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Story: The Road from Kashghar


Course: Islamic Spirituality

February 2006

Story written by 

Umer Ijaz Gilani



Revolving around themes from Imam Al-Haddad's "Book of Assistance" 
 Relevant Chapters: 54, 58, 60, 62, 64, 67, 69






My many musings go oft astray. In some such musings I wondered on the true meaning and implication of the nine states of the sufi path. What came of it is this little tale. Even though some characters bear resemblance to historical figures, this account is totally fictional. This story, like all the world's stories, is far from complete and the author seeks forgiveness for sins, done or undone.)






Then one man, tall, lean and wheatish set out in search of God.


In Kashghar, all weathers can be tasted in but one day. Yet, it wouldn't be unfair to say that winter was merging into spring and that Mohammad Ta'ib was a middle-aged man. He had been dissatisfied with his life for many years now. He was a Muslim, son of a Muslim and Muslim all the way down as far as he cared to think but his Islam did not run as deep in his being as it ran in his pedigree. He knew that the world and all that it contained was but the creation of One God and that Muhammad PBUH was his Prophet and Islam the chosen religion. It was all very well, expect that he had never seen God.


 Of course there were many things that couldn't be seen. But in Sinkiang the sun was always blazing and most things could be seen from afar and Ta'ib knew that somewhere, somehow deep trouble was brewing. That was when he came across a trader from Yemen, Mohammad son of Alawi, son of Haddad. The trader wouldn't divulge what his merchandise was, no matter how hard Taib pried. But the two soon got on well together. And when spring was springing up, the Yemenite made to leave and Ta'ib deemed it appropriate to leave with him: perhaps, a pilgrimage to Makkah would restore what had been lost of his faith.


The road from Kashghar was long and desolate. For many days there were no signs of fodder and drink for the camels. But the Yemenite was an experienced traveler and Taib would not have embarked on this venture without trust. Those long and lonely days, they talked about a lot of things.


"They say there is a black house in Makkah… the House of God?" asked Ta'ib


"The Ka'aba" replied Al-Haddad.


"Then does God live there?" Ta'ib inquired.


" He does. He lives everywhere"


"Shall we see him"




Al-Haddad was a man of few words, and these days he said many things which Taib didn't understand. All the same, Taib was beginning to respect him for his solid composure and the regularity with which he would say his prayers.


Then one day as they were approaching the foothills of the Himalayas and glimpses of distant verdant hills could already bee seen, Al-Haddad told him that the way to God was long and tortuous like the road to Makkah, that there were three stages on this path and nine indispensable aides: Repentance; Fortitude and Gratitude; Renunciation and Trusts in Allah; Love and Contentment; and, Fear and Hope. The true nature of these things was not known even to him, even though he was well-versed in such matters.


"I asked you once about the House of God. If He cannot be seen even in his house, then where will we ever find him." Ta'ib asked anxiously.


" I never said he couldn't be found. Only that you may not find him. He can be seen and all things are signs of his being. My friend, you must first understand the nine companions before the way to God is cleared for you." Al-Haddad replied calmly.


 "How would I know the nine companions when you yourself possess little knowledge of them?" Ta'ib seemed perturbed now.


" I will tell you what I know of them. And if you act on what you are told, Allah will reveal to you what you don't know. But now we must move, lest the night finds us far from shade and safety."


In the silence of the desert, Taib grappled over the meaning of the  words. Even as the sky darkened every moment and the cold wind sharpened its biting teeth, they kept going, slowly and unceasingly, until some time after Maghrib they approached a rather sheltered nook by side of a rocky outpost of the mountain. There they ended the day's journey.


Next day they began to climb the steep slopes on the northern side of the Himalayas. It was the beginning of many days of hard and lonely labour for they did not come across any settlements. Terror struck Ta'ib's heart when one day Al-Haddad told him that they had lost their way and that he was loathe to rediscover it. Many doubts arose in Taib's heart about the competence of his guide, still he had no option but to believe in Al-Haddad. In these days full of sweat and tears, all the guide would tell him was to reflect on the nine companions and to invoke them to their help.


"We will not find our way until you repent, my dear. How often do I have to remind you that the nine companions are indispensable on the road to Mecca."


Ta'ib was getting sick of the repeated reminders of the need for the nine companions. They were supposed to be the key to his every problem, and yet in all his earnestness, he couldn't make any sense of them. He had repented, a hundred times every day since they had left Kashagah, but Al-Haddad told him that even repentance wouldn't gain complete acceptance without the other eight companions.


