Historical Tales and Anecdotes of the Time of the Early Khalifahs/How el- Asmaiy overcame the Avarice of the Khalifah el-Mansir


IT is said that he could remember a poem having once heard it, and he had a MamWkt slave who

  • Upon the death of 'Abd-AUih-Abu' l-'AbMs, es-Saffih, his

brother Abu-Ja'afar, el-Mansur, was proclaimed Khalifah, a.h. 136 (a.d. 754). He was inaugurated at el-Hishimiyyah the following year with all possible demonstrations of joy on the part of his subjects. He died at el-Kiifah, a.h. 158 (A.D. 774), while on his way to perform the pilgrimage to Mekkah. His body was carried to the last-mentioned city, where, after a hundred graves had been dug in order that his sepulchre might be con- cealed, he was buried. He lived sixty-three, and reigned twenty- two, lunar years. He was a prince of great prudence, integrity, and discretion, and was also considered magnanimous and brave, and extremely well versed in the acts of government ; but these good qualities were sullied by his extraordinary covetous- ness, and occasional implacability and cruelty. He obtained the surname of Abu-Dauwinik on the occasion of his ordering a capitation taxof adinik to be levied upon the people ofel-Kufah to defray the expense of digging a ditch or entrenchflient round the town for the security of the place. In a.h. 145, el-Mansur laid the foundations of the magnificent city of Baghdad on the Tigris, which city, after its completion in A.H. 149, he constituted the capital of the Muslim empire. He is said to have left behind him in his treasury six hundred million of dirhems, and twenty- four million of dinirs.

t A Mamluk was one who having been free-bom, became after- wards a slave ; e.g., captives taken in war.


could commit to memory anything that he had heard twice, and a slave-girl who could do the same with what she had heard three times. ' And el-Man- siir was so extremely miserly that he had gained the appellation of el-Dauwdnik, because he reckoned even to Dauw^nik* And one day there came to him a poet bringing a congratulatory ode. And el-Mansiir said to him, " If it appears that anybody knows it by heart, or that any one composed it, that is to say that it was brought here by some other person before thee, we will give thee no recompense for it. But if no one knows it, we will give thee the weight in money of that upon which it is written.**

So the poet repeated his poem, and the Khalifah at once committed it to memory, although it con- tained a thousand lines. Then he said to the poet, " Listen to it from me ; " and he recited it perfectly. Then he added, " And this Mamliik too knows it by heart.** And verily the MamlAk had heard it twice.

♦ Dauwdnik; Sing : Ddnikj the sixth part of a dirhem. The title of Dauwinik applied to the Khalifah would be as if an emperor of the present time should gain the sobriquet of Far- things, Even to this day, amongst the Arabs, a person of reputed means is looked on as miserly who reckons copper money with minuteness and care.

26o 'ilAm-en-nAs,

once from the poet, and once from the Khalifah. So he repeated it. And then the Khalifah said, "And this slave-girl who is concealed by the curtain, she also recollects it." And to be sure the slave-girl had heard it three times. So she repeated every letter of it, and the poet went away unrewarded.

The historian continues: Now el-AsmaYy* was among the intimate friends and table companions of the Khalifah. And he composed some difficult verses, and scratched them upon a fragment of a marble pillar, which he wrapped in an Abclh,t and placed on the back of a camel. Then he disguised himself to the appearance of a foreign Arab, and fastened on a Lisdm J so that nothing was visible but his eyes, and came to the Khalifah, and said, Verily I have lauded the Commander of the Faithful in a kastdahr%

Then said el-Mansfir, "O brother of the Arabs! if it has been brought by any one beside thee, we will give

  • See Note *, p. ii6. .

t Camel's wool cloak.

X A piece of cloth worn over the face by travellers as a pro- tection against the scorching winds and dust of the desert.

§ A poem peculiar to the Arabs, which contains not less than sixteen distichs, and may contain a huivdred.


thee no recompense for it. Otherwise, we will bestow on thee the weight in money of that upon which it is written."

So el-Asmaty recited this kastdah : *

By the piping voice of the Bulbul, By water and by flowers,

By the glint of a twinkling eye. By thee, O my master.

