The story of Habib the Persian
Taken from Tadhikurut al-Awliya, by Abu Nu`aym al-Isfahani
Habib ibn Mohammad al-‘Ajami al-Basri, a Persian settled at Basra, was a noted traditionist who transmitted from al-Hasan al-Basri, Ibn Sirrin, and other authorities. His conversion from a life of ease and self-indulgence was brought about by al-Hasan’s eloquence; he was a frequent attendant at his lectures, and became one of his closest associates.
Habib to begin with was a man of property and a usurer. He dwelt in Basra, and every day he made the rounds to collect from his clients. If he got no money, he would demand payment for his shoe leather. In this manner he covered his daily expenditure.
One day he had gone to look for a certain debtor. The man was not at home; so failing to find him; he demanded shoe leather payment. “My husband is not at home,” the debtor’s wife told him. “I myself have nothing to give you. We had slaughtered a sheep, but only the neck is left. If you like I will give you that.” “That is something,” the usurer replied, thinking that he might at least take the sheep’s neck off her and carry it home. “Put a pot on the fire.” “I have neither bread nor fuel,” the woman answered. “Very well,” the man said. “I will go and fetch fuel and bread, and it can be charged to shoe leather.” So he went off and fetched these things, and the woman set the pot. When the pot was cooked the woman was about to pour its contents into a bowl when a beggar knocked at the door.
“If we give you what we have got,” Habib shouted at him, you will not become rich, and we will become poor ourselves.”
The beggar, despairing, petitioned the woman to put something in the bowl. She lifted the lid of the saucepan, and found that its contents had all turned to black blood. Turning pale, she hurried back and taking Habib by the hand, led him towards the pot. “Look what has happened to us because of your cursed usury, and your shouting at the beggar!” she cried. “What will become of us now in-this world, not to mention the next?” On seeing this, Habib felt a fire within him which never afterwards subsided.
“Woman,” he said, “I repent of all I have done.” Next day he went out to look for his clients. It happened to be a Friday, and the children were playing in the street. When they sighted Habib they started to shout. “Here comes Habib the usurer. Run away, lest his dust settles on us and we become as cursed as he!” These words hurt Habib very much. He took his way to the meeting ball, and there certain phrases passed Hasan of Basra’s lips which struck Habib straight to the heart, so that be fainted. Then he repented. Realizing what had happened, Hasan of Basra took him by the hand and calmed him. As he returned from the meeting he was spotted by one of his debtors, who made to run away. “Do not run away,” Habib called to him. “Till now it was for you to flee from me; now I must run away from you.” He passed on. The children were still playing. When they sighted Habib they shouted again. “Here comes Habib the penitent. Run away, lest our dust settles on him, for we are sinners against God.” “My God and Master!” cried Habib. “Because of this one day that I have made my peace with Thee, Thou hast beaten the drums of men’s hearts for me and noised my name abroad for virtue.”
Habib then issued a proclamation. “Whoever wants anything from Habib, come and take it!” The people gathered together, and he gave away all his possessions so that he was left penniless. Another man came with a demand. Having nothing left, Habib gave him his wife’s chaddur. To another claimant he gave his own shirt, and remained naked.1
He repaired to a hermitage on the banks of the Euphrates, and there gave himself up to the worship of God. Every night and day he studied under Hasan, but he could not learn the Quran, for which reason he was nicknamed the Barbarian (al-`Ajami).2 Time passed, and he was completely destitute. His wife asked him for housekeeping money constantly. So Habib left his house and made for the hermitage to resume his devotions.
When night came he returned to his wife. “Where have you been working, not to bring anything home?” his wife demanded. “The one I have been working for is extremely generous,” Habib replied. “He is so generous that I am ashamed to ask him for anything. When the proper time comes, he will give. For he says, ‘Every ten days I pay the wages.’ ” So Habib repaired daily to the hermitage to worship, till ten days were up.
On the tenth day at the time of the midday prayer a thought entered his mind. “What can I take home tonight, and what am I to tell my Wife?” And he pondered this deeply. Straightway Almighty God sent a porter to the door of his house with an ass-load of flour, another with a skinned sheep, and another with oil, honey, herbs, and seasonings. The porters loaded up all this. A handsome young man accompanied them with a purse of three hundred silver dirhams. Coming to Habib’s house, he knocked on the door. “What do you want?” asked Habib’s wife, opening the door. “The Master has sent all this,” the handsome youth replied. “Tell Habib, ‘You increase your output, and we will increase your wages.”‘ So saying, he departed. At nightfall Habib proceeded homeward, ashamed and sorrowful. As he approached his house, the aroma of bread and cooking assailed his nostrils. His wife ran to greet him and wiped his face and was gentle with him as she had never been before. “Husband,” she cried, “the man you are working for is a very fine gentleman, generous and full of loving kindness. See what he sent by the hand of a handsome young man! And the young man said, ‘When Habib comes home, tell him, You increase your output, and we will increase your wages.’ Habib was amazed. “Wonderful!” he exclaimed. “I worked for ten days, and he did me all this kindness. If I work harder, who knows what he will do?” And he turned his face wholly away from worldly things and gave himself up to God’s service.
The miracles of Habib
One day an old woman came to Habib and, falling at his feet, wept bitterly. “I have a son who has been absent from me a long time. I can no longer endure to be parted from him. Say a prayer to God,” she begged Habib. “It may be that by the blessing of your prayer God will send him back to me.”
“Have you any money?” Habib asked her. “Yes, two dirhams,” she replied. “Bring them, and give them to the poor.” And Habib recited a prayer, then he said to the old woman, “Be gone. Your son has returned to you.”
The old woman had not yet reached the door of her house, when she beheld her son.
“Why, here is my son!” she shouted, and she brought him to Habib.
“What happened?” Habib enquired of him.
“I was in Kerman,” the son replied. “My teacher had sent me to look for some meat. I obtained the meat and was just returning to him, when the wind seized hold of me. I heard a voice saying,
” ‘Wind, carry him to his own home, by the blessing of Habib’s prayer and the two dirhams given in alms.’ “
Once a famine was raging in Basra. Habib purchased many provisions on credit and gave them away as alms. He fastened his purse and placed it under his pillow. When the tradesmen came to demand payment, he would take out his purse and it was full of dirhams, which he gave away as loans.4
Habib had a house in Basra on the crossroads. He also had a fur coat which he wore summer and winter. Once, needing to perform the ritual washing, he arose and left his coat on the ground. Hasan of Basra, happening on the scene, perceived the coat flung in the road. “This ‘barbarian’ does not know its value,” he commented. “This fur coat ought not to be left here. It may get lost.” So he stood there watching over it. Presently Habib returned. “Imam of the Muslims,” he cried after saluting Hasan, “why are you standing here?”
“Do you not know,” Hasan replied, “that this coat ought not to be left here? It may get lost. Say, in whose charge did you leave it?”
“In His charge,” Habib answered, “who appointed you to watch over it.”
One day Hasan came to call on Habib. Habib placed two rounds of barley bread and a little salt before Hasan. Hasan began to eat. A beggar came to the door, and Habib gave the two rounds and the salt to him.
“Habib,” remarked the astonished Hasan, “you are a worthy man. If only you had some knowledge, it would be better. You took the bread from under the nose of your guest and gave it all to the beggar. You ought to have given a part to the beggar and a part to the guest.” Habib said nothing. Presently a slave entered with a tray on his head. A roast lamb was on the tray, together with sweetmeat and fine bread, and five hundred silver dirhams. He set the tray before Habib. Habib gave the money to the poor, and placed the tray before Hasan. “Master,” he said when Hasan had eaten some of the roast, “you are a good man. If only you had a little faith, it would be better. Knowledge must be accompanied by faith.”
“Have you seen Hasan today?” the officers demanded of Habib.
“I have seen him,” he answered. “Where was he?” “In this hermitage.” The officers entered the hermitage, but for all their searching they did not find Hasan. (“Seven times they laid their hands on me,” Hasan afterwards related, “but they did not see me.”)
“Habib,” Hasan remarked on leaving the hermitage, “you did not observe your duty to your master. You pointed me out.”
“Master,” Habib replied, “it was because I told the truth that you escaped. If I had lied, we would both have been arrested.” “What did you recite, that they did not see me?” Hasan asked. “I recited the Throne-verse ten times,” Habib answered. “Ten times I recited The Messenger believes, and ten times Say, He is God, One. Then I said, ‘O God, I have committed Hasan to Thee. Watch over him.”‘6
Hasan once wished to go to a certain place. He came down to the bank of the Tigris, and was pondering something to himself when Habib arrived on the scene. “Imam, why are you standing here?” he asked. “I wish to go to a certain place. The boat is late,” Hasan replied. “Master, what has happened to you?” Habib demanded. “I learned all that I know from you. Expel from your heart all envy of other men. Close your heart against worldly things. Know that suffering is a precious prize, and see that all affairs are of God. Then set foot on the water and walk.” With that Habib stepped on to the water and departed. Hasan swooned. When he recovered, the people asked him, “Imam of the Muslims, what happened to you?” “My pupil Habib just now reprimanded me,” he replied. “Then he stepped on the water and departed, whilst I remained impotent. If tomorrow a voice cries, ‘Pass over the fiery pathway’-if I remain impotent like this, what can I do?” “Habib,” Hasan asked later, “how did you discover this power?” “Because I make my heart white, whereas you make paper black,” Habib replied. “My learning profited another, but it did not profit me,” Hasan commented.
Abu Nu`aym, op. cit., VI, 149-55.
Ibn Hajar, o p. cit., II, 189. Notes on Anecdotes