Now they reached a particularly tricky tract of the climb. The slope was so steep and the scree so treacherous that their camels were slipping on every step. But they moved on. Then all at once Taib's camel slipped and fell on it flank and for a fraction of a second Taib felt as if his death had seized him. But then he found himself sitting on the upper flank of the camel both of them on the verge of the slope but safe still. Shivers ran down his spine but the next moment he had joined Al-Haddad in getting his camel back on its feet.


"This camel should not be made to go on. What lies ahead is beyond his endurance. He has served us long enough. We will leave him on his own and Allah will protect him. From now on we will take turns on my camel. And we will slough half our provisions."


"Do you want us to die and rot in this cold, god-forsaken land? We are already short of provisions and this camel is mine, and I don't see why we should trouble ourselves for its sake."


"Have you no mercy left in you. This camel belongs to Allah, just as you and I do. How could you be so thankless, when God just saved your life. If He can protect you from this fall, then surely he can save you from anything else. Learn to Trust Him, my friend."


So they knelt in prayer before their Lord and put their trust in his mercy and repented their earlier egoistic behaviour. Then the twain set out again and a tortuous road now lay ahead of them.


But such was the wonder of Trust that they covered many miles swiftly. Much sooner than what they expected it, the slope began to descend and hours later the aridness of the leeward side gave way to the verdure of lush valleys and green hillsides. Just when they had used the last remains of their provisions, in the majestic vale that now surrounded them, they finally found a flourishing settlement. Here they rested for a day or two and traded their camel for a pair of mules – a mode of transport more suited to this part of their journey. They longed to stay a bit longer; and yet they had to hurry for in the summer the rivers flood and cannot be forded; and because mules do not race, they had little time left.


"You asked me about the nine companions. So know now, that without trusting Him we could never have come this far. Now, we must strive to make this Trust a part of us. Seven more of its companions will join us before the fellowship of repentance would be complete. Only then will our quest succeed."


It is said that the air in north India has the property of whetting appetites. The company of two was soon went out of provisions and they had to fend for themselves in the wilderness. One day, when all hope of food was lost, and the two pilgrims were desperate with hunger, they plucked three apples off a dying tree.


"Your desire for the world and its pleasures has already brought us to the verge of destruction. If you do not now repent and renounce the world, we will never make it out of this land. Indeed a great test is upon us." Al-Haddad sounded intense.


In that moment of inspiration Taib desisted from eating the apples. A sad realization dawned on him that these three red apples were all that was left to him of worldly wealth and yet Renunciation asked of him to give them up. So with a heavy heart he put them down and fed them to the mules.


Lo and Behold! No sooner has the mules eaten the apple that they started shaking and writhing. And then with a convulsive spasm, they fell on the ground, lifeless. They were poisoned by the apples.


Not a word was spoken between the two pilgrims who stood there, looking wide-eyed, perplexed and yet both knew that they owed the remainder of their lives to Renunciation. The second fellow had joined them. With this realization, they walked on.


But out there in the hills, hungry and on bare feet, the odds were stacked against them. The third day found Taib devoid of all hope. He was quarelling with Al-Haddad continually over little things, but the fact was that he didn't want to move on. He wanted to wallow in his despair and wait till his days ended.


The next day he resolved that he wouldn't move an inch now. His days were ended. That was when Al-Haddad brought to him a large stone and asked him to kick it. Reluctantly, he acquiesced. The stone broke apart and in its core was another stone. So he kicked this one and what he saw in there was a little insect


"Were it a matter of our deeds, their lowliness would indeed leave no room for hope. But how could you be so low as to despair of His Munificence… he who gives bounty to where nothing else can reach."


At the sight of this trapped insect who was still being cared for by Allah, Taib sprung up on his feet. It was like the first rays of light on a cold dawn that bring no warmth but bestow the far more valuable gift of Hope. And together they resumed on their road to Mekkah.


And even before the end of the day, they saw the landscape change drastically. They emerged out of the rugged highlands into vast rolling plains of northern Punjab and population sprung up on every side. As they spent the night enjoying the hospitality of the Hazara villagers, they reflected upon Hope and resolved never to let go of it again. Taib who had been considerably chatty at the beginning of the journey had by now grown almost as reticent and introspective as Al-Haddad, whom he now addressed as Shaykh.


