The Dervish Abu Sa'id
One day a self-righteous ascetic came before Abu Sa'id and challenged him to observe a fast for forty days. Abu Sa'id readily accepted this challenge, but the proud ascetic knew nothing of Abu Sa'id's previous practice of extreme austerities over a period of forty years. He thought that he would easily defeat his luxury-loving rival and then be recognised as the greatest Sufi saint in Nishapur.
Abu Sa'id spread his prayer mat on the ground and immediately sat down to commence the fast, and the ascetic did likewise. For the next forty days Abu Sa'id ate nothing at all, whilst the ascetic - in accordance with the traditional Islamic customs of fasting - allowed himself to eat a small amount of food each evening. As the days turned into weeks the ascetic noticed that he was getting thinner and weaker, whilst Abu Sa'id appeared to be getting fatter and stronger. Moreover, Abu Sa'id continued to direct the preparation of the lavish meals for his students and the musical performances of the sama, where he often joined in the ecstatic dancing himself. The sight and smell of all this rich food began to unhinge the arrogant ascetic's mind and he began to repent of his presumption. During the last days of the fast the poor man became so weak that he could hardly rise from his prayer-mat to pray, whilst Abu Sa'id seemed more robust than when they had first started the fast.
When the forty days were over the ascetic confessed his ignorance and conceded defeat to the Sheikh. However, Abu Sa'id said, "I have complied with your challenge, now you must comply with mine." The ascetic humbly consented to this, saying: "O great Sheikh, it is for you to command."
"For forty days we have fasted," said Abu Sa'id, "Yet during this time we both sometimes needed to go to the toilet. Now we should both sit for forty days and eat continuously without going to the toilet."
When he heard the conditions of this challenge the ascetic realised that it would be futile for him to attempt it. In great humility he bowed down before Abu Sa'id and requested to be accepted as his disciple.
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One of Abu Sa'id's disciples was very uncouth and loud. He was often in a bad temper and wore iron studs on the soles of his sandals. Whenever he entered the monastery he would make a deliberate clattering noise with his steps, disturbing the silence of the contemplative dervishes. He would also purposefully bump into his fellow students as he passed them, and then offend them with rude comments or curses.
One day Abu Sa'id summoned this bothersome disciple and said, "There is a specific task that I would like you to carry out for me. I want you to travel to a valley that lies in a northeast direction towards Tus. Here you will come upon a wide stream that descends into the Nishapur River. If you follow this stream upward into the hills you will come upon a large flat rock in the middle of the stream. I want you to cleanse yourself on the bank of this stream and step onto the rock to perform some prayers and prostrations. Then you must wait for a friend of mine to appear before you. He has been my dear friend for the last seven years. Greet him from me, and then relay this message to him." Abu Sa'id then revealed the words of his message.
Early next morning the uncouth disciple set out upon his mission. He was very excited at the prospect of meeting a close friend of his master. Perhaps this would turn out to be one of the great Sufi masters, or even one of the 'Forty Elect' who are believed to continually oversee the spiritual destiny of this world. He felt very proud that his master had singled him out for such an auspicious task.
Arriving at the appointed place he performed his ablutions in the stream and then stepped onto the flat rock, made his prayers and prostrations, and waited for the friend to appear. Suddenly there was an enormous clap of thunder that even made the mountains shake. Looking upstream he saw a huge dragon descending towards him in a black cloud, whose writhing body filled the space between the mountains above. As the dragon slowly began to move towards him he fainted briefly from fear, and when he recovered from this swoon he found that the dragon had placed its great head upon the flat rock upon which he was laying. In terror he stood up and stammered in a voiceless whisper, "Sheikh Abu Sa'id greets you." At the mention of the Sheikh's name the dragon began rubbing its face into the sand upon the rock, and from its eyes great tears of devotion began to fall. Realising that this dragon was the 'friend' of his master and that it meant him no harm, the disciple then delivered the message in a slightly more courageous whisper. The dragon once again rolled his head in the sand, releasing a great flood of tears that inundated the rock. The disciple passed into a swoon again, and when he recovered he was relieved to find that the dragon had gone. He slowly stumbled back down the bank of the stream, pausing momentarily at the bottom to break the iron studs from his sandals with a stone.
When he returned to the monastery he entered so quietly that no one knew he had come back, and as his fellow students began to greet him he answered in a polite and barely audible whisper. They were shocked at the sudden change that had taken place in his manners, and asked about the 'dear friend' that he had been sent to meet - surely this must have been one of the Forty Elect to have wrought such a change in this rude disciple within the space of one day. After listening to his strange story the elder students later asked Abu Sa'id to verify it. "Yes," he said, "The dragon is my friend. He is excellent at inspiring humility. For seven years we have found much joy in each other's spiritual company."
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The extravagant expenditure, which Abu Sa'id bestowed upon both the religious and lay community, became a topic of great controversy in Nishapur. A rich merchant once presented him with a thousand dinars and a camel-load of scented aloe wood. Abu Sa'id immediately gave the money to his steward Hasan, telling him to prepare an elaborate feast. At this feast a thousand candles were lit in the daytime, and the entire load of aloe wood was burned in order to perfume the air for the guests. A sanctimonious police inspector, who despised the Sufis, came into the monastery to chastise Abu Sa'id, saying: "What you are doing is illegal. The law of the Qu'ran forbids such extravagance. You have wasted an entire camel-load of aloe wood already, and of what use are a thousand candles burning and melting in the sunlight?"
Abu Sa'id responded: "I didn't know it was against the law to burn aloe wood and to light candles. The wood cannot be saved, but you may blow the candles out if you wish."
The inspector tried desperately to extinguish the candles, but he could not blow even a single one out, and for all his efforts he only succeeded in burning his beard and scorching his clothes. Then Abu Sa'id said to him: "Have you never heard the saying - Whoever tries to blow out the flame that God has lit only succeeds in burning his own moustache?"
Another rich merchant of Nishapur, who was a great admirer of Abu Sa'id, once told Hasan that he would freely supply any commodity that his teacher needed. When Hasan informed Abu Sa'id of this generous offer, he was sent to the merchant's store seven times during the course of a single day for various items. At sunset Abu Sa'id asked Hasan to go once more to the merchant's shop and bring back some camphor, rosewater and aloe wood. But when Hasan arrived at the store the merchant was just closing his shutters for the day, and he felt very embarrassed to make another request. However, the merchant gladly gave Hasan the items, and said: "Since you feel a bit ashamed at fulfilling your teacher's trifling requests, I will arrange for a payment of a thousand dinars to be given to you tomorrow. I can easily raise this money against the security of my own property. You may use this money for day-to-day expenses and only come to me for more important matters."
Hasan felt very relieved to no longer have to assume the role of a beggar for his teacher. But when he returned to Abu Sa'id with the camphor, rosewater and aloe wood, he found that his teacher now regarded him with distain. When he asked for the reason of this disapproval, Abu Sa'id said, "Hasan, go and cleanse your heart of all its worldly vanities."
Hasan stood for many hours at the monastery gate in repentance, weeping and prostrating for God's forgiveness. Yet throughout that night Abu Sa'id continued to frown upon Hasan with distain. The next day the merchant arrived for the morning discourse of Abu Sa'id, as was his usual custom. It was also customary for Abu Sa'id to fix his gaze upon the merchant for a few minutes during the discourse. But on this occasion the master completely ignored him, which left the merchant feeling hurt and wounded.
After the discourse the merchant approached Hasan for some explanation about this rebuff, saying: "Hasan, what is wrong with the Sheikh? He did not even look at me today." When Hasan explained what had transpired the previous night, the merchant ran straight to Abu Sa'id and said, "O great light of my life, you did not look at me today. What have I done to offend you? Please tell me, and I will pray to God for forgiveness and beg for your pardon."
Abu Sa'id replied: "Will you drag my spirit down from highest heaven to earth by demanding a pledge from me in return for the security raised upon a thousand dinars? If you really want me to look favourably upon you, then give me the thousand dinars right now from your own pocket! Then you will perhaps realise how little this sum weighs in the scales of my exalted spiritual bank balance!"
The merchant ran to his home, then returned eagerly with two cloth purses, each containing five hundred dinars. Abu Sa'id immediately handed the purses to Hasan, saying: "Buy some oxen and sheep. Make a stew with the beef, and a saffron and rose-attar pilau with the mutton. Buy plenty of sweets, rosewater and aloe wood. Buy a thousand candles and light them in the daytime. Set the tables up at the picnic resort of Nishapur. Then invite the whole town by proclaiming aloud that all are welcome to a grand feast, which entails absolutely no obligation in this world or the next!"
More than two thousand people attended this great feast, where a thousand candles burned in the daylight, and where the great Sheikh, Abu Sa'id, delighted in sprinkling rosewater upon all of the guests as they ate.
On another occasion a prince named Amir Masuud once somewhat reluctantly agreed to settle all of Abu Sa'id's debts to the local merchants. But the disgruntled prince thought that he should draw the line at a second promise for yet another donation. So the prince decided to renege on his promise and refused to pay. Abu Sa'id wrote a note, which stated: "Fulfil what you have promised, otherwise all of your strength of arms will not preserve your life!" Upon the Sheikh's bidding Hasan delivered this message into the hands of Amir Mas'uud. The prince read it, and consumed with anger then chased Hasan from his presence.
That night the prince decided to go out from his tent in disguise and wander incognito amongst his soldiers. By doing this he could secretly overhear their conversations and thus be better informed about the mood and feelings of his soldiers. The prince's tent was guarded by several ferocious mastiff-dogs, which during the day were chained up. But at night these dogs were allowed to roam freely, and would readily tear to pieces any unwelcome stranger whose scent they did not recognise. Unfortunately on this particular night they failed to recognise the prince because of the unfamiliar scent of the clothes he was wearing. So they pounced upon him in the dark, and before anyone could respond to his cries for help, the prince was torn to pieces.
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Towards the end of his life Abu Sa'id was continually in debt, and realising that the possibility of the great Sheikh's demise was probably quite imminent, a group of his creditors held counsel together and decided to petition the Sheikh for repayment. They believed in the principal of safety in numbers, and arrived together at the portal of Abu Sa'id's tent. The Sheikh bade Hasan welcome them into his presence: so they all bowed respectfully and sat down in a wide circle around the Sheikh.
As Abu Sa'id slowly passed his gaze around the circle he saw the despair and anguish that was written upon each of their sour faces. So the great Sheikh began to melt into himself like a candle, thinking to himself: "Look at these miserable men. The despair in each of their minds over a trifling unpaid debt is choking them. Even breathing is painful for them! Do they think that God is so poor that he doesn't have the four hundred dinars they are collectively owed?"
Just then a young boy passed the opening of the tent, shouting: "Halva! Delicious halva! The best halva in Nishapur!"
Abu Sa'id nodded to Hasan, who rose from his seat and called the boy into the tent. The boy entered, removed the metal tray from his head, and uncovered it to reveal a large lump of halva with some smaller pieces around its sides. Abu Sa'id nodded again to Hasan, as he thought to himself: "Let these sour-faced money-lovers eat something sweet. Then perhaps they will not look with such bitterness towards me."
"How much for the whole tray?" Hasan asked the boy.
"Half a dinar for the big lump and some dirhams for the small pieces." Replied the boy.
"Don't ask too much from poor Sufis," said Hasan. "Half a dinar is enough for the whole tray."
Hasan seized the tray and presented it to his master, who broke the halva into pieces and passed it around the circle. Each of the creditors solemnly ate the halva, but it appeared to do little towards sweetening their sourness. The boy retrieved his empty tray and said to Abu Sa'id, "Now great Sheikh, give me my half a dinar."
