Night eighty returns to the vizier Dandan’s segue, in which the second of five beautiful, highly educated secret assassins is displaying her intellect before King ‘Umar. She kisses the ground before his feet and launches into a series of quotes. I will be summarising quite concisely because frankly this is boring to read.
Philosopher/assassin No.2 continues the theme of subtle recrimination by stating, “The wrongdoer, it is said, will be filled with regret, even if people praise him, while whoever is wronged will be unhurt even if people blame him.” She also disapproves of people who laud their own achievements, declares that what matters most is having a good heart, and quotes a ‘learned man’ to say, “Who is the happiest of men? He whose manliness overcomes his lust, whose ambition reaches far into the heights, whose knowledge is extensive and who makes few excuses.” She continues into night eighty one with anecdotes about terribly pious people who’d rather weep their eyesight away and live in abject poverty than challenge the role God has chosen for them.
The third philosopher/ assassin comes forward to give her piece, staying on the subject of asceticism, sharing anecdotes to demonstrate how really religious men should live in the fear they won’t live up to their own sermons and advice. The fourth philosopher/ assassin takes over, beginning with someone called Bishr al-Hafi and his fears of ‘secret polytheism’. “It is when one man goes on bowing and prostrating himself for so long that he becomes ritually impure,” she explains. Another of Bishr al-Hafi’s pearls of wisdom was a response to someone who asked him to teach hidden truths, because apparently “this knowledge is not to be taught to everyone but only five in every hundred, like the alms tax on cash.”
On the same occasion a threadbare man stood up with a declaration of his own: “beware of truth that brings harm, while there is no harm in a lie that brings some benefit; necessity allows no choice; speech is of no help when coupled with privation; and silence does no harm in the presence of generosity.” All of Bishr’s family have a reputation for piety. One time his sister went to a great imam to ask if she was allowed to use other people’s torchlight for her spinning. I fail to see the potential for wrongdoing in that and luckily so did the imam.
She finishes up with an anecdote about ‘Mansur ibn ‘Ammar, who denied all shopping cravings and overheard a prayer on pilgrimage once that, in a case of either unfortunate timing or cosmic come-uppance, coincided precisely with another listener’s death. I have no idea what the point of that story is meant to be.
Anyway, moving on, we’re almost done! The fifth and final philosopher/ assassin agrees with her companions’ points about wealth being a root of sin, and how with prayer and random good deeds you can acquire the patronage of someone rich so you don’t have to risk it yourself. If it was good enough for Moses…who, according to her, not only earned an excellent meal by drawing water for a pair of wealthy sisters, he made such a good impression on their dad that he was offered marriage to one of them. The philosopher/ assassin talks a bit about being a good neighbour, then withdraws to allow her mistress – Dhat al-Dawahi, mother to a king, grandmother to a dead princess, sworn enemy of King ‘Umar, not that he realises any of that – to come forward and share her thoughts on time management. Basically, sleep is for losers, you should spend all your time on worship and die of exhaustion!
I’m paraphrasing, in case you can’t tell. Though I am certain she’d love for ‘Umar to die any way possible.
She also advocates semi-starvation and abstinence from all worldly things. According to her, an imam called Al-Shafi’i freely offered religious advice and hoped no one would thank him for it, and a government official called Abu Hanifa refused his salary because he did not want the love of tyrants to enter his heart. “Can you not associate with them,” suggested the caliph’s messenger, “and yet keep yourself from loving them?” “Can I be sure that if I go into the sea my clothes will not get wet?” Abu Hanifa snarked back. Dhat al-Dawahi quotes other people about avoiding treachery, debt and quarrels. “Remember death frequently,” Dhat al-Dawahi advises, “and frequently ask for pardon.”
She returns to sit with her girls and the king, taken by the collective beauty and intellectualism on display, decides to keep them around. In a horrible twist, they are assigned the palace where Princess Abriza once lived. Every time the king goes to visit them he finds the old lady in prayer and admires her piety. When he asks the price of the five girls she expects him to offer a whole month of personal fasting and prayer. She then sends for a jug of water. Speaking incomprehensible words over it, she covers it with cloth and gives it to the king. He’s to drink it after the first ten days of fasting, to give him strength. “Tomorrow, I shall go to my brothers, the invisible men,” Dhat al-Dawahi says mysteriously, “for whom I have been longing, and then after the ten days have passed, I shall come back to you.” The jug of water is locked away; the old lady leaves.
In night eighty five, she returns with sweetmeats wrapped in a leaf. These are a gift from the next world, granted by the ‘unseen men’, who may be spirits? The king is delighted. Twenty days later she goes to him with more news from her invisible friends. The girls are great favourites with them, apparently, and the unseen men are glad they are going to ‘Umar’s care. So that’s obviously a big lie. The old lady wants to take her girls for the blessing of the unseen men, who may even grant them a mystic treasure to bring back to ‘Umar. “You must send with them from the palace someone dear to you who may enjoy the friendship of the invisible men and seek their blessing,” she tells him, and he offers his Byzantine slave Sophia – also a mistakenly enslaved princess and mother of his lost twins.
That’s some very elegant plotting coming together there. Join me next Tuesday to watch the rest of Dhat al-Dawahi’s scheming come to fruition.