Mansur al-Hallaj (858-913 AD) – the most controversial of all the Sufi saints – was gruesomely executed at the age of fifty-five for repeatedly proclaiming the heretical words, “I am the truth (Anal-Haq).” Hallaj, meaning ‘the wool-carder’, was married at an early age and traveled widely during his lifetime, journeying as far as India and China in later life.
Once, when he was in Baghdad, Hallaj asked a number of controversial doctrinal questions to the Sufi master, Jonaid. But instead of giving an answer Jonaid said, “There will come a time when you will stain a piece of wood red,” – implying that Hallaj would ultimately be executed. In reply Hallaj said, ” When this happens, you will have to take off your Sufi robe and don the garb of an academic instead.” This prophecy came to fruition when the death warrant for Hallaj was being drawn up and the signature of Jonaid was sought by the religious orthodoxy of Baghdad. Jonaid did not want to sign, but the Caliph of Baghdad insisted he must. Reluctantly Jonaid removed the ‘inner’ attire of his Sufi robes and dressed himself in the ‘outer’ cloak and turban of a religious scholar. He walked to the Islamic academy and signed the death warrant, saying, “We judge Hallaj according to the external truth. As for the internal truth, this God alone knows.”
After Jonaid had refused to answer his polemic questions and made this foreboding prophecy, Hallaj withdrew in disappointment from Jonaid and traveled to the town of Tostar with his wife. Here he lived for a year, honored by the local people, but condemned by the religious orthodoxy because of his criticisms of their spiritual hypocrisy. When they began to plot against him, Hallaj renounced his Sufi robes and donned the garb of a layman. For the next five years he traveled through various regions of Persia and Central Asia in an exalted spiritual state, before returning to the town of Ahvaz near Basra, where he again donned the robes of a Sufi. Both scholars and laymen alike received his writings and discourses at this time with rapturous acclaim, and because of his penetrating insight he was known as ‘Hallaj, the Master of Secrets’. From Basra he made a pilgrimage to Mecca, but here he was denounced as a magician. Returning again to Basra he then set out upon his travels to India, Transoxiana and China, where he was consistently recognized as the enlightened master that he truly was.
On his return to Iraq he made a second pilgrimage to Mecca, where he remained for two years. But a great change had taken place in his spiritual transmissions. His teachings had become extremely esoteric and by proclaiming ‘I am the Truth’ (Anal-Haq), he began to summon people to a ‘truth’ that they couldn’t possibly understand. Many stories now began to circulate about him and the miracles he performed. Opinion was divided against him and it is said that he was driven out of fifty Islamic cities for his heretical proclamations of ‘I am the Truth’. Finally the drift of public opinion deemed that he ought to be sentenced to death.
Four thousand people were said to have accompanied Hallaj on his second pilgrimage to Mecca. For a whole year he stood barefooted and bareheaded before the Ka’ba, where every day a man would place some bread and a jug of water before him. But it was seldom that Hallaj partook of bread or water. With his body reduced to skin and bones he would publicly proclaim, “O Lord. You are the guide of all those who pass through the valley of bewilderment. If I am a heretic, then please increase my heresy.” But at night when he was alone he would pray, “O lord. I know and worship none besides you. I am so grateful for the gifts that you have bestowed upon me, and my tongue cannot express my gratitude for them. So please thank yourself on my behalf.”
For twenty years Hallaj wore the same tattered Sufi robe. Then one day some well-meaning followers decided to forcibly disrobe him so that they could clothe him in a new garment. But when they removed his old robe they discovered that a large scorpion had made its nest there. Hallaj told them that this scorpion was a ‘friend’ that had lived inside his robe for the last twenty years, and he insisted that they replaced both his old robe and the unharmed scorpion immediately.
