Sufi Biography: Ibn Ata

Sufi Biography: Ibn Ata

Abu ‘l-‘Abbas Ahmad ibn Mohammad ibn Sahl ibn ‘Ata’ al-Adami was a close companion of al-Jonaid. Author of mystical verses and a prominent member of the Baghdad circle, he was put to death in 309 (922).

Anecdotes of Ibn Ata

Ibn Ata was one of the leading disciples of Jonaid. One day a party of men entered his oratory to find the whole floor drenched.

“What is this state of affairs?” they asked.

“A mystical experience came to me,” he explained. “In shamefacedness I circled around the oratory, pouring tears from my eyes.”


 “What was it?” they enquired.

“When I was a child,” he explained, “I took a dove belonging to someone. I remembered that. I gave a thousand silver dinars to compensate its owner, but my conscience could not rest. I am weeping, wondering what the consequence will be.”

“How much of the Koran do you recite daily?” Ibn Ata was asked.

“Formerly,” he replied, “I used to complete the whole Koran twice every twenty-four hours. Now I have been reciting the Koran for fourteen years, and today I have just reached the Sura of the Spoils.”

Ibn Ata had ten sons, all handsome boys. They were accompanying their father on a journey when thieves fell upon them and proceeded to strike off their heads one by one. Ibn Ata said nothing; as each son was killed, he turned his face to heaven and laughed. Nine of his sons were already executed, and the thieves were about to slay the tenth.

“A fine father you are!” the tenth son addressed him. “Nine of your sons are beheaded, and you say nothing but simply laugh.”

“Soul of your father,” Ibn Ata answered him, “He who is doing this, to Him one can say nothing. He knows, and He sees; He is able, if He wills, to save them all.”

The thief who was about to kill the tenth son was overcome by emotion when he heard Ibn Ata’s words.

“Old man,” he cried, “if you had said this before, none of your sons would have been killed.”

“How is it with you Sufis,” certain theologians asked Ibn Ata, “that you have invented terms which sound strange to those who hear them, abandoning ordinary language? It can only be one of two things.

Either you are practising dissimulation, and dissimulation is improper in relation to the truth, so that it is clear that your doctrine is not true; or else there is some evident flaw in your doctrine which you are concealing in your public utterances.”

“We do this because it is precious to us,” Ibn Ata replied. “What we practise is precious to us, and we desired that none but we Sufis should know of it. We did not wish to employ ordinary language, so we invented a special vocabulary.”

Why Ibn Ata cursed Ali ibn Isa

Ibn Ata was denounced as a heretic. Ali ibn Isa, who was then the caliph’s vizier, summoned him and spoke roughly to him. Ibn Ata replied in vigorous terms. This enraged the vizier, who ordered his servants to remove his shoes and beat his head with them until he died. In the midst of this Ibn Ata exclaimed, “May God cut off your hands and feet!”

Some while after the caliph was angered against Ali ibn Isa and ordered his hands and feet to be struck off

Certain of the Sufi masters have found fault with Ibn Ata on this account. “Why,” they say, “when your prayers could have effected the man’s reformation, did you curse him? You ought to have blessed him.” Others however have excused him, saying, “It may be that he cursed him because he was unjust to save other Muslims.”

Another explanation is that Ibn Ata, being a man of intuition, foresaw what would be done to the vizier. He simply agreed with what had been Divinely destined, so that God spoke His Will by his tongue, he being not involved at all.

My own opinion (Shaykh Faridudin Attar’s) is that Ibn Ata in fact blessed him and did not curse him, so that he might attain the degree of martyrdom. He prayed that the vizier should suffer humiliation in this world and fall from his high rank and great wealth. Seen in this light, Ibn Ata wished nothing but good for Ali ibn Isa; for punishment in this world is light to bear, in comparison with that in the world to come.