A Boswell of Baghdad - With Diversions
by E. V. Lucas
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The Pocket Edition of the Works of Charles Lamb: I. Miscellaneous Prose; II. Elia; III. Children's Books; IV. Poems and Plays; V. and VI. Letters.







This Book was First Published September 20th 1917

Second Edition December 1917

Third Edition 1918






NO. 344260 99
























NOTE 245




A curious and very entertaining work lies before me, or, to be more accurate, ramparts me, for it is in four ponderous volumes, capable, each, even in less powerful hands than those of the Great Lexicographer, of felling a bookseller. At these volumes I have been sipping, beelike, at odd times for some years, and I now propose to yield some of the honey—the season having become timely, since the great majority of the heroes of its thousands of pages hail from Baghdad; and Baghdad, after all its wonderful and intact Oriental past, is to-day under Britain's thumb.

The title of the book is Ibn Khallikan's Biographical Dictionary, translated from the Arabic by Bn Mac Guckin de Slane, and printed in Paris for the Oriental Translation Fund of Great Britain and Ireland, 1842-71, some centuries after it was written, for its author was dead before Edward II ascended the English throne. Who would expect Sir Sidney Lee to have had so remote an exemplar?

Remote not only in time but in distance. For although we may go to the East for religions and systems of philosophy that were old and proved worthy centuries before Hellenism or Christianity, yet we do not usually find there models for our works of reference. Hardly does Rome give us those. But there is an orderliness and thoroughness about Ibn Khallikan's methods which the Dictionary of National Biography does not exceed. The Persian may be more lenient to floridity ("No flowers, by request," was, it will be remembered, the first English editor's motto), but in his desire to leave out no one who ought to be in and to do justice to his inclusions he is beyond praise.

The modernity of the ancients is continually surprising us. It is one of the phenomena to which we are never quite inured (and could we be so we should perhaps merely substitute the antiquity of the moderns as a new source of wonder), but towards such inuring Ibn Khallikan should certainly help, since he was eminently a gossip, and in order to get human nature's fidelity to the type—no matter where found, whether aeons ago or to-day, whether in savage lands or, as we say, civilized—brought home to us, it is to the gossips that we must resort: to the Pepyses and Boswells rather than to the Goethes and Platos; to the little recorders rather than the great thinkers. The small traits tell.

Ibn Khallikan's Dictionary is as interesting as it is, not because its author had any remarkable instinct as a biographer, or any gift of selection, but because if a man sets out to take account of everything, much human nature and a little excellence are bound to creep in.

I do not pretend to have dug in these volumes with any great seriousness. My object has been to extract what was odd and simple and most characteristic, in short, what was most human, and there is enough residuum for a horde of other miners. But I warn them that the dross is considerable. Ibn Khallikan's leniency to trivialities is incorrigible, and his pages are filled with pointless anecdotes, dull sayings, and poetry whose only recommendation is its richness in the laboured conceits that he loved. So much did he esteem them that were, say, all English intellectual effort in every direction at his disposal to descant upon, his favourite genius would probably be John Lyly.

But although most of the poetry admired and quoted by Ibn Khallikan is marked by affectation, now and then—but very rarely—it is beautifully simple. Thus, in one of the poems of Ibn Zuhr, a learned Moslim teacher and physician of Spain (1113-99), is expressed, with a tenderness and charm that no modern or no Greek of the Anthology could exceed, the ardent desire which he felt for the sight of his child, from whom he happened to be separated: I have a little one, a tender nestling, with whom I have left my heart. I dwell far from him; how desolate I feel in the absence of that little person and that little face. He longs for me, and I long for him; for me he weeps, and I weep for him. Our affectionate wishes are weary with passing from him to me, from me to him.


Let me say something as to who Ibn Khallikan was. His father, Muhammad Ibn Ibrahim, was professor in the college at Arbela founded by Kukuburi, or the Blue Wolf, the governor of that city and the region of which it was the capital, the brother-in-law of Salah Ad-Din, the sultan, whom we in England know as Saladin, the enemy of the Cross, and the son of Ali Ibn Bektikin, known as "Little Ali, the Ornament of Religion." Kukuburi, who, although standing for the Crescent and all that was most abhorrent to our Crusaders, was famous as a founder of asylums, schools, hospitals for the blind, homes for widows, orphanages, and so forth, made special favourites of the family of which Ibn Khallikan was a scion. Ibn himself was born on September 22, 1211, and before he was two had begun instruction by his father and was the recipient of a certificate from Zainab, a very learned lady, stating that he was an industrious pupil.

In 1229, after having already read and studied much, particularly theology and law, Ibn Khallikan left Arbela with his brother and entered the college at Aleppo, then an educational centre, remaining until 1234. After this he moved from one place to another, always seeking more knowledge, until 1247-8, when he is found at Cairo occupying a seat in the imperial tribunal and acting as deputy for the kadi Sinjar, chief judge and magistrate of all Egypt. Later he himself became the kadi of Al-Mahalla, and by 1256, when he was forty-five, he had married, become a father, and had completed the first copy of his Biographical Dictionary, which was, of course, as we must always remember in connexion with the books mentioned in these Lives, a manuscript.

In 1261 he was appointed chief kadi over all the provinces of Syria, with his tribunal at Damascus, in which post he remained for ten years. He was not, however, sole kadi for long, as three others were appointed to assist him: a development that was meat and drink to the local satirists, one of whom wrote: The men of Damascus are bewildered with the multitude of legal decisions. Their kadis are all suns, and yet they are in the dark. Another said: The people of Damascus have witnessed a perfect miracle: the greater the number of suns the more the world is in the dark. Being found wanting, and replaced, Ibn Khallikan took a professorship in Cairo, learned by heart further enormous quantities of poetry, and engaged in literary discussions which, judging by a specimen given in one of his Lives, were even more futile than discussions usually are.

The vicissitudes of fortune, always noticeably extreme in the East, brought him again to be kadi at Damascus in 1278, when his reappointment was signalized by public ceremonies, including the composition by numberless poets of congratulatory and adulatory verses, which must have been very dear to his simple old heart, and not the less so because he may have discovered from his astonishing repertory that not all were strictly original: such discoveries and the tracing back of the loans to their fount being the greatest of his pleasures.

Thereafter, until the year 1281, the Kadi lived with much honour, famed as the most learned and widely-read personage in Damascus, filling his house with scholars and discursive amateurs of verse, and engaging in conversations that are described by a friend as "most instructive, being entirely devoted to learned investigations and the elucidation of obscure points."

But Ibn Khallikan, who was now nearing three-score years and ten, was destined still to misfortune, for suddenly, in 1281, he was deposed from his kadi-ship and, more than that, thrown into prison on the charge of having made a remark detrimental to the sultan, Kalavun. A pardon soon after arriving, he was liberated and again reinstated; but after ten more months as a kadi he was, in 1282, dismissed finally, and this time he refused ever more to leave his house, and died there in the same year.

Not a word (you will say) so far as to Baghdad. But although Ibn Khallikan spent most of his life in Egypt or Syria, the greater number of his heroes were, as I have said, citizens all of the city of the romance which recently has fallen to Sir Stanley Maude's gallant forces. Yet of the romance which we shall always associate with Baghdad he knew nothing. To him it was delectable (and perhaps even romantic too—each of us having his own conception of what romance is) because grave bearded men there taught religion, explained the Koran, disputed as to points of grammar, exchanged sarcasms and swapped verses. Not, however, as I hope to show, unamusingly.

What indeed I particularly like about the book is the picture that it gives of sardonic pleasantry and intellectual and sophisticated virtuosity going quietly on side by side with all the splendours and barbarities of absolute autocracy and summary jurisdiction. It throws a new or unaccustomed light on those days. Not even yet—not even in Bloomsbury, where the poets meet—have we in England anything quite like it; whereas when Baghdad and Damascus were the theatres of these poetical and hair-splitting competitions our ancestors had but just got the woad off.


Those of us who know Baghdad only through the Arabian Nights and the ingenious productions of Mr. Oscar Asche, were not prepared for such a complete foreshadowing of the literary life and the literary temperament as Ibn Khallikan gives us.

Here, for example, is a poem by a book-lover—or manuscript-lover, to be more exact—written by Ibn Faris Ar-Razi, the philologer, who died before the Norman Conquest, which a later Occidental can cheerfully accept and could not much improve upon: They asked me how I was. I answered: "Well, some things succeed and some fail; when my heart is filled with cares I say: 'One day perhaps they may be dispelled.' A cat is my companion; books, the friends of my heart; and a lamp, my beloved consort." That is modern enough! Something of this kind, which is an earlier version of Omar Khayyam's famous recipe for earthly bliss, has often been attempted since by our own poets; but nothing better. Favourite books, a lighted lamp, a faithful cat, and the library were paradise enow. It is odd, by the way, that Omar Khayyam himself, although his dates qualify him, is not found in this work. But to make tents, even with leanings towards astronomy, was no high road to Ibn Khallikan's sympathies. Had Omar explained the Koran or had views on the suffixes of words, all would have been well.

