A meeting near Vienna


You may know that in the Middle Ages the Turkish armies have stood in front of the gates of Vienna. A sardar of one of these armies happened to meet a European merchant just after concluding a certain battle. For some reason or other he did not kill this merchant. To his surprise it was possible for them to communicate, as the merchant was able to speak fluent Turkish. It so happened that the merchant had spent some years in Smyrna as a friend of Hodja Hasan, who was a Sufi shaykh as well as a successful merchant. This Hodja Hasan had introduced the European merchant to a dervish, Baba Tahir, who had been so kind to accept the European as his disciple on the Sufi path. The Turkish sardar was visibly shocked to hear the name of Hodja Hasan as he had been for several years the servant of Hodja Hasan. His employer had been severely disappointed with him and had sent him away. This is the story as told by the Turkish sardar:

For several years I’ve been the servant of Hodja Sirdar. I was a pious muslim and I often visited the Hisar mosque, which is near the bazaar. I liked to go there, as a kind ‘alim was explaining the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet in such a way that in everyone’s heart the love of Allah was increased. When this ‘alim died – he was already a very old man – a young man took over his assignment. The way this young mulla preached, was completely different. He had clearly made a thorough study of Islamic sciences and demonstrated the commands of Allah in razor-sharp presentations. I was at first surprised by this different type of preaching of this mulla. It was clear however that this man was much more learned than I was, he was quite certain in his descriptions of the qualities of Allah, and he explained us everything about our specific duties as believers in order to please Allah. When listening to this preacher I had the impression that now, for the first time, my obligations as a Muslim were clear to me. The same was true for many others with whom I had a talk after the Friday prayers.

It so happened that an old dervish lived in one of the cells of the Hisar mosque. His name was Baba Tahir. Although he was very old, he still participated in the Friday prayers. He was always carefully listening to what the mulla had to say in his sermons. Not only I, but also several others, noticed that he more and more appeared to disagree with what the mulla said in his sermons. This went on for some time, until one day the old dervish addressed the mulla in front of the whole congregation. Baba Tahir said with a clear voice:

“How is it possible”, he said, “that you are able to speak with such certainty about the qualities of Allah? Is it because of your pride? Have you never read in addition to all your wise books the teaching of Mansur al-Hallaj, who has said:

Who knows Him, does not describe Him.

And who describes Him, does not know Him.”

The mulla looked angrily towards the old dervish and asked him: “Do you claim to say, that I don’t know about what I’m speaking?”

“Yes!” said the dervish. “That is exactly what I mean to say. How can it be possible that you have experienced all the things you speak about? You preach about nothing less than the qualities of Allah!”

“I know about these things by means of my intellect, which has been given to me by Allah”, said the mulla. “With its help I can understand His reality”.

“Oofff”, said Baba Tahir, “how is it possible that your poor intellect is able to grasp Allah’s reality, which is infinitely greater than all you can understand. Isn’t al-Hallaj right when he says:

Keep your heart away from thinking of Him

And your tongue from remembering Him,

But use both of them to thank Him always.

It is one of the greatest sins and it shows your pride

To contemplate His essence and His attributes

And to affirm Him by means of words.

“So you mean to say that I have committed such great sins?” asked the mulla

“You have said it”, replied Baba Tahir, the dervish.

“But it was your intention to imply this”, said the mulla. “But I say unto you that it doesn’t disturb me in the least to be accused by means of the words of a heretic. Al-Hallaj was a heretic who has been executed because of such sayings, but as for me, I am one who has always lived according to the religious law’.

“That may be true, but is it not also true that these religious laws are interpreted by human beings, who imprison Allah in a cage out of fear because of His being without limits? Al-Hallaj, whose words you don’t wish to hear, although he was willing to pay for them with his blood, has also said:

The external side of the religious laws is hidden unbelief”.

Many people became angry when they heard the reproaches of the old dervish towards the young mulla. I also became increasingly angry as the dervish destroyed the certainties offered by the mulla in his sermons. When the mulla heard this final sentence he jumped to his feet and cried out: ‘You are not better than all those so-called mystics, who have been beheaded, killed, or stoned”.

As I was standing near this dervish, I could hear him say softly: “You are right! I am not better than they are. I am just a beginner on this path…”. The remainder of his words could no longer be heard as the crowd was making such a loud noise. All of them were shouting the same thing and also I started to say this same thing: “Stone him! Throw him out of the mosque and stone him”.

The old dervish was taken away and as he could not easily walk by himself, he was carried. The crowd took him outside of the city and I was one of them who took hold of his patched frock to carry him to a place of execution. Then, just like the others, I searched for stones to kill the man who tried to rob me of my certainties. Only a few stones were necessary to put an end to his life and some of these stones were mine. When all of this stoning took place I saw kindness manifesting itself in his face and no stone was able to destroy this kindness. This was very difficult to me as this kindness was a clear proof against the words of the Mulla.

A few minutes later I experienced another feeling, i.e. the feeling that what I had done was right, as I had helped to kill one of the most evil devils on earth. When I returned to my employer and told him what had happened it was clear that he could not believe his ears and after listening to my story he was completely shocked. My employer said: “What have you done! You have killed one of the friends of God and for whom? For a fool! The mulla is a windbag, a donkey loaded with books, and his sermons are filled with his self-inflating and empty words.

