Sufi Biography: al-Shebli

Sufi Biography: al-Shebli

Abu Bakr Dolaf ibn Jahdar (Ja’far ibn Yunos) al- Shebli, of Khorasan by origin but born in Baghdad or Samarra, son of a court official and himself promoted in the imperial service, as Governor of Demavend was summoned to Baghdad to be invested and there experienced conversion. Joining the circle of al-Jonaid, he became a leading figure in the stormy history of al-Hallaj, notorious for his eccentric behaviour which led to his committal to an asylum. He died
in 334 (846) at the age of 87.

The calling of Shebli

Abu Bakr-e Shebli was originally Governor of Demavend. A dispatch came to him from Baghdad,
and he set out with the Governor of Rayy and a retinueto present himself before the caliph. Having been
invested by the caliph with robes of honour, they returned homewards. By chance the Governor of Rayy
suddenly sneezed. He wiped his mouth and nose in his robe of honour. This being reported to the caliph, he
commanded that he should be stripped of his robe, soundly cuffed and dismissed from his office of governor.
This opened Shebli’s eyes.


 “One who uses as a handkerchief a robe conferred by a mortal being,” he mused, “is accounted deserving
to be deposed and slighted. He forfeits his robe of office. What then of him who uses as a handkerchief
the robe conferred by the King of the world—what will be done to him?”
At once he went to the caliph.

“Prince,” he addressed the caliph, “you, a mortal being, do not approve that the robe conferred by you
should be treated disrespectfully, and it is well k nown what your robe is worth. The King of the world has
given me a robe of honour, even the love and knowledge of Him. How shall He ever approve my using it as
a handkerchief in the service of a mortal?”
And he left the court and proceeded to the assembly of Khair-e Nassaj. There a miracle happened to him,
and Khair sent him to Jonaid. So Shebli came before Jonaid.

“You are recommended as an expert on pearls,” he said. “Either give me one, or sell one to me.”
“If I sell you one, you will not have the price of it, and if I give you one, having so easily come by it you
will not realize its value,” Jonaid replied. “Do like me; plunge head first into this Sea, and if you wait patiently
you will obtain your pearl.” “Now what shall I do?” asked Shebli.

“Go and sell sulphur for a year,” said Jonaid. Shebli did so. When the year was up, Jonaid gave
him new instructions. “This work brings notoriety and commerce. Go and
beg for a year, so that you be not busied with aught else.”
For a whole year Shebli wandered throughout Baghdad. No one gave him anything. He returned and
reported to Jonaid. “Now realize your own worth, for you count for
nothing in the eyes of your fellows,” said Jonaid.
“Fasten not your heart on them, neither have any regard of them. For some days you were a chamberlain
and for some days you acted as governor. Now repair to your former province and seek quittance of the
inhabitants there.”
Shebli returned to Demavend and went from house to house, till only one victim of oppression remained.
That man he could not trace.
“With him in mind,” Shebli recalled, “I distributed a hundred thousand dirhams, but still my heart did not
find rest.

”Four years went by in this way. Then he returned to Jonaid.
“Some fragment of pomp and pride still lingers in you,” said Jonaid. “Beg for another year.”
“Every day I went begging,” Shebli recalled. ‘I brought him all I got, and he would give it to the poor.
At night he kept me hungry. When a year had gone by, he said to me, ‘Now I admit you to my companionship,
but on one condition, that you shall be the servant of my companions.’ So for a year I served the companions.
Then Jonaid said to me, ‘Abu Bakr, what is your view of yourself now?’ ‘I regard myself as the least of
God’s creatures,’ I replied. ‘Now,’ remarked Jonaid, ‘your faith is whole.”’
By then Shebli had progressed to the point that he would fill his sleeve with sugar, and every boy he saw
he would put a piece in his mouth.
“Say Allah!” he would say. After that he filled his sleeve with dirhams and
dinars. “Every one who says Allah once, I will fill his mouth
with gold.”

Thereafter the spirit of jealousy stirred in him, and he unsheathed a sword.
“Every one who mentions the name of Allah, I will strike off his head with this sword,” he cried.
“Hitherto,” they said, “you used to give sugar and gold. Now you will strike off heads?”
“Then I supposed that they pronounced His name out of true experience and knowledge,” he explained.