While on the subject of sufficient paradises let me quote some verses by Ibn Sukkara Al-Hashimi, a famous Baghdad poet of the tenth century: The winter set in, and I provided myself with seven things necessary when the rain prevents us from pursuing our usual occupations. These things are: A shelter, a purse, a stove, a cup of wine preceded by a bit of meat, a tender maid, and a cloak.

Ibn Khallikan does not let it stop there, but fishes up from his memory a derivative, by Ibn Al-Taawizi, running thus: When seven things are collected together in the drinking-room, it is not reasonable to stay away. These are: Roast meat, a melon, honey, a young girl, wax-lights, a singer to delight us, and wine.

So much for the modernity and sense of comfort of the Persian author, as he flourished in Baghdad all those years ago. But there was then still more in publishing than yet meets the eye. The books of the juriconsult, Al-Mawardi, for example, reached posterity almost by chance. While he lived he did not publish any of his works but put them all up together in safety. On the approach of death, however, he said to a person who possessed his confidence: "The books in such a place were composed by me, but I abstained from publishing them, because I suspected, although my intention in writing them was to work in God's service, that that feeling, instead of being pure, was sullied by baser motives. Therefore, when you perceive me on the point of death and falling into agony, take my hand in yours, and if I press it, you will know thereby that none of these works has been accepted [by God] from me. In this case, you must take them all and throw them by night into the Tigris. But if I open my hand and close it not, that is the sign of their having been accepted, and that my hope in the admission of my intention as sincere and pure, has been fulfilled."

"When Al-Mawardi's death drew near," said his friend, "I took him by the hand, and he opened it without closing it on mine, whence I knew that his labours had been accepted, and I then published his works."—But what a responsibility for a friend!

Penmanship being, of course, the only medium between author and readers in those days, it follows that calligraphy was held in high esteem, and among famous calligraphers was Kabus Ibn Wushmaghir, who, although "the greatest of princes, the star of the age, and the source of justice and beneficence," thought it worth while (as all mighty rulers have not) to write a most beautiful hand. When the Sahib Ibn Abbad saw pieces in his handwriting, he used to say: "This is either the writing of Kabus or the wing of a peacock"; and he would then recite these verses of Al-Mutanabbi's: In every heart is a passion for his handwriting; it might be said that the ink which he employed was a cause of love. His presence is a comfort for every eye, and his absence an affliction.

The extraordinary literary activity of those times may be illustrated by the following passage dropped casually into the biographical notice of Ali Talib: "The grandson of this thief was the famous Al-Asmai, the philologer, who composed treatises on the following subjects: the human frame; the different species of animals; on the anwa, or influence of the stars on the weather; on the letter hamza; on the long and the short elif; on the difference between the names given to the members of the human body and those given to the same members in animals; on epithets; on the doors of tents; on games of chance played with arrows; on the frame of the horse; on horses; on camels; on sheep; on tents; on wild beasts; on the first and fourth form of certain verbs; on proverbs; on words bearing each two opposite significations; a vocabulary; on weapons; on dialects; on the springs of water frequented by the nomadic Arabs; a collection of anecdotes; on the principles of discourse; on the heart; on synonymous terms; on the Arabian peninsula; on the formation of derivative words; on the ideas which usually occur in poetry; on nouns of action; on rajaz verses; on the palm-tree; on plants; on homonymous terms; on the obscure expressions met with in the Traditions; on the witticisms of the desert Arabs." Ibn closes the list with the word "etc." The late John Timbs could hardly beat this record of industry and versatility.

There is hope for authors in the following story of Ibn Al-Khashshab, who knew the Koran by heart and was a scholar of considerable attainments. "When he died," says the Katib Imad Ad-Din, "I was in Syria, and I saw him one night in a dream, and said to him: 'How has God treated thee?'

"'Well,' he replied.

"'Does God show mercy to literary men?'


"'And if they have been remiss?'

"'A severe reprimand will be given, but,' Al-Khashshab was moved to add, and let us never forget it, 'then will come eternal happiness.'"

There are other scraps of consolation, scattered about the volumes, which apply not alone to men of letters. The Prophet, for example, once said: "Every lie shall be written down as a lie by the recording angels, with the exception of three: a lie told in order to reconcile two men; a lying promise made by a man to his wife; and a lie in which a man, when engaged in war, makes a promise or a threat."

But the most solacing sentiment in the whole four volumes is by the poet Abu Nuwas Ibn Hani, who carried Hedonism very far: Multiply thy sins to the utmost, for thou art to meet an indulgent Lord. When thou comest before Him, thou shalt behold mercy and meet the great, the powerful King. Then thou shalt gnaw thy hands with regret, for the pleasures which thou avoidedst through fear of hell.—It is, says Ibn Khallikan, a "very fine and original thought." It could certainly be a very stimulating one.


Grammarians and Traditionists (both given also to poesy) being Ibn Khallikan's real heroes, let me say something of each. A Traditionist was a learned man intimate with the Koran, whose duty it was to separate the spurious traditions which so naturally would have collected around such a figure as Muhammad from the true. As to the importance of the Koran in Moslim life and its place as the foundation of all Moslim learning, let the translator of Ibn Khallikan be heard. "The necessity," he says, "of distinguishing the genuine Traditions from the false gave rise to new branches of literature. A just appreciation of the credit to which each Traditionist was entitled could only be formed from a knowledge of his moral character, and this could be best estimated from an examination of his life. Hence the numerous biographical works arranged in chronological order and containing short accounts of the principal Traditionists and doctors of the law, with the indication of their tutors and their pupils, the place of their birth and residence, the race from which they sprung, and the year of their death. This again led Moslim critics to the study of genealogy and geography. The use of writing existed in Arabia before the promulgation of Islamism, but grammar was not known as an art till the difficulty of reciting the Koran correctly induced the khalif Ali to make it an object of his attention. He imposed on Abu 'l-Aswad Ad-Duwali the task of drawing up such instructions as would enable the Moslims to read their sacred book and speak their language without making gross faults."

Another version of the beginnings of grammar eliminates the khalif Ali altogether. The story goes that as Abu 'l-Aswad Ad-Duwali (603-88) entered his house on a certain day, one of his daughters said to him: "Papa! what is most beautiful in the sky?"

To this he answered: "Its stars."

But she replied: "Papa, I do not mean what is the most beautiful object in it; I was only expressing my admiration at its beauty."

"In that case you must say," he observed, "'How beautiful is the sky!'"

Upon thinking this over, says Ibn Khallikan, Abu 'l-Aswad invented the art of grammar.

Abu 'l-Aswad Ad-Duwali thus is the father of this book, for had there been no grammarians I am sure that Ibn Khallikan would never have written it. Poetry tickled him; but grammar was his chief delight, as it was the chief delight of all his friends and, one gathers, of all Baghdad. Here is an example: "Al-Mamun, having asked Al-Yazidi about something, received from him this answer: 'No; and may God accept my life as a ransom for yours, Commander of the Faithful!'

"'Well said!' exclaimed the khalif. 'Never was the word and better placed than in the praise which you have just uttered.'" He then made him a present.

We get an insight both into the passion for the new science of grammar and what might be called the physical humour of the East in this anecdote. Abu Safwan Khalid Ibn Safwan, a member of the tribe of Tamim, was celebrated as an eloquent speaker. He used to visit Bilal Ibn Abi Burda and converse with him, but his language was frequently ungrammatical. This grew at length so irksome that Bilal said to him: "O Khalid! you make me narrations fit for khalifs to hear, but you commit as many faults against grammar as the women who carry water in the streets."

Stung with this reproach, Khalid went to learn grammar at the mosque, and some time after lost his sight. From that period, whenever Bilal rode by in state, he used to ask who it was, and on being answered that it was the Emir, he would say: "There goes a summer-cloud, soon to be dispelled."

When this was told to Bilal, he exclaimed: "By Allah! it shall not be dispelled till he get a full shower from it;" and he then ordered him a whipping of two hundred strokes.

When books were so few and most learning came through the ear, memory had to be cultivated. The Traditionist, Ibn Rahwaih, was a Macaulay in his way. "I know," he used to say, "by heart seventy thousand traditions; I have read one hundred thousand, and can recollect in what work each is to be found. I never heard anything once without learning it by heart, nor learned anything by heart which I afterwards forgot."

The sittings of the teacher, Ibn Al-Aarabi (767-846), who knew by heart more poetry than any man ever seen, were crowded by people anxious for instruction. Abu 'l-Abbas Thalah said: "I attended the sittings held by Ibn Al-Aarabi, and saw there upwards of one hundred persons, some asking him questions and others reading to him; he answered every question without consulting a book. I followed his lessons upwards of ten years, and I never saw him with a book in his hand; and yet he dictated to his pupils camel-loads of philological information."

The grammarian Moad Ibn Muslim Al-Harra left some good poetry, which he gave as having been uttered by genii, demons and female demons. The caliph Ar-Raschid once said to him: "If thou sawest what thou hast described, thou hast seen wonders; if not, thou hast composed a nice piece of literature."

