Sufi Biography: Abu Othman al-Hiri

Sufi Biography: Abu Othman al-Hiri

Abu ‘Othman Sa’id ibn Esma’il al-Hiri al-Nisaburi came originally from Rayy, where he knew Yahya ibn Mo’adh al-Razi and Shah ibn Shoja’ al-Kermani. He moved to Nishapur where he came under the influence of Abu Hafs al- Haddad. He visited al-Jonaid in Baghdad, and died at Nishapur in 298 (911).

The education of Abu Othman-e Hiri

“My heart even in the days of my childhood was always seeking after something of reality,” said Abu
Othman-e Hiri. “I had an aversion for the followers of formal religion, and I was always convinced that something
else existed apart from what the general mass of the people believed in, that the Islamic way of life held
mysteries other than its external manifestations.”


 One day Abu Othman was going to school accompanied by four slaves, an Ethiop, a Greek, a Kashmiri,
and a Turk. In his hand he carried a golden pen-case; he wore on his head a muslin turban, on his back a silk
robe. Passing on his way an ancient caravanserai, he peeped in and saw there an ass with sores on its back,
a raven was pecking at its wounds, and the beast had not the strength to drive it away. Abu Othman was
filled with compassion.

“Why are you with me?” he addressed one of the slaves.
“To assist you in every thought that passes through your mind,” the slave replied.

Immediately Abu Othman took off his silken dress and covered the donkey with it, bandaging the beast
with his muslin turban. With mute eloquence the ass at once communed with God Almighty. Before ever he
reached home, Abu Othman was visited by a spiritual experience such as true men of God know.

Like one distraught, he found his way to the assembly of Yahya-e Mo’adh; his preaching opened a door in
his heart. Breaking away from his mother and father, Abu Othman served Yahya for a while, learning the
Sufi discipline. This continued until a party arrived from Shah-e Shoja’-e Kermani and told stories of that
holy man. A great eagerness to see Shah-e Shoja’ invaded Abu Othman. Having obtained permission from his
spiritual preceptor he proceeded to Kerman, to wait on the saint. Shah-e Shoja’ declined to receive him.
“You have become habituated to hope,” he told him.
“Yahya’s station is hope. Spiritual advancement cannot be looked for in one brought up on hope. Blind attachment
to hope generates idleness. With Yahya, hope is a real experience; with you it is blind imitation.”
Abu Othman entreated the saint with great humility, haunting his threshold for twenty days, till at last he
was admitted. He remained in his society and derived much benefit from his instruction until the time came
when Shah-e Shoja’ set out for Nishapur to visit Abu Hafs. Abu Othman accompanied him, the saint wearing
a short tunic. Abu Hafs came out to receive Shah-e Shoja’ and showered praises upon him.
Abu Othman’s whole desire was to join the company of Abu Hafs, but his reverence for Shah-e Shoja’
prevented him from broaching the matter, for Shah-e Shoja’ was a jealous teacher. Abu Othman begged God
to provide some means whereby he might remain with Abu Hafs without annoying Shah-e Shoja’; for he perceived
that Abu Hafs was a man of great spiritual advancement. When Shah-e Shoja’ determined that it was time to
return to Kerman, Abu Othman busied himself with making ready provisions for the road. Then one day
Abu Hafs said to Shah-e Shoja’ very affably, “Leave this young man here. I am delighted with him.”
“Obey the shaikh,” said Shah-e Shoja’, turning to Abu Othman. With that Shah-e Shoja’ departed, and
Abu Othman remained, and saw what he saw. “I was still a young man,” Abu Othman recalled,
“when Abu Hafs dismissed me from his service. ‘I do not wish you to come near me any more,’ he told me. I
said nothing, and my heart would not suffer me to turn my back on him. So I withdrew facing him as I was,
weeping all the while, till I vanished from his sight. I made a place opposite him and cut out a hole through
which I watched him. I firmly resolved never to leave that spot unless the shaikh ordered me. When the
shaikh noticed me there and observed my sorry state, he called me out and promoted me to his favour, marrying
his daughter to me.”

Anecdotes of Abu Othman
“For forty years,” said Abu Othman, “whatever state God has kept me in I have not resented, and to whatever
state He has transferred me I have not been angry.”

The following story bears out this assertion. A man who disbelieved in Abu Othman sent him an invitation.
Abu Othman accepted, and got as far as the door of his house. The man then shouted at him.
“Glutton, there is nothing here for you. Go home!” Abu Othman went home. He had gone only a little
way when the man called out to him.
“Shaikh, come here!”
Abu Othman returned.
“You are very eager to eat,” the man taunted him.
“There is still less. Be off with you!”
The shaikh departed. The man summoned him again, and he went back.

“Eat stones, or go home!”
Abu Othman went off once more. Thirty times the man summoned him and drove him away. Thirty times
the shaikh came and went, without showing the least discomposure. Then the man fell at his feet and with
tears repented, becoming his disciple. “What a man you are!” he exclaimed. “Thirty times
I drove you off with contumely, and you showed not the slightest discomposure.”
“This is an easy matter,” Abu Othman replied.
“Dogs do the same. When you drive them away they go, and when you call them they come, without showing
any discomposure. A thing in which dogs equal us cannot really be accounted anything. Men’s work is
something quite other.”

One day Abu Othman was walking along the street when someone emptied a tray of ashes on his head
from the roof. His companions, infuriated, were about to abuse the offender, but Abu Othman stopped them.
“One should give thanks a thousandfold,” he said, “that one who merited fire was let off with ashes!”
A dissolute young fellow was strolling along with a lute in his hand, completely drunk. Suddenly catching
sight of Abu Othman, he tucked his curls under his cap and drew the lute into his sleeve, thinking that he
would denounce him to the authorities. Abu Othman approached him in the kindliest manner.
“Do not be afraid. Brothers are all one,” he said. When the young man saw that, he repented and
became a disciple of the shaikh. Abu Othman instructed him to be washed, invested him, and then raised his
head to heaven. “O God,” he cried, “I have done my part. The rest Thou must do.” Immediately the youth was visited by such a mystical experience that Abu Othman himself was amazed. At the time of the afternoon prayers, Abu Othman-e Maghrebi arrived. Abu Othman-e Hiri said to him,
“Shaikh, I am consumed with envy. All that I have yearned for in a long life has been poured freely on the
head of this youth, from whose belly the odour of wine still proceeds. So you know that men propose, but God