Ibrahim ben Adham, Prince of Balkh (died 875 A.D.)

[This is taken from Claud Field's Mystics and Saints of Islam, originally published in 1910.]

Ibrahim Ben Adham was originally Prince of the city of Balkh, and had control of the riches of many provinces. One night when he was in bed he heard a sound of footsteps on the roof of his palace. "Who are you on the roof?" he cried out. An answer came, "I have lost a camel, and I am looking for it on this roof." "Well," he said, "you must be a fool for your pains, to look for a camel on a roof." "And thou, witless man," returned the voice, "is it while seated on a throne of gold that thou expectest to find the Most High? That is far madder than to seek a camel on a roof." At these words, fear seized the heart of Ibrahim, who spent the rest of the night in prayer, till the early dawn. The next morning he took his seat upon his throne, round which were ranged all the grandees of his kingdom and his guards, according to their rank, in the usual manner. All of a sudden Ibrahim perceived in the midst of the crowd a majestic figure, who advanced towards him unseen by the rest. When he had come near, Ibrahim asked him, "Who art thou, and what hast thou come to seek here?" "I am a stranger," he answered, "and I wish to stay at this inn." "But this is not an inn," answered Ibrahim, "it is my own house." "To whom did it belong before thee?" inquired the stranger. "To my father." "And before thy father, to whom did it belong?" "To my grandfather." "And where are thy ancestors now?" "They are dead." "Well then, is this house anything but an hotel, where the coming guest succeeds to the departing one?" So saying, the stranger began to withdraw. Ibrahim rose, ran toward him, and said, "I adjure thee to stop, in the name of the Most High." The stranger paused. "Who art thou," cried Ibrahim, "who hast lit this fire in my soul?" "I am Khizr, O Ibrahim. It is time for thee to awake." So saying, he disappeared. Ibrahim, pierced with sorrow, awoke from his trance, and felt a keen disdain for all earthly grandeur.

The next morning, being mounted and going to the chase, he heard a voice which said, "O Ibrahim, thou wast not created for this." He looked round him on all sides, but could see no one, and went on again. Presently again the voice was heard, proceeding, as it were, from his saddle, "O Ibrahim, thou wast not created for this." Struck to the heart, Ibrahim exclaimed, "It is the Lord who commands; His servant will obey." He thereupon dismounted, exchanged clothes with a shepherd whom he discovered close by, and began to lead the life of a wandering dervish, and became famous for his devoutness and austerity.

After some years, he undertook the pilgrimage to Mecca, and joined a caravan which was bound thither. The news of his coming having reached the chief men of the city, they all came out to meet him. Some of their servants, going on, met Ibrahim (whom, of course, they did not know), and asked him if Ibrahim ben Adham was approaching. "Why do you ask me?" he said. "Because the chief men of the city are come out to meet him." "And why make so much ado about that man," he said, "who is a sinner and an infidel?" "What right hast thou to speak thus of him?" they cried; and, seizing him, handled him roughly. After having beaten him they went on their way. Ibrahim said to himself, "Thou hast had thy deserts." When he was recognised afterwards, an ample apology was made to him, and he was conducted to Mecca, where he remained several years, supporting himself by money earned by his daily toil.

When Ibrahim left Balkh, he had a son who was then a child. When the latter became a young man, he asked, "Where is my father?" Whereupon his mother told him all that had occurred to his father. "Well," said the youth, "where is he to be found now?" "At Mecca," his mother answered. "Very well, I will go to Mecca," he replied, "and find my father." He set out, and when he arrived there, he found in the sacred precinct surrounding the Kaaba many fakirs clothed with rags. "Do you know Ibrahim ben Adham?" he asked them. "He is one of ourselves," one of them answered; "he has gone to gather and sell wood wherewith to buy bread and bring it us." The younger Ibrahim immediately went out of the city to seek his father. Presently he found an old man carrying a bundle of wood on his head, whom he recognised as his father. At this sight he was near weeping, but controlled himself, and walked behind him unobserved.

As for Ibrahim ben Adham, he carried his wood to the bazaar, sold it, and bought bread, which he took to his fellow-fakirs, and then performed his devotions. On the other hand, his son did not disclose himself, for he feared that to do so suddenly would cause his father to fly.