“Now I realize that they speak it unheeding and merely out of habit. I cannot permit Him to be name`1 by
an impure tongue.” After that on every place he could find he inscribed
the name of God. Suddenly a voice addressed him. “How long will you go about the name? If you are
truly a seeker, stride forth on the quest of the Named!”
These words affected him deeply. Peace and composure altogether deserted him. So powerful was the love
possessing him, so completely was he overwhelmed by mystical tumult, that he went and flung himself into the
Tigris. The river surged and cast him up on the bank. Then he hurled himself into the fire, but the flames
affected him not. He sought a place where hungry lions were gathered and cast himself before them; the lions
all fled away from him. He threw himself down from the summit of a mountain; the wind picked him up and
deposited him on the ground. His disquiet increased a thousandfold.
“Woe to him,” he cried, “whom neither water nor fire will accept, neither the wild beasts nor the mountains!”
“He who is accepted of God,” came a voice, “is accepted of no other.”
Then they loaded him with chains and fetters and carried him to the asylum.
“This man is mad,” some shouted. “In your eyes I am mad and you are sane,” he
replied. “May God augment my madness and your sanity, that by reason of that madness I may be admitted
nearer and nearer, and because of that sanity you may be driven farther and farther!”
The caliph sent one to care for him. The attendants came and by force thrust the medicine in his throat.
“Do not put yourself to such pains,” Shebli cried. “This sickness is not such as will yield to healing by

Anecdotes of Shebli

When Shebli was confined in chains a group of his companions one day went to visit him.
“Who are you?” he cried. “Your friends,” they told him.
He at once began to throw stones at them, and they all fled.
“Liars!” he shouted. “Do friends run away from their friend because of a few stones? This proves that
you are friends of yourselves, not of me!”
Once Shebli was observed running with a burning coal in his hand.
“Where are you going?” they asked.
“I am running to set fire to the Kaaba,” he answered,

“so that men may henceforward care only for the Lord of the Kaaba.”
On another occasion he was holding in his hand a piece of wood alight at both ends.
“What are you going to do?” he was asked.
“I am going to set Hell on fire with one end and Paradise with the other,” he replied, “so that men may
concern themselves only with God.”
Shebli danced once for several days and nights beneath a certain tree crying, “Hoo, Hoo.”
“What is all this?” his friends demanded.

“This ringdove in yonder tree is saying Coo Coo,”
he explained. “I am accompanying it with Hoo Hoo.”
It is said that the ringdove did not stop cooing until Shebli ceased hooing.
It is said that when Shebli first began his self-mortification,
for many long years he used to rub salt in his eyes so that he should not sleep. It is stated that he put
seven maunds of salt in his eyes in this way.

“Almighty God is watching me,” he would say.
“The man who sleeps is heedless,” he added, “and the heedless man is veiled.”
One day Jonaid visited him to find him pulling up the skin of his eyebrows with tweezers.
“Why are you doing that?” he asked.

“Truth has become manifest, and I cannot endure it,” Shebli answered. “I am pricking myself that haply
He may grant me one glance.”
Shebli had a grotto where he used to go, carrying with him a bundle of sticks. Any time his heart was
invaded by inattention he would beat himself with those sticks. Once it happened that he had broken all
the sticks, so he beat his hands and feet against the wall.

Overpowered by mystic ecstasy, Shebli began to preach, and proclaimed before the people the secret.
Jonaid reproached him.
“We utter these words in grottos,” he said. “Now you have come and declare them in the market-place.”
“I am speaking and I am listening,” Shebli replied. “In both worlds who is there but I? Nay rather, these
are words proceeding from God to God, and Shebli is not there at all.”
“If that is the case, you have dispensation,” Jonaid said.
One day Shebli was repeatedly uttering the word God, God. An earnest young disciple addressed him.
“Why do you not say, There is no god but God?” Shebli sighed.

“I am afraid,” he explained, “that if I say ‘no god’ my breath may be stopped before I reach ‘but God’ and
I shall be utterly desolated.” These words made such an impression on the youth
that he trembled and expired. His friends came and haled Shebli to the caliph’s palace. He, being still in the
throes of ecstasy, walked along like one drunk. They accused him of murder,
“Shebli, what do you say?” demanded the caliph.
“It was a soul wholly consumed by the flame of the fire of love, in eager expectancy of confronting the
majesty of God,” Shebli replied. “It was a soul severed from all connections, passed away from all carnal corruption.
It was a soul come to the end of its tether that could endure no longer, visited successively inwardly
by the importunate envoys of the Presence Divine. A lightning-flash of the beauty of the contemplation of
this visitation leaped upon the very core of his soul. His soul bird-like flew out of the cage of the body. What
was Shebli’s offence or crime in this?” “Send Shebli home immediately,” ordered the caliph.
“His words have produced such a state in me inwardly that there is danger that I may fall from this throne!”
Once Shebli was in Baghdad. He said, “We require a thousand dirhams, to buy shoes for the poor and
despatch them on the pilgrimage.”

