Sufi Biography: Sari al-Saqati

Sufi Biography: Sari al-Saqati

Abo ‘l-Hasan Sari ibn al-Moghalles al-Saqati, said to be a pupil of Ma’ruf al-Karkhi, uncle of al-Jonaid, was a prominent figure in the Baghdad circle of Sufis and attracted the opposition of Ahmad ibn Hanbal. A dealer in secondhand goods, he died in 253 (867) at the age of 98.

The career of Sari-e Saqati

Sari-e Saqati was the first man to preach in Baghdad on the mystic truths and the Suh “unity”. Most of the Sufi shaikhs of Iraq were his disciples. He was the uncle of Jonaid and the pupil of Ma’ruf-e Karkhi; he had also seen Habib-e Ra’i.


 To begin with he lived in Baghdad, where he had a shop. Hanging a curtain over the door of his shop, he would go in and pray, performing several rak’as daily in this fashion.

One day a man came from Mount Lokam to visit him. Lifting aside the curtain, he greeted him.

“Shaikh So-and-so from Mount Lokam greets you,” he said.

“He dwells in the mountains,” commented Sari. “So his efforts amount to nothing. A man ought to be able to live in the midst of the market and be so preoccupied with God, that not for a single instant is he absent from God.”

It is said that in his transactions he never looked for a greater profit than five per cent. Once he bought almonds for sixty dinars. Almonds then became scarce. A broker called on him.

“Sell then,” said Sari.

“For how much?” the broker asked.

“Sixty-six dinars.”

“But the price of almonds today is ninety dinars,” the broker objected.

“It is my rule not to take more than five per cent,” Sari replied. “I will not break my rule.”

“I also do not think it right to sell your goods for less,” said the broker.

So the broker did not sell, and Sari made no concession.

To start with Sari used to sell odds and ends. One day the bazaars of Baghdad caught fire.

“The bazaars are on fire,” they told him.

“Then I have also become free,” he remarked.

Afterwards an inspection was made and it was found that Sari’s shop had not been burned. When he saw that, he gave all that he possessed to the poor and took up the Sufi way.

“What was the beginning of your spiritual career?” he was asked.

“One day,” he said, “Habib-e Ra’i passed by my shop. I gave him something to give to the poor. ‘God be good to you,’ he replied. The day he intoned that prayer the world lost its attraction for me.

“The following day Ma’ruf-e Karkhi came along bringing an orphan child. ‘Clothe this child,’ he begged me. I clothed the child. ‘May God make the world hateful to your heart, and give you rest from this work,’ he cried. I gave up worldly things completely, thanks to the blessing of Ma’ruf’s prayer.”

Sari and the courtier

One day Sari was preaching. Now one of the caliph’s booncompanions called Ahmad-e Yazid the Scribe came along in all his finery, surrounded by a crowd of servants and slaves.

“Wait while I listen to this fellow’s sermon,” he said. “We have been to a good few places where we should not have gone. I have had my fill of them.”

He entered and sat down in Sari’s audience.

“In all eighteen thousand worlds,” Sari was saying, “there is nothing weaker than man. Yet of all the species that God has created, none is so disobedient to God’s command as man. If he is good, he is so good that the very angels envy his estate; if he is bad, he is so bad that the Devil himself is ashamed to associate with him. What a marvellous thing is man, so weak, yet he disobeys God who is so mighty!”

These words were as an arrow sped from Sari’s bow into Ahmad’s soul. He wept so bitterly that he fainted. Then weeping he arose and returned to his home. That night he ate nothing and uttered not a word.

The next day he came on foot to Sari’s assembly, anxious and pale of cheek. When the meeting ended, he went home. On the third day he came again, alone and on foot. At the close of the assembly he came up to Sari.

“Master,” he said, “your words have taken hold of me and made the world loathsome to my heart. I want to give up the world and retire from the society of men. Expound to me the way of the Travellers.”

“Which path do you want?” Sari asked him. “That of the Way, or that of the Law? That of the multitude, or that of the elect?”

“Expound both,” the courtier requested.

“The way of the multitude is this,” said Sari, “that you observe prayer five times daily behind the imam, and that you give alms—if it be in money, half a dinar out of every twenty. The way of the elect is this, that you thrust the world behind you altogether and do not concern yourself with any of its trappings; if you are offered it, you will not accept it. These are the two ways.”

The courtier went out and set his face towards the wilderness. Some days later an old woman with matted hair and scratches on her cheeks came to Sari.

“Imam of the Muslims, I had a son, young and fresh of countenance,” she said. “One day he came to your assembly laughing and strutting, and returned weeping and wailing. Now it is some days since he has vanished, and I do not know where he is. My heart is burning because he is parted from me. Please do something for me.”