"From where can I get the money?" Answered Abu Sa'id. "All these men sitting in this circle will tell you how much I owe them. It seems that I am in debt to everyone in existence, while I myself am beginning to pass into non-existence."
The boy threw his metal tray on the floor in a mixture of anger and grief, raising his voice in pathetic lamentation as he demanded his fee.
"Have patience," said the Sheikh, "Your payment will come."
"I wish I had broken my legs before I came this way today," cried the boy. "I wish I had remained near the bath-furnace this morning and had not passed near this tent. You hypocritical Sufis! You wear the garb of beggars, but have the tongues of gourmets! Even for the taste of one morsel of my sweet halva you would lick the spittle off another person's plate! You are dogs at heart, even though you wash your faces and whiskers like cats!"
"Have patience, " said the Sheikh, "Your payment will come."
At the sound of the boy's shouting and lamentations a large crowd of the Sheikh's disciples and the servants of the creditors began to gather around the portal of the tent. Prompted by this audience the boy began to accentuate his dramatic performance in front of Abu Sa'id, crying: "You are a cruel Sheikh! You must know that my master will kill me if I return empty handed. I know his temper. He will beat me mercilessly. Will you allow this to happen to me? Where is your compassion and sense of justice?"
"Have patience," said the Sheikh, "Your payment will come."
At this point the creditors joined in and turned upon the Sheikh saying: "What kind of a game are you playing? You have already devoured our property, and now you have chosen to add yet another debt to your list before you die. You will carry these iniquities with you into the next world. For what reason did you add this new debt to your pile? Can't you see that you have only succeeded in making yet another person miserable?"
Abu Sa'id drew the folds of his robe over his head and disappeared into himself. He was pleased with himself. He was pleased that his death was approaching. He was full of joy and unconcerned about the plans and schemes of this world. He was immune to the derision and sourness that his creditors were projecting towards him. Like the full moon circling through the heavens he was unperturbed by the barking of the dogs on the street below. He knew well that when one dog begins to bark, then a hundred others take up the refrain, but none of this commotion can ever disturb the moon. He dissolved into the silence of himself, like the closing petals of a lotus in the evening twilight.
The Sheikh knew that the creditors could painlessly throw a few dirhams each onto the boy's tray and put him out of his misery. But the power of the Sheikh's will prevented them from thinking so graciously. Their sourness hung upon the air like a poisonous mist.
For several hours the boy persisted in his dramatic and exaggerated lamentations of grief, until suddenly he began to feel real despair well up in his heart, which poured from his eyes in stream of bitter tears. It was the time of evening prayer, and the boy was sobbing uncontrollably.
At this precise moment the servant of another wealthy patron entered the tent bearing a covered tray, which he presented before Abu Sa'id. The Sheikh removed the cloth cover to reveal a pile of four hundred dinars, and in the corner of the tray was another half-dinar wrapped in a piece of paper.
The creditors gasped as they realised the full implication of this miraculous event. The four hundred dinars was the exact amount that the Sheikh collectively owed them, and the separate half-dinar wrapped in paper was the exact price of the boy's halva.
In great repentance they cried: "O great spiritual king of Sheikhs, what kind of mystery is this? What great secret have you revealed? Forgive us. For we spoke out of derangement, like deaf people answering a wise counsellor. We blindly brandished sticks against you, like louts that break lanterns. Please forgive us!"
"I forgive all your words, commotion and sourness. It is lawful for you, and I do not hold you responsible," replied Abu Sa'id. "The secret of this miracle is only that I sought God's counsel, and he showed me the right way. God said unto me: "Though a half-dinar is very little, yet my payment of it is dependent upon the boy's tears. Until the halva-selling boy cries real tears, the ocean of my mercy will not be unleashed."
"O creditors, this boy is like the pupil of your eye. You should know that the granting of your desire is dependant upon the tears of your longing and distress. If you really desire to wear the robe of spiritual honour, then you must let your eyes weep with the longing for it."