Sometimes It Is Not Advisable To Question Authority Or Tradition

While it may be good in some instances to question inherited tradition and authority, there are many times when one should not.  Free-thinking individualism has its place, but there is an equally valid place for respecting the power of authority and tradition.  This point is amusingly illustrated in the two anecdotes presented below.  They are related in De Slane’s edition of Ibn Khallikan’s encyclopedia, but the first tale is originally found in the Egyptian historian Al Maqrizi.

Ahmad Ibn Tulun (c. A.D. 835–884) was the founder of the medieval Tulunid dynasty that ruled Egypt and greater Syria from 868 to 905.  He had been a slave early in life, yet rose to become a ruler in fact as well as in name.  It is remarkable that soldier-slaves so often rose to the highest positions in medieval and early modern Islam; the historian finds repeated examples of this unexpected social mobility.  In any case, Ibn Tulun had a reputation for being a stern task-master, a man who tolerated no dissent and was determined to modernize the civil and military structures of his lands.

The Aqueduct of Ibn Tulun

Once Ibn Tulun had ordered the completion of an aqueduct in Egypt.  For some reason, rumors began to spread that it was not “lawful” to drink the waters coming out of the aqueduct.  The likely explanation seems to be that some of the emir’s clerical enemies were trying to embarrass him.  To solve the problem, Ibn Tulun called on a doctor of jurisprudence from the Shafite sect named Mohammed Ibn Abd Al Hakam.  The Emir sent a slave to fetch Al Hakam in the middle of the night from his house.

“What does the Emir want with me?” he asked the slave nervously.

“We are supposed to meet him in the desert.  That is where he is waiting for you,” was the reply.

“By God!  For what purpose?” said Al Hakam.

The slave would only say, “Just avoid making any remark about the aqueduct.”

Now more terrified than ever, Al Hakam mounted his horse and went by a public road with slave into the desert.  At length he began to see torches in the distance; the two riders finally came to a meeting place in the desert.  A section of the new aqueduct was also nearby.  Ibn Tulun was present, with his retainers, all of whom were carrying torches.  Al Hakam dismounted and saluted the Emir, who did not return the salute.  This was a bad sign, and the poor doctor was by now thoroughly petrified.  Neither was it encouraging that an ominous silence had now fallen over the group.  Pleasant things usually do not happen in such situations, to say the least.  But suddenly an idea came to him.  Al Hakam broke the silence and spoke as follows:

O Emir, your messenger here has seriously fatigued me!  I have ridden a long way and am in dire need of a drink!

One of the Emir’s pages offered him water, but he said, “No, please allow me to draw it myself.”  He then drew some water from the Emir’s aqueduct, and drank so much that he felt he would nearly burst.  When he was finally done, he looked at Ibn Tulun and said,

May God quench your thirst at the Rivers of Paradise!  I have drunk to my fill, and I do not know which to praise more:  the excellence of the water, with its purity and sweetness, or the wonderful appearance of the new aqueduct!

The Emir looked at Al Hakam for a moment and then said, “I will need you at some point, but now is not the time.  Thank you for your courtesies; you may now withdraw.”  He then ordered his retinue to assemble, and they made preparations to depart.  The doctor also left.  On the way back to his residence, the slave said to him, “Sir, you have hit the mark!”  To this Al Hakam answered, “May God reward you! Were it not for you, I might have perished.”[1]

Some Things Should Be Accepted On Faith

We will close with one final anecdote.  A student of the Shafite jurisconsult Al Tirmidhi (c. A.D. 824– 892) once was asking him to explain a nuanced point of theology.  The student did not accept the explanation provided by the master.  The problem being discussed involved an abstruse point about the descent from one plane of consciousness to another.  The master was growing tired of explaining himself, and finally told the student:

The descent is intelligible; the manner how is unknown; the belief therein is obligatory, and the asking about it is a blamable innovation.[2]

This response abruptly ended the discussion.


[1]  From M. de Slane’s edition of Ibn Khallikan, vol. II, p. 619.

[2]  Trans. by De Slane, vol. II. p. 620.