The Sultan and The Thief (a short morality tale inspired by One Thousand And One Nights)
Once, long ago, in an eastern kingdom there lived a poor tailor. The tailor lived in the centre of the city in a dilapidated shop with his wife and children. The business had only ever earned a subsistence living, but now in harder times it was near impossible for him to make ends meet. With what little he earned he bought food for his family, often going without himself. When business was so bad that he could not afford to buy cloth the tailor was reduced to begging from neighbours or on the street, which greatly shamed him.
One day as he passed a rich merchant’s shop the tailor went in and asked for alms. The merchant quickly flew into a rage and fetched his broom.
“Not you! Get out of my shop you pathetic bundle of rags!” he shouted and began to beat the tailor about the arms and shoulders,
“You will drive away all my customers.”
The tailor turned to leave but was knocked to the ground by an almighty smack to the head from the merchant’s broom. As the tailor gathered himself to get up and leave he spied a small golden box, no bigger than a walnut, lying beside him under a cupboard.
Without giving it too much thought he picked up the box and put it in the folds of his shirt as he got up and walked away from the increasingly angry and impatient merchant who continued to rant incessantly. On leaving through the front door the tailor received one more mighty blow from the merchant’s broom that sent him reeling into the gutter.
As he lay there the golden box fell from his shirt and onto the pavement beside him. The merchant seeing this came out of the shop and turning bright red with anger began to shout and scream that he had been robbed. Before the tailor could think about getting up the rich merchant began to beat and kick him so that he could go nowhere. All this commotion began to draw a crowd and before long one of the Sultan’s guards who came along by chance stopped to see what all the fuss was about.
Immediately the merchant stopped beating the poor tailor and implored the guard.
“Arrest that man! He stole from my shop, look there is the box he stole still on the ground.”
The guard looked down at the bedraggled tailor who was now bleeding and dizzy from the beatings. “Is this true?” he asked.
“Yes” he replied “But I am starving and no-one will help me.”
“You know the law.” said the guard “You must come before the Sultan and receive your punishment.”
And with that he picked up the box and dragged the poor tailor off with him to a cell at the palace. The rich merchant was delighted and jumped up and down with glee until suddenly he realized that his box and not just the tailor had gone to the palace; he decided he would close the shop early and go to seek and audience with the Sultan to recover his box and with luck some compensation for the crime.
And so later that day the poor tailor appeared in his rags before the Sultan who was arrayed in the finest silks and jewels. The tailor sank down on his knees not daring to look at the Sultan and whimpered, “Forgive me your majesty, I had not intended to steal from the merchant. I went in to beg for money or food to fill my children’s empty bellies. When he beat me I fell to the floor and found the box under a cupboard, I did not think anyone would miss it.”
The Sultan, who sat playing with the tiny box in his hand, looked down from his high thrown at the poor wretched man. “Yes, it probably would not be missed, it is not even real gold and is certainly worth only a few talents. However, what you have done is wrong, you know the teachings of the holy Quoran do you not?”
“Yes I do,” replied with tailor “I know that I deserve to be punished. My only worry now is for my wife and children who I have left in even worse circumstances due to my stupidity!”
“You say you asked for alms and you were refused?” said the Sultan
“Yes,” replied the tailor “ and I was savagely beaten for it.”
“Hmmm.” Said the Sultan, scratching his beard, “We will have to have words with this merchant.”
At just that moment the Sultan’s Visier appeared:
“Sire the merchant who claims to have been robbed by this man is here seeking an audience, what is thy bidding?”
“Send him in right away.” said the Sultan with a wry smile as he sat back into the soft cushions of his throne.
The merchant came in genuflecting and uttering great praise to the Sultan as he approached. As the merchant bowed before the throne, in readiness to make his speech, the Sultan suddenly stood up and put out his hand indicating silence.
“Tell me” he said “Is there a man before you who has stolen from you?”
“Yes” replied the merchant. But before he could elaborate the Sultan raised his hand and continued.
“Is there a man before you who begged for assistance?”
