The following tale is told by Ibn Zafar al-Siqilli (“The Sicilian”) in his political and ethical treatise سلوان المطاع في عدوان الأتباع (The Consolation of the Ruler in Dealing with His Subjects’ Hostility). The story’s purpose is to emphasize the importance that faith and endurance play in the fates of princes. We should note that Ibn Zafar does not advocate a passive resignation or inaction in the face of hardship. Instead he counsels us to do all we can to resolve our problems; but once one has exhausted his actionable remedies, he must submit himself to the workings of Fate. In this he is very much like the Stoic sages who preceded him by so many centuries.
We will now describe the tale of the two ministers (القصة الوزيرين). There was a ruler who retained two ministers to advise him on domestic and foreign affairs. They were very different in habits, philosophy, and temperament. One was renowned for his piety, good works, and abstinence from all forms of voluptuary pleasures; the other was a wily, cunning man of worldly affairs, who enjoyed a reputation for being strong and decisive. These two ministers, as one might expect, were often at odds with each other regarding the type of advice that they gave the king. Although the king appreciated the different perspective that each of them brought to his cabinet, he could not resist putting them to the test. (I note here, with a knowing smile, that this impulse is perhaps partly cultural; for Arab rulers of this era loved nothing more than to toy with their ministers).
In any case, the king decided to fire one of his ministers. For him it was a matter of character. He believed that men of good character would give good advice, and that those of weak character would do the opposite. He also was crafty enough to understand that many man are able to conceal their true natures behind the facades of their professions and vocations; only by putting a man under extreme duress, the king knew, can one really discover their true constitutions. This is what the king did.
He first selected an appropriate prison for both of the ministers. He found some secluded dungeon that also had a hiding place where an outside party could observe those who were incarcerated there. The king directed his most trusted servant to secret himself in this dungeon’s hiding place, so that he could not be seen by its occupants. The king told the servant that his intention was to throw both ministers in prison; the servant’s job was to observe both ministers, and record everything they said and did. Once everything was prepared, he had both ministers arrested without warning and clapped into the prepared prison. It was a miserable place, and the initial shock to both of the ministers was terrible.
The first day passed with very little of substance being spoken between the two ministers. Eventually, however, the worldly minister said to the pious one:
What is going on here? What do you think of our situation? How are we going to get out of this? I feel totally enraged by this situation. I am going to find out who did this to me, and see that he is punished.
The pious minister responded calmly:
I have confidence in the workings of God, for it is He who ordains all things. I have gone over in my mind all of my conduct in service to the king. I cannot recall ever having breached his trust or committed any offense. It is true that some of my advice may not have always been correct, but no man can be right all the time. Perfection is reserved for God alone.
On the other hand, I do find that I have committed many personal sins. I have tried to examine my conduct daily, and have tried to comport my behavior with the teachings of the Almighty. Some times I have lived up to those teachings, and other times I have not. I believe my present situation is my punishment for not matching the conduct of the great teachers of the religious sciences (may God protect their secrets).
We should accept the situation we are in now, and try to make the best of it. If we try to analyze it from a hundred different angles, it will only cause us further distress, and sap our will to survive.
The worldly minister, a man of money and business, did not know what to make of such statements. He did not know whether to laugh, or to feel pity for this deluded faqir. He considered them the utterances of a well-meaning but simple-minded fool. What did this woolen-cloaked, naive man know about how the world worked? These were the thoughts that went through his head. So he responded:
No. I don’t accept that. We have been the victims of some court conspiracy. Someone did this to us, and someone is trying to ruin us. We must write a petition to the king. We should make him an offer of money, in return for which he will set us free. I am rich and have resources, and we need to make some kind of financial offer to get out of this situation.
The pious minister heard this and shook his head. He rejoined:
This is not a good idea. It would make you look guilty, like you had done something wrong. It would communicate culpability to the king; and it would be a way of forsaking your faith in God.
This was what the pious minister said. The two of them decided to drop the subject, since they were both at odds over it. After a day or so, a loaf of bread and some water was brought to them through a slot in the door of the dungeon. The worldly minister did not want to eat the bread, saying, “I think it’s likely that it is poisoned.” But the pious minister ate the bread, saying “I will eat and trust myself to God.” He took the loaf, broke it open, and began to eat.
And as he did so, he discovered that a red ruby had been baked into the bread. Shocked, the pious minister kept the gem in a safe place. Over the next few days, this pattern was repeated: a loaf of bread was delivered to the cell; the worldly minister refused to eat it; the pious minister did eat it, and discovered a gem concealed within.
After some days, the king ordered that the two ministers should be released from prison. He talked with the servant, who had heard and observed everything that had transpired in the dungeon. The king then sent for each minister, and questioned each of them carefully as to what they had seen and experienced. When the pious minister was questioned, he showed the king the rubies that had been in the loaves of bread, and said:
Sire, it is not right that I should have these. I found them in the bread that was brought to me. I did not know what to do with them. I did not want to take the other minister’s share.
The king, deeply moved, spoke these words with great care:
By God! Know that the Almighty has granted you these riches. The other minister’s lack of faith and endurance alienated him from His divine grace. So he has received nothing. Know, O my brother in religion, that worldly riches are for those who endure sufferings without surrendering to despair.
By virtue of this experiment I have done, I have discovered that your colleague [the worldly minister] is inhabited by the demons of conceit, arrogance, and lack of faith. For when he was struck by disaster, all he did was try to blame others, make excuses, and look for ways to buy himself out of his problems. He even suspected me of trying to poison him. There was no soul-searching, no reflection, no desire to scrutinize his conduct. This is the mark of a vain, arrogant, and frivolous man; such men are worthless in a real crisis. They have no character, no moral fiber.
You, on the other hand, resigned yourself to the Hand of God, and sought to review your own conduct in the light of present developments. You never sought to transfer responsibility on to anyone else. You did not curse the Universe.
I conclude, then, that God has selected you to be my minister. You are not perfect, of course, but neither am I; perfection is an attribute reserved to Him alone. When calamity befalls us, we must trust in the designs of Fate, once we have done all we can. Life is a tempestuous sea, full of iniquity and torment; we must learn to deal with rank injustice in this world. But we must never surrender ourselves to despair, for this would be an offense against God.
This was what the king said to the pious minister. He had him reinstated to his full position, and banished the worldly minister from his cabinet forever.
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