An-Nahhas the grammarian who, on being given a turban-cloth, would cut it into three from avarice, met his death, in 950, in an unfortunate manner—being, although living in so remote a period, mistaken for a "profiteer." I quote Ibn Khallikan's words: "He had seated himself on the staircase of the Nilometer, by the side of the river, which was then on the increase, and began to scan some verses according to the rules of prosody, when a common fellow who heard him said: 'This man is pronouncing a charm to prevent the overflow of the Nile, so as to raise the price of provisions.' He then thrust him with his foot into the river and nothing more was heard of him."

Not all these learned men were philosophical, even though they were philosophers. Abu Nizar Ibn Safi Malik An-Nuhat assumed the title "Prince of Grammarians," but if any other name was given to him by those addressing him he would fly into a passion.

The old fellows could be superstitious too. It is amusing to read that Abu Obaida, when repeating passages of the Koran or relating Traditions, made mistakes designedly: "For," said he, "grammar brings ill luck."


After grammar, prosody. That a falling apple should lead Sir Isaac Newton's thoughts to the problem of gravity is not so remarkable, but that the laws of prosody should result from an equally capricious occurrence strikes one as odd. I mention the discoverer's name partly that schoolboys may remember him, or not, in their prayers. It was Al-Khalil Ibn Ahmad who, at Mecca, had besought Allah to bestow upon him a science hitherto unknown. Allah being in a complaisant mood, it followed that not long after, walking in the bazaar, Al-Khalil invented prosody as he passed a coppersmith's and heard him hammering a basin.

Once started on his career as an inventor, he continued; but a later discovery cost him dear, for having resolved on devising "a method of calculation so simple that any servant girl who knew it could go to a shopkeeper's without incurring the least possible risk of being deceived by him in the sum she would have to pay, he entered the mosque with his thoughts occupied on the subject, and he there struck against a pillar, which his preoccupation hindered him from perceiving. The violence of the shock threw him on his back, and death was the result."

Al-Khalil used to remark that a man's reason and intelligence reached perfection when he attained the age of forty, the age of the Prophet when God sent him forth on his mission; but that they undergo alteration and diminution when the man reaches sixty, the age in which God took the Prophet's soul to himself. He said, again, that the intelligence is clearest at the dawn of day.


No matter what the profession or calling of these Persians—whether they were lawyers or lawgivers, grammarians or warriors—they all, or almost all, adored verbal felicity and tried their hands at verse. Poetry may be called the gold dust on their lives.

Ibn Nubata the poet knew how to say thank you. Saif Ad-Dawlat Ibn Hamdan having given him a horse, this is how he acknowledged it: O prince! thou whose generous qualities are the offspring of thy natural disposition, and whose pleasing aspect is the emblem of thy mind, I have received the present which thou sentest me, a noble steed whose portly neck seems to unite the heavens to the earth on which he treads. Hast thou then conferred a government upon me, since thou sendest me a spear to which a flowing mane serves as a banner? We take possession of what thou hast conferred and find it to be a horse whose forehead and legs are marked with white, and whose body is so black that a single hair extracted from that colour would suffice to form night's darkest shades. It would seem that the morning had struck him on the forehead and thus made it white, for which reason he took his revenge by wading into the entrails of the morning, and thus whitening his legs. He paces slowly, yet one of his names is Lightning; he wears a veil, having his face covered with white, as if to conceal it, and yet beauty itself would be his only rival. Had the sun and the moon a portion only of his ardour, it would be impossible to withstand their heat. The eye cannot follow his movements, unless you rein him in and restrain his impetuosity. The glances of the eye cannot seize all his perfections, unless the eye be led away captive by his beauty and be thus enabled to follow him.—I like the extravagance of that. So should the friend of man be extolled.

Emirs did not disdain to be poets. Majd Ad-Din Al-Mubarak Ibn Munkid, although at once "The Sword of the Empire" and "The Glory of Religion," wrote poetry, and not always on the most exalted themes. Among his poems, for example, is one on fleas, in which those insects, of which Emirs should know nothing, are thus described: A race whom man is permitted to slay, and who profane the blood of the pilgrim, even in the sanctuary. When my hand sheds their blood, it is not their own, but mine, which is shed. "It is thus," says Ibn Khallikan gravely, "that these two verses were recited and given as his, by Izz Ad-Din Abu 'l-Kasim Abd Allah Ibn Abi Ali Al-Husain Ibn Abi Muhammad Abd Allah Ibn Al-Husain Ibn Rawaha Ibn Ibrahim Ibn Abd Allah Ibn Rawaha Ibn Obaid Ibn Muhammad Ibn Abd Allah Ibn Rawaha Al-Ansari, a native of Hamat."

Ibn Khallikan's greed for poetry led him, as I have said, not only to quote most things that he could remember of each poet, but to cite also the poems of which those reminded him. Sometimes he quoted before he was sure of the author; but it made no difference. Thus, of Al-Farra the grammarian he says: "No verses have been handed down as his excepting the following, which were given by Abu-Hanifa Ad-Dinauri on the authority of Abu Bakr At-Tuwal: Lord of a single acre of ground, you have nine chamberlains! You sit in an old ruin and have door-keepers who exclude visitors! Never did I hear of a door-keeper in a ruined dwelling! Never shall the eyes of men see me at a door of yours; a man like me is not made to support repulses from door-keepers." Having got his quotation safely into print, Ibn Khallikan adds: "I since discovered that these verses are attributed to Ibn Musa 'l-Makfuf. God knows best!" It is a charming way of writing biography. The grass does not grow upon the weir more easily. With such a rectifying or excusatory phrase as "God knows best" one can hazard all. And how difficult it is to be the first to say anything!

Here is a poem by an Emir's vizier, Al-Wazi Al-Maghribi: I shall relate to you my adventure, and adventures are of various kinds. I one night changed my bed and was abandoned by repose; tell me then how I shall be on the first night which I pass in the grave?

Another vizier, Ibn Al-Amid, the katib, who lived in the eleventh century, wrote as follows: Choose your friends among strangers, and take not your near relations into favour. Relations are like scorpions or even more noxious. Asked which was the worse of his two recurring maladies, gout or colic, he replied: "When the gout attacks me I feel as if I were between the jaws of a lion devouring me, mouthful by mouthful; when the colic visits me, I would willingly exchange it for the gout."

Poetry in those days ran in families. The family which had the greatest skill in the art was that of Hassan Ibn Abi Hafsa, for it produced six persons, in succession, all of them poets. These were: Said, his father Abd Ar-Rahman, his father Hassan, his father Thabit, his father Al-Mundir, and his father Hizam. Abd Ar-Rahman began very young. It is related that having been stung by a wasp, he went crying to his father, who asked what was the matter. He replied: "I have been stung by a flying thing, dressed, as it were, in a double cloak of striped cloth."

"By Allah!" exclaimed the delighted father, recognizing a chip of the old block, "thou hast there pronounced a verse."

The family of Abi Hafsa came next to that of Hassan in poetical gifts. The reason was, according to one statement, that they could "all touch the point of their nose with their tongue, and this denotes a talent for speaking with elegance and precision." "God knows," Ibn Khallikan adds, "how far that may be true!"

It was Marwan Ibn Abi Hafsa, of this family, who made such a mistake (in a poet depending on the beneficence of the exalted) as to commit himself to the sweeping statement, in his elegy on the death of Maan, the Emir, that patronage had died with him. "It is said," Ibn Khallikan relates, "that Marwan, after composing this elegy, could never gain anything by his verses, for, as often as he celebrated the praises of a khalif or of any other person less elevated in rank, he to whom the poem was addressed would say to him: 'Did you not say, in your famous elegy: Whither should we go, since Maan is dead? Presents have ceased and are not to be replaced?' So the person he meant to praise would not give him anything nor even listen to his poem."

But once—having the persistency of the needy—Abi Hafsa scored. The story goes that, entering into the presence of the khalif Al-Mahdi with a number of other poets, he recited to him a panegyric.

"Who art thou?" said the khalif.

"Thy humble poet, Marwan, the son of Abi Hafsa."

"Art thou," said the khalif with great presence of mind, remembering the poet's useful indiscretion, "not he who said: Whither should we go, since Maan is dead? and yet thou hast come to ask gifts from us! Presents have ceased; we have nothing for thee. Trail him out by the leg!"

They trailed him out by the leg, but, twelve months later, Marwan once more contrived to gain admittance with the other poets, who, at that time, were allowed to enter into the khalif's presence once a year. He then stood before him and recited the kasada which begins thus: A female visitor came to thee by night; salute her fleeting image.

Al-Mahdi at first listened in silence, but as the poet proceeded, he became gradually more and more agitated, till at length "he rolled on the carpet with delight."

He then asked how many verses were in the poem and, on being answered, "One hundred," he ordered the author a—present of one hundred thousand pieces of silver.

The poet Ibn Ar-Rumi met his necessary end with composure. Al-Kasim Ibn Obaid Allah Ibn Sulaiman Ibn Wahb, the vizier of Al-Motadid, dreading to incur the satirical attacks of this writer and the outbursts of his malignant tongue, suborned a person called Ibn Firas, who gave him a poisoned biscuit whilst he was sitting in company with the vizier.

