February 2011


They told me that, in the district of Aghstev, there is a cavern in the fir forest. It is situated on a high ground, as high as the height of two persons. A monstrous dragon had made his lair in it. At midday he would crawl out of his lair and look around. The moment he saw an animal, he would leap on it; if he could, he would gobble him up; if he could not, he would return to his lair. No one could kill it, for the cavern was on a high ground.

One priest killed it by being cunning. He made a trident hook, bent the end of its shaft into a circle and tied a rope to it. He killed a baby goat, skinned it, prepared a water-skin, filled it with hay, and placed the hook in it. He then adroitly tied the legs and head of the goat to the skin and went at night to the cavern. He set the skin there, took the end of the rope, moved away, and sat under a tree. Another man lay in wait with him. At noon, the dragon crawled out of the cavern and saw the baby goat near its entrance. It slid down, swallowed the baby goat, and wanted to return to the cavern. The priest, however, pulled the rope and the hook cut into the body of the dragon. It began to whistle and its tail tried to grasp plants, grass, and everything else that was around. The priest dragged the rope, while the dragon pulled toward the cavern. It hissed terribly, coiled, and struck its tail to the right and left. It suffered thus until it croaked. The priest skinned it, salted it, and took it to their governor. They measured the skin and it was eighteen t’iz [a t’iz is nine inches] long and three t’iz wide. They then packed it with straw and sent it to the Shah. Together with the stuffed animal, they also sent an account of how they killed the dragon. The Shah exempted the priest from the taxes due to the treasury and made him the head of the village.

Deacon Zak’aria (1627-1699), The Chronicle of Deacon Zak’aria of K’anak’er, translated by George A. Bournoutian

The following is a translated selection from the early Sufi commentary on the Qur’an authored/compiled by al-Sulami, a Sufi who lived a little after the great foundational figures of early Sufism. Al-Sulami, in this commentary and in other works of his, worked to draw the various strains of Sufism that had developed, sometimes in relative independence from each other, into a coherent body of doctrine and practice. This commentary was part of that process. In this excerpt, which deals with a verse  which retells the famous story of the children of Israel and the Golden Calf, our author has collated various interpretations which interpret the calf allegorically as the nafs of the human person. Nafs– variously translated as self, soul, ego- is one of those multivalenced words that Sufis delighted in coining and employing; they are words that have a history both in the milieu of Eastern Christianity monastic spirituality and practice and in the textual world of the Qur’an. But rather than try to explain further, I will leave you to the following explorations al-Sulami has collected here:

Surah al-Baqrah [Q. 2]. 54: His saying, exalted is He: ‘Verily, you have oppressed yourselves by your taking [as an object of worship] the calf [in the wilderness].

It is said: the ‘calf’ (‘ijl) of every person is his self (nafsuha), and whoever humbles it and turns away its desire and passion, he has been freed from its oppression.

His saying, exalted is He: ‘Turn (tawbū) to your Creator, slaying (fa-aqtalū) your selves.’

It is said: If the first step in spiritual conduct is repentance (altawbah)- and repentance is the destruction of the self (al-nafs) and slaying it through abandoning the passions and cutting it off from desire)- then how is attachment to a thing among the stations of the sincere believers? In its first step is the destroying of the life-blood [of the self].

And it is said: ‘Turn to your Creator’: return to Him through your inner secret self (asrārikum) and your hearts; ‘slay your selves’ through being rid of it [the self]- for it is not even worthy to be someone’s rug! And Abū Mansūr said: The Truth does not begin one upon a path otherwise [than in this manner], and its beginnings are destruction [of the self].

God, exalted is He, said: ‘Turn to your Creator, slaying your selves.’ As long as discrimination and reasoning keep you company, you are in the essence of ignorance, until your reason is misled, your notions go, your connections fail- then, perhaps, perhaps…

Al-Wāstī said: The repentance of the children of Israel was the annihilation (fanā’) of their selves, but for this community [Muslims] it is more intense: the annihilation of their selves and the annihilation of their desires alongside the remaining of their corporeal traces.

Fāris said: Repentance is the effacement of humanness and the rooting of divineness. God, exalted is He, said: ‘So turn to your Creator, slaying your selves.’

Another short excerpt from al-Ghazali’s charming little treatise on the wonders of creation, al-Hikma fi Makhluqat Allah:

So He made for the eye sight, and among the wonders of the secret of its nature is its perception of things. It is a matter whose secret is inexplicable. It is composed of seven layers: each layer has an attribute and a special function, and if the eye were deprived of one of the layers or if it ceased functioning then sight would be obstructed. And look to the form of the eyelashes which protect it, and what He created in them: rapidity of motion for protecting the eye from what would get in it and harms it- dust and other things. And the eyelids are, through descending, a gate which opens in the time of need, and which close at other times. And for the purpose of the eyelashes for the beautification of the eyes and face, He made its hair in proper proportion, not exceeding to an excess which would harm the eye, and not diminishing to a diminishment which would harm the eye. And He created in its water salt for the breaking up off of what falls into it, and He made the extremities a little lowered from the middles, for the diversion of what falls in the eye to one of the two sides [of the eye]. And He made the eyebrows a beautifier for the face, and a veil for the eyes, and their hair is similar to the eyelashes in the destruction of destructive increases [in hair length].

Abū Ḥāmed Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad Ghazālī (1058-1111), The Wisdom in God’s Creation