Sheikh Saadi on autocracy

Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur

There are lessons in history for us all but unfortunately the relevance of classical writers in helping us understand them has not only been overlooked and but at times has also been wilfully demeaned as outdated and obsolete. Nothing could be further away from the truth. Take Sheikh Saudi’s writings for example. They could prove to be a blessing for all those who want to learn and reform. About the autocrats and the consequences of their rule he says:

When He wishes to waste a world,

He places the country, in the grasp of a tyrant.

This universal truth is as relevant in today’s world as it was more than 700 years ago. My advice to both the tyrants and the oppressed is, read him.

Sheikh Musleehudeen Saadi Shirazi, 578-691 AH (1182-1292 AD), is considered a master par excellence of ghazal but is better known for his moral teachings in Gulistan and Bostan.

The Bostan that I have translated here had cost me a fortune, a princely sum of 120 Afghanis for copies of Bostan and Gulistan in autumn of 1978 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. No, I am not joking, because this sum was nearly half of my monthly stipend then. I did not know Persian at the time and it was only subsequently that I learnt it on my own by reading them. It seemed a foolhardy investment then, but it is still paying off.

The Hikayats in Bostan are poetic in form and so I have taken the liberty to interpret as well as translate them and if someone thinks I have not done justice to them, they are welcome to suggest corrections.

In the first chapter in Bostan, ‘On Justice, Sagacity and Good Governance’, he mentions an incident about the ruthless tyrant Hajjaj bin Yusuf al Saqafi, yes the same one who had Mohammad bin Qasim, the hero of Pakistanis, killed and quartered.

The hikayat goes thus, A God-fearing person refused to accord the respect and deference that Hajjaj expected from all. Incensed and riled by the rebelliousness which he knew could become symbolic, he ordered a man to slay him. Knowing that cowardice could only demean his honour and his faith, the Sage decided to valiantly meet his fate. He wept a little first and then heartily laughed. This contradictory behaviour amazed the cold-blooded tyrant; intrigued, he inquired why the Sage was laughing. The Sage said, I cry due to melancholy at the insensitivity of life towards me as I have four hapless children who look up to me for sustenance. I laugh because I am ecstatic that I die not as a tyrant but as one oppressed.

Among those present, one spoke up for him saying, O Hajjaj, hold your hand and pardon him. He has many dependents and it is wrong to smother their hopes. Be generous and merciful and take pity. Killing one is equivalent to putting humanity to the sword.

If you desist not, then you do evil unto your name and unto your family; if you harm and injure the hearts of the populace, these acts will haunt you and them. Fear the consequences that an injured heart’s prayers wreak, dread the retribution ensuing from the pleas of the oppressed to the Creator.

When Iblees (Satan) committed evil, no good came of it; if the seed is evil the fruit is evil too. If you consider someone’s feelings when strong, then expect consideration when on the floor. Moreover it doesn’t behove the powerful to trample on the feeble and meek.

Hajjaj though tongue-tied at the stinging discourse, heeded not the advice and spilt the blood. The martyred one appeared in a dream to a Wise one and said, for me it was over in a moment but the consequences of his (Hajjaj’s) act shall be a yoke for him till the Day of Judgment.

Isn’t it surprising that the attitudes of the rulers have tended to remain in the same rut in the history of mankind? It is probably the intoxication of the self-righteousness brought about by the unbridled power at their disposal that deprives them of reason and with that the ability to distinguish between rights and wrongs and also leaves them bereft of compassion.

Sheikh Saadi in the same chapter, says, I have heard that a mighty king was offended and annoyed at the truth spoken by a virtuous and honourable person. This was an invitation to the wrath of the tyrant and he was sent to the dungeon for he had had committed the cardinal sin of offending the tyrant with truth. A friend visited him in the prison and said, It was but imprudent and rash of you to have said what you said. The Sage replied, telling the truth to tyrants is an integral part of the faith and I fear not the incarceration as it is but transitory. His words soon reached the ears of the heartless tyrant. Offended and infuriated at his nemesis audacity, he laughed arrogantly and ordered his slave to deliver the message that, you live but in a world of fantasy as you will die and rot in there. Hearing this, the Sage in all his dignity and gravity replied, Go tell your master the Khusro that life on earth is momentary and nothing more. Happiness and Sadness are immaterial therefore. I wouldn’t derive any happiness from your endowments or any sadness from your fury. Little does it matter that you possess treasures, armies and power while I only sadness, sorrow and poverty. For once we cross the threshold of life we all but become equals in the dust. Be not conceited with the transitory treasures and pleasures for these can only buy you Hell fire. Countless vicious tyrants and innumerable bloodthirsty despots preceded you, those who scorched the lives and times of people but were then suddenly no more. Try living a life wherein people praise you after death and not one by which curses and insults accompany you to the grave. It doesn’t behove the honourable to set unsavoury examples that invite eternal condemnation. God gave you strength and authority but not for trampling underfoot the feeble.

This truth enraged the cold blooded tyrant even further. He ordered his hirelings to pull out the tongue that had committed the sacrilege against his person. The Sage’s courageous and dignified reply to that was, Your brutality and power doesn’t intimidate me at all because my being tongue-less matters not a whit for you know what I think of you and what I stand for. It is quite immaterial to me if I have to bear torture and torment at your hands. All I want is an honourable end which is worth all the worldly treasures and more. Happiness followeth misery if the end is honourable.

As you can see there are lessons to be learnt all around from these hikayats, but only those willing to change can learn. All through human history those who have tried to rule through force instead of consent and consensus have been faced with adverse situations quite suddenly and taken unaware because they refused to learn. The present situation here isn’t surprising because it too has emerged from the ruler’s refusal to see reason and admit mistakes.

What we are witnessing today is the unfolding of the drama that has been seen over and over again here and the world over with spine chilling events and devastating consequences. Somehow the lesson is always lost on those who mistakenly come to believe that their fate is going to be different from their predecessors.

The sheer absurdity in the reasoning of the autocrats that they are invincible, infallible and indispensable is as amazing as it is comical. It finds its origins in the fact that at one time they can impose their will without facing resistance. This they then consider an irreversible situation without realizing that situations and power are not immutable and change quite wilfully at times.

The present utterances about the sanctity of state institutions and the attempt to overawe the people with a show of an undivided front of the top army brass are all a part of that inescapably unsuccessful grand strategy of delaying the inevitable, but all this intimidation and suppression is bound to fail here as it has throughout human history.

Disclaimer: If anything said here is considered treasonable and seditious by the gentlemen at the Presidency and the gentlemen of the 101 meeting, I want them to know that all I have done is translated Sheikh Saudi’s hikayats and inferred conclusions from them. His worldly remains are interred in Shiraz, Iran. If they want they can try him for sedition and treason. Thank you.

This article was first published on 12 June 2007

The writer has an association with the Baloch rights movement going back to the early 1970s. He tweets at mmatalpur and can be contacted at

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