The Legend of Hatim al Tai
This classic tale illustrates the Arab’s view of hospitality as a sacred duty and cardinal virtue—as well as the Sufi teaching that true generosity cannot be exercised without the development of other prerequisite virtues.
The King Who Decided to be Generous
There was a king of Iran who said to a dervish: “Tell me a story.”
The dervish said: “Your Majesty, I will tell you the tale of Hatim Tai, the Arabian King and the most generous man of all time; for if you could be like him, you would indeed be the greatest king alive.”
“Speak on,” said the king,“but if you do not please me, having cast aspersions upon my generosity, you will lose your head.” He talked in this way because in Persia it is customary for those at Court to tell the monarch that he already has the most excellent qualities of anyone in the world; past, present or future.
“To continue,” said the dervish, in the manner of dervishes (for they are not easily discountenanced), “Hatim Tai’s generosity excelled, in letter and spirit, that of all other men.” And this is the story which the dervish told.
Another Arabian king coveted the possessions, the villages and oases, the camels and the fighting-men of Hatim Tai. So this man declared war upon Hatim, sending him a messenger with the declaration of war: “Yield to me, otherwise I shall surely overrun you and your lands, and possess myself of your sovereignty.”
When this message reached Hatim’s court, his advisers at once suggested that he mobilize the warriors in defence of his realm saying: “There is surely not an able-bodied man or woman among your followers who will not gladly lay down his life in defence of our beloved king.”
But Hatim, contrary to the expectation of the people, said:
“No, instead of your riding forth and shedding your blood for me, I shall flee. It would be far from the path of generosity if I were to become the cause of the sacrifice of a life of a single man or woman. If you yield peaceably, this king will content himself with taking only your services and rents, and you will have suffered no material loss. If, on the other hand, you resist, by the conventions of war he will be entitled to regard your possessions as booty, and if you lose the war you will be penniless.”
So saying, Hatim took only a stout staff and went into the near-by mountains, where he found a cave and sank himself in contemplation.
Half of the people were deeply affected by this sacrifice of his wealth and position by Hatim Tai on their behalf. But others, especially those who sought to make a name for themselves on the field of valour, muttered: “How do we know that this man is not a simple coward?” And others, who had little courage, muttered against him saying: “He has, in a sense, saved himself; for he has abandoned us to a fate which is unknown to us. Perhaps we may become the slaves of this unknown king who is, after all, enough of a tyrant to declare war upon his neighbours.”
Others again, uncertain as to what to believe, remained silent, until they should have some means of making up their minds.
And so it was that the tyrant king, accompanied by his glittering hosts, took possession of Hatim Tai’s domain. He did not increase the taxes, he did not usurp for himself more than Hatim had taken from the people in exchange for being their protector and administrator of justice. But one thing disturbed him. It was the fact that he heard whispers that, although he had possessed himself of a new realm, yet it had been yielded up to him as an act of generosity by Hatim Tai. These were the words spoken by some of the people.
“I cannot be real master of this land,” declared the tyrant, “until I have captured Hatim Tai himself. While he lives, there is still a loyalty towards him in the hearts of some of these people. This means that they are not completely my subjects, even though they behave outwardly as such.”
So he published an edict that whoever should bring him Hatim Tai would be rewarded with five thousand pieces of gold. Hatim Tai knew nothing of this until one day he was sitting outside his cave and he heard a conversation between a woodcutter and his wife.
The woodcutter said: “My dear wife, I am now old and you are much younger than I. We have small children, and in the natural order of events I may be expected to die before you and while the children are youngsters. If we could only find and capture Hatim Tai, for whom there is a reward of five thousand pieces of gold from the new king, your future would be secure.”
“Shame on you!” said his wife. “Better that you should die, and that I and our children should starve, than that our hands should be stained with the blood of the most generous man of all time, who sacrificed all for our sake.”
