Fortune May Stumble In Her Gait, But Arrives At Her Destination

Al Fadl Ibn Al Rabi (الفضل بن الربيع), who lived from around A.D. 757 to 823, was a powerful minister of the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad.  He served the caliphs Harun Al Rashid and Al Amin, the sixth Abbasid ruler.  It was during his tenure in office that the caliphate descended into civil war. 

History has not been kind to his legacy; he has been cast as a schemer and an instigator of internecine strife.  Such judgments are easy to pronounce, but difficult to sustain; historians rarely have good things to say about ministers in office on the eve of civil wars.  It is true that Al Rabi became embroiled in an extended power struggle with an influential court faction called the Barmakids, who were of Persian descent.  Al Rabi’s biography, as composed by our trusted friend Ibn Khallikan, portrays him as a hard-headed, practical man of affairs who had no patience for fools.  Another Abbasid official, one Sulayman Ibn Wahb, had this to say about both Al Rabi and the role of fortune in human affairs:

When God wills the destruction of a family or a people and the ruin of their prosperity, he disposes certain causes to effect that purpose.  And one of the causes which contributed to the fall of the Barmakids was their disdain for Al Fadl Ibn Al Rabi.  He therefore wrought against them underhand and having succeeded in forming a close intimacy with [the caliph] Al Rashid, he turned that prince’s heart against them.

[Ibn Khallikan, Bio. Dict. II.469.  Trans. by M. de Slane]

Another anecdote told of him is as follows.  Al Rabi was once working with the Barmakid vizier Yahya Ibn Khalid Al Barmaki.  Al Barmaki was holding court, and examining legal petitions presented to him from various citizens in different provinces.  Decisions were made, and then transcribed by the secretaries present.  Al Rabi entered the room with ten written petitions of his own.  Al Barmaki quickly rejected every one of them on a variety of pretexts.  Stewing with anger, Al Rabi collected his papers and prepared to leave.  But before he did so, it spoke these words to his arrogant antagonist:

Fortune may yet alter her present course and produce some change.  Fortune is apt to stumble in her gait.  She may grant certain wishes, procure satisfaction for certain offences, and replace this state of things by another.

What was the meaning of this opaque pronouncement of Al Rabi?  It seemed to be that, while fortune “is apt to stumble in her gait,” she nevertheless will arrive at a certain destination; and this destination may, or may not, be the one we intend.  The corollary to this idea is that there will always be a price to be paid for irresponsible or unjust behavior.  Where and how this price will be paid, cannot be exactly predicted; but it cannot be avoided. 

When these ominous words were spoken, a nervous silence descended on the room.  We are told that Al Barmaki immediately recalled Al Rabi and granted all of his petitions.  The concealed warning he had spoken had had its effect.  In the same theme, the poet Abu Nuwas once wrote to Al Rabi to console him on the death of the great Harun Al Rashid.  The words are profound and elegantly expressed:

[B]e consoled in thy sorrows over the noblest of the dead by the aspect of the best that ever was or will be among the living.  The vicissitudes of time revolve and now produce evil, now good. The prince who lives repays for the loss of him who is dead and hidden in the dust of the grave; thou hast not suffered by the exchange, neither hath the dead deceived thee by appointing an unworthy successor.


We turn from these ruminations to a more amusing, but not less instructive, anecdote. It is a tale that attests to Al Rabi’s hardheaded practicality and inability to stomach fatuous vanity.  The famous scholar Abd Al Malik Ibn Qurayb Al Asma’i (أبو سعيد عبد الملك ابن قريب الأصمعي), together with an equally noted rival named Abu Ubaida, once paid a visit to Al Rabi.  Al Rabi looked the two men over, and then put this question to Al Asma’i:  “How many volumes, sir, is your treatise on horses?”  Al Asma’i replied, “one volume, Excellency.”  Al Rabi then turned to Abu Ubaida and asked him the same question.  “My work is in fifty volumes, Excellency!” was the reply. 

And so Al Rabi decided to test this man.  He ordered a horse to be brought in.  Turning to Abu Ubaida, the minister said, “Sir, I would like you to approach that horse, and put your hands on each of his body parts, while at the same time, giving their appropriate names.”  Beads of sweat began to appear on Abu Ubaida’s brow.  He stammered, “Excellency, I am not a blacksmith!  Everything I have written on this subject was provided to me by the Arabs of the desert [who were traditionally considered experts on horses].”  Clearly, he was not able to carry out Al Rabi’s instructions.

The same request was made of Al Asma’i.  He calmly walked up to the animal, placed his hands on the horse’s mane, gave its name, and repeated verses of Arabic poetry that corresponded to each body part.  He then proceeded to do this for the other parts of the horse.  Abu Ubaida was humiliated.  Al Rabi, greatly pleased, gave Al Asma’i the horse to take with him as a gift.  Abu Ubaida got nothing, and was dismissed.  “Whenever I wished to annoy Abu Ubaida,” said Al Asma’i later, “I would ride on that horse to visit him.” 

So does fortune cause us to arrive at unexpected, and perhaps unpleasant, destinations.  We will provide one final anecdote that conjoins with these themes.  Our source is chapter XIX of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.  The Roman emperor Julian, in his campaigns against the Germans in 358 A.D., defeated the Chamavi, an obscure Teutonic tribe on the border with Gaul.  When he made peace with the Chamavi, Julian made them turn over the king’s son as a hostage to ensure the maintenance of the peace.  This they unwillingly did.  They assumed that the Romans would execute the young man.  But Julian was not such a man.  Before a delegation of Chamavi, he produced the boy; they responded to this revelation with joy and shock.  Julian then said to them, in Gibbon’s stately prose:

Behold the son, the prince, whom you wept.  You had lost him by your fault.  God and the Romans have restored him to you.  I shall still preserve and educate the youth, rather as a monument of my own virtue than as a pledge of your sincerity.  Should you presume to violate the faith which you have sworn, the arms of the republic will avenge the perfidy, not on the innocent, but on the guilty. 

He then dismissed them. With these words Julian showed the Chamavi delegation that he excelled them not just in martial prowess, but also in moral virtue.  He would educate the boy as his own, since he himself valued the civilizing grace of scholarship and the timeless wisdom it imparts; and should they break the peace, he would not avenge himself on his innocent captive, but on those who had broken it.  Fortune, which had perhaps stumbled in her gait, had nevertheless arrived at her destination.   



Read more on these themes, and others like them, in the essay collection Digest:



One thought on “Fortune May Stumble In Her Gait, But Arrives At Her Destination

  1. This Roman policy of raising the sons of Barbarian chiefs, and then returning them when mature, also had the advantage of placing half-Romanized men in a prominent position amongst the tribes; as did also the practice of using barbarian auxiliary troops. Sometimes this policy backfired, as in the case of Hermann (Arminius) of the Cherusci who obtained both citizenship and equestrian status with the Romans; but then went on to destroy three Roman legions in the Teutoberg Forest in 9 B.C.


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