 The Shaykh and his disciple walked down the vast stretch of plains traversing many countries and many lands until gradually the lush stretches of supple grasses gave way to the knotty bushes and then to the thorns and cactuses of Southern Punjab. The Punjab is a land of immense captivating beauty and for many ages it has inspired love in the hearts of men. But now they were moving away from it.


At long last, they began to climb the Sulaiman Range which parts the plains from the land of Baloch tribes. Taib had been away from home so long, he felt a wild urge to leave the quest behind and rush back home. Little was left of the fire of love that had been kindled in him this spring. The dying ambers wouldn't last the cold breeze that blew on the Eastern ridges of the Sulaiman Range in the wake of a waning summer. Then one night as they approached Kotlo Jo Qabar, they camped at a caravanserai. The keeper of the inn greeted them warmly and provided them with necessary bedding and food.


It is true that hardships can tame the beast of one desire, but the beast can never be killed. When the disciple chanced to glance upon the pretty face of the innkeeper's Pakhtun maid, the beast broke free of its rider's reins and galloped and in its deathly run, it ran over much good that patient effort had nurtured. It would have crashed its rider willingly  into the abyss of disobedience had the world around it not convulsed.


Before the morning stars could shine over the clear skies of that rugged land, fiery hoofs were heard approaching followed by warring crying. And even before the denizens could see it, fire, swords, cudgels and death were upon them, as black turbaned men race their ghastly steeds all over the place. Death left as quickly as it came and took but a moment to extinguish the blazing fire of life which had lit this corner of the mountains.    


The disciple who had gone out of the settlement and had verged upon disobedience saw it come and leave. He saw in it the wrath of God and Fear smote his heart. The sight of fire, the sounds of death and the smell of blood reminded him of the unavoidable fate which all creation shares. And in the painful moment of realization, he parted with Disobedience, and took Fear as his companion.


"Two fires have you been spared, tonight. Fear of open disobedience saved you from an earthly fire and then the fear of death saved you from The Inferno. Now, Fear God for His mercy works in mysterious ways."


Taib was too shocked to respond. But slowly many meanings were dawning upon him.


Ahead of them lay the rugged and barren hills and valleys of Balochistan. Now Taib found himself so far from home that the familiar rugged and arid vastness did not invoke nostalgia. It filled him instead with a longing to see God in his Black House. With this rejuvenated desire they kept going. Days turned into weeks and weeks into months but they never saw the end of Balochistan.


Balochistan might have been behind them already, but the desert persisted. Sandstorms and cold spells stalked them intermittently and when they ran out of provisions once again, they found it ever harder to cling to hope.


"I gave everything up and left my olden ways to gain but a glimpse of His Majesty. And yet there He is, not letting us near him. This  path is going in circles, it will go on and on and we'll get there" complained Ta'ib.


"I fear that the desert, in spite of the vastness of its heart, will get sick of you grouchiness. The thankless deserve no favours and yet look at Him, He is Munificient." shrugged the Shaikh.


"Ah….well, the end is near" Ta'ib sighed,


"It is. Before it comes, at least show some gratitude" pleaded the Shaikh.


And the disciple brimmed with contempt at the idealism of his companion.


That night as they slept leaning against their wobbled camels, a cool breeze began to blow. It took them by surprise. But it didn't bring the sharp burning sand that comes with sandstorms in the day. Only the wind and its God know the secret of how it managed to blow tufts of cute little pink flowers onto the faces of the travelers. An instinctive smile lit their grim faces. And though the wind danced away with its joyous companions, it left a trail of fragrance in its wake and a taste of sweetness on their parched lips. In the early hours of that morning, the most pleasurable of all flowers – the flower of gratitude – blossomed in Taib's heart. And there he sought to keep it.   


In that fleeting sight he perceived an imminent tide of Allah's mercy, and the hitherto thankless eye turned inwards and beheld the blessings of God in every spurt of blood that his heart pumped around his body and every breath of air that he was granted. For the first time he realized that fresh air was not odourless, it had a warm and sweet smell which fueled the fire of life. He saw that the wind didn't blow in a dull, monotonous fashion as he had always thought, it danced to the rhythms of time and caressed every creature of God in a most sensuous manner. Gratitude overwhelmed him and days of toil turned magically into prized moments of bliss. It was the alchemy of the sixth companion.


