Many hundreds of years ago there were two man of Kabul who fell upon very hard times. They lost all they owned and suffered great hardship and poverty. So great was their misfortune that, try as they might, they could not improve their position. Always something happened to them to cause them a setback. Great were the bodily hunger and distress of mind, which they suffered. Grief and sorrow lay upon them like a heavy cloud. One day one man said to the other: ‘We have suffered much and have toiled hard, yet there seems no hope of improving our lot. Let us leave this country and seek our fortune elsewhere. Surely that would be a wise move. The good sultan Mahmud is now reigning, and he is well known for his generosity. Let us go to Ghazna and try to see him. Then at least it will give us some hope that our miserable circumstances may be altered’.
So they set out for Ghazna and on the road they met a man who joined their company and walked with them. He was a very pious man and he seemed happy and contented; indeed it was as if he walked the earth like one of the blessed.
“Tell me, my brothers”, he asked the two men, “where are you going? And what is the purpose of your journey?”
“We have both suffered great and prolonged misfortune and have endured great hardship”, the two men replied. “In Kabul we have toiled hard and long and have yet failed to improve our lot, and having heard of the great generosity of sultan Mahmud and his concern for the poor and needy we have decided to make our way to him in the hope that he will look kindly upon us and help us back on the road of prosperity”.
The two men of Kabul then asked the stranger whither he was bound and what the object of his journey was.
“I, too, have nothing I can call my own in my country and my affairs too are going badly”, he replied. “I go in search of some lawful means of support, but I do not expect anything from sultan Mahmud or anyone like him. Sultan Mahmud and his kind are besieged by a hundred thousand men all hoping that he in his infinite grace and bounty will bestow some gift or favour upon them. I shall look elsewhere for a solution to my difficulties”.
The three men continued their journey in company and when at length they arrived in Ghazna they took up their lodging together in a ruined building.
One night the three men were sitting together in the ruin talking of this and that, and it so happened that at this time sultan Mahmud had left his palace with two close friends to take a walk in the moonlight. As they approached the ruin the sultan was attracted by the sound of voices; he walked on, discovered the three travellers and asked them who they were.
The two men of Kabul replied: “We have been crushed in the press of poverty and misfortune and are now distressed and helpless. We left our own country to seek some betterment of our lot elsewhere. Fate has led us hither and we hope that somehow, somewhere, the cloud of misery which envelops us will be lifted”.
“And what are your wishes?” inquired the sultan.
“Even if we say what our wishes are we know they will never be fulfilled”, said the two men of Kabul. “What useful purpose will be served by reciting them?”
And the sultan said: “It is the duty of men to help each other. Therefore, tell me your desires that I at least may know how you could be helped”.
The first man replied: “I was once prosperous and had great wealth. This world, with its chances and changes, ceased to be lucky for me, and the shame of my poverty and the disgrace of my family have caused me to leave my country. Now, if I had ten thousand dinars I could regard the sum as fresh capital and could then raise my head again and return to my country”.
The second man replied: “I had a dutiful and loving wife. The loveliness of her features surpassed the rose in beauty; the radiance of her face made the moon seem to decline in splendour. I loved her much and could not bear to be parted from her. But she died and I was so consumed with grief that I felt lost and helpless. If his highness the sultan were to present me with a member of his harem so that my life might once more be lighted by the sun of her presence, I would gladly return to my own country”.
The third man remaining silent, the sultan turned to him and said: “And have you no wish?” And the third man answered:
“I place all my trust in God. I need neither a wife nor gold. I turn my face towards the mercy of God by Whom all favours are granted. All our desires are known to God and God knows what we deserve. I place myself in His hands; He will grant whatever is right for me. All I ask of you is this: if you enjoy the favour of God and if He grants you your desires, please pray to Him for my sake that I may never follow a line of thought or action which is against His will”.
