THE SCORPIONS OF CALUMNY
 AT ITS very apogee, the caliphate of Bagdad was to see its halcyon days of Hymen rudely disrupted by a
startling divorce. Harun al-Rashid and the Barmecides were coming to a parting of the ways. Oriental
history has preserved with vivid detail the story of this shocking drama. Descending without
warning, and in origin, the brutal tragedy brought consequences of great historical interest in its
train. The court of Bagdad, which had so joyously and completely abandoned itself to pleasures, was
threatened by a mighty tempest that in a short time was to throw all Mussulman society of the
eastern caliphate into disorder, leaving behind it a bloody trail of death. The most notable
reverses in European history hold nothing more striking than the disgrace and downfall of the
Barmecides, and none has left to posterity a more instructive example of the vanity of worldly
things, of the dangerous frailty of human relations.
The Barmecides had aspired too high, and it
 was inevitable that their glory should crumble. The incalculable influence and controlling power
which they had succeeded in arrogating to themselves, together with their generosity and wide-spread
patronage, had won them a large and devoted following. But there were naturally enemies also in that
court honeycombed with intrigues where no one was ever sure of the morrow. Among so many ambitious
courtiers, inclined to any perfidy or treachery, many were slowly coming to realize the situation,
and here and there sly attempts were being made to undermine the Caliph's confidence in the
Barmecides. Ibn Khaldun says: "Envy and jealousy lifted their masks and the scorpions of calumny
came to sting the Barmecides even on the couch that they had erected in the very shadow of the
Many were jealous of their credit, their power, their wealth. Harun was susceptible, suspicious, and
full of pride. The schemers knew his weak spots. What they dared not say was put into libelous
writing and sent to him. It is the way of malcontents in autocratic governments to vent their spleen
in an endless stream of satire. The reigns of the Roman Caesars and the despotic monarchy of
Versailles were soiled by anonymous
 belchings, those inevitable protests against excess of power; an unsavory, yet time-honored
expression of the spirit of liberty. Paradoxically enough, the pamphleteers were reproaching this
tyrannical sovereign with not being masterful enough, or rather, with not being the sole master.
Through their ballad-writers the Roman plebeians accused the Emperor Claudius of dozing in his
palace. The satirists of Bagdad exclaimed:
Heaven grant that destiny fulfils her promises
and cures our afflicted hearts!
Let her take command!
this other has lost the power to lead.
Rumors of this sort continually came to Harun's ears, arousing his pride and his slumbering imperial
instinct. "By God, yes!" he said. "Very lacking in force is he who relegates his power to others. It
is the weak alone who are not free." He found notes among his papers which ran this way:
"Say to the earthly Lieutenant of God, to him who has power to ruin or to save, that the Barmecides
are kings as much as he. There is no longer any difference. Yes, there is, after all, one
distinction: they ignore your orders while seeing
 to it that their own are obeyed." Harun comforted himself after reading these disquieting words by
writing some verse in this sententious strain:
When the ant spreads her wings to fly,
her end is near. . .
He felt a heavy anger surging in him against these ministers into whose hands he had voluntarily
resigned his powers. "Govern as you like," he had once said to Yahia: careless instructions lightly
given by a young prince, too full of the joy of living to welcome the cares and responsibilities of
actual administration. His words appeared in a new light to this mature king already wearying of
pleasure. The time had come when he wished to reign himself. Like William with his Bismarck, Harun
found himself completely dominated by his prime minister.
At first he did not have the courage to free himself. He went about, complaining to others and
telling his friend and physician Gabriel, while laughing sarcastically: "God bless Yahia! He has
relieved me of all my cares and leaves me endless leisure to enjoy myself." But when Yahia appeared
before him the bitterness all disappeared. The old vizier understood how to
re-  gain his prestige and his young master's confidence by wise advice. If he thought it necessary, he
would artfully threaten to resign. With an innocent air he would say: "I am getting old. I need
rest. I should like to consecrate my life now to pious duties." Harun, suddenly alarmed at this
prospect, would beg him not to withdraw his services and overwhelm him with fresh honors.
The scorpions of calumny did not lie low very long. They knew how to find the sensitive spots under
the Caliph's skin. These Barmecides, not content with having usurped the authority, must now have
all the wealth! Could the prince not see that most of the revenues from the empire were pouring into
the treasury of his ministers? That they held innumerable fiefs, and that all Schammasiya belonged
to them? That more and more provinces were coming under their control? People were wondering whether
the Caliph did not have to beg for his pocket money. And such arrogant pomp! It was not proper that
Rashid's retinue should be eclipsed by that of Jafar!
Handsome Jafar has built himself a palace whose floor is strewn with rubies and pearls; nothing in
Persia or India can be found to equal it.
When you are dead, he will reign in your place.
One must be a slave to be guilty of such temerity!
Harun loved Jafar deeply, but his love faltered before such insinuations. Jafar did have, in truth,
a brilliant following, and lines of equipages stood in front of his door. He had built a splendid
home on the left river bank. The Barmecides were rich, very rich, much too rich. The scorpions were
leaving their mark. Harun's jealousy flared up.
