Sufi Biography: Abu Yazid al-Bestami (Bayazid Bistami)

Sufi Biography: Abu Yazid al-Bestami (Bayazid Bistami)

Abu Yazid Taifur ibn ‘Isa ibn Sorushan al-Bestami was born in Bestam in north-eastern Persia, the
grandson of a Zoroastrian; there he died in 261(874) or 264(877), and his mausoleum still
stands. The founder of the ecstatic (“drunken”) school of Sufism, he is famous for the boldness of
his expression of the mystic’s complete absorption into the Godhead. In particular his description
of a journey into Heaven (in imitation of the Prophet Mohammad’s “ascension”), greatly elaborated
by later writers, exercised a powerful influence on the imagination of all who came
after him.

Abu Yazid-e Bestami: birth and early years

The grandfather of Abu Yazid-e Bestami was a Zoroastrian; his father was one of the leading citizens
of Bestam. Abu Yazid’s extraordinary career began from the time he was in his mother’s womb.
“Every time I put a doubtful morsel in my mouth,” his mother would say, “you stirred in my womb and
would not keep still until I had put it out of my mouth.”
This statement is confirmed by words spoken by Abu Yazid himself.


 “What is best for a man on this path?” he was asked. “Congenital felicity,” he replied.
“And if that is missing?” “A strong body.”
“And if that is lacking?”
“An attentive ear.”
“And without that?”
“A knowing heart.”
“And without that?”
“A seeing eye.”
“And without that?”
“Sudden death.”

In due course his mother sent him to school. He learned the Koran, and one day his master was explaining
the meaning of the verse in the Sura of Loqman, Be thankful to Me, and to thy parents. These words
moved the heart of Abu Yazid.
“Sir,” he said, laying down his tablet, “please give me permission to go home and say something to my
mother.” The master gave him leave, and Abu Yazid went home.
“Why, Taifur,” cried his mother, “why have you come home? Did they give you a present, or is it some
special occasion?” “No,” Abu Yazid replied. “I reached the verse where God commands me to serve Him and you. I cannot be
manager in two houses at once. This verse stung me to the quick. Either you ask for me from God, so that I
may be yours entirely, or apprentice me to God, so that I may dwell wholly with Him.”
“My son, I resign you to God, and exempt you from your duty to me,” said his mother. “Go and be God’s.”
“The task I supposed to be the hindmost of all tasks proved to be the foremost,” Abu Yazid later recalled.
“That was to please my mother. In pleasing my mother, I attained all that I sought in my many acts of selfdiscipline
and service. It fell out as follows. One night my mother asked me for water. I went to fetch
her some, but there was none in the jug. I fetched the pitcher, but none was in it either. So I went down
to the river and filled the pitcher with water. When I returned to the house, my mother had fallen

