By Sadia Dehlvi
Jul 26, 2016
Sahl ibn Abdullah Tustari of the ninth century was amongst the famous early Sufi masters. Numerous miracles are attributed to Sahl, who kept them a secret. People said he walked on water without his feet getting wet. Lions and other wild beasts were seen visiting him and he tended to them. The Sufi’s house in Tustar came to be called “the house of wild beasts”. He would often go into states of ecstatic rapture that lasted for days, during which he never ate a morsel. During these spiritual states, even in winter, his clothes were drenched in sweat.
Sahl Tustari earned the title of Shaykh ul Arifin, “master of the knowers”. He received his spiritual training from the Egyptian Sufi master Dhu’l-Nun al-Misri. Mansur Hallaj, the famed martyred mystic of Baghdad studied under him. Sahl memorised the Quran at the age of seven. At a young age, he began perpetual fasting. His food consisted of just an ounce of barley bread. Of fasting for the sake of god, Sahl said, “Hunger is Allah’s secret on earth and He does not confide it to one who divulges it”.
Once when the ruler of Tustar became gravely ill, he ordered that the Sufi master be presented before him in order. The king wished to seek Sahl’s prayers for his well-being. Sahl told the king that prayers were effective only for those who were penitent and insisted that those prisoners wrongly detained in jails be released. The king acted accordingly and soon regained health. He offered the Sufi generous amounts of money which the mystic did not accept.
Sahl defined a Sufi as “someone who is pure, filled with reflection and renounces the human for the divine, someone for whom gold and mud have the same value, that is to say, someone who has no desire for anything but for his Lord and Master.” He further explained: “Allah is the Qibla (direction of Muslim prayer) of intention, intention is the Qibla of the heart, the heart is the Qibla of the body, the body is the Qibla of the limbs and the limbs are the Qibla of the world.”
He authored the earliest mystical commentary on the Quran, explaining the hidden secrets of each verse. He wrote that the “hearts of the knowers have eyes, that see what onlookers don’t see”.
Sahl Tustari died in Basra, where he was forced to seek refuge. When his body was being carried for burial, accompanied by hundreds of disciples, a Jew came running out on the streets to enquire about the commotion. He shrieked saying that he could see angels descending from heaven stroking the bier with their wings. Sahl was a true friend of God who lived just for His sake alone.
Sadia Dehlvi is a Delhi-based writer and author of Sufism: The Heart of Islam.