A Christian jumped up and said, “I will give them, only on one condition, that you take me with you.”
“Young sir, you are not qualified for the pilgrimage,” said
“There is no mule in your caravan,” the youth replied. “Take me along as your mule.”
The dervishes set out, the Christian along with them loins girded to the trail.
“How are you faring, young man?” asked Shebli. ‘I am so happy at the thought of accompanying you
that I cannot sleep,” he replied. On the road the Christian took a brush and at every
halting place he swept the floor for the pilgrims and plucked out the thorns. When the time came for
putting on the white robes, he saw what the rest were doing and followed their example. At last the party
arrived at the Kaaba. “With your girdle I cannot let you enter the Holy
House,” Shebli told the Christian. “O God,” the Christian cried, laying his head on the
threshold, “Shebli says he will not allow me into Thy House.”
“Shebli,” came a voice out of heaven, “We have brought him here from Baghdad. Kindling the fire of
love in his heart, We have dragged him to Our House with the chains of loving kindness. Shebli, get out of
the way! You, friend, come in!”
The Christian entered the Holy House and performed the visitation. The rest of the party then entered
and in due course emerged, but the youth still did not come out.
“Young man, come out!” Shebli called. “He will not let me out,” the youth replied. “Every
time I make for the door of the House I find it shut. What will become of me?”
Once Jonaid and Shebli both fell sick. A Christian physician visited Shebli.
“What pains are you feeling?” he asked.
“None,” Shebli replied.
“What do you say?” the doctor repeated.
“I have no pain,” Shebli told him.
The physician then visited Jonaid.
“What pains do you have?” he enquired.
Jonaid described his symptoms in detail, enumerating each pain in turn. The Christian treated him, and
departed. Later the two friends came together .“Why did you expose all your pains to a Christian?”
Shebli asked.
“So that he might realize,” Jonaid answered, “if His friend is treated so, what He will do to His foe! And
you,” he added, “why did you not describe your pains?” ‘I was ashamed,” Shebli replied, “to complain to an
enemy of the Friend!”

One day as Shebli was going along he encountered two boys quarrelling over a walnut they had found. He
took the walnut from them. ‘Be patient, till I divide it between you!” he told
them. When he broke it open, the nut proved to be empty. A voice proclaimed, “Go on, divide it, if you are the
Divider!” “All that quarrelling over an empty nut,” Shebli commented shamefaced. “And all that pretension to be
a divider over nothing!” The death of Shebli When the hour of his death drew near, Shebli’s eyes
were shrouded in darkness. He asked for ashes and sprinkled them over his head, and was possessed of an
indescribable restlessness.
“Why all this agitation?” his friends asked him. “My soul is filled with envy and jealousy of Iblis,” he
answered. “Here I sit athirst, and He gives of His own to another. Upon thee shall rest My curse till the Day
of Doom. I cannot bear to see that attribution of the Divine curse to Iblis. I wish it to be mine; for even
though it is a curse, yet is it not His, and is it not of His attribution? What does that accursed one know of its
worth? Why did He not vouchsafe to the princes of the Community to set their feet on the crown of the
Throne? The jeweller knows the value of the jewel. If a king sets a glass bead or a crystal on his hand, it
appears as a jewel; but if a greengrocer makes a sealring of a jewel and puts it on his finger, it appears as a
bead of glass.”

Thereafter Shebli was composed for a while. Then his agitation returned.
“What is it?” they asked.
“Two winds are blowing,” he answered. “One is the wind of loving kindness, the other the wind of wrath.
Upon whomsoever the wind of loving kindness blows, he attains his goal; upon whomsoever the wind of
wrath blows, he is imprisoned in the veil. Upon whom shall that wind alight? If the wind of loving kindness is
to light on me, in that fond hope I can endure all this hardship and suffering. If the wind of wrath is to light
on me, this my present suffering shall be naught in comparison with what will then befalI me. Nothing,”
he added, “weighs more heavily on my heart than the one dirham of oppression I have been guilty of, though
I have given a thousand dirhams in expiation thereof. My heart will not rest. Give me the water of purification.”
They brought him water, but forgot to let it run through his beard till he reminded them.

All that night Shebli recited these verses. Whatever house Thou tak’st for thine
No lamp is needed there to shine. Upon the day that men shall bring
Their proofs before the Judge and King, Our proof shall be, in that dread place,
The longed-for beauty of Thy face.

A company then gathered around him to say the funeral prayers. His end was come, and he realized
what was passing. “How marvellous!” he exclaimed. “A throng of
dead men are come to pray over one living.” “Say, There is no god but God,” they said.
“Since there is no other than He,” he replied, “how can I utter a negative?”
“There is no help. Say the words of attestation,” they urged him.
“The King of Love says, I will not accept a bribe,” Shebli retorted.
Then one present raised his voice to prompt him. “Here is a dead man come, to awaken the living!”
Shebli exclaimed. A little while passed. Then they said, “How are you?”
“I have rejoined the Beloved,” he answered. Then he expired.