As victories mount and accolades are showered upon the great warrior Saladin, he is nearly deified. He conquers the infidel Franj, or Crusaders, and reclaims the holy city of Jerusalem while remaining true to his senses of honor, justice, and humor. When it comes time for Saladin to record his own story, he turns to a Jewish scribe. In the interlinking stories of The Book of Saladin, the mighty sultan deftly navigates the deep chasms separating Muslims, Christians, and Jews.
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The Book of Saladin
Book Two of the Islam Quintet
By Tariq Ali
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1998 Tariq Ali
All rights reserved.
On the recommendation of Ibn Maymun, I become the Sultan's trusted scribe
I have not thought of our old home for many years. It is a long time now since the fire. My house, my wife, my daughter, my two-year-old grandson—all trapped inside like caged animals. If fate had not willed otherwise, I too would have been reduced to ashes. How often have I wished that I could have been there to share the agony.
These are painful memories. I keep them submerged. Yet today, as I begin to write this story, the image of that domed room where everything once began is strong in me again. The caves of our memory are extraordinary. Things that are long forgotten remain hidden in dark corners, suddenly to emerge into the light. I can see everything now. It comes to my mind clearly, as if time itself had stopped still.
It was a cold night of the Cairo winter, in the year 1181 according to the Christian calendar. The mewing of cats was the only noise from the street outside. Rabbi Musa ibn Maymun, an old friend of our family as well as its self-appointed physician, had arrived at my house on his way back from attending to the Kadi al-Fadil, who had been indisposed for several days.
We had finished eating and were sipping our mint tea in silence, surrounded by thick, multi-coloured woollen rugs, strewn with cushions covered in silk and satin. A large round brazier, filled with charcoal, glowed in the centre of the room, giving off gentle waves of heat. Reclining on the floor, we could see the reflection of the fire in the dome above, making it appear as if the night sky itself were alight.
I was reflecting on our earlier conversation. My friend had revealed an angry and bitter side, which had both surprised and reassured me. Our saint was human just like anyone else. The mask was intended for outsiders. We had been discussing the circumstances which had compelled Ibn Maymun to flee Andalus and to start on his long fifteen-year journey from Cordoba to Cairo. Ten of those years had been spent in the Maghrebian city of Fez. There the whole family had been obliged to pretend that they were followers of the Prophet of Islam. Ibn Maymun was angered at the memory. It was the deception that annoyed him. Dissembling went against his instincts.
I had never heard him talk in this fashion before. I noticed the transformation that came over him. His eyes were gleaming as he spoke, his hand clenched into a fist. I wondered whether it was this experience that had aroused his worries about religion, especially about a religion in power, a faith imposed at the point of a sword. I broke the silence.
"Is a world without religion possible, Ibn Maymun? The ancients had many gods. They used their worship of one to fight the supporters of the other. Now we have one god and, of necessity, we must fight over him. So everything has become a war of interpretation. How does your philosophy explain this phenomenon?"
The question amused him, but before he could reply we heard a loud knocking on the door, and his smile disappeared.
"Are you expecting someone?"
I shook my head. He leaned forward to warm his hands at the brazier. We had both wrapped ourselves in woollen blankets, but still we felt the cold. I knew instinctively that the late knock on the door was for my friend.
"Only the retainer of a powerful man knocks in that fashion," sighed Ibn Maymun. "Perhaps the Kadi has taken a turn for the worse, and I will have to see to him."
My servant, Ahmad, walked into the room carrying a torch that trembled in his hands. He was followed by a man of medium height, with undistinguished features and light red hair. He was wrapped in a blanket, and walked with a slight limp in his right leg. I saw a sudden flash of fear cross Ibn Maymun's face as he stood and bowed before the visitor. I had not seen this man before. It was certainly not the Kadi, who was known to me.
I, too, rose and bowed. My visitor smiled on realising that he was a stranger to me.
"I am sorry to intrude at such an hour. The Kadi informed me that Ibn Maymun was present in our town, and spending the night in your illustrious house. I am in the house of Isaac ibn Yakub am I not?"
"I hope," said the stranger with a slight bow, "that you will forgive me for arriving without warning. It is not often that I have the chance of meeting two great scholars on the same day. My thoughts were floating undecided between the merits of an early night or a conversation with Ibn Maymun. I decided that your words might have a more beneficial effect than sleep. And here I am."
"Any friend of Ibn Maymun is welcome here. Please be seated. Can we offer you a bowl of soup?"
"I think it will be good for your constitution, Commander of the Brave," said Ibn Maymun in a soft voice.
I realised I was in the presence of the Sultan. This was Yusuf Salah-ud-Din in person. In my house. I fell to my knees and touched his feet.
"Forgive me for not recognising Your Majesty. Your slave begs forgiveness."
He laughed and pulled me up on my feet.
