The biographical encyclopedia of Ibn Khallikan–that deep well of collective anecdotal wisdom–has an interesting entry for one Abu Al-Abbas Muhammad Ibn Sabih. His surname was Al Mazkur, but like many famous figures it is his nickname that posterity recalls best. This nickname is Ibn Al-Sammak, which literally means “son of a fish-monger” in Arabic (the word for fish is samak, سمك). It is not clear where this name came from; perhaps he had a fish-merchant as an ancestor.
Ibn Al-Sammak was a native of the city of Kufa in today’s Iraq, and was a prominent figure in the Ijl tribe. He was a rhetorician and speech-writer of great skill, and there are many stories told of his proficiency with the spoken and written word. Linguistic skills (both oral and written) are highly prized in the Arab world; to a degree not fully appreciated in the West, it is a culture that elevates beautiful writing and speech to an art form. We will relate some of his sayings, as well as the stories told about him. The translations of Al-Sammak’s sayings here were done by McGuckin de Slane, with his characteristic artistry and competence.
One of his sayings was this:
Fear God as if you had never obeyed him, and hope in him as if you had never disobeyed Him.
It is said that Al-Sammak had once made the acquaintance of the famous caliph Harun Al-Rashid. A tale is told of the interaction between these two men. When Harun was close to death, he began to have doubts as to whether he would ever enter Paradise. He was conscious more and more of the evil deeds he had committed in his life. Troubled by these persistent fears, he summoned several doctors of theology and consulted with them; but alas, this was of little use, for three of these doctors had the temerity to inform the caliph that he would not enter Paradise. In desperation, the caliph told Al-Sammak to be brought before him. The following exchange then took place between the two.
Al-Sammak asked, “Have you ever had the occasion, O Commander of the Faithful, to commit an offense against God, and refused to do so from fear of offending Him?”
“Yes, doctor, it is true,” replied the caliph. “When I was young, I set my eyes on a servant girl who was associated with one of my ministers. I lusted after her and wished for sexual union with her. I had a clear chance to do this once, but then reflected on the fact that fornication is a serious offense. So I restrained myself and turned my thoughts elsewhere.”
“The let the caliph rejoice,” said Al-Sammak. “For you are one of those who will enter Paradise.”
“But how can you possibly know this just from this story?”
“I know this from the words of God himself. For he tells us this: Whoever shall have dreaded appearing before his Lord and shall have restrained his soul from lust, verily Paradise shall be his abode. [Koran, Sura 79, verse 40]
Of course the caliph was greatly comforted by this reply. On another occasion, Al-Sammak went to a city official to intercede on behalf of a man who needed some help. The man had done something to offend the official, and someone had asked Al-Sammak to use his influence to get the man out of trouble. When Al-Sammak approached the official, he spoke these words of exquisite eloquence:
The beseecher and the besought will feel honored if the request for which I come be granted, and disgraced if it be refused. Choose, therefore, for yourself the honor of giving, not the shame of refusing; and choose for me the honor of obtaining, not the shame of being refused.
On hearing this, the official was so overwhelmed by Al-Sammak’s hypnotic words that he gave him everything he asked for.
One of his well-known sayings was:
He who, being inclined to this world, is sated with its sweetness, shall be drenched with the bitterness of the other world, though he abhors it.
By which he meant that those who are too fixated on voluptuary pleasures will eventually pay the price for this behavior.
We should end this profile on a humorous note. It is said that one day Al-Sammak was discussing some abstruse subject with another person. Within earshot was an attractive woman who could not help overhearing the gist of the conversation. Noticing this, Al-Sammak approached her and asked her what she thought of his comments. This was the exchange between the two of them:
She replied that it would have been good, were it not for the repetitions. “But,” said he, “I employ repetitions in order to make those understand who do not.”
“Yes,” she replied, “and to make those understand who do not, you weary those who do.”
Al-Sammak died around 799 A.D. in Kufa.
Bracketed quotes from McGuckin de Slane’s translation of Ibn Khallikan’s Biographical Dictionary (III.27).
Read more in Lives of the Great Commanders: