Mansur Hallaj

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

Mansur Hallaj ("the cotton-comber"), a Persian, of Zoroastrian lineage, was a pupil of Junaid of Bagdad, a more sober-minded Sufi than his contemporary Bayazid Bastami. Mansur himself however was of an enthusiastic temperament, and took no pains to guard his language. One of his extraordinary utterances, "I am the truth," led at last to his execution, "the Truth" being one of the recognised names of God in Muhammadan nomenclature. Notwithstanding this, even at the present day he passes among the Sufis for one of their greatest saints, while the more orthodox regard him as a daring blasphemer who received his deserts. "His contemporaries," says a Muhammadan writer, "entertained as many different views concerning him as the Jews and Christians with respect to the Messiah." Certainly when we read the various accounts of him by authors of different tendencies, if we did not know to the contrary, we might suppose ourselves reading about different persons bearing the same name. The orthodox regard him chiefly as a sorcerer in league with supernatural powers, whether celestial or infernal, for he caused, it is said, summer fruits to appear in winter and vice versa. He could reveal in open day what had been done in secret, knew everyone's most private thoughts, and when he extended his empty hand in the air he drew it back full of coins bearing the inscription, "Say: God is One." Among the moderate Shiites, who had more than one point of contact with the Sufis, it is not a question of sorcery at all. For them the doctrine of Hallaj, which he had also practised himself, meant that by using abstinence, by refusing pleasure and by chastising the flesh, man can lift himself gradually to the height of the elect and even of angels. If he perseveres in this path he is gradually purged from everything human, he receives the spirit of God as Jesus did, and all that he does is done by God.

The Shiites say, moreover, that the reason for which Hallaj was put to death should be found not in his utterances but in the astonishing influence which he exercised over the highest classes of society, on princes and their courts, and which caused much disquietude to others, especially to the orthodox mullahs. Hallaj has even been judged not unfavourably by those among the orthodox who were characterised by a certain breadth of view, and who, like Ghazzali, although they disliked free-thinking, yet wished for a religion of the heart, and were not content with the dry orthodoxy of the great majority of theologians. Ghazzali indeed has gone so far as to put a favourable construction on the following sayings of Hallaj: "I am the Truth," "There is nothing in Paradise except God." He justifies them on the ground of the speaker's excessive love for God. In his eyes, as well as in those of other great authorities, Hallaj is a saint and a martyr. The most learned theologians of the tenth century, on the contrary, believed that he deserved execution as an infidel and a blasphemer. Even the greatest admirers of Hallaj, the Sufis, are not agreed regarding him. Some of them question whether he were a thorough-going pantheist, and think that he taught a numerical Pantheism, an immanence of the Deity in certain souls only. But this is not the opinion of the majority of the Sufis. The high esteem which they entertain for him is best understood by comparing the account they give of his martyrdom with that by orthodox writers. The latter runs as follows:

The common people of Bagdad were circulating reports that Hallaj could raise the dead, and that the Jinn were his slaves, and brought him whatever he desired. Hamid, the vizier of the Caliph Muqtadir, was much disturbed by this, and requested the Caliph to have Hallaj and his partizans arrested. But the grand chamberlain Nasir was strongly in his favour, and opposed this; his influence, however, being less than that of the vizier, Hallaj and some of his followers were arrested. When the latter were questioned, they admitted that they regarded their leader as God, since he raised the dead; but when he was questioned himself, he said, "God preserve me from claiming divinity or the dignity of a prophet; I am a mortal man who adores the Most High."

The vizier then summoned two cadis and the principal theologians, and desired that they should give sentence against Hallaj. They answered that they could not pronounce sentence without proofs and without confession on the part of the accused. The vizier, foiled in his attempt, caused Hallaj to be brought several times before him, and tried by artfully devised questions to elicit from him some heretical utterance, but in vain. Finally he succeeded in finding in one of his books the assertion that if a man wished to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, but was hindered from doing so by some reason or other, he could perform the equivalent of it in the following way. He should go through all the prescribed circuits in a chamber carefully cleansed and closed. In this chamber also he should give a feast of the choicest food to thirty orphans, should wait upon them himself, make them a present of clothing, and give them each seven dirhems.All this, he maintained, would be a work more meritorious than the pilgrimage itself.