My chieftain and my lord. The lover's heart is moved.

How often has enslaved me. The gazelle of Ukekeelee,t

From off whose cheek by a kiss, I have culled the blushing rose,

Saying, Kiss, O ! kiss, O ! kiss me. But she sped not to embrace

me, And cried. No. No. No, no ; Then rose and quickly fled me. To the caresses of this man. The maiden yielded tremblingly. And crying cried a cry. Woe ! ah woe ! ah woe is me ! — — Lament not thus, I said. Rather reveal thy pearls.3:

  • I am sadly aware that the following translation of el-Asmai/s

kastdah is utterly inadequate. I can only plead that rich and beautiful though our English language is, it lacks the, intricate alliterative turns peculiar to the Arabic. Moreover, el-Asmai'y, who was the most celebrated philologerof his time, and was con- sidered a complete master of the Arabic language, appears to have taken no little pains to render this poem (by means of those same alliterative turns) as difficult as possible. Any one on read- ing the original must acknowledge that had the Khalifah been able to seize the full sense of the words alone on hearing them for the first time, his mental power would have been extraordi- nary — to have committed the lines to memory it would have been marvellous.

t With Arab writers and poets the gazelle is a favourite simile for a pretty woman. 'Ukekeelee would be the name of the tribe or family.

X A poetical way of saying. Laugh instead of crjvw^.

262 'ILAM'EN'NAs.

When saw she 'twas a grey-beard, Desiring yet a kiss,

Not satiate with caresses, She sought his fond embrace.

And at this moment cried she. Hasten and bring the sweets !

Whereat a youth refreshed me, With wine as honey soft.

More fragrant than carnations. Within a lovely bower.

Than roses or the cypress, In my nostrils was its odour.

And the lute thrummed and thrunmied to me. And the drum

rumbled low ; The dancers swayed, swayed, swayingly ; The clappers clapped,

clapped, clappingly ; The mutton roasted frizzlingly. On leaves from quince-tree

plucked ; The turtle-dove cooed ceaselessly. Reiterating wearyingly. —

  • Yet now upon a wretched ass, Thou mayst behold me borne.

Upon three legs it hobbleth, Hobbleth as do the lame. And men throughout the market. With pebbles stoned my camel r And coming round affrighting me. They followed and precedea

me; But fleeing, on I passed. Though dreading the ass should fall. To meet in face the king, The honoured, the revered. So shall he order me a robe. Red as is my red blood ; In walking I shall raise it. Glorying in my train. I am 'Almai the Polished, Whose tribe dwells in el-M4wsal ; My education surpassing all, I have composed a beautiful ode : In its opening words I say, By the piping voice of the Bulbul.

The historian continues : And it was so difficult that the King could not remember it. And he looked towards the Mamluk and the slave-girl, but they had neither of them learnt it. So he cried, " O brother of

  • Though in times past all these delights were mine, poverty

has brought me to my present condition.


the Arabs! bring hither that whereon it is written, that we may give thee its weight.*'

Then said the Arab, "O my lord! of a truth I could find no paper to write it upon ; but I had, amongst the things left me at my father's death, a piece of a marble column which had been thrown aside as being useless to me, so I scratched the kastdah upon that."

Then the Khalifah had no help fbr it but to give him its weight in gold. And this exhausted all that there was in the treasury of his wealth. And the poet took it, and departed.

And when he had gone away, the Khalifah said,

    • It forces itself upon my mind that this is el-

Asmaiy." So he commanded him to be . brought back, and uncovered his face, and lo! it was el-Asmaly. And the Khaltfah marvelled at him and at his work, and treated him according to his wont.

Then said el-Asmaty, "O Commander of the Faithful ! verily the poets are poor and are fathers of families, and thou dost debar them from receiving anything, by the power of thy memory, and the memories of this MamlClk and this slave-girl. But

264 'ILAM'EN'NAs.

wert thou to bestow upon them what thou couldst easily spare, they might with it support their families, and it could not injure thee."

Allah is all-knowing !