The greengrocer’s son and other Sufi tales

Here are a few stories about shaykh ‘Omar Ibn al-Farid.

The greengrocer’s son

The Egyptian shaykh ‘Omar Ibn al-Farid made a study of ahadith, the traditions of Islam, as well as of adab (belles lettres). By means of ascetic practices he tried to experience spiritual enlightenment, but he was not successful.

One day he passed by a law school where he saw an old man, a greengrocer (‘attaar), doing ablutions in a wrong way. Somewhat proud of his knowledge, his piety and his ascetic temperament shaykh ‘Omar Ibn al-Farid criticized the behaviour of this greengrocer. The greengrocer then looked at him and addressed him to his surprise by name: “O, ‘Omar! You will not be enlightened in Egypt. You will be enlightened only in Mecca, may God glorify it! So go to it, for the time of your enlightenment is near”.

Shaykh ‘Omar Ibn al-Farid then realized that the greengrocer was a hidden friend of God. He departed for Mecca and when he entered it, enlightenment came to him wave after wave, and it never left.

After 15 years of additional spiritual practices in the wilderness near Mecca, he heard the voice of the greengrocer: “O, ‘Omar! Return to Cairo to attend my death and pray over me!” Shaykh ‘Omar Ibn al-Farid immediately returned to find his murshid on the point of death. His shaykh requested him to be buried in the Qaraafah cemetery and to wait there for a man to meet him.

After the death of his murshid a stranger came down from a nearby mountain and the two men prayed over the corpse. During the prayer rows of white and green birds hovered in the air and it was as if these birds prayed along with them. The stranger later on disappeared, while shaykh ‘Omar Ibn al-Farid assumed his murshid’s place and became his spiritual successor in Cairo.

Contraction and expansion

After spending 15 years in the Hejaaz, shaykh ‘Omar Ibn al-Farid returned to Cairo. The Sufis liked it very much in case he attended their music sessions. When he participated, at times a state came over him and then his face would increase in beauty and brightness.

One day the shaykh was invited to join, but he was in a state of contraction (qabd) so the host was afraid that the shaykh would not attend. The singer then made it clear to the host that he would try, with the help of God, to change the state of the shaykh.

During the audition and in the presence of shaykh ‘Omar Ibn al-Farid, the singer recited:

My tears left a part of me
In the Hejaaz
On the day of separation.

And I suppose, no I’m certain,
That it was my heart,
For I don’t see it with me!

Because shaykh ‘Omar Ibn al-Farid experienced enlightenment in the Hejaaz, when he heard the above lines, he arose and his state changed into one of expansion (bast).

Final days
Shaykh ‘Omar Ibn al-Farid enjoyed it to watch the Nile when it was high. One day on his way to the Nile, he passed a fuller, who was beating and cutting a piece of cloth on the rocks, while he sang:

This piece of cloth
Has shattered my heart,
But it is not pure
Until it is shredded.

Hearing this the shaykh lost his consciousness. After coming to his senses he repeated the verse hour after hour, at times falling on the ground, until this state finally subsided. He then revealed spiritual mysteries to his son and the same mystical state returned to him.

A friend, seeing his state, then recited:

I die when I remember You,
Then I am revived.
How often I am revived for You
And how many times I have died.

These lines dealing with fanaa’ (dying before death to your selfishness) and baqaa’ (living on clothed in divine qualities as far as this is possible for human beings) caused shaykh ‘Omar Ibn al-Farid to jump up. He gave his friend a big hug, but the friend refused to repeat the poem for fear of further agitating the shaykh. However ecstasy again overwhelmed the shaykh, who recited:

If God seals with His forgiveness,
Then all that I suffer will be easy.

Shaykh ‘Omar Ibn al-Farid died a short time later.

The King of the Gnostics

When we think of Sufi poets, we immediately think of Khwaja Hafez of Shiraz, Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi, Hazrat Amir Khusraw of Delhi and shaykh Sa’di of Shiraz. They are among the most important Sufi poets. All of them have written in Persian. There is however one Arab poet whose level can (almost) be compared to their level. You will have guessed his name: Shaykh ‘Omar Ibn al-Farid.

One of his most well-known poems starts thus:

Sharib-naa ‘alaa dhikri ‘l-habibi mudaamatan
Sakir-naa bihaa min qabli an yukhlaqa ‘l-karmu

We drank a wine in memory of the Beloved.
We were drunk with it before the creation of the vine.

The quest
The Egyptian Nobel laureate, Naguib Mahfouz, recounts a man’s quest to find a wali – a friend of God – who can cure him of an illness. While searching for him, the man meets a famous singer who has been a companion of this wali. This singer then picks up his lute and sings a verse of shaykh ‘Omar Ibn al-Farid:

Ader dhekra man ahwaa wa-law be-malaami
Fa-enna ahaaditha ‘l-habibi mudaami

Pass round the remembrance of the one I love,
though it be to blame me,
For tales of the beloved are my wine.

The search continues, but the seeker has now his spirits raised.

T Major
The complete poetical works of shaykh ‘Omar Ibn al-Farid have been collected in his Diwaan. It consists of about 20 qasida’s, the longest one is called Nazm as-soluk (The Poem of travelling along the Sufi path). It is also called at-Taa’eyah al-Kubra or the Ode in T Major, because all verses end in the letter T.

It is said that a traveller who visited the shaykh wished to bring out a commentary on this poem. Shaykh ‘Omar Ibn al-Farid asked him: “In how many volumes?” The answer was: “Two”. The Sufi smiled: “If I wanted so, I could have written two volumes of commentaries on each verse!”

Later on several Sufis from the school of shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi have written commentaries on the Ode in T Major like the shaykhs al-Farghani, at Telemsani, al-Qaysari and al-Qashani. Shaykh al-Qunawi often discussed verses of this specific poem. He explained it, using rare and mystical terms, which were not understood save by those possessing the necessary experiences. Then on the following day he’d say: “Another meaning has come to me regarding the commentary of the verse about we spoke yesterday”. Then he would say something even more amazing than the day before.

Shaykh ‘Omar Ibn al-Farid saw the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) in a dream. The shaykh said about his dream that the Messenger of God addressed him, saying: “‘Omar! What name have you given to your ode?” I answered: “Messenger of God, I have named it Lawaa’eh al-janaan wa rawaa’eh al-jenaan (Diaries of Hearts and the Sweet Scents of the Gardens)”. But he said: “No, name it Nazm as-Soluk”.”

The shaykh in most of his moments of inspiration was perplexed, eyes fixed, hearing no one who spoke, not even seeing them. We know this, because his son, Kamaal, has described his state: “Sometimes he’d be standing, sometimes sitting, sometimes he’d lie down on his side, and sometimes he’d throw himself down on his back wrapped in a shroud like a dead man. Ten consecutive days – more or less – would pass while he was in this state, neither eating, drinking, speaking, nor moving, as has been said:

See the lovers felled in their encampments,

Like the youths of the cave, not knowing how long they have lingered.

By God, had the lovers sworn to go mad from love or die,

They would not break their oath!

Then he’d regain consciousness and come to, and his first words would be a dictation of what God had enlightened him with of the ode Nazm as-Soluk”.

It is clear that the Ode in T major contains inspired verses. In the final lines of the Nazm as-Soluk we read:

For my friends drink,

What I left behind.

This concludes what I’d like to tell about shaykh ‘Omar Ibn al-Farid. It would end in T in case we do what the shaykh has suggested and drink IT.