Al-Hasan al-Basri (d. 110)

Al-Hasan ibn Abi al-Hasan Yasar Abu Sa`id al-Basri (d. 110), al-Faqih, the great Imam of Basra, leader of the ascetics and scholars of his time. The son of a freedwoman of Umm Salama’s (the Prophet’s — Allah bless and greet him — wife) and a freedman of Zayd ibn Thabit’s (the Prophet’s — Allah bless and greet him — stepson). Umm Salama nursed him. His mother took him as a child to `Umar who supplicated for him with the words: “O Allah! Make him wise in the Religion and beloved to people.” As a man he became known for his strict and encompassing embodiment of the Sunna of the Prophet — Allah bless and greet him –, famous for his immense knowledge, austerity and asceticism, fearless remonstrances of the authorities, and power of attraction both in discourse and appearance. One of the early formal Sufis in both the general and the literal sense, he wore all his life a cloak of wool (suf).

Al-Hasan was considered by the Salaf to be one of the “Substitute-Saints” (al-Abdal). Anas ( narrated that the Prophet — Allah bless and greet him — said: “The earth will never lack forty men similar to the Friend of the Merciful [Ibrahim (as)], and through them people receive rain and are given help. None of them dies except Allah substitutes another in his place.” Qatada said: “We do not doubt that al-Hasan is one of them.”1

Hasan’s Conversion

Al-Hasan is one of the great hadith masters and narrators of the Tabi`in, responsible for transmitting over 1,400 narrations in the Nine Books alone. The hadith masters have concluded that he did not narrate anything directly from Abu Hurayra2 but they disagree about his narration from `Ali ibn Abi Talib.3 Imam Ahmad considered that he did narrate from `Ali4 and al-Suyuti in Tashyid al-Haqiqa al-`Aliyya cites narrative chains of transmission proving al-Hasan’s direct narration from `Ali. `Abd al-Razzaq even narrates that `Ali ( once followed al-Hasan’s recommendation in a judicial case.5

The hadith master Abu Nu`aym al-Asfanahi mentions in his biographies of Sufis entitled Hilya al-Awliya’ (“The Adornment of the Saints”) that it is al-Hasan’s student `Abd al-Wahid ibn Zayd (d. 177) who was the first person to build a Sufi khaniqa or guest-house and school at Abadan on the present-day border of Iran with Iraq.6It was on the basis of al-Hasan and his students’ fame as Sufis that Ibn Taymiyya stated: “Tasawwuf‘s place of origin is Basra” in his essay al-Sufiyya wa al-Fuqara‘.7 More accurately, Basra is chief among the places of renown for the formal development of the schools of self-discipline, asceticism, and self-purification which became known as tasawwuf, but whose principles are none other than the Qur’an and the Sunna.8

Al-Hasan used to swear by Allah that the true believer could not feel other than sadness in this world.9 He would say: “Our salt has disappeared; what good is left in us?”10 in commentary of the Prophet’s — Allah bless and greet him — hadith: “The likeness of my Companions is like salt in food. Food is not good without it.”11 Al-Hasan also said:

We laugh and yet – who knows? – perhaps Allah has looked at some of our works and said: “I will not accept anything from you.” Woe to you, son of Adam! Can you fight Allah? Whoever disobeys Allah is fighting Him. By Allah! I have met seventy veterans of Badr. Most of their garments were wool. Had you seen them you would have said they are crazy, and had they seen the best among you they would have said: “Those people will have no part in the Hereafter.” Had they seen the worst among you they would have said: “Those people do not believe in the Day of Reckoning.” I have seen people for whom this world was cheaper than the dust under their feet. I have seen people the like of whom would come home at night, not finding more than his own portion of food, and yet say: “I shall not put all of this into my belly. I shall certainly give some away for Allah’s sake.” Then he would give away some of his food in charity, even if he were more in need of it than its recipient.12

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