We all know that the ability to think on one’s feet is an important skill. There may even be times when this ability makes the difference between survival and execution. The amusing anecdote that follows appears in Ibn Khallikan’s biographical sketch (IV.200) of a government official and administrator (مولى) named Yazid Ibn Abi Muslim, who served under an Umayyad governor of Iraq named Al-Hajjaj Ibn Yusuf (c. 661—714 A.D.).
Ibn Abi Muslim was appointed by his patron Al-Hajjaj to handle the administration of the land-tax (kharaj) in Iraq. But Al-Hajjaj eventually died, and his successors did not much care for Ibn Abi Muslim. Such falls from favor are not uncommon in the corridors of power. One of these successors was the caliph Suleiman, who removed Ibn Abi Muslim from office on suspicion of graft, and in his place appointed a man named Yazid Ibn Al-Muhallab. Abi Muslim was thrown into prison; he was eventually brought before the caliph in shackles, with a wooden collar (جامعة) binding his neck and hands. He is described as presenting a terrible appearance to the irritated ruler: ugly (دميم) and disheveled. The dialogue between the caliph and the accused ran thus:
“Are you Yazid Ibn Abi Muslim?” said Suleiman.
“I am,” said the other. “And may God guide the Commander of the Faithful!”
But Suleiman was not amused. Glaring at his prey, he said, “May the curse of God be upon him who entrusted you with a position of responsibility!”
“Commander of the Faithful! Do not wish for this. You are seeing me now that things have turned out badly for me. But if you had seen me during better times, you would admire me, instead of scorning me.”
Suleiman, not being used to such responses, said, “A curse be on this man, who has such a pointed tongue and fast answers! Tell me, Yazid, is your old patron Al-Hajjaj still falling down into hell, or has he reached the bottom of it already?”
“By God, Commander of the Faithful! Speak not in this way. For Al-Hajjaj was a friend to your friends, and a foe to your foes. He shed his blood for you, and on the Day of Resurrection his place will be on the right hand of Abd Al-Malik and the left of Al-Walid [two Umayyad caliphs]. You may place him where you think fit.”
There was something about this quickly-delivered, cogent answer that caught Suleiman’s attention. He paused for a moment to think, and then said, “By God, how devoted this man is to the memory of his former patron. It is men of such loyalty that make good administrators.”
But one of the caliph’s attendants, seeing where things were headed, whispered to Suleiman, “Sire, you should get rid of this man. Do not spare him.” Ibn Abi Muslim saw what was happening and grew incensed. He asked to know the name of this devious courtier who was maneuvering to have him executed. Upon being told, he said angrily, “By God, I’ve been told that his mother didn’t always have her ears hidden by her hair.”
A punishment for being a prostitute in that era was the cutting off of the hair. So by this comment, he was calling the courtier’s mother an ex-prostitute. When the caliph heard this retort, he became convulsed with laughter, and ordered the prisoner to be released. He later ordered an investigation into whether Abi Muslim had been guilty of misconduct or graft; but no evidence of this could be found. This knowledge confirmed his belief that the man had been unjustly accused.
Read more in the new translation of Lives of the Great Commanders: