The stories in this book are drawn from the dozens that Douglas-Klotz has enjoyed telling in his seminars over the past 20 years. Most of them appear in works of the classical Sufis, such as Rumi, Attar, or S'adi. To preserve some of the in-person feeling and bring the language up to date, he has given them his own improvised turns.
"If you want to hear a good story but prefer to read it instead, then read Douglas-Klotz! He writes as if he's sitting in your living room, invited over for afternoon tea to entertain you with some heart-pleasing, often humorous, yet soul-searching Sufi stories. His modernization of these old texts is gentle and mindful, yet unapologetic." --Maryam Mafi from the Foreword
About the Author
Neil Douglas-Klotz, PhD, (Saadi Shakur Chishti) is a world-renowned scholar of religious studies, spirituality, and psychology. Living in Scotland, he directs the Edinburgh Institute for Advanced Learning and for many years was co-chair of the Mysticism Group of the American Academy of Religion. He is also the cofounder of the International Network of the Dances of Universal Peace.
Maryam Mafi was born and raised in Iran. She went to Tufts University in the U.S. in 1977 where she studied Sociology and Literature. While reading for her Master's degree in International Communications at American and Georgetown Universities she began translating Persian literature and has been doing so ever since. Reading Rumi's poetry, she says, has led her to a 're-education' in her own language and a new appreciation of her spiritual heritage.
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Stories about Sufis and Dervishes
You might think that Sufi stories always portray Sufis in a positive light. But you would be thinking incorrectly.
One famous story, told by the 12th-century Sufi Fariduddin Attar, relates that a Sufi shaykh was once traveling on the back of a donkey, congratulating himself for being such a wise teacher with so many students. Then his donkey farts. This "Zen moment" occasions sincere repentance on the part of the shaykh, who feels that his nafs, or small self, has just made an apt commentary on his self-worth.
Rumi relates our first story in his Mathnawi, a long poetic opus of about 25,000 verses, often informally called the "Persian Qur'an." Several of Rumi's stories deal with the challenges and foibles of Sufi dervishes during his time.
The second story comes from Ottoman Turkey. You could see it merely as a satire skewering both intellectuals and dervishes. But let it settle a bit, and you may find something deeper.
The Shaykh and the Boy Selling Halvah
Once upon a time, a famous Sufi shaykh lived in old Baghdad. The shaykh was renowned for his charity and goodness. Aside from what he really needed, he gave away everything he received each day to the poor. So, his reputation among the common folk was outstanding. Almost everyone loved him. Almost.
There was only one problem. Since he didn't own anything, he borrowed everything that he gave away each day. So the shaykh was constantly in debt to many people. Usually some generous person came to his aid whenever he really needed it, but nonetheless he was always only one step ahead of his creditors.
The shaykh was getting on in years, and just as things are today, people became less and less willing to loan him anything for fear that he might not be able to pay them back. Nonetheless, the shaykh's good reputation ensured that there were always people who would loan him what he needed. If nothing else, rich merchants were afraid to let it be known that they were too stingy to give to a generous holy man. It might diminish their customer base.
Now it happened that the shaykh fell ill. And, day by day, he seemed to be failing. The shaykh asked his murids (students) to bring his bed into a small meeting hall in the khanaqah, the Sufi gathering place where he and a few students lived. The shaykh told them that he wanted to meet his maker there.
Unlike many such edifices in the ancient Sufi world, this khanaqah was a very modest, mud-brick affair. The students' rooms surrounded a central, domed mosque and meeting hall, like a heart with two wings enclosing it.
His students gathered around the shaykh's bed, many of them with long faces, hoping for a final blessing from the great man. The shaykh was smiling beneficently and breathing peacefully. Gradually, word got out of the shaykh's imminent passing, and many other people from the neighborhood began to gather. Among them were the shaykh's many creditors. Instead of a final blessing, the creditors had another object in mind: repayment. They hoped that before the shaykh died, he would manifest some miracle and pay them what he owed.
One of them whispered into the ear of another.
"How much does he owe you?"
"One thousand gold dinars. You?"
"Only 500 silver dirhams, thank God! But it's still enough for me."
The atmosphere in the room was very mixed, to say the least: sadness, hope, expectation, anxiety, and a growing undercurrent of whispering and grumbling.
"If he owed that much to you, why did he also borrow from me?"
"Couldn't he have paid me back with what he borrowed from Ahmed? He can afford to lose 600."
"It's incredible! He owes all of us!"
In fact, the room was now overfull, and only the small circle of students around his bed protected the shaykh from the increasingly agitated and growing crowd of creditors who edged nearer and nearer.
The shaykh's breath became more and more refined, until only those nearest him could tell whether he was breathing at all. He motioned for one of his students to come closer.
"What are all these others doing here?" he whispered loudly.
"Master, Allah forgive me, but many of them say that you owe them money."
"Money? Oh, yes, yes ... probably I do. It's all in Allah's hands."
"What does your master say?" asked one of the creditors in a voice everyone could hear.
"The master says," relayed the student, "that your money is all in Allah's hands."
A loud moan went up from the creditors.
"In Allah's hands? You know what that means!"
"I'm done for!" cried one.
"You? I'll be bankrupt!"
Others also proclaimed their incipient destitution, with increasingly cataclysmic predictions about what would happen to their businesses, their families, the whole community they supported! And so on. They began to fight among themselves about who would be more destitute.
"What are they all talking about?" the shaykh whispered to his nearest student. "This is a house of prayer. It has become increasingly noisy in here."
"Forgive me, Allah, they say that they will be bankrupt."
"No," said the shaykh, "how can it be? I don't believe it. Ya Alim! Allah knows the truth."
The students also became increasingly agitated. Not only was this very embarrassing, but it might distract the shaykh from giving them a final blessing. Or, looking at things from an earthlier viewpoint, it might diminish the reputation of the khanaqah as well as their ability to gather donations for it in the future. The students also began to talk anxiously among themselves.
Just then, a very loud, high voice out in the street cut through all the hubbub.
"Halvah! Nice sweet halvah! Who wants to buy some? Best halvah in Baghdad!"
Because the voice startled everyone, they all stopped talking for just an instant, but then at once went back to their angst-ridden conversations.
The shaykh motioned to his closest student.
"Ask the boy to come in, let's have some halvah," he rasped.
The student went out into the street and brought the small boy in, who was carrying a large silver plate covered with many pieces of halvah.
"Boy, how much for your whole plate of halvah?" asked the shaykh.
"This is my last plate of halvah for the day, and it's the best halvah in Baghdad. There isn't any even close to this quality in the whole world!" The boy had clearly been well trained. "So, one silver dirham."
"One silver dirham!" exclaimed the shaykh softly, raising one eyebrow in disbelief. "Is the halvah made of silver? No, boy, we're just poor Sufis here. And I'm dying. I'll give you half a silver dirham."
The boy paused, but only for effect, since he knew that the plate was worth only a half of that, and he would need to bring his master back even less.
"All right. But only this once. Because you're dying. And because you're holy people. Or so they say."
"Share it all around," the shaykh told the boy, whispering hoarsely as loudly as he could so that everyone heard. "These are all my brothers and friends here. Let them enjoy the sweetness, just as I am about to enjoy the sweetness of heaven ... inshallah (Allah willing)!"
The boy went around the room, offering halvah to everyone, and by some chance (or indeed miracle), there was enough for all. For some blessed moments, conversation stopped, with only the sound of chewing and smacking of lips breaking the silence. Someone burped.
After a discreet pause, the boy approached the shaykh for payment, holding his hand out.
"Money? You want money? Boy, as I told you, we're only poor Sufis here. I agreed to a price, but I didn't say I would pay you."
The boy became furious.
"You Sufi dogs! You would steal from a poor boy? What kind of people are you? I will be short when I return to the shop. Don't you know that my master will beat me? In fact, he'll probably kill me! In fact, he'll kill my whole family! In fact ..."
The boy went on in this vein, becoming louder and louder, increasingly and genuinely hysterical, his voice echoing through the mosque.
The creditors also went into an uproar.
"First he cheats us, now he cheats this poor boy!"
"Call the judge!"
"I'll never offer a friendly loan, not to mention a charitable donation, to a Sufi again!"
The students turned bright red and turned to one another, whispering frantically, unsure what to do.
"That's it. The reputation of our whole order is ruined!"
"We're done for!"
"Doesn't anyone have a half a dirham?"
They began to search through their robes.
While all of this was going on, a messenger in richly braided and brightly colored livery entered the room.
"Hey!" he yelled. "Which of you is the shaykh?" As messengers were trained to have loud voices in those days, everyone stopped for an instant, now aware that someone important had likely sent the messenger.
"He is," said one of the creditors, pointing to the shaykh on his bed.
As it happened, the messenger was also carrying a silver tray, this one covered with a silk cloth. He approached the shaykh.