“The night was cold. I kept the jug in my hand. When my mother awoke from sleep she drank some
water and blessed me. Then she noticed that the jug was frozen to my hand. ‘Why did you not lay the jug
aside?’ she exclaimed. ‘I was afraid that you might wake when I was not present,’ I answered. ‘Keep the
door half-open,’ my mother then said. “I watched till near daybreak to make sure if the
door was properly half-open or not, and that I should not have disregarded her command. At the hour of
dawn, that which I had sought so many times entered by the door.”
After his mother resigned him to God, Abu Yazid left Bestam and for thirty years wandered from land to
land, disciplining himself with continuous vigil and hunger. He attended one hundred and thirteen spiritual
preceptors and derived benefit from them all.
Amongst them was one called Sadiq. He was sitting at his feet when the master suddenly said, “Abu Yazid,
fetch me that book from the window.” “The window? Which window?” asked Abu Yazid.
“Why,” said the master, “you have been coming here all this time, and you have not seen the window?”
“No,” replied Abu Yazid. “What have I to do with the; window? When I am before you, I close my eyes
to everything else. I have not come to stare about.” “Since that is so,” said the teacher, “go back to
Bestam. Your work is completed.” It was hinted to Abu Yazid that in a certain place a
great teacher was to be found. He came from afar to see him. As he approached, he saw the reputed teacher
spit in the direction of Mecca. He at once retraced his steps.
“If he had achieved anything at all in the way,” he remarked, “he would never have been guilty of transgressing
the Law.”‘
In this connection it is stated that his house was forty paces from the mosque, and he never spat on the road
out of respect for the mosque. It took Abu Yazid a full twelve years to reach the
Kaaba. This was because at every oratory he passed he would throw down his prayer rug and perform two
rak’as. “This is not the portico of an earthly king,” he
would say, “that one may run thither all at once.” So at last he came to the Kaaba, but that year he did
not got to Medina. “It would not be seemly to make that an appendage
of this visitation,” he explained. “I will put on pilgrim robes for Medina separately.”
Next year he returned once more, donning the pilgrim garb separately at the beginning of the desert. In
one town he passed through on the way a great throng became his followers, and as he left a crowd went in his
“Who are those men?” he demanded, looking back. “They wish to keep you company,” came the answer.
“Lord God!” Abu Yazid cried, “I beg of Thee, veil not Thy creatures from Thee through me!”
Then, desiring to expel the love of him from their hearts and to remove the obstacle of himself from their
path, having performed the dawn prayer he looked at them and said, “Verily I am God; there is no god but I;
therefore serve Me.” “The man has become mad!” they cried. And they
left him and departed. Abu Yazid went on his way. He found on the road a
skull on which was written, Deaf, dumb, blind—they do not understand.
Picking up the skull with a cry, he kissed it. “This seems to be the head,” he murmured, “of a
Sufi annihilated in God—he has no ear to hear the eternal voice, no eye to behold the eternal beauty, no
tongue to praise God’s greatness, no reason to understand so much as a mote of the true knowledge of God.This verse is about him.”
Once Abu Yazid was going along the road with a camel on which he had slung his provisions and saddle.
“Poor little camel, what a heavy load it is carrying,” someone cried. “It is really cruel.”
Abu Yazid, having heard him say these words over and over, at last replied.
“Young man, it is not the little camel that lifts the load.”
The man looked to see if the load was actually on the camel’s back. He observed that it was a full span above
its back, and that the camel did not feel any weight at all. “Glory be to God, a wondrous deed!” the man
“If I conceal from you the true facts about myself, you thrust out the tongue of reproach,” said Abu
Yazid. “If I disclose them to you, you cannot bear the facts. What is one to do with you?”
After Abu Yazid had visited Medina, the order came to him to return to care for his mother. He accordingly
set out for Bestam, accompanied by a throng. The news ran through the city, and the people of Bestam came
out to welcome him a good way from the town. Abu Yazid was likely to be so preoccupied with their attentions
that he would be detained from God. As they approached him, he drew a loaf out of his sleeve. Now
it was Ramazan; yet he stood and ate the loaf. As soon as the people of Bestam saw this, they turned away
from him. “Did you not see?” Abu Yazid addressed his companions
“I obeyed an ordinance of the sacred Law, and all the people rejected me.”
He waited patiently until nightfall. At midnight he entered Bestam and, coming to his mother’s house, he
stood a while listening. He heard sounds of his mother performing he ablutions and praying.
“Lord God, care well for our exile. Incline the hearts of the shaikhs towards him, and vouchsafe him to do
all things well.’ Abu Yazid wept when he heard these words. Then he
knocked on the door. “Who is there?” cried his mother.
“Your exile,” he replied. Weeping, his mother opened the door. Her sight was
dimmed. “Taifur,” she addressed her son, “do you know what
has dimmed my sight? It is because I have wept so much being parted from you, and my back is bent double
from the load of grief I have endured.” The Ascension of Abu Yazid
Abu Yazid related as follows. I gazed upon God with the eye of certainty after that
He had advanced me to the degree of independence from all creatures and illumined me with His light,
revealing to me the wonders of His secrets and manifesting to me the grandeur of His He-ness.
Then from God I gazed upon myself, and considered well the secrets and attributes of my self. My light was
darkness beside the light of God; my grandeur shrank to very meanness beside God’s grandeur; my glory
beside God’s glory became but vainglory. There all was purity, here all was foulness.
When I looked again, I saw my being by God’s light. I realized that my glory was of His grandeur and glory.
Whatsoever I did, I was able to do through His omnipotence. Whatever the eye of my physical body
perceived, it perceived through Him. I gazed with the eye of justice and reality; all my worship proceeded
from God, not from me, and I had supposed that it was I who worshipped Him.
I said, “Lord God, what is this?” He said, “All that I am, and none other than I.”
Then He stitched up my eye, not to be the means of seeing and so that I might not see, and He instructed
the gaze of my eye in the root of the matter, the He-ness of Himself. He annihilated me from my own being, and
made me to be everlasting through His own everlastingness, and He glorified me. He disclosed to me His
own Selfhood, unjostled by my own existence. So God, the one Truth, increased in me reality. Through God I
gazed on God, and I beheld God in reality. There I dwelt a while, and found repose. I stopped
up the ear of striving; I withdrew the tongue of yearning into the throat of disappointment. I abandoned
acquired knowledge, and removed the interference of the soul that bids to evil. I remained still for a space,
without any instrument, and with the hand of God’s grace I swept superfluities from the pathway of root
principles. God had compassion on me. He granted me eternal knowledge, and put into my throat a tongue of His
goodness. He created for me an eye out of His light, and I saw all creatures through God. With the tongue
of His goodness I communed with God, and from the knowledge of God I acquired knowledge, and by His
light I gazed on Him. He said, “O thou all without all with all, without
instrument with instrument!” I said, “Lord God, let me not be deluded by this. Let
me not become self-satisfied with my own being, not to yearn for Thee. Better it is that Thou shouldst be mine
without me, than that I should be my own without Thee. Better it is that I should speak to Thee through
Thee, than that I should speak to myself without Thee.”
He said, “Now give ear to the Law, and transgress not My commands and forbiddings, that thy strivings
may earn Our thanks.” I said, “Insomuch as I profess the faith and my heart
firmly believes, if Thou givest thanks, it is better that Thou shouldst thank Thyself rather than Thy slave;
and if Thou blamest, Thou art pure of all fault.” He said, “From whom didst thou learn?”
I said, “He who asks this question knows better than he who is asked; for He is both the Desired and the
Desirer, the Answered and the Answerer.” When He had perceived the purity of my inmost
soul, then my soul heard a shout of God’s satisfaction; He sealed me with His good pleasure. He illumined me,
and delivered me out of the darkness of the carnal soul and the foulnesses of the fleshly nature. I knew that
through Him I lived; and of His bounty I spread the carpet of gladness in my heart.
He said, “Ask whatsoever thou wilt.” I said, “I wish for Thee, for Thou art more excellent
than bounty, greater than generosity, and through Thee I have found content in Thee. Since Thou art mine, I
have rolled up the scroll of bounty and generosity. Keep me not from Thee, and proffer not before me that
which is inferior to Thee.” For a while He did not answer me. Then, laying the crown of munificence on my head, He spoke.
“Truth thou speakest, and reality thou seekest, in that thou hast seen the truth and heard the truth.”
I said, “If I have seen, through Thee I have seen, and if I have heard, through Thee I have heard. First Thou
heardest, then I heard.” And I uttered many praises to Him.

Consequently He gave me wings of majesty, so that I flew in the arenas of His glory and beheld the wonders of His handiwork.
Perceiving my weakness and recognizing my need, He strengthened me with His own strength and
arrayed me with His own adornment. He laid the crown of munificence on my head, and
opened unto me the door of the palace of Unity. When He perceived that my attributes were annihilated in His
attributes, He bestowed on me a name of His own presence and addressed me with His own Selfhood.
Singleness became manifest; duality vanished. He said, “Our pleasure is that which is thy pleasure,
and thy pleasure is that which is Our pleasure. Thy speech admits no defilement, and none takes thee to
task on account of thy I-ness.” Then He made me to taste the stab of jealousy, and
revived me anew. I came forth pure from the furnace of testing. Then He spoke.
“Whose is the Kingdom?” I said, “Thine.”
He said, “Whose is the Command?”
I said, “Thine.”
He said, “Whose is the Choice?”
I said, “Thine.”
Since these words were the very same as He had heard at the beginning of the transaction, He desired to
demonstrate to me that, had not His mercy preceded, creation would never have found repose, and that but
for Love, Omnipotence would have wreaked destruction on all things. He gazed on me with the eye of
Overwhelming through the medium of Allcompelling, and once more no trace of me was visible.
In my intoxication I flung myself into every valley. I melted my body in every crucible in the fire of jealousy.

