The Life and Death of a Mystic: Al-Hallaj

Sarraj was willing to exonerate Junayd from his charges, but far more culpable was the tenth century's—and all of Sufism's—best-known example of extravagant utterance, al-Hallaj.

We have already seen Ghazali's reflections on his spiritual career. But these are thoughts recollected and reshaped in tranquility. Indeed, some Sufi lives may have been tranquil, but certainly not that of Islam's most notorious seeker after God, the Baghdad saint and mystic Husayn ibn Mansur, surnamed al-Hallaj, "the carder," who was put to death, a martyr of esoteric Sufism, in the capital of the Islamic empire in 922 C.E. Hallaj had earlier studied with Junayd, then broke with his master and eventually installed himself, his family, and a number of disciples in Baghdad. But he did not rest there for long. His life was full of restless wandering, and on this occasion he set out for the "land of idolatry," India and Turkestan. And, his son adds in a memoir, "the gossip about him increased after this journey."

He departed again after that and made a third pilgrimage, including a two year spiritual retreat in Mecca. He returned this time very changed from what he had been before. He purchased property in Baghdad and built a house. He began to preach in public a doctrine only half of which I understood. In the end (the lawyer) Muhammad Dawud rose against him, together with a whole group of ulama; and they took their accusations against his views to (the Caliph) al-Mu̔tadid. … Some people said: he is a sorcerer. Others: he is a madman. Still others: he performs miracles and his prayer is granted (by God). And tongues wrangled over his case up to the moment when the government arrested and imprisoned him.

At that time (the Grand Chamberlain) Nasr Qushuri went to the Caliph, who authorized him to build my father a separate cell in prison. Then a little house was constructed for him adjoining the prison; the outside door to the building was walled up, the building itself was surrounded by a wall, and a door was made opening into the interior of the prison. For about a year he received visits from people there. Then that was forbidden him, and he went for five months without anyone being able to see him. …At that time I was spending my night with my maternal family outside, and staying during the day near my father. Then they imprisoned me with him for a period of two months. At that time I was eighteen years old.

And when the night came in which my father was to be taken, at dawn, from his cell (for execution), he stood up for the prayer, of which he performed one of two prostrations. Then, with this prayer completed, he continued repeating over and over again the word "illusion … illusion," until the night was almost over. Then for a long time he was silent, when suddenly he cried out "truth … truth." He stood up again, put on his head cloak and wrapped himself in his coat, extended his hands, turned toward the prayer-direction and went into ecstatic prayer. …

When the morning came, they led him from the prison, and I saw him walking proudly in his chains. … They led him then (to the esplanade) where they cut oV his hands and feet, after having flogged him with 500 lashes of the whip. Then he was hoisted up onto the cross, and I heard him on the gibbet talking ecstatically with God: "O my God, here I am in the dwelling place of my desires, where I contemplate Your marvels. O my God, since You witness friendship even to whoever does You wrong, how is it You do not witness it to this one to whom wrong is done because of You?" …

At the time of the evening prayer, the authorization by the Caliph to decapitate Hallaj came. But it was declared: "It is too late; we shall put it off until tomorrow." When morning came, they took him down from the gibbet and dragged him forth to behead him. I heard him cry out then, saying in a very high voice: "All that matters for the ecstatic is that his Only One bring him to his Oneness." Then he recited this verse: "Those who do not believe in the Final Hour call for its coming; but those who believe in it await it with loving shyness, knowing that this will be (the coming of) God" (Quran 42:17). These were his last words.

His head was cut off, then his trunk was rolled up in a straw mat, doused with fuel and burned. Later his ashes were carried to Lighthouse Point (on the Tigris) to disperse them to the wind. [MASSIGNON 1982: 10–18]

 "I Am the Truth"

Hallaj's son's account of his father's life and death makes no mention of his trial, which had to do with the examination of Hallaj's views on the pilgrimage. This apparent attack on Islamic ritual may indeed have merited Hallaj the death sentence in 922 C.E., but it was by no means his only, or perhaps even his most scandalous, departure from Islamic religious teaching. What attracted even more attention in later generations was another remark let he drop, in what appears to be utter simplicity, to Junayd.

It is related that Hallaj met Junayd one day, and said to him, "I am the Truth." "No," Junayd answered him, "it is by means of the Truth that you are! What gibbet will you stain with your blood!" [MASSIGNON 1982: 127]

That appears to be the full extent of the incident and the exchange. But there is little doubt as to how Hallaj intended the expression "I am the Truth" (or, as it has been translated, "My ‘I’ is God") or how Junayd understood it: "the Truth" is a title of God and Hallaj was arrogating it to himself; and not, it is noted, in a state of ecstatic "intoxication," but in its aftermath, the believer's normal state of "sobriety," a distinction that meant little to Hallaj but was of crucial importance to Junayd. Our source is the Persian Sufi Hujwiri (fl. 1057 C.E.).

I have read … that when Husayn ibn Mansur, in a sort of trance, broke with Amr al-Makki and came over to Junayd, the latter said: "Why did you come?"

"To live in community with you as a master."

"I do not live in community with madmen; community life requires balance, otherwise what happened to you with Sahl Tustari and Amr occurs."

"O master, sobriety and intoxication are only the two human aspects of the mystic, who remains separated from his Lord as long as these two aspects are not both annihilated."

"O Ibn Mansur, you are wrong in your definition of those states, sobriety and intoxication; the first means the state of normal equilibrium of the faithful before God; it is not a qualification of the faithful that he may get it through his own effort as a creature; likewise the second, which signifies extremes of desire and love. O Ibn Mansur, I see in your language an indiscreet curiosity and some expressions that are useless." (Hujwiri, The Unveiling 235) [Cited by MASSIGNON 1982: 125– 126]