Bisṭāmī, Abū

views updated


BISĀMĪ, ABŪ YAZĪD AL- (Abū Yazīd) ayfūr, born ʿĪsā b. Surūshān, better known as Bāyazīd (or Abū Yazīd) Bisāmī, famed as the "King of the Gnostics" (Sulān al-ʿārifīn ), is perhaps the most famous of early Persian ūfīs, widely renowned for his ecstatic sayings and extraordinary spiritual discourses. Born in 777778, he passed in most of his life in Bisām, located in the modern-day province of Simnān in northern Iran, where he died in 848 or 875.

School, Stature, and Sayings

His master in Sufism was reputedly Abū ʿAlī al-Sindī, an illiterate sage. His antinominian utterances, such as his claim to have visited the Almighty's court, only to find it devoid of all Muslim scholars (ʿulamāʾ ) and jurisprudents (fuqahā ), his derogatory reference to scholars specializing in traditions of the Prophet as "dead men who narrate from the dead," his assertion that "I am greater" upon hearing the Muslim call to prayer, "Allāh akbar " (God is supreme!), and his claim to have had his own interiorized version of the Prophet's "ascension" (Miʿrāj ), did not endear him to formalistic clerics. He was accordingly exiled several times from his native Bisām.

His large circle of ūfī acquaintances and associates (some of whom with he exchanged legendary correspondences) included many of the foremost ūfīs of his day. He was also acquainted with Sarī Saqaī (d. 871) whose nephew and disciple Abū'l-Qāsim al-Junayd (d. 910) later commented on Bāyazīd's sayings. Several famous ūfī women featured among his associates as well, including Fāima of Nīshāpūr (d. 838), of whom he confessed, "In my life I encountered one true man and one true womanand that was Fāima of Nīshāpūr. There was not any station on the way about which I told her that she had not already experienced." Yet Bāyazīd's unmarried state, explicitly outlined in such early sources as Qushayrī's Risāla, sets him at odds with the majority of ūfīs.

Since he authored no written works, the main sources for later accounts of Bāyazīd are isolated collections of sayings and tales (all of uncertain authenticity) narrated by close companions and relatives several generations later. Many of these were recorded by Abū'l-Fal Muammad b. Sahlajī (d. 984) in his Kitāb al-nūr min kalimāt Abī ayfūr. The two other important sources of sayings are Abū Nar al-Sarrāj's (d. 988) Kitāb al-lumaʿ fī'l-taawwuf, and Rūzbihān Baqlī Shīrāzī's (d. 1209) Shar-i shaiyyāt, which features fifty of Bāyazīd's paradoxes.

A century after his death a Bāyazīdian school came into being, and some two centuries later this school's contours became intellectually formalized in ˓Alī Hujwīrī's (d. 1071) Kashf al-majūb, a Persian manual of ūfī teachings and doctrine, in which Bāyazīd's followers are classified as comprising a separate school of thought known as the ayfūriyya and described as advocates of rapture (ghalabat ) and intoxication (sukr ), as opposed to Junayd's "school of Sobriety (saw )."

Bāyazīd's Herculean stature still dominates the pantheon of Muslim mystics. He was, as Louis Massignon remarks, "a figure without peer the model of the perfect Muslim ascetic." Rūmī, among others, has said, "If a drop of Bāyazīd's faith were to fall into the ocean, the ocean itself would be drowned in that drop" (Mathnawī, ed. Nicholson, V: 3394), which seems to be a paraphrase of Abū Saʿīd ibn Abī'l-Khayr's (d. 440/1048) hyperbolic tribute, "I see the 18,000 worlds as full of Bāyazīd, yet nowhere therein can 'Bāyazīd' be found," cited by ʿAār (Tadhkirat, pp. 160161). Hujwīrī notes that Junayd said of Bāyazīd that, "he is among us [the ūfīs] as Gabriel is among the angels." Rūzbihān believed the abode of the esoteric lore of the ūfīs could only be found through the dynamic leadership of Bāyazīd's paradoxical words (Shar-i shaīyyāt, p. 78). Ibn ʿArabī referred to Bāyazīd more often than any other early ūfī. Many great mystics have been celebrated as "the Bāyazīd of their age."

Bāyazīd's memory was kept alive by a cult of patronage centered around his tomb actively supported by the political elite. The Mongol Īl-Khān ruler Öljeitü (r. 13041316) reconstructed his tomb and named three of his sons (Bisām, Bāyazīd, and ayfūr) after him. In fifteenth-century India a certain "Ţayfūriyyya Order" appeared, claiming descent from Bāyazīd. It soon branched off into various suborders, of which the best known was the "Shaāriyya," established in India by 'Abdu'llāh Shaārī (d. 1428) Another Ţayfūrī branch was the ʿIshqiyya centered in Iran. Finally, a Bisāmiyya branch appeared in Ottoman Turkey.