When Ibn Ar-Rumi had eaten it, he perceived that he was poisoned, and he rose to withdraw; on which the vizier said to him: "Where are you going?"

"To the place," replied Ibn Ar-Rumi, "where you sent me."

"Well," observed the vizier, "you will present my respects to my father."

"I am not taking the road to hell," retorted the poet.

Another poet, Ibn Sara As-Shantarini, falling upon evil days, became a bookbinder. As such he wrote the following poem: The trade of a bookbinder is the worst of all; its leaves and its fruits are nought but disappointment. I may compare him that follows it to a needle, which clothes others but is naked itself!


The Patron was a very real factor in the poetical life of Baghdad.

Here is a story told by the poet Abu Bakr Ibn Al-Allaf. "I had passed a night at the palace of Al-Motadid with a number of his other companions, when a eunuch came to us and said: 'The Commander of the Faithful sends to tell you that, after you withdrew, he did not feel inclined to sleep, and composed this verse: When the vision of my mistress, fleeting through the shades of night, awoke me, behold! my chamber was deserted, and far off was the place of our meeting. He says also,' continued the eunuch, 'that he cannot complete the piece, and will give a rich present to anyone who adds to it a second couplet to his satisfaction.'

"Those who were present failed in accomplishing the task, although they were all poets of talent, on which I," says Abu Bakr, "hastened to pronounce the following verse: On this I said to my eyes: 'Sleep again; perhaps the vision, in its night visits, may return to me!'"

The eunuch then retired, bearing Abu Bakr's not very remarkable effort with him, and having come back, said: "The Commander of the Faithful declares that your verse is perfect, and he has ordered you a present."

Sometimes the passion for verse enjoyed and encouraged by these courtly gentleman seems to reach absurd lengths. Thus Abu Tammam At-Tai, the poet, once recited to the Emir Abu Dolad Al-Ijli the following lines: At the sight of dwellings abandoned like these, and places of joyous meetings now deserted, our tears, long treasured up, were shed in torrents!

Abu Dolad so admired the piece that he gave the poet fifty thousand dirhems, saying: "By Allah! it is less than your poem is worth; and that idea is only surpassed in beauty by your elegy on the death of Muhammad Ibn Hamid At-Tusi."

"Which," asked Abu Tammam, "does the Emir mean?"

"Why," said Abu Dolad, "your poem commencing thus: Now let misfortune do its worst, and time inflict its evils! There is no excuse for eyes which have not shed their tears. I wish, by Allah! that this elegy had been composed by you on me."

"Nay!" said the poet, "may I and my family die to save the Emir, and may I leave the world before you!"

To this Abu Dolad replied: "He whose death is deplored in verses like those is immortal."

Surely the palmy days of poetry have passed away. How one would like to think of Mr. Kipling, say, being summoned to Buckingham Palace to speak a piece and retiring with a cheque for L1025, which is what fifty thousand dirhems come to.

Gratitude, even when it is excessive, is always a good theme. In the following case the proportions were respected with more fitness. Al-Wazir Al-Muhallabi was both vizier and poet. He was also a very poor vegetarian, and once, on a journey, being unable to obtain flesh-food, he recited extempore these verses: Where is death sold, that I may buy it? for this life is devoid of good. Oh! let death, whose taste to me is sweet, come and free me from a detested life! When I see a tomb from afar, I wish to be its inhabitant. May the Being who granteth tranquillity have compassion on the soul of the generous man who will bestow death, as a charity, upon one of his brethren! These verses being heard by a person who was travelling in the same caravan with him, and whose name was Abd Allah As-Sufi (or, by another account, Abu 'l-Hasan Al-Askalani), he bought for Al-Muhallabi a dirhem's worth of meat, cooked it, and gave it to him to eat.

"They then," says Ibn, "separated, and Al-Muhallabi having experienced a change of fortune, became vizier to Moizz Ad-Dawlat at Baghdad, while the person who had travelled with him and purchased the meat for him was reduced to poverty. Having then learned that Al-Muhallabi was a vizier, he set out to find him and wrote to him these lines: Repeat to the vizier, for whose life I would sacrifice my own—repeat to him the words of one who reminds him of what he has forgotten. Do you remember when, in a life of misery, you said: 'Where is death sold, that I may buy it?' The vizier on reading the note recollected the circumstance, and, moved with the joy of doing a generous action, he ordered seven hundred dirhems to be given to the writer, and inscribed these words on the paper: The similitude of those who lay out their substance in the service of God is as a grain of corn which has produced seven ears and in every ear a hundred grains; for God giveth many-fold to whom He pleaseth. He then prayed God's blessing on him, and clothed him in a robe of honour, and appointed him to a place under government, so that"—the corollary seems hardly worth adding—"he might live in easy circumstances."

Poetry was, you see, worth practising in Baghdad in those days; nor had the poets any shame in accepting presents. What princes liked to give it was not for poets to analyse or refuse. Al-Moizz Ibn Badis, sovereign of Ifrikya and the son of Badis, was a patron indeed. "Poets," says Ibn Khallikan, "were loud in his praise, literary men courted his patronage, and all who hoped for gain made his court their halting-place."

To the modern mind he was too easily pleased, if the following story is typical. He was sitting, one day, in his saloon with a number of literary men about him, when, noticing a lemon shaped like a hand and fingers, he asked them to extemporize some verses on that subject. Abd Abu Ali Al-Hasan Ibn Rashik Al-Kairawani at once recited the following lines: A lemon, with its extremities spread out, appears before all eyes without being injured. It seems to hold out a hand towards the Creator, invoking long life to the son of Badis.

Al-Moizz declared the verses excellent and showed more favour to the author than to any other literary man in the assembly.

Ready wit not less than poetical ingenuity could always win the respect of these gentlemen, whose cynical cold-bloodedness and implacability were ever ready to be diverted, provided that the diversion was intellectual. For instance, it is related that Al-Hajjaj said to the brother of Katari: "I shall surely put thee to death."

"Why so?" replied the other.

"On account of thy brother's revolt," answered Al-Hajjaj.

"But I have a letter from the Commander of the Faithful, ordering thee not to punish me for the fault of my brother."

"Produce it."

"I have something stronger than that."

"What is it?"

"The book of Almighty God, wherein He says: 'And no burdened soul shall bear the burden of another.'"

Al-Hajjaj was struck with his answer, and gave him his liberty.

Among the lavish patrons of poets Saif Ad-Dawlat stands high. It is related that he was one day giving audience in the city of Aleppo, and poets were reciting verses in his praise, when an Arab of the desert, in squalid attire, stepped forward and repeated these lines: My means are spent, but I have reached my journey's end. This is the glory of all other cities, and thou, Emir! art the ornament whereby the Arabs surpass the rest of men. Fortune, thy slave, has wronged us; and to thee we have recourse against thy slave's injustice.

"By Allah!" exclaimed the prince, "thou hast done it admirably." He then ordered him a present of two hundred gold pieces.

Abu 'l-Kasim Othman Ibn Muhammad, a native of Irak and kadi of Ain Zerba, relates as follows: "I was at an audience given by Saif Ad-Dawlat at Aleppo, when the kadi Abu Nasr Muhammad Ibn Muhammad An-Naisapuri went up to him, and having drawn an empty purse and a roll of paper out of his sleeve, he asked and obtained permission to recite a poem which was written on the paper. He then commenced his kasada, the first line of which was: Thy wonted generosity is still the same; thy power is uncontrolled, and thy servant stands in need of one thousand pieces of silver.

"When the poet had finished, Saif Ad-Dawlat burst into a fit of laughter and ordered him a thousand pieces of gold, which were immediately put into the purse he had brought with him."

Here is a delightful account of the relations between a crafty poet and a patron who was not wholly a fool. Abu Dulaf was a spirited, noble, and generous chief, highly extolled for his liberality, courage, and enterprise, noted for his victories and his beneficence. Men distinguished in literature and the sciences derived instruction from his discourse, and his talent was conspicuous even in the art of vocal music. His praises were celebrated in kasadas of the greatest beauty. Bakr Ibn An-Nattah said of him: O thou who pursuest the study of alchemy, the great alchemy consists in praising the son of Isa. Was there but one dirhem in the world, thou wouldst obtain it by this means.

It is stated that, for these two verses, Abu Dulaf gave Ibn An-Nattah ten thousand dirhems. The poet then ceased visiting him for some time and employed the money in the purchase of a village or estate on the river Obolla. He afterwards went to see him, and addressed him in these words: Thanks to thee, I have purchased an estate on the Obolla, crowned by a pavilion erected in marble. It has a sister beside it which is now on sale, and you have always money to bestow.

"How much," said Abu Dulaf, "is the price of that sister?"

The poet answered: "Ten thousand dirhems."

Abu Dulaf gave him the money, and said: "Recollect that the Obolla is a large river, with many estates situated on it, and that each of these sisters has another at her side; so, if thou openest such a door as that, it will lead to a breach between us. Be content with what thou hast now got, and let this be a point agreed on."

The poet then offered up prayers for his welfare and withdrew.