I galloped the steed of questing in the broad expanse of the wilderness; no better game I saw than utter indigence,
nothing I discovered better than total incapacity. No lamp I saw brighter than silence, no speech I
heard better than speechlessness. I became a dweller in the palace of silence; I clothed myself in the stomacher
of fortitude, till matters reached their crux. He saw my outward and inward parts void of the flaw of fleshly
nature. He opened a fissure of relief in my darkened breast, and gave me a tongue of divestiture and unity.
So now I have a tongue of everlasting grace, a heart of light divine, an eye of godly handiwork. By his succour
I speak, with His power I grasp. Since through Him I live, I shall never die.
Since I have reached this stage, my token is eternal; my expression everlasting; my tongue is the tongue of
unity, my spirit is the spirit of divestiture. Not of myself I speak, that I should be mere narrator, neither through
myself do I speak, that I should be mere remembrancer.

He moves my tongue according as He wills, and in all this I am but an interpreter. In reality the speaker is He,
not I. Now, having magnified me, He spoke again. “The creatures desire to see thee.”
I said, “I desire not to see them. If Thou likest to bring me forth before the creatures, I will not oppose

Thee. Array me in Thy Unity, that when Thy creatures see me and gaze upon Thy handiwork, they will have
seen the Artificer, and I shall not be there at all.” This desire He granted me; and He laid the crown of
munificence on my head, and caused me to surpass the station of my fleshly nature.
Then He said, “Come before My creatures.” I took one step out of the Presence. At the second
step I fell headlong. I heard a cry.
“Bring back My beloved, for he cannot be without
Me, neither knows he any path save to Me.”
Abu Yazid also related the following.
When I reached Unity—and that was the first
moment that I gazed upon Unity—for many years I ran
in that valley on the feet of understanding; till I became
a bird whose body was of Oneness, whose wings were
of Everlastingness. I kept flying in the firmament of
Unconditionedness. When I had vanished from the
things created, I spoke.
“I have reached the Creator.”
Then I lifted up my head from the valley of Lordship.
I quaffed a cup, the thirst for which I never slaked in all eternity. Then for thirty thousand years I flew in the
expanse of His Unity, and for thirty thousand years more I flew in Divinity, and for thirty thousand years
more I flew in Singularity. When ninety thousand years had come to an end, I saw Abu Yazid, and all that I
saw, all was I.Then I traversed four thousand wildernesses, and reached the end. When I gazed, I saw myself at the
beginning of the degree of the prophets. Then for such a while I went on in that infinity, that I said,
“No one has ever reached higher than this. Loftier than this no station can be.”
When I looked well, I saw that my head was at the sole of the foot of a prophet. Then I realized that the
end of the state of the saints is but the beginning of the states of the prophets; to the end of the prophets there
is no term.

