Abu Bakr ash-Shibli


(247/861 – 334/946), a famous Sufi and Maliki faqih

from Qadi ‘Iyad’s Tartib al-Madarik

translated by Aisha Bewley

The shaykh of the Sufis and Imam of the people of knowledge of the inward about whom there are miraculous reports and rare traditions. He was one of those with great skill in the sciences of the Shari’a. There is a disagreement about his name. It is said to be Dulaf ibn Jahdar or Ibn Ja’far. Other things are said.

His family was from Khorasan, from a village there called Shibla. He was born in Samarra or Baghdad. He grew up in Baghdad.

Abu Bakr al-Khatib said, “His uncle was the Amir of the Amirs in Alexandria.”

As-Sulami said, “Ash-Shibli was the chamberlain of the Khalif al-Muwaffiq. His father had been the chamberlain in Baghdad.”

Abu ‘Abdu’r-Rahman said: “He was a man of knowledge and a faqih in the school of Malik. He wrote out many hadiths. He mentioned that the beginning of his repentance was in the assembly of Khayr an-Nassaj. He kept the company of al-Junayd and the shaykhs of his time. He was unique in his age in state and knowledge. He transmitted hadith with isnad.”

He related from Muhammad ibn Mahdi al-Basri. ‘Ali ibn Muhammad al-Hammal, al-Husayn ibn Ahmad as-Saffar, Isma’il ibn al-Husayn ibn Bandar, Abu’l-Hasan ‘Ali ibn al-Muthanna al-‘Anbari, Abu Sahl as-Sa’luki, Abu Bakr ar-Razi and Abu Bakr al-Abhuri related from him.

As-Sulami said, “While al-Muwaffiq was in power, one day ash-Shibli attended the assembly of Khayr an-Nassaj. He returned to Nihawand where he the governor. Ash-Shibli said to them, ‘I have been appointed over your city, so put me in the lawful.’ They did that. They tried to have him accept something from them, but he refused.”

Abu ‘Abdullah ar-Razi said: “The shaykhs of Iraq say, ‘The wonders of Baghdad in Sufism are three: the indications (isharat) of ash-Shibli, the fine sayings of al-Murta’ish and the stories of Ja’far, i.e. al-Khuldi.

Concerning his virtues, miracles, knowledge, worship, fear and his Indications (al-Isharat)

As-Sulami reported that Abu ‘Abdullah ar-Razi said, “I did not see anyone in Sufism with more knowledge than ash-Shibli.”

Al-Junayd said, “Do not look at ash-Shibli with the eye by which you look at others.” He said, “Every people has a crown and the crown of these people is ash-Shibli.”

He said on tawhid: “Majestic is the One known before the limits and before the letters.”

One day ash-Shibli came to ‘Ali ibn Musa ibn al-Jarrah the Wazir. Ibn Mujahid al-Muqri’ was with him. Ibn Mujahid said to the Wazir, “I will expose him now.” Part of what ash-Shibli did is that when he put something on, he would tear it in a place. When he sat down, Ibn Mujahid said to him, ‘Abu Bakr, where in knowledge is it that one ruins that which is useful?” Ash-Shibli said to him, “Where in knowledge is ‘And he began to stroke their shanks and necks’ (38:33)?” Ibn Mujahid was silent. Ibn al-Jarrah said to him, “I wanted you to silence him and he has silenced you!” Then ash-Shibli said, “The people agree that you are the recitor of the moment, so where is it in the Qur’an that the Beloved will not punish His lovers?” Ibn Mujahid was silent. He said to him, “Say then, Abu Bakr!” He said, “The words of the Almighty: ‘The Jews and the Christians say: “We are the sons of Allah and His beloved ones.” Say: “Then why does He punish you for your wrong actions?”‘ (5:18)” Ibn Mujahid said, “It was as if I had never heard it before.”

Ibn Mujahid came to him one day and ash-Shibli asked him about his state. He said, “We hope for good. Every day we do two or three full recitations of the Qur’an.” Ash-Shibli said to him, “Shaykh, in this corner I have done 13,000 full recitations. If anything of them is accepted, I would give it to you. I have been doing a full recitation for three or four years and I have only reached a fourth of the Qur’an.”

It is said that a slavegirl of ash-Shibli remarked to him, “I have counted six months in which you have not slept.”

Ash-Shibli used to say, “This side is guarded by me (i.e. from the Daylamites)” He died on Friday and the Daylamites came to the eastern side on Saturday.

Abu Sahl as-Sa’luki said, “I listened to ash-Shibli say, ‘Creation loves You for Your blessings, and I love You for Your trial'”

Ash-Shibli said, “I never say ‘Allah’, but that I ask forgiveness of Allah for my word ‘Allah’.”

He used to use salt as kohl so that he would not go to sleep.

Abu ‘Imran al-Ashyab had a circle and ash-Shibli went to it . When Abu ‘Imran saw him, he rose for him and sat him at his side. One of the companions of Abu ‘Imran wanted to show people that ash-Shibli was ignorant. He askedhim, “Abu Bakr, when a woman’s menstrual blood resembles the blood of false menstruation, what does she do?” He gave him eighteen answers. Abu ‘Imran went to him and kissed his hand. He said, “Abu Bakr, I know twelve, and six I have never heard before!”

Ash-Shibli stood one day at the Bab at-Taq with Abu’t-Tayyib al-Jalla. He was one of the people of knowledge. He spoke a long time with him. The people gathered to Abu’-t-Tayyib to ask him to ask ash-Shibli to make supplication for them and to show them a sign. Abu’t-Tayyib pressed him in that. He raised his hands and made a supplication which was not understood. Then he gazed at the sky and did not cover his eyes from mid-morning until noon. People said, “Allah is greater,” made supplication, and there was tumult.

When he was at Jalawi with a sauce-pan boiling in front of him, he bought some of it for a friend of his. He scooped up a handful from the pan while it was boiling and put it in a flat loaf of bread and took it to Ibn Mujahid. He got up for him. His companions said, “You rise for ash-Shibli and you do not rise for Ibn ‘Isa, the wazir?” He said, “Shall I not rise for the one the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, respects? I saw the Messenger of Allah in a dream and he said to me, ‘Abu Bakr, tomorrow a man of the people of the Garden will come to you, so honour him.'” He said, “Two nights after this, Ibn Mujahid dreamt of the Prophet who told him, “Abu Bakr, Allah has honoured you for honouring a man of the people of the Garden.” “He said, ‘I asked, “Messenger of Allah, by what did he merit this from you?’ He replied, “Every Thursday he prayed five prayers in which he remembered me after every prayer and recited, “A Messenger has come to you from among yourselves. Grievous to you is what you suffer.” (9:128)'”

Ahmad ibn ‘Ata’ said, “I heard ash-Shibli say, ‘I wrote hadith for twenty years and I sat with the fuqaha’ for twenty years.” He used to learn fiqh according to Malik.”

Another said, “I heard ash-Shibli say, ‘I know the one who did not enter into this business until he had spent all of what he owned and had sunk in the Tigris 70 sachels of books in his handwriting, and memorised the Muwatta’ and recited such-and-such a recitation,’ i.e. himself.”

He said, “My father left 60,000 dinars, not to mention the estates and real estate, and I spent all of it. Then I sat with the poor and I did not go back to a refuge nor appeal for help from anyone.”

One of them said, “I came to ash-Shibli and he exclaimed, ‘Ahmad, we are lost!’ ‘How?’ I asked. He replied, ‘It came to mind that I was a miser. I said when I had raised my head, “By Your might, I am not a miser!” My thought answered me that I was a miser. I said, “By Allah’s might, nothing of this world will be given to me today but that I will give it to the first one I meet!” When I finished the agreement, the chamberlain of Mu’nas al-Khadim brought me fifty dinars. He said, “Spend it on your needs.” I left the room. There was a pauper in front of a barber. When he finished shaving his head, I gave him the bag. He said, “Give it to the barber. He shaved my head. ‘I said, “It is dinars!” He said, “Didn’t we say that you are a miser?” ‘I gave it to the barber. He said, “We decided that when the poor man sat in front of us, we would not take anything from him.” So I threw it into the Tigris.'”

