The cotton-carder

 

Tomorrow, in the year 309*, I’ll be put to death, courtesy of the Caliph of Bahgdad. This I know, since the trumpets heralded the event earlier today; their brassy message carried across the city. From my confinement, where I’ve spent the last nine years, I heard their clarion call, and I was not afraid. Despite knowing what lies in store for me near the banks of the winding Tigris, my annihilation will be such a small thing. Besides, I’ve spent most of my life pleading with fellow believers to kill me, in order to save me – praise be to God: al-hamdu lillah!

My birth name was Husain ibn Mansur, although I’m known as al-Hallaj – the cotton-carder – after my father’s craft. It was his task to disentangle, clean and intermix wool fibre, thereby producing a sliver ready for spinning. In my life, as a Sufi Master, I’ve disentangled, cleaned and intermixed the hearts of men and women, as well as my own – a carder of innermost souls.

I was born in the year 244, in the town of al-Bayda, in the Fars province of Persia. My grandfather was a worshipper of Ahura Mazda, and the flame of Zoroaster burnt in his heart and hearth. My family moved to Wasit when I was a boy; a town famous for its school of Qur’an reciters. Before my twelfth birthday, I’d memorised our Great Texts, and spent much of my time studying at the Sahl al-Tustari school, and sitting, quiet and alone, in mystic contemplation. Gradually, my Persian tongue withered and perished, and henceforth Arabic was my only outer voice. The beckoning future seemed full of holy promise. 

In 264, at the age of twenty, I departed for the city of Basra, where I met and married a bright, beautiful girl. In all my years, I’ve never wavered in my love for her, and only her – an unusual state of affairs, according to ‘Amr Makki, the master who gave me my Sufi habit. I think he was jealous. If I have one regret concerning my approaching body-death, it’s that my wife and children will be left to mourn for me – but that I cannot help.

My brother-in-law belonged to a clan which kept contact with Zaydi Zanj rebels, and I learnt of their fight against the Abbasid rulers of this vast Arab Empire. The Zanj were led by one Ali ibn Muhammad, an African Persian, in protest against living conditions in the Basra marshes. Although members of the Caliphate demonised the entire movement as a slave-led uprising, it was much more than that, since many, if not most of the participants were native Arabs and free east Africans – and all of them agitating for a new religious and social order. The regime’s attempt to blame foreigners for the ills of the Empire didn’t wash with me, and I sympathised with the cause, without ever becoming directly involved. To be honest, I think what upset the ruling caliphs most of all was the rebellion’s insistence that good governance was not the preserve of one particular clan; that positions of power should be earned, not inherited. But, I’m not here to talk politics. Besides, none of it matters now.

I travelled from Basra to Baghdad, to consult the renowned Sufi master, Junayd Baghdadi, who – for reasons best known to himself – advised me not to go on pilgrimage to Mecca. Perhaps he was concerned for my safety, given the violence in the land, or perhaps it was something else. Either way, as soon as the Zanj rebellion was finally, inevitably, crushed in 270, I set off for the Holy City, with its black-hearted Ka’bah. For one whole year, I remained in its Courtyard, sitting in silent silence, and fasting throughout. I beheld visions, heard inner voices, and my thoughts danced with ecstasy in the knowledge that al-Lah was in all people, all things, everywhere, at all times. There was nothing wrapped in my turban but God.

On my return to Basra, I cast aside my Sufi habit, and dressed in coarse, lay clothes, the better to preach my message to those prepared to listen, whoever and wherever they were. There seemed little point in being the vessel of God’s Truth, if I spoke only to fellow-initiates. I wandered up and down the Iraq, and acquired a number of disciples, including former worshippers of the penultimate Prophet, Isa ibn Maryam, whom al-Lah saved from death, by raising him alive to heaven. However, I also acquired powerful enemies, among them fellow-Sufis, and Mu’tazili rationalists, as well as several Shias who held influential positions in government. I was falsely accused of deceiving the people, and of leading them astray with my talk – an irony of immense proportion, given how Power, in whatever form, so easily and regularly persuades the foolishly gullible to do and believe things which run counter to their own interests. It’s an old trick, but it works well. Confronted by an ignorant mob, I was forced to flee for Iran, where I remained for five years, preaching in Arab colonies and monasteries fortified against enemy attack.

Eventually, hoping that things might have settled for me, I risked returning to Baghdad, where I installed my wife and three children. It wasn’t too long, however, before I once again came to the notice of the authorities, since I’d gathered four hundred disciples about me. I preached by way of poetry, ecstatic trance and dance, with al-Lah guiding my inner voice – Sublime God: Azza wa-jalla!

I spake thus, no holding back, and God within me, as me, and me Him:

“O friends, I’ve been immersed in a deep sea. I’m not Husain. Don’t think of him as me! See me as near God. From all greed, hatred, and pride I am free! With the eye of my heart, I saw my Creator: I said, “Who are You?” and You replied, “You!” That One is You, who fills everywhere – and beyond-where, too. So, where are You?”

“My annihilation’s end is in my annihilation, and in my annihilation is discovered… You! My faithful friends, kill me, for to kill me is to make me alive. To destroy all trace of my life is my highest goal. You see? To stay in my lower self is a sin I cannot repent of. My life, due to my lower self, is destroyed: I’m lost, totally! So, my friends, take my life. Burn my poor bones, entirely! Then, when by my corpse you walk in graveyards unhappily, you will find Friend’s secret, in the inner folds.”

“You live inside my heart; in there are secrets about You: Your house is good. The only secret in there is You, there’s no other I know:  with Your Vision look, other than You is one there too?  Whether the night of separation should be short or long, my closest friend is my hope of You, remembering You.”

“I’m so happy if it makes You happy to be destroying me, because whatever You choose, my Killer, I choose too!”

Sometimes, my words were understood; sometimes not. Truth is an awkward pill to swallow.

When I made a second pilgrimage to Mecca, my four hundred disciples came with me. A fine spectacle we must have looked, as we entered the Holy Precinct, although other Sufi Masters – men I once considered friends – accused me of witchcraft, sorcery and all manner of dark nonsense, as if they’d never understood anything I’d said or done. They even insisted I’d made a pact with Shaytan and the jinn, in an effort to persuade men and women to place evil over good, and to live immoral lives. A scandalously sad lie. Perhaps the Caliphate put them up to it, in order to publicly discredit me – which meant, in turn, they were discrediting al-Lah, since God was in me; me in Him. 

After, instead of returning home, I was compelled by a small voice within my robes to journey to far-off lands, to discover all I could about the eternal spark of Love’s creation, pre-existent and perfect; praise be the One beyond time – The First, The Beginning-less: al-Awwal! From Holy City to Holy City; Mecca to Jerusalem – and to the borders of the Empire, and even beyond, to Turkestan and India I travelled. In Jerusalem, I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and felt the living presence of Isa ibn Maryam – Peace be upon Him: alayhi s-salam! But it was in India, I uncovered Truths which confirmed Truths I already sensed I knew.  When I’d spoken of annihilation, as a means of attaining ultimate annihilation, I meant what the Great Buddha himself meant, when he taught of Nirvana. An escape out of myself, and into my true self, at one with the still eternity of the One. Ego-less, incorruptible and free. A combination of non-self and emptiness – anatta and sunyata: the purest form of liberation. Over the years, I’d thought deeply about all religions; so many different branches, but all with one Root. It was the Root which predetermined the branch on which sat this or that believer, and there was little point expecting anyone to adopt or convert to a different branch, since the meaning and splendour of each was filled equally with Love, from the very start. All this I’d felt, and now I knew it to be so. As stated in our Great Texts: “To God belongs the East and the West, and wheresoever you turn, there is the face of God”. God in all things; all things in Him. Grounded.

I returned home to my family, but only for a short while. The small voice within my robes called me back to Mecca for a third and final time. In 290, dressed only in a loin-cloth, with a poor patched garment over my shoulders, I journeyed once again to the Holy Ka’bah. Initially, I was determined to proceed round the stone seven times as required, sky-clad – to be naked before God: something which the Yogi Masters of India did as a matter of course. However, given my already-low standing with the religious authorities, I suspected the Caliphate might use my nakedness as an excuse to arrest me, on the petty grounds of offending common decency. I knew perfectly well the midnight knocking of my door would arrive eventually, but this wasn’t the time. I had things to do. As I prayed and fasted in the Holy Courtyard, I resolved to return to Baghdad, full of revolutionary fire; to rail against the dirt-bellied serpent of vested interest, against the mind-twisters and users of men and women, to call for the overthrow of tyranny in whatever form: religious, moral, political. This, I knew, would bring my death-day a little closer, which was something I craved.

For three years, I issued proclamations, each one as inflammatory as the other. At some point (I forget when), I declared, I am the Truth! – ana al-Haqq! – which almost put paid to my liberty on the spot. I was immediately reported, and then denounced at the Court. Ana al-Haqq is one of al-Lah’s ninety-nine Sacred Names, and for any Muslim to claim such a thing was tantamount to blasphemy. Fortunately, a Shafi’i jurist refused to condemn me, since (he said) spiritual inspiration was beyond his jurisdiction. Of course, I wasn’t claiming to be the Truth, God Himself – blasphemy indeed, and a little mad – only of God, and He of me.