“Yes” replied the merchant.
“Is there a man before you who has been beaten?”
“Yes” replied the merchant, “but he is a beggar and a thief!”
“My Lord, is it is not written that stealing offends Allah and thieves must be punished buy cutting off the offending hand?”
“Yes” replied the Sultan “ But does it not also please Allah to show mercy and forgiveness? When a man of your faith comes to you in need it is it not Allah’s wish that you show him mercy?”
The merchant looked down at his feet, ashamed and said nothing although he knew the answer just as well as the Sultan.
The Sultan meanwhile turned to the Visier and spoke quietly in his ear “Find out where this beggar lives and return here after you have seen the situation for yourself.”
He then turned to the rich merchant and asked him:
“What is it that you want?”
“I want my property back, and I want this man to be punished under the law of Muhammad, peace be upon him. I want justice?”
The Sultan looked deeply into the merchant’s face:
“So you want justice?” he said
“Here, take your box” he snarled and threw it at the merchant. And turning to the tailor who remained on the floor with his face averted the Sultan asked.
“And what was it you wanted? How much would have satisfied you?”
“You’re majesty” replied the tailor “A few coppers would have been enough, anything that would feed my family today.”
“Then you shall have it and more if you are genuinely as poor as you appear.”
“What about the law?” blurted out the merchant before lowering his head again, embarrassed that he had spoken out so rudely.
“I shall overlook your rudeness this once, because you are right.” exclaimed the Sultan.
“The law demands that the thief be punished and so he shall be.”
And so the Sultan called over one of his guards and whispered into his ear. He then summoned the tailor and ordered him to place his hand upon the fine marble table near his throne.
“ Now you will receive your punishment as the law dictates. Do you have anything to say?”
“Yes” replied the tailor “I am sorry for what I have done and I accept my punishment. I pray for forgiveness and that Allah will show mercy on my family.”
At that the guard raised his scimitar and brought it down upon the table. The tailor yelled out in pain and clutched his hand to his chest.
“Thank you merciful majesty” he cried in surprise as he looked down - for instead of losing his hand only the tip of his little finger was taken.
“That is not fair!” shouted the merchant angrily before regaining his composure and looking down at the floor again.
“Enough!” said the Sultan “I will bear your insolence no longer. The law has been satisfied, if the swordsman’s aim is poor today that is no business of yours!”
Just then the Visier returned and spoke quietly aside to the Sultan. The Sultan returned to the Merchant with his eyes moist but with anger in his voice.
“This man who lives so near to you and no doubt is known to you lives in the most dire poverty while you live in the lap of luxury. How can you excuse such cruelty while he and his family suffer every deprivation?”
The merchant turned red with embarrassment but said nothing.
“Two or three talents would have made a world of difference to this poor wretch and so you will now give him one hundred times that – three hundred talents!” blasted the Sultan.
The merchant gasped but was too afraid to say anything.
“Furthermore I order that you present my court with a thousand times that – yes three thousand – which I will have distributed amongst the poor of the city.”
At this the merchant fell to the floor weeping “ I shall be ruined.”
“If that is so, then you have ruined yourself through your own selfishness. Perhaps now you will learn to be compassionate, do not let me ever hear or see you again. I sadly do not have the compassion of Isa1, peace be upon him, leave my sight quickly or I might be tempted to cut off your head!”
And with that the merchant shuffled backwards in terror, out of the palace as fast as he could.
Meanwhile the poor tailor stood dumbfounded with tears running down his cheeks.
“How can I ever thank you sire? This is more than I deserve.”
“You have suffered enough. Do only this: go home to your family and look after them. Work hard, be truthful, just and always show mercy and compassion to those less fortunate than yourself.”
And so the tailor left clutching a satin purse of three hundred talents, still half in a trance from disbelief. He returned home to his wife and children and followed the Sultan’s words of wisdom and he never had cause to beg or steal again.
1: Isa is the Muslim name for Jesus who, with the exception of Muhammad (who received the holy Qur'an) is regarded as the most important of prophets in Islam.