And though Allah's mercy always surrounds us, our perception often fades and corrupts our feeling into thanklessness or numbness, which is even worse. And so it happened to him. By the banks of the Euphrates, a strange low but unbearable fever caught Taib and many days passed in this state but fever wouldn't release him from its tenuous claws. The consulted the Doctor of An-Nasiriyyah but nothing availed him. The disciple had come to regard the Shaykh's advice very highly on all matters of consequence. But here he was much pained by the Shaykh's stubbornness in prescribing nothing except "Prayer and Fortitude.


He had more trust in the bitter pills the doctor had given him because after all the fever was not getting any better. At length, he gave the pills up and took the Shaykh's advice seriously. And as soon as he had stopped anguishing about his disease and the injustice of nature that had caused it and other such things, he found himself cured. They rejoiced. Another companion had joined them and Ta'ib strove to stick to the fellowship.




"What are love and contentment?" asked Ta'ib.


"Beyond desription in the languages of men." Replied the Shaykh.



"Tongues never tire of the mention of Love. It is the most mystical of all things mystical. It is loving God more than anything else, it is loving Him and loving His people for His sake. And above all love is an act more than it is a feeling, a feeling more than it is a thought and least of all, it's just a word.


"In brief, it is sacrifice in God's way, whatever one can give."


Then one day in the middle of the desert as they rode their camels, they were surrounded by black-turbaned riders, who were robbers at first sight. And strangely they seemed familiar. Brandishing their gleaming swords, they tightened the circle.


"Who amongst you is Mohammad, son of Alawi, son of Haddad"


"I am al-Haddad, say what you will?"


"We have come a three thousand miles to deal out death unto you" As he said this four strong armed men seized each of the two pilgrims, who struggled defenseless.


"It is a pity that you missed us in Kot lo Jo Qabar. Ever since, much harm has befallen my brethren in the land of Islam, on your account. You can do what you must, but first answer one question."


"Let this be your last wish that we grant"


"Who sent you after me?"


"There are many dark forces in this land and they don't like traders like you, if a trader you really are." He paused, and then looking at his men he nodded.


The men took the Shaykh and his disciple.


"We will leave your ward. No wanderer ever finds his way unguided on the path to which you have brought him" He smirked as he said this because he knew that more than his own life the Shaykh cared for his disciple's success.


Then the leader of the robbers aimed his arrow at the sheikh and looked for a while.Then, let it go. Like a bolt of lightning the disciple sparked and jumped into the path of the arrow. As though for an eternity, the desert and all that it contained, stood still to watch this moment of infinite sacrifice and the sky was brought to tears.


The next moment they saw the arrow whiz past both of them and escape beyond the limit of sight. And in the background the sky laughed a roaring laughter. Everyone knew what it meant. The sky had never been as happy since when Abraham offered Ishmael for sacrifice in the love of God and when God had refused to accept the Lover's sacrifice, once it had been honestly offered. All these men had heard stories of love, but only now did they see the miracle of love. They were bandits, they were bad men, but they were sons of Islam, and this shock brought out of them the love that had always been there. In silence they departed.


Had words been uttered they could only defile the purity of that moment, when one heart talked to another and to the One who inhabits the hearts of believers. And it was known to the three of them, that Love had become the eighth companion.






Soon after this, the pilgrims came down from the mountains of Arabia into the valley where divine light had first shone. And their eyes beheld the first house that was built on the earth. They prostated before the God whose is the Black House in Mecca.


Many years later Taib couldn't tell whether he had seen God in his Black House or that it had ceased to matter to him whether he saw God or not. He had become content with his God and he hoped always to remain so, and he hoped that his God would be happy with him and he feared the contrary.  Either way, God was everywhere and that he was to be found both within his signs and outside them. Taib son of a Muslim, son of a Muslim and Muslim all the way down was now a Muslim at heart. Repentance and its eight spiritual companions gained accepted in the His Majesty's court.






"Shaikh, there's one thing I never figured out"


"Ask anything that befits, my dear"


"What merchandise did you come to trade in Kashghar?"


Shaykh looked away from Taib and stayed quiet for a while, before replying "I came only to fetch the one who wanted to go from faith to certainty. That's my trade."


Taib couldn't hide his surprise


"So is it to your home that you are now heading?"


"The Road is my home, Taib. If it begins, in life, it doesn't end" And with that the Shaikh waved his hand and left. As he saw the Shaikh's tall lean and wheatish sillouhette flicker against the horizon, a memory from their days in the merry valleys of Kashmir welled up in his mind. Back then they would sing together. Now it was only him.


Then one tall, lean and wheatish set out for Kashghar.