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Medieval Sourcebook:
Ruminations and Reminiscences, c. 980 CE

Acts of Piety

I was told by the Qadi Abu Bakr Mohammed bin `Abd al-Rahman that he had been informed by a steward of Abu'l-Mundhir Nu'man bin `Abdallah how it was the latter's custom at the close of the winter season to collect all the poplin, wool, blankets, stoves and other appliances for winter which he had been using and sell them by auction; he would then send to the Qadi's prison and find out what prisoners were there in consequence of their own confessions (not of evidence brought against them, and were without means. He would pay their debts out of the price obtained for these goods, or else would make a settlement permitting of their release, if the debt was heavy. He would then turn his attention to small dealers such as confectioners and pedlars, people whose business capital was from one to three dinars, and give them some sum such as ten dinars or a hundred dirhems as additional capital. He would also turn his attention to those who were selling in the market such things as kettles, pots, torn shirts, etc. which would probably only be sold owing to extreme need, and to old women who were selling their spinning, give them many times the value of the articles, and allow them to retain them. Many more things of this sort would he do, and order me to carry out, expending the price of his goods on these objects. When winter came he would similarly collect his dabiqi, gold and silver network, matting, water-coolers, and other appliances for summer, and deal with them in the same way. When next summer or winter came, he would get in fresh supplies of everything he wanted.

When I grew tired of this procedure on his part, I said to him: "Sir, you are crippling yourself without achieving any profitable result; for you are buying these garments, instruments and furniture at abnormally high prices at the times when there is a demand for them, whereas you sell them at the season when there is no demand for them, and get in consequence no more than half price. Thereby you lose a vast sum. If you will permit, I will put all you want sold up to auction, and when they are about to be knocked down, will buy them in for you at a higher price, reserve them for you for the summer or winter, and devote out of your estate an amount equal to that for which they were knocked down to these objects." He said: "I do not want this done. These are goods which God has permitted me to enjoy throughout my summer or winter, and He has brought me to the time wherein I can dispense with them. I have no assurance that I shall live to the time when I shall need them again. Possibly I may have offended God either for them or with them. I prefer to sell the articles themselves, and devote the actual price to these objects, by way of thanking God for having brought me to the time wherein I no longer need them, and as compensation for any offence which I may have committed in connection with them. Then if God spare me for the time when I shall require them, they will not be very costly and I shall have no difficulty in purchasing the like, renewing my stock and enjoying the new articles. There is a further advantage about my selling them cheap and buying them dear, which is that the poorer dealers from whom I buy and to whom I sell will get the profit from me, whereas this will not affect my fortune."

The Qadi added that this agent told him how when any rare dainty or sweet was served up before Nu`mân, he did not like to eat much of it, but would order it to be given away as it was to mendicants. Every day too he used to order what was taken away from his table with such of his slaves' rations as remained over in his kitchen to be given away, whence a great number of mendicants assembled at his gate every day. One day, he said, a Hashimite friend was eating at Nu'man's table, and some dainty dish was served up. Before they had finished Nu'man ordered it to be given to the mendicants. A fatted kid was then served, and before they had enjoyed it, he ordered it to be removed and given to the mendicants. There was served up a dish of almond made up with pistachio-nuts, of which Nu'man was fond, and for a glass of which according to the size he paid fifty dirhems, five dinars, more or less. They had only eaten a little of it when he said: "Hand it over to the mendicants." The Hashimite held the glass fast, and said: "My friend, imagine us to be the mendicants, and let us enjoy our food; why do you hand on to mendicants everything for which you have a taste? What has a mendicant to do with this? They can do very well on beef and date-cake; so please, do not let it be removed." Nu'man replied: "My friend, what you see is a custom of mine. A bad custom it is," he said; "we shall not endure it. If the mendicants must have it, then order a similar dish to be prepared for them; let us enjoy this, and pay them its value in money." Nu'man replied: "I will counter-order and have a similar dish prepared for them; but as for money---a mendicant would not have the heart or spirit to prepare a dish of this sort, even if many times its value were paid him; when he gets the coins, he spends them on other things, on supplying more immediate needs, nor would he have the skill either to prepare such a dish. Now I like to share my pleasures." Addressing his slave, he bade him have a dish similar to theirs prepared at once and distributed to the mendicants. It was done; and after this occasion, when he was entertaining any one whom he respected, he ordered dishes similar to those which were to be served to be prepared and bestowed in charity, and only ordered them to be removed from his table when the guests had had sufficient.

I was told by the Qadi Abu'l-Hasan Mohammed bin Qadi 'Abd al-Wahid Hashimi that a large sum was owed to a leading tradesman by one of the generals, who deferred paying; and, said the tradesman, "I made up my mind to appeal to Mu'tadid [Caliph, r. 892-902], because whenever I went to the general, he had the door shut against me and let his slaves revile me, whereas if I tried mild methods and used mediation, it was useless.... Then one of my friends said to me: `I will recover your money, and you need not appeal to the Caliph. Come with me at once.' `So,' said he, `I arose and he brought me to a tailor in Tuesday Street, an old man who was seated, sewing and reading the Quran. Telling him my story, he asked him to call on the general, and see me righted. The general's residence was near the tailor's, and the latter started with us. As we were walking, I lagged behind and said to my friend: "You are exposing this aged man, yourself, and me to serious annoyance. When he comes to the door of my debtor, he will be cuffed, and you and I with him. For the general paid no attention to the remonstrances of So-and-so, and So-and-so, nor even troubled about the vizier. Is he likely to trouble about our friend here?" My friend laughed and said: "Never mind, walk on and keep quiet."