"I do not care much for slaves. They are too prone to rebellion. But I would be grateful for some soup."
Later, after he had eaten the soup, he questioned me on the origins of the earthenware bowls in which it was served.
"Are these not made from the red clay of Armenia?"
I nodded in surprise.
"My grandmother had some very similar to these. She only brought them out for weddings and funerals. She used to tell me that they were from her village in the Armenian mountains."
Later that night, the Sultan explained to Ibn Maymun that he needed to engage a trustworthy scribe. He wished to have someone to whom he could dictate his memoirs. His own secretary was too engaged in intrigues of various sorts. He could not be fully trusted. He was quite capable of distorting the meaning of words to suit his own future needs.
"You know well my friend," said the Sultan, looking directly into the eyes of Ibn Maymun, "that there are times when our lives are in danger every minute of the day. We are surrounded by the enemy. We have no time to think of anything but survival. Only when peace prevails can one afford the luxury of being left alone with one's own thoughts."
"Like now?" said Ibn Maymun.
"Like now," murmured the Sultan. "I need someone I can trust, and a person who will not flinch from revealing the truth after I have turned to dust."
"I know the type of person Your Highness needs," said Ibn Maymun, "but your request poses a problem. You are never in one city for too long. Either the scribe must travel with you, or we will have to find another one in Damascus."
The Sultan smiled.
"Why not? And a third city beckons. I hope to be visiting al-Kuds soon. So perhaps we will need three scribes. For each of the three cities. Since I am the author, I will make sure not to repeat myself."
My friend and I gasped in amazement. We could hardly conceal our excitement, and this appeared to please my exalted guest. Jerusalem—al-Kuds to the Islamic world—was an occupied city. The Franj had become self-satisfied and arrogant. The Sultan had just announced, and in my house, that he intended to dislodge the enemy.
For over three score years we, who had always lived in this region, and the Franj, who came across the water, had been at each other's throats. Jerusalem had fallen to them in 1099. The old city had been shattered and ruined, its streets washed in Jewish and Muslim blood. Here the clash between the barbarians and our world had been more brutal than in the coastal towns. Every Jew and Muslim had been killed. Congregations in mosque and synagogue had risen in horror as news of this atrocity spread through the land. They had cursed the barbarians from the West, and pledged to revenge this ignoble deed. Perhaps the time had now come. Perhaps the quiet confidence of this man was justified. My heart quickened its pace.
"My friend, Ibn Yakub, whose home Your Excellency has privileged this night, is one of the most reliable scholars of our community. I could think of none better than him to be your scribe. He will not breathe a word of it to anyone."
The Sultan looked at me for a long time.
"Are you willing?"
"I am at your service, Commander of the Loyal. With one condition."
"I have read many books about the kings of old. The ruler is usually portrayed as god or devil, depending on whether the account is written by a courtier or an enemy. Books of this sort have no value. When truth and untruth lie embracing each other in the same bed it is difficult to tell them apart. I must have Your Excellency's permission to ask questions which might help me to clarify the meaning of a particular episode in your life. It may not be necessary, but we all know the cares which rest on your shoulders and I ..."
He interrupted me with a laugh.
"You can ask me whatever you wish. I grant you that privilege. But I may not always reply. That is my privilege."
"Since you will come to the palace regularly, we cannot keep your appointment secret, but I value discretion and accuracy. There are those in my circle, including our much-loved Kadi, al-Fadil, who will envy you. After all, our al-Fadil is a gifted writer and much admired. He could certainly write what I dictate, but his language is too ornate, too precious for my taste. He clothes the subject in so many fancy words that it is sometimes difficult to perceive his meaning. He is a word-juggler, a magician who is the master of disguise.
"I want you to take down what I say as exactly as you can, without embellishments of any sort. Come to the palace tomorrow and we will make an early start. Now if you will excuse me for a few moments, I wish to consult Ibn Maymun on a personal matter."
I left the room.
An hour later, as I went to inquire whether they were ready for another bowl of chicken broth, I heard the loud and clear tones of my friend.
"I have often told your Kadi that the emotions of our soul, what we feel inside ourselves, produce very major changes in our health. All those emotions that cause Your Highness upset should be smoothed out. Their cause should be uncovered and treated. Have you told me everything?"
There was no reply. A few minutes later, the Sultan left my house. He was never to return. His retainers would arrive at regular intervals with gifts for my family, and sheep or goats to celebrate the Muslim festival of al-Fitr, that commemorates the sacrifice of Abraham.
