The Price of a Palace in Heaven (a Sufi story about Harun al Rashid and his brother Bahlul)

Professor Nazeer Ahmed

The great sages taught their students through stories, parables and similes.  Stories transcend time and space. They have an abiding quality. A child and a scholar can both relate to a good story and learn something from it. Stories that you hear as a child stay with you. Years later, in moments when you least expect it, the wisdom of an old story pops up into your consciousness with all its nascent appeal.

A learned Sheikh sat under a tree and was narrating the following story to a small group of his attentive students.

Harun ar Rashid (d 809 CE) was a great Caliph. His domains extended from China to Spain. From east to west, north to south, no monarch could boast a kingdom as opulent, as extant or as powerful as that of Harun. He was a patron of learning and the arts.  He invited scholars from far-away lands, from China, India and Greece to come to Baghdad and work at the House of Wisdom which his father had established. The fabled Arabian Nights celebrate the dazzling brilliance of his times. The emperors of China and France considered it an honor to send emissaries to the court of Harun and seek peace and trade relations with his vast empire.

Harun had a brother Behlul. Just as Harun was rich and opulent and Caliph of vast domains, Behlul was a saint, scornful of the riches of the world and focused on the eternal, timeless riches that accrue to men and women of goodness.  Harun spent his time in the palace, surrounded by courtiers and sycophants. Behlul spent his time in the desert in seclusion. Oftentimes, he was observed building castles in the desert sand, only to demolish them after he had built them.

One day, Harun was riding in the desert with his comrades when he saw his brother building castles in the sand. The emperor descended from his royal stallion and greeted his brother:

“How are you, my good brother?”, asked the emperor.

Shukr Allah, Alhamdulillah (thanks be to God, praise be to God), I am well”, replied Behlul.

The Caliph observed that Behlul had built a sand castle. Reaching out to engage his brother, Harun asked:

“I would like to buy that sand castle. How much does it cost?”

Behlul usually charged only one dinar (a gold coin) from merchants who were passing by.  He would take the money and distribute it to the poor the following morning. But Harun was a mighty Caliph. He had untold riches. Behlul asked for a price worthy of a king.

“One hundred dinars (gold coins)”, came the immediate reply. “And I will distribute the dinars to the poor tomorrow morning at the bazaar.”

“One hundred dinars for a sand castle?” rejoined the Caliph. “That is too much for a mere sand castle”.

“It is one hundred dinars. It is up to you either to buy it or not to buy it.”

The Caliph was not interested. He said salaam to his brother, mounted his horse with its saddle of gold and rubies and departed.

That night, as Harun slept in his royal chambers, he had a dream. He dreamed that he was taken up to heaven and was shown places of unspeakable grandeur and beauty. When Harun asked the accompanying angel to whom these palaces belonged, he was told these were the palaces built by his brother Behlul and purchased from him by passing merchants.

Harun woke up immediately from the dream. He could sleep no longer and spent the night sauntering back and forth in his luscious gardens waiting for dawn. Even before the sun rose from the east, Harun mounted his horse and went out into the desert searching for his brother. At last he located him in a desolate spot, playing with sand as usual. Offering greeting of peace, the Caliph descended from his horse and in a very solicitous voice he said:

“Brother, I will buy that castle you offered me yesterday for one hundred dinars:

“The price has gone up. It is one million dinars today. And it must be paid in cash.”

Harun was aghast. “One million dinars! Only yesterday, you said it was one hundred dinars.”

“Yes, the angels took that castle to heaven. The demand is up and this is a new castle. I was told by the angels to distribute all of your gold among the poor of the land.”

Harun felt remorse in his heart. He had missed a golden opportunity to buy for himself a castle in heaven. And now the asking price of one million dinars was so high. He left empty handed, walking slowly in the desert, holding the reins of his horse.

The great Shaikh who was narrating the story turned to his students and said: “O people! O my children! When Allah gives you an opportunity to do good, do not postpone it.  The opportunity may never come back to you. A good deed is like Divine mercy. When you perform good deeds, you buy yourself a place close to Divine presence. You buy yourself a castle in heaven. Hal Jaza ul Ehsan il al Ehsan (What is the recompense of a good deed except the good deed itself?)”.