Sufi Biography: Ma‘ruf al-Karkhi

Sufi Biography: Ma‘ruf al-Karkhi

Abu Mahfuz Ma‘ruf ibn Firuz al-Karkhi is said to have been born of Christian parents; the story of his conversion to Islam by the Shi’ite imam ‘Ali ibn Musaal-Reza is generally discredited. A prominent mystic of the Baghdad school, he died in 200 (815).

How Ma‘ruf-e Karkhi chose Islam

Ma‘ruf-e Karkhi’s mother and father were both Christians. When they sent him to school, his master said to him, “Say, God is the third of three.”

“No,” answered Ma‘ruf. “On the contrary, He is God, the One.”

The teacher beat him, but to no avail. One day the schoolmaster beat him severely, and Ma‘ruf ran away and could not be found.

“If only he would come back,” his mother and father said. “Whichever religion he wished to follow, we would agree with him.”

Ma‘ruf came to Ali ibn Musa al-Reza and accepted Islam at his hands. Some time passed. Then one day he made his way home and knocked at the door of his father’s house.

“Who is there?” they asked.

“Ma‘ruf,” he replied.


“What faith have you adopted?”

“The religion of Mohammad, the Messenger of God.”

His mother and father immediately became Muslims.

After that Ma‘ruf fell in with Dawud-e Ta’i and underwent a severe discipline. He proved himself so devout and practised such austerities that the fame of his steadfastness was noised abroad.

Mohammad ibn Mansur al-Tusi relates that he encountered Ma‘ruf in Baghdad.

“I observed a scar on his face. I said to him, ‘I was with you yesterday and did not notice this mark then. What is it?’ ‘Do not ask about things that do not concern you,’ he replied. ‘Ask only about matters that are profitable to you.’ ‘By the right of Him we worship,’ I pleaded, ‘tell me.’

“Then he said, ‘Last night I was praying, and I wished that I might go to Mecca and circumambulate the Kaaba. I approached the well of Zemzem to take a drink of water. My foot slipped, and my face struck the well. That was how I got this scar.’”

Once Ma‘ruf went down to the Tigris to make his ablutions, leaving his Koran and prayer rug in the mosque. An old woman stole in and took them, and went off with them. Ma‘ruf ran after her. When he caught up with her he addressed her, lowering his head so that his eyes might not fall on her.

“Have you a son who can chant the Koran?”

“No,” she replied.

“Then give me back the Koran. You can have the prayer rug.”

The woman was amazed at his clemency, and set down both the Koran and the prayer rug.

“No, take the prayer rug,” repeated Ma‘ruf. “It is lawfully yours.”

The woman hastened away in shame and confusion.

Anecdotes of Ma‘ruf

One day Ma‘ruf was walking along with a group of his followers when a gang of youths came that way. They behaved outrageously all the way to the Tigris.

“Master,” Ma‘ruf’s companions entreated him, “pray to Almighty God to drown them all, that the world may be rid of their foul presence.”

“Lift up your hands,” Ma‘ruf bade them. Then he prayed.

“O God, as Thou hast given them a happy life in this world, even so grant them a happy life in the world to come.”

“Master, we know not the secret of this prayer,” said his companions in astonishment.

“He with whom I am speaking knows the secret,” Ma‘ruf replied. “Wait a moment. Even now this secret will be revealed.”

When the youths beheld the shaikh, they broke their lutes and poured away the wine they were drinking. Trembling overcame them, and they fell before the shaikh and repented.

“You see,” Ma‘ruf remarked to his companions. “Your desire has been fulfilled completely, without drowning and without anyone suffering.”

Sari-e Saqati relates the following story.

One festival day I saw Ma‘ruf picking date stones.

“What are you doing?” I asked him.

“I saw this child weeping,” he told me. “I said, ‘Why are you crying?’ He told me, ‘I am an orphan. I have no father and no mother. The other children have new clothes, and I have none. They have nuts, and I have none.’ So I am gathering these stones to sell them and buy him nuts, then he may run along and play.”

“Let me attend to this and spare you the care,” I said.

Sari went on, “I took the child and clothed him, and bought him nuts, and made him happy. Immediately I saw a great light shine in my heart, and I was transformed.”

Ma‘ruf had an uncle who was governor of the city. One day he was passing some wasteland when he observed Ma‘ruf sitting there eating bread. Before him there was a dog, and Ma‘ruf was putting one morsel in his own mouth and then one in the dog’s.

“Are you not ashamed to eat bread with a dog?” cried his uncle.

“It is out of shame that I am giving bread to the poor,” replied Ma‘ruf.

Then he raised his head and called to a bird in the air. The bird flew down and perched on his hand, covering his head and eyes with his wings.

“Whosoever is ashamed before God,” said Ma‘ruf, “every thing is ashamed before him.”

At once his uncle was filled with confusion.

One day Ma‘ruf broke his ritual purity. Immediately he made ablution in sand.

“Why look,” they said to him. “Here is the Tigris. Why are you making ablution in the sand?”

“It can be,” he replied, “that I may be no more by the time I reach it.”

A crowd of Shi’ites were jostling one day at the door of Reza, and they broke Ma‘ruf-e Karkhi’s ribs, so that he fell seriously ill.

Sari-e Saqati said to him, “Give me your last testament.”

“When I die,” said Ma‘ruf, “take my shirt and give it in alms. I desire to go out of this world naked, even as I came naked from my mother’s womb.”

When he died, so great was the fame of his humanity and humility that men of all religions, Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, claimed him as one of them.

His servant reported that Ma‘ruf had said, “Whoever is able to lift my bier from the ground, I am of that people.”

The Christians were unable. The Jews were likewise unable to lift it. Then the Muslims came and lifted it. They prayed over him, and in that very place they committed him to the ground.

Sari reported the following.

After Ma‘ruf died I saw him in a dream. He was standing beneath the Throne with his eyes wide open, like one stupefied and distraught. A cry came from God to the angels.

“Who is this?”

“Lord God, Thou knowest best,” the angels answered.

“It is Ma‘ruf,” came the Command. “He has become dazzled and stupefied by reason of Our love. Only by seeing Us will he come to his senses. Only by meeting Us will he rediscover himself.”