By Hazrat Inayat Khan
In the life of Bullah Shah, the great saint of Punjab, one reads a most instructive account of his early training when he was sent to school with boys of his own age. The teacher taught him Alif, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. The other boys in his class finished the whole alphabet while he was mastering the same letter. When weeks had passed, and the teacher saw that the child did not advance any further than the first letter Alif, he thought that he must be deficient and sent him home to his parents, saying, 'Your boy is deficient, I cannot teach him.'
The parents did all in their power for him, placing him under the tuition of various teachers, but he made no progress. They were disappointed, and the boy in the end escaped from home, so that he should no longer be a burden to his own people. He then lived in the forest and saw the manifestation of Alif which has taken form in the forest as the grass, the leaf, the tree, branch, fruit, and flower; and the same Alif was manifested as the mountain and hill, the stones and rocks. He witnessed the same as a germ, insect, bird and beast, and the same Alif in himself and others. He thought of one, saw one, felt one, realized one, and none else besides.
After mastering this lesson thoroughly he returned to pay his respects to his old teacher who had expelled him from school. The teacher, absorbed in the vision of variety, had long ago forgotten him; but Bullah Shah could not forget his old teacher who had taught him his first and most inspiring lesson which had occupied almost all his life. He bowed most humbly before the teacher and said, 'I have prepared the lesson you so kindly taught me; will you teach me anything more there may be to learn?' The teacher laughed at him and thought to himself, 'After all this time this simpleton has remembered me.' Bullah Shah asked permission to write the lesson, and the teacher replied in jest, 'Write on this wall.' He then made the sign of Alif in the wall, and it [the wall] divided into two parts [making the sign of Alif]. The teacher was astounded at this wonderful miracle and said, 'Thou art my teacher! That which thou hast learnt in the one letter Alif, I have not been able to master with all my learning,' and Bullah Shah sang this song:
Oh! friend now quit thy learning,
One Alif is all thou dost need.
By learning thou hast loaded my mind,
With books thou hast filled up thy room.
But the true knowledge was lost by pursuing the false,
So quit now, oh friend, the pursuit of thy learning.
Every form seems to be derived from another, all figures being derived from Alif, which is originally derived from a dot and represents zero, nothingness. It is that nothingness which creates the first form Alif. It is natural for everyone when writing to make a dot as soon as the pen touches the paper, and the letters forming the words hide the origin. In like manner, the origin of the One Being is hidden in His manifestation. That is why Allah, whose name comes from Alif, is hidden under His own manifestation. The same form of Alif is the figure one in English, and in both aspects this form reveals its meaning. This meaning in its various forms is seen in all aspects of nature. As Omar Khayyam says.
A hair perhaps divides the false and true;
Yes, and a single Alif were the clue,
Could you but find it – to the treasure house,
And, peradventure, to the Master too.
My soul said, 'I desire the mystic knowledge:
Teach me if it be in thy power.'
I said, 'Alif.' She answered, 'Say no more;
If one is at home, a single letter is enough.'
[Extracted from Hazrat Inayat Khan, The Way of Illumination (The Sufi Message, Vol. 1)]