Sufi Biography: Abu ‘l-Hosain al-Nuri

Sufi Biography: Abu ‘l-Hosain al-Nuri

Abu ‘l-Hosain Ahmad ibn Mohammad al-Nuri, a native of Baghdad of a family from Khorasan, was a pupil of Sari al-Saqati and a faithful companion of al-Jonaid. A leading figure of the Baghdad circle, he composed some fine mystical poetry. He died in 295 (908).

The self-discipline of Abu ‘l-Hosain-e Nuri

Abu ‘l-Hosain, who followed the same rules of conduct as Jonaid, was called Nuri (“the Man of Light”) because whenever he spoke and the night was dark, a  light would issue from his mouth so that the whole house became bright. Another explanation of his nickname is that he declared inmost secrets by the light of intuition. Yet a third version is that he had a retreat in the desert where he used to worship all the night through.


 People would go out to watch, and would see
a light mounting from his cell and gleaming through the night. When he first embarked on his mystical career, every
morning early he would set out from his house for the shop, and pick up a few loaves. These he would distribute
as alms, afterwards proceeding to mosque where he worshipped till the noon prayers, only then
going on to his shop. His household imagined that he had eaten something in the shop, whilst the people in
the shop supposed that he had eaten at home.

He continued this practice for twenty years without anyone
being aware of the true facts of his case. Nuri gave the following account of himself.
For years I struggled, restraining myself in prison and turning my back on other men. Despite all my austerities,
the way did not become open to me. “I must do something to mend my affairs,” I said to
myself. “Otherwise let me die and escape from this carnal soul.”
“Body,” I then said, “for many years you have followed your own lust and desire, eating and seeing and
hearing, going and taking, sleeping and enjoying yourself and gratifying your passion. All this has been most
harmful to you. Now enter the chamber, that I may fetter you and put as a collar round your neck all your
dues to God. If you remain steadfast so, you will attain felicity; if not, at least you will die on the path of God!”
So I acted on the path of God. Now I had heard that the hearts of the mystics were delicate organs, knowing
the secret of whatever they saw and heard. Not finding this in myself, I said, “The pronouncements of the
prophets and the saints are true. Perhaps I have played the hypocrite in my striving, and the defect is due to
myself. Here there is no room for difference of opinion. Now,” I went on, “I will go around myself and see
what it is.”

I gazed into myself, and the fault was this, that my carnal soul and my heart were united. When the carnal
soul is one with the heart, that is disastrous; for whatever shines upon the heart, the carnal soul seizes its
portion of it. So I realized that this was the cause of my dilemma; all that entered my heart from the Court of
God, my carnal soul seized its part of it. Thenceforward, whatever gratified my carnal soul,
that I went not about, but clutched something other. For instance, if prayer or fasting or almsgiving was
agreeable to my carnal soul, or solitude or associating with my fellows, I proceeded to do the contrary, till I
had cast out all those things and all gratification had been cut away. Then mystic secrets began to manifest
in me.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“I am the pearl of the mine of undesire,” came the answer. “Now tell the disciples, My mine is the mine of
undesire, and my pearl is the pearl of the mine of unpurpose.”
Then I walked down to the Tigris and stood between two skiffs.
“I will not go,” I said, “until a fish falls into my net.”
At last a fish fell into my net. When I drew it up I
cried, “Praise be to God that my affairs have turned
out well!”
I went to Jonaid and told him, “A grace has been vouchsafed to me!”
“Abu ‘l-Hosain,” Jonaid replied, “if it had been a snake and not a fish that fell into your net, that would
truly have been a sign of grace. But since you yourself intervened, it is a deception, not a grace. For the mark
of a grace is that you cease to be there at all.”

Nuri before the caliph

When Gholam Khalil declared hostilities against the Sufis, he went to the caliph and denounced them.
“A group have appeared on the scene,” he announced, “who sing songs and dance and utter blasphemies.
They parade about all day, and hide themselves in catacombs, and preach. These men are
heretics. If the Prince of the Believers will issue the command for them to be slain, the doctrine of heresy
will be exterminated, for they are the chief of the heretics. If this thing is done by the hand of the Prince
of the Believers, I guarantee him an ample reward.”
The caliph immediately ordered that they—Abu Hamza, Raqqam, Shebli, Nuri, and Jonaid—should be
brought before him. This done, he commanded them to be slain. The executioner first made to slay Raqqam;
Nuri sprang up and thrust himself forward fearlessly and took Raqqam’s place.
“First kill me, laughing for joy,” he cried.

