I was under the impression until today that Hatim Tai was a fictional figure, as I had only heard of him in one of the stories in Tales of the Dervishes. Idries Shah collected the story “The King Who Decided to be Generous” from the book “The Tale of the Four Dervishes,” by Amir Khusro, written in the late 13th century. I believe Idries Shah found the tale worthy of collection because of the 1804 translation by Mir Amman into the ordinary Urdu language of his day. This tale is a little longer than the usual blog posts here. You might want to get a cup of coffee or tea before proceeding further.
A tale of generous King Hatim Tai
Hatim Tai was an Arabian king who lived during the 6th century. He is renowned for his generosity. I am told that Hatim Tai’s generosity excelled, in letter and in spirit, that of all other men.
Another Arabian king coveted the possessions, the villages and oases, the camels and the fighting-men of Hatim Tai. So this man declared war on 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 defense 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 defense 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 the people were deeply affected by the 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 valor, 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 neighbors.”
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 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 to death, than that our hands 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 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 fueled 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.
I was sharing this tale with an elderly gentleman today, who suggested “You should put that on your blog.” I think he had a great idea. Hatim Tai’s tomb can be found near the city of Ha’il in Saudi Arabia.
To this day, there is a proverb among the Arabs, “more generous than Hatem” (Arabic: أكرم من حاتم). I take great joy in telling you a tale of generous King Hatim Tai.
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