Sufi Biography: Dhul-Nun al-Misri (Zulnoon)
Abu Al-Faiz Thauban ibn Ebrahim al-Mesri, called Dhul-Nun al-Misri , was born at Ekhmim in Upper Egypt c. 180 (796), studied under various teachers and travelled extensively in Arabia and Syria. In 214 (829) he was arrested on a charge of heresy and sent to Baghdad to prison, but after examination he was released on the caliph’s orders to return to Cairo, where he died in 246 (861); his tombstone has been preserved.
A legendary figure as alchemist and thaumaturge, he is supposed to have known the secret of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. A number of poems and short treatises are attributed to him, but these are for the most part apocryphal.
Dhul-Nun al-Misri the Egyptian and how he was converted.
Dhul-Nun al-Misri the Egyptian told the following story of his conversion.
I was informed that in a certain place an ascetic was living. I set forth to visit him, and found him suspending himself from a tree.
O body,’ he was saying, assist me to obey God, else I will keep you hanging like this until you die of hunger.’
A fit of weeping overcame me. The devotee heard me crying.
Who is this,’ he called, who has compassion upon one whose shame is little and whose crimes are many?’
I approached him and gave him greeting.
What is this state of affairs?’ I asked.
This body of mine gives me no peace to obey God,’ he replied. It wants to mingle with other men.’
I supposed that he must have shed a Muslim’s blood, or committed some other deadly sin.
Did you not realize,’ the ascetic said to me, that once you mingle with other men, everything else follows?’
What a tremendous ascetic you are!’ I cried.
Would you like to see someone more ascetic than I?’ he said
I would,’ I said.
Go into yonder mountain,’ he said. There you will see.’
I proceeded thither, and saw a young man squatting in a hermitage; one foot had been amputated and flung out of the cell, and the worms were devouring it. I approached him and saluted him, then I enquired after his circumstances.
One day,’ he told me, I was seated in this hermitage when a woman happened to pass by. My heart inclined towards her and my body demanded of me to go after her. I put one foot out of the cell, then I heard a voice saying, Are you not ashamed, after serving and obeying God for thirty years, an now you obey Satan and chase a loose woman?’ So I cut off the foot that I had set outside the hermitage, and now I sit here waiting for what will transpire and what they will do with me. What business has brought you to such sinners? If you desire to see a man of God, proceed to the top of this mountain.’
The mountain was too high for me to reach the top, so I enquired about this man.
Yes,’ I was told. It is a long time now that a man has been serving God in that cell. One day a man came along and disputed with him, saying that daily bread was meant for earning. The devotee vowed that he would eat nothing that involved the acquisition of material possessions. For many days he ate nothing. Then Almighty God sent a cloud of bees to hover around him and give him honey.’
The things I had seen and the words I had heard caused a mighty pain to clutch my heart. I realized that whoever puts his trust in God, God cares for him and suffers not his anguish to be in vain. As I went on my way, I saw a blind little bird perched in a tree. It fluttered down from the tree.
Where will this helpless creature get food and water?’ I cried.
The bird dug the earth with its beak and two saucers appeared, one of gold containing grain and the other of silver full of rosewater. The bird ate its fill, then it flew up into the tree and the saucers vanished.
Utterly dumbfounded, Dhul-Nun al-Misri henceforward put his trust in God completely, and was truly converted. He pushed on several stages, and when night fell he came to a desert. In that desert he sighted a jar of gold and jewels, and on the top of the jar a tablet on which was written the name of God. His companions divided the gold and the jewels between them.
Give me the tablet on which is written the name of my Friend,’ Dhul-Nun al-Misri cried.
And he took the tablet. He kissed the tablet all through the day and night, till by the blessing of the tablet he so progressed that one night he dreamed a voice said to him, All the rest chose the gold and jewels, for they are precious. You chose what was loftier than that, my Name. Therefore I have opened to you the door of knowledge and wisdom.’
Dhul-Nun al-Misri then returned to the city. His story continues.
I was walking one day when I reached the margin of a river. By the water I saw a pavilion. I proceeded to make my ablutions, and when I had finished my eye suddenly fell on the roof of the pavilion. On the balcony I saw a very beautiful girl standing. Wanting to prove her, I said, Maiden, to whom do you belong?’
Dho l-Nun,’ replied she, when you appeared from afar I supposed you were a madman. When you came nearer, I supposed you were a scholar. When you came still nearer, I supposed you were a mystic. Now I see you are neither mad, nor a scholar, nor a mystic.’
Why do you say that?’ I demanded.
If you had been a madman,’ she replied, you would not have made your ablutions. If you had been a scholar, you would not have gazed at that which is prohibited you. If you had been a mystic, your eye would have fallen upon naught but God.