“Sir, this is not your time yet,” the executioner said to him. “The sword is not a thing wielded in haste.”
“My way is based upon preference,” Nuri explained. “I prefer my comrades above myself. The most precious
thing in this world is life. I wish to devote these few remaining moments to serving my brethren, that I
may have sacrificed life itself. This I do, albeit to my view one moment in this world is dearer than a thousand
years in the next. For this world is an abode of service, and the other world is an abode of propinquity;
and propinquity for me is in service.”
They reported these words of Nuri’s to the caliph, who marvelled at his sincerity and equitableness. He
ordered the execution to be stayed and referred their case to the cadi to examine.
“They cannot be proscribed without proof,” said the cadi. Now he knew that Jonaid was supreme in many
sciences and had heard Nuri speak. So he said, referring to Shebli, “I will question this madman on a point
of law which he will never be able to answer.” “How much is to be paid in poor-tax on twenty
dinars?” he asked.
“Twenty and a half dinars,” Shebli replied.
“Whoever instituted that kind of poor-tax?”
demanded the cadi.
“Abu Bakr the Great,” Shebli answered. “He gave forty thousand dinars and kept nothing back.”
Yes, but what is this half-dinar you spoke about?”
“That is a fine,” replied Shebli. “The man kept the twenty dinars to himself, so he must pay half a dinar in addition.”
The cadi then questioned Nuri on a point of law.

Nuri replied instantly, and the cadi was reduced to confusion. Nuri then spoke.
“Cadi, you have asked all these questions, and you have asked nothing at all relevant. For God has servants
who stand through Him, and move and rest through Him, who live all through Him and abide in
contemplation of Him. If for a single instant they held back from contemplating Him, their souls would go
out of them. Through Him they sleep, through Him they eat, through Him they take, through Him they go,
through Him they see, through Him they hear and through Him they are. This is the true science, not that
on which you put questions.”
Bewildered, the cadi sent a message to the caliph. “If these men are atheists and heretics, than I give
judgment that on the whole face of the earth not one unitarian exists.”
The caliph summoned the prisoners.
“Is there anything you want?” he asked them. “Yes,” they replied. “We want you to forget us. We
want you neither to honour us with your approval nor to banish us with your rejection. For us your rejection
is the same as your approval, your approval as your rejection.”
The caliph wept bitterly and dismissed them with all honour.

Anecdotes of Nuri

One day Nuri saw a man twirling his moustaches while at prayer.
“Take your hand away from the moustaches of God,” he cried.
These words were reported to the caliph. The lawyers declared unanimously that by uttering them
Nuri had lapsed into infidelity. He was haled before the caliph.
“Did you speak those words?” the caliph demanded.
“Yes,” Nuri replied.
“Why did you say them?” asked the caliph.
“To whom does the servant of God belong?” countered Nuri.
“To God,” answered the caliph.
“And to whom did the moustaches belong?” Nuri pursued.
“To Him to whom the servant belonged,” concluded the caliph. “Praise be to God, who preserved me from
slaying him,” he afterwards added.
“I saw a light gleaming in the Unseen,” said Nuri. “I gazed at it continually, until the time came when I had
wholly become that light.”
One day Jonaid went to visit Nuri. Nuri fell to the ground before Jonaid complaining of injustice.
“My battle has waxed fierce, and I have no more strength to fight,” he said. “For thirty years, whenever
He has appeared I have vanished, and whenever I appear He is absent. His presence is in my absence. For
all that I supplicate Him, His answer is ‘Either I am to be, or you.’ “
“Look upon a man,” said Jonaid to his companions, “who has been sorely tried and bewildered by God.
Such must be the state of affairs,” he added, turning to Nuri, “that whether He is veiled by you or revealed
through you, you shall no more be you, and all shall be He.”

A party of men went to Jonaid and said, “For a number of days and nights now Nuri has been going
around with a brick in his hand, saying ‘God, God.’ He eats nothing and drinks nothing and does not sleep. Yet
he performs the prayers at the proper times and observes all the ritual of the prayers.”
“He is sober. He is not in a state of having passed away,” Jonaid’s companions said. “That is proved by
the fact that he observes the times of prayer and knows to perform the ritual. That is a mark of conscious
effort, not of passing away. One who has passed away is aware of nothing.”
“That is not the case,” replied Jonaid. “What you say is not true. Men in ecstasy are ‘preserved’; God
watches over them, lest they be excluded from service at the time of service.”
Jonaid then went to call on Nuri.

“Abu ‘l-Hosain,” he addressed him, “if you know that shouting is of profit with Him, tell me and I will
also shout. If you know that satisfaction with Him is better, then practise resignation, that your heart may be
at rest.’ Nuri ceased his shouting forthwith.

