For over 30 years I’ve been both fascinated and baffled by the traditional teaching stories of the sufis, Islam’s teachers of the wisdom path. Best known and widely read in collections by the late Idries Shah, these stories have often, Shah tells us, been in circulation for centuries. He usually shares what’s known about their origin or authorship as he passes on the stories in books like Caravan of Dreams and The Way of the Sufi.
Tales of the Dervishes, published in 1967 by Shah’s Octagon Press of London, is subtitled “Teaching-stories of the Sufi Masters over the past thousand years.” “In Sufi circles, it is customary for students to soak themselves in stories set for their study,” Shah writes in a brief preface, “so that the internal dimensions may be unlocked by the teaching master” when the student is ready. “At the same time, many Sufi tales have passed into folklore, or ethical teachings, or crept into biographies.”
Well, I’ve been soaking myself in these stories, off and on, ever since I stumbled on Shah’s collection Thinkers of the East in a bookstore in New Delhi in 1975 — and I don’t think many of their inner dimensions have ever unlocked themselves. I’m usually baffled, or else I think the story is nice but not too memorable. Some, though — probably the most obvious ones — have stuck with me, and I thought it would be a good way to conclude my Summer of Story project by sharing the one I remember best and value most. So here’s a shortened and paraphrased version of the story “Fatima the Spinner and the Tent,” from Tales of the Dervishes:
Fatima's father was a spinner, and he taught her the craft. One day he took her on a journey across the Mediterranean Sea, to islands where he traded. But a storm wrecked the boat, drowned her father, and cast Fatima ashore near Alexandria. A family of cloth-makers found her, dazed and drained, on the beach; they took her in, and in time she became a skillful weaver. Then, walking the beach again one day, Fatima was kidnapped by slave-traders and carried off.
“Her world had collapsed for the second time,” Shah writes. Then, on a slow day at the slave market, the disconsolate Fatima was spotted by a kind-hearted maker of ship’s masts, who took her home to be a serving maid. But he arrived to find he was ruined — pirates had captured a cargo in which he had invested all he had. “So he, Fatima and his wife were left alone to work at the heavy labor of making masts.”
Grateful for her rescue, Fatima worked very hard and learned this craft, too. But when the tradesman sent her to Java to sell a ship’s cargo full of masts, she was shipwrecked again, this time off China. Once again cast up on an alien shore, she wept in desolation. “Why should so many unfortunate things happen to me?”
In China, there had long been a legend that a female stranger would someday arrive and be able to make a tent for the emperor. No one in China knew how to make tents — and so each year, one emperor after another had sent emissaries to every town and village, searching for foreign women to bring to the court. “When Fatima stumbled into a town by the Chinese seashore, it was one such occasion.”
She was brought before the emperor, who asked if she could make a tent. “I think so,” Fatima said. The Chinese had no ropes, so she asked for flax, and spun some into ropes. The Chinese didn’t have the strong, thick cloth she needed, so she wove some. The Chinese had no tent poles, so she hewed several from harvested trees. Then she carefully recalled all the tents she had seen on her adventures, and she made a tent.
The emperor, most impressed, offered Fatima whatever she chose. “She chose to settle in China, where she married a handscome prince, and where she remained in happiness, surrounded by her children, until the end of her days.”
So few stories end that way, these days. Shah attributes this version of the Fatima story, “well-known in Greek folklore,” to Sheikh Mohamed Jamaludin of Adrianople, who founded the Jamalia Order of Sufis, and died in 1750.