According to his biographer Ibn Khallikan, a Christian physician of Baghdad named Ibn al-Talmid who practiced there around the year 1100 spoke the following words of advice:
A prudent man should wear such clothes as may not draw upon him the envy of the lower orders, or the contempt of the higher. [Biog. Dict. III.603]
What he meant by this was that we should not dress, or show wealth, in such a way as to antagonize those who have the power to do us harm. Vanity leads to trouble. It is not just a matter of displaying ostentation. Vanity can express itself in displays of arrogance or emotion. How this can happen is related in the following tale from Arabic literature known as the “Boots of Hunain.” The story has several versions, I am told; but the following version is the one I am familiar with.
An Arab of the desert entered an Iraqi town in search of goods he needed to purchase. He entered a market-place, dismounted from his camel, and began to haggle with a merchant there named Hunain over a pair of boots. The back-and-forth bargaining there did not go well, and the two men were unable to agree on a price. The bedouin became very condescending and furious with Hunain, and began to call him vile names, mocking him in a most insulting manner. The merchant swallowed his anger, and the bedouin left in a fury; he made some other purchases then got on his camel and rode away. The more Hunain began to think about this incident, the more offended he became. He decided to take his revenge.
Hunain took the boots and took them to a road by which the bedouin would have to pass. He set one boot on the ground along the side of the road, and then set the other boot along the road some distance from the first one. He then hid by the side of the road. As the bedouin rode by, he saw the first boot and said, “Look! Here is one of the boots of Hunain. If I see the other, I will take them.” When he saw the second boot, he dismounted from his camel, tied it to a bush, and picked up the boot. He then left his camel and walked back along the road to retrieve the first boot. While he did this, Hunain, who had been hiding, stole the untended camel and all the goods that were loaded on it. The bedouin had to walk back home with nothing but the new boots on his feet. When someone asked him what he had gotten in town, he said, “the boots of Hunain.”
His vanity and arrogance had turned Hunain into an unnecessary enemy. And this carried certain consequences. The expression ” the boots of Hunain” has come to mean disappointment in general, but I think the real significance of the story is its warning about the dangers of vanity. The bedouin created trouble for himself for no other reason than it made him feel good to be rude and insulting.
Another tale from Ibn Khallikan reminds us of the same lesson, but this time with even more tragic results. This tale concerns the family of the famed poet known as Al-Farazdaq. Al-Farazdaq’s real name was Hamman Ibn Ghalib (همام بن غالب), and he lived between 640-730 A.D. The poet’s father Ghalib was a well-know chief of the tribe of Tamim; and he was noted for his deeds of generosity and kindness. One year, the people of Kufa, Iraq were stricken by a famine, and a number of them left the city to live in the surrounding countryside. These refugees gathered together near the desert of Al-Samawa, which in those days was about a day’s journey from Kufa. Ghalib ordered a camel to be slaughtered, and a dish prepared called tharid, which involves bread soaked in broth. His purpose was to try to help the people of Kufa who were in need of food. He sent some of the food to another tribal leader in the area, a man named Suhaim, who was the leader of the Banu Riah.
Instead of being pleased with this gift, Suhaim was angered and offended by it. When the dish was brought to him, he threw it on the ground and growled at the bearer, saying, “Do I look like I need Ghalib’s food? If he kills one camel, I can kill one myself.” At this point there followed an escalating series of livestock killing. The second day, Suhaim slew two camels, and Ghalib did likewise; the next day after this, it was three, and then four. Each chief, trying to save face among his people, tried to outdo the other in generosity. But it was not about generosity any more. It was about glory and pride. Long-submerged feelings of jealousy now came to the fore, and neither one of them could stop.
The famine was eventually over and the people of Kufa went back to their city. Suhaim’s people continued to say to him, “You have shamed us! Why could you not get the better of Ghalib? We would have supplied you with all the camels you needed. For every one he killed, we could have given you two of them.” Soon after this, he decided to slaughter three hundred camels. He presented the meat to his people to eat, acting like some great benefactor, and said, “This is for you…eat it!” Somehow, word of this little drama reached the ears of the caliph in Baghdad, who at that time was Ali Ibn Abi Talib, a man known for his sternness. Hearing of the facts of this tribal squabble, he became more and more angry. He issued his own ruling, and said: “It is not permissible to eat this meat, for the animals were not slaughtered for the purpose of legitimate consumption, but rather to satisfy your vanity and ostentation.” So the meat was collected and cast away like so much refuse; it became the nourishment of “dogs, eagles, and vultures.”
In this way did human vanity cause a tremendous amount of waste and ruin. Pointless squabbling benefited no one. It attracted the attention of the powerful, and the powerful are actuated by their own motives.
Read more in Thirty Seven: