Sufi Biography: Sahl ibn Abd Allah al-Tostari

Sufi Biography: Sahl ibn Abd Allah al-Tostari

Abu Mohammad Sahl ibn ‘Abd Allah al-Tostari was born at Tostar (Ahwaz) c. 200 (815), studied with Sofyan al-Thauri, and met Dho ‘l-Nun al-Mesri. A quiet life was interrupted in 261 (874) when he was compelled to seek refuge in Basra, where he died in 282 (896). A short commentary on the Koran is attributed to him, and he made important contributions to the development of Sufi theory, being influential through his pupil Ibn Salem who founded the Salemiya school.

The early years of Sahl ibn Abd Allah al-Tostari

Sahl ibn Abd Allah al-Tostari gives the following account of himself.

I remember when God said, Am I not your Lord? and I said, Yes indeed. I also remember myself in my mother’s womb.


I was three years old when I began to pray all night. My uncle Mohammad ibn Sawwar wept to see me pray.

“Sahl, go to sleep. You make me anxious,” he said.

I kept watch on my uncle secretly and openly. Then matters reached the point that one day I said to him, “Uncle, I have a hard state to contend with. I seem to see my head prostrate before the Throne.”

“Keep this state secret, my boy, and tell no one,” he advised. Then he added, “Recollect when you are in your bedclothes rolling from side to side. As your tongue moves, say, ‘God is with me, God is watching over me, God is witnessing me.’ “

I used this formula, and informed my uncle so.

“Say the words seven times each night,” he counselled me.

I informed him that I had done so.

“Say them fifteen times.”

I did as my uncle directed, and a sweetness invaded my heart therefrom. A year passed. Then my uncle said, “Keep my instructions and continue that practice until you go to the grave. The fruits thereof will be yours in this world and the next.”

Years passed, and I used the same formula until the sweetness of it penetrated my most secret heart.

“Sahl,” said my uncle, “when God is with any man and God sees him, how can he disobey God? God watch over you, that you may not disobey.”

After that I went into seclusion. Then they sent me to school.

“I am afraid that my concentration may be scattered,” I said. “Make it a condition with the teacher that I remain with him for an hour and learn some lessons, then I am to return to my true occupation.”

On these terms I went to school and learned the Koran, being then seven years old. From that time I fasted continuously, my only food being barley bread. At twelve a problem occurred to me which no one was able to solve. I asked them to send me to Basra to propound that problem. I came to Basra and questioned the learned men of that city, but no one could answer me. From there I proceeded to Abbadan, to a man called Habib ibn Hamza. He answered my question. I remained with him for some time, and derived much benefit from his instruction.

Then I came to Tostar. By that time my diet had been reduced to the point that they would buy barley for me for a dirham, grind it and bake it into bread. Every night about dawn I would break my fast with an ounce of that bread, without relish or salt. In that way the dirham lasted me a year.

After that I resolved to break my fast once every three days, then once every five days, then once every seven days, and so on until I reached once every twenty days. (According to one report, Sahl claimed to have reached once every seventy days.) Sometimes I would eat just one almond every forty days.

I made trial for many years of satiety and hunger. In the beginning my weakness resulted from hunger and my strength came from satiety. After a time my strength derived from hunger and my weakness from satiety. Then I prayed, “O God, close Sahl’s eyes to both, that he may see satiety in hunger, and hunger in satiety, both proceed from Thee.”

One day Sahl said, “Repentance is a duty incumbent upon a man every moment, whether he be of the elect or the common folk, whether he be obedient to God or disobedient.”

There was a certain man in Tostar who laid claim to be learned and an ascetic. He protested against this statement of Sahl’s.

“He says that the disobedient must repent of his disobedience, and the obedient of his obedience.”

And he turned the people against Sahl, making him out to be a heretic and an infidel. All, commons and nobles alike, took up his charge. Sahl refrained from disputing with them to correct their misunderstanding. Fired by the pure flame of religion, he wrote down on paper a list of all his possessions, farms, houses, furniture, carpets, vessels, gold and silver. Then he gathered the people and scattered the pages over their heads. He gave to every man all that was inscribed on the page that he picked up, as a token of gratitude for their relieving him of his worldly goods. Having given everything away, he set out for Hejaz.

“My soul,” he addressed himself, “now I am bankrupt. Make no further demand on me, for you will not get anything.”

His soul agreed not to ask him for anything, until he reached Kufa.

“So far,” his soul then said, “I have not asked you for anything. Now I desire a piece of bread and a fish. Give me that much to eat, and I will not trouble you again all the way to Mecca.”

Entering Kufa, Sahl observed an ass-mill with a camel tied to it.

“How much do you give to hire this camel for a day?” he asked.

“Two dirhams,” they told him.

“Release the camel and tie me in its place, and give me one dirham for up to the evening prayer,” Sahl demanded.

They released the camel and tied Sahl to the ass-mill. At nightfall they gave him a dirham. He bought bread and a fish and laid it before him.

“Soul,” he addressed himself, “every time you want this, resolve with yourself that tomorrow till sunset you will do mule’s work to get what you want.”

Then Sahl proceeded to the Kaaba, where he met many Sufi masters. From there he returned to Tostar, to find Dho ‘l-Nun awaiting him.

Anecdotes of Sahl

Amr-e Laith fell sick, so that all the physicians were powerless to treat him.

“Is there anyone who can pray for a cure?” it was asked.

“Sahl is such a man whose prayers are answered,” came the reply.

His help was therefore invoked. Having in mind God’s command to “obey those in authority” he responded to the appeal.

“Prayer,” he stated when he was seated before Amr, “is effective only in the case of one who is penitent. In your prison there are men wrongfully detained.”

Amr released them all, and repented.

“Lord God,” prayed Sahl, “like as Thou hast shown to him the abasement due to his disobedience, so now display to him the glory gained by my obedience. Like as Thou hast clothed his inward parts with the garment of repentance, so now clothe his outward parts with the garment of health.”

As soon as Sahl had uttered this prayer, Amr-e Laith recovered his health completely. He offered Sahl much money, but this he declined, and left his presence.

“If you had accepted something,” objected one of his disciples, “so that we might have applied it to discharging the debt we have incurred, would that not

have been better?”

“Do you need gold? Then look!” replied Sahl.

The disciple looked and behold, the whole plain and desert were filled with gold and rubies.

“Why,” said Sahl, “should one who enjoys such favour with God accept anything from one of God’s creatures?”

Whenever Sahl partook in a mystic audition he went into ecstasy and would continue rapt for five days, eating no food. If it was winter, the sweat would pour from him and drench his shirt.

When he was in that state, and the ulema questioned him, he would say, “Do not question me, for in this mystic moment you will get no benefit from me and my words.”

Sahl used to walk on the water without his feet being so much as moistened.

“People say,” someone observed, “that you walk on water.”

“Ask the muezzin of this mosque,” Sahl replied. “He is a truthful man.”

“I asked him,” the man said. “The muezzin told me, ‘I never saw that. But in these days he entered a pool to wash. He fell into the pool, and if I had not been on the spot he would have died there.’”

When Abu Ali-e Daqqaq heard this story, he commented, “He had many miraculous powers, but he wished to keep them hidden.”

One day Sahl was seated in the mosque when a pigeon dropped to the ground, exhausted by the heat.

“Shah-e Kermani has died,” remarked Sahl.

When they looked into the matter, it proved to be exactly as Sahl said.

Many lions and other wild beasts used to visit Sahl, and he would feed and tend them. Even today Sahl’s house in Tostar is called “the house of the wild beasts.”

After his long vigils and painful austerities Sahl lost his physical control, suffering from blennorrhoea, so much so that he had to go to the privy several times an hour. To ease matters, he always kept a jar handy because he could not govern himself. When the time for prayer came round, however, the flow ceased. He would then perform his ablutions and pray, and resume as before. Whenever he mounted the pulpit, his blennorrhoea ceased completely, and all his pain would vanish. As soon as he came down from the pulpit, his ailment would show itself again. In all this, he never failed to observe even a tittle of the sacred Law.

On the day when Sahl’s demise approached, his four hundred disciples were in attendance at his sickbed.

“Who will sit in your place, and who will preach from your pulpit?” they asked.

Now there was a certain Zoroastrian named Shadh-Del.

“Shadh-Del will sit in my place,” answered Sahl, opening his eyes.

“The shaikh has lost his reason,” muttered the disciples.

Having four hundred disciples, all men of learning and religion, he appoints a Zoroastrian to his place!”

“Cease your clamour!” cried Sahl. “Go and bring Shadh-Del to me.”

The disciples fetched the Zoroastrian.

“When three days have elapsed after my death,” Sahl said when his eyes fell on him, “after the afternoon prayers go into my pulpit and sit in my place, and preach to the people.”

With these words Sahl died. Three days later, after the afternoon prayers, as many again assembled. Shadh-Del entered and mounted the pulpit, while the people stared.

“Whatever is this? A Zoroastrian, with the Magian hat on his head and a girdle tied about his waist!”

“Your leader,” said Shadh-Del, “has made me his messenger to you. He said to me, ‘Shadh-Del, has the time not come for you to cut the Magian girdle?’ Behold, now I cut it.”

And he took a knife and cut the girdle.

“He also said,” he went on, “ ‘Has the time not come for you to put off the Magian hat from your head?’ Behold I have put it off.”

Then Shadh-Del said, “I bear witness that there is no god but God, and I bear witness that Mohammad is the Messenger of God.” He went on, “The shaikh said, say, ‘He who was your shaikh and your master counselled you well, and it is a rule of discipleship to accept the master’s counsel. Behold, Shadh-Del has cut the outward girdle. If you wish to see me at the resurrection, I solemnly adjure you, every one of you, cut your inward girdles.’”

Great commotion arose in the congregation when Shadh-Del finished, and there followed amazing spiritual manifestations.

On the day when Sahl was borne to the grave, many people thronged the streets. Now there was a Jew of seventy years in Tostar; when he heard the noise and

clamour, he ran out to see what was happening. As the

procession reached him, he cried out,

“Men, do you see what I see? Angels are descending from heaven and stroking his bier with their wings!”

And immediately he uttered the attestation and became a Muslim.

One day Sahl was seated with his companions when a certain man passed by.

“This man holds a secret,” Sahl said.

By the time they looked, the man had gone.

After Sahl’s death, one of his disciples was sitting by his grave when the same man passed by.

“Sir,” the disciple addressed him, “the shaikh who lies in this tomb once said that you hold a secret. By that God who has vouchsafed this secret to you, make me a demonstration.”

The man pointed to Sahl’s grave.

“Sahl, speak!” he said.

A voice spoke loudly within the tomb.

“There is no god but God alone, Who has no partner.”

“They say,” said the man, “that whosoever believes that there is no god but God, there is no darkness for him in the grave. Is that true or no?”

Sahl cried from the grave, “It is true!”