A`We arrived at the general's door, and when his slaves saw the tailor, they treated him with reverence, and rushed to kiss his hand, which he would not permit. Then they said: "What has brought you, sir? The master is riding, and if it be something which we can do, we shall do it at once; but if not, then come in and sit down `till he comes." This encouraged me, and we went inside and sat down. Presently the man came, and when he saw the tailor, he was most respectful, and said: "Before I change my clothes you must give me your orders." The tailor then spoke to him about my affair. He assured the tailor that he had not in his house more than five thousand dirhems, but begged him to take those and his silver and gold harness as pledges for the rest which he would pay within a month. I readily assented, and he produced the dirhems and the harness to the value of the remainder; of this I took possession, and made the tailor and my friend attest the arrangement whereby the pledge for the remainder of the money was to remain in my possession for a month, and if this term were exceeded I was at liberty to sell it and recoup myself from the proceeds. After obtaining their attestations I left with them; and when we reached the tailor's place I flung down the money before him, saying: "Sir, through you God has restored me my property, and I shall be pleased if you will accept a quarter, a a third, or a half of it, which I gladly offer." "Friend," he replied, "you are indeed in a hurry to return evil for good! Take yourself off with your property, with the blessing of God!" I said that I had one more request. When he bade me utter it, I asked him to tell me the reason why the general had yielded to him, when he had treated the greatest men in the empire with contempt. "Sir," he replied, "you have got what you wanted, so please do not interrupt me in the occupation by which I earn my livelihood." When I insisted, he said: "I have been a leader of prayer and have been teaching the Qur'an in this mosque for forty years, earning my living by tailoring which is the only trade I know. A long time ago, after saying the sunset prayer, as I was going homewards I passed by a Turk, who was in this house. Suddenly a woman of fair countenance passed by, and the Turk who was drunk seized hold of her, trying to drag her into the house, while she resisted and called for help, which was not forthcoming, no one coming forward to rescue her from the Turk in spite of her cries. Among other things she was saying that her husband had sworn he would divorce her if she spent a night away from his house, and if the Turk compelled her to disobey this he would ruin her home in addition to the crime which he could be committing, and the disgrace which he would bring upon her."

"I went up to the Turk and stopped him, requesting him to let the woman go, but he struck me on the head with a club that was in his hand, giving me a painful wound, and forced the woman to enter the house. I went home, washed off the blood, bound up the wound, and when the pain had eased went out to say the evening prayer. When that was over I said to the congregation: `Come with me to this godless Turk, to remonstrate with him, and not leave him until we make him release the woman.' They rose up, and we went and made a great noise at his door, and presently he came out at the head of a number of his slaves, raining blows upon us, and he singled me out, striking me a blow of which I nearly died. My neighbors carried me to my dwelling in a dying condition. My family treated my wounds, and I slept, but very slightly owing to the pain, and I woke up at midnight and could sleep no longer as I thought about the affair. Then I said to myself: The fellow must have been drinking all night, and will not know the time; if I sound the call to prayer, he will suppose that the dawn has commenced, and will release the woman so that she can reach her house before dawn. She will thus escape from one of the two disasters, and her home will not be ruined in addition to what has befallen her. So I went out to the mosque walking as best I could, and mounting the minaret, sounded the call, and then sat down and looked out upon the street, waiting to see the woman come out; if she did not come out, I would start prayer, that there might be no doubt in the Turk's mind that it was morning and he might release her. Only a little while elapsed and the woman was still with him when the street became filled with horse and foot, with torches, and men crying: `Who is it who has just been calling to prayer? Where is he?' At first I was too terrified to speak, but then I thought I would address them and perhaps get help for the woman. So I called out from the minaret: `I was the person.' They said to me: `Come down and answer the Commander of the Faithful.' Thinking to myself that deliverance was near, I descended, and went with them, and found them to be a company of guards with Badr, who brought me before Mu'tadid. When I saw him, I shook and trembled, but he encouraged me, and then asked me what had induced me to alarm the Muslims by sounding the call to prayer at a wrong time, so that people who had business would go about it prematurely, and those who meant to fast would restrain themselves at a time when they were allowed to break their fast. I said: `If the Commander of the Faithful will grant me amnesty, I will tell the truth.' He told me my life was safe. I then recounted to him the story of the Turk, and showed him the marks upon me, and he ordered Badr at once to bring the soldier and the woman."

"I was taken apart, and after a short time the soldier and the woman were produced, and Mu'tadid proceeded to ask her about the affair, which she narrated as I had done. Mu'tadid then ordered Badr to send her at once to her husband with a trustworthy escort, who should bring her into her house and explain the affair to her husband, with a request from the Caliph to him not to send her away, but to treat her kindly. He then summoned me, and while I stood listening, he began to question the soldier as follows: `How much, fellow, is your allowance?' He gave the amount. `Your pay?' So much. `Your perquisites?' So much. Then he began to enumerate the gratuities which the man received, and the Turk acknowledged to an enormous amount. Then he asked him how many slave-girls he possessed. He gave the number. The Caliph said to him: `Were not these and the ample fortune which you enjoyed sufficient for you, but you must needs violate the commands of God, and injure the majesty of the Sultan, and not only perpetrate this offence, but in addition assault the person who tried to make you do right?' The soldier was conscience-smitten and could make no reply. The Caliph then ordered them to fetch a sack, some cement-makers' pestles, bonds and fetters. The man was bound and fettered, and put into the sack, and the attendants were then ordered to pound him with the pestles.

"This was done in my sight, and for a time the man screamed, then his voice stopped as he was dead. The Caliph ordered the body to be thrown into the Tigris, and told Badr to seize the contents of his dwelling. Then he said to me: `Sir, whenever you see any kind of wrong committed, great or small, or anything of the sort great or small, then order it to be righted and remonstrate about it, even with him (pointing to Badr); and if anything befalls you and you are not listened to, then the sign between us is that you sound the call to prayer at about this time; I, hearing your voice, will summon you and will do this to any one who refuses to listen to you, or injures you.' I invoked a blessing on him and departed; then the rumor spread among the Dailemites and the Turks, and I have never asked any one to right another or to desist from wrong-doing, but he has obeyed me to my satisfaction for fear of Mu'tadid, so that up to this time I have not had to sound the call."

I was told by my father that when Abu Yusuf cultivated the society of Abu Hanifah in order to learn law, he was very poor, and his attendance on his teacher prevented him from earning his livelihood. So he used to return at the end of the day to short rations in an ill-appointed establishment. This went on a long time, his wife resorting to various expedients in order to maintain herself day by day. At last her patience was exhausted, and when one day he had gone to the lecture-room, spent the whole day there, and returned at night to ask for his meal, she produced a covered dish. When he removed the cover he found it to contain some note-books. To his question what this meant, she replied that it was what he was occupied with the whole day, so he had better eat it at night. Deeply affected, he went without food that night, and stayed away from the lecture next morning until he had secured some food for the household. Coming then to Abu Hanifah, and being asked why he was so late, he told the truth. Why, asked Abu Hanifah, did you not tell me, so that I might have helped you? You need not be anxious; if your life is preserved your legal earnings will enable you to feast on almond paste and shelled pistachios. Abu Yusuf stated that when he had entered the service of Rashid [Caliph, r. 786-809], and enjoyed his favor, one day a dish of almond paste and pistachios was brought to the imperial table. When I tasted it, he said, tears came to my eyes, as I remembered Abu Hanifah. When Rashid asked me the reason of my emotion, I told him this story.

The occasion, said my father, of Abu Yusuf entering the service of Rashid was that one of the generals had forsworn himself, and wished to consult a jurist on the matter. Abu Yusuf, being fetched, gave it as his opinion that he had not forsworn himself; and the general presented him with some dinars, took a house for him near his own, and attached him to himself. One day when the general visited Rashid, he found him depressed, and, inquiring the reason, was told that the Caliph was troubled by a religious question, and requested him to fetch a jurist whom he might consult. The general brought Abu Yusuf. Abu Yusuf narrated as follows: Entering a corridor between the apartments, I saw a handsome lad with the marks of royalty upon him, imprisoned in one of the chambers which opened on the corridor. The lad made a sign to me with his finger, to implore my assistance, but I did not understand his meaning. I was then taken into the presence of Rashid, and when I appeared before him, I saluted and stood. He asked me my name, to which I replied, Ya'qub, God prosper the Commander of the Faithful. He then said: What say you of a sovereign who witnesses a man committing a mortal sin? Must he inflict the penalty? Not necessarily, I replied. When I said this, Rashid prostrated himself, and it occurred to me that he must have seen one of his own sons committing that offence and that the person who had signalled to me for assistance was the adulterous son. Presently Rashid raised his head and asked me my authority. Because, I replied, the Prophet said: "Avert penalties by doubts," and there is here a doubt which invalidates the penalty.

What doubt is there, he asked, when there is ocular evidence? Ocular evidence, I replied, does not necessitate it any more than knowledge of the occurrence would necessitate it; and the law does not inflict penalties from mere knowledge. Why? he asked. Because, I replied, the penalty is a right of God, which the sovereign is commanded to maintain, so that it becomes as it were his own right; and no person may exact his right by virtue of his own knowledge, nor himself enforce it. The Muslims are agreed that the penalty requires for its enforcement confession or evidence. They are not agreed that knowledge is sufficient to necessitate its enforcement. Thereupon Rashid prostrated himself a second time, and ordered that I should be given a vast sum as well as a monthly allowance among the jurists, and that I should be attached to the Palace. Before I had got outside I received a gift from the young man and another from his mother, and others from his followers, and thereby I got the foundation of a fortune. The Caliph's allowance was added to the allowance which I was receiving from the general, and, being attached to the Palace, I was asked for an opinion by one servant and for advice by another, and by giving opinions and advice I gained authority with them and won their respect, and presents kept reaching me from them, so that my position strengthened. Then the Caliph summoned me to a lengthy interview, to ask my opinion concerning an emergency, and treated me with cordiality; and I proceeded to advance in his favor until he made me judge.