Her desperate pleading moved Sari to compassion.

“Do not grieve,” he told her. “Only good will ensue. When he comes back, I will inform you. He has abandoned the world and turned his back on the worldlings. He has become a true penitent.”

After a space, one night Ahmad reappeared.

“Go, tell the old lady,” Sari bade his servant. Then he looked upon Ahmad. His cheeks were pale, he was wasted, the tall cypress of his stature was bent double.

“Kindly master,” he cried, “forasmuch as you have guided me to peace and delivered me out of darkness, now may God give you peace and bestow upon you joy in both worlds.”

They were thus conversing when Ahmad’s mother and his wife entered, bringing his little son. When his mother’s eyes fell upon Ahmad and she saw him in a state she had never seen before, she cast herself upon his breast. His wife too stood on one side of him wailing, whilst his son wept on the other. A hubbub went up from them all, and Sari too burst into tears. The child flung himself at his father’s feet. But despite all their efforts to persuade him to return home, it was all to no effect.

“Imam of the Muslims,” Ahmad protested, “why did you tell them? They will be my undoing.”

“Your mother entreated me over and over, so at last I consented to tell her,” Sari replied.

Ahmad prepared to return to the desert.

“While still alive, you have made me a widow and your child an orphan,” cried his wife. “When he asks for you, what am I to do? There is no other way. You must take the boy with you.”

“I will do that,” Akmad answered.

He stripped him of his fine clothes and flung a strip of goat’s wool over him. He put a wallet in his hand.

“Now be on your way,” he said.

“I cannot stand this,” cried his wife when she saw the child in that state. She snatched the boy to her.

“I give you charge of myself too,” said Ahmad. “If you so desire, set me free.”

Then Ahmad returned to the wilderness. Some years went by. Then one night, at the time of the prayer of sleeping, a man came to Sari’s hospice.

“Ahmad sent me,” he said, entering. “He says, ‘My affairs have come to a critical pass. Help me.’ “

Sari went out. He found Ahmad lying on the ground in a sepulchre, on the point of expiring. His tongue was still moving. Sari listened. Ahmad was saying, “For the like of this let the workers work.” Sari raised his head from the dust, wiped it, and laid it on his breast. Ahmad opened his eyes and saw the shaikh.

“Master, you have come in time,” he cried. “My affairs have come to a critical pass.”

Then he ceased to breathe. Weeping, Sari set out for the city to arrange his affairs. He saw a multitude coming forth from the city.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“Do you not know?” they replied. “Last night a voice was heard from Heaven proclaiming, ‘Whoever desires to pray over an elect friend of God, say, Go to the cemetery of Shuniziya.’”

Anecdotes of Sari

Jonaid reported the following.

One day when I visited Sari I found him in tears.

“What happened?” I asked.

“The thought occurred to me,” he replied, “that tonight I would hang out a jar for the water to cool. In a dream I saw a houri who told me, when I asked her who she belonged to, ‘I belong to the man who does not hang out a jar for the water to get cool.’ The houri then dashed my jar to the ground. See there!”

I saw the broken shards. For a long time the pieces still lay there.

The following was also reported by Jonaid.

One night I had been sleeping peacefully, and when I awoke my secret soul insisted that I should go to the mosque of Shuniziya. I went there, and saw by the mosque a person of terrible mien. I was afraid.

“Jonaid, are you afraid of me?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

“If you knew God as He should be known,” he said, “you would fear none but Him.”

“Who are you?” I demanded.

“Iblis,” he answered.

“I wanted to see you,” I told him.

“The moment you thought of me, you forgot God without being aware of it,” he said. “What was your object in wanting to see me?”

“I wanted to ask whether you had any power over the poor,” I told him.

“No,” he answered.

“Why is that?” I asked.

“When I want to trap them with worldly things, they flee to the next world,” he said. “And when I want to trap them with the next world, they flee to the Lord, and there I cannot follow them.”

“If you cannot master them, then do you see them?” I enquired.

“I see them,” he answered. “When they are at concert and in ecstasy, I see the source of their lamentation.”

With that he vanished. I entered the mosque, to find Sari there with his head on his knees.

“He lies, that enemy of God,” he said, raising his head. “They are too precious for Him to show them to Iblis.”

Sari had a sister. She asked for permission to sweep his apartment, but he refused her.

“My life is not worthy of this,” he told her.

One day she entered and saw an old woman sweeping out his room.

“Brother, you did not give me permission to wait upon you. Now you have brought one not of your kindred.”

“Sister, let not your heart be troubled,” Sari replied. “This is this lower world. She fell in love with me, and was denied me. So now she asked permission of Almighty God to be a part of my life. She has been given the task of sweeping my chamber.”