The vizier showed to the cadi Abou Amr this passage which scandalised him. Abou Amr then asked Hallaj, "Whence did you derive this idea?" Hallaj quoted a work of Hassan of Basra, from which he said he had taken it. "It is a lie, O infidel, whose death is lawful," exclaimed the cadi; "the book you speak of was expounded to us at Mecca by one of the learned, but what you have written is not in it." The vizier eagerly caught up the expressions "O infidel," etc., which escaped the cadi in his excitement, and asked him to pronounce sentence of death. The cadi refused; that, he said, was not his intention; but the vizier insisted, and ended by obtaining the sentence of death, which was signed by all the maulvies present. In vain Hallaj sought to prove that the condemnation was unjust. "You have no right," he exclaimed, "to shed my blood. My religion is Islam; I believe in the traditions handed down from the Prophet, and I have written on this subject books which you can find everywhere. I have always acknowledged the four Imams and the first four Caliphs. I invoke the help of God to save my life!"

He was taken to prison. The vizier despatched the sentence of death, signed by the maulvies, to the Caliph, who ordered that Hallaj should be handed to the Chief of Police and receive a thousand strokes of the rod, and then another thousand if he did not die from the effects of the first scourging, and finally be decapitated. The vizier, however, did not transmit the order accurately, but modified it as follows: "If Hallaj does not die under the blows of the rod, let him first have a hand cut off, then a foot, then the other hand and foot. Lastly let his head be cut off, and his body burnt."

Hallaj underwent the terrible punishment with admirable courage, and when his body had been burnt the ashes were cast into the Tigris. But his disciples did not believe in his death; they were persuaded that a person resembling him had been martyred in his place, and that he would show himself again after forty days. Some declared that they had met him mounted on an ass on the road leading to Nahrawan, and had heard him say, "Be not like those simpletons who think that I have been scourged and put to death."

Thus far the theologians' account. That given by Fariduddin Attar in his "Tazkirat-ul-Aulia" is as follows:

This is he who was a martyr in the way of truth, whose rank has become exalted, whose outer and inner man were pure, who has been a pattern of loyalty in love, whom an irresistible longing drew towards the contemplation of the face of God; this is the enthusiast Mansur Hallaj, may the mercy of God be upon him! He was intoxicated with a love whose flames consumed him. The miracles he worked were such that the learned were thunderstruck at them. He was a man whose range of vision was immense, whose words were riddles, and profoundly versed in the knowledge of mysteries. Born in the canton of Baida in the province of Shiraz, he grew up at Wasit.

Abd Allah Khafif used to say, "Mansur really possessed the knowledge of the truth." "I and Mansur," declared Shibli, "followed the same path; they regarded me as mad, and my life was saved thereby, while Mansur perished because he was sane." If Mansur had been really astray in error, the two learned men we have just quoted would not have spoken of him in such terms. Many wise men, however, have reproached him for revealing the mysteries of truth to the vulgar herd.

When he had grown up, he was two years in the service of Abd Allah Teshtari. He made the pilgrimage to Mecca, and on his return became a disciple of the Sufi Junaid. One day, when Mansur was plying him with questions on certain obscure and difficult points, Junaid said, "O Mansur, before very long you will redden the head of the stake." 

"The day when I redden the head of the stake," rejoined Mansur, "you will cast away the garment of the dervish and assume that of ordinary men." It is related that on the day when Mansur was taken to execution all the Ulama signed the sentence of death. "Junaid also must sign," said the Caliph. Junaid accordingly repaired to the college of the Ulama, where, after putting on a mullah's robe and turban, he recorded in writing his opinion that "though apparently Mansur deserved death, inwardly he possessed the knowledge of the Most High."

Having left Bagdad, Mansur spent a year at Tashter, then he spent five years in travelling through Khorassan, Seistan and Turkestan. On his return to Bagdad, the number of his followers largely increased, and he gave utterance to many strange sayings which excited the suspicions of the orthodox. At last he began to say, "I am the Truth." These words were repeated to the Caliph, and many persons renounced Mansur as a religious leader and appeared as witnesses against him. Among these was Junaid, to whom the Caliph said, "O Junaid, what is the meaning of this saying of Mansur?" "O Caliph," answered Junaid, "this man should be put to death, for such a saying cannot be reasonably explained." The Caliph then ordered him to be cast into prison. There for a whole year he continued to hold discussions with the learned. At the end of that time the Caliph forbade that anyone should have access to him; in consequence, no one went to see him for five months except Abd Allah Khafif. Another time Ibn Ata sent someone to say to him, "O Sheikh, withdraw what you said, so that you may escape death." "Nay, rather he who sent you to me should ask forgiveness," replied Mansur. Ibn Ata, hearing this, shed tears and said, "Alas, he is irreparably lost!"

