Story 49: An Insult

Abdullah Ibn Muqaffa’, the renowned Iranian scholar and writer, was in the Governor of Basrah’s residence, who at the time was Sufian Ibn Mu’awiyah. Meanwhile his servant was holding the reins of his master’s horse, waiting for Ibn Muqaffa’ to come out, mount his horse and return home. He waited a long time but Ibn Muqaffa’ did not come out. Everyone else who had gone to see the governor had come and gone, but there was no sign of Ibn Muqaffa’.

The servant became worried and started to enquire about his master, looking for him here and there, and questioning whoever he saw. They either expressed their ignorance, after taking a look at him and his horse, or shrugged their shoulders and left him without uttering a word.

Time passed. The servant, anxious and disappointed, rushed over to Isa and Sulayman, the sons of Ali ibn Abdullah ibn Abbas, the uncle of the powerful Caliph of the time, Mansur Dawaniqi, and related to them what had happened, because Ibn Muqaffa’ was their scribe and secretary.

Since Abdullah ibn Muqaffa’ was a learned person, a competent writer and a skillful translator, Isa and Sulayman were close to him and protected him. Ibn Muqaffa’ was, in turn, dependent on their support. He was, by nature, impudent and foul-mouthed. He carelessly made sarcastic remarks to others in his statements.

The support given to him by Isa and Sulayman, who were the uncles of the Caliph, the top rulers of the Caliphate, had encouraged him to be more brazen and insolent. Isa and Sulayman inquired about Ibn Muqaffa’ from Sufian ibn Mu’awiyah. He absolutely denied any knowledge of his whereabouts and said, “Ibn Muqaffa’ has not come to my house.”

Since he had been seen entering the governor’s residence in broad daylight, and eye-witnesses testified to this, there was no way to deny it. It was not a minor matter, but a homicide, and of a famous learned personality such as Ibn Muqaffa’ no less! The two opponents were the governor of Basrah on the one hand, and the two uncles of the Caliph in Baghdad on the other.

The case was taken to the court of the Caliph in Baghdad. Both opposing sides produced their eyewitnesses, and all other well-informed observers were called upon in the presence of Mansur. The case was litigated and the evidence was put forth. After the testimonies had been presented, Mansur said to his uncles, “There is nothing preventing me from putting him (Sufian) to death immediately, just for being accused of Ibn Muqaffa’s murder. However, if Ibn Muqaffa’ was still alive, and entered safe and sound through this door (the Caliph pointed at the door behind him), which of you two should I execute to avenge Sufian?”

Isa and Sulayman were mystified. They thought that perhaps Ibn Muqaffa’ might still be alive and Sufian had sent him safe and sound to the Caliph. Thus, they were compelled to withdraw their litigation and return home. Time passed, and since no one had any news or had seen any trace of Ibn Muqaffa’, little by little, his remembrance began to fade in their memories.

After some time, when everything had calmed down, it became known that Ibn Muqaffa’ had often made sarcastic remarks about Sufian ibn Mu’awiyah, and had once abused his mother. Thus, Sufian had been looking for an opportunity to take revenge. However, fearing Isa and Sulayman, the two uncles of the Caliph, he did not dare to take any action until the day that the following events occurred.

It had been agreed that a safe conduct report would be written for Abdullah ibn Ali, another uncle of Mansur, and Mansur would approve it. Abdullah ibn Ali requested Ibn Muqaffa’, the scribe of his brothers, to draft the safe conduct report. Among the remarks written in the report were insulting and abusive comments about Mansur, the bloodthirsty Abbasid Caliph.

When Mansur received the draft, he became very annoyed, lost his temper and asked, “Who has drafted this letter?” He was told, “Ibn Muqaffa’.” Mansur experienced the same feelings against him that Sufian ibn Mu’awiyah, the governor of Basrah, had experienced earlier.

Then Mansur confidentially wrote a letter to Sufian, asking him to punish Ibn Muqaffa’. Sufian had been waiting for such an opportune moment, until the day when Ibn Muqaffa’ went to Sufian’s residence for a request, leaving his servant and horse outside. When he arrived, Sufian with a number of his servants and hangmen were sitting in a room where there was a furnace blazing.

As Sufian’s eyes fell upon Ibn Muqaffa’, he remembered all the derisive remarks that he had made up to then. His mind and soul boiled over in rage like the furnace in from of him. He turned towards him and said, “Do you remember the day you abused my mother? Now it is time for revenge.” His pleas for mercy were not accepted and in the same place, he caused Ibn Muqaffa’ to pass away in the worst possible manner.1

  • 1. The explanation of Ibn Abi al-Hadid on Nahj al-Balaghah. v. 4. p. 389.