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The Tale of the Four Dervishes of Amir Khusru

As retold by
Amina Shah

ARJ2 Chapter: Spiritual Science
Published by The Octagon Press/UK
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2010


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For what reason should you read this story? Well, there's a story behind the reason.

[page 8] When the great 13th Century Sufi teacher Nizamuddin Awliyya was ill, his disciple Amir Khusru the eminent Persian poet recited to him this Sufi allegory. To mark this event, Nizamuddin on his recovery placed this benediction upon the book:

"Who hears this story will, by divine power, be in health."

With these words, Amina Shah, the sister of the eminent Sufi author, Idries Shah, begins her telling of the tale of the four dervishes and King Azad Bakht. These 144 pages will seem to fly by as you read theses tales, but for any readers who think the stories are too long, consider this: these stories have been greatly condensed by the oldest weapon in the arsenal of story tellers, a weapon which is brandished to lop off great sections of story on many occasions, namely, "to make a long story short"! Shah adds this note:

[page 8] It is widely believed that the recitation of the story will restore to health the ailing, and that the allegorical dimensions of the adventures of the Dervishes contained in it are part of a teaching-system which prepares the mind of the Seeker-after-Truth for spiritual enlightenment.

Be prepared to be a bit confused by some of the stories, especially to those academic types who bring their already full teacup to the dervishes' long tea party. Empty your mind of expectations and allow the fragrant aroma of Sufi tea to fill your nostrils as these stories unfold. And unfold is meant literally: after my first reading of the book I went through it a second time (in a paperback edition I no longer have) to track the enfolded complexity of the myriad of stories. I started with a horizontal line and each time a new story was entered, I dropped down a half inch, then drew a horizontal line until either a new story was entered (if so, line dropped down) or the story ended (line returned back up). The major lines are the stories of the four dervishes plus that of King Azad Bakht, interspersed with stories of Princess of Damascus, The Generosity of Hatim Tai, and Prince of Nimroz, plus many smaller stories too numerous to put into the Table of Contents.

Note that Shah advised us to hear the story, not just read it. During my earlier readings of the story back in 1988, I did not take the opportunity to read it to someone, but enjoyed it in solitude. For this new reading, my wife and I read the stories of the book to each other during an automobile trip one weekend. We each got to hear a recitation of the story of the Four Dervishes.

My first impression after this recitation was to compare the stories of the Four Dervishes and Azad Bakht to those of Odysseus in the Odyssey of Homer. Those stories were recited from memory for centuries before the invention of writing became necessary due to the evolution of human consciousness. Humans became no longer able to envision the epic tales of Odysseus directly because they had lost their spiritual sight which had allowed them to view epic tales directly. Soon only a few humans could view the tales and recited aloud to those who couldn't. At that point in human consciousness, writing was invented and luckily the tales of the Odyssey and the Iliad were quickly written down, likely by Homer initially. It is possible that these Sufi tales, like the epic tales of Homer, were not written down at all until recently and that Homer himself (or some other ancient Greek story-teller) heard the Tales of the Four Dervishes and was inspired to create the epic stories of the Trojan War in a similar fashion. Like this book, the Odyssey consists of adventures by a man who must at various points tell his life story, which grows progressively more interesting with each stop along his way home, and listen to the stories of the others he encounters along the way.

If there is some validity to the Dervish Tale preceding the Homeric epics, then it's possible that the Greek custom of xenia, the concept of hospitality, or generosity, and courtesy shown to those who are far from home, originated in the Tale of the Four Dervishes, for in each tale, one of the Dervishes is abandoned helpless and penniless, far from home, and dependent upon the kindness of strangers. In every case, the Dervish, a King in his own right as was Odysseus, is taken in by a stranger, fitted with the finest clothes, fed the most sumptuous foods, and given an apartment to live in for as long as he desired. Only after the vagabond had been dutifully fed, bathed, rested, and clothed was he asked for an explanation of how he arrived in his host's environs.

The story begins with the great King in Istanbul, Azad Bakht, who turned forty years old, and faced the attack of gray hairs appearing each day in his beard in increasing numbers, and he was yet without an heir, a son, to whom he could turn over his fortune. He was distressed beyond consolation, and retired to his private rooms and refused to come out. Meanwhile his country fell into ruin and his Vizir hazarded to interrupt his King who came out to set his kingdom right again. But something strange happened.

[page 11, 12] One day, the King read in a book that if anyone was oppressed with grief which could not be cured by any human act, he should visit the tombs of the dead. 'For,' it said in that manuscript, 'have not all of them left behind their riches and possessions, homes and offspring, horses and elephants, and are lying there alone? All those worldly advantages have been of no use to them, and how have they settled their accounts with God? Having thought about all these things, the flower of a man's heart will always bloom. It will not wither in any circumstances.'