BĀyazĪdian Mystical Theology

Bāyazīd is placed by Ibn ʿArabī (Futūāt, III, 34.11) among the malāmatī ūfīs who constitute the highest category of saints, willingly enduring humiliation and incurring blame for the sake of their beliefs in order to subdue their own pride and conceit. Complementing and balancing the need to call down public blame upon oneself, with the ūfīs of this school vying with one another for the title of greatest sinner on the one hand, Bāyazīdian teaching also aspires paradoxically on the other toward a kind of apotheosis that is grounded in the key ūfī doctrines of annihilation (fanāʾ ) and mystical drunkenness (sukr ). Bāyazīd claimed that his self-identity, his individuality, was annihilated in God's Self-identity, so that he contemplated God directly through God's own eye (Rūzbihān, Shar, p. 115). The same Bāyazīd who confessed that one should stand before God as if one is a "Zoroastrian infidel" about to convert to Islām (Sahlajī, Al-Nūr, p. 69), and who even went so far as to say that he had prayed for thirty years imagining himself a Zoroastrian (infidel) about to sever his cincture (zunnār ) and recant, in the same breath could also give voice to the "blasphemous" claim, "Glory be to me! How great is my majesty!" and could tell God: "Thy obedience to me is greater than my obedience to Thee!" He even said to a disciple, "It is better for you to see me once than God a thousand times!" Beneath the cloak of exterior humility and outward abasement an interior exaltation of the Spirit is revealed. "The reality of esoteric sapience (aqīqat-i maʿrifat )," he thus explained, lies in "being annihilated under the omniscience of God and becoming eternally subsistent upon the wide expanse of God, without any self or creature. In this wise, the mystic is a perishable being (fānī ) who is eternal (bāqī ), an eternal being who is perishable, a dead person who is living, a living person who is dead, a veiled person who is visibly exposed, and a manifest being who is hidden from sight." (ʿAār, Tadhkirat, p. 199)

The theory that an Indian origin could be found for Bāyazīd's doctrine of fanāʾ in the Buddhist doctrine of nirvāa, or Vedāntin ideas, espoused by earlier scholars such as Max Horten, R. A. Nicholson and R. C. Zaehner, has been definitively rejected by modern scholarship and has long since demolished by a number of scholars, including A. J. Arberry (1962), Muhammad Abdur Rabb (1971), and more recently by Michael Sells (2002).

The secret of Bāyazīd's continuing popularity lies in the power of his paradoxes to foster a kind of transcendental ūfī ecumenism, with Muslim faith representing a kind of higher esoteric, interiorized religion, in contrast to exoteric Islam. To illustrate this higher form of faith, Rūmī recounts the tale of a "pagan" Zoroastrian who refused to convert to the form of "Islām" offered him by his "Muslim" neighbor (which, he objected, is so empty that it "chills the love of anybody with even a mite of potential faith"), since he claimed to be a follower of the interior spirit of Bāyazīd's faith, which he asserted to be "superior to all other faith" (Mathnawī, V: 33612). A saying of Bāyazīd confirms the malāmatī sentiments of his "pagan Zoroastrian" follower precisely: "The infidelity of adepts with high aspiration (ahl-i himmat ) is nobler than the Islam of egotists (ahl-i maniyyat )" (Hujwīrī, Kashf, p. 541).


Böwering, Gerhard. "Besāmī (Basāmī), Bāyazīd." In Encyclopædia Iranica, edited by Ehsan Yarshater, vol. 3, pp. 182186. London, 1982. Scholarly overview of Bāyazīd's life and thought.

Lājvardī, Fāima. "Bāyazīd Bisāmī." Dā'irat al-maʿārif-i buzurg-i islāmī. Tehran, 1992, XI: 313321. Thorough discussion of his life and teachings.

Meddeb, Abdelwahab. Les Dits de Bistami (shatahāt). Paris, 1989. An abridged French translation of his ecstatic sayings taken from Sahlajī's text.

Rabb, Muhammad ʿAbdur. The Life, Thought and Historical Importance of Abū Yazīd al-Bisāmī. Dacca, 1971. An excellent historical overview of the saint in Islamic history and thought.

Ritter, H. "Abū Yazīd al-Bisāmī." In Encyclopædia of Islam, 2d ed., vol. 1, pp. 162163. Leiden, 1999. Scholarly overview of Bāyazīd's life and thought.

Sells, Michael. "The Infinity of Desire: Love, Mystical Union, and Ethics in Sufism." In Crossing Boundaries: Essays on the Ethical Status of Mysticism, edited by G. William Barnard and J. J. Kripal, pp. 184229. New York, 2002. On the controversy surrounding possible Hindu influences on his teachings.

Leonard Lewisohn (2005)