Death of Hallaj: Murder or Suicide? Questioning the Necessity of Physical Annihilation Following a Mystical Annihilation.

Tis the flame of love that fired me,

Tis the wine of love inspired me.

Wouldst thou learn how lovers bleed,

Hearken, hearken to the Reed.

(Jalal-ud-Din Rumi)

Destroy the Ka’ba of your body that it may resuscitate, created anew

(Hallaj in Massignon, p. 172)

Abu’l-Mughith al-Husayn bin Mansur bin Mahamma al-Baydawi, better known as Mansur al-Hallaj is one of the most controversial figures in the history of Sufism and Islam.  His teachings, life, and death form an extremely important turning point in the history of tasawwuf (the Sufi way).  Here I review the events surrounding the death of Hallaj and problematize the popular assertion that Hallaj’s physical death was a necessary corollary to his mystical annihilation.  It is a common practice to view historical and literary tragedies as something inevitable, and even desirable.  The tragic end of Hallaj, like that of Socrates, is popularly understood to be something that the protagonist desired and actively planned.  I question this interpretation of the tragedy of Hallaj and suggests that perhaps there was nothing inevitable let alone desirable about Hallaj’s physical annihilation.

I start with the premise that sainthood and mystical maqam are important elements of human civilization, which have served to enrich human spiritual experience.  Sainthood and its scholarly investigation are therefore inherently important.  In the words of Louis Massignon[i]:

One can schematize the life of a social group by constructing the individual life curves of each of its distinct members according to their relations in the external environment, but it is useless to make it out to be the aggregation of these without having noted in it certain unusual individual curves, blessed with unique points corresponding to the “interior experiences” of certainties (and even of anguish) by which they have “found” some “psychic resolvent” in their adventures in this environment.  Having first become intelligible “dramatic situations” for those, they become unraveled for others afterwards.

(p. xxiii)

The mysticism of Hallaj may be a very personal experience for him, and his life, trial and execution may also be part of a personal, even heroic, project with a divine objective, but in light of the above conception of history, and significance of great lives, those personal experiences of Hallaj take on a transsocial and transhistorical significance[ii].  Saints like Hallaj symbolize in the corrupt and perishable world, the incorruptible and fearless presence of a sacred truth, and in Massignon’s formulation their sufferings serve as a symbolic substitute for the sufferings of the mass of humanity, almost like Jesus[iii].  But that begs the question; is the suffering of the saint, inevitable, necessary or even desirable?  Massignon seems to think that ‘it is only through the mortal suffering of the desired trial that he (Hallaj) can reach Union with the One’[iv]. Addressing the question on a theosophical plain is beyond my competence, but I would like to address the question by teasing out Hallaj’s own views on the matter by not just limiting myself to what he generally said, but also what he did when faced with the trial and ultimate execution.

There is little doubt that Hallaj had indeed attained the ultimate mystical maqam of fana, much before his arrest, and execution.  In fact, Hallaj stands as a towering example of a mystic who had annihilated his self in the will of the One and had therefore attained hulul (infusion) into the divine.  The most commonly attributed saying to him of ana’l-Haqq (I am the Truth=My ‘I’ is God) is the most celebrated and most vilified manifestation of his complete and utter annihilation.  Hallaj probably meant the phrase to signify his intentional complete union in love with the divine One, who then in spirit takes over his personality and will and therefore, enables him to say ‘I’, the divine ‘I’, because there is no spiritual difference between Him and I[v].  This total self renunciation was in essence the height of humility where the subject had denied his self and subsumed it within the bigger Self of God.  There was considerable denunciation of Hallaj for articulating and even advertising his fana and hulul, both on mystical and legal grounds.  Hallaj had no qualms about announcing his mystical state to the rest of the world.  Some of his public pronouncements like the following are evidence of his mystical exhibitionism.

O people! save me from God! For he has robbed me from myself, and He does not return me to myself! I cannot witness to Him the respect due to His presence, for I am afraid of His forsaking (me). He will leave me deserted, forsaken, outlawed! and woe to the one who feels deserted after the Presence and abandoned after the Union!

(p. 142)

Hallaj wept after this declaration and the crowd wept with him[vi].  On another occasion he declared[vii]:

O people! When the truth has taken hold of a heart, He empties it of all but Himself! When God attaches Himself to a man, He kills in him all else but Himself! When He loves one of His faithful, He incites the others to hate him, in order that His servant may draw near Him so as to assent to Him!

But what happens to me? I no longer feel the least breeze of His Presence, nor the last reach of His glance! Alas! And here are so many people who begin to hate me, now!