From that night till the day he left for Jerusalem, I saw the Sultan every single day. Sometimes he would not let me return home, and I was assigned my own quarters in his palace. For the next eight months, my life was taken over by the Sultan Yusuf Salah-ud- Din ibn Ayyub.CHAPTER 2
I meet Shadhi and the Sultan begins to dictate his memoirs
Ibn Maymun had warned me that the Sultan was an early riser. He woke before dawn, made his ablutions, and consumed a cup of warm water before riding to the Mukattam Hills on the outskirts of the city. Here the citadel was being built. The Sultan, a keen student of architecture, would often overrule the chief builder. He alone knew that the reason for the new structure was not to defend Cairo against the Franj, but to defend the Sultan against popular insurrection.
The city was known for its turbulence. It had grown fast, and attracted vagabonds and malcontents of every sort. For that reason, Cairo frightened its rulers.
Here, too, the Sultan tested his own skills and those of his steed. Sometimes he would take Afdal, his oldest son, with him. Afdal was but twelve years old, and this was his first extended stay in Cairo. The Sultan would use the time to train the boy in the arts and the politics of war. Dynasties, after all, are made or lost on the battlefield. Saladin had been taught this by his father Ayyub and his uncle Shirkuh.
When the Sultan returned that morning, I was waiting for him. I touched my forehead in silent greeting.
"You have arrived at exactly the right moment, Ibn Yakub," he said, leaping off his horse. He was flushed and sweaty, with his eyes were shining like those of a child. Happiness and satisfaction were written on his face.
"This augurs well for our work, my friend. I will take a bath and join you for breakfast in the library. We can have an hour alone before the Kadi arrives. Shadhi will show you the way."
An old Kurdish warrior in his nineties, his beard as white as the mountain snow, took me by the elbow, guiding me gently in the direction of the library. On the way he talked about himself. He had been a retainer with the Sultan's father long before Yusuf was born, and long before Ayyub and his brother Shirkuh had moved down to the plains of Mesopotamia.
"It was I, Shadhi, who taught your Sultan how to ride and wield a sword when he was not yet eight years old. It was I, Shadhi, who ..."
In more normal circumstances, I would have listened intently to the old man, and questioned him in great detail, but that day my thoughts were elsewhere. It was my first visit to the palace, and it would be foolish to deny that I was in a state of great excitement. Suddenly my star had risen. I was about to become a confidant of the most powerful ruler of our world.
I was being taken to the most celebrated private library of our city. The books on philosophy alone numbered over a thousand. Everything was here from Aristotle to Ibn Rushd, from astronomy to geometry. It was here that Ibn Maymun came when he wanted to consult the medical formularies of al-Kindi, Sahlan ibn Kaysan, and Abul Fadl Daud. And, of course, the master himself, al-Razi, the greatest of them all. It was here that Ibn Maymun wanted his own books and manuscripts to be kept after his death.
Entering the library, I was entranced by its magnitude and soon lost in lofty thoughts. These volumes, so exquisitely bound, were the repository of centuries of learning and study. Here was a special section containing books unobtainable elsewhere, works denounced as heretical. Such books, to put it another way, as might help to unlock closed minds. They were only available in the reading rooms of the Dar al-hikma if the reader was prepared to offer the librarian an extremely generous gift. Even then, not everything was possible.
Abul Hassan al-Bakri's Sirat al-Bakri, for instance, had vanished from the shops and the public libraries. A preacher at al-Azhar had denounced the book, a biography of the Prophet of Islam, as a total fabrication. He had informed the faithful at Friday prayers that al-Bakri was roasting in hell because of his blasphemy.
Here now in front of me lay the offending book. My hands had trembled slightly as I removed it from the shelf and began to read its opening lines. It seemed orthodox enough to me. I was so absorbed that I noticed neither the recumbent form of Shadhi prostrate on a prayer rug in the direction of Mecca, nor the unannounced arrival of the Sultan. He interrupted my private reverie.
"To dream and to know is better than to pray and be ignorant. Do you agree, Ibn Yakub?"
"Forgive me, Your Excellency, I was ..."
He signalled that we be seated. Breakfast was being served. The Sultan was preoccupied. I had suddenly become nervous. We ate in silence.
"What is your method of work?"
I was taken by surprise.
"I'm not sure I grasp your meaning, Commander of the Brave."
"Come now, my friend. Ibn Maymun has told me that you are a scholar of history. He spoke highly of your attempt to compile a history of your own people. Is my question so difficult to answer?"
"I follow the method of the great Tabari. I write in a strictly chronological fashion. I ascertain the veracity of every important fact by speaking to those whose knowledge was gained directly. When I obtain several different versions of a fact, from several narrators, I usually communicate all of these to the reader."
The Sultan burst out laughing.
"You contradict yourself. How can there be more than one account of a single fact? Surely there can be only one fact. One correct
account and several false versions."
"Your Majesty is talking about facts. I am talking about history."
"Should we begin?"
I nodded and collected my writing implements.
"Should we start at the beginning?"
Excerpted from The Book of Saladin by Tariq Ali. Copyright © 1998 Tariq Ali. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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