"Someone hired me ten minutes ago to send you this, express delivery. For some reason, it had to be on a silver tray. I don't know who it was, but we work for an expensive service, you know. Had to be someone rich."
The shaykh, who had been resting with his eyes closed during the melee, opened one eye and asked his nearest student to remove the cloth and see what was there.
Under the cloth were two packets also wrapped in silk, one very large, the other very small. When the student untied the larger packet, it was full of gold dinars, more than he had ever seen. There was doubtless enough to pay off all the shaykh's creditors, plus enough to support the khanaqah for some time.
When he untied the small packet, he found it contained half a silver dirham.
The shaykh instructed his students to repay all the creditors, keep the rest, and give the half dirham to the boy.
Everyone was astonished. The boy grabbed the money and ran off with it before anything else crazy happened. These Sufis!
The creditors wiped their brows and breathed a huge sigh of relief. Then they began to protest to the shaykh that, of course, they knew that he was a righteous man and would make good on his debts, and to please pray for them when he got to the other side — in other words, they began to talk total nonsense.
The students were also relieved. Life would go on without them needing to face disaster, like getting jobs outside the khanaqah.
"Master," asked one murid, "how did this happen? How could anyone know about the halvah? And why did he (or she) wait so long to bail us out?"
"Allah knows!" said the shaykh. "But I'll tell you this: all these creditors don't really need the money. They are all rich men many times over. Their distress was all an act. Also, all of you are perfectly capable of making your own way when I'm gone. You may only need to be a little more ... ingenious. It was only the boy who had real need. You could hear it in his voice.
"When a real cry from the depths of the heart goes out, then Allah always answers. Try to find more genuine need in yourself. Then you will be on the inner path."
The Hodja's Bargain
Once upon a time, a few hundred years ago, in a small town in Ottoman Turkey, there lived a hodja. If you look up the word hodja on the Internet, you will find definitions like "religious teacher" or "scholar of Islam." Really, these days we would call a hodja a public intellectual, the type of person the news broadcasters bring on to comment as an expert on some feature of the economy, politics, or foreign relations. Sometimes they really know more; sometimes they only sound like they know more but when you boil it down, they haven't said anything. In the premodern world, there were few job opportunities for intellectuals, so a hodja had to find work where he or she could.
In this case, our hodja taught young boys to read the Qur'an in the local mosque. As was traditional, he did this by having them repeat each passage after him, over and over, until they had learned the words (and hopefully some of the meaning). While they did this, they would rock forward and back, because it's much easier to memorize something if you move your body rhythmically (or so I'm told).
One day the hodja was teaching Sura Al Baqara, the second and longest chapter in the Qur'an. A long way into the sura, just as he was getting ready to wind up for the day, he came to a verse that goes like this:
Those who spend what they have in the cause of Allah are like a grain of corn that grows seven ears and each ear yields a hundred more grains. And Allah multiplies the increase to whomever Allah wills.
The hodja asked one of the youngest boys to repeat the verse for him, and he did so successfully. The hodja breathed a satisfied sigh, then stopped short.
For some reason, perhaps because he was tired, perhaps because a songbird tweeted in the distance in the same key that the boy intoned the passage, perhaps only because this is a story, our hodja was struck by the meaning of the passage, as if he had heard it for the first time.
Does this mean, he thought to himself, that if I give away everything I have in the name of Allah, I will receive back ... let's see ... at least 700 times that amount?
The hodja looked at the verse again. This seemed to be the plain meaning. In fact, how could it mean anything else?
"Class dismissed!" he called out.
The boys scattered, and the hodja returned home.
He at once gathered all his liquid assets, which was almost everything he owned, since he lived modestly. He calculated. If he received seven hundred times this amount back, he would have a thousand gold dinars. An absolute fortune! He took the money and returned to the mosque, where he gave everything to the imam for the poor. Normally, the rules of zakat or charity require that only 2.5 percent of one's income for the year to go to the poor. The imam tried to talk the hodja out of giving so much. Didn't he want to save some for next year? But the hodja was insistent.
He returned home very satisfied and peered into the cupboard for something to eat for supper. What he found was: a half loaf of bread, some olives, and a bit of olive oil. A little goat cheese might be nice, he thought. But then he remembered that he had nothing with which to buy it. Oh well ... tomorrow I will be repaid. He sat down to dinner, and the bread, olives, and oil never tasted so good!
When the next day rolled around, the hodja went through the town with a spring in his step. Around every corner he expected to meet a mysterious stranger who would offer him (in Allah's name, of course), a thousand gold dinars. But by the time of his Qur'an class with the boys, there had been no such encounter. The boys noticed that their teacher seemed a bit distracted and kept looking toward the door of the mosque as though he expected someone to walk through any moment.
At the end of the class, the hodja went home and found that only a bit more bread, a few olives, and the remnants of the olive oil were left for supper. He used the rest of the bread to clean the last of the oil out of the jar. He went to bed a bit anxious, but he consoled himself with the thought that Allah was simply testing those whom He loved with the presence of His absence.
The next day, the same scenario occurred (but you probably already guessed that would happen). At the end of the day, the hodja trudged home to the last two olives and a few crumbs of bread that had fallen into the cracks of his table the day before. As he lay in bed, he told himself he still hoped for the best tomorrow. Inshallah! But he really expected the worst.
When he awoke the next day, he decided that he needed to be more proactive. Allah was undoubtedly very busy and simply needed reminding. After all, can you imagine all the prayers the Holy One had coming in every moment from all over the world! And many of them contradicting one other (considering the multiplicity of religions).
He could, of course, remind Allah inwardly in prayer, but that somehow seemed too insubstantial. He needed to make a formal petition aloud, much as one would appear before the Sultan and ask courteously for redress of a grievance. Of course, Allah was everywhere, or anywhere, but the hodja didn't want his neighbors to overhear him seeming to complain to Allah. That wouldn't do for his reputation as a hodja.
He decided to go outside the town walls to make his petition, but every time he stopped, someone appeared from behind a tree or around a bend in the road. He kept walking and finally found himself a great distance away from the town near an isolated grove of palm trees. Finally, he thought, just the place!
Just as he was preparing himself, however, he heard an inhuman howling not too far away. The hodja froze.
He had heard that there was a crazy dervish living in the wilderness around the town accosting people. Accosting might be too mild a word. This dervish was actually very mad, and without consulting a psychological diagnostic manual for specifics, I can tell you that he was aggressive and probably psychopathic. He had been known to attack anyone who didn't give him some donation or whose looks he simply didn't like.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Little Book of Sufi Stories"
Copyright © 2018 Neil Douglas-Klotz.
Excerpted by permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
I Stories about Sufis and Dervishes 1
The Shaykh and the Boy Selling Halvah 3
The Hodja's Bargain 13
II Mullah Nasruddin: International
Man of Mysticism 25
Uzbek Stories of Mullah 29
Where Do We Go? 29
Professional Expert 30
Dueling Experts 31
Point of View 31
Balancing Act 32
Some Consolation 33
A Bargain Is a Bargain 33
Defective Goods? 34
Mullah in Civil Service 35
Legal Training 35
Standards of Service 36
Quality Control 37
A Question of the Employer 39
The Value of Good Self-Esteem 41
Possible Promotion 41
Mullah and the Camel Seeds 44
Mullah Tries Donkeys Again 50
Not Myself: The Zen Mullah 55
III Stories about Jesus 57
Young Jesus Goes to School 61
Jesus in the Graveyard 64
Wandering Dervish 67
The World Is a Bridge 67
Stone for a Pillow 68
The Teeth of the Dog 70
Jesus and the Fool 71
IV Stories about Iblis 79
Iblis's Refusal 81
Iblis's Refusal, Take 2 84
Iblis's Refusal, Take 3 87
Iblis's Refusal, Take 4 89
V Stories from Sa'adi 91
Advice for People in Business and Positions of Power 93
FallingOff the Camel 93
A Question of Anticipation and Value 95
The Crafty Slave 96
Like for Like 98
Just Passing Through 99
Advice for Lovers 101
Surprised by the Beloved 101
About Love and Passion 102
Moth and Candle: Two Points of View 104
VI The Man of the Big Fish 107
Young Jonah 109
The Mission 111
The Journey to Nineveh 113
The Big Fish 121
Return to Nineveh 126
VII A Sufi Fairy Tale 129
The Lady and the Golden Lampstand 131
VIII From the Arabian Nights: The Hunchback of Ch'ang-an 141
TheFate of the Hunchback 145
The Jewish Doctor and His Wife 149
The Muslim Cleaner 151
The Christian Broker 153
The Proposed Execution 155
A Saving Story 158
A Haircut Gone Wrong 161
The Actual Barber 168
IX Reversals of Fortune 173
How Difficult Can Astrology Be? 175
Hadji Ahmed's Dream 186
X Wild Nature 195
A Selected Reading List of Books Containing Sufi Stories 201