The Arab military commander Al Muhallab Ibn Abi Sufra (المهلّب بن أبي صفرة الأزدي) was born around A.D. 632, but not much is known of his early life beyond anecdotes. His biographer Ibn Khallikan tells us on good authority that “His surnames Al-Azdi, Al-Ataki, [and] Al-Basri indicate that he descended from Al-Atik, member of the tribe of Al-Azd, and that he was a native of Basra.” We are also told that he was distinguished for his generosity and graciousness. His military prowess was beyond question; he defended the city of Basra so effectively from its enemies that some took to calling the city “The Basra of Al-Muhallab.”
He served as a general under Mu’awiyya, the first caliph of the Umayyad dynasty. His major fault, his biographers relate, was his willingness to repeat falsehoods. The trait became so noticeable that jokes began to be told about it; the colloquial Arabic phrase راح يكذب (“he is going to lie”, rah yakdhab) even made the rounds of the leadership circles of his day. The historian Ibn Kutaiba, in his work Kitab al-Maarif, has this to say about Al-Muhallab’s habit of mendacity:
As for me, I shall say that, of all men, Al-Muhallab was he who feared God the most, and that he was too noble, too generous to tell lies; but he was always engaged in war and the Prophet has said: ‘War consists in stratagems and deceit.’ He used to address the Kharijites in equivocal terms, saying one thing and meaning another, so as to keep them in dread, and that was why they called him the liar and said that he went about telling falsehoods. [Trans. by M. de Slane, III.509]
This is certainly true, for war does consist entirely of stratagems and deceit. Al-Muhallab was fond of quoting one of the Traditions that describes the circumstances under which it is permissible to lie. He would say:
Every lie shall be written down as a lie (by the recording angels), with the exception of three: a lie told in order to reconcile two men, a lying promise made by a man to his wife, and a lie in which a man, when engaged in war, makes a promise or a threat.
However, according to the historian Ibn Khallikan, it was not beyond Al-Muhallab to forge Traditions in the service of his military purposes. One saying about him ran thus: “You would be a man perfect in every way, did you only speak the truth.” We cannot be certain how far we can trust the accuracy of these old tales; probably he was no worse–or no better–than any other fighting general when it came to honesty. Battles are not won by playing fair. What should not be doubted was his bravery; he lost an eye during the siege of the city of Talakan. But he was philosophical about this, and showed true wisdom by saying this:
Though I lost my eye, I have preserved my life, and that–thanks be to God!–will contribute to make me forget my mishap. When the cause of God is to be defended, our cavalry must endure fatigue; and when missiles are thrown about, some eyes must be blinded.
One cannot expect to emerge from a fight unscathed. We would do well to remember this point. When he was nearing death, he told his son that he should choose a minister (hajib) for his prudence, and a secretary (katib) for his elegance of style. The reason is that “a man’s hajib is his face, and his katib is his tongue.” He died in A.D. 703 in Marw, in Khorasan, and was survived by a great many sons. Many fine poems were composed upon his death as a way of honoring him. One especially fine qasida, written by Ibn Jabir, is quoted in part below. Ibn Khallikan calls it “one of the finest and most brilliant qasidas ever composed.” It contains some wonderful images, and its opening lines are as follows:
Say to the caravans and to the warriors setting out for battle, say to those who depart in the morning and those who, in the evening, hasten to arrive:
Generosity and manliness are now shut up in a tomb at Marw, near the high road.
On passing by, sacrifice to its inmate a camel of noble race and many a rapid steed. Sprinkle the blood on the sides of his tomb, for he was a shedder of blood and a slayer of victims.
After the hour of noon, draw near unto his tomb and the flag of commandment which waves over it and invite those who pass by as hunters do when roasting venison.
In pursuing the foe and in returning from battle he was a father to his troops, but now, he lies engaged as a pledge, in a grave among the tombs.
On the day his bier was borne away, I saw that noble acts were disappearing with the superiority of his merits and praiseworthy deeds.
All the land was shaken by his fall, so that our very hearts remained not unscathed. They suffer even now, for he was the noblest man that ever walked on earth; he smiled at the arrows shot against him by the bowmen.
In him every noble quality arrived at perfection, and to that he lent his aid by many a virtuous act. It is grief enough for us to see the dwelling in which he is now lodged, never to quit it till the end of time.
The pulpits are empty in which he presided at the prayer; his saddles have been removed from the backs of all his spirited mares and high-mettled steeds…
Warfare will never have an abler man than Al-Muhallab: he makes it produce its effects by means of chosen horses, thin in the flanks, rapid in crossing plains and deserts.
In the hour of grief, his cavalry rallies around him, and the sides of the horses are white with copious sweat.
To this mighty prince, bearer of a diadem, his friends look up with joy, whilst the eyes of the envious are cast down before him.
True standard-bearer of war I when he marches against the foe, good omens are for him and bad ones for his enemies.
[Trans. by M. de Slane III.512]
This poem, we are told, rhymes in the letter “h.” Could warrior in death ever receive a finer eulogy?
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