One of the greatest Sufi masters Ibrahim bin Adham of the 8th century is amongst the earliest of Sufis whose lives have been documented. He came from a family of emperors who ruled in the city of Balkh in Central Asia. Ibrahim was a wealthy king whose palace was full of gold, silver and precious gems. He wore ornaments laced with jewellery and his slippers were studded with gems.
One day, Ibrahim renounced the throne to lead a life of complete asceticism. The story that led to the mystic’s change of heart is a famous one. It is said that one night Ibrahim lay asleep on the luxurious bed in his palace. He heard some noises that seemed to come from the roof. On inquiring about the commotion, Ibrahim heard a voice saying: “I am looking for my camel who came here to find some grass to graze.” The king replied that looking for a camel on the palace rooftop was foolish. The voice retorted: “O ignorant one, it is just as foolish to seek God in the palace wearing silken clothes and sleeping on a golden couch.” These words were the beginning of his spiritual awakening.
The next day the king called his ministers and asked him to open the palace gates and allow everyone in, as long as they are dressed in good clothes. People came to the palace in clothes of velvet and silk. Then an old man entered with torn and tattered clothes. The guards noticed a light on his face and did not dare stop him.
Ibrahim saw him and asked why he came to the palace in such shabby clothes. The man replied: “I have come to a rest house.” The king reminded him that he had come to a palace and not some roadside inn.
The man said: “I do not see a palace, just a rest house. Who owned this palace before you?”
“My father,” Ibrahim replied.
“And before him?”
“And before him?”
“And where are they now?”
“They have all died and gone away.”
“So for each of them this was a rest house. Each one came, rested for a while and then went away. One day, you too shall die and leave this palace. Think about it Ibrahim, this is not a palace, just a rest house.” After saying this, the old man went away.
Ibrahim became anguished and had strange visions each night. In order to calm himself, he decided to go hunting in the forest. Four times he heard a voice crying, “Awake!” but he steadfastly ignored it. At the fourth cry he spied a deer and prepared to give chase. However, the deer turned around and spoke to him: “You cannot hunt me; I have been sent to hunt you. Was it for this that you were created, and is this what you have been commanded?”
On hearing the deer, Ibrahim let out a loud cry and turned to God in sincere repentance. A spiritual fire alighted in the king’s heart and he headed for the jungles, leaving both wealth and family forever.
Ibrahim became the first Sufi to classify the stages of piety, teaching that a man could achieve the ranks of righteousness by following a journey of six steps. He must close the door of bounty and open the door of hardships; close the door of dignity and open the door of humility; close the door of repose and open the door of striving; close the door of sleep and open the door of vigilance; close the door of wealth and open the door of poverty; and finally close the door of worldly expectations and open the door of preparation for the next world. Ibrahim bin Adham died in 790 AD and lies buried in Syria.