The Hand Of Ibn Muqla: Do Not Envy Those Who Wield Power

There was once a government official and literary figure of the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad named Abu Ali Muhammad ibn Ali ibn Muqla al-Shiraz.  He is known to history as Ibn Muqla, and he lived from about A.D. 885 to 940.  According to his biographer Ibn Khallikan, Ibn Muqla began his government service career as a tax collector in the city of Fars.

He was famous as an innovator in calligraphy and the literary arts; and he (or his brother) is credited with having refined a particular type of calligraphy called خط المنصوب (khatt al-mansub, or “well-proportioned line”).  But things did not turn out very well for Ibn Muqla as he moved through the halls of power.  He unwisely became involved in various political intrigues; one of them did not go as planned, and he was thrown into prison.  Worse still, a vengeful rival ordered his hand to be amputated.  This punishment was actually carried out.

One of the doctors who attended Ibn Muqla during this terrible ordeal later related this anecdote:

I went to see him [Ibn Muqla] when he was in that state, and he asked me news of his son Abu al-Husain. I informed him that he was concealed in a place of safely, and these words gave him great comfort. He then began to lament and weep for the loss of his hand.  “I labored,” said he, “in the service of the caliphs and twice transcribed the Koran.  Yet they cut it off [my hand] as if it had been the hand of a thief.”

I endeavored to console him, saying that it would be the last of his afflictions and that no other mutilation would befall him. To this he replied by the following verse:

When a part of you perishes, weep for the loss of another part; for one part is near to another.

[Trans. by M. de Slane, with minor editing, from Biog. Dict. III.271]

According to Ibn Khallikan, Ibn Muqla somehow managed to devise a way to write by using the stump of his hand.  Yet the loss of a hand is the loss of a hand, and he often gave vent to his grief.  What particularly embittered him was the ingratitude he experienced from those he believed he had served loyally.  The following verses are credited to his name, and attest to these feelings of betrayal:

To act thus I was not weary of existence, but I trusted to their good faith and lost my right hand.

To obtain worldly rank, I sold to them my spiritual welfare, and they deprived me of one and of the other.

I used all my efforts to preserve their lives, but mine they did not preserve.

After the loss of my right hand, there is no pleasure in life; my right hand is gone!  Depart you also, O my soul!

The following saying is perhaps the wisest of his that has come down to us.  It expresses his relief at not having to be in the position of a man of power.  Such a station, he knew from bitter experience, often carried with it more curses than blessings:

When I see a man in an exalted station mounted on the pinnacle of power, I say within myself

That favors must be appreciated at their just value.  What a service he has rendered me by taking that place of power!

Here are some of his other aphorisms:

When I love, I risk death.  And when I hate, I inflict it.

When pleased, I favor.  When displeased, I punish.

The Abbasid poet Ibn al-Rumi (A.D. 836–896) eulogized Ibn Muqla with these penetrating lines:

If the pen be master of the sword before which all necks are humbled and to whose edge nations are obedient,

Recollect that death also, death which nothing can resist, follows from words traced by the pen of fate.

It is thus that God has decreed, from the time in which pens were first made.

He decreed that swords, from the moment they received their edge, should be servants to the pen.

Ibn Muqla died in prison.  So when you see someone in a position of power and authority, do not envy that person.  Remember that his position may be more of a gilded cage than you can appreciate.  Do not think, how I wish I could be like him.  Instead, remember the fate and the words of Ibn Muqla, who lost his hand trying to gain access to power.

Reflect on his fate, and say to yourself:  what a favor that man I envy has done me by occupying that position.  For he has saved me from certain peril.  


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