A Fool Is Put In His Place


The following anecdote is related in Ibn Khallikan’s short biographical profile of the philologist and rhetorician Al-Said.  His full name was Abu al-Said Ibn al-Hasan Ibn Isa Al-Raba’i.  Verbal abilities are highly prized in cultures with rich literary traditions, and this tale bears testament to this fact.

Al-Said was born in Mosul but raised in Baghdad and, after completing his education, moved to Spain (Andalus) around A.D. 990 to seek additional opportunities.  He quickly gained a reputation for being fast on his feet in verbal sparring and in repartees with opponents.  He was a favorite of the powerful minister Al-Mansur, who served the Andalusian ruler Ibn al-Hakam.  We are told that Al Said did his job well at court but kept asking for more and more money, something that did little to help him gain friends.  He composed a book called al-Fusus (roughly meaning “bezels” or “gems”) and was paid five thousand dinars for it, but the work was not favored by the public, which found some of the content objectionable due to its off-color content.

Enough of these preliminaries.  During one of his journeys he visited the city of Denia and was invited to a public event hosted by the governor, a man named Muwafiq Mujahid Al-Amiri.  One of Mujahid’s court flunkies was there, a man named Bashar.  Bashar happened to be blind, a fact that has key significance in this story.  He knew of Al-Said’s reputation for verbal ability and could not resist challenging him in public.  The governor advised Bashar against this, however, knowing that it is unwise to toy with such men in the presence of an audience.

“Do not attack his man who is so quick with his words,” he warned Bashar.  But Bashar had read Al-Said’s books and thought he could best him in public.  He would not listen.  What happened next is told by Ibn Khallikan, whom we can almost hear laughing as he writes these words:

“Ya Said!” called out Bashar.

“At your service,” replied Al-Said.

“Tell me, what does the word jaranful signify in the dialect of the desert Arabs?”

Said, who knew that he himself had invented the word and that it did not really exist in the language, remained silent for some time, and then replied, but without any equivocation or periphrase:  “The jaranful is one who has sex with blind men’s wives and not with other women.  He services them with sex on a regular basis.”

Bashar, on hearing this, was covered with shame and confusion, whilst every person present burst into laughter.  [The governor] Mujahid then said to him:  “I told you to abstain, but you would not listen.”

[Translation by B.M.G. De Slane, with minor editing]

In such ways are fools put in their places.  Another story about Al-Said relates to an incident when one of his literary detractors threw his book into the sea off the coast of Spain.  The detractor then penned the following verse:

The Fusus sinks into the sea, and so does everything heavy.

Not to be outdone, Al-Said replied to this verse using the very same rhyme and measure as his detractor, and bested him by punning off the title of his book:

The Fusus has returned to its element; it is from the bottom of the sea that pearls [fusus] are taken.

Al-Said eventually left Spain during a period of political turbulence.  He died in the year 1026 in Sicily, but his epitaph, unfortunately, has not survived.


Read Thirty-Seven today: