Abu Al Hasan On The Fleeting Nature Of Earthly Riches


We will now relate another anecdote from Ibn Khallikan.

During the Abbasid caliphate of Al-Mutawakkil there lived an imam named Abu al-Hasan Ali al-Askari, surnamed al-Hadi (“the director”).   He was born at Medina in A.D. 829 and died in 868.  The Shiites considered him one of the twelve imams, and he was the son of Muhammad al-Jawad and the grandson of Ali al-Rida.  He was widely known as an honest man, learned and fearless.  But men of ability have a way of antagonizing others merely by their existence; they attract suspicion and jealousy in their very movements.  For a base and wicked man loathes nothing so much as the sight of his precise opposite.  It cannot be otherwise.

Thus it was that some malicious person passed word to the caliph al-Mutawakkil that Abu al-Hasan had stockpiled quantities of books, weapons, and other items for the use of his followers.  Or perhaps it simply was that the caliph wanted to take the measure of him.  In any case, the king sent some soldiers from his guard to fetch Abu al-Hasan and bring him before him.  The soldiers did as instructed; they found the imam “alone and locked in his room, clothed in a coarse hair-shirt,” prostrate and praying on the floor.  We are also assured by our historian that there was “no other carpet between him and the earth than sand and gravel.”  Ibn Khallikan tells us:

He was carried off in that attire and brought, in the depth of the night, before al-Mutawakkil, who was then engaged in drinking wine. On seeing him, the caliph received him with respect, and being informed that no thing had been found in his house to justify the suspicions cast upon him, he seated him by his side and offered him the goblet which he held in his hand.

Perhaps to toy with him, the caliph offered the imam some wine to drink.  “Commander of the faithful!” cried Abu al-Hasan, “a liquor such as that was never yet combined with my flesh and blood; dispense me therefore from taking it.”  The caliph dropped the matter and then asked the imam to deliver some lines of poetry for his and the room’s amusement.  The imam had not memorized much poetry but did the best he could under the circumstances.  He repeated these lines of poetry in a clear, flowing tone:

They passed the night on the summits of the mountains, protected by valiant warriors, but their place of refuge availed them not.

After all their pomp and power, they had to descend from their lofty fortresses to the custody of the tomb.  O what a dreadful change!

Their graves had already received them when a voice was heard exclaiming:  “Where are the thrones, the crowns, and the robes of state?

Where are now the faces once so delicate, which were shaded by veils and protected by the curtains of the audience hall?

To this demand, the tomb gave answer sufficient: “The worms,” it said, “are now reveling upon those faces; long had these men been eating and drinking, but now they are eaten in their turn.”[1]

This was the parable that he related to the caliph Al-Mutawakkil and the others present.  And when he had finished speaking, a pall of silence fell over the gathering.  Some rustled nervously; but no one could speak.  Beads of sweat began to break out on some, and now on others; and many were afraid for Abu al-Hasan’s safety.  They worried that the caliph, filled with indignation, might give the imam a harsh rebuke for his impertinence.

Yet this is not what happened.  We are told instead that a tears appeared in Al-Mutawakkil’s eyes; these became plainly visible to all present.  Others attendees also wept.  Once the caliph recovered his composure he asked the imam if he owed any monetary debts.  Abu al-Hasan’s answer was yes, and the amount of the debts was about four thousand dinars.  “See to it that this man is paid this sum of money,” the caliph instructed an attendant.  We are also told that al-Mutawakkil invited the holy man to move to a town called al-Askar, which in Arabic means army or military.  It was in this way that the imam acquired his surname.  He died there in A.D. 868.

[1] Trans. by M. De Slane. Biog. Dict. II.235



Read more in my new translation of Lives of the Great Commanders, now a #1 new release on Amazon: