Abu Talib Ibn Zabada was born in Baghdad in 1128 and lived his early life there, although his biographer Ibn Khallikan says his family was based in Wasit. He is described as a poet, jurisprudent, and administrator of exceptional talent and wit; his letters were said to be singularly refined. “His epistles,” says Ibn Khallikan, “are remarkable for the graces of their style, the elegance of their thoughts, the beauty of their ornaments and the delicacy of their allusions. In drawing up dispatches, he paid more attention to the ideas than to the cadence; his letters are elegant, his thoughts just, his poetry good and his merits are so conspicuous that they need not be described.”
He served in a governmental post in Basra until 1179, and in 1187 was appointed mayor of the palace (ustadh al-dar) in Baghdad. “His conduct was exemplary,” says his admiring biographer, “and the line of life which he followed most praiseworthy.” These are not easy feats in any era. I find some of his sayings to be profound, and deal with themes I have written about in other contexts and circumstances. Here he admonishes:
In times of trouble [i.e., times of decadence], the worthless are raised to such eminence that the affliction is general. When tranquil water is agitated, the dregs rise from the bottom.
[Biog. Dict. IV.129]
By this he meant, of course, that during times of stagnation and malaise, the worthless are honored with distinction. This saying describes how he shows his resilience during times of struggle and adversity:
People never ﬁnd me more ﬁrm than when I am in the power of sudden misfortunes. It is thus that the sun does not display all his force till he enters into the Mane of the Lion.
In the quotation above, the phrase “Mane of the Lion” is a poetic term used by the Arabs for a feature on the lunar surface; presumably it means that the sun does not display its full force until such time as it is eclipsed by the moon, or when the moon “highlights” its luminescence. The poet Al-Mustanjid once wrote to Ibn Zabada the following words of advice, which are worth remembering:
If you aspire to command, act uprightly; then, even if you wish to reach the heavens, you will succeed. The [Arabic letter] alif (l), one of the written letters of the alphabet, is placed at the head of the others because it is upright.
This is timeless leadership advice. Another piece of guidance, again written to him by Al-Mustanjid, is this:
Envy not those who are viziers, even though they obtain from their sovereigns, by the favor of fortune, more than they ever expected. Know that a day will come when the solid earth shall sink from under them as it used to sink before them through awe. Aaron, the brother and partner of Moses, would not have been seized by the beard, had he not been his brother’s vizier.
[See Quran 20:94]
There is an anecdote told about Ibn Zabada that he was so highly valued that “no other example is known of a person having a vizirate [i.e., a high ranking government office] sent to him.” When the caliph’s emissaries visited Ibn Zabada to tell him of his appointment, one of them said prophetically to him,
While a great man is living, people hope in him and fear him; but no one knows what is concealed in futurity.
And this is certainly true. He died in 1198, and a funeral service was held for him in the castle at Baghdad. He was buried near the tomb of Musa Ibn Jaafar.
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