Language Mastery As A Secret Code: How Sadid Al-Mulk Was Saved From Danger

Mastery of language is indeed a powerful tool.  This is especially true when the speakers hail from the same cultural background, and can make use of all those subtleties that would be lost on the non-native. This point is brilliantly illustrated by an anecdote told about Ali Ibn Munqidh, who became emir of the district of Shaizar in northern Syria in 1081.  His surname was Sadid al-Mulk, and this is how I will refer to him in this article.  We will see that words effectively deployed can literally save lives.  This story is adapted from Ibn Khallikan’s short biographical sketch of Sadid al-Mulk.

Sadid al-Mulk was such a good leader that he acquired great renown in his time.  Many of his descendants became noted jurists, military men, and scholars; he was the grandfather of the famous poet Usama Ibn Munqidh (1095-1188).  Observers in his day often commented on his penetrating intellect and ability to detect the slightest hints about mood and intention.  How sharp he was, we will now relate.

Before Ibn Munqidh (Sadid al-Mulk) became lord of the castle at Shaizar, he used to make frequent trips to the city of Aleppo.  (The governor of the city at that time was a man named Taj al-Muluk Mahmud Ibn Salih Ibn Mirdas).  One time Sadid al-Mulk had to leave Aleppo and go to Tripolis in Syria; its emir Jalal al-Mulk Ibn Ammar let him stay in his palace there.  The governor of Aleppo, Ibn Mirdas, then asked one of his secretaries to write a flattering letter to Sadid al-Mulk, asking him to come back to Aleppo.

But the secretary was an honest man and happened to be a friend of Sadid al-Mulk.  He suspected that his boss, Ibn Mirdas, had nefarious plans in store for Sadid al-Mulk if he came back to Aleppo.  So he contrived a plan to warn his friend in the most subtle way possible.  As he was finishing writing the letter, he came to the standard formula in Arabic, In sha’ allah (إن شاء الله ), meaning “if God wills it.”  But as he wrote the letter n in the first particle In, he wrote the Arabic shadda mark over the letter n.   This is a diacritical mark in Arabic that means a consonant is to be given emphasis or “doubled.”

When Sadid al-Mulk received this letter in Tripolis as he was relaxing with the emir Ibn Ammar, he showed it to his friends.  They all commented on how elegant it was, and how it seemed to express a sincere desire to have Sadid al-Mulk return.  But he, being more perceptive any other man, detected something wrong with the letter.

So he wrote a response.  In his response, Sadid al-Mulk used the following phrase:  I, your humble servant, who am grateful for your kindness.  The Arabic word for “I” is انا (ana).  But under the first letter he wrote the vowel mark for the “i” sound, and above the second letter he wrote the mark (shadda) of consonant duplication.  Thus the word ana became inna.  This is difficult to convey clearly in English, but the idea is that the words looked outwardly similar but were linguistically different.  When the secretary of Ibn Mirdas received Sadid al-Mulk’s reply, he knew that his secret message had found receptive ears.  He said to himself:

Now I know that he truly understood what I wrote.  For I gave him a clue, and he answered with something that confirmed his understanding.

And this his what the two men meant by their word-games.  They were both referring to different Koranic verses.  Each verse carried meaning.  When the secretary first wrote to Sadid al-Mulk and transformed the In into Inna, he was referring to the following Koranic words:  Inna ‘l-Mala yatamiruna, etc.  (Verily, the great men are deliberating concerning you, to put you to death).  And with his own response using the word inna, Sadid al-Mulk was referring to the following verse:  Inna lan nadkhulaha abadan, etc.  (We will never enter therein while they stay in it...).[1]

In this way were these two men able to communicate in secret using their shared knowledge of Koranic scripture.  With this coded language the secretary was able to warn off Sadid al-Mulk from returning to Aleppo and facing possible imprisonment or death.  This is the story as told by the biographer Ibn Khallikan, from whom I have adapted it.

Words can inspire, illuminate, and save.


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[1]  Koranic transl. by B. McGucken de Slane, Biog, Dict. II.362.  The quotes are from Sura 28:20 and 5:24.  (Thanks owed to my friend Heydar Rashed for pointing this out).