Malik Shah I lived from about 1053 to about 1092, and was the sultan of the Seljuk Turkish Empire from 1072 to 1092. His name in Turkish is given as Melikşah; and he succeeded his father, the renowned Alp Arslan. According to his biographer Ibn Khallikan, Malik Shah was famous for his sense of justice and equity; he was said to have been untiring in his efforts to correct wrongs that were in his power to cure. So known was he for this trait that some Arabic historians took to calling him الملك العادل (al-malik al-a’adil), which means “the just king.”
He also focused his attention on public works, canals, agricultural projects, and buildings; a large mosque in Baghdad called “The Sultan Mosque” (الجامع السلطان) was constructed under his direction. As Plutarch tells us, sometimes an anecdote can tell us more about a man’s character than many pages of historical narrative can. We are told that the sultan was fond of hunting; but over time his appetite for this diversion began to wane, and he told one of his ministers:
I fear that I may have offended Almighty God by the shedding of the blood of animals for pleasure, rather than for food. [III.445]
After having said this, he resolved to give a gold dinar in charity for every animal he killed on the hunt. And when he began to think of all the animals he had killed in the past, he gave an additional sum of ten thousand dinars as a form of compensation. Around 1087, as he was passing the city of Kufa, he had a tower erected that was made of all the horns and hooves of the deer and onager he had killed; this became known fittingly as the Minaret of Horns (منارة القرون, Minara al-Qurun). Once when Malik Shah was on the march and waging war against his brother Tukush, he paused to say his prayers at a small house of worship. He was with one of his viziers, a man named Nizam al-Mulk. After they had finished, the sultan asked his minister what he had prayed for. Nizam al-Mulk replied:
I prayed for God to assist you in overcoming your brother and granting you victory.
To this, the sultan responded:
That is not what I prayed for. I asked only that God should grant victory to whichever one of us could provide a better life for the people whom we serve.
This was the kind of thinking that animated the mind of the sultan. But the best anecdote I have been able to discover about the Just Sultan is the following tale. One day the sultan encountered a poor man, a native of Al-Sawad (Al-Sawad is an old name for southern Iraq, which means “the black land” on account of the soil color). The man was weeping and seemed to be broken in spirit.
“What is the matter, brother? Why are you crying?” said Malik Shah.
“O Commander of the Faithful!” said the Iraqi. “I have lost what little money I have in the world. I bought a melon for a few coins, but several Turkish soldiers took it from me. And now I have nothing.”
Hearing this stirred the sultan’s innate sense of justice, and he began to become angry. “Be still,” he told the man. “Let us see what can be done.” So he told one of his attendants that he was in the mood for a melon, and commanded him to scour the camp to find one for him. Off went the attendant to carry out these orders. Soon the attendant returned with a melon.
“Where did you get this from?” the sultan asked the attendant.
“It was given to me by one of your viziers, who had it in his possession,” was the reply.
“Go and fetch this vizier, and bring him to me,” ordered Malik Shah.
When the startled vizier appeared before the sultan, the king asked him in a stern voice, “Where did you get this melon, sir?” The vizier could sense the monarch’s displeasure and knew he needed to be fully honest with his sovereign.
“The melon, sire, was brought to me by my pages,” said the vizier nervously.
“Go and find them, and bring them here without delay, sir,” ordered the sultan.
The vizier now knew that they were all treading on very thin ice at this point, since discipline in the Turkish army was known to be extremely strict. He knew that his pages would at the very least be subject to a flogging, possibly worse. So he told them to lie low and vanish for a time. When the vizier returned to the sultan’s presence, he informed him that he could not find his pages.
Malik Shah, then, turned to poor Iraqi man and said to him, “This vizier of mine, the man you see before you now, I am going to give to you as your slave. He has failed to produce the men who stole your property, and so he himself will now suffer the consequences. Take him as your slave. If he wishes to purchase his freedom from you, that will be a matter between the two of you. I shall not get involved in that matter. For now, however, he is your slave until such time as you decide otherwise. If you let him go, by God, I will strike off your head.”
And with this, he dismissed the astonished persons standing before him, and they were led away by guards. Outside the tent, the vizier negotiated with the poor Iraqi man to buy his freedom for a price. The vizier agreed to give the native of Al-Sawad three hundred gold dinars in order to buy his freedom. The parties were then led back into the presence of the sultan. The Iraqi told the sultan,
“Commander of the Faithful, I have agreed to let your vizier buy his freedom for three hundred dinars.”
“Are you now satisfied that justice has been done?” said the sultan.
“More than happy, sire,” was the emotional reply.
“Then go now, brother, and may God be with you.”
This, then, is the story of Malik Shah and the Iraqi’s melon, as it is conveyed by Ibn Khallikan.
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