Sufi Biography: Ebrahim
Abu Eshaq Ebrahim ibn Adham, born in Balkh of pure Arab descent, is
described in Sufi legend as a prince who renounced his kingdom (somewhat
after the fashion of the Buddha) and wandered westwards to live a life of
complete asceticism, earning his bread in Syria by honest manual toil until
his death in c. 165 (782). Some accounts state that he was killed on a naval
expedition against Byzantium. The story of his conversion is a classic of
The legend of Ebrahim ibn Adham
Ebrahim ibn Adham’s saintly career began in the following manner. He was
king of Balkh, and a whole
world was under his command; forty gold swords and forty gold maces were
carried before and behind him.
One night he was asleep on his royal couch. At midnight the roof of the
apartment vibrated, as if someone was walking on the roof.
“Who is there?” he shouted.
“A friend,” came the reply. “I have lost a camel, and am searching for it on
“Fool, do you look for the camel on the roof?” cried Ebrahim.
“Heedless one,” answered the voice, “do you seek for God in silken clothes,
asleep on a golden couch?”
These words filled his heart with terror. A fire blazed within him, and he
could not sleep any more.
When day came he returned to the dais and sat on his throne, thoughtful,
bewildered and full of care. The ministers of state stood each in his place;
his slaves were drawn up in serried ranks. General audience was proclaimed.
Suddenly a man with aweful mien entered the chamber, so terrible to look
upon that none of the royal retinue and servants dared ask him his name; the
tongues of all clove to their throats. He advanced solemnly till he stood
before the throne.
“What do you want?” demanded Ebrahim.
“I have just alighted at this caravanserai,” said the man.
“This is not a caravanserai. This is my palace. You are mad,” shouted
“Who owned this palace before you?” asked the man.
“My father,” Ebrahim replied.
“And before him?”
“And before him?”
“And before him?”
“The father of So-and-so.”
“Where have they all departed?” asked the man.
“They have gone. They are dead,” Ebrahim replied.
“Then is this not a caravanserai which one man enters and another
With these words the stranger vanished. He was Khezr, upon whom be peace.
The fire blazed more
fiercely still in Ebrahim’s soul, and the anguish within him increased.
Visions by day followed the hearing of voices by night, equally mysterious
“Saddle my horse,” Ebrahim cried at last. “I will go to the hunt. I know not
what this thing is that has come upon me today. Lord God, how will this
His horse was saddled and he proceeded to the chase. Headlong he galloped
across the desert; it was as if he knew not what he was doing. In that state
of bewilderment he became separated from his troops. On the way he suddenly
heard a voice. “Awake!”
He pretended not to have heard, and rode on. A second time the voice came,
but he heeded it not. A third time he heard the same, and hurled himself
farther away. Then the voice sounded a fourth time.
“Awake, before you are stricken awake!”
He now lost all self-control. At that instant a deer started up, and Ebrahim
prepared to give chase.
The deer spoke to him. “I have been sent to hunt you. You cannot catch me.
Was it for this that you were created, or is this what you were commanded?”
“Ah, what is this that has come upon me?” Ebrahim cried.
And he turned his face from the deer. He thereupon heard the same words
issuing from the pommel of his saddle. Terror and fear possessed him. The
revelation became clearer yet, for Almighty God willed to complete the
transaction. A third time the selfsame voice proceeded from the collar of
his cloak. The revelation was thus complete, and the heavens were opened
unto him. Sure faith was now established in him. He dismounted; all his
garments, and the horse itself, were dripping with his tears. He made true
and sincere repentance. Turning aside from the road, he saw a shepherd
wearing felt clothes and a hat of felt, driving his sheep before him.
Looking closely, he saw that he was a slave of his. He bestowed on him his
gold embroidered cloak and bejewelled cap, together with
the sheep, and took from him his clothes and hat of felt. These he donned
himself. All the angelic hosts stood gazing on Ebrahim.
“What a kingdom has come to the son of Adham,” he cried. “He has cast away
the filthy garments of the world, and has donned the glorious robes of
Even so he proceeded on foot to wander over mountains and endless deserts,
lamenting over his sins, until he came to Merv. There he saw a man who had
fallen from the bridge and was about to perish, swept away by the river.
Ebrahim shouted from afar. “O God, preserve him!” The man remained suspended
in the air until helpers arrived and drew him up. They were astonished at
Ebrahim.“What man is this?” they cried.
Ebrahim departed from that place, and marched on to Nishapur. There he
searched for a desolate corner where he might busy himself with obedience to
God. In the end he hit upon the famous cave where he dwelt for nine years,
three years in each apartment. Who knows what occupied him there through the
nights and days?
For it needed a mighty man of uncommon substance to be able to be there
alone by night.
Every Thursday he would climb above the cavern and collect a bundle of
firewood. Next morning he
would set out, for Nishapur and there sell the brushwood. Having performed
the Friday prayers, he would buy bread with the money he had gained, give
half to a beggar and use half himself to break his fast. So he did every
One winter’s night he was in that apartment. It was extremely cold, and he
had to break the ice to wash. All night he shivered, praying through till
dawn. By dawn he was in danger of perishing from the cold. By chance the
thought ` of a fire entered his mind. He saw a fur on the ground. Wrapping
himself up in the fur, he fell asleep. When he awoke it was -broad daylight,
and he had become warm. He looked, and saw that the fur was a dragon, its
eyes saucers of blood. A mighty terror
came upon him. “Lord God,” he cried, “You send this thing unto me in a shape
of gentleness. Now I see it in a dreadful form. I cannot endure it.”
Immediately the dragon moved away, twice or thrice rubbed its face in the
ground before him, and vanished.