The next morning one of Ibrahim ben Adham's fellow-fakirs rose and went to his son's tent. He found the young man reading the Koran and weeping. The fakir advanced and saluted him, asking, "Who art thou? Whence comest thou? Whose son art thou?" "I am the son of Ibrahim ben Adham," replied the young man, "and I was never able to see my father until now; but I fear that if I make myself known to him, he will repulse me brusquely and flee away." "Come," said the fakir, "I will myself lead you to him."

Without further delay the wife and son of Ibrahim joined the fakir, and went to seek him. No sooner had his wife perceived him than she uttered a cry and said, "My son, behold thy father." All the bystanders burst into tears, while Ibrahim's son fell down in a swoon. When he came to himself he saluted his father, who returned his greeting, embraced him, and said, "O my son, of what religion art thou?" "Of the religion of Muhammad," he answered. "God be praised!" exclaimed Ibrahim. Then he asked, "Dost thou know the Koran?" "I know it," was the reply. "Dost thou read the books which treat of religious knowledge?" "I read them." "God be praised!" again exclaimed Ibrahim. Then he prepared to leave them and depart, but his wife and son would not let him, and began to weep. But Ibrahim, lifting up his eyes to heaven, prayed, "My God, come to my help," on which his son immediately died. The companions of Ibrahim asked him, "What is the meaning of this?" "When I saw my son," he answered, "my paternal tenderness was aroused. But immediately I heard a voice, 'What, Ibrahim! Dost thou pretend attachment to Us while all the while thy heart is engaged with another person? How can two loves co-exist in one heart?' On hearing this, I prayed to the Lord and said, 'O my God, if my love to this child makes Thee withdraw from me, take his soul or mine.' My prayer was heard, and He has taken the soul of my son." On one occasion Ibrahim is reported to have said, "Many nights in succession I sought to find the Kaaba unoccupied. One night when it was raining very hard, I at last found it so. I entered it, and lifting my heart to God, I said, 'O God, blot out my sins,' upon which I heard a Voice, which said, 'O Ibrahim, all over the world men ask Us the same thing; but if We blot out everyone's sins, whom shall We cause to share in the ocean of Our mercy?'" On another occasion he was asked, "Why hast thou given up thy rank and thy kingdom?" "One day," he said, "When I was seated on my throne, I looked at a mirror. I saw reflected in it my last resting-place, which was an obscure tomb, wherein I had no one to keep me company. The road whereby to reach the other world was long, nay infinite, and I had no provision for the way. I saw besides an upright judge, who questioned me so rigorously that I could return him no fit answer. Behold why my rank and my kingdom lost all value in my eyes, and why I abandoned them." "But why," continued the questioner, "didst thou flee Khorasan?" "Because," he said, "they kept on questioning me." "And why dost thou not marry?" "Is there any woman who would marry a man like myself, who am always hungry and naked? If I could, I would divorce myself; how then can I attach anyone to myself?"

Once Ibrahim asked a dervish, "Have you a wife and children?" "No," answered the dervish. "It is all then well for thee." "Why so?" asked the dervish. "Because," said Ibrahim, "everytime a dervish marries he is like one who embarks on a vessel, but when children are born to him he is like one who is drowning."

Seeing a dervish groaning, he said, "Doubtless thou hast bought this position of dervish at a low price." "What, Ibrahim," answered the other, "can the position of dervish be bought?" "Certainly," answered Ibrahim; "I have bought it at the price of royalty, and I find I have made a good bargain."

One day a man brought to Ibrahim a sum of a thousand pieces of gold, which he had vowed to offer him. "I do not take anything from the wretched," the latter said. "But," said the other, "I am a rich man." "What," answered Ibrahim, "you are as rich as that, and still seek to increase your wealth?" "As a matter of fact, I do." "Well then, you are more wretched than anyone," and he added, "Listen! I possess nothing, and I ask nothing of anyone. I have aspired after the condition of a dervish and found riches in it; others have aspired after riches and found poverty." Another person also offered Ibrahim a thousand pieces of gold, which he refused, saying, "You wish doubtless by means of this gold to erase my name from the list of dervishes."

Every day Ibrahim worked for hire, and whatever he earned he spent on provisions to take to his companions; then they all broke their fast together. He never returned in any case till he had performed his evening devotions. One day when he had been absorbed in them, he returned later than usual. His companions, who were waiting for him, said to themselves, "We had better break our fast and all go to bed. When Ibrahim sees what we have done, he will come earlier another time, and not keep us waiting." Accordingly, they all ate and lay down. When Ibrahim came and saw them asleep, he said to himself, "Perhaps they have gone to bed hungry." He had brought with him a little meal, which he made into dough; then he blew up the fire, and cooked supper for his companions. They then rose and said to him, "What are you doing, Ibrahim?" "I am cooking something for you, for it has occurred to me that perhaps you have gone to bed without taking anything." They looked at each other, and said, "See, while we were plotting against him, he was engaged in thinking for us."

One day a man came to Ibrahim and said, "O Ibrahim, I have done myself a great deal of harm (by sin). Give me some advice." "Listen then," said Ibrahim, "here are six rules for you. First: When you have committed a sin, do not eat the food which the Lord sends you." "But I cannot live without food," said the other. "What!" exclaimed Ibrahim, "is it just that you should profit by what the Lord supplies while you do not serve Him and never cease to offend Him?" Second: "When you are on the point of committing a sin, quit the Kingdom of the Most High." "But," said the man, "His Kingdom extends from the East to the West; how can I go out of it?" "Very well, remain in it; but give up sin, and don't be rebellious." Third: "When you are about to sin, place thyself where the Most High cannot see you." "But one cannot hide anything from Him." "Very well then," said Ibrahim, "is it right that you should live on what He supplies, and that you should dwell in His Kingdom, and commit evil actions under His eyes?" Fourth: "When Azrael, the Angel of Death, comes to claim your soul, say to him, 'Give me a respite, I wish to repent.'" "But how will Azrael listen to such a prayer?" "If it is so," replied Ibrahim, "repent now, so as not to have to do so when Azrael comes." Fifth: "When you are placed in the tomb, dismiss the angels Munkir and Nakir, who will come to examine thee." "But I cannot." "Very well, live such a life as to be able to reply satisfactorily to them." Sixth: "On the Day of Judgment, when the order goes forth to conduct sinners to hell, say you won't go." "It suffices, Ibrahim, you have said enough." The man repented, and the fervour of his conversion lasted till his death.

Ibrahim is said to have told the following story. "One day I went to glean, but as soon as I put any ears of corn in the lappet of my robe they were shaken out. This happened something like forty times. At last I cried, 'What does this mean, O Lord?' I heard a Voice say in reply, 'O, Ibrahim, in the time of your prosperity forty bucklers of red gold were carried in front of thee. It was necessary that you should be thus molested as a requital for the luxury of those forty golden bucklers.'"

Once Ibrahim was entrusted with the charge of an orchard. The owner one day came down to visit it, and told Ibrahim to bring him some sweet pomegranates. Ibrahim went and gathered the largest he could find, but they all proved to be bitter. "What!" said the owner, "you have eaten these pomegranates so long, and cannot distinguish the sweet from the bitter?" "Sir," replied Ibrahim, "you told me to take charge of the orchard, but you did not tell me to eat the pomegranates." "Ah," replied the other, "to judge by your austerity, you must be no other than Ibrahim ben Adham." The latter, seeing that he was discovered, left the orchard and departed.

A story told by Ibrahim was as follows. "One night I saw in a dream Gabriel, with a piece of paper in his hand. 'What are you doing?' I asked him. 'I am writing on this sheet of paper the names of the friends of the Lord.' 'Will you write mine among them?' Ibrahim asked. 'But you are not one of His friends.' 'If I am not one of His friends, at least I am a friend of His friends.' Immediately a Voice was heard, 'O Gabriel, write Ibrahim's name on the first line, for he who loves Our friends is Our friend.'"

Once while Ibrahim was walking in the country, a horseman met him and asked him who he was, "I am," answered Ibrahim, "the servant of the Most High." "Well," said the horseman, "direct me to the nearest dwellings." Ibrahim pointed to the cemetery. "You are jesting at me," the other cried, and struck him on the head so severely that the blood began to flow. Then he tied a cord round his neck, and dragged him forcibly into the middle of the neighbouring town. The people cried out "Madman, what are you doing? It is Ibrahim ben Adham." Immediately the horseman prostrated himself before Ibrahim and implored his pardon. "O Ibrahim," he said, "when I asked you where were the nearest dwellings, why did you point to the cemetery?" "Every day," he answered, "the cemetery becomes more and more peopled, while the town and its most flourishing quarters are continually falling into ruins."

When Ibrahim's last hour arrived, he disappeared from sight, and no one has been able to say exactly where his tomb is. Some say it is at Bagdad, others at Damascus, others at Pentapolis. When he died, a Voice was heard saying, "The man who excelled all others in faith is dead; Ibrahim ben Adham has passed away."



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