Sufi Biography: Beshr ibn al-Hareth (Beshr the Barefoot)

Sufi Biography: Beshr ibn al-Hareth (Beshr the Barefoot)

Abu Nasr Beshr ibn al-Hareth al-Hafi was born near Merv c. 150(767) and was converted from a life of dissipation, studied Traditions in Baghdad, then abandoned formal learning for the life of a mendicant, destitute, starving and barefoot. He died in Baghdad in 227 (841). He was admired  by Ahmad ibn Hanbal and respected by the caliph al-Ma’mun al Rashid.

The conversion of Beshr the Barefoot

Beshr the Barefoot was born in Merv and settled at Baghdad. The beginning of his conversion happened as
follows. He had lived a life of dissipation, and one day as he was staggering along the road drunk he found a
piece of paper on which was written, “In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.”


He bought some attar of roses and perfumed the paper with it, and deposited it reverently in his house. That night a certain
holy man had a dream in which he was bidden to tell Beshr:
“Thou hast perfumed my Name, so I have perfumed thee. Thou hast exalted my Name, so I have exalted
thee. Thou hast purified my Name, so I have purified thee. By my Majesty, I will surely perfume thy name in
this world and the world to come.”

“He is a dissolute fellow,” thought the saint. “Perhaps I am seeing erroneously.”
So he made ablution, prayed and returned to sleep. He saw the selfsame dream a second and a third time.
In the morning he arose and went in search of Beshr. “He is at a wine-party,” he was told.
He went to the house where Beshr was. “Was Beshr here?” he enquired.
“He was,” they said. “But he is drunk and incapable.” “Tell him I have a message for him,” said the saint.
“A message from whom?” demanded Beshr when he was told.
“A message from God,” replied the saint.
“Alas!” cried Beshr, bursting into tears. “Is it a message of chiding or of chastisement? Wait, till I tell
my friends. Friends,” he addressed his drinking-companions, “I have had a call. I am going. I bid you
farewell. You will never see me again at this business.” And from that day onward he lived so saintly, that
none heard his name mentioned without heavenly peace invaded his heart. He took to the way of selfdenial,
and so overwhelmed was he by the vision of God that he never put shoes on his feet. For that reason
he was called Beshr the Barefoot. “Why do you not wear shoes?” he was asked

“I was barefooted the day when I made my peace with God,” he said, “and ever since I am ashamed to
wear shoes. Moreover God Almighty says, ‘I have made the earth a carpet for you.’ It is not seemly to
tread with shoes on the carpet of kings.” Ahmad-e Hanbal visited Beshr frequently, having a
complete faith in him to such a point that his pupils protested. “Today you are without rival as a scholar of
Traditions, the law, theology and every manner of science, yet every moment you go after a dissolute fellow.
Is that seemly?”

“Indeed, in all the sciences you have enumerated I have better knowledge than he,” Ahmad-e Hanbal
replied. “But he knows God better than I.” So he would pursue Beshr, saying, “Tell me about my

Anecdotes of Beshr

“Tonight Beshr will be your guest.” This conviction entered Beshr’s sister’s mind. She
swept and watered her house, and waited expectantly for Beshr to arrive. Suddenly Beshr came like one distraught.
“Sister, I am going up to the roof,” he announced. He planted his foot on the stairs and climbed several
steps, then remained standing like that till the next day. When dawn broke, he descended. He went off to
pray in the mosque.

“What was the reason you stood all night?” asked his sister when he returned.
“The thought entered my mind,” Beshr replied,
“that in Baghdad there are so many people whose names are Beshr— one a Jew, one a Christian, one a
Magian. My name too is Beshr, and I have attained the great felicity of being a Muslim.
What, I asked myself, did the others do to be excluded, and what did I do to attain such felicity?
Bewildered by this thought, I remained rooted to the spot.”

Beshr possessed seven bookcases of volumes on Traditions. He buried them all in the ground, and did
not transmit them.
“The reason I do not transmit Traditions,” he explained, “is that I perceive in myself a lust to do so.
If I perceive in my heart a lust to keep silence, then I will transmit.”
For a space of forty years Beshr longed for roast meat but had not the money to buy any. For many years his
heart yearned for beans, but he ate none. He never drank water from streams dug out by the authorities.

