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Ma'ruf Al-Karkhi
Jul 1, 1997

His full name was Abu Mahfuz Ma’ruf b. Firuz al-Karkhi. According to the Shi’i imam ‘Ali b. Musa al-Reza, Ma’ruf al-Karkhi was born to Christian parents but, from an early age, he rejected, even when beaten for it at school, the doctrine of the Trinity and declared his conviction that God is One. Eventually, according to the same authority he ran away from home and his parents pined for him. They said in his absence that, so long as he came back to them, they would surely approve and accept whatever religion he chose for himself. Some years later, he did call at their door. He announced himself by name adding that he was now a Muslim. His parents promptly converted to Islam at his hands. Ma’ruf practised the most severe asceticism in support of a perfect humility and devotion. He became widely renowned throughout the Islamic world for his piety but was especially revered in the city of Baghdad where he had settled and where he had many students. He died in 815 (202 ah).

One of the reasons why some people have doubted the truthfulness of the story of his conversion from Christianity is that many Christians (and also Jews) as well as large numbers of Muslims, are reported to have publicly mourned his passing and claimed him as their own. However, this is not a good reason to doubt his conversion to Islam, albeit the details may have been transmitted without sufficient care and exactness. It is only evidence of the universality the saint had realized through his spiritual quest. He had attained so high a level of generality and fullness in his love of God that the essential unity of the religions of the Book, a unity that is real in virtue of the Reality of their Divine Origin, became evident through him. Thus Christians, Jews and Muslims were all equally glad to claim him as their own, though each community fell short to the extent that their claim was exclusive. In this respect Muslims have the better claim as Islam is, of the three religions, the most inclusive and tolerant of the other two.

Ma’ruf al-Karkhi is remembered through a number of anecdotes illustrating (1) his humility; (2) his moral and spiritual insight; and (3) his transcendence of this world, the constraints of time and space. Discussion of he last is deferred to a separate article which will look at that particular subject in more general terms.

His humility

A governor of the city saw Ma’ruf on one occasion eating bread with a dog. He would break off a morsel of bread and put it in his own mouth; then another morsel which he put into the mouth of the dog seated in front of him.

The governor’s sense of decorum was offended. He asked:

‘Are you not ashamed to be eating bread with a dog?’

The saint replied: ‘Should I be ashamed of sharing my bread with the needy? He then looked up and called to a bird flying above him. As if obeying an instruction, the bird came down and settled by his hand. The bird was not, as might be expected, in a state of nervous agitation. On the contrary, it was completely at ease, just as if it were enjoying the safety of its perch on a tree.

Wild birds are normally afraid of people but Ma’ruf had so far transcended his selfhood that he had lost this intimidating character for the birds: they did not see him as a creature to be fearful of. Ma’ruf explained to the governor that who ever is a shamed before God’s creatures, God’s creation is a shamed before him; conversely, whoever is at ease with God’s creatures, God’s creation is at ease with him.

Humility is an essential stage and strategy in self-transcendence. Its goal is perfect servant- hood before God, manifested as an unaffected compassion for all the creatures God has endowed with life, and practised as caring service of them. This kind of caring, done for God’s sake, expresses gratitude, wonder and respect for His creation and is thereby freed of self-interest. It is very different from the sentimental indulgence of animals, particularly dogs, kept in the home as pets. Such pampering of pets is by no means disinterested: it can indicate an emotional lack satisfied by giving food and affection so as to exercise possession and control over the animal.

His moral and spiritual insight

It is reported that on an occasion when Ma’ruf went down to the river to do his ablutions, the prayer mat and Qur’an he had left in the mosque were taken by an old woman. Happening to see her making off with them, Ma’ruf chased and caught up with the woman. In respect for the conventions of modesty, he did not stare at her directly when speaking to her. He did not express any anger or resentment, nor accused her of theft or any other crime. He asked if someone in her family would recite from that Qur’an. The woman said, No. Ma’ruf then asked her to return the Qur’an and keep the prayer mat. The woman was taken aback by his forbearance and wanted to relinquish both the Book and the prayer mat. But Ma’ruf insisted that she take the prayer mat, adding that it was rightfully hers. The woman obeyed and left.

What does this anecdote teach us? Stealing is obviously a wrong, and therefore not to be condoned. But in this instance, it matters what was taken and from where. Possibly, the woman had taken both items with a view to selling them for the little monetary value attached to them. Yet it is a fact that she had entered the mosque, that she did recognize both the Qur’an and the prayer- mat as items of value. Ma’ruf acted as though, behind the woman’s superficial motives, were deeper motives or needs of which the woman herself was unaware, namely to recite from the Book of God and to do the prayers ordained by Him. Ma’ruf did not assume, because she had acquired these things wrongfully that even this act of hers was wrong in all respects, still less that the woman herself was altogether worthless. He made the effort of running after her; he behaved towards her and addressed her as a Muslim of honour; and in the question he put to her he re-awakened her to the true value of the Qur’an. No doubt, if she had answered Yes to his question, he would have given her the Qur’an also. By giving her the prayer mat as rightfully hers, Ma’ruf was restoring to the woman her right/duty to pray and, more important, restoring her to that right/duty. Also, since nothing so dignifies a Muslim as obedience to the Divine injunction to pray, he was affirming the woman’s dignity as a Muslim. It is difficult to think of a response better calculated to deter the woman from stealing again: what Ma’ruf gave her was the desire (and through prayer, the means) not to repeat the offence.

