Ibrahim Bin Adham
Abu Eshaq Ibrahim ibn Adham was born in Balkh and of Arab descent. He is one of the earliest documented great Sufis. He was a King of Balkh who renounced his throne for a spiritual kingdom and wandered to live a life of complete asceticism, earning his bread in Syria by honest manual toil until his death in c. 165 AH (782 AD). According to Arabic and Persian sources like al-Bukhari and others, Ibrahim ibn Adham received a warning from God through Khidr who appeared to him twice, and as such, Ibrahim abdicated his throne to take up the ascetic life in Syria. He is described in the Kashf-al-Mahjub, written by Ali Hujwiri (Data Ganj Bakhsh), as “unique in this path; the chieftain of his contemporaries, and a disciple of al-Khidr.”
The Legend of Ibrahim ibn Adham
Ibrahim ibn Adham’s was king of Balkh, and a whole world was under his command; forty gold swords and forty gold maces were carried before and behind him. One night he was asleep on his royal couch. At midnight the roof of the apartment vibrated, as if someone was walking on the roof. “Who is there?” he shouted. “A friend,” came the reply. “I have lost a camel, and am searching for it on this roof.”. “Fool, do you look for the camel on the roof?” cried Ibrahim. “Heedless one,” answered the voice, “do you seek for God in silken clothes, asleep on a golden couch?” These words filled his heart with terror, he could not sleep any more.
When day came he returned to his throne, thoughtful, bewildered and full of care. The ministers of state stood each in his place, his slaves were drawn up in ranks. General audience was proclaimed. Suddenly a man with awful smell entered the room, so terrible to look upon that none dared ask him his name. He advanced solemnly till he stood before the throne.
“What do you want?” demanded Ibrahim.
“I have just alighted at this caravanserai,” said the man.
“This is not a caravanserai. This is my palace. You are mad,” shouted Ibrahim.
“Who owned this palace before you?” asked the man.
“My father,” Ibrahim replied.
“And before him?”
“And before him?”
“And before him?”
“The father of So-and-so.”
“Where have they all departed?” asked the man.
“They have gone. They are dead,” Ibrahim replied.
“Then is this not a caravanserai which one man enters and another leaves?”
With these words the stranger vanished. He was Khidr, upon whom be peace. The fire blazed more fiercely in Ibrahim’s soul. Ibrahim commanded for his horse to be saddled and thought that if he would go hunting this would take his mind off all of this. His horse was saddled and he proceeded with his troops. He galloped across the desert. It was as if he did not know what he was doing. In this state he became separated from his troops. He then heard a voice “Awake!” He pretended that he did not hear it, and rode on. A second time the voice commanded, but he did not listen to it. A third time he heard the same, and hurled himself further away. Then the voice sounded a fourth time. “Awake, before you are stricken awake!” He now lost all self-control. At that moment a deer came in front of him, and Ibrahim decided to chase it. Suddenly the deer spoke to him and said “I have been sent to hunt you. You cannot catch me. Was it for this that you were created, or is this what you were commanded?”
Ibrahim cried “what is happening to me” and he turned his face from the deer. He then heard the same words from the top of his saddle. He now was terrified. The revelation became clearer yet, for Almighty God willed to complete the transaction. A third time the voice came from the collar of his cloak. The revelation was thus consummated, and the heavens were opened unto him.
Faith was now established in him. He dismounted all. His garments, and the horse itself, were dripping with his tears. He made true and sincere repentance. As he turned aside from the road, he saw a shepherd wearing felt clothes and a hat of felt, driving his sheep before him. Looking closely, he saw that he was a slave of his. He bestowed on him his gold embroidered cloak and bejewelled cap, together with the sheep, and took from him his clothes and hat of felt. These he put on himself.
Ibrahim ibn Adham goes to Mecca
Ibrahim spend fourteen years crossing the desert, praying and humbling himself all the way. When he drew near to Mecca, the elders of the Haram hearing of his approach came out to meet him. He moved himself ahead of the caravan so that no one might recognize him. The servants preceded the elders, and they saw Ibrahim going ahead of the caravan, but not having seen him before, they did not recognize him. As they walked passed him, they shouted, “Ibrahim ibn Adham is near. The elders of the Haram have come out to meet him.”
“What do you want of that heretic?” Ibrahim demanded. Straightway they set upon him and beat him up. “The elders of Mecca go out to meet him, and you call him a heretic?” they shouted. ‘I say he is a heretic,” Ibrahim repeated. When they left him, Ibrahim turned to himself.
“Ha!” he cried. “You wanted the elders to come out to meet you. Well, you have collected a few punches. Praise be to God that I have seen you get your wish!” Ibrahim then took up residence in Mecca. A circle of companions formed around him, and he earned his bread by the labour of his hands, working as a carpenter.
Ibrahim at Mecca is visited by his son
When Ibrahim ibn Adham left Balkh he left behind him a son. When his son grew he asked his mother one day about his father. His mother advised that his Father is lost. The son the requested that all who desired to perform the pilgrimage should assemble. Four thousand people presented themselves. He gave them all their expenses to cover provisions and camels and led the party to Mecca, hoping that God might grant him sight of his father. Reaching Mecca, he encountered by the door of the Holy Mosque a party of patchwork-frocked Sufis.
The son asked them wether they knew Ibrahim bin adham and the Sufi’s replied “He is a friend of ours,” they told him. “He is entertaining us, and has gone to hunt for food.” The son asked them to direct him, and he went in his track. He saw his father unshod and bareheaded coming along with a load of firewood. Tears sprang to his eyes, but he controlled himself and followed his father to the market. There his father began to shout. “Who will buy goodly things for goodly things?” A baker called to him and took the firewood in exchange for bread. Ibrahim brought the bread and laid it before his companions. Witnessing all of this the son thought that if he would say who he was his father would run away as he had ran away before. He went to ask for advice from his mother. His mother advised him to wait until they performed circumambulation of the holy house of God.
When the pilgrims entered Mecca and made the circumambulation of the Kaaba, Ibrahim with his companions also circled the Holy House. A boy approached him, and Ibrahim looked at him keenly. His friends noticed this, but waited until they had finished the circumambulation. They Asked Ibrahim who this boy was. Ibrahim advised “When I left Balkh,“I left a suckling son. I know that the boy is that son.”
The next day one of his friends went to look for the caravan from Balkh. As he came closer to it, he saw in the midst of the caravan a tent pitched. In the tent a throne was set, and the boy was seated on the throne, reciting the Koran and weeping. Ibrahim’s friend asked if he might enter. “Where do you come from?” he enquired. “From Balkh,” the boy replied. “Whose son are you?” The boy put his hand to his face and began to weep. “I have never seen my father, “he said. “Not until yesterday. I do not know whether it was he or not. I am afraid that if I speak he will run away, as he ran away from us before. My father is Ibrahim-e Adham the King of Balkh.
The man took him to bring him to Ibrahim. His mother also went along with him. As soon as she saw Ibrahim she cried aloud and could not control herself. “This is your father.” she said. All the bystanders and friends of Ibrahim bursted into tears. As soon as the boy recovered himself he saluted his father. Ibrahim returned his greeting and took him to his breast. Then Ibrahim would have departed, but the boy would not let go of him. His mother wailed aloud. Turning his face to heaven, Ibrahim cried, “O God, Come to my assistance!” The boy immediately died. When his companions asked Ibrahim about what happened he advised.
When I took him to my breast, love for him stirred in my heart. A voice spoke to me, ‘Ibrahim, you claim to love Me, and you love another along with Me?. Have you attached your heart to that woman and child.’ When I heard this, I prayed, ‘Lord of Glory, come to my assistance! He will so occupy my heart that I shall forget to love Thee. Either take away his life or mine.’ His death was the answer to my prayer.”
The Life of Ibrahim bin Adham
Ibrahim bin Adham was once asked “Since you entered on this path, have you ever experienced happiness?” to which he replied “Several times.”
“Once I was on board ship and the captain did not know me. I was wearing ragged clothes and my hair was untrimmed, I was in a spiritual ecstasy of which all on board were unaware. They laughed at me and ridiculed me. There was a joker on the ship, and every now and then he would come and grab me by the hair and pluck it out and slap me on the neck. In those moments I felt that I had attained my desire, and was very happy to be so humiliated.”
“Suddenly a great wave arose, and all feared that they would perish. ‘We must throw one of these fellows overboard,’ cried the helmsman. ‘Then the ship will be lighter.’ They seized me to throw me into the sea. The wave subsided, and the ship resumed an even keel. That moment when they took me by the ear to throw me into the water, I felt that I had attained my desire, and was happy.”
“On another occasion I went to a mosque to sleep there. They would not let me be, and I was so weak and exhausted that I could not get up. So they seized me by the foot and dragged me out. The mosque had three steps; my head struck against each step in turn, and the blood flowed forth. I felt that I had attained my desire. On each step that they dropped me, the mystery of a whole clime became revealed to me. I said, ‘Would that the mosque had more steps, to increase my felicity!’”
“On another occasion I was wrapt in a state of ecstasy. A joker came and urinated on me. Then too I was happy.”
“On yet another occasion I was wrapped in a fur jacket infested by fleas which devoured me unmercifully. Suddenly I remembered the fine clothes which I had deposited in the treasury. My soul cried within me, ‘Why, what pain is this?’ Then too I felt that I had attained my desire.”
Ibrahim was travelling in the desert one day when he was stopped by a soldier. “What are you?” the soldier asked. Ibrahim replied that he was a servant. The soldier asked him where the nearest habitation was. Ibrahim pointed to the graveyard. “You are making fun of me,” shouted the soldier, lashing out at Ibrahim’s head. His head was broken, and the blood gushed forth. The soldier put a rope round Ibrahim’s neck and dragged him along. People from the nearby town stopped at the spectacle.
“Ignoramus, this is Ibrahim-e Adham, the friend of God,” they cried. The soldier fell at Ibrahim’s feet and implored him to pardon him and acquit him of the wrong he had done him. “You told me you were a servant,” he pleaded. “Who is there who is not a servant?” Ibrahim replied. “I broke your head, and you prayed for me,” said the soldier. “I prayed that you might be blessed for the way you treated me,” was Ibrahim’s answer. “My reward for the way you treated me was Paradise, and I did not wish that your reward should be Hell.” “Why did you direct me to the cemetery when I asked the way to habitation?” the soldier asked. “Because every day the graveyard becomes more thronged, and the city more deserted,” answered Ibrahim.
One day Ibrahim came to a well. He let down the bucket, and it came up full of gold. He emptied it and let it down again, and it came up full of pearls. In merry mood he emptied it once more. “O God,” he cried, “Thou art offering me a treasury. I know that Thou art all-powerful, and Thou knowest that I shall not be deluded by this. Give me water, that I may make my ablution.”
Demise of Ibrahim bin Adham
Hazrat Ibrahim bin Adham attained unity with the Beloved in Damascus in 162AH. Although some scholars are of the opinion that he was martyred in 165 AH in a naval expedition against Byzantium. On his death a voice was heard proclaiming, “Now has indeed passed away the Imam of the world.”
Quotes & Sayings
- Tadhkirat al-Auliya’ translated by A.J. Arberry