Mystical Ecstasy

I saw in Baghdad a one-eyed Sufi, named Abu'l-Fath, who was chanting the Qur'an beautifully in a gathering arranged by Abu 'Abdallah Ibn al-Buhlul. A lad read the text (Qur'an xxxv: 34) Did we not give you length of life sufficient for a man to take warning in? The Sufi cried out Aye, aye many times and fainted, remaining unconscious during the whole of the meeting. He had not recovered when the congregation dispersed, the meeting having been held in the court of a house which I inhabited. I left him where he was, and he did not come to himself `till about the afternoon, when he arose. After some days I inquired about him, and learned that he had been present in Karkh when a singing-woman was performing to the lute, and heard her repeat the lines in which comes the passage The day when each man brings his plea, Thy blessed face shall plead for me. This affected him so much that he shouted and beat his breast and at last fell down in a fit. When the entertainment was over they moved him and found that he was dead. He was taken away for burial and the affair got noised abroad. The verses whence this is taken are by 'Abd al-Samad bin al-Mu'adhdhal; they were dictated by Suli after him by a chain recorded in my records of traditions which I have heard; they were: Author of ways which fascinate, Thou art the sovereign of our fate. A house with thee for habitant Needeth not an illuminant. If e'er release from thy control I crave, may God not save my soul! The day when each man brings his plea, Thy blessed face shall plead for me.

Religious Trickery

The following was told me by Abu'l-Tayyib Ibn 'Abd al-Mu'min: An accomplished knight of industry went from Baghdad to Hims, accompanied by his wife, and when he had got to the latter place, he said to her: This is a foolish and wealthy town, and I wish to bring off a "stunner" (a phrase used by these people whereby they mean a great piece of khavery), for which I want your help and endurance. She accorded it willingly. He told her she was to remain in her place and not pass by his at all, only each day to take two-thirds of a ratl of raisins and the same quantity of almond-paste, to knead them together and place it at midday on a clean tile in a certain lavatory near the mosque where he would find it. That was absolutely all she was to do, and she was not to approach his quarters. She agreed, and then he produced a tunic and breeches of wool which he had brought, and a veil to put over his head, and took up his station by a pillar in the mosque before which most of the people passed. Here he remained praying the whole day and the whole night, except at the time wherein prayer is forbidden, and when he sat down to rest he kept counting his beads and did not utter a word. For a time he was unnoticed; then he began to attract attention, and he was watched for a space and talked about and observed; it was found that he never ceased praying, and never tasted food. The people of the town were astonished at him, as he never left the mosque save once at midday, when he went to the lavatory and made his way to the marked tile whereon the paste was laid, which had changed color and looked like dried and discolored dung, which those who came in and out supposed it to be. This he would eat to support life, after which he would come back and drink as much water as he required, when he was washing for the nightly prayer and during the night. The people of Hims supposed that he tasted neither water nor food, and that he maintained a complete fast during the whole period; and this they thought extraordinary, and admirable. Many approached him and addressed him, but he returned no answer; when they surrounded him he took no notice, and however hard they tried to get him into conversation, he maintained silence and his line of conduct, so that he won their profound respect; and indeed when he went for purification, they went to the place which he had been occupying and rubbed their hands thereon or carried away the dust from the places where he had walked; and they brought to him the sick that he might lay his hands on them.

When a year had passed in this performance, and he perceived what respect he had won, he had a meeting with his wife in the lavatory, where he told her on the following Friday when the people were praying, to come, seize hold of him, and smite him on the face, and say to him: You enemy of Allah, you scoundrel, after killing my son in Baghdad, have you come here to play the devotee? May your face be smitten with your devotion! You are not, he said, to let me go, but pretend that you want to slay me to avenge your son; the people will gather against you, but I will see that they do you no harm, as I shall admit that I have killed him, and pretend that I have come to this town to do penance, and practice devotion in order to expiate my offence. You are then to demand that I be driven out of the mosque and brought to the magistrate for execution; the people will then offer to pay blood-money, but you are not to accept less than ten times the legal amount or what, from the eagerness with which they raise their bids, you gather that they are prepared to pay. When the bidding has reached a point beyond which they seem to you unlikely to go in their efforts to redeem my life, then accept the ransom, collect it and leave the town at once for the Baghdad road; I will escape and follow you.

The next day the woman came to the mosque, and when she saw him, she did what he had bidden her, buffeted him on the face and recited the speech which he had taught her. The people of the town rose up wishing to kill her, saying: Enemy of Allah, this is one of the chief saints, one of the maintainers of the world, the Pole of the time, the lord of the age, and so on. He signalled to them to be patient and not to hurt her, shortened his prayer, said the benediction, then rolled for a long time on the ground, and then asked the people whether since he had been living among them they had heard him speak a word. They were delighted to hear his voice, and a loud cry of No! gave the answer to his question. He then said: The reason is that I have been living among you to do penance for the crime she mentioned; I was a man who erred and ruined himself murdering this woman's son; but I have repented and came here to practice devotion. I was thinking of going back to her and looking for her that she might demand my blood, fearing lest my penitence might not be true; and I have constantly been praying God to accept my penitence and put me into her power until at last my prayer has been answered, and it is a sign that God has accepted my prayer that he has brought us together and put it into her power to obtain retaliation; suffer her therefore to slay me and I commit you to the care of God. Cries and lamentations then arose, and one after another implored him to pray for him. The woman advanced in front of him as he moved, walking slowly and deliberately to the door of the mosque, with the intention of going thence to the palace of the governor of the place, that the latter might order him to be executed for the murder of her son.

Then the sheikhs said: Citizens, why have you forgotten to remedy this disaster and protect your country by the presence of this saint? Deal gently with the woman and ask her to accept the blood-money, which we shall pay out of our purses. The woman said: I refuse. They said: Take twice the legal amount. She said: One hair of my son's head is worth a thousand times the legal amount! They went on bidding until they had reached ten times the amount; then she said: Collect the money, and when I have seen it, if I feel that I can accept it and acquit the murderer, I will do so; if not, then I shall slay the slayer. They agreed to do this. Then said the man to her: Rise up, God bless you and take me back to my place in the mosque. She declined and he said: As you will. The congregation went on collecting money until they had got together a hundred thousand dirhems, which they asked her to accept. But she said: I will take nothing but the death of my son's murderer; so deeply has it affected my soul! Thereupon the people began to fling down their coats and cloaks and rings, the women their ornaments and every man some of his possessions, any one who was unable to bear part of the ransom being in a terrible state, and feeling like an outcast from society. At last she took what was offered, acquitted the man and went off.

The man remained in the mosque a few days-long enough for her to get to a safe distance---and himself decamped one night. When he was sought the next day he could not be found nor was he heard of until a long time after when they discovered that the whole affair had been a plot.

I was informed by Abu'l-Hasan Ahmad bin Yusuf al-Azraq as follows. I had heard, he said, how Husain bin Mansur al-Hallaj would eat nothing for a month or so though he was under close inspection. I was amazed thereat, and since there was a friendship between me and Abu'l-Faraj Ibn Rauhan the Sufi, who was a pious and devout traditionalist, and whose sister was married to Qasri, attendant of Hallaj, I asked him about this; he replied: I do not know how Hallaj managed, but my brother-in-law Qasri, his attendant, practiced abstinence from food for years and by degrees got to be able to fast for fifteen days, more or less. He used to manage this by a device which had escaped me, but which he divulged when he was imprisoned with the other followers of Hallaj. If a man, he said, be strictly watched for some length of time, and no trickery be discovered, the scrutiny becomes less strict, and continues to slacken as fraud fails to appear, until it is quite neglected, and the person watched can do what he likes. These people have been watching me for fifteen days wherein they have seen me eat nothing, and that is the limit of my endurance of famine; if I continue to fast for one day more I shall perish. Do you take a ratl of raisins of Khorasan and another of almonds and pound them into the consistency of oil-dregs, then make them into thin leaf. When you come to me to-morrow place it between two leaves of a note-book, which you are to carry openly in your hand, so rolled up that its contents may not break nor yet be seen. When you are alone with me and see that no-one is watching, then put it under my coat-tails and leave me; then I shall eat the cake secretly, and drink the water with which I rinse my mouth for the ceremonial washing, and this will suffice me for another fifteen days, when you will bring me a second supply in the same style. If these people watch me during the third fortnight, they will find that I eat nothing in reality until you pay your periodical visit with supplies, when I shall again escape their notice when I eat them, and this will keep me alive. The narrator added that he followed these instructions the whole time the man was in prison.

Torture and Endurance

Among stories of extraordinary endurance is the following: When Babak al-Khurrami and his colleague Maziyar were brought before Mu'tasim [Caliph, r. 833-841], the latter said to the former: Babak, you have perpetrated what no-one before has perpetrated, now exhibit unparalleled endurance. Babak said: You shall see. When they were brought into the presence of Mu'tasim, the Caliph ordered their hands and feet to be amputated before him. The executioner commenced with Babak, whose right hand was amputated; as the blood began to flow, Babak began to smear therewith the whole of his face, until it was entirely disfigured thereby. Mu'tasim bade them ask Babak why he did this. Being asked, he replied: Tell the Caliph thus: You have ordered my four limbs to be amputated, and are determined on my death; you are doubtless not going to cauterize the stumps, but will allow the blood to flow until I am decapitated. I was afraid the blood might flow out to such an extent that my face would be left pale, in which case those present might conclude from this paleness that I was afraid of death, supposing this rather than the loss of blood to be its cause; hence I smeared the blood all over my face that no such paleness might be seen. Mu'tasim said: Were it not that his crimes do not permit his being pardoned, he would deserve to be spared for this heroism. He then ordered the executioner's work to continue. After the four limbs had been amputated he was beheaded, the severed members were then placed on the trunk, naphtha was then poured upon them, and the whole set on fire. The same was done to his colleague and not one of them uttered a cry or a groan.