So saying, she vanished. I then realized that she was not a mortal creature, but had been sent as a warning. A fire invaded my soul, and I flung myself in the direction of the sea.
When I reached the seashore, I saw a company of men embarked in a ship. I also embarked in that ship. After some days had passed, by chance a jewel belonging to a merchant was
lost on board. One by one the passengers were taken and searched. Finally they reached the unanimous conclusion that the jewel was on me. They set about belabouring me and treated me with great disrespect, whilst I remained silent. At last I could endure no more.
O Creator, Thou knowest,’ I cried.
Thousands of fishes thereupon put their heads out of the water, each with a jewel in its mouth.
Dhul-Nun al-Misri took one of the jewels and gave it to the merchant. All on board when they saw this fell at his feet and begged his pardon. So highly was he considered in the eyes of men. That was why he was called Dhul-Nun al-Misri (The Man of the Fish’).
Dho I-Nun is arrested and taken to Baghdad
When Dhul-Nun al-Misri had already attained a high degree, no one recognized his true greatness. The people of Egypt denounced him unanimously as a heretic, and informed the caliph Motawakkel of his activities. Motawakkel sent officers to convey him to Baghdad in fetters. When he entered the caliph’s court he declared, This very hour I have learned true Islam from an old woman, and true chivalry from a water-carrier.’
How is that?’ he was asked.
When I reached the caliph’s palace,’ he replied, and beheld that court in all its magnificence, with the chamberlains and attendants thronging its passages, I wished that some change might take place in my appearance. A woman with a stick in her hand came up and, looking straight at me, addressed me.
Do not be afraid of the body before whom they are taking you, for he and you are both servants of one
Almighty Lord. Unless God wills it, they can do nothing to His servant.’
Then on the road I saw a water-carrier. He gave me a draught of pure water. I made a sign to one who was with me to give the man a dinar. He refused to take it.
You are a prisoner and in bonds,’ he said. It would not be true chivalry to take anything from such a prisoner, a stranger in bonds.’
After that it was ordered that he should be put in prison. Forty days and nights he remained in gaol, and every day the sister of Beshr the Barefoot brought him a loaf, the earnings of her spindle. The day when he came out of prison, the forty loaves remained intact, not one having been eaten. When Beshr’s sister heard of this, she became very sad.
You know that those loaves were lawful food and unsolicited. Why did you not eat them?’ she protested.
Because the plate was not clean,’ Dhul-Nun al-Misri replied, meaning that it had been handled by the gaoler.
As Dhul-Nun al-Misri came out of the prison he stumbled and cut his forehead. It is related that much blood flowed, but not one drop fell on his face, his hair or his clothes, and all the blood that fell on the ground vanished at once, by the command of Almighty God.
Then they brought him before the caliph, and he was ordered to answer the charges preferred against him.
He explained his doctrine in such a manner that Motawakkel burst into tears, and all his ministers stood in wonder at his eloquence. So the caliph became his disciple, and accorded him high honour.
Dho I-Nan and the pious disciple
There was a disciple of Dhul-Nun al-Misri who had forty times observed the forty days’ seclusion, forty times he had stood at Arafat, and for forty years he had kept vigil by night. Forty long years he had sat sentinel over the chamber of his heart. One day he came to Dho l-Nun.
`I have done all this,’ he said. For all that I have suffered, the Friend speaks not one word to me nor favours me with a single glance. He takes no account of me, and reveals nothing to me from the unseen world. All this I say not in order to praise myself. I am simply stating the facts. I have performed all that was in the power of me, poor wretch, to do. I make no complaint against God. I simply state the facts, that I devote my whole heart and soul to His service. But I am telling the story of the sadness of my evil luck, the tale of my misfortune. I do not say this because my heart has grown weary of obedience. Only I fear that if further life remains ahead of me, it will be the same. For a whole lifetime I have knocked in hope, but I have heard no response. Now it is grown hard for me to endure this any longer. Since you are the physician of the afflicted and the sovereign prescriber of the sages, minister now to my wretchedness.’
Go and eat your fill tonight,’ advised Dho l-Nun. Omit the prayer before sleep, and slumber the whole night through. So it may be that if the Friend will not show Himself kindly, He will at least show Himself reproachful; if He will not look on you with compassion, He will look on you with sternness.’
The dervish departed and ate his fill. His heart would not permit him to forgo the prayer before sleep, and so he prayed the prayer and fell asleep. That night he saw the Prophet in a dream.
