On the evening before his execution in Baghdad for heresy in 922, Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj faced Mecca and, in a state of ecstasy, conversed with God. The following day he was dancing in his chains and laughing as he was taken to the place of execution and that laughter grew to a crescendo when he saw the gibbet. A large crowd had gathered to witness the Sufi’s death and he told them that he would return in thirty days. Abu Bakr al-Shibli (861–946), a poet and friend, produced a prayer mat, and Hallaj performed his last prayer. Then, as he stood up, the executioner dealt him a blow that smashed his forehead. Shibli fainted. But Hallaj remained conscious while he was given one thousand lashes and then had his hands and feet cut off. His tongue was cut out. Then he was strapped to the gibbet and tar was applied to the stumps to stop him bleeding to death. On the gibbet he declared that ‘My death will be the religion of the Cross’. As the day was ending, his head should have been cut off, but the officiating officer said it was late and this could wait until tomorrow. Hallaj was still conscious the following morning when he was lowered from the gibbet and placed on the executioner’s leather mat. Disciples and friends continued to record Hallaj’s last words. Shibli, who loved the martyred saint, threw him a rose. After Hallaj’s beheading, his body, which was still seen to writhe, was wrapped in a naphtha-soaked mat and burnt, while the head was sent to a cupboard in the Caliph’s palace which was used for storing severed heads. So ended the career of ‘a highwayman on the route of desire’ who had dared to declare his unity with God by declaring ‘Ana al-Haqq’ (I am the Truth).

In the words of Louis Massignon, it was a ‘death for love’. ‘The huge gory setting of the gibbet execution: the explosion into ruins of the hoisted, tortured criminal, and his collapse, in the open air, the butt of everyone’s sarcasms, mutilated, decapitated, burnt. His last words show his broken, yet so vital spirit filled with desire, aspiring after an even more piercing renunciation of himself, penetrating to the very solitude of God, even beyond death’. And: ‘in the depths of the imperial harem, with daylight settling on the colonnades of date palms, their trunks inlaid with teakwood and copper, and over the solid pewter within its closed garden, the silence of the Queen Mother Shaghab … to her would fall the preservation of certain relics (of Hallaj’s head in the palace) …. ’

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