Sufi Biography: Ibn Khafif

Sufi Biography: Ibn Khafif

One of the great saints of Persia, Abu ‘Abd Allah Mohammad ibn Khafif ibn Esfakshad was born in Shiraz in 270 (882), it is said of a princely family. After a broad education he travelled to Baghdad, and there met al-Hallaj and other Sufis of the capital. He made the pilgrimage to Mecca at least six times, and is reported also to have visited Egypt, and Asia Minor. Author of a number of books, he died in his native city at a very advanced age in 371 (982).

The Asceticism of Ibn Khafif

Ibn Khafif of Fars was of royal descent. He was so called because he carried a light burden, was light of spirit and will face a light reckoning. Every night his meal on breaking his fast consisted of seven raisins, no more. One night the servitor gave him eight. He did not realize, and ate them. Finding no pleasure in his devotions, contrary to his nightly experience, he summoned the servant and interrogated him.


 “I gave you eight raisins tonight,” the servant admitted.

“Why?” demanded Ibn Khafif.

“I saw that you were enfeebled, and it hurt my heart,” said the servant. “I said to myself, if only you would get some strength.”

“So you were not my friend but my enemy,” Ibn Khafif cried. “If you had been my friend you would have given me six, not eight.”

And he dismissed him from his service and appointed another servant.

Ibn Khafif recalled the following.

At the beginning of my career I wished to go on the pilgrimage. When I reached Baghdad, my head was filled with so much conceit that I did not go to see Jonaid. As I travelled deep in the desert, carrying a rope and a bucket, thirst overcame me. I espied a well from which a deer was drinking. Just as I reached the edge of the well the water vanished into its depths.

“God,” I cried, “is Abd Allah of less worth than this deer?”

“This deer did not have a bucket and a rope,” I heard a voice say. “His reliance was on Us.”

Full of joy, I flung away the bucket and rope and went on my way.

“Abd Allah,” I heard the voice again, “We were putting you to the test. Since you have shown fortitude, return and drink.”

I returned to find the water up to the brim of the well. I performed my ablutions and drank. Then I set out once more, and all the way to Medina I had no need of water again because of my ritual purity.

When I was back in Baghdad, on Friday I went to mosque. Jonaid there caught sight of me and addressed me.

“Had you been truly patient, the water would have gushed forth from beneath your feet.”

In my youth (Ibn Khafif also related) a certain dervish came to call on me. Observing in me the marks of hunger, he invited me to his house. Some meat had been cooking, and the smell of it pervaded the house so that I was repelled and could not eat. The dervish, noticing this disdain in me, was filled with shame. I too was overcome by confusion. So I left the table and set out with some companions.

After reaching Qadesiya we lost our way, and were out of provisions. We bore up for some days, till we came to the brink of destruction. Things were so bad that we bought a dog at a high price and roasted it. They gave me a morsel. I was about to eat it when I remembered the episode of the dervish and the food he had offered me.

“This,” I told myself, “is in punishment for that day when the dervish was put to shame before me.”

I repented, so that the way was shown to us. When I returned home, I begged that dervish’s pardon.

One day I heard of an elder and a youth in Egypt who were engaged in perpetual meditation. I went to Egypt, and there saw two persons with their faces turned to Mecca. I greeted them thrice, but they did not answer me.

“God save you,” I cried. `’Answer my greeting!”

“Ibn Khafif,” said the youth lifting up his head, “this world is a little thing, and of this little only a little remains. Of this little take a large portion, Ibn Khafif! Perhaps you have time to spare to trouble to greet us.”

So saying, he lowered his head. Though hungry and thirsty, I forgot my hunger, so completely did they entrance me. I waited, and performed the noon and afternoon prayers with them. Then I spoke.

“Give me counsel.”

“Ibn Khafif, we are men of affliction,” he replied. “We have not the tongue to offer advice. Another is needed to counsel the afflicted.”

I remained there three days without eating and sleeping.

“What can I say to adjure them to counsel me?” I asked myself.

The youth lifted his head.

“Seek the company of someone, the sight of whom will remind you of God and the awe of whom will move your heart, someone who will counsel you with the tongue of deeds, not words.”

One year I was staying in Byzantium. One day I went out into the desert. They brought along a monk wasted as a shadow, burned him, and smeared his ashes on the eyes of the blind. By the omnipotent power of God they recovered their sight. The sick also partook of his ashes and were healed. I marvelled how this could be, seeing that they were following a false faith. That night I saw the Prophet in a dream.

“Messenger of God, what are you doing there?” I asked.

“I have come for your sake,” the Prophet replied.

“Messenger of God, what was this miracle?” I asked.

“It was the result of sincerity and self-discipline in error,” the Prophet answered. “If it had been in truth, how then would it have been!”

Ibn Khafif and his wives

One midnight Ibn Khafif summoned his servant.

