Professor Nazeer Ahmed
The king was extremely concerned. His kingdom was vast and rich, extending from ocean to ocean. God had blessed his realm with rich soil and plentiful rain. Snows melted from the tall mountains forming rivers that irrigated the lush plains. Fountains gushed forth from the earth creating streams that laced the land. Gardens graced the kingdom from one end to the other. There was plenty of fruit and crops were bountiful.
Yet the people were unhappy. The crops were plentiful but there was hunger in the land. The bazaars had plenty of produce but the merchants cheated. The functionaries of the king drew huge salaries but they extracted bribes. The priests said their prayers loud for all to hear but they preached hatred. The guards had become thieves and the guardians of morals had become the worst offenders of morals. Women were often abused and the children were abducted and sold in faraway lands for pittance.
The king summoned the grand vizier. “Why are my subjects so unhappy”, asked the king of the vizier. “God has given my land plentiful rain and abundant crops but the people are poor and hungry. The mosques and temples are overflowing with worshippers. Yet there is hatred at every corner. Why is that so?”
The grand vizier reflected for a moment, the furrows on his wizened, old face deepening into pensive curves. “Sire”, replied the vizier, “I ask of you a favor, if it so pleases your majesty, “and I will demonstrate why it is that there is so much misery in the land”.
“Ask, and you shall be heard” replied the king.
“Sire”, continued the vizier, “grant me two banquets which you will grace with your presence. And I will bring forth for you the malaise that eats up your majesty’s realm”.
The king was puzzled. “What does this wise old man have up his sleeve”, he thought. But he had confidence in the judgment of his vizier. “Let it be so!” declared the king.
The day for the first banquet was fixed. Royal heralds were dispatched to the towns in the far flung realm that the king was hosting a royal banquet for the officials and the professional religious men who officiated at the prayers in the temples and the mosques.
On the appointed day came the professional priests and the functionaries, on their donkeys and their horses, dressed in their best, their moustaches trimmed and their beards tended. They decorated their horses and adorned their donkeys to look their best and gathered at the door of the banquet hall, pushing and shoving each other to get in the front of the line.
The vizier arrived, surveyed the crowd and to test their ego, asked each of them, “Who is the leader among you?”
To a man, each one answered, “I am. I am the chief among all these people. I deserve to sit next to the king.”
The king was ushered in from a side door, away from the crowd, and was seated on a golden dais. The door was opened for the priests and the functionaries. They barged in, like an unruly horde, trampling over one another to get close to the king. Chairs were toppled and there a bedlam.
The king watched in silence, wondering why the vizier had invited such an unruly mob into his presence. The vizier ordered that everyone to be seated so the food could be served.
And the food was served, in large bowls of silver. The sweet aroma of the dishes from the royal kitchen filled the hall. Then the spoons were brought in. Each spoon was in actuality a four feet long ladle. The professional men of religion and officials of the kingdom grabbed the ladles, shoving them into the faces of the men seated next to them, poking those across the table, spilling the food onto their turbans and all over their clothes. It was a total mess.
The king looked at the vizier in baffled amusement. Sensing that the king was irked, the vizier approached him and whispered into his ear, “Sire, one more banquet, if your majesty would so please. I need one more banquet to demonstrate why the morals in your majesty’s kingdom are so low.”
The next week, the word went out that the king would host another banquet, this time for the saleheen, the faqirs and the saints who lived on the outskirts of town, spending their time in the remembrance of God, earning their rizq by the sweat of their brows and serving fellow man.
On the appointed day, came the saleheen, on foot, in their clean, white, long flowing robes. Their hearts were as much without blemish as were their robes. As they arrived at the door of the banquet hall, they greeted each other, “salaamu alaikum”, and stood with folded hands one behind the other.
The vizier arrived and asked the man at the head of the line, “Who among you is the leader?”
“Salaam ya sayyedi! (Peace be with you, O Chief!) My brother behind me is my leader”, answered the man.
The vizier then asked the second man, “Are you the leader of these men?”
“My brother behind me is my leader,” answered the second man.
And so it went, until the vizier asked the last man in the queue, “Who is the leader among you?”
“Did you not meet him?” came the answer, “he is the one at the head of the line.”
The king was ushered in from a side door and was seated on the royal dais. The doors to the banquet hall were flung open. The saleheen, entered, one at a time, with great humility and respect, bowing to the king. And they were seated, the first man occupying the last seat first, until the man who had arrived last was seated next to the king.
The royal dishes were served and the long ladles were brought out. The man at the head of the table said, “Bismillah” (In the Name of God). Each man carefully reached out for a ladle and with great care fed the person across the table. “I need you, my brother,” each said to the other. Not a drop was spilled and not a turban ruffled. They fed each other, in silence, savoring each grain as a blessing from the heavens, until the man at the end of the table concluded by saying, “Shukr Allah” (Thanks be to God).
The king looked at the vizier and the vizier bowed. “Men and women of akhlaq (character) feed the other before they gorge their own stomachs” said the vizier to the king. “They care for others before they stuff themselves. There is corruption in the land because the professional men of religion have ceased to be servants of God. They have become slaves to their own egos. Religion has degenerated into ritual and official position has become a license to steal. Men of religion have become preachers of hate and those who were hired to serve have become agents of exploitation.” The king nodded his head in approval. He had understood the secret of the long ladles.
The following day, the king issued a firman (royal declaration): “Henceforth in my realm, every person must feed the other before he feeds himself.”
It was said that the story of this king and his wise grand vizier lived in the memories of men and women for a long, long time.