Lions, Pomegranates, and Sufi Saints

The following are more stories from ʻAbd Allāh ibn Asʻad al-Yāfiʻī’s collection of hagiographic tales, Khalāsa al-Mafākhir Fī Manāqib al-Shaykh ʻAbd al-Qādir, which I discussed previously here. The first few stories have to do with different saints, not ‘Abd al-Qādir himself. However, they reflect similar themes in the previously translated stories: the translocational capacity of the true saint, his bodily control, both over himself and over the bodies of others; his penetration of the minds of others; and his ability to manipulate nature for the benefit of his disciples. And while these rather entertaining and often amusing tales probably do not strike us in the modern world as elevated discourse akin to other forms of Sufi writing (say, Ibn ‘Arabī), they do include important Sufic vocabulary and seek to inculcate theological and mystical doctrine. The relationship between ‘interior’ and ‘exterior’ is stressed in them, as peoples’ interior states correlate directly with and indeed determine exterior happenings. The supreme example of this interior-exterior dynamism is the exalted saint, who has mastered his interior states and is therefore able to draw upon divine power in shaping ‘exterior’ events. Of course, it is also plausible that pious tales such as these functioned as much for entertainment as anything else—there being no necessary sharp demarcation between entertaining tales and pious, even pedagogical tales, either in our own age or in previous ones.

Addendum: I have added two more stories, both of which have to do with ‘Abd al-Qadir’s control over the magical forces of the unseen, particularly the jinn. They are pretty self-explanatory: in the first, ‘Abd al-Qadir knows how to manipulate the unseen forces of the world, as his instruction in the making of a magic circle indicates; but this knowledge is predicated upon his own saintly power, and not merely technique. Likewise, his contact with the ‘men of the unseen’ is because of his saintliness, his integral connection with the cosmos. The message of all such stories, besides the obvious intention of emphasizing the saint’s prophylactic power and intercessory worth, is to argue for the deep integration of the divinely-inspired saint with the entirety of the cosmos, seen and unseen. Again, the purification and divinization of the saint’s interior reflects on his relationship to the exterior world (and to the hidden world, which is both interior and exterior at once).

 Ḥikāya 89:

According to Shaykh al-‘Ārif Billah Abū Ḥafṣ ‘Umar ibn Maḥmud al-Maghrabī, God be merciful to him, who said: I was sitting with Shaykh Abū al-Barakāt ibn Ṣukhr in the side of the zāwiya,[1] and the impulsive thought[2] occurred to me of grilled meat in hot wheat bread.[3] So the impulsive thought increased in me; while I was like that suddenly a lion[4] came into our midst, and in his mouth was bread. He sat down by Shaykh Abū al-Barakāt, who said to him: ‘Go and put it in the hands of Shaykh ‘Umar.’ So the lion came and put it down and passed on by. In it was grilled meat and hot bread. Scarcely a moment had passed when a dusty, disheveled man descended to us from the air! As soon as I saw him, the desire for the meat and the bread went from me. The man went to the bread that had been brought by the lion, and ate it and everything wrapped in it. Then he sat down and related something to Abū al-Barakāt, then went back into the air from whence he had come. Shaykh Abū al-Barakāt said to me: ‘O Shaykh ‘Umar! The desire that gripped you was not yours, rather, it belonged to the man whom you saw. The man is among the pampered ones: if any impulsive thought arises in his soul, his impulsive thought does not cease until it is fulfilled. At this moment he is in the land of farthest China.’

Ḥikāya 90:

According to Shaykh al-‘Ālam al-Muqrī’ Abū al-Fataḥ Naṣr, who said: I went out one day in autumn with Shaykh Abū al-Barakāt from the zawīya to the mountain, and with him was a group of Sufis. Then he said: ‘Today we want sweet and sour pomegranates!’ And he had not even finished his words when all sorts of trees in this valley and mountain were filled with pomegranates. So he said to us: ‘Here you are! Pomegranates!’ So we picked from it many [fruits], and and we were picking pomegranates from apple, pear, and apricot trees, and other sorts. And we took from one tree both sweet and sour pomegranates, eating a great deal of it, until we were satisfied. Then we departed, and after an hour we returned, but the shaykh was no longer with us and we did not see a single pomegranate upon the trees!

Ḥikāya 91:

According to Shaykh al-Aṣīl Abū Muḥammad ‘Abdallah ibn Abū Mufraj ‘Abd al-Raḥman ibn al-Nāsik Abū al-Fataḥ Naṣrallah ibn ‘Alī al-Hamawī al-Shībānī, God be merciful to him, who said: I heard my father say: My father was walking along the edge of the mountain on a violently windy day, and a wind caught him and he fell. Shaykh Abū Barakāt was sitting facing the mountain, and he pointed with his finger in [my father’s] direction, so his place was fixed in the air between the summit of the mountain and the ground below, and he did not move to the left or the right, up or down, so that it was as if someone was grasping him and keeping him from moving. And he remained like that for an hour. Then the shaykh said: ‘O wind! Rise with him to the roof [or: surface] of the mountain!’ So the wind rose gently with him, as if someone were carrying him, until he arrived at the roof of the mountain.

Ḥikāya 94:

According to Shaykh al-Ṣalāḥ al-Majd ibn Sa’adān al-Wasṭī, God be merciful to him, who said: I was present in the majlis of Shaykh Isḥāq Ibrāhīm al-‘Azab, God be pleased with him, and he was talking with his companions, saying in one of his discourses: ‘My Lord has given me free disposal concerning everyone who is present to me, so that no one stands, sits, or moves in my presence save that I have governing jurisdiction over him.’ Then I thought to myself: ‘Ha! I will stand if I wish, and sit if I wish.’ Then the shaykh cut off his discourse, pointed at me and said: ‘If you are capable of it, stand!’ So I started to rise in order to stand, but I was incapable of motion—I [remained] as one sitting! So I was carried to my house upon the backs of men. I was incapable of moving about, and this condition remained for a month. I knew that it was because of my opposition to the shaykh. So I contracted repentence with God, and said to my family: ‘Carry me to the shaykh!’ They did so, and I said: ‘O my master! It was but an impulsive thought!’ Then he rose to stand, took me by the hand, and then he walked and I walked with him, and what was in me left.

Ḥikāya 95:

According to Shaykh al-Ṣāliḥ Abū al-Farj ‘Abd al-Ḥamīd Mu’ālī ibn Halāl al-‘Abādānī: I heard from my father a story he related from his father who said: I heard Shaykh al-‘Azab, God be pleased with him, say: ‘No one visits us (yazūrunā: a quasi-technical term for visiting a Sufi shaykh, or the tomb of a saint)  unless we want him to.’ So he [the relator’s grandfather] said: So I intended to visit him one time, and an impulse arose in me of this sort so that I said to myself: ‘Ha! I will visit him if he wants it or not.’ Then when I came to the door of the living-place [of the shaykh], I saw a mighty lion—he frightened me with his gaze! Then he bared his teeth at me, so I turned on my heels and fled! And my impatience had increased—or he [the relator] said, my fear—and I was used to hunting and killing lions, so when I was a ways away I stopped, and watched the lion: people were entering and leaving and he did not oppose them—they didn’t even see him, it seemed to me. The next day I came back, and he was in his same place, acting the same way, and when he saw me he stood up before me, so I fled from him. This was my condition in relation to the lion for a month: I was incapable of entering or even getting close to the door. So I went to one of the shaykhs of the Baṭā’iḥ[5] and complained to him about my condition, so he said: ‘Look within yourself for which sin has brought this about.’ So I mentioned to him my impulsive thought, and he said: ‘It has come from it—and the lion which you saw is the state (ḥāl) of Shaykh Ibrāhīm.’ He [the relator’s grandfather] said: So I sought God’s forgiveness, and intended repentance from my opposition. So I went to the living-quarters, and the lion stood and entered in, going to the shaykh and those mingling around him, and was hidden from me. And when I came before the shaykh, he said to me: ‘Welcome, O penitent one!’