“Bring me a woman,” he said. “I want one.”

“Where shall I go in the middle of the night?” the servant replied. “But I have a daughter. If the master gives me permission, I will fetch her.”

“Fetch her,” Ibn Khafif ordered.

The servant brought his daughter, and Ibn Khafif married her on the spot. Seven months later a child was born, but it died.

“Tell your daughter to divorce me,” Ibn Khafif said to his servant. “Else if she wishes, she may stay on.”

“Master, what is the mystery in this?” the servant asked.

“The night of our marriage,” Ibn Khafif explained, “I dreamed that it was the resurrection. Many people were standing stupefied, up to their necks in sweat. All at once a child came along, took its mother and father by the hand and led them swift as the wind over the bridge between Hell and Heaven. I too desired to have a child. When that child came into the world and departed, my goal was attained.”

It is said that thereafter Ibn Khafif contracted four hundred marriages. For being of royal descent, when he repented and achieved perfect saintliness he received proposals from all sides. He married two or three at a time. One lady, the daughter of the vizier, was married to him for forty years.

His wives were once asked how Ibn Khafif behaved with them privately.

“We know nothing about his company,” they replied. “If anyone knows, it would be the vizier’s daughter.”

So they asked her.

“When I learned that the shaikh was coming that night to my apartment,” she said, “I would prepare delicious dishes and adorn myself. When he arrived and saw what I had done, he would send for me and look at me for a while. Then he would contemplate the food for a while. Then one night he took my hand and drew it into his sleeve and rubbed it over his belly. I felt fifteen knots from his breast to his navel. ‘Girl, ask me what these knots are,’ he said. ‘What are they?’ I asked. ‘All these,’ he replied, ‘are the violent flames of fortitude which I fastened knot by knot, to withstand your offering of such beauty and such delicious fare.’ He then left me. That was the only time I was bold with him, so extreme was his self-discipline.”

Anecdotes of Ibn Khafif

Ibn Khafif had two disciples, one called Ahmad the Older and the other Ahmad the Younger. The shaikh favoured Ahmad the Younger the more. His companions were jealous, arguing that Ahmad the Older had performed many tasks and endured much discipline. The shaikh, learning of this, desired to demonstrate to them that Ahmad the Younger was the better of the two. Now a camel was sleeping at the door of the convent.

“Ahmad the Older!” Ibn Khafif cried out.

“Here am I,” Ahmad the Older responded.

“Carry that camel up to the roof of the convent,” Ibn Khafif ordered.

“Master,” Ahmad the Older protested, “how is it possible to carry a camel on to the roof?”

“That is enough,” Ibn Khafif said. “Ahmad the Younger!”

“Here am I,” replied Ahmad the Younger.

“Carry that camel on to the roof of the convent!”

Ahmad the Younger at once girded his loins, rolled up his sleeves and ran out of the convent. Putting his two hands under the camel, he tried with all his might but could not lift the beast.

“Well done! Now we know,” Ibn Khafif exclaimed. Then turning to his companions he added, “Ahmad the Younger did his duty. He obeyed my command and offered no objection. He had regard to my command, not to whether the task could be carried out or no. Ahmad the Older was only concerned to argue and dispute. From outward actions one can perceive the inner intention.”

A traveller came to visit Ibn Khafif wearing a black robe, a black shawl, black breeches and a black shirt. The shaikh felt inwardly a sense of jealousy. When the traveller had performed two rak’as and spoken a greeting, Ibn Khafif addressed him.

“Brother, why are you dressed in black?”

“Because my gods are dead.” (He meant the carnal soul and caprice.) “Hast thou seen him who has taken his caprice to be his god?”

“Put him out!” cried Ibn Khafif.

They drove him out with contumely.

“Now bring him back!”

They brought him back. Forty times the same treatment was repeated. Then Ibn Khafif arose and kissed his head and begged his pardon.

“You have every right to wear black,” he said. “In all the forty times they insulted you, you never lost your composure.”

Two Sufis came from a far distance to visit Ibn Khafif. Not finding him in the convent, they enquired where he might be.

“In the palace of Azod al-Daula,” came the answer.

“What business has the shaikh with the palace of princes?” they demanded. “Alas for our high opinion of him! “ Then they added, “Well, we will make a tour of the city.”

They proceeded to the bazaars, and made their way to a tailor’s shop to have a stitch put in the front of their gown. The tailor’s scissors were missing.

“You took the scissors!” the crowd shouted, and they handed them over to a policeman. The two Sufis were hustled to the palace.

“Strike off their hands!” ordered Azod al-Daula.

“Wait!” exclaimed Ibn Khafif who was present in the court. “This is not their doing.”

So the two were set free.

“Good sirs,” Ibn Khafif addressed them, “what you thought was perfectly just. But our resorting to the palace of princes is precisely for such purposes.”

The Sufis thereupon became his disciples.