From Mecca he returned to Baghdad, and it was at this time that a group of orthodox theologians petitioned the Caliph of Baghdad with a charge of heresy against Hallaj. He was cast into prison. It is said that on the first night of his imprisonment the jailers found his cell empty, and on the second night they could find neither Hallaj nor his cell, but on the third night they found him locked in his cell again. “What magic is this?” the jailers asked. “On the first night I was in the presence of the Lord, so you could not find me,” replied Hallaj. “On the second night the Lord was present here, so you could find neither me nor the cell. And on this third night I have been brought back to fulfill the scripture, which states that a man in his senses should not proclaim ‘I am the Truth’. For as long as he is a man he can never be God. If he utters ‘I am the Truth’ it is heresy. Now you must do your work.”
Hallaj was held in prison for a year. For the first half of this year a steady stream of visitors came to consult with him, but when the Caliph heard of this he decreed that Hallaj should have no visitors whatsoever. During this time a compassionate Sufi named Ibn ‘Ata once sent a message to Hallaj, asking him to repent of the heretical words that he had spoken, so that he may be pardoned by the Caliph. Hallaj’s reply was: “Let him who sent this message petition for pardon instead.” When Ibn ‘Ata heard this answer he burst into tears and cried: “We, who believe we are true servants of the Lord, are not even worthy of one splinter of the light that He casts upon Hallaj.”
Three hundred prisoners were held in the same prison as Hallaj, and one night he asked them if they wanted to be released. When they all replied that they did, he made a mystical gesture with his fingers that caused all the chains and locks to burst asunder. Making a second gesture, cracks began to appear in the walls and the prison gates were thrown wide open. As the prisoners were running away they asked why Hallaj still remained in his cell and would not come with them. To which he replied, “I have a secret matter with the Lord, which can only be revealed upon the scaffold. I am a prisoner of my Master, the Lord.”
When the Caliph was informed of this incident, he furiously proclaimed, “Hallaj will cause an insurrection next. The time has come for his death. Make public the punitive announcement for his execution. Begin by flogging him severely.”
Three hundred lashes with a staff were inflicted on Hallaj’s body, and at every blow a voice was heard to clearly say, “O Mansur al-Hallaj, fear not, bear the punishment.” His executioners then draped thirteen heavy iron chains around his body and he was made to walk to the scaffold, like Christ bearing his cross along the Via Dolorosa. A hundred thousand citizens of Baghdad were said to have assembled to watch the execution. Hallaj walked proudly to the scaffold, his gaze passing over the crowd as he repeated, “Haq, Haq, Anal-Haq” – “Truth, Truth, I am the Truth.”
Upon reaching the steps of the scaffold, he kissed the wood and looked up with a smile. When questioned about his apparent joy, he replied: “This is a happy time, for I am returning Home. My Friend is not iniquitous. He gave me the best wine to drink, just like the Lord offers to his honored guests. I drank my fill. Then he called forth the sword to punish me for being drunk in the month of prohibition.” Hallaj’s son then cried out in anguish for his father’s last instructions. “The whole world believes that ethical behavior leads to God’s Truth,” began Hallaj: “But seek instead God’s Divine Grace. Even if you gain but a single particle of it, it is more precious that all of the virtuous deeds of angels and men.”
Hallaj ascended the steps and turning towards Mecca he raised his hands in prayer, saying: “What God knows, no man knows. You have bestowed upon me what I sought.”
The Sufi teacher Shebli then stepped forward and asked, “Hallaj, what is Sufism?”
Hallaj answered: “The lowest level of Sufism is what you are witnessing today.”
“Then what is the highest level?” asked Shebli.
“It is beyond your comprehension,” answered Hallaj.
The Caliph next gave the order for the assembled crowd to stone Hallaj, who endured the onslaught of rocks in heroic silence. The Caliph then commanded Shebli to cast a stone also. But Shebli, not wishing to himself harm the condemned saint, chose to throw a flower attached to a clod of earth instead. Hallaj cried out in pain when the clod hit him, and when asked to explain the reason, he replied: “Those who have cast stones know not what they are doing. But he who cast that clod is aware of everything he does.”
Hallaj’s hands and feet were then tied to the stake, and with a single stroke of his sword the executioner severed Hallaj’s hands. As the blood spurted out from his wrists it was seen to form the words ‘I am the Truth’ (Anal-Haq) as it poured onto the wooden boards of the scaffold. Hallaj looked up and said, “It is an easy thing to cut off the hands of a bound man. But a true man is he who cuts off the hands of those who try to tear down the attributes of God’s crown.”
Then the executioner cut off his feet. Hallaj raised his eyes to heaven and said, “With these feet I walked upon an earthly journey. But other feet I have, which even now are making the journey between the two worlds.” Hallaj then rubbed the bloody stumps of his wrists over his arms, shoulders and face, saying: “This I do because much blood has already flowed from my body, and I do not want you to think that I have grown pale from fear. Today I am happy, because I am adorned in the heroic blood of a martyr. The ablution of Love is only perfect when it is made with blood.”
The executioners then plucked out Hallaj’s eyes and cast them upon the ground. Then they severed his ears and nose. A great uproar arose from the crowd. Some cast stones and words of derision, others wept with prayers of pity. An executioner then sought to pull Hallaj’s tongue from his mouth, but Hallaj drew back and said: “O God. Permit me one final word. I am so grateful that you have kept me steadfast and true. I wish that you would bestow this grace upon my persecutors also.” Upon hearing these words the crowd unleashed a hail of stones and angry cries. Hallaj’s last words were, “The Love of the One separates you from all others.” Then his tongue was pulled out and severed at its root.
Hallaj’s tormented body was left to bleed as he merged slowly into death. At the time of evening prayer the executioner cut his head off with a single blow, releasing his soul unto Almighty God. As the blood pumped forth from his trunk it uttered the cry ‘I am the Truth’ (Anal-Haq). Then suddenly every dismembered part of his body began to take up the cry, ‘I am the Truth’. Throughout that night his trunk, limbs and sensory organs kept up the constant repetition of Anal-Haq. It was then that his accusers began to realize that they had slain a true Beloved of God.
On the following morning it was seen that every stream of blood that had pulsed from Hallaj’s veins had inscribed the word ‘Allah’ on the boards of the scaffold. The Caliph ordered that Hallaj’s dismembered body parts, which still repeated Anal-Haq, should be collected and burned immediately; for he feared that the growing consternation of his citizens could soon develop into a public outcry against him. The flames of the funeral pyre roared with the sound of Anal-Haq, and every crackling spark that emanated from the pyre inscribed the words Anal-Haq against the dense smoke. When the fire had died down Hallaj’s ashes continued to sound the refrain, ‘I am the Truth’, and when they were cast upon the waters of the River Diyala they spread into the calligraphic letters of Anal-Haq.
Then the waters of the River Diyala and the River Tigris began to swell and foam as their levels rose, threatening to engulf Baghdad. But Hallaj had foreseen that this event would come to pass when his ashes were to be cast into the river, and he had left instructions with his servant that his robe should be spread upon the river’s surface. And when this servant spread Hallaj’s robe upon the turbulent water, the river’s wrath was placated. His ashes now became silent and floated towards the riverbank, where they were collected by the faithful and entombed with honor.
On the day of Hallaj’s execution a Sufi saint spent the night in prayer under the scaffold. In the deep of the night he heard the Divine Voice declare: “I entrusted Hallaj with one of my secrets, but he revealed it to others. I am punishing him for revealing this secret.” Another Sufi saint, Abbas Tusi, declared: “On the Day of Judgement Mansur al-Hallaj shall be brought forth in fetters, since in his divine ecstasy he may turn the whole world upside down.”
Another dervish was said to have stopped Hallaj on his way to the scaffold with the question: “Tell me Hallaj, before you die. What is Love?” Hallaj replied, “You will know what Love is from witnessing the events of today, tomorrow and the next day.” On that day he was executed; on the next day his mutilated corpse was burned to ashes; and on the third day his ashes were dispersed upon the winds and waters. Throughout, Mansur’s body kept repeating the name of it’s beloved. Thus did Hallaj reveal the true meaning of his unconditional, selfless and divine love.
Content courtesy: Robert Beer (Tibetanart.com) 2011. Slightly edited by Elan (2013).