Ḥikāya 96:

According to Shaykh Abū al-Ma’ālī ibn Masu’ūd al-‘Irāqī al-Tājir al-Jawharī, who said: I intended to travel one year to the land of the Persians for business, so [before setting out] I sent a pledge to Shaykh Ibrāhīm, and he said to me: ‘If you fall into hardship, call on my name.’ Then, when we were halfway through the stony wastes of Khurāsān, a band of robbers (literally, a ‘force,’ ḥīl) came out against us, and they seized our goods and carried them off in their hands, and we watched them go.[6] I remembered the words of Shaykh Ibrāhīm, but I was in a group of [mu’tabirīn—Shi’i?] among my companions, so I was embarrassed to mention the name of the shaykh with my tongue, so instead the cry for help from him pervaded me secretly—and my inner thoughts had not concluded when I saw him from afar upon a mountain; in his hand a staff with which he was motioning towards those robbers, so that they came with all our goods and surrendered them to us. And they said to us: ‘Proceed freely, rightly guided ones! We have a piece of information for you.’ We said: ‘What is it?’ They replied: ‘We saw upon the mountain a man, a staff in his hand with which he was motioning towards us to return your goods—and the wide expanses seemed narrow to us out of fear of him, for we perceived destruction for whoever opposed him. And there was one among us who had divided off [for himself] part of your goods, but with his staff [the shaykh] drove him back until he rejoined us—then we perceived him and thought that he must be from heaven!’[7]

Ḥikāya 115

According to Abū Sa’īd ‘Abdallah ibn Aḥmad al-Baghdādī who said: One of my daughters, named Fāṭima, who was a virgin, went up to the roof of our house and was kidnapped; she was then sixteen years old. So I immediately went to Shaykh Muḥya al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Qādir and told him of it. He said to me: ‘Go tonight to the ruins of Karkh (a suburb of Baghdad) and sit upon Khamis Hill, then trace around yourself a circle on the ground, saying as you trace it: In the name of God in accordance with the intention of ‘Abd al-Qādir. Then when the gloom of night comes, there will pass by you groups of jinn in different forms—but do not be frightened of their might. Then, when dawn is nigh[8] there will pass by you their king in the midst of an army of them, and he will ask you: What do you need? So say to him: ‘Abd al-Qādir sent me to you. Then tell him about the affair of your daughter.’ So I went and did as he commanded me. There passed by disquieting forms from among them [the jinn], but none were able to get close to the circle I was in. And troop after troop of them did not cease passing by until their king came, riding his steed, and before him were all his peoples. He stopped opposite the circle and said to me: ‘What do you need?’ I said: ‘‘Abd al-Qādir sent me to you.’ He got down from his steed, kissed the ground, and sat down outside the circle; those with him sat down also. He said: ‘What is your affair?’ So I told him the story of my daughter, and he said to those with him: ‘Who did this?’ But they did not know who did it, until one came with a demon (mārid), and she [the daughter] was with him, and it was said to him: ‘This one is from the demons of China.’ Then [the king of the jinn] said to him: ‘What possessed you to kidnap someone who is a loyal follower of the Pole [of the Saints] (al-quṭb)?!’ He replied: ‘The idea took hold of me.’ So he commanded him to be struck on his neck, and he gave me back my daughter, then I said: ‘Have you ever seen anything like tonight in your obedience to ‘Abd al-Qādir?’ He said, ‘Yes—he looks from his house to the demons that are in the furthest part of the earth. So they flee from fear of him to their dwelling places. Verily, when God raises a Quṭb, He gives him power over man and jinn.’

[Abū al-‘Abbās] said: I was lying up on top of the roof of the madrasa on Saturday night, between dinner and sunset, on the ninth of al-Rabī’ al-Ākhir, the year 552, and it was summertime. Our master Muḥya al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Qādir came before me, facing the qibla. And then I saw in the sky a man flying about in the air like an arrow. Upon his head was a fine turban, with an ‘adhiba [?] between his shoulders, the whitest of clothing upon him, and an apron around his waist. When he drew near to the Shaykh’s head, he dropped like an eagle descending on its prey, until he sat before him and greeted him. Then he went back into the air until he disappear from my sight. So I stood up and asked the Shaykh about him, and he said: ‘You saw him?’ ‘Yes,’ I answered, and he said: ‘He is one of the men of the roving unseen world, upon them be peace.’

