Now there lived in Damascus, at the height of that great city's glory, a famous Imam. This celebrated man, equally at ease in caliph's palace or monk's retreat, had obscure origins; yet so great was his piety that Allah always seemed to favor him, for he rose far in the world.
One day, the reigning caliph decided to hold a triumphant procession for his Imam: "As a mark of our esteem for your piety," he proclaimed. The Imam took the costly and elaborate presentations calmly, for he was a man who thought of himself without vanity. Finally, all was in readiness and, although it was the time of rains, the morning of the procession dawned bright and clear--still another sign of Allah's approval upon which all commented.
Through the winding streets of Damascus moved the colorful procession. First came the wild desert sheiks in striped robes of red and yellow, mounted on small-headed horses. The more sophisticated nobles followed them on foot, their heads bent piously down, the gold in their tunics glittering in the sun. After the nobles came the holy men of the city and with them, in their center, the Imam clothed in robes of snowy white linen.
The citizens of Damascus lined the streets, cheering and throwing sprigs of jasmine and clusters of roses. As the Imam approached, the shouts of praise rose to new heights and the heavens seemed to rain flowers. At such acclaim, the Imam's heart swelled with joy and satisfaction, although his face did not betray him.
Now it happened that just as the procession was approaching the palace gates, outside of which the caliph and his retinue waited to greet him, the Imam heard within him a Voice that seemed to well from his very bowels: "And have you," It asked, "forgotten Me so soon?"
As though struck by a blow on the back of the head, the Imam fell to the ground. But before anyone could touch him, he leapt up and fled through the crowds, burning with a terrible remorse. Far he fled into the desert and swiftly, as though hot coals filled his sandals. Finally, exhausted and unable to go further, he halted at an abandon hut. The Terrible Voice still filled his ears with Its sound. The tears still streamed from his eye's. The Imam vowed that never again would he enter a city of men until he had cleansed all falseness and vanity from his heart.
For five long years the Imam lived in a little hut, meditating, praying, and praising Allah. For ten years more, he roamed the desert and passed through small towns, aiding those he could help, giving comfort to all.
Then one day, by chance, his path led him once more into the city of Damascus and through the very gate by which he had fled fifteen years before. But how the Imam had changed! A diet of herbs and berries had starved the flesh from his frame; prickly vines and desert thorns and stones had scarred him from head to toe. The once radiant Imam was now more decrepit and shattered than the poorest of beggars in the poorest of villages.
When the smaller children caught sight of this ragged apparition, they screamed and fled; the older ones threw sharp-edged stones. The grown-ups, citizens of Damascus who fifteen years before had strewn the Imam's way with flowers, now pelted him with pieces of filth; and instead of praises, filled his ears with their jeers and gibes. The poor Imam's heart swelled with sadness and despondency and he hung his head low.
Just as he dragged himself past the palace gates, where the guards stood with raised sabers to drive him off, the Imam again heard that terrible Voice, welling from deep within him; "And have you," It asked, "forgotten Me so soon?"
~Elizabeth Retivov Stories from an Eastern Coffeehouse (N.Y. Hedgehog Press 1963)