Trigger warning: reference to incest
Last week Nuzhat al-Zaman – secret enslaved princess and loquacious philosopher, recently married to her estranged brother – was asked to share her views on etiquette and had a lot to say. During night sixty two, she expounds on her theme with a new segue set in the caliphate of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, where someone called Mu’aiqib is treasurer. Night sixty three opens with him, for unknown reasons, giving the caliph’s son a dirham (that being a silver coin of moderate value). Later, Mu’aiqib is sent for by the caliph himself, who sits holding the coin accusingly. “On the Day of Resurrection,” ‘Umar declares, “this dirham will involve you in a dispute with the people of Muhammad – may God bless him and give him peace.” How does he know this? He’s a caliph. He doesn’t have to tell you, and he won’t.
Someone called Abu Musa al-Ash’ari (Nuzhat al-Zaman thinks that introductions are for lesser storytellers and just throws in new characters when she likes) is in charge of distributing money between public works (or so I assume, the phrasing is very vague) and ‘Umar’s personal savings. He must do a decent job because when ‘Uthman (I’m assuming that’s ‘Umar’s son?) becomes caliph, Abu Musa stays in the same position. One day, someone called Ziyad accompanies him to watch the division of monies. I haven’t a clue who Ziyad is or why he’s there, but when he sees the caliph’s son take a dirham from the collected money he bursts into tears. The caliph asks him what’s wrong. “I brought the tax money to ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab,” Ziyad explains, “and his son took a dirham. His father ordered that it be snatched from his hand, but when your son does the same, I don’t see anyone saying anything or taking it away from him.”
So is ‘Uthman caliph of a different area? Are these men contemporaries? I’ve read some confusing segues for this project, but this one is a downright mess.
Someone else is introduced at this point, Zaid ibn Aslam, to share an anecdote of ‘Umar’s reign. He may be ‘Umar’s son; he may not. The way he tells it, one cold night ‘Umar had a King Wenceslas moment – seeing a campfire, he insisted on visiting the family of travellers sheltering by its warmth. A woman had placed an empty pot over the flames to keep her hungry children hopeful and quiet. Upon hearing of their plight, ‘Umar sent Zaid ibn Aslam off to the palace to collect supplies and they returned with the ingredients for a simple, filling meal. The children ate; satisfied, ‘Umar went on his way.
‘Umar is apparently a bit of a saint. Night sixty four expounds on his acts of generosity. He once bought a slave who refused to sell him a sheep, because he trusted in the man’s honesty. He dressed roughly and ate simply while his servants were given fine things, and valued acts of courage over familial affection. “One year I prayed God to let me see my dead father,” ‘Umar’s son says, “and I saw him, wiping sweat from his forehead. ‘How is it with you, father?’ I asked. ‘Had it not been for the mercy of God, your father would certainly have perished,’ he replied.”
I give up on these people. I don’t even know who is alive and who isn’t.
Fortunately, Nuzhat al-Zaman moves on to different anecdotes. She has impressive stamina but dubious coherency. I don’t even know how to summarise the disjointed little anecdotes and quotes she’s throwing all over the place. Now she’s telling us about ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, another socialist caliph who gives over all his private wealth to the public treasury. The Umaiyads – I’m going to assume they are his family – appeal to his aunt Fatima, asking her to talk some sense into the man. The ensuing visit starts awkwardly because they both want the other to start first.
In night sixty five ‘Umar waffles at length about succession and metaphorical rivers – or perhaps they are not metaphorical, it’s hard to say. Speaking for all of us, Fatima gives up in disgust. She goes back to the Umaiyads and tells them, “Now you can taste the fruits of what you did by allying yourselves through marriage to ‘Umar.” I like you, Aunt Fatima.
Upon his death, the caliph summons his children and is reprimanded for leaving them without an inheritance. ‘Umar declares that either his children are obedient to God and are thus provided for, or are disobedient and deserve no help from him. GO TO AUNT FATIMA, KIDS. ‘Umar tells us about his religious dreams, which have left him with a terror of divine wrath. Nuzhat al-Zaman goes on to offer more anecdotes about what a god-fearing ruler ‘Umar was. During his reign a shepherd let wolves wander among his flock without incident, and ‘Umar once gave a sermon about how we are all dead, really, and I do like you very much, Nuzhat al-Zaman, but please get to the point.
So ‘Umar is still on his deathbed. He refuses to even have a pillow in case it is placed around his neck on the Day of Resurrection. (Why does he think God hates pillows? NO ONE KNOWS.) He faints and Aunt Fatima throws water over him until he rouses. When he tries to get up, annoyed by her concern, she physically holds him down and tells him that though she loves him, “we cannot all speak to you.” I think that’s another way of saying ‘you are impossible’.
And Nuzhat al-Zaman is still talking. Join me next week to find out if any of her audience are still conscious.