"My uncle," he said to the honorable Ishmael, "I am enriching the Barmecides at the expense of my
own children. . . . Look from this window. Do you see yonder the crowd that throngs Jafar's door?
Where do I stand now?"
"You are the Commander of the Faithful," replied wise Ishmael, "and Jafar is your slave. All his
belongings are in reality yours."
These were comforting words to a heart which only sought reassurance. Jafar, also, knew how to calm
his august companion. He suddenly decided not to keep for himself that palace which he had built at
great expense. It should belong to Mamun, the Caliph's son. Harun recognized his beloved friend in
this generous gesture. He
ac-  cepted the palace for his heir, but insisted that Jafar should have the use of it during his
lifetime. So for the time being, Jafar retained the palace and the Caliph's confidence, and Harun's
jealousy and rancor were temporarily lulled! He bestowed the liveliest tokens of appreciation and
undiminished affection upon the gentle, suave Jafar. When he was alone, however, he became once more
the prey of the venomous scorpions. They had designs on his very heart!
The Barmecides were soon accused of everything. Their loyalty was a sham. Let the Caliph visit the
prisons—he would look in vain there for certain culprits! The Barmecides had secretly released
them for reasons of their own. That Alid now, once thrown into jail at Harun's command and
supposedly dead; might Jafar not have released him? Perhaps he was plotting trouble somewhere with
the approval of those foreigners, those Persians, traitors to the law of the One and Only God and
his Lieutenant on earth! Traitors to God also! Who could be sure after all that the Barmecides were
not still loyal to the religion of the Magi and followers of Zoroaster? When the Caliph had wished
to have the ruins of the palaces of the Chosroes demolished, Yahia had objected. Perhaps the cult of
the Magi was to blame for
 this! Their devotion to the Faith as preached by the Prophet might be mere pretense. They had been
known to laugh quite cheerfully when some black sheep used impious and blasphemous words before
them. They were zendiks, freethinkers—anything at all but Mussulmans!
Prince of the Faithful, what will you answer
on the Judgment Day when you must account
to God the All-Powerful for having subjected
Mussulmans and their kingdom
to these disloyal ones, these atheists?
Aaron the Orthodox felt it no longer righteous to endure this wrong against the true religion. If he
could only be sure. . . . There was really nothing that he detested like heresy, but there were as
yet no proofs of that sin. One could not accuse them of impiety because their ancestors had been
idolatrous before the affirmation. In order to preserve some ruins at Ctesiphon, Yahia had given
reasons which really redounded to the glory of Harun. The ministers attended to business faithfully,
of course, but what ministers did not? No, these were only anonymous rumors, veiled slanders, low
 Again Harun made excuses to himself, but the evil tongues and pens persisted. The Caliph could not
escape them, even in his most intimate circle. There was that son of Rabi who gained his confidence
and became chamberlain. Yahia had done his best to prevent this and Rabi's son never forgave the
Barmecides. He detested them, dreamed of ruining them and of getting their following for himself. He
knew how to injure them with the Caliph by indirect means, making use of skilful ruses such as
trying to replace Jafar in the Caliph's good graces with his own henchman, the elegant Zaraza:
The does of the harem also knew how to use their volatile poisons, once the Caliph's head was on a
pillow. Zubaida led the rest. She disliked the Barmecides intensely. Her mania for power had
suffered too often from the insidious practical jokes of Yahia, whom Harun had put in control of the
harem. She was exceedingly jealous of Jafar, who enjoyed the Caliph's confidence entirely too fully
to suit her and who, as tutor to young Mamun, was working against her own son Amin, whom she wished
to see the sole heir to the throne. Harun's beautiful sister Abbasa, who shared the Caliph's company
with Jafar, was another source of bitter jealousy to Zubaida. She felt
 it necessary to get these two out of the way and she was in a strategic position to harm them.
Zubaida was not a slave. She was of royal blood, a pure Hashimite, granddaughter of Mansur the
Victorious and a cousin of Harun al-Rashid. Endowed with a certain prestige and unusual efficiency,
she had many followers to do her bidding and usually could gain her ends. Zubaida continually
represented the Barmecides in an unfavorable light to her royal spouse, repeating foolish little
tales which meant nothing to him at first but began, little by little, to make an impression. Jafar,
the loyal friend—Abbasa, the virtuous sister—every one knew about their marriage, their
promise to the Caliph, and every one was laughing. . . . On the coast of Medina there was a wet
nurse who could say much if she wished, and there was a child whose features could not be mistaken!
Alas for the pride of a race, the honor of a house!
Pursued to the borderland of sleep and perhaps even beyond, Harun still held firm. They must stop
talking about the Barmecides! He was master and knew his business best. For more than sixteen years
he had trusted them and now, in spite of every one, he would continue to do so. It
 would have taken a clairvoyant to read his heart and guess its real thoughts when, one day, as a
fresh token of his royal favor, Harun al-Rashid led his viziers forth on a pilgrimage to the Holy