It is related that he said, “Once I decided that I would only eat from the lawful. I used to go around in the deserts. I saw two trees. I stretched my hand to them to eat. One of them called out, ‘Guard your agreement! Do not eat from me! I am an unbeliver!'”

Abu’l-Qasim al-Andalusi al-‘Abid said, “I went out to seek ash-Shibli in Baghdad. When I arrived there, I said, ‘I will rest by entering the bath-house, and then (I will come to him).’ Its owner said to me, ‘O person! There is a man who is godfearing from among the people of Allah in it.’ I entered and there was a shaykh with a child in front of him. When I sat down, he said, ‘You are Abu’l-Qasim?’ ‘Yes,’ I replied. He said, ‘You have come to us from Andalusia?’ ‘Yes,’ I replied. Then I asked, ‘Are you Abu Bakr ash-Shibli?’ ‘Yes,’ he replied.’      “He said, ‘Take this bucket. When the hot water is poured out, then fill it up.’ I did that. Then he laid down on his back and told me, ‘Pour it on my body.’ I did so. Then he began to wipe his face and he said, ‘Praise be to Allah who did not give you any power over us!’     “Then they left the bath-house. There were some people waiting for him a this house. He sat down and called for fire. It was brought already kindled to him. He said, ‘Put it on my palm!’ It was put on his palm. He continued to put incense in it time after time. He would fumigate one after the other until twenty men had been given it. Then he threw it from his hand and wiped his palm. He said, “Praise be to Allah who did not give it any power over us!'”

Abu’l-Qasim al-Qushayri related in Kitab at-Tahbir, “A man asked ash-Shibli, ‘Abu Bakr, why do you say “Allah” and not “There is not god but Allah”?’ He replied, ‘I will not reject an opposite by Him.’ They said to him, ‘We mean higher than that.’ He said, ‘I fear that I will be taken while in the wilderness of rejection.’ They said, ‘We mean higher than that.’ He said, ‘Allah Almighty said, “Say: Allah, and then leave them diving in their plunging.” (6:91)’ The asker fainted and died. His friends demanded his blood money from ash-Shibli. They took him to the khalif. The herald came out to him to question him about the tale. Ash-Shibli stated, ‘A soul full of yearning which parted. It was called and it answered. What is my wrong action?'”The khalif cried out from behind the curtain, ‘Leave him! He has no wrong action!'”

Once ash-Shibli gave the adhan. When he reached the two shahadas, he said ,”If it had not been that You commanded me, I would not have mentioned other-than-You with You.”

He said, “In the house of ash-Shibli, a cock crowed at night. He took it at night and tied it up and threw it into a room. It did not crow. In the morning, he said to it, ‘Imposter! You used to remember Him in ease. When I put you into hardship, You do not remember Him!” It was silent.”

By the frequency of the states which overcamehim and his statements and behaviour at times, many people said, “He is mad.” Once he was thrown into the hospital. A group came to him, He asked, “Who are you?” “Your lovers,” they replied. He began to stone them. They fled. He said, “You claim to love, so be patient in my affliction!”

Al-Qushayri related that one of them said, “I was with ash-Shibli and he received an excellent kerchief. He passed by a dead dog thrown by the road. He said to me, ‘Carry this corpse and shroud it in this kerchief and then bury it.’ I went and took the dog in the kerchief. I threw it in a place. Then I washed the kerchief and returned it to him. He said, “Did you do what I commanded? ‘No,’ I said. He was silent. I said, ‘Shaykh, what is the reason for what you commanded me to do?’ He replied, ‘When I saw it, I thought it foul. There was a call in my secret: “Did We not create it?” Then I said what I said.'”

