The Ointment Of Abu Ayyub


It is unwise to incur the wrath of a powerful man if such a situation may be avoided.  Sometimes it can; other times it cannot.  Even being in the proximity of power can be perilous, as authority has a way of coloring everything in its field of vision with suspicion.  An illustration of this principle appears in Ibn Khallikan’s Biographical Dictionary on the life of the court official (wazir) Abu Ayyub Al Muryani, who served the second Abbasid caliph, Al Mansur.

Things started out amicably enough between Abu Ayyub and Al Mansur.  Before Al Mansur ascended to the throne, Abu Ayyub had saved him from a rival named Sulaiman Ibn Habib.  It is said that Sulaiman Ibn Habib had a grudge against Al Mansur, and wanted him out of the way.  Abu Ayyub helped his friend Al Mansur escape from the jaws of this predicament.  When Al Mansur became caliph, he had Sulaiman Ibn Habib executed and promoted his apparent friend Abu Ayyub as a key court official.

Yet gratitude is not normally an emotion that moves the crown.  We may remember the words of Sophocles, quoted by Plutarch in his Life of Pompey:

He who enters a tyrant’s door

Though free before

Shall be owned by him

Forever more.

For some reason–we do not know precisely why–Al Mansur’s feelings for Abu Ayyub underwent a gradual but profound change.  Perhaps the caliph was secretly troubled by the fact that he knew he was unconsciously in Abu Ayyub’s debt for his having saved his life earlier.  Or maybe it was something else.  Whatever the reason, Abu Ayyub felt the change.  He never went into the presence of the caliph without secretly being in fear of his life.  Yet each time, he emerged unscathed.

Other court officials began to joke that Abu Ayyub possessed some magic “ointment” that protected him from the wrath of the caliph.  The story became a running joke around government circles in Baghdad:  the expression Abu Ayyub’s Ointment came to mean an all-purpose protective from bad luck.   When a man once asked Abu Ayyub why he always felt such apprehension when coming into close contact with the caliph, he related the following parable by way of explanation.

It is said that a falcon once said this to a rooster:  “There is no animal more ungrateful than you.”

“Why so?” said the rooster.

“Because your masters, humans, brought you into this world, took care of you, fed you, and protected you from the elements and from other predators.  And yet every time a person comes near you, you run about, cackling and squawking like a maniac, and raising up a huge ruckus for no reason.  This to me looks like the behavior of an ingrate.”

The falcon continued.  “As for myself, humans took me from the wild when I was an adult.  They trained me, and for them I catch small game and bring it back to them.”

The rooster thought about this, and then said the following.  “That may be true.  But how many falcons do you see turning on a spit over a fire or grill?  How many falcons are consumed by man?  If you had seen as many falcons roasting on a spit as I have seen chickens, you would be just as apprehensive at the approach of your master as I am.”

This is the parable that Abu Ayyub related to the man.

I wish I could say that this story ended happily, or at least somewhat happily.  It does not.  Eventually Abu Ayyub’s luck ran out; even his famed ointment could only protect him so much.  The caliph eventually demoted him and ordered his property to be confiscated.  He died, impoverished and broken, in 770 A.D.