disagreeable noise whenever he entered the monastery; he was always knocking them against the wall and annoying the Ṣúfís by his rudeness and violence. One day the Shaykh called him and said, "You must go to a certain valley (which he named—it lies between the hills of Níshápúr and Tús, and a stream descending from it falls into the Níshápúr river). After going some distance you will see a big rock. You must perform an ablution on the bank of the stream and a prayer of two genuflexions on the rock, and wait for a friend of mine, who will come to you. Give him my greeting, and there is something I wish you to tell him, for he is a very dear friend of mine: he has been with me seven years." The dervish set off with the utmost eagerness, and all the way he was thinking that he was going to see one of the saints or one of the Forty Men who are the pivot of the world and upon whom depends the order and harmony of human affairs. He was sure that the holy man's blessed look would fall on him and make his fortune both in this world and in the next. When he came to the place indicated by the Shaykh, he did what the Shaykh had ordered; then he waited a while. Suddenly there was a dreadful clap and the mountain quaked. He looked and saw a black dragon,

p. 71

the largest he had ever seen: its body filled the whole space between two mountains. At the sight of it his spirit fled; he was unable to move and fell senseless to the earth. The dragon advanced slowly towards the rock, on which it laid its head reverently. After a little while, the dervish recovered himself somewhat, and observing that the dragon had come to a halt and was motionless, he said, though in his terror he scarcely knew what he said, "The Shaykh greets thee." The dragon with many signs of reverence began to rub its face in the dust, whilst tears rolled from its eyes. This, and the fact that it attempted nothing against him, persuaded the dervish that he had been sent to meet the dragon; he therefore delivered the Shaykh's message, which it received with great humility, rubbing its face in the dust and weeping so much that the rock where its head lay became wet. Having heard all, it went away. As soon as it was out of sight, the dervish came to himself and once more fell in a swoon. A long time passed before he revived. At last he rose and slowly descended to the foot of the hill. Then he sat down, picked up a stone, and beat the iron off his clogs. On returning to the monastery, he entered so quietly that none was aware of his coming, and spoke the salaam in such a low voice that he was barely heard. When the elders saw his behaviour, they desired to know who was the Pír to whom he had been sent; they wondered who in half a day had wrought in his pupil a change that can generally be produced only by means of long and severe discipline. When the dervish told the story, every one was amazed. The elder Ṣúfís questioned the Shaykh, who replied, "Yes, for seven years he has been my friend, and we have found spiritual joy in each other's society." After that day none ever saw the dervish behave rudely or heard him speak loudly. He was entirely reformed by a single attention which the Shaykh bestowed on him 1.

When Shaykh Abú Sa‘íd was at Níshápúr, holding splendid feasts and musical entertainments and continually regaling the dervishes with luxurious viands, such as fat fowls and lawzína and sweetmeats, an arrogant ascetic came to him and said, "O Shaykh! I have come in order to challenge you to a forty days' fast (chihila)." The poor man was ignorant of the Shaykh's novitiate and of his forty years’ austerities: he fancied that the

p. 72

[paragraph continues] Shaykh had always lived in this same manner. He thought to himself, "I will chasten him with hunger and put him to shame in the eyes of the people, and then I shall be the object of their regard." On hearing his challenge, the Shaykh said, "May it be blessed!" and spread his prayer-rug. His adversary did the like, and they both sat down side by side. While the ascetic, in accordance with the practice of those who keep a fast of forty days, was eating a certain amount of food, the Shaykh ate nothing; and though he never once broke his fast, every morning he was stronger and fatter and his complexion grew more and more ruddy. All the time, by his orders and under his eyes, the dervishes feasted luxuriously and indulged in the samá‘, and he himself danced with them. His state was not changed for the worse in any respect. The ascetic, on the other hand, was daily becoming feebler and thinner and paler, and the sight of the delicious viands which were served to the Ṣúfís in his presence worked more and more upon him. At length he grew so weak that he could scarcely rise to perform the obligatory prayers. He repented of his presumption and confessed his ignorance. When the forty days were finished, the Shaykh said, "I have complied with your request: now you must do as I say." The ascetic acknowledged this and said, "It is for the Shaykh to command." The Shaykh said, "We have sat forty days and eaten nothing and gone to the privy: now let us sit forty days and eat and never go to the privy." His adversary had no choice but to accept the challenge, but he thought to himself that it was impossible for any human being to do such a thing 1.

In the end, of course, the Shaykh proves to be an overman, and the ascetic becomes one of his disciples.