The sultan said no more and, without letting it be known who he was, rose and departed. Next morning he ordered that the three strangers whom he had met in the ruin be brought to his presence.
When the men saw the sultan and realised that he was the man with whom they had spoken on the previous evening, they thought at first that he was going to be angry with them. But the sultan asked each to step forward in turn and state his wants, and the two men of Kabul repeated what they had said before. When it was the turn of the third man to step forward and speak he said:
“Begging leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Sweet is the generosity of the noble-minded. O most kind of the rulers, may the treasury of your desires remain filled with the gold, silver and jewels of prosperity so long as the storehouse of God is full of blessings. Although many rejoice in your bounty and you yourself know the sweet taste of good deeds, those who have found their peace with God are so contented that they have no desire to take anything from another man. Contentment is not sweetened by the generosity of others and the delights of independence are far greater than any pleasure there may be in receiving gifts from others. I submit my hopes and longings only to God; He will grant what is right and good for me. I have no need to ask another man for anything”.
Now the sultan, who was not used to meeting such independence, tried to persuade the man to ask for some gift or favour, but the man could not be shaken from his avowed principles. The sultan then gave orders that the man who wanted a wife should be given one of the sultan’s own damsels, while the man who wanted money was presented with two purses of gold. He then commanded that all three men should return to their own countries. The three men accordingly set out on the road back to Kabul.
When the companions had walked about seven miles the man who had been given the gold began to feel tired from the weight of it so he handed it to his empty-handed friend, requesting him to carry it until he had rested a while.
After the three men had left the presence of the sultan, the ruler turned to his courtiers and said: “That independent man has put me greatly to shame. Although I tried to persuade him to accept a gift of some kind he would take nothing and when he left me I felt as if I was in the position of a poor man”.
Now one of the courtiers was a very greedy man, and greedy men are the natural enemies of the contented. “The sultans and kings of this world” – said the greedy courtier – “are God’s treasurers. Men who will not turn to their rulers for help or scorn their favours are guilty of the sin of pride and act contrary to the will of God. Such men deserve to die and should be punished”.
This statement greatly excited the sultan and he at once ordered one of his chamberlains to hasten along the road which the three men had taken and, leaving undisturbed the man with the gold and the man with the girl, to seize the man who was empty-handed, kill him and bring back his head to the sultan.
However it so happened that when the chamberlain overtook the tree men, the independent man was carrying the gold upon his back and the owner of the gold was empty-handed. The chamberlain acted swiftly and without wasting words. He cut off the head of the owner of the gold and returned it to the sultan.
When the sultan saw the head he exclaimed: “Thoughtless fellow, you have made a mistake!” and immediately sent off another chamberlain, commanding him to sever the head of the man who carried no burden. But it so happened that the owner of the girl had entrusted her to the independent man and had fallen a little behind. When the messenger came up he perceived the owner of the girl following empty-handed in the wake of the independent man and immediately cut off his head. He hurried back to the palace and presented the head to his master, but again the sultan cried in astonishment: “This man has also been killed by mistake!”
The sultan was thrown into great agitation, but when he had had time to think he became calm and saw that the grace of God had indeed sheltered the independent man from harm. He thereupon summoned another attendant and commanded him to follow the same road and bring into his presence the man who was walking along with both the gold and the girl.
When this was done and the independent man was once more standing before the sultan, the ruler said: “And what has become of your companions?”
“May the sultan prosper and live for ever!” answered the independent man. “He who presented my companions with the gold and the damsel has in return taken their lives. Any man who puts possessions before his Creator turns his face away from real happiness and will not pluck a single flower from the garden of his desires. Whoever turns away from God will find no happiness wherever else he turns”.
Once again he did not want to accept any gift from the sultan, but he asked that the families of the two murdered men would receive a large sum of money and then he left sultan Mahmud.
The attitude of the independent man greatly impressed the sultan and made him realise that this man had indeed tasted the sweets of the love and knowledge of God.