Historical Tales and Anecdotes of the Time of the Early Khalifahs/The Bedawy who taught the Khalifah Manners

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Hishâm-ibn-ʾAbd-el-Málik was the fourth of that Khalîfah's sons who reigned over the Muslims. He succeeded his brother Yezîd A.H. 105 (A.D. 724), and died of quinsy at er-Rusâfa, A.H. 125 (A.D. 742), aged from fifty-three to fifty-six years, according to different authors. He was buried at er-Rusâfa, a town which lay opposite to er-Rákkah, at one day's journey west of the Euphrates; and which is placed by Abuʾl-Fedâ in lat. 36° N. It was founded by Hishâm, who made it his summer residence, and retired there to avoid the plague which desolated Syria. Hishâm governed without any prime minister, and greatly harassed his subjects by his rapacious and covetous disposition. He was richer than any of his predecessors, but the Persian historian Khondemir says that Hishâm would not trust any person with the keys of his coffers, and that he was one of the most avaricious princes that ever lived.

IT is related, amongst other anecdotes, that Hishâm-ibn-ʾAbd-el-Málik was engaged one day in hunting and sport. And he saw a gazelle being pursued by the dogs. And he followed it. And it passed round the hut of an Arab who was pasturing his flocks. So Hishâm cried, "Ho, young man! here is work for thee. Bring me that gazelle."

But the youth turned his head towards him, and said, "O ignorant of the manners of high estate; verily thou hast looked upon me scornfully, and spoken to me disdainfully; and thy speech was the speech of a tyrant, and thy deed the deed of an ass!"

Then cried Hishâm, "Woe be to thee! O young man! Dost thou not know me?"

He replied, "I know this of thee, that thou hast been badly educated; for thou didst begin talking to me before saluting me."

"Woe upon thee!" repeated Hishâm. "I am Hishâm-ibn-ʾAbd-el-Málik."

Then cried the Arab, "May good be far from thy dwelling, and may thy grave be forgotten! Do not add to thy words and diminish thy dignity."

And he had scarcely ceased speaking before the soldiers gathered round them from all sides, each one of them saying, "Peace be upon thee, O Commander of the Faithful!"

"Enough of words!" said Hishâm; "secure this young man."

So they seized him; and Hishâm returned to his palace, and seated himself in his council-hall, and said, "Bring the young Bédawy to me."

So they brought him. And when he beheld the multitude of slaves, and porters, and wazîrs, and scribes, and scions of royalty, and lords of justice, he paid no heed to them, and sought no notice from them; but let his chin fall on his breast, and watched his own foot-steps until he reached Hishâm, and stood before him. Then the young man cast his eyes upon the ground, and stood still, and spoke no word. And one of the attendants exclaimed, "O dog of an Arab! what hinders thee from saluting the Commander of the Faithful?"

Then he turned towards him in a fury, and cried, "O saddle of an ass! I am prevented by the length of the approach, and the projecting steps, and other obstacles."

Then said Hishâm, and verily his anger was increasing, "O young man! of a truth the day has arrived when thy death is near, and thy desires frustrated, and thy life at an end."

The young man replied, "By Allâh! O Hishâm! even were the term of my life to be prolonged, thy words, whether little or big, could do me no hurt."

Then the chamberlain cried, "Has it come to this, that one in thy position, and of thy station, O most vile Arab! should bandy words with the Commander of the Faithful?"

The young man instantly replied, "May disappointment attend thee, and woe and destruction smite thee! Hast thou never heard what saith the Most High—'At the coming day, every man will argue concerning his soul.'[1] Therefore, if God may be argued with, pray what is Hishâm that he is not even to be spoken to?"

Upon this Hishâm rose up in a towering rage, and cried, "Ho! executioner! bring me the head of this young man, for verily he has added to his words more than any one would believe possible."

So the executioner came forward, and laid hold of the young man, and made him kneel upon the Nitâ'a[2] of Blood, and unsheathed above his head the Sword of Vengeance, and cried, "O Commander of the Faithful! is it by his own act that thy wretched slave descends to his grave? If I strike off his head, shall I be guiltless of his blood?"

Hishâm answered, "Yes."

Then the executioner asked permission a second time, and Hishâm consented. And then he asked it a third time; and the Amîr was about to grant it, when the young man laughed until his eye-teeth were visible. Then Hishâm wondered more and more at him, and exclaimed, "O young man, it appears to me that thou must have lost thy reason. Thou knowest that thou art about to quit this world, and to end thy life, and yet thou canst laugh derisively to thyself!"

"O Commander of the Faithful!" the young man replied, "were my days to be prolonged, and were not my life to be cut short, nothing on thy part, whether great or small, could injure me. But, nevertheless, some lines occurred to me a moment ago; listen to them, for my death will not escape, and let there be great silence."

So Hishâm said, "Repeat them, and that quickly; for these moments are thy last in this world, and thy first in that which is to come."

Then the young man composed and recited these verses:

I have heard that once a partridge, led by Fate,
Was by a falcon seized upon;
Suspended from his claws the partridge hung,
And, absorbed in him, the falcon flew away.
Then, in bird-language, came a voice which said,
"Yes, thou hast conquered me, and I am captive;
But the hunger of thy like my like cannot appease,
For even when I'm eaten, as nothing shall I seem!"
At this the falcon smiled, touched by his self-abasement,
And set that partridge free.

The historian continues: "Then Hishâm smiled, and said, 'By my relationship to the Messenger of God! had he thus spoken at the first moment, and asked anything short of the Khalîfate, verily I would have given it to him. Here, attendant! cram his mouth with pearls and jewels, and be liberal in compensating him, and let him go about his business.'"

  1. "A day is coming when every soul shall plead [or argue] for itself."—el-Kurân, Sur. xvi., V. 112. el-Beidhâwy explains: "Every soul shall be solicitous for his own salvation, not concerning himself with the condition of another." The Bédawy, however, gives it a turn to suit his purpose, and the language quite bears him out.
  2. See Note *, p. 141.