It is related that an eminent Shaykh who lived in Abú Sa‘íd's time went on a warlike expedition to Rum (Asia Minor), accompanied by a number of Ṣúfís. Whilst he was marching in that country, he saw Iblís. "O accursed one!" he cried, "what art thou doing here?—for thou canst not cherish any design against us." Iblís replied that he had come thither involuntarily. "I was passing by Mayhana," said he, "and entered the town. Shaykh Abú Sa‘íd came out of the mosque. I met him on the way to his house and he gave a sneeze which cast me here 2."

p. 73

A tomb and sepulchre (turbatí ú mashhadí) was the only memorial of Abú Sa‘íd in his native town that the Ghuzz hordes did not utterly destroy 1. Concerning his relics, that is to say, garments and other articles which were venerated on account of some circumstance that gave them a peculiar sanctity or simply because they once had belonged to him, we find valuable details in three passages of the Asrár.

One day, whilst Shaykh Abú Sa‘íd was preaching at Níshápúr, he grew warm in his discourse and being overcome with ecstasy exclaimed, "There is naught within this vest (jubba) except Allah!" Simultaneously he raised his forefinger (angusht-i musabbiḥa), which lay on his breast underneath the jubba, and his blessed finger passed through the jubba and became visible to all. Among the Shaykhs and Imáms present on that occasion were Abú Muḥammad Juwayní, Abú ’l-Qásim Qushayrí, Ismá‘íl Ṣábúní, and others whom it would be tedious to enumerate. None of them, on hearing these words, protested or silently objected. All were beside themselves, and following the Shaykh's example they flung t away their gaberdines (khirqaná). When the Shaykh descended from the pulpit, his jubba and their gaberdines were torn to pieces (and distributed) 2. The Shaykhs were unanimously of opinion that the piece of silk (kazhpára) which bore the mark of his blessed finger should be torn off from the breast of the jubba and set apart, in order that in the future all who came or went might pay a visit to it. Accordingly, it was set apart just as it was, with the cotton and lining, and remained in the possession of Shaykh Abú ’l-Fatḥ and his family. Those who came from all parts of the world as pilgrims to Mayhana, after having visited his holy shrine used to visit that piece of silk and the other memorials of the Shaykh and used to see the mark of his finger, until the Ghuzz invasion, when that blessing and other precious blessings of his were lost 3.

Bú Naṣr Shirwání, a rich merchant of Níshápúr, was converted by Abú Sa‘íd. He gave the whole of his wealth to the Ṣúfís and

p. 74

showed the utmost devotion to the Shaykh. When the latter left Níshápúr to return to Mayhana, he bestowed on Bú Naṣr a green woollen mantle (labácha) of his own, saying, "Go to thy country and set up my banner there." Accordingly Bú Naṣr went back to Shirwán, became the director and chief of the Ṣúfís in that region, and built a convent, which exists to-day and is known by his name. The Shaykh's mantle is still preserved in the convent, where Bú Naṣr deposited it. Every Friday at prayer-time the famulus hangs it from a high place in the building, and when the people come out of the Friday mosque they go to the convent and do not return home until they have paid a visit to the Shaykh's mantle. No citizen neglects this observance. If at any time famine, pestilence, or other calamity befall the country, they place the mantle on their heads and carry it afield, and the whole population go forth and reverently invoke its intercession. Then God, the glorious and exalted, in His perfect bounty and in honour of the Shaykh removes the calamity from them and brings their desires to pass. The inhabitants of that country say that the mantle is a proved antidote (tiryák-i mujarrab) and they make immense offerings to the followers of the Shaykh. At the present time, through the blessings of the Shaykh's spirit (himma) and the people's excellent belief in the Ṣúfís, this province can show more than four hundred well-known monasteries, where dervishes obtain refreshment 1.

When the fame of Abú Sa‘íd reached Mecca, the Shaykhs of the Holy City, wishing to know what kind of man he was, sent Bú ‘Amr Bashkhwání, who was a great ascetic and had resided in Mecca for thirty years, to Mayhana in order that he might bring back a trustworthy report of Abú Sa‘íd's character and mystical endowments. Bú ‘Amr journeyed to Mayhana and had a long conversation with Abú Sa‘íd in private. After three days, when he was about to return to Mecca, Abú Sa‘íd said to him, "You must go to Bashkhwán: you are my deputy in that district. Ere long the bruit of your renown will be heard in the fourth heaven." Bú ‘Amr obeyed and set out for Bashkhwán. As he was taking leave, Abú Sa‘íd gave him three toothpicks which he had cut with his own blessed hand, and said, "Do not sell one of these for ten dínárs nor for twenty, and if thirty dínárs are offered"—(here he stopped short and Bú ‘Amr went on his way). On arriving at Bashkhwán,

