The biographer Ibn Khallikan relates the following anecdote about a man named Abu Amir Orwa Ibn Uzaina, a scholar and poet who died around A.D. 736. Not much is known of his life except that he was a member of the Iraqi tribe of al-Laith. It illustrates the importance of not chasing things in life too much. From personal experience I can attest to this principle’s soundness. When I was younger, there were times when I would try too much to chase things or control events.
These efforts would leave me exhausted and frustrated. But I found that when I relaxed and just focused on doing my “due diligence,” then things seemed to go well for me. The Andalusian poet Mohammad Ibn Idris is quoted has having made the same point in one of his verses, which read as follows:
The favors which you pursue are like your own shadow.
Follow them, and you cannot catch them;
Turn away from them, and they will follow you.
But let us relate the anecdote about Ibn Uzaina. He once set out from the Hijaz to visit the court of the caliph Hisham Ibn Abd al-Malik in Damascus, Syria. The caliph as a patron of the arts and a lover of fine things, and was much addicted to poetry. He asked Ibn Uzaina, “Are you, sir, the author of the following lines?”:
I am not inclined to wastefulness, and I know that He who is my purveyor
Will come to my assistance.
If I strive to attain his favors, my efforts fatigue me; and if
I abstain from seeking them, I receive them without undergoing any toil.
The poet replied in the affirmative. The caliph (and caliphs loved to toy with people) said, “Well, I see that you do not practice your own words. For you have come all the way from the Hijaz to seek favors from me.”
The poet blushed and said, “Yes, commander of the faithful, you have reminded me of those words which I should not have forgotten.” He left the court and then departed back for the Hijaz the next day.
But the caliph too began to feel uncomfortable. That night, as he lay in bed, he began to think about the incident. He said to himself, “That poet is a skilled man and a clever wordsmith. It is unwise to offend such men who wield the power of the pen. I might be exposed to his satires.” The next day he asked about the poet but learned he had already left Damascus. “Well,” he said to himself, “I will show him that favors can come chasing after him.”
So the caliph had a messenger sent in pursuit of Ibn Uzaina. This messenger tracked him all the way from Damascus to the Hijaz. He then came calling at the home of the poet and knocked on his door. When the poet answered, the messenger presented him with the money. Ibn Uzaina smiled and said:
See how the caliph has demonstrated the proof of my words. I toiled for hours on that poem and was called a liar. But when I remained silent and returned home, favor sought me out.
These are the words of Ibn Uzaina on the wisdom of not chasing frantically after favors.
- Trans. by MacGuckin de Slane, Biog. Dict. I.583.
- Id. (with modification by author).