Dhūl-Nūn al-Miṣrī on, well… Mysticism

Dhūl-Nūn al-Miṣrī 

(d. 859 (AH 245))

An Egyptian mystic who travelled widely in search of truth and certainty. He became a leading authority on ma’rifa (knowledge of inner truth) and was considered to be the qutb (spiritual head) of the Sufis of his time. He was reckoned to be the first to systematize the states of mystical attainment (sing. hal) and the stages of the Path (maqamat), and to establish the study of ma’rifa (often, but loosely, translated as ‘gnosis’). Dhu’l Nun classified knowledge into three categories:

(i) the knowledge of religious commands and observances, which is for both the elect and the common people;
(ii) the knowledge gained by proof and demonstration, which is for the elect; and
(iii) ma’rifa, which is beyond the power of human learning and reason (which is why so many reject it). 

“This knowledge is acceptable to neither the elect nor the common folk, and I remained an outcast and alone. This belongs to the attributes of Unity, those who contemplate the face of God within their hearts, so that God reveals himself to them in a way in which he is not revealed to any others in the world.”

He equated it with the love of God:

“God’s lovers see without knowledge, without sight, without information received, without description, without veiling and without veil. They are not themselves, but insofar as they exist at all, they exist in God. It is the most precious gift and the greatest of graces.”

However, love of God was founded on love to humanity and righteousness, so that he also maintained a positive attitude towards the world, seeing the manifestation of God in the created order, even to the extent that birds flocked above his coffin to give it shade.

From the Oxford Dictionary of World Religions

[See, it’s the last bit that damns us in times like these… but have there ever not been times like these…?]


[Some sayings, excerpted from Mohammed Rustom’s selection.]


“Truthfulness [sidq] is God’s sword on His earth—it is placed upon nothing except that it cuts through it.”

“Sincerity [ikhlas] is that which is free from being corrupted by the enemy.”

When Dhu’l-Nun was imprisoned, he did not eat or drink for days. One of the female slaves whom he knew came to the prison with some food, saying, “This is lawful [halal].” But he did not eat it. When she repeated herself, he replied, “This food is lawful, but it has come to me through an unlawful means, so I will not eat it.” “How is that?,” she asked. Dhu’l-Nun answered, “It has come to me from the hand of the prison keeper, who is an oppressor, so I will not eat it.”


“The renunciants [zuhhad], namely the poor amongst the gnostics [fuqara’ al-‘arifin], are the kings of the afterlife.”

“When the gnostic seeks out his livelihood, he is nothing.” 

[Dude. Dhul. Shush — you’re making me look bad.
But also, I have spent many, many hours wanting to be nothing, in a self-hating way.
And then, this year, I spent a few seconds wanting to be nothing, in a more intense, urgent way.
And then, after that, a few hours wanting to be Nothing, in a more out-there way.
So you’re right, but maybe I’m doing it on purpose, and killing three desires with one stone!]

“Seek out your need with the tongue of poverty [faqr], not with the tongue of authority.” 

[OK, that one is actually extremely good, practical advice.]

“The man who is truly poor [al-faqir al-sadiq] is he who does not rely upon anything; rather, all things rely upon him.” 

[Correct.]


“Whatever you conceive with your imagination [wahm], God is other than that.”

“Whatever eyes can see relates to knowledge [‘ilm], and whatever hearts can know relates to certainty [yaqin].”

Dhu’l-Nun was asked, “How did you come to know your Lord?” 
He replied, “I would not think of disobeying God and [at the same time] remember His majesty, except that I would be ashamed before it.”

“I came to know my Lord through my Lord. Had it not been for my Lord, I would not have known my Lord.’”

“[Mystic] Certainty is a caller to shortened hopes, shortened hopes call to renunciation, renunciation gives rise to wisdom, and wisdom gives rise to contemplation over end-affairs.”

“Each day the gnostic is more fearful, for each hour he is closer.”


“[The first step taken by the gnostic] is bewilderment, then poverty, then union, and then bewilderment again.’”  

“The person most knowledgeable of God is the one most intense in bewilderment of Him.”

“The gnostic does not adhere to a single state—he only adheres to his Lord in every state.”

[Yes.]

“The gnostic is a man who is with men, but separate from them.”

“The gnostic was here, and then departed.”

“Keeping the company of the gnostic is like keeping the company of God: having taken on the character traits of God, he puts up with you and is gentle towards you.”

“[The final outcome of the gnostic] is when he is just as he was where he was before he was.”


“Whoever aspires to humility [tawadu‘], let him turn his attention to God’s greatness, for it melts [the soul] and makes it limpid. Whoever contemplates God’s power, his own [sense of] power will depart, since all souls are poor when in awe of Him.”

“Trust in God [tawakkul] is to relinquish self-contrivance, and to be divested of one’s power and strength.”

Dhu’l-Nun was asked, “What is the subtlest and gravest kind of veil?” 
He answered, “Acknowledging the self [ru’yat al-nafs] and its contrivance.”


“The Sufi is the one who, when he talks, his speech elucidates realities [haqa’iq]; and if he is silent, his limbs speak on his behalf of severance from attachments [‘ala’iq].”

Yusuf b. al-Husayn said, “One day I attended the gathering of Dhu’l-Nun, and Salim al-Maghribi came to him and said, ‘O Abu’l-Fayd! What was the cause of your repentance?’ 
He replied, ‘It is a strange matter—you will be unable to bear it.’ 
Salim replied, ‘I will not leave you until you tell me.’ 
So Dhu’l-Nun said, ‘I left Egypt for one of the villages. Along the way, I fell asleep in a certain desert. [When] I woke up, I was next to a blind bird who had fallen from her nest onto the ground. Then, the earth split open and two bowls appeared, one of which was gold and the other silver. Sesame seeds were in one of the bowls, and water was in the other. The bird began to eat and drink from them. So I exclaimed, ‘God suffices me! I have repented!’ And I stood at the door until God allowed me in’.”

“Woe to you that you be a pretender to gnosis, or a renunciant by profession, or someone attached to his acts of worship.”

“There is no good for you in keeping the company of someone who likes to regard you as sinless.”

[Probably so. Which is why my last-gasp attempt to get everyone to leave me alone, once I finally get popular, will be to resolutely regard everyone as sinless and wait for them to realize I am now useless to them.]

“God says, ‘Whoever is obedient to Me, I shall be a friend to him. So let him trust in Me and depend upon Me. By My greatness, if he were to ask Me to end his worldly concerns, I would do that for him’.”

“Contentment [rida’] is the heart’s happiness with the passing of God’s decree [qada’].

Al-Jariri said, “I have been informed that it was said to Dhu’l-Nun al-Misri at the time of his death, ‘Give us some parting advice.’ 
He replied, ‘Do not distract me, for I am marvelling at the beauties of His generosity!’”

“The Sufis are a folk who have preferred God over everything, so God has preferred them over everything.”

“Sufi teachings revolve around four things: love [hubb] for the Majestic, hatred for the insignificant, following the revelation, and fear of change [for the worse] in [one’s spiritual] state.’”

“‘Love’ is that you love what God loves, hate what He hates, do all that is good, and abandon all that distracts you from God. In matters concerning God, [love] is that you not fear the reproach of the reproacher—all the while being gentle towards the believers and harsh towards the unbelievers. And in matters of religion, [love] is that you follow the Messenger of God.”

“The believer’s joy and delight is in solitude [khalwa], [when he is] intimately conversing [munaja] with his Lord.”