In order to force him to retract, he was first of all given three hundred blows with a rod, but in vain. He was then led to execution. A crowd of about a hundred thousand men followed him, and as he looked round on them, he cried, "True! True! True! I am the Truth!"

It is said that among them was a dervish who asked him, "What is love?" "Thou shalt see," Mansur replied, "to-day and to-morrow and the day after." And, as it happened, that day he was put to death, the next day his body was burnt, and on the third his ashes were scattered to the winds. He meant that such would be the results of his love to God. On his son asking of him a last piece of advice, "While the people of the world," he said, "spend their energies on earthly objects, do thou apply thyself to a study, the least portion of which is worth all that men and Jinn can produce—the study of truth."

As he walked along lightly and alertly, though loaded with many chains, they asked him the reason of his confident bearing. "It is," he said, "because I am going to the presence of the King." Then he added, "My Host, in whom there is no injustice, has presented me with the drink which is usually given to a guest; but when the cups have began to circulate he has sent for the executioner with his sword and leathern carpet. Thus fares it with him who drinks with the Dragon in July."

When he reached the scaffold, he turned his face towards the western gate of Bagdad, and set his foot on the first rung of the ladder, "the first step heaven-*ward," as he said. Then he girded himself with a girdle, and, lifting up his hands towards heaven, turned towards Mecca, and said exultantly, "Let it be as He has willed." When he reached the platform of the scaffold, a group of his disciples called out to him, "What do you say regarding us, thy disciples, and regarding those who deny thy claims and are about to stone thee?" "They will have a two-fold reward, and you only a single one," he answered, "for you limit yourselves to having a good opinion of me, while they are carried on by their zeal for the unity of God and for the written law. Now in the law the doctrine of God's unity is fundamental, while a good opinion is merely accessory."

Shibli the Sufi stood in front of him and cried, "Did we not tell thee not to gather men together?" Then he added, "O Hallaj, what is Sufism?" "Thou seest," replied Hallaj, "the least part of it." "What is then the highest?" asked Shibli. "Thou canst not attain to it," he answered.

Then they all began to stone him. Shibli making common cause with the others threw mud at him. Hallaj uttered a cry. "What," said one, "you have not flinched under this hail of stones, and now you cry out because of a little mud! Why is that?" "Ah!" he replied, "they do not know what they are doing, and are excusable; but he grieves me because he knows I ought not to be stoned at all."

When they cut off his hands, he laughed and said, "To cut off the hands of a fettered man is easy, but to sever the links which bind me to the Divinity would be a task indeed." Then they cut off his two feet. He said smiling, "With these I used to accomplish my earthly journeys, but I have another pair of feet with which I can traverse both worlds. Hew these off if ye can!" Then, with his bleeding stumps, he rubbed his cheeks and arms. "Why do you do that?" he was asked. "I have lost much blood," he answered, "and lest you should think the pallor of my countenance betokens fear, I have reddened my cheeks." "But why your arms." "The ablutions of love must be made in blood," he replied.

Then his eyes were torn out. At this a tumult arose in the crowd. Some burst into tears, others cast stones at him. When they were about to cut out his tongue, he exclaimed, "Wait a little; I have something to say." Then, lifting his face towards heaven, he said, "My God, for the sake of these sufferings, which they inflict on me because of Thee, do not inflict loss upon them nor deprive them of their share of felicity. Behold, upon the scaffold of my torture I enjoy the contemplation of Thy glory." His last words were, "Help me, O Thou only One, to whom there is no second!" and he recited the following verse of the Koran, "Those who do not believe say, 'Why does not the day of judgment hasten?' Those who believe tremble at the mention of it, for they know that it is near." Then they cut out his tongue, and he smiled. Finally, at the time of evening prayer, his head was cut off. His body was burnt, and the ashes thrown into the Tigris.

The high opinion entertained of Mansur Hallaj by Fariduddin Attar, as seen in the above account, has been echoed by subsequent Sufi writers. Jalaluddin Rumi, the great mystic poet, says of him:

"Pharaoh said 'I am the Truth,' and was laid low.Mansur Hallaj said 'I am the Truth,' and escaped free.Pharaoh's 'I' was followed by the curse of God.Mansur's 'I' was followed by the mercies of God.Because Pharaoh was a stone, Mansur a ruby,Pharaoh an enemy of light, Mansur a friend.Mansur's 'I am He,' was a deep mystic saying,Expressing union with the light, not mere incarnation."

Similarly Abdurrahman, the chief poet of the Afghans says:

"Every one who is crucified like Mansur,
After death his cross becomes a fruitful tree."





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