Al-Fozail ibn Iyaz – Sufi Biography

Sufi Biography: Al-Fozail ibn Iyaz

Abu ‘Ali al-Fozail ibn ‘Iyaz al-Talaqani was born in Khorasan, and in the beginning of his career he is said to have been a highwayman. After conversion he went to Kufa and later to Mecca, where he resided for many years and died in 187 (803). He achieved considerable repute as an authority on Traditions, and his boldness in preaching before Harun al-Rashid is widely reported.

Fozail the highwayman and how he repented

At the beginning of his career, Fozail-e Iyaz pitched his tent in the heart of the desert between Merv and Bavard. He wore sackcloth and a woollen cap, and hung a rosary around his neck. He had many companions who were all of them thieves and highwaymen. Night and day they robbed and pillaged, and always brought the proceeds to Fozail since he was the senior’ of them. He would divide the loot among the bandits, keeping for himself what he fancied. He kept an inventory of everything, and never absented himself from the meetings of the gang. Any apprentice who failed to attend a meeting he expelled from the gang.


One day a great caravan was passing that way, and Fozail’s confederates were on the alert for it. A certain man was’ travelling in the convoy who had heard rumour of the brigands. Sighting them, he took counsel with himself how he might conceal his bag of gold.

“I will hide this bag,” he said to himself. “Then if they waylay the caravan, I will have this capital to fall back on.”

Going aside from the road, he saw Fozail’s tent and Fozail himself close by it, an ascetic by his looks and the clothes he wore. So he entrusted the bag of gold to him.

“Go and put it in the corner of the tent,” Fozail told him.

The man did as he was bidden, and returned to the caravan halt, to find that it had been pillaged. All the luggage had been carried out, and the travellers bound hand and foot. The man released them, and collecting the little that remained they took their departure. The man returned to Fozail to recover his bag of gold. He saw him squatting with the robbers, as they divided up
the spoil.

“Ah, I gave my bag of gold to a thief!” the man exclaimed.

Seeing him afar off, Fozail hailed the man, who came to him.

“What do you want?” he asked.
“Take it from where you deposited it,” Fozail bade him. “Then go.”

The man ran into the tent, picked up his bag, and departed.

“Why,” cried Fozail’s companions, “in the whole caravan we did not find so much as one dirham in cash, and you give back ten thousand dirhams!”

“The man had a good opinion of me, and I have always had a good opinion of God, that He will
grant me repentance,” Fozail replied. “I justified his good opinion, so that God may justify my good opinion.”

One day later they waylaid another caravan and carriedoff the baggage. As they sat eating, a traveller from the caravan approached them.

“Who is your chief?” he asked. “He is not with us,” the brigands replied. “He is the
other side of the tree by the river bank, praying.”

“But it is not the hour of prayer,” the man exclaimed.

“He is performing a work of supererogation,” one of the thieves explained.

“And he is not eating with you,” the man went on.

“He is fasting,” the thief replied.

“But it is not Ramazan.” “Supererogation again,” the thief retorted.

Greatly astonished, the traveller drew near Fozail who was praying with great humility. He waited until he had finished, then he remarked.

“Opposites do not mingle, they say. How can one fast and rob, pray and at the same time murder Muslims?”

“Do you know the Koran?” Fozail asked the man.

“I know it,” the man replied.

“Well then, does not Almighty God say And others have confessed their sins; they have mixed a righteous deed with another evil?”

The man was speechless with astonishment.

It is said that by nature he was chivalrous and highminded, so that if a woman was travelling in a caravan he never took her goods; in the same way, he would not pillage the property of anyone with slender capital. He always left each victim with a due proportion of his belongings. All his inclination was towards right doing.

At the beginning of his exploits Fozail was passionately in love with a certain woman, and he always brought her the proceeds of his brigandage. In season and out of season he climbed walls in the infatuation of his passion for the woman, weeping all the while. One night a caravan was passing, and in the midst of the caravan a man was chanting the Koran. The following verse reached Fozail’s ears:

Is it not time that the hearts of those who believe should be humbled to the remembrance of God?

It was as though an arrow pierced his soul, as though that verse had come out to challenge Fozail and say, “O Fozail, how long will you waylay travellers? The time has come when We shall
waylay you!”

Fozail fell from the wall, crying, “It is high time indeed, and past high time!”

Bewildered and shamefaced, he fled headlong to a ruin. There a party of travellers was encamped. They said, “Let us go!” One of them interjected, “We cannot go. Fozail is on the road.”

“Good tidings!” Fozail cried. “He has repented.”

With that he set out and all day went on his way weeping, satisfying his adversaries. Finally there
remained only a Jew in Bavard. He sought quittance of him, but the Jew would not be reconciled.

“Today we can make light of these Mohammadans,” he chuckled to his fellows.

“If you want me to grant you quittance,” he told Fozail, “clear this heap.”

He pointed to a mound of sand, to remove which would tax all the strength of a man except perhaps
over a long period. The hapless Fozail shovelled away the sand little by little, but how should the task ever be completed? Then one morning, when Fozail was utterly exhausted, a wind sprang up and blew the heap clean away. When the Jew saw what had happened he was amazed.

“I have sworn,” he told Fozail, “that until you give me money I will not grant you quittance. Now put
your hand under this rug and take up a fistful of gold and give it to me. My oath will then be fulfilled, and I will give you quittance.”

Fozail entered the Jew’s house. Now the Jew had put some earth under the rug. Fozail thrust his hand under, and brought forth a fistful of dinars which he gave to the Jew.

“Offer me Islam!” cried the latter. Fozail offered him Islam, and the Jew became a

“Do you know why I have become a Muslim?” he then said. “It is because until today I was not certain
which was the true religion. Today it has become clear to me that Islam is the true 3 religion; for I have read in the Torah that if any man repents sincerely and then places his hand on earth, the earth turns to gold. I had put earth under the rug to prove you. When you laid your hand on the earth and it turned to gold, I knew for sure that your repentance was a reality and that your religion is true.”

“For God’s sake,” Fozail begged a man, “bind me hand and foot and bring me before the Sultan, that he may exercise judgment against me for the many crimes I have committed.”

The man did as he requested. When the Sultan beheld Fozail, he observed in him the marks of righteous folk.

“I cannot do this,” he said. And he ordered him to be returned to his apartment with honour. When he reached the door of the apartment he uttered a loud cry.

“Hark at him shouting!” people remarked.
“Perchance he is being beaten.”
“Indeed, I have been sorely beaten,” Fozail replied.
“In what part?” they asked.
“In my soul,” he answered.
Then he went in to his wife.
“Wife,” he announced, ‘I would visit God’s House.
If you wish, I will set you free.”
“I will never go apart from you,” his wife replied.
“Wherever you may be, I will be with you.”

So they set out and in due time came to Mecca, Almighty God making the road easy for them. There he took up residence near the Kaaba, and met some of the Saints. He companioned Imam Abu Hanifa for a while, and many stories are told of his extreme discipline. In Mecca the gates of oratory were opened to him, and the Meccans thronged to hear him preach. Soon all the world was talking about him, so that his family and kinsmen set forth from Bavard and came to look upon him. They knocked at his door, but he would not open it. They for their part would not depart, so Fozail mounted the roof of his house.

“What idlers you are!” he cried to them. “God give you employment!”

He spoke many such words, till they all wept and were beside themselves. Finally, despairing of enjoying his society, they went away. He still remained on the roof and did not open the door.

Fozail and Haran al-Rashid

One night Harun al-Rashid summoned Fazl the Barmecide, who was one of his favourite courtiers.
“Take me to a man this night who will reveal me to myself,” he bade him. “My heart is grown weary of pomp and pride.”

Fazl brought Harun to the door of the house of Sofyan-e Oyaina. They knocked at the door.

“Who is it?” Sofyan asked.
“The Commander of the Faithful,” Fazl replied.
“Why did he trouble himself so?” Sofyan said. “I ought to have been informed, then I could have come
myself to him.”
“This is not the man I am seeking,” Harun commented
“He fawns upon me like the rest.”
Hearing of what had happened, Sofyan said,
“Fozail-e Iyaz is such a man as you are seeking. You
must go to him.” And he recited this verse: Or do those
who commit evil deeds think that We shall make them
as those who believe and do righteous deeds?

“If I am seeking good counsel, this is sufficient,” remarked Harun.
They knocked at Fozail’s door.
“Who is it?” Fozail asked.
“The Commander of the Faithful,” Fazl replied.
“What business has he with me, and what have I to do with him?” Fozail demanded.
“Is it not a duty to obey those in authority?” countered Fazl.
“Do not disturb me,” cried Fozail.
“Shall I enter with an authority or a command?” said Fazl.
“There is no such thing as authority,” replied Fozail.
“If you enter by force, you know what you are doing.” Harun entered. As he approached Fozail, the latter blew out the lamp so as not to see his face. Harun stretched out his hand, and Fozail’s hand met it.

“How smooth and soft this palm is, if only it could escape from Hell-fire!” Fozail remarked.
So saying, he arose and stood in prayer. Harun was much affected and weeping overcame him.
“Say something to me,” he begged. Fozail saluted him and then spoke.

“Your ancestor, the Prophet’s uncle, once demanded of the Prophet, ‘Make me commander over some people.’ The Prophet replied, ‘Uncle, for one moment I have made you commander over yourself.’ By this he meant, ‘For you to obey God for one moment is better than a thousand years of people obeying you.’ The Prophet added, ‘Command shall be a cause of regretting on the Day of Resurrection.’

“Say more,” Harun pleaded. “When Omar ibn Abd al-Aziz was appointed caliph,” Fozail related, “he summoned Salem ibn Abd Allah, Raja’ ibn Hayat, and Mohammad ibn Ka’b. ‘I
have been afflicted with this trial,’ he told them. ‘What am I to do? For I know this high office to be a trial, even though men count it for a blessing.’ One of the three said, ‘If you wish tomorrow to escape from God’s punishment, look upon aged Muslims as though each were your father, and regard youthful Muslims as yourbrothers, Muslim children as your own sons, treating them in all respects as one does one’s father, brother, and son.’ “

“Say more,” Harun repeated. “The lands of Islam are as your own house, and their
inhabitants your family,” Fozail said. “Visit your father, honour your brother, and be good to your son. I fear,” he added, “that your handsome face will be sorely tried by the fire of Hell. Fear God, and obey His command. And be watchful and prudent; for on the Resurrection Day God will question you concerning every single Muslim, and He will exact justice from you in respect of every one. If one night an old woman has gone to sleep in a house without provisions, she will pluck your skirt on that Day and will give evidence against you.”

Harun wept bitterly, so that his consciousness was like to fail.

“Enough! You have slain the Commander of the Faithful,” chided Fazl the vizier.
“Be silent, Haman,” cried Fozail. “It is you and your creatures who are destroying him, and then you tell me that I have killed him. Is this murder?”

At these words Harun wept even more copiously. “He calls you Haman,” he said, turning to Fazl,
“because he equates me with Pharaoh.” Then, addressing Fozail, he asked,

“Have you a debt outstanding?” “Yes,” replied Fozail. “A debt of obedience to God.
If He takes me to task over this, then woe is me!” “I am speaking of debts owed to men, Fozail,” said
Harun. “Thanks be to God,” cried Fozail, “who has blessed me abundantly, so that I have no complaint to make to His servants.”

Then Harun placed a purse of a thousand dinars before him.
“This is lawful coin, of my mother’s inheritance,” he said.
“Commander of the Faithful,” said Fozail, “the counsels I have spoken to you have yielded no profit.
Even now you have recommenced wrongdoing and resumed injustice.”
“What wrongdoing?” demanded Harun.
“I call you to salvation, and you cast me into temptation.

This is wrongdoing indeed,” said Fozail. “I tell you, give back what you possess to its proper owner.
You for your part give it to another to whom it should not be given. It is useless for me to speak.”
So saying, he rose up from the caliph’s presence and flung the gold out of the door.

“Ah, what a man he is!” exclaimed Harun, leaving Fozail’s house. “Fozail is in truth a king of men. His

arrogance is extreme, and the world is very contemptible in his eyes.”