Sufi Biography: Hasan of Basra

Sufi Biography: Hasan of Basra

Al-Hasan ibn Abi ‘l Hasan al-Basri was born at Medina in 21 (642), the son of a slave captured in
Maisan who afterwards became a client of the Prophet Mohammad’s secretary Zaid ibn Thabet.
Brought up in Basra, he met many Companions of the Prophet including, it is said, seventy of
those who fought at the Battle of Badr. He grew up to become one of the most prominent figures
of his generation, being famous for his uncompromising piety and outspoken condemnation of
worldliness in high places.

Whilst the Mo’tazelite theologians claim him as the founder of their
movement (and ‘Amr ibn ‘Obaid and Wasel ibn ‘Ata’ are counted amongst his pupils), in Sufi
hagiography he is revered as one of the greatest saints of early Islam. He died at Basra in 110
(728). Many of his speeches—he was a brilliant orator—and sayings are quoted by Arab authors
and not a few of his letters have been preserved.


The conversion of Hasan of Basra

The beginning of Hasan of Basra’s conversion was as follows. He was a jewel merchant and was called
Hasan of the Pearls. He traded with Byzantium, and had to do with the generals and ministers of Caesar.
On one occasion, going to Byzantium he called on the prime minister and conversed with him a while.

“We will go to a certain place,” the minister told him, “if you are agreeable.”
“It is for you to say,” Hasan replied. “I agree.”
So the minister commanded a horse to be brought for Hasan. He mounted with the minister, and they set
out. When they reached the desert Hasan perceived a tent of Byzantine brocade, fastened with ropes of silk
and golden pegs, set firm in the ground. He stood to one side. Then a mighty army, all accoutred in the
panoply of war, came out; they circled the tent, said a few words, and departed. Philosophers and scholars to
the number of nigh four hundred arrived on the scene; they circled the tent, said a few words, and departed.
After that three hundred illumined elders with white beards approached the tent, circled it, said a few
words, and departed. Thereafter more than two hundred moon-fair maidens, each bearing a plate of gold
and silver and precious stones, circled the tent, said a few words, and departed.
Hasan relates that, astonished and filled with wonder, he asked himself what this might be.

“When we alighted,” he went on, “I asked the minister. He said that the Caesar had a son of unsurpassable
beauty, perfect in all the branches of learning and unrivalled in the arena of manly prowess. His father
loved him with all his heart.”

Suddenly he fell ill—so Hasan related on the authority of the minister. All the skilled physicians proved
powerless to cure him. Finally he died, and was buried in that tent. Once every year people come out to visit
him. First an immense army circles the tent, and they say: “O prince, if this circumstance that has befallen
thee had come about in war, we would have all sacrificed our lives for thee, to ransom thee back. But the
circumstance that has befallen thee is at the hand of one against whom we cannot fight, whom we cannot
challenge.” This they say, and then return. The philosophers and the scholars come forward,
and say: “This circumstance has been brought about by one against whom we cannot do anything by means of
learning and philosophy, science and sophistry. For all the philosophers of the world are powerless before
him, and all the learned are ignorant beside his knowledge. Otherwise we would have contrived devices and
spoken words which all in creation could not have withstood.” This they say, and then return.
Next the venerable elders advance, and say: “O prince, if this circumstance that has befallen thee could
have been set right by the intercession of elders, we would all have interceded with humble petitions, and
would not have abandoned thee there. But this circumstance has been brought upon thee by one against
whom no mortal man’s intercession profits anything.”

This they say, and depart. Now the moon-fair maidens with their plates of gold
and precious stones advance, circle the tent, and say: “Son of Caesar, if this circumstance that has befallen
thee could have been set right by wealth and beauty, we would have sacrificed ourselves and given great moneys,
and would not have abandoned thee. But this circumstance has been brought upon thee by one on
whom wealth and beauty have no effect.” This they say, and return.
Then Caesar himself with his chief minister enters the tent, and says: “O eye and lamp of thy father, O
fruit of the heart of thy father, O dearest beloved of thy father, what is in thy father’s hand to perform? Thy
father brought a mighty army, he brought philosophers and scholars, intercessors and advisers, beautiful maidens,
wealth and all manner of luxuries; and he came himself. If all this could have been of avail, thy father
would have done all that lay in his power. But this circumstance has been brought about by one before
whom thy father, with all this apparatus, this army and retinue, this luxury and wealth and treasure, is powerless.
Peace be upon you, till next year!” This he says, and returns.

These words of the minister so affected Hasan that he was beside himself. At once he made arrangements
to return. Coming to Basra, he took an oath never to laugh again in this world, till his ultimate destiny
became clear to him. He flung himself into all manner of devotions and austerities, such that no man in his
time could exceed that discipline.

Hasan of Basra and Abu Amr

It is related that Abu Amr, the leading authority on the reading of the Koran, was teaching the Koran one day
when suddenly a handsome boy arrived to join his class. Abu Amr gazed at the child improperly, and
immediately he forgot the whole Koran, from the p of “Praise” to the n of “jinn and men”. A fire possessed
him, and he lost all self-control. In this state he called  on Hasan of Basra and described to him his predicament.
“Master,” he wept bitterly, “such is the situation. I have forgotten the whole Koran.”
Hasan was most distressed to hear of his situation. “Now is the season of the pilgrimage,” he said. “Go
and perform the pilgrimage. When you have done that, repair to the mosque of Khaif. There you will see an
old man seated in the prayer-niche. Do not spoil his time, but let him be until he is disengaged. Then ask
him to say a prayer for you.”

Abu Amr acted accordingly. Seated in a corner of the mosque, he observed a venerable elder and about him
a circle of people seated. Some time passed; then a man entered, clad in spotless white robes. The people made
way before him, greeted him, and conversed together. When the hour of prayer arrived, the man departed
and the people departed with him, so that the elder remained alone.

Abu Amr then approached and saluted him.  “In Allah’s name, help me,” he cried. And he described his predicament. The elder, much
concerned, raised his eyes to heaven. “He had not yet lowered his head,” Abu Amr recounted, “when the Koran came back to me. I fell
down before him for joy.” “Who recommended me to you?” the elder asked.
“Hasan of Basra,” Abu Amr replied. “Anyone who has an imam like Hasan,” the old man
commented, “what need has he of another? Well, Hasan has exposed me. Now I will expose him. He rent
my veil, and I will rend his as well. That man,” he went on, “in the white robes who entered after the afternoon
prayer and left before the rest, and the others did him reverence—that man was Hasan. Every day he prays
the afternoon prayer in Basra and then comes here, converses with me, and returns to Basra for the evening
prayer. Anyone who has an imam like Hasan, why should he ask me for a prayer?”

Hasan of Basra and the fire-worshipper

Hasan had a neighbour named Simeon who was a fireworshipper. Simeon fell ill and was at death’s door.
Friends begged Hasan to visit him; he called, to find him in bed, blackened with fire and smoke.
“Fear God,” Hasan counselled him. “You have passed all your life amid fire and smoke. Accept Islam,
that God may have mercy on you.” “Three things hold me back from becoming a
Muslim,” the fire-worshipper replied. “The first is, that you speak ill of the world, yet night and day you pursue
worldly things. Secondly, you say that death is a fact to be faced, yet you make no preparation for
death. In the third place, you say that God’s face shall be seen, yet today you do everything contrary to His
good pleasure.”

“This is the token of those who know truly,” Hasan commented. “Now if believers act as you describe, what
have you to say? They acknowledge the unity of God; whereas you have spent your life in the worship of fire.
You who have worshipped fire for seventy years, and I who have never worshipped fire—we are both carried
off to Hell. Hell will consume you and me. God will pay no regard to you; but if God so wills, the fire will not
dare so much as to burn one hair of my body. For fire is a thing created by God; and the creature is subject to the
Creator’s command. Come now, you who have worshipped fire for seventy years; let us both put our hands
into the fire, then you will see with your own eyes the impotence of fire and the omnipotence of God.”
So saying, Hasan thrust his hand into the fire and held it there. Not a particle of his body was affected or
burnt. When Simeon saw this he was amazed. The dawn of true knowledge began to break.

“For seventy years I have worshipped fire,” he groaned. “Now only a breath or two remains to me.
What am I to do?” “Become a Muslim,” was Hasan’s reply.
“If you give it me in writing that God will not punish me,” said Simeon, “then I will believe. But until I
have it in writing, I will not believe.”

Hasan wrote it down. “Now order just witnesses of Basra to append their
testimony.” The witnesses endorsed the document. Then Simeon wept many tears and proclaimed the faith. He spoke
his last testament to Hasan. “When I die, bid them wash me, then commit me to the earth with your own hands, and place this document
in my hand. This document will be my proof.”

Having charged Hasan thus, he spoke the attestation of faith and died. They washed his body, said the
prayer over him, and buried him with the document in his hand. That night Hasan went to sleep pondering
what he had done. “How could I help a drowning man, seeing that I am drowning myself? Since I have no control over my own
fate, why did I venture to prescribe how God should act?”

With this thought he fell asleep. He saw Simeon in a dream glowing like a candle; on his head a crown,
robed in fine raiment, he was walking with a smile in the garden of Paradise.
“How are you, Simeon?” Hasan enquired. “Why do you ask? You can see for yourself,” Simeon
answered. “God Almighty of His bounty brought me nigh His presence and graciously showed me His face.
The favours He showered upon me surpass all description.

You have honoured your guarantee; so take your document. I have no further need of it.”
When Hasan awoke, he saw that parchment in his hand.“Lord God,” he cried, “I know well that what
Thou doest is without cause, save of Thy bounty. Who shall suffer loss at Thy door? Thou grantest a Guebre
of seventy years to come into Thy near presence because of a single utterance. How then wilt Thou
exclude a believer of seventy years?”

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