“What an excellent teacher you are for us!” he exclaimed.
Shebli was preaching, and Nuri entered the hall and stood on one side.
“Peace be upon you, Abu Bakr,” he called out. “And upon you be peace, Prince of the Hearts,”
Shebli replied. “Almighty God,” Nuri went on, “would not be well
pleased with a man of learning imparting his learning when he does not put it into practice. If you practice
what you preach, keep your high station. If not, then come down!”

Shebli considered, and finding himself not true to his preaching he came down. For four months he kept to
his house and did not venture out. Then a crowd of men came and brought him out and put him in the pulpit.
Nuri heard of this and came to the hall. “Abu Bakr,” he cried, “you concealed the truth from
them, so of course they set you in the pulpit. I counselled them sincerely, and they drove me away with
stones and flung me on the dunghill.” “Prince of the Hearts, what was your good counselling,
and what was my concealing?” asked Shebli.
“My good counselling,” Nuri replied, “was that I let men go to their God. Your concealing was that you
became a veil between God and men. Who are you, to be an intermediary between God and men? In my view,
you are irrelevant.”
Nuri and another were seated together, both weeping bitterly. When the other departed, Nuri turned to his
companions. “Did you know who that was?” he asked them.
“No,” they replied. “That was Iblis,” he told them. “He was relating the
services he had performed and was telling the tale of his life, bewailing the agony of separation. As you saw,
he was weeping. I too was weeping.”

Ja’far-e Kholdi relates the following. Nuri was praying in seclusion, and I was listening to
what he would say. “Lord God,” he said, “Thou punishest the denizens of Hell. They are all Thy creation, by virtue of Thy
omniscience and omnipotence and pre-eternal will. If Thou wilt assuredly fill Hell with men, Thou hast the
power to fill Hell with men and to transport them to Paradise.”

I was amazed at his words. Then I saw in a dream one who came to me and said, “God has said, Tell Abu
‘l-Hosain, I have honoured and had compassion on thee for that prayer.”
“One night,” Nuri recalled, “I found the area about the Kaaba empty and proceeded to circumambulate.
Each time I reached the Black Stone I prayed and said, ‘O God, accord to me a state and an attribute from
which I shall not change.’ One day I heard a voice proceeding from the midst of the Kaaba and saying, ‘Abu
‘l-Hosain, you would make yourself equal to Me. I change not from My attribute, but I keep My servants
turning about and changing. This I do, in order that Lordship may become clear from servanthood. It is I
who continue in one attribute; man’s attribute changes.’”

Shebli reports: I visited Nuri and saw him seated in meditation, not a hair of his body moving.
“From whom did you learn such excellent meditation?” I asked.
“From a cat crouching over a mouse-hole,” he replied. “He was much stiller than I am.”
One night report was brought to the people of Qadesiya.
“A friend of God has confined himself in the Valley of Lions. Go and recover him.”
All the people went out to the Valley of Lions. There they found that Nuri had dug a grave and was sitting
there, surrounded by crouching lions. They interceded with him, and conducted him back to Qadesiya, where
they asked him his story.

“For a while I had eaten nothing,” he told them. “I was traversing this desert when I espied a date-tree. I
had a longing for fresh dates. Then I said, ‘There is still room left for desire. I will go down into this valley, that
the lions may rend you, my appetite, then you will no longer desire dates.’”
“One day,” Nuri recalled, “I was washing myself in a pool when a thief came and stole my clothes. I had
not yet emerged from the water when he brought them back, and his hand had become withered. I cried, ‘O
God, since he has brought back my clothes, give him back his hand!’ At once his hand was healed.”
Fire broke out in the Bazaar of Slavers in Baghdad, and many people were burnt to death. In one shop
were two young Greek slaves, very handsome youths; the flames were lapping round them.
“Anyone who will fetch them out,” cried their owner, “I will give a thousand gold dinars.”
No one dared to attempt the rescue. All at once Nuri arrived on the scene. He saw the two young slaves,
shouting for help. “In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.” So saying, he plunged in and brought
them both to safety. The owner of the slaves offered Nuri the thousand gold dinars.
“Keep your gold,” Nuri told him. “And give thanks to God. For this dignity that has been conferred on me
has been conferred because of not accepting gold, exchanging this world for the next.”
One day a blind man was crying, “God, God!” Nuri went up to him and said, “What do you know of Him?
And if you know, yet you still live?”
So saying, he lost his senses, and was so filled with mystic yearning that he went out into the desert, to
freshly-harvested reedbeds. The reeds pierced his feet and sides, and the blood gushed forth. Every drop that
fell, the words “God, God” appeared.
Abu Nasr-e Sarraj states that when they brought him from that place to his home, they said to him, “Say,
There is no god but God.” “Why, I am on my way There,” he replied. And thereupon he died.