(p. 143)

Hallaj sounds almost intoxicated in the mystical love of the divine One and the contemplation of His glory.  The forcefulness of his speech betrays his almost compulsive drive to vocalize his experience of the Glory.  Yes there are plenty of mystical objections to him, but not so much on the content of his mysticism but on his willingness to vocalize his experience.  The Sufi objections can be summarized as follows[viii]:

  • He comprehended wahdat al-shahud i.e. that the beauty of the world testifies that God appears in everything.  Hallaj having gained this comprehension should not have declared it openly.
  • He comprehended wahdat al-wujud i.e. nothing exists but God.  He got a glimpse of this powerful concept and damned himself by declaring it before it was time.
  • He understood sirr al-muta, i.e., God delegates the setting in motion of the universe to a leader from the hierarchy of saints, and he being one of the saints, should have remained hidden.
  • He understood sirr al-rububiya i.e. the secret of supreme power.  God, is the author of each personal act in every intelligent being: and when the being divulges this secret he steals from God and therefore deserves punishment.

All of the above objections recognize the exalted mystical station of Hallaj, but take issue with his breaking the Sufi discipline of silence (spiritual elitism?), through public pronouncements of his experiences.  It was precisely this public declaration of his mystical doctrines (for lack of a better word) that also made him so politically dangerous to the corrupt Abbaside vizirs like Hamid and Ali ibn al-Furat.  The depredations of the Abbaside bureaucracy in the form of surplus accumulation (taxation) and the apparent waste of public money on the extravagant life styles of the rich and famous had deeply embittered the general public, especially in Baghdad.  The orthodox religion symbolized by the theologians, jurisconsults, ulema (religious scholars), and Qadis (religious jurist) was a subject of spiteful satire by the general public in those times (much the same as now), as is evident from some of the following popular street sayings of those times–“the Qur’an reciter is greedy, sodomite, vainglorious, and hypocritical”[ix] or “Mecca suits only the one who brings faith to it or his purse”[x].  Within this very cynical and almost rebellious social melieu Hallaj’s impassioned declarations perhaps sounded like the only sincere voice in the midst of of hypocritical crowing by the officially sanctioned ulema and Sufis.  No wonder Massignon speculates that Hallaj came to “this crafts proletarian milieu (of Baghdad), as much out of compassion for humble people as out of a desire to rally quasi Shi’ites to his own spiritual and mystical form of mahdism.”[xi]

Hallaj understood that the manasik al-Hajj in Mecca usher one into a deifying mystery of love, “because they call forth ‘the descent of divine forgiveness’ to Arafat”[xii].  He knew that the ritual was only symbolic on Arafat and could only be consummated by him in Baghdad by going into the street and compassionately provoking the people and exposing himself to death[xiii].  Hallaj stated that Satan is right in counseling human nature to destroy the Temple in order to worship the One who is all alone and all present[xiv].  The religious implications of such declarations are quite clear, but the logical inferences for society and the rotten edifice of the corrupt and hypocritical Abbaside empire of the tenth century were potentially catastrophic, and these implications were not lost upon Hamid and ibn al-Furat.

There are many instances of Hallaj’s challenging people to kill him in the suq (bazaar) of Baghdad e.g. according to Husayn ibn Hamdan he was heard saying, with a sense of foreboding[xv]

It is in the confession of the Cross that I will die;

I no longer care to go to Mecca no Medina

(p. 144)

Hamdan reports the following dialogue between himself and Hallaj when Hallaj was asked as to what he means[xvi]

He (Hallaj) said: “That someone will kill this cursed one!” and he pointed his finger at himself.  I (Hamdan) asked, “Is it permitted to incite people to kill?” He said, “No, but I incite them to be sincere in their faith, for, in my case, the putting to death of this person is their duty, and if they wish to do it to me, they will be recompensed”

(p. 144)

The above quote shows that not only was Hallaj on the one hand sharing his mystical experience with the lay public for reasons discussed above, but on the other hand, he was very deliberately challenging the dominant legal orthodoxy connected with Islam in the popular conception.  This reference to the law rings very similar to the Socratic reference to the sanctity of the laws of the city in Plato’s short dialogue Crito. Both of them also had, metaphorically speaking, similar charges against them–‘not believing the gods of the city, and corrupting the youth of the city’.  But whereas Socrates had the higher calling of Justice to violate the laws of the city, Hallaj had the higher calling of divine love to flaunt the laws of religious orthodoxy.  However as we shall see, unlike the romanticized and stoic Socrates, Hallaj often acted in a very human way through his apprehension, trial and final execution.

When the initial arrest warrants of Hallaj were put out in 298/910 AD, knowing what was afoot, Hallaj promptly made good his escape from Baghdad to Sus in Ahwaz (Modern day Iran).  He was captured three years later, almost by accident, and upon apprehension refused to acknowledge his identity–A very human act of a person who, all said, probably loved life as well as God.  He probably knew that he had powerful enemies who would extract a terrible revenge[xvii].  He endured his initial trial with fortitude and dignity, and was then thrown in prison for another nine years, before his enemies could build enough political and legal inertia to finally get rid of him. In prison he continued his preaching as before and wrote prolifically.  Like a true believer and a revolutionary his voice was not tempered down and he never compromised on any of the principles he had espoused earlier.

There were the following broader and specific charges against Hallaj in his second and final trial in 921-922.

  1. ifsha’ al-karamat, i.e. Magic and sorcery with which he supposedly fooled people.
  2. da’wat al-rububiya, i.e. pretensions to being God or God’s deputy.
  3. zandaqa i.e. the thesis of hulul, which was considered blasphemous by the Zahiri ibn Dawud.  The orthodox considered it blasphemous for him to declare that it is better to “proceed seven time round the Ka’ba of your heart[xviii][xix]” than to actually go to the physical Ka’ba in Hijaz.

The first two charges served to build the inertia of legal opinion again Hallaj.  It was the last one about the destruction of the Ka’ba that finally lead Qadi Abu Umar the presiding judge for the trial to declare shedding of his blood legal.  The earlier charges had been held in abeyance because of the Shafi’ite Ibn Surayj’s fatwa, which denied the canonists any competence in judging the matters of the heart and mysticism[xx].  However the final evidence, the letter he had written to Shakir b. Ahmed urging him to destroy the (Ka’ba of his body) to rebuild it in wisdom, was interpreted to mean that he was urging the physical destruction of Islam’s holiest shrines, and was therefore a zandaqi whose blood could be spilled with impunity.

The final outrage against justice and good sense, whereby Hallaj’s statements were taken completely out of context and misrepresented to condemn him drew a spirited response from him.  By some accounts he vehemently protested and declared[xxi]:

my back is forbidden (to your whip), my blood inviolable (haram); you are not allowed to use this interpretation to render shedding it lawful; my religion is Islam, my rule of conduct is tradition (sunna), founded on the acknowledged superiority of Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, Ali, Talha, Zubayr, Sa’d, Sa’id, AR ibn Awf, and Abu Ubayda ibn al-Jarrah.

(Massingon p. 268)

Massignon has reason to interpret the statement as coming from a person who was, in a very human way, terror stricken in the face of his impending fate.  He had not accepted the full horror of the sacrifice for which he had yearned (perhaps rhetorically) so much[xxii].  Being a perfect Sufi and somebody who had achieved fana perhaps he should have been above these fears, but he was not, because in the end he could not turn away from his essential humanity.  God perhaps lived in his spirit, but Hallaj still had a human body.  Even if Hallaj’s obvious attempts at evading arrest and then execution can be interpreted to have some deeper spiritual meaning, that meaning can only be that in his understanding, perhaps his execution, was not a necessary corollary to his spiritual annihilation.  Also it seems somewhat strange to justify the injustice done to him by thinking of it as a logical or theosophical necessity.  Hallaj too was quite aware of the injustice being done to him[xxiii]:

I weep to You for the Souls whose witness (Hallaj) now goes–beyond the ‘where’ to meet the very Witness of Eternity.

I cry to You for the Word of God, which since it perished,–has faded into nothing in our memory;

All have crossed (the desert), leaving neither well nor trace behind;–vanished like the Adites and their lost city of Iram;

And After them the abandoned crowd is muddled on their trails,–blinder than beasts, blinder even than she-camels.

(p. 283-284)

I cannot articulate better than the above verses the sense of frustration and futility for Hallaj, who believed that so much still remained to be done to propagate the Word of God, which may be lost by his execution.  His alliteration of the passing of the witness (himself), the Word of God, and those passing through the desert and leaving nothing behind, is a very sad lament indeed, on his own impending passing away. He protests that he meant to rid people of their blindness, he meant to leave something behind, but the injustice done to him is probably going to have him leave the world with an unfinished task and no signs behind.  Hallaj was right in that he did leave an unfinished task, a victim of forces beyond his human control, but he left plenty behind.  Just compare the number of people who remember him and those who remember Hamid, al-Fustar, Abu Umar or even Muqtadir.  He was happy in a selfish way to finally get his physical being out of the way to finally meet the One, but in a characteristic of proximity to divinity, he was also consumed by compassion for humanity who he was now going to leave behind.


[i] Massignon, Louis, 1994. Hallaj: Mystic and Martyr, translated by Herbert Mason, abridged edition, Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ, USA, p. xxiii.

[ii] Ibid. p. xxiv

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Encyclopedia of Islam, new edition.

[vi] Massignon, 1994: p. 142.

[vii] Ibid. p. 143

[viii] Ibid. pp. 60-70.

[ix] Ibid. p. 130.

[x] Ibid. p. 132.

[xi] Ibid. p. 142.

[xii] Ibid. p. 162.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid. p. 172.

[xv] Ibid. p. 144.

[xvi] Ibid

[xvii] Ibid. p. 214.

[xviii] Ibid. p. 262.

[xix] Encyclopedia of Islam, new edition.

[xx] Massignon 1994, p. 266.

[xxi] Ibid. p. 268.

[xxii] Ibid. p. 274.

[xxiii] Ibid. pp. 283-284

1 thought on “Death of Hallaj: Murder or Suicide? Questioning the Necessity of Physical Annihilation Following a Mystical Annihilation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s