I have always thought you to be a man who thinks before acting. I now throw you out of my house and send you on your way. You’ll travel with the burden of guilt. You will not find any inward peace until you meet a stranger who can tell you my true name. When that happens you’ll have understood what you have done today. It will be a sign that your criminal act has been forgiven!” Then I gathered the few possessions I had, collected my wages from Hoja Hasan, my employer and left his house. I was happy to leave him as I could not understand his sympathies for Baba Tahir, the old dervish. Feeling quite satisfied with myself I tried to find a new job and it did not take long before I found new employment with another merchant. I helped him to carry his merchandise to the bazaar, I cleaned his shop, I prepared some coffee to present to important customers, etc. It is a custom among buyers and sellers that when they drink a cup of coffee, they talk for some time about God and the world and only after having drunk the third cup of coffee they start talking about their business.

I was a witness to many of these talks. Many people were of the opinion that the execution of the old dervish was legally justified. To my satisfaction my employer completely agreed with them. But there were also some who had the opposite opinion, who looked carefully around to see if no unknown person could overhear what they had to say and then asked why it was necessary to kill this harmless old man. In those cases my employer raised his hands towards heaven and agreed with his customers, expressing his doubts if this killing truly was necessary.

In this way I found out that is apparently customary for a seller always to agree with what a buyer says. One day a rather rich man came to my employer in order to buy something from him. This visitor did was not satisfied with a superficial talk, but discussed the sayings of the dervish one by one with great care. He said: “According to me no one really listened to what the old dervish said, least of all the young mulla. The mulla was too attached to his personal, external interpretations of the religious laws. Is al-Hallaj not speaking the truth when he says:

Who knows Him, does not describe Him.

And who describes Him, does not know Him.

We have only a limited understanding. Our intellect with all its limitations is unable to grasp the greatness of Allah, Who does not know any limitations. Who claims to be able to describe Him, has no knowledge of Him or is a liar”. In such a way he explained all the teachings with which Baba Tahir had opposed the mulla.

My employer listened silently to all of this and when the customer had finished talking he asked him: “As you know all these things so very well – and I believe you are right with what you say – why did not you interfere? Why did you not help Baba Tahir? Why did you not stop his execution?”

The visitor was silent for a long time. He looked towards the floor, clearly being ashamed, and when he looked up again, I could see tears in his eyes. He then said: “I was afraid that they would kill me as well”.

From the moment I had seen the visitor to my employer cry and had heard him explain the teachings of the dervish, I could not sleep anymore. His words were like arrows in my flesh and I knew that my former employer was right when he predicted that I would be without inward peace. I also left my present employer, he paid me the remaining salary he owed me and wished that Allah would bless me. I tried to forget what happened, I even, went to places of evil repute, but it was all in vain as in the night the images of what I had done to the old dervish haunted me.

One day I was walking in the streets without a piaster in my pocket and then I heard the voice of a representative of the High Gate asking people to join the army. In order to have some income I accepted this offer. A very tough training started. I had to learn how to use all kinds of weapons. Every day the image of Baba Tahir returned to me and by training even harder I tried to put my attention to other things. After completing my training we crossed the Bosporus and always moved into western direction. It did not take long before we had to fight. I always took the lead when we were in battle as I valued my life less and less. This was explained as great courage and it did not take long before I was promoted to sardar of a group of soldiers.

Something very strange, however, happened when we were fighting near Vienna : “I could not sleep in the night after having fought a tough battle. It so happened, that when it was near sunrise I fell asleep and had a dream. I was walking in a forest just outside of Vienna . I saw a man in European clothes, who addressed me in Turkish. He said to me: “How long will you go on with the way you are now living. It is time to stop with all that warfare”.

The man finished by saying something to me which made a big impression on me. He said: “Allah sends you a rose”. This saying has a deep meaning. When in my native town someone says “Allah sends you a rose” it implies that, although you may have been a big sinner, Allah has forgiven you”. “This is why”, said the Turkish sardar to the European merchant, “I went to the forest I had seen in my dream and there I saw you. Because of my dream I did not kill you and when we started talking you could indeed communicate with me in the Turkish language.

Now you also know why it made such an impression on me that you know my first employer, Hoja Hasan, who said to me before firing me: “You’ll travel with the burden of guilt. You will not find any inward peace until you meet a stranger who can tell you my true name. When that happens you’ll have understood what you have done today. It will be a sign that your criminal act has been forgiven!” The merchant then made it clear that it was Hoja Hasan who introduced him to Baba Tahir, the old dervish, who had become his teacher on the Sufi path.

“And as for the stranger who will tell you the true name of your employer, I can tell it to you. Hoja Hasan’s Sufi name is Gul Baba”. “Gul! Is it Gul? Gul means rose!” The sardar then turned into the direction of the south-east, which is the direction of Mecca . He then fell on his knees, bowed down and for some time stayed in that position. Then he stood up he said: “Allah has sent me a rose!”