Azad Bakht decided to dress humbly and exit the palace at night unseen so as to visit a cemetery as the book suggested. He creeps at last towards a flame where four men he took might be dervishes were gathered about a flame. Not wishing to risk his life, he decided to listen to them awhile to be sure they were dervishes and therefore trustworthy. This is how the stories began.

[page 13] They took out their water-pipes, and started to smoke, and each reclined on his mattress. Then, one of them said: 'O Brothers of Freedom, friends in mutual pain, and wanderers over the world! Let us each tell our story, for have we not met on this same spot for pure companionship? Tomorrow's events are not known; whether we will remain together or part forever, is not yet decided. Let us pass this night in talking, and each will tell his own tale.'
      The others nodded in agreement, and the First Dervish began to speak.

The first Dervish was the son of a wealthy merchant who passed an early life of carefree luxury until at the age of fourteen, he took over his father's estate when both his parents died. He followed the advice of all the people he hired to assist him, but with his interest in drinking and gambling to excess, soon whatever had not been lost by neglect from his father's estate had been plundered by his own servants for their own use. Soon he was broke, hungry, thirsty, and all alone. His sister takes him in, feeds, clothes, and sets him up in a business of trading with Damascus. Soon he meets the Princess of Damascus with whom he has fallen in love and asks her to tell him her story.

After her story the two of them set out together on horses, she dressed as a man, and when they came upon a great river, the Dervish asked her to stay as he sought a ford or a ferry. When he returned, she had disappeared and he was left disconsolate, tearing his clothes, became an vagabond fakir, searching without luck for her everywhere. He was at the end of his wits and endurance.

[page 35] Eventually, I came to a mountain. The idea suggested itself to me that I should climb it, and throw myself from the top, ending my existence and therefore an insupportable misery.
      When I was about to cast myself upon the rocks below the mountain, someone touched my arm. I looked around and saw a horseman dressed in green, with a veil over his face. He said to me: 'Why try to destroy your life? Despair is unfaithfulness towards God. While there is breathing, there is hope. A few days from now, three dervishes will meet. Like you, they are entangled in difficulties; they have had problems and experiences like your own. The King of the country of Rum is named Azad Bakht. He, too, is in great distress. When he meets you four, the heart's desire of every one of you will be fulfilled!'
      I caught hold of his stirrup and kissed it, saying: 'O Friend of God! What you have said has consoled me. Please tell me, in God's Name, who you are.'
      He said: 'I am Ali. My function is that whenever anyone is in trouble, I am there to succor him.' As soon as he had spoken, he disappeared.
      At this miraculous intervention, I felt much encouraged, and, following the advice of this spiritual guide, I set off for Istanbul, in Rum. After the hardships that were my lot on that journey, I have encountered you. We have met. We have conversed. It only remains for us to encounter King Azad Bakht. When we do, we shall surely gain the desire of our hearts. O Spiritual Guides! Let us pray that our problems may be resolved.'
      Azad Bakht, still in concealment, and having listened with great attention to this tale, started to listen to the story of the Second Dervish.

This is a thumbnail of the tale of the first Dervish, and hospitality, or generosity, and courtesy the succeeding tales will each end in a similar way with the appearance of the green-veiled horseman and a promise that each will soon receive their heart's desire. The green-veiled horseman can be seen as a Christ figure, in the time before Christ appeared on the Earth and took human form, a figure who came when someone was in dire straits and offered them hope if they would but just allow their life on Earth to play out without their own termination of it.

After the second tale, King Azad Bakht returns to his palace in order to greet the dervishes and when they arrive, he asks the third and fourth Dervish to relate their stories to him. When they are unwilling to do so, Azad Bakht relates his own tale to them which is epic in its own telling, taking up the middle half of the book. Azad as a young king questioned his Vizir who claimed that a merchant in a far-off land had a dog which wore a collar with twelve rubies on it as large as the one the youth Azad had spent his days admiring. Azad found the story incredulous and threw the Vizir into the dungeon "Until someone brings proof of the existence of such an unlikely dog". The tale unwinds with the Vizir's daughter disguising herself to find the man with the dog and the two cages he carried with him in which two sorrowful men are kept and fed on the leavings of the dog. This incredible tale involves the man showing repeated hospitality, generosity, and courtesy to his good-for-nothing brothers who find themselves penniless until he rescues them and they repay kindness attempting to kill him. Finally, the man is forced by the public nature of his two brothers crimes to promise to imprison them forever and treat them lower than any dog.

Soon we hear the tales of the third and fourth dervish and, as the succoring green-veiled horsemen had promised, the heart's desire of the four Dervishes and that of Azad Bakht are fulfilled. In the course of reading only this review, you have tasted this story but not in full, rather you have tasted it as one who might to Antoine's Restaurant in the French Quarter of New Orleans, ask for a menu, read it, and then proceed to eat the menu itself. Could such a person be said to have tasted the food of the famous restaurant? Get a willing friend and begin the recitation at the earliest possible moment, you are in for a feast of epic proportions which will enrich your life beyond measure.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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