Fine points of his indication (isharat) and rare things he said

Ash-Shibli used to say, “May Allah blind an eye which sees me and does not look at the traces of power. I am one of the traces of power, and one of the testimonies of might, I was abased until He was mighty in my abasement and I was exalted until no one was exalted except by me and by the One I exalted.”

He said, “I sought knowledges until the sun rose. Then I said, ‘I want the fiqh of Allah.’ They said, ‘We do not know what you say.'”

He used to say, “O Guide of the confused! Increase me in confusion in Your immensity and majesty!”

Someone asked him, “Does the gnostic verify what appears to him?” He said, “Does he verify what is not firm for him? How can he go to what is not evident? How can he be content with what is not hidden? He is the Outward and the Inward.” He recited:

               “Who tastes solace in long passion?                       I do not taste it in my night.

               The greatest thing I obtained is my security                      which you granted which shone like a flash.

“How is tawhid valid for you when you own anything you own and when you see something that delights you?”

He was asked, “Where do the hearts of those who yearn rest?” He replied, “In the happiness of the One they yearn for and His harmony.” He recited:

               “I delighted in my destruction in Him                   because I delight in what the thousand delight in.

               If my bones had been asked about their affliction,                   they would have denied affliction and listened to disavowal.”

As-Sa’luki said, “A beggar stood at his circle. He began to say: ‘O Allah! O Generous!'”Ash-Shibli hesitated. Then he said, ‘How can I describe the Truth with generosity when creatures say that about their likes?'”

Then he wept and said, “Generosity! You brought these limbs into existence and expanded these aspirations, Then after that, You were kind to people without any need of them or of what is in their hands by You, You are the Generous, all-Generous. They give with a limit. Your giving does not have limit nor description, O Generous, above every generous one and the One by whom everyone who is generous is generous!”

One of them said: “I came to ash-Shibli when he was shouting, saying:

             ‘The one whose custom is nearness does not endure Your distance.               The one whom love has enthralled cannot bear Your veil.               And if the eye does not see you, yet the heart sees you.'”

Concerning fine points of his wisdoms and his lessons

Ash-Shibli was asked about asceticism. He said, “It is the heart turning away from things to the Lord of things.”

Abu Bakr al-Abhuri said, “I heard him say once, ‘If someone does not guard his secrets with the Truth, the eye of the reality will rarely be unveiled for him.’.”

He was asked about the most extraordinary thing. He said, “A slave who recognises his Lord and then rebels against Him.”

He said, “Tasawwuf is the heart resting in the fans of purity, the thoughts being enveloped by the curtain of fidelity, and taking on the character of generosity and joy in the encounter.”

He said, “Tasawwuf is love of the Majestic and hatred of the insignificant and following descent and fear of reversal.”

He was asked, “Who is the Sufi?” and he replied, “The one who does not ask, does not repel and does not store up.” It was said, “Who is the faqir?” He said, “The one who is at home with non-existence as he is at home with oneness.”

He also said, “Tasawwuf is to curb your senses and guard your breaths.”

He was asked about this world and said, “A pot boiling and beauty decaying.”

He was asked about sincerity and abandoning artifice. He said, “It is that you do not articulate any words of other-than-Him nor look at other than his Lord nor see for yourself any protector but your Lord.”

He was asked about futuwa (chivalrousness). He said, “The futuwa of the people of this world is that a man gives before the request and does not refuse after the request. The futuwa of the people of the Next World is that he does not do that for which the censure of people is feared in the vision secretly and openly.”

He also said, “Futuwa is truthfulness in the test and gentleness in coarseness and giving in poverty.”

He said, “Fidelity is sincerity by words and drowning in the secrets with truthfulness.”

He was asked, “What restrains passions?” He replied, “The disciplines of nature and removal of the veil.”