ʻAbd Allāh ibn Asʻad al-Yāfiʻī, Khalāsa al-Mafākhir Fī Manāqib al-Shaykh ʻAbd al-Qādir, ed. by Aḥmad Farīd al-Mazīdī (Sirīlānkā: Dār al-Āthār al-Islāmīyah lil-Ṭibāʻah wa-al-Nashr, 2006), 168-169, 172-174, 190-191.


[1] A sort of Sufi retreat or meeting place, sometimes also a shrine.

[2] Khāṭir: In Sufic terminology, a khāṭir is a thought that ‘arises’ in one, without any intention on the person’s part, and often without the person’s control, though a person may choose to act upon the impulsive thought. It often has a negative valence, but not always. In this story, the impulsive thought is apparently linked to mystical, quasi-magical capacities, presumably granted to a supreme saint (here, a Chinese saint of some sort!).

[3] The theme of food, seen here and in several other antecdotes translated below, was already an old one in Sufi lore. Sweets, grilled meat, and bread appear again and again. See for instance several stories of al-Ḥallāj compiled and translated by Massignon: For further instances, see footnote 110 at p. 118, op. cite.; and Abū Ṭalib al-Makkī, Qūt al-Qulūb, Vol. II , 42; and the short Sufi story translated here. Finally, see Shazad Bashir, Sufi Bodies: Religion and Society in Medieval Islam (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011),

[4] This story and another further along feature lions linked to a Sufi saint (or saints, as here); besides the obvious symbolism of a powerful, majestic animal, the lion might also carry ‘Alid symbolism.

[5] ‘The Marshlands’—the area around the ‘Iraqi city of Wasit.

[6] A reminder of the often precarious nature of travel and commerce in the Middle Ages…

[7] The saint who works wonders from afar is a common theme in medieval hagiography the world over; the theme of the saint’s effective power being summoned by mention of his or her name is likewise common. In this story, part of the emphasis would seem to be upon the universal availability of the saint’s summoned power: even though the story-teller is ashamed to publicly invoke the saint, his invocation of the holy man ‘secretly’ (a term that has a double meaning in Sufi discourse, it should be noted) demonstrates both the saint’s awesome power and his clemency.

[8] Waqt al-saḥar; a slight change of vocalization would give waqt al-siḥr, time of magic or sorcery, not incidental I suspect.

Sufi Sainthood and Bodily Control

The stories translated below are taken from a 14th century hagiographic compilation by Abd Allāh ibn Asʻad al-Yāfiʻī (1298-1367), a Sufi ascetic and scholar originally from Yemen.[1] The compilation concerns ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī (1077-1166), the patron and eponym of the Sufi ‘order,’ the Qadiriyya, to which al-Yāfiʻī belonged. ‘Abd al-Qādir was, so far as can be made out, a Hanbalī preacher, jurist, and ascetic Sufi, although it is very unlikely he had any role in the founding of the Sufi ṭariqa that took his name.[2] The handful of extant writings that are definitely his consist of an adab-book of proper religious practice, with some Sufi-tinged material, and two collections of sermons and discourses, many of which have a Sufic character reminiscent of, say, Abū Ṭalib al-Makkī’s Qūt al-Qulūb. As I plan on translating and posting some excerpts from these sermons and discourses, I will make no further comments here. Suffice to say, while his authentic writings have definite Sufic concerns and (some) technical vocabulary, they do not immediately stand out as exceptionally ‘mystical’ or even exclusively Sufi; many of the sermons could have been delivered by any pious, ascetically-inclined Hanbali preacher.[3] There is little immediately apparent in these extant writings or in the earliest biographical notices of ‘Abd al-Qādir to prefigure the later—by a hundred years or so after his death—exaltation of the ascetic preacher to the heights of Sufi sainthood, as evidenced in the excerpts below.

The writings of al-Yāfi’ī and others—he is drawing upon previous writers, such as al-Shattanufī (d. 1314)—then present, not so much the life and milieu of ‘Abd al-Qādir himself, as ideas and conceptions of sainthood relevant in the 13th and 14th centuries among the Qadiriyya and other Sufi ‘orders.’ Besides presenting the ṭariqa’s eponym as a saint of saints and hence worthy of emulation, veneration, and supplication, these sorts of accounts answer many potential questions about the nature of sainthood. What is a saint, or what ought a saint to be? How does the body of the saint ‘operate,’ and how does it differ from others? How does a saint manifest his internal, ‘mystical’ state of being-with-God into the outside, external world of bodies and society? Hagiographical works such as this one work to answer these sorts of questions; whatever the historical validity or historical ‘germ’ that may or may not lie behind such accounts, they relate the ways in which their writers, relators, and readers perceived the spiritual and physical worlds.[4]

A couple of things stand out in the stories I have selected here. Linking all of them together is the theme of the interaction of the spiritual state with the physical body. Sometimes this interaction can be ecstatic and even uncontrollable, as in the story of ‘Abd al-Qādir’s involuntary apparating, as it were. But more prominent in these selections is the theme of bodily integrity and autonomy on the part of the saint. Such a concern explains the rather curious juxtaposition of control of bodily functions and the rejection of bodily obeisance towards holders of temporal power. In both cases, the saint is in charge of his bodily autonomy; he regulates it as he wills, being subject to neither internal forces of nature, nor external forces of temporal power. Nor, as we see in the slightly unnerving story of the shape-shifting jinn, can uncanny forces disturb the saint’s body, or his interior, spiritual state (which, as we see throughout, is intimately linked to his exterior person). Saintliness means, in the world of these accounts, a remarkable degree of personal control and indeed autonomy on the part of the saint, translated into the outer world through his body and his control of it and the space it inhabits (including the bodies and even thoughts of others in the saint’s vicinity). Even terrifying viper-jinn cannot violate the physico-spiritual stability and control of the saint.

123rd Account: According to the Sharīf Abū ‘Abdallah Muḥammad ibn al-Khiḍr ibn ‘Abdallah al-Ḥusanī al-Mawṣilī: My father related to me: he said: I accompanied our master Shaykh Muḥya al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Qādir for thirteen years, and I never saw him during that time wipe his nose nor spit, nor did a fly ever alight on him. And he never stood up for important people, nor for any one possessing goods or temporal power, nor did he sit upon the rugs of kings. And whenever the caliph, or vizier, or any other respectable person came to him, if he was sitting, then he would rise and enter into his house, lest he stand up for them. But when he left his house, they stood up for him, and he spoke good words with them, and he went to great lengths in exhorting them, and they accepted it, forming a circle before him humbly and meekly.

And if the caliph wrote a letter to him, he [‘Abd al-Qādir] would write back: ‘’Abd al-Qādir commands you with such and such, and his command is legally valid towards you, and obeying him is incumbent upon you, and he is a model for you, and an argument against you.’ And when [the caliph] came to the end of his letter, he would kiss it and say: ‘The shaykh, God be pleased with him, spoke truthfully!’

And ‘Abd al-Qādir used to say: The states (al-aḥwāl) used to, in my beginning, overcome me, conveying me. So I resisted them and mastered them, so that I vanish from them and from my essence (wujūdī), and I cross over bounds and become unaware. And when that passes from me, I find myself in a place far distant from where I was. One time the state (al-ḥāl) overcame me in the streets of Baghdad, and an hour went by and I was unaware—then it passed from me and I was in Shushtar, and between it and Baghdad is a twelve-day journey. I remained meditating on my affair.[5]

126th Account: According to Shaykh Abū Bakr ‘Abd al-Rizāq, who said: I heard my father, Muḥya al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Qādir, say: One night I was in the mosque of al-Mansur Usli, and heard the sound of something moving along the floor—then there came an enormous viper, and it opened its mouth in the place of my prostration [i.e. in the place the head touches the ground] and when I desired to make a prostration I repelled it with my hand and completed my prostration. When I sat down for the shahada, it crawled over my thigh, rose to my neck, and coiled itself around it. Upon concluding my prayers, I no longer saw it. The next day, when I entered the street facing the mosque, I saw a person whose eyes were cloven longways, and I knew that he was my jinn. Then he said to me: ‘I am the viper you saw yesterday. I have tried many of the saints in the same way I tried you, and none of them stayed firm the way you stayed firm. There were among them those who were disturbed exteriorly and interiorly [that is, physically and spiritually], and those who were disturbed interiorly while they remained firm exteriorly—but I perceived that you were not disturbed exteriorly or interiorly!’ Then he asked that he might be induced to repent by my hand, so I induced him to repent.

132nd Account: According to Shaykh Abū Ḥafṣ ‘Umar ibn Ḥassan ibn Khalīl al-Ṭaybī, who said: I was present at the session (majlis) of ‘Abd al-Qādir, God be pleased with him, and I was sitting alongside him, when I saw something in the form of a crystal lamp descending from heaven so that it drew close to the mouth of the shaykh, then it went back, ascending rapidly. This happened three times. I couldn’t restrain myself from rising to tell others do the excess of my wonder, but he cried out to me: ‘Sit down! These sessions are held in trust.’ So I sat and did not talk about it until after his death.

And according to Yaḥya ibn al-Ḥājj al-Adīb, who said: I said to myself, I want to count how many times the shaykh Muḥya al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Qādir relates poetry in the session of his preaching. So I attended a session and had with me a string, and whenever he related poetry I tied a knot in the string, concealed under my clothing, and I was at the back of the crowd. So he said [perceiving it], ‘I loosen and you tie!’

ʻAbd Allāh ibn Asʻad al-Yāfiʻī, Khalāsa al-Mafākhir Fī Manāqib al-Shaykh ʻAbd al-Qādir, ed. by Aḥmad Farīd al-Mazīdī (Sirīlānkā: Dār al-Āthār al-Islāmīyah lil-Ṭibāʻah wa-al-Nashr, 2006), 199, 201, 205.


[1] On Yāfiʻī  see: Geoffroy, E.. ” al-Yāfiʿī.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online , 2012.

[2] On ‘Abd al-Qādir, see, besides his EI2 article and the article on the Qadiriyya, Bruce Lawrence’s article for the Encyclopedia Iranica, available here: http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/abd-al-qader-jilani; and Jacqueline Chabbi, ‘‘Abd al-Kadir al-Djilani personage historique: Quelques Elements de Biographie’, in Studia Islamica, No. 38 (1973). There are multiple works dealing with the various permutations of the Qadiriyya; among resources available on-line, see Martin van Bruinessen, “Shaykh `Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani and the Qadiriyya in Indonesia”, Journal of the History of Sufism, vol. 1-2 (2000), 361-395, available here: http://www.hum.uu.nl/medewerkers/m.vanbruinessen/publications/Qadiriyya_Indonesia.htm. His article includes a discussion of, among other things, Indonesian comic books depicting stories of ‘Abd al-Qādir.

[3] There are a number of works attributed to ‘Abd al-Qādir that are most certainly not his, including an interesting, but clearly much later, treatise called Sirr al-Asrar, that would seem to date from the 13th or 14th century; the peoms and litanies attributed to him are also probably considerably later in origin.

[4] For a recent treatment of the uses of Sufi hagiography, and concepts and uses of the body, in the context of late medieval Persianate Sufism, see Shazad Bashir, Sufi Bodies: Religion and Society in Medieval Islam (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

[5] My translation of this passage is rather tentative. To be honest, I am not entirely sure what to make of parts of it—it does seem clear, however, that there is something about the saint’s mystical ‘states’ that cause extranormal bodily experiences.