Honoring One’s Word, And The Power Of Fate


The minister Al Rabi’ Ibn Yunus (الربيع بن يونس) lived from about A.D. 730 to 785 and served the Abbasid caliphs Al Mansur and his successor Al Mahdi.  Amusing and instructive anecdotes have come down to us from the medieval Arabic historians about the interactions of the minister with his sovereigns.  We will relate two of them here, acknowledging our debt to Ibn Khallikan’s Biographical Dictionary (وفيات الأعيان وأنباء أبناء الزمان).  The stories illustrate the importance of honoring one’s word as well as the power of Fate.

How To Remind A Caliph

The caliph Al Mansur once was visiting city of Medina and asked his minister Al Rabi’ to find him a knowledgeable and competent guide to show him the city’s main attractions.  The guide carried out his commission faithfully, and the caliph was pleased with his performance.  He ordered the guide to be compensated with a generous sum of money.  For one bureaucratic reason or another, the funds never found their way into the guide’s possession.

So the guide thought up a clever ruse to bring the matter tactfully to the king’s attention.  One day as he was guiding the caliph once again, the party passed a certain house.  The guide said that the house (the “House of Aatika”) had been mentioned in a few famous lines of poetry.  The lines were these:

Dwelling of Aatika!  Mansion which I avoid through fear of foes, although my heart is fixed on you!  I turn away and flee from you, but unconsciously turn towards you again…

The caliph was startled to hear these lines, thinking that there must have been some reason that the guide had brought them up.  So he referred back to the original poem to see if he could find any clues as to the hidden meaning.  He found his answer when he came upon the following lines:

We see that you do what you promise, but there are persons, with deceitful tongue, who promise, but never perform.

When the caliph read these words, he asked the guide if he had been awarded the money promised to him.  When he was informed that there had been some delay in the payment, he apologized to the guide and, on the spot, ordered him to receive double the amount he awarded the man before.  Such was the gratitude and generosity of the caliph.

The Leather Document

Another story makes a similar point.  The protagonist is Al Mansur’s successor, the caliph Al Mahdi.  One day Al Mahdi was returning from a vacation in Anbar province in Iraq.  He was approached by his minister Rabi’, who was clutching a piece of leather in his hand.  On it were written some words; the royal seal was affixed to it also.  The seal was impressed with the caliph’s signet ring and had been done in soft clay mixed with ashes.


Rabi’ also said that the leather “document” had been given to him by a poor desert Arab who claimed that the caliph himself had written and sealed it, and had told him–the bedouin–to take it to the minister Rabi’.  When Al Mahdi saw the piece of leather he laughed and said, “Yes, it is true.  This is my writing and this is my seal.  I told this desert Arab to bring it to you.  Let me tell you how this came about.”  And he proceeded to tell Rabi’ the story.  He said the following words:

I went out to hunt yesterday evening when the rain was over; the next morning a thick mist overwhelmed us and I lost sight of my companions; I then suffered such cold, hunger, and thirst as God only knows, and I lost my way besides.  At that moment came to my mind a form of prayer which my father had taught me, saying that his father had learned it from his grandfather, who had been taught it by his father.

It was:  We have no power or force but in God.  He protecteth, sufficeth, directeth, and healeth from fire and flood, from the fall of our house and from evil death. [1]

When the caliph had said these words in desperation, suddenly he was able to make out, on the horizon, a small dwelling.  He walked towards it and found it occupied by a poor man and his wife.  The man did not know he was the caliph.  He gave the thirsty caliph water mixed with some milk to drink; and to feed him, he ordered his wife to grind some barley.  The poor man even gave him some bedding to sleep on, and protected him from the elements.

In the morning, the bedouin seized a sheep to slaughter for his guest.  At this his wife protested loudly, worried that he would expend their last source of food in a harsh season.  But the man waved her off, and slaughtered the sheep.  It was consumed with relish by all present.  The caliph, overwhelmed with the man’s generosity, asked him if he would like anything.  The poor man, thinking it was some sort of joke, laughed and gave him a bit of old leather to write on.

The caliph then used a bit of wood from the campfire to write on the leather; he made a crude seal and stamped it with his ring.  He gave the piece of leather to the illiterate bedouin and told him that he should make his way to Baghdad and give the “document” to his minister Rabi’, from whom it could be redeemed.  The note was for five hundred thousand dirhams, a huge sum.  When the bedouin found out he had been made rich, he nearly fainted from shock.

In a short time, the bedouin had purchased a new home and a great number of animals and other possessions.  He decided to turn his holdings into an inn for tired travelers.  This he did, calling his new home the “Dwelling of the Host of Al Mahdi, the Commander of the Faithful.”

So it happens that one act of generosity begets another, and enriches all.



[1] Quoted translations by Wm. MacGuckin De Slane.


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