Hadith of Unwan al-Basri
The Hadith of Unwan al-Basri is an advice from Imam Jafar al-Sadiq to the seeker of the path towards Allah (swt). It is a very noteworthy narration with words of advice by the Imam to seekers of the path to Allah Almighty. Critical issues related to seeking knowledge, servant-hood and obedience to Allah, and struggling against the lower self are mentioned.
Many inspirational scholars were highly mindful of this hadith; Ayatullah Sayyid Ali Qazi Tabatabaee refused to teach Islamic practical ethics to any new student unless he expressed his commitment to this tradition. He would recommend this tradition to his students, who sought the mystical journey and also asked them to write it and keep it in their pockets and read it twice a week.
Unwan al-Basri, an elderly man of 94 years, narrated: “For a number of years, I frequently visited Malik ibn Anas, and so when Ja’far al-Sadiq (as) came to Madina, I also visited him frequently as I wished to learn from him in the same way I learned from Malik. One day Ja’far Al- Sadiq (as) said to me: ‘People demand much from me, however I also have many important rituals to perform. Therefore please do not distract me from my rituals, rather go to Malik and continue to visit and learn from him.’
‘I was disappointed by this. I left Jaf’ar Al-Sadiq and said to myself: ‘If he had seen any good in me he would not have prevented me from visiting and learning from him.’ So I entered the Mosque of the Messenger (pbuh) and sent my greetings to him. I returned to the shrine and prayed two rak’at there, asking: ‘O Allah, O Allah, make the heart of Ja’far (as) kind towards me and bless me with his knowledge through which I will be guided to Your Straight Path’. I returned straight to my house not visiting Malik ibn Anas, despondent from what my heart had tasted from the love of Ja’far. I did not leave my house except for the obligatory prayers, until I could stand it no longer. It was after the Afternoon Prayer that I put on my clothes, sandals and set out to see Imam Ja’far. When I reached the door of his house I asked for permission to enter. His servant came out and asked: ‘What is your need?’ I answered: ‘Greeting the honourable one’. He said: ‘He is standing in his place of prayer’. So I sat near his door. It was not long before the servant came to me saying: ‘Enter with the blessing of Allah’. I entered, relayed my greetings to Ja’far Al-Sadiq (as) which he returned. He (as) then said: ‘Please be seated. May Allah forgive you.’ I sat and he was silent for a long time. Then he (as) raised his head and said: ‘What are you known as?’ ‘Abu Abdullah’ (the father of the slave of God) I replied. He (as) said: ‘May Allah affirm your name and give you success. O Abu Abdullah, what is your need?’ I said : ‘I asked Allah to make your heart kind towards me and to bless me with knowledge from you. I hope that Allah, the Exalted, has answered my request with regards to the honourable one (as).’
The Imam (as) said: ‘O Abu Abdullah! Knowledge is not obtained by learning. Rather, it is a light which enters the heart of whoever Allah, the Blessed and Exalted, wishes to guide. So if you want knowledge, first find in yourself the reality of slavery. Seek knowledge by utilising it and ask Allah to make you understand, then He will make you understand.’ I said: ‘O honourable one, what is the reality of slavery?’ He (as) said: ‘Reality of slavery has three strands: Firstly, a slave does not see ownership for himself of the things that Allah has entrusted to him, because slaves do not possess ownership. Slaves see wealth as that of Allah and place it wherever He has commanded them to. Secondly a slave does not plan his own affairs, being entirely occupied with what Allah, the Exalted has planned. Thirdly, he is entirely occupied with what Allah, the Exalted, has commanded him to do and prohibited him from doing. So if a slave does not see any ownership for himself of that which Allah has entrusted to him, it would be easy for him to spend only in the way that Allah, the Exalted, has commanded him to spend, and if a slave leaves the management of his self to his Manager then the afflictions of this world become easy on him, and if a slave occupies himself with what Allah, the Exalted, commanded him to do and prohibited him from doing he will not have the free time to engage in futile debate and boasting with people. So if Allah honours the slave with these three, the world, Iblis and all creation would become low in the eyes of the slave and he would not yearn after this world, its wealth or personal pride. He would not seek what people have, for glory or superiority (amongst them) and would not leave his days to pass away in vain. This is the first stage of piety. Allah, the Blessed and Exalted, said: ‘(As for) that future abode, We assign it to those who have no desire to exalt themselves in the earth nor to make mischief and the good end is for those who guard (against evil)’.
I said: ‘O Abu Abdullah, advise me further on this matter. He (a.s) said: ‘There are nine things to advise for those seeking the path to Allah, the Exalted and I ask Allah to guide you in putting this advice into practice. Three of them are with regards to self- asceticism, three of them are with regards to forbearance and three of them are with regards to knowledge. Maintain them and guard against taking them lightly.’’ Unwan said: ‘so I gave him my full attention. and he (a.s) continued:
Regarding the self asceticism, be wary of eating that which you do not crave for because this leads to stupidity and imbecility. Do not eat unless you are hungry and if you eat, eat that which is halal, mentioning the name of Allah, and remember the narration of the Messenger (pbuh) where he says: ‘No human has filled a cavity worse than his stomach. Let him leave a third for his food, a third for his drink, and a third for the air he breathes.’
With regards to forbearance; if someone says to you ‘if you say one thing (of insult to me), you will hear ten things’ you should say to him: ‘if you say ten (insulting) things, you will not hear even one from me’. If someone swears at you, say to him: ‘if you are truthful in what you say then ask Allah to forgive me, and if you are lying in what you say, then ask Allah to forgive you’. Finally, if someone promises you obscene language then promise him advice and care.
With regards to knowledge, ask the scholars that which you do not know, and avoid asking them if it will cause embarrassment or trial. Be wary of acting on your own opinion and take precaution in all matters that you can find a way (for precaution). Avoid giving religious edicts just as you would avoid a lion, and do not make your neck a bridge for people. (Don’t carry the burden of people’s sins)
Now that I have advised you, you may leave O Abdullah! And don’t interrupt my rituals, for I am a man covetous regarding my spiritual self. May peace be upon the one who follows True Guidance’.’’ 
- Full Narration
- Narration in Arabic
- Analysis of the Hadith of Unwan al-Basri, by Shaikh Husayn El-Mekki