Dho ‘l-Nun al-Mesri
Abu ‘l-Faiz Thauban ibn Ebrahim al-Mesri, called Dho ‘l-Nun, was born at Ekhmim in Upper Egypt c. 180 (796), studied under various teachers and travelled extensively in Arabia and Syria. In 214 (829) he was arrested on a charge of heresy and sent to Baghdad to prison, but after examination he was released on the caliph’s orders to return to Cairo, where he died in 246 (861); his tombstone has been preserved. A leg-endary figure as alchemist and thaumaturge, he is supposed to have known the secret of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. A number of poems and short treatises are attributed to him, but these are for the most part apocryphal. Dho ‘I-Nun the Egyptian and how he was converted, Dho ‘l-Nun the Egyptian told the following story of his conversion.
I was informed that in a certain place an ascetic was living. I set forth to visit him, and found him suspending himself from a tree.
“O body,” he was saying, “assist me to obey God, else I will keep you hanging like this until you die of hunger.”
A fit of weeping overcame me. The devotee heard me crying. “Who is this,” he called, “who has compassion upon one whose shame is little and whose crimes are many?”
I approached him and gave him greeting. “What is this state of affairs?” I asked.
“This body of mine gives me no peace to obey God,” he replied. “It wants to mingle with other men.” I supposed that he must have shed a Muslim’s blood,
or committed some other deadly sin. “Did you not realize,” the ascetic said to me, “that once you mingle with other men, everything else follows?”
“What a tremendous ascetic you are!” I cried. “Would you like to see someone more ascetic than I?” he said “I would,” I said. “Go into yonder mountain,” he said. “There you will see.’ I proceeded thither, and saw a young man squatting
in a hermitage; one foot had been amputated and flung out of the cell, and the worms were devouring it. I approached him and saluted him, then I enquired after his circumstances.
“One day,” he told me, “I was seated in this hermitage when a woman happened to pass by. My heart inclined towards her and my body demanded of me to
102 dho ’l-nun al-mesri go after her. I put one foot out of the cell, then I heard
a voice saying, “Are you not ashamed, after serving and obeying God for thirty years, an now you obey Satan and chase a loose woman?” So I cut off the foot
that I had set outside the hermitage, and now I sit here waiting for what will transpire and what they will do with me. What business has brought you to such sin-ners? If you desire to see a man of God, proceed to the top of this mountain.” The mountain was too high for me to reach the top, so I enquired about this man. “Yes,” I was told. “It is a long time now that a man has been serving God in that cell. One day a man came along and disputed with him, saying that daily bread was meant for earning. The devotee vowed that he would eat nothing that involved the acquisition of material possessions. For many days he ate nothing. Then Almighty God sent a cloud of bees to hover
around him and give him honey.” The things I had seen and the words I had heard caused a mighty pain to clutch my heart. I realized that whoever puts his trust in God, God cares for him and suffers not his anguish to be in vain. As I went on my way, I saw a blind little bird perched in a tree. It flut-tered down from the tree. “Where will this helpless creature get food and water?” I cried.
The bird dug the earth with its beak and two saucers appeared, one of gold containing grain and the other of silver full of rosewater. The bird ate its fill, then it flew up into the tree and the saucers vanished.
Utterly dumbfounded, Dho ‘l-Nun thenceforward put his trust in God completely, and was truly convert-ed. He pushed on several stages, and when night fell he came to a desert. In that desert he sighted a jar of gold and jewels, and on the top of the jar a tablet on which was written the name of God. His companions divided the gold and the jewels between them.
“Give me the tablet on which is written the name of my Friend,” Dho ‘l-Nun cried. And he took the tablet. He kissed the tablet all through the day and night, till by the blessing of the tablet he so progressed that one night he dreamed a
voice said to him, “All the rest chose the gold and jew-els, for they are precious. You chose what was loftier than that, my Name. Therefore I have opened to you the door of knowledge and wisdom.”
Dho ‘l-Nun then returned to the city. His story continues. I was walking one day when I reached the margin of a river. By the water I saw a pavilion. I proceeded
to make my ablutions, and when I had finished my eye suddenly fell on the roof of the pavilion. On the balcony I saw a very beautiful girl standing. Wanting dho ’l-nun al-mesri to prove her, I said, “Maiden, to whom do you
“Dho ‘l-Nun,” replied she, “when you appeared from afar I supposed you were a madman. When you came nearer, I supposed you were a scholar. When you
came still nearer, I supposed you were a mystic. Now I see you are neither mad, nor a scholar, nor a mystic.”
“Why do you say that?” I demanded. “If you had been a mad man,” she replied, “you would not have made your ablutions. If you had been a scholar, you would not have gazed at that which is prohibited you. If you had been a mystic, your eye would have fallen upon naught but God. “
So saying, she vanished. I then realized that she was not a mortal creature, but had been sent as a warning. A fire invaded my soul, and I flung myself in the direction of the sea. When I reached the seashore, I saw a company of men embarked in a ship. I also embarked in that ship. After some days had passed, by chance a jewel belong-ing to a merchant was lost on board. One by one the passengers were taken and searched. Finally they reached the unanimous con-clusion that the jewel was on me. They set about belabouring me and treated me with great disrespect, whilst I remained silent. At last I could endure no more.
“O Creator, Thou knowest,” I cried. Thousands of fishes thereupon put their heads out of the water, each with a jewel in its mouth. Dho ‘l-Nun took one of the jewels and gave it to the merchant. All on board when they saw this fell at his feet and begged his pardon. So highly was he consid-ered in the eyes of men. That was why he was called Dho ‘l-Nun (“The Man of the Fish”). Dho ‘I-Nun is arrested and taken to Baghdad When Dho ‘l-Nun had already attained a high degree, no one recognized his true greatness. The people of Egypt denounced him unanimously as a heretic, and informed the caliph Motawakkel of his activities. Motawakkel sent officers to convey him to Baghdad in fetters. When he entered the caliph’s court he declared, “This very hour I have learned true Islam from an old woman, and true chivalry from a water-carrier.”
“How is that?” he was asked. “When I reached the caliph’s palace,” he replied,
“and beheld that court in all its magnificence, with the chamberlains and attendants thronging its passages, I wished that some change might take place in my appearance. A woman with a stick in her hand came up and, looking straight at me, addressed me. “‘Do not be afraid of the body before whom they are taking you, for he and you are both servants of one Almighty Lord. Unless God wills it, they can do nothing to His servant.’
“Then on the road I saw a water-carrier. He gave me a draught of pure water. I made a sign to one who was with me to give the man a dinar. He refused to take it.
“‘You are a prisoner and in bonds,’ he said. ‘It would not be true chivalry to take anything from such a pris-oner, a stranger in bonds.’ “ After that it was ordered that he should be put in prison. Forty days and nights he remained in gaol, and every day the sister of Beshr the Barefoot brought him a loaf, the earnings of her spindle. The day when he came out of prison, the forty loaves remained intact, not one having been eaten. When Beshr’s sister heard of this, she became very sad.
“You know that those loaves were lawful food and unsolicited. Why did you not eat them?” she protested. “Because the plate was not clean,” Dho ‘l-Nun replied, meaning that it had been handled by the gaoler.
As Dho ‘l-Nun came out of the prison he stumbled and cut his forehead. It is related that much blood flowed, but not one drop fell on his face, his hair or his
clothes, and all the blood that fell on the ground van-ished at once, by the command of Almighty God. Then they brought him before the caliph, and he was ordered to answer the charges preferred against him.
He explained his doctrine in such a manner that Motawakkel burst into tears, and all his ministers stood in wonder at his eloquence. So the caliph became
his disciple, and accorded him high honour.
Dho ‘I-Nan and the pious disciple
There was a disciple of Dho ‘l-Nun who had forty times observed the forty days’ seclusion, forty times he had stood at Arafat, and for forty years he had kept
vigil by night. Forty long years he had sat sentinel over the chamber of his heart. One day he came to Dho ‘l-Nun. ‘`I have done all this,” he said. “For all that I have suffered, the Friend speaks not one word to me nor favours me with a single glance. He takes no account of me, and reveals nothing to me from the unseen world. All this I say not in order to praise myself. I am simply stating the facts. I have performed all that was in the power of me, poor wretch, to do. I make no complaint against God. I simply state the facts, that I devote my whole heart and soul to His service. But I am telling the story of the sadness of my evil luck, the tale of my misfortune. I do not say this because my heart has grown weary of obedience. Only I fear that if further life remains ahead of me, it will be the same. For a whole lifetime I have knocked in hope, but I have heard no response. Now it is grown hard for me to endure this any longer. Since you are the physician of the afflicted and the sovereign prescriber of the sages, minister now to my wretchedness.”
“Go and eat your fill tonight,” advised Dho ‘l-Nun. “Omit the prayer before sleep, and slumber the whole night through. So it may be that if the Friend will not show Himself kindly, He will at least show Himself reproachful; if He will not look on you with compas-sion, He will look on you with sternness.”
The dervish departed and ate his fill. His heart would not permit him to forgo the prayer before sleep, and so he prayed the prayer and fell asleep. That night
he saw the Prophet in a dream. “Your Friend greets you,” the Prophet said. “He
says, ‘An effeminate wretch and no true man is he who comes to My court and is quickly sated. The root of the matter is uprightness of life, and no reproaches. God Almighty declares, I have given your heart its desire of forty years, and I grant you to attain all that you hope for, and fulfill all your desire. But convey My greetings to that bandit and pretender Dho ‘I-Nun. Say then to him, Pretender and liar, if I do not expose your shame before all the city, then I am not your Lord. See that you no more beguile the hapless lovers of My court and
scare them not away from My court.’ “ The disciple awoke, and was overcome by weeping. He went and told Dho ‘l-Nun what he had seen and heard. When Dho ‘l-Nun heard the words, “God sends you greeting and declares you a pretender and a liar”, he rolled over and over with joy and wept ecstatically.
Anecdotes of Dho ‘l-Nan
Dho ‘l-Nun relates as follows.
I was wandering in the mountains when I observed a party of afflicted folk gathered together. “What befell you?” I asked. “There is a devotee living in a cell here,” they answered. “Once every year he comes out and breathes on these people and they are all healed. Then he returns to his cell, and does not emerge again until the following year.” I waited patiently until he came out. I beheld a man pale of cheek, wasted and with sunken eyes. The awe of him caused me to tremble. He looked on the multi-tude with compassion. Then he raised his eyes to heav-en, and breathed several times over the afflicted ones.
All were healed. As he was about to retire to his cell, I seized his skirt. “For the love of God,” I cried. “You have healed the outward sickness; pray heal the inward sickness.”
“Dho ‘l-Nun,” he said, gazing at me, “take your hand from me. The Friend is watching from the zenith of might and majesty. If He sees you clutching at another than He, He will abandon you to that person, and that person to you, and you will perish each at the other’s hand.”
So saying, he withdrew into his cell. One day Dho ‘l-Nun’s companions came to him and found him weeping. “Why are you weeping?” they asked. “Last night when I was prostrating in prayer,” he replied, “my eyes closed in sleep. I saw the Lord, and He said to me, ‘O Abu ‘l-Faiz, I created all creatures and they separated into ten parts. I offered the material world to them; nine of those ten parts turned their faces to the material world. One part remained over. That one part divided also into ten parts. I offered Paradise to them; nine parts turned their faces to Paradise. One part remained over. That one part split
likewise into ten parts. I brought Hell before them; all fled and were scattered for fear of Hell. Only one part remained over, those who had not been lured by the material world, nor inclined after Paradise, neither were afraid of Hell. I said to them, “My servants, you looked not upon the material world, you inclined not after Paradise, you were not afraid of Hell. What do you seek?” All raised their heads and cried, “Thou knowest best what we desire.”
(Tazkiratul Auliya by Baba Farid ud deen attar (rehmatullah aleh)