He is Thawban Ibn Ibrahim Abu al-Fayd and was known as Dhul-Nun al-Misri. He was born in Ikhmim in the governorate of Suhag, Upper Egypt which he left for Fustat (Cairo) seeking knowledge until he became the greatest scholar and ascetic of his time. He is among those who memorized the Muwatta’ of Imam Malik.
Commenting on Dhul-Nun in his Tarikh, Ibn Yusuf said, “He was the first to speak of the sciences of munazalat (spiritual encounters). Some of his contemporaries accused him of innovating a science of which the Companions did not speak. They denounced him as a heretic to the Abbasid caliph, al-Mutawakkil, who commanded that he be brought before him from Egypt. When Dhul-Nun appeared before him and admonished him, al-Mutawakkil wept and ordered that he be taken back to Egypt with honor.
When Dhul-Nun was asked how he became a mystic, he replied, “I was on my way heading to a village outside Cairo and on the way I slept in a desert. When I opened my eyes, I saw a blind lark that had fell from its nest onto the ground. Whereupon the earth split open and two vessels, one gold and the other silver, emerged from it. One contained sesame seeds and the other water. The bird started to eat from one and drink from the other. Then I cried, “That is sufficient for me!” I turned to Allah and from then on I stood at His door until I was admitted.”
When discussing the life of Dhul-Nun who belonged to a first generation of Muslim mystics in Egypt, it is important to discuss the rise of Islamic mysticism:
Historians have debated on the rise of Islamic mysticism and the origin of the word ‘tasawwuf’ (Sufism). Some have maintained that it is derived from the Greek word ‘sufiya, meaning ‘wisdom’. Others have suggested that it is derived from the word ‘sufa’, the name of a person who dedicated himself to making remembrance of Allah and worshipping Him at the Ka’ba. Still another historian assumed that it is derived from the word ‘sufan’ i.e. the distinguishing trait of a Sufi regarding abstinence and renunciation of the finery and ornament of this world. Another possible derivation held by others comes from the word ‘safa`’ which means purity. Others have maintained that the origin of the word may be traced back to Ahl al-Suffa who were a group of poor Muslims who lined up in mosque-vestibule [for food] at the end of every prayer.
Ibn Wazin al-Qushairi summed up all the above possible derivations and said, “After the Prophet’sﷺ lifetime, the best of Muslims were endowed with the title ‘al-Sahabah’ (Companions’ [of the Prophet]). There was no other honor above this. The people of the second generation [of Muslims] called those who were contemporaries of the Companions [but who were not themselves contemporaries of the Prophetﷺ] Tabi’in (Successors). The succeeding generation was called ‘Atba’ al-Tabi’in’ (followers of the Successors). The first three generations of Muslims were considered the best. Later, the [religious elite] were called ‘al-zuhhad’ [ascetics] and al-‘ubbad [devotees]. The term came to designate the elite among ahul ul-sunna (orthodox Muslims) who cultivated their relationship with Allah and who kept their hearts ever vigilant of Allah after innovations found their way into Islam. The term ‘tasawwuf’ came into usage before 200 AH.
In his Khitat, al-Maqrizi says that Zayd Ibn Sujan Ibn Sabra was the first to establish a lodge for ascetics and devotees who were known as Sufis. He intended it for men from the inhabitants of al-Basra who devoted themselves to worship and had no means of living. So he built lodges for them and gave them food and drink, clothing, and the like. This was during the caliphate of ‘Uthman Ibn Affan (may Allah be pleased with him).
The first Sufi lodge to be established in Egypt was known as al-Khanka. al-Maqrizi says, “In 569 AH, Salah al-Deen al-Ayubi ordered that the house of Sa’eed al-Su’ada’ in al-Gamaliyya district to be converted into a place for the poor, mystics and the itinerant travelers. He turned an orchard outside Cairo into a waqf (charitable endowment) the proceeds of which were directed towards the interests of the Sufis and he employed a sheikh to oversee their affairs.
It was reported that when Salah al-Deen was getting ready for war against the Crusaders, he applied austerity measures on all state institutions and himself included. Some of his ministers advised him to reduce the expenditures on the significant number of mystics living in al-Umayyad Mosque and the annexes of the structure. Considering the matter, Salah al-Deen remained silent for some time and then in a strong voice, answered, “Do not infringe upon their benefits. The arrows of our soldiers may either hit or miss [the target] but the arrows of these people never misses.”
It has been successively reported in the biographies of Dhul-Nun that he met Rab’a al-Adawiyya. They both shared the concept of Divine Love.
Dhul-Nun (may Allah have mercy on him) died in Giza in 245 AH. The people saw green birds flying above the bier bearing his corpse until he was buried in his grave and then disappeared. Consequently, his grave is venerated.
Dhul-Nun was the first to discuss the notion of damir (consciousness); none of the latter Sufi scholars mentioned it by name. Dhul-Nun said, “If the Cognizant looks upon [one’s damir], He will only find the Cognizant.”