Then my spirit transcended the whole Dominion, and Heaven and Hell were displayed to it; but it heeded
naught Whatever came before it, that it could not suffer. To the soul of no prophet it reached, without it
gave greeting. When it reached the soul of God’s Chosen One, upon him be peace, there it beheld a hundred
thousand seas of fire without end, and a thousand veils of light. Had I so much as dipped my foot in the
first of those seas, I would have been consumed and given myself over to destruction. Therefore I became so
bewildered with awe and confusion, that naught remained of me. However I desired to be able to see but
the tent-peg of the pavilion of Mohammad, God’s Messenger, I had not the boldness. Though I had
attained to God, I had not the boldness to attain to Mohammad.
Then Abu Yazid said, “O God, whatsoever thing I have seen, all has been I. There is no way for me to
Thee, so long as this ‘I’ remains; there is no transcending my selfhood for me What must I do?”
The command came, “To be delivered out of thy thouness, follow after Our beloved, the Arab
Mohammad. Anoint thine eye with the dust of his foot, and continue following after him.
Abu Yazid and Yahya-e Mo’adh Yahya-e Mo’adh wrote a letter to Abu Yazid saying,
“What do you say of a man who has quaffed a cup of wine, and become intoxicated from eternity to eternity?”
Abu Yazid replied, “That I know not. What I do know is this, that here is a man who in a single night
and a day drains all the oceans of eternity to eternity and then asks for more.”
Yahya-e Mo’adh wrote again, “I have a secret to tell you, but our rendezvous is in Paradise. There under the
shadow of Tuba I will tell it you.” And he sent along with the letter a loaf saying, “The shaikh must avail
himself of this, for I kneaded it with water from the well of Zemzem.”

In his reply Abu Yazid referred to Yahya’s secret saying,
“As for the rendezvous you mention, with His
remembrance, I enjoy even now possession of Paradise and the shade of the tree Tuba. So far as the loaf is concerned,
however, that I cannot avail myself of. You stated with what water you kneaded it, but you did not
mention what seed you sowed.”
So Yahya-e Mo’adh conceived a great yearning to
visit Abu Yazid. He arrived at the hour of the prayer before sleeping.
“I could not disturb the shaikh then,” Yahya recalled. “At the same time I could not contain myself
till morning. So I proceeded to the place in the desert where they told me he was to be found. I saw the
shaikh perform the prayer before sleeping, then till the next day he stood on the tips of his toes. I stood rooted
in amazement, and heard him all night engaged in prayer. When dawn came, he uttered the words, ‘I
take refuge with Thee from asking of Thee this station.’“
Yahya then recovering himself greeted Abu Yazid, and enquired of him what had befallen him in the
night. “More than twenty stations were enumerated to me,” Abu Yazid told him. “I desire not one of these, for
they are all stations of veiling.”

“Master, why did you not ask God for gnosis, seeing that He is the King of kings and has said, ‘Ask whatsoever
you will?’“ demanded Yahya. “Be silent!” Abu Yazid cried. “I am jealous of myself
to know Him, for I desire none but He to know Him. Where His knowledge is, what business have I to intervene?
That indeed is His will, Yahya, only He, and no other, shall know Him.”
“By the majesty of God,” Yahya implored, “grant me some portion of the gift you were vouchsafed last

“If you were given the election of Adam, the holiness of Gabriel, the friendship of Abraham, the yearning of
Moses, the purity of Jesus, and the love of Mohammad,” Abu Yazid replied, “still you would not
be satisfied. You would seek for more, tran scending all things. Keep your vision fixed on high, and descend
not; for whatever you descend into, by that you will be veiled.”

Abu Yazid and his disciple

There was a certain ascetic who was one of the great saints of Bestam. He had his own followers and admirers,
and at the same time he was never absent from the circle of Abu Yazid. He listened

One day he remarked to Abu Yazid, “Master, today is thirty years that I have been keeping constant fast. By
night too I pray, so that I never sleep at all. Yet I discover
no trace in myself of this knowledge of which you speak. For all that I believe in this knowledge, and
I love this preaching.”
“If for three hundred years,” said Abu Yazid, “you
fast by day and pray by night, you will never realize
one atom of this discourse.”
“Why?” asked the disciple.
“Because you are veiled by your own self,” Abu
Yazid replied.
“What is the remedy for this?” the man asked.
“You will never accept it,” answered Abu Yazid.
“I will so,” said the man. “Tell me, so that I may do as you prescribe.”
“Very well,” said Abu Yazid. “This very hour go and shave your beard and hair. Take off these clothes you
are wearing, and tie a loincloth of goat’s wool about your waist. Hang a bag of nuts round your neck, then
go to the marketplace. Collect all the children you cank, and tell them, ‘I will give a nut to everyone who slaps
me.’ Go round all the city in the same way; especially go everywhere people know you. That is your cure.”
“Glory be to God! There is no god but God,” cried the disciple on hearing these words.