He said, “Let your himma be with you, not ahead or behind.”

He was asked about sama’ and the school of the Sufis in it. He said, “Its outward is temptation and its inward is admonition. Whoever recognises the allusion can lawfully listen to the admonition. Otherwise he invites temptation and exposes himself to affliction.”

Al-Junayd said to him, “If you were to return your affair to Allah, glory be to Him! you would have rest.” Ash-Shibli said to him, “Abu’l-Qasim, if Allah were to return your affair to you, you would have rest.” Al-Junayd said to him, “The swords of ash-Shibli drip with blood.”

Ash-Shibli said, “The glance of an eye forgetting Allah for the people of gnosis is association with Him.”

He said, “Happiness by Allah is more befitting than sorrow in front of Allah.”

He said, “Whoever recognises Allah never has any sorrow.”

He said, “The one who is veiled by creation from the Real is not like the one who is veiled by the Real from creation. The one whom the lights of His absolute purity pull to His intimacy is not like the one the lights of His mercy pull to His forgiveness.”

He said, “Remembering Allah Almighty in tranquillity puts out the heat of affliction.”

A man said to him, “You have lost your sight.” He replied, “Yes, the sight by which I saw you. As for my sight by which I see the Real, that remains.”

He was asked about tawhid. He said, “Whoever answers it with a definition had left the right course. Whoever indicates it is a worshipper. Whoever speaks it is intelligent. Whoever is silent about it is ignorant. Whoever imagines that he has arrived has no result. Whoever sees that he is near is far. Whatever you mention with your mouths and perceive with your intellects is an artifact like you.”

It was said to ash-Shibli, “Charitableness was mentioned in the presence of Abu Yazid al-Bistami and he said, ‘I wanted Allah Almighty to make me a bridge over the back of Jahannam so that people could pass over my back and not be wretched.” Ash-Shibli said, “But I want Allah to make me fill Jahannam so that no one has a place in it and I will ransom this weak creation by myself.”

His Death

Abu ‘Abdu’r-Rahman as-Sulami said, “Ash-Shibli died in Dhu’l-Hijja in 334.” Another said, “On Friday on the next to the last night of the month.” Ibn Nafi’ said that it was in 335.

Al-Khatib said, “The first is sounder. It was when he was 87. He was buried in the al-Khayrazan cementary in Baghdad, and his grave is known there.”

Al-Khuldi said, “I asked Bakran, the servant of ash-Shibli, ‘What did you notice in him when he died?’ He said, ‘He told me, “There is a dirham of injustice against me, and I have given thousands in sadaqa for its owner. There is nothing which occupies my heart more than it.” Then he said, “Do wudu’ for the prayer for me,” and I did it. Then I forgot to let the water run through his beard. He could not speak, so he took my hand and put it in his beard. Then he died, may Allah have mercy on him.'”

Al-Khuldi wept. Then he said, “What do you say about a man who did not lack any of the adab of the Shari’a at the end of his life?”

His servant said, “On Friday at the end of Dhu’l-Hijja, ash-Shibli felt a lightness from a pain. He asked me, ‘Shall we go to the mosque?’ ‘Yes,’ I replied. He leaned on me until we came to the copyists. A man met us. Ash-Shibli said, ‘Tomorrow I will have some business with the shaykh.’ We prayed and then came back. He felt sluggish the next day and died during the night. I was told, ‘In such-and-such a place there is a righteous shaykh who washes the dead. They directed me to him before dawn. I knocked on the door lightly and said ,’Peace be upon you.’ He said, ‘Ash-Shibli is dead?’ ‘Yes,’ I replied. He came out to me. There was the shaykh whom we had met the day before. I exclaimed, ‘There is no god but Allah! A marvel!’ Then I said, ‘By the right of the One you worship, how did you know that ash-Shibli had died?’ ‘Imbecile!’ he replied, ‘Why else would ash-Shibli be have business with me today?'”

Thanks to Aisha Bewley’s homepage