Sufi Biography: Ebrahim ibn Adham (or Ibrahim bin Adham)
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 Muslim hagiography.
The Legend of Ebrahim ibn Adham
Ebrahim ibn Adham’s saintly career began in the following manner. He was the king of Balkh, and the 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 were 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 this roof.” “Fool, do you look for the camel on the roof?” cried Ebrahim. “Heedless one,” answered the voice, “do you seek 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 anymore.
When day came, he returned to the dais and sat on his throne, thoughtful, bewildered, and full of care. The ministers of state stood in their places, and his slaves were drawn up in serried ranks. A general audience was proclaimed.
Suddenly, a man with an awe-inspiring presence entered the chamber, so terrible to look upon that none of the royal retinue and servants dared to ask his name; their tongues clung to their throats. He solemnly advanced until 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 Ebrahim. “Who owned this palace before you?” asked the man. “My father,” Ebrahim replied. “And before him?” “My grandfather.” “And before him?” “So-and-so.” “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 leaves?”
With these words, the stranger vanished. He was Khezr, upon whom be peace. The fire blazed more fiercely in Ebrahim’s soul, and the anguish within him increased. Visions by day followed the hearing of voices by night, equally mysterious and incomprehensible.
“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 affair end?”
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 he 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 bejeweled 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 at 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 poverty.”
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 found 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 at night. Every Thursday, he would climb above the cavern and collect a bundle of firewood. Next morning, he would set out for Nishapur and sell the brushwood. After performing the Friday prayers, he would buy bread with the money he had earned, give half to a beggar, and use half himself to break his fast. So he did every week.
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, rubbed its face in the ground before him two or three times, and vanished.