A Wazir and a Qadi

`Ali bin `Isa was anxious to display his superiority to every one else in gravity of demeanor. Several people have told me how in one of his vizierates he received a visit from the Qadi Abu 'Umar, who had on him a magnificent dabiqi robe of Shustar manufacture. `Ali bin `Isa, wishing to make him ashamed of himself, said to him: Abu 'Umar, at how much the piece did you buy the material of your tunic? Two hundred dinars was the reply. `Ali bin `Isa said: Oh, the material out of which this durra'ah of mine was cut with the tunic underneath cost twenty dinars! Abu 'Umar answered without hesitation, as though he had got his reply ready: The wazir (God exalt him) beautifies his clothes, and is therefore in no need of extravagance therein, whereas we are beautified by ours, and in consequence have to be extravagant. We come in contact with the lower classes, whom we have to impress with our dignity; whereas the vizier is served by the upper classes rather than by the lower, and it is known that he neglects this parade while we are able to indulge in it. His reply made 'Ali bin `Isa feel uncomfortable, and he kept silent.

Acts of Prodigality

Mutawakkil [Caliph, r. 847-860] desired that every article whereon his eye should fall on the day of a certain drinking-bout should be colored yellow. Accordingly there was erected a dome of sandalwood covered and furnished with yellow satin, and there were set in front of him melons and yellow oranges and yellow wine in golden vessels; and only those slave-girls were admitted who were yellow with yellow brocade gowns. The dome was erected over a tesselated pond, and orders were given that saffron should be put in the channels which filled it in sufficient quantities to give the water a yellow color as it flowed through the pond. This was done, and as the drinking-bout was protracted their supplies of saffron were exhausted and safflower was used as a substitute, they supposing that he would be intoxicated before this was exhausted, or they could incur reproach. It was exhausted, and when only a little remained they informed him, fearing that he would be angry if the supply stopped, while the want of time made it impossible for them to purchase more from the market. When they told him, he blamed them for not having laid in a large stock; and telling them that if the yellow water ceased, his day would be spoiled, he bade them take fabrics that were dyed yellow with qasab and soak them in the channel that the water might be colored by the dye which they contained. This was done, and all the fabrics of this sort in the treasury were exhausted by the time he was intoxicated. The value of the saffron, safflower and ruined fabrics was estimated and came to fifty thousand dinars.

Another, I am told, was in a hurry to get rid of his money, and when only five thousand dinars were left, said he wanted to have done with it speedily in order that he might see what he would do afterwards.... Then one of his friends advised him to buy cut glass with the whole sum, all but five hundred dinars, spread the glass, which should be of the finest, out before him and expend the remaining dinars in one day on the fees of singing women, fruit, scent, wine, ice, and food. When the wine was nearly drained he should set two mice free in the glass, and let a cat loose after them. The mice and the cat would fight amid the glass and break it all to pieces, and the remains would be plundered by the guests. The man aproved the notion, and acted upon it. He sat and drank and when intoxicated called out Now! and his friend let loose the two mice and the cat, and the glass went crashing to the amusement of the owner, who dropped off to sleep. His friend and companions then rose, gathered together the fragments, and made a broken bottle into a cup, and a broken cup into a pomade jar, and pasted up what was cracked; these they sold amongst themselves, making up a goodly number of dirhems, which they divided between them; they then went away, leaving their host, without troubling further about his concerns. When a year had passed the author of the scheme of the glass, the mice and the cat said: Suppose I were to go to that unfortunate and see what has become of him. So he went and found that the man had sold his furniture and spent the proceeds and dismantled his house and sold the materials to the ceilings so that nothing was left but the vestibule, where he was sleeping, on a cotton sheet, clad in cotton stripped off blankets, and bedding which had been sold, which was all that was left for him to put under him and keep off the cold. He looked like a quince ensconced between his two cotton sheets. I said to him: Miserable man, what is this? What you see, he replied. I said: Have you any sorrow? He said he had. I asked what it was. He said: I long to see some one---a female singer whom he loved and on whom he had spent most of his wealth. His visitor proceeds: As the man wept, I pitied him, brought him garments from my house which he put on, and went with him to the singer's dwelling. She, supposing that his circumstances had improved, let us enter, and when she saw him treated him respectfully, beamed on him, and asked how he was doing. When he told her the truth, she at once bade him rise, and when he asked why, said she was afraid her mistress would come, and finding him destitute, be angry with her for letting him in. So go outside, she said, and I will go upstairs and talk to you from above.

He went out and sat down expecting her to talk to him from a window on the side of the house which faced the street. While he was sitting, she emptied over him the broth of a stewpan, making an object of him, and burst out laughing. The lover however began to weep and said: O sir, have I come to this? I call God and I call thee to witness that I repent. I began to mock him, saying: What good is your repentance to you now? So I took him back to his house, stripped him of my clothes, left him folded in the cotton as before, took my clothes home and washed them, and gave the man up. I heard nothing of him for three years, and then one day at the Taq Gate seeing a slave clearing the way for a rider, raised my head and beheld my friend on a fine horse with a light silver-mounted saddle, fine clothes, splendid underwear and fragrant with scent---now he was of a family of clerks and formerly in the days of his wealth, he used to ride the noblest chargers, with the grandest harness, and his clothes and accoutrements were of the magnificent style which the fortune inherited by him from his parents permitted. When he saw me, he called out: Fellow! I, knowing that his circumstances must have improved, kissed his thigh, and said: My lord, Abu so-and-so! He said Yes! What is this? I asked. He said: God has been merciful, praise be to Him! Home, home. I followed him `till he had got to his door, and it was the old house repaired, all made into one court with a garden, covered over and stuccoed though not whitewashed, one single spacious sitting-room being left, whereas all the rest had been made part of the court. It made a good house, though not so lordly as of old. He brought me into a recess where he had in old times sought privacy, and which he had restored to its pristine magnificence, and which contained handsome furniture, though not of the former kind.

His establishment now consisted of four slaves, each of whom discharged two functions, and one old functionary whom I remembered as his servant of old, who was now re-established as porter, and a paid servant who acted as sa'is. He took his seat, and the slaves came and served him with clean plate of no great value, fruits modest both in quantity and quality, and food that was clean and sufficient, though not more. This we proceeded to eat, and then some excellent date-wine was set before me, and some date jelly, also of good quality, before him. A curtain was then drawn, and we heard some pleasant singing, while the fumes of fresh aloes, and of nadd rose together. I was curious to know how all this had come about, and when he was refreshed he said: Fellow, do you remember old times? I said I did. I am now, he continued, comfortably off, and the knowledge and experience of the world which I have gained are preferable in my opinion to my former wealth. Do you notice my furniture? It is not as grand as of old, but it is of the sort which counts as luxurious with the middle classes. The same is the case with my plate, clothes, carriage, food, dessert, wine---and he went on with his enumeration, adding after each item "if it is not super-fine like the old, still it is fair and adequate and sufficient." Finally he came to his establishment, compared its present with its former size, and added: This does instead. Now I am freed from that terrible stress. Do you remember the day the singing-girl---plague on her---treated me as she did, and how you treated me on the same day, and the things you said to me day by day, and on the day of the glass?

I replied: That is all past, and praise be to God, who has replaced your loss, and delivered you from the trouble in which you were! But whence comes your present fortune and the singing-girl who is now entertaining us? He replied: She is one whom I purchased for a thousand dinars, thereby saving the singing-women's fees. My affairs are now in excellent order. I said: How do they come to be so? He replied that a servant of his father and a cousin of his in Egypt had died on one day, leaving thirty thousand dinars, which were sent to him and arrived at the same time, when he was between the cotton sheets, as I had seen him. So, he said, I thanked God, and made a resolution not to waste, but to economize, and live on my fortune `till I die, being careful in my expenditure. So I had this house rebuilt, and purchased all its present contents, furniture, plate, clothing, mounts, slaves male and female, for 5000 dinars; five thousand more have been buried in the ground as a provision against emergencies. I have laid out ten thousand on agricultural land, producing annually enough to maintain the establishment which you have seen, with enough over each year to render it unnecessary for me to borrow before the time when the produce comes in. This is how my affairs proceed and I have been searching for you a whole year, hearing nothing about you, being anxious that you should see the restoration of my fortunes and their continued prosperity and maintenance, and after that, you infamous scoundrel, to have nothing more to do with you. Slaves, seize him by the foot! And they did drag me by the foot right out of the house, not permitting me to finish my liquor with him that day. After that when I met him riding in the streets he would smile if he saw me, and he would have nothing to do either with me or any of his former associates.

Royal Authority

I was told by the qadi Abu'l-Hasan Mohammed bin 'Abd al-Wahid Hashimi a story which he had heard from Abu 'Ali Hasan bin Isma'il bin Ishaq, the qadi, who was a companion of Mu'tadid [Caliph, r. 892-902] and allowed to take liberties with him. One day, he said, we were drinking with Mu'tadid, until Badr presented himself, and said: Sire, they have brought the draper from Birket Zalzal. Mu'tadid thereupon left the drinking-room, and retired to a chamber behind it, so close that we could see and hear. A curtain was then let down so as to screen it, the Caliph put on a qaba and, taking a spear in his hand, sat down with the expression of a man enraged and anxious to inspire terror. Hence we, notwithstanding our familiarity with him, were alarmed. A feeble old man was introduced, whom the Caliph questioned in a terrible voice: Are you the draper who said that yesterday? The man fainted, and was ordered to be taken away until he had recovered his senses. He was then brought back and the Caliph said: What, does a man like you dare to say "the Moslems have no one to look after their interests"? Where do I come in, and what is my business?

He said: Commander of the Faithful, I am a tradesman, who understand nothing but thread and cotton, and how to talk to women and common people. A man passed by, with whom we did business buying his goods, and when we found his weight short, I said that, meaning the Muhtasib and no one else; I swear that I only referred to the Muhtasib, and promise never to say the like again. The Caliph said: The Muhtasib shall be summoned and severely reprimanded for neglecting to interfere in such a matter, and shall be told to set it right, and to look after the travellers and tradesmen and bring them into order. He then told the old man to go, and that no harm should befall him. He returned to us amused and diverted, and recommenced his potations. Under the influence of the wine I said: Sire, you know how inquisitive I am; have I permission to make a remark? When he had given it, I said: Your majesty was agreeably occupied in drinking, but left it off to go and talk to a vulgar cur, for whom it would have been sufficient to be shouted at by one of the infantry of the district magistrate; not satisfied with letting this creature come into your majesty's presence, you changed your costume, armed yourself and personally examined him: all for the sake of a phrase commonly uttered by the vulgar, who do not even assign it any particular meaning.

Hasan, he replied, you do not know what may be the consequences of such a saying. If that sort of thing circulates among the people, one takes it up from another, they are emboldened to repeat it, get into the habit of uttering it until it becomes to them like the moral law. Such a thing easily instils disaffection towards the government and the religion, and the stirring up of revolts against the Sultan. The most effective mode of dealing with such a case is to stop the evil at its source.

Crime and Fraud

The following is a curious device put in practice by a thief in our time. I was informed by Abu'l-Qasim 'Ubaidallah bin Mohammed the Shoemaker that he had seen a thief caught and charged with picking the locks of small tenements supposed to be occupied by unmarried persons. Entering the house he would dig a hole such as is called "the well" in the nard game, and throw some nuts into it as though some one had been playing with him, and leave by the side a handkerchief containing some two hundred nuts. He would then proceed to wrap up as many of the goods in the house as he could carry, and if he passed unobserved, he would depart with his burden. If, however the master of the house came on the scene, he would abandon the loot and endeavor to fight his way out. If the master of the house proved doughty, sprung upon him, held him, tried to arrest him, and called out Thieves!, and the neighbors assembled, he would address the master of the house as follows: You are really wanting in humor. Here have I been playing nuts with you for months, and, though you beggared me and took away all I possessed, I made no complaint, nor did I shame you before your neighbors; and now that I have won your goods, you begin to charge me with larceny, you mean and wretched creature! Between us is the gambling-house, the place where we became acquainted. State in the presence of the people there or of the people here that I have cheated, and I will leave you your goods. The man might continue to assert that the other was a thief, but the neighbors supposed that he was unwilling to be branded as a gambler, and in consequence charged the other with theft; whereas in reality he was a gambler and the other man was speaking the truth. They would endeavor to make peace between the two, presently the thief would walk away with his nuts, and the master of the house would be defamed.

He informed me that he knew of another whose plan was to enter the residences of families, especially those in which there were women whose husbands were out. If he succeeded in getting anything he would go away; if he were perceived and the master of the house came, he would suggest that he was a friend of the wife, and some officer's retainer; and ask the master to keep the matter quiet from his employer for the sake of both; displaying a uniform, and suggesting that if the master chose to dishonor his household, he could not bring him before the Sultan on a charge of adultery. However much the master might shout Thief!, he would repeat his story, and when the neighbors assembled, they would advise the master of the house to hush the matter up. When the master objected, they would attribute his conduct to marital affection and help the thief to escape from his hand. Sometimes they would compel the master to let the thief go. Likewise the more the wife denied and swore with tears that the man was a thief, the more inclined would they be to let him go; so he would get off, and the master would afterwards divorce his wife, and part from his children's mother. This thief thus ruined more than one home and impoverished others, until he went into a house where there was an old woman aged more than ninety years; he not knowing of this. Caught by the master of the house he tried to make his usual insinuation; the master said to him: Scoundrel! There is no one in the house but my mother, who is ninety years old and for more than fifty of them she has spent her nights in prayer and her days in fasting; do you maintain that she is carrying on an amour with you or you with her? So he hit him on the jaw and when the neighbors came together and the thief told them the same story they told him he lied, they knowing the old lady's piety and devoutness. Finally he confessed the facts and was taken off to the magistrate.

I was told by Abu Mohammed 'Abdallah bin 'Umar al-Harithi, on the authority of a professional connoisseur of stones with peculiar properties, who was of Khorasan, the following story. I passed, he said, by a pedlar in Egypt, and noticed that he had a stone with which I was acquainted, pretty to look at and weighing five drachms. He had put it in front of him among his goods. I was aware that it possessed the property of driving away flies, and had been on the look out for it for many years. When I saw it, I made a bid for it, and when he demanded five dirhems, I did not beat him down, but gave him the coins in good money. When they were in his possession and the stone in mine, he began to indulge in mirth at my expense, saying: How easily we can gull these asses who do not know what they give or what they take! I assure you I saw this pebble only a few days ago in the hands of a child, and gave him one sixth of a dirhem for it; and here has this fool been giving me five dirhems for it! I turned back and said to him: I would have you know that you are the fool, not I. How so, he asked. Come with me, I said, and I will show you. So I made him come, and presently we came to a huckster who was selling dates out of a dish, and the flies were buzzing all about. Bidding the man stand at a little distance from the dish, I placed the stone upon it, and when it was there all the flies flew away and left it, and for a time there was not a single fly there. Presently I took the stone away and the flies returned; then I replaced the stone and the flies flew off. I did this three times, then I concealed the stone, and said: Fool, this is the flystone, in search of which I have come the whole way from Khorasan. Among us, kings place it on their tables, and the flies will not come near, whence no fans nor flyflaps are required. Had you asked five hundred dinars for it, I should have given them you. The man heaved a deep sigh, so deep that I thought his end had come; after a time he recovered, and we parted. After some days I went off to Khorasan, having in my possession the stone, which I sold to Nasr bin Ahmad the governor for ten thousand dirhems.


From: D. S. Margoliouth, ed., The Table Talk of a Mesopotamian Judge, (London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1922), pp. 64-67, 164-68, 135-37, 93, 2 9-92, 86-87, 31, 160, 97-101, 172-73, 84-86, 204-6.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.

This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

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© Paul Halsall, September 1998
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