In 295, certain Sunni reformers attempted to depose the underage Caliph, Al-Muqtadir. He was just thirteen when he came to the throne, the youngest Caliph in Abbasid history, and his accession was challenged by supporters of the older, more experienced Abdallah ibn al-Mu’tazz. However, the coup was swiftly put down, and the ringleaders were rounded up and dealt with accordingly. For some reason, I was implicated in the affair, and the subsequent repressions obliged me to leave Baghdad as quickly as I could. Although I had nothing directly to do with the actual uprising, the authorities seemed determined to arrest me on a charge of incitement. Neither the threat of imprisonment nor execution concerned me, so much as the fact I needed time to set down my thoughts, so that future generations might understand the Truth. I knew that all the details of my life, my teaching, my entire being in the world might easily be deliberately expunged from the record, but my words, in the form of poetry and reflection, would endure, even till last times. For the next three years, I managed to evade the agents of the Caliphate, moving under cover of night, from one secret location to another, and writing at all times.

Eventually, however, my hiding place was discovered, and I was returned to the city, swaddled in chains, and placed in confinement. For nine years, I waited to discover my earthly fate, held in the balance by different factions of the Court, as they argued, and pleaded, and demanded, one with another, as if somehow they were the real arbiters in the matter. For a time, I was allowed to speak with fellow Sufis, although it was clear they were determined to challenge everything I’d ever said or done, in an effort to force some sort of recantation. I found myself accused of all manner of things by men who really should have known better. The list of my apparent crimes was extensive:

 

  1. I actively supported the Zaydi Zanj rebels, when they protested against living conditions in the Basra marshes. 2. Secretly, I was a Zoroastrian, or a Buddhist, or a follower of Isa ibn Maryam, who I placed higher than the Prophet Muhammed – may al-Lah honour him and grant him peace: salla llahu ‘allay-hi wa-alehe-wa-sallam! 3. I was in league with Shaytan – Iblis himself, and together we plotted to deceive the people. 4. As a practitioner of sorcery, I lit four hundred oil lamps in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with my finger, and extinguished an eternal Zoroastrian flame with the tug of my sleeve. 5. I was drunk on the Ecstasy of Love, or – perhaps – just drunk. 6. By sharing my Sufi vision with all and sundry; by casting pearl before swine, I undermined the primacy of hidden, esoteric wisdom. 7. I preached stark naked. 8. By denying the essential requirement of making pilgrimage to Mecca and circling the Ka-bah seven times; by making a model of the Ka-bah in my home, and by claiming the Ka-bah of the heart was just as important as the black stone itself, I was a heretic. 9. I was complicit in the attempted coup against Caliph Al-Muqtadir. 10. By raising my voice against vested interests and unjust governance, I was a threat to the Empire. 11. I declared I was the Truth – God Himself: ana al-Haqq! And, finally, 12. I was a member of the Qarmatians; a group of Shiite rebels who denied the legitimacy of the Abbasid regime.

A mishmash of blatant lies, credulous report, half-truths, and political manoeuvring. In the end, the Caliph and the vizier decided, against the queen-mother’s wishes, I should be executed – not for blasphemy or heresy, but because I was really a Qarmartian missionary (I wasn’t): a political crime, not a religious one. In truth, it was rare for anyone to be put to death on religious grounds, unless it suited those in power; a way of achieving the desired end without alienating true believers. Not that it mattered either way, since I welcomed my bodily annihilation with an open heart; the first step to total annihilation within al-Lah.    

Tomorrow will see me executed. From my cell, I can hear the workmen as they build my scaffold. Already, I sense a certain tautness in the air, as if the city is holding its breath. I have no complaints, although I know how things will go. I’ll be harangued by the hired mob, and stones will be thrown. My executioner will abuse me, verbally and physically. Once hoisted, my hands will be cut off, then my feet, and my tongue torn from my mouth. Finally, with a sweep of the sword, I’ll be decapitated. Thus it will be. When all’s done, my bloodied remnants will be doused in oil, then burnt, and my ashes scattered in the Tigris, like so many black petals. All I ask, my God, for the sake of these sufferings which they’ll inflict on me because of You, do not inflict loss upon them, nor deprive them of their share of felicity. Behold, upon the scaffold of my torture, I will enjoy the contemplation of Your Glory. Forgive them, my God; forgive them all, for they know not what they do.

Do I have any last words? Is there something I wish to say to future generations? Will there be others like me, who’ll face similar misunderstanding and consequent condemnation? Perhaps. All I know is this: Divine Love is that you remain standing in front of your Beloved. When you’re deprived of all your attributes, then His attributes become your attributes, your qualities – and if you do not recognise God, at least recognise His Sign. I am the creative truth, because through the truth, I am Eternal Truth – Ana al-haqq!

 

*Islamic timeline. 309 AH = 922 CE approx.

 

Dafydd Pedr

 


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