This incident also sheds some light on the teaching, attributed in the Gospels (in various different wordings) to the Prophet Jesus, upon him be peace, whose meaning is: If a thief steals your coat, give him your cloak also. Some people misunderstand this saying to mean that a legal response to such crimes is irrelevant in the light of Jesus’ teaching, or that it is a morally undesirable response. But the teaching certainly cannot mean that it does not matter if someone has stolen something. Nor can it mean that the whole system and apparatus of the law which protects private property is (at best) a necessary evil, whereas the only true good is not to have property or not to care if someone steals it.

We rarely acknowledge the extent to which the property we hold in fact holds us. We are possessed by our possessions. We may not appreciate the extent of our attachment until something goes missing-this is well expressed in the common saying, You do not grasp the value of a thing until it is lost. If a thief steals your coat, you will feel resentment against the thief and distress at the loss of property. In real life, the thief will not be waiting around to see what your reaction is going to be. Therefore, the instruction, ‘Offer him your cloak’, can only be acted upon figuratively. It teaches you to immediately defeat resentment and distress by relinquishing what you still hold (and what still holds you), namely your cloak, to the thief. In this way, the heart is relieved of the burden of rancour, and of the weight of property in this world, leaving it freer to move onward in its spiritual journeying.

Forbearance and forgiveness, before or after due process of law, are better or fairer than the retaliation or compensation the law can demand from a convicted offender on behalf of the victim. That is the Qur’anic teaching. It means that resort to the law is good and fair; it does not mean that resort to the law is bad or unfair or otherwise undesirable. Even a little experience of the realities and necessities of life tells us that only in a very few cases does a crime result in loss for a single individual who would be in a position to choose the better/fairer way of forgiveness. Typically, a single criminal act will have several victims and, insofar as it may encourage other criminal acts, it will also harm the ethos of the community. Therefore, the process of law is desirable. The truth of the teaching attributed to Jesus, and exemplified in the anecdote related of Ma’ruf, is that even after the law is applied, the victim(s) and the community as a whole need to be rid of resentment and rancour against the offender(s). Retaliation and compensation are the public, outward form of the process of recovering the moral equilibirum shaken by the crime; offering to the one who steals from you, as Ma’ruf did, some part of your own goods, is the personal, inward form.

Dearer than our property is our sense of our own worth, and just as our property is possessed as ours by not being somebody else’s, so too our own worth is sometimes defined in contrast to others’ lack of worth. The fight against self- righteousness is correspondingly more demanding than that against possessive attachment to worldly goods. The following anecdote illustrates this:

While Ma’ruf was out walking by the river in the company of some of his young students, a gang of youths, drinking wine and playing music, came by and pestered them. The youths were noisy, boisterous and insulting. Ma’ruf’s students asked him to pray to God to rid them of the youths’ foul behaviour by drowning them in the river. Ma’ruf asked his students to raise their hands and join him in the prayer he would address to God. They did so. We must imagine, at this solemn moment, the boisterous youths falling silent and listening. Ma’ruf said: ‘O God, You have granted to these youths joy and happiness in this life, grant them likewise joy and happiness in the life to come.’ His students protested that they did not understand at all the meaning of this prayer. But the boisterous youths understood it: straightaway repenting, they poured away their wine and broke their lutes, and joined the saint’s company. Ma’ruf commented to his students: ‘You see that your prayer has been answered in full without anyone being drowned or caused to suffer.

The youths became aware, through the words Ma’ruf uttered (we must imagine the spiritual intensity with which he spoke), of Gods care for them, the reaching out of His Compassion. They understood that the disciplines of religious life (which they had mocked by mocking the saint and his students) were not a barren self-denial for its own sake, but the way to true self-fulfillment; indeed, it was their own vulgar pleasures that amounted, in the larger perspective, to self-denial-just as, in typical practice, such pleasures consist of devices for self-abandonment like intoxication.

For Ma’ruf’s students the lesson was harder. It is the severest temptation, having committed oneself to a journey, to believe one has arrived at its destination. Having elected to be in the saints company, to follow his disciplines, the students were blind to the reality that the Compassion of the One God must embrace all His creatures, even those who would deny Him. They willed to be saved themselves but did not desire the same good for those who opposed them on their path. The practice of the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace, and of his Companions, was to continue to desire the guidance of those who made war on the Muslims, before and after battle. Their guidance was more desirable than their defeat at the hands of the Muslims; that is the reason why, so often, their defeat was followed by their guidance, why victory for the Muslims was victory for Islam. So important is this principle that it became a matter of law that enemies must not be engaged in combat until they had first been offered Islam. As we know from the Qur’an, there are occasions, as recounted of the Prophets Noah and Moses, upon them be peace, when the enemies of religion are so inveterate, so utterly determined, in their enmity, that it becomes permissible to pray for their destruction before their guidance. But it may be that such a prayer is only allowed to Prophets, men whose understanding of and commitment to Divine Will is infallible. The general principle is to desire the guidance of ones enemies, not their destruction. Self-righteousness obscures this principle; it narrows the heart and the religion, making both exclusive in temperament and hardening the enmity of ones enemies. Also, wishing the destruction (rather than the guidance) of those who oppose on the path is to wish that path less difficult than it must be.