One day the Caliph (King) Haroun al-Raschid disguised himself as an ordinary traveler and left his palace to travel through his country and see for himself how his people fared. Mounted on a fine steed, he traveled on until he came to within a few miles of the town of Bassora. There he saw a poor lame man seated by the wayside.
"Alms! Alms! I beg of you," implored the beggar.
The Caliph threw him a piece of money, and was about to ride on, when a sudden thought stopped him. "Old beggar," he said, "to what city do you journey?"
"To the city of Bassora," answered the lame man.
Dismounting, the Caliph helped the old man to the horse's back, then mounting in front of him, rode into Bassora.
Arriving at their journey's end, the Caliph said to the lame man, "Dismount. I leave you here."
"Dismount yourself," answered the beggar. "The horse is mine!"
"What!" cried the Caliph. "Miserable beggar! Did I not lift you from the roadside?"
"Very true," replied the beggar, "but can you prove it? In Bassora we are both strangers. It is your word against mine. What are you going to do?"
That was a question the Caliph had to answer for himself. He thought, "If I throw the old man into the gutter, he will cry out. A mob will gather and yell, 'Give the old man his horse!'
"If I give the thief a large sum of money, he'll be glad to let me have my horse back but at the same time he'll be encouraged to cheat someone else in the same way.
"If I ask a cadi (judge) to settle the case, I may lose my horse, but at the same time, I'll find out how the cadi of Bassora deals justice."
So saying, they went to the place where the cadi was holding court. Two men stood before the cadi: an oil merchant, and a porter. The porter held a piece of gold in his hand. "This coin," he said, "belongs to me."
"Your Honor," said the oil merchant, "that coin is mine. I have owned it for many years and always carry it. I lost it only today."
"Are there any witnesses?" asked the cadi.
"No, Your Honor," answered the man.
"Very well," said the cadi. "Leave the coin with me and return tomorrow."
"What sort of way is that to render justice?" thought the caliph to himself.
The next case was called, and two other men approached the cadi.
"What is your trade?" he asked the first.
"I am a writer," was the answer.
"Why are you here?" continued the cadi.
"This morning while I was out, someone stole my Book of Learning. That tailor," he said pointing to the other man, "now has it and claims that it is his."
"Are there any witnesses?"
"None, Your Honor," replied the man.
"Very well," said the cadi, "Leave the book with me and return tomorrow."
"Indeed these are strange ways to render justice," thought the caliph.
Next the cadi called the Caliph and beggar before him.
"Who are you? And what is your trouble?" he asked, addressing the caliph.
"Your Honor," replied the Caliph, "I am a traveler from a distant land. A few miles from your city gates, I met this lame beggar lying by the wayside. I had compassion on him, and lifting him to my horse's back, I brought him to this city. He repays my kindness with the basest ingratitude. He claims that my horse is his own."
The cadi then turned to the beggar. "What have you to say in answer to this man's charge?" he said.
"The horse is mine," answered the beggar. "I raised him from a colt, and we love each other as brothers. If my horse is taken from me, what shall I do? You see, I am but a poor lame man, and I need my faithful horse to carry me." Here the old beggar pretended to weep to gain the sympathy of the judge.
"My goodness," thought the Caliph to himself. "How is the cadi going to decide? The old humbug almost persuades me that I have stolen my own horse!"
The cadi calmly asked, "Have you any witnesses?"
"No, Your Honor," replied the Caliph and the beggar.
"Then," said the cadi, "leave the horse with one of my soldiers for the night, and return to this courtroom tomorrow morning."
The next morning, the Caliph arrived at the courtroom early, for he was eager to hear how the cadi would decide all the cases.
Promptly at the opening hour, the cadi entered the room, and at once called the oil merchant and the porter before him. Handing the gold piece to the oil merchant, he said, "Here is your gold piece. Take it and depart."
Then he turned to the porter. "You have tried to keep what did not belong to you, and you have lied," he said in a stern voice. "Soldiers," he called. "Take this man from the courtroom, and give him twenty strokes with a rod on the soles of his bare feet."
Next the writer and the tailor came before him. "This Book of Learning, I find, belongs to the writer," he said. "I now return it to him. Soldiers, take this false-swearing tailor and give him thirty lashes with whips on the palms of his hands."
At last the Caliph and the beggar were called before the cadi, who addressed the beggar, "Why have you repaid kindness with ingratitude? Do you not know that the ungrateful man is the most miserable wretch on earth? Since you are lame I will not have you beaten, but I will keep you in prison until you repent of your evil ways.
"Good traveler, the horse is yours. Take it, and continue on your way. May your kindness be better rewarded in the future."
The Caliph thanked the judge and stepped to the back of the room. There he waited, until all but the cadi had left the courtroom. Then he approached him and said, "Honored Judge, I much admire your wisdom. Without doubt, you are inspired. How else could you render such righteous judgments?"
"No inspiration at all," replied the cadi. "These cases have all been very simple. Did you not hear the oil merchant say that he had carried that piece of gold for many years? Last night I threw the coin into a glass of clear water. This morning, I found the surface of the water covered with tiny drops. I then knew, beyond doubt, that the coin did belong to the oil merchant."
"Good," said the Caliph. "But do tell me how you knew to whom the Book of Learning belonged?"
"That case was equally easy to settle," responded the cadi. "On examining the book, I found that the pages most used were those on which the duties of writers and scholars were set forth. The book belonged to the writer."
"Your judgment is most excellent!" exclaimed the Caliph. "But how could you tell to whom the horse belonged?"
"Last night I had your horse put in a stable that you and the beggar would have to pass on your way to court today. This morning I went to the stable. When the beggar passed, the horse never looked up. But when you passed the open door, he stretched out his head and neighed as horses do only when a loved master approaches. So you see, my friend, the matter was very simple after all."
"Simple!" cried the Caliph. "Your wisdom is beyond compare! I am the Caliph Haroun Al-Raschid. I need just such a man as you in my capital city. Honest Judge, I now make you Grand Cadi!"
Haroun al-Raschid ruled a territory from 786 to 809, based in Baghdad, that covered the Arabian peninsula, stretched north through half of modern-day Turkey, east to Egyp, and west through Iraq and Iran. His was a period of great cultural, scientific, religious and economic prosperity. His life and fabulous court has been the subject of many tales, including The Book of One Thousand and One Nights .
For another story in this story collection about the Caliph Haroun al-Raschid, see Ali Cogia and the Merchant of Baghdad.
Bassora: Also known as Basra, a port about 75 miles from the Persian Gulf. Founded in 638 by Caliph Omar I. Known in the Arabian Nights as Bassorah. Taken by Turkey in 1668.
Based on the story of the same name from Folk Lore from Foreign Lands by Catherine T. Bryce (Newson & Company Publishers: New York, 1913), pp. 142-151.
Adapted by Elaine Lindy ©1998. All rights reserved.
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