The Sultan’s Two Goblets

The medieval Arab traveler Ibn Battuta passed through Persia during his many years of wanderings.  One of the regions he visited there was Lorestan, which is today a province in western Iran, situated in the Zagros mountains.  Lorestan was at that time ruled by Muzaffar Al-Din Afrasiyab, a member of the Hazaraspid dynasty, which was a line of Kurdish Sunni composition.  The sultans who ruled this country carried the title atabek, a hereditary Turkic and Persian title of nobility.

Ibn Battuta made a point of seeking out notable personalities in the places he traveled through.  So, upon arriving in Lorestan, he sought permission to meet Sultan Afrasiyab; but he was told that this might be difficult, on account of the sultan’s unfortunate addiction to alcohol.  The sultan sent Ibn Battuta some gifts of food and money, and asked him to pray for the sultan’s son, who happened to be severely ill at that time.  The traveler was also instructed to “make music and dance” so that others would be encouraged to “pray for the sultan’s son.”  Our chagrined traveler told the attendant that he and his associates were not practiced in music or dancing; instead, he relates that he distributed the gift money among the poor.

He was the next day obliged to attend a “ceremony of condolence” for the sultan, and that all of the local notables and men of learning would be in attendance.  Ibn Battuta tried to decline politely, but was told in no uncertain terms that attendance was not optional.  The ceremony of condolence he witnessed did not please him; for our traveler was a pious man of somewhat inflexible orthodoxy.  He says that the mourners were dressed in sacks of coarse cloth, and that

They were divided into two groups, one group at the top end of the hall and another at its lower end, and each group would advance towards the other, all beating their breasts with their hands and crying khundikarima, which means “our master.”  The spectacle that I witnessed there was an appalling thing and a disgraceful sight, the like of which I have never encountered.  [Trans. by H. Gibb and C. Beckingham]

But it was an incident occurring later that must command our attention here.  A few days after the ceremonies of condolence held for the benefit of the sultan’s son, Ibn Battuta was visited by the same messenger who had previously brought him the hospitality gift.  This servant led him through a portal called the Cypress Gate, and inside a huge fortress:  and there, in one of the rooms, he was brought before the sultan himself, Afrasiyab.  Our traveler describes the scene:

The sultan was sitting on a cushion, with two goblets in front of him which had been covered up, one of gold and the other of silver.  There was in the chamber a green prayer-rug; this was laid out  for me near him, and I sat down on it.  No one else was in the room but his chamberlain, the faqih Mahmud, and a boon companion of his, whose name I do not know.  He put questions to me about myself and my country…and at this juncture there came in a great faqih, who was chief of the doctors of the law in that country, and the sultan said to me, “This is Mawlana Fadil,” for in all the lands of the Persians a faqih is never called by any title other than mawlana, and is so addressed by the sultan and everyone else.

We should note here that the word faqih means a jurisprudent or a religious scholar; and mawlana (lit., “our master”) is a title used for respected clerical figures.  Ibn Battuta writes that the sultan then began to speak in Arabic on various different subjects, and as he did so, it became clear that he was impaired due to the consumption of wine.  At the end of his discourse, the sultan then looked at our Arab traveler and asked him to say something in response:

Afterwards he said to me in Arabic (which he spoke well), “Speak.”  I said to him, “If you will listen to me, I say to you, you are the son of the sultan Atabek Ahmad, who was noted for piety and self-restraint, and there is nothing to be laid against you as a ruler but this”:  and I pointed at the two goblets.  He was overcome with confusion at what I said, and sat silent.  I wished to go but he bade me sit down and said to me, “To meet with men like you is a mercy.”  But then I saw him reeling and on the point of falling asleep, so I withdrew.  I had left my sandals at the door but I could not find them, so the faqih Mahmud went down in search of them [and found them].  His kindness shamed me, and I began to apologize to him, but at that he kissed my sandals, placed them on his head, and said, “God bless you.  What you said to our sultan no one could say but you.  I sincerely hope, by God, that this will make an impression on him.”

It was the sight of the sultan’s two goblets of wine in front of him that induced our foreign traveler to reprimand the sultan.  Everyone within the court had known about the sultan’s drinking problem, but of course no one was able to confront him about it.  As an outsider, Ibn Battuta was able to do something that the others could not do:  speak honestly to power.  It is a well-known idea:  the idea of speaking truth to power at times when no one else will do so.

Yet this saying leaves out the fact that those subject to power need to hear truth as well; instead of saying “Speak truth to power,” we would be better advised to say, “Speak truth to power and those subject to power.”  Contrary to the conventional wisdom, people do not welcome intoxicants to numb themselves to the truth:  people want the truth, and demand the truth, even when it may be unpleasant.  Too many political leaders believe that blandishments, pleasantries, and the rhetoric of concealment will protect them; what they fail to comprehend is that such dishonesty only erodes their authority.  It does nothing to enhance it.  In fact, the truth shatters the power of treacherous obfuscators, and brings ruin down on them.  It is as Tacitus says,

Nevertheless the accusers, if the contingency came about, were visited with punishments. [1]

He who presents the truth must also take care to provide decisive solutions to problems; for being confronted with unvarnished reality, with no plan of action to deal with it, is like being administered a medicine of unrelieved bitterness.  Know, then, that in an age of shirking, mendacity, and obfuscation, he who commands the truth, and knows how to wield it in the service of a righteous cause, grips the hilt of a formidable sword.


[1] Annals VI.30.  Ac tamen accusatores, si facultas incideret, poenis adficiebantur.



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