(Written for an undergraduate class on Islamic Spirituality)
His name was Salar, and many years before he had met a Shaykh in a mysterious desert oasis who had told him he was free. But he wasn’t sure what that meant anymore – much had transpired since that fateful journey. When he, as a young soldier, had turned up at the village gates in the middle of the night, and related to wide-eyed eager faces his extraordinary tale, many a peasant cried out in wonder and fell upon his feet in homage.
“But I am no saint!” the soldier protested, “I am no holy man, merely a seeker and wayfarer whom God has chanced to favor with His Bounty. Do not make me out to be that which I am not!”
The villagers, however, did not really care. For some time they had been tyrannized by a corrupt and lazy governor, whom everyone despised but none had the courage to defy. This handsome young soldier who battled windstorms and spoke to sages seemed a Heaven-sent savior. They would rally around him, they would make him their chief, their guide and master, and he would then drive out the wicked governor for them.
The governor was long gone now – the soldier ruled in his stead, and lived in his manor house. The people of the village adored him; it can be said they almost worshipped him. All manner of miracles were attributed to the soldier – he knew by heart the Holy Qur’an and all the traditions in Muslim and Bokhari without ever having learnt how to read; prophets regularly appeared in his dreams and revealed to him great jewels of wisdom; he met with angels at the Tahajjud prayer and experienced ilhams during dhikr. He was no less than a prophet himself in the villagers’ eyes – their Musa, their Yusuf, their Ibrahim – and never had the little village known prosperity and peace till he’d magically materialized from the desert at their doorstep on that cold night long ago.
But the soldier had been uneasy of late. Over all these years he had grown accustomed to playing the idol, so to speak – he had grown accustomed to the silk cushions and silver goblets and people’s habitual obsequiousness. To be sure, it bothered him in the beginning – but slowly he came to feel it was a duty he owed to the villagers. Was he not, after all, just a poor, illiterate soldier, out of work since Saladin made peace with the Crusaders, and, realistically speaking, without any hope of advancement in the world? But still these people had embraced him with open arms – they had showered him with love and respect, bestowed upon him wealth and position – and to refuse them in any of their whims or wishes seemed to him the height of ingratitude. “Perhaps it was my destiny to be a saint. I could not be a soldier all my life, at any rate. The time for war is over. Perhaps this is then what God has decreed for me.” So he would try to convince his heart, as he sat with affectedly teary eyes at a sama of ecstatic poetry.
But the truth was, he was not a saint. He was not even a soldier any longer, nor was he the mystic and sage people believed him to be. He was just an ordinary man – a good man, even a great man compared to the wicked governor; an intelligent man, even rather wise compared to the credulous villagers. But he did not know the Qur’an by heart; nor did he sprout ahadith in every sentence. He had a store of aphorisms, composed by himself and a wandering dervish from Palestine during one of his travels, but that and the few prayers he’d learnt as a child formed the extent of his religious knowledge. He had never dreamt of any prophets; in fact, he knew nothing of the stories of Musa and Yusuf and Ibrahim save what he’d picked up from village hearsay. Angels he may have met at some point in his life, but they did not come to him in this village, in the house of the ex-governor at Tahajjud time, for he only woke for Tahajjud on communal occasions like Eid or in the last ten days of Ramadan.
All the while the people lauded him, eulogized and venerated him for his unmatchable piety, his limitless knowledge, his divinely inspired wisdom – and all the while his heart writhed like a tormented animal, crying “No, no, you do not know me, you do not know me!” At such times the Devil would unctuously whisper to his mind, “Pay no heed! Your heart is but weak and faltering – hearken not unto it. Remember you not your poverty, your baseness when these people took you in? Will you abuse their generosity so? You condemn yourself of hypocrisy – I say, what is so condemnable in that? I see into men’s hearts, and I see that hypocrisy is a part of human nature. The Lord made it that way. Would you willingly rebel against what the Lord intended? Would you admit to these people your lies and duplicity and purposefully break their hearts, when in truth you are guilty of nothing but weak faith in your own self? Are you not king, are you not their savior and saint?” And the soldier would smother repentance with self-satisfaction till the cries of his heart were barely audible above the sound of his voice in qirat – but just when he was almost certain God had abandoned him, another Voice would call out, “Wake up, O soldier, wake up! Be not deluded by these tricks and temptations, by this reasoning and logic – the devil only lies! Be brave, O soldier, and despair not – your Lord has not abandoned you, but in every tortured cry of your heart He is present, in every pang of shame and in every feeling of unease He calls you back to Him. You are no beggar, O soldier, that you need these people’s love and praise, their petty wealth and worship – your Lord sufficed for you in times of battle, in times of hunger and want, in the sandstorm in the desert. Will He not suffice for you here? Be heedless no more, dear slave, for your Lord wishes to save you – but before that you must wish to save yourself.”
And it was in a state like this that the soldier met the Sufi.
No one knows who he was or where he came from. He just wandered into the village one morning and said he wanted to speak to the chief. He said he was a Sufi.
“He’s no Sufi!” the people mocked. “He doesn’t wear the woolen robe, he hasn’t any amulets about his neck, and he carries no scrolls of poetry. He isn’t like our master!” And they jeered at him, assailed him with stones and would have driven him out of the village had the soldier not appeared and commanded them to stop. He glanced at the Sufi, and without a word made his way towards the khanqa.
The Sufi was a wizened, white-bearded old man, but his eyes shone with a peculiar light that reminded the soldier of the Shaykh at the oasis – the Shaykh who had told him he was free. “But I am not free,” the soldier sobbed. “The world shackles me, vanity shackles me, my nafs shackles me, my hypocrisy, and most of all, my ignorance!”
The Sufi looked at the man before him, and he saw beneath that vile guise of earth-bound piety a truly yearning soul.
“Why are you here, O Shaykh?” the soldier asked after a moment’s silence.
“I am here because you sent for me.”
For the next two months the villagers heard or saw nothing of their chief. The old Sufi occasionally emerged from the khanqa to call for food and water from the soldier’s house – for the rest, nobody knew what went on in that little cell where the soldier sat closeted with the old man, all day and all night.
The villagers feared that the strange old man had bewitched their savior, but no one had the courage to actually go and confront the Sufi about it, or storm through the door of the khanqa and rescue their captured chief. They were a mediocre people, these simple-minded villagers, and comfort was more important to them than greats act of courage or faith. Their faith was based on sensations – on awe and wonder, visions and auditions, on incense and music. The soldier had never been like that – but living amongst these people had made him so, had made him forget his essence, his True Name.
But God still Loved him, for the soldier had been a sincere believer in his youth. In youth, when the world looks brightest and realest, and every temptation most tempting, the soldier had chosen to fight – to fight on the battlefields of the earth and of the soul. His passion, his earnest devotion had earned him God’s Everlasting Friendship – but there was still something missing. Somewhere on the path he had skipped a step – and so he stumbled, and lost his way, and fell into void.
The Sufi was there to teach him how to fill that void. The Sufi was the scholar.
One day the soldier reappeared in the village marketplace. The people milled around him, and he addressed them thus:
“O people of the village, I have a confession to make to you today. All these years you have given me nothing but the highest esteem – and I have repaid you with nothing but deception.
“O people, I am not a saint. I am not a mystic. I am not a sage. I am not even a good man, though I may have been earlier on in my life, through no merit of my own. But when I came to this village, your love blinded me. The love of this world blinded me, and I was foolish enough to believe that mysticism was somehow innate in my nature. I grew complacent. I was almost convinced that sainthood had been decreed for me by God Himself.
“How wrong I was! How terribly astray! Still my God did not abandon me, still He Tolerated my insolences, and every time my heart fell beaten in the ring, He Forgave me, and pulled me up again.
“And then He sent to me a teacher; a true and learned guide of the path, from whom I learnt that which I lacked, that which filled the void of my deeds and rendered them meaningful once more. From him I learnt Knowledge. From him I learnt the Qur’an. From him I learnt the Truth.
“And now, my people, I must take my leave. I have learnt much these past two months, but not enough. I must start my journey anew. Perhaps you find me again, years and years hence, at the gates of this very village – but it will not be in these robes, it will not be with this face and in this guise, it will not be with a staff in my hand and miracles in my pocket, and exotic tales upon my lips. And it will not be to rule, as a prince or a chief or a sage or a sufi, in any land over any people.
“If it is, then it will be, to serve in absolute servitude, till the end of my days, my One and Only Lord; my Most Magnificent King, in Whom I suffice and survive, and in Whom I will perish.”
The soldier was never seen again. Some say he died in the desert; some say he went mad; others say he just disappeared. But the people of the village never forgot him, and till this day that little cell in the khanqa is visited and revered by seekers from all over the land as the place the soldier attained certainty.
The Sufi went back to where he had come from. He could not dally long in any one place. He had affairs to look after. After all, being the Shaykh of a mysterious desert oasis was no easy task.