How Al Fadl Al-Barmaki Learned Bluntness And Generosity

Al Fadl Ibn Yahya al-Barmaki (A.D. 766—808) was a government official who served the most famous of all the Abbasid caliphs, the great but mercurial Harun al-Rashid.  Besides serving in several administrative posts (such as governor of Khurasan), he was also trusted enough to tutor Harun’s young son and heir al-Amin.  Although he later fell out of favor with the caliph, many stories are told of his generosity and kindness.

It is said that Al Fadl once got himself into trouble with excessive partying and hunting.  His father, the famous patriarch Yahya al-Barmaki, wrote a letter to him advising him to correct his behavior; the letter closed with the following wise lines:

Pass the day in the pursuit of honors and bear with patience the absence of your beloved.  But when the darkness approaches and veils our vices, pass the night to your satisfaction, for night is the clever man’s day.  How many are the men whom you think devotees, that play strange games in the face of the night!  It [night] lets down the veils of darkness around them, and they spend their hours in pastime and enjoyments till morning. The fool exposes his pleasures to public gaze, and all his watchful foes denounce the scandal.[1]

By this Al Fadl’s father seemed to be telling his son to maintain proper conduct when exposed to public view; enjoyment is best enjoyed away from the prying eyes of the public.

One of Al Fadl’s sayings was “The joy of the man who receives a favor is not equal to mine in granting it.”  While he enjoyed a reputation for great generosity, he also was known for his brusque manner and blunt directness.  When a friend asked him how he came to be so, his reply was:  “I learned this manner from a man named Omara Ibn Hamza.”  When pressed on further details, Al Fadl told the following anecdote.

“Many years ago my father was a tax-collector in a province in Persia.  Through the bankruptcy of some business he owed the state a great deal of money.  The total owed to Baghdad was about 3 million dirhams.  As he was unable to come up with the money, he was taken into custody and brought to the capital.  My father had no way of coming up with the money, and faced very real trouble from the caliph.

“At that time I was a young boy.  My father told me to go and see a man named Omara Ibn Hamza.  I and many other people knew that a great enmity existed between Ibn Hamza and my father; yet I was told to approach him, explain the dire circumstances my father was in, and ask for a loan until such time as it could be paid back.  I was certain that my father was a deluded fool.  What man would loan his personal enemy any money at all, never mind 3 million dirhams?

“But my father said, ‘You must go to him anyway.  Perhaps God will subdue him and open his heart up to pity.’  So I advanced unwillingly to Omara’s house; I was certain that I would be rejected with scorn.  When I entered his house, I found him reclining on a sofa, his beard and hair perfumed with civet and musk.[2]  I offered my greetings to him, but he made no response.  I then explained the purpose of my visit, to my great chagrin.  He only grunted a bit, and then said, ‘We will have to see.’

“I left his house with a burning sense of humiliation.  I was furious at my father for exposing me to such humiliation, and angry as well at Omara for what I took to be his condescending arrogance.  But when I returned to our house a few hours later, I found several loaded pack-mules with attendants waiting near our door.  I asked what they were there for, and the attendant told me that Omara had sent us the money.  My father and I were incredulous, and could not believe that Omara had behaved so generously.

“Soon my father was reinstated in his post, cleared up the problem with the uncollected taxes, and recovered his financial situation.  He soon had a great deal of money and wanted to pay Omara back for the loan he had so generously granted us.  So I returned to his house and found him there at rest.  When I explained the purpose of my visit and our family’s desire to repay him, he cut me off, saying ‘By God, what is this?  Am I your banker now?  Go away, and keep the money!’  When I returned to my father and told him what had happened, he was astonished.  This was how I learned both generosity and brusqueness.”

So things can be in life.  It is not possible to predict all things, and it is not possible to divine the intentions of others.  Sometimes those we believe to be our enemies may actually have hidden reserves of goodwill, the sources of which are beyond our powers of comprehension.  The following lines of poetry were later composed regarding Al Fadl’s generosity.  Ibn Khallikan says that they were written by either by Marwan Ibn Abi Hafsa or Abu al-Hajna:

The power of doing good and of harming is in the hands of princes, but the Barmakids [the family of Al Fadl] do good and harm not.  If punishment is to be inflicted, that duty is imposed on others; but to them all good is justly attributed. When you do not know the origin and ancestry of a man, examine his acts; when the roots are swollen with moisture, the sprouts flourish and the crop is abundant.[3]

These are wise words, and rightly spoken.  The last line in the quote above makes use of a clever pun in Arabic that is lost in translation.  The word for “moisture” in the last sentence ( ندى , nada) can also mean “generosity,” thus allowing the poet to play on both ideas with the same word.


[1]  Trans. by M. de Slane (Ibn Khallikan’s Biog. Dict. II.487)

[2]   There is an interesting point of etymology in this line that I cannot resist mentioning.  The verb غلف is used here, and it normally means “to wrap” or “enfold.”  But it can also mean the act of perfuming a beard with civet-musk (غالية, ghalia).  In Arabic the word for a civet-cat (a type of cat) is  قط الغالية (qit al ghalia).  This same word has passed into the Portuguese and Spanish languages as the word for civet-cat:  gato de algalia.

[3]  M. de Slane, Biog. Dict. II.487.


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