Your Friend greets you,’ the Prophet said. He says, An effeminate wretch and no true man is he who comes to My court and is quickly sated. The root of the matter is uprightness of life, and no reproaches. God Almighty declares, I have given your heart its desire of forty years, and I grant you to attain all that you hope for, and fulfill all your desire. But convey My greetings to that bandit and pretender Dho I-Nun. Say then to him, Pretender and liar, if I do not expose your shame before all the city, then I am not your Lord. See that you no more beguile the hapless lovers of My court and scare them not away from My court.’
The disciple awoke, and was overcome by weeping. He went and told Dhul-Nun al-Misri what he had seen and heard. When Dhul-Nun al-Misri heard the words, God sends you greeting and declares you a pretender and a liar’, he rolled over and over with joy and wept ecstatically.
Anecdotes of Dho l-Nan
Dhul-Nun al-Misri relates as follows.
I was wandering in the mountains when I observed a party of afflicted folk gathered together.
What befell you?’ I asked.
There is a devotee living in a cell here,’ they answered. Once every year he comes out and breathes on these people and they are all healed. Then he returns to his cell, and does not emerge again until the following year.’
I waited patiently until he came out. I beheld a man pale of cheek, wasted and with sunken eyes. The awe of him caused me to tremble. He looked on the multitude with compassion. Then he raised his eyes to heaven, and breathed several times over the afflicted ones. All were healed.
As he was about to retire to his cell, I seized his skirt.
For the love of God,’ I cried. You have healed the outward sickness; pray heal the inward sickness.’
Dho l-Nun,’ he said, gazing at me, take your hand from me. The Friend is watching from the zenith of might and majesty. If He sees you clutching at another than He, He will abandon you to that person, and that person to you, and you will perish each at the other’s hand.’
So saying, he withdrew into his cell.
One day Dho l-Nun’s companions came to him and found him weeping.
Why are you weeping?’ they asked.
Last night when I was prostrating in prayer,’ he replied, my eyes closed in sleep. I saw the Lord, and He said to me, O Abu l-Faiz, I created all creatures and they separated into ten parts. I offered the material world to them; nine of those ten parts turned their faces to the material world. One part remained over. That one part divided also into ten parts. I offered Paradise to them; nine parts turned their faces to Paradise. One part remained over. That one part split likewise into ten parts. I brought Hell before them; all fled and were scattered for fear of Hell. Only one part remained over, those who had not been lured by the material world, nor inclined after Paradise, neither were afraid of Hell. I said to them, My servants, you looked not upon the material world, you inclined not after Paradise, you were not afraid of Hell. What do you seek?’ All raised their heads and cried, Thou knowest best what we desire.’
One day a boy approached Dhul-Nun al-Misri and said, I have a hundred thousand dinars. I want to spend them in your service. I wish to use that gold on your dervishes.’
Are you of age?’ Dhul-Nun al-Misri asked him.
No,’ he replied.
Then you are not entitled to expend,’ Dhul-Nun al-Misri told him. Wait with patience until you are of age.’
When the boy came of age he returned to Dhul-Nun al-Misri and repented at his hands. Then he gave all that gold to the dervishes, until nothing remained of the hundred thousand dinars.
One day an emergency arose, and nothing remained to the dervishes, for they had spent all the money.
What a pity there is not another hundred thousand, so that I could spend it on these fine men,’ said the benefactor.
When Dhul-Nun al-Misri heard him speak these words, he realized that he had not yet penetrated to the inner truth of the mystic life, for worldly things still seemed important to him. He summoned the young man.
Go to the shop of such-and-such a druggist,’ he instructed him. Tell him from me to give you three dirhams’ worth of such-and-such a medicine.’
The youth went to the druggist’s, and presently returned.
Put the stuff in the mortar and pound it up small,’ Dhul-Nun al-Misri ordered him. Then pour on top of it a little oil, until it becomes a paste. Make three pellets of it, and pierce each with a needle. Then bring them to me.’
The youth carried out these instructions, and brought the pellets. Dhul-Nun al-Misri rubbed them in his hands and breathed on them, and they turned into three rubies the like of which was never seen.
Now take these to the market and have them valued,’ ordered Dho l-Nun. But do not sell them.’
The youth took the rubies to the market and displayed them. Each one was priced at a thousand dinars. He returned and told Dho l-Nun.
Now put them in the mortar and pound them, and throw them into water,’ the latter directed.
The youth did as instructed, and threw the powder into water.
My child,’ said Dho l-Nun, these dervishes are not hungry for lack of bread. This is their free choice.’
The youth repented, and his soul awoke. The world had no longer any worth in his eyes.
Dhul-Nun al-Misri related as follows.
For thirty years I called men to repent, but only one person came to the court of God in due obedience. The circumstances were these.
One day a prince with his retinue passed by me by the door of the mosque. I spoke these words.
No one is more foolish than the weakling who tangles with the strong.’
What words are these?’ demanded the prince.
Man is a weakling, yet he tangles with God who is strong,’ I said.
The young prince grew pale. He arose and departed. Next day he returned.
What is the way to God?’ he asked.
There is a little way, and there is a greater way,’ I answered. Which of the two do you want? If you desire the little way, abandon the world and the lusts of the flesh and give up sinning. If you want the great way, abandon everything but God, and empty your heart of all things.’
By Allah, I will choose only the greater way,’ said the prince.
The next day he put on the woollen robe, and entered the mystic way. In due course he became a saint.
The following story was told by Abu Ja’far the One-eyed.
I was with Dhul-Nun al-Misri when a group of his followers were present. They were telling stories of inanimate things obeying commands. Now there was a sofa in the room.
An example,’ said Dho l-Nun, of inanimate things obeying saints’ commands would be if I were to say to that sofa there, Waltz around the house’ and it started to move.’
No sooner had Dhul-Nun al-Misri spoken these words than the sofa started to circle round the house, then it returned to its place. A youth present burst into tears at the sight, and gave up the ghost. They washed his body on that very sofa, and buried him.
Once a man came up to Dhul-Nun al-Misri and said, I have a debt, and I have no means of paying it.’
Dhul-Nun al-Misri picked up a stone from the ground and gave it to him. The man took the stone to the bazaar. It had turned into an emerald. He sold it for four hundred dirhams and paid his debt.
A certain youth was always speaking against Sufis. One day Dhul-Nun al-Misri took the ring off his finger and handed it to him.
Take this to market and pawn it for a dinar,’ he said.
The young man took the ring to market, but they would not take it for more than one dirham. The youth returned with the news.
Now take it to the jewellers, and see what they value it at,’ Dhul-Nun al-Misri told him.
The jewellers priced the ring at a thousand dinars.
You know as much about Sufis,’ Dhul-Nun al-Misri said to the youth when he returned, as those stallholders in the market know about this ring.’
The youth repented, and disbelieved in the Sufis no more.
Dhul-Nun al-Misri had been longing for sekbaj for ten years, but he never gratified that longing. Now it was the eve of festival, and his soul said within him, How would it be if tomorrow you gave us a mouthful of sekbaj as a festival treat?’
Soul,’ answered Dho l-Nun, if you want me to do that, then consent with me tonight in chanting the whole Koran in the course of two rak’as.’
His soul consented. The next day Dhul-Nun al-Misri prepared sekbaj and set it before his soul. He washed his fingers and stood in prayer.
What happened?’ he was asked.
Just now,’ Dhul-Nun al-Misri replied, my soul said to me, At last after ten years I have attained my desire.’ By God,’ I answered, you shall not attain that desire.’
The relater of this story states that Dhul-Nun al-Misri had just spoken these words when a man entered and set a bowl of sekbaj before him.
Master,’ he said, I did not come on my own. I was sent. Let me explain. I earn my living as a porter, and I have children. For some time now they have been asking for sekbaj, and I have been saving up. Last night I made this sekbaj for the festival. Today I saw in a dream the world-adorning beauty of the Messenger of God. If you would see me on the morrow of uprising,’ said the Prophet, take this to Dhul-Nun al-Misri and tell him that Mohammad, the son of Abd Allah, the son of Abd al-Mottaleb, intercedes with him to make truce with his soul for one moment and swallow a few mouthfuls.’
I obey,’ said Dho l-Nun, weeping.
As Dhul-Nun al-Misri lay on his deathbed his friends asked him, What do you desire?’
My desire,’ he answered, is that ere I die, even if it be for only one moment, I may know Him.’
He then spoke the following verses.
Fear wasted me,
Yearning consumed me,
Love beguiled me,
God revived me.
One day later he lost consciousness. On the night of his departure from this world, seventy persons saw the Prophet in a dream. All reported that the Prophet said, The friend of God is coming. I have come out to welcome him.’
When he died, there was seen written in green on his brow, This is the friend of God. He died in the love of God. This is the slain of God by the sword of God.’
When they lifted his coffin to carry him to the grave the sun was extremely hot. The birds of the air came and with wings flapping kept his bier shaded from his house to the graveside.
As he was being borne along the road, a muezzin chanted the call to prayer. When he reached the words of attestation, Dhul-Nun al-Misri lifted a finger out of the shroud.
He is alive!’ the shout went up.
They laid down the bier. His finger was pointing, but he was dead. For all that they tried, they could not straighten his finger. When the people of Egypt beheld this, they were all put to shame and repented of the wrongs they had done him. They did things over his dust that cannot be described in words.