One of the Saints relates, “I was with Beshr once when the weather was extremely cold. I saw him naked
and trembling. ‘Abu Nasr’I said, ‘in such weather people put on extra clothing. You have taken off your
clothes.’ ‘Yes,’ Beshr replied, ‘I remembered the poor. I had no money with which to succour them, so I wanted
to share with them physically.’” Ahmad ibn Ebrahim tells the following story.
“Tell Ma’ruf,” Beshr said to me, “ that I will call on him after I have said my prayer.”
I delivered the message, and we waited together. We performed the midday prayer, and Beshr did not
come. We performed the afternoon prayer, and he did not come. We performed the prayer before sleeping.
“Glory be to God,” I said to myself, “does a man like Beshr break his word? This is extraordinary.”
I kept on the lookout, we being at the door of the mosque. Presently Beshr came along with his prayer
rug under his arm. When he reached the Tigris he walked on the water and so came to us. He and Ma’ruf
talked till dawn, then he returned walking on the water again. Flinging myself down from the roof, I hurried to
him and kissed his hands and feet. “Pray for me,” I implored him.
Beshr prayed. Then he said, “Reveal what you have
seen to no man.”

So long as he was alive, I told no one. A crowd was gathered around Beshr, and he was preaching on the theme of satisfaction. One of those
present interrupted him. “Abu Nasr, you accept nothing from any creature in order to attain prominence. If you are sincere in your
self-denial and have truly turned your face from this world, then take offerings from other men so that you
may lose your prominence in people’s eyes. Give to the poor what you receive, but give in secret; then be
unwavering in trusting in God, and obtain your provision from the world unseen.”
These words made a powerful impression on Beshr’s followers. Beshr answered as follows.
“Attend now! The poor are divided into three classes. One class consists of those who never ask for anything,
and if they are given anything they yet decline to accept it. These people are the spiritualists; for when
they ask aught from God, God gives them whatever they desire, and if they adjure God their need is at once
granted. The second class are those who do not ask, but if they are given anything they accept it. These are
the middling folk; they are constant in their trust in God, and they are those who shall sit at the table of

Paradise. The third class are those who sit with patience; as far as they can they observe their moment,
and repel outward enticements.” “I am satisfied with this statement,” the interrupter
said. “May God be satisfied with you!” A throng of people came to Beshr.
“We have come from Syria, and are going on the pilgrimage,” they said. “Do you feel inclined to accompany
us?” “On three conditions,” Beshr replied. “First, we will take nothing with us; second, we will not ask for anything;
third, if we are given anything we will not accept it.”
“Not to ask for anything and not to take anything with us— that we are able to concede,” they answered.
“But if an offering comes along, we cannot not take it.”
“You have put your faith not in God,” Beshr rebuked them, “but in your pilgrims’ provisions.”
A man once came to consult Beshr’s advice. “I have two thousand dirhams lawfully acquired. I
wish to go on the pilgrimage.” “You want to walk for your own amusement,” Beshr
replied. “If you are really intent on pleasing God, then go and pay someone’s debt, or give the money to an
orphan, or someone in poor circumstances. The ease thus given to a Muslim’s heart is more acceptable to
God than a hundred pilgrimages.” “I put prior the desire to make the pilgrimage,” the
man said. “That is because you have obtained these moneys by means that are not good,” Beshr commented. “You
will never find rest until you have spent them in improper ways.”

Beshr related as follows

Once I saw the Prophet in a dream. He said to me, “Beshr, do you not know why God has chosen you
from amongst your contemporaries and has raised you up to high rank?”
“No, Messenger of God,” I replied. “It is because you have followed my Sunna, and reverenced
the righteous, and given good counsel to your brethren, and loved me and the people of my household,”
the Prophet told me. “For this reason God has advanced you to the station of the pious.”
Beshr also told the following story. One night I saw Ali in a dream. I said, “Give me
counsel.” “How good a thing,” said Ali, “is the compassion shown by the rich to the poor for the sake of seeking
the reward of the All-merciful. Better still is the disdain shown by the poor towards the rich relying upon the
munificence of the Creator of the world.”
Beshr lay on his deathbed. A man entered and complained of the tight-fistedness of fate. Beshr gave him
his shirt and put on a borrowed shirt, and in that shirt set out into the world beyond.
It is recorded that so long as Beshr was alive, no mule dropped its dung in the streets of Baghdad out of
reverence for him, because he walked barefooted . One night a man with a mule observed his beast drop its
dung in the road. “Ah, Beshr the Barefoot is no more,” he exclaimed. Enquiry was made, and so it proved. The man was
asked how he knew. “Because so long as he was alive, on all the streets of
Baghdad no mule-dung was to be seen. I observed that the rule had been broken, and so knew that Beshr was
no more.”