p. 75

he lodged in the room which is now (part of) his convent, and the people honoured him as a saint. Every Thursday he began a complete recitation of the Koran, in which he was joined by his disciples and the men of Bashkhwán and all the notables of the neighbouring hamlets; and when the recitation was finished, he would call for a jug of water and dip in it one of the toothpicks which he had received from Shaykh Abú Sa‘íd. The water was then distributed amongst the sick, and it healed them by means of the blessed influence of both Shaykhs. The headman of Bashkhwán, who was always suffering from colic, begged Bú ‘Amr to send him some of the holy water. No sooner had he drunk it than the pain ceased. Next morning he came to Bú ‘Amr and said, "I hear that you have three of these toothpicks. Will you sell me one, for I am very often in pain?" Bú ‘Amr asked him how much he would give. He offered ten dínárs. " It is worth more," said Bú ‘Amr. "Twenty dínárs." "It is worth more." "Thirty dínárs." "No, it is worth more." The headman said nothing and would not bid any higher. Bú ‘Amr said, "My master, Shaykh Abú Sa‘íd, stopped at the same amount." He gave him one of the toothpicks in exchange for thirty dínárs, and with that money he founded the convent which now exists. The headman kept the toothpick as long as he lived. On his deathbed he desired that it should be broken and that the pieces should be placed in his mouth and buried with him. As regards the two remaining toothpicks, in accordance with Bú ‘Amr's last injunctions they were placed in his shroud and interred in his blessed tomb 1.

I have set before my readers a picture of Abú Sa‘íd as he appears in the oldest and most authentic documents available. These do not always show him as he was, but it would be absurd to reproach his biographers with their credulity and entire lack of critical judgment: they write as worshippers, and their work is based upon traditions and legends which breathe the very spirit of unquestioning faith. Only an alloy can be extracted from such materials, however carefully they are analysed. The passages in which Abú Sa‘íd describes his early life, conversion, and novitiate are perhaps less open to suspicion than the numerous anecdotes concerning his

p. 76

miracles. Here pious invention plays a large part and is not limited by any sense of natural law. Even the sceptics converted by Abú Sa‘íd feel sure that miracles occur, and only doubt his ability to perform them. The mystical sayings attributed to him have a power and freedom beyond speculative theosophy and suggest that he owed his fame, in the first instance, to an enthusiastic personality and to the possession of "psychic" gifts which he knew how to exhibit impressively. He was a great teacher and preacher of Ṣúfisim. If the matter of his doctrine is seldom original, his genius gathered up and fused the old elements into something new. In the historical development he stands out as a leading exponent of the pantheistic, poetical, anti-scholastic, and antinomian ideas which had been already broached by his predecessor, Báyazíd of Bisṭám, and Abú ’l-Ḥasan Kharaqání. It may be said of Abú Sa‘íd that he, perhaps more than any one else, gave these ideas the distinctive form in which they are presented to us by the later religious philosophy of Persia. Their peculiarly Persian character is just what we should expect, seeing that Báyazíd, Abú ’l-Ḥasan, and Abú Sa‘íd himself were born and passed their lives in Khurásán, the cradle of Persian nationalism. Abú Sa‘íd also left his mark on another side of Ṣúfisim, its organisation as a monastic system 1. Although he founded no Order, the convent over which he presided supplied a model in outline of the fraternities that were established during the 12th century; and in the ten rules which he, as abbot, drew up and caused to be put into writing 2 we find, so far as I know, the first Mohammedan example of a regula ad monachos.


67:1 A 369, 5.

67:2 See p. 55.

67:3 A 258, 17.

67:4 A 243, 18.

67:5 A 381, 1.

68:1 The falak is a pole on which the feet are tied when bastinado is administered. The words "on the falak" refer, no doubt, to the anxious suspense in which the two sceptics awaited the result of their experiment. Cf. our phrase "on the rack."

68:2 A 240, 9.

69:1 I have not attempted to translate this rubá‘í. Its general drift is plain, but there are textual difficulties.

70:1 The eldest son of Abú Sa‘íd.

70:2 A 91, 18.

71:1 A 128, 11.

72:1 A 160, 18.

72:2 A 361, 5.

73:1 A6 4.

73:2 "The tearing up and distributing is to distribute the blessing that is supposed to cleave to them from having been worn by some one in an especially blessed state. So the garments of saints acquire miraculous power; compare Elijah's mantle" (Prof. D. B. Macdonald in JRAS, 1902, p. p. 10 see also Richard Hartmann, Al-Ḳuschairîs Darstellung des Ṣûfîtums, p. 141 foll. and cf. pp. 43 and 58 supra).

73:3 A 262, 5.

74:1 A 173, 15.

75:1 A 201, 12.

76:1 Cf. Qazwíní, Átháru ’l-bilád (ed. Wüstenfeld), p. 241, 3 fr. foot.

76:2 See p. 46 supra.

Next: Introduction