Serving the Guest: A Sufi Cookbook
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Abu Sa'id Abil Khayr
Detail from Mughal painting. Click for complete painting.

There were two religious leaders — Abu Bakr Eshaq and the other Qadhi Sa'id who were extreme fundamentalists and considered Abu Sa'id a heretic. As a result, they took every opportunity to stop him. When all their efforts failed, they decided that he should be killed. So they wrote to Sultan Mahmud, saying, "A man who claims to be a Sufi has appeared who instead of reciting the Koran and recounting traditions of the Prophet as his sessions, recites poetry, sings and dances. For meals, instead of eating sparely, he and his disciples feed on broiled chicken and other fine dishes and sweets. He claims to be an ascetic, but this is not the manner of an ascetic or a Sufi. He is up to something evil and has led may people astray."Mahmud answered that the local religious authorities should hold counsel together and deal with this Sufi master in any way they felt would satisfy the Islamic canon law. The Sultan's reply came on a Thursday and in no time, the whole city knew about it. The masses of people who were the master's followers were upset, because they knew the reply was really Abu Sa'id's death sentence.

A short while before sunset, Abu Sa'id called his trusted disciple Hasan and asked, "How many darvishes are there in the khanaqah?"

"Eighty guests from other cities and forty who live here. Altogether, a hundred and twenty," Hasan replied.

"What are you going to feed them for breakfast?" Abu Sa'id wondered.

"Whatever the master orders," answered Hasan.

Earthenware bowl, Iran, 10th Century.

"You should serve every one roasted lamb heads with plenty of sweets and rosewater. Moreover, burn some incense. Make sure to set all of this on a clean white cotton cloth in the middle of the city's mosque, so that those who backbite us can see what viands God provides his elect from the unseen world." So ordered the master.

Hasan left the marketplace with absolutely no money in his pocket, for there was none in the khanaqah. Once there, he thought he might be able to beg for the money; he was certainly not going to complain to Abu Sa'id about any lack of funds. He stayed at the entrance of the market, until he saw the shopkeepers closing up and going home. No one helped him out. He resolved not to go back, even if he had to stay all night long. The market was completely empty. The hours passed. Finally a man came walking toward him. He approached and asked Hasan why he was standing there. Hasan told him the whole story. The man smiled and opened up a bag, telling him to reach in and take as much money as he desired. With that money, Hasan managed to provide all the food the master had ordered.

The next morning breakfast was arranged as planned. The master and the darvishes came to eat. A large group of people had gathered to see the Sufis' fate, but found them eating merrily and seemingly not concerned at all. Word reached Abu Bakr. His comment was, "Let them have this last meal; tomorrow they will be food for the vultures."

After breakfast Abu Sa'id told Hasan to prepare a place for the Sufis in the front row of the Friday prayer. The prayer leader that day was Qadhi Sa'id, Abu Sa'id's other enemy. Hasan prepared one hundred and twenty places for the Sufis in the first row and the prayer started. As was the custom, the Friday congregational prayer had two parts. The first was devotional and like any other, but the second part was a sermon given by the prayer leader usually about subjects that concerned society.

Preaching Sufi, 10th/16th century Persian manuscript. Click for larger image.

Abu Sa'id finished the devotional portion but did not stay for the lecture afterwards. Qadhi Sa'id opened his mouth to preach his sermon, but the master turned and stared at him. Suddenly, Qadhi Sa'id became quiet and could not speak until all the Sufis had left.

When they came out of the mosque, Abu Sa'id told Hasan to go to the market and buy pastry from one stall and almonds from another and to take them to Abu Bakr, telling him, "Abu Sa'id would like you to break your fast with these."

Abu Bakr looked puzzled at first when he received the message; then he became amazed. After a few minutes, he sent a messenger to Qadhi Sa'id saying that he was not willing to cooperate with him in killing Abu Sa'id and that Qadhi Sa'id was on his own. It so happened that on that day Abu Bakr had decided to fast but had not mentioned it to anyone. On his way to the Friday prayer he had taken the road by the market, where he had seen the sweets. He had craved that very pastry, and those very almonds, but since he was fasting had decided to have the treat for dinner. But after the prayers were done, something came up and he had completely forgotten about what he had promised himself.

Calligraphic pear.

All of this had happened without anyone else being aware of it. When Abu Sa'id had sent him what he wanted, he felt that he did not have the strength to fight someone who knew so much about what went on in people's hearts.