by Abdassamad Clarke
The story is told of how a young Muslim seeker of knowledge came to the Shaykh Dhu’n-Nun al-Misri in Cairo and spent many years with him, yet without the opening of his inner eye. Thus as a middle aged man one day he approached Dhu’n-Nun and asked him to teach him the Supreme Name of Allah, al-Ism al-‘Adham, by which if Allah is called He answers and if He is begged He gives. Dhu’n-Nun told him that he was unable to teach him it but that he would send him to a man who lived on an island on the Nile who could teach it to him. He entrusted his pupil with a box containing a present for the man and told him to convey his greetings.
The pupil set off then till he came to the Nile where he hired a boat and began to row towards the island. He was distracted in his rowing by the occasional rustling and scratching noise issuing from the box. Finally, unable to restrain his curiosity further, he shipped his oars, picked up the box and looked inside. A rather frightened mouse blinked back at him and then suddenly leaped from the box into the boat. The man scrambled after it and the mouse, eager to escape, leaped into the Nile and quickly disappeared from sight.
The man, rather puzzled, resumed his rowing and soon the island came in view. The teacher was standing on its shore as if expecting him. He greeted him, conveyed Dhu’n-Nun’s greetings and explained the purpose of his visit. The teacher made him welcome, showed him every hospitality and then enquired, “Perhaps Dhu’n-Nun sent you with something for me? That has been his custom.”
“Yes indeed,” the student replied embarrassedly, “He asked me to bring you this box,” and he presented it to him.
The teacher took it, looked inside and remarked, “But this box is empty!?” so that the student, even more embarrassedly, replied, “Yes it is,” and explained the whole story of the mouse.
“Do you mean to say,” asked the teacher, “That you cannot bring me one mouse with which you have been entrusted safely and you expect me to teach you the Greatest Name of Allah!?” He said it with such passion and vigour that the student crumbled and wept at the realisation of his plight. He humbly begged the man to forgive him, but he was unrelenting until, finally, after much contrition on the pupil’s part, he said, “There is a way for you. I will not teach you the Greatest Name of Allah but there is a way. You must take yourself to one of the remotest border lands of the Muslims, find a town with a mosque in it and you must teach there every day. Mind you, every day!”
The student submitted then and thanked the teacher and returned to Cairo. He lost no time in finding Dhu’n-Nun, telling him all that had happened, taking leave of him and setting out on the journey that was to be his life.
He crossed through the Sinai desert, through Sham which is now Palestine, Syria and Lebanon, on through Asia Minor and on further into the vast Asiatic regions. There in the mountains he came across a particular town about which he had an intuition and entering its mosque he sat down and taught. This he did every day. At first only one or two sat with this curious stranger from far away. Then gradually the circle increased until, as years passed, it reached to become a great circle of students.
Yet, the town already had a number of scholars who became jealous at the increase of his circle. After some years when his circle was at its greatest extent they began a campaign against him alleging that his path was not orthodox, that it was heretical. At first this campaign had no effect at all. Yet over the years it began slowly to detach some of the least firmly grounded so that the circle decreased ever so slightly.
With the years that almost imperceptible change began to gather momentum until, after many more years had passed, it reached the point that one day only three of the strongest pupils remained. Then one day only two came to his class. One of the two was so agitated that suddenly, covered with confusion, he got up while his master was talking and, without explanation, left the mosque. The master looked at the one remaining student who was unable to return his gaze and finally left the mosque too.
The strain of these years had told and the now-aged teacher broke down and wept, for he had not yet reached to the knowledge of the Greatest Name of Allah. At that moment a woman of just the sort known to the world as Dervish entered the mosque. She had a staff and a bag which contained the little she needed during her travels. She stamped her staff loudly on the mosque floor to catch the weeping man’s attention and then said to him vehemently, “Did he not say, ‘Every day’? Did he not say, ‘Every day’ ?”
The old man watched through his tears as she left and then, pulling himself together, continued his lesson to the now empty mosque. Each day at the same time he taught the empty mosque. The townsfolk came and went. They overheard snatches, tantalising snatches, but it was only after years that first one or two and then increasing numbers of people began to return to his class, to the circle to which the Shaykh now taught the Greatest Name of Allah.