The end of the munificent and splendid Ibn Bakiya was tragic, and it leads to so fine and characteristic a story that I must tell it here: partly in Ibn Khallikan's words and partly in my own. During the war which was carried on between the two cousins Izz Ad-Dawlat and Adud Ad-Dawlat, the former seized on Ibn Bakiya and, having deprived him of sight, delivered him over to Adud Ad-Dawlat. That prince caused him to be paraded about with a hood over his head, and then ordered him to be cast to the elephants. Those animals killed him, and his body was exposed on a cross at the gate called Bab At-Tak, near his own house.

On his crucifixion, an adl of Baghdad, called Abu 'l-Hasan Muhammad Ibn Omar Ibn Yakub Al-Anbari, deplored his fate in a beautiful poem, of which this is one line: I never saw a tree, before this, enabled to sustain all that was generous.

Abu 'l-Hasan, on composing his elegy, copied it out and threw it into one of the streets of Baghdad.

It fell into the hands of the literati, who passed it one to another, till Adud Ad-Dawlat was at length informed of its existence. He caused it to be recited in his presence, and, struck with admiration at its beauty, he exclaimed: "O that I were the person crucified, not he! Let the poet be brought to me!"

During a whole year strict search was made for the author, and the Sahib Ibn Abbad who was then at Rai, being informed of the circumstance, wrote out a letter of protection in favour of the poet. When Abu 'l-Hasan heard of this, he went to the court of the Sahib and was asked by him if it was he who had composed the verses. He replied in the affirmative, on which the Sahib expressed the desire to hear them from his own mouth. When Abu 'l-Hasan came to the verse, I never saw a tree, before this, enabled to sustain all that was generous, the Sahib rose up and embraced him, kissing him on the lips; he then sent him to Adud Ad-Dawlat.

When he appeared before Adud Ad-Dawlat, that prince said to him: "What motive could have induced thee to compose an elegy on the death of my enemy?"

Abu 'l-Hasan replied: "Former obligations and favours granted long since; my heart therefore overflowed with sorrow, and I lamented his fate."

There were wax-lights burning, at the time, before the prince, and this led him to say to the poet: "Canst thou recollect any verses on wax-lights?" and to this the other replied by the following lines: The wax-lights, showing their ends tipped with fire, seemed like the fingers of thy trembling foes, humbly stretched forth to implore thy mercy.

On hearing these verses, Adud Ad-Dawlat clothed him in a pelisse of honour and bestowed on him a horse and a bag of money.


That beautiful phrase of the poet on his crucified hero—I never saw a tree, before this, enabled to sustain all that was generous—has an oddly close parallel, which I am tempted to record here: a phrase, not less beautiful, used by a modern Frenchman, also of a dead man and a tree. It occurs in a letter written by Francois Bonvin on the death of his brother, Leon, the painter of flowers. Leon Bonvin's work is little known and there is little of it, but those who possess examples treasure them like black pearls. Francois Bonvin, who is represented in the National Gallery, in the modern French and Dutch room, by a scene of cattle painted with great decision and confidence and breadth, and who died in 1888, was the son of a policeman at Vaugiraud, on the outskirts of Paris: an old soldier who divided his time between protecting the property of the market gardeners and constructing rockeries for poor people's windows. Another, and the youngest son, was Leon, who after a shy and lonely boyhood and youth, under the tyranny of his father, which was mitigated by rambles in the neighbouring forest of Meudon, gathering flowers and painting them under his brother's encouragement with a felicity and fidelity that have not been surpassed, fell, when still quite young, into the hands of a shrewish vulgar wife, and with her opened a tavern. No couple could be more ill-assorted than this gentle creature, full of poetry and feeling, whose one ambition was to set exquisitely on paper the blossoms which gave him pleasure, and the noisy, bustling, angry woman whom he had married.

The union and the commercial venture were alike disastrous; unhappiness was accompanied by poverty, and after a short period of depression the unfortunate artist, early one morning, in his thirty-third year, wandered into the forest of Meudon, where the world had once spread so happily before his eyes, and hanged himself.

All this happened in the middle years of the last century, when the same revival of nature-worship was inspiring painters in France as had, fifty years earlier, flushed Wordsworth's poetry, and such famous and more fortunate contemporaries of Leon Bonvin as Corot and Rousseau and Millet and Daubigny and Jacque and Dupre were painting in the forest of Fontainebleau. Theirs to succeed; poor Leon found life too hard, and was dead when still far from his prime.

And what of the notable phrase? It is one that I know I shall never forget, one that will remain indissolubly linked to the name of Bonvin, whether it is Leon who inspired it or Francois who penned it and who had been so useful in providing his brother with the materials for his one absorbing pleasure and had always exhorted him to "do everything from nature." Writing to some one of influence in Paris, Francois told the story of his brother's death. In a postscript he added the information that the weight of Leon's body had broken a branch of the tree. Then came the words: "This is the only damage he ever did."

Could there be a more beautiful epitaph or a more poignant commentary on a world askew?


Persian humour is a stealthier thing than English humour. We like to laugh; the sudden surprise pleases us. But these old ruminative observers of life, even if they rapped out a sarcasm now and then, were normally happiest when their fancy was playing quietly around an idea: fetching similes for it from every quarter and accumulating extravagances. Thus: "It is related by Abu 'l-Khattab Ibn Aun Al-Hariri, the poet and grammarian, that he went one day to visit An-Nami, and found him seated. His hair was white like the Thaghama when in flower, but one single black hair still remained.

"'Sir!' said Ibn Aun, 'there is a black hair in your head.'

"'Yes,' replied An-Nami, 'it is the sole remnant of my youth, and I am pleased with it; I have even written verses on it.'

"Then, at the request of Ibn Aun, he recited these lines: In that head a single hair still appeared, preserving its blackness; 'twas a sight which rejoiced the eyes of my friends. I said to my white hairs, which had put it in fear: 'I implore you! respect it as a stranger. A dark African spouse will not long remain in the house where the second wife is white of skin.'"

One of the worthiest representatives of the humorists of the book is Abu Dulama, a black Abyssinian, whose wits never failed him. Here is the poem which he recited when ordered by Ruh, the governor of Basra, to attack one of the enemy single-handed: I fly to Ruh for refuge; let him not send me to a combat in which I shall bring disgrace upon the tribe of Asad. Your father Al-Muhallab left you as a legacy the love of death; but such a legacy as that I have inherited from none. And this I know well, that the act of drawing near to enemies produces a separation between souls and bodies.

Ruh positively declared, however, that Abu Dulama should go forth and fight, enforcing the command with the pertinent question, "Why do you receive pay from the sultan?"

"To fight for him," replied Abu.

"Then," said Ruh, "why not go forth and attack that enemy of God?"

"If I go forth to him, O Emir," replied the Abyssinian, "I shall be sent to join those who are dead and gone; and the condition I made with the sultan was, to fight for him, but not to die for him."

Another wit, Osama Ibn Murshid, having had a tooth drawn, produced the following verses, either at the time, for the delectation of the dentist, or afterwards, when seated among his friends: I had a companion of whom I was never tired, who suffered in my service, and laboured with assiduity; whilst we were together I never saw him; and when he appeared before my eyes, we had parted for ever.

This is how Osama wrote when the house of a miser was burnt down: See how the progress of time constrains us to acknowledge that there is a destiny. Ibn Talib never lit a fire in his house, through avarice, yet by fire it was destroyed.

"One thing," says Ibn Khallikan, in the notice of this satirist, "brings on another." He then proceeds: "Abu 'l-Hasan Yahya Abd Al-Azim Al-Misri, surnamed Al-Jazzar, recited to me the following verses which he had composed on another literary man at Cairo, far advanced in age, who, being attacked by a cutaneous eruption, anointed himself with sulphur: O, learned master, hearken to the demand of a friend devoid of sarcasm: thou art old, and of course art near to the fire of hell; why then anoint thyself with sulphur?"

As a further quite unnecessary proof of the antiquity of jests which we think new, I might append to this excellent sarcasm by a friend devoid of sarcasm the story, often now told, of the rival chemists in a provincial town, one of whom was old-fashioned and costly, and the other new and cheap. To the costly one, who had asked too much for sulphur, a customer remarked that if he went to the new shop opposite he could get it for fourpence; which brought from the old-fashioned chemist, weary of this competition, the admirable retort that if he went still farther, to a certain place, he would get it for nothing.

East and West join hands again. When I was a boy living in a town by the sea, one of my heroes in real life—whom I never knew, but admired fearfully from a distance—was a famous stockbroker, whose splendid name I could give if I chose. One of his many mansions was here, and I used to see him often as he managed the finest pair of horses on the south coast, which he drove in a phaeton with red wheels, always smoking a cigar as he did so. Many were the stories told of his princely Victor Radnor-ish ways, one of which credited him with a private compartment on the train, into which his guests walked without a ticket—a magnificent idea!—and another stated that he bought his trousers a hundred pairs at a time. And then I open this book and read that Barjawan, an Ethiopian eunuch, after being stabbed to death by the prince's umbrella-bearer, was found to possess a thousand pairs of trousers.

Not a little of the humorous effect of these Persian sayings comes from their dry frankness. For example: Ibn Omair, a trustworthy traditionist, when, once, he was ill, and a person sent his excuses for not going to visit him, answered: "I cannot reproach a person for not visiting me, whom I myself should not go to visit were he sick." Modern would-be wits might take the hint; for with candour so scarce, and self-criticism usually ending in a verdict of complete innocence, the blurted naked truth, not unaccompanied by a sidelong thrust at the speaker's own fallibility, would always produce the required laugh.


Al-Yazidi, a story of whom I quoted above, was a teacher of Koranic readings, a grammarian and a philologer, who taught in Baghdad in the ninth century. He was also a famous satirist; but satire seems to have been easier then than now. So at least I gather from the epigram which Al-Yazidi wrote upon Al-Asmai Al-Bahili: You who pretend to draw your origin from Asma, tell me how you are connected with that noble race. Are you not a man whose genealogy, if verified, proves that you descend from Bahila? "This last verse," said Ibn Al-Munajjim, "is one of the most satirical which have been composed by the later poets."

I need hardly say that Ibn Khallikan, with his eagle eye and fierce memory, does not let the originality of this pass unchallenged. The idea, he tells us, is borrowed from the verse in which Hammad Ajrad attacked Bashshar, the son of Burd. I like its directness. You call yourself the son of Burd, though you are the son of another man. Or, grant that Burd married your mother, who was Burd?

In sarcasms Al-Yazidi was hard pressed by Abu Obaida, who was a very Mr. Brown (vide Bret Harte) in being of "so sarcastic a humour that every one in Basra who had a reputation to maintain was obliged to flatter him." When dining once with Musa Ibn Ar-Rahman Al-Hilali, one of the pages spilled some gravy on the skirt of Abu Obaida's cloak.

"Some gravy has fallen on your cloak," said Musa, "but I shall give you ten others in place of it."

"Nay!" replied Abu Obaida, "do not mind! Your gravy can do no harm."

Another of Al-Yazidi's satirical efforts, which has no forerunner in Ibn Khallikan's recollection, is this, levelled at another mean acquaintance; meanness, indeed, being one of the unpardonable offences—especially in the eyes of poets who lived on patronage: Be careful not to lose the friendship of Abu 'l-Mukatil when you approach to partake of his meal. Breaking his crumpet is for him as bad as breaking one of his limbs. His guests fast against their will, and without meaning to obtain the spiritual reward which is granted to fasting.

Apropos of sarcasm, the Merwanide Omaiyide, who reigned in Spain, received from Nizar, the sovereign of Egypt, an insulting and satirical letter, to which he replied in these terms: "You satirize us because you have heard of us. Had we ever heard of you, we should make you a reply."

None of the sarcastic wits are more pointed than the blind mawla Abu 'l-Aina (806-96), whose tongue was venomously barbed, and who, like other blind men, often used his malady as a protection when his satire had been excessive. Viziers were his favourite butts. Being one day in the society of one of them, the conversation turned on the history of the Barmekides and their generosity, on which the vizier said to Abu 'l-Aina, who had just made a high eulogium of that family for their liberality and bounty: "You have praised them and their qualities too much; all this is a mere fabrication of book-makers and a fable imagined by authors."

Abu 'l-Aina immediately replied: "And why then do book-makers not relate such fables of you, O vizier?"

Again, having gone one day to the door of Said Ibn Makhlad and asked permission to enter, Abu 'l-Aina was told that the vizier was engaged in prayer. "Ah!" he exclaimed, "there is a pleasure in novelty."

"I am told," said a khalif to him, "that thou hast an evil tongue."

"Commander of the Faithful!" replied Abu 'l-Aina, "the Almighty himself has spoken praise and satire," and he then quoted this poem: If I praise not the honest man and revile not the sordid, the despicable, and the base, why should I have the power of saying, "That is good and this is bad"? And why should God have opened men's ears and my mouth?

Having one day a dispute with a descendant of the Prophet, his adversary said to Abu 'l-Aina: "You attack me, and yet you say in your prayers: 'Almighty God! bless Muhammad and the family of Muhammad.'"

"Yes," replied Abu 'l-Aina, "but I add—'who are virtuous and pure.'"

Here is one of the stories which Abu 'l-Aina used to tell. "I was one day sitting with Abu 'l-Jahm, when a man came in and said to him: 'You made me a promise, and it depends on your kindness to fulfil it.'

"Abu 'l-Jahm answered that he did not recollect it, and the other replied: 'If you do not recollect it, 'tis because the persons like me to whom you make promises are numerous; and if I remember it, 'tis because the persons like you to whom I may confidently address a request are few.'

"'Well said! Blessings on your father!' exclaimed Abu 'l-Jahm, and the promise was immediately fulfilled."

That blind men should be self-protective is of course, natural, and the East has always been rich in them. "The learned Muwaffak Ad-Din Muzaffar, the blind poet of Egypt, having gone to visit Al-Kadi As-Said Ibn Sana Al-Mulk, the latter said to him: 'Learned scholar! I have composed the first hemistich of a verse, but cannot finish it, although it has occupied my mind for some days.'

"Muzaffar asked to hear what he had composed, and the other recited as follows: The whiteness of my beard proceeds from the blackness of her ringlets—

"On hearing these words, Muzaffar replied that he had found their completion, and recited as follows:—even as the flame with which I burn for her acquired its intensity from her pomegranate-flower [her rosy cheeks].

"As-Said approved of the addition, and commenced another verse on the same model; but Muzaffar said to himself: 'I must rise and be off, or else he will make the entire piece at the expense of my wits.'"


Much has been written of the origin of chess, and many countries contend for the honour of its inception. According to my encyclopaedia, China, India, Persia, and Egypt have each a claim, but it is probable that the game existed, in some form or other, before history. The theory is that the Arabs introduced it to Europe in the eighth century. Thus the cautious encyclopaedia; but Ibn Khallikan has no such hesitancy. From him we get names and dates. Ibn Khallikan gives the credit boldly to one Sissah, who, says he, "imagined the game for the amusement of King Shihram." Whether Sissah built it out of a clear sky, or had foundations on which to erect, is not stated. Anyway, the pastime was a complete success. "It is said that, when Sissah invented the game of chess and presented it to Shihram, the latter was struck with admiration and filled with joy; he ordered chess-boards to be placed in the temples, and considered that game as the best thing that could be learned, inasmuch as it served as an introduction to the art of war, as an honour to religion and the world, and as the foundation of all justice.

"He manifested also his gratitude and satisfaction for the favour which Heaven had granted him in illustrating his reign by such an invention, and he said to Sissah, 'Ask me for whatever you desire.'

"'I then demand,' replied Sissah, 'that a grain of wheat be placed in the first square of the chess-board, two in the second, and that the number of grains be progressively doubled till the last square is attained: whatever this quantity may be, I ask you to bestow it on me.'

"The king, who meant to make him a present of something considerable, exclaimed that such a recompense would be too little, and reproached Sissah for asking for so inadequate a reward.

"Sissah declared that he desired nothing but what he had mentioned, and, heedless of the king's remonstrances, he persisted in his demand.

"The king, at length, consented, and ordered that quantity of wheat to be given him. When the chiefs of the government office received orders to that effect, they calculated the amount, and answered that they did not possess near so much wheat as was required.

"These words were reported to the king, and he, being unable to credit them, ordered the chiefs to be brought before him. Having questioned them on the subject, they replied that all the wheat in the world would be insufficient to make up the quantity. He ordered them to prove what they said, and, by a series of multiplications and reckonings, they demonstrated to him that such was the fact.

"On this, the king said to Sissah: 'Your ingenuity in imagining such a request is yet more admirable than your talent in inventing the game of chess.'"

Ibn Khallikan was at pains to investigate the matter. Having, he says, "met one of the accountants employed at Alexandria, I received from him a demonstration which convinced me that the declaration was true. He placed before me a sheet of paper in which he had doubled the numbers up to the sixteenth square, and obtained thirty-two thousand seven hundred and sixty-eight grains. 'Now,' said he, 'let us consider this quantity to be the contents of a pint measure, and this I know by experiment to be true'—these are the accountant's words, so let him bear the responsibility—'then let the pint be doubled in the seventeenth square, and so on progressively. In the twentieth square it will become a waiba (peck), the waibas will then become an irdabb (bushel), and in the fortieth square we shall have one hundred and seventy-four thousand seven hundred and sixty-two irdabbs. Let us suppose this to be the contents of a corn store, and no corn store contains more than that; then in the fiftieth square we shall have the contents of one thousand and twenty-four stores; suppose these to be situated in one city—and no city can have more than that number of stores or even so many—we shall then find that the sixty-fourth and last square gives sixteen thousand three hundred and eighty-four cities. Now, you know that there is not in the world a greater number of cities than that, for geometry informs us that the circumference of the globe is eight thousand parasangs; so that, if the end of a cord were laid on any part of the earth, and the cord passed round it till both ends met, we should find the length of the cord to be twenty-four thousand miles, which is equal to eight thousand parasangs.' This demonstration is decisive and indubitable."

Of Sissah I know no more, except that he was from India and that his game became popular. Up to the time of Ibn Khallikan, in the thirteenth century, its best player was one As-Suli, famous as an author and a convivialist, who died one hundred and twenty years before the Norman Conquest. "To play like As-Suli" was indeed a proverb. Among this proficient's friends was his pupil, the khalif Ar-Radi, who had the greatest admiration for As-Suli's genius. One day, for instance, walking with some boon companions through a garden filled with beautiful flowers, Ar-Radi asked them if they ever saw a finer sight. To this they replied, speaking as wise men speak to autocratic rulers, that nothing on earth could surpass it.

The retort of the khalif must have given them the surprise of their lives. "You are wrong," said he: "As-Suli's manner of playing chess is yet a finer sight, and surpasses all you could describe!" So might we now refer to Hobbs on his day at the Oval, on a hard wicket, against fast bowling, with Surrey partisans standing four deep behind the seats, or to Stevenson nursing the balls from the middle pocket to the top left-hand pocket and then across to the right.

One more anecdote of the Persian Steinitz, and I have done. I tell it because it rounds off this interlude with some symmetry by bringing us back to my own consultation of the encyclopaedia at the beginning of it. As-Suli had a famous library of books in which he had jotted down the fruits of his various reading. When asked a question on any subject, instead of answering it he would tell his boy to bring such and such a volume in which the matter at issue was treated. This trait led to an epigram being written upon him by a rival scholar, Abu Said, to the effect that "of all men As-Suli possessed most learning—in his library." There are still men learned on the same terms, but, nowadays, we do not have to collect the information for ourselves but go to The Times and Messrs. Chambers for it.


Harun Ar-Raschid passing near Manbij with Abd Al-Malik Ibn Salih, who was the most elegant speaker of all the surviving descendants of Al-Abbas, observed a well-built country-seat and a garden full of trees covered with fruit, and asked to whom that property belonged.

Abd Al-Malik replied: "To you, Commander of the Faithful! and then to me."

This Abd Al-Malik was so famous, as a story-teller that a wise man said of him: "When I reflect that Abd Al-Malik's tongue must sooner or later moulder into dust, the world loses its value in my sight."

Abu 'l-Amaithal, the poet, was also a most efficient courtier. As he kissed one day the hand of Abd Allah Ibn Tahir, that prince complained of the roughness of the poet's moustachios, whereupon he immediately observed that the spines of the hedgehog could not hurt the wrist of the lion. Abd Allah was so pleased with this compliment that he ordered him a valuable present.

Another graceful compliment. Of Ishak Ibn Ibrahim Al-Mausili, who was famous for his voice and was a "constant companion of the khalifs in their parties of pleasure," the khalif Al-Motasim charmingly said: "Ishak never yet sang without my feeling as if my possessions were increased."

Another compliment that goes still deeper. Abu Nuwas, in a lament composed on the death of the khalif Al-Amin, said of him: His death was the only thing I feared, and now nothing remains for me to dread.

These, however, were but speeches. Compliments may be conveyed also by deeds, as we find in the case of Imam Al-Haramain, who was so learned and acceptable a teacher that, at the moment of his death, his scholars, who were four hundred and one in number, broke their pens and inkhorns; and they let a full year pass over before they resumed their studies. Of these Persians we can believe in the sincerity; but the motives of English scholars performing a similar act of renunciation might be open to suspicion.

Badi Az-Zaman Az-Hamadani was famous for his epistolary style. Here is a passage which, though written in Persia in the tenth century, might have aptness in English country houses at this moment: When water has long remained at rest, its noxious qualities appear; and when its surface has continued tranquil, its foulness gets into motion. Thus it is with a guest: his presence is displeasing when his stay has been protracted, and his shadow is oppressive when the time for which he should sojourn is at an end. Adieu.

The khalif Ali Ibn Ali Talib was a very just man. Some one having committed a theft was brought before him. "Bring me witnesses," said Ali, "to prove that he purloined the object out of the saddle-bag."

Unmistakable evidence to that effect being given, Ali immediately ordered the fingers of his hand to be cut off.

On this some person said to him: "Commander of the Faithful! why not cut it off by the wrist?"

"God forbid!" exclaimed the khalif; "how could he then lean on his staff? How could he pray? How could he eat?"

In the Life of Ibn Abd Al-Barr, a Traditionist of Cordova, who, "it is stated, died in the year 380 (A.D. 990), but God knows best," a number of good stories are collected. This is one. "It is related that, when Adam was sent out of Paradise and down to earth by Almighty God, the angel Gabriel went to him and said: 'O Adam! God here sends you three qualities, so that you may select one of them for yourself and leave the two others.'

"'What are they?' said Adam.

"Gabriel replied: 'Modesty, Piety, and Intelligence.'

"'I choose Intelligence,' said Adam.

"The angel then told Modesty and Piety to return to Heaven, because Adam had made choice of Intelligence.

"They answered: 'We will not return.'

"'How!' said he. 'Do you mean to disobey me?'

"They replied: 'We do not, but our orders were, never to quit Intelligence wherever she might be.'"

Another story showing how destructively effective may be the use of fairness—politeness with the buttons off—is of an Arab who, on being insulted copiously by a stranger, remained silent. To the question why he did not reply, he said: "I know not the man's vices and am unwilling to reproach him with defects he may not have."

Two other anecdotes are of the famous jester, Al-Jammaz. The first tells how at Basra a man perceiving the new moon, which indicated the beginning of the month of fasting, Ramadan, pointed it out eagerly to his companions. "When the moon which indicates the end of the fast was nearly due, Al-Jammaz knocked at the door of this too officious person and said: 'Come! get up and take us out of the scrape into which you brought us.'"

Al-Jammaz was delighted with the following example of his readiness. "One rainy morning," he said, "I was asked by my wife what was best to be done on such a day as that, and I answered: 'Divorcing a troublesome wife.' This stopped her mouth."

Al-Mubarrad used frequently to recite these lines at his assemblies: O you who, in sumptuous array, strut about like princes and scorn the hatred of the poor, know that the saddle-cloth changeth not the nature of the ass, neither do splendid trappings change the nature of the pack horse.

When Al-Mubarrad died a poet wrote of him: Behold the mansion of literature half-demolished, and destruction awaiting the remainder. That was in 899.

To excuse himself for a want of social ceremony, Ibn Abi 's-Sakr, "an amateur of the belles-lettres," who died in 1105, composed these verses: An indisposition called eighty years hinders me from rising to receive my friends; but when they reach an advanced age, they will understand and accept my excuse.

Old age occurs also in a poem of Al-Otbi, who died in 842: When Sulaima saw me turn my eyes away—and I turn my glances away from all who resemble her—she said: "I saw thee mad with love"; and I replied: "Youth is a madness of which old age is the cure." This phrase, says Ibn Khallikan, afterwards became a proverb. Most nations have anecdotes in which the idea occurs.

The following anecdote of the kadi Shuraih, who was famous not only for his "great skill in distinguishing right from wrong" but also for his humour, is very pleasing. Adi Ibn Arta, who was blind, went to the kadi's house one day, and the following dialogue ensued:

"Where are you, kadi? May God direct you!"

"I am between you and the wall."

"Listen to me."

"I can hear very well."

"I am a native of Syria."

"It is a distant land."

"And I have married a wife from your country."

"May you live happily and have many children!"

"And I wanted to take her on a journey."

"Each man has the best right over his own family."

"But I engaged not to remove her from her native place."

"Engagements are binding."

"Judge then between us."

"I have already done so."

"And against whom have you given it?"

"Against your mother's son."

"On whose evidence?"

"On the evidence of your maternal aunt's sister's son."

I find a similar quality—not un-Johnsonian—in the reply of At-Tirmidi the juriconsult to a question, as reported by Abu 't-Taiyib Ahmad Ibn Othman As-Simsar. "I was," said he, "at Abu Jaafar At-Tirmidi's when a person consulted him about the saying of the Prophet, that God descended to the heaven of the world (i.e. the lowest of the seven heavens). This person expressed his desire to know how there could, in that case, be anything more exalted than the lowest heaven?

"At-Tirmidi replied: 'The descent is intelligible; the manner how is unknown; the belief therein is obligatory; and the asking about it is a blameable innovation.'"

The kadi Yahya Ibn Aktham, although famous for his licentiousness, was orthodox to the marrow. It was he who said: "The Koran is the word of God, and whoever says that it has been created by man should be invited to abandon that opinion; and if he do not, his head should be struck off."

The following dialogue between Yahya and a man is very characteristic of dry Persian sagacity. The man began it, thus: "May God preserve you! How much should I eat?"

Yahya replied: "Enough to get over hunger and not enough to attain satiety."

"How long may I laugh?"

"Till your face brightens, but without raising your voice."

"How long should I weep?"

"Weeping should never fatigue you, if it be through fear of God."

"What actions of mine should I conceal?"

"As many as you can."

"What are the actions which I should do openly?"

"Those which may serve as examples to good and virtuous men, whilst they secure you from public reprobation."

On this the man exclaimed: "May God preserve us from words which abide when deeds have passed away!" It is possible that there were reserves of meaning in this final speech, for Yahya's surname Aktham signifies either "a corpulent man" or "sated with food."

I have not borrowed much from Ibn Khallikan's heroics, but this is good. Al-Moizz having conquered Egypt, he entered Old Cairo. His pretensions to be a descendant of Ali had already been contested, and on his approach the people of the city went forth to meet him, accompanied by a band of sharifs, and Ibn Tabataba, who was one of the number, asked him from whom he drew his descent.

To this question Al-Moizz replied: "We shall hold a sitting to which all of you shall be convened, and there we shall expose to you the entire chain of our genealogy."

Being at length established in the castle of Cairo, he gave a public audience, as he had promised, and having taken his seat, he asked if any of their chiefs were still alive?

"No," replied they, "not one of any consequence survives."

He then drew his sword half-way out of the scabbard and exclaimed: "This is my genealogy! And here," said he, scattering a great quantity of gold among them, "are proofs of my nobility!"

On this they all acknowledged him for their lord and master.


Of Bishr Ibn Al-Harith Al-Hafi, one of Baghdad's holiest ascetics, it is told that his choice of the life of saintliness thus came about. Happening to find on the road a leaf of paper with the name of God written on it, which had been trampled underfoot, he bought ghalia with some dirhems which he had about him, and, having perfumed the leaf with it, deposited it in a hole in a wall.

Afterwards he had a dream, in which a voice seemed to say to him: "O Bishr! thou hast perfumed my name, and I shall surely cause thine to be a sweet odour both in this world and the next."

When he awoke, he gave up the world, and turned to God.

Bishr being once asked with what sauce he ate his bread, replied: "I think on good health, and I take that as my sauce."

One of his prayers was this: "O, my God! deprive me of notoriety, if thou hast given it to me in this world for the purpose of putting me to shame in the next."

It was a true saying of another famous ascetic, Al-Fudail, that, when God loves a man, He increases his afflictions, and when He hates a man, He increases his worldly prosperity.

Asceticism, however, had not robbed him of human sympathy or warped his nature, for he said at another time: "For a man to be polite to his company and make himself agreeable to them is better than to pass nights in prayer and days in fasting."

Abu Ali Ar-Razi said: "I kept company with Al-Fudail during thirty years, and I never saw him laugh or smile but on one occasion, and that was the death of his son. On my asking him the reason, he replied: 'Whatever is pleasing to God is pleasing to me.'"

Maruf Al-Karkhi, another celebrated saint, who died in Baghdad in 805, had a sensible elasticity. Passing, one day, by a water-carrier who was crying out: "God have mercy on him who drinketh!" he went up to him and took a drink, although he was at that time keeping a strict fast.

Some one, horrified at the impiety, said to him: "Art thou not keeping a fast?"

He replied: "Yes, I am, but I hoped for the fulfilment of that man's prayer."

One of the sayings of Abd Al-Ala, a man of holy life, was this: "Buying what one does not require, is selling what one requires."

Another pious man, Abu Othman Al-Mazini the grammarian, used to tell the following story against himself: "There was a person who, for a long time, studied under me the grammar of Sibawaih, and who said to me, when he got to the end of the book, 'May God requite you well! As for me, I have not understood a letter of it.'"

Yahya, a celebrated preacher, on being asked by a descendant of the Prophet, "Tell me, Master! and may God assist you! what is your opinion of us who are the people of the house,"—that is to say, the members of Muhammad's family,—replied: "It is that which I would say of clay kneaded with the water of divine revelation and sprinkled with the water of the heavenly mission: can it give out any other odour than the musk of true direction and the ambergris of piety?"

The Alide was so highly pleased with this answer that he filled Yahya's mouth with pearls.

Yahya, who died on March 30, 872, had a very graceful turn for apophthegms. "True friendship," said he, "cannot be augmented by kindness nor diminished by unkindness." And again, he said: "To him who is going to see a true friend the way never appears long; he who goes to visit his beloved never feels lonely on the road."

The exaltation of friendship is indeed one of the beautiful things about this book. And the reader can never have too much of it. Buri Taj Al-Muluk was, says Ibn Khallikan, merely a man of talent, but the following verse by him contains a perfectly splendid compliment: My friend approached from the west, riding on a grey horse, and I exclaimed: "Glory to the Almighty! the sun has risen in the west!"

At-Tihami, the poet, one of whose poems, an elegy on the death of his son, brings ill-luck when quoted, wrote these admirable lines on the same theme: In the company of noble-minded men there is always room for another. Friendship, it is true, renders difficulties easy: a house may be too small for eight persons, yet friendship will make it hold a ninth.


The capriciousness of the moods of these sombre and terrible Eastern autocrats—the strange sentimental chinks in their armour—are seen in the very characteristic story which follows. "Secret information having been given to Al-Mutawakkil that the imam, Abu 'l-Hasan Al-Askari, had a quantity of arms, books, and other objects for the use of his followers concealed in his house, and being induced by malicious reports to believe that he aspired to the empire, he sent one night some soldiers of the Turkish guard to break in on him when he least expected such a visit.

"They found him quite alone and locked up in his room, clothed in a hair-shirt, his head covered with a woollen cloak, and turned with his face in the direction of Mecca, chanting, in this attitude, some verses of the Koran expressive of God's promises and threats, and having no other carpet between him and the earth than sand and gravel.

"He was carried off in that attire and brought, in the depth of the night, before Al-Mutawakkil, who was then engaged in drinking wine. On seeing him, the khalif received him with respect, and being informed that nothing had been found in his house to justify the suspicions cast upon him, he seated him by his side and offered him the goblet which he held in his hand.

"'Commander of the Faithful!' said Abu 'l-Hasan, 'a liquor such as that was never yet combined with my flesh and blood; dispense me therefore from taking it.'

"The khalif acceded to his request, and then asked him to repeat some verses which might amuse him.

"Abu 'l-Hasan replied that he knew by heart very little poetry; but Al-Mutawakkil having insisted, he recited these lines (which anticipate Poe's "Conqueror Worm" very thoroughly): 'They passed the night on the summits of the mountains, protected by valiant warriors; but their place of refuge availed them not. After all their pomp and power, they had to descend from their lofty fortresses to the custody of the tomb. O what a dreadful change! Their graves had already received them when a voice was heard exclaiming: "Where are the thrones, the crowns, and the robes of slate? Where are now the faces once so delicate, which were shaded by veils and protected by the curtains of the audience-hall?" To this demand, the tomb gave answer sufficient: "The worms," it said, "are now revelling upon those faces; long had these men been eating and drinking, but now they are eaten in their turn."'

"Every person present was filled with apprehension for Abu 'l-Hasan Ali's safety; they feared that Al-Mutawakkil, in the first burst of indignation, would have vented his wrath upon him; but they perceived the khalif weeping bitterly, the tears trickling down his beard, and all the assembly wept with him.

"Al-Mutawakkil then ordered the wine to be removed, after which he said: 'Tell me, Abu 'l-Hasan! are you in debt?'

"'Yes,' replied the other, 'I owe four thousand dinars.'

"The khalif ordered that sum to be given him, and sent him home with marks of the highest respect."


The book contains the lives of very few women; but one of the privileged of her sex is Buran, who died in 884. She became the wife of the khalif Al-Mamun, who, says Ibn Khallikan rather ungallantly, was "induced to marry her by the high esteem he bore her father." That her father, the vizier, saw no slight in this, but was not unwilling that his daughter should pass under the roof of another, we may perhaps gather from the lavishness of the wedding, which was celebrated at Fam As-Silh, with festivities and rejoicings, the like of which were never witnessed for ages before. The vizier's liberality went so far that he showered balls of musk upon the Hashimites, the commanders of the troops, the katibs, and the persons who held an eminent rank at court. Musk is an expensive thing in itself, but each of these balls contained a ticket, and the person into whose hands it fell, having opened it and read its contents, proceeded to an agent specially appointed for the purpose, from whom he received the object inscribed on the ticket, whether it was a farm or other property, a horse, a slave-girl, or a mameluk. The vizier then scattered gold and silver coins and eggs of amber among the rest of the people.

Capricious generosity marked many of these rulers. Thus it is told of Ibn Bakiya, the vizier, that in the space of twenty days he distributed twenty thousand robes of honour. "I saw him one night at a drinking party," says Abu Ishak As-Sabi, "and, during the festivity, he changed frequently his outer dress according to custom: every time he put on a new pelisse, he bestowed it on one or other of the persons present; so that he gave away, in that sitting, upwards of two hundred pelisses.

"A female musician then said to him: 'Lord of viziers! there must be wasps in these robes to prevent you from keeping them on your body!'

"He laughed at this conceit, and ordered her a present of a casket of jewels."

Another of the ladies whom Ibn Khallikan so seldom leaves his high road to notice is As-Saiyida Sukaina, who, however, could not well be excluded, since she was "the first among the women of her time [she died A.D. 735] by birth, beauty, wit, and virtue." Part of her fame rests upon her repartees to poets: a most desirable form of activity. Thus, Orwa had a brother called Abu Bakr, whose death he lamented in some extravagant verses of which these are the concluding lines: My sorrow is for Bakr, my brother! Bakr has departed from me! What life can now be pleasing after the loss of Bakr?

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