“That is all very well,” said the old man, “but a man has to think of his own interests. I have, after all, responsibilities. And, in any case, every day more and more people believe that Hatim is a coward. It will only be a matter of time before they have searched every possible piece of cover for him.”
“The belief in Hatim’s cowardice is fuelled by love of gold. Much more of this kind of talk and Hatim will have lived in vain.”
At that moment Hatim Tai stood up and revealed himself to the astonished pair. “I am Hatim Tai,” he said. “Take me to the new king and claim your reward.”
The old man was ashamed, and his eyes filled with tears. “No, great Hatim,” he said, “I cannot bring myself to do it.”
While they were arguing, a number of people, who had been searching for the fugitive king, gathered around.
“Unless you do so,” said Hatim, “I will surrender myself to the king and tell him that you have been hiding me. In that case, you will be executed for treason.”
Realizing that this was Hatim, the mob moved forward, seized their former king, and carried him to the tyrant, with the woodcutter following miserably behind.
When they got to the court, each claimed that he had himself captured Hatim. The former king, seeing irresolution on the face of his successor, asked to be allowed to speak: “Know, O King, that my evidence should also be heard. I was captured by this old woodcutter and not by yonder mob. Give him, therefore, his reward, and do what you will with me…”
At this the woodcutter stepped forward and told the king the truth about Hatim’s having offered himself as a sacrifice for the future security of his family.
The new king was so overwhelmed by this story that he ordered his army to withdraw, placed Hatim Tai back on his throne, and retired to his own country.
When he had heard this story, the king of Iran, forgetting his threat against the dervish, said: “An excellent tale, O dervish, and one from which we can benefit. You, at any rate, cannot benefit, having abandoned already your expectations of this life and being possessed of nothing. But I, I am a king. And I am rich. Arab kings, people who live on boiled lizards, cannot match a Persian when it comes to real generosity. An idea strikes me! Let us to work!”
Taking the dervish with him, the king of Iran summoned his greatest architects to a large open space and ordered them to design and build an immense palace. It was to be composed of a central strongroom and forty windows.
When it was completed the king caused every available means of transport to be assembled and the palace to be filled with pieces of gold. After months of this activity, a proclamation went forth:
“Lo, the King of Kings, Fountain of Generosity, has ordained that a palace with forty windows be constructed. He will personally, every day, dispense gold to all needy people, from these windows.”
Not unnaturally, large crowds of necessitous ones collected and the king handed out one gold piece to every applicant, appearing at one window each day. Then he noticed that there was a certain dervish who presented himself every day at the window, took his piece of gold and went away. At first the king thought: “Perhaps he wants to carry the gold to someone who is in need.” Then, when he saw the man again, he thought: “Perhaps he is applying the dervish rule of secret charity, and redistributes the gold.” And every day when he saw the dervish, he excused him in his own mind, until the fortieth day when the king found that his patience could not endure further. Seizing the hand of the dervish, he said: “Ungrateful wretch! You neither say ‘Thank you’ nor do you show any esteem for me. You do not smile, you do not bow, you come back day after day. How long can this process continue? Are you saving up from my bounty to become rich, or are you lending out the gold on interest? Far indeed are you from the behaviour of those with the honourable badge of the patched robe.”
As soon as these words had been said, the dervish threw down the forty pieces of gold which he had received. He said to the king: “Know, O King of Iran, that generosity cannot exist without three things preceding it. The first is giving without the sentiment of generosity; the second is patience; the third is having no suspicions.”
But the king never learned. To him, generosity was bound up with what people would think of him, and how he felt about being “generous.”
This traditional story, which is known to readers mainly through the Urdu classic, The Tale of the Four Dervishes, succinctly illustrates important Sufi teachings. Emulation without the basic qualities to sustain that emulation is useless. Generosity cannot be exercised unless other virtues are developed as well. Some people cannot learn even from exposure to teachings, the latter being represented in the tale by the first and second dervishes.
From Tales of the Dervishes, by Idries Shah.