There are elements in this story which merit study over and above the deep wisdom in its basic tale. What is referred to as the Greatest Name of Allah could be taken for now as a symbol of that knowledge whereby the heart of a man takes wings and flies. How different it is from the drear repetition of facts and data, cases and conclusions, which scholars of every age are prone to indulge in ∆ the Islamic cAlim no less than the statistician or the geneticist. So, without probing too far for now into the exact meaning of this element which is not the purpose of our enquiry, let us accept it as a symbol of the desire to swim in the depths of the ocean of knowledge rather than take buckets of data out of it.
The student had spent twenty years with Dhu’n-Nun and he had not plumbed the depths nor flown. What was he studying? Let us look for that to the figure of Dhu’n-Nun. A quite historical figure buried now in a known but neglected grave in Cairo’s City of the Dead. The first encounter with Dhu’n-Nun gives one the immediate impression of “Yes, here is one who has flown, here is one who has plumbed the depths.” He is from a very early generation of Muslims indeed. Statements he makes are very challenging and so he is taken before the Khalifah to be questioned on his orthodoxy. Rumours, wild, rumours have obviously reached the Khalifah but when he meets the man and talks with him it is clear that this man is a Muslim.
Dhu’n-Nun is of a very early generation and those early generations are of great interest to us. Despite all our best efforts they are men and women who cannot be pigeon-holed. We hear of a man who is a great jurist, a legist, a lawyer and what not ∆ and there you have him standing each night through in prayer weeping before Allah. Equally the saintly spiritual ones who have been co-opted by the contemplatives of later generations to their causes can be found deeply embroiled in the issues, the jihads of their day.
Dhu’n-Nun, we come across him entirely by accident it seems, in a long list of people who narrated the Muwatta from Malik. It is very easy to pass over that statement in a facile manner, so let us look deeper at what we know about that.
Malik is Madinah. He recognised the significance of Madinah and he documented it. He recognised that the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, had created a Madinah Munawwarah ∆ an Illuminated City ∆ a city of illuminated beings and that that city had endured down to his third generation and so he wrote it down. He wrote it down so that whoever wished to preserve the illuminated city could, and whoever wished to create a new illuminated city or cities would have a model of the best to work from. In that primal model, form and content are inextricably united ∆ practice and illumination are one.
When a man said to Malik, “I want to learn from you,” Malik replied, “Then take up residence.” He did not encourage the study of texts in a library, university or even madrasah. His subject was Madinah and the proper place for its study was Madinah. Malik had, in this way, an astonishing number of pupils from all over the earth, east and west. They all knew that the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, loved the people of Madinah, had taught them, had illuminated them, had told them to stay together and not leave the Madinah and that they had obeyed him, preserved his knowledge and transmitted it faithfully. Their greatest transmission had been in their living it daily in Madinah.
This was what Dhu’n-Nun imbibed. Dhu’n-Nun narrated the Muwatta from memory. He shows few other signs of being one of those memorisers of dusty texts so this text must have held a high place in his heart for him to have memorised it.
Dhu’n-Nun’s image comes down to us over the ages as an ecstatic, a spiritually drunken man. We live in a rather trivial age that sees everything in splits and oppositions ∆ he was a spiritual man so he could not have been a formal legal man ∆ and yet here we have Dhu’n-Nun narrating Muwatta from memory. It is not just an accidental fact or a curiosity of his biography. He was not ecstatic in spite of this but because of it, because he had drunk deep of the knowledge of the illuminated city he was illuminated, luminous, he was drunk, he had a heart which plumbed the depths of the oceans.
His student spent twenty years with him. What was he doing? Of course he was learning this matter but a block remained. He was not living it. His living of it was to share it, transmit it, teach it to others. He would know what it truly was if he taught it but because he just had it he couldn’t be it. That he himself conceptualised his dilemma as his need of a special invocation, a dhikr, a secret name of Allah which would bestow knowledge on him was his confusion. But he knew already. For him to know his own knowledge there only remained for him to teach it. There remained only for him to find a Madinah and transmit the light of the illuminated city for him himself to be illuminated. He thought of it as the matter of his own illumination. The reality is that it is a social matter. If the polis is illuminated then each one, the individual, will be illuminated. An essential part of the illuminated nature of that city was the sharing of the people, their almost total sharing of the highest and least of life, their abandonment of seeking their own mere advantage, their seeing their own good as lying in the welfare of their neighbours, their townsfolk.
The student’s life quest was to become such a Madinan man and thus illuminated. And yet because it is his own quest for light, at the pivotal moment he must go on whether the Madinah will or no. With such people a single man transforms a city but the city is incapable of transforming a single man.
Makkah, Dhu’l-Hijjah 1413
(Courtesy of Bogvaerker.dk)